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Poor Poor Pitiful Me
By Laura Leon

The searchers: (l-r) Jones and Blanchett in The Missing.

The Missing
Directed by Ron Howard

Peter Rainer, writing in the most recent issue of New York magazine, dismisses The Missing as a “standard issue western,” as if the fact that director Ron Howard didn’t turn the genre on its head, invert it, or just plain fiddle with it, is a huge mark against the picture. I read this quote after seeing the film, during which I was thrilled to be watching a taut, psychological story set within the context and against the backdrop of the classic western. Why, I wondered, aren’t there more such movies made?

Indeed, it would seem to me that now, more than ever, when our political and social zeitgeist poses troubling questions to our national sense of self, the western brings a welcome, familiar sense of place, both geographic and moral. Even westerns that don’t espouse the “white man good, red man bad” mentality (think Ford’s Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, in which the rugged individuals who carved the West for white civilization yielded to rules-and-order types who held power post- frontier) deliver powerful images and, at best, food for thought that make us understand the pros and cons of might.

Howard’s The Missing may be “standard issue” in the sense that there are no grand statements made by any of the characters about the evilness of whites or the nobility of Indians. I say, thank heaven. Instead, he focuses on a deceptively simple story—that of healer Maggie’s (Cate Blanchett) search for her kidnapped daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood). In going after the renegade Brujo (Eric Schweig) who has taken the teen, along with several other wenches bound for white slavery in Mexico, Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of her father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who deserted his wife and children years before to live with various tribes.

The obvious conflict, of course, is between daughter and father, and the lingering question of forgiveness is palpable. However, the filmmakers blur the lines a bit, making Maggie a devout Christian who, nevertheless, hates “redskins” and finds forgiveness, a cornerstone of her faith, decidedly difficult to indulge. Meanwhile, Samuel doesn’t appear sorry for having abandoned his family, and, indeed, has come home only because a shaman has advised him so.

Blanchett is remarkably at ease as a frontier woman with hidden depths of pain. Her flinty countenance and self-assured manner belie torturous early years: When asked about Lily’s father, she replies that she didn’t get a good enough look at him to tell much, and younger daughter Dot (Jenna Boyd) tells Samuel that Maggie often talks in her sleep in such a manner as to suggest she’s being hurt. The obvious tension between mother and teen is limned beautifully, à la Ford, revealing layers of sexual frustration and mutual resentment. At one point Maggie tells her father that Lily is easily hurt, while at the same time the audience is seeing that the girl is remarkably resourceful. One can’t help but wonder if Maggie sees in this child of her rape a glimmer of a more hopeful, dreamier self. Another telling moment comes when, having been advised to give up the search, Maggie says, “I don’t know how to leave her,” conveying to the audience the years of care and sacrifice she’s given this child, the symbol of her shame, when she could have abandoned her.

Together with cinematographer Salvatore Totino, Howard fashions a story that uses its physical surroundings as much as its characters to suggest hardscrabble, unyielding personalities who, out of the will to survive, have borne all manner of hardships in an attempt at some sort of peace. As the movie concludes, we can’t help but wonder, is that peace attainable, and if it is, how can it be sustained? A final conversation between Maggie and Samuel approaches sentimentality, but overall, The Missing remains true to its “standard issue” western roots, delivering a powerful narrative against a searing backdrop of history, geography and human emotions.

A Lump of Coal

Bad Santa
Directed by Terry Zwigoff

If a film like Elf or The Cat in the Hat is designed to be a warm, wet Christmas kiss from Hollywood to moviegoers, then Bad Santa is the cinematic bitch-slap the masses actually deserve. Bad Santa doesn’t shy away from being vile, insulting, blasphemous, cruel or shockingly obscene—and God bless director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, and most especially star Billy Bob Thornton for this.

In this relentlessly misanthropic comedy, the antiheroes are partners-in-crime Willie (Thornton), an obnoxious womanizing drunk, and Marcus (Tony Cox), an evil-tempered little person. Willie has one talent, safecracking, and every December the duo team up as department store Santa and merry little elf—in order to rob a store blind. On Christmas Eve, Willie cracks the safe while Marcus goes through the aisles collecting the “gifts” his unpleasant girlfriend Lois (Lauren Tom) has picked out.

It’s a sweet racket, but Willie is, in Marcus’ delicate phrase, “fucking it up.” Willie is drunk all the time; he’s nasty-to-vicious with the kids who bring him their dearest Christmas wishes; and he can’t keep himself from charming oversized women into having sex in the plus-size department’s dressing room.

The jokes are cruel and cutting. There’s an element of Farrelly-esque scatological humor, but with a realistic element alien to the essential absurdity of the now-trademark Farrelly style. When Willie makes fajitas with fried bologna, he genuinely believes they’re good. When he tells a mother and child to leave him the hell alone because he’s on his lunch break, there’s no smug smile behind the real anger.

What makes Willie such an appealing loser (and, by extension, the film so much fun) is the fact that he just doesn’t give a damn. Thornton never deigns to ask for sympathy, and his character has none for himself. He plays Willie as a genuine bastard with a weird integrity: Willie assumes everyone else is either a moron or stone-cold scumbag like himself, and acts accordingly. This hard edge isn’t blunted, even when Willie acquires a “girlfriend” (Lauren Graham as a woman with a Santa fetish) and a surrogate kid (fat-but-cherubic Brett Kelly). This may be the film’s neatest trick of all.

Everyone else is in on the fun, too, from Bernie Mac as smart, crooked department-store dick to John Ritter (in his last role) as the store’s mealymouthed manager. There’s a feeling of joy that comes from the filmmakers’ transgressing the traditional heartwarming holiday movie comedy, while still allowing the “true spirit of Christmas” a measure of respect.

Bad Santa is so good that the film can be forgiven for falling apart at the end. The filmmakers paint themselves into a corner, and decide to burn the house down as their means of escape. Even if the resolution is frankly unbelievable, it’s in keeping with the film’s jaundiced view.

—Shawn Stone

We’re in Ancient France, Dude

Timeline
Directed by Richard Donner

In Timeline, Richard Donner’s gratingly idiotic time-travel adventure, the line (actually, a wormhole in the time-space continuum) runs from a present-day archeology dig that’s going suspiciously well to a castle in France in the year 1357. The archeology crew—Gerard Butler (the blowhard hunk from Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life), Ethan Embry (the gay sweetie from Sweet Home Alabama) and Frances O’Connor (ridiculously miscast)—are under the direction of Professor Johnson (Billy Connolly, the gruff charmer from Mrs. Brown), whose dig is being funded by a telecommunications company. Edgy Brit thespian David Thewlis plays the telecom CEO, but a bad auspice enters the dig in the form of Paul Walker as the professor’s badass son, Chris. Walker, the no-talent star of The Fast and the Furious movies, isn’t the only sign that this medievalist wish-fulfillment fluff will be dumbed down to cretin level; the real surprise here is just how low Donner goes.

Chris hangs around the dig because he’s got a crush on his father’s cerebral protégé (O’Connor), which is even more unbelievable than the super-duper fax machine that sends the professor through the wormhole to the year 1357, plopping him in the hot seat between warring English and French armies. Chris and the archeologists fax themselves to the rescue, along with three Marines conveniently provided by the telecom company. The rescue brigade are all given medallions to signal themselves back, but with an expiration date of eight hours. (Maybe they could’ve gotten a better rate from FedEx.) Adapted from a Michael Crichton novel, the script is too silly and poorly worked out (why didn’t the professor get a medallion?) to qualify as a Crichton crowd pleaser, with the lunkhead dialogue being particularly egregious. Obviously aware that he’s got a loser on his hands, Donner tries to rush things along with seemingly split-second scenes and two-sentence exchanges between characters (a blessing whenever Walker is in the fore), which only makes the willy-nilly proceedings more annoying.

The story marginally improves while in 1357—Donner has 1985’s enchanting medieval fantasy Ladyhawke to his credit—but the chivalric mayhem is repeatedly interrupted by the conflict back at headquarters, where the nefarious CEO has no intention of letting the time travelers return in one piece, and for no apparent reason other than he’s nefarious. The highlight of the film is the climactic storming of the castle by catapult, and involving none other than Lambert Wilson (The Matrix sequels’ Merovingian) as a French lord and PBS beauty Anna Friel as his lady sister. Unfortunately, the love story between the lady and Butler’s archeologist (who evinces about as much expertise as a gas-station attendant) is written with less finesse than the pit-stop flirtations of The Fast and the Furious. (He: “Are you seeing anyone?” She, gazing confusedly at the shoreline: “I don’t see any people.”) Even a soaring barrage of giant fireballs can’t light up this witless clunker.

—Ann Morrow

I’m Mental for You

Sylvia
Directed by Christine Jeffs

Girl praises boy’s poetry. Boy kisses girl, and turns to leave. Girl bites boy’s face, and draws blood. It’s love at first wound.

In Hollywood-speak, that’s the ultimate movie “meet cute.” It’s also the scary and romantic beginning of a real-life romance: the passionate but ultimately doomed relationship between poets Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). From the delicious exhilaration of their university days in late 1950s Cambridge, England, to their grim farewell in a dingy London room only a few years later, nothing was just sunshine and smiles for these two über-poets. She was mentally disturbed; he was faithless; and both were drunk on words. They ended badly.

The film is relatively straightforward, following the Plath-Hughes story chronologically. There’s the early romance; a brief sojourn in America; parallel teaching careers; life in London and the English countryside; the birth of two children; and, of course, madness and death. He becomes a famous poet, while she stifles in the role of great man’s wife. Plath’s mental illness is portrayed as both muse and psychic gift; it inspires her art and gives her a kind of second sight regarding the roguish Hughes’ infidelities. (To rephrase an old joke, just because Plath was paranoid doesn’t mean Hughes wasn’t out to get over on her.)

The film takes us back to a long-dead world in which poets were treated like, well, if not rock stars, then, at least, successful quiz-show contestants—Hughes lecturing on poetry to the cooing matrons of New England is inherently funny. As Hughes, Craig is convincingly dour and smoldering in the self-styled manner of a certain breed of poet. Paltrow gives a perfectly adequate performance in the difficult title role; it would have been nice, though, if, when the “mad muse” overcomes Plath and the poetry flows, Paltrow had refrained from going into a low, possessed-sounding voice vaguely reminiscent of the kid in The Shining mumbling “red-rum.”

The mood and look of the film are overbearingly autumnal, with the characters bathed in perpetually warm, faded red-gold light. Gabriel Yared’s lush score is accented with great orchestral flourishes that match the Technicolor delirium of the images. This visual romanticism makes Sylvia seem like an homage to ’50s melodramas, but minus the postmodern edge of a film like Far From Heaven. And Sylvia badly needs that pomo edge—as desperately as Sylvia Plath needed years of therapy and better meds. With no critical distance from its subjects, Sylvia plays like a lit-world version of A Star Is Born.

—Shawn Stone


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