“RED”

“Red” (2010). Robert Schwentke, director. Summit Entertainment, 111 minutes.

Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen

Part comedy, part romance, and one hundred percent action, “Red” is a thoroughly entertaining ensemble film, featuring four Oscar winners (Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman) and several nominees. It isn’t likely to win any awards, but it is winning big accolades where it counts–at the box office.

 Frank Moses (Bruce Willis–no Oscars, but one of the most durable actors in Hollywood) is a former CIA agent who wakes up at 6 every morning on the dot, without an alarm clock; downs a handful of vitamins for breakfast; and heads downstairs to work out in his home gym. He’s a man with a strict regimen, even in retirement. After a hit team suddenly invades his home and literally mows it down with a relentless spray of bullets, he reassembles his team of “RED” agents (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) to thwart the assassins. 

Like John McClane, Bruce Willis’s alter ego in the “Die Hard” series, Frank brings along an innocent bystander as his reluctant sidekick. Sarah Ross (Mary Louise Parker) works as a clerk in the US Pension office by day and reads romance novels by night. She longs for adventure. Now she is living in one. Terrified and titillated at the same time, she is the perfect foil for Frank’s cool aplomb with both barrels blazing.

The film’s upbeat soundtrack by Christophe Beck, heavy on the organ, recalls another great ensemble piece, “Oceans Eleven.” But while the Oceans films often focus a little too heavily on the chumminess of the actors, “Red” is an ensemble piece of the highest order. Despite the presence of so many Oscar winning actors (or maybe because of it), this film avoids the diva-led pitfalls that doomed Sylvester Stallone’s geezer ensemble film, “The Expendables,” earlier this season. Each character in “Red” is developed with skilled professionalism, allowing Jon and Erich Hoeber’s fine screenplay to shine.

Morgan Freeman plays a brief but important role as Joe Matheson, a former CIA agent who helps Frank figure out why they are on a Company hit list. Ernest Borgnine, veteran of nearly 200 films, seems content in his role as the kindly records keeper deep in the basement of the CIA. Richard Dreyfuss also plays a pivotal role with an under-abundance of time on the screen, demonstrating that these actors know the key to a good movie is a good story, not face time. These actors never outshine the characters they play.

Lovely Helen Mirren is outrageous as the oh-so-perfect assassin turned society hostess. Dressed in a stunning white gown and combat boots, she calmly wields a machine gun almost as big as she is with a steady hand and a steely eye. Can this be the same woman who won an Oscar for her portrayal of frumpy Queen Elizabeth II two years ago? She’s delicious.

John Malkovich is the ultimate study in paranoia as Marvin Boggs, another RED member of Frank Moses’s former team. Subjected to government experiments with LSD during the sixties, Boggs is both brilliant and crazy. He lives in a Florida swamp inside an underground bunker accessed through the hood of a ’57 Chevy. Who wouldn’t love this guy?  His character makes us laugh, but feeding his paranoia is a chilling element of truth: Big Brother is always watching, and if he wants to find you, he will.

What draws us to films about government assassins? The bullets of course. And the grenades. And the hot car chases. And Bruce Willis stepping out of a car in mid-fishtail with a rifle cocked and ready to shoot. In slow motion. And the plot that invariably involves government corruption, of course. Like Sarah, the innocent sidekick drawn into the fray, we get a vicarious thrill from entering the adventure.

Years ago my father put himself through college by working as a repo man. If people didn’t make their car payments, my father would come and repossess the car for the bank. Every night he would put away his books, don his black turtle neck sweater and dark slacks, and head out to the poorer side of town where he would sneak down alleys, break into garages, and hotwire cars. Sometimes the owners would try to stop him, and the chase was on. My father loved the thrill of pretending like he was a car thief, knowing that he had a legally binding repo order resting on the clipboard in his pickup truck.

In many ways, these CIA action films fulfill the same urge. We can identify with the good guy and root for the assassin at the same time, because the assassins are only doing their patriotic duty. I’m not so sure I buy the argument of guns over diplomacy, but I sure do enjoy the films, especially when they are executed as well as this one. “Red” is a winner.

“Never Let Me Go”

“Never Let Me Go” (2010). Mark Romanek, director. DNA Films/ Fox Searchlight, 103 minutes.

“Never Let Me Go” is based on the haunting, elegantly written novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005). This unusual science fiction story is set in the mid-twentieth century, not in the future. The setting is horrifying only because it is not horrifying–it is presented as ordinary and normal. In this dystopian utopia, scientists have discovered a way to cure nearly all diseases, but only for certain humans. The film follows the story of a group of friends (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley) from boarding school through “completion,” a word, we learn, that means something very different from commencement.

These children are told that they are “special,” and they are encouraged to do artwork because “art says something about you. It reveals your soul.” They are provided food, clothing and shelter throughout their lives, so they do not need to study for careers. Instead, they spend much of their time as teens munching on snacks, staring at the tv screen, and engaging in meaningless sex. They are rather like cows, and that may be one of the subtle but intentional metaphors of the story. Is there much difference between harvesting spare parts from humans and harvesting pork chops from pigs? Although this connection is never made overtly, PETA members and those who oppose embryonic research must love this film.

The film is directed with excruciating restraint, reminiscent of the Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson roles in “Remains of the Day,” (1993) also based on a novel by Ishiguro (1989). In the book this restraint works effectively, because the reader is able to enter the thoughts and feelings of Kathy H (Mulligan), who narrates the story. Like Cormac McCarthy’s sparely written The Road (2006), Never Let Me Go is a book that stays with the reader long after finishing the last page.

On film, however, this acquiescent restraint is less successful. The movie is slow, almost plodding, and even when the children are told, early in the film, about their fates, they barely react. It makes the case–unintentionally perhaps–that these “creatures” (as one teacher calls them) do not have souls. They do not rebel or use their minds to discover that they have certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and happiness. Like beasts in the field, most of them simply accept their fate.

Kathy H (none of these children has a last name) is an exception. Compassionate, emotional, and caring, she is a living, breathing answer to a teacher’s question, “Do these creatures have souls?” In the book, her narration is filled with poetic language, answering this question wtih a resounding “yes!” “Carers and donors have accomplished so much,” she acknowledges, “but we aren’t machines.” The film, unfortunately, makes the opposite case, because most of the acting is dull and mechanical, especially the performance phoned in by Knightley, who may have been miffed at not getting the lead.

The mid-twentieth century setting and British boarding school uniforms create an eerie atmosphere of almost robotic complacency and acceptance of authority. These children never question the roles that have been thrust upon them, nor do they try to escape, although they do search for a deferral of their eventual fate. In this respect the story calls to mind Islamic training camps where children are taught to become soldiers and suicide bombers for the good of their community. Its main theme also acts as a metaphor for the way one class often cannibalizes another in a controlled society.

Other allusions abound, always subtle, always engaging. At one point the children excitedly greet the school’s handy man as he delivers small boxes of toys and treasures the children will be allowed to “buy” with the tokens they have earned for good behavior at the school. The toys are worn and used. Only later do we realize that they are the toys of school alumni who have “completed.” It is an eerie reminder of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Children are kept isolated within the boundaries of Hailsham School by false stories told to them about the outside, and when a new teacher tells them the truth about their fate, she is fired, reminiscent of Plato’s Cave. The story challenges our understanding of what is true, what is false, and how we can know the difference.

Despite its gruesome theme, “Never Let Me Go” is strangely lacking in suspense. Kathy’s emotion is real and sad, but we never fully enter her world. Perhaps someone who had not read the book would have found it more engaging, but the ladies sitting behind me were thoroughly confused at the ending. “Where were their parents?” one woman asked her friend. They expressed surprise when I explained to them the background of the children. Sadly, this is a case of a wonderful book hampered by poor screenplay adaptation, indifferent direction, and languid editing. The topic of the story is there, but as with the donors in its cast, the heart is missing. The rich language and metaphor, the deep thoughts and feelings, the intense longing don’t translate well to the screen. My recommendation: read the book instead.

Capitalism: A Love Story

“Capitalism: A Love Story,” written and directed by Michael Moore. Vantage Productions, 127 minutes.
Michael Moore has made a name for himself as the king of ambush journalism. He snags interviews with corporate bigwigs and policy makers by pretending to be interested in benign issues and then switches to hot-button topics once he’s in the room. With aggressive questioning that catches interviewees off guard and skillful editing that twists their comments around, he paints an ugly picture of corporate and conservative America that is deliberately and malevolently deceptive. Moore’s disingenuous tactics are so blatant that even the Academy of Arts & Sciences refuses to list his films as documentaries.
In “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Moore is up to his old tricks. The film begins with what appears to be a hostage standoff. Four adults are locked inside a house, filming the arrival of several police cars and speaking to one another about the inevitability of what’s about to happen. What is it? A suicide pact? A religious cult? As police begin knocking down the doors, the householders call out, “We have no weapons. We will not resist. But we will not open the door.” The crisis? A foreclosure eviction.
Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply saddened by the number of people who have lost their homes in this financial crisis. I’m sorry if they were duped into borrowing more than they could afford to repay. But according to Moore’s own film, it was Fed chairman Alan Greenspan who urged homeowners to “Tap into your home equity” as a way of stimulating the economy, and it was Clinton era lawmakers who passed the Community Reinvestment Act requiring banks to grant mortgages to low-income homebuyers. Don’t blame capitalism for government policy.
In another segment, Moore presents the horrify stories of several teens who were sent to a juvenile detention center for seemingly minor infractions. They were all sentenced by the same judge, who appears to have been receiving kickbacks from the owner of the facility. (I say “seemingly” and “appears to have” because I can never trust Moore to tell a true story.) The more children this judge sent to the facility, the more money he received. Many of these teens remained virtually incarcerated for months, according to the film.
Moore blames this travesty on capitalism because the community had turned to a privatized detention system rather than a government-run facility. But let’s put the blame where it belongs. This is not a failure of capitalism, it is a failure of this particular judge to act honestly and appropriately.
Moore complains that capitalists are greedy, but greed is a condition of human nature, not of capitalism per se–or of socialism, for that matter. Most people try to be honest, but some steal from their own mothers. Greed can and often does lead to criminal behavior. But it’s easier to control, incarcerate, or simply avoid greedy capitalists than it is to get rid of greedy politicians and dictators.
To be fair, Moore doesn’t limit his blame to Bush and the Republicans this time; Clinton, Chris Dodd, Greenspan, and even Obama appear to be in on the take as Moore reports on last year’s financial meltdown. But these are politicians. If capitalists are buying them, it’s because the politicians put themselves up for sale.
Moore decries the profit motive as “morally evil,” but what motivation would he prefer? Whips? Chains? How about pleasure? Moore interviews several pilots who love to fly airplanes, but they still aren’t happy. The want more money.
This leads us to another of Moore’s anecdotes: the plight of employees at Republic Windows and Doors who were all let go when the company went bankrupt. This isn’t so much a failure of capitalism as it is a failure of the union who represented the workers, in essence pricing themselves out of the market. Interestingly, Moore was right there on the spot, filming disgruntled employees as they broke into the factory and began a sit-in. Did he just happen to be passing by with a camera crew? Did he re-enact the bolt-cutting? Or did Moore himself incite the sit-in for his mockumentary? Quite a convenient coincidence, Mr. Moore.
At one point Moore asks one of the former employees why they didn’t just form a cooperative and run the company themselves. One woman responds, “Because we don’t have any money–we aren’t capitalists.” There’s the rub: it takes capital to start a business. But anyone can be a capitalist. All you have to do is spend less than you earn, and invest the difference.
In fact, Moore unwittingly demonstrates that possibility when he shows what happened at a bakery where employees bought the company and turned it into a cooperative. Today they all work harder and enjoy their jobs more. They feel empowered. They saved their money, invested it in a business, and now they’re making a handy profit. Wait a minute–isn’t that capitalism?
Moore suggests raising taxes as a way to fix the economy. “When the highest tax rates were 90%” he intones cheerily, “America enjoyed the greatest expansion in history, and families could get by on one income,” implying that a 90% tax rate today could solve our problems. But the tax code was different in the 50s. Congress awarded liberal tax breaks and exemptions for “good behavior.”
High income earners could give 90% of their marginal income to the government in taxes, or they could invest 100 % of it in a business, write it off, and reap the profits. Which would you do? What started out as a tax loophole turned into the greatest infusion of investment capital our country has ever known. No wonder the economy thrived. Capitalism truly was a love story.
But Moore has no sincere desire to inform or enlighten his viewers with a genuine explanation of how capitalism works. He’s a carnival barker who simply loves to rake the muck at the end of the pony show, a technology-savvy magician who knows how to manipulate the smoke and mirrors. Unfortunately, this circus has been to town too many times, and it isn’t very entertaining any more. I kept looking at my watch, wondering when it was going to be over. It was like listening to Andy Rooney for two straight hours. .
Moore says this is his last movie. Let’s hope he’s telling the truth about that.