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In 2000, writer-director Ken Lonergan had just come off of making the estimable The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle with this picture.  It is one of the strongest written and acted family dramas I’ve ever seen.  The closest recent reminder is Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.

Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo are siblings whose parents died in a car accident when they were children (I’d say 8 and 11).  Once that fact is established with a sparse care that should be required viewing for all writers of drama, we are transported to their adult lives.  Linney is divorced with an 8 year old son, and she lives in her parent’s house and works in her upstate New York hometown.  Ruffalo is a drifter, and he comes home to visit.  Both are not emotionally crippled, but they are certainly products of the trauma.  The communication of the trauma, however, is never in a long or laborious revelation or speech.  There are no explosive healings or verbal re-opening of old wounds.

Linney’s pain can be seen in how she prepares for her brother’s return, in her desire for order in all things, and in her penchant for the reckless (as long as such recklessness is papered over by a seemingly staid conservative existence).  Ruffalo, on the other hand, drifts in all things.  Linney’s son (another in a long line of Culkins) is a bit of a bridge between the siblings, but what is more effectively revealed is the alternating immaturity of all the characters.

There are few lessons learned or dawnings.  The beauty and pain of family is nearly perfectly expressed throughout.  Better, You Can Count On Me eschews stock secondary characters, infusing each (Linney’s boss Matthew Broderick, her minister, her boyfriend, her ex-husband, the town sheriff) with multi-layered traits in an economical fashion  The film takes the time to linger on the emotional registers of these people in reaction to Linney and Ruffalo, as opposed to simply having them act in a standard fashion to further amplify the angst of the leads.

The original music is haunting cello and the sountrack features a heavy dose of roots rock, alt-country and Americana (Steve Earle, Marah, and my favorite unsung band, The V-Roys).

A beautiful, sumptuous travelogue released in 1998, the picture marked the end of Terrence Malick’s 20+ year absence from film and proved to be more “National Geographic” than James Jones.   Ostensibly about an offensive during the Guadalcanal campaign, the film follows Privates Bell (Ben Chaplin) and Witt (Jim Caviezel) as they are deposited on a Pacific island to take an enemy air base deep inland.  They are accompanied along the way by Private John Savage, Sergeants Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, Lieutenant John Cusack, Captains Elias Koteas and George Clooney, Colonel Nick Nolte, and General John Travolta. We are provided insight to only Koteas and Nolte (Koteas is a lawyer; Nolte is an angry military man who has been passed over). Everyone else is just there, without exposition.

Only Koteas and Cusack register, the former as a humanistic officer who cannot accept the slaughter of his men for a greater good and the latter as a brave underling who shows true leadership in a grave hour.  Nolte is standard spit and scream (it is truly amazing how red he can make his face).  Penn, Harrelson, Clooney, and Travolta are cardboard, and Reilly is given a short, hackneyed speech on how he has become hardened by the war.  Savage in particular is really, really bad as a soldier who has cracked under the strain of combat.  It’s hard to believe that Savage, so good in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was revived for such histrionics 20 years later.

The film is lush.  At times, it is visually riveting, from the beauty of the ship cutting through the Pacific prior to disembarkation of its armed cargo (filmed directly down from the prow), to the stark image of a dismembered mine team, alone among the peacefully covered foliage (the first carnage the company witnesses) to the killing of two men by a Japanese sniper – they fall poignantly in the tall grass before the vista of a lush mountain.

The pretty pictures, however, can only distract you from the onerous dialogue for so long. Witt ruminates in voice-over about the nature of evil and violence, an exercise that is initially intriguing until it registers as so much pop philosophy (Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts” will come guiltily to mind).  The inner thoughts of the characters are meant to be thought provoking but can essentially be boiled down to “Why is there so much madness in this world when there is so much beauty, here and elsewhere?”  In particular, Bell’s voice-over goes on and on and on and on about his wife and the nature of love, and you begin to resent it.

Malick juxtaposes the violence and ugliness of war with the peace of a seemingly undisturbed Pacific paradise and Rockwellian flashbacks to a soldier’s beautiful wife, her smooth skin and her cotton dress.  After Malick shows soldiers in crisis, and then a fruit bat, or a bird, or light streaming through the foliage, I was reminded of Peter Weir, who employs the same technique (he usually just cuts to a knowing aborigine).

Malick makes some fundamental errors that, I’m sure, seem niggling in the light of the ambition of the project.  For example, Witt and Bell look alike and they kind of sound alike and when two men are running around in battle and doing voice overs, that becomes problematic.  The cameo factor is also distracting because actors are trying to make their mark in the short time allotted.  As such, Travolta is weird as an ambitious general, and Clooney shows up at the end for a few lines (since you still haven’t seen Clooney until the end of the picture, you fear he may be pivotal and you have that much longer until the end).  Savage, as stated, is not only atrocious as a private who has freaked out (be spits, he exhibits facial tics, the whole nine yards), but he is much too old to have been a line soldier in WWII.  Another gripe: Witt is chronically AWOL, and in the beginning of the film, he’s picked up by a Navy transport whilst he lives among pleasant, harmonious natives.  His company is on the transport, and they go quite a long way to the island that serves as the setting for the film.  Regardless, Witt manages to return to the natives for a visit by way of a long walk.  A walk I calculate at about 320 miles.

Finally, even in a war picture, four long death scenes are too much.

In the end, you can’t call it a complete disaster, because it is so visually accomplished.  But it is a narrative mess, overly long, overly self-important, and lackadaisical to the point of nap-inducing.

Zulu was released in 1964 (the year of my birth) and runs pretty regularly on both The History Channel and Turner Classic Movies.  Starring Stanley Baker (Lt. Chard) and Michael Caine (Lt. Bromhead) as two late 19th century British Army officers, the picture dramatizes the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Natal province during the Anglo-Zulu war. 

At Rorke’s Drift, a contingent of 150 British soldiers was trapped in a converted mission station they were garrisoning as a supply base and hospital.  A British army column of 1,200 men had been massacred by an overwhelming force of Zulus at Isandhlwana earlier in the day.  The Zulus moved on the mission station.  The film chronicles the frenzied defense of the mission by the tiny contingent against 4,000 Zulus.  At end, the Rorke’s Drift defense resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses, the most ever awarded for an action in one day.

The film is memorable for several reasons, including gripping close-action battle photography, sweeping and memorable vistas of the African landscape (most of the film was shot on location in South Africa), the tight scripting of at least 20 supporting characters, and the adult handling of the culture clash between Brit and Zulu with no intrusive moral lessonry.  This is a movie about these men in this battle at this time, not about the big bad white man exploiting the proud, wise, noble black man.  This is not to say the blacklisted screenwriter Cy Endfield completely ignores the culture clash, as is evidenced by a back-and-forth between Caine and a Boer co-defender (Adendorff) as Caine maligns the natives assisting the Brits:

Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead: Damn the levies man… Cowardly blacks!

Adendorff: What the hell do you mean “cowardly blacks?” They died on your side, didn’t they? And who the hell do you think is coming to wipe out your little command? The Grenadier Guards?

Endfield has a little to say about geopolitics as well:

Bromhead: Well done, Adendorff, we’ll make an Englishman of you yet!

Adendorff: No, thanks. I’m a Boer. The Zulus are the enemies of my blood. What are you doing here?

Bromhead: You don’t object to our help, I hope?

Adendorff: It all depends on what you damned English want for it, afterwards.

The back-and-forth between Baker and Caine is also subtle and well-crafted.  Caine is a patrician but junior in commission by a month.  Baker, a newcomer to the garrison sent to build a bridge, is an engineer and apparently lower born, so Caine is not at all happy about being usurped and particularly resentful of being second-in-command:

Bromhead: [mounted, crossing stream] Hot work?

Lieutenant John Chard: [kneeling in stream] Damned hot work.

Bromhead: Still, the river cooled you off a bit though, eh?
[pause]

Bromhead: Who are you?

Lieutenant John Chard: John Chard, Royal Engineers.

Bromhead: Bromhead. 24th. That’s my post… up there.
[points into middle distance]

Bromhead: You’ve come down from the column?

Lieutenant John Chard: That’s right. They want a bridge across the river.

Bromhead: Who said you could use my men?

Lieutenant John Chard: They were sitting around on their backsides, doing nothing.

Bromhead: Rather you asked first, old boy.

Lieutenant John Chard: I was told that their officer was out hunting.

Bromhead: Err… yes.
[spurs on horse]

Bromhead: I’ll tell my man to clean your kit.

Lieutenant John Chard: Don’t bother!

Bromhead: No bother… I’m not offering to clean it myself! Still, a chap ought to look smart in front of the men, don’t you think? Well chin-chin… do carry on with your mud pies.

As their situation presents itself, they join together in the heroic defense.

The picture is also aided by a memorably thundering John Barry score.

Next time you see it on television, try and catch it, and you’ll be treated to a taut classic.  My favorite line is after the first wave of Zulu warriors is repelled by the Brits, and Caine says, “60!, we got at least 60 wouldn’t you say?” and another character wryly replies “That leaves only 3,940.”

Before The Hunger Games, and its depiction of a televised death match for teens, there was Network, perhaps the most prescient film ever made.  Released in 1976, Network foreshadows the gruesome future of television as it slides nearer and nearer to county fair freak show.  Caustic, incisive and at times frightening, if modern writers managed half of Paddy Chayefsky’s lines in Network, we’d all be better off for it.

The plot is simple.  A network is going down the tubes and in order to save it, the reckless, soulless and brilliant Faye Dunaway is given free reign over programming.  She forwards numerous efforts, the most popular being The Howard Beale Show, a nightly venue given to a network news anchor (Peter Finch) who is slowly going mad.

The script bogs down a bit in the last quarter, mainly, I think, because the medium of film does not handle monologues for two hours, and in between Chayefsky’s smart dialogue, this is essentially a film of well-delivered speeches.

The movie is filled with gems.  Finch making his mark with an on-air nervous breakdown (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) or corporate titan Ned Beatty thundering to Finch that he has meddled with “the forces of nature” after one of his on-air screeds affects an oil investment.  A scene that is unparalleled involves the activists from the Ecumenical Liberation Organization, a quasi-Symbionese Liberation Organization, upon which Dunaway is basing a “reality” show.  These revolutionaries for the proletariat are soon perverted by the influence of TV and begin squabbling as to points and percentages off the back end.   There are also wonderful pitch scenes for shows that in 1976 would have seemed outrageous, but would now be ho hum.

There are some weaknesses.  The romance between Dunaway and William Holden, the old network bull, is unconvincing.  It is easy to understand a older man-younger woman dalliance, but in this case, Dunaway plays as a frenetic shark.  Her character freely admits she is a lousy lay and then demonstrates as much with Holden.  Dunaway’s character is about power and moving up (when a young, non-powerful man kisses her shoulder, Dunaway’s sharp “Knock it off” tells you all you need to know), and the fact that Holden does not see it is problematic.

Perhaps it was Holden trying to understand the future, or he was waning and wanted a taste of youth.  It’s possible that Dunaway, like televison, is empty but still capable of beguiling Holden for a time, like Beale’s viewers.  But the relationship seems peculiar and off-kilter. That said, some of Chayefsky’s best lines are during their conversations, so the curious nature of the couple can be forgiven.

Network is deservedly ranked 64 on AFI’s Top 100 movies.

Stanley Kubrick’s last film opens with an affluent married couple – Tom Cruise, a doctor, and his wife, Nicole Kidman  – at a Christmas Party, during which he flirts with two models (and later revives the host’s prostitute girlfriend, who has overdosed) .  Meanwhile, Kidman gets tipsy in the hands of a mysterious foreigner who does his damndest to get her away for a quickie.  The experience leads to a later conversation, during which Kidman gets stoned and cruelly informs Cruise that she once was so overcome by desire for a stranger that she would have given away everything – husband, child, life – to be with the man.  Cruise is destabilized.  Stunned, he walks the streets of New York, bouncing from sexual odyssey to sexual odyssey.

Kubrick had no business making a film about modern sexual issues.  Having read a “Vanity Fair” piece on Kubrick shortly after his death, his disconnection with his subject matter is no mystery.  He appeared to have been a semi-recluse with no social skills, much less any romantic experience.  I was reminded of the incongruity of presumably celibate Catholic priests who advise young parishioners on marital issues.  Including sex.

Cruise and Kidman are like some 1950s couple dressed in 90s clothes.  After his wife’s revelation, Cruise is menaced by the recurring image of her being ravished by the stranger, as if a wife sharing her fantasy with her husband is some great cataclysm.  Yet, Cruise is strangely immune to the manner in which Kidman mocks and taunts him with her fantasy.  Her cold and unloving manner – she roils on the floor pointing at Cruise, doing her level best to castrate him with her secret – appears to be no problem for Cruise.  Rather, it is the image of someone sleeping with his wife that drives him batty.  As for Kidman, she’s just mean and icy. 

Then there is the plot, which is non-existent, thus making for a droning, tedious ride. Cruise does his best with what he’s given, and he is particularly effective early, when he performs the minuet of explaining to his wife why he would never bed the two models. She summarily shreds his rationale.  Kidman, however, is consistently awful throughout, forced to play drunk at the party, stoned during her humiliation of Cruise, and then, in a completely over-the-top bit, frightened by a sexual dream she experienced.  She hits all the wrong chords, her drunk being sloppy, her stoner being vicious, and her post-dream persona annoyingly overwrought.   This is a performance ruined by bad choices.

Kubrick’s other forays into the pastiche of modern sexuality are laughable.  The man who would get Kidman away for a tryst at the Christmas Party is an unintentionally hilarious Hungarian.  Any minute, you expect him to say, “I vant to suck your blood.”  Prostitutes who entice Cruise from NYC streets are Kate Moss hot, with hearts of gold to boot.  The famed orgy scene is chortle inducing (everyone wears goofy yet frightening masks).  I’ve seen more effective soft core on late night Showtime.

“ARE THERE ANY SNACKS AT THIS ORGY?”

If you were not inclined to laugh at certain parts, the film is accompanied by perhaps the most distracting soundtrack ever scored – a single note piano plinking that can destroy even the most stoic.

Visually, Kubrick is painfully reliant on one trick in his bag – an endlessly repetitive floating tracking shot.  On the plus side, he does make a passable New York City out of London.   But this was a bad way to go out. 

It won a slew of technical Oscars and was nominated for best picture, and it looks good.  But it is  a long, hard slog. I’m certain there were quite a few kids who came out of this one realizing that 3-D ain’t all that.  I nodded off more than once. When I awoke, I was greeted with the same mundane dialogue and plodding story.  Martin Scorsese makes a Parisian train station the center of this “magical” tale of an orphan, a secret and the movies, but after the magic of the imagery wears off, you’re still left with about 2 hours of cloying depictions of the denizens of the station.  You’re also stuck with two of the least interesting child actors in film history.

This is the kind of children’s movie certain parents would love their children to love, along with trans-fatless cookies.  I’ll take Puss and Boots and Oreos any day.

Modern political movies are a tough sell.  Last year, George Clooney provided the dry, obvious and somber The Ides of March (no one got stabbed – but boy, as dull as it was, it would have helped).  The American President was execrable, a love letter sent to suburban progressives who must not only follow but adore their leaders, preceding the advent of The West Wing and Martin Sheen as President Awesome.  The most recent good political movie was the rollicking Charlie Wilson’s War, which Mike Nichols directed.

Nichols must have a knack for it.  Primary Colors is Nichols’s cinematic mirror on the rise of the Clintons, an adept story of the tension between political values, electoral success and human frailty, all wrapped up in a big, fun yarn populated by larger than life characters (one of whom served as our regularly entertaining president from 1992 to 2000). There is no need to discuss the plot.  It tracks history loosely, but it will be familiar.

It is also an actor’s film and those actors are aided by a very tight, yet breezy screenplay.  The characters talk the talk of political campaign work, yet we are not burdened by the mundane or weighty.  Better, divergence into the philosophical is not stilted or preachy.  Adrian Lester, the true believer sucked into the expedience and fervor of a presidential race, serves as our somewhat wide-eyed guide.  He exudes the right amount of awe and moral ambivalence.  Billy Bob Thornton is James Carville, and he utters my favorite line about politicians to Lester:  “That’s what these guys do. They love you and then stop lovin’ you.”  Emma Thompson is the increasingly embittered and mercenary Hillary; she is determined, yet both fragile and icy.  Larry Hagman delivers a nice turn as a morally tainted dark horse challenger, and Kathy Bates keeps the fun in the picture as a political operative who knows the terrain of small town politics gone national.

Now, playing a president is a hard job.  Jeff Bridges was nominated for best supporting actor for his Clintonian president in The Contender, but he was so charming and wily as to feel false.   Michael Douglas was painfully self-pitying in the The American President and while Kevin Kline’s president in Dave wasn’t supposed to be realistic (if you’ll recall, Dave was a look-alike brought in to replace the real president, a heartless prick who I much preferred), he was so “aw shucks” Opie I found myself rooting against him.

Even harder is playing a president we know.  Kennedy does not count, because most filmgoers didn’t live through his presidency, and even if they did, JFK is difficult to separate from a Hollywood character (in fact, Kennedy is the only president to have a film released about him during his presidency, and you can rest assured that PT-109 did not show Jack screwing the pooch by letting his ship get rammed by a Japanese destroyer).  So, we are convinced by awesome hair and a few “Bahstans” and “Cubers.”  Oliver Stone gave us two grotesque caricatures — Anthony Hopkins made Nixon a sweating bundle of nerves and ambition in Nixon (Frank Langella’s Nixon in Frost/Nixon was so much better) and Josh Brolin as a clownish, frat boy/oaf in W (I’m still waiting for the casting of Gerald Ford in The Mayaguez Incident).

This leaves John Travolta as Clinton.  Granted, I have been spoiled by the real Clinton, a masterful communicator and tactician, and in my judgment, perhaps the greatest American retail politician.  But Travolta misses Clinton’s flashes and confluence of weakness and sincerity, warmth and opportunism, self-pity and bitterness.  It is a tall order to fill, Travolta does his best, but mimicry is often what he is forced to rely upon.  When he is adored by crowds in the movie, I thought, “Oh come on. How could they be buying this?”  Granted, I usually had those thoughts when the real Clinton spoke to adoring crowds.  But I rarely questioned the sanity of others who were thinking “Yes! He feels my pain” while I was rolling my eyes.

Still, Travolta does well enough, and Nichols smartly never gets you rooting for him or anyone else.  That is critical to the film.  You may like Travolta and Thompson, but you feel tarnished for doing so.  You may hate them, but you recognize their failures in yourself and politicans you admire.