“It is what it is,” a bank clerk tells Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray) early in Theodore Melfi’s new film St. Vincent. Vincent, who has been trying to get some kind of relief from the bank because of his severe financial problems, responds that everybody says that nowadays, and what it really means is “You’re screwed and you’re gonna stay screwed.” It’s a set up for a scene later in the film when a nursing home administrator repeats the “It is what it is” line and we can see in Murray’s eyes the feeling that, once again, he knows what the cliché really means.
In a sense, this is a microcosm of the entire film. For no one going to this movie will fail to recognize that to a large extent, the movie itself is one big cliché. In the grand tradition of Bad Santa and Gran Torino, the plot of St. Vincent revolves around a relationship between a curmudgeonly, profane, and unlikeable old man and a young, pre-teenaged boy who is in severe need of a father figure—in this case the boy is Oliver, played by the surprisingly genuine Jaeden Lieberher. The crotchety old man turns out, of course, to have a heart of gold and teaches the boy valuable lessons, in particular how to defend himself against the bullies who are making his life miserable since he has started at his new school after his suddenly-single mother (in this case Maggie, played with unlooked-for restraint by Melissa McCarthy) has moved him to this place (in this case, Brooklyn). Can anybody say Karate Kid?
But just as Vincent looks through the verbal clichés he is fed by authority figures in the film, so first-time writer-director Melfi takes us beyond the formulaic motifs in the plot to something much more real behind them. While some reviewers might complain that Vincent’s transformation from drunken, gambling lout to heart-of-gold “saint” at the end of the movie is banal and unrealistic, I’d suggest they look at his character again: the fact is there is no transformation at all. Vincent is precisely the same person at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. It is what it is. He was screwed at the beginning of the film, and he is similarly screwed at the end. In the beginning, he lives in a rundown house, is in deep financial trouble, drinks too much, smokes too much, gambles too much, and owes a good deal of money to the bookie Zucko (Terrence Howard). Few people like him, except for two regulars at the bar he hangs out in, an attendant at the nursing home that he visits regularly, and Daka (Naomi Watts), the pregnant Russian immigrant stripper/hooker whom he sees once a week (and to whom he also owes money). At the end of the film, almost none of this has changed. We still don’t know how he’s going to pay his bills, and whether he will ever dig himself out of his situation with Zucko. He hasn’t quit drinking or smoking. He has had some losses that make his life even sadder than it was before. It’s true that he has gained two new friends in Maggie and Oliver, and Daka has moved in with her baby—at least for now. But Vincent is no different than he was. And his life has not really changed. He was screwed and he is going to stay screwed.
But the audience, by the end of the film, has learned a lot more about Vincent. Twice in the script—once in addressing Maggie and once Oliver—Vincent declares matter-of-factly “You don’t know me.” The line is also directed in part at the audience, as a kind of warning not to judge him until you know his whole story. Much of his story does come out in the movie—but not all of it. We are given enough, though, to see that his kindness toward Oliver is foreshadowed in his kind treatment of Daka as well as his nursing home visits, which I can’t get into without a spoiler alert. We know some of the things that have caused his downward spiral. We find out about his record in Vietnam. But these are all things that happened before the timeline of the film. They have made Vincent what he is at the beginning. They don’t change what he is at the end.
For ultimately, this is a movie about character, and the story is secondary. And so we can forgive some of the unrealistic plot elements: How believable is it that a mother, even one fairly desperate for childcare, would hire a fairly obvious derelict like Vincent to babysit? And how likely would Vincent be to think that babysitting for twelve dollars an hour would somehow help alleviate his money woes? And is it really likely that a hard-drinking retiree could drag a twelve-year old kid around to bars and to the racetrack without his mother’s knowledge and without raising the eyebrows of anyone in authority? Finally, how likely is it that Brooklyn would consistently enjoy southern California weather in the middle of Oliver’s school year?
But it is difficult not to care about the characters in this film. Bill Murray has become a remarkably nuanced actor in his roles of the past two decades, in films like Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and his Wes Anderson vehicles beginning with Rushmore, and his turn as Vincent McKenna is natural, believable, and manages to makes Vincent a character with whom we sympathize without drowning the role in sentiment or bathos. Newcomer Lieberher makes Oliver a regular nerdy kid, and manages to make the character uncannily perceptive without making him cloying, cute, or affected. McCarthy is refreshing playing against type in a “straight man” role, with none of the broad humor we are used to seeing in her performances. Like Vincent, her character is a cliché—the newly single mother battling to keep her child with her and working long hours because her cheating husband won’t pay her child support. But through the formula we do see her own mistakes and weaknesses: she is no saint, but she is also not in need of “rescuing” as so many single movie mothers are. As for Watts, she has less to work with and a role that is mainly caricature, but there are moments—sometimes only in a facial expression—when she becomes more multi-faceted than might be expected. I should also mention Chris O’Dowd (McCarthy’s co-star in Bridesmaids), who is likeable as ever playing a Catholic priest who is Oliver’s teacher.
The one exception is Howard as Zucko the bookie. He is given almost nothing to do, and nothing in the script allows us to see anything other than the one-dimensional heavy. One wonders why an actor of Howard’s caliber would have taken this role, unless of course a significant portion of his role was edited out of the film’s final cut.
Ultimately, though, this is Murray’s movie. Apparently Melfi, who has been peddling this script for years, was finally able to get a meeting with Murray and sell the notoriously reticent actor on taking a chance with this first-time filmmaker. Murray’s association with the film doubtlessly helped land other talent in the likes of McCarthy, Watts, Dowd and Howard. But Murray’s performance is a memorable one, and one that some are already touting for a possible second Oscar nomination for him. Though that seems unlikely, since such honors do not often go to comic roles like this one, the performance does make this movie worth watching, and convinces me to give it three Tennysons.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” the war-hardened Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) tells his tank crew’s young untested new forward gunner Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma) early in David Ayer’s new devastatingly brutal World War II combat film Fury. The film, which Ayer wrote as well as directed, goes on to illustrate that concept in scene after scene, until it is pretty convincingly driven home. History itself may not be exclusively violent, but war certainly is, and what Saving Private Ryan did to undercut the naïve pretensions of films like The Longest Day, Fury does while undermining chauvinistic Hollywood productions like 1949’s Sand of Iwo Jima. Indeed John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker is the spiritual forerunner of Pitt’s Sergeant Collier: the tough, no-nonsense veteran whose harsh tactics are resented by new recruits but who proves in the end to be right all along. But by the end of Fury, it’s hard for moviegoers to view Collier’s methods uncritically, and it’s impossible to take seriously the idea that these soldiers are motivated by the chance to make the world a better place.
They are motivated by two things: First, they have been given an assignment and they are going to complete it. “Do your job,” the crew members of the M4 Sherman tank (nicknamed “Fury”) tell Norman again and again. Second, they are fighting for each other—to stay alive and to keep one another alive—to make it through this war. These are realistic motivations, not the motivations of celluloid heroes in propaganda movies. Collier has been with three of his crew since northern Africa ca. 1943: Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña, who was in Ayer’s End of Watch), the blunt, hard-drinking, but sympathetic driver; Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal, The; Walking Dead), the vulgar, ill-tempered mechanic; and Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), the born-again, scripture-quoting gunner who moves through the film with moist eyes and a faith that God is directing him through all of this. Collier has sworn to get his crew through this war alive, and has managed to get them as far as April 1945, the final month of the war, as the allies pushing toward Berlin are fighting stubborn resistance from surviving SS troops, women, and Hitler youth who make American pay for every inch of the Fatherland they seek to gain. The Germans must eventually surrender, but when Collier’s commander asks rhetorically “Why don’t they just give up?” Pitt’s character answers, “Would you?”
Norman becomes the fifth member of the tank’s crew, pulled from a clerk-typist job after eight weeks in the army to replace a gunner who has just been annihilated in one of these vicious last battles, and Norman (the “Normal-man”) becomes the character with whom the audience identifies: like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, Norman knows nothing when he arrives, and like the audience must be taught about tank warfare, and more importantly must have his “normal” morality driven from him so that he, like the rest of his crew, can survive this war—and help them survive it. When he fails to machine-gun a pile of apparently dead Germans as he is ordered to do, Sergeant Collier wrestles him to the ground, forces a gun into his hand, and makes him execute a German prisoner who is begging for his life and displaying pictures of his wife and children. Collier and Norman’s relationship is not unlike that of Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Ayer’s earlier screenplay for Training Day, and has some of the moral ambiguity of that film.
As the somewhat episodic plot moves on, Norman develops a healthy hatred of the “damn Nazis” and has little compulsion in blowing them away. He has become one of the crew, and he is baptized into their fellowship when they give him the “war name” of “machine”—as if he has been transformed into a Nazi-killing automaton. This aspect of the film is somewhat clichéd, but unlike other war films, in this one that transformation does not seem an unquestionably positive thing. It is difficult not to like the earlier Norman better than this one.
For one of the questions raised by this thought-provoking film concerns the changes that must occur in a man with a conventional moral sense when he witnesses and takes part in the atrocities of war. Do those changes make him better somehow? Do they “make a man” out of him, as Norman sarcastically asks after his forced murder of the prisoner? Or by hardening him to endure war’s brutality do they change him into someone unfit for normal society? Pitt’s character seems to feel this dehumanizing effect more keenly than others, and he can be seen in contemplative moments breaking down in private, when his shell-like veneer is momentarily let down. In one of the film’s most inventive and original scenes, Collier and Norman enter the apartment of two German women in a town they have just “liberated.” It is a surprisingly domestic scene—though there is some tension as the women are terrified by these Americans with guns and Norman is unsure what Collier has in mind for these women. Collier produces half a dozen eggs, takes the opportunity to have a wash, and encourages Norman to have sex with the younger woman: that proves a tender scene, though the shadow over it is the fact that these men have entered the room with guns and the whole American army at their back. But a peaceful, homey breakfast is interrupted by Bible, Gordo and Coon-Ass, who drunkenly disrupt the humane idyll and bring the brutality of the war, and the brutality of what war has made of men, into the scene.
That brutality is palpable in this film. Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov have created a barren landscape of grays and browns, in which mud-colored vehicles and mud-colored infantry move through a landscape that is essentially mud. It’s a landscape in which the seed of life can find no purchase, like the surface of the moon or hell itself.
This atmosphere all leads up to the final shot of the film: a gray scene, photographed from above as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape strewn with hundreds of dead and intertwined gray German soldiers, surrounding the tank.
A number of reviewers have criticized the film’s final thirty minutes as a machismo display inconsistent with the weighty pounding of the “war is hell” message in the rest of the film. It’s as if Ayers decided that he wanted to put something into the film for everyone in the audience, and elected to end it with a hackneyed “last stand” of five brave Americans against hordes of evil but faceless bad guys, sure to appeal to action-movie fans who might have been bored up to this point. But such a criticism is, I think, unfounded for two reasons: First, it has been set up well in advance by Collier’s “wouldn’t you?” answer to the question of why men keep fighting when they know they cannot win. And secondly, the fight sets up what may be the most important, and ironic, incident in the film, for which I must declare a spoiler alert: Norman, having escaped from the tank, is hiding beneath it covered with the ubiquitous mud. He is spared by an SS trooper who finds him but decides neither to kill nor arrest him, gives him a suppressed half smile, and moves on. It is ultimately not the conditioned toughness of Sergeant Collier that gets Norman through the war, but rather the humanity of a German “Norman” who, at least momentarily, refuses to allow the brutality of the war to destroy his fundamental moral code.
These final scenes create a morass of ambiguities and ironies surrounding the American “rescuers” who collect Norman and call him a hero right before that final shot of the field of the dead. One is reminded of nothing more vividly that Tacitus’s description of the Roman army: “They created a wasteland, and they called it peace.”
This is a difficult film to watch, and an even more difficult one to enjoy. Ayer has gone to unprecedented lengths to recreate meticulously the precise details of tank combat and of the situation in Germany that last month of the war. So much has gone into this that one wonders if that is the extent of what Ayers wanted to do with the movie: present combat more realistically than it has ever been produced on film. But that hardly seems enough to carry a two hour movie. And there are so many ambiguities that it is difficult to be sure where the filmmakers stand, or where they want the audience to stand. The audience-surrogate, Norman, seems unsure just how to feel at the end. That may be what Ayer intends. In view of that uncertainly, I’m going to give the film three Tennysons.
Gone Girl, David Fincher’s dramatization of the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn (who adapted her book for the film’s screenplay) opened on October 3, so this review is coming late to the party. But as might have been expected of a novel that has sold more than eight million copies since its release two years ago, people have been flocking to theaters to see it—fans of the book and others who have simply heard of it—and it has been the top-grossing box office film for two consecutive weeks. The movie, featuring Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher, The World’s End) as his wife Amy, chronicles a murder mystery that becomes stranger and stranger as the plot unfolds. The story is so full of twists and turns that it is difficult to summarize it without cautioning you all about possible “spoiler alerts” to come, but I shall attempt to do so without the need for such warnings:
The morning of his fifth wedding anniversary Nick Dunne leaves his home in the town of North Carthage, Missouri, and stops at a bar that he manages with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). Over an early-morning whiskey (it must be five o’clock somewhere) he vents to Carrie about the difficulties he has been having with his marriage of late. When he returns home, he finds his living room trashed and his wife missing. He calls the police, and Detectives Boney and Gilpin (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) visit the scene of the crime, where they find traces of what is apparently Amy’s blood on the scene.
Nick, who does not seem to be sufficiently distraught over his wife’s disappearance, becomes suspicious to both the police and the intrusive media, who are interested in the case particularly because Amy is something of a celebrity, having been the inspiration for a series of children’s books about a character called “Amazing Amy.”
As the film progresses, we are given alternate views of the events of the couple’s marriage, drawn from Nick’s statements to the detectives and contrasting entries from Amy’s diaries. Both seem to agree that after their meeting at a New York party and their whirlwind courtship and ideal early days of wedded bliss, things began to get more difficult for them when they lost their jobs in the publishing industry due to the recession, and when they moved to Missouri to be with Nick’s dying mother—and decided (well, Nick decided) that they would stay.
The accounts become skewed, though, after that, for whereas Nick cultivates the impression that the two were happily married (an impression we know to be false because of his previous conversation with his sister), Amy’s diary suggests a much darker relationship, one that involved incidents that have made her afraid of her own husband. Ultimately—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, since it is easily predictable from the beginning of the movie—Nick is arrested for Amy’s murder.
The charge may be a bit hard to prove without a body, but evidence does seem to point toward Nick’s guilt, and the media are particularly virulent in their treatment of him, turning him into “the most hated man in America.” Nick is essentially forced to hire celebrity attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who has made a career out of defending husbands afflicted with legal problems like his.
But this bare-bones synopsis cannot communicate the multi-layered texture of the film, which raises issues of marital fidelity, honesty, and trust (under what circumstances would one, or should one, choose to stay in a loveless relationship?); media involvement in high profile legal situations (what is the press’s responsibility to justice, fairness, and truth?); public persona vs. private character (to what extent might we manipulate our public image and thereby gain supports or rewards we may not in fact be entitled to?). In this way the film engages us on many levels.
On the other hand, there is a great deal in the plot of the film, particularly in the last half hour or so, that is hard for the viewer to accept. It is not simply that neither Nick nor Amy is particularly likeable—more to the point, they are both rather revolting, and in the end the audience ends up having to choose between the lesser of two pains in the ass. That is acceptable, because it is quite believable. The final plot twists ae so bizarre, though, that they strain credibility and audience sympathy.
Final plot twists aside, though, it must be stressed that Affleck, with his laconic presence and occasionally bland expression, is perfect for the part of Nick, who is hard to read and seems to investigators somewhat emotionless. Pike is also excellent in what may be a star-making role as a woman whose mendacity might make your blood boil. The rest of the cast is also excellent, in particular Perry who charmingly underplays his big-shot character; and Dickens (best-known for television work on shows like Treme, Friday Night Lights, and Deadwood) is memorable and—unusual for this film—sympathetic as the thorough and thoughtful local cop devoted to truth rather than public image. And then there is Neal Patrick Harris, who is incredibly creepy in a small role as one of Amy’s former lovers.
Fincher, known for his ability to build suspense and manipulate audience reactions in thrillers like Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac, does that here, especially though the alternation of narrative perspectives, using a he said/she said approach to move the audience’s sympathies between one character and the other until, of course, you don’t know who to trust, and the suspense is all that’s left. That and the rather extreme violence.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I have not read the book, but I understand that Flynn’s script is very faithful to her novel, and fans of the book do not seem disappointed in the film. For myself, I found some of the plot twists to be fairly predictable, though a couple did catch me by surprise. The film is suspenseful and thought provoking, but in the end I can’t say I was fond of this movie because I simply did not like the characters and ultimately (as Gene Siskel used to say) I did not care about them. However, I must admit that the story was interesting, the cast impressive, and the film well made. I’ll give it three Tennysons, but I probably won’t be watching it again when it comes out on DVD.
As of the writing of this column (Saturday, October 11, after having seen The Judge at our local theater), the Rotten Tomatoes rating of this film was at 47%. In contrast, the percentage of viewers who liked the film was listed as 77%. That kind of discrepancy is remarkable, and my first thought is, why such a difference between critics’ responses to the film and the general moviegoers’ reactions? It’s easy to imagine each side’s answer to the other: Critics might say, and do say, that the movie is a simple crowd-pleaser, telling a clichéd story in a way that makes viewers have a good cry and end up feeling good about the characters, themselves, and the whole world by feeding them sentimental drivel without serious exploration of characters or issues; or that director David Dobkin, best known for relatively mindless comedies like The Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights, has not been able to transcend that broad model in trying to make his first truly serious film. General moviegoers, on the other hand, might counter by saying that smug movie critics put too little stock in the emotional punch of a film, the profound effect that certain archetypal situations (in this case, the “prodigal son” story) have on audiences, or the valuable function of drama (whether live or recorded) to provide catharsis for its viewers at all levels. The critics want sophisticated art. The audience wants entertainment. Shakespeare demonstrated that a script can provide both, but unfortunately, everybody is not Shakespeare. And while it may be true (as H.L. Mencken said) that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” there is still a wide gap between The Judge and Duck Dynasty or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
The story of the film is this: hot-shot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has made his reputation and his fortune defending sleazy rich clients (“Innocent people can’t afford me,” he tells his rival attorney at one point) is suddenly called away from his current case—as well as his failing marriage—to return to his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for the funeral of his mother. After twenty years’ absence, he reconnects with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a one-time athlete whose dreams of major league baseball were ended after a car accident decades earlier, forcing him to stay on in Carlinville and run a tire shop; and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), an 8 MM film buff who is clearly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum but whose old films serve to give us some sense of Hank’s childhood in Carlinville. Most importantly, Hank must endure his long-estranged father, the severe, autocratic and demanding Judge Palmer, played with remarkable insight and deftness by the 83-year-old Robert Duvall.
Hank, whose plan had been to slip into town, attend the funeral, and rush back to Chicago as quickly as possible, has to make new plans when the Judge is arrested for murder, having apparently run down a bicyclist in his Cadillac. The victim, it turns out, is a recent parolee whom the Judge had sentenced to prison for murder years before, and, to make matters worse, the Judge claims not to remember anything about the night of the accident. Hank feels compelled to defend his father, despite their mutual antipathy, and although the Judge at first tries to employ a local attorney, scorning Hank’s unsavory methods (“I want a decent attorney—and by decent, I mean honest” he tells Hank), eventually he accepts Hank’s offer to represent him, especially since the state has brought in its toughest prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) to conduct the murder case.
Predictably, the drama revolves around the relationship of Downey and Duvall’s characters, exploring the events that caused their estrangement, so that the murder case is a side issue of somewhat less importance than the familial ones. In the course of the film’s events, we learn the secrets of the Judge’s past, of Hank’s past, of Glen’s past. And revelations about the Judge’s health are not particularly surprising in this kind of film either. Predictably, as well, Hank reconnects with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga), now the owner of a local bar and eatery, and we learn how their high-school romance fits into Hank’s family history. And on top of all that, we learn that Dickham has his own axe to grind. I won’t reveal the ultimate verdict in the murder case, but I probably don’t have to reveal whether or not Hank and his father are reconciled in the end. But it may not be much of a surprise because, predictably, in a “crowd-pleaser,” things tend to work out well, even if they do so in a melodramatic fashion.
But leaving it at that does not do justice to the movie. Duvall is compelling and remarkable and sympathetic as the domineering Judge whose physical and mental powers are slipping from him. Downey demonstrates some of the boundless talent he displayed in his early roles, like Chaplin, though the glib, fast-talking, arrogant, amoral Hank of the movie’s opening scenes is no great stretch from Tony Stark of the Ironman series. Still, it’s a Tony Stark with an actual heart beneath his iron armor, and it is indeed a joy to see Downey in a role that gives him something more to do that merely dispense wisecracks and act cynical. His relationship with his daughter, played by the talented young Emma Tremblay, is believable and provides an interesting contrast of parent-child connections with his scenes with his own father.
There are some problems with the script, of course. For one thing, it’s too long. There is not enough here to sustain a 141 minute film. Some of the plot elements seem gratuitous and lead nowhere: The relationship between Hank and Samantha’s daughter, for example, is pointless and it takes attention away from the central concerns of the film. Hank’s relationship with his wife is undeveloped and we completely forget about it as the film goes on (and on, and on). Strong is given very little to do with the part of Dale, who seems to be nothing more than a generalized “mentally challenged” person without any truly distinguishing characteristics, except to present a problem that will need to be dealt with if the Judge is convicted and sent to prison. Also a bit annoying is the clichéd depiction of the small town life as idyllic compared with the evils of the big city—the cinematography makes Carlinville look like a Norman Rockwell painting (as my wife called it), but it’s actually pretty difficult to imagine why anyone would actually want to live there.
The worst part of the film occurs in the last fifteen minutes or so, when a climactic scene in court turns into a confessional of all kinds of family secrets from the witness stand, which is not only unrealistic in itself, but ties up the difficulties of the main characters’ relationships into a neat little box that makes everybody understand and, ultimately, leads to mutual forgiveness and blah, blah, blah. Prior to that scene, I was prepared to give the film a much higher rating, because it seemed to avoid the trap of simple solutions to very difficult relational problems, and to resist the easy sentimental reconciliation that so seldom actually takes place in real life. It’s the opting for the easy answer, not the clichés or sentiment, that bothers me most about this film. There are, I freely admit, some very nice parts of this movie, and I really wanted to like it, but it doesn’t all come together in a real way in the end, and I’m afraid that has to be put on the director. Sorry judge, I find you guilty of oversimplification. I’m going to have to go with two Jacqueline Susanns on this one.
This week, Cinemark and Turner Classic Movies began showing the classic film Gone With the Wind on the big screen across the country, in commemoration of the film’s 75th anniversary. The movie premiered in Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, and went on to become the top grossing film in history—a title it still holds, if the 1939 gross is adjusted for inflation. The film also won ten academy awards, a record for its day, and was named number four on the AFI list of the 100 greatest films of the twentieth century. In previous re-releases, the film had been shown in a converted Cinemascope projection, but for purposes of the 75th anniversary, the film was shown in its original projection, so that audiences could see it exactly as it was shown in 1939.
To write a review of a film that already has this kind of history seems an exercise in futility. But it does seem as if a revaluation of the film may be worth doing on the occasion of its reaching the three-quarters of a century mark. I was rather surprised to walk into the theater to find a completely full house, and the excitement of such a crowd and its reactions made the experience quite different than watching a DVD of the film, even the newly available 75th anniversary DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, with its eight hours of bonus materials.
I thought about reviewing the film as if it were a new release, and try to judge it accordingly, but I found this impossible because of this: the movie would never be made in today’s market. There are several reasons for this, the most practical one being the fact that no one today would make a four-hour film for popular consumption. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter than those of our grandparents in the ’30s. Nowadays, filmmakers are much more likely to take, say, a 280-page novel like The Hobbit (which, interestingly, came out the same year as Margaret Mitchell’s novel) and turn it into three two-hour movies, than to take a thousand page novel like Gone With the Wind and make it one very long movie. The cynic in me says that the contemporary way forces you to pay three times to see the whole story, while David O. Selznik, GWTW’s producer, only made you pay once. But then the even more cynical part of me answers that if Selznik had thought of it, he would have made his movie into a trilogy as well.
Other aspects of Gone With the Wind are equally archaic. Take, for example, the use of intertitles on which transitional language was placed in order to introduce new scenes. These text frames remind us as viewers that in 1939 Hollywood was only about a decade or so beyond the silent film era, and these intertitles are a holdover from that period. But more than the technical clunkiness of these, the language itself—full of overly sentimental, romanticized descriptions of the Old South—is offensive and laughable from a contemporary point of view. The opening scene of the film is introduced by these words:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…
The idealized image given here probably struck a chord among many 1939 viewers, especially in the South, but contemporary viewers would not stand for it. Slave-owners were not cavaliers, and though they may have talked about honor, their definition of honor in this film (with the exception of the romanticized Ashley Wilkes) has nothing to do with idealized chivalry but rather with hypersensitivity to personal insult. And to imply that the relationship of “Master and Slave” was part of an idealized world, as this does by putting it into this romanticized context, is nothing short of outrageous. This kind of flowery absurdity convinces me that one of the film’s ten Academy Awards—the one given to Sidney Howard for adapted screenplay—was quite undeserved (though since Howard had died in the interim, the award may have been a sentimental one—the first posthumous award in Oscar history).
Later in the film, at the end of the war, the intertitle continues its idealized view of the confederate soldier:
Home from their lost adventure came the tattered Cavaliers…Grimly they came hobbling back to the desolation that had once been a land of grace and plenty. And with them came another invader…more cruel and vicious than any they had fought…the Carpetbagger.
The implication, of course, is that the Union army was cruel and vicious—as is the Yankee deserter that Scarlett shoots when he invades Tara—so that the confederate army was fighting a kind of holy war against those evil powers, rather than a war to protect an immoral institution, and that even after the war that struggle had to continue against the evil carpetbaggers who invaded the land. It is no accident that the carpetbagger depicted in the film is an African American. Nor is it an accident that the action taken by the men in Scarlett’s circle to “clean out the shantytown” where Scarlett was accosted, in which Ashley Wilkes is wounded and Scarlett’s husband Frank Kennedy is killed, is (though the film glosses it over) a glorified Ku Klux Klan affair.
And speaking of Ashley Wilkes: could such a character ever be portrayed on screen in a contemporary film? He is not simply a less attractive character than he may have been in 1939—a brooding intellectual with no ambition or initiative, whose only concern seems to be dwelling on the beauty that has been lost to the world with the collapse of his way of life. In creating him Mitchell may have had in mind some of the characteristics of the romantic Byronic hero of the nineteenth century, a character type who was intelligent, depressive, emotionally and intellectually tortured, traumatized, highly emotional—but she failed to give Ashley some of the other Byronic characteristics—cunning, rebelliousness, recklessness—that might have made him more believable. I have no difficulty believing his leading Scarlett on while steadfastly standing by his wife—that is a very human thing to do. But his conversation with Scarlett after the war, when he tells her that it is only his way of life that he mourns, not the end of slavery, declaring he would have freed all his slaves after his father died, is pure self-deception: To imply that his lamented way of life could have been at all possible if it were not built on the backs of slaves is absurd, and if he actually believes that he is an imbecile. Yet it seems clear that Margaret Mitchell probably believed it. This is a character that could not possibly be portrayed in a contemporary film, unless it was done with a great deal of irony.
I have less of a problem with Melanie Wilkes. She is certainly idealized, but she seems more real than Ashley. I have known individuals of great kindness, who love their spouses and their close friends so deeply that nothing the other does can change their generous view of those people. Though Melanie is “too good to live,” something of a Hollywood archetype, she’s not too good to be believed.
But continuing the list of aspects of GWTW that could not fly in today’s world, consider for a moment the famous scene where the jealous and intoxicated Rhett seizes Scarlet and carries her, struggling, up that wide red-carpeted staircase toward her bedroom. The film cuts to the following morning, and a Scarlet who wakes up singing, dreamily content. Really? The woman is raped by her husband and, fulfilling every misogynist stereotype, is subdued and happy about it. That’s the way to handle your woman! If she’s cranky, she just needs to get laid, and then she’ll be submissive again, as God intended. Of course, the concept of marital rape is a relatively recent legal phenomenon, and perhaps the scene can be excused as a product of its time, when the medieval concept of the “marriage debt”—the tenet that the wife did not have the right to refuse sexual favors to her husband if he demanded them—was still in effect on most levels of American society.
Such an excuse cannot be made for positive portrayal of slavery as a benevolent institution in the film. That ship had long sailed, and it was anachronistic, and a kind of pandering to Southern sympathies, to depict the institution in such a way some 75 years after the Civil War. Yet Gone With the Wind does so. Big Sam, the foreman of Tara’s field hands, may be the most egregious example of this. Happy at one point to go and dig ditches for the Confederacy, Big Sam rescues Scarlett from an assault in Shantytown, and then agrees to go back to Tara, virtually eschewing his freedom and returning to the place he had been a slave, saying “I got enough of them carpetbaggers.”
Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy, a silly, lazy, irresponsible girl, is presented as the norm of the African American: someone who, like Big Sam, would be unable to survive in a world where she didn’t have benevolent white folks like Scarlett to look after her. But the fiction of benevolent slaveholders is belied vividly in Scarlett’s relationship with Prissy, as she threatens to “take a strap to her” at one point, and at another slaps the girl hard in the face. Of course, Scarlett slaps Ashley and Rhett in the film as well, but those are not slaps given to inferiors who cannot fight back, and the slap of Prissy caused a gasp among members of the audience when I watched the film.
It is certainly likely that some slave-owners were in fact benevolent and treated their slaves as well as they could under the circumstances, and it is certainly true that there may have been some slaves who saw freedom as a difficult challenge and had some affection for their masters. But this was certainly not the norm, as GWTW depicts it, and, more importantly, as last year’s Oscar winning Twelve Years a Slave (a healthy corrective to Gone With the Wind) demonstrated convincingly, even white masters whose intentions were essentially humane (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s character) were unavoidably cruel because of the inhumanity of the system itself. One cannot for long serve ice-water in Hell.
The single exception to this absurd depiction of slaves and slavery is the character of Mammy. Hattie McDaniel is able to take what could have been a stereotypical role of a black household servant and turn it into a memorable portrayal of a woman who knows her own worth, demands the respect of those around her, brooks no impertinence from anyone, white or black, is the closest confidante of her mistress and knows her well enough to be able to manipulate her, and provides the voice of reason to her often impetuous mistress and, in fact, to the rest of the cast. Mammy is in many ways the choral figure of the drama, the character in whom the audience recognizes the responses it should be having—in her comment to Scarlett when Melanie goes to meet Ashley upon his return from the war (“He’s her husband, ain’t he?”), or her reactions to Rhett and Scarlet’s shocking mutual accusations after the death of their daughter Bonnie, for example. When I watched the film this time, the audience’s strongest reactions were when Mammy was on the screen. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that in many ways, Hattie McDaniel’s performance redeems the film from its own unhealthy nostalgia.
For obvious reasons, the film was strongly censured in the African-American community, and, despite her Oscar win, McDaniel (the first black actor to be so honored) was roundly criticized. Walter Francis White, leader of the NAACP, called her an “Uncle Tom” for taking part in the movie, to which McDaniel is said to have responded, “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” In retrospect, it seems today that Hattie McDaniel was able to rise above the material Hollywood offered her and make it memorable, in the same way that Mammy rises above her position at Tara and earn the respect of all other characters in the story.
But it is in fact the performances that, taken together, save this movie. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is viewed by many as an iconic performance, and of course netted her the first of her two Oscars. I’m not sure it would play quite as well in today’s market: Leigh was, primarily, a classically trained British stage actress, and her acting style may be a bit mannered for contemporary film audiences. Still, her soliloquy at the end of Act I, with her powerful “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” remains one of the most memorable moments in American film. And her character’s story retains its original appeal: stripped of the trappings of its absurdly romanticized setting (and the uncomfortable rape scene with its aftermath), Scarlett’s drive, her refusal to be beaten by the powerful forces of her environment that contrive to keep her down, her canny business acumen and ability to go beyond the antebellum limits and expectations placed upon her sex as she faces the reality of the postbellum world, make her an early feminist poster-child, a role that certainly plays well to audiences today.
More amenable to contemporary tastes is surely Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. With an ease and naturalness that enables him to smirk, scowl, and banter his way into the hearts of every woman in the audience (how can Scarlett seriously prefer Ashley to him?), Gable owns this part. In one of the great travesties of Academy Award history, Gable lost the Oscar to Robert Donat (for Goodbye Mr. Chips)—a worthy actor but, realistically, Gable’s performance is a timeless and indelible example of film acting and charisma. Donat’s is forgotten.
Beyond the brilliant cast, the technical aspects of the film are remarkable. Its brilliant use of Technicolor—it won a special Academy Award for its use of color “for the enhancement of the dramatic mood”—paved the way for more and more color films to be made. Its period costumes are lavish and authentic throughout. Max Steiner’s musical score is memorable, the use of the recurring “Tara’s theme” providing an inspiration for later film composers, notably Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score for Doctor Zhivago (with its recurring “Lara’s Theme”).
But more notably than all of these are the brilliant and sometimes revolutionary uses of the camera in the film. Cinematographers Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan were responsible for some of the most memorable shots in movie history: that passionate scene of Rhett carrying Scarlet up that wide red staircase into the shadows above; the shots of the hoop skirts in the dance scene in Savannah; the shadow of Melanie’s door as it closes in Scarlett’s face; and the shot that everyone remembers—the long crane shot which begins with Scarlett looking for Doctor Meade at the train station in Atlanta and then pulls the camera further and further back, showing a broader and broader area, covered with dozens, then hundreds, then what seems like thousands of wounded soldiers all lying in pain on the ground around her, finally moving back to reveal a tattered confederate flag flapping in the breeze over the scene of devastation. The film might be worth seeing for that scene alone. Well, that and Hattie McDaniel.
All of these things combine to make the film a great one despite its other shortcomings. Add to them the sheer scope of the production—Selznik used 2,400 extras, 1,100 horses, 375 other animals, and employed 50 actors with spoken parts for his four-hour epic. No, the film could not be made today, in part because of its objectionable world view, but in part also because of its sheer enormity. That such a project could be conceived and then completed is worthy of recognition. With some reservations, I need to give this film four Shakespeares.
I’ve never been a big fan of the MPAA rating system, which will give a film an R rating, for instance, because of foul language but turn a blind eye toward gun violence because, of course, the language is going to have a more profound negative effect on teenagers in the audience than showing someone blowing away anyone he doesn’t like. But Scott Frank’s new crime thriller, A Walk among the Tombstones, featuring Liam Neeson as unlicensed private eye Matt Scudder, is absolutely worthy of its R rating, and you should keep that in mind as you consider seeing it. From the early flashback sequence in which the camera scans a woman’s body in extreme close-up of what appears at first to be a sexual encounter—until the tape over her mouth and the tear in her eye reveal that this is something much darker—the film examines violence toward women in a way that may have you cringing. It follows Scudder’s investigation of the torture and mutilation of three women by a pair of killers who seem to enjoy brutalizing their victims.
Not that the violence is graphically depicted. To his credit Frank does not engage in gratuitous voyeurism of the thrill-killers’ debauchery. Nearly all of the violence in the film is implied. On the other hand, the women themselves are also only implied: not a single victim of the mass-killers is allowed a speaking part in the film. Two of them we see only in pictures. The third—the woman in the opening sequence—is shown only in those extreme close-ups, and that tape across her mouth is certainly suggestive. As one of the killers tells Scudder at one point, “Once they’re in the van, they’re just body parts.”
The objectification of and violence toward women are seen in the film as the epitome of evil, but the troubling truth is that the film itself also banks on those things to engage the interest of the audience. And curiously it seems to know that is precisely what it is doing, because there is moral ambiguity all over this movie.
The screenplay, written by Frank, is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, part of a long-running series of noir crime novels featuring the ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder. Frank is known particularly as the acclaimed screenwriter of films like Get Shorty (1995), Out of Sight (1998), Minority Report (2002) and The Lookout (2007), which was also his first directing credit on a feature film. His script for this film is nicely done for the most part, with a few surprise twists and some scintillating dialogue. The story follows Block’s novel fairly closely: Scudder, as an alcoholic NYPD cop, had shot three perpetrators in 1991 after they robbed a bar and shot the bartender. After that day he quit drinking, and he is seen several times in the film at AA meetings—an important aspect of his character and one that is apparently important to Block as well.
Eight years later, Scudder, now an unlicensed PI, is approached by a rich young “construction boss” Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame) to track down two men who kidnapped his wife, took $400,000 in ransom money from him, and then returned his wife to him in pieces in the trunk of a car. Scudder refuses when he learns that Kristo is in fact a heroin trafficker. But when Kristo comes to him again with a tape of his wife’s brutal murder, Scudder agrees to help, and soon finds that the same killers were responsible for two other grisly murders—also of women connected to the drug world. He knows he needs to catch these psychopaths before they kill again.
In the meantime Scudder has met and befriended T.J., a black homeless teenager who spends most of his time in the public library and helps him with his research (played by rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley from The X Factor). Their relationship is an interesting sidelight in the movie, though has little to do with the main plot. But it is T.J. to whom Scudder reveals his most private secret—the reason he resigned from the police force and gave up drinking. The day he shot the three thieves, one of his shots went astray in a crowd of people and killed a 7-year-old girl (while this is intended as a revelation in the film, the fact that it is revealed in the movie’s preview pretty much ruins any shock value it might have, and excuses me for what may otherwise have been a spoiler alert). When the killers he is tracking kidnap the 14-year-old daughter of a Russian gang lord, Scudder seems on a mission to get the girl back unharmed. Essentially, the film explores Scudder’s search for redemption after his killing of the girl eight years ago. It seems that rescuing this kidnapped girl, and rescuing T.J. from his own dire situation, are the means by which that redemption could be achieved. And so as an audience you end up rooting for the drug dealers. Did I say moral ambiguity?
There is much to admire in this movie. The gritty cinematography from Miahi Malaimare Jr. gives the whole film a grungy, neo-noir look. The score is understated and occasionally truly creepy, as when the romantic music plays over the scene with the gagged woman. And Neeson is remarkable as ever, bringing his empathetic, likable and genuine on-screen persona to the damaged, downtrodden Scudder.
Although the preview makes this film look very much like another Taken style action flick about a vigilante going after criminals with a vengeance and taking no prisoners, that is not what it is, and not who Matt Scudder is. When T.J. asks him what it takes to be a good detective, he answers “Patience. Instinct. Blind luck, mostly.” He says nothing about the “very specific set of skills” his Bryan Mils character has in Taken, nor does he really display any. This is a much more nuanced character, and one that Neeson can sink his formidable thespian chops into.
But there are some things about this film that simply don’t sit right. One of those things is the almost cavalier violence toward women which, though hardly presented positively, is still what drives the men in the movie to take action—that is, it is through the women’s torture that the film’s men define themselves. Another difficulty I had with the film is the way the climactic scene of the film is voiced over by a woman reading the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Yes, we see that Scudder is dealing with the demons of his alcoholism, but almost none of the steps are directly applicable to anything that happens in this scene or, for that matter, in the movie in general, especially since nearly all of the steps relate to spiritual guidance from a higher power—a spirituality that we never see Scudder engage in in the film, and which would, given the tormented character Neeson and Frank have created, be completely out of character.
Finally, the film’s conclusion simply seems out of place. A story that has brought us through subtleties of character and complex moral ambiguities suddenly turns Hollywood. Anyone familiar with the novel knows that the book ends in a completely different way, though apparently one that would ratchet up the violence factor. Why Frank backed away from it is a matter of conjecture, but the ending as it is destroyed, for me, any chance for Scudder’s redemption in this film. His life remains unsettled and his morality ambiguous. Perhaps that is what Frank wanted, but it left me feeling unsatisfied.
In the end, while I’d like to give the film a higher rating, because I would probably go to it again, there were just too many things that bothered me. I’m going to go with two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.
In his 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper included significant passages of stream of consciousness that involved flashbacks about Judd Foxman’s relationships with his older brother Paul, as well as memorable scenes that take place only in Judd’s mind. The difficulty of translating those kinds of things to film seems to have been what compelled Topper to leave them out of his script of the film version. Trouble is, without them the story is simply a clichéd portrayal of another dysfunctional family brought together by a domestic tragedy. And it’s been done much better quite recently—in last year’s August Osage County, for example.
Thus the movie’s premise—four siblings come back to their hometown for their father’s funeral, and their mother reveals that their atheist father’s dying wish was that they perform the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, thus forcing them to interact for seven days in the same house—seems somewhat worn. Not surprisingly, the siblings have issues with one another. The film’s protagonist, Judd Altman (changed from the novel’s “Foxman”), is divorcing his wife, whom he walked in on having sex with his boss in the beginning of the movie, but tells everyone she is not there because of a bulging disc. His sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is married to a stereotyped businessman who is constantly on his cell-phone and gives her no help taking care of her two small children. Older brother Paul (Corey Stoll), who has stayed in town and run their father’s store, is having marital difficulties caused by infertility issues, and the baby of the family, Phillip (Adam Driver) is a hapless screw-up who seems to have gotten lucky by getting a wealthy older woman—his therapist—to fall in love with him. How did these kids’ relationship lives get so messed up? The film gives us one possibility: their mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a popular psychologist who made a fortune on her best-selling book Cradle and All, in which she detailed all of her children’s growing pains for the whole world to see. But that is only a small suggestion, and doesn’t come near explaining all that is going on. We are put in the middle of a family “dramedy” (as the blurbs call it) in which there are intimations of weighty events in these characters’ pasts—but they are events we are never made privy to.
This is not to say that there aren’t worthwhile moments in the film. The critical mass of thespian talent in the film prevents it from sinking altogether. Bateman is solid and sympathetic as Judd, even if occasionally one gets the feeling he is channeling his Michael Bluth character from Arrested Development as the only functional member of a dysfunctional family. Fey transcends her comic roots and convincingly plays the frustrated wife who is still in love with her high school sweetheart, Horry (played in a brilliantly understated way by Timothy Olyphant), who lives across the street from her parents’ house and whom she left after an automobile accident damaged his brain so that he still lives with his mother. Fey’s scenes with Bateman are believable and spot-on depictions of adult brother-sister interactions if those siblings are still fairly close. Stoll, memorable for his campy performance as Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, is believable and sympathetic as the solid older brother, and Driver (best known from television’s Girls) is so perfect as the hapless Phillip that it is hard to take your eyes off him.
In addition to Olyphant, some of the other secondary characters’ performances are noteworthy as well: Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) is charming as Judd’s new love interest, and Connie Britton—known chiefly for television roles in Nashville, Friday Night Lights, 24 and American Horror Story—gives a surprisingly sympathetic turn as the therapist in love with her patient.
But Oscar-winner Jane Fonda is given little to do, and what she is given simply seems unbelievable, in particular the strange deus-ex-machina ending she springs on her children, which ends up not really explaining anything at all. And one wonders why, though a mother and a psychologist, she seems almost completely unconcerned about all of her children’s many problems. Nor did I buy the fairly gratuitous scene in which Paul’s wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) slips into bed with Judd.
What caused the rift between the brothers in this story? Why is Phillip’s life so aimless? Most importantly, what was Judd’s relationship with his father? At one point the family members are sharing memories of their father, and Judd can’t come up with a single thing. An accident later in the film reminds him of one incident, but we have no way of knowing why it was significant, or why he can’t remember others. There is simply too much left out of this story.
Nor is the tone of the film consistent. Sure, life has funny as well as sad moments, but this particular “dramedy” seems to have some difficulty deciding what it wants to be, and that is probably the fault of the director. Shawn Levy, best known for films like Night at the Museum and The Internship, at times lets the atmosphere of those movies intrude on this one, so that he seems at times to be directing a sit com and at others a Lifetime movie. There are moments of sincere emotion here as well as moments of sometimes boisterous, sometimes black humor. But I’m not sure how a three-year-old’s throwing feces around the living room, or a scene in which a married couple’s having sex is broadcast via baby monitor to a room full of mourners, is appropriate in any of those categories.
In the end, I can only wish that this film had been better executed, or that I knew more about these characters’ pasts. Maybe I just should have read the book—and maybe you should too. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that my wife liked this film better than I did, and so if you’re like her you might too. In deference to her tastes, I am giving the film two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.