Sunday, June 20, 2010

Running the Gamut from B- to B+

Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986): Charisma. Some actors have it, some don't. Will Smith is often cited as one of those who has "it," but I find that he doesn't have a hundredth of the personality and screen presence that someone like Gene Hackman regularly has. In a film like Hoosiers, the classic tale of a small town high school basketball team making it all the way to the state finals, no acting in the general sense of the word is really required. The passionate, inspirational coach archetype relies mostly on an actor with a strong personality, and Hackman has that in spades. Feisty and headstrong, he makes Hoosiers a pleasure to watch, fighting against the townspeople who don't think he's an adequate coach in the same way his team fights all the way to the finals. Everything about Hoosiers is simple, which works to the film's advantage as it doesn't have to worry about over-the-top dramatics and wayward plots distracting from the central David and Goliath story. Director David Anspaugh works wonders at creating tension and excitement in the basketball games, even when we already knew the outcome. My only major complaint with the film is how it doesn't incorporate the team and their individual personalities into the narrative. This is especially problematic when it comes to the character of Jimmy, the star athlete who eventually saves Hackman's position at the school by deciding to rejoin the team if they will keep him as the coach. When he does rejoin the team, the team starts winning and rallying toward their eventual championship. By presenting him as the team's saving grace, however, Hoosiers seems to undermine its main point that Hackman is the one who brings this team together. We never really understand Jimmy's motivation nor what he brings to the team that Hackman couldn't. Jimmy's selfishness in the final moments, wanting to make the winning shot after Hackman suggests that they pass the ball to someone else to fake out the other team, goes against everything Hackman has taught them during the course of the film. By going along with it, Hackman and Hoosiers make a fundamental mistake that they were both too wise to make in the first place. B-

Un Prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2010): By the end of Un Prophète, I was convinced that we had already found the most overrated film of the year. Not that there was anything bad about Un Prophète specifically, rather, I couldn't figure out why this simple prison drama with traces of a top-notch Scorsesian gangster film was so universally acclaimed. The film isn't a social commentary on the inhumanity of prisons or the sociological reasons why people become prisoners. Actually, on the surface, Un Prophète's closest descendant is the 1950 prison drama Caged in which Eleanor Parker comes into prison a good girl and methodically works her way out a morally dubious woman. With this odd list of influences, none of which the film does better than average with, I was ready to write Un Prophète off. Then, Jose patiently explained to me the films many influences (Albert Camus, for one) and symbolism (a lot of Muslim imagery and idolatry)--many of which are outlined in his stellar review here--and all the adoration and praise started to make sense. But this is precisely where Un Prophète's problem lies: what good is all of the symbolism and referencing if you can't make heads or tails of them while watching? I respect Audiard's balls in making a film which doesn't even attempt to catch you up and explain what his images mean, but I shouldn't be expected to be a scholar in Camus or the Qur'an to get the deeper meaning. Although I now understand and respect why all of Un Prophète's admirers are so passionate about the film, I simply can't stand back and admit that this one wowed me. B

The Vanishing American (George B. Seitz, 1925): If you think African Americans and gays have it rough in Hollywood, try looking at the history of Native Americans in the movies. Back during the Golden Age, they were nothing more than wild savages ready to get shot down by the hero in a Western. Once the era of political correctness came in, aside from Sacheen Littlefeather, Native Americans were pretty much non-existent except for the occasional indie film. Knowing this history, it is surprising that The Vanishing American, a film that not only shows the hardships of the "modern" Native American but has the balls to blame white Europeans for these hardships, was made and well-received in 1925. The film begins with a bit of visual history about where the Native Americans came from and how they came to be in the situation they are today. It's a bold move, but the time spent here shows the audience how these first people in America were here for generations upon generations before any white people showed up to steal their land. We then move to the modern day story, which takes place on an Indian reservation out West. Nophaie (Richard Dix), one of the most respected Native Americans on the reservation, begins a will-they-or-won't-they relationship with a white schoolteacher, but this is hardly the strength of the film. The Vanishing American's assets lie in the fact it presents such a progressive view of history and contemporary issues to the point that even in 2010 it's hard to find any faults in logic or ideology. Everything feels as fresh as if it were made today and that's not easy to say from a period of film history which also brought us The Birth of a Nation. B+


Jose said...

You're welcome.
Also Tahar Rahim=Eleanor Parker is a thing of genius. The image it conjured was priceless.

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