Picks: Average Fare
Saint Ralph. Dir. Michael McGowan ( Canada, 2004). I had high expectations for the film, and I was disappointed. It was pleasant enough, based—it is alleged—upon a true story of a young man who ran the Boston Marathon because he believed it might lead to a miracle and save his dying mother. The film reached that pivotal point early—when the kid declares, “Mom needs a miracle.” And then it introduces Campbell Scott as the young priest who coaches his parochial-school boys in the cross-country. But before long I realized an ominous truth: maybe this film would work with young audiences, because they would have the faith, naivete, and openness to believe in such an endeavor. After all, this boy is 14 years old. So if we look at this as a children’s film, then we see that it is almost always from the boy’s point of view—and it shows how he would deal with the problems that beset him as he prepares for the marathon. And his problems are major. His mother is hospitalized, dying of cancer, and he has convinced everyone that he is living with his grandfather (but the old man died several years before)—and the kid is trying to hold onto the house to avoid the outcome of being sent to an orphanage. Now one of the weaker elements of the film is the story of Father George (Campbell Scott). Of course, he was once a great marathon runner; naturally his religious order forbade running—so he quit. Of course, he doesn’t want to become emotionally involved with this young man’s quest; and naturally, he will end up coaching the kid and teaching him everything he knows. There’s the formula; and perhaps it works for younger audiences. But for me it was one-dimensional. Campbell Scott does an adequate job in the role, but there were few scenes that developed his character beyond the flat. There is also some comedy between Ralph and a young girl who shows some interest in him, and Ralph’s relationship to the nurse in the hospital is warm-hearted and sensitive. But the formulas prevail. Montages are played every ten minutes (or so it seemed to me) in order to keep the film moving forward—but they were not memorable. How could anyone fail to be moved, though, by the ending race scenes—as corny as they are—with the kid holding his own against the adults and coming in a close second place (hard to believe). And then there is the miracle—he gives his medal to his mother, and she comes out of the coma. The last shot is a magical one as the image of Ralph is transformed and made into a stained-glass window—now that he has become St. Ralph.
Sin City. Dir. Richard Rodriguez. I grew up reading comic books. I suppose that is one reason why I ended up studying film. But watching this film made me realize why I do not read graphic novels. There are rules to these stories:
This film has three stories filmed in four parts—one filled with sentimentality and brutality and two filled with brutality. The look of the film is a revelation. The graphic novel comes alive on the screen in the lantern-jawed characters, the tough prostitutes, the Amazons, and the creepy characters. Every frame is film-noir-ish and often has exaggerated camera angles and interesting combinations of black and white and color. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction lurks in the background as a father to this film. But too many times I felt bored by the talkiness and the repetitive actions in the film. Of the three stories, only the first complete one (actually the second one), about an ugly guy with near-superhuman powers, moved me—because its absence of sentimentality was a perfect homage to the graphic novel source. The main character was something new, something intriguing to me—and to have him terminated at the end of that segment did not seem to make sense. Ah, then there’s the ending of the sentimental tale (parts one and four of the film), with its resolution of the plot that is absurd. Maybe a film like this is not for a middle-aged man like me—maybe it’s for the 18-21 year-olds that have been raised on video games and now graphic novels and who feel constrained by the rules of the world and wish they could just be stripped down to their essential natures—and who have mistakenly been told that their essential natures are ones filled with violence and revenge fantasies. That’s not the world I want to pass on to the next generation.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Dir. Ken Kwapis. I can imagine that 13-year-old girls might enjoy this easygoing, virtuous-minded film about the enduring friendship of three young women who discover—by chance—that a pair of denim pants fits each of them perfectly, even though each has a different body shape. In some respects I was happy that the characters made no big deal out of the magical perfect-fitting pants. There was a touch of Harry Potter in these pants because the wearer seemed to have things happen to her when she wore them. But to be honest, at the end of the film I did not feel I had been taken to any magical place that I would recognize as magical. I got the moral lesson of the power of feminine friendship—but I already knew that. Nothing special was added to what is an indisputable fact—that young women bond in different ways compared to young men. I also had little difficulty with the acting of three of the young women, Alexis Bledel, Amber Tamblyn, and America Ferrera. They are competent actors, and they deserve more refined and subtle screenplays. I would dismiss the early scenes (before the characters separate) as being formulaic and having a forced intensity to the chatter among the three. When they did separate, the film seemed to revive, and I enjoyed the plot twists. I did not really believe anything I was watching. The gorgeous blonde you know is headed for trouble when she directs her wiles at the Troy Donahue look-alike. The scenes in Greece, with the character of Lena, were stereotypical all the way. Why is it that every Greek family has to be portrayed as en energized and caffeinated in the extreme? And of course the beautiful blues and whites of Greece, the sea and the whitewashed buildings. Greece has to be a travel-poster Greece. No gray days, no fog, no rain, nothing we can recognize as remotely realistic. Okay, I know it was supposed to be romantic, because that’s the requirement for reaching the young audience. Sorry about that. The Latino girl’s dilemma with her father, focused only on the members of his new family, was again terribly formulaic. I could go on, but it would not make any difference. Then there is the subplot involving the girl who stays behind—and her surprising friendship with a dying girl. A film like this lives for the plot twists and the crises that face the young women as they learn how to grow up. The music is music for young people, and the tone of the music is oppressively sentimental. Sooner or later it all boils down to the priceless virtue of the female bonds between these four—and add the girl dying from leukemia, who tells the one that stayed behind, “The pants already worked their magic. They brought me to you.” My oh my—the sentimentality is thick here. God bless the little children. Every one of the girls finds resolution, a perfect kind of resolution, either supporting each other or confronting their own demons. As I left the cinema, an older woman laughed and said to me, “You have a lot of courage. You were the only man in the theater.” My response was simple: “I like movies.” And this one, like so many films made for young people, gives them exactly what they want to see, truths they would like to believe in. Beneath it all there are truths to believe in, but on the surface what you have is mush.
Tell Them Who You Are. Dir. Mark Wexler. Imagine being Haskell Wexler’s son. Wexler was an award-winning director of photography of many great films from the 1960s and 1970s, and he was the director of Medium Cool, one of the few films I ever walked out of in the theater back in my formative years. His son Mark has grown up and become a filmmaker himself; but he works for the Republicans, whereas his father was a member of the Old Left. Now the son has the idea to make a documentary about his father, and I came away disappointed and uninspired. I was excited about learning more about Haskell Wexler, but his son’s portrait is nothing if not unflattering. Every direct cinema scene in the film reveals that the father is a boorish, self-centered, abusive, and unloving SOB. In one interview scene, the father explodes, “What’s important is me—and what this day meant to me!” In another scene the son implores him to sign a release. “You’ve got to trust me!” But he won’t sign. (By the way, after he finally did watch the finished film, he signed the release.)
What disappointed me was the limited number of revelations about this man and his relationship with his son. Throughout most of the film, Wexler does not appear to understand that he is the subject of his son’s documentary. Everything about the father-son relationship is competition. Haskell is not going to share any of his secrets with his son. In one scene, when Haskell is unaware the audio is still on, we hear him say, “The key thing is that he has to be better than me.” What is that supposed to mean? Nothing the son has ever done appears to please the father. Haskell rankles at his son’s support of the Republicans—and Bush in particular. His sympathies lie with the oppressed—the Cubans, the Vietnamese, Hollywood technicians, the Sandinistas.
Only one scene really stands out to me. Haskell admits that he cheated on his wife regularly when he was a younger man. Now he is divorced after being married for 30 years. But we never see his wife (and Mark’s mother) until late in the film, when they visit a nursing home where she is a resident. She is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. She is expressionless. Haskell talks about the old days in Wilmette, IL. He looks sad. He cries. “We’ve got secrets,” he says. “We know things about each other—.” She nods, “I know.” And he finishes, “—that nobody else would know.” Such a moment of intimacy. But there were no such moments between father and son. For many years Haskell worked with the great director of photography Conrad Hall. It is apparent that Mark wishes his father had been Conrad Hall. Now Hall is dying from cancer, and he is gone at the age of 76. Mark films a scene at the funeral, and he listens to his father’s advice on how to get a better shot.
An Unfinished Life. Dir. Lasse Hallstrom. To get through this film, I had to suffer through another sub-par performance by Jennifer Lopez. Sorry, but this woman has only a limited register of acting responses. She speaks in a thin teenaged-girl’s whisper of a voice, and I never believed for a minute that she was an abused woman trying to survive and raise her girl at the same time. Then there is the stereotype of the two rugged old men, played by Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. Let me also say that whatever Morgan Freeman plays seems to work. He has a wide register of voices and gestures in his acting repertoire. He centers the film and makes the other characters play off of him. My major concern about the film was that the wrong story was being told. Why pay attention to an embittered old white man living in an isolated Wyoming valley on the old farm and still visiting his son’s grave up on the hillside after 12 years? I’m sorry—but by this time this old man would have gotten over the death of his son—or I would have known that why he had not! But no insight was forthcoming as to why he was still locked up with grief and rage at what happened to his darling son. Now there is another story being told in the film—and that is the obvious secondary plot about Jennifer Lopez and her daughter. She is the old man’s estranged daughter-in-law. Now let me guess. He will be healed through his interaction with the granddaughter. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? But there is a third story being told in the film—and that is the story that should have been the main plot of this film. It’s a story about an old black man who is mauled by a bear, and how he comes to terms with that traumatic event. That was the story I think should have been front and center. For the life of me, I can’t see why we needed the daughter-in-law or the granddaughter. But I suppose if the film were only about the longstanding friendship between two old men, then how would you market the product? Why would anyone want to see a film about an old man who gets over his mauling by the bear—and perhaps helps his friend forgive himself for being the cause of the mauling. But to me, there are truths in that story that could be mined in the screenplay and by the actors drawing out the story in the screenplay. The first step to improving this film would have been to drop the daughter-in-law. Get her out of the picture—even if only temporarily—and perhaps drop the kid in between the two old men. Give me more Morgan Freeman, less Robert Redford, and no Jennifer Lopez. Then I would have been happy.