Picks: Average Fare
Night People. UK. Dir. Adrian Mead, 2005. This film left me feeling unfulfilled. The plot was based entirely on relationships—creating a number of separate storylines. We have the father and daughter, a young boy and a stranger, a priest and a young woman, a mother and her daughter. The action takes place on Halloween in Edinburgh, and to me the film was filled with mediocre people, some of them losers, and no one breaking out of his or her rut. The father has found a dog, and he wants to sell it because he needs money. The young boy who runs away from home appears to want to become a male prostitute—and some of his scenes are the most tense in the film. The priest whose faith is being tested is one of the weakest characters, and his relationship with the young woman hiding in the church goes nowhere. His breakthrough moment is trite and poorly acted. The mother, a cabbie, is forced to take her child along with her on her night ride—and it appears that she is with friends who are planning a robbery. I began to think this material would have worked better on the stage. It was presented rather statically in this film version. One of the most interesting characters was an old man (who interacts with the cabbie) carrying his partner’s ashes to the river—when we had suspected he wanted to commit suicide. He tells her, “/If you want to live your own life—or life your own way-you have to make compromises.” Okay—makes sense to me. But this line, as many others, did not really move me as I watched the film. All is sweetly reconciled, and so it goes.
Sweet Land. Dir. Ali Selim. This film just didn’t work for me. It viewed its characters through a lens of sentimentality. We never really came to know these characters in any revealing way. One of the main characters, a minister, is at first a narrow-minded bigoted man, then a friend and supporter of the young couple he earlier rejected, and then later an enemy of this couple. But there is no clear explanation for his whip-saw changes of heart. An early scene, showing a beautiful young immigrant woman arriving in Minnesota during WWI, and meeting another immigrant woman in the train station, goes on forever and lacks a clear payoff. Then the two guys arrive, one talkative, one shy, and this interaction goes on forever and leads to a wedding being cancelled because the beautiful young woman is a German national, and we are going to be at war with Germany before very long. The loquacious young man, someone we glinted briefly as an old man in a frame technique scene near the beginning of the film, is portrayed as a man ¾ dreamer and ¼ farmer, happily married with a large family. So I got the point that the beautiful young woman is an outsider in this community, and that the big lunk of a man who sent for her to become his bride, is a Norwegian bull of a farmer and yet a babe in the woods when it comes to understanding the human heart. So what’s supposed to happen here? Everyone in the world knows that she will have to break down the walls of his heart and that they will be a perfect love match after all—once he gets used to some open displays of affection. But instead of this happening in good time, the film plays on the audience’s expectations and does not deliver the goods until the end of the film—and even then does not really offer full disclosure of what we expected to see. As I watched the flower slowly and slowly unfold, all I could think of was, “It’s tiring that the set-up is taking so long to play itself out.” Now the rest of the film becomes a collection of scenes that are in and of themselves sometimes interesting, but do not really advance the focus of the screenplay (their unfolding relationship) with any sense of dispatch. In effect, these scenes are diversions away from the main plot. For example, in one scene the minister criticizes the couple—in the middle of a church service—for living in sin. But this same minister was kind and affirming to them in an earlier scene, after being narrow-minded in another scene even earlier in the film. The problem with a film like this is that there are no villains—there are only stupid people who seem to be motivated by whatever is required of them in a particular scene. They are not consistent characters; they simply serve the plot. Finally, we have the bonding scenes between the young couple (she sleeps in the house—he in the barn—by no means “living in sin”), and then the payoff of the bonding is another diversion to a subplot focused on the talkative friend of the Norwegian farmer. After a replay of the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life, we finally get to the moment of truth—and even here the screenplay pulls back and does not satisfy us. A much better film about two very different people falling in love in a rurual context is the Swedish film Under the Sun (1998). Now I know the story Sweet Land was based upon—Will Weaver’s “A Gravestone of Wheat” (1989)—and I can see how it could inspire a feature-length film. But it seemed to me that the climax of that story was much bolder and unexpected than the climax of this film—which ended with the frame technique coming in to bring us up to date with how the death of an old farm woman affects her family. By the time I got to the end of the film, I had already made up my mind about it. You picks your number—and you takes your chance.
World Trade Center. Dir. Oliver Stone. Something about this film bothered me. The first 25 minutes of the film were a fair introduction to the story of September 11, 2001, shown from the point of view of two Port Authority policemen. The two main characters are a tough middle-aged sergeant, played by Nicolas Cage, and a young cop played by Michael Peña. Now both actors are playing real officers who were rescued from the ruins of Tower 2. Those first 25 minutes often were compelling. We all knew what was going to happen—but the screenplay kept us interested, and most of the action was a basic point of view / reaction shot technique. We saw what was happening through their eyes (and the point of view of fellow officers), and this part of the film worked. Then came the collapse of the tower, and for the next 10 minutes we were underground with the two main characters and one other survivor from the group. We could barely see the characters, and the two main characters John (the sergeant) and Wil, were unable to free themselves from the debris. During these scenes I realized that this was going to be a different film from what it could have become. Instead of recreating the events of that day, akin to the way they unfolded on the major television networks on September 11 and following days, this was going to be a film about the two survivors, trapped underground, and their inevitable rescue. So in that respect this was not really a film about the World Trade Center. This film wanted to celebrate a happy ending in order to counter the despair of that real day in our history. After 10 minutes underground, Stone uses a tracking shot as the camera moves upward through the debris until it reaches the top. Then the technique runs amok with a monster crane shot looking down on some of the debris (including sections made iconic based on television newscasts and the President’s visit to the site); and then the crane shot zooms back until suddenly we are looking straight down at Manhattan Island and can see the plumes of smoke moving away as if peering down from a jet liner. All this complemented by the violins, of course. Then we get a 2-minute montage of world reaction to the terrorist act and for some reason end up in a diner in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where a cop looks up at the television set and says, “Bastards!” I get the feeling that this is a film that was constructed. I’ve already summed up the first three segments; and now the next segment begins by introducing the wives of John and Will as they try to get information about their spouses. First we meet Will’s wife, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and then we meet John’s wife, played by Maria Bello. In these two scenes we see through their eyes the details of the towers’ collapse shown on television. But now the entire film has come down to the idea of two Timmys trapped in a well. Will they get them out in time? One of the decisions that was least effective was to introduce a new character at 45 minutes into the film—and even worse, introduce a character who wears his patriotism on his sleeve. The scene cuts to an office building in Connecticut, where several people are gathered around a television set. One of them watches as President Bush talks about the way the resolve of our nation will be tested. Under his image is the banner, “Bush vows to ‘hunt down’ those responsible for attacks.’” Then that same man leaves the office, suddenly shows up at a church, and conveniently has a conversation with the minister, and tells him that God has given him a gift as a former Marine—the gift of being able to defend his country. He sees this event as God giving him a mission. In other words, Stone turns away from the basic drama he has established (two men trapped, two wives worrying), and embraces the values of a right-wing nutcase who believes he has been called to go to New York City and help the emergency personnel. I think the film would have been far better if this character had never been introduced. Nothing about this guy’s scenes moved me. I suspect that Stone believed focusing on one man’s mission to help out is supposed to be inspirational. I thought the guy was creepy. But he is shown in some powerful visuals, especially the scene where he finally arrives at Ground Zero and sees some of the panels of one of the towers looming like a shrine in front of him. And what does he say at this moment: “It looks like God made a curtain from the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see.” (Now that really sounds creepy to me!) The rest of the film consists of more visits to the dark chamber where the men struggle to stay awake and console each other, to flashbacks from the points of view of the two men (and these flashbacks are idealized and sentimental), and to scenes showing the women dealing with the anxiety of not knowing. Each of these four main characters really has a thankless task as an actor. They are never given sufficient time to develop their characters (especially the women). Everything about them is surface; we never get at their depth. And irony of ironies—the creepy guy is one of two guys that finds John and Will when everyone else has been called off from the search. And what does he say when he finds them? “We’re not leaving you; we’re Marines!” If this all sounds like dialogue from a recruiting poster, then you see what my mean. In the creation of this character Stone crossed the line from verisimilitude to political theater. Please understand that I can accept a film whose mission is to celebrate the human spirit, or show a small victory in the face of a major disaster; but I cannot accept the manipulation of these events as in this film, especially the dominant expression of a right-wing ideology of hatred and revenge. Our creepy guy’s last line of dialogue? “We’re going to need some good men out there to avenge this.” Again, I can do with the healing and redemption; but I can’t do with the hatred and revenge. The film ends with a brief coda, two years later, and we see the two fallen men now able to walk again after multiple surgeries, and it’s a scene that reminded me of the beginning of Oliver Stone’s Fourth of July, a kind of new-morning in America scene, with narration by John, the sergeant, about the goodness of the American people. Well, John, there’s a lot of goodness in this world to go around. Here we are more than five years later and we’re still finding our way in the dark.