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September 30, 2004

Moviegoing: "The Forgotten"; "Twisted"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

How insistent are you that a work of art or entertainment be perfect -- or at least fabulous -- before you'll consent to enjoy it? Back when I was young and still getting the hang of the cultural life, I could be intolerant beyond belief. I wanted something special, something transformative, something that'd ...

Well, frankly, I've forgotten what I imagined might follow. But life was going to change for the better somehow. What this insistence boiled down to was largely, I suspect, me trying to define myself via my tastes -- ah, youth -- and me trying to make my way from smalltown rube-itude to someplace that appealed to me a little more. So I made a big fuss out of art things; I was holding my breath 'till I got what I wanted, I guess.

These days, I'm a lot more forgiving. I could argue that forgivingness is a better thing than pissiness generally, that's for sure. But what this change in my attitude probably really reflects is age and biochemistry, if not decay. It may also, if only to a small extent, be a function of a couple of other things too. For one: these days, I'm comfy enough as a bigcity culture person. I may be a sadsack and a loser in this world's terms, but I do know my way around. And if I haven't shaken off every last bit of my rube-i-tude, so what? I'm cool with enjoying my Inner Hick instead.

For another thing: what do I have left to prove? I'm too old to believe that my tastes can define me, or that they might offer a clue to my inner soul (whatever that might be). And it's not as though, by enjoying or not-enjoying a given work, I'm demonstrating something of significance to anyone. The world isn't exactly awaiting my opinion about anything.

These days, the art magic, when it's present, is no less potent a drug than it ever was. The change is in me: I've become much calmer when the magic isn't present. Perhaps because life itself now seems spectacularly magical to me, I find myself no longer making of art any kind of cause. Art will take care of itself -- or maybe it won't. But in either case, it'll do so as a part of life, and ain't that a grand thing?

I've also discovered that the culture world itself is made up of actual people, however quirky and even loony they often are. And I've discovered that these actual people have their on days and their off days just like the rest of us. Who knew? Trust-fund narcissists aside, culture people wrestle with the same constraints and the same incentives (money, family, recognition, health, time) that the rest of us do. And they do so as they try to negotiate very uncertain and tricky fields.

Hey: the people behind a poem, a painting, a website, a play, or a movie? They're just hoping you'll be entertained by what they've done. They're just hoping you'll like their work. And they're just hoping you'll throw a little money their way.

OK, many of them are desperate to be stars. Still, I fail to see the harm in any of this. Hmm, let me modify that just a bit: I'm forgiving these days so long as something interesting or at least sweet-natured and generous is being attempted. On the other hand, if some corporation is trashing up the airwaves? Or some starchitect is trying to overwhelm a perfectly good neighborhood with a piece of ego-driven monument-building? Or some Nazi or Stalinist is trying to impose thoughts and dictate actions? Gunning these works down is only acting in sensible self-defence.

But, like I say, imperfection more generally -- why beat up on it? Haven't we all got better things to save our wrath for? And anyway, if the spirit's good, why not choose to enjoy what's there to be enjoyed?

  • The Forgotten. The director Joseph Ruben, who got his start doing cheesy exploitation trash like The Pom-Pom Girls, is most fondly remembered for a handful of terrific '80s genre thrillers: Dreamscape, The Stepfather (from a script by a favorite of mine, the genius Donald Westlake), and True Believer. First-class B-movies all of them -- trim, pulled-together, and driven home with style, brains, and vigor.

    A supernatural thriller that combines yuppie and B-movie elements, "The Forgotten" is Ruben's first movie in years, and his first pretty-good one in much longer than that. Julianne Moore plays a Brooklyn woman who's in mourning for her only son, who died in a plane crash. Years have passed, yet she can't get over the loss. She won't let go, even as everyone around her tells her that the time has come to move on. And it's odd ... Small, spooky things are happening all around her. Is she losing her mind? Or is whatever's strange ... perhaps out there?

    Much of the film is enjoyable in a grownup-entertainment way. Julianne Moore is less stylized, actressy, and sculptural than she sometimes is; she's at her warm and approachable, sexy-mom/sexy-wife best. As a retired hockey star who buddies up with Julianne to find out what has become of their kids, Dominic West is amusingly rowdy and relaxed; he's convincing both as an ex-jock and as a man with some tender feelings. The film looks and sounds beautiful in a spookily low-key way, and it engineers its move from realism into the supernatural very smoothly.

    Too bad that the pleasure only goes so far. Just when the moment comes to kick the suspense and weirdness up another notch, the movie ends. I'm pretty sure why the film goes wrong: the script is missing a dimension. The filmmakers may have talked themselves into believing that leaving a variety of hows and whys unanswered would add to the film's air of quiet mystery. But the audience winds up feeling like the filmmakers moved into production before taking their idea as far as it needs to go.

    I was a little annoyed by the movie's sanctimoniousness about having children. (Yesyesyes, children are marvelous things. But doesn't it seem as though Hollywood Boomers and yuppies are forever trying to turn having kids into a crusade? You'd think no one had ever managed to procreate before.) But the film's a classy, if very imperfect, attempt at something quietly mysterious, like The Haunting, or the good recent Nicole Kidman ghost movie The Others. What a treat to watch a scare flick that makes such artful use of patience and calm; this is the rare movie that puts Dolby and Photoshop to work not just to rattle the furniture and gouge the eyeballs, but for evocativeness and poetry.

    And Ruben, bless him, makes use of honest-to-god movie language: choices about staging, design, light, acting styles, and camerawork that are meant to build to specific emotional/visceral responses. There's a lot to be enjoyed in submitting to this kind of solid, classic movie experience, or at least a lot that I value. And Ruben hasn't lost touch with his exploitation roots either. The movie delivers some hearty guffaws, as well as a couple of the most sensational "boo!" moments of recent years. Too bad about that missing dimension. But The Wife, our friend, and I were all left in quite a pleasant mood after seeing the film.

    You can watch a preview of "The Forgotten" here. Here's an interview with Joseph Ruben. Here's one with Julianne Moore.

  • Twisted. This Philip Kaufman/Ashley Judd thriller got terrible reviews when it came out in theaters, and did no business whatsoever. But I had a reasonably good time when I watched it last night on DVD. I may be wrong, but my suspicion is that the film disappointed lowrent press people, who were measuring it against the usual Ashley Judd corporate thriller, and that it let down the more sophisticated press people who were hoping for great things from Kaufman. It seems to me that both groups failed to engage with what the film really is, which is an intelligent attempt at a small, noir, psychological thriller.

    The film is no big deal, in other words -- but it's a well-done kind of no-big-deal. Ashley plays a cocky young San Francisco cop who gets more caught up in a murder investigation than she wants to; the murder investigation becomes an inward journey too. Where's it taking her? Her background is a little complicated and a lot sad; her love life may be a little too devil-may-care; she's got some doubts about herself that she keeps a little too locked up ...

    It's impossible to make the case that the film is dynamic, hard-hitting, or even just pretty exciting; as a psychological thriller, it delivers a lot more psychology than it does thrills. But it's full of rewards anyway. Playing a compromised and not-entirely-sympathetic character, Judd is wonderful. Her character is tough, supercompetent, able to get her sexual needs attended to, and unwilling to back down. Yet she's also neurotic and confused; this is one gal who has some major trust issues, lemme tellya. Ashley puts it all out there, giving a gutsy, forthright, cut-to-the-quick performance, the best and most daring acting she's done since Normal Life. (Although why she and Kaufman didn't push the sexuality farther baffles me. The film badly needs some freaky shocks and outrageousness.) The other actors, who include Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Garcia, Camryn Manheim, and David Straithern, do a lot of jaunty and soulful character work. The film is full of perceptions and observations. And Kaufman scatters the red herrings, the visual and aural motifs, and the suspicions and the sympathies around very resourcefully.

    A juicy genre premise, an exciting central performance, tons of low-key craft, the whole package scaled perfectly ... Yet the film clearly doesn't "work" in the wide-audience sense. I confess that I'm puzzled by this; I really don't know why "Twisted" doesn't catch fire. The film is remarkably lacking in forward-momentum-style drive. Perhaps the filmmakers should have spent more time on the actual investigation, and a little less time watching Ashley's reactions to what turns up, memorable though her reactions are.

    The movie's visual and aural design don't help, skillfully done though they are. The colors are eggshell blue, baby-lettuce green, and browns against some very deep blacks, with all of it made softly hazy and smooth; the film has a look that's more sweetly-lulling than thrilling. And Mark Isham's becalmed music score doesn't make the pulse race either. Coming from Kaufman, who has often been a very sensual director, "Twisted" is a surprisingly untactile work. To be a little crude; the film could have done with some of the hard-edged, raw feeling Don Siegel gave to San Francisco in Dirty Harry.

    Hmm, "crude," "crude" ... That may be it. The film's lack of texture may simply have to do with questions of temperament. Perhaps Kaufman just isn't a terribly lowdown guy. He started out his career not as an exploitation hustler, like "The Forgotten"'s Joseph Ruben, but as someone who wanted to achieve in movies what Henry Miller had achieved in literature; Kaufman was probably most fulfilled making his two Euro-style sex/philosophy movies, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June.

    As a filmmaker, in other words, Kaufman really does seem to live for art, eroticism, and ideas. And he doesn't seem to connect with the suspense genre in the shrewd and cheesy way genre stories seem to require. Hard to condemn him for this: hey, the man loves art, sex, and ideas -- let's have more, and not less, of that. And it's a blessing that, as art-centric as Kaufman is, he also seems sweet-natured and egalitarian. Even when applying his talents to a genre picture like "Twisted," he's working very decently; he's respectful towards the genre, and he doesn't withhold his enthusiasm or skill.

    Still, a little something -- and maybe it's something that's a little unprincipled -- is missing from the film. Years ago, Kaufman managed to make an entertaining thriller out of Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. If the movie didn't have the bloodymindedness that drives a thriller home, its energy had some bite. But Kaufman is older now, and he seems to be a calmer and happier person. And, for all the brains, class, and commitment he has helped put on display here, "Twisted" is emotionally a rather pallid experience.

    But still: brains, class, spirit, skill, commitment, and a stunning central performance -- how many films deliver even half of these? Writing this review, I've found giving so much space over to puzzling out why "Twisted" doesn't work quite enjoyable; I'd never spend so much time on a film that didn't tickle me. Besides, I ain't such a princess that I'm going to refuse an attractive bouquet, even if it's missing a flower or two. And I didn't for an instant regret watching "Twisted."

    "Twisted" can be bought here -- good lord, would you look at those harsh viewer reviews! I guess the film disappointed everybody. It can be Netflixed here. Here's an interview with Kaufman.

How about you guys? Are you in a forgiving or an unforgiving (sorry: demanding) artgoing phase these days?



posted by Michael at September 30, 2004


This is probably the least important part of this blog entry that I'm responding to, but I just want to express disagreement with the very phrase "sexual needs", as in your 3rd paragraph about Twisted. I mean, there's no such thing, is there? "Sexual desires" is more accurate.

Gee, this looks even more trivial than I thought it would. Oh well.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on September 30, 2004 3:18 PM

What a packed question -- I've been thinking over it for the last 15 minutes, and am completely unsure what to say. Any thoughts or hunches from anyone else about this puzzler Ned's come up with?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 30, 2004 4:36 PM

I'm going to take exception to another near-negligible part of Michael's posting: "Hollywood Boomers and yuppies are forever trying to turn having kids into a crusade."

WHAT!? Could have fooled me, but I guess I'll give a smart cookie like you the benefit of the doubt, Michael, and you can provide some more evidence for this.

My experience is quite the opposite: that Hollywood has either a prejudice against having children or a disinterest in it that borders on fantasy. If children are a focus in films, they're often merely a source of vulnerability for the main characters--killing or harming them is the worst possible threat. It seems to me Hollywood frequently uses this device but rarely indicates any insight as to WHY children are so valuable.

But feel free to prove me wrong.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on September 30, 2004 5:42 PM

"...I just want to express disagreement with the very phrase 'sexual needs'...I mean, there's no such thing is there? 'Sexual desires' is more accurate."

I think I agree. Sexual need is unfocused, amorphous, generalized -- and therefore almost unreal; or at least easily superceded by other concerns. Sexual desire, on the other hand, is very real because it is focused: it is triggered in the presence of a specific desireable other; or even by an image of a desireable other.

That's my take, for what it's worth.

Posted by: ricpic on September 30, 2004 6:25 PM

Chris -- Good lord, I'm being ambushed from every which direction! Well, hmm, let's see. I'll mention the names Pixar, Spielberg, and Ron Howard. But I'll also admit that I don't make it very far through many of these movies. What I'm mainly thinking about is the way today's Hollywood, when it deals with parenthood, often does so in a New Agey way. Having kids being presented as the ultimate prize in the quest for self-fulfillment, in other words. And the kids themselves being presented as charmed gifts from another dimension. Old Hollywood had its way of making treacle of families and kids, but this is a new kind of self-congratulatory slurpiness, it seems to me. Does it not seem that way to you?

Ned, Ricpic -- It's an interesting point. I mean, there is a body-function-that-can't-be-ignored side to sex, that's for sure. And that would certainly qualify as a "need." But how we choose to act it out or feed it, so to speak -- that's up to conscious choice, and becomes something more like preference. Also, we can pursue sexual pleasure quite consciously and quite independent of actual, base-level need -- that would seem to qualify totally as desire. Although I guess you could also make the case that our pleasures are what sustain us, which introduces an element of need back into the equation. In the case of this movie, we're given to understand that Ashley's acting out some pretty darned strong urges, whatever we call 'em, yet she's also playing with them. Yet they're neurotic, too, and thus self-generated, yet somewhat out of her control, however much swaggering-about she does. So I dunno: a bit of both, maybe?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 30, 2004 6:42 PM

That's funny, I thought THE FORGOTTEN was one of the worst things I've ever seen. All that snatched-up-by-aliens nonsense! Couldn't wait for it to be over.
If you get a chance, see a nice little movie called MIND THE GAP and let me know what you think. Whole bunch of oddball, disenfranchised people wind up in a happy ending.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 30, 2004 7:54 PM

"I'm cool with enjoying my Inner Hick instead."

As well you should be. I don't equate "hick" with anything other than someone who is common sense country smart, the salt of the earth. Hicks tamed the American west, and hicks brought the fine state of Texas to the Union. Hicks fix your cars, plumb your houses, and truck your Espresso makers to the store. Hicks provide you with fresh produce, homegrown and harvested. Without hicks, you wouldn't have heard the sweet melody of a banjo and a fiddle.

Good advice to all ya'll. Let that hick feller in you come out more often. You might find he's a tad smarter than you think and a hell of a lot of fun.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 30, 2004 10:20 PM

My uncle, who was admittedly raised on a farm and who came from a dirt-poor background, always emphasized his "hickness" in his career as the owner of a series of successful small businesses. As I got older, I began to appreciate how shrewd this tactical decision was; it made him (a man who was far more intelligent and ambitious than most of his customers) seem very non-threatening.

As I recall, his "hickness" went into overdrive when he would play poker for money with strangers--an activity which the average stranger would have done well to avoid.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 1, 2004 9:31 AM

Let's hear it for hickness-as-strength!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 1, 2004 9:42 AM

Haven't we heard that already? I vaguely recall I did:
... Among bloggers Scott Chaffin, The Fat Guy, has mastered this tactic. By the time you've absorbed his assurances that he's jes a bumpkin who dunno nuthin about nuthin he's already removed the shiv from your back and wiped the blade...

(Shamelessly stolen from this)

Posted by: Tatyana on October 1, 2004 10:28 AM

Michael: I feel like I'm being dense here, but I still don't see the trend you describe. I mean, I think I've seen, mostly on television, that New Agey approach you mention. Seems to me to be the flip side of the exploitation of "most precious" status I was talking about (the threat of losing a child). Children as dramatic device. So I'll buy that. It still seems to me that children are ignored more often than they are glamorized.

And I'm still curious about your examples; and, again, maybe I'm just being dense. Let me take a stab at particular works you're referring to:

Howard: Parenthood? Ransom? The first I think of as about as true-to-life as mainstream Hollywood movies about family life get. The latter is an example of the "ultimate threat" scenario I mentioned.

Spielberg: All I can think of are AI and Empire of the Sun, but both seem to me to be so wrapped up in the child's perspective that it's hard to garner much of a message about why parents have children. Hmm... Maybe the beginning of AI, but that part seems like establishing the premise of the movie, not conveying the primary message...

Pixar: Finding Nemo, I assume. Perhaps fair. Interestingly, this has a little bit of everything we've been discussing... Most precious gift, most frightning threat, child searching for his parent. It's not a realistic story about parent/child relationships, but it's also a movie about talking fish.

Maybe the word that really struck me in your original post was "crusade." Do you really think Hollywood gives off a predominant message of "Serve the cause: Have more babies. Babies, babies, babies!"?? I get that at church, but definitely not in the movie theater.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on October 1, 2004 3:59 PM

The Fat Guy rules. Ah, to have that kind of style. Hey, are there Russians who do the kind of thing Scott does -- ie., play the rube, while being hyper-smart behind the scenes? Hmm, that's not quite right, but you know what I mean.

Chris -- I think we're both making valid points but at crossed purposes. For what little it's worth, I'm thinking less about messages in specific movies, and more about a general thing. Hollywood since the Boomers took it over has promoted/embodied/etc a self-gratifying, self-seeking, self-centered ethos -- I think we're both together on that. It's all about getting yours -- but who am I? All that stuff, which when spiritualized often goes New Agey. I'm suggesting that that basic p-o-v informs much of what Hollywood does, including its treatment of war ("Platoon"), sci-fi ("Star Wars") -- and parenthood and kids too. The films aren't so much about the actual experience of having, raising, and being kids, and god knows they aren't the god-family-and-flag things they often were in pre-Boomer times. Instead, many contempo movies are about the quest for self -- and when they treat being a parent and having kids, they do so in a way that deals with both subjects as a subset of the quest for self. Narcissism and self-centeredness rule, even when the subject is having kids. Come to think of it, it's a kind of upper-middle-class view of things, which makes sense given the way that showbiz has become a field that respectable and even privileged people now go into ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 2, 2004 11:13 AM

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