Friday, 30 November 2012

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Dir. Nora Ephron
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Bill Pullman, Ross Malinger

“That’s a chick’s movie!”
“I would agree with you.” 

So this is what I am reduced to: watching a movie that is not only a chick’s movie but that knows it’s a chick’s movie. The late, great Nora Ephron brings us Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. 

Sam (Philadelphia’s Hanks) is a widower, still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his wife after two years. His eight-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger), in an attempt to help, phones up a syndicated radio psychiatrist on Christmas Eve to talk about how his Christmas Wish is for his Dad to find someone new. Sam’s halting explanation of the love he has lost makes, it seems, every single woman in America go all googly over him. Once of those women is reporter Annie (Ryan) who resolves to track him down. But – oh yeah – Sam is in Seattle and Annie is across the other side of the country in Baltimore. 

Now, I’m not saying that a man would not enjoy this film. There are some lovely moments in there. Ephron knows how to write funny dialogue. In the scene quoted above Sam and Greg (Victor Garber) diss An Affair to Remember, dubbing it “a chick’s movie”; they then defend argue that they cry at movies too. Specifically the end of The Dirty Dozen. There’s another great scene where Rob Reiner’s Jay is trying to tell Sam what the dating scene is like in the early ‘90s: “Things are different. First, you have to be friends. You have to like each other. Then you neck. This can go on for years. Then you have checks. Then you get to do it with a condom. The good news is: you split the cheque.” He completely flusters poor Sam by talking about how women love tiramisu. “What’s tiramisu?... Some woman is going to want me to do it to her and I’m not going to know what it is!” 

So that’s all good. But it is a chick’s movie. The central arc of the film is Annie going from not believing in “signs” to, you know, believing in them. This might have been a more involving arc if she was not already totally irrational. I mean, she overhears someone on the radio and then hunts him down. Sure, she dresses it up as ‘work’, but she’d better have an understanding boss at the Baltimore Sun (the same paper Hornbeck worked for in inherit the Wind) considering that she puts a return flight to Seattle on expenses just to exchange one word with Sam. And all the time she strings along her poor fiancĂ© Walter (Lake Placid’s Bill Pullman), who seems like a nice enough guy except for him string of allergies and rather formal name. He even seems happy for her to break up with him after he has just got Tiffany’s to resize his grandmother’s wedding ring for her. I suppose that if she broke his heart that might put a bit of a dampener on the happy ending though.  

And meanwhile, the love object is Generic Woman’s Fantasy Man. Firstly, he is a boyishly cute Tom Hanks. He is in touch with his emotions and knows what it is to love a woman. He has no fear of commitment. He is not scared of kids and has already proved himself to be a good father. He has a well-paid job as an architect. For a woman who is broodily wanting to settle down I imagine that he ticks all the right boxes. In this he is much more fleshed out than Ryan’s flaky Annie. Her best friend / boss (ah, so that’s how the expenses were approved!) Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) tells her “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” 

And that’s how it ends. Sam and Annie meet. And credits roll. This isn’t the story of a love affair. The film ends just when the love affair would start. And I suppose we are meant to expect that it will all end happily ever after. But we don’t see that. We don’t see the depression Annie suffers from after leaving her job in Baltimore and struggling to find work in Seattle. We don’t see Sam’s problems with impotence. We don’t see Jonah knocking up his girlfriend as a teenager. We don’t see the ill-advised office affair and the grudging forgiveness. We don’t see Sam and Annie today, twenty years later, dissatisfied with they way that real life isn’t like a movie, going through the motions and wondering what ever happened to Victoria and Walter. 

Maybe I would have reacted to the film differently had I watched it with my chick. But I watched it by myself and I can’t help ruminating on the Hollywood lie: that people instantly fall in love at first sight (or in this case, before first sight). I hope I’m not making a noose for my own neck here but I did not love my girlfriend at first sight. To be honest it probably took me almost a year to get to that position. Now I couldn’t live without her. But does that mean that our relationship is somehow relegated to the second division because it did not immediately have that “magic” that Sam and Annie have? 

In many ways Sleepless in Seattle tries to be too clever. You have eight-year-olds discussing the price of plane fares to New York (“Nobody knows. It changes practically every day.”) It is very cinema-literate. Not only is the entire film inspired by An Affair to Remember (for which, incidentally, there needs to be a huge ‘Spoiler Alert’ warning), but it also references Fatal Attraction and the aforementioned The Dirty Dozen. The opening music is ‘As Time Goes By’ which was, of course, the theme to Casablanca. The soundtrack comprised of classic crooners like Nat ‘King’ Cole and Harry Connick Jr (for those under the age of 20, he was the early ‘90s’ Michael Buble) works well – until you get to the closing number sung by Switzerland’s 1988 Eurovision Song Contest winning artist Celine Dion over a soft rock synth beat. At the same time it tries to be clever-clever and whimsically irrational. But it clearly meets the expectations of so many people out there because it is reknowned as a classic. It’s not a classic. But it’s okay. 

Cuba was inappropriately horny
What have I learnt about Washington?
Annie is told that it rains nine months of the year in Seattle though we do not see that in the film. There is a lot of water about. Sam and Jonah live literally on the water in a floating house and take boat rides across the bay. No wonder Jonah – with a name like that – has nightmares about the place flooding! Seattle seems closer to the rest of the US than I imagined. There are frequent flights to New York for example (Sam takes off not long after Jonah), and New Year’s fireworks are set off when the clock strikes midnight in New York, despite the time difference.

Can we go there?
The film jumps around all over the place – from Chicago to Seattle to Baltimore to Washington to New York. 

In Seattle the main sites are the Baldwins’ houseboat which still exists at 2460 Westlake Avenue in Lake Union and the 103-year-old Athenian Inn, where Jay tells Sam about the dark pleasures of tiramisu. The spot where they sat has been helpfully marked. The Inn is located in the historic Pike Place Market, where Sam and Victoria go shopping for ingredients. 

In Baltimore Annie lived in the Fells Point neighbourhood. And in New York Annie meets Waler at the Plaza, goes shopping at Tiffany’s, drinks champagne at the (currently closed since 2009) Rainbow Room in the Rockefeller Centre – and then dumps her fiance to meet Sam and Jonah on the observation deck of the Empire State Building 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

First Blood (1982)

Dir. Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Bill McKinney

I had always thought that the Rambo series of films was the apogee of dumb ‘80s action movies, the U.S. fighting on screen the wars it was not fighting in real life (see also the aerial duel with Soviet MiGs in Top Gun). My memory is of Rambo, stripped to his vest and with a red headband, swinging through the jungles and killing the Vietnamese – revenge for a war which America lost. This may have been true for the sequels but the original Rambo film, First Blood, is a very different beast indeed. There is action, and lots of it. But this is no testosterone-fueled wet dream of American potency. This looks at how America deals with – or fails to deal with – defeat. 

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a hero of the Vietnam war, a survivor of a crack Green Beret special forces team. Only two of the team made it back alive from ‘Nam. At the start of the film we meet Rambo as he makes his way to find the other survivor. He is told that his friend is dead from cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. “Got himself killed in ‘Nam, didn’t even know it.” Now he is alone, the last of an almost-extinct breed of super-soldier. Walking down the road into the holiday town of Hope he is picked up by the local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Teasle regards him as a vagrant and a ghost at the feast – he tells Rambo that his Stars-and-Stripes emblazoned army jacket will arouse hostility in his quiet little town. Teasle picks him up and drives him to outside the town limits before dropping him off. When Rambo turns and starts walking back into town the sheriff arrests him. Whilst being imprisoned Rambo is mistreated by abusive deputy Galt (Jack Starrett); his mistreatment brings back unpleasant memories of his captivity at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Rambo flips; he busts out of gaol, steals a motorbike and heads for the mountains with the entire sheriff’s department on his tail. But Rambo has been trained in unconventional warfare; the forested mountains are his domain. “In town you’re the law”, he warns Teasle; “out here it’s me. Don’t push it! Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe…”  

And yes, there is action – a jail break, a motorcycle / police car chase, a literal cliff-hanger during a helicopter attack, a guerrilla war in the woods, rocket launchers, an escape from a caved-in mine, another car chase, explosions throughout town, and then the final reckoning between Rambo and Teasle. And these scenes are good. There is plenty of punch and pow to them. The drama rollocks along and gives the audience no time to get bored.  

But the film is about more than that. It is about the consequences of action. Rambo justifies his actions with the simple phrase “They drew first blood.” But really it wasn’t Teasle who drew first blood: it was Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), the Green Berets former commanding officer, acting on behalf of the state, who drew first blood. He trained Rambo to be a super-soldier with only one function: to kill in order to win the Vietnamese War. But with that war lost Rambo has no place in society. He is obsolete. Everything he went through was no no avail, the sacrifices of him and his team-mates was to no avail. And now American society wants to forget that period of its history. America has turned its back on those who fought in the name of America. “It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me ‘baby-killer’and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re talking about!” He complains that “Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!” This is why Teasle’s warning that “wearing that flag on your jacket, looking the way you do, you’re asking for trouble around here” hurts so much. He sacrificed everything for the flag and now the flag doesn’t want to know him any more. No wonder Rambo comments that “There are no friendly civilians!”  

Sylvester Stallone, to be fair, gives a bravura performance. He doesn’t have many lines. He speaks in the first couple of scenes. He shares a few words with Teasle in the woods and then to Trautman over the walkie talkie. But he is mostly silent until the dramatic last scene in which the human cost of the war to Rambo is brought home. What becomes clear is that it is not just the covenant made with America that was damaged in the war. He was very badly damaged too. He may have scars upon his back and chest, but the deepest scars are psychological. Confronted by Trautman the words come tumbling out of him as he describes the death of his friend Joey in a Saigon bar: “There’s pieces of him all over me, just like this, and I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know? My friend that’s all over me. I’ve got blood and everything and I’m tryin’ to hold him together. I’m puttin’… the guy’s fuckin’ insides keep comin’ out! And nobody would help! Nobody would help! He’s sayin’, sayin’ “I wanna go home! I wanna go home!” Sayin’ my name: “I wanna go home Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!” And I said “With what? I can’t find your fuckin’ legs! I can’t find your legs!” Handled poorly those lines could have been hilarious. Here they are deeply moving as an unarticulate man finally lets everything out. Rambo has felt alone because there was no one he can share this with. He has been unsuccesfully trying to speak to Trautman at Fort Bragg (Trautman evasively replies that he has not been at Bragg much – true or just an excuse for the fact that until Rambo went rogue he did not care about him?). He came up to Washington in the first place to find the other remaining member of his troop.  

There is a nasty side to all this. Dwell on Rambo’s words: “I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win!” But of course. There was no way the Vietnamese could have legitimately defeated the United States. They only won because the brave boys over in Asia were betrayed. They were betrayed so that they could not win the war, and then they were betrayed by society when they returned home. This is exactly the sort of myth of a ‘stab in the back’ that grew up in Germany after the First World War; traitors at home betrayed the cause. In that instance we know what it led to. In this case it probably leads on to the sequels. Incidentally, the only Vietnamese shown are sadistic torturers – exactly the same depiction as in The Deer Hunter 

First Blood flipped my preconceptions about the movie on its head. Yes, it is a violent action movie. But it has a soul, unveiled in the last scene by Rambo’s emotional outpouring of words. It subverts the genre. The protagonist is maybe not the hero we expect; instead he is a deeply damaged individual. This adds more depth and character to what I thought was just going to be another dumb ‘80s action movie. 

The chopper crew saw their chance
to finish off Coldplay for good
What have I learnt about Washington?
The biggest thing to see is the mountains – huge, craggy, thick with trees and riven with sheer gorges. They look impenetrable, but it is clear that men have been exploiting them for decades. Rambo surprises a hunter, he stumbles over a junkyard strewn with forgotten machinery and vehicles, and he takes shelter in an abandoned mine. The town of Hope, at the foot of the mountains, advertises itself as ‘Holidayland’. Outdoor and hunting equipment can be bought there. These are not remote and untouched peaks. These are well touristed. 

It therefore falls to the Sheriff’s Department to keep that Holidayland “boring”. Drifters and vagabonds are not welcome – particularly those who might remind the fun-loving holidaymakers of a tragic and forgotten war. In the event of a real emergency they can call upon backup from the State Police and even the National Guard. 

Can we go there?
The town of Hope is fictitious. Or sort of. Hope does exist and filming took place there, but the real Hope is in British Columbia, Canada, rather than Washington. It can be found about 150km east of Vancouver. Searching the web has revealed that there a hell of a lot of fans who want to see where the action really happened. There are quite exhaustive details on all the specific locations used. The bridge where Teasle drops Rambo off crosses the Coquihalla River on Kawkawa Lake Road on the eastern outskirts of Hope. The police station was located on the north-east corner of Wallace and 3rd Avenue (the downstairs cell block was actually filmed in the old BC Penitentiary in New Westminster however). The Hope Vistor’s Centre on Water Street can provide a map detailing all the principal locations in town. The gorge scene was filmed in the Coquihalla Canyon. The exact spot can be found by walking through the first of the ‘Othello Tunnels’. The general mountain scenes were filmed in the Golden Ears Provincial Park. 

Madly, the junkyard where Rambo gets his canvas and rope still exists. I had assumed that it was created for the movie, but no. It can be found north of Port Coquitlam and up the Monroe Trail. Also near Port Coquitlam, Delmar’s cabin was up the Pitt River from Pitt Meadows. 

I’m having more difficulty trying to place where Hope was meant to be. Captain Kerns of the State Police (Bill McKinney) says that he can bring some men up from Monroe; Monroe is about twenty miles north-east of Seattle. Wherever they are it is an outdoor sports centre backed by tall wooded mountains. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Monday, 26 November 2012

Twilight (2008)

Dir. Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Bill Burke, Peter Facinelli 

Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart from Into the Wild and The Messengers) leaves her Arizona-based mother to come and live with her father in the rainy mountain town of Forks, Washington. Starting in her new school she immediately becomes the most popular girl in class. The boys line up to ask her out to prom. But she only has eyes for her brooding classmate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). He saves her life. He saves her life again. They start dating, He saves her life again. They go to the prom. All pretty exciting. It should be mentioned, however, that Edward and his family are all vampires. 

However, the Cullens are *good* vampires. They only feed on animal blood and they act to protect the people of Forks from some new *bad* vampires who show up. The vampires are not the savage monsters of 30 Days of Night; they are cultured, European-ish vamps. They are drop-dead gorgeous, they are impeccably-dressed, they drive flash motors and they listen to opera and Debussy. One of the new vamps in town, Laurent (Edi Gathegi), even speaks with a French accent. Daylight does not kill them; it just makes them sparkle as though they are wearing gold body glitter. “This is the skin of a killer!” Edward warns Bella dramatically, whilst glimmering like a Rio samba dancer. It must be flattering to be a gawky, clumsy small-town girl who attracts not only her new male classmates and drunken rapists but also a vampire who, presumably, could have anyone he wanted. 

Edward is strangely drawn towards Bella. She is the one person whose mind he is unable to read. “I feel very protective of you” he says. This explains his romantic behaviour – following her when she goes out, spying on her from the bushes, breaking into her bedroom to watch her while she is sleeping. Hang on – that’s not romantic – that’s creepy! Plus, let’s remember that she is 17 and he is over 100 years old. Aw-kward!  

It is almost a metaphor for abusive relationships. She is withdrawn and clumsy. When he reveals that he is a vampire she immediately thinks that his inability to read her mind makes her the freak (“I tell you I can read minds and you think there’s something wrong with you?”). She is hot for him, but he rebuffs her in the middle of a hot make-out session. If he ever did get too, y’know, passionate, he would probably end up killing her, so that’s a no-no. “I hate you for making me want you so much”, he tells her, charmingly. So instead they climb trees, play baseball with his family and attend the prom, all very chastely.  
Bat wings are sooooo last century!
It is easy to be cynical about Twilight. Its gender politics are stranded somewhere pre-Mad Men. It certainly does not set a very empowering message to the young girls who are presumably its target audience: they exist to find the right boy, be put on a pedestal, and be protected. Because they cannot protect themselves. At one point Bella is driving her truck; Edward joins her; she immediately shifts over so that he can drive. Because driving is something men do. I should hate the film. 

But I don’t. That’s the surprising thing. It cracks along, it tells a relatively straightforward story pretty well, and it sets up characters for later in the series. It certainly plays better than, say, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which had too many characters, too many integral settings and too much story to effectively fit into the first film of a series. Harry Potter was, I thought, about trying to cram in as many ‘best bits’ that the books’ readers would appreciate and love. Although I have not read Twilight the balance on screen seems to be much better. The film is just shy of two hours, but a lot of that consists of Edward and Bella just staring at each other, or scenic shots of clouds bubbling over the pine-forested mountains and limpid lakes of Washington. The film of Twilight is able to, I don’t know, evoke an atmosphere and create a setting rather than rushing to shoehorn in plot point after plot point. The soundtrack by Carter Burwell (who also composed the scores to Raising Arizona, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and The Blind Side) mostly complements the action too (with two exceptions: one scene where a song plays over a heart-to-heart between Bella and Edward and the baseball game which is overlaid with Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole).  

At the end of the day (literally), I enjoyed watching Twilight. And while I would not read any of the books (I would be mortified! Reading A Passage to India on the train to work, as I am at the moment, is a lot more acceptable for a 35-year-old man than reading Twilight) I would be interested in watching the later films in the series. They maybe would not be top of my list, but I would not consciously avoid them. 

What have I learnt about Washington?
It is very wet. And icy. And cloudy. In fact, that’s why the Cullens live there. They sparkle in sunlight so they need somewhere permanently overcast, so Washington fits the bill. On the rare days that are sunny the younger vampires are pulled out of school to ‘go hiking’: Washington schools seemingly have a very liberal attendance record! 

More memorable than the weather, though, is the scenery. The film dwells lovingly on the soaring peaks, the shimmering lakes, the surf-pounded beaches and the towering pine trees of the Pacific North West. The characters never seem to be more than a minute away from forest 

There are still Native Americans living on reservations in Washington. They attend their own schools separate from the other kids. 

Perhaps most importantly, Washington is not Arizona. The desaturated greys and greens of Forks are contrasted with the bright sunshine of Phoenix. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in the real-life town of Forks, Washington. It is located in the north-west of the Olympic Peninsula. The mountains and forests of Olympic National Park lie to the east; the coast to the west also has a section of Park, with a chunk cut out for the Quileute Indian Reservation. The beach at La Push is located on the reservation. Bella, Jessica and Angela go dress shopping in Port Angeles. Edward and Bella attend Forks High School (‘Home of the Spartans’). Forks has now become a popular stop on the tourist trail due to its Twilight links. Before Twilight was published the town received 10,000 visitors a year; by 2010 it received 73,000. The town website markets the link heavily. The tourist information office even has Bella's truk from the film!

The tragic thing is this: the film was not shot there. It was filmed in Oregon instead. The ‘Olde Towne’ of St. Helens and Vernonia were the main locations. For just $159 Experience Twilight can guide you around the principal sites. I have, however, managed to identify some locations. The Swann’s residence is 184 S 6th Street in St. Helens. The Cullens’ wonderful ‘Falling Water’-esque home is the M1 Residence in Forest Park, Portland. Indian Beach in Ecola State Park not far from where The Goonies was shot) was used for La Push. Madison High School in Portland was used for the interior of Forks High School and Kalama High School in Washington for the exterior (including the parking lot). The prom takes place at the View Point Inn in Corbett. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Week 48: Washington

"My hopes was high and we rolled along
 To the Columbia River up in Washington;
 Lots of good rain,
 Little piece of land,
 Feller might grow something..."
 - 'Washington Talkin' Blues',
 Woody Guthrie
I had to stick on some Woody Guthrie as we head west away from Virginia. He sang about hoboing along the railway tracks "from Baltimore to Washington". To him the Pacific Northwest was an untouched promised land, full of opportunity for those farmers escaping the Dustbowl. There's no shortage of rain up in Washington he says. No shortage of water and energy either, once they get that pesky Grand Coulee Dam built either.
Shows how times have changed. I don't think of Washington as an untouched wilderness. I've never been there, but I feel a certain kinship to Washington state, and particularly to the city of Seattle. It sounds like a sort of American Manchester. Plenty of rain as the clouds hit the hills? Check (though I reckon the city's placement betwixt Pugent Sound and the Cascade Mountains is probably a bit more dramatic than Manchester's location betwixt the Ship Canal and Saddleworth Moor). Great musical heritage? Well with Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix to its credit, check again. World changing industries? Hmm, well Manchester got all that success out of its system in the 19th century sadly; I'm not sure these days there are any Mancunian business empires to rival Mirosoft, Boeing, Amazon and Starbucks. The latter two of which have just been named as quite breath-takingly flagrant tax-avoiders. Is this integral to Seattle's business success? Really, all that Seattle is missing is a world-famous sports team or two...
Outside of Seattle my knowledge of Washington drifts off a bit. I have just scattered nuggets of information: the Columbia Gorge, native Pacific Northwest culture fishing for salmon and carving totem poles, the Olympic National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Mount Saint Helens bloing its top, being near Vancouver. And the rain. Like Oregon, people always seem to go on about the bloody rain. As a Mancunian all I can ask is, what is wrong with a little rain?
So I'm hoping to see a bit more of Washington before I hit Seattle. My three films for the week are:
  • Twilight (2008)
  • First Blood (1982)
  • Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Remember the Titans (2000)

Dir. Boaz Yakin
Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst 

Writing about The Blind Side I commented that I must watch a film about American football before the end of the year – and that wasn’t it. Remember the Titans is it. It is the based-on-a-true-story tale of a high school team from Alexandria, Virginia, who went on to win the state championship.

It is therefore similar in plot outline to Best Shot / Hoosiers. We have the new coach with unconventional techniques. We have a ragtag fractious squad inspired to be more than they thought was possible. And we have triumph snatched from defeat with the very last ball of the game. But I am glad to say that Remember the Titans manages to be more than just another cheesy sports movie. It adds another ingredient to the mix. That ingredient – as in Pocahontas and as in The Howards of Virginia – is prejudice.

The Titans are not just one high school team – they are two. In 1971 the school board merged two schools. Or rather ‘integrated’ them. Because there had previously been two schools – one whites only and the other blacks only. Each school had its own American football team. And each team had its own coach. Black Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) is made head of this new team; white coach Yoast (Will Patton) is appointed as his deputy. Together they must find a way to work together and forge a unified team.

"Remember team: scissors cuts paper but rock blunts scissors..."
In this film sport is a means to change society. The opening narration explains that in Virginia everyone is American football-mad. “In Virginia high school football is a way of life. It’s bigger than Christmas Day.” The question really is which they love more – football or racism? They may disapprove of the integration of their schools, but once the Titans start their winning streak the population starts to come around. There is a great contrast shown just on one street. When Boone and his family move in there are twitched curtains and a lot of comments from his neighbours about if you let one in the place will soon be drowning in blacks; when his team qualify for the final they come out on their porches to applaud him. The success of the team has led to social acceptance of blacks. This is shown most clearly when Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) goes to see team captain Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst) at his house. They had started as fierce opponents but were the first to see that they needed to play as a team if they were to win. Hatred turned to respect and then turned to friendship: Bertier later refers to Julius as his “brother”. But as Julius walks into an all-white neighbourhood he is clearly on edge. A police car rolls up to him and stops. The window is slowly wound down. The cop looks at Julius. Everyone knows what to expect. But instead the policeman congratulates him on a great game and passes on. The early part of the film has led the audience to expect racism. When it doesn’t happen we all share in the victory.  

Perhaps the biggest challenge is for Coach Yoast. He has gone from being number one to just being an assistant. It becomes clear that as soon as the Titans lose just one match Boone will be sacked and Yoast will take over. The local league even conspire to make that happen with a series of crooked refereeing decisions. It is up to Yoast to decide what position he takes. And he, too, commits to the team even though it means missing out on his former position and on induction in the Hall of Fame. 

It’s a good thing that the film focues on the human elements of the story. Because the sports part is all but incomprehensible. Shots of the scoreboard are too quick to allow unfamiliar viewers (like me) work out what is meant to be displayed. We have to rely on reaction shots and music cues to figure out how the game is going. It appears that jumping on someone is a good thing in Anmerican football. In the last game the Titans are trailing 7-3 with only a minute remaining. This is, apparently, hopeless. But then they do a ‘fake 38 with a back George’ or something and they win the game. Fake 38s with back Georges obviously get you more than one point.  

I have to admit, before watching the film I did not have high hopes. It was about a sport no one outside the US cares about and it came from Disney Pictures. I expected a saccharine underdog-beats-the-world schmaltzfest. And I was proved wrong. Remember the Titans is actually a very engaging watch. Yes, it does go a bit Dinseyfied at times (“Before we reach for hate, always, always, we remember the Titans!”) and it does deliberately pull on the emotional levers, but so what? We are given enough to make us care about the players – Captain Bertier, his foe turned best friend Julius, big fat colourblind Louie Lastik (Ethan Suplee), smart-mouthed Petey (Donald Faison, Turk from Scrubs), the testifying Rev (Craig Kirkwood), the Californian dreamboat Sunshine (Kip Pardue) – even one of the smaller parts played by an instantly recognisable Ryan Gosling from The Ides of March. Boone is not the most-sympathetic character in the film – he is an arrogant tyrant who insists on perfection and refuses to show weakness (“This is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law.”) Yet we believe in him and we believe in Yoast. The only character I hated was Yoast’s precocious daughter Sheryl, played by Hayden Panettiere of Racing Stripes. I found her insufferable – though not as insufferable as SJ from The Blind Side. I know that the idea of watching a film about American football must be anathema to many people. But I would urge them to put aside their, well, their prejudices and give Remember the Titans a try. It is a lot better than I ever thought it would be. 

What have I learnt about Virginia?
When I tend to think of the Civil Rights struggle in America I tend to think of places like Alabama and Mississippi. This film reminds us that race was an issue in Virginia too. According to the film it was in 1971 that the first schools were forcibly integrated. That school then played an integrated team while every other team in the league was all-white. Even the American football authorities were racist and were not afraid of bending the rules a little to ensure the Titans lost (according to this film anyway). Presumably all-black schools had their own league. (Actually T.C. Williams had been integrated since 1963; their success in the 1971 season came more from two other schools being combined, giving it a larger pool of talent to draw players from). 

Virginia folks are football-mad. We are told that it is like a religion to them – “bigger than Christmas Day” remember? And they are proud that the high school league in Virginia is of a higher calibre to that in North Carolina. 

Can we go there?
Alexandria is just – just – in Virginia across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. You can easily recognise it from the tall Masonic memorial to George Washington (though this is not seen in the film). The school portrayed in the story – T.C. WilliamsHigh School – still exists.

But it won’t look familiar. No filming took place in Virginia. Instead the film was made on location in Georgia. Decatur and Covington stood in for Alexandria. Druid Hills High School in DeKalb County stood in for T.C. Williams; Shamrock Middle School provided the training pitch. Berry College in Mt. Berry was used for the training camp scenes; the players roomed in what are actually girls’ dorms. Their night-time run did not really visit Gettysburg, but it did visit Chickamauga National Park. Decatur Cemetery was used for the funeral scene. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Howards of Virginia (1940)

Dir. Frank Lloyd
Starring: Cary Grant, Martha Scott, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alan Marshal

The Howards of Virginia is a tale of class conflict and blinkered attitudes in the years running up to American independence. It is a family saga showing how some prosper and some fall. It also, despite its starry cast, feels like an amateur theatrical production.

Matt Howard (Cary Grant) is a rough outdoorsman from the backwoods of Virginia. Left fatherless at an early age, he hs to struggle through on his own. Well not quite on his own: his best friend is looking after him. Not too shabby when that best friend is the boyish Thomas Jefferson (Richard Carlson). Jefferson fixes him up with an education, some new clothes, even an estate up in the hills and persuades him to stick around Virginia rather than heading for the frontier country of Ohio. This is how he meets the Peytons, the grandest of the Williamsburg aristocracy. Head of the family, Fleetwood (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) is a pompous old snob; younger brother Roger (Alan Marshall) is a gad-about-town); sister Mary (Martha Scott) is a honey. It is discovered that Matt once worked his own land – with his own hands! Scandal ensues! Yet Matt and Jane marry and retreat to his home in the Shenandoah Valley where they raise a family. Jefferson intervenes, again, and encourages Matt to stand for the House of Burgesses. Confronted with the political situation between England and the American colonies Matt is radicalised into fighting for independence; Fleetwood opposes any break with the king.

The whole thing is as one-dimensional as many of the set backdrops. Cary Grant gives an awful performance; his Matt Howard talks loudly and fast the entire time as though he were high on cocaine. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, the esteemed character actor, sneers and scowls and stomps about. Martha Scott floats around and simpers. Matt’s two sons are paragons of perfection, Roger vanishes from the story half-way through, and Jefferson is the real hero. Those who support independence are energised and heroic; those who oppose it venal snobs.

Fauntleroy did not understand the concept of the 'toga party'

In many ways the first half of the film held the nucleus of a good story in it. Matt struggles to overcome the prejudices of the Peytons and Jane struggles to come to life in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Here life is hard, debts are paid in kind, and the locals have none of the fancy graces she is used to. Surviving in these circumstances, not least with a lame son, and dealing with her disapproving family could – if handled better – have made an involving plot. But all we get is a few awkward moments, an argument, and then everything is put right by a montage. By the montage’s end Matt’s log house has been transformed into a grand estate and Jane is once again able to act the lady of the manor. Phew – problem solved. The second half of the film is bogged down by the significance of the struggle for independence. There follows another montage: stirring speeches, a metaphorical sea of royal proclamations, messengers galloping through the forests and then we are into the war. You need to know your American history here. There are gasps when it is learnt that “the hot-heads up in Boston” have tipped a load of tea into the harbour. It is never explained why they have done this.

The war itself must rate as perhaps the dullest dramatization of conflict ever. There is one chase where Matt is shot off his horse. The remainder is him shivering in a wooden hut while the camp dreams of frozen potatoes. He and his companions do not play any part in the victory. One minute the British are in Williamsburg, the next they are bottled up at Yorktown waiting for the end. Matt and his troops march south, but the film ends before the final battle.

There is a lesson about toleration in there somewhere. Even Matt Howard is not immune to intolerance. He is happy for his new wife to join him in the hills but he is hostile to visiting Williamsburg. He also slights his firstborn son, Peyton, because his limp reminds him of Fleetwood. It is disgraceful the way he greets his other two children and ignore Peyton; of course Peyton later comes to be the apple of his eye. The boy idolises his father, though heaven knows why. Matt realises that as the product of two different cultures Peyton has taken the best of each – a parallel with the new generation of Americans presumably. But the portrayal is heavy handed and clumsy. The entire thing is less morality play and more like a sub-par church hall drama society. It is not one I would urge people to watch.

What have I learnt about Virginia?
The film does give a good picture of Virginia society in the later 18th century however. The ‘Tidewater’ area around Williamsburg is home to the estates of wealthy plantation landowners. Their fields are worked by slaves and they spend their days dallying in drinking houses and their evenings socialising at balls. They are snobbish, imperious and – in the case of Fleetwood – loyal to His Majesty. Up in the hills there is a different sort of society. Here the men are free but barely scratch a living from their crops, from hunting and from smuggling. It is a poorer, more lawless area and the Tidewater aristocracy look down upon them as ill-educated and ill-mannered yokels.

Virginia had a House of Burgesses to which members were democratically elected. This provides the forum for debates about Virginia’s relationship with the crown – or it did until the governor shut it down anyway. During the War of Independence Virginia raised a militia; the then-governor Thomas Jefferson sent it away on campaign, leaving the area defenceless. All the same, the vicissitudes of war took a terrible toll on the great landowners.

Can we go there?
There are two main settings in this film, both of them in Virginia. It is a clash between the wealthy Tidewater aristocracy of Williamsburg and the rural backwoods boys of the Shenandoah Valley.

In fact, despite the fact that most of the film was clearly shot on set there are a few recognisable images of Colonial Williamsburg (as it is known) in there: the Raleigh Tavern, the Governor’s Palace, and the Capitol. All were recosntructed in the early 1930s. The Fleetwood estate of Elm Hill never existed however; the estate of Carter’s Grove was used. The plantation was once a part of Colonial Willamsburg but was sold off in 2007; its owner later went bankrupt and the estate is now held by a trustee.

Matt’s background lies in Albemarle County. Thomas Jefferson’s estate of Monticello still exists in Albermarle, just outside Charlottesville. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I can well recommend a tour. It is stated that Matt’s estate was further up the Shenandoah Valley. That valley is now a National Park.

Overall Rating: 1/5

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Pocahontas (1995)

Dir. Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg
Starring: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, Christian Bale 

In the words of Peggy Lee (seen in Coal Miner’s Daughter):

“Captain Smith and Pocahontas
 Had a very mad affair;
 When her daddy tried to kill him
 She said ‘Daddy, oh don’t you dare –
 He gives me fever…”

The film Pocahontas is the tale of that fever. As seen by the Disney Corporation. 

Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) is an Indian-killer, aboard a ship bound for the New World. Commanding the expedition of the Virginia Company is the villainous Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers, the genial mayor from Doc Hollywood). He believes that the new territories hide a fortune in gold with which he can truly break into court society. Smith, however, is more impressed by the wonders of the New World. 

One of those wonders is Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard but sung by Judy Kuhn). She is the free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, who died last month / Jim Cummings). She consistently wants to see what is happening ‘Just Around the River Bend’… and just around the bend she finds the English staking claim to the continent. Fortunately the first of their kind she meets is the adventurous Smith. Despite coming from two very different cultures they fall in love. Meanwhile both the Natives and the English declare war to wipe out those whom they consider to be “Savages, savages, barely even human” 

So actually, the plot is not unlike that of Romeo and Juliet – a forbidden love in a time of conflict. When Kokoum (James Apaumut Fall) if killed beneath Pocahontas’s arm I was irresistibly reminded of the death of Mercutio in R&J. Thankfully there are no other deaths however. The two sides manage to make their peace following intervention from Pocahontas. 

WWE wrestling dates back to the earliest
years of the American colonies
Pocahontas is not as amusing as other Disney movies of that era such as Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. There is some humour provided by Pocahontas’s animal companions Flit the hummingbird and Meeko the raccoon (and Meeko’s provocation of Ratcliffe’s pet pug, Percy). But generally the humour feels geared towards the very young. It is visual humour as the animals don’t speak – a decision made in pre-production. It was felt that humour did not land itself greatly to the themes of the storyline. Because Pocahontas has a Serious Message. It is a warning against prejudice and hate. “They’re different from us, which means they can’t be trusted” sing the natives about the English.  “They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” the English sing back. Even the accepting Smith causes offence by referring to Pocahontas’s people as savages: “’Savage’ is just a word, you know. A term for people who are uncivilised.” “What you mean”, Pocahontas fires back, “is ‘not like you’.”  

The two sides have different views of the world. To the English ‘civilisation’ is the mighty city of London. No sooner do they arrive then they start tearing down trees and digging up the ground in search of gold. To the natives civilisation is living in harmony with the natural world. In the Oscar-winning ‘Colours of the Wind’ Pocahontas says

“You think you own whatever land you land on,
 The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim;
 But I know every rock and tree and creature
 Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”
She invites Smith to “Roll in all the riches all around you / And for once never wonder what they’re worth.”
Tolerance means accepting the other’s point of view as valid – accepting that the person holding that view is valid too. Demonising anyone different is the path to hate and war. 

This is of course a worthy philosophy and so I feel mean for saying anything critical about the film. Personally, I found its worthiness a bit tedious. I would have liked more laughs. And, compared to, say, Toy Story which was released in the same year the animation looks flat and matte. The story has been acclaimed for telling a story in which the Injuns were not the bad guys… but the tale is not the great let’s-all-live-alongside-each-other fable it is hailed as. In the end Pocahontas and Smith do not live happily every after – neither can bear to be away from their homeland. Chief Powhatan tells Smith that he is welcome back any time. And come back the English did. And where are the Native Americans in Virginia now? Their holdings in the state have been reduced to around 8km2. The film won praise by casting Native American actors such as Irene Bedard, Russell Means and Gordon Tootoosis in Native American roles. This takes a very broad-brush interpretation that says that all Indians are the same: Bedard is Alaskan of Inupiat and Inuit descent, Means was Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota seen in Thunderheart, and Tootoosis (who played One Stab in Legends of the Fall) was a Cree from Saskatchewan in Canada. Mind you, the ‘English’ are just as loosely drawn: their number includes the Australian Mel Gibson, the American David Ogden Stiers, the Welsh Christian Bale and the Scottish Billy Connolly. Considering that the flag they sail under seems to date (depending on the scene) either from after the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland or the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland I can understand the confusion. 

All-in-all, a worthy film, but one that doesn’t have the pizzazz I was looking for from a Disney film. 

What have I learnt about Virginia?
The learnings from the film are really about how to live one’s life. But it gives an interpretation of the English arrival in Virginia. The Virginia Company was on the search for gold and came into conflict with the Powhatan tribe who lived in the area in harmony with their surroundings. The Powhatan grew corn, gathered squashes and fished in the rivers. Native wildlife included wolf, bear, moose, raccoon, eagle, hummingbird, tortoise, otter and heron. 

Can we go there?
Trying to visit the actual location of the film is difficult because it is, after all, a cartoon. However, the general area of the story was around the Jamestown settlement. The remains of the settlement (Historic Jamestowne) can be found up the James River, south of Williamsburg. The Queen visited in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its foundation. There is also a living history park called Jamestown Settlement nearby. 

Pocahontas later married another Englishman, John Rolfe, and travelled to England with him. She died in 1617, some ten years after the events depicted in the film, aged 22(!), and is buried in the vicinity of St. George’s Church in Gravesend, Kent. There is a statue there to commemorate her passing. 

Finding any of the dramatic scenery of Pocahontas’s world, like the soaring cliffs and plunging waterfalls will be difficult however – the area around Jamestown is flat and low-lying. 

Overall Rating: 2/5

Friday, 16 November 2012

Week 47: Virginia

"In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
 On the trail of the lonesome pine;
 In the pale moonshine
 Our hearts entwine
 Where she carved her name and I carved mine..."
 - 'On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine',
 Laurel & Hardy

The trail of the lonesome pine has led us down from Vermont to Virginia. With the possible exception of Massachusetts no state was more important to the early history of the United States.
Virginia is, after all, where the English first staked their claim to a piece of the New World. Spain was busy down in South America, Mexico and Florida, Portugal had claimed Brazil, France was working its way down the St Lawrence and up the Mississippi. That left the eastern seaboard of what is now the USA to the English. It was here that Sir Walter Raleigh first ate potato and smoked tobacco (thank heavens he didn't get them the wrong way round!). The James Town settlement was founded here, plantation culture took off here, and many of the leaders of the early United States hailed from Virginia - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. In all, from 1789 to 1825 there were only four years when the presidency was not held by a Virginian plantation owner. No wonder the new capital of Washington D.C. was founded so close by.
Those plantations required workers, however: slaves. The uncomfortable truth is that Monroe, Madison, Washington and Jefferson (he who wrote that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...") were all slave-owners. Other Virginia-born presidents such as William Henry Harrison (1840-41), John Tyler (1841-45) and Zachary Taylor (1849-50) were all from slave-owning families - Taylor was the last president to personally own slaves during his term in office. The persistence of slavery meant that during the Civil War Virginia found itself allying to the Confederacy. The Confederate capital was Richmond in Virginia. It also meant that Virginia was right on the front line. Savage battles were fought across its territory and the western hill country - what is now West Virginia - seceded.
Is it fair to say that since the Civil War Virginia has lost some of its elan? It is still a big and well-populated state. It is still home to the Pentagon in Arlington and the CIA in Langley. The Navy is concentrated around Norfolk and the Marine Corps is based in Quantico (as is the FBI Academy). It also provides homes for many of the people who serve or work in DC. Yet these days the nation's eyes turn to New York, California, Texas, Illinois, even Ohio before they turn to Virginia.
Which is a shame. I saw a bit of Virginia when I visited DC in 2010. On one day we toured out to see George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon. On another we hired a car and headed south-west to Charlottesville. Here, at Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson, I was able to look out east from its ridge-top position. Rather than a dull land of suburbs and fields I could see a sea of trees rolling away to the horizon. Such a view, I thought, must have been enjoyed by Jefferson two hundred years before me... or the first English settlers two hundred years before that. Despite all the turmoil of the last four centuries I was happy to feel that in places Virginia still felt rather timeless.
So that's a whole lot of history to cram into just three films but I'll try my best. The films I have chosen are:
  • Pocahontas (1995)
  • The Howards of Virginia (1940)
  • Remember the Titans (2000)