Contains Moderate Violins

Music of the Heart (Wes Craven, 1999)

This is perhaps the most disturbing of Craven’s films.

It’s heart-warming.

I mean, what the fuck?

This is based on a true story of Roberta Guaspari, here played by Meryl Streep, dumped by her Navy SEAL husband for a younger model, picked up and speedily dropped by a writer, but not before she’s argued her way into a job at a East Harlem school. Well, not exactly a job, but a programme to teach a few of the children to play the violin.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Some of the kids don’t want to be there and one of them is killed and there’s a nasty trad music teacher who hates her guts but doesn’t seem to age in ten years. Slowly, she makes progress, overcoming resistance, opening eyes, battling low expectations and the programme expands to other schools.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

And then the authorities cut the budget, so the programme is doomed unless the kids and Roberta can raise the money. Fortunately, photographer Dorothea von Haeften (Jane Leeves, showing the talent for accents she brings to Daphne in Frasier), knows a few proper fiddlers and the day might be saved.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

Craven resists the temptation to throw in a few nightmares or inbred families, and even the corruption of the central family thanks to Charlie leaving them is explicitly celebrated towards the end of the film — sometimes it’s better for daddy to go.

It has to be noted that the kids are a diverse bunch — African American, Hispanic, Latino/Latina, with a few more white faces in later years, a character in calipers — and Streep here is presumably Greek-American rather than Jewish. A mother is given an apposite speech about white knights coming in to save the underprivileged, and asked her to name any non-White composers (she can’t, or doesn’t), but somehow she endures. Angela Bassett, as school principal Janet Williams, is given a frankly better role than the one she has in Vampire in Brooklyn: tough, caring, hard ass, wise.

It’s about the redemptive power of art, innit.

In the hands of a Scorsese, we might have been clearer about the passage of time — she seems to use same classroom for over a decade and may have slight changes of hair, but it’s not clear if it’s 1975 or 1985 or 1995. Her sons suddenly turn from adorable tots to lanky teens, ready to pimp her out for a new boyfriend, but the film is less epic than its two hour plus running time might suggest.

This is, perhaps, Craven’s most overtly political movie and is, “Pére-Lachaise” in Paris Je t’aime (2006) aside, pretty well his only venture out of the horror genres. Whilst based on a true story, it seems almost too easy. The jeopardy never seems as high as when a character’s soul is at stake.

That being said, my eyes were distinctly moist for the last fifteen minutes.

The horror, the horror.

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Saving Captain Powers

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Actually, that’s not fair, there’s a scene where the train crosses a bridge in New York or Brooklyn that is clearly meant to mirror a sequence when Hanks is leaving East Berlin by train.

I tend to prefer Spielberg’s Entertainments. I can see why he’d want to make something like The Color Purple or Schindler’s List as a means of getting films made that a less money-making talent would struggle, but I think there’s a political confusion to his serious efforts that he hasn’t lumbered his thrillers with. As Greg Tuck pointed out to me years ago there’s something disturbingly exceptional about his subject matter — Jews who survive the holocaust or slaves who get to go home. Gotta have that triumph of the human spirit.

But of course Spielberg can tell a story on a big canvas and has trained us to watch crowds — but he never knows where to end a movie. Imagine how devastating Minority Report would have been if it had ended with Tom Cruise in jail rather than conjuring up an estranged wife who suddenly forgives and springs him out of jail.

Bridge of Spies is the same. And it is posing as an Entertainment.

It should have ended with Tom Hanks on the bridge, unclear as to what will happen next, rather than bringing him back home to hearth and family and acclaim. There’s a line in the film about how it doesn’t matter what people think of you as long as you know that what you have done is right. But Hanks’s character is given redemption and applause, in a scene that echoes an earlier restless silence in a train in which he has been viewed as a traitor.

The film begins with a bridge — the Brooklyn bridge — and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) posing as an artist in Brooklyn and receiving some nuclear secrets of one kind or another. He is arrested and put on trial — and in order to show that the American way of life is sacrosanct, he is given a trial of sorts, with insurance litigator James Donovan (Hanks) called upon by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend the indefensible. The trial is not as rigged as it might be, but in here we have a commentary of the importance of the constitution being followed even in times of war. I’m guessing we’re meant to have Guantanamo Bay in mind.

And Hanks is the most Mr Smith style actor in Hollywood today, with rare exceptions playing the decent, sincere, all-American man. If anyone can make us care for an insurance man as Capraesque rather than Kafka-esque it is Hanks. And Alda, in M*A*S*H*, played one of the most decent characters in sitcom history, so much so that he’s mostly acted against type since. He is very wary about Hanks’s attempt to appeal on Abel’s behalf. Donovan was smart enough to know that at some point an American spy would be captured and a swap could be made with Abel if he were still alive rather than executed. (Is Abel his real name? Is seems too NATO phonetic alphabet to be entirely genuine.)

And into this plunges U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers and obviously Donovan is sent to negotiate his release.

We sort of know how it’s going to end because, yanno, history, but the waters are muddied by an American PhD student who gets caught in the wrong side of the wall in Berlin. Meanwhile, Spielberg brings his fetish for widescreen historical reconstruction, in this case of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And you can’t help noticing that this is a male world — the only women are wives, daughters, secretaries and cleaning ladies and everyone else is about bone structure. I suspect it’s a nearly all white world — the only African American I recall being on the back of a lorry in Brooklyn. But America is recuperated and that is hardly exceptional for Spielberg.

Hanks is solid throughout, but frankly the film is stolen by Rylance, whose portrayal of Abel is somewhere between his Thomas Cromwell and Private James Frazer from Dads Army. You kind of despair for the CIA, of course, as they think that Abel might come from Northern England. As in Scotland, Northern England. But he is wonderfully dry and curiously makes you feel sorry for a spy.

And so in the end, the Guantanamo parallels aren’t pushed to their limit. The American way of life is recuperated and following the Constitution is the thing to do (and I wonder if we needed a little historical context for the pledge of allegiance “under God” in the school sequence, which dated from 1954 and the McCarthy era). And rather than leave Hanks unclear as to the fate of his unlikely friend, we need to bring Hanks back to home and family and people thinking right of him.

Shouldn’t It Be “And I”?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

There’s a scene towards the end of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl when Greg (Thomas Mann) goes into Rachel Kushner’s (Olivia Vooke) bedroom through the window. This was somewhat of a relief to me, since I was getting worried about Gregg’s use of the front door. Admittedly, it’s necessary that he go via Denise Kushner (Molly Shannon). The teen bedroom is that curious private/public space, the first space a teen owns and yet on sufferance of the parents. (At one point Greg threatens to look through his parents’ things in their bedroom; his father (Nick Offerman) warns him there would be a lot of tampons.) Erika Pearson, discussing the online presence of the typical teen, refers to the glass bedroom:

Inside the bedroom, private conversations and intimate exchanges occur, each with varying awareness of distant friends and strangers moving past transparent walls that separate groups from more deliberate and constructed ‘outside’ displays. The glass bedroom itself is not an entirely private space, nor a true backstage space as Goffman articulated, though it takes on elements of both over the course of its use. It is a bridge that is partially private and public, constructed online through signs and language

In the teen drama the identity is constructed in the actual bedroom (and the high school), although it is not necessarily a sexualised space. Greg here makes a big deal of not falling in love with Rachel, as well as his masturbatory habits. But, like the vampire, he also needs to be invited in.

Rachel has leukaemia. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) has ordered Greg — awkward, dorky, self-loathing — to go to talk to her and be a friend, whether either rof them like it or not. Both Rachel and Greg are those kind of lovable, wiser-than-their-years, square-pegs-in-round-holes that Kevin Williamson put on the TV map in Dawson’s Creek (and Whedon did in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and are obviously film films because, hey, we are watching a film. Remember cinema is narcissistic (see The Wolfpack) and Gregg not only likes films, he makes his own versions with his “co-worker” Earl (Ronald Cyler II). He likes Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorses, 1976) and Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982) and the works of Powell and Pressburger and the two have made their own versions of forty films. (I hope the DVD will have these on.)

And so Earl and Gregg are persuaded to make a film for Rachel as she is dying — but Greg can’t quite work out how to do so as his present (a carefully cultivated neutrality at school) and future (university) begin to disintegrate.

The bittersweet nature of the film is balanced by a degree of whimsy — I knew I recognised the name of production company Indian Paintbrush and on checking they produced The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014), among others. I assume the animation expertise from some of those films is part of the talent here. It is perhaps shamelessly manipulative of our emotions.

It also offers a commentary on race in America, although I suspect it bodges it. Earl is African American and lives in a poorer part of town (there’s a factory or plant in the back of shot), Greg is WASP and Rachel is Jewish (there’s a minora carefully visible in more or less the first shot of her house). Difference is not shirked, but there is a risk that Earl will become the magical negro that Hollywood loves. He does, however, perceive Rachel as white. I suspect the minor characters are less diverse in their identities.

(It’s only now, a day afterwards, that I’m thinking of Robin Wood’s account of the interracial buddies (and Leslie Fiedler’s version in Love and Death in the American Novel) that I wonder whether the true love story is of me and Earl — with the dying girl as the heteronormative alibi. In their version of Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) there is a distinctly eroticised shot of Earl.)

Meanwhile the film is stolen by Nick Offerman as Greg’s father, a sociology professor, and by Jon Bernthal as Mr. McCarthy, a history teacher, both of whom are clearly Greg’s male role models and are associated with strange food. Make of that what you will.

Bibliography

  • Hicks, Heather J. (2003) “Hoodoo Economics: White Men’s Work and Black Men’s Magic in Contemporary American Film”, Camera Obscura 18(2): 27-55.
  • Pearson, Erika (2009) “All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks”, First Monday 14(3): http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2162/2127

The Man from Unclever

The Man from Unclever (Guy Ritchie, 2015)

There was a moment part way through The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when Morricone music swells on the soundtrack and I thought Quentin Tarantino does repeat himself. It’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) all over again.

Then I realised it was a Guy Ritchie film.

Still, Tarantino had been down to direct (and you can see why), but he did Jackie Brown (1997) instead, I suspect his best film. Soderbergh, too, but he did enough already with the Oceans sequence (and I like Soderbergh).

I remember liking Ritchie’s work very briefly because Lock, Stick and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) because it wasn’t Merchant fucking Ivory – but then we got a spew of London gangster movies which were clearly mockney heritage, mocknerage if you will. I saw Sherlock (2009) much against my better judgement and knowledge of London geography, and it at least scores over other versions by not being created by Moffatt.

So thirteen versions of the script in, we get American art thief and reluctant agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) sent to help Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape from Cold War Berlin – only Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is there to prevent him. Solo succeeds, or we wouldn’t have a film, only to find his new mission is to help her find her father because of, yanno, uranium bomb and has been given Kuryakin as a partner to help. So, it becomes a parable of détente – or it would do if it put a tenth as much of its channelling the 1960s-as-GQ fashion photo shoot.

Cavill’s Solo is no whatisname from The Thomas Crown Affair, he’s not even Lovejoy, although he’s looking like Connery-era Bond undercover with Don Draper. His delivery is so mannered that it’s a wonder he can maintain the accent – utterly baffling. Hammer has his moments, but he also has an unreconstructed pre-feminism masculinity to him that is uncomfortable to like. He also has to do Incredible Hulk impressions (although he never tells us not to make him angry). Kuryakin’s playing of chess reminds me that the film is partly dependent on the kind of plotting that I’ve most recently seen in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, 2015), where the protagonist can predict what his opponent will do twenty minutes ahead of him.

And then, at the end, you realise that the whole film is an origin myth, the killing of the Waynes, the biting of the spider, because God forbid we begin in media res. I do remember watching the original television series – and have a faint sense of a crush on one of the leading characters although I forget who – but to be honest I have no memory of the series itself. The point of the film is to get Solo and Kuryakin into U.N.C.L.E. – explaining the broken-backed narrative that is typical of the first film in most superhero franchises: acquire power, acquire vocation. The sequel will no doubt include two villains and the threequel will have them fighting their doubles.

All of this is to damn the film – which is just so by the numbers dull. You can see the Bond and the Harry Palmer bits and the Steve McQueen of The Great Escape and whatisname from Thomas Crown and moments of early Paul Newman and even The Italian Job without the minis or Benny Hill or Noel Coward. And those are all much better films.

The oddest thing is that the film is largely stolen by Hugh Grant and the thought that a spin-off with him might be more fun.

(It could have been worse. It could have been Tom Cruise as Henry Cavill.)

Paper Chase

Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, 2015)

I’m pretty sure there are a couple of moments in Philip K. Dick novels – Time Out of Joint? Voices from the Street? – when a character looks at their world and thinks it’s all paper. Or at the very least a stage set. That idea is here in a speech given to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) in this YA film, looking over Orlando from the top of a skyscraper. She also appears to be a bit of a Dickian anima sprite, there to bring some excitement to the middle-aged protagonist.

Except that the protagonist is here a teen, Quentin or Q (Nat Wolff), best friends forever with fellow geeks or nerds Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), all of whom are prematurely middle-aged. Well, apart from Ben, who is turned on by any woman he knows, including Q’s mother.

Maybe that is also middle aged.

Q and Margo are neighbours, once inseparable, but grown apart through high school, until one night she calls upon him to help her commit nine acts of revenge. I didn’t quite count nine, so perhaps there’s stuff we didn’t see, but it brings Q alive at last. But then Margo vanishes – leaving Q clues to find her with. He has a choice – go to the prom, graduate, go to university, graduate, becomes a doctor, get married, have kids and be happy or find Margo. You can imagine the choice he makes.

I’ve got a copy of The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which has also been filmed and is also written by John Green, but I’ve yet to read it. I should remedy this. This is one of those films that is cleverly structured to undermine your objections to it. Isn’t she a little too idolised? Check. Isn’t it a little too convenient? Check. If he gets the girl, then it’s a rather trivial film with the female as impossible yet winnable love object, with the emphasis on object. If she rejects him, is that any better? And I guess since Galaxy Quest, nerds winning has been a thing – and you could imagine Justin Long of that film and several dozen TV classics in two of the central roles. Actually, its pedigree probably includes The Sure Thing.

Radar’s character occasionally risks stealing the movie with his parents’ collection of Black Santas (an attempt to get into The Guinness Book of World Records) and the moment when he is given a heritage-not-hate t-shirt (a detail that presumably became ultra-satirical since the movie was made).

What makes me resist the film a little, however, is the first person narration. Yes, there are a couple of scenes that Q isn’t in so I quibble a bit at that, but mainly I’ve a sense of being told not shown. In a film such as Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), there is a distinct age difference between the narrating self and the narrated self – which can bring pathos or irony or nostalgia according to taste – but here I felt I was being instructed. The director or script writer didn’t trust us and that’s a shame.