Category Archives: 2000s

Doubt (2008)

*. It’s not always a good thing when a movie takes you somewhere you’re not expecting. A good example is Doubt, which I thought was building up to the ironic reveal that young Jimmy Hurley — the stand-in for writer-director John Patrick Shanley — was the one actually being abused by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But, and here’s an anti-spoiler alert, that’s not what happens. Which is a pity, because I think that would have made for a much more interesting twist than the ending we do get, which is unexpectedly weak.
*. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has her doubts. Maybe not so much about Father Flynn, but about the Church and the winds of change that are roaring through it, knocking down branches and elderly nuns. As a theme, this is less than I was expecting, and I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed. Peter Bradshaw found Streep’s final speech “stagey” (not the word I’d use) and “beyond absurdity.” He also thought the movie as a whole “a terminally muddled piece of star-studded Oscar-bait.”
*. At least the Oscar-bait part was true enough. Doubt received five nominations total, four of them in acting categories. Didn’t win any though.

*. Critics were divided into those who saw it merely as Oscar-bait and those who, well, took that bait. I put myself more in the former category. The acting was nothing special. Streep’s Bronx Irish accent comes and goes. Hoffman doesn’t suggest any hidden depths. Amy Adams is too innocent.
*. Viola Davis is good, but mainly because she’s given the one really good scene (it’s her only scene) to work with. It opens a window, however briefly, on a moment of profound moral ambiguity. She gives us a far more authentic character than Streep’s caricature, but at the end of the day she’s only a bit player in the drama.
*. Produced by Miramax and Scott Rudin Productions. Hm. Hollywood is an ironic place.

*. Based on Shanley’s play of the same name (or near enough, Doubt: A Parable), so of course it’s talky. And shot by Roger Deakins so it looks swell. But it just doesn’t engage as much as it should. Except for Davis’s Mrs. Miller there are no depths here to be plumbed. I’ve said how Sister Aloysius is a caricature and I would have liked more on the question of whether she’s a shepherd or a cat hunting a mouse. Father Flynn is shuffled off stage, which seems a repetition of historical errors made by the Church. Shanley doesn’t want us to judge him, so makes judgment impossible. Indeed, we can’t even judge Streep’s suspicious mind. The children are voiceless.
*. You can’t see this as a movie that has anything to say about the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse. Instead it’s a movie that, I think, is about questioning authority. Except it doesn’t seem to want to go there either. I’m not sure where it does want to go. There are glimmers of a better movie here but they remain roads not taken. You can only play ambiguity, or doubt, for so long before you have to offer something more. I honestly left this movie having no idea about how Shanley felt about any of this, aside from his nostalgic affection for Sister James. That doesn’t seem like a strong hook to hang such a story from.

Scotland, Pa (2001)

*. There is a Scotland in Pennsylvania, which is where this film is nominally set. It was actually filmed in New Scotland (Nova Scotia, Canada) though. Funny how those things work out.
*. Shakespeare has, of course, been adapted to all kinds of different settings. Macbeth has gone to Japan (Throne of Blood) and the mean streets (Joe MacBeth, Men of Respect). So setting the story in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1970s, with Joe McBeth and his wife taking over a fast-food joint, isn’t that far out of step. Turn the witches into stoner hippies and make Macduff a detective looking into the murder of Duncan and we can feel like we’re on familiar ground.
*. Even the noir angle, which recalls The Postman Always Rings Twice as much as Shakespeare, isn’t a stretch. Macbeth is a crime story, after all.
*. What is new here, at least it seems new to me, is playing the tragedy as farce. This doesn’t often happen. The only other instance I can think of is Strange Brew, but in that case the connection to Hamlet was tenuous to begin with. I wonder why this is. I don’t think it’s because filmmakers see Shakespeare as any kind of sacred cow. Maybe it’s just that no one has found a way to make it work.
*. Scotland, Pa sort of makes it work. The new restaurant McBeth’s is obviously McDonald’s, which also explains how all the Macs in the play have turned into Mcs here. In setting up a drive-through, Joe “Mac” McBeth is showing the kind of entrepreneurial chops that his namesake showed on the battlefield. As played by James LeGros (or Le Gros, I’m not sure which he prefers) he has commanding presence and a shaggy charm, even if we’re not convinced he’s the sharpest knife in the kitchen. Meanwhile, his wife Maura Tierney (actually director Billy Morrissette’s wife at the time) is all lean hunger. We can imagine them going on to establish an empire. If not for the fuzz.
*. The detective McDuff is something new, and a character who I think must have been dead on the page before Christopher Walken stepped into the role. Walken takes over as he always does, and the only thing I was disappointed by was the lack of more back-and-forth between him and Tierney. That might have been fun. But the script settles for being clever instead of smart and we never see them go at it. A shame, because the rest of the town seems far too dull for the two of them.
*. Then again, maybe that was Shakespeare’s point as well. That the normal world doesn’t have any place for those with such excessive ambition. Better to follow modest dreams, like playing in a bar band or starting a vegetarian restaurant (neither of which seem likely to be successful).
*. A fun little movie. For once the retro soundtrack felt right, and I was singing along happily with “Bad Company,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Beach Baby,” and “Can’t Get Enough (Of Your Love).” Plus a bit of Beethoven’s Seventh, just because it has a way of finding itself into the strangest places. Scotland, Pa is just such a strange place, though maybe closer to Twin Peaks than the heath. It makes a neat place to visit, or just to drive through.

One Hour Photo (2002)

*. Wow. Talk about how quickly technology can change huge swathes of our everyday lives. There are young people today who I’m sure won’t remember, or even in some cases be able to imagine, a time when there were photo shops in every mall and drug store. They were the places you took your rolls of film to be developed. Some of them offered to get you prints back in an hour, which was really fast!, and at some places you could actually watch the prints as they rolled out of the machine. All gone. I honestly have no idea where I’d take a roll of film to be developed today. I’m sure there are still places that do it, but they must be real specialty shops and I wouldn’t be surprised if they cost an arm and a leg.
*. There’s only a quick nod to the coming film-extinction event when Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen mentions to Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) that she’s thinking of switching to digital and he says she shouldn’t do that because he’d be out of a job. Which puts the rest of the movie in a different perspective. Sy might as well get fired as his photo desk is about to be shut down anyway. It’s time for him to start looking for a new line of work.
*. Writer-director Mark Romanek claimed to be inspired by films from the 1970s about lonely men, most notably Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Polanski’s The Tenant, and Coppola’s The Conversation. On the DVD commentary he also mentions that Coppola saw a rough cut of this film and made some suggestions. I have to say I don’t see a lot of connection there at all. Instead, the movies I was most put in mind of were black comedies like The King of Comedy (1982) and The Cable Guy (1996). Maybe Travis Bickle was the archetype, but I think around this time the single, lonely person was becoming a less directly threatening and more absurd figure. Meanwhile, the empathy that the boy Jake here feels for Sy is a dangerous trap, not to be indulged. As messed up and dysfunctional as the Yorkin family may be, they’re still more wholesome than a single guy like Sy. He’s just a loser.

*. Williams received a lot of credit for his turn to the dark side, which he tripled down on in 2002 with his turn in Death to Smoochy and as the killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He referred to these movies as his “triptych of evil.” I think he’s good here, but nothing special. Though perhaps that’s deliberate, or a function of how restrained a movie this is. There’s no violence or gore. Williams says he was drawn to the character of Sy because he was the opposite of his own personality, and by that he meant quiet. This is a very silent movie, to the point where the manager of the SavMart has to hiss at Sy to keep his voice down, as though they’re in a library.
*. But is Sy that interesting a psycho? I don’t think so, and he has to carry the movie as the focus is on him throughout, with little attention paid to the Yorkin family. I liked his philosophizing about photos and what they mean to us (or used to mean to us), but aside from that he’s pretty shallow, even for a crazy person. It’s worth noting how impressed Nina is that he’s reading Deepak Chopra. “I had no idea you were such a deep thinker, Sy!” Well, I guess heavies can’t all be as intellectual and cultured as Hannibal.
*. Aside from Williams’s performance, what stands out the most is the look of the film. The SavMart sets the tone, being deliberately shot in an overlit, unrealistic manner that’s echoed in the blinding interrogation room. Romanek wanted something stylized but not cartoonish, as though it was the setting of a dream of the story, with a “heavenly, glowing, abundant quality.” Those perfectly arranged blocks of colour on the shelves are totally unlike anything you’ll see in a real Wal-Mart.
*. Maybe that artificial dream quality of the SavMart also plays into a couple of plot elements that bugged me. What boss fires someone in a humiliating way and then lets him finish working to the end of the week? Get your stuff and go! And why would Sy have a key to the locked cabinets in the sporting goods area? That’s not his section and as the guy running the photoshop he wouldn’t have anything to do with that part of the store.
*. Romanek also has a thing for hallways and aisles. They play a prominent visual role in the SavMart and the hotel. I wonder if The Shining was any influence here, as Jack Nicholson was apparently an early choice to play Sy and he might have thought he was at home back in the Overlook. I’m guessing the point here is that Sy is like a rat in a maze, but is that the feeling that’s evoked? I don’t feel like Sy is trapped here, perhaps in part because I feel so distant from him. When his back story is revealed at the end, in a manner so crude and perfunctory it makes the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho seem a grace note, it didn’t register with me at all.
*. One thing I did like is the suggestion of Sy as being a guy caught in his own photo album. This isn’t just the obvious things, like when he magically appears photoshopped (to make an anachronistic reference) into Yorkin family pics, but in the way the police spotlights pop up on him like flashbulbs going off, and how the window into the interview room looks like a frame for a mounted portrait.
*. A movie of a lot of dead ends. I don’t think Williams ever had any major roles after this that compared to what he’d done. Romanek seems to have had a quiet career. After this he signed on to direct The Wolfman and The Strangers but then dropped out of both projects (probably a wise move). Never Let Me Go (2010) would be his next movie and he hasn’t anything in his filmography since, instead going back to directing music videos. Nielsen played Wonder Woman’s mom. Michael Vartan had roles on several television shows.
*. But then the movie itself just sort of peters out. There’s no climax. It’s a slow burn that absolutely refuses to ignite. There’s no bite to it, unlike The Cable Guy, which is still a disturbing movie. Perhaps that’s because Chip is a scarier guy. Let’s face it, Sy isn’t very intimidating even with that giant knife. I couldn’t figure out why Will didn’t just take it away from him. But another reason might just be that we still have cable guys to harass us and we don’t have photo shops anymore.

The Stepford Wives (2004)

*. In my notes on the 1975 film of Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives I mentioned the difficulties they had in capturing the right tone. In this updated version they seem to have had less indecision about to how to play things, plumping for comedy all the way. Unfortunately, they still wound up with a picture that’s an even bigger mess.
*. “I fucked up,” was the verdict of director Frank Oz. What he meant by this wasn’t tone though so much as the size of the picture. He’d wanted to do a smaller, more intimate film, but because of the stars and the eventual budget (a surprising $90 million, apparently $15 million of which went to Nicole Kidman) he had to make it big, which led to him playing it safe. Except in doing so he ended up not playing it safe at all and ended up with the aforementioned mess.
*. By playing it safe Oz meant responding to what audiences wanted: doing everything for the audience and not following his own instincts. But audiences are fickle masters. So when the test screenings didn’t go well the ending had to be completely revamped (making it drag on far too long) and there were numerous reshoots and inserts. They also lost the scene where Joanna stabs Bobbie in the kitchen and Bobbie short circuits, which Oz says took two weeks of shooting and seven months of effects work. I’m glad they cut it — as it’s included as one of the bonus features with the DVD deleted scenes and it’s terrible — but you can bet Paramount wasn’t happy with the money wasted.
*. Oz also didn’t get along well with the cast, though he talks about all of them glowingly on his DVD commentary. The problems were, according to one person working on the film, due to the fact that Oz was used to working with puppets. I don’t know about that, but it’s obvious he didn’t get the most out of a very talented cast.
*. They should have been great: Kidman and Matthew Broderick are the modern couple. Glenn Close, a perennial villain, is the sinister matriarch. When have Bette Midler and Christopher Walken ever not been entertaining? And Roger Bart should be a caricature but is actually real and relatable. Alas, they’re all at sea here.
*. Perhaps the most obvious example of just how sloppy a project this was can be seen in the explanation of the wives. Are they robots? Well, according to an instructional video we get to watch (was Jordan Peele making notes?) they aren’t. Instead they just have nanochips set into their brains so that they can be programmed and controlled by fancy remote units. When the programs are disabled at the mainframe in the Men’s Association the women all go back to being normal. Only the women are robots too, with robot bodies that do all sorts of special mechanical tasks and perform in various superhuman ways. So which is it? The movie very clearly indicates both, and yet they can’t both be possible.
*. “And then I asked myself: Where would people never notice a town full of robots? Connecticut!” This made me wince at how old I’m getting. The fun fact is that I’ve been in Connecticut. Once. But for the life of me I can no longer remember exactly when, outside of “sometime in the 1990s,” or why I was there. I do remember visiting the Hill-Stead Museum and seeing the Monet haystack. I also recall being at a hotel and talking to one of the servers at a buffet. He told me that Connecticut was the most boring place he’d ever lived as nothing ever happened there. But what was I doing in Connecticut? I don’t have any idea now.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the 1975 version how dated it now seemed, despite its themes having as much purchase today as they did then. I could say much the same here. Maybe it’s the whole “back to the future” angle. Maybe it’s the way the CGI looks. Maybe it’s just the silliness of everything. This is a movie that really needed more of an edge. Even with that, however, it still would have been a mess.
*. It’s not the total disaster it’s widely reputed as being because the cast is unsinkable and there are some entertaining moments before it gets bogged down in an incoherent and talky climax. Still, it seems like there’s still an opportunity out there for someone to step up and do Levin’s novel justice. Whatever that might look like.

Bamboozled (2000)

*. Bamboozled doesn’t hide its debts to a storied tradition of media satire. The most obvious precursors are A Face in the Crowd and Network, but you’ll also be thinking of The Producers for its plot conceit of trying to construct a Broadway bomb and then having to deal with a hit. Then the satire is amplified with Spike Lee’s critique of the marketing of Black culture.
*. The film tanked at the box office, which isn’t that surprising. I say that not because of the subject matter or politics so much as because of the film’s oddity. Filmed, for example, on a Mini DV camcorder (which was mainly a budget decision) it has the cheap feel of video, which was thought suitable because it was about television. I think it works, but at the same time it does look rough, which probably didn’t help it find an audience. Also the star Damon Wayans is saddled with a strange accent meant to show his unsureness with his identity but which I just found off-putting.
*. I think it’s very well done, but at the same time it’s a movie that left me frustrated. I like satire that’s not afraid to show some anger, and obviously there were a list of things that had been pissing Spike Lee off and he vents on all of them here. The “wigger” Dunwiddy claiming to know Blacks better than Pierre Delacroix (Wayans). Delacroix riffing on Ving Rhames giving his Golden Globe to Jack Lemmon. The marketing of “ghetto” culture. That said, I was frustrated at trying to discern what he was targeting more generally here.
*. The basic point, made very strongly, is that there is a through line from the Black minstrel shows and today’s presentation of Black culture. But I thought Lee needed to be a lot more specific in making the argument that blackface had only become more sophisticated, that in the new millennium we were still getting the “same bullshit.” This is the same problem that bothered Roger Ebert when he interviewed Lee. Ebert wanted specifics but Lee didn’t want to give any, saying “I don’t think it does any good to say ‘Spike Lee doesn’t like this artist or that show.'” That’s fair enough, but clearly he is indicting TV shows, movies, and music and I wanted a clearer idea of what he thought was minstrel-like and what wasn’t.
*. In interviews Lee has suggested some specific examples of stuff he might have had in mind. Gangster rap, for one thing (though I’m not sure what acts in particular), also the TV shows Homeboys in Outer Space and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, and the movies The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance. But none of these are referenced, or even discernible, in Bamboozled, leaving me to wonder what the exact connection was between old minstrel shows and pop culture circa. 2000.

*. Let’s take a couple of examples. First there are the Mau Maus, the militant Black rap band headed by “Big Blak Afrika” (Mos Def). Obviously they mirror the role of the terrorist Ecumenical Liberation Army in Network, but are they meant to be seen as a twenty-first century minstrel show? The gangsta rap that Lee cited as specifically what he mean to condemn in his interview with Ebert? But Lee respects Mos Def and I don’t think he has anything against rap music. I don’t see how this fits into the satire.
*. A second instance is more incidental. At one point Delacroix is rhyming off the names of Black television comedies that we’re meant to take as fitting the minstrel stereotype and he mentions the series In Living Color. This is an in-joke because Damon Wayans (who improvised the line) was one of the stars of In Living Color. On the commentary track Lee expresses surprise that people thought he was targeting In Living Color as being a latter-day minstrel show, saying that he actually liked it.
*. So Mos Def is good, but gangsta rap, or at least some gangsta rap is bad. Black comedy of the kind you see on network television is bad, but In Living Color was actually pretty good. How can you sort this out? What is today’s minstrel culture? What are the connecting threads between Amos ‘n’ Andy and rap music? Good Times? The Cosby Show? The satirical TV commercials we get here for Bomb drink and Timmi Hillnigger urban fashion are harsh, but how big a tweak are they of Lee’s own Michael Jordan ads for Nike (“It’s gotta be the shoes”)? Was Lee a minstrel shilling for Nike? Or look at the closing montage of racist depictions of Blacks at the end of the movie. Wouldn’t it make more sense for these to be contemporary depictions? Because what’s the point of showing us clips that are fifty-plus years old in a movie like this?
*. All of this suggest to me a movie that isn’t entirely sure of itself. There’s a scene in Bamboozled that echoes a similar one in The Producers. In that movie Max and Leo tear off their Nazi armbands after meeting Franz Leibkind, throw them in the trash bit and spit on them. I don’t like that scene because it’s heavy-handed and tells us how we should really feel. In Bamboozled the complementary scene is where Delacroix is looking at images of slave ships online when his mother phones him. Again this feels too heavy, a way of poking us and saying “Are you getting this?” Did we need such a scene? Did Lee think he needed to include it? Why?
*. With all of these caveats I still liked Bamboozled. It’s very well done in ways that are both risky and effective. The editing in particular is brilliant. The way that Michael Rapaport’s Dunwitty character is both the biggest stereotype and totally believable is a score. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are both great as the new minstrel team. I really miss Damon Wayans not being given a chance to play Delacroix in a more relatable manner, as I could never get on board with his accent, but that’s the only part I balked at.
*. I had the feeling though that Lee had left something on the table. Not out of any timidity but because he wasn’t quite sure where he was going. And twenty-plus years later I’m not sure the picture has gotten any clearer with the benefit of hindsight.

In the Cut (2003)

*. I wish I could like this movie. It’s different. It takes some real chances. And David Thomson was beyond effusive in his praise of it: “It is one of the great films of the twenty-first century, and of the hundred years of film that preceded it.” But I can’t get on board. The majority of critical and public opinion got it right. It’s awful.
*. I’ll start off with what I like, which I can limit to Meg Ryan. I don’t think it’s a remarkable performance, but critics in particular tend to go over-the-top in crediting actresses who eschew glamour. Still, she’s solid playing Frannie, an English prof who is studying urban slang, teaching To the Lighthouse, and hanging out at sleazy joints looking for Mr. Goodbar. Because being single and an intellectual means she needs some.
*. Many of those who praised In the Cut did so because they saw it as presenting a female perspective on women’s desire. I can see where that’s coming from, as it’s based on a Susanna Moore novel, directed by Jane Campion, and was produced by a pair of women (Laurie Parker and Nicole Kidman, the latter being originally slated to play Frannie). But was this really the best way to deliver such a message?
*. What is bold about such a generic silk-stockings-and-slasher flick? There were an endless run of Dressed to Kill rip-offs like this that went straight to video in the 1980s. Is In the Cut so different?
*. And what is feminist about any of it? Perhaps the foregrounding of the sisterhood motif in the relationship between Frannie and her step-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Aside from that we have the well-educated but underserviced professional woman who melts in the arms of the swarthy police detective who is sworn to serve and protect her. He was also trained in the arts of cunnilingus by the Chicken Lady — a story that sounds made-up, but she had to ask how he “did that” to her and this was likely the best he could do on the spot. And it made Jack Lowden King of Scotland, so don’t knock it.
*. Are we meant to be impressed by his oral skills? Or the fact that he wears a condom? On the DVD commentary track Campion says she found this “considerate.” I would have thought it obligatory or at the very least de rigueur by 2003.
*. I don’t think In the Cut was meant to be a thriller. But I’m not sure how erotic it was meant to be either. Mark Ruffalo’s Detective Malloy struck me as a caricature Mr. Smooth, all smug and phoney with a nauseating swagger and 1970s pornstache. Even worse, he really doesn’t seem that in to Frannie. He’s also a lousy kisser, though Campion loved the way he smushes his face into Ryan’s. All a matter of taste I guess.
*. Her options on the side are similar stereotypes. There’s the burly Black man (Sharieff Pugh) with the soul of a poet. And Keven Bacon as the stalker ex. How Bacon’s character, who is working 18 hours a day in a hospital as a med student, has the time to follow Frannie around literally everywhere, at all hours, is beyond me. I guess he’s just Kevin Bacon. He’s also such an obvious red herring that his caricature character would be out of place in any movie less obvious than this one.
*. The way the film was shot was bold. Unfortunately, and I don’t like saying this, it’s also very ugly. I’m not sure what the technique used was, but much of the frame is out of focus a lot of the time, and the colour scheme looks sickly and unnatural more than it does gritty. A lot of people seemed to like it though.
*. A dull, overwrought thriller with a bland and unoriginal take on “female desire.” Today it seems to have been mostly forgotten, though there are people like Thomson who continue to carry a torch for it. For what it’s worth, those who like it seem to be of an older generation than my own. Leading me to an observation I rarely make: perhaps I’m just too young to get it.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

*. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is director Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 film Elizabeth, which also starred Cate Blanchett in the title role. The Golden Age wasn’t as well received though, and actually managed to be quite controversial, especially for a historical costume epic.
*. The controversy took two forms. In the first place, The Golden Age is bad history. Very bad history. I won’t bother going through all the liberties taken, as there are websites out there that do a better job of fact-checking and there’s so much that’s wrong it would take me forever to go through it all. Suffice it to say that even Blanchett was concerned about people mistaking the film for fact: “It’s terrifying that we are growing up with this very illiterate bunch of children, who are somehow being taught that film is fact, when in fact it’s invention. Hopefully though an historical film will inspire people to go and read about the history. But in the end it is a work of history and selection.”
*. The second controversial point has to do with perceived anti-Catholic bias. This is, on the face of it, pretty hard to deny, especially since it was something already on display throughout much of Elizabeth. Now you could argue that the main action of the story here has to do with Catholic Spain’s attempt to invade England, climaxing in the defeat of Hector Barbossa’s Spanish Armada, so that religious conflict was baked into the story. But still . . .
*. My first thought was that the whole thing was being presented as a response to 9/11. The villainous Spanish, after all, are religious fanatics sending their secret terrorist cells into the liberal democracy of Tudor England even before they launch their unholy strike. What are those banners of Christ but the black flags of ISIS, five hundred years early? And Philip II, isn’t he Osama bin Laden?
*. Catholic groups had every right to feel upset. Put simply, the Spanish aren’t just the enemy, they are evil. All those golden crosses sinking with the Armada are so much Papist trumpery we are meant to exult in the destruction of. Meanwhile, back on Albion’s shores, freedom reigns! Go Reformation!

*. My jaw dropped only five minutes, or less, into The Golden Age. As it went on though, my shock turned to amusement, and finally to hilarity. This is a ridiculous movie, but since it made me laugh and hoot at the screen not once but many times I can’t say I didn’t have a good time. In other words, it’s so bad it’s kind of good.
*. Basically Kapur has taken some events and characters from the historical record, scrambled them together, and turned them into a sumptuous period romance. Just look at Raleigh (Clive Owen), the dashing pirate stepping straight off the cover of a Harlequin, coming onto the screen with a bold gesture and a smoldering glance directed at the repressed queen. Here’s a fellow more than able to fill Robert Dudley’s codpiece from the previous film. Of course he’s a charming rogue, with nothing at all being said about his starting his career as a slaver. Meanwhile, even though Elizabeth is a queen, and a modern, proto-feminist, enlightened monarch at that, she’s still a woman damn it! Of course she melts, by the fireplace, in the hands of this rough, manly man. She may be “called” the Virgin Queen and was childless but . . . she’s a woman damn it! Of course she likes babies!

*. Sir Walter doesn’t just walk the walk though. He can talk the talk. Merely hearing the accounts of his travels is enough to trigger a royal orgasm. And he can comfort her highness with language like this: “We mortals have many weaknesses. We feel too much. Hurt too much. All too soon we die. But we do have the chance of love.” Swoon!
*. A good example of the way the romantic bent overwhelms the history can be seen in the execution of Mary Stuart. By every historical account this was a horrible bit of business. It took the executioner a few whacks of the axe and apparently her lips were still moving for fifteen minutes after decapitation. When her head was held aloft her noggin fell out of her wig. A small dog emerged from under her skirts. Do we get any of that here? No, just a cutaway after a gloriously staged and lit build-up.

*. Well, I’ve said before that the Tudors have never gone out of style and I think it’s true that romance of this kind hasn’t either. So enjoy Sir Walter unlacing Bess’s bodice, or playing horsey with the queen, and slooooowly leaning in for a kiss, before he sails off to smash the Spanish fleet pretty much single-handedly. While Liz watches from a clifftop. I’m not making that up.
*. Full credit, and more, to Cate Blanchett. It’s nothing short of a miracle that she gets through all of this with her dignity intact. But she does. Despite Kapur’s constant efforts at upstaging her with arty shots from high angles, or taken from behind screens or other obstacles. The whole thing looks, and sounds, like a commercial for Tudor toiletries. They could have even used the same tag-line: “Woman. Warrior. Queen.” A historical travesty and a joke in pretty much every other respect, it may survive as camp but I think is more likely to be completely forgotten in another few years. Though some trash can be hard to get rid of. It’s terrifying to think of the children . . .

Flightplan (2005)

*. Bunny Lake Is Missing . . . on an airplane. Which is one way, and a rather bold one at that, of doubling down on what was a highly improbable premise in the first place. Remarkably, Flightplan is not as crazy as Otto Preminger’s laughable 1965 film, which took Evelyn Piper’s story and made a joke of it. Far-fetched, yes. But it’s not bonkers.
*. This leads me to comment, again, on one of the more mystifying habits of filmmakers on their DVD commentaries. What I’m referring to is the way they sidestep attribution of what are clear influences and precursors. I’ve mentioned this before in my notes on Don’t Breathe and Villains (both updates of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs), and Quarantine (an English-language remake of Rec). Well, you can see where I’m going with this. Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t mention Bunny Lake Is Missing once during his commentary.
*. He does mention Hitchcock’s name, in passing, but more by way of denying any significant influence. He also doesn’t cite any of Hitch’s movies by name, like The Lady Vanishes (from which they took not only a lot of the plot but the window-writing clue) or Lifeboat (for its single set, albeit supersized here). I don’t know why you wouldn’t acknowledge such obvious influences. Though to be fair, most contemporary reviews avoided them as well.
*. But I guess none of that matters. Flightplan, like any movie, has to make its own way, and it stands or falls on its merits. Critics didn’t care for it, mainly because of the absurdity of the plot, which really is a doozy. But most reviewers singled out Jodie Foster for praise, which I think is well deserved. It’s a complex part, difficult to bring off, and she delivers. Jodie Foster with her game face on is one of the peak experiences in film, and she’s got it on here. This is especially important given that her supporting players are weirdly subdued. Peter Sarsgaard in particular seems ready to fall asleep half the time.
*. The critics were too hard on Flightplan. As a suspense thriller I think it does well enough. It’s not always gripping, the plot really is silly, the reveal of the villains is underplayed, and the Goose Bay coda should have just been skipped. (Schwentke hadn’t thought it necessary but test screenings changed his mind; I think he should have stuck with his gut.) Still, I found this to be an enjoyable sort of B-picture, with everything around Foster adequately turned out. I think the main thing it lacks is a lighter touch. I don’t mean less serious, but more aware of the story’s roots in the trash of the last days of pulp.

Gosford Park (2001)

*. The theatrical release poster for Gosford Park (or at least the best known one, and the one that’s reproduced on the DVD box cover) is basically just a list of names. Because this is a Robert Altman film with an ensemble cast and the names, including Altman’s, are what’s important.
*. I mean the names of the stars. Even right after rewatching this film I couldn’t have told you the name of a single character in the film aside from Mary (Kelly Macdonald). As you watch Gosford Park you just fall into the habit of identifying the character as the star. “Oh, there’s Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Richard Grant,” etc. This is how Altman identifies them throughout the DVD commentary. I don’t think he ever mentions a character’s name. He’ll just say “Maggie Smith’s character,” if he has to.
*. Does this identification-by-star distract us from the characters they’re playing? Or does it provide some assistance in such a crowded house? There may also be a connection in this to the way the below-stairs cast are identified not by their names but by the last names of their lords and ladies. Their names, at least, don’t mean very much anyway (until we get to the final reveal). Even the police inspector is left nameless throughout several attempts at introduction because nobody really cares what he’s called. He’s just the hired help that had to be brought in to clean up a mess. Later they won’t even bother to get his name right, but it doesn’t matter.
*. Is there too much going on, especially given Altman’s penchant for not making clear what’s important in terms of the plot? Perhaps there is, in the sense that much of what’s going on is irrelevant. Big chunks of the set-up escaped me entirely. How many people on a first viewing even get that there are three sisters? I know I didn’t. And even on re-watches I’m still lost as to what how Isobel was being blackmailed. Only the commentary by writer Julian Fellowes (which is more informative than the one with Altman, if you have to choose) helped sort some of it out for me.

*. Altman wanted to make a movie that people would want to see twice. But a movie they’d have to see twice? Or three times? Because a great deal of it continues to elude me.
*. The first time I saw Gosford Park I didn’t know what to think of it. I still don’t. The inspiration for it was Altman’s desire to do an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, which later morphed into an examination of class issues, to the point where the mystery became incidental. In fact, there is little mystery involved, in the sense of red herrings and clues to be followed. At the end we simply find out what happened, and nobody muchcares. The police investigation, led by the bumbling Stephen Fry, doesn’t solve the crime, in part because, as with the rest of Gosford Park society, Fry’s assistant is the only one capable of getting anything done.
*. So again we have what I think is Altman’s great theme: what is important? Not who killed Michael Gambon (Sir William Something-or-other), but rather how these people relate to one another, how such a world works. Note how the movie ends with the repetition of the line about what use testifying to some seemingly important truth could possibly serve. Why, none whatsoever. What happened at Gosford Park is going to stay in Gosford Park. But if those walls could talk . . .
*. Well, if they could talk they’d have stories to tell,. But would they talk? And if they talked, would anyone notice? I like how Fellowes puts it when describing the restrained speech patterns of this world: “nothing should be talked of as though it is tremendously important.” Again, a perfect fit for Altman’s indirect style, his tonal camouflage. Then there are scenes that are silent. What does Mrs. Wilson say to Parks after he’s told to take the dog out of the kitchen? Anything important? I mean, there is a hint earlier that he knows who she is.
*. That “not saying anything as though it’s important” has its apotheosis in Mirren’s line at the end: “I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” You have to listen hard to get the emotion behind that. And yet Fellowes calls it “the key line of the film” and Mirren actually didn’t want to say it, thinking it was unnecessary. I think her instincts were right, but that might have been hard for a writer to understand.

*. The British aristocracy between the wars. But is there any sense here of that “dancing on the volcano” feeling Renoir would be inspired by in Rules of Game? I don’t get any of that, though some have claimed it’s here.
*. I wonder what the attraction is for this period. I like a country-house mysteries as much as the next person, but the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing never appealed to me. It’s obviously a draw, however. Fellowes would go on to create the popular Downton Abbey series, which was originally imagined as a spin-off of this property. Do we miss a world of such rigid class distinctions and social rules? That sense of there being an absolute, unchanging order? Or do we find it not that far distant from our own time and place, and getting closer to us every day? Does it feel especially relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
*. The examination of the class angle is well done, but I also wondered at the point of it. Listening to Fellowes, I thought it was just something like we get in The Remains of the Day, about how a class system this rigid shapes more than just behaviour. One’s job becomes one’s life, a routine that you never stop to question. One simply does one’s duty, not caring if it’s right or wrong or what effect it might have on you.
*. But none of this seems that fresh or new. David Ansen: “Gosford is fine, well-groomed entertainment, but the road it takes has already been well paved.” A comedy about English snobbishness and class exploitation? Well, sure. But it is put across very well. Altman is a perfect fit for the comedy of manners and understatement. One of the pleasures of repeated viewings is picking up many lines that you can easily miss the first time. The stars are all present and accounted for, but also nearly invisible. I almost missed Derek Jacobi entirely (his biggest scenes were actually cut).
*. For all the attention to detail I have to take some marks off for authenticity (as hesitant as I am at doing so given Fellowes’ understanding of this world). Elsie’s explosion at dinner, which gets her fired, seemed incredible to me. There’s no way that would have happened, especially with so little provocation. Also, the Ryan Phillippe character seemed a real stretch and I think the movie would have been better without him. But maybe I just don’t like Ryan Phillippe. Would Jude Law (originally cast for the part) have been better? Maybe. Denton, however, is a creepy jerk. I do like how he’s shown to be a predator and not another honest Yankee in a corrupt court. This isn’t a movie with a lot of heroes, upstairs or down.

*. I return to my saying I’m not sure what to think of Gosford Park. It’s a movie to be appreciated and enjoyed, but not really loved or excited by. The cast is sterling, with Macdonald managing to more than hold her own playing against any of the vets. Over two hours long, but surprisingly light on its feet, without having any moments that drag. A movie filled with funny bits that won’t make you laugh out loud but will raise plenty of smiles. I love Countess Trentham telling Weissman that none of the people at the party will ever see the movie he’s planning to make (which is Charlie Chan in London). Or the call for the head butler Jennings upon discovering the body. Good old Jennings. He’ll fix this up!
*. A triumph then, and a great movie, of a sort. Not a personal favourite, though it is growing on me, and I realize it’s a movie that’s not trying to get you to like it. Just as we don’t like the people in it, even though, for some reason, their very dysfunctionality and wickedness is not just comic but comforting. I guess ultimately it’s the appeal of the cozy, which is no less appealing when someone gets hurt.

Jumper (2008)

*. A movie very much launched with a franchise in mind, but things didn’t pan out. Why not? Most if not all of the ingredients were there. Let’s look at where things went off the rails.
*. A formulaic YA novel from 1992 provided a perfectly workable concept. It was adapted very freely here to make it even more formulaic. That formula being the standard superhero stuff of the boy who is given special powers and the girlfriend who has to try to understand just how special he is. Throw in the rival gangs of Montagues and Capulets, or werewolves and vampires, or Paladins and Jumpers. You’re good to go.
*. A likeable star in Hayden Christensen. Though I wouldn’t rate him as more than likeable. I guess he’s not known for much, if anything, outside of being Anakin Skywalker. But then do we remember Mark Hamill for anything aside from playing Luke? Call it the curse of the Skywalkers.
*. As for Christensen: he’s good looking, but while not a hopeless actor he doesn’t project much of anything on screen. Anthony Lane, in his best put-down mode, refers to him as having been “a kind of handsome void where Anakin was supposed to be” before lowering the boom: “One day, I feel sure, the rich mantle of charisma will descend upon him, but Jumper is not that occasion.” Still, in a movie like this Christensen’s handsome void might have been more than enough.
*. Throw in Rachel Bilson as the hero’s girlfriend. There’s at least a bit of chemistry there, as they’d go on to be a couple for a while off-screen. Jamie Bell is the fast-talking Brit who knows the ropes. Apparently his accent is considered “Geordie.” Live and learn. Samuel L. Jackson is here, and for once not tearing down the house with an over-the-top performance loaded with MF-bombs to match his shocking white helmet of hair. But then he may have sensed that he didn’t have to do much to take over the movie completely. And there’s even an already sullen Kristen Stewart popping her head in at the end just to say hello before jumping out of this franchise to start her own, on her way to becoming the highest-paid actress in the world over the next couple of years. We’ll have a good time explaining that, years from now.

*. Speaking of Christensen and Bilson, it was during their scene together at the Colosseum that I was struck by the big gap in their heights. Not surprised by the gap — that’s not uncommon — but surprised that I noticed it. There are many ways to conceal this, most often used when casting a short leading man. Christensen is 6′ and Bilson 5’2″ and I really picked up on it when they were together in Rome. Then you notice things like the heels on her boots (the ones she has such trouble pulling off in bed). Those look like they are 4-inch heels! Have fun walking around Rome in those!
*. Director Doug Liman was a hot property coming off of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and I give him more credit than most for some decent action sequences. I like that the jumping stuff isn’t always swaddled in effects but looks like pretty basic editing tricks a lot of the time. This allows the fight and chase scenes to whip along quite nicely.
*. Critics panned it but there was decent box office. Which leads back to the question I started with: why didn’t this series have legs? They certainly seemed to be setting us up at the end for a bunch of sequels, as Griffin (Bell) and Roland (Jackson) are both left hanging, literally (the one from a power line the other from a cliff). But aside from a short-lived spin-off series that played on YouTube this was to be it.
*. The bad reviews, or at least their vehemence, didn’t make a lot of sense to me. An incoherent and inexplicable plot? It seemed to make rough sense to me, at least as much as any of these superhero movies do. Sure there isn’t any larger sense of purpose to the goings-on — what is it Jumpers really want to do with their special powers aside from have a good time? why do the Paladins want to kill them off? — but none of this bothered me. Of course none of it makes a lick of sense, but if you’re already tossing out all the most basic laws of physics then who cares about the details?
*. Perhaps the script was to blame. David (Christensen) doesn’t seem very relatable or likeable. The movie begins with his voiceover telling us how he used to be “normal.” I took this as a put-down, and he immediately tells us that this is how it was, indeed, intended, by adding “a chump just like you.” So all of us non-Jumpers are just losers? What a terrible way to alienate an audience right from the get-go. And the producers were well aware of this as they talk about the voiceover “insulting the audience” on the commentary track. Apparently they saw it as making David more realistic and relatable. They thought that audiences would root for the hero more if he would act like a regular guy (or dude, or bro) by “flexing” and being a player. I don’t get it, but then I’m sure I wasn’t in the target demographic.
*. The script was also shoved into the back seat by the decision to have the movie “move at the pace a teleporter lives his life” (this comes from one of the voices on the commentary). That is to say, with all the boring parts (exposition, plot mechanics) taken out. Then add the fact that they were laying the groundwork for a franchise so they wouldn’t want to explain everything all at once (if they’d even figured out where they were going yet, which I suspect they hadn’t). The result is a story that feels like they were making half of it up as they went along.
*. The thing is, despite all the talk on the commentary track about how they were avoiding “normal cliché formula” and “turning the genre on its head,” this is a really conventional picture with a pair of pretty young people making out and doing lots of action stunts in exotic locations, served up with no more interest in character than a typical Marvel production. It also feels very much like what it is: the first part of a likely trilogy that was never made. In sum: I can’t say I feel let down by it, or by the fact that there weren’t any more.