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Image result for Dead Man Walking

I caught this a few rainy days ago.  There are very few films that deal with contemporary hot button issues well. Most of the time, the inclination of the writer and director is so patently obvious that the art is robbed of plausibility and force.

This movie is an exception.  The issue is subordinate to the human story, and while that story is primarily told from the viewpoint of an anti-death penalty character (Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean) ministering to convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), that in no way colors the message, which is admirably equivocal, even, to my mind, shockingly, a hair pro-capital punishment. That is probably just me, given the hackneyed uniformity of most such films, but that the picture provides an emotional and almost ethical argument for the practice is astonishing.

Sarandon is restrained and effective as a woman of faith called to provide spiritual comfort to a man who has committed a monstrous crime, and as that man, Penn exhibits all the bravado, self-pity, cruelty and narcissism of a thug.  Eventually, she learns she is not there to redeem him in any way, and shucks off her self-comforting fantasies that he was just a good boy led astray,  and focuses on simply leading him to confession.

Director Tim Robbins takes meticulous pains to display the brutal toll on the victims’ families and has the balls to juxtapose the execution with an unforgiving flashback of the crime, and unlike what Poncelet has been selling Prejean up until the last moments before he is executed (he is innocent, he was stoned, his accomplice did the killing and raping and things just got out of hand), those flashbacks show him as a vile, entirely in control piece of shit.

Nobody is caricatured. No easy rhetorical gotcha’ lines are delivered.  The employees of the prison, the medical professionals involved in the process, the families, they are treated with rare grace and equanimity.  An example: Sarandon has dinner with her wealthy family, some of whom question her service to Poncelet.  In the wrong hands, they would have been portrayed as the aristocratic, privileged rich, more concerned with their name and espousing small, likely bigoted views.  Robbins, however, shows them as loving and concerned, with questions (“Why spend so much time on this cretin when you could be helping young children not to grow up into becoming this cretin?”) similar to that of the audience.

Similarly, Poncelet is never a beatific victim.  Near the end, he praises Hitler, he spews racist invective, he even makes a sexual come on to Sarandon.  But she works with him, to help him find a dignity within himself through the sole act of the admission of his guilt and contrition.

Great film.

 

 

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Image result for backdraft love scene on top of fire truck

Terrible, excessive, a yawning blot of a movie. I can’t get enough. From the opening scene, where our protagonist is shown as a boy, watching his father fight a fire, and his father blows up, in slo-mo, before his eyes, and the old man’s fire chief hat rattles at his feet, to the sobering realization that this boy has grown up to be a firefighter himself.   Verklempt.

Better, the boy grows up to be a male model firefighter (in the guise of Billy Baldwin, straight out of Zoolander) who gets the rookie treatment (“wash my socks, cook my food, hey, stand in front of this thingie I call a firehouse . . . rook”) and his greatest tormentor is Kurt Russell, his older brother, who says things like “The only problem is that in this job is there’s just no place to hide. It’s not like having a bad day selling log cabins. You have a bad day here and somebody dies… and that’s just not fucking good enough.”

Which is an awesome line and can be replicated in all professions every day.

Of course, Baldwin looks like he couldn’t lift an IPhone much lest hoist a hose, but he does have a few humdingers himself.  Like “you did it man. You did it all the way Steven, you were really a hero today.”  Allowing Russell to retort, ” Brian… its not about being a hero. I went in because there was a kid up there. You know, I just, I do what I do because that’s my way. And it was Dad’s way. Maybe it’s not everybody’s way. ”

Which can also be replicated in all professions every day, but it helps if you’re talking to your brother.

It’s not all sweet, sweet perfection.  Baldwin’s love scene with a Jennifer Jason Leigh is, uh, unconvincing. But it is on top of a fire truck and has the feel of a Whitesnake video.

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Basically, this is a two hour fellating of the brawn, brio and body odor of American firefighters, scored by whoever did Triumph of the Will (okay, too much, but I was close – it’s Hans Zimmer).  There is also a mystery stitched in this cupcake, and when solved, it is not just preposterous, it defies the laws of physics.

There is only one explanation-Ron Howard fell in love with a firefighter and made him a valentine.

Unwatchable and yet, I cannot look away.

Image result for Colonel Jessup Trump

I just caught this in its entirety, and I had been thinking about the film in a political sense as well.  For those who might be unfamiliar, this is an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of his stage play, where a callow, dispirited and cynical JAG lawyer (Tom Cruise) is redeemed in his defense of two Marines on trial for the murder of a third after a hazing incident known as a “Code Red.”  The incident was ordered by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), a rough and ready, cigar chomping patriot, who is content to let the Marines be convicted as collateral damage to a higher purpose (or so he would have us believe).

This a Hollywood vehicle of yore, with big names (Demi Moore was at her zenith here) and bigger speeches, and some of Nicholson’s lines have become ingrained in everyday talk (“You can’t handle the truth!”)

There can be no dispute – Jessup is a villain.  He lets his men hang.  Early on, he ostracizes Moore with a sexual putdown.  He loathes Cruise and his “faggoty white unform” and “Harvard mouth.”  He is even, in a very clunky line at the end, quasi-revealed as an anti-Semite (“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” — Weinberg had been sitting at counsel’s table minding his own business)  Jessup is a vain liar, and encases his ambition in the veneer of higher goals.  When you walked out of that film in 1992, you enjoyed Colonel Jessup, but you likely did not endorse him.

Twenty five years later, I got to thinking about Jessup and President Trump.  I have become convinced that a modern audience would walk out of the theater much more kindly disposed to Jessup, even after having had his monumental faults exposed by Cruise.  There would be greater sympathy for his swagger, and his vulgarity and cruelty would be more easily tossed off.  After all, he’s a doer, not some snide lawyer with a “Harvard mouth.”  Indeed, both Jessup and Trump are fixated on a wall (“because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall”).  Ask folks today, “Who is the hero?” and even though Jessup appears to be headed toward disgrace and a court-martial at the end of the film, I’m confident you’d have a near even split.

As the excesses of Trump pile on, seemingly without a dent in 40 to 45% of those who are periodically asked to provide a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I’ve heard any number of explanations, but the most widely disseminated is confirmation of the deplorability of his supporters, reducing a campaign flub to a gaffe (aptly defined by Michael Kinsley as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say”).  If I am right about A Few Good Men, that conclusion walks hand-in-hand with the Rise of Jessup.  The same mouth breathers who would conclude that Jack Nicholson is the hero opted for Trump over Hillary.  The same folks who support a raving narcissist who can say or tweet most anything would stand by a raging Jessup, as he screams, “I’m gonna’ rip the eyes out of your head and puke into your dead skull “  I doubt it is that easy, but I can see the appeal of assuming the dummies and the dark heart of America have finally combined to bring about Nero.

I think, however, that easy conclusion misses a few things.

First, Cruise would probably be respected by the Jessupites, even if loathed.  He bested their champion in the courtroom, and even though he’s a puling fancypants in his dress whites, you gotta’ give him his due.  With regard to Trump, however, I think the deplorables don’t have the same feelings about the forces – Clinton, the media, the punditry – who they feel were and are arrayed against him.  Because they conclude that those forces are every bit as corrupt as Jessup, their fealty remains strong.  As a graduate of the Harvard of the Shenandoah, I get where they are coming from.

Also, Trump, like Jessup, presents himself as not only a doer, but a bulwark against the corrosive forces of the establishment and their collective Harvard mouths.  I mean, three lawyers against a man who stands on the wall?  Come on.  Not even close.  There is a moment in Cruise’s cross-examination that emphasizes the distinction:  “Yeah, but it wasn’t a real order, was it? After all, it’s peace time. He wasn’t being asked to secure a hill or advance on a beachhead.”  That, of course, is the massage of the smart set.  There are orders and then, there are “real orders”, and invariably, the more the order disadvantages the snoots at their cocktail parties, the more it is coincidentally less real.

Perhaps most importantly, Jessup is just simply a helluva lot more entertaining than Cruise.  He has all the best lines, and in an age where entertainment and politics have seamlessly melded, that’s a quality that should not be underestimated.  Jessup and Trump are stars and they positively bask in the freedom to engage in the crudity that leads lessers to the podium,  spouse and dogs at their side, to ask forgiveness.  That hubris laid Jessup low.  But that was a quarter century ago.

As for the film, it holds up okay.  The Sorkin patter is snappy and smart but hadn’t yet been reduced to the gibberish of The West Wing, and Cruise and Nicholson define star power, both giving their all.

I re-watched and reviewed Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago and followed it up with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor and two others, the documentary intersperses Eleanor’s “home movies” of the extended shoot in the Philippines with participant interviews and actual film footage. The result is a gripping, informational remembrance from start to finish.  The story is incredible.  Coppola put up his own money against the profits and endured a host of calamities:  a change in lead actor (Coppola brought in Martin Sheen to replace Harvey Keitel after reviewing a few weeks of footage); a typhoon that destroyed many of his sets; a Philippine air force (standing in for American Vietnam-era air cavalry) whose helicopters would often have to leave in the middle of his shoots to fight rebels; Sheen’s heart attack, which delayed filming further; and finally, the bewildered behemoth that is Marlon Brando, who came to the shoot fat, unprepared, and mercurial, insisting on spending days talking about character motivation rather than shooting scenes. On this last fiasco, Coppola realized Brando had not read the book Heart of Darkness as instructed nor was he in any shape to adhere to the script, Unfortunately, Coppola had given $1 million to Brando to show up, and it was non-refundable. In a particularly tragicomic part of the documentary, Coppola explains that he made a decision to have Brando just walk around and improvise during his time on set, and some of the rushes are painfully funny, as Coppola tries to prompt some sort of usable dialogue from Brando, and Brando rejoins with pomposity and ultimately, a certain “can I just cash my check and get out of here?” weariness.

This is just one of many brilliant nuggets exploring the process of filming this audacious movie.

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Robert Benton’s adaptation of this Richard Russo novel is centered in the wintry environs of North Bath, NY, where everyone knows each other so well they can be regular poker mates while simultaneously failing each other in any number of ways. Paul Newman plays Sully, an off again, on again employee of property contractor Bruce Willis (who he is suing in a personal injury claim) and the only tenant in an old Victorian owned by Jessica Tandy (in her last role before her death). Sully is woven into the fabric of the town, but he is at heart detached and cynical, and the only hint we get of any warmth are in his interactions with Willis’s wife, Melanie Griffith, who suffers her husband’s callous infidelities with a defiance that saps her verve. When Sully’s estranged son (Dylan Walsh) shows up in the midst of a marital and professional crisis, Sully becomes re-engaged, recognizing his role in the community and accepting the responsibility that comes with it, a George Bailey for the 1990s

The film is alternatively very funny and sneakily touching. Benton expertly captures the claustrophobia of a small town and even its collective ethos without letting eccentricity become cloying. Almost all of the characters are good, and Newman, who was rightly nominated for an Oscar, is perfectly suited to the material.   Of Newman, David Thomson wrote:

As a young man, Paul Newman was so handsome he developed a sneer as if to frighten away the fans – the women, especially – who assumed he was ready and available. There were times when this arrogant manner seemed ready to dismiss not just most of his work, but anyone who took it seriously. He seemed to be saying, “Can’t you see – I’m not like this. I’m a real person, unfairly afflicted with movie looks. I’m Jewish!”

Newman was 30 when he first appeared in a movie; it meant he was a grown man, with hard-earned experience, before he started pretending in public. He had been three years in the Navy, as a radio operator; he had helped run his father’s store in Cleveland; he had been married and had children.

Later in life, the sneer fell away, along with the prettiness, until he was left a stoical old man with pain and losses, as well as the abiding perplexity that anyone should take him or acting that seriously. By then, he was one of the finest and most resolute old men in pictures – some achievement in a culture horrified by age.

The observation perfectly captures Newman in this picture.  Newman communicates the pain and loss in Sully in barely perceptible ways, and when he does so, he doesn’t linger in a manner at odds with his core.  He retreats to the crass aside or the blithe “oh well” and that’s that, making those moments of introspection and dawning even more affecting.  It’s a sharp and knowing performance.

The film suffers a few missteps.  Dylan Walsh, as Newman’s son, is badly miscast. He not only looks nothing like Newman, but he doesn’t share a teaspoon of his inner strength or mystery.  Worse, when he arrives with family and children, they are played too broadly, with modern domestic woes and a miscreant younger child (who nicknames a child with a hitting problem “Whacker”?).  So too is a very young Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the anal town deputy, and Josef Sommer as Tandy’s cowardly son.  In a movie where every other character plays the line between comic and grounded beautifully, these turns are a shame, if easily overlooked.

I only thought of this film because of Deadspin’s ode to Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, and on reflection, Kilmer’s performance is not only the best thing about this western, it’s the only good thing about it. Thus, to have one performance account for 2.5 stars – that’s really something. But Kilmer’s languid, dissipated Holliday is a treat to behold.  He is having a blast with the role, and while everyone else is somber or uncomfortable (or both), he chews and chews and chews.

Unfortunately, no one else (except perhaps Powers Boothe, who actually twirls his mustache as the evil leader of the redlegs, Curly Bill) is having any fun. The Earps (Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton) are dull as dishwater, particularly Russell as Wyatt, who decides that fury and blue eyes will see him through.  The villains, and there are scads of them from any number of sitcoms, look like they’re at cowboy camp. In fact, this whole movie has a certain slipshod, Eagles photo-shoot for Desperado quality to it.

The women are weak as well. As Kilmer’s moll, Joanna Pacula is just a hair shy of the cartoon Natasha, and Dana Delaney as Wyatt’s love interest lacks the lustful lure necessary to break down a rigid lawman. Delaney is a school marm, not a vamp; she doesn’t sizzle so much as reach room temperature.

Director George Cosmatos’ best efforts besides this leaden dog are Stallone vehicles, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II. After Tombstone, he got one more feature (a Charlie Sheen vehicle) and that was that (he died in 2005). After Tombstone, which is a pedestrian, forgettable, script, writer Kevin Jarre penned The Devil’s Own and The Mummy and, again, that was that.

But oh what Kilmer does with what he’s given:

The charms of the character are legion.  As explained by Kilmer in a recent interview:

So Bob Dylan loves “Tombstone”, It turns out. I found out he was in New York so I called my friend and I said you know, I’d love to meet him, is there any chance and he says, “I don’t know, I’ll find out.” And the next call I got I thought was going to be my friend, but it wasn’t, it was Bob.

I was real excited, like a crazy fan, like a child; it was so great. Basically it was like nothing. It was like we were old friends, it was like “you want to come over?” and he was like, “yeah.” So, hangs up the phone, I was newly married and we had a baby and I went in and said “I think Bob Dylan’s coming over…I’m not sure, it could be a hoax…” 

He shows up and sits down and he wants to talk about “Tombstone”, but I just can’t, you know, nor can I talk about any of his stuff. Eventually he says, ‘ain’t you going to say anything about that movie?’ and I said, “do some ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and I’ll…” 

That’s what I said to him, basically I said no. I get like that sometimes. So I turned him down and, I thought, no one turns this guy down. Anyway, I felt like an idiot afterwards, well, yeah I could have said a few lines. They’re fun lines too, like people still ask me to say lines and now I’ll tell any schmo in the airport, I’ll say “I’m your huckleberry”, but I wouldn’t say it Bob Dylan! 

I felt so bad about it. I was like how could I make it up to him? So what I did was, I recorded “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” but as Doc Holiday and I put in all of the big lines from the movie into the song and made him a little tape

There’s not a scene in this Coen Brothers film I don’t like, and the story of a Clifford Odets-esque playwright’s (John Turtorro) introduction to the oily world of Hollywood is both visually and thematically ambitious.  But no matter the film’s striking look or intriguing interpretations (the mind of the writer, the dangers of solitude, the corruption of money), by the end, you feel trifled with, as if you watched a very meticulous parlor trick supported with a cast of broad, comic actors (John Goodman, John Mahoney, Michael Lerner) for no greater purpose than the goof.  Like The Hudsucker Proxy and Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink has its joys, but the feel is sterile and your investment unrewarded.