"If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing." -- Stephanie Zacharek on "Inception"
Well, people certainly want to talk about "Inception" on the Internet. The opening lines to Stephanie Zacharek's review above may sound flip, but she's zeroing in on something crucial about the kinds of spectacle movies to which we have, perhaps, become accustomed. I remember having an argument with some younger friends back in 1994 over Roland Emmerich's "Stargate," which I found inert and lugubrious, but my friends enjoyed for what they called "visual splendor." (I don't remember how baked we were at the time.) As I believe I said back then, I'm all for visual splendor, but I don't go to narrative movies for (just) a light show, no matter how splendiferous. (I'd rather watch Stan Brakhage for that kind of thing.)
In my hastily keyboarded notes after seeing "Inception" last weekend, I began by saying the biggest disappointment for me was that it was so contrived and remote -- like a clever mechanical puzzle, but not at all dreamlike. Even more disappointing for me, I didn't feel I had much of interest to say about it. Now, more than 200 reader comments later, I find it more fun to theorize about than it was to watch. (Seems awfully anal and pedantic for a "summer movie.") In that post and the previous one about "Signs" and "The Prestige," I wound up writing more in response to comments than I did in the original post, and I really enjoyed the back-and-forth. (But if you want to spare yourself my expanded thoughts -- and others' -- here about what doesn't work in the movie and read more about the implications of two of the most important shots, spoilers and all, feel free to skip to the numbered boldfaced headings below...)
Shortly after getting gut-shot, one of the characters in James Cameron's "Avatar" wisecracks: "This could ruin my whole day." I know the feeling. The line, like so many others, lands with a hollow thud.
To my eyes (and ears), "Avatar" is the first Cameron feature that's a near-total failure. Obviously, I'm not talking about ticket sales, since the movie just opened today, or the early reviews, most of which were ecstatic. I emphasize "my eyes" because: 1) the golden-saucer eyes of the lovely, elongated blue protagonists, the Na'vi, are their most entrancing features; 2) the movie is explicitly about the act of seeing ("I see you" is one of its catch phrases, and the title of the Celine Dion-ish end-credits theme song that goes on and on); 3) the central problem with the movie is not its less-than-impressive technology but the triteness of its artistic vision; and 4) the 3D process -- at least for me, with my particular prescription lenses behind those Polarized glasses -- is continually distracting. And yet, "Avatar" strikes my retinas as an achievement that amounts to something considerably less than meets the eye.
Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl
"A Mighty Heart," Michael Winterbottom's film based on Mariane van Neyenhoff Pearl's book about her husband Daniel, a journalist who was kidnapped and executed in Karachi, Pakistan, opens this weekend. I've had my say about the casting of (Czech / Haudenosaunee / American) Angelina Jolie as (Dutch / Cuban / French) Mariane Pearl. And so has Mariane Pearl, who told Newsweek: "This is not about skin color. I wanted her to play me because I trust her. Aren't we past this?"
Marianne Pearl as Marianne Pearl.
Well, some people are. And some aren't. Like, I guess, the people who hired Halle Berry to play white Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill in the upcoming "Class Act." (Berry's at least as much white as she is black. But will she wear "whiteface" in the movie? Do you care?) Or, perhaps, the ones who hired John Travolta to play a woman in "Hairspray." Or even those who think it was just wrong for Marriane Pearl to have married a white Jew in the first place. (Miscegenation!) Let's take that logic to its inevitable extreme. Some people are sticklers for racial, cultural and gender purity. If only race, culture and gender were really that monolithic and clear-cut...
And we're talking about actors here. I'm not advocating blackface or whiteface minstrelsy (that implies bad acting, doesn't it?), but these people are supposed to be able to play characters other than themselves. That's what they do.
Maybe Jolie is terrible and totally miscast in the part. I don't know, I haven't seen the movie yet. But a commenter at the site concreteloop.com succinctly summarizes my own feelings about the matter at this stage: At first it does seem a bit odd, because I am sure there are women of African American or Afro-Cuban descent who could play that role but I would not say this is modern day black-face. If it were some blond-hair, blue-eyed non-talented actress, I would really have a problem. However, I do think Angelina is a great actress and as a matter of fact Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina to portray her in the film. So shouldn’t her wishes be respected?Producer Brad Pitt, who hired his honey for the part, said he was nervous about doing it, but he felt it was the right decision for the movie: "I knew the part had to be played by someone with Mariane's strength and understanding of the world, but I didn't know how to broach the subject. It feels a little like Wolfowitz trying to get his girlfriend a job. [...]
"I know that people are frustrated at the lack of great roles (for people of color), but I think they've picked the wrong example here."
Halle Berry plays Tierney Cahill (pictured -- either the one on the left or the one on the right) in an upcoming movie. You see the resemblance. Gotta problem with that?
I guess it also depends not only on whether you think Mariane Pearl has a (moral? contractual?) right to approve who plays her in a movie made from her own book, but whether you consider Angelina Jolie an actress or just "Brad's girlfriend" — you know, half of "Brangelina." (Or even whether women are capable of making such important judgments, since those who cry "racism" here insist that Jolie and Pearl do not have the personal or professional credibility or authority to make such decisions for themselves.)
And whether you consider the fact that both share Northern European / Caucasian heritage. Much of the criticism I've seen has focused on the tabloid "Brangelina" phenomenon (as if that were real anywhere beyond the supermarket checkstands), or has tried to tie this casting into the history of racist portrayals of African-Americans in Hollywood movies. (In that regard, I recommend Donald Bogle's book, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks.") But is that really an appropriate conclusion to draw in this particular instance?
I agree that actors of color should be offered more and better roles — including those that weren't originally written to be one race or another. (Sigourney Weaver played a man's role in "The TV Set" without changing a word. Other parts have been re-written for the actor selected for the part.) But is the problem really one of casting people with the same racial make-up as their characters? Or is it more significant that writers and directors and casting directors are not making films with enough characters of color?
On the practical side... well, a star is a star. Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry are Oscar winners, marquee names, not struggling unknowns. (Not that struggling unknowns or semi-knowns don't deserve a chance, but they're unlikely to get one in such a high-profile project.) Mariane Pearl wanted Angelina Jolie to play her, sought her out, and sold the rights to Brad Pitt's production company. Based on this "package," the film was able to get a greenlight from Paramount Vantage, with the expectation that they would make a profit. The question becomes: Is the only form of "good casting" to make sure the racial balance of the character matches that of the actor?
Is Beyonce really too light — or too dark — to have played a character based on Diana Ross in "Dreamgirls"? Is Denzel Washington really too dark to have played light-skinned, reddish-haired Malcolm X? Was it racist to have cast Chinese actress Gong Li as a Japanese woman in "Memoirs of a Geisha"? Were Al Pacino — or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio or Robert Loggia — terrible in "Scarface" (1983) because they are not Cuban? Was it wrong for Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rican-American) to play a Mexican cop in "Traffic"? If these actors were good or bad in those movies, was it because of their racial background, or because of the roles and their performances in them?
I wonder what happened to a sense of proportion here. This isn't exactly Mickey Rooney playing a grotesque caricature of a Chinese guy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Doesn't the performance itself count for anything — or is it all about appearances? (OK, if Jennifer Aniston had been cast as Pearl, I'd be a lot more skeptical. Even though she's only two years younger than Pearl, while Jolie is seven years younger. But if Jolie is playing Pearl in 2001-2002, then she's just about the perfect age, no?)
Christopher Reeve, who became famous playing a character who could fly around the world, and as a man whose wheelchair did not limit his flights of idealism, died Sunday. He was 52. In the years since he was paralyzed in a riding accident in 1995, he became the nation’s most influential spokesman for research on spinal cord injuries, and never lost the hope that he would someday walk again.
CANNES, France--John Sayles has two movies in release these days, but he takes a credit on only one of them. "Limbo" is his Cannes premiere, going into U.S. release on Friday. It's a story set in Alaska, that starts as a romance and ends as a cliff-hanger. And the other movie, which you may also have heard of, is "The Mummy."
CANNES, France -- The Cannes Film Festival heads into its second weekend, still without a likely Palme d'Or winner, unless we have already seen it, and it is Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother." We have been here a week, and that entry, first screened Saturday, is the film most people mention when you ask them what they liked the most.
There is a shot in "Titanic" that I watched like a hawk. The point of view is from above, as the great ship steams to its destiny. In one apparently uninterrupted piece of celluloid, we see the ship from bow to stern, every foot of it, with flags flying and smoke coiling from its stacks, and on the deck hundreds of passengers strolling, children running, servants serving, sportsmen playing.