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Contemorary covers the decades following World War II. 

THE FOUNTAINHEAD

Gary Cooper as Ayn Rand's hero, Howard Roark, the architect who will not compromise his vision in the face of a collectivist society? Yep. The Fountainhead is a movie version of the Rand novel which idealized the rugged individual in post-industrial civilization.

 

Roark is the man of the mind who creates civilization, or at least its heroic structures.  When the forces of popular opinion compromise a building he has designed, he responds quite sensibly by blowing the structure to smithereens. Along the way he seduces Patricia Neal in a scene which...well, never mind. The movie ends as do all good Hollywood movies, in the courtroom. Roark makes a classic speech defending not only his actions but also the entire concept of a man going his own way, and the collective be damned! Of course, he wins.

 

Ayn Rand's point is that modern civilization is a tribute to the mind of men: intellectual, scientific and organizational powers.  None of  the civilization we have around us would have existed had not people willed it into existence, then "shoveled the gravel" (as the Zen Priest once put it) to make it happen. It's interesting that for all the talk about women not having any "power" prior to the 1960s, Ayn Rand was able to become one of the most influential writers and political philophers of 20th century America. The triumph of global capitalism, for better or worse, is in no small part due to the ideological underpinnings she created at a time when socialism seemed to be the wave of the future.  

 

 

THE GODFATHER (Part I)

This is a review I've been meaning to write for some time. The difficulty was in finding the right approach. After all, this is a movie glorifying gangsters! But The Godfather is still about men, and men operating in a world that men build.

 

There's Marlon Brando in the titular role, as the head of the Corleone crime family. He rules by a system of mutual favors which put power brokers at his bidding. He also puts the best men in positions of trust. His sons:  James Caan (Sonny, the passionate one), John Cazale (Fredo, a little too sensitive), Al Pacino (Michael, the cold blooded intellectual), and Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen, adopted and family councilor). Then there is the outer family, with Abe Vigoda and Richard Castellano as the capo regimes  Tessio and Clemenza.

 

The Corleones form a cohesive group, each man with his own strengths and weaknesses. They play off of each other nicely: Michael's rational approach balances Sonny's bloodlust, Tom keeping it all on the level with the big picture. Signficantly, it's a moment of weakness on the part of one of the sons which opens up the Godfather himself to an assassination attempt and unleashes the chain of events which leads to the passing of power from one generation to the next.

 

One of the things I find amazing is how well The Godfather holds up decades after it was originally made. Some truths are eternal, and all that sort of thing. The Godfather  shows how men build the world. This was an explicit theme of the Mario Puzo novel (which I recommend reading) and carries on over to the film. The Corleones create their own empire in which they have the freedom to live their lives as they choose. Of course, these are "decent" gangsters: we are told that the Corleones deal only in gambling and unions, not strongarming or forced prostitution. When a new kind of gangster enters the scene -- this time with heroin -- they at first resist. This leads to the Five Families War. Of  Don Corleone's sons, one cracks under ths strain; another is gunned down at a toll booth; and a third must go into exile, though later returns to rebuild the family's power.

 

We see the elder Godfather giving his great wealth of experience to the chosen son. And in the end, we realize that the Godfather was grooming Michael to be his heir all along. He could see that it was his rationality and intelligence which were needed for the future. Michael's assassination of the "Turk" Sollozzo along with a courrupt police captain, which force him into exile, all prove to be a demonstration of cold rationality which in the long run turns the tide of the war.

 

Also significant is Gianni Russo's Carlo Rizzi. He marries a Corleone daughter, Connie, to get access to the family's wealth and power. When frustrated, Carlo turns traitor. It's as if the movie is saying that he made the fatal mistake (both figuratively and literally) of relying on a female (though Connie herself had honest motives in the marriage). Compare this to Michael's marriage to WASPish Dianne Keaton (Kay), whom he keeps out of the loop on family business. Michael gains power by keeping the men and women in his family in their own separate spheres. It's not about job descriptions but relying on your fellow men and understanding their motivations. The gulf between men and women is too wide for one sex to understand or rely on the other (a point which was made explicitly in the novel, by the way). This may not be fair; it is reality.

 

The movie is long, but it could have been even longer, one feels so comfortable in it. The capo regimes  Tessio and Clemenza could each have used a scene or two more showing their positions in running the Corleone empire. The processes by which the Godfather actually controls judges and politicians need to on the screen since this is the source of the family power. We see the antagonists, Barzini and Tattaglia, as background in only a couple of scenes. And minor but significant characters from the book, such as Rocco Lampone and Al Neri, are given short shrift. Michael's final coup which wipes out the family's enemies seems to be a deus ex machine;  we never see him actually setting up the massacre, nor do we see the new generation of gangsters (Lampone, Neri) replacing the old. At least part of the interest of the novel was in its description of the inner workings of an organized crime family. Still, much of this is implied by the incredible performances of the actors. How they relate to each other, how they react to each crisis, which actions they take, all give us the big picture.

 

In the end, Michael takes his place as family patriarch. Order has been restored to the world. It's all the more poignant today in a world in which the family has in many ways disintegrated. The Godfather  gives a real look at the nature of power, an offer that is hard to refuse. 

 

 

HOOSIERS

Gene Hackman is the coach of a small town basketball team who leads his men to victory on the playing field. I liked Hoosiers because of its gritty portrayal of the characters and town. These are real people facing the real challenges of life, and gaining joy from simple triumphs which maybe are not so simple. Barbara Hershey provides some definitely un-glamorous personal relationship, and Dennis Hopper gets another chance.

 

Hackman is an average guy who has to overcome his own past. The victories everyone wins are small but significant--and inspirational in the way that a "big" film could never be.

 

 

HAMBURGER HILL

The 101st Airborne storms a Communist-held hill in Vietnam (I still remember the news reporting on this one from when I was a kid; and the first unit to which I was assigned in the Army was the 101st "Screaming Eagles"). The first part of the movie shows the paratroopers training new recruits in-country, reminding them to respect the enemy; they also play hard in the local "steam and cream" spa.

 

Then it’s the A Shau Valley’s for the assault on Ap Bia mountain. The paratroopers go up against dug-in NVA/VC, are thrown back, regroup, and go back in. Yeah, some of it is cliche, the recruits becoming veterans, the junior officer who learns, etc. But the movie is authentic enough in showing the Vietnam War from the standpoint of the Americans post-Tet Offensive, when total victory was no longer an option but you could still win that one last battle on an obscure hill.

 

There's even a back-handed tribute to the North Vietnamese enemy, whom we see enduring the full fury of American airpower and still grimly fighting on, knowing there is no retreat to cross-border sanctuaries this time around. They do their jobs until the end. One scene is classic MRA stuff -- one of the paratrooper's girlfriend sends him a "Dear John" letter via tape recorder in which she proves herself to be the skank of the decade.

 

The ending is a great tribute to what men can do...and what femi-nazis and their manginas could never understand.

 

 

DAY OF THE JACKAL

I have to admit, that half way through this one, I was ready to switch off the VCR, for reasons explained below. But I stuck it through and have to admit, Day of the Jackal is truly a movie about men, or I should say, a single man. And that man is the "Jackal" of the title, played by Edward Fox. The plot is somewhat based on actual events. The OAS, a rightwing French underground organization, attempted to assassinate President DeGaulle in 1962 because of his surrender of France's Algerian colony. In the movie, the OAS hires the Jackal to make a second hit which this time is supposed to not fail. And right at the start we know the Jackal to be different, proclaiming that the problem with the OAS is that it is infested with the feminine qualities of emotionalism. Nonetheless, he accepts the commission, for the money or the professional challenge, or maybe he just doesn't like DeGaulle's politics. 

 

Most of the film is something of a procedural. The first half has him setting up the various false identities and gear he will need to make the hit. The second half shows him proceeding on his quest, with the elaborate set ups paying off in logical and reasonable ways. When the OAS warns him that the French national security service has discovered the plot, the Jackal is confident enough of his own skills to push on, dispassionately. Then comes the part that almost caused me to put another VHS in the machine. He meets a (groan!) woman. And seems to fall for her. Oldest cliche in filmdom, right? But hold on. The Jackal is simply using her to set up a safe house. He disposes of the relationship coolly when she is no longer needed. This is contrasted to a French minister in the movie who allowed himself to be seduced by a female OAS agent, thereby compromising  the hunt for the Jackal.

 

The Jackal pushes on, reaches Paris, sets up the assassination, pulls the trigger...and, well, we all know that DeGaulle never got shot but we do know that in another universe he might have been killed but for a minor twist of protocol. The critical thing is that  the Jackal stayed true to himself. And he did so via the masculine quality of using his reason to master his emotions.

 

Kudos also to Michael Lonsdale as the film's Commissioner Lebel, a detective who tracks his man using old fashioned flatfoot work as opposed to the secret police methods of the French national security service.

 

 

THE ODD COUPLE

This movie is about something you do not see too much of, two middle aged men supporting each other after their divorces. More than that, you get a chance to see how men lived their real lives in New York City, no less: poker, opera, ball games, cigars. With Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. 

 

 

...and speaking of New York City...

 

 

COPS AND ROBBERS

Cliff Gorman and Joe Bologna are cops in New York City during the long hot summer that makes up their 20 years on the force. But they have a plan to get out, and get out rich: pull off a heist which will net them a cool million dollars each (this was back in 1973 when a million dollars meant real money). They figure that as cops, they can go anywhere, get away with anything, and more importantly, get out with the cash. So they cook up a plan to rob a Wall Street firm and then rip off the Mafia. It all has a mad logic to it, two guys against the world.

 

Cops and Robbers was one of several caper films which came out during this time, written by Donald Westlake. It works because Gorman and Bologna create a couple of working class characters with whom the audience can identify. The thing is, they already have  the American dream:  houses in the suburbs, loving families, and jobs with pensions. But somewhere along the line they realized that there is more. The heist is an escape to a better dream. Or maybe it is just a moment of true freedom.

 

The movie does a good job of showing each man's world disintegrating around him. For street cop Joe (Bologna) it's the attrition of the mean streets; for detective Tom (Gorman) it's the dawning realization that somewhere along the way he was denied the upper middle class lifestyle he once aspired to. They both want to get out with their sanities intact.

 

There's also some nice supporting roles. John Ryan plays the mafia chief with WASPy panache, a facade for the cobra underneath. Shepperd Strudwick's Mr. Eastpoole, the Wall Street master of the universe whom the cops rob, turns out to be the biggest crook of them all. The higher one goes, as Al Pacino found out in another movie, the crookeder it gets. Yet perhaps our working class men in blue see in them a world denied to themselves. (The sharp-eyed might note Joe Spinell as a mafia hitman here. It was role he reprised in Godfather I and II.)

 

The film has a semi-documentary look. A lot of it was shot on location. We get the contrast between the gritty street level cops and the air conditioned upper echelons. It's also a picture of the times, set against a background of parades for astronauts (remember the Apollo program?), long haired policemen, and speeches by a fellow called Richard Nixon. The movie closes out with about the only original car chase I have ever seen in a motion picture, taking place in Central Park of all places and involving picnic baskets, Aloha shirts, and an army of bicycling assassins.

 

There are a lot of nice little moments of camaraderie between Tom and Joe. Like when they race grocery carts. Or brazen their way through Wall Street's inner sanctum. Or just hang out in the pool, drinking beer. Often, these little things are what freedom's all about.

 

 

PRINCE OF THE CITY

The dark side of male "privilege". Treat Williams is a NYPD detective who knows too much, cares too much about his partners, and pays for it all in the end. Prince of the City is based on a true story (and book) about the NYPD's Special Investigative Unit (SIU), an elite narcotics squad which was later disbanded because of the corruption rife throughout its officers. The story is true, the names were changed to protect the guilty.

 

The story follows Williams who, wracked by guilt, informs the feds about corruption among judges, prosecutors and attorneys. And in pursuit of this, he goes undercover to ferret out the bad guys. We see some nice camaraderie between Williams' tough "street" cop and the expensively suited federal attorneys, but like all good things, it has to end. Williams declares that he will not betray other officers, but as the case unravels he finds himself forced into positions where he has to make some hard moral choices. 

 

One reason I recommend Prince of the City for MRAs (or anyone else, for that matter) is that it provides a realistic view of police culture. You might think the cops are your "friends", but a cop can only be a friend to another cop. Williams has to do morally repugnant things because he does not want to lose (as one character in the film points out) the badge, the gun and the cop pals. So my point? Even if the police agree with you personally about men's issues, they may still toss you in jail if you break anti-male law. Just doing their jobs...

 

I watched Prince of the City  again not too long ago. It is one of those movies which ought to be watched every couple of years, because it allows you to contrast what Americans are willing to put up with today from the state as opposed to what would have been considered unreasonable a mere generation or two ago. Most of the police practices which were considered corrupt in the 1960-70s when the film takes place -- roving wiretaps, seizure of suspects' cash, undercover police handing out drugs (if only for entrapment) -- have long since become common practice. We ought to consider what other limits Americans are willing to have placed on their liberties in order to gain some temporary security.

 

Anyway, enough editorial. One theme of the movie which struck me this time around was how Ciello relied on his partners in the NYPD. Laters, when working with the feds, he tries to recreate this kind of teamwork, but career climbing and bureaucratic necessity preclude it. But then, this is a commentary on how the machinery of modern life breaks down the primary groups into which men have traditionally organized themselves -- in this case, the "hunting band" of Ciello's old SIU unit, or larger tribe of the NYPD as a whole. Modern society is being increasingly fragmented, benefiting the bureaucracy which rules over a mass of atomized individuals.


Time for men to reclaim the tribe.

 

 

THE RIGHT STUFF

This movie isn’t so much about the early days of the US space program as it is a film version of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff”. This is an important distinction because the movie picks up a lot of the book’s style, especially when it comes to NASA's absurdist selection process and the later hero worship of the Mercury astronauts—they were, after all, America’s champions who would sally forth into orbit in single combat against the Communist cosmonauts, at least so said Tom Wolfe.

 

I have issues with the movie’s historicity: it shows some unhistorical conflict between the Mercury astronauts and NASA’s administration, though they all worked together quite well in reality (and this is stated in the book). And the movie’s depiction of LBJ is one of the worst caricatures of an historical figure I have seen in a long time.

 

What makes the movie work is not so much the hoopla surrounding the astronauts, but the parallel plot dealing with the unsung jet aircraft test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base. We see them taking on the sound barrier alone and without any public recognition, nor even much in the way of monetary compensation. At one point Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) mentions he makes a measly $200 or so a month flying. By pioneering jet aircaft flight, these pilots laid the groundwork for much of modern aviation technology, and their reward was sometimes shallow graves in the desert. Yet they were always willing to go back on up into the wild blue.

 

The movie has several great scenes, notably towards the end where Yeager survives a crash landing of his F-104. He walks out both his body and soul intact.

  

APOLLO 13

The space program a decade later, when the glitz had worn off and astronauts and mission control crews had to roll up their sleeves and get the job done without so much as a television special. Tom Hanks heads up the astronaut trio of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission that suffered an in-flight malfunction which threatened to maroon the crew in space.

 

Men, both on the spacecraft and on the ground, bring Apollo 13 home using their reason, the scientific method and teamwork, as well as maintaining an even keel in the face of crisis. Everyone contributes, even the guys with the pocket protectors. One of more ingenious scenes is when the NASA folk have to figure out how to improvise a CO2 scrubber from items on the spacecraft, truly a monument to inventiveness at a time when computer memory was still measures in "k".

 

Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff, returns as NASA mission chief Gene Kranz whose tag line is “Failure is not an option”. Actually, Kranz did not say this per se. The story is that the screenwriters, when interviewing mission control members, asked "Weren't there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?" The answer was "No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution."

 

The point is, there was no room here for getting in touch with your emotions or any of the other more recent fads of hysterical tantrums substituting for male values. Early on, Astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) is bumped from the mission because he may have been exposed to measles. When the crisis comes, he jumps in the Apollo simulator and gins up solutions. It’s teamwork and it’s individual initiative, and it says a lot about what men can do. After all, we went to the Moon in those great days.

 

THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)

A truly offbeat film, but one that literally shows a man going his own way. Elliot Gould plays private gumshoe Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel. And offbeat it is--the movie starts with Marlowe waking up in the middle of the night in his apartment overlooking the Hollywood Hills. He is the classic film noir detective suddenly thrust into the early 1970s, when Ronald Reagan was governor, hippies baked hash brownies next door, and even the hoods wore turtleneck sweaters. The film's meta-humor references this state of affairs, with one of the characters referring to him as "Rip van Marlowe".

 

But Marlowe stays true to himself, never forgetting to wear his tie and light up a cigarette as he tracks down the truth. Gould underplays the role, yet gives the character real strength. Marlowe is always in control, even when being given the third degree in the precinct station house (some things never change), or out-drinking a Hemmingway-esque author. And it's an important lesson: you control a situation by controlling yourself.

 

Marlowe also does not let himself be distracted by the parade of female temptresses who sashay through the tale. Like a Grail Knight, he abjures women and stays focused on the quest: the fate of his friend. The film's resolution includes Marlowe's only act of violence, and one that liberates himself. 

 

Some interesting commentary on "The Long Goodbye" is at:

http://www.sheilaomalley.com/archives/008005.html

 

 

 

UNCOMMON VALOR

Gene Hackman leads a team of veterans to rescue his POW son from a North Vietnamese prison camp long after the war has ended. Uncommon Valor dumps all of the mindlessness of the Rambo/Chuck Norris genre to instead give a solid portrait of men working together against impossible odds.  It's a war movie where men's goal is not to kill people but instead to bring them freedom. And the ending (which I won't give away) restores the moral balance.

 

 

THE DOGS OF WAR

Christopher Walken heads up a team of mercenaries paid to overthrow an African dictator. What makes Dogs of War  rise above the usual action movie fireworks is the gritty realistic view of special operations. There’s no Chuck Norris heroics in here. Instead, we get all the mundane aspects of modern warfare: the reconnaissance, the back alley arms deals, the shattered bodies. The movie has a level of casual brutality which may disturb viewers used to the antiseptic killings of the Rambo films: a couple of scenes of torture are less than pleasant, though portrayed as part of the grim business of fighting for money.

 

Walken underplays his role as the soldier who is alive only when a mission gives him a reason, and then he gets the job done, no matter how dirty. The “reluctant hero” business, which has been clichéd unto death in film-making, is given new life here. Among other things, we see the quiet friendship develop between Walken and an African political prisoner who saves his life in jail, men working together.

 

There’s a bitter irony as the two women in Walken’s life, one white, one black, both abandon him, no happy ever after romantic ending, thankfully. The look between Walken and his perhaps once-African girlfriend when he finds she was the dictator’s mistress says so much about how too many women chase male power at the cost of true love.

 

The movie has some great lines. As the mercenaries find themselves in the lead of the assault on the dictator’s compound, one asks: “What happened to ‘fire support and bringing up the rear?’”

 

 

THE BEAST

A Russian tank and its crew fight their way out of an Afghan rebel trap. A new twist on the hardcase commander and the misfit squad, set in the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. You get a good view of the war from both sides. One of the crewmembers gains sanctuary among otherwise hostile Afghans by understanding their customs (hint for today's audiences!), while we also see the human side of the once-dreaded Soviet Red Army. The ending is a little on the PC side. But, hey, it's Afghanistan were radical feminism is not even a rumor.

 

 

AMERICAN PIE

When a friend recommended I see this movie, my initial reaction was “no way!” I mean, isn’t this just another inane teen sex comedy? But the story actually works. It’s about four high school seniors who decide they will have sex by the time they graduate (and yep, they’re all 18). Each follows his own path, each learns something new about himself and women, and each succeeds in a different way. It’s like watching a samurai movie but for real men. And let's not forget band camp.

 

 

 

TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA

It's the 1980s in all its neon pop morally ambiguous glory. William Petersen is a Secret Service agent on the trail of parvenu counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, set against the background of urban industrial landscape. The movie takes all the cliches of the machismo hero flik and turns them upside down. Petersen is after Dafoe because the latter killed the former's partner, but the chase turns into a Kafka-esque journey into the other side of the mirror. At one point, Petersen and his neophyte partner (played by John Pankow) rip off a supposed mob bagman and then find themselves in the middle of a federal sting operation, escaping via a wrong way drag race on the LA freeways. It's all emblematic of the moral and bureaucratic labyrinths in which men frequently find themselves entrapped.  There's a way out, but it means casting off past assumptions. 

 

One interesting thing is the cynical male-female relations, where partners openly use each other to gain their objectives, a welcome relief from the obligatory phony romances Hollywood foists on us. To Petersen's agent Richard Chance, the mission is the thing, not happy ever after. Yeah, it's a dark side movie, with one of the feds being killed in a definitely non-heroic non-cliche shootout, but the surviving agent sheds his naivete about the world and takes charge--something more men need to do. Directed by William Friedkan, with heavy overtones of the Miami Vice era.

 

And upon yet another viewing, I'd add this: one thing that is fascinating about To Live and Die in L.A.  is Friedkan's depiction of the city of Los Angeles as an industrial labyrinth rising out of the desert. It's like Dune's desert metropolis of Arrakis with power lines, industrial vistas, trains chugging through the sands like giant sandworms, and the occasional oasis at which men gather to form warbands. It's a bizarre combination of the surreal and brutally real against which the conflict plays out.

 

The names of the characters are monikers--Masters, Chance, Hart, even Bateman (who abates anything original by his men). Vukovich sounds "real," perhaps because he has yet to earn his place in the brotherhood. Both Chance and Masters are playing a game off of each other. Both are supremely confidant, reflecting deeper motivations. Masters creates works of art, whether paintings or counterfeit currency, but then burns his creations when defiled by the world. Chance appears to be going for the adrenalin rush, symbolized by his bungee jumping at the start of the movie. Yet that's a front as he is always in control until, ironically enough, his apparent moment of triumph over Masters. The ensuing shootout is over with almost before it begins. That's realistic enough, but more importantly, it does not glamorize death in combat. This is all the more interesting given the archetypal aspects of the movie, but it does say to rise above all the clichés and live one's true life.

 

 

FALLING DOWN

Michael Douglas again, this time as an aerospace engineer who is pushed a little too far. Reactions to Falling Down  can be ambiguous. Some see Douglas' character (known as D-FENS from his license plate) as being the average guy exacting vigilante justice on the world. Others see him as just plain nuts. Still, the move is an attempt to show what happened to a lot of guys who believed in the system only to be abandoned by it when no longer needed. And that's a message which has all the more meaning today.

 

And I just happened to watch Falling Down  the other night and was struck by just how powerful a movie it really is. Douglas gives an epic performance of the everyday man who is pushed beyond the edge. Perhaps the movie's message is all the more powerful in the face of the recent economic meltdown, or whatever. The subplot, in which Robert Duvall's harried detective finds his own inner strength, is also worth watching.

 

But it's D-FENS's sage observation that he was once the good guy -- what happened?  -- that resounds the most.

 

 

HEAT

"Well, you know for me, the action is the juice. I'm in."

 

Heat  is a movie about men and their work. It pits Al Pacino's cop (Lt. Vincent Hanna) against Robert DeNiro's high-tech crook (Neil McCauley). As is to be expected from a Michael Mann movie, there is a very thin dividing line between the lawman and the criminal. DeNiro has a lot of money, but he fills his ocean front house with nothing material, apparently sleeping on the floor as if a medieval monk. His work is his passion. Pacino also has the big house, this filled with consumer toys as well as a lovely wife, but they do nothing but distract him. Clearly, material goods are an illusion. McCauley, no doubt, might be at home in Fight Club.

 

McCauley tells us early on in the movie:  "Do not have anything in your life that you are not prepared to walk away from in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."  We see this philosophy in practice when a job they are on has its cover blown and McCauley and his two compatriots (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore) walk out of the building they are burgling without a second thought. But then McCauley meets a woman. He promises to take her with him when he plans his final escape from the rat race. We think he is going to betray his code over her. After all, that is how every other movie would have done it, right? But he has no hesitation in putting her aside when it comes to settling a matter of honor. He walks away from her and towards his truth.

 

There's also a marvelous scene where Pacino and DeNiro meet in a coffee shop. The two men confront each other with words and not bullets, and we see the differences and similarities up front. Hanna's extrovert versus McCauley's introvert. But both are professionals in their chosen fields. Interestingly enough, both actors were in Godfather Part II but never in the same scene together, so this has even more resilience.

 

Heat  takes its time to tell its story, something like three hours long. There are many scenes in the first act of the film which pay off only later on. Minor characters are fleshed out. One is a parolee whom DeNiro recruits as a driver and who must make the choice between a legit life with his treacly sweet girlfriend or working with his fellow men; he has no hesitation in choosing the latter.

 

McCauley's crew works by concensus, agreeing to one last score. One man has a chance to opt out but does not do so, pointing out  that the "action" is his real reward, not the money (see the quote above). McCauley shows good leadership, settling matters between one of his men and his estranged wife. Despite the couple's bickering, in the end they support each other, she refusing to betray him to the police, a small but significant positive portrayal of married relationships on screen. 

 

One of the highpoints of Heat  is a gun battle in downtown Los Angeles as DeNiro, Sizemore and Kilmer shoot their way through a cordon of LAPD officers. It's one of the few times in the movies that I have seen anyone using real fire and movement tactics, and emphasizes the trio's teamwork. (Though I will note the casualties are way out of proportion to the firepower used, the usual Hollywood gimmick of making all hits equal kills.)

 

OK, the movie has to end with the obligatory shootout between McCauley and Hanna. Justice must be served. The criminal has to take the fall. But we feel that in some alternative universe, Neil McCauley is even now retired to a beach on Fiji, sipping a drink and contemplating the far horizons.

 

For more on Heat,  see: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC43folder/Heat.html

 

OK, that's how I ended my original review of Heat.  Seeing it again recently, I'll offer a different interpretation of the final act. McCauley has a choice: escape with his new girlfriend to the South Seas, or go back and take out the guy who betrayed his crew (Waingro, played by Kevin Gage). He dumps the girl and goes back, gun in hand. Why? What he does and what he is are so integrated that he can not walk away from his confrontation with Waingro, and really with Pacino. Even had he escaped to Fiji, how long would he have stayed there?

 

As for Pacino's cop--he too is defined by his quarry. This point is made explicit in the film. He too walks away, storming out on his unfaithful wife and even dumping his TV set (good for him!). But he's brought back in by saving his step-daughter from suicide. Since all this takes up  much of the final act when the movie ought to be coming to its conclusion, we have to assume that the film's makers believed this to be critical. Perhaps it's a good word for the traditional family. And for dumping the consumerism and materialism and getting back to basics, all that sort of thing. Oddly enough, DeNiro's McCauley has done so from the get-go. As mentioned, his beachfront house is devoid of the material excesses which fill Pacino's and perhaps have crowded out his real life. Pacino can be reinterpreted as becoming DeNiro's character at least insofar as the latter has a monastic existence. But the difference in the end is that DeNiro does not walk away from his family. There's an element here praising traditional values as opposed to lone wolf nihilism. Whether this is a good thing or bad is another story.

 

Of course, it's easy enough to read too much into a movie, and make it appear as if it is justifying certain philosophical points. Regardless, Heat  is a movie worth multiple views.

 

 

 

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Good morning Mr Phelps... Tom Cruise finds himself as the not quite so sole survivor of an Impossible Mission team who has to figure out who betrayed him and the organization. He sticks with it against all odds, putting together a new team and engaging in the usual battle of wits. Most critically, neither himself nor any of the male leads allow themselves to be seduced by the females. Indeed, the female body count is quite high in this movie.

 

I think one thing I like about this movie is that it shows Tom Cruise's Ethan Hawk (what a name!) thinking through the situation and using the power of his own mind to resolve it. There's one really good sequence showing him hacking his way to the internet address of "Job 314".  Throughout most of the film, Hawk out-thinks his foes, though the ending had to have the requisite Hollywood chase, this time of a helicopter in the Chunnel going after a high-speed train. Still, nowhere in the movie does Hawk use a gun, a rarity in an era of movie problem solving via heavy ordnance.

 

One scene in particular is stunning. Cruise, in a meeting with John Voight (playing Jim Phelps, though we are not quite so certain if this is the  Mr Phelps of the television series), comes to the realization as to who was behind the back-stabbing. This is shown via a series of flashbacks as well as Cruise's own subtle mastery of the scene. It's a moment of illumination. At one point Cruise asks, "Why?" (a question we'd all like to get answered one of these days) and the response, of loyalty betrayed by bureaucracy, hits close to the bone on more than one issue involving men.

 

 

PI

Pi is the mathematical symbol for the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Pi  is also a movie about a man with a mission. Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a mathematical genius on the trail of the transcendental number that is the key that can unlock the universe.

 

Pi  is shot in a stark black and white, as if the film is composed of binary "1"s and "0"s. Max finds himself navigating in a mathematical film noir between various temptations: wealth, love, mysticism. As with any hero, he has a mentor, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) who keeps him on the true path, but ultimately Max has to make the decision that will liberate himself. And it is in this liberation that the movie gets to the timeless story of the hero, the man who renounces all that is earthly to find enlightenment.

 

In many ways, Pi  gets at what The Matrix  was getting at in its opening act: a man looking for that something he knows exists beyond the illusions created by his society. Only instead of devolving into mindless action, Pi  goes the intellectual route. It's a tribute to man's ability to think and make choices.

 

Pi  has a great sound track. Combined with Max's narration, it becomes a record of the intensity of the quest.

 

 

FIGHT CLUB

Superficially, Fight Club is about two men (Ed Norton, Brad Pitt) who get fed up with the button-down white collar consumer lifestyle. So they move into a ramshackle mansion and organize underground “fight clubs” in which men have spiritual experiences by pummeling each other into the pavement.

 

Sounds painful, but there’s more to the movie than the blood and the bruises, and this review gives it little justice. What Fight Club really gets at is reclaiming one’s inner self by performing forbidden rituals in the middle of the night. It takes us to that other world we know to exist, somewhere, where we are free to live our true lives. But as the movie tells us, “fight club only exists in the hours between when fight club begins and fight club ends.” The dilemma is how to extend that into the "real" world.

 

Significantly, the fight clubs are all-male. No phony feminist pugilists show up to prove that anything a man can do she can do better while riding a bicycle without her fish. There’s only one significant female character, played by Helen Bonham Carter. In return for Pitt treating her like a doormat, she agrees to be his sex toy. Nope, Fight Club is not PC and more power to the movie for it!

 

At times, Fight Club mocks its own pretensions, with characters directly addressing the audience. There’s a good speech in there about how we are not our bank accounts nor our khakis (remember khakis?). It even mocks its own criticism of consumer culture. There is a scene in which Ed Norton sits in an expensive restaurant and talks to the audience in the same manner as a thousand commercials for credit card companies.

 

Fight Club has several plot twists which take the movie from back alley brawls through corporate offices to urban guerrilla warfare. Some people were off-put by the movie’s dark tone and generally unsympathetic characters. And the revelation involving the Brad Pitt character at the end may stretch suspensions of disbelief. But Fight Club has the guts to stick with its message even to the apocalyptic last scene.

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