Poor Pitiful Me
searchers: (l-r) Jones and Blanchett in The Missing.
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.
Lump of Coal
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
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.
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.
in Ancient France, Dude
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.
Mental for You
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
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.