TONGUES ON FILM – FEBRUARY 2011

by Ross Sharp

The recent closure of my suburb’s only video store momentarily interrupted my penchant for boning up on B-grade straight-to-DVD horror movies and other such eclectic fare for my weekend entertainments.

Onward and online from here on in.

The kindness of strangers and a couple things from Amazon have tied me over in the meantime, and here are a few upon which my eyeballs have sucked at recently …

“TEMPLE GRANDIN” (2010)

If you were to ask me what I thought of the film “Rain Man”, my response would make your ears bleed, your eyes pop from their sockets and then your head would explode.

And that would not be pleasant. So don’t ask.

Because I am not a violent man.

Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman has a crick in his neck and shouts at a bathtub.

GET. FUCKED.

Now. I must admit I’ve never paid much attention to Claire Danes. I don’t know why. I just haven’t. She was very, very good in the film adaptation of Steve Martin’s “Shopgirl”, but beyond that, I know very little about her work.

I’m going to pay more attention in the future.

Because she is very, very, very good in this biopic from HBO. She won a Golden Globe earlier this year for her efforts, and thoroughly deserved it, too. She plays Temple Grandin, diagnosed at 4 years old as autistic. Her mother was told that she would never speak and would have to be institutionalised. But she did learn to speak, and the only institutions she attended were school, high school, college and graduate school, eventually to become a leading authority in the field of animal husbandry and to revolutionise the systems used to prepare cows for the slaughterhouse, and the designs of the slaughterhouses themselves.

She is now in her 60’s, a doctor of animal science and professor at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour and was listed by Time in 2010 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world under the category of “Heroes”.

And she doesn’t look anything like Claire Danes. But we are in Hollywoodland, so you have to expect such things.

Danes does not have a crick in her neck, she doesn’t shout at a fucking bathtub, in fact there is nothing whatsoever about her performance that one could consider in any way a caricature or condescending and exploitative. And it is the story of how Grandin came to her achievements that makes this film such a riveting and thoroughly engaging movie, and at no point does one feel one’s emotions have been cheaply and crassly manipulated as is so often the case with the “disease/affliction/disability” genre so beloved of Hollywood actors jonesing for a trophy.

David Strathairn also turns up and acquits himself well, and there are lots and lots and lots of cows …

“My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people. I think in pictures and I connect them”.

“RED” (2010)

Bruce Willis. Bald. Has gun.

John Malkovich. Nuts. Has gun.

Helen Mirren. Feisty. Has gun.

Morgan Freeman. Has cancer. And gun.

Former CIA. Retired. Reunited. With guns!

Corrupt politician! Presidential ambitions! Kill former CIA! Kill with guns!

They know stuff!! Secret stuff!!!

Run around!! Run away!! Run around!!

With guns!!

And so forth.

Yes.

And so it goes.

As it goes.

With Mary-Louise Parker.

In tow.

Umf.

I like her. I like her very much.

Yes, indeed.

Umf.

And the movie?

Meh.

Try “The Losers”.

Similar.

Has Idris Elba in it.

Stringer Bell. “The Wire”.

Umf.

“AN AMERICAN CRIME” (2007)

In 1965 in Indiana, carnival workers Betty and Lester Likens left their two daughters, Sylvia and Jenny, in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski for three months so they could continue to work with the carnival they were travelling with at the time.

And on October 26, 1965, not long after, 16 year old Sylvia Likens was dead of a brain haemorrhage, shock and malnutrition.

During the time she had spent boarding with Baniszewski, she had been repeatedly beaten, had cigarettes put out on her skin, had been locked and tied in a cellar, forced to eat faeces, drink urine, was sexually abused with a Coca-Cola bottle a number of times, had the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” carved into her stomach and had the number “3” burnt onto her chest with a heated eye bolt.

The abuse was carried out by Baniszewski, her seven children (it was a 10 year old who heated the eye bolt), and a number of other children from the neighbourhood, about six of them.

The strength of “An American Crime” is that it never descends into a ghoulish visual catalogue of the horrors Likens endured; rather, the focus is firmly on the characters, their behaviour (which, aside from the Likens’ sisters, is admittedly but inexplicably atrocious), and, as much of the film was based on actual court transcripts from the trial of Baniszewski and her accomplices, there is little about it one could regard as needlessly exploitative. In an interview with the New York Times, director Tommy O’Haver said of his approach to the material, ““It would have been easy to take this story over the top. So I purposely pulled back. My mantra was ‘restraint, restraint, restraint.’ ”

Catherine Keener, who plays Baniszewski, initially turned down the role, feeling that, “As a mother, I can’t do this”, and that she was “really scared to do something like it”, but, after further discussions with O’Haver, was finally persuaded.

It’s an excellent performance (Keener was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy), one that could have so easily been a one-dimensional portrait of unfathomable evil, but Keener invests the part with … well, for want of a better word, “humanity”, that is to say, a far cry from the cliché cartoon criminals and unhinged douchebags who regularly stalk the small screen in vehicles like “C.S.I.” or “Law and Order:SVU”.

Ellen Page plays Sylvia in a role that feels a little underwritten, yet on reflection, I’m not sure how the part could’ve been “beefed” up without falling into the realm of baseless assumption, given that Likens was only 16 at the time of her death and not a great deal was known about her; her most striking characteristic appeared to be her passivity – she did not even try to escape from her situation until it was far too late.

Baniszewski was sentenced to life imprisonment for her crimes, but was released on parole in 1985. Her “good behaviour” while incarcerated was taken into consideration. She died of lung cancer in 1990. Four others were charged, one on second degree murder, three with manslaughter.

Difficult film to watch, but the director’s aforementioned restraint, the two central performances from Keener and Page, and good support from Bradley Whitford, Nick Searcy and James Franco make it well worth your time.

“THE KING’S SPEECH” (2010)

I don’t get it.

Yes, I “get” the film, but “Best”?

This was the “best” film of 2010?

Yes, it’s engaging enough. Yes, the performances are fine. The production values are good, the script is okay, nothing about it pissed me off, but at heart, it’s just a thoroughly conventional little movie, conventionally told.

A nice, safe little movie. That’s all.

This was better than “The Social Network”? Or “Black Swan”? Or “Inception”?

Really?

Richard Roeper from the Chicago Sun-Times

“If “The King’s Speech” is a more impressively directed film than “The Social Network” or “Inception” (not that Christopher Nolan was even nominated), then “Ordinary People” and “Dances With Wolves” were better directed films than “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas.””

Oh. That’s right …

Harvey Weinstein was one of the producers.

I guess that explains it.

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