In-flight insights

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In-flight movies used to provide the very definition of the term “captive audience”. I remember reading that there are always a million people in the air, flying to various destinations, and it’s fun to picture them all being forced to watch Kurt Russell in Disney’s THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD as they scream through the stratosphere in their jet-propelled passenger tubes. Of course, they had the option of not watching anything, unless they had the misfortune of flying Air Ludovici.

Today the options are wider, so I got to pick from a range of recent product. BENJAMIN BUTTON felt like a transatlantic journey when I saw it in an earthbound auditorium, and it seemed possible that MARLEY & ME might have me tearing open the emergency exit or attempting to detonate my shoe within seconds of the opening credits, so I gave both a wide berth and started in on Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO. This seemed not bad, although the caricaturing of Clint’s family was overdone: Clint’s face creasing into that ever-so-familiar moue of distaste at the sight of his granddaughter’s pierced navel was extremely funny, but when the kid turned out to be an incredibly spoiled, insensitive brat, it seemed to let some of the wind out of the humour. Clint’s legendary hard-line stance, applied to domestic drama, is a promising trope, epitomised by his beautiful Harry Callahan line-reading, “Get off my lawn,” but it’s more effective if the stuff he’s pitted against starts very small and petty. When the grand-daughter openly laughed at Clint’s wife’s funeral, I sort of felt he’d be justified in reaching for the Magnum right there and then.

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But I can’t actually critique this film because an aeroplane isn’t the place to watch it, and I started to feel restless. Maybe you just need distracting crap when you’re hurtling about the upper atmosphere. I put on QUANTUM OF SHIT-TITLE, the latest James Bond. I’d heard that the opening car chase epitomised what I shall henceforth call the New Incoherence, that tendency of action movies nowadays to serve up ten minutes of motion-blur and impact FX and call it a brilliantly choreographed set-piece.

The film begins, with chase in media res, and I thought, “No, what’s happening here is that they’ve reduced the chase to the abstract, details and moments, and it will settle down and become specific soon.” It seemed like a nice way to start a chase.

But not, I would submit, a nice way to continue and end it. Who’s driving which car? Which car is in front? A police radio voice, obviously dubbed in to add a vestige of clarity, says something about a grey Aston Martin, so I started looking for the familiar Bond car, latest model. But Bond’s car is black, like all the other cars (a fairly basic mistake, surely?). Then the titles, full of CGI sand-storms, which are the one thing CGI can’t do at all (see THE MUMMY and sequels) and the worst Bond theme song ever, and I turn off.

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FROST/NIXON. Fiona had been keen on seeing this, and I’d poo-pooed it. Didn’t want to see no stinkin’ Ron Howard film. Fiona like Michael Sheen and Frank Langella and Toby Jones, and while I do too, I felt it would be wrong to let that sway me.

Fiona was right, in that the film is very entertaining, and perfect for those parts of your journey when the craft is buffeted by what they call “rough air” and I call GUSTS OF DEATH.

Howard is genetically bland, but skilled. He knows how to serve up his performances, catching an expression just as a door closes. He’s tasteful to the point of translucency, but the plus side of that is he didn’t slather the movie in retro-details or an oldies soundtrack. I was waiting for the one ’70s song to come in a the end though, and it did. Donna Summer.

Michael Sheen at times resembles one of his previous roles, Tony Blair, as much as he does David Frost, perhaps because he’s trying to avoid caricature, and Frost has plunged into self-caricature these days. When a member of the public accosts Sheen’s Frost with the catchphrase, “Hello, good evening, and welcome,” the presenter remarks, “I don’t actually say that.” But Frost today does. He has embraced the one-dimensional image people have of him. (Anybody can impersonate Frost by shaking there head violently from side to side as they speak; Frost doesn’t actually do this, but he sounds as if he does.)  Frost, at least in this movie, resembles Blair in that he’s an over-confident idiot who faces the world from behind a protective grin, raised before him like a Roman legionary’s shield.

Frank Langella as President Dracula is a welcome relief from the ludicrous Spitting Image Nixon puppet seen in WATCHMEN. He’s not quite as magnificent as Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s SECRET HONOR, but he’s good. His slurring is authentic, although in his drunk scene it threatens to jam the film in the projector. He sounds like a man going back in time underwater.

It turns out I’ve seen Rebecca Hall in three different things now, and liked her in all of them, but her range of accents and mannerisms is so rich I never realised it was the same person. I wonder if this will actually hinder her career. It doesn’t seem to be doing so.

Matthew Macfadyen is good as John Birt, although not to mention that he later helped destroy the BBC seems a wasted opportunity (neverwaste an opportunity to kick John Birt)  and Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt actually become the characters you care about. Impossible to really root for Frost. And I certainly hope nobody wants me to root for Tricky. Toby Jones is hilarious as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s agent. The whole performance is reduced to a sneering expression, plus Jones’s startling appearance: bald, round, shiny and beautiful, like a woman’s knee. A woman’s knee emerging from a shirt collar. My God, that’s an arousing image.

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Oh, and Kevin Bacon is playing Clint Eastwood, although for some reason his character is called Jack Brennan.

Peter Morgan’s script is very entertaining, serving up chucklesome moments with the regularity of a tennis champ. It simplifies and distorts, of course. I liked the description of Nixon as having “an anti-democratic personality,” but the movie, like Frost, doesn’t really bring home the enormity of the man’s crimes. There is a good bit about the bombing of Cambodia, but nobody actually comes out and informs the modern audience (whom they’re otherwise quite concerned about) that it was illegal. You could walk out of this movie believeing, as Nixon wants Frost to accept, that it was simply a bit of policy that went wrong. Next to that, the film’s most obvious central lie, that the Frost-Nixon interviews made riveting, dramatic television (they were mostly a snooze) is unimportant.

Still, emboldened at my success in actually watching a film in mid-air, I decided to try something cinematically more stimulating. MILK.

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Great film, and an instructive contrast to FROST/NIXON. There’s more period flavour, much of it thanks to Harris Savides’s beautiful grainy photography. More of a melange of pop music, but some interesting and erratic choices to stop it becoming a tedious array of chart-toppers. While some critics found the film too conventional to satisfy as a Gus Van Sant movie, apart from the too-familiar device of Milk recording his testament on a tape deck, I found the narrational strategies pretty interesting: it’s a mix-and-match approach rather than a “pure” style, with mocked-up home movies, titles on screen, close-ups of campaign posters, split-screen — whatever works.

At the eye of the storm is Sean Penn, giving one of those rare performances which deserve awards and get them. It’s a major transformation without announcing itself as one. His Harvey Milk is lovable, which is something I’ve never felt about a Penn characterisation before. Those aspects of Penn that can seem unappealing — vague aspects I can’t even put a finger on, apart from his obvious unhandsomeness, which are deployed extremely well when he’s playing sleaze-bags and creeps — become endearing vulnerabilities here. His observation of the man he’s playing seems acute, and he’s not pussyfooting around trying to avoid caricature, he just goes for the essence and trusts that will stop any of the outward aspects appearing too outre.

The film I thought of most apart from FROST/NIXON (which, after all, I’d just watched) was PHILADELPHIA, which always seemed like a chickenshit movie to me — well-intentioned and anemic, and paralysed at the thought of its historical import. Jonathan Demme, a nice fellow and a skilled filmmaker, in trying to make a film that would convert homophobes, converted himself into a cartoon Stanley Kramer. Just comparing the Demme and the Van Sant in their approach to the male-on-male kiss, which seems to petrify everybody concerned with PHILADELPHIA, but which is treated in MILK just as it should be — as no big deal. Because if you see it as a big deal, it becomes one. You can’t kiss well under such pressure. And if you’re worried that your audience can’t handle this image… who is your audience? And why do you want to pander to such idiots? MILK, for all its greater “explicitness” (only the playful butt-slap might raise an eyebrow in a “straight movie”)  contains nothing that could shock a sentient human not deeply entrenched in prejudice. I think it’s about context.

Maybe on the return trip I’ll try GRAN TORINO again.

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14 Responses to “In-flight insights”

  1. Do return to Gran Torino cause it’s really quite wonderful. It’s Clint’s Umberto D. in some ways. The slaps at the protagonit’s family may seem glibe at first but it’s a set-up for the revelation that the Vietnamese next-door are his REAL family. His recognition of this fact is worked through his memories of the Koreans he killed back in that war — piling up their bodies like cords of wood, I think he says. Clint began as a knee-jerk right-winder. Now he’s pratically Sidney Lumet. gran Torinio is an “all men are brothers” flick without any windy speeches to that effect. It’s proved by and through the story.

    You are of course spot on about Milk and Penn’s morphing into likeability. What the film captures perfectly is the sheer kick-ass fun of gay activism in its glory days. Kind of a cross between “Hey kids let’s put the show on right here in the barn!” with “We’re taking over the world!!!!!”

    Props to the insanely adorable Emile Hirsch and the fearless James Franco — who with this performance has become every gay man’s ideal boyfriend.

  2. Fiona W Says:

    Re – description of Toby Jones. HA HA HA HA HA! (Come home soon will ya?)

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    I loved Hirsch and Franco too in MILK. I thought it was a very good film but yeah it is more conventional then Van Sant at his peak so I am actually sympathetic to the party line on this occassion. Still it’s better than Van Sant’s other mainstream efforts like FINDING FORRESTER or GOOD WILL HUNTING and it was one of the best films last year(not as great as GRAN TORINO but what is?)

    One technical point, David E., the family next door are Hmong. They are an indigineous people who did live in Vietnam but aren’t exactly mainstream Vietnamese. They got into trouble during the war because they were sympathetic to the American backed sided and later got into trouble with the Vietcong and some of them came to America thanks to some Americans who bothered to acknowledge their existence. The film’s website talks into detail about how they used non-professional Hmong people who lived in Detroit for this film. It’s amazing how terrific the two kids are, especially the girl Ahney Ver.

    Clint Eastwood is more Sam Fuller than Sidney Lumet in my view. Fuller was a iconoclstic, sophisticated liberal, Eastwood is an iconoclastic sophisticated conservative. In many ways, GRAN TORINO is a sequel to THE STEEL HELMET.

  4. You’re right about the Hmong, Arthur. A very interesting distinction. Clint is in some ways closer to Sam than Sidney. But he has a much sunnier disposition than either. He works very carefully and frugally. He plans every detail, hires all the best people and shoots without muss or fuss. He trusts his actors implicitly. Streep had a ball on Bridges of Madison County as did Angelina on Changeling. When he started out directing I thouht he’d stick to being a genre director. But he’s gone WAY beyond that by now.

    As for conventionality re. Gus, Milk is in no way like Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester — whcih are indeed conventional to the max. Gus is steeped in gay history. He has often spoken to me of recalling when the Castro went from hippie to gay “literally overnight.”
    Things have chnaged considerably since that halcyon era and “Gayborhoods” like the Castro aren’t what they once were — refuges and rallying points. People don’t have to go specified areas to be their gay selves anymore. That’s a good thing, but the loss of the “Gayborhoods” isn’t a total ‘win.” They were fun.

    Then too the internet has changed dating forever. Bars are fading fast.
    Still things may revert thanks to the “Craigslist Killer.”

  5. Thanks, David — the film does manage to portray the movement as both desperately important and great fun. It’s either ironic or apt that Milk, a man who is so skilled at putting people at ease and making them happy, is killed by a man who is inherently uncomfortable. Brolin captures this so well: that’s not a happy man.

    The film had to be more conventional, I think, and was conceived as a biopic rather than an experimental exploration, but it’s an intelligent and sophisticated one.

    I could foresee Gran Torino becoming more deep and interesting as it moved onto the neighbourhood conflicts — I’ll definitely come back to it.

    Fiona, I’ll be back in a week! xxx

  6. “A woman’s knee emerging from a shirt collar”

    That is the most hilariously apt description of anything since Clive James’ observation of an oiled-up Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like “a condom filled with walnuts”.

    You, Bradshaw and Interzone’s Nick Lowe are my favourite film reviewers.

  7. You had the same selection of movies that I had to choose from on my trip to Toronto (which is where I now am, fact fans and stalkers). I am going to join in the chorus that urges you to go for Gran Torino again. It has the same faults that marred, say, Million Dollar Baby (the ‘redneck’ family in that were way too specifically disgusting and venal in a similar way to Clint’s family in this) but overall the film is a stunningly simple, powerful and beautiful piece of storytelling. It’s also the first major Hollywood film in a long time that I can recall being set in a real, recognisable America. And the barbershop scene, dealing with ‘man talk’, is the best explanation of why regulations dealing with ‘hate speech’ and suchlike always, always miss the point.

    I also watched Slumdog Squarepants. Beautiful, compellingly filmed, but not really right. That Frieda Pinto, though – a star is born.

  8. A real, recognizable America. Thanks Paul, as a resident of Detroit I’ll take that as a compliment. I’ve yet to see Gran Torino, but it’s one of only a few recent films out there that I want to see, partly due to the fact that it is set in Detroit. Eastwood won me over as a filmmaker in the early Nineties with The Unforgiven. On the other hand… Ron Howard, genetically bland? The same can’t be said for his brother Clint, quite possibly one of the most oddball B actors ever to have graced (besmirched?) the screen.

  9. Maybe “genetically” is wrong. Mentally substitute an “r” for the “t”. OK, I’ll watch Clint on my trip back. I loved Unforgiven too, but I attributed a lot of that to the writing. It would be nice if the Peopleses wrote a film a year. I mean, a film that gets made. There could be a lot more Blade Runners and Twelve Monkeyses and Unforgivens.

  10. Clint started out as a interesting genre director (Bronco Billy, The Gauntlet, morphed into a major talent (Bird, Unforgiven) and now takes off in all directions (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Flags of Our Fathers/ Letter From Iwo Jima, Changeling and Gran Torino)

    Ron Howard never transcended genre filmmaking (“family comedy”) and his “serious” works weigh a ton.

  11. Christopher Says:

    …I recently saw Changeling and really enjoyed it!..Clint’s quite a good score composer too…His music in Changeling reminded me in parts of his old partner in crime,Ennio Morricone

  12. My parents went to see Changeling but they hadn’t realised how long it was, and they’d made an appointment with their bank manager. Being responsible people, they couldn’t bring themselves to miss an appointment they themselves had made, so they were forced to leave before the end. Argh!

  13. Fiona W Says:

    I want to to see Changeling so I think I’ll rent it today. (unless there’s a screener lying around the house somewhere. David?)

  14. No, we don’t have Changeling. But I can probably get it for free when I get back…

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