Jan 22, 2007

Three Movies

The History Boys.
I didn't catch it live on Broadway, so I was curious to see the film adaptation of the Alan Bennett play and more curious to see what a Broadway hit looks like these days. Well, The History Boys is one of those very well crafted, relatively satisfying entertainments that makes the audience feel nicely smug about its own cultural knowledge and that is very clever, very smart but ultimately, rather self-congratulatory in an off-putting way. It is also rather irrelevant. There is something about this cultural self-assurance that does not go down lightly, despite the fact that Mr. Bennett writes beautiful lines and classy jokes and revels in cultural allusions. The topic is very noble: do you teach your students the truth (art, beauty, etc.) or do you teach kids to pass exams so they can make it to Oxford and the feral world beyond? It's a question that can be easily answered in 5 minutes.
This is Dead Poets' Society but with actual brains.
I resent young British lads that speak delightful French and quote Thomas Hardy not only at length, but with pride and joy in their hearts. Their teacher, Hector, a great performance by Richard Griffiths,
also encourages them to recite the ending of movies like Brief Encounter, and we're all supposed to be delighted. It is all rather precious. I was far more interested in the horrid school where Judi Dench terrorizes her students in Notes on a Scandal. It seems more real than this privileged Avalon of learning, where everybody also has gay tendencies and they take it very much in stride. As every other British story, this one is about class too, but I felt a bit queasy to see the token Indian guy always presented with a family of 600, the token black guy with a single mother, and there is a token Jew as well, who happens to be gay. One would think that someone as smart as Mr. Bennett could avoid this kind of easy stereotype. The play feels really dated, and not only because it takes place in the eighties (the soundtrack is a predictable mix of 80's tunes that seems to have been assembled by an 80 year old guy with an ear for Muzak). However, one sticks to the story because some of the performances are wonderfully rich, such as Mr. Griffiths', the wonderful Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore as the teacher who wants to get them into Oxford, and some of the kids, particularly the Jewish kid, sensitively played by the young and talented Samuel Barnett.
There are wonderful emotional moments, but it all seems very fuddy duddy and fit for another era. I'm sure on stage it must have had a wonderful energy, but I'm glad I didn't spend 100 bucks for such a flimsy play.
Blood Diamonds.
Oy, where to start? The words Ed Zwick should be enough warning. And we did expect the worst. Because of that, we got absolutely everything we expected, but somehow sat through the ordeal without much complaint. Blood Diamond is one of those massive Hollywood Films With a Message that wouldn't know subtlety or originality if it bit it in the ass. Everything is a big, heroic gesture, some of it verges on the ridiculously tacky, like having extremely brutal scenes of war with a pounding music by James Newton Howard on the background. Here are some rebels come to chop off villagers' hands, and rape their wives and kill their babies, where is there room for bloody music at a moment like this? The dialogue is so leaden, so cliched, so awful that you realize the heroism of the actors, particularly Leonardo Di Caprio and Djimon Honsou as they do their utmost to lift it to a credible, dignified level. First scene Honsou actually says something like: "I am your father. I am a poor fisherman. But you are going to school because you are going to be a doctor". Jesus, what freaking school of screenwriting did the writer attend?
However, the story of how diamonds make it to the fingers of fianceés in better-off continents is a very good one and it benefits enormously from the presence of Di Caprio and Honsou in the starring roles. Di Caprio is finally hitting his stride and playing characters that suit him (not Howard Hughes, for instance). He is excellent as a hardened, cynical South African diamond smuggler. Not only is the accent quite great, but his commitment and his intensity and his refusal to compromise to the maudlin are to be commended. He holds your attention every second he's onscreen and he is brilliant. Honsou is also a credible, imposing presence, who brings an urgency and pride to a very thin role as some sort of decent, noble guy, an innocent in hell. The same cannot be said about the unfortunate casting choice of Jennifer Connelly as a supposedly A-type journalist who has been to Afghanistan and to Bosnia but who looks and feels as if she just stepped out of a particularly nasty shopping experience at Macy's. She seems unsure of who she should be, her come ons to Di Caprio feel totally fake and totally inappropriate for a seasoned woman, and she only has one good scene when she expresses her indignant frustration at the horrid state of affairs. I think the role would have been better served by a more brittle actress, or a less stunningly beautiful one. Catherine Keener, for instance; but this is a movie by Ed Zwick, who seems incapable of doing anything that feels genuine. Also, I wanted to kill her hair.
As I sat through the cycles of orchestrated violence and then the calm, sunset walks across Africa, and one of the worst, clichéd endings in the history of movies, I imagined that the diamond industry must have had a fit about this film, but then it wasn't hard to read between the lines the compromise that was surely reached. The movie takes pains to make clear that people should demand their diamonds to be lawfully obtained, and not the result of civil war. But does anybody wonder how even a clean diamond gets here? Do we think that the African miners who extract them all have a beautiful house with a white picket fence and a TV and a car?
My problem with this movie is not only how cheesy and badly written it is, but how not ballsy enough. The road to hell is paved with people like Edward Zwick and his good intentions.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
The less said about this incoherent, infantile yet visually arresting, Korean movie, the better. This is supposed to be what inspired Quentin Tarantino to make Kill Bill. Need I say more?

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