Category Archives: Film Rants

In which we discuss cinematic root canals

Thoughts on The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher’s dramatic life has the makings of a great movie. The Iron Lady isn’t it.  Somewhere between a third and half of the movie ignores her career and portrays her as a hallucinating old woman trying to justify herself to her dead husband.  It’s insulting to a still living woman and a way for director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan to sneak in a shockingly anti-feminist critique of Thatcher.  It’s unforgivable that they twisted events, as Virginia Postrel observed:

We see Thatcher giving her teenage daughter, Carol, a driving lesson. They have a wild time on the road. Thatcher grabs the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve right (get it?) to avoid an oncoming driver who is dangerously straddling the center line. Mother and daughter come into the house laughing. But this happy bonding quickly breaks down when Margaret announces her intention to run for Conservative Party leader.“I thought I was having a driving lesson, but it was all about my mother!” yells Carol, storming out of the room.

Denis, still alive in this flashback, then reminds his wife that he’s told her that “business is a bit rocky and the doctor says I need a rest.” Insensitive to his problems, she prattles on about running for party leader. “You’re insufferable, Margaret,” he says. “You know that?”

When she responds with talk of duty and public service, he snaps, “Don’t call it duty! It’s ambition that’s got you this far — ambition! The rest of us — me, the children, we can all go to hell! Don’t worry about me,” he concludes, with a mixture of resignation and sarcasm, “I’ll be fine.”

Greasy Pole

Recalling the scene, the phantom Denis asks how many days it took her to realize he’d gone to South Africa. “When did I lose track of everyone?” she muses.

And here comes the moral: “You were too busy climbing the greasy pole.”

No wonder she wound up lonely and demented. The Iron Lady was just out for herself, a self-centered rat who missed the important things in life. At least that’s what a viewer who knew only the movie might suppose.

This crucial scene is worse than fabricated. It twists real events to make its moralistic point.

In the real world, Denis Thatcher, who was something of a workaholic himself, did in fact take a sabbatical in South Africa and Switzerland — in 1964, a full decade before Margaret ran for party leader and for reasons that had little to do with his wife. On his return, he sold the family business to a larger company.

And Margaret Thatcher did indeed give her daughter driving lessons. After a professional instructor terrified Carol with a rush-hour trip through London’s busy Sloane Square, Margaret persuaded her daughter not to give up. “Thanks to her,” Carol Thatcher writes in her 2008 memoir “A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl,” “I eventually passed my test.” That, too, happened years before Thatcher ran for party leader. Her children, born in 1953, were adults during Thatcher’s years as head of the Conservative Party. Carol was in fact taking her law exams as the Tories were casting their party-leader votes — a nice bit of parallel tension that the movie skips.

Denis Thatcher was long his wife’s greatest cheerleader.  As a young and nervous candidate, Mrs. Thatcher was once paralyzed on the stump until Denis started his friends cheering for her.  For the rest of her career, Denis was always leading the cheering section (even at an American Enterprise Institute event years after she left active politics).  Denis was the rare man who disproved Katherine Anne Porter’s assessment of men and marriage:

I know that when a woman loves a man, she builds him up and supports him.  I never knew a man who loved a woman enough for this.  He cannot help it, it is his deepest instinct to destroy, quite often subtly, insidiously, but constantly and endlessly, her very center of her being, her confidence in herself as a woman.

Lloyd and Morgan have shoehorned poor Denis Thatcher into this worldview that was wildly not his own. Disgraceful.

Here are some things that really should have been in the movie:

  • Thatcher was a ferocious enemy of the Soviet Union, to the point where Pravda  gave her the nickname “The Iron Lady.”  Thatcher appropriated the intended smear and made it stick: it’s the title of the film.  Why did they leave this out?

  • Note that the above trailer closes with a scene that didn’t actually make the movie: Thatcher asking the men at a state dinner, “Gentleman, shall we join the ladies?”  Particularly given the early scenes where young Margaret Roberts had to leave the room while the men talked, this is the sort of elementary contrast that needs to be in a film.  Thatcher actually did say this, so leaving it out is yet another sign of incompetent film making.

  • We see her take questions in Parliament, but only once as a junior minister and never as Prime Minister.  She was consistently better prepared and regularly smashed the leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock.  In the above clip, we see the actual Thatcher’s last time at Prime Minister’s questions.  She had already been knifed in the back by her own party, and even here, she can roll with raucous and overcome her opposition.  Prime Minister’s questions is one of the places where Thatcher shined: she loved it and excelled at it.  When she was challenged abroad by a panel of Soviet politicians, she demonstrated that she knew more about the Soviet economy than they did.  It would have been a wonderful contrast to see her as Prime Minister dominating where she had once floundered, and the film makers simply gloss over it.
  • Thatcher is consistently portrayed as a headstrong and near reckless leader.  But the real woman was often shrewd and cautious and perfectly willing to concede fights that she was not yet able to win.  We never see Arthur Scargill, the Stalinist leader of the mining unions, but he was one of her chief antagonists.  Shortly after she she became Prime Minister, he called a general strike and Thatcher more or less gave him everything he wanted because the government was in no position to break the strike.  She carefully laid down stockpiles of coal—a three years supply of it!—so when he started another general strike later, she was able to break the miner’s union (The movie Billy Elliot uses this conflict as a backdrop).  Thatcher took a long view, made a strategy, and overcame the most powerful man in Britain who wasn’t an MP.
  • As a young woman, Thatcher was a research chemist who actually patented methods for preserving ice cream.  We see her campaigning amongst ice cream workers, but the film makers missed an opportunity to show a woman coming full circle.
  • The film makers show the IRA bombing of the conservative convention at Brighton, but they only show Thatcher’s initial and horrified reaction.  Far more important, the next day she carried on with the speech she had been editing, which she delivered without changes.  Thatcher made the point that we carry on despite terror.  This was again lost.

The above are major points.  Here are some minor things that would have been nice:

  • Geoffrey Howe is seriously underdeveloped as a character.  He was sometimes right, particularly in his Thatcher’s early days as her Chancellor of the Exchequer, and sometimes wrong, particularly on the single currency, and Thatcher did mistreat him, but we’re left with the impression that he’s just a squish, which he wasn’t.  Given that his resignation eventually led to Thatcher’s own downfall, the audience needed some more development of his character.  And by cutting away from the leadership race too soon, they leave the impression that the Tory Wet challenger Michael Heseltine won it, when it was actually won by John Major, another Tory Dry.
  • Other key members of Thatcher’s cabinet in particular and British politics in general aren’t developed.  Norman Tebbit, whose wife was crippled by the Brighton bombing, is nowhere to be seen, but he would have been excellent and colorful addition.  Ted Heath needed to be built up more so we can see him as an antagonist better.  Enoch Powell, her most formidable critic on the right (just as Barry Goldwater paved the way for Ronald Reagan, so did Powell cut the trail for Thatcher) should have had some lines—even if only his cutting remark about her principles, “A pity she doesn’t understand them!”  Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition, also needed some screen time.
  • And how could the film makers have left out Willie Whitelaw?  He was Heath’s deputy and then Thatcher’s, a Tory Wet who nevertheless backed Thatcher’s Tory Drys.  He was so loyal and useful to her that she once exclaimed “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie!”  It would have been a much needed bit of comic relief in a film that took itself far too seriously.  Further, his departure to the House of Lords meant that Thatcher lost one of her key sounding boards; he was a critic she respected enough to listen to, and losing him meant losing her eyes and ears.
  • Ronald Reagan was Thatcher’s ideological soulmate and needed to be here.  Just as he backed her during the Falklands crisis, she was the only European leader who backed his retaliation against Gaddafi.  We do see Thatcher tearing Al Haig to pieces, but that was only a small part of the relationship between the US and the UK.
  • British Prime Ministers, unlike American presidents, have very few personal aides.  When cabinet meetings went late at Downing Street, Thatcher would regularly cook eggs and bacon for people working late.  That’s the sort of thing that should be in a film that’s meant to be humanizing.  But we don’t get the actual Thatcher: we get a Lloyd and Morgan’s caricature.

Maybe He Should Listen to This Guy

I’m probably putting to much attention on this but Mr. Lucas should really listen to this filmmaker regarding changing films:

“My name is George Lucas. I am a writer, director, and producer of motion pictures and Chairman of the Board of Lucasfilm Ltd., a multi-faceted entertainment corporation.

I am not here today as a writer-director, or as a producer, or as the chairman of a corporation. I’ve come as a citizen of what I believe to be a great society that is in need of a moral anchor to help define and protect its intellectual and cultural heritage. It is not being protected.

The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created.

A copyright is held in trust by its owner until it ultimately reverts to public domain. American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history.

People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as “when life begins” or “when it should be appropriately terminated,” but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race.

These current defacements are just the beginning. Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tommorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control. In order to reconstruct old negatives, many archivists have had to go to Eastern bloc countries where American films have been better preserved.

In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.

There is nothing to stop American films, records, books, and paintings from being sold to a foreign entity or egotistical gangsters and having them change our cultural heritage to suit their personal taste.

I accuse the companies and groups, who say that American law is sufficient, of misleading the Congress and the People for their own economic self-interest.

I accuse the corporations, who oppose the moral rights of the artist, of being dishonest and insensitive to American cultural heritage and of being interested only in their quarterly bottom line, and not in the long-term interest of the Nation.

The public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests. And the proof of that is that even a copyright law only permits the creators and their estate a limited amount of time to enjoy the economic fruits of that work.

There are those who say American law is sufficient. That’s an outrage! It’s not sufficient! If it were sufficient, why would I be here? Why would John Houston have been so studiously ignored when he protested the colorization of “The Maltese Falcon?” Why are films cut up and butchered?

Attention should be paid to this question of our soul, and not simply to accounting procedures. Attention should be paid to the interest of those who are yet unborn, who should be able to see this generation as it saw itself, and the past generation as it saw itself.

I hope you have the courage to lead America in acknowledging the importance of American art to the human race, and accord the proper protection for the creators of that art–as it is accorded them in much of the rest of the world communities.”

REVERUND!

LEAVE VADER ALONE!! *SOB*

Look, Lucas. I took it when you put giant CG lizards in the middle of EVERYTHING in your Star Wars Reissues. I have learned to live with Han Shooting First (although why  you would want to ruin the greatest character in cinema history is beyond me.) I have even learned to suppress my bile knowing that you replaced Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi with a complete douchenozzle.

This is a BRIDGE TOO FAR (btw Lucas, David Lean knew how to make epics, you make crap):

Lucas had promised that fans would have a few new details here and there to notice in his newly remastered HD versions of his classic trilogy — and now the first details are leaking out. And fans are not happy. Some of the fans have gotten hold of the Blu-ray footage, and they’re dissecting it at TheForce.net, the Blu-Ray.com forums and the DVDTalk forums. And a couple of changes to the soundtrack have already become apparent, at least if some recent leaks are to be believed.

Most notably, “Vader now screams NOOOOOOOO when he throws the Emperor” in Return of the Jedi. And it sounds, quite frankly, kind of silly. Check out an mp3 of the new sound effect.

Kids, please look away from the blog.

FUCK YOU, LUCAS.

He coulda been a contender

Fred Thompson on the Oscars:

In case you were wondering, I did watch the Oscars last night. My wife, Jeri, and I were settled in for the red carpet show. What was I wearing, you ask? A frown. It was a Thompson original designed just for that event.

To be fair, I didn’t take too many issues with the show, but I would point out a few things that did highlight my “fashion statement” for the evening.

Not to be an “anti-short-ite” but are there any actors over 5′ 8″ anymore? Perhaps that explains their over-compensation with long speeches.

On 30 Years Without the Duke

Roger Ebert has a must read post on the 30th anniversary of John Wayne’s death. He sums up as well as I’ve ever read what made John Wayne so great:

On screen he held so much authority so that he was not even being ironic when he explained his theory of acting: “Don’t act. React.” John Wayne, you see, could react. Others actors had to strain the limits of their craft to hold the screen with him. There is this test for an actor who, for a moment, is just standing there in a scene: Does he seem to be just standing there? Or does he, as John Wayne always did, appear to be deciding when, and why, and how to take the situation under his control?

And the Duke himself, expressing his thoughts on the greatest American art form:

But when you think about the Western–ones I’ve made, for example. ‘Stagecoach,’ ‘Red River,’ ‘The Searchers,’ a picture named ‘Hondo’ that had a little depth to it–it’s an American art form. It represents what this country is about. In ‘True Grit,’ for example, that scene where Rooster shoots the rat. That was a kind of reference to today’s problems. Oh, not that ‘True Grit’ has a message or anything. But that scene was about less accommodation, and more justice.

They keep bringing up the fact that America’s for the downtrodden. But this new thing of genuflecting to the downtrodden, I don’t go along with that. We ought to go back to praising the kids who get good grades, instead of making excuses for the ones who shoot the neighborhood grocery man. But, hell, I don’t want to get started on that

Of course, it’s Ebert, and the Duke was one of the great Hollywood right-wingers of yore, so politics can’t slip past unnoticed. Ebert’s fair enough, except for observing “I believe [Wayne] would have had contempt for the latter-day weirdos of the Right.” Yeah, right. Wayne supported Nixon and the war, he supported Reagan’s runs for governor. He was a through-and-through reactionary, and it’s impossible to imagine him any other way.

Dear Star Trek Writers

No more time travel. And, if that request is too much, at least don’t tell us that time travel is what happens when you go into a black hole. It reminded me of that scene in one of the Spidermans where they put out a fusion reaction by putting it in water. I understand that it’s too much to ask that you have even the vaguest appreciation of the science you deal with, but perhaps you could run these things by a high school physics student once before the script goes to final production. Along those lines, if you blow something up at the event horizon, the light from that explosion will not escape the black hole. That’s because light from an explosion – even a really, really big one – does not travel faster than light.

But that’s just being nitpicky The main point is this: NO MORE TIME TRAVEL.

Perhaps she should try acting

Christian Toto tries to explain why Ms. Ryan’s career is unlikely to come back:

Ryan is a good example of what happens to too many older actresses. Sure, you’ll always have the exceptions — Meryl Streep and Judi Dench come to mind. But only Streep remains red-hot, commercially speaking, at the ripe age of 59.

Ryan, the ’90s rom-com princess, could command big paychecks. Romantic comedies are where actresses shine, both commercially and in the hearts and minds of movie goers.

Just think back to Goldie Hawn and Doris Day before her.

Today, Ryan is often seen in direct to video fare (”The Deal,” “My Mom’s New Boyfriend”). She still looks beautiful even if she may have dabbled in some plastic surgery. And her figure remains to die for.

But she’d need Quentin Tarantino to stage an entire film around her to give her career that ol’ A-list juice.

Then you have Rourke, an actor who seemingly spent the last decade burning every bridge in sight. And his face is a Jackson Pollock painting of age, boxing losses and who knows what.

But he came this close to beating out Sean Penn for the Best Actor Oscar over the weekend and is in talks to star in “Iron Man 2.”

The one movie in which I liked Meg Ryan was Courage Under Fire; perhaps not coincidentally, she died horribly in it.  But more important than that, she was NOT in a chick flick or rom-com.  Perhaps a large part of the trouble is that actresses try to do rom-coms long after they should have moved on.  John Wayne always played John Wayne because being a tough guys, like fine wine, improve with age, but actresses must get beyond My Mom’s New Boyfriend.  Note that Meryl Streep wasn’t most recently nominated for a rom-com but for playing a hard edged nun.  Ingenues sparkle in gooey rom-coms, but grande dames need to get out of the candy shop and into the forge.  Ms. Ryan needs needs roles that showcase iron will, steely determination, brassy self-confidence; the heart of gold is optional and might be a counterproductive.  (See the careers of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford.)  It’d be nice to see some more actresses evolve.  Helen Mirren and Judy Dench won’t be around forever.  I somehow doubt Meg Ryan will evolve, but one never knows.

Loathing the Oscars

Burt Prelutsky rips into this year’s batch of Oscar bait, and he makes Apollo look like Little Bo Peep.  I haven’t seen all the movies, but I agree with him on The Reader.  Kate Winslet rocks.  Otherwise:

I thought that Sean Penn, who generally strikes me as hammier than pigs feet, was absolutely believable as Harvey Milk, the homosexual activist who was the first openly gay American elected to public office. But the movie, itself, plays like a, well, fairy tale. Every gay character is decent, witty, warm, wise, charming and courageous. In a year or two, I fully expect that “Milk! The Musical!” will open on Broadway, with Nathan Lane in the lead.

“Changeling,” directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Angelina Jolie in one of those dowdy roles that glamour girls take on in the hope of snatching up an Oscar. Eastwood seems to feel that if he leaves “The” off his titles, as in “Unforgiven” and the 141-minute “Changeling,” he’s made enough of a concession to the Philistines. Speaking on behalf of Philistines everywhere, I say it would be better if he edited his movies instead of his titles.

That brings us to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” If you think the title is a mouthful, you ain’t seen nothing. The movie is 159 minutes long. That’s just 41 minutes less than “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” put together! “Button” certainly has its nice moments, but at that length, how could it not? Briefly, it is the life story of a man who, for no discernible reason, is born old and becomes younger as the years go by. On the other hand, if you happen to be young when you sit down to watch it, you’ll be eligible for Social Security by the time it’s over.

Prelutsky complains about the movies as long as fourth grade.  It recalls Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a novel: a short story padded.

As regards the lousy movies this year, a quote from William Goldman: “Every Oscar night you look back and realize that last year was the worst year in the history of Hollywood.”

Frost/Nixon? Seriously?

I didn’t realize how terribly Frost/Nixon had done at the box office. Less than $15 million! Jeez, if you added up the value of all the Frost/Nixon advertisements I have personally seen, it would come close to $15 million. Somebody lost their shirt on this one; probably their shorts, too. You could have made more money renting out theaters as places for weary travelers to sleep.*

When your advertisements tell people that you’ve made a movie about the fact that some people in Hollywood don’t like Richard Nixon, one should expect this type of response. All of the old Nixon haters are dead or too old to go to theaters; all of the young hippies are curious why the movie isn’t called Frost/Bush.

Though that might not have done too well either. Despite a ridiculous media blitz during the most politicized year in living memory, W. was the 104th best grossing moving of 2008. I originally thought boxofficemojo had screwed up and not listed it, until I saw that their first page only listed the top 100. Of course, it was a big hit compared to Frost/Nixon.

*And, somehow, Frost/Nixon is only the fourth worst grosser of the Best Picture nominees; The Reader makes Frost/Nixon look like, um, well, a movie that people saw. A few weeks ago, I actually got a phone call from Sid Ganis advising me that a 30-second clip of my cat I took using my digital camera – GracieCoughsHairball3.avi – had been nominated for Best Picture, but I declined and suggested they nominate something that had reached a larger audience. Hence, The Reader. That’s a true story.

P.S. Paul Blart: Mall Cop has been the #1 movie for three consecutive weekends.