Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

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She’s a robot.  You get that, right? (Image via IMDb)

So, Ghost in the Shell has been something of a disaster at the box office. Which is too bad, because as I said in my full review, it’s one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years.

A big problem has been heavy criticism of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the main character.  The argument is that they should have gotten a Japanese actress to play the role, since the character is Japanese.

[Warning–I’m about to spoil a few plot points, so proceed with caution.]

But the thing is, the whole premise of the movie is that a sinister robotics corporation took the brain of a woman named Motoko Kusanagi and placed it inside an artificial body. (And re-named her “Mira Killian”.)  We only see Kusanagi’s human body in a brief flashback, and her features are difficult to discern in the scene.  Johansson just plays the artificial machine body in which Kusanagi’s brain is housed.

And this serves a dramatic purpose in the film: in the scene where Kusanagi in her mechanical body is reunited with her mother, the fact that they no longer have any resemblance makes the scene very poignant.  Even though she has her memories back, it underscores that something has been permanently taken away from them by the operation.

In addition, Johansson’s performance throughout the film was fine. So the whole controversy is really misguided–I suspect a lot of the people talking about it didn’t see the movie or even know the plot.

ghost poster1. Plot Summary

Ghost in the Shell is set “in the near future” according to the opening title card, in a world in which people are cybernetically enhanced. It opens with a young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) waking up inside of a life-like mechanical body.  The doctor who performed the operation tells her that she is the survivor of a terrorist attack, and that her body was destroyed but her brain was saved–the first such instance of an entirely mechanical body.

The Hanka Robotics company that funded this miraculous operation then puts Killian to use as anti-terrorist agent in a group called “Section 9”. The Hanka CEO makes it clear that Killian, as the first fully mechanical shell housing a human brain, is a powerful weapon.

The film flashes forward a year to Killian, who is now a Major in Section 9, carrying out counter-terrorism operations.  After a gun battle with some hacked robots, Major Killian examines and attempts to hack the remains of one of the robots, the Major gets clues as to the location of the hacker, but also exposes herself to counter-hacks.

Eventually, the Major and her team track down the hacker, but when she finally finds him, he captures her and explains she is not really the first purely mechanical body created by the Hanka corporation.  He was a failed attempt they made prior to the Major.  He explains that they wiped her memories and gave her false ones. (Throughout the opening act, the Major has experienced odd hallucinations or “glitches” as her brain remembers fragments of her real past, including a burning pagoda-like structure. The hacker has a similar image tattooed on his chest.)

The Major finds the doctor who performed the operation who admits that the hacker’s story is true, and that in truth, there were 98 other test subjects who failed before the successful operation on the Major.

Now that she knows the truth, the Hanka corporation decides the Major is a threat, and the CEO orders the doctor to destroy her.  Instead, she gives her the address of her real home and helps her escape, before being killed by the CEO.

The Major goes to the address and finds a woman who she realizes is her mother, and who tells her how her daughter ran away a year before and was reported by the government to have committed suicide after being captured.

She contacts the other members of Section 9, which causes the Hanka CEO to attempt to assassinate all of them, but they manage to defeat his soldiers. The Major then meets the hacker at the ruins of the pagoda-like structure from their visions–it was their hideaway, where they both lived before being captured.

Hanka deploys a massive “Spider Tank” robot to destroy them.  The hacker is killed, but the Major destroys the Spider Tank and the Section 9 leader shoots and kills the Hanka CEO after the Major tells him to do so.

In the closing scenes, she meets with her mother and then continues going on missions for Section 9.

2. Analysis

That all probably sounds pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the film.  In fact, even having seen it, it sounded a little confusing to me just writing it.  But it all pretty much worked for me while I was watching the movie.

I went to see it because I like cyber-punk dystopian stories that deal with trans-humanism.  This is due to my fondness for the Deus Ex series of video games, which are set in futuristic dystopias and deal with augmented humans and the theme of humanity merging with machines. I saw a few bits and pieces about Ghost in the Shell and thought it looked kind of like that.

And I actually underestimated its resemblance to Deus Ex. For me, it was practically like watching Deus Ex: The Movie. The city in which most of it takes place looked like the cities in Deus Ex, right down to the intermingling of super-futuristic technology with trash-filled alleys and nightclubs. The fighting factions of hackers, mega-corporations and governments was straight out of that series as well.

The Major’s friend Batou reminded me strongly of Gunther from the original game, and the opening credits sequence looked like the start of Human Revolution. Even the guns looked like something J.C. Denton or Adam Jensen might wield.

More than that, even the structure of the plot was similar:

  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist works for counter-terrorism organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist finds out s/he is being lied to by said organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist starts to have sympathy for the people s/he was originally fighting.

And to be clear, this didn’t bother me a bit.  I’m not saying they just stole all the ideas from Deus Ex. In fact, the Japanese graphic novel on which it is based (which I have not read) was written in the early ’90s, before Deus Ex. So I don’t know which is influencing which.  And frankly,  it doesn’t matter to me.  The fact is, it’s a good concept, so it pretty much works. All these things are common tropes of the cyberpunk genre.

Now, that isn’t to say that there weren’t some rough spots. There definitely were, including a major (no pun intended) one that I’ll get to later.  But I want to make clear that if you enjoy dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy this.

At times, it felt like the greatest video game adaptation in history, even though it isn’t one.  There was tactical, squad-based combat, there were exciting gun battle scenes, and there was even a boss battle–in fact, the “Spider Tank” almost seemed like a brilliant parody of a typical video game boss fight.

The action sequences were pretty well-done, and most importantly, didn’t drag on too long.  In fact, except for one element (again, I’ll get to that later) they were surprisingly good.  The only one I really disliked was a scene in a nightclub where the Major is handcuffed to a stripper pole by some thugs who then hit her with some sort of electric prod.

First of all, it seemed like a bit of salaciously sexualized violence needlessly tossed in to titillate immature people. Second, it made no sense whatsoever why the Major would be susceptible to torture–why would anybody build a counter-terrorism cyborg that could feel pain?

Of course, the Major escaped–it wasn’t really clear why she waited–and satisfyingly beat up the thugs, albeit in a rather silly pole-dance-fight sequence. (It’s not as bad as that sounds–but still, not the film’s high point.)

One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the Major hacks into a broken mechanical geisha. I won’t try to describe it, but the visual metaphor they used for the hacking–and subsequent counter-hack–was very cleverly done. It was a good way of dramatizing the process.

Now, there are a lot of nitpicks one could make about the technology in the movie.  How can they have these super-sophisticated robots but still be using cartridge-based firearms? Moreover, how come the robots and augmented humans can still be destroyed by bullets?  There’s really no good answer, but this is where the concept of “suspension of disbelief” comes into play–if the story is good enough, the audience will accept it.

Except–and here’s that flaw I’ve been alluding to–there was one thing that totally ruined the immersion for me.

At the start of the first big action sequence, the Major is covertly monitoring a meeting that gets attacked by hacked robots.  She is standing atop a skyscraper in a black coat, which looks pretty cool.  When the attack starts, she leaps into action and… throws off her black coat to reveal the “outfit”–if you can call it that–pictured in the poster above.

Except the poster makes it look way better than it does in the movie.  Here’s a still from the movie:

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via IMDb

This looks absolutely ridiculous.

For some reason, when particularly intense fights happen, the Major takes off her clothes and fights in what I guess you could call her “underwear”.  This allows her to periodically turn invisible, which is a useful tactic.

However, what is not a useful tactic is running around in what appears to be a bright-white naked human body. It’s hard to get any more conspicuous than that.

Images of Scarlett Johansson in this costume have been used heavily in the film’s promotional materials.  I guess this is just the marketing people trying to follow the age-old adage that “sex sells”, and figuring that this will appeal to teenage boys. (Although I was once a teenage boy, and I don’t think I would have thought this was hot even then.)

The effect is absurd and stupid.  The special effects are generally good, but on this, they really fall down.  The impression you get is that the bad guys are being attacked by a naked mannequin with a realistic-looking head superimposed on top of it. It’s slightly creepy but mostly just laughable.  It reminded me of the game Mass Effect 3, when the A.I. that pilots the ship takes over a robotic body that looks like–of all things!–a slender human female.

I would be inclined to complain that this is a rather cheap, crass and sexist ploy to get attention, except that it’s so silly-looking it’s kind of hard to imagine anybody thinks it’s sexy.  (And if they do, I can’t imagine what their reaction to walking into a clothing store with mannequins must be.)

This is even worse because most of the time, the Major wears perfectly respectable, everyday cyberpunk-heroine outfits that look just fine.

cool
via IMDb

(Side note: I have no idea what’s up with all the knives in this movie.  People would have knives and never used them.  The utility of a knife as a weapon in a world populated by cybernetically-augmented humans and pure machines seems limited.)

I don’t generally pay much attention to costumes in movies, and I feel slightly sexist myself for even discussing this.  (The natural feminist counter-argument would be that a strong, independent anti-terrorism cyborg has every right to wear what she deems best.)  I’m just saying it looked so bizarre that the scenes where it happened became unintentionally comical.

But what bothered me most about the suit is the fact that I could see people getting the wrong impression about this movie from how much it’s used in the marketing.  I was afraid the movie might be nothing but a flimsy excuse to give callow teenagers something to gawk at between shoot-’em-up scenes, and for the most part, it’s not that.  Apart from this relatively small (albeit really stupid) element, it’s actually a surprisingly thoughtful film, as these things go.

With that, enough about costumes.  Back to plotting and character–things that really matter.

Juliette Binoche is really good as the doctor who saves the Major and gives her the new body.  Hers was probably the most complex character–she is driven by a passion for science, and a genuine desire to help, but makes a Faustian bargain with the less-than-noble Hanka corporation to do so.

Her death scene, however, was poorly-handled.  It was clear enough when she helps the Major escape that she would be killed unless the Major saved her.  That she simply left her there made her seem a little cold.  Also, there is a logic problem in that the doctor is shot through a window looking into the room where the Major was held in captivity–you would expect that to be bulletproof glass.

There are no great feats of acting in this movie, but it’s not really the sort of movie that allows for or needs it.  All the actors delivered very solid, competent performances.  And the characters, while mostly stock figures of the genre, are reasonably well-written and consistent.  The script has only one memorable line and no masterful plot twists, but it is well-paced and workmanlike, with no serious flaws.

I would have ended the movie about two minutes earlier than it actually ends.  The last two scenes–of the Major reuniting with her mother and then going on a mission for Section 9–raise more questions at the worst time.  Who is the Major fighting now?  Is she still working for the government that collaborated with Hanka to kidnap her in the first place?  It seemed strange, and made the film a little less satisfying than it could have been.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ghost in the Shell.  It is not a great film, but after the modern science-fiction films I have seen–Prometheus, The Force Awakens–even basic storytelling competence was really a treat.  If you like cyberpunk or science-fiction in general, I recommend it.

Now if only Section 9 would issue the Major a less-ridiculous stealth uniform…

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From left: Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Image via IMDb

I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn.  And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it.  Well, I intend to rectify that now.

Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.

And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia.  They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.

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I. Plot Synopsis

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Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

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“Denial” (Image via Wikipedia)

Denial is a courtroom drama about the libel lawsuit filed by author David Irving (portayed by Timothy Spall) against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in one of her books. Because Irving brought the case in England, the burden of proof is on the accused, and so Lipstadt and her legal team are required to prove Irving knowingly lied in denying the Holocaust.

As part of the research for the trial, Lipstadt and her lawyers go to Auschwitz, where her barrister, Richard Rampton, asks a series of matter-of-fact questions about the camp and the methods of killing. This makes Lipstadt very uncomfortable, but Rampton argues it is necessary to build their case.

As the trial begins, it is clear that Irving is a master of public relations.  He acts as his own lawyer, against Lipstadt’s well-financed legal team, to cast himself as an underdog and create a “David vs. Goliath” image.

As part of their strategy, Lipstadt’s lawyers don’t allow her to speak at the trial, or to the press.  They also refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to speak, even after Lipstadt is approached by one, pleading with her to allow their voices to be heard.

Lipstadt is greatly distressed by this. But as Rampton explains, these are the sacrifices they must make. “It’s the price you pay for winning,” he tells Lipstadt. The goal is to make the trial not about the Holocaust, but about Irving himself.

The strategy works well, and gradually they begin to expose Irving as an anti-Semite, and his “historical errors” as deliberately calculated to paint Hitler in the best possible light.  Ultimately, their strategy succeeds, and Irving is ruled to have knowingly lied to deny the Holocaust.

The victory is satisfying, but Irving remains a genius at the dark art of “spin”–after the verdict is announced Lipstadt watches as Irving is interview on television saying that he obviously beat Lipstadt’s legal team, but was just not forceful enough to convince the Judge.

Although the ending of the film is as upbeat as one could expect, given the subject matter, there is a certain subtext that suggests Irving may have lost in court, but will use his skills as a showman to win with the press.  I’m not even sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Irving is portrayed as a shrewd and manipulative man, and the implication seems to be that he–and others like him–could continue to trick uninformed people.

The acting is terrific throughout. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as Lipstadt, right down to her Queens accent. Timothy Spall plays Irving as a man of intelligence and a veneer of “old English gentleman” charm masking a core of hatred. Every performance is excellent.

The script is not bad, but at times tries too hard to be clever and snappy (a common flaw in dramas nowadays), and too often has characters blatantly stating exposition or background information for the benefit of the audience.

The annoying wordiness of the script is compounded by the fact that some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the ones where the characters don’t speak. The scenes at Auschwitz are every bit as powerfully haunting as they should be, without any words being necessary.

Of course, a courtroom drama is bound to have some talking, and the script is certainly good enough when it needs to be. The trial scenes are riveting, even knowing the outcome.

It’s a dark film, and not only because of the Holocaust subject matter, but also because of its depiction of how the bigot Irving advances his agenda with lies and clever manipulation of the press and public alike.  The concept of truth itself comes under attack from Irving, and Lipstadt is forced to confront the possibility that to even respond would be to lend him legitimacy.

Overall, a very good and interesting film. I recommend it. It prompted me to do more research regarding Irving, the lawsuit, and the subject of Holocaust denial generally.  I have a lot more to write on those topics, but that will be a separate post.

220px-loving_282016_film29Historical dramas are tricky.  The director has to balance telling a story with a satisfying dramatic arc with staying at least reasonably faithful to the facts of what happened.  Since life rarely conforms to neat three-act structures, this is always a difficult feat to achieve.

Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia.  Interracial marriage was banned in the state, and so, after several encounters with law enforcement, Richard and Mildred are forced to leave their home state and live in Washington D.C., which recognised their marriage.

Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy,who referred their case to the ACLU.  Ultimately, it resulted in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which the Lovings won, legalising interracial marriage throughout the United States.

This is a summary of the events depicted in the movie, and if it sounds rather dry, let me make it clear that this is merely the framework of the film.  The real meat of the story is in the interactions between Mildred, Richard, and their families and friends–as well as the occasional lawyer, police officer, or journalist.

Much of the film depicts everyday events in their lives.  Richard and Mildred went to work, shopped, cooked, cleaned house and raised their children like any other couple.  It is that basic normality which underscores the injustice driving the film’s narrative: that such a healthy family should be forbidden brings home the sheer immorality of the law.

Because the film is almost completely focused on Richard and Mildred, rather than the court battle surrounding them, it is critical that the actors portraying them be able to carry the film.  They are more than up to the challenge.  Ruth Negga portrays Mildred as a kind, sensitive woman who ultimately realizes that she is fighting for more than just herself, but also for many other couples.  She is intelligent and strong, often without ever saying a word. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, portrays Richard as a man who may lack education or sophistication, but who is driven by a profound decency and love for his family.

Both Negga and Edgerton do terrific work.  I worry that their roles may not be flashy enough to earn them the credit they deserve, but both are absolutely marvelous at conveying so much emotion in such subtle ways.

Despite the brilliance of its stars, Loving doesn’t completely succeed at balancing historical realism vs. the necessities of drama.  Sometimes scenes go on a bit too long, or don’t resolve themselves in anything dramatically significant. It’s no coincidence that the poorest scenes in the film are the ones in the latter half which involve the Lovings’ lawyers, and from which the Lovings themselves are absent.

There are nit-picks I could make here and there about the historical accuracy of certain lines of dialogue, and a few of the reporters didn’t look authentically 1960s to me.  But these are minor gripes, and it seems a disservice to a wonderful film to dwell on such things.

Loving is a quiet film about decent, moral people who love one another, and therefore it won’t get much love from the folks who go to movies to see glitzy CGI special effects and anti-heroes betraying each other.  In the present political climate, however, I think we could do with a few more Lovings, and a lot less of the other sort.

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“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)

“You can let the sun shine on your story, if you still have a mind to,” Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) tells his ex-fiancée, Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), in the final act of Jane Got a Gun, as they await an attack from the Bishop Boys–the criminal gang out for revenge on Jane and her wounded husband, Bill “Ham” Hammond. (Noah Emmerich)

I wrote a glowing review of Jane Got a Gun back when it was in theaters, and have seen it several times since, appreciating it more each time. As it is being released on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, it seemed like a good time for me to write about it at length.

Once in a while, a movie comes along that really dazzles me. Lawrence of Arabia was one, Chinatown was one, and Jane Got a Gun is the latest. Westerns don’t usually hold much appeal for me, and I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor (as the villain, John Bishop) weren’t two of my favorite actors. Their performances alone would make a solid film. But there is much more to Jane than that.

The first thing that stands out is the bleak desert environment–Mandy Walker’s cinematography does the harsh landscape justice, and communicates the feeling of emptiness and vast desolation that I do so love in art.

The early scenes of the movie are really meant to establish a mood more than physical distances between places. Jane’s ride to her ex-fiancé’s house, with its beautiful silhouetted rider shots and underscored by haunting music, reminiscent of The English Patient, is about creating an atmosphere. The soundtrack is tremendous throughout the film. While rarely grand or sweeping, it is full of subtle touches, like the ominous growl that sounds as Jane enters the town of Lullaby, implanting the idea that populated places are dangerous and sinister. This foreshadows the shopkeeper’s indifference as Jane is seized by one of the Bishop Boys.

Subtlety and nuance are what make Jane such a riveting film. The characters’ emotions are conveyed in silences and in glances as much as they are in dialogue. The scene in which Jane hands Dan a roll of bills as payment for his service as a gunslinger packs an emotional punch, as both of their faces show them recalling the happier days of their youthful romance. Dan says little, but with every move conveys his misery at losing Jane.

The film is packed with moments like these–from the suspenseful scene when Jane, Dan and Ham hear an ominous sound from outside the house, to Dan’s tense encounter with another member of the Bishop gang, it balances building the suspense of the impending showdown with exploring the Jane/Dan/Ham love triangle.

The love story–or more accurately, stories–reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s romances, especially Far From the Madding Crowd. In Hardy romances, someone usually marries someone other than who they are truly “meant for” first, only to encounter that person again later. This is a tricky thing to do in writing a romance, but in Jane, as in Hardy’s novels, it is written so well that the actions of all three characters seem reasonable and logical, and never forced or contrived.

Jane loves Dan, and Dan loves Jane, but cruel circumstances keep them apart. Both characters are honorable and honest, and that forms the tragic core of the story–both are trying to do the right thing, and both suffer for it. Bad things happen to good people.

I think the marketing for the film was misguided in that it played up the action/gun-fighting elements, instead of the personal relationships at the heart of the film. The Bishop Boys, though very effective villains–thanks in particular to McGregor’s performance–are secondary to the real drama. They are the catalyst for Jane taking control of her life and confronting her fears, and for reuniting her with Dan.

Another marketing mistake was to play the climactic scene in the trailer. This lessened the effect of the powerful sequence when Jane, filled with the rage of a mother who has lost her child, holds John Bishop at gunpoint. It is the culmination of her evolution from the sweet, gentle country girl of the flashbacks into a strong and confident woman. Bishop tries to use his slimy charms to save himself, but Jane will have none of it. There is a desperation in Bishop’s eyes when he realizes that even after confessing to Jane that her daughter is alive, she will not hesitate to mete out justice.

Where Jane departs from the Hardy romance pattern is that it ultimately rewards its characters with a happy ending. A few ignorant critics may grouse that it seems forced or tonally dissonant, but in fact the film only works dramatically if the ending is a happy one. It has to provide some hope, some measure of relief, in order to balance all the pain Jane and Dan endure.

As I said, I rank this film as one of my favorites, alongside Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, both of which have decidedly grim endings. But those two films start off relatively light, and gradually descend into darkness. Jane starts off dark, and gradually rises to a hopeful and upbeat ending.

The key is balance. Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown with a happy ending, called the effect of the final film a “tunnel at the end of the light”. You can’t make a film that is unrelentingly dark throughout, or it is excruciating. Likewise, you can’t make a film that is completely lighthearted, or it is cloying. If Jane ended as grimly as it begins, it would feel pointless and unsatisfying.

The Western is a quintessentially “American” genre, and Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

The film touches briefly, yet significantly, on the Civil War–the conflict at the heart of America as we know it. It forms an important backdrop for the events of the film, but never are the political or social details allowed to overshadow what really makes a strong narrative: the people caught up in these events, and their struggle to survive.

“Not much sun in my story,” Jane tells Dan before she begins recounting the horrors she experienced at the hands of the Bishop Boys. This line, in addition to echoing an earlier line of Jane’s, also sets up one of the most memorable transitions in the movie: from the muzzle flash of Jane’s pistol as she fires the fatal round into Bishop to the sunlit sky as she and Dan ride to rescue their daughter.

The sun in Jane’s story, after a lifetime’s worth of darkness, shines brilliantly–and, most importantly, it is through Jane’s toughness and bravery that it does.

I’m an argumentative kind of guy. I also hold a lot of controversial opinions about movies. So I tend to get into arguments about movies a lot.

One thing I’ve learned from these arguments is that people seemingly can’t tell the difference between bad acting and bad screenwriting.  If people decide they don’t like a character, or they find them boring, they usually assume it was the actor’s fault.

Take my old favorite: the Star Wars prequels.  People complain the acting in those is bad, but it’s actually pretty good, aside from Hayden Christensen in Episode II.  The problem is that the writing is bad: the lines are awkward and sometimes nonsensical.  The amount of acting talent in those movies is incredible, and it got largely wasted by a script that was very bad.  No amount of good acting makes the line “what’s wrong, Ani?” work.

Here is an example of actual bad acting: in the “picnic” scene in Episode II, Anakin (Christensen) is teasing Padme (Natalie Portman) about a boy on whom she had a teenage crush.  He asks what happened to him, she says “I went into politics; he became an artist”,  and Anakin’s reply is “maybe he was the smart one”.  A good actor would play this flirtatiously, since the two characters are supposed to be falling in love. But Christensen for some reason delivers it in an angry, almost accusatory manner.  That is bad acting.

I’m probably sensitive to this because I am a writer, and so I tend to watch movies, plays, TV etc. with my focus on the decisions the writer(s) made.  I think most people don’t really think about the fact that people actually write these things–if something doesn’t work, they blame the actors. An actor is the face that the audience associates with the character, and so they tend to think of them as “being” that character, without remembering that in the majority of cases, somebody else wrote the character’s lines.

Once in a while, good acting can rise above a lousy script–Apocalypse Now is the best example I can think of–but generally, a bad script dooms you from the start.  It’s like sports: if you have superstar players running badly designed plays or formations, the results will be bad, no matter how flawlessly they perform them.

For example: there is a scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) is arguing with his daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) about plans for her impending wedding at the start of the scene and then–with no new characters or information being introduced–concludes the scene by telling her she can’t get married because the Axis forces are about to invade, and handing her a pistol to use on them or, he adds darkly, on herself, if necessary.

John Hurt is a great actor, and he delivers all of his lines in this scene very well.  But it does not work, because there is no way a person would start a conversation discussing wedding details and then seemingly suddenly remember “Oh, yeah and the Nazis are invading–you might have to kill them or yourself.” In journalism, they call that “burying the lead”. In script-writing, they call it “dreadful”.

This is one big reason why dramatic productions have directors: their job is to make the script and actors work together.

It reminds me of a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.  But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

If lines don’t make sense, if character motivations are not clear, then the writer is to blame.  But if they do make sense and are clear, and the scene nevertheless does not work, then it is the fault of the actors and the director.

I expected “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu” to be unwatchable.  Anytime you see a DVD for $2.00, you can’t have high hopes.  But, Lovecraft movies aren’t super-common, so I thought I’d give it a try, fully expecting to stop watching after five minutes.

I was very pleasantly surprised.

The movie stars Kyle Davis as Jeff Phillips, the last living relative of horror-writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Jeff and his friend Charlie (Devin McGinn, also the film’s writer) are entrusted by a secret society to protect an ancient relic that the Cult of Cthulhu is trying to steal to awaken the infamous Sea-Monster-God.  Only Jeff has Lovecraft’s genetic ability to resist the telepathic powers of the Cultists, which drive all others who meet them insane.

If this premise sounds a little silly, well, it is.  That’s because the movie is a horror/comedy, but I’d say it’s about 80% comedy, and 20% horror.  And it works.  It’s a very amusing little adventure, while still being reasonably faithful to the principles of Lovecraftian-ism.

The monster special effects are horribly cheap and hokey-looking, but it all works because (a) it’s a comedy and (b) Lovecraftian horror isn’t really about the monsters you see; it’s about the monsters you don’t see. Granted “Lovecraft” and “comedy” are two words you don’t often see together, but in this case, the two blend pretty well.

Is it a great movie? No, but it’s a lot of a fun for anybody who enjoys Lovecraft’s “Yog-Sothothery” but doesn’t take the “Mythos” too seriously.  It’s the most successful blend of cosmic horror and  comedy I’ve seen since the great “Fishmen” musical adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

The only other thing I’d add is that if you are offended by coarse language, you might want to steer clear.  There is a lot of swearing, although it never felt forced or like “swearing for the sake of swearing”. There is also a fair amount of violence, what with the monsters eating people etc., but frankly, the effects are so silly it barely qualifies as violence in my book.  Your mileage may vary.