A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars

She was a saint, Renée Zellweger, with her brave chin all a-tremble, never saying a harsh word to her husband no matter how the little ones wheezed and shivered in the cruel, cruel cold,


She was a saint, Renée Zellweger, with her brave chin all a-tremble, never saying a harsh word to her husband no matter how the little ones wheezed and shivered in the cruel, cruel cold, nor how many a morning, just to put something in their stomachs, she had to fill up the milk bottle at the tap the way they were watering drinks down at the saloon, not that her Russell Crowe would know anything about that, him being as good a man as ever let another bash in his brains for fifteen rounds and never touched a drop of anything stronger than beer, and only one of those in the whole of Cinderella Man, which ought to show you what a saint he was, never saying a harsh word to Renée Zellweger or so much as glancing sideways at another woman, what with the peripheral vision beaten out of his poor eyes, or threatening to shut one of hers, the way that no-good communist friend of his down at the docks used to frighten the wits out of his own wife, until he was trampled to death by the police in an incident they all very much regretted, it being the Depression and all, which as Russell Crowe explained was nothing more than a run of bad luck that could happen to anyone, so that he had to bury the blackguard atheist in the potter’s field before he took up his boxing gloves again to a Celtic drone in the artful cinematographic twilight, and with his tooraloom, tooraloom he bled for us all, because it’s better to cheer for one man getting his skull stove in than to pull together with the working stiffs for a Wagner Act that Ron Howard’s audience never heard of, and when the last fight was over and Father O’Pratie had lifted his eyes to the God who loves us all, despite His excusable partiality toward the Irish, and the little ones were rosy-cheeked again, and even that Bolshevik’s wife was eased in her heart’s sorrow, Renée Zellweger knew she’d been right to pucker her brave little mouth and pipe up to Russell Crowe, “You are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock,” because a sentiment like that doesn’t belong just in a screenplay, no, but was made to be cut out of the film and played on television to bring in the coppers from all decent men and their decent women, too. A grand story, Cinderella Man–but unlike Seabiscuit, it’s got no good reason to make you wade through horseshit.

The least you can say for Mr. & Mrs. Smith is that its lead actors are not too good for this world. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who for months have figured in the tabloids and glossies as old-style Hollywood sinners, introduce the movie and close it out by pretending to participate in counseling sessions, which (although improbable as narrative) allow the stars to play to the camera in thinly disguised scandal-sheet personas. He: sexy, dazzling and reckless. She: sexy, knowing and dangerous. Given the bare and patchwork texture of Simon Kinberg’s script, the events between these chats amount to little more than a fanciful backstory for the famous couple. We may now imagine Brad ‘n’ Angie as a husband and wife who were sunk in suburban boredom until each learned the other was a professional assassin–a revelation that changed deathly marriage into an exciting, kill-or-be-killed situation.

So Mr. & Mrs. Smith belongs to a pair of long-established movie genres: the celebrity self-parody and the therapeutic marital comedy (in which violent bursts of truth-telling and surges of adrenaline lead to hormonal release of another kind). The film’s distinction, if you can call it that, lies in its developing the latter genre with blithe amorality: The only good the movie recognizes is good sex. If the prerequisite should be mass murder, then you shouldn’t be so uncool as to object–let alone stop to wonder how many corpses have piled up.

Given the considerable craft of the stars, of Doug Liman (director of the far superior Go and The Bourne Identity) and of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, Mr. & Mrs. Smith succeeds in turning the potentially unwatchable into the merely unpalatable. Thanks a lot. The movie even takes on a fitful life at certain times, like Cinderella Man, through the force of a supporting actor. The boxing tear-jerker features Paul Giamatti, acting so hard and fast that he even carries you past the moments when he reveals his technique. The homicidal comedy features Vince Vaughn, having a high old time as an outer-borough, mama’s boy assassin.

Incidental pleasures. When you step out of Mr. & Mrs. Smith into the comparatively soothing ambience of Times Square being jackhammered, you may ask whether the film has produced any shocks of recognition you enjoyed. The answer, most likely, will be no–unless you think Iraq might be a fun place for the next Pitt-Jolie adventure. I noticed a certain resemblance between the movie’s settings (once the sexed-up couple had blasted them apart) and images of post-invasion Falluja.

One is jeering, the other smarmy, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Cinderella Man are alike in playing down to the audience. You can tell they were made by people who don’t truly believe in the material, and who figure you for a sucker if you do. That’s why the release of Batman Begins comes as both a relief and a satisfaction. Knowing that many millions of people have taken Batman seriously, at least at some point in their lives, the filmmakers have approached their material as something not just to exploit but to respect. They have dared to do Batman straight–and the result is the rare summer blockbuster with heart, brains and imagination.

What would it be like to venture alone, for the first time, into a cave that you know will be teeming with bats? What kind of person must you have become to welcome the oncoming swarm? What sequence of images will be eloquent enough to make an audience taste the fur in the air, feel the passing of furious wings, sense the man’s awful resolve? Writer-director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David Goyer are the first filmmakers to ask themselves such questions; the first to explain, plausibly, where Batman gets all those neat toys; even the first to make full use of his cape. And even though their dialogue hammers away too insistently at the script’s key ideas–which owe as much to The Shadow as to the Dark Knight himself–Nolan and Goyer deserve credit as the first team to make a Batman movie that’s thematically coherent. It’s about the effects of fear (or maybe I should say terror) on individuals and society.

The actors set the tone. Batman Begins stars the lavish roster of Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson and Liam Neeson, all of whom steadily underplay, with immense confidence in themselves and the script. (Katie Holmes, though the youngest by far, proves herself the peer of her colleagues, playing a character who goes well beyond the standard skirt role.) Flashes of humor occasionally lighten the proceedings, especially when Freeman is in the scene; but there’s no winking, no leering, no Pop Art. Blessings upon the memory of Bob Kane, we at last have a postironic Batman.

And why not? The hero must confront problems that have always been before him: how to distinguish justice from vengeance, legitimate force from brutality. These are serious matters, even for a guy decked out in a cape. I’m glad a comic-book figure is now speaking of them openly, since our government sure won’t.

As for the look and sound of the film: Everything from the meticulous costumes to the brooding, crumbling sprawl of Gotham is at least equal to what you’ll find in previous Batman movies, with the exception of the music. I miss Danny Elfman. That said, Nolan and his collaborators have at last got the story right, from the inside.

It may sound perverse, at this late date, to call a movie Batman Begins–but this one justifies the title.

“We wouldn’t have watched it beyond the first reel, except that Edith Kramer insisted it was great. We just sat there looking at each other and shrugging. But then we got into the second part of the film, and we found out–Edith was right.”

The year was 1983, and the speaker was Larry Kardish of the Museum of Modern Art. He was very kindly introducing me to Sequences by Alexandru Tatos, which he and his colleagues had selected for the New Directors/New Films series. But, perhaps more important, he was introducing me to the name of the Pacific Film Archive’s Edith Kramer. As I was to see when I got to watch Sequences, she was indeed right about her dark Romanian satires. As I was to learn over the next decades, she was also right about just about everything else.

Now, after thirty years at the PFA–twenty-two of them as its senior film curator and director–Edith Kramer will retire at the end of June. If you are a civilian moviegoer, especially one who lives outside Berkeley, you might not understand what this means to you. So let me summarize:

Edith expanded the PFA’s collection to more than 12,000 titles, preserving these films for generations of exhibition and study. She helped keep alive an international network of contemporary film by inviting to Berkeley such directors as Budd Boetticher, Charles Burnett, Sam Fuller, Agnieszka Holland, King Hu, Dusan Makavejev, Nagisa Oshima, Yvonne Rainer and Bertrand Tavernier. She commissioned exciting new musical scores for silent-era films such as Aelita: Queen of Mars and Earth. She made the PFA home to the San Francisco International Film Festival, MadCat Women’s International Film Festival, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and many more.

Then there was her devotion to the new, the cheap, the whacked-out–what we used to call the avant-garde. On the one occasion when I got to visit her on her home turf, in 1999, Edith sat me down with some recent televisual oddities from Sicily. I can’t remember who made them, nor do I have any idea what they were about. All I know is that after half an hour, I was chewing my tongue–and she was right to program them.

The PFA will manage to go on showing films without Edith Kramer. (She’s seen to that.) Movies will still be preserved, filmmakers will still circulate and strange people from Sicily will improbably go on televising their fever dreams. But, for all that, will we miss her?

To quote Anna Magnani, shrugging at the end of The Golden Coach: “A little.”

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