FAR FROM HEAVEN
FAR FROM HEAVEN (A-3, PG-13) is writer-director
Todd Haynes’s aesthetically gorgeous and genteel emulation
of the 1950s so-called woman’s picture, with a major difference
in frankness. Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whitaker is an affluent
mother of two in 1957 suburban Hartford who seems to have
everything. But, as the title suggests, this is not paradise.
Haynes is a creative independent, working finally with a decent
$14 million budget. He explores in the stylish 1950s melodrama mode what could
not be explored then, but he does it with that era’s subtle taste.
Cathy is a paragon in family and community—a virtual saint. The
local society paper describes her as “a woman as devoted to her children as
she is kind to negroes.”
This classic heroine discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid), a top sales
executive, is a homosexual. Cathy becomes drawn to the companionship
of Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her young and kind African-American
gardener. They slowly fall in love as gossipy tongues wag.
An homage to stylish director Douglas Sirk, Far is a reworking
of his All That Heaven Allows (1955), in which (to show how times change),
heroine Jane Wyman was a widow, and the gardener (sweet irony, Rock Hudson)
was only too young and too blue-collar.
The triumph of Haynes and his actors is their success in doing the
new story straight and so much to-the-heart that only a rock would not be moved.
A sad story, elegantly told, with moral irony and insight; recommended for
EIGHT MILE (O, R): Showbiz’s most controversial man and its biggest white pop star, Eminem
(Marshall Mathers III), is hard to ignore. He’s sold 30 million albums worldwide
in his three-year career and he’s a fixture on MTV.
His movie debut, while as gritty as his rap, has been shrewdly guided
by pros, including director Curtis Hanson (creator of multi-Oscar-winning L.A.
Eminem (now 30), survivor of a wretched childhood, is angry. His
outrageous, ultra-violent lyrics have targeted practically everybody—except
blacks, since he says he never uses the N-word. The many anti-Ems are unlikely
to be won over by Eight Mile (named after the road that divides white
and black in the rapper’s native Detroit).
But the fair-minded will have to concede the guy is riveting in
his carefully constructed first movie, a semi-autobiographical tale (shot in
derelict Detroit locations) that wants to be a kind of hip-hop Rocky.
It helps educate the uninformed, not only about Eminem’s impoverished roots,
but also about the basic cultural functions of rap.
The music (the beat, the rhyming) works in the streets as a sublimated
form of hostility against whatever-you-got (girlfriends, relatives, rivals,
cops, bosses). Em’s “Rabbit” Smith, self-described “white trash” who lives in
a trailer with his baby sister, dissolute mom (Kim Basinger) and her brutal
boyfriend, has a talent for it.
His grim home life, and un-Em-like kindness to the little girl and
others (including a gay co-worker), earn him sympathy. He’s soft also in a romantic/sexual
fling with a soul mate (Brittany Murphy). More convincingly, he’s bonded with
a closely-knit entourage of mostly black pals who encourage him to enter local
rap contests (a verbal equivalent to boxing). “Once they hear you,” they tell
him, “it won’t matter what color you are.”
Personally, I prefer Tony Bennett, but that’s another
story. A rap film can’t be made without uncouth language;
also much fighting and stupid juvenile behavior; otherwise,
well above average in reality and power; for mature viewers
COLUMBINE(A-3, R): You either love or hate Michael Moore, the bright
blue-collar guy from Flint, who is a formidable one-man anti-Establishment force
in American movies. Moore confronts people, often rich or celebrated, when they
least expect it, with pointed moral questions about their actions.
His focus this time is on guns and violence in America, using the
tragic Denver-area Columbine shootings as a takeoff point. (The teenage killers
bowled before school that day.) He starts by applying deadpan at a bank that’s
giving away a free rifle with each new account. The conclusion is a tense one-on-one
with Charlton Heston, the dramatic and feisty president of the National Rifle
Association, at the actor’s posh estate.
In his laconic way, Moore satirizes the U.S. gun culture. (“If guns
made you safe, America would be the safest country in the world.”) He tries
in vain (using interviews, archival footage, comparative numbers) to explain
why it exists here and not, say, in Canada or Japan. This is all thoughtful
material, on the ordinary person’s level anyhow, but likely to convince mostly
the already saved.
Moore can be angry, as when he talks about the six-year-old who
killed another six-year-old, or poignant, as when he defends hard-pressed welfare
mothers. He’s funniest when he just lets people talk: A kid from a school Eric
Harris once attended in Michigan says, “I make bombs, but nothing big.”
Moore’s most resonant attack is on the media and press, for their
obsession with violence in all forms, neglect of social issues like pollution
and poverty, and creation of a climate of fear.
While most moral criticism focuses on the Sixth Commandment, Moore
turns to the Fifth: Americans kill a lot of people every year, both at home
and abroad. He asks why, and it’s a dialogue that needs to be continued. One
of Moore’s better efforts; satisfactory for mature viewers.
CATHOLIC AS SPY: The CBS docudrama miniseries that
aired in November on F.B.I. turncoat Robert Hanssen (Master
Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, with William Hurt in
the title role) was unique in its murky, almost Graham Greene-ish
mix of espionage and Catholic angst. Hanssen, father of
six, seemed to be a model citizen, an intensely active traditional
churchgoer and patriot.
But how can you be dedicated to Opus Dei and betray your country
to the Russians for 20 years? How can you be the sort of fellow who bans words
like “full frontal nudity” and “homosexual” from table talk and describes a
strip club as “an occasion of sin” and yet carry on an outrageously expensive
secret affair with a beautiful-but-dim exotic dancer?
The dense, introspective script based on nine months of research
by liberal intellectual and novelist Norman Mailer (an odd choice for this project)
rejects simple hypocrisy or a need for money. It suggests that Hanssen (now
serving a life sentence in federal prison) was tormented by conflicting good
and evil impulses, both in the spy trade and in his personal morals.
Among the twists: The extramarital adventure was sexless and even
affection-less (much to the dancer’s chagrin) and seemed designed to woo her
back to God and the Church. Now that was an unusual episode in a culture
whose favorite image of spies is James Bond.
This Hanssen is clearly troubled, and his rigid approach to religion
just another psychotic symptom. The considerably talented Hurt can’t make Hanssen
sympathetic. The closest he comes is in a final prayer that also seems prideful
even in remorse: “See me as at least equal to the Good Thief....Let me hear,
‘This day you will be with me in paradise.’”
Mary-Louise Parker does much better as his puzzled and neurotic
wife, Bonnie, who gives him the loyalty and (a bit pitifully) the love he needs
to survive his disgrace.
SEX AND THE
SEX AND THE
CITY (HBO): Whenever I tune in this long-running HBO Sunday night series,
one of its four unwed and famously uncommitted female protagonists is either
having sex or talking about it. This isn’t all the show is about, and it has
perceptive or funny moments. But mostly these characters and the men they encounter
(almost always flawed jerks) are not people you want to spend time with.
Yet Sex wins hayloads of awards. The media attention has
largely been favorable, and its smart, fashionable, profane-talking heroines
(especially Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie) have all but become icons of liberated
21st-century urban women.
But times change. In the upscale The New Republic on November
18, 2002, contributing editor Lee Siegel, noting that the show’s male creators
are both gay, accuses the series of misogyny. These high-achieving women, he
writes, are “constantly humiliated, insulted and embarrassed without the slightest
effect on their egos or their self-esteem.”
Siegel argues that the characters’ endless quest for sex, both impersonal
and somehow “perfect” (as an end in itself), is more typical of a certain type
of gay male sex. It’s “the biggest hoax perpetrated on straight single women
in the history of entertainment.” Wow.
Siegel has other issues to explore (in three pages), including that
the women don’t resemble any actual persons who live in New York and there is
no reason why they would ever have become friends.
His point regarding the writers is to suggest not a gay conspiracy
but rather (as always) that a show reflects its authors’ attitudes. Yet its
glamorization of the single life and each woman’s constant discouragement in
finding a decent guy—someone to share her life with—amount to an “assault on
heterosexual romantic hope.” That’s nicely put. I knew it was something like