Tremors 3: Not a good film; passable Brad Pitt impression.
I’m almost certain I watched Hamburger Hill sometime around the time it came out (1987). I vaguely recall not liking it, although I can’t say I remember anything else about it. Within the last six months or so, happened across some video clips from it (I was perusing a best movies of the Vietnam War list) and wondered if I shouldn’t watch it again. Or for the first time if, perhaps, I hadn’t watched it already. It then took a slot on my “to watch” list.
When I found out it, this past weekend, that was set to be removed from Netflix in the middle of May, I decided that the time had come to give it a watch. This despite the fact that I’ve not been watching much TV recently and despite the fact that the film, although gone from Netflix, remains on Amazon’s included-with-Prime streaming.
It seems that, at the time it came out, the film was overshadowed by several of “the big” Vietnam War films that released just before or at the same time. Hamburger Hill debuted some 8-9 months after Platoon‘s release. It then shared the summer audience with Full Metal Jacket. A few months after that, Good Morning Vietnam was added to the competition. To lend support to the idea that this was a genuinely good film that was overshadowed by its bigger-budget brethren is a (presently) 100% tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes.
But as I watch the film (or watch it again – I still can’t be sure), a number of things bother me. Part of the problem is that the likes of We Were Soldiers has raised the bar for what I expect from a war movie. Yet even evaluated from the perspective of the late 1980s, I don’t think this is in the same ballpark as Full Metal Jacket or Platoon.
My very first impression how much the actors reflect the look and mannerisms 80s, not the 60s. It has always been a problem and probably always will be, but failing to get the period right in your period piece tends to foreshadow other quality issues. It also mean that, throughout the remainder of the film, I have a hard time telling the supporting actors one from the other.
The focus of a film is on a single squad which, as the events of the film begin, is a mix of veterans and replacements. To start, the squad is being extracted from a firefight, perhaps a patrol gone wrong. We later find out that this nasty fight takes place in the region to which they are to ultimately return for the titular battle. The squad leader is played by Dylan McDermott* in what I would call the “lead role.” It is also his first credited film appearance. Strangely, Netflix doesn’t credit him as one of the “top” credits, despite his obviously key part. Amazon does, as does the “Blue Ray” disc version of the film. Odd.
While we, the audience, tries to figure out who these guys are and what they are up to, the movie seems want to run us through all the war-movie tropes. The Lieutenant / Platoon Leader is incompetent and the platoon is run by the Platoon Sergeant. There’s the draftees versus volunteers conflict (with a little anti-war and anti-anti-war politics thrown in for good measure). A nasty, friendly fire incident produces a gut-wrenching scene. It’s as if the writers wanted to take all the “issues” of the time and make sure each got their place within the film. One significant must-include for a 1969 period piece is the civil rights conflict. We are treated to repeated eruptions of racial tension in the mixed-race platoon. In this, that 80s look really confuses the story. There is an odd scene where the (black) medic teaches the new (white) recruits how to brush their teeth. The implication is that the whites are unsophisticated “rednecks,” perhaps in contrast to the urban (and urbane?) blacks. Yet, all the white boys looks suspiciously like 80s yuppies**.
The portrayal of battle itself also come off pretty flat. This may be par for the course for 1987. We’re still in the middle of that transition from the likes of Force 10 From Navarone to Saving Private Ryan in terms of combat realism. Gun handling is a mixed bag and nearly everyone fires incessantly on full-automatic from a single, 10-round magazine. The squad prefers to move around in a densely-packed group, and although here and there a thought is given to enemy location and flanks, it’s mostly a very simple and simplistic representation of the battlefield.
We rarely see the whole platoon together in a scene and rarer still the shots bring in the rest of the company. With that, there seems to be little consideration as to the greater tactical plan. One might argue this is intentional. Like the individual infantryman, the viewers are not privy to any overarching plan and we may even suspect that there isn’t one. Thus having combat scenes be confusing and disconnected is a feature, not a bug. Still, it seems like the scenes were put together, not with a temporal and geographic narrative in mind, but to serve the visual story. “Let’s have two intense combat scenes with an intervening pause for quiet reflection.” I, for one, think the movie could have held together much better if the directory tried to keep the battle itself coherent.
My perceived deficit in authenticity is not for lack of trying. Director John Irvin, himself, had made a documentary in Vietnam during the war (about war photographers) and strove for accuracy. Writer James Carabatsos served in combat in the Vietnam war and he specifically wanted to counter the non-realism found in films like Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. I’ve read that the film was extensively researched and praise from the Veteran community often focuses on its realism. I guess it is all relative.
One final benefit to Netflix pulling this film just when they did is that I watched it over the same days as the actual battle, 51 years after the fact. It’s a coincidence attributable to dumb luck, but one that I appreciate nonetheless.
Return to the master post or proceed to the next article, also out of order, where I watched the Ken Burns documentary series. Or at least part of it. Much of that article dwells on the 1968 Presidential election.
*Looking over McDermott’s acting credits, I feel like I’ve seen him in a lot more films and/or television than he has actually been in. I don’t know why that would be.
**The one actor who has a grip on his poor, southern white-boy role is Steven Weber (Wings, The Shining), as the Platoon Sergeant. Later, some exposition reveals to us that Weber’s Worcester is a California, city boy. Oh well.
We may all be inside watching Netflix, but Netflix still has films to remove from their streaming. Disappearing mid-month (among others) was the film Nowhere Boy. The movie is also unavailable on Amazon streaming (independent of whether or not you want to pay for it). Once again, I get a little bit of a glimpse into the economies of streaming services and I don’t understand it at all.
In any case, this is 2009 movie that Netflix has been pitching to me for some time now. It is also one that never manages to jump out of me, so it always remained quite a few titles down on my queue. While it sat there on the list, it never cried out “watch me.” It is a depiction of John Lennon’s late-teen years – during the time when he formed the band The Quarrymen. So he’s the boy. Because Nowhere Man is an autobiographical John Lennon song, but before he was a Nowhere Man he was a Nowhere Boy. Nope. I perpetually forgot who the “boy” featured in this story was and why I had wanted to watch it in the first place.
So after finally recollecting what I was getting into, the film gets off to a really slow start. We know we are watching John Lennon, because all that stuff in the previous paragraph, but we don’t yet know why. Finally, a little ways into the film, John’s mother teaches him how to play the Banjo, an instrument played by both his parents. From that point, the picture starts to pick up.
Perhaps part of what’s going on here is that John Lennon is much like Nikki Sixx (please, bear with me here). We see him deciding to become a “rock and roller” after watching Elvis on screen and admiring the lifestyle. It starts with hair and clothes for him but, then, he realizes that his dream is not to look or act like Elvis, but to actually BE Elvis.
Lennon’s motivation may be the same, but the movie is not. We see the genesis of the Quarrymen and their steady morphing into the Beatles. The film shows this happening, first, driven by John’s drive and personality and then propelled by the musicianship of Paul and George.
This isn’t a documentary. Real people are missing missing from the story while fictional people are added, and scenes are staged which don’t at all match what we know actually happened. It frustrated viewers and critics alike. However, if you either don’t know the details of the early Beatles or can accept that historically-inspired dramas often need to service the drama part above the historical part, you probably don’t mind. Indeed, on the whole, critics appreciated this film for what it was. It was popular enough, inside and outside of the the UK and it made good on its modest budget. By the end, I was glad to have watched it.
The band Mötley Crüe features a bit more prominently in my life than I would ever have expected. Despite being about the right age, I was never into the “hair band” wave of the early 1980s. I liked a few of the biggest metal acts of the 1980s, but they were mostly the already-established big names. Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osborne… these folks were topping the charts and I did dig their stuff. However, for the bands that were multiplying through the eighties and crowding the hard rock/metal field, well, I looked upon the bulk of the genre as gimmicky and unserious. Mötley Crüe seemed to me to be about as gimmicky and unserious as they came.
While I’d no doubt heard and could hum along with a few of their songs, as could anyone who listened to the radio, through the mid-eighties, I did not think of Mötley Crüe as a major artist. In fact, I can’t say I thought of them much at all. That was to change in the summer of 1987. May 11th of that year saw the release of the single Girls, Girls, Girls. This would be followed, almost immediately, by the release of the album by the same name. The sale of the album was backed by some heavy radio advertising push. At the time, a co-worker and I shared an apartment and we drove into work together. Every single morning we’d hear the pitch and took to feigning enthusiasm at the imminent availability of some new Crüe material.
The album release was accompanied by a summer stadium tour. The show came through Columbus OH in July. My roommate said that we had to get tickets*. I responded that we didn’t actually like Mötley Crüe, we were just pretending. “So what,” he said, “we have got to go and live the experience.” So we did.
Being the music snob that I was, I justified it in part by claiming that my interest was for the opening acts. I did consider the first opener, Anthrax, to be a legitimate artist. Second-bill Whitesnake won my respect by virtue of their connection to classic hard-rock bands like Ozzy Osborne and Deep Purple. But I was just too good for Mötley Crüe.
I took away two impressions from that concert. First, there were far uglier people in the world than, up until that point in my life, I’d ever known graced this earth. By and large, these were the folks there to hear Mötley Crüe, not Anthrax. Second, I had to admit that the Mötley Crüe show was a well-rehearsed and well-performed piece of entertainment. Up to that point, concerts that I’d seen pretty much consisted of bands playing through their songs while tossing in a little banter in-between tunes. With Mötley Crüe, I felt like everything was calculated to entertain. I didn’t come away from the show liking the band, but I did gain a bit of respect for them.
As I was writing this, I realized that someone videotaped that very concert and it is available on YouTube, both song-by-song and in its entirety. As I read through some of the comments, I gather that I was witness to one of Mötley Crüe’s better stadium shows of their career. Apparently, on top of the fan-lore, Niki Sixx talks about the show in his book The Heroin Diaries. Now I’m actually wondering if I could actually get a glimpse of myself if I watch the video. I think I should be just to the left and a little forward of the camera. The downside will be I’ll have to make it through the concert a second time. I’m not sure I can commit to that.
Life would soon take me away from Oh-Hi-Oooh and to the beaches of Los Angeles, but it could not take Mötley Crüe away from me.
While living in L.A., I had a friend who was dating a woman who had shared an apartment with Heather Locklear. The gals were still friends and they all would hang out as a foursome, mostly in Palm Springs. I never met either Heather nor Tommy Lee, but I was shown a bunch of poolside pictures. Sometimes it felt like I knew them. I lost touch with all of them by the time Heather and Tommy got divorced.
So why the trip down memory lane? Well, I decided to give Netflix another chance and watch another one of their “Original Movies,” the biographical drama The Dirt. This was a film that was pushed heavily by Netflix since it came out about a year ago. Unfortunately, the reviews (those few that covered it) weren’t too flattering and I figured to give it a pass. Nonetheless, Netflix kept on pushin’. The other night I was looking at some of the user reviews on IMDB and read one that said, basically, if you like Rock and Roll pictures, you’ll like this one. And I do.
The film is an adaptation of the book The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. This was a collaboration between the band members themselves and Niel Strauss (author of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists). The book The Dirt spent its share of time on the best seller list and garnered decent reviews. It took a few years before it was marked to be a film project and, although in retrospect that decision seems almost inevitable, it took even longer to get it made.
More than a decade went by before the film project came together. Completing it took Netflix coming to the rescue, buying the distribution rights and funding the movie’s completion. Once again, the band was part of the process and they are listed as co-producers in the credits. That said, the film doesn’t just glorify the band. Mötley Crüe went through some rough patches, albiet almost entirely of their own making. The ugly episodes are certainly portrayed. In fact, the band comes off on screen looking like a******s.
Critical reviews for the film weren’t great, as I said. The timing of the release was such that it was coming on the heels of my own disillusionment with “Netflix Original” material, meaning I was already predisposed to NOT watching it. In this case, now that I’ve seen it, my pessimism was overblown.
Instead, the IMDB commentary was right on. I am one who likes rock biographicals and this is a reasonably-decent example of the genre. I’ve read (somewhere, I forget where) that the dramatization is eclipsed by the various documentaries made about Mötley Crüe over the years. That may be so but, let’s be honest, I wasn’t really so much looking for a documentary about Mötley Crüe as some light entertainment. I’m thinking Marky-Mark’s Rock Star, but with a little more grounding in reality.
Here’s the funny thing. For pretty much any other “rock” movie that I’ve watched, the core of the story is the music. The genius of the writer, the virtuosity of the performer, or the great song that needs to be written. Even when the film fails to achieve this end, I assume that’s at least what they are trying for. Now, it turns out that I knew more Mötley Crüe than I had realized – the music that played during the movie was more familiar than I thought it would be. Even still, there is nothing from the band that I’d admit to being quality musicianship. The film makes no attempt to alter that impression. From the beginning, the concept for Mötley Crüe seems to be build the band entirely around image rather than song.
But so what. Let’s just say there is a reason that the Sex and the Drugs came before the Rock n’ Roll when we engaged in our teen-aged fantasy** of becoming the next… Vince Neil?
*Concert tickets, in 1987, weren’t crazy-stupid expensive like they are now. I bring this up because I remember, that same summer, arguing with my roommate about whether we should pay an extra $2 a month (on top of the already ~$10) for HBO in our cable package. I found the cost extravagant. He thought it would pay for itself if it saved us on a movie rental or two a month. Like with the Crüe show, he ended up persuading me.
**The film has a scene where the band chooses a name for themselves. It shows Tommy Lee suggesting the name The Fourskins. If so, he beat my friends to the idea by a year or two.
At the end of March, a long list of movies came off of Netflix streaming. Among them was yet another film that Netflix has long recommended to me, Kill the Irishman. This was a 2011 film that flew completely under my radar at the time it came out. The whimsical title along with the marketing shot (Christopher Walken mugging for the camera) got it into my head that this was a Tarantino-style violent, black comedy. This perception was way off.
Kill the Irishman is a true-crime drama set in Cleveland in the 1960s and 70s. It portrays the “career” of Danny Greene, an Ohioan of Irish descent who rose through the Longshoreman’s Union to become a figure in the city’s organized crime underworld. By the mid-70s, Greene was a key figure in a mafia war that plagued the city and whose violence rose to national attention.
The movie is a decent shot at the genre, although its saving grace is probably that it is historical. I’ve read the criticisms that it is too much like Goodfellas. It’s an accusation that may come from the lack of a “good guy” anywhere in the story. Like Henry Hill, Danny Greene has few redeeming qualities beyond a testy sort-of charisma. He is a thief and a murderer, as are all his friends and his enemies alike. Greene’s greatest contrast with Hill seemed to be his going out in a blaze of glory, rather than settling into a life of witness protection. It may be this final move that says much about his life. As to the assertion that Kill the Irishman is simply an attempt to remake Goodfellas, I wouldn’t go that far. If I hadn’t read that elsewhere, I wouldn’t have come to such a conclusion on my own. In fact, I’d go so far a to say that Kill the Irishman is less derivative than The Irishman or Casino.
The weakness in the story is the haphazard nature with which it jumps through the years. One can understand “the early years” being a bit rushed. Danny Greene’s slow rise through the union ranks is only interesting as a set up for the mid-1970s gang war that both opens and closes the film. However, even at the film’s climax, Greene’s criminal activities are largely glossed over. Was the mafia really so angry with him because he had an unpleasant personality? Or was this more about dollars and cents. The film shows Greene seemingly minding his own business as the hitmen chase him down. I suspect the reality put him in a much more active role.
Val Kilmer’s bloated portrayal aside, the acting is all decent – albeit with all of the famous actors playing the same characters that we’ve seen them play through the years. The film is generally well made and reasonably entertaining. If it weren’t for the somewhat fresh take (i.e. not New York City) and the historical basis, I probably would have been less than thrilled. As it was, I was glad that Neflix finally motivated me to give this one a watch.
I wanted to like The Martian. I tried to like The Martian. It just wouldn’t like me back.
OK, it wasn’t that bad. Somehow, I just thought it should have been much better.
The film was created by Ridley Scott based upon the highly acclaimed novel of the same name. Already a master of science fiction, Scott benefited from extensive help and cooperation from NASA, who saw the film as an opportunity to pitch future manned space missions. The film had no shortage when it came to funding ($100+ million), an investment that was recouped many times over. So what’s the problem?
First of all, I thought the plot was excruciatingly predictable. Even if they hadn’t telegraphed the “everything goes wrong” moment with dialog, I felt like I could have predicted it within about 10 minutes based on industry formulae. Tension/release and all that. But does anyone go into this movie thinking that Matt Damon might not make it home in the end? How tense can it really be?
I haven’t been on a NASA campus for a while, so maybe it is true that the majority of the workers are either drop-dead-gorgeous women or youthful hipsters-of-color. Yet somehow I doubt it. We all know there are certain physical features that correlate with advanced degrees in engineering and, I hate to break it to ya, but these aren’t them.
So while NASA contributed, it looks like they focused on PR. Pitching the hot (and smart!) babes to the next generation of college grads makes sense for them. In the same vein, the visual aspects of this movie are quite good; state-of-the-art CGI, interesting near-future tech, and a believable Mars location (Jordan IRL). The science however (or SCIENCE! as they had the fucking* audacity to place on a board full of, at best, trivial rocketry equations) they seem to have left to the screenwriters. I’m probably spoiled by The Expanse (which, as the authors have said, isn’t meant to be accurate; but it does succeed in being sensible), but in a film where the technology seems so heavily featured**, it seems you’d want to do a better job with it.
The film also lacks in the character development. Matt Damon is chummy and likeable as always, but I felt surprisingly disconnected from him given the man-alone focus of the movie. On top of that, he is the best they’ve got. There’s not one other character in this film who builds a connection with the audience. Well, maybe Jeff Daniels. His “Director of NASA” character is decidedly unlikable. One Netflix review says he “is even dumber than he was in Dumb and Dumber, but not as funny.” That’s funny right there.
Speaking of funny, the highlight of the movie was Sean Bean making a Lord of the Rings joke. I literally broke into laughter. And now I probably just ruined it for you. Sorry.
Maybe I should read the book.
Netflix, meanwhile, has decided that I like “Classic Cerebral Movies” and “Sci-Fi and Fantasy based on Books.” I’m a little flattered. I’m not interested in any of their suggested movies, but I’m happy with the way they’ve defined me.
*I’m probably overreacting, but I see this selling of “SCIENCE!” as a form of religion as one of the more corrosive features of modern discourse. It is implicitly used as a political critique (my opponents are ignorant of science) and, as far as I can fathom, has little value in its explicit intent – which would be to get the young interested in math and science as a career path. Prove me wrong.
**I want to give examples, but then again what’s the point. Some of the propulsion goofs and simplifications got to me particularly, but technical ignorance abounds in this movie. In fact, a little reading on line shows me many, many items that I hadn’t noticed as I watched. Any science fiction film is going to have inaccuracies and simplifications. This one just took it too far.
I have long blamed Shakespeare, but I fear it was unjustly so.
Richard III is a classic example of the evil character who looks the part. His deformities and his ugliness are indicative of his murderous character. Yet while Shakespeare exaggerates Richard’s appearance, such exaggerations did not originate with him. From Richard’s death and the installment of the Tudor dynasty, both Richard’s evil nature and his genetic shortcomings were played up in support of the politics. For Shakespeare’s part, he is probably no more (and possibly less) susceptible to using this literary device.
The blame may be due the ancient Greeks. Their literature and even society reflected the idea that good looks, good character, and divine favor all went hand-in-hand. The Athenians used the phrase καλοι κ’αγαθοι (Kaloi k’agathoi), roughly the equivalent of the English “the Great and the Good.” In their case, the notion of beauty was part of that phrase. The literature of the Greeks and Romans, of fairy tales, classic novels (Frankenstein is often cited), and various works into the present day use this imagery.
Also to this day, the bias remains within society. Studies show that people are more lenient in their evaluation of beautiful people than they are with ugly people. In fact, in some cases, the bias might be justified. There are statistical correlations between beauty and intelligence and between beauty and capability that underlie people’s prejudice. Features that people associate with human beauty (e.g. facial symmetry) may be recognized as such because they correlate with genetic fitness.
This returned to my mind as I began watching the British TV series Happy Valley. The show has been on Netflix streaming for some time and has long been recommended for me (by Netflix, naturally). Mid-March, however, it is going away, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.
The show began its first season in 2014 and, while not specific, would seem to take place in the present (at the time). It focuses on a police sergeant, Catherine Caywood, living in a region sometimes referred to as “Happy Valley” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a persistent drug abuse problem. Caywood, played by British television actress Sarah Lancashire, is a middle aged woman who has suffered the loss of her daughter to suicide, a tragedy that has weighed heavily upon her personally. As a new and serious crime unfolds, she doesn’t (at first) realize that it is tied to her own past troubles.
Lancaster looks the part of a blue-collar, middle class worker. Similarly, a major supporting character playing an accountant fits the mould in both appearance and grating personality. I’ve mused on this before, but European productions seem more comfortable with casting “regular-looking” people in major roles. However, Northern England is not all plain folk. Oddly enough, it is the criminals of this story that are fairly good-looking. In fact, the more amoral and scheming the criminal (and in many cases, competent), the better he/she looks.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I believe the show specifically identifies everyone’s goodness or wrongness via the character’s looks. I can name some clear counter-examples. I would be surprised, however, if there weren’t at least some deliberation behind the casting of this store.
The show itself is very good. Like River, it excels at portraying the mental and emotional struggle caused by traumatic events. It also stretches the story well beyond the boundries of “the good guys versus the bad guys.” We might find our loyalties flitting around between different characters as we slowly learn more about them. One figure might come to seem more heroic as we learn more while the “root for the villain” urge falls to the wayside as we learn just how deplorable the person actually is.
The show ran for two seasons, and I’ll probably be hard pressed to get through both of them before it goes away. I’m a-gonna try, though.
Almost eight years ago, now, I watched the horror movie Dream House. This was a 2011 flick staring the James Bond for the new generation, Daniel Craig. The movie itself received some ugly reviews as did the lead actors for their performance. Craig himself seemed to admit to a lack of effort on his part stating, “The movie didn’t turn out great, but I met my wife – fair trade!”
At this time, I had seen Casino Royale (2006 version) and was very impressed. I’d yet to watch Quantum of Solace, so my opinion on Craig as Bond was entirely untarnished by the lesser movies that followed his debut. While I saw that Dream House had received some really awful reviews, I liked the looks of the preview and figured I’d watch it anyway. Funny thing is, I actually kind of enjoyed it. Maybe it was low expectations or maybe I have a different taste than most horror fans, but I thought it was altogether worthwhile*. Also, despite having read that Craig had “phoned in” his performance in this movie, I liked his work in Dream House well enough.
Somewhere in all of this, I read that Craig had gotten his start in a movie called Layer Cake. For this performance he received several (European-centered) Best Actor nominations. It is also written that it was his Layer Cake role that got him noticed and demonstrated his potential to play James Bond. I put the film on my list figuring it would be more and better of what I had already enjoyred. However, these finer details slip from the memory as time goes by and, based purely on the description of the film in its blurb, it actually looks kind of drab. According to the description from Netflix this is another film about a career criminal who “longs to ditch his illegal trade[, b]ut he can’t do that without wrapping up just one more job.” Snore.
Other aspects of the marketing pitch don’t help, either. The Netflix “poster” calls out that the film is from the same producer as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. When you’ve got to announce that you had the same source of financing of other films, it suggest that you just don’t have anything meaningful to say.
But where Neflix closes a door, The Lord opens a window.
Layer Cake is being removed from Netflix’s streaming at the end of February. I didn’t remember my own backstory but, poor marketing aside, the film is ranked very highly in Netflix’s DVD ratings. Those 4+ stars were enough to bump it to the top of the handful of films I’m about to lose at the end of the month.
The movie is made by the English and for the English. American viewers are likely to struggle with the accents and some of the cultural references. It is based on the novel of the same name (sometimes the book and the movie are stylized as L4YER CAKƐ), which I’d have to assume was also popular mostly in the U.K. (particularly before the movie came out). If you can get past this, or if instead you love all things English, you’ll find a fine movie. The title is, of course, a metaphor. In the dialog it refers directly to social hierarchy – the hierarchy of command and privilege in the underworld. Incidentally, it comments on the hierarchy of the privilege of the British class system. It also describes the convoluted plot of hidden motives and meanings. As always, it is best to go into this knowing nothing allows the surprise revelations to remain surprises. It is fortunate that the Netflix blurb was so inadequate.
As I said, this may be the film that made Daniel Craig’s career, but he is not the only one getting an early start. A handful of familiar faces in this movie were virtual unknowns until after Layer Cake was released. This is one of the first significant film roles for Sienna Miller, playing the mind-bogglingly beautiful corner of a love triangle. Although one of several projects she was working on, no doubt this was part of her rise to a brief flash of top-layer celebrity stardom. One also recognizes Tom Hardy in one of the major supporting roles, forgetting that in 2004 his would not have been a familiar face at all. While he did not jump out at me with his performance as did the first two, one assumes that this was an important step towards his current leading-man status.
*Quantum of Solace, on the other hand, I did not.
On Presidents’ Day, I began* watching Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln, completing my recent trilogy of Lincoln-related entertainment ventures. For those outside the United States, “Presidents’ Day” is a combined holiday which falls on the Monday between the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Federal holiday associated with Washington’s birthday was moved from his actual birthday (February 22nd) to be on a three-day-weekend-creating Monday. Although Lincoln’s birthday was not a Federal holiday, the original text of the 1968 bill referenced “Presidents’ Day.” In the final version which became law, the newly created holiday retained the designation of Washington’s Birthday. Lincoln’s birthday, in and of itself, had and has been a holiday in some states. Additionally, different states treat the “third Monday in February” holiday in various ways. Governmental designations aside, the Republican party often will celebrate “Lincoln Day” in recognition of Lincoln being the first U.S. President elected under the party banner.
I don’t know why I wasn’t more interested in seeing Lincoln. Perhaps I’d read some so-so reviews (although reviews were generally very positive). Perhaps I felt overwhelmed by a wave of biographical dramas, and Lincoln was lost in the haze. It probably didn’t help that Lincoln was released only a few months after the not-so-well-reviewed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Obviously I could tell the difference between the two, but the latter may have tainted the former within my subconscious. Of course, once Netflix decided to pull it out of streaming circulation, I had to sit down and watch it.
I didn’t realize the limited scope of Spielberg’s Lincoln until after I began watching. I had assumed that this would be yet another sweeping “life of” picture; an impression based, I suppose, on the movie’s poster. It is, in fact, very focused. It begins with a dramatic hand-to-hand combat scene depicting the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry before leaping ahead to the days following Lincoln’s second election. The focus of the story is almost entirely on the effort to obtain passage, in the House, of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition of slavery. The measure had passed the Senate, overwhelmingly, nearly a year early but had failed by 13 House votes in June, 1864.
Lincoln began pressing for the Amendment’s passage after winning the 1864 election and targeting those Democrats who had just lost their own re-election races. The war looked to grind on and on while many feared that the Emancipation Proclamation might not have any legal force absent an open rebellion. Taken together, part of the value of the Amendment was to hasten the end of the war. Yet if the war were to end before the vote, the urgency of passing the Amendment would fade and the Southern States might have time to legally reinstitute jurisdiction over the slaves that Lincoln’s wartime proclamation had freed. While Lincoln’s party platform called for the Amendment and, after winning, he argued for its immediate passage in his State of the Union address, much of the pressure to secure the votes was done while hiding the president’s direct involvement.
As I said, the critiques of the film were positive, but not uniformly so. The acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, found near universal acclaim. He won the Oscar for Best Action, 2012 as well as a slew of other “best actor” titles. It was fine work. One of my metrics for film acting was met. It took me some effort to see “Daniel Day-Lewis” behind the face of Lincoln – his portrayal so overcame his own personality.
The cast for this project includes a huge number of recognizable actors and an impressively large number of them joined Day-Lewis in completely assuming, to my mind, the personae of their historical characters. Perhaps it was the period facial hair or costumes, but many (Sally Fields, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and James Spader spring immediately to mind) actors had me struggling to figure out to whom that vaguely-familiar face belonged. Tommy Lee-Jones played his stock character, though that struck me as dead-on-target for Thaddeus Stevens. I also found amusing the grouping of actors, connected through their other work. Recruited from the OPA were commanders Ashford (David Strathairn) and Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), portraying Seward and Grant respectively. Seward was joined on Lincoln’s cabinet by Miami Vice partner Bruce McGill**, portraying (less obfuscatingly) Secretary of War Stanton. I’ll grant my award to Strathairn, whom I watched near-simultaneously in The Expanse, Good Night, and Good Luck, and now Lincoln without realizing that this was the same person. After that, remembering his minor appearance in Miami Vice was actually the easy part.
One area of criticism for Lincoln was in its historical accuracy. As ever, this piece has bent and twisted history in service of making a better movie. For the most part, historians accepted the changes, particularly given the historical accuracy in set and costume. Given the current debates regarding the legacy of slavery, State’s rights, imperial presidents, endless wars, and transparency versus expediency, it would be shocking if someone didn’t find something to get upset about in this film.
More than a little speculative is the moral dilemma that is the central feature of the film – and it was a direction I was surprised the film took. Today, Lincoln is generally going to be the hero of any tale about him as the freeing of the slaves is inarguably an unqualified good. In the film, Lincoln knows that the urgency of passage would be diminished, should the war end but also knows that a Peace Commission (the delegates to the Hampton Roads Conference) are prepared to discuss terms for ending the fighting. Spielberg’s Lincoln must decide which path to take – one branch frees the slaves but the other brings a quicker end to the war. Having made the decision, Lincoln later visits the battleground at Petersburg to see the carnage that occurred in between the amendments passage and the eventual surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia more than a month later.
I didn’t expect a focus on this kind of moral dilemma and its inclusion is even more surprised given that it is an oversimplification of the historical situtation. Lincoln’s choice is a version of the so-called “Trolley Problem.” Was Lincoln’s decision to sacrifice thousands, if not 10s of thousands, of lives to free the slaves an ethical one? Might the slaves not have been freed eventually, making that sacrifice in vain? Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, joins the service at this time forcing the president to lie about his motives. While claiming that he pushes the amendments passage so as to end the war, he knows he is doing the opposite. Does Spielberg expect us to see the answer? Was Slavery so great an evil that is was not only worth dying to end, it was worth deceitfully sacrificing lives to end? Or does he leave us to continue to ponder this question on our own time, well after the film is over? Wikipedia cites a Israeli article*** stating that Netanyahu and his ministers debated the message of the film relative to then-current National policy. That suggests a lot of substance for what otherwise might be dismissed as period drama.
My favorite scene in the movie, though, is a joke told about Ethan Allen, not connected to the more serious themes. Lincoln had a penchant for seemingly interrupting an important exchange by saying, “Now, that reminds me of a story…” What would follow would often make listeners laugh as well as enlighten them to a greater truth. Sometimes it would do neither. This aspect of Lincoln’s personality featured in The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, but dramatizing it has a different impact altogether when presented through film. Roughly midway through Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln tells his slightly-vulgar story about Ethan Allen and his exchange with an English nobleman after America’s separation from the Crown. While the story might have been famous at the time, it was considerably less so in my pre-Lincoln lifetime, and heretofore unknown to me. It’s a funny joke and it is funnier still coming from a sitting president admired for his gravitas and dignity. However, what made this scene great was the insertion of a disapproving glare from the nearby portrait of George Washington following the the delivery of the punch line. I laughed out loud – and this was not a laugh out loud movie.
*I emphasize “began” in that this is a two-and-a-half hour film which I was not inclined to complete in one sitting.
**While Lincoln is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, McGill may be best known for playing Daniel Simpson (D-Day) Day in Animal House. Simple mind, simple pleasures.
***I can’t see the Israeli article and probably couldn’t read it if I found it.
With the flip of the calendar page, Netflix has removed Aeon Flux from its streaming services. Naturally, I had to watch it, despite my better instincts.
The algorithm on the streaming service thought I might like this movie. They said it was 57% like the other stuff I tend to watch. They helpfully colored the “57” green so that I’d know that was a good thing. The DVD-based ranking, on the other hand, says its a 3.4, which all else being equal, I consider right on the edge of watchable. For me, however, they guess that I would rank it a 2.2. Now having viewed it, I’d respond that this was about right.
Aeon Flux is a film version of a string of cartoon shorts airing on MTV (at least, in the United States). I can’t say I’ve ever seen the cartoons. They were a rough contemporary of the Beavis and Butt-Head shows airing (cabling?) on what MTV called Liquid Television. The latter was an attempt to focus on a more adult-oriented content (via animation) to be shown during later hours. Aeon Flux was featured regularly in Liquid Television‘s first season, albeit as “episodes” lasting around two minutes each. The show was abstract and artsy, seemingly referencing, albeit obliquely, deeper and (presumably) meaningful concepts. It developed a faithful following.
The original was created as three seasons, originally shown 1991 through 1995. The third season consisted of traditional, 30-minute (including adverting breaks) episodes. At the end of this run, various official spin-offs (on top of the usual fan generated material) were created and a deal was struck to license the material for a full-length film. This arrangement immediately met with push-back as the rumor was that the film’s story would be a significant departure from the “universe” of the comic.
It would take ten years for the film to be released and, as predicted, it did not do very well in terms of honoring its source material. The series’ creator, Peter Chung, was involved with the film but has said he was disappointed in the script and even more disappointed in the final product – calling it a “travesty.” The writers for the film’s screenplay as well as the director complained that the studio made significant changes in the final edit, resulting in a departure from their artistic vision. Chung, too, acknowledges that the studio edit was also a significant factor in the disappointment he felt in the film vis-à-vis the source cartoon.
And disappointment it was. It was rejected by the critics, shunned by fans, and failed to turn a profit. While a $52.3 million box office take may be nothing to sneeze at, it is estimated that $65 million went into the project.
As I began watching the film, I had no idea what I was looking at. As I said, I was entirely unfamiliar with the source material, so I wasn’t trying to fit what I saw into any preconceived structure. My first impression was that it was an attempt to remake art-house science fiction from the 70s, but with 2005 CGI and post-Matrix martial arts sequences. I then wondered if maybe it wasn’t all supposed to be a fantasy/dream sequence (again, derived from The Matrix). The original cartoon is set in a nearly-inconceivable future some 5,000-6,000 years ahead. The movie is 410 years into the future, a handful of generations past a global catastrophe and rebuilding of society. What this means is that the technology of the film version of the story is a mix of the conceivable, the appropriately science-fiction, and the impossibly futuristic. Perhaps that is forgivable because there doesn’t seem to be any depth to that story. Aeon Flux is mostly action/fighting and in this it exemplifies the worst of its kind. Lots of punching and shooting, largely ineffective against named characters but immediately deadly to the extras and various “red shirts.”
About half way through, I began to discover there was a story line. It was interesting enough to get me watching to the end to “solve” the mystery. It wasn’t interesting enough to be satisfying. In the end, this movie wasn’t worth my watching it but I suppose it actually required my seeing it to know exactly why – especially given its history as an MTV cartoon series.
The old Netflix, DVD algorithm seemed to capture this, although it wouldn’t be capable of groking the details. As you know, I despise the new (streaming) algorithm, but its accuracy is inhibited by the fact that I refuse to give it any input. “Thumbs up” or “thumbs down” can’t possibly capture how I feel about something I’ve just watched, so I never put in neither. Netflix therefore assumes (I assume) that everything I’ve watched, I watched because I liked it. I’m also convinced (without any proof whatsoever) that the new Netflix algorithm is based on its key word matching. It puts the streaming content into Genres and then adds descriptors (e.g. “This film is Mind-Bending, Exciting”). The implication is if I liked one “Exciting” film, I ought to like them all. Actually, I find even the classification system objectionable, independent of how much it is or isn’t used to rate the content.
If nothing else, this exercise seemed to confirm what I already do. I ignore almost any recommendation from Netflix streaming while taking the Netflix DVD ratings as the most accurate system out there.