"Flags of Our Fathers" is a movie it's difficult to imagine anyone other than Clint Eastwood directing; his artistic character seems to inform every creative decision that's been taken in making it. It's set in the midst of a momentous World War II event: the U.S. invasion of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, on February 19, 1945. This was the first incursion of American forces onto Japanese territory, and it marked a psychological turning point in the war. Some 30,000 Marines landed on the eight-square-mile island that day; 6,821 of them died there.
Eastwood gives us all of the requisite combat spectacle: the sky dark with bombers roaring overhead; the sea thick with battleships; the landing craft spewing soldiers out onto the black-sand beach, many of them to be cut down instantly in the bullet-flecked surf. But the director is after something else. The movie is actually about the six soldiers whose raising of an American flag atop the island's Mount Suribachi provided one of the most famous photo images of the war. And it's about the ignominious things that happened to them after they were turned into media combat heroes and used by the U.S. government to raise money for the military from an American public that had grown weary of the fighting, which was then in its fourth year. The film thus has an unexpectedly intimate emotional scale; and it keeps making small, subtle points (the absence of black faces in the picture is a mute acknowledgment of military racial segregation at the time) that acquire a gathering power as the movie rolls along.
Of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, only three survived the fighting: John "Doc" Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, in a full-hearted, touching performance). The photo in which they appeared, taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, was a front-page sensation back home virtually overnight, and Washington politicians and military brass quickly had them returned to the States. There we see them trotted out at a baseball game to mount a papier-mâché Suribachi and implore a cheering crowd to buy war bonds. (In a brisk meeting with the country's new president, Harry S. Truman, he tells the puzzled trio, "You fought for a mountain in the Pacific. Now we need you to fight for a mountain of cash.") We also see them herded off to celebratory dinners. At one splashy banquet, they are served an odd dessert: a block of vanilla ice cream carved into a simulation of the famous photo image. Then we see them stare in disbelief as a waiter pours a stream of blood-red strawberry syrup over top of it.
These three men's feelings about all of this — their baptism in the currents of a nascent celebrity journalism — are mixed. Gagnon sees opportunity in it. But when he contacts the powerful businessmen who offered him jobs in the first surge of his fame, they never call back; the movie tells us he wound up working as a janitor. Bradley (whose son, James, co-wrote the book on which the film is based) is so ambivalent about his war experience that he never discusses it with his family. (His attitude is concisely expressed by one character in the film who says, "Civilians have no idea what war really is. And those who do can never again be entirely a part of a society that doesn't.")
The most famous of the Iwo flag-raisers, and the most tragically ill-used, is Ira Hayes. A staunchly patriotic Pima Indian, Hayes wants no part of being a media war hero. As the frenzy of his renown grows, he starts falling apart, embarking on what would become a long descent into alcoholism. The movie doesn't trumpet the reasons for this; it simply notes them in passing. In what seems like almost every scene, Hayes is assaulted by a racial condescension made more appalling by the bizarre jolliness with which it's conveyed. He's endlessly pelted with inquiries about "squaws" and "wigwams." At a meet-the-heroes cocktail gathering, a grinning fat cat says, "I hear you used a tomahawk on those Japs, huh, Chief?" When he's denied entry into a bar — even though he's wearing his uniform — we hear the bartender say, "I don't make the rules. We don't serve Indians."
And yet, in an address to the National Congress of American Indians, we hear Hayes saying, "Because of the war, white men are going to understand Indians a lot better, and it's going to be a better world." Not for him, though. We see Ira working lowly field-hand jobs after the war (with grinning tourists stopping to take a picture with him, as he wearily pulls out one of his medals, then hopping back in their car as he returns to his crop-picking); and in the end we see him dead in a dirt yard, apparently from exposure to the elements, in 1955. He was 32 years old.
That Clint Eastwood captures so many levels of this long-gone world — the hustling military brass, the insensate politicians, the racism, the bravery, the terrified young soldiers crawling up hills strewn with severed limbs and limbless torsos — is a tribute to his skill as a filmmaker, and to his compassionate artistry. He doesn't pump up the crowd-pleasing combat fireworks (which are mostly low-key CGI). Instead, he zeroes in on the men who did the dying, and the ones who survived; and he makes us wonder which of them got the worse deal.
"The Prestige": Magic in the Air
It's clear why director Christopher Nolan would be drawn to Christopher Priest's 1995 novel, "The Prestige." The book is a puzzle-box whose narrative coils itself into complex knots, and the movie that Nolan has made from it fits snugly among his past films, like the double-game crime study "Insomnia" (2002) and of course the ultra-knotty "Memento" (2000).
For the movie, scripted with his brother, Jonathan, Nolan has eliminated the novel's modern-day framing story and its conclusion, which trails off into the supernatural. This frees him to focus on the intense, and ultimately demented, rivalry between two London stage magicians around the turn of the last century. It also gives him room to add much new knottiness of his own, mainly in the way of plot-chopping time shifts. The picture itself is an elaborate magic trick that keeps uncurling new levels of deception.
Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are friends at first, young men starting out in the magic business working as audience plants for an older conjurer (played by actual older conjurer Ricky Jay, who also served as a technical consultant for the film's period magical effects). Angier is suave, handsome, a born showman. Borden is a Cockney primitive, an unpolished performer who has, nevertheless, a brilliant knack for the nuts-and-bolts of stage illusions. As they drift into separate careers, a professional jealousy begins gnawing at them. Soon they're turning up at shows and disrupting each other's acts. Things get violent, then bloody, then worse.
Finally, Borden comes up with an illusion he calls the Transported Man. It seems to defy the laws of nature, and Angier can't figure out how it's done. His trick-rigger and aide-de-camp, the crusty Cutter (Michael Caine), says there's only one way — Borden must be using a double in his act. But there's no sign of one among the people around Borden, and Angier is unconvinced. Could it be that Borden is simply a better illusionist?
It's Cutter who explains the three elements of an illusion. First, there is the Pledge: "The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course it probably isn't." Next comes the Turn: "The magician makes his ordinary something do something extraordinary." Finally, there's the Prestige, the magical effect itself, the rabbit plucked from the hat. "This is the part with the twists and turns," Cutter says, "where you see something shocking you've never seen before." This pretty much describes the movie's methods as well.
Obsessed with Borden's Transported Man illusion, Angier determines to better it. He hires a double of his own, a common barroom drunk (played, with just the right amount of distinguishing buck-toothed dissipation, by Jackman himself). This works out, but not for long. Meanwhile, there are women to deal with. Neither of the two magicians is an ideal soul mate — as Borden tells his increasingly distrustful wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), "secrets are my life. Our life." His most pertinent secret at the moment is an affair he's embarked upon with a new stage assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), who is actually Angier's former stage assistant, and his lover too. Angier has dispatched Olivia to infiltrate Borden's act and report back on his secret methods. Borden knows this because Olivia tells him right up front — which, in turn, is what Angier told her to do, as an act of sly indirection. Very quickly, though, it becomes unclear who Olivia actually is working for.
Angier's unflagging obsession with Borden and his Transported Man illusion takes him, during an American tour, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the great inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) has established a mountaintop laboratory to pursue spectacular high-voltage electrical experiments. (Tesla, the Croatian-American pioneer of electrical engineering, among many other things, actually did set up shop in Colorado Springs in 1899.) Tesla shows Angier a field full of glass globes rooted in the ground, glowing with electrical light. None of them are connected to wires. Angier is astonished. "Magic," he says. "Real magic." Angier prevails upon Tesla to build him a machine that will become the basis of a new illusion he's planned, one that will put Borden in his subsidiary place for good. He calls it the New Transported Man, and it won't be magic, he says — it will be science.
There's no point trying to hack any further through the story's intricate thicket of deception, betrayal and murder (or is it murder?). Whenever mystification overload sets in (mostly early on), the movie is carried forward by its actors, who are mostly solid-plus. The bountifully talented Hugh Jackman (Who else could be equally at home playing the X-Man Wolverine and the disco song-and-dance guy in Broadway's "The Boy from Oz"?) gives a perfectly centered performance as a man accustomed to easy control in his craft, but who feels fundamental human certainties slipping beyond his grasp. Christian Bale reveals a raw, vibrant, working-class vitality that's enormously appealing even when his character is at his most duplicitous (if in fact that's what he's being — it's complicated). Scarlett Johansson, cinched into a series of push-up dolly costumes, is even more decorative than usual — which, as usual, is a little distracting: She may have to play a librarian or something before her acting talent comes completely into focus. She puts herself entirely at the service of her schematic character, however, and she carries off an English accent in an agreeably un-showy way. (Thanks, Woody.)
It should also be mentioned that David Bowie gives the most convincing performance of his muddled, 30-year movie career as the pensive, preoccupied Tesla. The Ziggy Stardust associations Bowie once unavoidably lugged along with him are now far in the past, and he seems free at last to actually construct a character, and entirely capable of doing so. True, he does appear to be speaking with a Scottish accent, but it's a good Scottish accent.
"The Prestige" is confusing at first, jumping around from end to beginning to middle, and it's tricky figuring out the who, the what and the why of it. Slowly, though, themes and motivations rise up out of the dense narrative underbrush. And at the end, when the skein of deceptions finally becomes clear, you don't feel like a head-smacking simpleton who's been hornswoggled by dishonest manipulation. The deceptions have been honorable, the tricks all executed out in the open, and you realize that the movie's consummate magician is the man who directed it.
"Sleeping Dogs Lie": I Know What You Did
Pretty blonde Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton) has a really dark secret. One night many years ago, when she was 18 and very bored, Amy did something kind of yucky with her dog. She has no idea why, and she certainly never did it again, nor has she ever told anyone about it. Now, though, she's in love with a guy named John (Bryce Johnson), and he wants to play the tell-me-your-darkest-secret game. So she tells him. Bad move.
Comic-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwaite's new movie begins on such a startling note that you slump in your seat expecting a one-joke gross-out comedy. But it's not that at all. The picture is actually about the inadvisability of telling the people you love your most shameful secrets, because, being human, most of them will be incapable of forgiving you. It's about the cruel fraudulence of "total honesty," and the importance of loving lies.
Reluctant at first to tell John her true secret, Amy makes something up — she says she once had sex with one of her girlfriends. This is a turn-on, of course, and John expresses his happiness that they can now "tell each other everything." (He's already revealed his own icky secret, although it didn't cross the interspecies boundary.) And so, feeling guilty now, Amy decides to come clean, and she relates the dog story. John is repulsed. He doesn't want to be, but he is —-- Amy suddenly disgusts him.
Making things even more difficult, Amy's brother, a malevolent dweeb named Dougie (Jack Plotnick), has overheard her confession, and he makes a point of telling their strait-laced parents (Geoff Pierson and Bonita Friedericy). They're likewise horrified. With her life in shreds, Amy becomes drawn to a co-worker named Ed (Colby French), whose marriage has been wrecked by his wife's infidelity. Soon, Amy falls in love with Ed. But then he wants to play the tell-me-a-secret game, too.
"Sleeping Dogs Lie" is Goldthwaite's third movie (he also directed and starred in the notorious 1992 comedy "Shakes the Clown"). He's not, if it need be said, a mainstream guy, and he had to borrow the money to make this picture, shooting the whole thing in 16 days. The lack of financing shows. The movie's visual impoverishment — the tacky sets and the flat lighting (one extended dining-room scene looks like a tribute to 1950s household-cleanser commercials) — is sometimes oppressive. But Melinda Page Hamilton (an intermittent member of the "Desperate Housewives" cast) doesn't overplay Amy's humiliation. She's a woman who knows she did something silly (it's of course a metaphor for the shameful things we all regret doing), but it wasn't a first step down the road to lifelong perversion, and she's over it. If only everyone else in her life could get past it, too. Hamilton's Amy is smarter and stronger than the people who abandon her. It's a performance that probably couldn't be bettered with a bigger budget, and it winds up carrying one of the most perceptively humane movies of the year.
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