Of Gods and Men (2010. Scenario by Etienne Comar, adaptation and dialogue by Xavier Beauvois. 122 minutes.)
A great train movie: Religion is a very difficult subject to make a film about. Movies are a very concrete medium. We photograph things and record sounds. Religion is very internal: what we believe and what we feel. How do you show that? With Hollywood it usually involves people looking up into the light with beatific smiles on their faces (see below for a notorious example), which hardly does the job.
Comar and Beauvois (the latter directed) have found a good way to do it. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Algeria in the mid-’90s. A group of French monks in a monastery in Algeria are threatened by anti-government rebels. The monks must decide whether to leave or stay. So we are going to watch the pressure on the monks and see what they finally do. The opening scenes alternate between the monks at prayer and the Algerian village they are part of. In the first few scenes with the monks, we do not see their faces, a smart move on Comar and Beauvois’s part, since we will eventually spend a lot of time with their faces and we don’t want them to wear out their welcome. The monastery scenes are quiet, and the village scenes are full of life and color. As we see the monks dealing with the village (giving medical treatment, attending Muslim ceremonies, etc), we learn how intertwined the monks and the villagers are.
The rebels arrive and want to take the medical monk to treat one of their own, but the monks insist they bring the patient there. The rebels are not happy, but you can see they respect the monks’ courage in standing up to them. Then the monks begin to deal with the issue of whether they should leave or stay. Each one has his own reasons, but the way the writers handle it, it is not just a series of checklists. And the monks we thought we knew turn out to have sides we never guessed. We get their faces and their characters. Then the federal government asks the monks to leave. Well, it makes sense. The government is not sure they can protect them. But the villagers want them to stay. What do you do? What is your calling? Is it better served here and possibly dying, or going to continue your work elsewhere? But your work is here, with these people. So for now they stay. The government sends in some troops nominally to protect the monks, but the military is just as dubious about them as the rebels. After all, the monks give medical treatment to everybody, including the rebels. The writers are very subtly revealing the attitudes of all their characters, not just the monks.
The monks decide to take a final vote (there has been at least one before). They all decide to stay, a couple of bottles of the good wine are opened (they are French after all) and Luc, the medical monk, puts on, well, what music would you put on in that situation? Luc picks Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We watch their beatific faces, looking at each other and not up into the light, and, thank God, Natalie Portman does not dance through. What, you thought I was too classy to make a Black Swan reference? Guess again.
In real life the monks just disappeared, probably killed by the rebels but possibly by the army. Even though this is a fictionalized version, we also do not find out exactly what happened to these versions of the characters. But the fadeout comes after they have been taken away from the monastery by the rebels. If you are going to show that, and at the length they do, then they should show at least the filmmakers’ version of what happened.
When I wrote in US#64 about Unstoppable, I said it was a great train movie, but not necessarily a great movie. Of Gods and Men is a great religious movie, but I am not sure it is a great movie. As much as I love the closeups of the monks, the script doesn’t get into them as deeply as it could. And the ending, as noted above, is rather problematic. Still, the film is better than most in the field.
Rango (2011. Written by John Logan, story by John Logan, Gore Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit. 107 minutes.)
Quality time with a nine-year-old: There was no way I was going to see Rango. I had seen the trailer several times and it just looked UGLY. The characters are not only reptiles, but reptilian in every sense of the word. Who wants to watch ugly, warty things for 107 minutes?
Then the reviews came out and they were very good and made a point of how the film paid homage to westerns like High Noon (1952). Well, you know I love westerns, but how many scaly things can you watch? Then my daughter called and offered some quality time with her and her family, including my nine-year-old grandson seeing…Rango. The fates were conspiring against me. But my grandson and I got off to a good start when we started elbowing each other in the ribs at the beginning of the trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He got in the first nudge from the first shot; it took me until the second shot. Do I have to tell you what summer movie he and I are most anticipating? Although I will leave it to his parents to explain Penélope Cruz’s “pointing things at me” line to him.
The opening is very smart. We see Rango, a chameleon (although he is never identified as such in the film, but only referred to as a lizard), pretending to be many different characters. He is playing off the other elements in his dry tank, as we come to realize. And we find out he wants to be an actor. So before we have time to get all icky about his ugliness, we are being brought into his character in the kind of detail that the trailer cannot provide. And the fact he wants to be an actor sets this up as a very self-reflexive film, but in a much more subtle way than is often the case movies today.
Rango flies out of his tank, which is in the car his owners are driving. He is in the desert. So yes, we get him coming through a mirage like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Obvious joke. But then everybody keeps asking him “Who are you?” just as people did in Lawrence of Arabia. So the references are not only visual, but carried through in the script. Yes, the music is very Ennio Morricone-Sergio Leone, but there are four balladeers out of Cat Ballou (1965), with recurring lyrics about the upcoming death of the hero, something one might find in a Sam Peckinpah musical. The lyrics about death get a great payoff at the end. When Rango gets to the small western town, we get a whole flock of “redneck peckerwoods,” to use Peckinpah’s favorite term for them. And the town has no water, but Beans, a crusty girl who could be Mattie Ross’s BFF, finds water flowing out of a pipe. In the desert. So it does not surprise you that the town boss sounds an awful lot like Noah Cross. And there are not only references to Leone, but several shots that almost duplicate ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). So when Rango is thrown out of town and finds, with the help of an armadillo that looks like Don Quixote (yes, it’s that kind of a movie), the Spirit of the West, the Spirit is standing by a movie studio golf cart with several awards in it. And talking in Clint Eastwood’s voice. According to the credits, the voice is Timothy Olyphant, but it is dead-on Eastwood. Everything connects.
But the film is not just a western lover’s dream. Because those elements are used to tell the story, the film works even if you don’t get the references. My grandson and I were often laughing at different things throughout the movie, but we both enjoyed it enormously. The director and one of the writers is Gore Verbinski, and he uses animation to do gags, get angles and camera movements he could not do with all the live action talent on the Pirates movies. Maybe he was born for animation.
As for my grandson and me, we can’t wait for Tides. No, Verbinski is not directing it, but the script is by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who did the first three, so the youngster and I know we will be in good hands.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010. Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. 114 minutes.)
A Thai Plan 9 From Outer Space?: Unlike with Rango, I was really looking forward to this one. It first came up on my radar when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. The title is amusing, and the story sounded like it had potential: a dying man is visited by his late wife and son, the latter currently in monkey form. Uncle Boonmee recalls his past lives a water buffalo and a catfish, among others. His wife has come to guide him through the dying process. As the film worked its way around the world, the reviews were always positive. It finally showed up here in LA in early March, heralded by a great review from Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. So I went to see it. A few weeks later a letter showed up in the Times from a woman saying she and her friend had gone to see it based on the Turan review and it was a measure of the depth of their friendship that the friend was still speaking to her. She added, “For years I thought Plan 9 From Outer Space correctly deserved the sobriquet of worst film ever, but compared with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Plan 9 looks downright Oscar-worthy.”
Well. I don’t think it is that bad, but it was certainly a disappointment for me. Some of that may have come from having read almost a full year of rave reviews which any film would have trouble living up to. Mostly I think it is that while Weerasethakul had a great idea, he has not developed it very well. The film starts off with a series of shots of a water buffalo. They go on and on. I think the shots are supposed to put us in a contemplative mood, but after a while you need a little more help. Is the water buffalo one of his past lives? How did he feel about being a water buffalo? Was it fun? Then we get the setup for the story. Boonmee’s sister-in-law Jen (the sister of his dead wife) and nephew show up at his farm to help out. We get a lot of practical detail about the injections he needs, etc. And then they all sit down to dinner. And the ghost of the ex-wife sits down alongside them. I like the way they all accept that this is the sort of thing that happens in this world. But then nothing happens with the wife. She comes to him after being dead for several years and has nothing much to say to him? I am not asking for the Thai equivalent of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but Weerasethakul is missing a lot of opportunities here. Even more so when the son shows up briefly in his monkey reincarnation. Weerasethakul misses opportunities there as well. There are a couple of lines about a worker on the farm being from Laos, but not much is done with that, either. One of the most widely discussed scenes is where a catfish performs oral sex on a princess. Now you know the picture is not working on all cylinders when I am beginning to doze off in a scene where a catfish is going down on a princess. Presumably the catfish is Boonmee, but we get no indication of that. If he is, how did he feel about that? Maybe he was the princess? Or the gorgeous waterfall. Maybe it is just the screenwriting instructor in me, but I kept wanting Weerasethakul to go beyond just putting the idea up on the screen.
The ghost of the wife leads Boonmee to a cave that is obviously—too obviously—death. We get a bit of Boonmee’s funeral, and then the sister-in-law and nephew sitting around watching television. About the time I was about to doze off again, the spirits of those two leave their bodies and go out to a fast-food place. The end.
Joe Daugherty, a thirtysomething writer I interviewed for my book on television writing, said that among the people on the writing staff of that show, he was in charge of Plot and Plot-like Substances. OK, I can get along without a conventional plot. See my comments on Fellini and Resnais in the item I did on Inception in US#52 if you don’t believe me. But a few Plot-like Substances can be a help sometimes.
The Crusades (1935. Written by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young, and Dudley Nichols. The IMDb lists three other writers who contributed to the treatment but are uncredited; Robert Birchard in his definite book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood does not mention any of them. 125 minutes.)
Speaking of religion: We have talked about DeMille and his house style of screenwriting before, in US#30 about Union Pacific (1939) and US#62 about The Plainsman (1936). Here the pontificating dialogue C.B. seems to have insisted upon takes over the movie, and DeMille makes it worse by having everybody play it very florid, in the 19th-century stage tradition. Which is too bad, because there are some interesting elements in the script. But first of all, kick any notions of there being any historical accuracy in this film out of your pretty little head.
The film sort of deals with the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart of England. Yes, he did marry Barengaria of Navarre, but for political reasons, not to get supplies for his army, as in the film. Yes, he did conquer Acre, and yes, he did not get to see Jerusalem after he made a treaty with Saladin. And that’s about it. What is interesting about the script, and not entirely inaccurate, is that Richard was much more a warrior than a king. In the film he goes on the Crusade to avoid marrying Alice, the sister of the King of France, which has a tiny basis in fact, but he goes more for the adventure than for any religious reasons. Richard here is a very buff fellow, and if he were better played, he could be a compelling character. Unfortunately DeMille cast Henry Wilcoxon, a very stolid actor. He had been Marc Anthony in DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), which had been a success. The Crusades ended up losing money, and Wilcoxon never played a starring role in a major film during the rest of his long career.
Richard’s marriage to Barengaria in real life was purely political, but the writers here have made her a devout Christian whom Richard grows to love and who leads him to a conversion. That’s a potentially interesting story, but it gets lost in the verbal bombast. Loretta Young is Barengaria, and she spends a lot of time looking up into the light. For all the script problems, DeMille, as usual, fills the screen with, well, everything. Every shot is full of all kinds of detail. Sometimes it is action, sometimes it is a tableau out of late 19th-century sentimental religious art, and sometimes it is just Travis Banton’s costumes for Young and DeMille’s daughter Katherine, who plays Alice, badly.
What is surprising to us watching the film today is that Saladin, Richard’s Muslim enemy, is a cultured, intelligent man, and Ian Keith, who plays him, manages to avoid the excesses of the other actors. DeMille was proud of the fact that Saladin was shown in a positive light. That view of Saladin shows up in other films about the Crusades, most recently in the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. DeMille said his film was successful in the Middle East, but Birchard’s look at the accounts shows it was banned in several counties in the area and did not make much money in the countries it did play in. I saw the film at a screening as the UCLA Archive Festival of Preservation. One of the staff members introducing the film said that DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, who was unable to attend, had told him that DeMille had told her this story. When DeMille was trying to get permission to shoot some of his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments in Egypt, he came across a bureaucrat who had seen The Crusades and had been impressed with the characterization of Saladin as a Muslim. The bureaucrat gave DeMille permission to shoot in his country.
Imitation of Life (1959. Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott, and, uncredited, Sy Gomberg, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. 125 minutes.)
Anything for a friend: Sam Staggs is a friend of mine and a first-rate film historian. He specializes on books about the making of individual films, such as All About ’All About Eve’, Closeup on ’Sunset Boulevard’ and When Blanche Met Brando. His research is remarkable. Only Sam would track down the woman who was the model for Eve in the short story that became the film. His 2009 book Born To Be Hurt is about the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. I saw the film when it first came out and I must admit it did not overwhelm me. Sam’s book is good, although he gets more into meeting with the surviving cast members and the events they attend than I am sure he needs to. Having read the book, I figured I would give the film a chance the next time I had the opportunity. It popped up on TCM a few weeks ago. I struggled through it.
The 1934 version of the film is a more realistic version of the Fannie Hurst novel, with the white woman working with the black woman’s recipe to become a success in the food business while their two daughters grow up to be trouble of varying kinds. The 1959 version was produced by Ross Hunter, who never met a bit of excess he did not like. So the story was changed. Now the white woman, Lora, is a struggling actress, and the black woman, Annie, is her maid. So we get a lot of details about the Broadway theater scene, nearly all of them wrong. When Lora tries out for a playwright, David, he tells her she didn’t find the comedy in the scene. She suggests he cut the scene. That’s gall, not cheek. And he cuts it. And gives her a bigger part than the one she was trying out for. But wait a minute. He writes comedy, and she couldn’t…find the comedy in the previous scene. So he goes on writing plays, comedies no less, for her, one a year (who writes that fast?) and in spite of her being comically challenged, they are all hits. Yeah, right.
Meanwhile, Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, keeps insisting she is white. Well, she is played by a white actress, so she may have a point. But Annie seems totally clueless about her daughter’s feelings, although we are supposed to take her as a saint for her devotion to, well, everybody. Just once she ought to slap her daughter, and some of the others, upside the head. Lora’s daughter, Susie, is a spoiled twit (although Sandra Dee’s chirping hides it) who falls in love with Steve, her mother’s boyfriend and surrogate father to her. Fortunately, that does not end as badly as it might. The final scene between Annie (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is a real tearjerker, as is the movie as a whole, if you get into it, I suppose. As for me, the wretched excesses of the script, matched by the wretched excesses of the Ross Hunter production (try to keep your jaw from dropping during Annie’s funeral) were simply too much.
Yes, I know that we are supposed to see director Douglas Sirk’s take on the material as satire on American commercialism, but I have never quite bought that view of Sirk. Imitation of Life is funny because it is emotionally excessive, not because it’s satire.
Some Late Winter/Early Spring Television 2011: I’ve been rather slow the last several columns at dealing with a lot of television shows I normally write about, so here is a potpourri from the last couple of months, with some comments in general on certain shows and some on specific episodes.
When last we left White Collar, I was aghast that they appeared to have killed off Mozzie, but I was only half-aghast since I figured they were just fooling with us. I was right, and Mozzie lives! The best episode of the recent season was “Forging Bonds,” written by Jeff Eastin & Alexandra McNally. It is the kind of flashback episode you can really only do well in the second or third season, since a lot of the fun comes from watching the characters we know fall into place. Eight years ago Neal meets Mozzie when they are both street hustlers, and Mozzie realizes Neal’s talent for forgery. With bonds that Neal forges, they try to run a con on Vincent Adler, whom we have come to know in the present. Neal meets Kate, one of the loves of his life, who works for Adler. In one of their scams, Kate and Neal pretend to be cops arresting Mozzie, and as they take him away, Kate tells him she hates the wig he has been wearing. She says she thinks he looks better without it. Well, if a beautiful woman like Kate tells you that…so now we understand why Mozzie has been bald as long as we have known him. The plotting introduces the music box that Neal has been chasing since the series began. As Adler escapes, Peter arrests Neal, their first meeting. Very satisfying.
When Harry’s Law premiered, Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon was less enthused about it than I was, and I think he may have been right. It is preachy, with those long David E. Kelley political speeches. Kelley seems to have fallen in love with the rich lawyer Tommy Jefferson, and we get more of him than we really need. But we already had Denny Crane, and we don’t need another one. In my comments in US#69, I said that Jenna, the receptionist, was not well-defined as a character, and that has only gotten worse. In some episodes she seems reasonably bright, in others dumb as a box of rocks. And I am not sure they are giving their star Kathy Bates enough to do. She seems to be working on about four cylinders instead of eight. Still, four cylinders of Bates is worth looking in on.
Fairly Legal, on the other hand, is moving along well, and Kate has not put her finger in her mouth once in the rest of the episodes. The “David Smith” storyline (he was in her father’s will and nobody knew who he was) has not been as interesting as Kate’s mediation cases. That’s really not a bad sign, since it suggests the franchise (her cases) have a lot of potential.
Justified is having a great second season, and not just because Timothy Olyphant seems more at ease in the role of Raylan than he did in the first season. The writers are also willing to do something very few series do: let a good scene go on more than a minute or two. In the season opener “The Moonshine War,” written by Graham Yost, there is a scene near the beginning between the 14-year-old Loretta and Jimmy Earl Dean. He’s got a thing for her, and a record as a child molester, but she’s three times as smart as he is and talks him into leaving. The length of the scene makes it more suspenseful than a shorter version would, and it also introduces us to Loretta, who will pop up in the rest of the season. This episode also introduces us to the wonderful Bennett clan, lead by Mags Bennett. The sons are halfwits who always screw up, but Mags, the matriarch, knows how to keep them in line. In a great scene in this episode, she comes to Loretta’s father Walter to apologize for her sons beating up Walter for growing pot on her land. Isn’t that nice of her? Meanwhile she has poisoned the cup of moonshine she’s given him and casually watches him die. In the next episode “The Life Inside,” written by Benjamin Cavell, she takes in Loretta, telling her she sent Loretta’s father on a trip and apologizing for not protecting her from the pervert, “Like I promised.” As the scene progresses, it is clear to us, but not to the smart Loretta, that Mags is trying to find out how much Loretta knows about, well, everything.
Another aspect of this second season I like is that they have got Raylan back with his ex-wife Winona, even though she is still married to Gary. Winona is a much better match for Raylan than Ava, the Crowder woman who has now taken up with Boyd. The writers get a lot out of how well Raylan and Winona know each other. Winona is also smart…oops, maybe not. In “Blaze of Glory,” written by Cavell, Winona is putting some files away in the evidence room. She is at an unused group of lockers and finds a pile of money in one of them. A whole pile of money. But it’s old money and she doesn’t know where it comes from. So without telling anybody, she takes one of the hundred dollar bills with her to the bank to find out if it is forged. OK, that’s maybe not so stupid, but she ends up in the middle of a bank robbery and the bill is taken by the robbers. Who are quickly caught by the F.B.I.. She tells Raylan, and he checks the money taken into evidence. He finds three bills that might be hers. End of episode. In the next one, “Save My Love,” written by Yost, Winona tells Raylan that none of the three bills are the right one. The F.B.I. has already scanned it. And, what did I tell you about Winona? She actually took all the money from the locker. Now they have to try to get it back there. Yost creates some terrific suspense as everything that could go wrong with that plan happens. Meanwhile the F.B.I. is checking the evidence and finds the money is not there. Yikes. Except they assume it just got lost, as happens with evidence. And Raylan eventually gets Winona to put the money back in another older locker, in case anybody else comes looking. Winona’s a little more high maintenance for Raylan than I thought, but like Mags Bennett, when she is onscreen, stuff happens. You can’t ask more from characters than that. Well, no, you can, but still.
The Good Wife is also having a good mid-season. My favorite episode so far is “Net Worth,” written by Robert King and Michelle King. Alicia gets involved in a case representing Patrick Edelstein, who is suing a movie studio for making a film about him and the social network website he created. Yes, he is just as arrogant as young Mr. Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010) and the deposition scenes are familiar to anyone who has seen the movie. A more interesting scene is when they depose the screenwriter. Now you would think the screenwriter would be portrayed in a sympathetic way, as screenwriters usually are in other screenwriters’ scripts. Guess again. This guy claims he made it all up, which is obviously not the case, and makes a case for his First Amendment rights, but is an asshole doing it. That’s what I like about The Good Wife: its honesty and realism.
And guess who showed up his ownself on 30 Rock? The real Aaron Sorkin, in an episode written by John Siegel & Dylan Morgan called “Plan B.” Because Tracy has gone off to Africa (although we find out at the end of the episode he’s been hiding in New York) the network is putting TGS on “forced hiatus,” which everybody on the show knows means it has been canceled. So everybody start looking for new jobs. For Liz that involves writing work. One job opening is on a reality show, and in the waiting room she meets Sorkin, who is also applying for the job. So naturally they get up and walk and talk, going around the hallway and ending up where they started. Well, haven’t you always assumed that’s how Sorkin talks?
More than one critic has mention how 30 Rock is very much in the tradition of His Girl Friday (1940) in the speed of its dialogue. I recently watched Friday in my History of Motion Pictures class at LACC, so it was on my mind while watching this episode of 30 Rock. What struck me is that in some ways 30 Rock goes beyond what Friday does. Friday is just plain fast, but Rock doesn’t just have fast delivery of the dialogue. Unlike Friday, the dialogue is filled with non-sequiturs. Friday is linear, but you never quite know where Rock is going. Rock is just as quick to throw in surreal visual as well as verbal elements. Think of 30 Rock as the grandchild of His Girl Friday, moving at computer speed, complete with oddball links, rather than typewriter speed.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.