Pivotal Film Selling Out Your Monkey

Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007). This Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature catalogs and condemns the harsh treatment of prisoners in the Bush administration’s zealous “war on terror.” Gibney lays out the evidence of vicious abuse and clear-cut torture perpetrated by the American military at prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just as importantly–arguably even more importantly–he examines the ways in which the highest leaders created, encourages and perpetuated the environment for these horrendous practices and then casually, heartlessly blamed the enlisted men when the worst of it came to light. Like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight from the same year, Gibney’s film isn’t made in an especially inventive fashion nor does it reveal much information that wasn’t already available to anyone who was paying proper attention. It does bring all of the material together in a cogent, forceful manner, presenting it without embellishment, letting the near unbearable facts stand on their own, confident that they are enough to leave the viewer appalled and angry. That alone is worthy of praise and gratitude.

Hancock (Peter Berg, 2008). An offbeat, almost deconstructionist take on superheroes. Will Smith plays a man with superhuman powers who uses them in half-assed attempts to help society. He’s a do-gooder, but one who rarely sobers up before bounding out to save the day. When he saves a struggling public relations agent, he starts to make amends and clean up in his act. In the process, he unexpectedly begins uncovering the mystery around how he got his powers and who he really is. The screenplay credited to Vincent Ngo and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is very full, perhaps overfull. It barely establishes one idea before rushing off to the next, leaving most elements feeling under-realized. In a time when even summer piffle tends towards running times over two hours, it’s strangely admirable that Hancock clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes, but it actually winds up feeling like it needs about twenty minutes more to develop its various components. Berg’s clumsy, attention deficit direction contributes greatly to the sense of mental clutter.

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941). Joan Fontaine plays a naive, sheltered young woman who gets married to a charming rogue after a whirlwind romance. That groom is played by Cary Grant, bringing a full serving of his well-honed charm to the proceedings but cutting it with hints of desperation and menace. His character is posing as a wealthy success, but is actually struggling financially. Soon, his wife is certain that his scheming extends to murderous capabilities and that she is a likely victim due to some hefty life insurance policies. Hitchcock builds tension through acute attention to the psychology at play, giving Fontaine full latitude to play her role with mounting dread. Since this is still in the era when subtlety remains fully optional, there are more than a few moments that push the emotions with an amusing intensity. Mostly, though, it’s shrewd and icy.

Boomerang! (Elia Kazan, 1947). One of Kazan’s earliest features as a film director is a staid courtroom drama. Based on a true story, the film involves the murder of a small town priest and the district attorney who risks his political future by unexpectedly defending the drifter charged with the crime. The film’s points about the treatment of suspects–particularly regarding using sleeplessness and relentless questioning to produce a confession–echo enough in modern debates that the film doesn’t seem dated despite a copyright date from six decades back. The film is finally more interesting than gripping. Its sturdy, measured approach to the serious material creating a finished product that surely admirable, but also a little dull.

The Hospital (Arthur Hiller, 1971). Five years before screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky famously and fabulously collaborated with Sidney Lumet to eviscorate network television, he penned this screenplay which takes a similarly barbed view of the medical system. George C. Scott plays a depressed doctor working in a dilapidated hospital. The typical turmoil of the day is compounded by a series of strange deaths of members of the hospital staff, and, more enticingly, the appearance of the comely daughter of a patient who’s been the victim of poor medical decision-making. While some hints of Chayefsky’s glass-shard sensibility come through, the film is very clunky, perhaps an indication of the importance of a gifted director coaxing his dense cascade of words into something fully believable. The film plays like a revamp of St. Elsewhere penned by Aaron Sorkin for HBO, which probably makes it sound cooler than it is. Scott, as usual, is bracing and gripping. Diana Rigg is another matter. She seems completely incapable of making a single line of her dialogue seem natural.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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