The Rear-View Mirror: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Nobody understands the confidence game better than David Mamet. His movies, most of all his debut House of Games (1989), show you in great detail how his con men entrap, use and manipulate their victims for money, influence, sex, or all of the above. His take on the long con is so simple that he is a playwright first and a moviemaker second; his games only need a stage and a few props. He often enlisted the late Ricky Jay, who was a magician first and an actor second. It’s also proof that more complex things are going on than meet the eye, but the con very often happens in plain sight. The point of any confidence game is this: “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” It’s the perpetrator’s choice, and the victim is hopelessly trapped. Some characters know what is happening to them, but can’t do anything about it. Others simply have no clue. There is a cruel purity to such a concept. Continue reading

The Rear-View Mirror: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

– It’s all lies – but they’re entertaining lies, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth?

The Usual Suspects doesn’t get much mention these days. In part, that’s probably due to its director and the actor who played its main character, neither of whom have done themselves many favours in recent years, either professionally or privately. In part, though, it’s probably due to the film’s twist being undoubtedly effective – but moviegoers are notoriously fickle when it comes to endings that seem to undo everything they’ve seen. If the story they’ve been told in effect didn’t happen, what was its point?

The Usual Suspects

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Year of Good and Bad

2017 has been a difficult year. I’ve realized that, since the news about them broke, I have avoided all films starring Kevin Spacey or produced by Harvey Weinstein. Same goes for Woody Allen, Bryan Singer and others. I would like to say that it was an unconscious decision, but I have to confess that it was largely intentional. Used to be a time when I could easily divorce an artist’s stupid statements or antics from his or her outstanding artistic performance. The fact that Morgan Freeman appears in a Turkish Airlines ad makes him look like an idiot, but it probably won’t keep me from watching The Shawshank Redemption again. With sexual threats or abuse by Weinstein, Spacey and far too many others, a line has been crossed. I can no longer sit there and watch John Doe do his grisly work without thinking of Spacey and his crimes. So how to react? Should I really stand before my movie shelf and start throwing out Seven? The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Anything ever produced by the Weinstein Company and Miramax? All the Tarantinos? The English Patient? How do Woody Allen fans react to such abuse? Fans of X-Men or The Usual Suspects? I know, of course, that the harm done to the abused persons is not limited to the movie business, and that the damage they suffered weighs far more than the harm done to cinema and acting, but since movies are a crucial way of storytelling, at least to me, and since storytelling has the human condition at its center, I suspect that those movies will play differently to me when (if?) I watch them next time. Something, a kind of honesty in storytelling, will be lacking. Continue reading

Hollow Men

Francis, Francis, Francis… I tried to like you, I really did – or, more precisely, I tried to like House of Cards, the American reimagining of what may have been Ian Richardson’s best performance. It had excellent production values, good actors and a lot of potential, but in the end I failed to warm to it, which may well have been by design, but neither was I chilled by the series or its calculatingly evil protagonist. For too much of the time I was left deeply indifferent to the intrigues in Washington DC.

It’s a shame, really: the raw materials were there. Kevin Spacey has proven that he can play lying, scheming yet deeply human monsters such as Richard of Gloucester, and he’s adept at the kind of character Francis Underwood is and how he relates to the audiences: making them his confidantes and, eventually, implicating them in his cynical plans. However, as Richard III he had one of the best scriptwriters ever, and that’s what was missing in House of Cards, doubly so because compared to its BBC predecessor it had roughly three times the screen time to fill. I often complain about US series with 20+ episode seasons needing to build in filler material, turning flabby in the process, but House of Cards was flabby at thirteen episodes. Plots meandered, characters went through the motions, repeating variations on the same scene over and over – and where the series could have scored points with witty lines, it fell flat with dialogues and asides to the audience that, quite simply, weren’t smart enough. Frank never made the prospect of the audience’s complicity fun, and as a result I never felt I was made complicit in his crimes. The trick to pulling off a Richard III has to be a long con, charming the audience into rooting for you even when it knows you’re no good for it in the long run.

House of Cards

Perhaps House of Cards wasn’t trying to go for what made the BBC version tick, but if so, it should have dropped the UK version’s (and Shakespeare’s) formal strategies. Frank Underwood isn’t charming in that coldly droll way that Francis Urqhart was. It’s not fun watching him construct his schemes and bringing them to fruition. House of Cards flirts with being a pitch-black comedy, but in the end it goes for drama, which weighs it down to an extent that makes too much of the series leaden. It has moments of genuine drama when it deals with flawed human beings that can evoke our sympathy – most of all in Peter Russo, the doomed, sad pawn in Underwood’s game – but too often the drama comes across as perfunctory and generic. The main victim of this is Frank’s wife Claire, played better by Robin Wright than the clichéd material deserves.

In the end, the drama doesn’t work for me because the character at its centre is hollow, yet the series fails to understand this. Protagonists that are revealed to be empty can work, but this requires smarter writers than House of Cards has, and while the series occasionally hints at things going on inside Underwood, this comes across as lip service. We get an episode which is obviously supposed to reveal that there’s more to the character than is immediately apparent, but the episode seems to have wandered in from a different series, and it wanders off again as soon as it’s over. Having seen season 1, I’d say the potential is still there – but I can also say that I have little confidence in the series’ writing team to pull off that potential. In the end, I could never shake the feeling that I’d rather be watching Ian Richardson – or that grandpappy of powerhungry schemers, Richard III himself.

I couldn’t possibly comment

Well, that’s a lie. Obviously I can comment and I will. So there.

I’ve been watching the American remake? reimagining? resomething of House of Cards. On paper it seems a perfect proposal, updating the series and adapting it to the US context while giving David Fincher and Kevin Spacey something to get their teeth into. Critics largely agreed, on both sides of the pond. We’re now about half a dozen episodes into the first series, and I have to admit I’m not quite feeling it yet. I can’t even say it’s the series: my main problem at this point is that my memories of the BBC original (primarily the first series – the second and third got progressively worse in terms of writing and plot) keep getting in the way. I don’t have any issues with remakes on principle, but I keep thinking that BBC – no, scratch that, that Ian Richardson did it better. In fact, I think that’s my main problem so far: Spacey’s performance up to this point, or possibly the way his character is written, strikes me as somewhat lazy. He’s got the Spaceyisms down pat, but there’s no urgency behind it, no purpose. We’re told what this Frank Underwood wants to achieve, giving his machinations and manipulations a theoretical goal, but so far I don’t feel it. Manipulating people seems to be an end in itself to Underwood, whereas Richardson’s Francis Urqhart was a driven man, something his aloof, calculating irony sometimes covered but that was constantly seething under the surface.

I’m hoping I’ll learn to appreciate the Netflix House of Cards for what it is, rather than for what it isn’t and perhaps shouldn’t be. In the meantime, though, here’s a shoutout to Ian Richardson’s defining role, which he played to perfection even in the inferior second and third series. Is he the best neo-Richard III of all times?

P.S.: There’s a longer clip in an earlier post of mine, showing the plummy glee with which Richardson’s FU addresses the audience. Well worth checking out.

Hold on tight to your severance package

Margin Call is Shakespearan in several outstanding ways. It takes place mainly on the trading floor of an investment firm. Four out of five people get sacked. Why? Nobody seems to know. It’s the economy. One of the first to be sacked is the manager of risk assessment (Stanley Tucci). If guys like him get fired first, something is up. On his way to the elevator, he hands over an USB stick to a low-level analyst (Zachary Quinto) and tells him that there is something suspicious on it, but he can’t quite figure it out. The young analyst can, and it’s looking bad. The firm seems to go bankrupt in the next few days, and nobody is able to stop it unless the financial market will take a worldwide dive while the firm will be safe. This makes getting sacked look alluring. The mechanism that lies at the core of the problem is explained at least twice in the movie, but did I get it? Not really. We have here movie history’s first McGuffin that is explained, but not understood. It doesn’t need to be, because neither do the main characters.

That catastrophic news travels up the chain of command. It’s amazing how clueless these guys are. The analyst’s boss (Paul Bettany) understands so little that he works as a go-getter for the firm. His boss, responsible for the trade floor (Kevin Spacey), has worked for the same firm for all of 40 years, but is clueless as to what all the charts and formulas mean. His boss (Simon Baker) and the chief analyst (Demi Moore) are those who will have to explain that imminent crash to the senior partners and the CEO (Jeremy Irons). None of them understands it either, and they have to invite the Quinto character to explain it once again. The CEO doesn’t get it, and in a priceless scene, Irons tells him with a smile: “Explain it to me as you would to a child. Or to a retriever.” That scene is priceless. Not one guy sees farther than the edge of his desk. If you listen carefully to the dialogues, you’ll hear a lot of questions asked, and the response is either “I don’t know” or another question. What does that tell you about those guys?

I’ve made it sound like people are nervous and in a hurry. Not so. There are secret meetings, blocked phone calls, sideways glances, but no shouting matches or fistfights. A movie that reminds us that an attaboy can mean ruin does not need to show a single drop of blood. The tension builds because those who sort of know what will happen have no power to decide, while those who have sit around a mahogany table and have no clue as to the consequences of their decisions. The whole movie takes place within 24 hours and does not contain one single weak minute.

When I say it’s Shakespearan, I also mean the cast. Kevin Spacey has done his Buckingham and his Richard III, and his role here is only three doors down from Glengarry Glen Ross, but with a whole different pay grade; Jeremy Irons must have done a lot of the bard on stage, but I remember him best from The Merchant of Venice. I’ll give Paul Bettany the benefit of the doubt, and playing Geoffrey Chaucer is close enough. The concept of the movie – the decline of an enterprise, if not of a whole nation caused by the implication of a flawed idea – is pretty close to King Lear. This is an ensemble piece, and they don’t come much better than that.

There are no heroes and no villains. (If you want villains, go see Inside Job, a very good documentary, and the other side of the same coin.) It’s just that nobody really seems to see the whole picture, and the rest is office politics. Tucci hands over his information out of concern for the firm, not in order to take revenge for being sacked. Spacey is reluctant to sell stuff that everybody knows has no longer any value, but considers doing it anyway. Irons is not greedy; he is simply responsible for the survival of the company, but knows that he will fail at least partly. He has to make the crucial decision: should they keep the junk papers, do nothing and thereby destroy the firm, or should they sell all of it to unknowing buyers and let global economy crash? Hmmm… Tough one. Listen to Irons when he tells Spacey why he thinks he has made the right call. It’s one of the best monologues I can remember. David Mamet should turn green with envy.

Maybe the financial crisis started this way, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Maybe a few firms were confronted with a similar problem, and the ones responsible acted the way they thought best. Either way, there were casualties, and not just the obvious ones. I don’t understand the ending fully, but I find it scary. I guess it’s about loyalty, but that is such a dangerous commodity in this movie. It’s a damn tragedy, and Margin Call is only the beginning. We haven’t seen the end of it. (by mege1)

Up in the air with flying foxes and less-than-fantastic goats

What’s the best thing about an11-hour flight? It can’t be the dodgy movies on the in-flight entertainment system, can it? (I once failed to go to sleep on a flight that showed Marley & Me and Paul Blart: Mall Cop on all the screens. The lambs have barely stopped screaming on that one, Clarice.) Well, yes, it can, on one of those snazzy new planes where even down in Economy Class, with all the third class Oirish having a fun time before the plane hits the iceberg, you have a choice of oodles of films, music and games. And since Who Wants to be a Millionaire? loses its interest after a handful of games, especially when there’s no oily showmaster-wala with an Indian accent to foil your attempts to get the money and the girl, I decided to dedicate at least some of my flying time to watching first The Men Who Stare at Goats and then The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Men, goats, intense stares… George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey – what could go wrong? Well, it’s not so much what went wrong; it’s more that way too little went right. The film is a brilliantly cast neat idea spun out over 1 1/2 hours, which makes for a great trailer (minus Ewan McGregor’s horrid American accent) and a decidedly mediocre film. It isn’t really worth saying all that much more about it, except to bleat mournfully.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though? I’m still surprised to say that I genuinely enjoyed it. I’ve had problems with the two Wes Anderson films I’d seen, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s a great aesthete, but his style got in my way of enjoying both movies to a large extent. The problem is that the films and their characters are so stylised, in their looks, behaviour and neurotic quirks, that they feel wholly static – so when the plot contrives to make them tragic, I don’t buy it. The pathos turns into mawkishness, and when it kind of works in spite of the artifice, it’s largely due to the borrowed emotions of the songs Anderson chooses. To my mind, characters can only become tragic if there’s the illusion that they are free, or at least struggling to free themselves, from the master puppeteer that is Fate, the Script and/or the Director – Anderson’s characters have often struck me as being puppets at the mercy of a master stylist who doesn’t have freedom anywhere on his palette.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W460QxYQgh4]

I suspect that what makes Mr. Fox work for me is this: animated films are stylised to begin with. They are entirely created. And ironically that makes Mr. Fox feel less constricted by Anderson – whereas real people in a live-action film are made less unreal by the artifice that seems to be his favourite stylistic choice, the animated foxes, moles, possums and badgers, not to forget farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean), are infused with humanity, for want of a better word. The style becomes a part of the whole rather than being the whole and thereby threatening to suffocate both the actors and the characters.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is very clearly a Wes Anderson film – the look, feel, costumes, even the character setup (father-son conflict anyone?) feel familiar… but by sidestepping live-action for once, Anderson’s made the first film that, being entirely artificial due to being animated, feels real to me.

And it’s got this lovely scene with Michael Gambon (as farmer Bean) and Petey, as played by Jarvis Cocker: