The Perfect Storm
dir: Wolfgang Petersen
PG-13, 129 min.
Now playing at area theaters
Man versus nature is one of the more tragic of the classical themes; after all, nature’s ultimate mandatedeathis something no man has yet bested. But in the wave of disaster movies during the ’90s, man seemed to come out on top of nature somehow. Whether the natural threat was asteroids from space or volcanoes in L.A., very little tragedy could be allowed to intrude: These manifestations of pre-millennial tension had to be met with a testosterone-fueled swagger and a big phallic missile. Nature vanquished; mission accomplished.
Around the very same time, however, a couple of blockbuster books were sounding a much more cautionary note. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, nature was the acknowledged mistress of her realm, and those who ignored her wrath were doomed. Man against nature got a reworking in the classical mode, and human hubris as a contributing factor to nature’s victory emerged as a prominent theme in both tales.
Now that Junger’s book has been made into a summer entertainment by Wolfgang Petersen, the cinematic tide has turned away from triumph toward tragedy. Following the Greek mandate, the film’s characters and themes are somewhat stylized and iconic. But Peterson, who is an old-school director in an MTV world, invests The Perfect Storm with enough down-to-earth detail and matter-of-fact relationships to offset its predictable emotions. His main male characters, the crew of the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail, are working-man types rarely allowed to indulge in sentiment. George Clooney is captain Billy Tyne, an old salt whose luck has been running low of late. He gathers a crewBobby the rookie (Mark Wahlberg), Murph (John C. Reilly), Bugsy (John Hawkes), Sully (William Fichtner), and Alfred Pierre (Allan Payne)and sets out for richer fishing grounds far from shore, as the bad October weather starts to build. When three storm systems collide in a once-in-a-hundred-years coincidence, the Andrea Gail chooses to ride them out in a mad dash for home, rather than risk losing the catch and the big payday it portends.
In an impressive display of fidelity to the source material, Peterson and screenwriter William D. Wittliff intercut this main story line with several other threads. A sailboat gets caught on its way to Bermuda, resulting in a Coast Guard rescue of the family aboard. Back in Gloucester, Mass., the Andrea Gail’s home port, the wives and girlfriends of her crew watch the weather reports with increasing fear.
This last plot line is by far the weakest, suffering from stereotyped female characters whose only function is to pace their widow’s walks and hold each other’s hands. Peterson spends an hour of screen time at the beginning of the film trying to make these relationships work, but to no avail. He’s demonstrably more comfortable in the claustrophobic male world of the fishing vessel, setting up uncluttered, wordless demonstrations of long-line fishing that encapsulate pages of explanation in a few well-chosen images.
How suspenseful can The Perfect Storm be, given that a large portion of the audience has read the book and knows the ending? You’d be surprised. Peterson strives to match his massive special-effect waves and computer-generated boats with human-scale effort, and the audience finds itself rooting desperately for the crew as they fight for small victories in impossible conditions.
Since there were no survivors, Junger reconstructs the last voyage of the Andrea Gail from scant evidence and much speculative imagination, offering several possible scenarios. Peterson’s film, by contrast, is literal and linear. It’s possible that a more experimental approach, with alternate plot lines on display, would have heightened the story’s tragic aspects even more, with less overt hagiography. But the film’s failures are at its margins. Strong performances, especially by Reilly and Fichtner in perfectly pitched character roles, and an immersive, uncluttered style make The Perfect Stormif not perfectmore than adequate.
Don’t tread on Mel
The History Channel has a regular program called History or Hollywood?, wherein a couple of historians examine a movie and rate its historical accuracy. This past week, they took on The Patriot, the new Revolutionary War epic from the producing-directing team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (impresarios of Independence Day) and screenwriter Robert Rodat (who wrote the original script for Saving Private Ryan). The verdict? Not bad for a summer action movie, but about as true to life as the WWF. As a film critic with a passion for history, I’d have to agreeThe Patriot is full of pulse-pounding battle scenes and nigh-intolerable hokum.
Mel Gibson stars as Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the French-Indian War trying to lead the retiring life of a widower farmer in South Carolina. Heath Ledger is his oldest son, Gabriel, who enlists in the continental army and seeks to shame his father into fighting for principles that he knows they both support. Then a ruthless redcoat colonel (shamelessly overplayed by Jason Isaacs) storms Martin’s land and gives the reluctant warrior a firsthand lesson in the price of liberty. Rather than breaking his spirit, though, British terrorism spurs Martin to beat his plowshare into a sword.
As epic filmmaking, The Patriot stumbles, careening wildly between tragedy, light adventure, intense violence, and soggy romance, with stiff dialogue that sounds like it was cribbed from a Founder’s Day pageant. As a war movie, though, the picture’s not half bad. Emmerich keeps the action sequences taut, and Rodat’s script offers fascinating detail about the tactics and etiquette of war 200-plus years ago. Particularly lively is the relationship between Martin and the British Gen. Cornwallis, whose talent for war and passion for diplomacy impress our hero in a way that seems true to the real relationship between the colonials and their familiar oppressors.
But it doesn’t take long for Cornwallis to go from being a worthy adversary to being yet another cocky foreign villain for the Americans to outwit. The Patriot is rife with such oversimplifications about Colonial times, the worst offense being the film’s portrait of race relations. It’s not just the convenience of having Martin’s black servants be freed slaves, or the hoary premise that a racist white man would fight alongside an opportunistic black man, and both would acquire the brotherhood of comrades in arms. No, what’s troubling is the overall conception that the many and varied reasons for the revolution must be reduced to the attempt of uncomplicated men to protect their homes, their women, and their best friends (many of whom are black).
The edgeless storytelling and overwrought heroics are partly spurred by caution. After all, two of the best war pictures of the past decadeGettysburg, with its intricate details of battle strategy, and Ride With the Devil, with its soulful examination of why men fightwere both dead weight at the box office. On the other hand, Saving Private Ryan made a mint and didn’t skimp much on rounded characters, historical detail, or the occasional ugliness of soldiers at war.
Perhaps the real question that The History Channel should be asking is History or HollywoodDoes Anybody Really Care?. To answer that, one has to understand why people go to a movie like The Patriot in the first place. Is it to see Mel Gibson have a tacked-on, hackneyed romance? Is it to see our protagonists frolicking at a resort-like runaway slave village as though they were the Star Wars gang resting up on the forest moon of Endor (with African Americans taking the place of the Ewoks)?
Most likely, folks want to see good action sequences and to get a warm, patriotic feeling. The former is accomplished quite well, but the further the filmmakers stray from what actually happenedthe more they make the movie about the simple heroism of one fictionalized man, the way Gibson himself did in his overrated Braveheartthe less we can understand and appreciate the sacrifices made by our flawed but courageous forefathers. Why not get the facts straight and still give the summer movie crowd the thrills they expect? There’s no reason why The Patriot should be all about glory in theory, instead of the real glory of which we should all be proud.
A shrewd gamble
So many terrible movies catch on with wide audiences that it’s a pleasure when something good connects with viewers. That’s the case with Croupier, which has been running at the newly reopened Belcourt Theatre since the first week of June. The stylish, snappy British crime drama has just been held over at the Belcourt for an unprecedented sixth and final week, and it was added last weekend at Regal’s Opry Mills megaplex.
The movie’s popularity here is no fluke. Where most films lose viewers incrementally after opening weekend, Croupier’s box office has been increasing each week across the country by double-digit percentages. In its 10th week of national release, Croupier posted a 51-percent boost in attendance. Over the June 23 weekend, it grossed more than $312,000 on 92 screens, enough to lift it into the Top 20. By comparison, the movie at No. 19, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, grossed about $316,000but on more than five times as many screens. As of June 25, Croupier had amassed $1,527,703, a remarkable amount for a limited release.
According to Eamonn Bowles, president of Shooting Gallery Pictures, which distributes Croupier, the movie has built an audience the old-fashioned way: word of mouth, strong reviews, and a print-only marketing campaign. “The word-of-mouth phenomenon you’re witnessing in Nashville has been happening all over the country,” Bowles wrote in an e-mail last week. “The excitement people have for the film is driving this train.” And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. A June 29 article in IndieWire addressed Croupier’s unexpected success, invoking the name of another out-of-nowhere cult sensation: The Blair Witch Project.
What’s encouraging is the example Croupier sets for other limited-release arthouse films. The British noir thriller was initially packaged by Shooting Gallery in a touring series of six unreleased films. Of those, the only other one that played locally was Eric Mendelsohn’s offbeat black-and-white comedy Judy Berlin. But the series attracted attention as a shrewd way of building audiences for good but hard-to-market movies. Croupier’s breakout success offers hope that quality films can reach a widening audience without name stars or expensive TV advertising.
Why Croupier, and why now? Part of the movie’s appeal is the smashing lead performance by Clive Owen, who displays an edgy, cosmopolitan cool as a would-be novelist over his head in a casino scam. He’s the kind of calculating antihero that audiences side with almost against their will. And the movie is basically tough, sexy arthouse pulp, elevated by Mike Hodges’ taut direction and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg’s pungent inside detail and dialogue. (The hero’s credo, “Hang on tightly, let go lightly,” shows signs of becoming a catchphrase.)
But Croupier’s release strategy gave it the luxury of building an audience over more than a week’s run. The movie has stayed in theaters well into the summer months; it now serves as a prime example of what is called “counterprogramming”: a literate, unabashedly adult character study in a season glutted with flabby action pics and gross-out comedies. Against the odds, releasing it this way is paying off. Let’s hope others take similar gambles.
A man of style
When Walter Matthau died last weekend of a heart attack at age 79, tributes generally referenced his “hangdog looks and grouchy, slouchy demeanor,” as Reuters put it. The headline in the New York Times went so far as to describe him as “rumpled.” That certainly holds true for Oscar Madison, the slob sportswriter Matthau incarnated for the ages in 1968’s The Odd Couple. But this “rumpled” actor had natty timing, sharp comic skill, and a range that belied those descriptions. In films such as 1957’s A Face in the Crowd and 1960’s Strangers When We Meet, Matthau’s urbane, worldly presence was light years away from slovenly Oscar. In one of his funniest roles, as a murderous playboy in Elaine May’s A New Leaf, he adopted an upper-crust disdain that made his clipped syllables drop like paperweights.
To see what kind of range Matthau possessed, rent some of his lesser-known films. Try the crackling 1974 caper film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, in which Matthau’s harried investigator gets to deliver a whopper of a closing line. Try Don Siegel’s tough 1973 crime drama Charley Varrick, in which Matthau’s pilot-turned-robber plays a lethal cat-and-mouse game with sadistic mob enforcer Joe Don Baker. Try one of his later films, 1995’s The Grass Harp, a well-acted version of the Truman Capote novel, in which Matthau shines as an aging judge. He’s great as a sinister smoothie in Stanley Donen’s witty thriller Charade, and Donna Bowman is a big fan of his 1980 comic suspenser Hopscotch. His 45-year filmography is studded with other gems. He may have been eulogized as “rumpled,” but Walter Matthau had impeccable style.
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