It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under value them.-Henry James
Disgusting three-ring circus…Johnny’s up for re-election in November. You’ve got it all figured it out, haven’t you? Johnny Iselin’s Boy, Medal of Honor winner. That should get you one of the fifty thousand votes.
Allow me to introduce our American visitors. I must ask you to forgive their somewhat lackadaisical manners, but I have conditioned them – or brain-washed them, which I understand is the new American word. They believe that they are waiting out a storm in the lobby of a small hotel in New Jersey where a meeting of the ladies’ garden club is in progress.
Do you realize, Comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?…A normally-conditioned American, who has been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt. Nobody, of course, has any reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely American symptoms, guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away. Ah, now Raymond will remain an outwardly-normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community. And I should say, if properly used, entirely police-proof.
John Frankenheimer, remains one of those directors, who often remains an enigma. At one time, touted as the next Orson Welles, the later part of his career, stumbled from disaster to disaster, before he redeemed himself somewhat with the 90’s thriller Ronin. Yet this man made some of the best ever Cold War thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate, about an American citizen, brainwashed by Chinese to assasinate the President, and 7 Days in May, about an extreme right wing plot to overthrow the US President. In fact some of his best output came during the Cold War era, with a series of gritty, tightly scripted thrillers. He also proved he was equally adept at the War genre, with his WWII drama, the Train, and the gritty crime drama, French Connection II. Beyond thrillers and crime, he proved he was equally good at human drama, with his tale of redemption, Birdman of Alcatraz. Technically he was a genius, check out the tracking shots and amazing camera work in the Train, or the breathless car chase scenes in Ronin.
In tribute to a director, who has really not got his due, will be hosting a blogathon from February 19- March 1. You could contribute with either reviews of his movies, or other aspects too like his collaboration with Burt Lancaster or any other aspects of his movies. And yes please do promote with one of the promo pics below.
We have also hosted blogathons earlier on Mike Nichols, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Michael Mann, Sydney Pollack, Howard Hawks, Roman Polanski and Steven Soderbergh, which you can check out.
It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams… that is being naked.- Rob Bell.
Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes are discussed in the post, readers please note.
In 1790, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a two act opera in Italian called Cossi Fan Tute( Thus do they All), which was performed at Vienna. The plot of Mozart’s opera, centres around two couples where the guys accept a bet to prove that their respective fiancées are eternally faithful. In order to carry out, the guys will pretend to be in disguise and try seducing each other’s lover. And that sets off a series of betrayals, indiscretions, that throw the lives of the 4 characters into complete chaos and a free fall. There have been latter attempts too at exploring the intricacies in relationships between two couples, Noel Coward’s Private Lives, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Pierre De Laclos Les Liaisons dangereuses( Dangerous Liasions). The basic thread is the same, of two couples, where the partners are trying to cheat on each other, with or without their knowledge and the consequences that follow. Mike Nichols 2004 movie Closer, was based on Patrick Marber’s play of the same name, and while it had the same theme, of 2 couples and their partners cheating on each other, the treatment was much more contemporary and much more raw. The language is more profane, and the story in a way mocks the Internet relationships, which is pretty much a 21st century phenomenon. Mike Nichols had earlier explored the theme of 2 couples on a cross collision course, in his 1966 debut movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where a young couple gets drawn into the stormy married life of a middle aged couple, and finds that their own marital life is under threat now. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was itself considered too bold, and shocking for it’s times, with the profane dialogue and the sexual implications present at every stage in the story. Closer is about two couples here- an aspiring novelist Dan Woolf( Jude Law) and a young American stripper Alice Ayres( Natalie Portman), a photographer Anna Cameron( Julia Roberts) and a dermatologist Larry Gray( Clive Owen).
In an opening scene, that mocks at most of the staple romantic comedy clichés, Dan meets with Alice, on a busy London street, when the latter has an accident. Both the actors walking in slow motion, and Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter playing in the background. It seems a scene straight out of any standard rom com, with Jude Law, looking wistfully at Natalie Portman, in a red wig, looking utterly waifish. And soon, Portman,looking all dreamy eyed, hit by a bus, falls on the road, Law rushes in to help her up.Portman looks back with a mix of innocence and coquetteishness , and in that sweet tone of hers calls out “Hello Stranger”. One of the best opening scenes ever. The following scene in the hospital, sets up the two characters well, Dan is an aspiring writer, but now consigned to writing obituaries in news papers, what he calls the “Siberia of Journalism”. And Alice tells that she is a stripper, but proves to be quite an alluring character, sweet and innocent, but curious, with a hint of mischief, under that sweet face. The opening scenes, hint at a picture of a perfect romance between Dan and Alice, as they walk around London, taking in the sights, cuddle together on bed and kiss. It just seems all so perfect, but it’s sure, there is some trouble lurking around the corner. And it arrives in the form of Anna, an American photographer, who comes to take a picture of Dan, who now is planning to launch his book, based on Alice’s life. By now Dan is in a full fledged relationship with Alice, but still does not prevent him from flirting with Anna, and they have a passionate kiss together, another well shot scene. Dan seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, he is attracted towards Anna, but at the same time, does not want to let go of Alice, whom he claims is completely lovable and unleavable.
Extraordinary thing, the internet. Possibility of genuine global communication, the first great democratic medium. -Anna
The Internet, if there was one term to define the 21st century, it would be the “Age of the Net”. Yes the first great democratic medium, that bought knowledge to the common people, and turned relationships upside down. On the Internet, you could be yourself, and you could still not be yourself. The Net was a medium, where you could be what you wanted to be, instead of what you are. You could get into an anonymous chat room, and be a stud, carrying on with 5-6 females at a time, never mind if in real life, you were nowhere close to it. Or like Dan, transform yourself into the opposite gender, and indulge in hot cybersex with the others. Which is what he does with Larry, a dermatologist, whose instincts and approach towards the opposite sex are pretty much caveman level. Larry actually believes that Dan, whom he meets in an anonymous cybersex chat room is actually a female, and when the latter asks him to meet in real, he accepts it. Nor is there any finesse in his approach with Anna, who also comes to the same place,it’s crude, he does not even bother to check with her, if she is the same person with whom he had cybersexed.
It’s a lie. It’s a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully, and all the glittering assholes who appreciate art say it’s beautiful ’cause that’s what they want to see. But the people in the photos are sad, and alone, but the pictures make the world seem beautiful. So the exhibition’s reassuring, which makes it a lie, and everyone loves a big fat lie.- Alice
One of Closer’s best scenes, is when the 2 couples are together, at a photo exhibition organized by Anna, on Alice. We have Alice talking to Larry, Anna taking with Dan, and the camera keeps switching back and forth, capturing the interactions between the two characters. Dan once again is pursuing Anna, he can’t get it how she has fallen for a dermatologist, as he says “can you get more boring than that”. Larry on the other hand, is quite content in his relationship with Anna, he takes pride in the fact that she is even amused by his nasty habits. Or maybe the fact that it’s the flush of the first 4 months when everything seems hunky dory. He is deeply in love with Anna, as he puts it “You are a woman”, while Alice is just a girl. It is this that makes Alice remind him “You seem more like the cat that got the cream. Stop licking yourself.”.
Oh, as if you had no choice? There’s a moment, there’s always a moment, “I can do this, I can give in to this, or I can resist it.” And I don’t know when your moment was, but I bet you there was one. I’m gone.- Alice.
Closer is Mike Nichols most dark movie, next to Who is Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? I would say. It is brutally honest, cold and cynical, sparing no punches in it’s take on modern day relationships. In a sense it is the anti date movie, that mocks at all those romantic cliches of eternal love you have been fed with. Dan is in a relationship with Alice, yet he has no qualms cheating on her, with Anna, who herself is married to Larry. Yet he can’t seem to give up on Alice, he really does not have a convincing explanation about what made him fall for Anna, when he does not seem to have any issues with her. He wants Anna, at the same he is jealous if Alice finds some one else. He loves Alice, does not want to hurt her, but at the same time he himself claims he is selfish, he feels he would be happier with Anna. At that very moment, the word “love” seems to be shallow, it just seems a matter of convenience to be used as and when needed. All that talk of eternal love, being there for another just goes straight out of the window, as we see Dan seeing love in an opportunist sense.
Don’t say it. Don’t you fucking say “You’re too good for me.” I am, but don’t say it. You’re making the mistake of your life. You’re leaving me because you believe that you don’t deserve happiness, but you do, Anna.- Larry
For a movie that explores the issue of partners cheating on their significant others, Closer does not really have any explicit scenes of nudity or sex. The sexual tension here though is more from the dialogue and the characters motivations. Take the scene, where Larry confronts Anna, over her cheating on him with Dan. It is completely dialogue oriented, yet you feel the rawness, the sexual tension, just from the words and the actions. As Larry demands Anna, to let her know what happened between her and Dan, you feel that sense of unease, the tension somewhere in the air. Larry is the other end of what Dan is, more brusque, more rough and yes quite possesive of Anna too. The very thought of Anna sleeping around with Dan, gets Larry all heated up, yet he still wants to know the graphic details of the sex they had. As he puts it to Anna “I am a fucking caveman”.
Closer is not a movie you would go out on a date with, it’s too honest a look at what we call love and relationships. It is like watching your own relationship in a mirror, with all that facade of true love, stripped away. What you get to see from Mike Nichols is a brutally honest, no holds barred portrait, and that is not a pretty picture to look at. There were many who hated Closer, as they felt it was just too cold and cynical. But that was what the movie was intended to be, to shock and awe,albeit in a more subtle manner. You see both the relationships, hurtling down a path of no return, and that makes you examine your own. When you say “I love you”, do you really mean it, or is it just an opportunist turn of phrase you are using to satisfy your lust. You hate Closer, because you know like Dan or Anna, you have used love for your own opportunistic ends. You hate Closer, because you know like Larry under all that educated, refined exterior, you are still a caveman. You hate Closer, because you find that some one like Anna, for all her waif like exterior, is actually the most sensible and level headed of the lot. Closer puts the mirror straight in your face, makes you have a re look at your own relationships, insecurities, and how shallow the concept of love is.
The movie is also helped by some splendid performances. Jude Law is first rate as usual, as Dan, who uses love for his own selfish ends. Not too big a fan of Julia Roberts, but she was pretty good as the cold and calculating Anna. Clive Owen, exudes the natural caveman like appeal and raw passion of Larry quite well, especially in the scene where he confronts Ms.Roberts. And Natalie Portman, packs in the right mix of innocence, coquettishness, impishness, with a lingering sexuality, in the right measure as Alice.
Charles Nesbitt “Charlie” Wilson (June 1, 1933 – February 10, 2010) was a United States naval officer and former 12-term Democratic United States Representative from Texas’s 2nd congressional district. Wilson is best known for leading Congress into supporting Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operation which, under the Carter and Reagan administration, supplied military equipment including anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles and paramilitary officers from their Special Activities Division to the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. – From Wikipedia.
(Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes are discussed in this post, readers please note).
In the 80’s, George Crile III, the CBS journalist, began to uncover details of Operation Cyclone, while researching and reporting on the war in Afghanistan. The astounding details on Operation Cyclone, began to come out and in 2003,Crile published his findings in a book, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. This book would be the basis for the 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks as the titular Charlie Wilson.
The movie starts off showing Senator Charlie Wilson( Tom Hanks), frolicking around in the bath tub, with a bunch of other females, one of them an aspiring starlet Crystal Lee( Judy Taylor), her agent, where the talk is about her role for a TV show. In the opening scene itself it is clear that Charlie is hardly interested in legislating or governance. Coming from Lufkin, Texas, a town where people, just wanted to have their guns, and be left alone, Charlie has plenty of time on his hands to frolic around, with nubile young females, partying, sniffing coke. He has staffed his office with pretty young women, and his reason “You can teach them to type,but you can’t teach them to grow tits”. That is what Charlie was an easy going Senator, enjoying the good life, the women, the parties. I believe that the real Charlie Wilson was even more wilder, when it came to drugs and sex. It was quite interesting watching Hollywood’s Mr.Nice Guy Tom Hanks, play the role of a sleazepot, and he does it quite well. One interesting part, is when Charlie is frolicking with Crystal and a couple of other strippers in the bath tub, at a hotel in Las Vegas, the camera keeps cutting to a TV show, where Dan Rather, is speaking about the crisis in Afghanistan, and how if the US does not act, it could end up being another communist state. In a way a rather nice setup to Charlie’s character later on in the movie.
Charlie for the most part is having a good time, enjoying with the female staff in his office, who seem to love him for all his sexist attitudes( or maybe it is the bad boy persona). I did hear that Charlie Wilson’s female staff were fanatically devoted to him in real, often nicknamed Charlie’s Angels. And yes, listening to one of his constituent’s appeal for setting up a Nativity crche, at a fire station in Texas, his life is pretty easy. Until he runs into Joanna Herring( Julia Roberts, doing the icy blonde act), a rich born again Christian Texan socialite, and is the Honorary Consul to Pakistan. Herring sleeps around with Charlie when needed, disdainfully calls his female employees as sluts, and she is the one who impresses him on the need to supply asssistance to Afghanistan.
I’ve been with the company for 24 years. I was posted in Greece for 15. Papandreou wins that election if I don’t help the junta take him prisoner. I’ve advised and armed the Hellenic army.I’ve neutralized champions of Communism.I’ve spent the past three years learning Finnish! Which should come in handy here in Virginia! And I’m never, ever, sick at sea.So I want to know why I’m not gonna be your Helsinki station chief- Gust Avrakotos
And this is where the most vital character in the movie comes into the picture, Gust Avrakotos( Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his best performances ever). Gust is a maverick CIA agent, passionately dedicated to his job, some one who lives and breathes it 24/7. He has no patience for the file pushers, is outspoken to a fault and cares for no one. Aaron Sorkin’s strength is in the way he introduces his characters, sets up their motivations, and the interpersonal exchanges between them. Recall Jack Nicholson’s introduction scene in A Few Good Men, where he makes it clear to Tom Cruise who the boss is. And that is the main strength of Charlie Wilson’s War, the character set up, and the exchanges between Charlie and Gust. This is one of the best introduction scenes ever, where Gust has a showdown with his superior, goes around and smashes the glass window, in one of the movie’s best scenes ever. Gust in a way sums up the typical, on the ground CIA agent, who has been hands on, and has no patience for the sanctimonious file pushers.
So give an interesting premise, characters and set up, does Charlie Wilson’s War live up to the expectations? Yes and No.
Mike Nichol’s strength is the way he develops his characters, and the interpersonal relationships between them. He is not much of a visual stylist like David Fincher, Ridley Scott or Mann, his forte is characters in a suburbia or an urban world, and their interactions. Nichols works best on that level, be it Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Graduate or Postcards From the Edge. And that is the major strength of Charlie Wilson’s War, the interactions between Charlie and Joanna, Charlie and Gust, as they begin their mission to arm the radicals or what they call the “ultra-right” in Afghanistan, who are fighting a losing war with the Soviets. The scenes where Joanna convince, Charlie of the need for US intervention in Afghanistan are well played out. She for sure is an interesting character, rich Texan socialite, ex TV show hostess, ex beauty queen, who is now the Honorary Consul to Pakistan. In her own words other than boycotting the Olympics, which was a fairly impotent response, the US Govt was hardly doing anything to prevent Afghanistan from going under the Soviet Radar.
If this were a real war,State would issue a white paperoutlining the Communist threatthe way they did in El Salvador.
If this were a real war,there’d be a National Bipartisan Commission on Afghanistan, headed by Henry Kissinger
the way they did in Central America.
If this were a real war, Congress would authorize $24 million for covert operations the way you did in Nicaragua.
The feeling is that the US was not really considering Afghanistan a threat, the way it did with some other countries during the Cold War. And that is where Joanne impresses upon Charlie the need for arming the rebels, saving Afghanistan, defeating the Russians and even ending the Cold War perhaps. Interestingly that did turn out to be prophetic, the Soviet defeat there, was one of the factors in hastening the end of the empire. Only that reality hits Charlie in the face, when he visits Gen Zia in Pakistan( Om Puri in a neat little cameo), who complains about the inadequate funds, the equipment and the fact that he does not really trust them. As he says “You sell us planes, but not the radar,You offer Afghans rifles from WWI against Soviet helicopters”. In a rather moving scene, Charlie visits the refugee camps, and the plight of the people there moves him. Again this scene is shot quite poignantly, showcasing Charlie’s transformation, who is now fully convinced that the US needs to act fast in Afghanistan to prevent it from slipping permanently into Soviet hands.
Charlie-Were you listening at the door?
Gust- I wasn’t listening at the door.
Charlie- Were you standing – at the goddamn door listening to me?
Gust – No.
Charlie-How could you even… That’s a thick door!
You stood there and you listened to me?
Gust-I wasn’t standing at the door.
Don’t be an idiot.
Gust – I bugged the Scotch bottle.
Yeah, it’s got a little transmitter on it.
Another great scene is the first meeting between Charlie and Gust, when the former calls him to his office. Gust has an enclyopediac knowledge about the officials around, and as they discuss, Charlie asks him to leave the room for a moment, when his faithful aide Bonnie( Amy Adams, pretty much under utilized) drops in. Charlie comes to know that Paul Brown, the guy whom he had been hanging out in the bathtub in the first scene, is now wanted for a fraud. And he also comes to know that he is under investigation for alleged cocaine use, and hobnobbing with Paul Brown and the starlet Crystal. The best part is when Gust comes back into the room, and then reveals his indiscretions. Charlie is shocked, and wonders if Gust was eavesdropping. And then Gust cooly reveals to Charlie, that his Scotch bottle is actually bugged, this was satire at it’s best. Tom Hanks and Paul Seymour Hoffman are both at their best in this scene.
The Soviets didn’t come into Afghanistan on a Eurail Pass. They came in T-55 tanks.The fighters need RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers, Katyusha 107mm rockets, wire mines, plastic mines, bicycle bombs, sniper rifles, ammunition for all the above and frequency-hopping radios and burst transmitters so these guys aren’t so fucking easy to find-Mike
Another interesting scene, is where Gust takes Charlie to a place where a bunch of youngsters are playing chess. He calls one of the nerdy looking kids there. And then to Charlie’s utter disbelief , it is revealed that he is actually the Weapon’s expert for CIA. Charlie feels is he being taken for a ride, here, I mean how could this nerdy looking chess player know anything about strategic ops and wars. And then the nerdy kid, Mike, explains the need for RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launchers. And here again, the need to make sure that these weapons come from Israel and Egypt, an American made weapon would have escalated into a full scale war.
Charlie Wilson’s War works best in the entire lead to the mission, the planning, the strategies used, the discussions on the weapons. The way CIA makes use of seemingly normal people like Mike for undercover operations, is well shown, as are the ego clashes between various officials. Also to Nichols and Sorkin’s credit, they don’t turn Charlie’s transformation from a rake, to a man who headed one of the largest covert ops in history, into something too sentimental. Yeah the scene at the refugee camp, is a bit Hollywoodish, but the transformation of Charlie’s character is shown gradually, from the first scene where he watches the TV news about Afghanistan, to his subsequent encounters with Joanna and Gust.
So what did not really work for me in this movie?
Operation Cyclone, was not just the largest covert ops in history, it also had an impact, right after the cold war. The arms that were supplied by CIA to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, would be used by them later on the US itself, in a series of terror attacks during the 90’s which finally culminated in 9/11. The movie does quite well, in looking at how the operation was planned out, the strategies, and the scene where Gust and Charlie meet an Israeli arms dealer, is another great one. Especially the part where they suggest a co-ordinated effort between Israel and Pakistan, Egypt, their sworn enemies, which makes it clear that the Cold War was more a struggle for power, than anything else. And this now is the problem with the movie, after setting up the premise so well, looking at the way the operation was planned, carried out, it falls flat in exploring the aftermath and impact. Operation Cyclone, was problematic, in order to overthrow one enemy, the Soviets, it ended up creating a far worse enemy, much more vicious. And the movie just glosses over the whole aspect. The brilliant tongue in cheek satire, on US policies during the Cold War, and their “fight against communism”, loses out to a series of stock montages, showing the Afghans downing some Russian helicopters. Mike Nichols works well when he is dealing with interpersonal relationships or character studies, however politics is not exactly his forte. The movie just glosses over the impact of Operation Cyclone, we just have a rather lame denoument by Charlie in the end, wondering if they had done a bigger mistake by handing Afghanistan over to the Mujahideen. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s searingly honest Munich, that explores the impact of Operation Wrath of God, on the pysche of the men handling the mission, this movie lacks the kind of introspection, that would have made it a classic. At the end of the day, it just becomes another Hollywood style, Americans get together, have fun saving the world from the bad guys, albeit written more smartly, and having a more intelligent screenplay. And that to me is where the movie falls short of being a genuine classic.
We start the Mike Nichols Blogathon, with a post on his horror classic Wolf, written by Peter Roberts. As Peter puts it Wolf was a radical departure for a director, usually known for his human dramas like Graduate or comedies like Working Girl. It was dark, creepy and scary, also ended up polarizing audiences and critics alike. Peter is Editor in Chief of Deuce:Grindhouse Cinema, and a rabid movie geek, who loves every kind of movie. In his own words on Wolf here.
For me WOLF is an exceptional entry in the subgenre that doesn’t fall into the usual trappings that many of these kinds of movies do. It is certainly a werewolf film, but it’s played out with a combination of realism, sly humor and romance. I think what Mike Nichols did was create a solid character driven story first then add the werewolf elements to that which really worked for me. Using the backdrop of the book publishing business and the inner battles for seniority between Will and Stewart was very refreshing. I really enjoyed all the power play aspects mixed in with the supernatural elements. Of course any movie with Jack Nicholson in the lead is always worth watching and in this movie he delivered another entertaining performance infusing his trademark sense of humor and wit into the proceedings giving it a more grounded feel.
Mike Nichols, a director with whom I share my birthday- Nov 6. Apart from the personal connect, he remains one of my favorite directors, and a blogathon was due on him from quite some time. I was sort of sad, when I heard the news of his passing away on Nov 19, his last movie Charlie Wilson’s War, was a brilliant satire on the Cold War, US involvement in Afghanistan, add to it fabulous performances by Tom Hanks( in a role much different from his Mr.Nice Guy image) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In his long career, Nichols has directed movies ranging from the great( Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginian Woolf, Silkwood) to just about good( Postcards from the Edge) to utter meh( Day of the Dolphin). Though Nichols often tried crowd pleasing stuff like Day of the Dolphin or horror like Wolf,, his forte was the personal movie. Of people and their relationships, he was at his best exploring human relationships in all their complexity.
In tribute to one of my favorite directors, I am doing this blogathon on my site here. I had earlier done blogathons on Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Roman Polanski, Howard Hawks, Michael Mann,Steven Soderbergh that turned out quite well. So here is looking forward to contributions for the blogathon, in the form of movie reviews, articles, interviews, anything related to Nichols. Also please request to use the given pictures on your blog for promoting it.
Any one interestd in contributing can please mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Soderbergh Blogathon finally ends with this lovely piece by Critica Restro, on Behind the Candlebra. Critica Restro, is owned by Leticia, a 20 yr old Brazilian with a love for classic cinema, and a cinephile. She blogs in Portuguese, and we have got a link to a translated version. Behind the Candlebra, is a sort of throwback to the earlier classic era of movies by Soderbergh, and takes a look at the relationship between the flamboyant pianist showman Liberace( Michael Douglas) and the poor boy Scott Thorson( Matt Damon). In her own words
Wait a moment: the blog is not about classic cinema? What a telefilm of 2013 doing here? “Behind the Candelabra” can be a modern production, but it has a whole retro feel, and even cites many movies and celebrities from classic movies, it is an important period in the life of the first and only pianist showman: the flamboyant Liberace.It’s 1977 and Liberace (Michael Douglas), has a consolidated creator of spectacles for the eyes and ears, is aged 58. He the young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), relatively poor boy who dreams of becoming a veterinarian is presented. Then begins a relationship that will forever change both of their lives. Scott, who was just 18 when she met Liberace and was raised in foster homes, is introduced to a world of luxury, wealth, jewelry and vanity.
(Spoiler alert: Some key scenes of the movie are discussed in this review, readers please note).
The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.-Global Comission on Drug Policy.
Towards the end of Traffic, when the newly appointed Drug Czar or what is effectively Chief of the National Drug Control Policy, Robert Wakefield( Michael Douglas), is about to give his speech on the 10 point methodology used to combat the illegal drug trade, he stops at a moment. He is unable to continue further, and then mutters “I can’t continue further. If there is a War on Drugs, then our own family becomes the enemy. How can you wage war on your own family”. He walks out, unable to speak further, that one moment, sums up the entire War on Drugs, that has been taking place since more than a decade, a war that has no winners or losers, just devastated families and individuals. Robert should be knowing better, his own daughter Caroline( Erika Christensen) had become a junkie, and he along with his wife Barbara( Amy Irving), had to go through a mental hell, getting her back. Robert had been appointed as Drug Czar, owing to his tough stance on drugs, but the irony was that he would have had to battle the enemy right in his home, his own daughter. Soderbergh’s Traffic, looks at the world of illegal drug trafficking, through various angles. At the top you have people like Robert, with his missionary zeal against drugs, and you have the fabulously wealthy drug lords like Carlos Ayala( Steven Bauer). At a lower end you have the foot soldiers men like Javier Rodriguez(Benicio Del Toro) and Montel Gordon( Don Cheadle), the cops who are actually out there on the ground, tracking the drug mafia, putting their lives on the line, sometimes in vain. Basically Javier and Gordon, have the most thankless job of all, quite often doing the hard work, spending most of their life, in run down cars, equally run down apartments, walking through dead beat neighborhoods. Caught in this war, are people like Caroline, her boyfriend Seth Abrahams( Topher Grace), and Ayala’s socialite wife Helena( Catherine Zeta Jones) who married him for the money, unaware what he actually does.
What’s Washington like? Well its like Calcutta, surrounded by beggars. The only difference is the beggars in Washington wear 1500 dollar suits and they don’t say please re is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.
Traffic is Soderbergh’s most ambitious movie to date, where he explores the illegal drug trade, through 3 different storylines, different backgrounds, different people, but all having their own part to play. From a posh Cincinati suburb to the centers of power in Washington D.C. to the deserts of Mexico, from posh San Diego neighborhoods to the run down back alleys of Tijuana, Mexico, Soderbergh keeps the action flowing back and forth. That he was a visual stylist is always known, but here, Soderbergh goes one step ahead, using different color schemes for each storyline. So when the story shifts to Robert and the posh Cincinati suburb, Soderbergh goes for a cold, blue color monochrome, in a way emphasizing the bleakness of the suburbia too. The bluish, monochromatic tone, fits in well with the Washington DC offices too, where Robert plans his strategies. Javier’s Mexican story is depicted in a dusty , strobe like feel, more brighter, keeping in mind the Mexican atmosphere. For the Ayala- Gordon story, Soderbergh keeps flashing the camera to and forth, with rapid inter cutting, a much more sunny look and feel, keeping in mind, the Californian atmosphere. In fact I would actually say, the cinematography of Traffic by itself, deserves a separate article, Soderbergh’s visual stylization is at it’s best here. He just experiments with everything, dull monochromes, dusty browns, hand held camera shots for a more documentary feel, flashy shots.
We in the legal drug business, and I mean Merck, Pfizer, the rest of my very powerful clients, realize this isn’t a war with a traditional winner and loser, but an organism at war with itself, whose weapons of mass destruction happen to be intoxicants.
Traffic is more than just a visual and technical feast however, it is not just the way Soderbergh seamlessly intercuts from one storyline to another, it is also the way the characters are fleshed out in the movie. Some superb writing by Stephen Gaghan, who incidentally would go on to direct another multiple storyline epic, Syriana, keeps the drama riveting, as you go along with the characters. When you are making a movie with such a vast scope, there is every chance of cramming in too many characters, who ultimately do not add to the overall experience. It is full credit due to Gaghan, that it is not just the main characters, even the supporting acts are well fleshed out. Javier’s partner Manolo Sanchez(Jacob Vargas) or Gordon’s partner Ray Castro(Luis Guzman) are as vital to the storyline, as is Dennis Quaid as the slimy lawyer Arnie Metzger, who seeks to take advantage of Helena’s distress, or Eduardo Ruiz( Miguel Ferrer), the drug dealer, who agrees to testify against Ayala. The movie also shows the perspectives of various interests on the War on Drugs, right from the Big Pharma representative, who feels that the war is pointless, and that tobacco, alcohol actually kill more persons, compared to cocaine, to the economist, who looks at the issue in strictly market terms, stating that all this is going to achieve, is increase the business of the traffickers. Basically the fact that it is a losing war, is emphasized throughout the movie. There are too many interests at work, who would like to see it fail, be it the Pharma industry or the economist lobbies or the numerous drug dealers. It is a fact that Robert’s predecessor, Gen.Ralph Landry( James Brolin) wryly acknowledges, when he hands over the charge.
That is is a losing war is apparent to Robert, when he finds out that, he has to deal with his own daughter. Caroline does not seem to be the kind who would fall to drugs, she is intelligent, an active student, comes from a well to do family, her parents are not divorced, in fact there seems to be no logical reason for her to become a junkie. But the fact that she does not just become a junkie, but goes to the extent of sleeping around with seedy drug dealers, prostituting herself for the next fix. The scenes which show Caroline’s descent into the drug induced hazes are well shot, with the bluish monochromatic color adding to the bleakness. Caroline becoming a junkie is however more of Robert’s failure, as he finds himself totally helpless in dealing with the situation. His wife, feels that this is a phasing phase, she had earlier experimented with drugs herself, and shows a bit more empathy towards her daughter. In a way Robert, feels a loner at home, with both his wife and his daughter, blaming him for the situation. But why exactly did Caroline turn to drugs? Was it just for having a high? Or was it a way of getting back on her father for neglect? We will never really know, as Soderbergh, leaves it to us to figure out.But personally I felt the story line dealing with Robert and his junkie daughter, was the weak link in Traffic. The scenes showing the drug addiction are pretty much rushed through, you really do not feel much empathy, unlike in Requiem for a Dream, that left you totally gutted out. Also the ending parts of the story, go into standard Hollywood territory, with Soderbergh, trying to rush it up, though to his credit, he does not go really overboard.
The best part of Traffic I felt was the storyline set in Mexico, which in many ways, showcased the War on Drugs, from different angles. Looking at the viewpoint of Javier, the footsoldier here, fighting a long and dreary war, this part of the movie shows the frustration faced by such men. Of people like General Arturo Salazar( Tomas Milian), who hijacks the War on Drugs for his own selfish, opportunist purposes. Where people like Javier do all the hard work of tracking and capturing the criminals, men like Salazar hijack it for their own purposes, being used as a pawn, by powerful, vested interests. Javier, feels that people get into drugs, due to lack of opportunities for recreation or work. He speaks from his own experience, hailing from a poor background, his parents had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, as they could not afford to fix the gas heater. His working class background, has made Javier much more street smart, enabling him to tackle the gangsters in his own way. There is no other choice consider the war against Drugs in Mexico is much more dirtier, much more messy and much more brutal. But that brutality is considered normal there, as in the scene, where a hitman for the Tijuana cartel Francisco Flores( Clifton Collins Jr) is being tortured, and the other men around laugh it off as just another day. The torture scene is quite gruesome, but what shocks more is the apparent nonchalance, of the men around, who do not seem to be shocked by it.
Salazar’s way of combating crime, are pretty much different, though he pretends that he is concerned about the corruption and brutality of his officers, he is as much part of it. In fact much more dangerous, unlike the thuggish cops and soldiers, Salazar is also manipulative. As in the way he mentally manipulates Francisco into revealing the vital information, pretending to be concerned about him, pretending to be shocked at his torture. In reality Salazar cares for no one but himself and his own selfish interests. This is a fact that is known to both Javier and Manolo, the former, prefers to keep quiet about it, knowing it is futile, the latter however can’t and pays a heavy price. One more interesting scene is the meeting between Salazar and Robert, in a way it also shows up the differences in approach, between Mexico and US. When Robert asks him what does he propose to do with the addicts, Salazar dismissively states “Addicts overdose, and then there is one less to worry about”. Salazar simply sees the addicts as a menace, who have to be stamped out, rehabilitation is the last thing on his mind. In reality, Salazar is as much as a thuggish lout, as the guy who was torturing Francisco, he just hides it under a smooth, deceptive manner.
In Mexico law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity, this is not so true for the USA.Using regression analysis we made a study of the customs lanes at the border and calculated the odds of a search. The odds are not high, and we found variables that reduce the odds. We hire drivers with nothing to lose. Then we throw a lot of product at the problem. Some get stopped. Enough get through. It’s not difficult.
The other footsoldiers in the story, Gordon and Castro, are the undercover DEA agents, tracking down the supply chain in San Diego, men who spend most of their time, eavesdropping, tracking calls, and surveillance of suspects. They really are not too well paid, most of them hanging out in old, seedy hotels. As Gordon wryly observes “When the DEA gets into the narcotics business, we will stay at the 4 Seasons”. Soderbergh depicts the bonding between Gordon and Castro, well, the latter providing a bit of a comic relief, with his quips and quotes. Unlike the Javier-Manolo story, we really do not have much idea about either Gordon or Castro’s background, except that they are cops. The shoot out scene with Gordon and Castro at Ruiz’s office is well shot, depicting the total chaos and confusion, as the DEA and Feds both competing with each other to nab the accused. It is however Gordon who does the real hard work, and grabs Ruiz, who in turn leads them to the big fish, Carlos. Both Gordon and Castro, have a thankless task, spending long hours on tracking and surveillance, trying to make sense of what they are speak. They however relieve that boredom, cracking jokes at each other, making wisecracks be it on Maradonna or “Rich,white people”. Also liked the interrogation scene between Gordon and Ruiz, where the latter gives vital information on the drug business, how the consignment crosses the border and the corruption involved at all levels.
Helena on the other hand, seemingly ditzy and dumb, at the start actually turns out to be the smartest of the lot. Carlos arrest has shaken up her cozy, little, rich, San Diego world. She makes no bones about the fact that she married him for the money, for the socialite life, and everything seems nice and pretty, until Carlos is arrested. Her world is turned upside down, in fact she was not even aware of Carlos real business. Add to it, the social ostracism by neighbors, members of her club, the fact that they do not have the money to pay, with all funds frozen and her son getting threats. It would have driven any one else nuts, but Helena, turns out to be much more manipulative and smarter. She uses her situation well, feigning helplesness to manipulate just about everybody, be it Gordon and Castro,when she asks them for help, or her rather slimy defence lawyer Arnie Metzger(Dennis Quaid). Arnie is the typical opportunist, who sees Carlos arrest as an opportunity to encash on and need be, get closer to Helena too. With his rather glib talk, and smooth demeanor, he feels that he is indeed impressing Helena, cashing in on her vulnerability. And when he does realize that he was the one being manipulated, it is a bit too late.
Traffic works not just because of it’s depiction of the drug trade and war on drugs, it is also a large part due to the characters and the relationships shown between them. Be it the bonding between Gordon and Castro, or Javier and Manolo, or the strained relationship Robert has with his daughter, or the way Helena fights back to survive for the sake of her son, Soderbergh, brings the human touch, at every level. The movie is also helped by some great performances from an ensemble cast, my personal favorite though being Benicio Del Toro, as Javier, always rated him as a brilliant actor, and he shows it in this movie, with a performance that deservedly won a Best Supporting Oscar. For all her drop dead gorgeous looks, somehow never really took Catherine Zeta Jones seriously as an actor, but hers is the second best performance in the movie, as the seemingly vulnerable Helena, who turns out to be the most manipulative of the lot. Her real life husband Michael Douglas, is good as always in the role of Robert Wakefield, loved him in the scenes, where he is searching for his daughter. Another Soderbergh regular, Don Cheadle, once again delivers as the undercover agent, Gordon. The supporting cast of Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Erika Christensen do well too. To conclude I felt Traffic was the movie that deserved the Oscar over Gladiator, it is by far Soderbergh’s best movie ever.
After covering first two parts of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy here and here, J.D.Lafrance, looks at the concluding part of the trilogy, in his piece on Ocean’s 13. Soderbergh retains the same cast of the earlier Ocean’s series, and this time as a bonus, he has Al Pacino playing the bad guy. I mean Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Pacino in the same frame, does not get better than this. Playing the bad guy is a walk in the park for Pacino, who relishes it, having a whole lot of fun. Like most Soderbergh’s movies, again this is visually brilliant, some great cinematography, a cool music score and some good fun. In J.D’s own words.
Like Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen pays tribute to the classic era of Vegas as Danny and co. restore Reuben’s honor. He’s an old school player who still believes in following a code and prides himself in being part of a select group of insiders that got to shake Frank Sinatra’s hand back in the day. Like Benedict, Bank represents the current corporate mentality of making money over the personal touch that the Mob-run casinos used to provide. If the first two films were about Danny and Rusty’s respective relationships with the loves of their lives, then Ocean’s Thirteen is about their friendship with Reuben. He mentored them when they were just starting out and taught them about respecting history as well as those who came before them. Like with the previous films, going after the bad guy is a matter of personal honor and hitting them where it hurts – in Bank’s case it’s his monster ego. Ocean’s Thirteen ends much like Ocean’s Eleven did thus bringing the trilogy full circle and with a truly satisfying conclusion as the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and Reuben’s honor is restored. Likewise, the film did very well at the box office and garnered fairly positive reviews going out on a well-deserved high note. It serves as an example of a star-studded big budget Hollywood film that entertains without insulting your intelligence.
In his exploration of Soderbergh’s Ocean trilogy, J.D.Lafrance, covers the second part, Oceans 12 here. In his earlier post on Oceans 11, JD, had looked into how Soderbergh, remade the original Ocean’s trilogy, and made it an iconic one. Ocean’s 12 in a way bought some respite to Soderbergh after the twin failures of Solaris and Full Frontal in 2002. While Oceans 12, more or less retains the same cast, it brings in a welcome addition in form of Catherine Zeta Jones. It did not earn as much as Ocean’s 11, and critical opinion was divided too, neverthless still has it’s favorites. In JD’s own words.
Like its predecessor, Ocean’s Twelve is beautifully shot with atmospheric lighting and saturated color as evident in the bright yellow that permeates Isabel’s Europol lecture or the green lighting that illuminates the underwater sequence during a heist that Danny and his crew pull off, or the red lighting that dominates the nightclub where Rusty and Isabel meet. Most of the film takes place in Europe and Soderbergh adopts the look of a European film from the 1960’s, which also applies to the eclectically groovy soundtrack from David Holmes that evokes a ‘60s Euro-lounge vibe. The director even described the film’s aesthetic as “the most expensive episode of a ‘60s television show ever.” He and Holmes agreed that the score would be completely different from Ocean’s Eleven in order to complement the different look and feel. Soderbergh is an excellent visual storyteller and this is evident in several scenes that he depicts without any dialogue, instead resorting to music married to visuals that conveys exactly what’s going on. He understands the kind of movie he’s making and doesn’t try to be too cute or wink knowingly at the audience, instead focusing at the task at hand: making a confident, entertaining movie. Granted, Ocean’s Twelve is no Traffic (2000), and it’s not meant to be, but you could do a lot worse with two hours of your time.