Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cruise Control Freak: On Almost 35 Years of Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, now in theatres.

Tom Cruise is the spirit of the 1980s incarnate. This is not necessarily a good thing, unless you’re the kind of person who voted for Ronald Reagan twice and would have jumped at the chance to do it a third time. The ‘70s and ’60s produced a number of movie stars who cultivated images as rebels or outsiders who, one way or another, were unable to make peace with authority and at odds with the status quo. But so did the patriotic ‘40s and the bland, gray-flannel-suit ‘50s; maybe it spoke well of the general mental health and confidence level of Americans of that time that the culture was able to accommodate Brando and Bogart and John Garfield and James Dean alongside such uncomplicated hero figures as Charlton Heston, John Wayne, and Rock Hudson. (Nowadays, Film Studies majors will happily step up to explain that the rock-ribbed all-American types were dizzyingly complicated figures themselves, from Wayne the psychotic racist hero of The Searchers to the closeted gay man Rock Hudson playing all those characters who were defined by the lust they inspired in Douglas Sirk heroines and Doris Day, but that is definitely not how either their fans or the stars themselves saw them at the time.)

In the ‘80s, a lot of Americans felt so disoriented and dispirited over the changes the country had gone through that they wanted to believe in a return to a nonexistent time when Leave It to Beaver was reality TV. The desire must have been very strong, because there are people who, ten years after Reagan’s death, still honor his memory by talking about the president who turned the national debt radioactive and sold arms to Iran as part of a secret, illegal foreign policy strategy as a straight shooter who kept the purse strings tight and never deigned to negotiate with rogue nations. It was in this cultural climate that Cruise, along with Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone, became the biggest box-office draws of the decade by making movies in which they won. It didn’t matter that much what they won; the movies were pure, abstract celebrations of winning, of being top dog, pure and simple, and although the movies tried to adhere to the genre convention that winners win after overcoming great odds, Murphy, in particular, seemed very impatient with maintaining the pretense that anyone could ever stop him from winning or might even briefly keep up with him in a battle of wits. (Stallone, a wizened veteran compared to the other two, had become a star via a movie, Rocky, in which his character “won” something—self-respect, his manhood, the love of a good woman, like that—by losing a big boxing match. If Stallone was once tolerant of anything less than winning 100%, he got over it. Released late in November 1976, after Jimmy Carter was elected president but before he took office, Rocky is a transitional film; it has one foot in the ‘70s and one in the moment before the ‘80s began but after Americans had started to feel that it had had enough bitter post-imperial self-reflection to do it for awhile.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Return to Greatness: Al Pacino in Manglehorn

As the title character in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, a lonely, irascible locksmith in a small Texas city, Al Pacino gives a display of battered grandeur. After too many years of outsize, hammy acting, usually in movies unworthy of his gifts (including the one that finally won him an Oscar, Scent of a Woman in 1992), Pacino has lately returned, somewhat mysteriously, to the understated style, dense with turbulent, conflicted feeling, that placed him at the top of his generation in The Godfather I and II and Scarecrow. I’ve sometimes enjoyed the coarse, ranting, kinetic Pacino that replaced his early deep-dyed Method persona – certainly in Dog Day Afternoon, which he was magnificent in, and also in Sea of Love and Carlito’s Way and City Hall – and I’ve loved him on stage as Shylock (a role he’d botched earlier on screen) and O’Neill’s Hughie and Teach in American Buffalo. But his work in The Humbling and now in Manglehorn has a mournfulness and contemplativeness that take us back to Michael Corleone but have deepened with age and are responsive in new ways (ironic humor in The Humbling, solitariness and haunted nostalgia and sudden, unpredictable bursts of anger) to the unremitting presence of adversity. Though their styles are widely different, what Pacino pulls off in these pictures reminds me of Burt Lancaster’s accomplishments in his late sixties, in movies like Atlantic City and Cattle Annie and Little Britches. (Pacino turned seventy-five this year.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Swingin’ Sixties: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Photo by Daniel Smith, Warner Bros. Pictures)

The bar for espionage antics in 2015 has been raised unreasonably high by Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force, so I wasn’t sure at all that an old-fashioned Cold War caper like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could even compete. Sure, it was the first film by Guy Ritchie since his Robert Downey Jr-led Sherlock Holmes sequel, A Game of Shadows, and sure, the trailer promised a heaping helping of old-school charm and mid-60s mod fashion. But is that enough to put it in the ring with what is, in my opinion, the best action spy thriller in recent memory?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sweet Charity: Manhattan Waif

Julie Martell (centre) with the cast of Sweet Charity, at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo by David Cooper)

The 1966 musical Sweet Charity is built around a debased modern version of a fairy-tale heroine, an eternally optimistic New York taxi dancer who falls for men who invariably let her down. The book, which Neil Simon based on the great Fellini movie Nights of Cabiria, employs the Manhattan setting to localize Charity’s story, just as Fellini made use of Rome; one episode, where Charity, in the right place at the right time, finds herself on an improbable date with a dishy Italian superstar who’s just quarreled with his paramour, is straight out of the film. But Simon and the songwriters, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and the director-choreographer, Bob Fosse – who conceived the project as a vehicle for his frequent muse and one-time wife Gwen Verdon, a magnificent show dancer with an endearing cracked voice full of burgundy bubbles – softened the narrative. Cabiria (played, unforgettably, by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina), is a hooker who pictures herself living out the last act of a romance; the first man who treats her like a lady, Oscar (François Périer), turns out to be a thief who swindles her out of her life savings. (One of Fellini’s coups is the way he uses a pair of props, a cigarette and a pair of shades, to suggest a sinister side to Oscar moments before Cabiria intuits his true intentions.) In the musical, Oscar is a timid, earnest fellow Charity connects with when they’re trapped in an elevator together; their courtship takes them all over the city, including a hippie church and Coney Island).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Racism in Alive in America: Part Two

Part One of this piece appeared on Critics at Large on Sunday, August 16.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
                                                   ― William Faulkner

Jim Grimsley's contention that “We reserve our special ideological fury for blackness” suffuses Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If the tone in most of Grimsley’s How I Shed My Skin is a gentle wistfulness, the mood that percolates throughout Between the World is one of anger, desperation and fear, punctuated by flashes of love for his teenage son, Samori. Coates, the author of the memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, has written in the form of a letter to his son about what it means to be a black man in America today. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.” The violence to which Coates refers encompasses slavery, the terror of Jim Crow, and police brutality right up to the present moment, much of it covered by Grimsley. But Coates’ prose has a much more personal edginess to it as he has internalized and lived that history. The power of his writing in part derives from his capacity to dissolve the distinctions between the past and the present where one seamlessly flows into the other. Read the lyrical passages in Between the World and Me where he urges his son to not only respect all other living human beings but also to extend it to individuals once enslaved.

Coates insists that no amount of false morality about “personal responsibility” on the part of African Americans can shield them from lethal violence. Right from the outset when he attempts to help Samori grapple with his feelings after the police officer in Ferguson who killed Michael Brown was not indicted, Coates refuses to comfort his son or the white reader for whom this book is really intended, with “praise anthems [or] old Negro spirituals.” “There is no uplifting way” to tell the hard realities about brutality in America. Instead of bromides about racial progress, he can only offer the need for struggle, as he sets out to explore the question of how to “live free in this black body” when “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.” As a result of his own life experiences, he believed he was in a war “for the possession of his body, and this would be the war of his whole life.” This is not a book for those whose only touchstone for improving race relations is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or for anyone who wants to see America through the prism of what Coates calls the “Dream” of “perfect houses with nice lawns.”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Lesson in Tedium: The Kindergarten Teacher

Avi Shnaidman (left) and Sarit Larry in The Kindergarten Teacher.

Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher is an atypical Israeli film, reminding one more of the lugubrious films of the late filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) and Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist) than of the fine and realistic cinema (Walk on Water, Broken Wings, Yossi) one is used to seeing from that country. It’s a heavy-handed drama that purports to be more than it actually is, one that's sorely taxing to sit through.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Neglected Gem #81: Starting Out in the Evening (2007)

Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening (2007).

Brian Morton’s novels – The Dylanist, Starting Out in the Evening, A Window Across the River, Breakable You, and his most recent, Florence Gordon – are small-scale and elliptical but they pierce you to the heart. There isn’t a character or an episode in any of them that doesn’t feel completely imagined, as if he were writing only about people he’s met and situations he’s experienced at first hand or observed acutely and then felt his way through, so the voice is always utterly fresh. The only one I found unsatisfying was the third, Window Across the River, because it had the impression of incompleteness – notes for a novel. But I thought that perhaps he hadn’t added the parts he wasn’t absolutely sure of, and he refused to phony up an ending. Morton doesn’t stint on emotion: you always get the sense that you’re encountering the characters naked. His novels remind me of some of the movies from the early seventies I love, allusive, personal movies like Loving, Blume in Love, Thieves Like Us and The Last Picture Show and the best parts of Up the Sandbox and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which capture experiences no one seems to have dramatized before or at least not quite in that way.