MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on Movies: The Tourist, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Fighter

The Tourist(Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010

There comes a time in life when you realize, sadly, that you‘ll probably never see Venice, except in dreams and movie-houses — never see the Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, never eat at Caffe Florian, never ride in a gondola, or watch the sun glinting down on the City of Water, the City of Bridges, the City of Masks, Serenissima — and that’s when movies like The Tourist become more important to you.

Important, but not necessarily better. The Tourist, a lushly photographed touristic Hitchcockian exercise in romantic-movie-thrillerism for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, starts with impressive travelogue credentials. It’s filled with ravishing views of the legendary city where Casanova plied his trade and Vivaldi composed concerto after concerto for his girls’ school, and where Kate Hepburn tumbled so memorably into the canal: filled with the glorious sights of those canals, the gondolas, the old hotels — and of ravishing Angie smiling and sashaying through it all, stopping traffic and inspiring voyeurism as only Angelina can. This is a city we’d probably all like to visit, and it’s shot here by director-co-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and cinematographer John Seale, with all the color and the luster they can, uh, muster. (Without fluster). A huge advantage, that.

Which The Tourist then sort of squanders. Von Donnermarck, the thriller-savvy writer director of the Oscar-winning German Cold War surveillance suspense movie The Lives of Others. Tourist has two witty co-scenarists here — Christopher McQuarrie of Bryan Singer‘s twisty, zappy The Usual Suspects (which has a twist ending) and Julian Fellowes of Robert Altman‘s Agatha Christie-ish/Jean Renoiresque Gosford Park (which does also). And one would have thought this talented threesome could easily acquit their assignment: restarting the agenda of Hitchcock‘s To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.

I love that “Lady Vanishes” sort of movie. And initially, I had nothing but fond feelings and expectations for this film — and for Jolie as Elise Clifton-Ward, and for Depp‘s typically whimsical and lightly fey lead male character, Frank Tupelo. Elise is the babe of babes. Frank is a mousy-looking math teacher thrown into international intrigue when British spy and fugitive gang girlfriend Elise Clifton-Ward, becomes his maybe-evil angel.

That was especially true after it developed that Frank hailed from my old home town, Madison, Wisconsin, the city where I lived and went to school, and the movies, for a decade and a half. I can testify that Franks’ shaggy, wispy hairdo, which has caused consternation in some ultra-critical circles, is pretty much what some young male Madisonians used to wear, at least when I was there, and may still wear — and that in fact, I often avoided haircut expenses in just such a manner myself. Wandering farther afield, I recall our fair city even had a few knockouts in the Angelina Jolie class (I remember them well) — and that we also often (at least in the ‘60s and ‘70s), sincerely believed we were as overrun with spies, undercover cops and murderous gangsters, as The Tourist’s Venice seems to be here.

Well, enough Remembrance of Things Past. Get thee behind me, Proust. These days most of us, ex-Madisonians or not, don’t want a slice of life from a movie like The Tourist. We want what Hitchcock always promised from this kind of show (in the genre that he practically invented): slices of cake. Though the plot here might seem to promise (and even serves up) some Hitchcockian delectation, it begins to get soporific and stillborn and as wispy as Frank’s hair, almost as soon as the strangers-on-a-train flirtation starts. Robert Walker and Farley Granger had better flirty badinage, and so did Cary Grant and — take your pick — Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief), Ingrid Bergman (Notorious), Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) or Audrey Hepburn (in Stanley Donen‘s sparkling Hitchcock pastiche Charade).

The plot? Elise, it seems, is the girlfriend of the mysterious Alexander Pearce, an international outlaw in flight from both Scotland Yard — which has her on camera, manned by the obsessive Dana Andrews-ish cop, Acheson (Paul Bettany) nearly everywhere she goes, from Paris to Venice — and from the killer-thugs of Russian mobster Ivan Demidov (played by Steven Berkoff, the rich scum of the first Beverly Hills Cop), from whom Pearce conned and stole billions of dollars, or enough to qualify him for a tax cut extension from the U.S. Congress.

In the very first scene, a pretty cool opener, Elise, at a Parisian sidewalk café, gets a note from Pearce (a note she quickly reads and burns, while being monitored by the Yard guys) telling her to head for Venice, find some schnook of Pearce’s own general size and build, latch on to him, and sucker Scotland Yard and Demidov into thinking the patsy is him. (Well, we had a lot of schnooks in Madison too, myself included.) So, she does, and, in this case, Depp, now the seeming Hitchcockian “wrong man,” has Elise pitching what seems to be woo and dragging him up to her palatial apartments for what seems to be a roll in the sheets (but isn‘t), and he also has murderers and minions (aided by Christian de Sica, Vittorio’s boy, as a crooked cop) chasing him all over the rooftops and canals.

That’s the itinerary. They meet, they flirt, they fake us out, they almost smooch, they run from cops and killers. Depp fumbles and shambles and sometimes looks as if he can’t believe his good luck, and sometimes acts as if Brad Pitt were staring over his shoulder. Jolie looks more than ever like a European glamour star out on a shoot, but has been unfortunately encouraged to say little, and say it like Kristin Scott-Thomas. Paul Bettany is quite good, and his part should have been pumped up with another scene or two. Steven Berkoff is just as snobby and sadistic as he was in “Cop.“ There’s even a Bond around — Timothy Dalton — to complain about tactics. Ah Venice, city of dreams, where Angelina Jolie may pick you up, while Russky goons manacle you to a gondola. Ah Madison, city of bad hair, Beatle albums and student riots. Ah Hollywood, which has a meet-cute for every occasion and a tale for every two cities.

The Tourist is based on French cineaste Jerome Salle’s 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer, which took place in Nice instead of Venice, and which is still unreleased in the U.S., despite having good notices, plus Sophie Marceau, Yvan Attal, Sami Frey and Daniel Olbrychski in the main parts. But Tourist is maybe too touristy. It often fails to crackle and delight in the Cary Grant ways it should.

If I were in the Court Jester-Danny Kaye sort of mood that my color-luster-muster-fluster-cluster remarks above suggest, I’d say that Tourist was a fizzle, not a sizzle, in the drizzle of Venezia. (or Venizzle?) I don’t object to the relative paucity of suspense scenes in this film, because most contemporary thrillers have too many, and this one has at least four passable ones. What bothers me is the relative failure to build up the beguile factors of Jolie and Depp‘s roles, or to come up with some sexy shower scene or fancy teasing crosstalk for them. The film is like a would be dinner party that’s all canapés and dessert, and where the Russians drank all the wine and the Italians drank all the vodka.

Nevertheless, I would insist that, as failed movies go, The Tourist has lots to compensate. The spirit of Hitch. Angelina sashaying. Depp yearning. Bettany on the prowl. And Venice. Venice. We may never get there, but we can still hear the lap of the waves in stereophonic sound, see Kate tumble, hear the gondolier‘s song. “O sole mio…” Isn’t that what movies are for? If only this movie were worthy of it… (In English, French and Italian, with English subtitles.)


Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.-U.K.: Michael Apted, 2010

The movie series based C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia — which was one of the great children‘s book cycles in the English language — nearly crashes on the cliffs the sea-storms of modern big special effects 3D moviemaking in the third Narnia movie, tongue-twistingly entitled Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Nearly. But not quite. The movie’s not bad, even if it’s initially a little flat and unwelcoming. I had a devil of a time getting into it though, even though I like Lewis, and like the director here (Michael Apted), and despite the fact that Dawn Treader begins with very nearly its best scene: a bang-up fantasy sequence of a seascape painting that magically floods a staid British room and sends the three child protagonists off on tremendous ocean waves into a new round of Narnian adventures.

But, as the story unwinds, the characters seem flat or obvious, the castles and ship and the world itself look a bit unused, the “real-life” World War II scenes seem too short and shallow, and the monsters and magical animals often have more personality than the humans, especially the kids. The swashbuckling rat, Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg this time, instead of Eddie Izzard) has a lot of the best lines — and, in many ways, he steals the movie, which is a bit big for his britches.

If Dawn Treader doesn’t quite succeed, it’s not for want of effort and some talent, and even a determination to stir things up. No longer a Disney Studio series, it’s now being released by Fox. Producer Andrew Adamson (Shrek) has ceded the directorial post he held for the first two Narnia films, to the very gifted and very artistically sturdy Michael Apted of Coal Miner’s Daughter, a James Bond outing (The World is not Enough), and, most impressively, of the brilliant ongoing “Up” documentary series.

Oddly, Apted (or the second unit) handles some of the big action-fantasy sequences more enticingly than the more intimate dramatic and character scenes you’d have thought would be Apted’s metier. Even so, I wish he’d had a Potter or two under his belt by now as well. He’s good at fanasty-adventure when the production lets him be — and I prefer his style and touch to Dvaid Yates’. (At least for now.)

Narnia is cast, like the Potters, with three fetching young British actors at the center (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes as the continuing young Narnia adventurers and conquerors Lucy and Edmund Pevensie, and Will Poulter as their pain-in-the-ass cousin Eustace Scrubb), surrounded by classy adult support (in this case, Pegg as the rat, Liam Neeson as the lion, Tilda Swinton as the white witch, and Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian). And it‘s a movie full of love for the printed word and for archetypal fancy and fantasy, jam-packed with swords and sorcery, ships and storms, and dragons and sea serpents. And it ends spectacularly at the edge of the world.

It’s just a little humorless, humanless, sparkless. The movie begins superlatively well, with that oceanic rouser of a fantasy sequence. But soon the effects take over and the movie’s rowdily thrilling games of rat and dragon (starring Reepicheep and the unspeakable Eustace, who is transmogrified into the fire-breathing monster) can’t totally save things.

The third Narnia was dumped by the Disney Studio, home of the first two, perhaps after the second movie in the series, Prince Caspian, took a box office tumble from the receipts of the first (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Since Lewis had four stories left to go (including prequels), it would seem a shame to abandon Narnia (as they might), condemning the remaining four segments to oblivion. Even so, a less spectacular British TV version is available as a fallback. It remains, so far unseen, on my shelves, along with a box set of the seven Narnia novels — and copies of C. S. Lewis‘s mostly superb adult Christian science fiction trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

Anyone in Hollywood want to give them a shot?


The Fighter (Three Stars)

U.S.; David O. Russell, 2010

Why are most sports movies in general usually so phony, predictable, corny and schmaltzy, while boxing movies (or movies that use boxing as a dramatic sparkplug) tend to move us more, play more realistically, work better dramatically, and supply more film classics than the norm?

I’m not saying that David O. Russell‘s The Fighter — which is about the relationship between light welterweight fighter Micky Ward and his half-brother trainer Dickie Kelvin — is in the class of Body and Soul, The Set-Up, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Harder They Fall, On the Waterfront, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Ali, Million Dollar Baby or Raging Bull. Or even, God help us, of Rocky. But it’s certainly a good movie, an arena for really good actors and technicians to show their stuff.

That’s true of many fight movies. It’s a genre that even attracted Alfred Hitchcock (in 1927’s The Ring.) And even a somewhat phony, melodramatic boxing show like City for Conquest (with Jimmy Cagney fantastic as the boxer who fights to help his brother, the musician) and Golden Boy, from Clifford Odets’ lauded Depression play (with William Holden as the boxer who is a musician) have classier corn, tonier schmaltz.

Maybe it’s because boxing movies can focus more easily on character and individual combat. In The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg plays Micky and Christian Bale plays Dickie (respelled “Dicky“ in the movie, to match “Micky“) and they‘re the classic pair-up of good-guy/prodigal-guy (half) brothers. Both are from working class Lowell, Massachusetts (Jack Kerouac‘s town). Both are the sons of tough cookie Alice Ward (Meliissa Leo of Frozen River and 21 Grams). But they’re way different.

Micky is diligent, self-sacrificing, a terrific boxer with a great temperament who works hard, survives unusual hardship (including a busted hand), and who won’t fold under duress. His nickname is “Irish Thunder.“ Dicky is a natural athlete and sometime irresponsible goofball who was a star fighter when Micky was 12, fought Sugar Ray Leonard even up (Leonard appears in The Fighter as himself), and now trains and strategizes for his half–brother (and does it well).

But Dicky has gotten heavy into crack cocaine. He’s a certifiable bad influence, and the new managers who take over Micky‘s career, after the boxer gets whipped a few times, don’t want him around, especially when Dicky pops up on camera in a TV documentary on cocaine use called High on Crack Street.

Micky goes along with the program and splits up with his brother, despite being pushed toward Dicky by their mutual mother, and pushed away from him by Micky’s contentious girlfriend, Charlene Fleming (played, in a real change of pace, by sunshine gal Amy Adams). Soon Micky is fighting for the Intercontinental light welterweight championship — against the snobbish champ, a British pugilist, who’d rather have a different opponent.

You probably know what’s going to happen in this movie even if you don’t know the real life story. (The real-life Micky and Dicky show up under the credits.) But this isn’t a case where predictability matters. It’s a character study of depth and power, and Wahlberg, Bale, Adams and Leo – and a lot of the supporting actors — really shine. Perhaps most impressive is Bale, who looks, and acts, something like a Dead End Kid on crack, an elongated mix of Huntz Hall and the younger Mean Streets De Niro, oscillating frantically between the goony and the near-tragically self-destructive.

Bale, like De Niro as LaMotta in Raging Bull seems willing to all but deform himself for his roles, and here, he plays Dicky as a guy who thinks he‘s a Golden Boy but keeps slipping, slipping, fouling up (like Cameron Mitchell as heroin addict boxer Barney Ross in De Toth‘s Monkey on My Back). Wahlberg has his role as Micky, the less splashy one, down pat, and Melissa Leo seems like a Lowell mama who just walked into the movie. (So do the platoon of actresses who play her family). As for Adams, playing a tough bar girl in a low-cut blouse may not be her type and metier, but I liked her better here than I did Julia and Julia. Then again, these four actors are always good. It would probably take some crack cocaine and twenty blows to the head from Joe Frazier to really mess up their characters.

The Fighter — scripted by Scott Silver, Paul Tahasy and Eric Johnson — has a real weath of characters, several dozen good speaking roles, where the average movie focuses on maybe a half-dozen people or so. That richness may come from the fact that the sources here were real people. A real story. If I could hand the Hollywood studios one motto (or two) that would make their movies better — at least as good as The Fighter and maybe better — its this: Trust life. See and trust the world around you. Make your people breathe before you make them fight.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon