Picks: Average Fare
Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia. Dir. Ben Strout. The documentary covers the “Winter War” between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939. After the Germans invaded Poland, it was Finland’s turn in 1939. Two million Russians advanced against 300,000 Finns. The leader of the Finns was Mannerheim, 72, a hero from WWI. The war was supposed to take two weeks—and instead the battle lasted 105 days. The documentary does provide information about this war I did not know about. Much of it explained the brilliant guerilla tactics of the vastly outnumbered Finns. We in America have lost touch with what it means to be an invaded country or an invading army. We can learn much from the stories of others. Having said this, I was less impressed with the quality of the filmmaking. Documentaries are really not about sharing information; they need to bring characters and events to life, strike a mood, provide innovative techniques, and shake us to our cores like any fictional film should. I learned a great deal—but I was not moved by the film.
Invincible. Dir. Ericson Core. I suppose this film is worth seeing just to see Mark Wahlberg gives a good performance. I give him a lot of credit—he is watchable, likeable, and entertaining. But this film never rises above mediocrity to make me believe in his character or anybody else’s character. For starters, I have never seen rougher sandlot football games; it seemed that every hit was magnified 20 times. It was as if they hired the sound man that did the punches for Raging Bull. The quality of the football camp scenes and then the scenes of actual games were also undermined by the use of over-the-top sound effects. Overall, this film was a semi-realistic look at working-class men and woman. Reality in films is always a version of reality, after all. Not even a documentary captures the real world. But in this film there were numerous shortcuts taken to make us feel that we were watching the real world. We had the South Philly characters, the run-down neighborhoods, the watering holes. But the negativity and real desperation of this working-class life never came through. I can see why people love the idea of the film, though. It’s like Rudy, the little guy that makes some impact in a world that is literally beyond him. Who could imagine a working-class guy making an NFL team, after all? So viewers already have an interest in the story—and to think, it was based on the life of the real Vincent Papale. Another shortcut: we learn that Vince’s wife walked out on him—and in the next scene he meets a cute bartender who will supply the love interest for the rest of the film. How nice. And then his workout under the new Eagles head coach. He is nothing short of phenomenal. It was like watching an early program in American Idol; we have to sit through all the horrible talent, and then the one flower among weeds pops up. It was a bit over-the-top. The film emphasizes the myth of the American individual, an Army of One, a man who can Be All He Can Be, the hero, the last man standing! Aughgh! I am so sick of that mythology. I wonder what the real Vincent Papale was all about? When this film ends, we see actual footage of the real Vincent Papale causing a fumble (but not recovering it)—and the though occurred to me, why not make a documentary (like Seabiscuit) of the Vincent Papale story. We have archival footage. We have footage of the old South Philly neighborhood. Vince is still alive. Why not make a non-fiction film? Well, the answer is obvious. You can make a lot more money if you fictionalize and mythologize the story and have an actor like Mark Wahlberg play the hero. The film tries hard, real hard, to make us understand that Vince is the hero for so many others whose dreams have died. The film practically hits us over the head with that message. Early in the film, it seemed that the structure was a series of one-to-one dramatic encounters—and the most significant were the ones between Vince and his father, who at first seems to not want Vince to get his hopes up, but later clarifies his feelings by saying, “When I told you not to get your hopes up, that didn’t mean I wasn’t.” So when he makes the cut (thanks to the coach’s personal decision), celebrations erupt. The great American watering hole, the local bar, is crowded with neighbors that affirm Vince’s achievement. Another pattern I noticed: the film thrives on shots of Vince just sitting somewhere, deep in thought, perhaps going through one of his many dark nights of the soul, as if those images of him are enough to validate his struggles and doubts and eventual triumph. And what does it take for him to realize what he has accomplished? A nice sentimental gimmick: he spots a neighborhood kid wearing a home-made jersey with his number on it. There were so many dark nights of the soul for this guy—one after the other. And then there is the one where he returns to play sandlot football with his friends, which is an obvious ploy to make us think of loyalty as the ultimate value in all relationships—a kind of tribal loyalty that plays false when you consider that people do move beyond the neighborhood and stake out new lives in the hinterlands. Maybe Vince should have thought about Thomas Wolfe’s great saying, “You can’t go home again.” But in the world of this film, the appeal is to certain American values about being true to your roots and to your people and to the neighborhood. Don’t be too smug about your talents. Stay within the sphere of the old world, the old tribe. Clearly these values clash with the values of leaving the neighborhood, finding new roots, becoming part of a wider tribe (or community). And as in all average films, the key moment, the climax, is telegraphed to the audience so that everyone knows before it happens what will happen. I suppose that “keep it simple, stupid,” is the mantra for that kind of visual trick. All in all, I keep thinking of the real Vincent Papale, and I realize that I did not meet him once in this film. I met a fantasy of Vincent Papale in this Hollywood film.
The Last Kiss. Dir. Tony Goldwyn. For some reason I was reminded of The Graduate (1967) as I watched this film. I have always thought of that film fondly, and I showed it many times in my intro film class—usually as the first film students viewed. That film got the alienation of young people just right. But this is a different era now. In The Graduate Ben had no close male-to-male relationships. In these days young men, just as young women, have many close same-sex friendships. But the problem for me (a loner child of the 1970s) is that I was bored by the male friendships. So I was not entirely moved when the main character Michael, played by Zack Braff, suddenly finds himself in a moral conundrum, apparently engaged (and thus—in the old parlance—taken), and yet flirting shamelessly with a young woman he meets at the wedding of one of his male friends. “Everyone I know is having a crisis,” he says. He tells the young woman his entire life feels planned out. No more surprises. (Flash: The Graduate!) As the crises and turmoil mounted, I couldn’t help but think, “These are a bunch of 29-year-old yuppies who are freaked out by the aging process!” (I have to admit a guilty pleasure—of enjoying scenes filmed on and around the University of Madison campus—since I am an alumnus of the Madison campus.) Oh, everyone, 29-year-olds as well as older adults, all are having emotional crises in this film. I really did not feel sorry for these people. I had the sense that much of their angst was screenplay-manufactured-Hollywood-conventions kinds of crises. For instance, when Michael’s new girl friend’s mother barges into her husband’s office and announces, “I fucked another man and it was 3 years ago!” Then one of the male friends suffers a sudden loss (death of his father)—another forced plot point—and that leads to Michael not showing up for the funeral visitation because he is out on a hot date with the mystery girl he met at the wedding. Of course, his fiancée is at the visitation. But where’s Michael? The more I watched Michael’s self-entrapment, the less I felt any sympathy for him. Where is it written that a man has the right to put one relationship on the back burner while he scrutinizes his navel and tries to figure out what is right for him in this world? Why not simply make a clean break, a tough decision, and get away from both women so that he can clear his head? But this film has a different formula—a kind of post-modern formula that says a guy like Michael can screw up his life in the worst way and still be admitted into the house as long as he stays on the porch night after night and shows the woman he really loves that he is sorry. I guess I would say the ending did work for me to some extent. I also appreciated the wisdom of parents that was sprung upon us near the end of the film (after they got their own acts together).
Lonesome Jim. Dir. Steve Buscemi. Quite simply this was a film about a young man suffering from major depression. That does not necessarily mean a film will be good or bad; all I can is that I never warmed to the main character, setting, other characters, the whole set-up. Jim has an older brother who tells him, “I’m a fuck-up, but you’re a tragedy.” But then the brother lands in a coma after his car is hit by a train. Plot happens, right? That’s the problem for me—because when plot becomes detached from characters, I am not drawn into the lives of these characters. So the depressed brother suddenly is needed. He has also found a girl friend by this time, and did I mention that he goes to work in a factory (to please his father) and that his uncle is selling drugs along with the candy bars Mom sells there. So think about this: plot is all over the place. And plot, devised this way, is going to spring more plot twists until all is revealed by the end—and yet I won’t really care. Later, it’s revealed that his girl friend has a boy. So add that to the list of plot strands. Eventually I realized that not only is the character depressed, he suffers from anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. I got tired of his chronic despair after awhile. He was quite a project. The ending of the film redeemed the overall experience to some extent. A great line from the girl friend’s son—“I thought you never ran”—was perfect in its place. Perhaps I needed to feel some connection to Jim earlier in the film. But I did not—and so watching the film was a belabored experience for me.