generation: (l-r) Nicholson and Schneider in The Passenger.
by Michelangelo Antonioni
Passenger is a pivotal film in the ’70s wave of European
cinema that expanded the boundaries of the medium. Released
in 1975, it stars Jack Nicholson as a disaffected reporter
who drifts to his doom in the company of a sexy waif. Regarded
as an existentialist masterpiece, the film has been rereleased
by Sony Pictures Classics on the impetus of Nicholson, who
owns the rights. Since this film-school staple was rarely
revived anywhere (and is not yet available on DVD), its rerelease
is a welcome event, especially considering that the story
is largely told through Michelangelo Antonioni’s evocative
and unnerving visuals (Nicholson calls it a tone poem). Though
its slow pace may try the patience of younger moviegoers unaccustomed
to meditative cinematography, The Passenger has a peculiar
resonance that is increased, rather than diminished, by the
greater global awareness of today.
Nicholson’s reporter, David Locke, is in North Africa on assignment,
and the first impression the film makes is of his alienation
from his surroundings, shown by the vast expanse of desert
he angrily navigates after his jeep bogs down in the sand.
From his desert trek, the narrative moves both backward and
forward. Returning to his hotel—the structure itself is a
poetic study in isolation and poverty—he discovers that a
man has died in a nearby room.
In a well-known sequence that retains its narrative intrigue,
Locke plays a tape of a conversation he had with the man,
an English businessman called Robertson. As the tape plays,
the film skips back to Locke’s encounter with his fellow traveler.
For no apparent reason, Locke then exchanges identities with
the dead man and leaves Africa for Europe. In Germany, he
passes himself off as Robertson and unwittingly becomes involved
in an illegal arms deal with an African guerrilla force. Through
flashbacks, we learn that Locke’s marriage was dissolving
and that he was ineffectual in making a documentary on guerrilla
factions. But no concrete motive for his wandering is discernable,
and though his situation is rife with political intrigue,
he has little interest in it.
In Spain, he hooks up with a pretty drifter (Marie Schneider,
the sexpot from Last Tango in Paris). She latches on
to him, and for vaguely voyeuristic reasons of her own, she
encourages him to continue to keep Robertson’s appointments.
At the same time, his wife (Jenny Runacre, every inch an icon
of 1960s beauty) suddenly decides to follow the leads that
he didn’t bother to hide.
Nicholson is at the height of his star power here, and set
against the film’s forlorn and mysterious settings, his onscreen
magnetism is startlingly virile. Those settings (a London
neighborhood, an Orthodox church, a Spanish scrub desert),
seemingly untouched by outside influences, freshly underscore
Locke’s estrangement from his own actions. With only a few
strains of a melancholy flute for a soundtrack, the sounds
of Locke’s travels—people talking, cars going by, a rustle
of wind—augment the minimal dialogue to a discomfiting degree.
The spare but heightened naturalism of Antonioni’s style has
only intensified with time, and so has Locke’s oblivion to
the cultures he passes through. Outside of its 1970s context,
the existentialist narrative evasions of The Passenger
are often more frustrating than contemplative. But the conviction
of its final sequence still has the power to awe and dismay.
by Eugene Jarecki
The documentary Why We Fight is a frustrating one,
and not because it fails to match the declarative nature of
its title. By movie’s end, no viewer can think that director
Eugene Jarecki intended Why We Fight as a rhetorical
exercise. It’s an essay and an argument. We fight, the movie
contends, because we are a capitalist, imperialist superpower
ruled by a self-perpetuating plutocracy composed of weapons
manufacturers, servile and opportunistic politicians and—under
the euphemism “think tanks”—extragovernmental policymakers
free from accountability to the electorate.
Not to be glib, but this is old news. In fact, Why We Fight
comes across like just that: a compilation, a CNN’s Greatest
Hits of the Military Industrial Complex, intended to confirm
the despair of the American left. As a kind of Classics Illustrated-style
run through the postwar build-up of the arms industry and
the integration of that industry’s needs into American foreign
policy, Why We Fight is useful and effective. It could
be shown—perhaps should be shown—in high-school history classes.
The movie also reiterates facts of more recent history: The
Bush administration consciously manipulated intelligence and
knowingly lied to the American people to justify its invasion
of Iraq, an invasion that serves the needs of contractors
like Halliburton more immediately than it does the security
of U.S. citizens.
Any American adult for whom this is news should be ashamed.
If you’ve regularly read to even the third paragraph of newspaper
and magazine accounts of the “liberation” of Iraq, you know
this already. So, why do we need Why We Fight?
Gore Vidal, one of many left-leaning talking heads in the
movie, provides a possible answer when he refers to the “United
States of Amnesia,” the country in which news is quickly old
news, old news is history and history is forgotten. Political
scientist and author Chalmers Johnson gets at it, too, when
he explains the concept of “blowback,” That is, retaliation
against the United States by targets of American covert operations,
operations in cluding but not limited to secret assassinations,
governmental overthrows, the installation of puppet governments,
the support of sketchy allies of convenience and strategy
(in the persons of “presentable young men” such as Saddam
Hussein, for example), and so on. Johnson points out that
these clandestine activities—by their very nature as secret—create
a divorce of cause and effect for the American public in whose
name they are carried out.
We Fight is bookended by excerpts from president Dwight
Eisenhower’s farewell speech, in which he calls for American
vigilance, vigilance not against an external enemy but against
the unchecked power and influence of a permanent military
industry. Without a sense of our own history, without a clear
view of our government’s actions, vigilance is a difficult
task, so a prod from time to time—however repetitive—is warranted.
Because depressing as Jarecki’s answer is, it’s less fatalistic
than “Because we’re too lazy not to.”
Age: The Meltdown
by Carlos Saldanha
The first Ice Age, back in 2002, was a lovely surprise:
elegant animation, snappy story, spot-on vocal talent and,
mostly, a joyous sense of fun and lunacy. In short, it worked.
The same cannot be said of its sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown,
which has the trio of wooly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano), sabre-toothed
tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and goofy sloth Sid (John Leguizamo),
desperately trying to reach safety before the ensuing flood,
courtesy of global warming. OK, so maybe it’s not actually
global warming 2006, but Carlos Saldanha’s movie plays fast
and loose with a number of details, such as historic timing
and what exactly was around, be it animal or fauna, during
the actual Ice Age. I’m no scientist, but did wooly mammoths
really cohabitate with cuddly hippos and snarky anteaters,
and did any of the above take shelter under weeping willows?
For that matter, whence comes that ever-elusive acorn for
which the returning squirrel/rat Scrat (original Ice Age
director Chris Wedge) maintains hot pursuit?
This time around, fun is provided mostly by the presence of
the effervescent Leguizamo, who gives his dimwitted character
enough sweetness and humanity to elevate Sid from mere comic
relief, and, of course, Scrat. Indeed, just when the movie
seems like it can’t move any faster than, well, Manny, Saldanha
inserts a Looney Toons-inspired moment in which Scrat battles
improbable glaciers and what-have-you in quest of that darn
acorn. Sadly, these are the only moments that rise to a level
of inspiration and sophistication. The majority of the movie
concerns Manny’s loneliness, which is suddenly offset by the
appearance of a female wooly, Ellie (Queen Latifah); Ellie,
unfortunately, thinks she’s a possum. There’s absolutely no
chemistry between the mammoths as animated or Romano and Latifah
as vocal talents, and maybe that’s a good thing—this is, after
all, a PG movie.
Will the two woolies unite and make little woolies? What effect
will such pairing have on the “tribe” of Manny, Diego and
Sid? Who gets voted off the iceberg? Perhaps a little injection
of Survivor might have invigorated this limping production,
which in the end provides only a perfect example of a sequel
that had absolutely no purpose.
by Michael Caton-Jones
By now, what’s best remembered about 1992’s trashy-but-provocative
thriller, Basic Instinct, is the crotch shot of Sharon
Stone. And so not unexpectedly, the sequel tries to match
that notoriety with even more prurience, and this is it: After
a teasing panty shot, director Michael Caton-Jones treats
the audience to a close-up of Stone’s boob job. Hopefully,
this spoiler will discourage anyone from actually seeing Basic
Instinct 2, because it stinks. Sleazy instead of steamy,
the film is cheaply titillating claptrap that is not at all
redeemed by the (barely involved) presence of respectable
British actors like David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling.
Stone is Catherine Tramell, the psychotic vamp who either
commits murders or gets involved with murders for fodder for
her sex-and-violence novels. Fourteen years after getting
off in San Francisco, Catherine is again on trial, this time
in England, where she causes a death while getting her kicks
at 110 mph. Her next victim is the court-appointed psychiatrist,
Dr. Glass (David Morrissey), who evaluates her. He diagnoses
her as a risk addict with an omnipotence complex, and rising
to the challenge, Catherine sets out prove that she is indeed
omnipotent, as least when it comes to unbelievably stupid
and suggestible psychiatrists. Catherine is in bed, either
literally or figuratively (mostly literally) with almost every
person the doctor is in contact with, including his journalist
nemesis, his ex-wife, his colleague (Rampling), a drug dealer,
and a hardboiled detective (Thewlis). Most of these people
will be murdered, but Catherine’s come-ons are so corny, the
audience may spend more time wondering why no one laughs in
her face than trying to guess who is doing the killing.
Everyone is in danger, everyone is a suspect, and everyone
is a red herring, so there’s barely any suspense. Not that
any of the characters are at all interesting, especially not
Catherine, who responds to every encounter with salacious
hostility. At least in the original, she had Michael Douglas’
seedily charismatic cop to play off of, but Morrissey’s blank-faced
idiot couldn’t carry a scene with a wheelbarrow. As for Stone,
this is her worst performance ever, even taking into account
the porn-for-morons dialogue. Everything about Catherine is
laughably phony, including her American accent (yes, Stone