- Twins / 1988, dir. Ivan Reitman
It’s not weird enough. It’s what I keep coming back to with this movie, which is daffy but not weird enough to register as something special. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are different enough for a trailer’s worth of gags, but over the course of the movie this is nothing more than a basic buddy comedy. I like Schwarzenegger as a comic actor (though this is definitely the Charmander to the Charizard he was in True Lies) and DeVito is fun, but this simplicity of this story—”I want my mama!”—is insufficient compared to the limited charm of the sight gag. Trying to complicate it with the curious addition of filthy lucre and a dogged assassin doesn’t work nearly as well as the film wants it to, even though the single funniest gag in the movie has to do with the way that Schwarzenegger and DeVito off the villain with enough chains to perpetuate the Spanish Inquisition indefinitely. The problem with Twins not being weird enough is that I’m not sure the movie could adequately hold the number of people that it would require to get truly weird. This movie can’t even make credible emotion when it has two people to work with, and of those two only DeVito is even supposed to be doing any kind of emotional labor. Triplets or Quadruplets would simply stretch it thinner, even if they were to pick up new siblings like Takashi Shimura picked up samurai.
- The Fugitive Kind / 1960, dir. Sidney Lumet
I got this one from the library, and I fully expected to…not hate it, precisely, but to be deeply uninterested in it. I don’t know that America produced a director as overrated as Sidney Lumet until Quentin Tarantino came to prominence. Even when I like Tennessee Williams, he tends to make me tired. There’s a miasma in films based on his work. Everyone is so beaten down that even the most complex characters have been flattened, and even the most passionate characters are laconic. Almost ten years after making his filmic name for himself in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando is playing a very different kind of man in The Fugitive Kind. That performance, Joanne Woodward’s abandon, Victor Jory’s savagery, and shadows of great meaning from DP Boris Kaufman make this movie different. The latter two are recognizable in another Williams adaptation, Baby Doll, a film which I enjoy much less than The Fugitive Kind but rate as highly. Kaufman shot that as well, and the encroaching darkness that enriches The Fugitive Kind is met with the jaunty, irregular shadows of Baby Doll. With apologies to legends like Harry Stradling, William Daniels, and especially James Wong Howe, Kaufman is the right cinematographer for Williams. Howe gave William Inge friction and traction; Kaufman gives Williams permanence. This is a terrific Victor Jory performance, and Lumet, who loves close-ups of sweaty men more than anyone not making a boxing movie or a porno, gets peak perspiration Jory in some of these later scenes. The man sweats menacingly. His voice has bottomed out further than it had when he was Jonas Wilkerson and saying things like “I know your father’s turned idiot,” and the rasp it has in it, the way it instantly characterizes this man presumably dying of cancer and preparing to burn down the lives of anyone who crosses him, helps to make this one of the finer supporting performances in a Williams drama. Joanne Woodward is playing Carroll Baker better than Carroll Baker ever did. And Brando…I understand that this man has a list of credits that would be the envy of virtually any actor in the past 150 years. I have been unable to shake this feeling that Val “Snakeskin” Xavier might be his best film performance. That first sequence of the film, in which a disembodied judge (a cameo performance from the Great Jehovah, presumably) asks him about his wrongdoing and if he’s liable to ever do anything like this again, is awkward in staging but Brando is flawless. Standing there in that snakeskin jacket, quiet and shy, the honesty emanating from him is terrible. He’s been chastened, the experience has damaged him. He acts like a man who, if he could look up, would be able to see the individual images of a life booted into despair, and when he does, his contrition is evident. The rest of the film, Brando continues this murmuring aloof performance, and we wonder if Cain could have born a mark as irresistible to womankind as the one that exiled Snakeskin wears to his new, brief home.
- Enemies, A Love Story / 1989, dir. Paul Mazursky
Some years ago now, when I went into my Best Picture project, I was mostly excited about trying to see as many movies from each of the Best Picture fields as possible. There are a lot of ways to learn about the predilections, styles, and pronouncements of Hollywood cinema, and for an autodidact one of the easier ways to pick up on them is to watch the movies AMPAS has nominated for Best Picture. What I didn’t expect going in was the number of ceremonies where the Best Picture fields were just total nightmares. Nothing tops the 62nd Academy Awards: Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy, Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot. I’ve had nightmares I’d rather relive in real life than watch all five of those movies in a row. The best of them…Born on the Fourth of July? An overlong biopic with a mediocre central performance from Tom “I was just in Rain Man, I’m a very serious actor, please give me an Oscar” Cruise, not even the best auteur Vietnam conscience film of the year, and it’s still my pick for this year. Nightmare fuel. But one of the things I learned from that project was that you can almost always make an equally good, if not better, five-picture field from other nominees. In 1989, even excluding foreign-language films and docs, you can get to: Do the Right Thing, When Harry Met Sally, Henry V, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Enemies, A Love Story. That last one picked up three nominations for 1989, with a nod in Adapted Screenplay and two in Supporting Actress, for Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin. The closest parallel has to be Sophie’s Choice, but unlike Sophie’s Choice, which has absolutely no control over what its limbs are doing, Enemies does not beg for our attention via Kevin Kline if somehow Meryl Streep is inadequately arresting. There are three Holocaust survivors at the center of this film, and a Polish woman who hid one of them at risk to her own life and freedom. All of them have lived through one of the greatest horrors of the century, and now, barely years later, all of them have wended their ways to New York City. Tamara, long thought dead, puts the notice in the paper for her husband Herman to find her. Herman, who was not much for monogamy in Poland either, is banging a beautiful woman he’s obsessed with and ignoring/impregnating his wife, who hid him and now delights in scrubbing his floors and washing his body while he reads the paper and pretends she’s not real. Beedle-dee-dee-dee-dee two ladies are plenty for most ambitious men, but having found himself with three, the sadness of Herman’s life turns into farce with surprising deftness. The scene where Tamara surprises simple-minded Yadwiga (who of course knew her in Poland) at her door, leading to Yadwiga shrieking her way into the bathroom on the occasion of a ghost knocking at her door. Herman is not thrilled; Anjelica Huston, bless her, fakes an apologetic smile and puts her body into the same position Babu Frik uses when he yells “HEH-HEY!”
- Casualties of War / 1989, dir. Brian De Palma
- The Reagan Show / 2017, dir. Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill
The actor who is trying to prove he’s got range after appearing in a historically successful crowdpleaser is a pox. Given enough time, this tends to work itself out because the actor will age out of the babyface and cutesiness on his own. Mickey Rooney made his way to noirs once Andy Hardy was exorcised from his system. Kurt Russell stopped shaving after getting famous for Disney movies before finding J.C. (John Carpenter). It doesn’t even have to take all that long! Think of Robert Pattinson, who made two movies with David Cronenberg and by 2016, four years after the release of the last Twilight movie, was wearing a hat and a fake beard, disguising himself in plain sight in The Lost City of Z. Michael J. Fox still had another Back to the Future in him after he made Casualties of War with Brian De Palma, and it shows. He doesn’t have it. Not surrounded by Sean Penn in full Sean Penn freak mode, not opposite Ving Rhames or Dale Dye. There are enough issues with Casualties of War that I’d hesitate to call it a really good movie even if they’d gotten a better actor to play the main character in this thing. The story in Casualties of War is terrible, so terrible that even though it’s based on real events it takes on the metaphorical meaning of a parable. Headstrong Americans, frustrated and a little bored, pick out a Vietnamese girl to kidnap and gang rape, and the group, save one small and largely impotent dissenter, goes along with it out of wickedness or fear. In the end, nothing changes except that the girl is dead. The last third of the script, which can’t decide if it wants to emphasize the fact that the whistleblower succeeded or if it wants to emphasize that the military never lets malefactors like this atone for all that long, ends up just being a muddle which is actively detrimental to the rest of the film. John C. Reilly is, to be honest, not any better than Fox. The star of this movie who I couldn’t take my eyes off of was Brian De Palma, who made an incredibly beautiful movie, shot it tremendously, seems to have used most of the tools in the toolbox to make this movie much more than just another Vietnam film in look and feel. I’m a De Palma skeptic most days, but Casualties of War looks so good that I almost feel like I need to give Scarface and Carlito’s Way another chance. (Almost!) A movie does not need to be ugly when it’s about ugliness; some of the great atrocities of history have been committed on lovely ground.
The Reagan Show is like seventy-five minutes long, so it’s fair to ask how they managed to tell the story of the Reagan administration’s emphasis on stage management in such a short time. The answer is that the filmmakers go whole hog on Reagan’s foreign policy record, and even then they leave out some pretty important stuff. Granada goes unmentioned. Iran-Contra gets a segue in the grand scheme of things. Mostly the film is about how Reagan and Gorbachev were rivals in their ability to play politics and perform leadership for the camera as much as they were like, important political figures of the late 20th Century. If this sounds disappointing, that’s because it is disappointing. The Reagan Show has a limited purview, which is a compliment. I think it’s genuinely interesting to make a documentary that only uses news footage from the 1980s (complete with all your favorite news stars, only younger) and footage collected by the Reagan administration to make its case, and I think it’s smart to focus on a single element so as not to get completely bogged down. And on the other hand, stuff like The Reagan Show is the reason that even intelligent political analysts tend to caught up in identifying posturing rather than policy. Every time a professional political analyst or talking head or documentarian says, “Wow, it’s incredible how much of the political process is just theater!” a twelve-year-old boy’s eyes go completely black as he screams, “Football is just like war!” It’s not intelligent to just say that it’s a theater, just to say that it’s fake. Pointing it out is sophomoric, and yet because this is more fun than going into like, what the policies of the Reagan administration actually were, or what the back and forth over Star Wars actually changed, or how Reagan balanced being the ultimate Cold Warrior with obliterating the social safety net back home, we have a documentary called The Reagan Show. (Why will there continue to be more critics who champion Succession or Ambulance rather than going to bat over and over again for Days or Memoria? It’s more fun! Why be ashamed of loving so-called low-culture if you can emphasize it at the expense of seriously meaningful art?) Over and over again this documentary calls attention to the obvious connection between silver screen veteran Reagan and small screen veteran Trump, but what it never has an answer for is why the totally transparent crap both of those men did worked no matter how many times it got called out. When conservative idealist Nate Hochman went on Know Your Enemy a while ago, he said something about the Trump-style conservatives weren’t “serious,” which I think one could cynically read as his attempt to give cover for people like Trump, Bannon, etc., I was actually struck by how earnest hew as when he said it. Being unserious is the gravest sin that Hochman can imagine, just as it’s the charge that Velez and Pettengill stick Reagan with throughout the doc. Does it matter if they weren’t sufficiently serious if they were like, the most powerful men in the world?
- The Bridge / 2006, dir. Eric Steel
- The Polka King / 2017, dir. Maya Forbes
Why did I watch The Bridge on Valentine’s Day? Because I wasn’t going to watch Cannibal Holocaust.
The Bridge is a controversial film, and if you want to skip right over this piece and head to the part where I talk about Jack Black in a biopic about a polka Ponzi scheme, I hope you will. I’m not going to act like Eric Steel did everything right when he made this movie, and if you want to look at the pretty sizable list of unethical things he did in making this film, it’s just a Google search away. This isn’t a great documentary. It is a hell of a lot better than Dear Zachary, a documentary which I think is way more unethical than this one but also has a similar reputation as tough to sit through and more than a little controversial. The flaws of The Bridge as an isolated text have more to do with relying on some filler images as transitions, or in its decision to use Gene Sprague as a bookend rather than telling his story straight through as it does for other people who died by suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. What makes The Bridge worth watching is a striking quality, a way of thinking that people frequently talk about and that you rarely find: cognitive dissonance. When you watch Kevin Hines give his testimony, when you hear him tell the story of how he sobbed his way via public transit to the bridge before finally jumping off and then immediately deciding he wanted to live, it’s impossible not to be moved. Hines decided that life was too precious to give up on, and so by a mixture of movement and luck, it sounds like, he managed to survive the jump. Hines is right, just as Hale was right in The Crucible when he said that life was God’s most precious gift and that no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it. But I also wonder if the people who chose to die by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge were right as well, and the film (maybe it’s libertarianism, maybe it’s galaxy brained humanism, I don’t know) believes that the ability to choose what happens to oneself is sacred. If I knew someone was minutes away from trying to die, I would do what I could to stop them. (The most haunting part of this movie isn’t watching people throw themselves from a bridge so they can hit the water at 120 miles per hour. It’s watching people walk past other people on the wrong side of the railing who are clearly tormented.) On the other hand, there is a small, strident, and sad part of me that believes that we have a right to control our bodies.
And now, for something completely different. I really enjoyed The Polka King, a biopic that is a little too straitlaced a biopic to be challenging or compelling as art, but which is really tender about its characters. Jan Lewan is a people-pleaser who wants to get rich and be adored as a Grammy-nominated(!) polka bandleader, and the way the movie tells his story, it’s this combination of gentle avarice and a belief that bribes can fix anything which gets him in so much trouble. I’ve been given to understand that the documentary this is based on is worthy of one’s time, but in its absence—it seems like it should be on YouTube but I didn’t see it there—this works well enough. The best part of this movie is Jack Black, who is quietly, largely on Netflix, carving out a space for himself as one of the better biographical interpreters we have. Weirdo criminals in Bernie and The Polka King are not really like each other. The gay Texan evangelical funeral home employee who closed his gold mine for good by murdering the old woman who supported him doesn’t really have a lot in common with the Polish immigrant in northeastern Pennsylvania who has a million failing businesses and one very successful Ponzi scheme. In both cases, Black brings sympathy to both men that doesn’t feel unwarranted no matter what kind of ugly things they did. In The Polka King, Jan is endlessly friendly, knows that what he’s doing is wrong, wants to support his wife when she gets down on herself, and rejoices when he gets arrested because he thinks it’s a sign that God is trading Jan’s freedom for his son’s recovery in a terrible bus accident. There’s so much kindness in this movie that I’m inclined to overlook how many narrative shortcuts it takes.