Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS – Both the Good and the Bad

Most recent commentary in the United States – be it political, economic or scientific – is predictable.  There is doctrine on the left and doctrine on the right that liberals and conservatives abide by without second thoughts.  The notable exception to this predictability (in practically all areas of thought except one area where he became all too predictable) has been Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens was all over the board concerning whatever else he believed in.  He criticized people from all sides.  Against the war in Vietnam in 1960s, he became a supporter of America’s efforts in Iraq following the 2004 invasion.   He was an avowed socialist in his youth but later flirted with libertarianism.    During his later years he spoke glowingly of capitalist innovation.  Yet even after this reversal he still somehow managed to assert that Lenin and Trotsky were great men.  Hitchens was against George W. Bush in 2000, briefly for Bush in 2004 and later became a Bush’ neutral.  God only knows where he stood on relations with Israel because his viewpoint on the matter always seemed to be in flux.  It was I guess his prerogative to later think something else, but it was also a fault.  His varied views may in part be due to his temperament, his need for attention, and his lack of intellectual discipline.

I’m not going to defend the man and suggest that he had a great mind or had his hand upon the pulse of our times.  What Christopher Hitchens did have was a certain degree of courage.  No matter how many times he changed his mind on any particular subject, I don’t doubt that he was always speaking his mind concerning what he felt at the time he spoke it. 

Religion was the one area where his views always remained consistent – and strident.  He once said that he wanted none of the promises of religion and instead seemed to prefer oblivion at the end of his life.  When Christopher Hitchens spoke regretfully how Christians are passing up the wonders of today for some obscure hope during the afterlife, I believe that he was being sincere.  Yet when he referred to religion poisoning everything around him, he was pandering to nihilists that like to loudly boast about their intellectual superiority. 

The followers of Hitchens religious theories were also the followers of Richard Dawkins.  Their admirers are non-believers that disparage religion and describe theists as a grouping of weak-minded individuals subsumed by fairy tales.  Such non-believers are usually college educated and often overstate their own IQ scores.  For the most part they’re as narrow-minded, dogmatic, humorless, disingenuous, unhappy and deluded as a member of any religion or cult.  These were the very people that Hitchens should have sought to avoid.  One can admire an honest atheist.  One can admire another person that wonders about the magic of our world and still does not see a divinity behind it.  One can’t admire a person that refuses to pause and wonder yet still belittles those that come to different conclusions than they do.

We all make mistakes.  Even Christopher Hitchens made mistakes as many of his obituaries will attest.  Hitchens claimed to be fairly well read, though he probably was guilty of a few misreadings in his lifetime.  For example, he admired the works of Dostoyevsky – a writer whose primary theme was religion and who was a defender of the Russian Orthodox Church (the church Hitchens was so happy to see Lenin overthrow).  Also, as a student of history, Hitchens seemed to miss that history lesson beginning in 1917 (or maybe even 1789) where attempts to remove religion from our lives, under whatever guise, have been no less injurious than inquisitions performed by any sect. 

We know quite a bit about Hitchens’ personal life.  We know that he admired George Orwell above all other writers.  We know that he smoked and drank too much.  We know that his mother committed suicide with her lover in Greece.  We know that he was married twice, and that for a number of years he didn’t speak to his brother (a born again Christian).  He was said to possess an extraordinary memory.  And, probably, Hitchens was not a particularly happy man. 

Hitchens publicly pronounced that he didn’t want to contemplate God or prayer from his deathbed.  This was somewhat due to his stubbornness, but it was also his own personal business.  Cancer of the esophagus is not the way any of us want to go and Hitchens had the right to deal with his impending death in any manner that he pleased.  Still, I hope the suffering was somewhat bearable for him - with or without religious faith.  

December 20, 2011



© Robert S. Miller 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

AL DAVIS AND THE OAKLAND RAIDERS: “Just Win, Baby!”

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant football team in the late 1970s, but their chief rival was on the opposite coast.  In 1975, Oakland defensive back George Atkinson delivered a blow to the Steelers’ great receiver, Lynn Swann, and in the process Swann suffered a concussion.  In 1976, Atkinson again delivered a blow to Swann in a regular season game and this caused the receiver to suffer a second concussion.  So outraged was Pittsburgh Steelers coach, Chuck Knoll, that Noll was quoted as referring to Atkinson as being part of the “criminal element” of the National Football League.  Few people doubted that Noll was referring to the Oakland Raiders overall when making his statement.  It was a statement that Noll would come to regret.  Not only was Noll fined by the NFL for making this statement, he was also sued by Atkinson for defamation.
Atkinson lost his lawsuit, but it proved to be a victory for Al Davis.  The Raiders have always been renowned as the dirtiest professional football team in the league.  However, introduced as evidence in the lawsuit were film clips showing other professional football players -including members of the Pittsburgh Steelers – taking dirty shots at their opponents.  Al Davis was allowed to put on display the hypocrisy of Noll and others like him that hurled accusations of dirty play by the Raiders while not cleaning up their own actions.
It seems ironic that Davis, who for a number of decades ran the team that produced the highest winning percentage in all of football and who for four years was the commissioner of the AFL, was disliked and considered an outsider by most of the other football owners.  It’s understandable, however, because Davis was never hesitant to take the NFL to court if they objected to any of his proposed moves.  It seemed like Davis could never decide whether he wanted to play in Oakland or Los Angeles.   Any effort to block him from moving from one city to the other resulted in an antitrust suit being filed by Davis against the league.  Davis actually openly supported the creation of the USFL, which was competing directly with the NFL. 
Davis was long time enemy and tormentor of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.  Rozelle probably long resented that Davis, while involved in the AFL, was aggressively scouting and recruiting players that it was taken for granted would sign with the NFL.  So successful was Davis in his pursuit of such players that the NFL finally decided to merge with the AFL rather than continue to compete against them.   Rozelle certainly must have suffered each and every time that he had to award Davis the Vince Lombardi trophy after the Raiders won the Super Bowl.  The Raiders won the Super Bowl three times while Rozelle was commissioner.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of Al Davis as an owner of a professional football franchise was the colorful characters that he introduced and/or brought to the AFL and NFL as members of the Oakland Raiders franchise.  These would have included: Darryle Lamonica, George Blanda, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto, Willie Brown, Ted Hendricks, Ben Davidson, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell (coach and player), John Matuszak, Jack Tatum, Lyle Alzado, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett and Howie Long.  John Madden, Tom Flores and John Gruden were some of his head coaches.  Many of these players were either recruited directly by Davis or brought in after being rejected by other franchises.
Sadly, Davis was probably a victim to his own ego when he continued trying to fully control a football team while not keeping up with football trends.  The scouting techniques he had used so successfully during the 1960s through the 1990s was not conducive with the internet age.  Davis, who used to personally scout every player that he drafted to get an edge on his opponent, couldn’t understand that other owners and coaches could now effectively scout through use of a wireless connection.  And his habit of micromanaging his football team became counterproductive.  It seemed like during the last dozen or so years of his life Davis could not go a season without having to fire the Raiders’ head coach.  The Raiders could no longer claim to be the most successful team in the NFL during these last years, and much of the reason could be blamed on Al Davis.
It’s probably been overstated about how much Davis cared for his players.  Many of his players adored the miscreant, but others didn’t seem to come to such a great ending in their playing careers.  Matuszak and Alzado both had their lives cut too short – the former because of known substance abuse and the latter allegedly by steroid use.  I use the term “allegedly” here because, though Alzado claimed the brain tumor that would eventually kill him came about due to steroid use, no medical specialist has yet to give his claim any credibility.
There are few things I do admire about Al Davis.   One was that he seemed more concerned with his football team’s success on the football team that he did about any ledger statement.  The other was that he kissed up to no one and ran his team exactly like he wanted it to be run.  It’s remarkable story that he could have so much success in a league that wanted nothing to do with him or his organization.  From the day he took over as head coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1962, he put his personal mark on the team that was to be his until the date of his death almost fifty years later.  At the age of 33, he was the youngest individual to ever play these two roles.  Besides revolutionizing the scouting of players, he opened up the passing game and created what was to become known as the “west coast” offense.  Only Al Davis, someone with enough assets to run a professional sports franchise, could have been viewed as an anti-establishment outsider.  The logo of the Raiders, one of the most famous in all of football, was one that Davis created.
In one real sense Davis had a positive influence upon the game.  Davis was well ahead of his time for an owner of a football team when it came to race relations.  Davis scouted heavily for black players in the early 1960s.  Davis refused to allow the Raiders to play a preseason game in Mobile, Alabama and also refused to allow an AFL “All Star” game being played in New Orleans because of segregationist policies in both cities.  Davis was the first NFL owner to hire a black coach.  The rest of the owners were far behind Davis in these practices.
For sentimental reasons, I wish that there could be more owners of sports franchises like Al Davis.  I grow tired of a media that covers sports as if all great athletes were plaster saints.  Al Davis was at least open about his own flaws.
October 29, 2011 
© Robert S. Miller 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

THELMA & LOUISE (1991): Tale of Desperate Women


Thelma and Louise is part tragedy, part slap-stick and part self-righteous melodrama.  It has its merits in that we feel for the two main characters.  Yet this is a movie that is brought up in every tabloid headline whenever women get together to go on a crime spree and thus can never live up to all of the hype.
Louise (Susan Sarandon) is in a long term relationship with Jimmy (Michael Madsen), a man she loves and can never commit to emotionally.  Thelma (Geena Davis) has been married to Darryl (Christopher McDonald) since she was 18 years of age, and feels no love from him whatsoever.  The two bored women take a road trip.  Thelma gets drunk and is almost raped, but the rapist is shot dead by Louise.  The two suspect that the authorities will have no sympathy for them, so they decide to flee for Mexico.  Unfortunately, any money they have is stolen from them by a thief and rogue named J.D. (Brad Pitt).  Thelma, feeling that she has let down her friend by allowing herself to be seduced by such a cad, robs a grocery store which then alerts the authorities to their location.  A good hearted FBI enforcement officer named Hal (Harvey Keitel) does all he can to save the women, but eventually a car chase ends in Arizona where the two women deliberately take their own lives by driving their car into the Grand Canyon.
Susan Sarandon acting ranges from being strident to helplessly overwrought as Louise.  Only during certain moments in the film does she seem to experience joy.  Gina Davis was much better cast as the younger and more innocent Thelma.  Thelma shows great range from silliness to despair.  Harvey Keitel could not be more ill suited for his role as the character he plays is a long ways from the one he played in The Bad Lieutenant.  Brad Pitt is an able actor, but he’s a bit too cute to end up being such a hick.  And no one else in the film is memorable.  Every other character in this movie is a type.
To read the reviews of this film, one is supposed to be impressed by the Director and Producer of this film, Ridley Scott.  I guess he does all right for someone as inexperienced in the film industry as he was at the time.  He never directed or produced a blockbuster film before this.  Yet he directs this more as a crowd pleaser than a film we really should take seriously.  For two women so down and out, their dialogue is a bit too clever and witty.  The comeuppance for almost every male character that gets on their wrong side comes too easily.  The ending is predictable. 
Having said this, Ridley Scott probably never did such a good job of directing since that time.  For a 130 minute film, it is well paced.  The film projects energy among the two leads.  We can understand by their circumstances why they are unhappy.  The film is just not believable.  Are we really to believe that only an FBI agent named Hal would be willing to listen to the two characters?  Does anyone think that they made their own circumstances one iota better by going on a crime spree?  Does the director really need to make their circumstances anymore dire by having every law enforcement officer from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona (not to mention Federal agents) pursue the two wayward gals?  Ridley Scott wants to make a statement and show off his wit.  He also wants to show off his talent at filming scenery and knowledge of film history by show casing his heroines in a modern day western.  This is a better film in style than it is in substance.  Emotionally, the film only succeeds at some level because we care for the two characters.  Yet with the hullabaloo surrounding the chase, it is difficult not to be distracted watching the film from remembering that we are supposed to care for these two women.
September 30, 2011
©  Robert S. Miller 2011

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958): “Lies and Mendacity”

It’s not often that we could say that a Tennessee Williams play turned movie would give the viewer a break from reality, but what poses as reality on television in the movies is so stultifying that we need to escape it by watching something with intelligent content.  For all of its melodrama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof seems more authentic than all of the dramas being paraded across theatres as entertainment.  With Liz Taylor playing Maggie and Paul Newman playing Brick, we would think we’d be viewing a classic Hollywood romance.  Yet it is Burl Ives as Big Daddy that gives the film substance.  Big Daddy barrels through the lives of his sons and his wife in such a manner that we barely recognize until the end of this 108 minute film that he is the most emotionally stable character in the film.  Big Daddy’s son Brick drinks while Brick’s wife, Maggie, nags her husband to change.  Big Daddy’s other son, Gooper (Jack Carson), craves the affection of his father and is jealous of the attention Big Daddy pays towards Brick.  Gooper is married to Mae (Madeline Sherwood), who seems only interested in receiving an inheritance from Big Daddy when the old man dies.  One has the feeling that Mae is hoping this will occur very soon.  And finally there is Big Mama (Judith Anderson), the wife of Big Daddy, who has long endured the tirades of Big Daddy and has no idea how to please her husband.

Big Daddy and Big Mama know there are problems in the marriage of Brick and Maggie since the couple has not delivered to them a grandchild.  Big Momma accurately perceives that the lack of a grandchild is not due to infertility but rather Brick’s lack of desire to sleep in the same bed as Maggie.  Now in the original play, Brick was plagued by homosexual desires.  In the tamed down film version, it’s just that Brick cannot admit his best friend in high school (who ended up committing suicide) was actually a failure as a man.  Apparently, in 1958, a blockbuster film could not be made with any inference of homosexual desire.  Ultimately, this leaves a gaping hole in an otherwise well done movie.

Anyway, Big Daddy comes to the rescue.  Though suffering from cancer (kept hidden from Big Daddy until Brick crudely reveals the prognosis), Big Daddy provides Brick with an example of facing up to all of the “lies and mendacity” that the remainder of the family tries to thwart upon him.  Gooper in the end even admits that the example of his father is more important to him than any estate.  Inspired, Brick takes Maggie to bed and we can presume that a child will soon be born to the couple.  Big Daddy then takes Big Mama on his last look around of his vast estate.

There is a problem with the film with such major quarrels and resentments being resolved so neatly by the overbearing father.  The director, Richard Brooks, and the screenwriter, James Poe, so drastically altered the script of the original play that one wonders why everyone in the film is basically screaming at each other from beginning to almost the end of the movie.   The theme of the film is simple: at some point we need to quit lying to each other.  With each lie, our problems are only exasperated.  Unfortunately, I would say there is something disingenuous in presenting a theme in this way while the filmmakers shy away from a major theme in the Tennessee Williams’ play. 

Elia Kazan did a similar thing in A Streetcar Named Desire, another Tennessee Williams play filmed in 1951, where the seduction of a young man by Blanche and the sexual attraction of Stella and Stanley are suppressed in the film.  Yet nevertheless, Streetcar remains one of the greatest movies ever filmed because so much more was revealed in this film than anything ever released in Hollywood before.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not that good because the storyline is so changed. What saves the film is that each actor plays his or her character so well that we believe the antagonism to be real for whatever reason that it was brought on.  Maggie, despite looking so lovely, often comes across as shrill.  The two sons understandably are frightened by their father’s dominance and seem unable to ever please him.  And Big Daddy is repulsed by the dishonesty of his family – the family in this case representing society in general.

August 31, 2011

©  Robert S. Miller 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE GODFATHER (1972): The "Family" and America

I doubt that Francis Ford Coppola could have predicted the way his 170 minute behemoth, The Godfather, would be viewed in the subsequent decades since its release.  Coppola intended for the film to be a satire on America.  The power hungry Corleones, successful as entrepreneurs while lacking in moral scruples and who over time alienated themselves from everything they cared for and that had any meaning to them, were in Coppola’s mind representative of America itself.  Fortunately for Coppola, the film came to mean so much more than that.  The Godfather was peopled by so many individuals that we respected, cared for, or despised that we clearly identified with the characters portrayed as more than just a subset of criminals.
I will say, however, that in The Godfather Coppola is somewhat more successful in his goal than he was in The Godfather, Part II.  Marlon Brando fleshes out Vito Corleone as someone every bit as sinister (almost bug-like) as he is cunning.  He is respected and feared to such a degree that it seems impossible for him to be truly close to anyone.  His one attempt at humor frightens his young grandchild into believing that his grandfather is some kind of monster.  It’s difficult to imagine Vito anywhere but in shadowy rooms or corridors, and the single time that he is out in the sunshine he is sprayed with pesticide by the same infant grandchild - thus causing Vito to die.  Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro in the sequel and as a younger man, is more heroic than sinister.  Any crimes he commits were for the protection of his family and his neighborhood and were ultimately done out of necessity or rightful vengeance.  This Vito adores his family, reveres his heritage, and honors all that help him along the way.  The young Vito is the self-made man of the American Dream and of such a noble brand that we are proud that he be considered one of us.
But though Coppola was more conflicted in the direction that he wished the character of Vito Corleone to represent, his treatment of Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, is consistent.  Michael’s transformation from the innocent war hero to someone that ruthlessly orders the murder of his brother-in-law and, in the sequel, his own brother, is readily explainable by the events that unfold in the two films.  Michael is at first not so much unnerved by the character of his father as he is revolted by him.  Michael understands exactly what kind of person his father is.  Yet even Michael feels an attempt on his father’s life was somehow unjust and is determined to take reprisal on those responsible for the assassination attempt.  Michael thus loses his innocence by killing two of the men he holds most responsible for this act.  Ultimately, the motives behind any attempt to kill his father goes much deeper than even Michael can at first comprehend, and Michael is pulled into that underworld that he has for many years despised.  The killing of Michael’s young bride and, even more importantly, the killing of his brother Santino – or Sonny (James Caan) – makes any chance for a return to innocence impossible.
There are the other siblings in the Corleone’ family subject to human failings that do not beset Vito or Michael.  Fredo (John Cazale) is Vito’s second oldest son, and Fredo feels insecure and unappreciated.  As much as anyone, he would like to be successful in the family business but he does not have the brains or vicious temperament to be so.  Connie (Talia Shire), the only daughter of Vito, was the girl that watched too many Hollywood romances and dreamed that her marriage to Carlo (Gianni Russo) would bring her everything she wanted.  Instead, Connie’s marriage becomes a nightmare as Carlo is willing to do anything (including beat Connie) to rise in the ranks of the underworld.  Sonny, Vito’s oldest son, is powerful, passionate and temperamental.  It is his temper that gets him killed after discovering that Carlo has been beating his sister.  Finally, there is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the half-German and half-Irish adopted son of Vito.  Tom, an able lawyer and consigliere to the Don, is probably too reasonable and sane to be associated with such a family.  Though the mastermind behind the infamous beheading of the horse (a scene that cannot be described), Tom probably more than anyone would like for the Corleone’ business to go legitimate so that his family loyalty is no longer tested by the ordering of acts of violence.  Unfortunately for Tom, Michael will give Tom no such breaks.
After the death of his first wife, Michael marries Kay (Diane Keaton) and the couple has two children of their own.  Kay, a school teacher who has lived a sheltered life, is unprepared for what Michael is capable of doing.  After the death of Vito, Michael orders the killings of the five family heads in the New York area; also orders the killing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), a gambling kingpin from Las Vegas (loosely based on underworld boss, Bugsy Siegel); orders the killing of Tessio (Abe Vigoda)  (an old friend of Vito), who has made the mistake of changing his allegiance to a rival family; and finally has Carlo executed by Clemenza (Richard Castellano) (an underworld figure that has long served Vito).  Though Connie understands that Michael is behind the killing of her husband, Carlo, Michael is able to convince Kay that he had nothing to do with this action.  After all of this mayhem takes place, a number of underworld figures, including Clemenza, now swear their allegiance to Michael.
If we get beyond the gifted acting of Brando, Pacino, Cazale, Talia Shire and even James Caan (who has rarely ever been credited with great acting), we still have a larger cast of memorable characters in this film than any other movie I can name.  We have Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), the mortician that comes to Vito to avenge the beating of his daughter; Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the Turk that was good with a knife; Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), the corrupt police man and complete lout; Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), the deranged killer totally devoted to Vito Corleone; and Jack Woltz (John Marley), who is loosely based on Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, and who doesn’t seem to at first understand that he shouldn’t mess with the Corleone’ family.  The characters and the faces of the characters in the first two films of this series are unforgettable. 
The fortunate mistake that Coppola made in the making of The Godfather was that he actually ended up romanticizing a group of figures that would otherwise have been viewed as having no set of redeeming values.  Yet through the film we understand these characters well beyond their disreputable side.  In some of them, we even see their warmth and humor.  Sonny for example, guilty of many infidelities and murders, is honorable in the manner that he cares for Michael and Connie, and there is no more terrible scene than to see him gunned down due to the treachery of Carlo. 
Coppola has publicly complained that America provides no social safety net for its vulnerable people.  According to Coppola, we are supposed to be upset that weak but essentially good people such as Connie and Fredo can only be protected by the likes of Vito and Michael Corleone.  We are supposed to be aware while watching the film that Tom - intelligent and talented as he was – would have been left homeless if Don Corleone had not taken him in.  All of this may or may not be true.  Coppola has had a lot to say about America, and there comes a point when he probably has said too much.  Coppola bemoaned that America truly was not a pluralistic society, but The Godfather introduces so many diverse and colorful characters populating the American landscape that the film contradicts Coppola’s own claim.  It’s remarkable that a director could so badly blunder in his aim for making this movie and yet still make a film that is close to perfection.
If The Godfather was only taken as a satire on American life, than the film would be a failure.  If it was only taken as the portrayal of the destruction of a family, than it would be a much more limited film than it really is.  There are many things in The Godfather that give us no cause for celebration.  America has at times through its history been a violent and bigoted nation.  But without putting aside those blemishes, it has also been a nation of innovation, diversity and vitality.  That some of its most powerful men have been ruthless and exploitive is incontrovertible, but the same is true of every nation.  Both Vito and Michael pay the price for their lack of humanity and thus the message of The Godfather is far less cynical than some critics would lead us to believe.  As saddened as we are to see what happens to Sonny, we are also saddened by what becomes of Michael.  In his last conversation with his son, Vito told Michael that he had hoped for so much more for him.  Many who watched the film shared that sentiment.
Like Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire (starring a very young Brando), The Godfather is one of the films that changed our culture.  It’s fortunate that Coppola was so much better an artist than he was a political thinker or this film could have been much more insignificant.
July 20, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007) : Lawyers and the Evil Corporate Client

The plot elements of Michael Clayton contain too much intrigue, suspense and the latest electronic spy ware to be much different than a thousand other movies that are being shown.  And it contains the sort of crowd pleading “I gotcha” ending that annoys moviegoers who are less discriminating than I am.  This is too bad because there are times when watching this movie I’m almost convinced that I’m sitting in a corporate boardroom or listening to the dialogue of two or three lawyers mapping out a case strategy.  This movie not only occasionally realistically portrays what is going on behind the scenes of a major case involving a large corporation, it almost picks up the spirit and the sentiment of the characters involved in it as well.
 
This is Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut.  The movie stars George Clooney as Michael Clayton, but in my opinion the best lines in the movie belong to Sidney Pollack as Marty Bach, the senior partner in a large downtown Manhattan firm named Kenner, Bach & Ledeen.  Michael works for Marty as a “fixer” or “janitor” as he calls himself because he is involved in cleaning up messes.  Marty is smart enough and good enough at what he does to not be fooled by much of anything, let alone the merits of his client’s position – the client being a manufacturer of pathogenic pesticides named U-North, that is involved in a class action lawsuit with individuals allegedly injured by their product.  Marty at one-point comments to Michael his real thoughts about the U-North lawsuit by saying: “This case stank from day one!  How do you think we pay the rent?”
 
So at the beginning of the movie we listen to a rambling monologue and this makes us understand immediately that someone has snapped.  That someone is a lawyer in the firm named Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), and Arthur has been working six straight years on the U-North class action sacrificing all nightlife and personal pleasure in the service of his client.  The problem is that Arthur knows the ins and outs of this lawsuit better than anyone else, and he’s suddenly become conscience-stricken upon discovering that more than 400 people have contracted cancer due to exposure to pesticides manufactured by U-North.  “I am Shiva, the God of death!” he at one point tells Michael (paraphrasing a quote once allegedly made by Oppenheimer after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima).  Arthur’s breakdown goes a bit too far when he disrobes during a videotaped deposition of one of the class members and then starts begging her for forgiveness for what his client, U-North, has done to her.  Needless to say, the inside counsel for U-North, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is mortified by the turn of events, so Michael is called in by Marty to do the cleanup job.
 
Now Karen is an interesting one.  She’s insecure almost to a neurotic degree and almost goes into convulsions preparing for meetings.  Her two assets as far as U-North is concerned are the long hours of preparation she puts into doing her job, and her willingness to please her supervisors towards any end.  The latter trait ends up being her undoing because she’s willing to take every measure to prevent U-North’s reputation ever from being besmirched.  She’s unimpressed with Michael (whatever assurances that Marty may give her that Michael is best at what he does), and decides she needs to take matters into her own hands.  Unfortunately, this is where realism of the movie ends and the bogus intrigue begins.  Karen hires some professionals to do surveillance work upon Arthur’s apartment and, when they discover Arthur’s intention to sabotage the class action, Karen orders that the hit men have Arthur murdered (they do this by making it appear like Arthur accidentally overdosed on drugs).  However, Karen vastly underrated Michael, as Michael is the only one to figure out that this was no accident.  Karen then also attempts to have Michael killed after it’s discovered that Michael is in possession of materials that Arthur was going to turn over to the other side.  After the unsuccessful hit attempt, Michael confronts Karen, gets her to unknowingly confess what she had attempted to do over a cell phone, and the cops (including one officer who happens to be Michael’s brother) come in and arrest all the evil executives at U-North.
 
There are also a number of meaningless subplots involved.  For example, Michael has a gambling problem and owes a debt of $75,000 resulting from a card game and bad business investment, thus forcing Michael to put long hours into the firm doing a job he does not believe in.  Michael is a single parent of a young son that he adores.  Michael has another brother who drinks too much.  These subplots are so casually thrown into the movie that we don’t pay much attention to them.  The only thing important to remember in relation to these subplots is that Michael is struggling to make a life for himself outside of his life at the law firm.
 
Michael Clayton is significant as a character study of a certain subculture in our society that’s probably not well understood.  Lawyers receive a bad reputation for their profession primarily because they do not view circumstances in terms of one side is good and the other side is bad.  There is a good and bad to every side of every case or else there wouldn’t be any lawsuits.  Every competent lawyer needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his every case in order to win.  The image of the crusading lawyer is good stuff for television drama, but it contains little connection with reality.  There really are no winners in a court of law.  Lawyers neither have the time nor the money to pick and choose every case to be exactly how they desire it.  And more often than not, a lawyer is even sympathetic towards those on the other side.  They just happen to be a bit more sympathetic towards the side they represent.  Sometimes this could just be a matter of who is being paid by whom, but it can also be tied up in the belief that every side deserves an advocate – just as every side has its attributes.
 
As is shown in Michael Clayton, lawyers often work long hours and are subject to human failings.  The failings in this movie just happen to be a bit more dramatic than any I’ve ever observed, though breakdowns, addictions, and crisis’ of conscience among attorneys are not uncommon.  Most dramas portray lawyers as immaculately polished in their deliveries and smooth in their interactions with others.  I’ve almost never seen this in real life.  For the most part, litigations take so many unanticipated turns that lawyers blunder from one motion or hearing to another without ever particularly impressing their clients.  Yet there are very good attorneys out there that go largely unnoticed because they have the discipline to think for themselves and not be intimidated by the opinions of others.  And there are bad attorneys who just go through the motions or, worse, are so wrapped up in their own narrow perspective of the case that they represent that they fail to take into account that a jury or a judge may see things differently.  Sidney Pollack as Marty Bach believably comes across in Michael Clayton as the rare attorney who understands the entire landscape (his first line in the movie when he addresses a reporter on the telephone reveals his silent reserve).  That he may be greedy points more to his defects as a person rather than his ability as a lawyer.  Greed is not a vice relegated to lawyers only.  And Tilda Swinton (whose acting surpasses everyone but Pollack’s in this movie) as Karen Crowder exemplifies the more common type of lawyer who does not appreciate the limitations of her own case or even understand that there is only so much she can do to prevent catastrophe from coming down upon her client.  There are attorneys like Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens (in his hammed up role), though generally they only tend to be eloquent in their own minds and usually become more pathetic than effective after the personal problems in their lives become noticeable.  And there are attorneys like Michael Clayton (adequately acted by George Clooney) who can be very effective at their jobs so long as they don’t talk (and smirk) too much.
 
Also, there are class actions like the one in Michael Clayton brought against corporations almost every day.  And if the death of hundreds of people becomes a circumstance (even if not by specific design and which unfortunately sometimes does occur), it probably could be the responsibility of a corporation.  Many of these class actions against corporations are settled for little compensation for the plaintiffs involved.  It must be noted, however, that Hollywood has not quite gotten a handle on the notion that corporations can provide benefits to society such as a thing called employment.  And unlike what happens with U-North in Michael Clayton, corporations almost never open themselves up to criminal liability as well as civil liability by doing something stupid like trying to have an attorney murdered.  Billions of dollars in assets gives the corporations lots of leverage to influence or even silence individuals by more effective legal (if not ethical) methods than overt criminal behavior.  They can hire the best lawyers, create the best advertisements, and employ the best lobbyists to get the job done without having to hire a hit man.  One is probably not going to bring down an entire corporation as easily as what occurred in Michael Clayton in any case. 
 
Michael Clayton was disappointing because it was a good movie that could easily have been done up much better.  If it would have stuck to the internal working of the attorneys and left it up to television dramas to add all of the extracurricular activity, we could have seen the best courtroom drama since ‘Breaker’ Morant was released in 1979.  Instead, we have a movie slightly better than Erin Brockovich – the crusading legal assistant who dressed like a streetwalker.  Hollywood will not back up a movie whose entire intrigue is based upon intelligent depictions of real life.  Instead, they require sensationalism to be thrown in hopes of drawing in a larger audience.  Here, in Michael Clayton, it didn’t work.  Unfortunately and even so, Michael Clayton is still one of the best movies of 2007.
 
December 3, 2007
 © Robert S. Miller 2007

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

OPRAH WINFREY: There’ll Never Be Another Like Her – Thank God!

She’s contributed to charities, had scholarships named after her, promoted acceptance and tolerance, and has promoted literacy.  Though this may be in poor taste, it needs to be said that Oprah can afford such philanthropy as she has done well for herself.  Born to a single mother in the south, Oprah has accumulated $800,000,000 in savings.  Her television show (scheduled to end today) has been on television for twenty five years and she is in the process of owning her own network.

Some commentators have suggested that Oprah has succeeded in a field saturated with talk show hosts due to her own positivity.   Unlike Jerry Springer, she has focused on “upbeat” stories rather than displays of human depravity to draw in her viewership.  Having said that I can only take Oprah in small doses - having never viewed an entire episode of her show.  Oprah is annoyingly loud and panders to popular culture.  Outside of the reason why she has never married, we imagine we know everything about her.  We know about her many attempts to confront her yo-yo weight problem, her many relationships, her hopes, her dreams, her struggles, her history (including being a victim of a sexual assault), her brief experimentation with drugs, the books she supposedly read and loved, and her empathy for every forlorn soul she has met.  Oprah feels qualified to publicly comment upon war, religion, politics, love, literature, psychology and (most importantly to her television audience) fashion.  It would be best not to ask what qualifies her to discuss all of these matters.  Her single area of genius is her ability to pull in a fan base and so she will always have an audience to assent to her every utterance.  But rather than making difficult concepts comprehensible for her audience members, she has dumbed each particular subject down.

Probably no talk show host has made public confession seem therapeutic as Oprah.  We follow the travails of her guests from victimhood to later episodes where all seems to have ended happily.  She has given those she has invited upon her show a forum for making fools of themselves without shame.  Witness Tom Cruise hopping up and down on the couch and discussing his relationship with Scientology while Oprah nods her head knowingly.  (In her New-Aged way, Oprah is very open-minded to all things religious.)

Probably the most amusing endeavor of the diva is her book of the month club.  Her public persona wouldn’t seem compatible with a reclusive author such as William Faulkner, yet The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying are two novels that contain Oprah’s sign of approval.  That Oprah has read (let alone understood) the two books is debatable, but smart business woman that she is this would be in the realm of believability.  That the typical audience member could make heads or tails of his writings is a stretch.  I’ve heard individuals that have felt what Oprah has done is admirable if she managed to encourage anyone to read at all, but I disagree.  Nothing damages an author’s reputation more than to have his works discussed by individuals that have no understanding of the subject matter to begin with.  As Josh Billings once said: “It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.”  Anyway, in Oprah’s book club we now have Anna Karenina setting side by side with the books of Bill Cosby.

I think even Oprah would acknowledge that wandering into the realm of politics may have been a mistake.  Oprah endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential campaign and she has a right to her opinion.  Why anyone should care is another matter.  Oprah has a tendency to tell people what to think rather than encourage them to think for themselves.  In any case, Oprah has been less inclined to praise the President since the election than she did during the campaign.

I wish Oprah well – or as well as anyone can wish someone that has close to a billion dollars closeted away.  I just hope with the end of her show the public confessional will let up a bit.  Little has done more damage to our culture in recent years than to take seriously celebrities that feel the need to speak out on every issue.  Fame and fortune apparently are enough to give them credibility and so we have the asininity of Hollywood stars visiting dictators in Iran and Venezuela and pronouncing that such regimes are misunderstood.  Worse, we have college educated idiots believing them.  So please, no more reading of your “private” diaries on the air; no more weight loss tips on how to take off twenty pounds only to put them back on six months later; and no more gut wrenching, appalling confessions on the air from your guests.

Farewell, Oprah!  I hope that private life is as fulfilling for you as was your public one.

May 25, 2011

© Robert S. Miller 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

OF GODS AND MEN (2010): Religion and Tolerance

Of Gods and Men is one of the most thoughtful movies I have ever seen.  I’d probably go back to The Apostle – Robert Duvall’s extremely undervalued 1997 production – to find a film that would have forced a viewer to so question their own assumptions concerning a particular subject.  In both films, religion has been treated respectfully to such an extent that one has to marvel as to how either came to be filmed.  It goes without saying that neither movie was made in a major Hollywood studio.

In Of Gods and Men, we have a group of Cistercian Trappist monks performing good works to a small and impoverished community located in Algeria.  The members of that community also happen to be Muslims.  Headed by a priest named Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monks partake in the religious rituals of the local people, provide mainly practical rather than religious advice, and never seem to proselytize. An elderly monk named Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is particularly loved by the people for his humor and for his efforts to provide medical care to anyone that happens to be in need of it.  When not helping members of the community, the monks sing their chants and comply with their priestly rituals.  These monks also happen to be in a country torn by civil war between a corrupt government and certain Muslim factions that are deemed to be terrorists. Near the monastery there was a slaughter of civilians that brought the area under the scrutiny of the government.  That the monks are willing to provide any humanitarian assistance at all to the local population is viewed with suspicion by government leaders. 

One Christmas Eve, the monks are visited by a group of men led by Rabbia (Sabrina Ouazani) that the government suspects of being terrorists.  Christian prevents the group of men from occupying the monastery by demonstrating his knowledge of Islam, and by asking Rabbia to respect their religion as Christian and the other monks respect theirs.  Though Christian refuses to allow Luc to go with Rabbia’s men to treat one of the group members that happens to be wounded, Christian does allow Luc to provide medicine and medical advice to this group of men that the monastery can afford.  When local government officials discover that medical care is dispensed by members of the monastery (without the monks inquiring about the politics of individuals receiving such medical aid), the government withdraws all protection of the monastery.  The monks understand that they are now in danger.  The members debate their situation and some of them argue that they should leave.  However, any dissension among the monks is soon put aside out of concerns for the people living in the community, and the monks democratically and unanimously vote to stay there.  Eventually, the monks are abducted by a militant Islamic group.  After this abduction (which took place sometime in 1996), those monks abducted are never seen from again.  The film ends showing the monks marching single file with their captors through the mountains in the snow.  Two monks (that hid in the monastery) did survive to tell their story.

Filmed in French and directed by Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men is 120 minutes long.  Probably this is too long for those turned off by displays of religious piety, yet without question the dignity and simplicity of the life of such monks is deftly displayed.  The monks exhibit poise and even humor in their day to day interactions with a community that does not share their faith.  The confrontation with Rabbia comes across as authentic rather than forced.  Rabbia may or may not have been involved in the earlier slaughter, but Christian and his monks are able to bring out Rabbia’s humanity.  The acting of Wilson, Lonsdale and Sabrina Ouazani is superb, but then so is the acting of every other member in the cast.

The movie is highly critical of the Algerian government’s approach to the terrorist issue in their methods of fighting the power of the terrorists only with the purpose of maintaining their own power.  It is clear that virtue did not belong in either case to those wielding the power.  The example of the monks provides an alternative vision for the Algerians under their care.  It’s not their religious faith but their tolerance and compassion that make this alternative desirable.  And this film sends a message that communication between two faiths that at first seem so different may be bridged by compassion and decency.

A few critics dismissed Of Gods and Men because they wanted more cynicism.  In their jaded world, cynicism passes for sophistication.  Even Roger Ebert, who does not completely dismiss the film, seems befuddled by the film’s message.  Ebert is troubled by the monks’ decision to stay at the monastery in the face of known danger.  “Did they make the right choice? In their own idealistic terms, yes. In realistic terms, I say no. They have the ability to help many who need it for years to come. It is egotism to believe their help must take place in this specific monastery. Between the eight of them, they have perhaps a century of life of usefulness remaining. Do they have a right to deprive those who need it of their service? In doing so, are they committing the sin of pride?” 

I could see Ebert with this pretzel logic coming to some similar conclusions about the film Schindler’s List.  Why did Oscar Schindler confront Nazi authority to try to rescue 300 members on his list that were inadvertently shipped to Auschwitz when he could instead have been supplied (and thus possibly saved) 300 other workers for his factory that were also facing deportation?   Fortunately, Ebert is a movie reviewer and not someone that others depend upon for their lives. Schindler had made a promise to those he kept on his list just as the Cistercian Trappist monks had made an implicit promise to those in a small Algerian community.  Ebert seems to feel that the monks should have chosen the intelligent (i.e. prudent) course of action rather than one that was courageous and compelling.  What truly would have been the intelligent course of action under such circumstances of course could be debated, but there is no question that the monks chose to take a great risk.  In the face of torture and death by marauding terrorists, I doubt very much that pride had anything to do with the decision that they made.  Yet in a world filled with such danger and risk, what smaller lives we would live if we allowed circumstances to force us to live less beautiful lives.  And that is what Ebert is asking us to consider doing.

Of Gods and Men is a film about genuine greatness of character.  That the film demonstrates this in such a truthful manner demonstrates greatness in storytelling as well – something that is unfortunately rare in the history of moviemaking.

April 23, 2011
©  Robert S. Miller 2011


Thursday, March 24, 2011

BIUTIFUL (2010): Good Acting, Poor Story Telling

Writer, producer and director Alejandro González Iñárritu is so conscious of appearing relevant that he consistently wrecks a good storyline.  He did this in Babel, and he has done it in Biutiful as well.  At 148 minutes Biutiful is about one hour too long, but this is not the worst of the film’s defects.   I wouldn’t be bothered that the director was trying to say too much with his films if he wouldn’t be so pretentious in saying it.  We have a poor Spanish family (the father staring Javier Bardem, mother played by Maricel Alvarez, and two young children played by Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) dealing with the mother’s insanity and the father’s cancer.  Concerning this part of the story, the film just about comes across as authentic.  Then we have an underworld story of trafficking in immigrant labor, the death of these immigrants due to a faulty heater, the clumsy disposal of the dead bodies in the ocean which is soon discovered and broadcast by the media worldwide, and the murder of the individual that disposed of the bodies by that individual’s gay lover.  The events of this film become so distant from reality that we stop caring what the writer, producer and director is attempting to say.

Javier Bardem as Uxbal (the father), Maricel Alvarez as Maramba (the mother), Hanaa Bouchaib as Ana (the seven or eight year old daughter) and Guillermo Estrella as Mateo (the four year old son) almost make this film work through their acting ability.  Eduard Fernandez as Tito, Uxbal’s untrustworthy brother (who happens to be sleeping with Maramba) is adequately played.  Uxbal’s maid, Ige (Diaryatou Daff), Uxbal’s own father and a Chinese immigrant mother and her child, are also individuals we come to care about.  All other characters in the film are forgettable. 

Uxbal is haunted by thoughts of his dead father that he has never met.  (He meets his father at the beginning and end of this film in the afterlife.)  This all coincides with the knowledge that he soon will die.  Uxbal is most concerned that no one will be left to look after his two young children after he does die because Maramba cannot be trusted with this task (due to her bi-polar disorder), Tito probably does not give a damn about anyone, and Ige wants to rejoin her husband in Senegal.  It is out of sheer decency that Ige decides to stay in Spain and look after the children.

There are attributes to the film.  The setting in the side streets of Barcelona befits the movie’s theme.  By no means is the Barcelona we come to expect as a locale so heavily promoted in the tourist trade.  Alejandro González Iñárritu may be the only current director that seems to understand that real poverty is a problem worth consideration.  There is also a redemption story that probably would not have worked if Javier Bardem wasn’t cast as the lead character.  His character, while all the while surrounded by trouble and sadness, displays dignity in attempting to overcome these obstacles.  There is joy in Uxbal’s interaction with his children, and sorrow in the anxiety and grief the family is forced to endure.  No additional storyline was required to make a statement that resonates. 

Still, the filmmakers seemed to feel the need to pour additional grief upon the lead character.  Dying from cancer, having a wife that is mentally ill and having no legitimate means of support for his family was not enough for them.  The filmmakers try tricking the viewer into watching this film.  They cheapen the film by including themes of drug abuse, infidelity and buggery in an attempt to lure in an audience that otherwise would have no interest in such a plot.  The misspelling of the word beautiful to come up with the title for this film is just one more desperate attempt to bring the film attention.  It didn’t work.  Like Babel, there is a core to this movie that is almost as good as anything we will ever find on the screen.  In both films that nugget is buried in excess.


March 24, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE KING’S SPEECH (2010): King George VI

The Academy Award Ceremonies for movies filmed in 2010 is this evening so I am in a rush to get this review out before the award for best picture is announced.  I neither know nor care which film is going to win (as a general rule, committees seldom get it right), but I do know that The King’s Speech will receive accolades.  It’s a well made and extremely conventional film that for the most part accomplishes what the director set out to do: make the audience feel sympathetic towards the lead character, King George VI (Colin Firth).  Since we’ve only had two or three movies in the last twenty years that have won the Best Picture Oscar that were anything but conventional movies, I’d say that The King’s Speech has a good chance of winning.

George VI (called “Bertie” by his family) never expected that he would ascend to the throne.  That was to be the destiny of his older brother, David (Guy Pearce), later to become King Edward VIII.  There were a couple of complications in having Edward VIII retain his key role in the monarchy, however.  For one, he intended to marry a twice divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).  This would be totally unacceptable to the Church of England.  More significantly (and something barely hinted at in The King’s Speech) are the fascist leanings of the Edward VIII and the close ties that Simpson had with members of the Nazi regime in power in Germany.  Within a few years, Hitler’s troops would be bombing London, so Edward VIII getting married off in this manner was actually a blessing to the English people.

There was one problem with Bertie taking the throne (and it was impossible not to know this with the publicity that this film has received): he was a stutterer.  Whether it was because he was left-handed, bullied by his domineering father, ridiculed by other family members (especially by David), abused by his nanny, haunted by the death of another brother who suffered from epilepsy, or mostly friendless as a child - all of these circumstances are tossed out as possible contributing factors for this speech defect.  If Bertie was to take the throne, he would also be expected to make wartime speeches to counter the rabble rousing diatribes given by Hitler to increasingly larger rallies throughout Germany.  Thus, before and after he ascended the throne, Bertie is seen on almost a daily basis by a brilliant speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Logue, a failed actor (not a licensed physician), has many years of experience working with those struggling to speak including soldiers wounded in World War I.  Logue insists that he and his royal client treat each other as equals – something that one about to take the throne might find to be a difficult task.  Nevertheless, because of Logue’s therapy and the support of Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), King George VI succeeds at making that first speech (and we’re to presume many others) to the English people with little to indicate the presence of any speech impediment whatsoever.

The King’s Speech is a simple and moving story.  The film does as good a job of presenting Collin Firth in the role of underdog as any film about the royalty could possibly deliver.  Firth, Rush and Pearce are all excellently cast in their respective roles.  We at all times feel like we are in pre-war England throughout the movie, and at 111 minutes the film does not seem overly long for a movie that’s a borderline melodrama.  That’s probably enough for this kind of film because it certainly wasn’t designed to get below the depths of anything.   David Siedler wrote the screenplay (who never has written anything else significant that has appeared in film to date) and Tom Hooper directed the movie (who has always directed films for television before this).  If the film was intended to show us the human side of the royal family, it certainly accomplishes this (though probably no better than The Queen filmed in 2006).  The story of Edward VIII abdication from the throne was so well publicized in the tabloid news that we don’t get much dirt known only among the inner circles of the royal family.  Edward VIII was the bad king that thankfully stepped aside for the good king, George VI.  The movie is not about Edward VIII, so I guess we didn’t need to know about his incessant womanizing that went on long before he met Wallis Simpson, that after the abdication he and his wife (who became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) visited Hitler in Germany, that the couple were guarded by Nazi security when they lived in occupied Paris, that Winston Churchill threatened the Duke with court marshal if he did not return to British soil and show at least a little concern that England may be destroyed by the Nazi bombings, and otherwise harbored racist feelings to all non-white members of the British empire.  Since it is about George VI, one good deed of the king never mentioned in the film was that he and his wife remained in London during the blitzkrieg that was occurring in the skies of London during the entire Battle of Britain.  Because of this show of courage, George VI probably renewed faith in a monarchy that many will always debate to be a useless institution.

As much as I pretend otherwise, I was somewhat impressed that the Academy Award committee last year showed a bit of acumen by choosing The Hurt Locker over the obscenely popular Avatar.  Still, it doesn’t bother me that conventional films often get the nod because what passes for “edgy” in Hollywood is often pseudo-babble dressed up as profundity.  If The King’s Speech receives the Oscar instead of The Social Network, I will await the critics lamenting that once again a film with social relevance has been passed up for the award.  It’s these same critics that are guilty of hyping pretension and cynicism over stories that they never quite admit affect them emotionally.

February 27, 2011

© Robert S. Miller 2011