Saturday, May 24, 2008

Faces of Fascism

Fascism comes in many forms -- war, class, religion, family -- and in many mediums, and is as alive and well today as it was in 1938. Just ask President Bush, who forewarned last week that an Obama presidency would be akin to Nazi appeasement. And if fear-mongering doesn't work, one can accuse others of being Nazis themselves, "You're just like Hitler" the coup de grace of any argument. (And really, can't we come up with another term than coup de grace? It's so very French.) Maybe it's the paranoia talking, but I too see ominous signs of der Fuhrer everywhere: on the political landscape; in my breakfast cereal; on Animal Planet; in movies especially. Pay no attention to the defenders of the following films, no matter how eloquent their arguments or sincere their convictions. Appeasers all!

I razzed Joe Wright's Atonement earlier this year sight unseen, and while it certainly met my expectations for shameless Oscar bait, it wasn't nearly as bad as expected. Wright has improved his craft as a visual stylist since Pride & Prejudice, a movie nearly everybody liked except me. I have a serious allergy to Jane Austen, what with all of her characters caterwauling and wringing their hands over The Need To Get Married (personified perfectly in the film by the annoying-as-ever Brenda Blethyn). I've never read anything by Ian McEwan, but tragedy, trauma, pessimism -- I dig his style. The film, for all the emphasis on its central love story, captures these qualities fairly well. Keira Knightley does her thing -- a limited actress, but a vivid (and rather fearless) screen presence -- and James McAvoy fares even better. He conveys some of the class issues in a way that is reportedly more prominent in the novel than the film, and in a manner that never begs our sympathies. Some critics took issue with the big tracking shot, midway through Atonement, that follows McAvoy along the beach of Dunkirk, but for me it was showing off of the highest order, consistent with Wright's lengthy setups in P&P, and a rare moment of connective tissue in a film with ultimately too many disparate strands.

The Chickenshit Award for 2007 cinema goes to The Golden Compass, Chris Weitz's adaptation of Philip Pullman's first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy, which inverts Milton's Paradise Lost and deals with the author's secular humanist's view of the tyranny of organized religion. I liked His Dark Materials, though I found Pullman's "creativity" a little overstated (create a parallel universe, flip the meaning of words around, rinse and repeat) and his intentions at once disingenuous and obvious: the first book, The Golden Compass (originally called Northern Lights in Britain) begins ostensibly as a children's fable only to gradually set-up in the later books a war with God and the Church over free thought and action. We may never know how Weitz would have handled this trajectory in the sequels -- the movie is so skittish to offend anyone that it buries its themes until they are rendered meaningless. (I can imagine the producers shouting on the phone, "More polar bear!") The cast is certainly game: Dakota Blue Richards makes a perfect Lyra, the young heroine (Pullman's employment of a female protagonist is one of his most appealing elements); Nicole Kidman cuts an iconic figure as Mrs. Coulter, aggressive advocate of the religious authorities; and other faces, from Sam Elliott to Eva Green, are also welcome. The cinematography creates the hyperreal look that Weitz was undoubtedly going for, but the screenplay and editing turn the complicated plot into hash. Peter Jackson and his team did a remarkable job distilling Tolkien and introducing a myriad of characters; here, when Green's good witch appears out of the blue to Lyra on a boat, it's as if she took a wrong turn from Oz.

Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog's dramatized account of real-life American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler's escape from a Laotian POW camp during the Vietnam War, has been the recipient of many glowing reviews, but I found it ugly and odious, a paean to assholimity. Herzog had previously made a documentary of this story (Little Dieter Learns to Fly), yet his knowledge of the facts didn't prevent him from adding numerous fictions to this version. Even without the justified complaints of the families of the other POWs, the film is transparent bullshit. Dengler is depicted as cocksure and resourceful, mouthing off to his VC captors (who look like rejects from The Deer Hunter) and the only one with the will and creativity to mastermind an escape, while the other prisoners -- a mix of Americans and south Vietnamese -- stand around feebly waiting for something to happen. As Duane, the POW who follows Dengler into the jungle, Steve Zahn comes across best; yet Herr Werner ultimately implies that his inherent kindness was a weakness, while Dengler's arrogance (as depicted by Christian Bale's performance in the film, if not in reality) results in the kind of Rocky-meets-Rambo ending that forges the missing link between an ostensible artist like Herzog and a meathead like Stallone.

Lastly, Dan in Real Life, the latest Steve Carell vehicle that means to bridge comedy and drama for the actor as a string of films did for Robin Williams two decades ago, completely blindsided me. I had expected a film about an advice columnist who can't control the direction of his own life, only to discover -- to my mounting horror -- that it was actually a family reunion picture. And not your typically dysfunctional snake-pit, which would have been dandy, but the vanilla bland Borg-like kind that insists that everybody does everything together (from morning aerobics to talent shows) and outsiders are welcome as long as they fall unquestioningly in line. The main plot thread, involving Carell's sad-sack widower finding love again with Juliette Binoche's sitcom-quirky girlfriend of his brother (Dane Cook), proceeds predictably, but within the confines of a horrible weekend retreat, the movie is claustrophobic and unbearable and wastes several talented actors, including Amy Ryan (who has the only authentic moment, a throwaway comment about being an only child). Dan in Real Life is yet another movie that promotes familial fascism, the notion that a person just can't be fulfilled unless they marry and spawn children in a manner Austen's archetypes would have applauded. What's that you say? I'm overreacting to an innocuous, brainless Hollywood comedy? Well, you're just like Hitler!


Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Your assessment of Knightley is right on the money: "limited actress, but a vivid (and rather fearless) screen presence." That so perfectly explains why I frequently struggle to identify her strengths as an actress and yet find her so watchable.

Craig said...

I know what you mean. The other night I caught a little bit of her in that King Arthur flick with Clive Owen, trying to imagine another tall, willowy actress (Gwyneth Paltrow?) in her part. She's always game. And she's been good so far at balancing her period pieces with movies like Domino, so I'm not tired of her yet.