David Cronenberg's films are always unpleasant. The betters ones -- Spider, eXistenZ, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, Scanners, The Brood, They Came from Within -- paradoxically distinguish themselves as those whose unpleasantness lingers longer. A day or two after seeing A History of Violence, then, is not too soon to conclude that it is not one of the better ones, however small the difference. Despite the pretentious-sounding title, it is in no sense an historical record of violence as a human fundamental (dating back, say, to Cain and Abel, or farther back to the appearance of the monolith among the apes in 2001), but merely a history in the archaic sense of a story, as in H.G. Wells's The History of Mr. Polly, and also in the sense of a past: a violent story, that is, about a man with a history of violence. More exactly, the bloody chain of events unleashed when the family-man proprietor (Viggo Mortensen) of the Main Street diner in Small Town, U.S.A., is forced to fight back against two homicidal psychopaths at his lunch counter. He is not, after that, just the local hero: "How did it feel," the Nightly News reporter wants to know, "when you saw the guns of those killers pointed directly at you?" Word gets around: "You could probably do Larry King Live, dad!" It gets back, even, to the Philly mobster with a marled eye and an unsettled score.
The unpleasantness on this occasion consists, not atypically for Cronenberg, in some gratuitous gore -- stomach-turning makeup effects for a bullet through the top of the head, a nose pounded up into a skull, etc., though I except the marvelously creepy makeup for Ed Harris's long-healed barbwire scars -- as well as in the oppressive mood of ominousness and dread. The latter is quite admirably achieved, especially in view of the conventionality of the plot: the past catching up with a retired killer, a staple of the American action film, whether Western or contemporary crime thriller. (I am not giving away a plot point here, no more than Mortensen's kick-ass choreography gives it away.) Through such devious means as the sedate and didactic tone, the clear-eyed and controlled cinematography, the deliberate pace, and a spot of uncommonly graphic sex between happily marrieds, the film feels unconventional, feels unpredictable. And it makes good use of William Hurt's widely recognized looniness for an unexpectedly funny climax, notwithstanding the expected gore. (Beyond unexpectedly funny, it may be self-defeatingly funny.) The ultimate purpose of the thing -- the unique distinction of the thing -- comes down to precisely those sources of unpleasantness and nothing more: the gratuitous gore and the feeling of unconventionality. But the unconven- tionality, such as it is, proves to be just a feeling rather than a fact: it tends to evaporate rapidly at the curtain. (One recommended point of reference would be Richard Fleischer's perfectly conventional yet subtly subversive Violent Saturday, 1955, where the celebration of the small-town family man who foils the big-city bad guys, with an assist from the pitchfork of an Amish pacifist, is as ambiguous as you please.) And the gore is simply too splashy for its own good. If the point of it was to sicken, the point appeared lost on the crowd around me. Or alternatively, if the point was to flush out the ghouls in the crowd, no one was taking names.
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Seeing that some blurbist already had dibs on "Fasten your seatbelts," the rest of us critics could only shuffle off to Flightplan with an attitude of utter uselessness. What was left to do but unload the luggage and collect the barf bags? Agreed, the movie gets off the ground in good shape, and manages to remain aloft a good deal longer than Red Eye, not merely because Berlin to New York is longer than Dallas to Miami. Directed by the little-known German filmmaker Robert Schwentke, from a screenplay by Peter Dowling and Shattered Glass's Billy Ray, it adds another variation to the infinitude of locked-room mysteries. After taking her six-year-old daughter to stretch out in the empty back rows of a double-decker jumbo jet, the mother nods off and wakes up, midflight, to find her daughter gone. "Well, she can't have gone far," one of the flight attendants points out the obvious. But before long an announcement over the P.A. system must concede, "Seems our aircraft is big enough to lose a child in," and a thorough search is undertaken, granting us access to such unfamiliar sights that we may think we had left the airplane and entered a dreamland. The girl's backpack happens to be missing from the overhead bin, too high for her to have reached by herself, and she would never have left behind, as she seems to have, her one-armed teddy bear. Someone had to have taken her, and a couple of Arabs come under perfectly natural, if politically incorrect, scrutiny. But every passenger is in his seat and accounted for, and none of them appears to be concealing a six-year-old. So, where can she be? When the mother is unable to produce a boarding pass for the girl, speculation shifts to the stress she is under -- her husband lies in a casket in the hold -- as well as to the medication she is on, and doubt begins to form that there was ever a daughter on board in the first place.
So far, so intriguing. And Jodie Foster's mixture of strain and anxiety and trying not to show it is very persuasive -- quite a feat, assuming she had read the script clear to the end before she consented to do it. For as soon as we begin to get some answers to the puzzle, the movie goes into a tailspin from which it will never pull up. The revealed plot -- the double-meaning "flightplan" -- seems to make so little sense that you might almost mistrust your own intelligence or sanity, never mind Jodie Foster's. And your faithful critic is left to wrestle with the ethical question of whether he's bound by his oath of secrecy no matter how unscrupulous or negligent the filmmakers. Let's just say (where much more could be said) that the entire rattletrap contraption depends upon such an unlikelihood as Jodie Foster being a "propulsion engineer" who would know the plane like the back of her hand, and such an unpredictability as no one on the plane noticing the little girl prior to her disappearance. A state of unsuspended disbelief -- a state of crash-landed disbelief -- is not the best frame of mind in which to receive the heroic vision of Mother Courage emerging from a ball of flame and a cloud of smoke, carrying sweet vindication in her arms.
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Robert Wise, who died on September 14 at the age of ninety-one years and four days, was one of my favorite American filmmakers. Still is. A director whose personality was a matter more of consistent temperament than consistent themes, he was perhaps handicapped in the eyes of the critics, if not those of the public, by his lack of identification with any one genre in particular, not to mention by his disproportionate identification with one musical in particular, The Sound of Music. Yet he made notable contributions to numerous genres and subgenres, with the significant exception of the comedy ones. (That aforementioned consistent temperament stayed on the sober side.) Blood on the Moon stands as one of the very best Westerns, possibly one of the top ten. The Curse of the Cat People and The Haunting, as I had occasion to say when discussing Dark Water over the summer, are two of the very best ghost stories, two of the top five. Science fiction: The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and the first and easily best -- as I would heatedly argue against the consensus -- of the Star Trek movies. Musicals: West Side Story and Star. The thesis film, or to be specific the anti-capital-punishment film: I Want to Live. The Vietnam War film (when the war was still going on): The Sand Pebbles, if you'll permit metaphor, and more explicitly Two People. The disaster film: The Hindenburg. The fight film: The Set-Up, Somebody Up There Likes Me. The film noir: Born to Kill. The semi-documentary crime film: The Captive City. The caper film: Odds Against Tomorrow. The last-named, a model of how to handle a Big Theme (racial prejudice) without getting weighed down by it, is one of my favorite films, period. I look around at the active American filmmakers I think of as my favorites today -- Clint Eastwood, the Coens -- and I see they still have a long way to go to catch up.
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Just a little reminder, and just a little favoritism: With the San Diego Film Festival now out of the way, the San Diego Asian Film Festival commences Friday at Hazard Center and lasts a week.