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Mel Gibson Dumped from New Movie

Following what appears to have been a cast and crew revolt against the film’s director and producers, actor Mel Gibson has reportedly been dumped from his cameo role in the sequel to last year’s vulgar hit The Hangover. The rebuke of the misogynistic, anti-Jewish, anti-gay former movie star, a Catholic fundamentalist who makes blood pornography and obviously knows how to put on an act, is at least four years overdue.

Back in early 2004, when Gibson refused to admit the press for screenings of his Passion of the Christ in favor of church screenings, I wrote in an online commentary (“Jesus Christ Superscar”): “Pain is at the core of [his] bloody Braveheart, gruesome The Patriot, tortured Mad Max and nearly every picture Gibson has made. His movies, including Ransom, Conspiracy Theory and Lethal Weapon, show that torment is his stock in trade.” I later observed that Gibson’s Judeo-Christian display of blood, sweat and self-sacrifice was a kind of companion propaganda film to Michael Moore’s popular piece of left-wing dogma, Fahrenheit 9/11, also released in 2004.

By the summer of 2006, with news of Gibson’s first publicly acknowledged tirade against gays, Jews, and women, I wrote that Hollywood’s silent sanction of Gibson’s behavior and ideas was pathetic. Following one of Gibson’s unapologetic “apologies”, it fell to an 89-year-old Jew, Kirk Douglas, writing in Variety, to put the matter in perspective: “Within the deep recesses of his mind, there apparently lies a cancerous sore of hatred for the Jews…Mel’s first apology was too contrite and seemingly not remorseful. His second was an afterthought—oh yes, about those Jews.” In the wake of a heavily hyped interview on Disney’s television network, promoting  Gibson’s imminent Apocalypto for the studio, I criticized Disney in a column for giving Gibson “a platform to equivocate about his anti-Jewish views, essentially blaming the outburst on those who criticized his commercially popular religious picture, The Passion of the Christ.” I can’t think of more just deserts for Mel Gibson, who was once capable of creating decent and enjoyable movie roles, than being fired from a production that’s sure to be as low, crude and disgusting as The Hangover 2.

Aaron Zigman’s New Score

Composer Aaron Zigman’s new score for Lionsgate‘s For Colored Girls is his best work yet. The ensemble film, which premieres next month, is Zigman’s sixth cinematic collaboration with director Tyler Perry, who adapted Ntozake Shange’s 1974 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Featuring music performed by a full orchestra with solo performances by violinist Joshua Bell and Zigman on piano, the Hollywood artist said in a statement that, for one pivotal scene in the picture, he sought to capture the playwright’s poetic style and integrate it into an Italian libretto with homage to opera composers Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi. The result is an interesting new aria that uses the picture’s poignant main theme.

Aaron Zigman, a San Diego native whose previous film music credits include The Notebook, Sex and the City, The Proposal, The Last Song, and Akeelah and the Bee, creates a haunting theme in various formats including classical, jazz and opera, with generally flawless execution as far as I’m concerned. With one exception, each piece succeeds as a distinctive variation on the theme (which recalls Rachel Portman’s evocative score for The Human Stain) and I am looking forward to listening to Zigman’s work in the proper context when I see For Colored Girls. The movie features Kerry Washington (Lakeview Terrace), Kimberly Elise (Stop-Loss), Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog), Thandie Newton (The Pursuit of Happyness), Phylicia Rashad (Just Wright), Whoopi Goldberg (Sister Act) and Janet Jackson (CBS’ Good Times).

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter

It’s clear from the beginning of the New Age pap known as Hereafter, written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and produced and directed by Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Invictus), that we’re in for a slog: a hunky Frenchman and his pouty girlfriend arise at daylight in a southeast Asian paradise and every shot and movement is slow and deliberate, so you know disaster looms. Hereafter does that and never lets up, easing off for a few scenes, suddenly slamming children with trucks, then laying on platitudes and all this in an apparent effort to convince us to have faith in the face of death. Hinting that evidence (minus facts, of course) for psychic and near-death white light experiences bears some relation to an afterlife, courtesy of a cameo by the always compelling German actress Marthe Keller (Black Sunday, Bobby Deerfield) as an atheist, the death stories never seem to end.

When they do, what’s left is a contrived convergence of some of the most deadly characters on screen this year. There’s Matt Damon’s inscrutable Bay Area psychic, who reads Dickens, sees dead people and gets the best lines, another of those lifeless, expressionless, monotonous types that Damon does for a living. There’s a Parisian broadcast journalist (Cecile de France) who pouts and ponders after nearly being swept away from life, which is as involving as it sounds. And there’s a wayward twin (Frankie McLaren), a boy who wanders the streets of London like something out of Dickens. As Damon’s psychic factory worker tells the tale of having gone from surgery to nightmares, migraines, and psychic connections to his cooking class love interest (Bryce Dallas Howard), Hereafter chugs along, mixing in Francois Mitterand and dead spouses, children, and terrorist attacks, which everyone insists on referring to as “events”. The whole dull mess feels like a geriatric Close Encounters of the Third Kind with death replacing aliens as the hot topic.

But Hereafter, one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year, keeps going on hokum despite running out of juice. The journalist finally figures out what most probably can figure out in the first few minutes, Damon’s mannequin finally realizes that he doesn’t have a “duty to help others” as his parasitic brother (Jay Mohr) claims, and the wandering boy finally stops roaming convention halls and hotel rooms and comes to believe in something. Hereafter (opening this weekend and opening wide on October 22) has better moments, mostly when Morgan and Eastwood say something about life, but it tries to have death and the notion of an afterlife every which way and ends up neither here nor there.

Secretariat Wins Over The Social Network in Depicting Capitalism

The Social Network

While the highly touted Facebook film, The Social Network, is the technically superior movie, Disney’s tale of a great American horse and the owner that took him to historic Triple Crown success in 1973, Secretariat, is more enjoyable. The former is written by pretentious Aaron Sorkin (NBC’s The West Wing) and directed by the uneven David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The latter, which opens this Friday, is directed by writer Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask) and it is choppy, cliched and predictable. Both movies offer a clear perspective on what it means to make money; while Social Network holds capitalism in contempt, Secretariat exhibits a thorough grasp of capitalism in practice.

As the jaded Social Network opens with breathless banter between two cynics (including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg) who yap at one another like prissy show dogs at trial, one pivotal character delivers a derisive line about “being the best you can be” that comes to define the picture. To have Fincher and Sorkin show and tell it, Facebook and all social media are an immature extension of a whiz kid’s neurotic snit and creativity is nothing more than a construct devised by hacks. While it is true that Zuckerberg’s hacking at Harvard led to what is now arguably the biggest Web site on earth, with more hits than Google, this trite, obvious version of his success is impossible to accept as credible.

With everyone speaking in that droning mainstream media/dominant intellectual monotone, set to a sparse piano theme, Social Network is like My Dinner with Andre on steroids. Success in business is an accident, Sorkin argues, or something close to anarchy, which comes in random, reactionary spurts of nothing in particular. Sure, one has to be smart, know some facts and punch some code, but, really, there isn’t much more to creating a billion-dollar enterprise than being an unethical geek who scrapes and claws his way to the top like Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls, which this picture unwittingly evokes, with Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo as the clean-cut Barbara Parkins brunette. Only it’s less sympathetic. I hated the characters from the beginning, I wanted to escape Harvard ‘s dull, lifeless den of depravity (the college’s students are portrayed as a bunch of brainy but vacant sluts and brainy but vacant geeks and jocks), and I don’t believe a word of it. If you regard Facebook as an empty vessel of narcissism and meaningless discourse, The Social Network validates your viewpoint. If you think that, like early television programming, social media is an exciting industry rich with possibilities, you will be instantly disconnected.

By contrast, the heavily laden Secretariat is inspiring. Placing at its center a woman named Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), who brought the best racehorse in the world into existence, this variation on Places in the Heart (1983) has too much to say and not enough of it about what made the horse an incredible achievement by man. Ms. Lane is at her best as a hard woman who’s all business at a time when Daddy’s little girl grew up to be a housewife, not a horse owner. Secretariat, for all its Hollywood oversimplifications, understands ownership. Opening in 1969, with hippies crawling all over the country like bedbugs infesting the civilized world, Penny is like First Lady Pat Nixon, a simple Western wife and mother baking cakes for the kids. When her dad (Scott Glenn) dies, she returns to the horse farm where she grew up, and, suddenly jarred into the realization that she had once wanted more of life than motherhood, and feeling out of alignment while visiting her childhood home, Penny boldly stakes her claim. Showing leadership skills right out of former BB&T Chairman John Allison’s principles of leadership, she takes the reins, pardon the pun, asserting that work is good for grief, that owning horses is her business and that life means having “the will to win if you can and to live with it if you can’t”.

Upon Secretariat’s birth, she assembles the team, which includes a down and out trainer played by John Malkovich, and proceeds to instill honor, trust and idealism in those around her. The racing scenes are thrilling (and, having seen the victories live on television as a youth, I can attest that Secretariat brings back the glory), and Diane Lane is brighter and better than ever in the role of a brave capitalist who insists on making things right when she’s been wrong and being a rational example to her husband and children, and not just to her daughters, that offers an antidote to the scum that was building up in 1973. Secretariat’s breathtaking win was what we needed then, more so now, and Secretariat, with its arrogant owner trading in shares and vowing to her men that “we are going to live rejoicing every day” and cashing in during a glamorous ballroom dance, captures the glory of achieving one’s values. Wallace’s and Disney’s Secretariat, one of ousted chairman Dick Cook’s last projects, is a winner.

3 Movies: Mao’s Last Dancer, Tillman Story, Charlie St. Cloud

This summer, I saw three pictures about youths cut down in the prime of life, a fitting theme on the eve of the date of the worst attack (so far) in American history. Disney’s Charlie St. Cloud, starring Zac Efron, is a middling fantasy depicting one young man’s grief recovery. Though not a complete waste of time, this ponderous, poorly directed film, based on a book, is stuffed with sudden close-ups, gaping plot holes, and a lot of cheesy scenes and inside jokes. Efron’s character never sustains enough interest, Kim Basinger as his mom is pointlessly sidelined early in the movie, and, with fragmentary similarities to Ordinary People and The Sixth Sense, Charlie St. Cloud comes up short of something to say.

Pat Tillman (November 6, 1976 – April 22, 2004) was the professional football player who enlisted with his brother in the Army Rangers (they were assigned to the same unit) following the Moslem attack in 2001 and the Weinstein Company’s The Tillman Story retraces the brutal details of his death in Afghanistan by friendly fire, not the combat death by Taliban as the Bush administration erroneously reported and subsequently covered up. This gripping documentary was made with the participation of Pat Tillman’s family and it demonstrates that the man who was possibly the nation’s most famous soldier was a hero, though not because he sacrificed himself. Atheist Tillman trained to be his best because he loved life. Once deployed, he expressed his disappointment with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a freethinker who suspected that the Army might use his celebrity and, according to this convincing account of his 2004 death, he was right. That he was an excellent Ranger whose skills were wasted in a non-war that America refused to fight, let alone win, is not the focus of The Tillman Story, which raises questions and leaves one with the impression that Pat Tillman may have been the victim of envy by some of his fellow soldiers. That the Army and administration covered up his death with an American flag, to paraphrase someone in the film, reflects the profound injustice of America’s response to 9/11. In nine years, we have done nothing serious to defeat the enemy that seeks to destroy us. The Tillman Story shows that what little we have done is worse than you think.

While I do not consider director Bruce Beresford’s (Driving Miss Daisy) Mao’s Last Dancer a masterpiece (as my favorite film critic, Rex Reed, proclaims in his review), the reality-based story of a communist Chinese defector is one of the summer’s most entertaining pictures. Beginning with the young male ballet dancer Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) being chauffered around Houston, Texas, in a Volkswagen Rabbit in 1981, the dance drama is told in layered flashbacks, from his poor but happy family with his smiling mother (Joan Chen) to his rise through Mao Tse-tung’s communist indoctrination and the lucky break to travel to America for a season with a flamboyant director’s company on cultural exchange just as communist China may be trying to impress the West. With a father who is an intellectual, a teacher who is an individualist, and a ballerina who is smart and beautiful, Li has plenty of counterpoints to Mao’s little red book and its anti-American ideals. But Li chooses his own version of freedom, lifting Mao’s Last Dancer into the spotlight. With exciting music and the dazzling pirouettes to match, Li’s escape to the West, aided by a Houston lawyer (Chen’s Twin Peaks‘ co-star, Kyle MacLachlan) is an incredible story. The narrative progression (“don’t look back”) is stronger than its central character, the elusive Li (played at different ages by three excellent actors), and Mao’s Last Dancer lacks the emotional power of The Lives of Others, which also used history as a dramatic hook, and Li’s defection is not as thrilling as Kolya’s (Mikhail Baryshnikov) escape from communism in White Nights. But the true story of a fiercely determined dancer, and those who attend to his success, is an inspiration. Now that China seems to be moving further from Mao’s communist ideas, and America is disintegrating into an anti-capitalist state, it is depressing to realize that Li might have danced himself into more of the same.