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Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Quaid’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 20th 2003:

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the elder statesmen of cinema – both film-makers and critics – regularly bewail the medium for losing its intelligence and sophistication, and becoming obsessed with big opening weekends and happy meal promotions. (Although it is perhaps telling that the ‘sometimes’ in question tend to be early Autumn and early Spring, well away from the blockbuster seasons but just about the times that the major awards are either beginning to prey on producers’ minds or about to be announced.) For example, for the second week running we have a film opening in the UK that is a work of the utmost skill and subtlety (and, for that matter, is in part produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section Eight company).

The film in question is Todd Haynes’ remarkable Far From Heaven, a tribute to the 50s films of Douglas Sirk. A man has to know his limitations, and I must confess that while I consider my expertise in the fields of Toho Studio’s kaiju eiga and the works of David Cronenberg to be entirely adequate, my knowledge of Sirk and his films is limited to what I picked up second-hand from reading interviews with Quentin Tarantino. But this isn’t an exercise in spotting the influences, with bonus points being scored for getting all the in-jokes – quite the opposite, in fact.

Julianne Moore plays Kathy Whittaker, a housewife in Cincinatti in the late 1950s. She seems to have it all: a happy marriage to successful executive Frank (Dennis Quaid), a home with all mod cons, and two charming children. But beneath this cheery surface all is not well – for Kathy stumbles upon Frank in a clinch with another man. This revelation, and Frank’s ‘treatment’ for his homosexuality, places a tremendous strain upon their marriage and Kathy finds herself turning to her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) for solace, not quite realising the scandal this will cause amongst the ghastly daiquiri-swilling harpies who are her friends…

Well, it sounds like a fairly over-ripe melodrama, doesn’t it? And to some extent it is. But what’s so unusual about this film is not the story, but the way in which it’s told. Haynes has opted for a style of storytelling which recreates not just the 1950s but also the films of that period – the colours are bright and luminous almost to the point of garishness, Elmer Bernstein’s score is lush and passionate, even the graphic design is a perfect imitation. In many ways Far From Heaven resembles Pleasantville in its recreation of wholesome, slightly camp suburban Americana – Quaid doesn’t shout ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’ when he appears, but you wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

But the most striking thing about Far From Heaven is the way in which it crucially differs from films like Pleasantville, which pastiched this idealised nostalgia. Haynes isn’t parodying Sirk, or holding the genre up to ridicule, or using the 50s setting to make ironic points about the state of America today. There’s nothing here that winks at the audience, nothing to suggest that this isn’t how all films look and sound today. Haynes takes his story and characters seriously and plays the film wholly straight all the way through.

And the results are, as I said, remarkable. The danger of any film with this kind of over-stylised setting is that the audience may find it difficult to get involved with the characters – a problem I had with Moulin Rouge, for example. But that’s not the case here – this story is one of the most moving I’ve seen on the big screen for some time. As anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park 2 will testify, Julianne Moore is one of America’s finest actors and she is very good here, in a role utterly dependent on the subtlety and nuances of her performance. But, arguably, Dennis Quaid is equally good, if not better – it’s almost certainly the best performance of his career so far. 24‘s legion of fans will already be aware of the integrity, decency and nobility which Dennis Haysbert routinely brings to a role, and they’re all much in evidence here.

In fact the only criticism I would make of Far From Heaven is an entirely personal one. The style of this film is very distinctive and very different and my first instinct on seeing something like this is to try and figure out why the director’s done it, what he’s trying to say, and what the significance of it is. But so perfect and committed is the adoption of the style that it’s difficult to see that it’s anything other than an expression of Haynes’ own affection for this kind of film, and all my ruminations that it allows him to make a more emotional film than would be credible in a more modern style, or that the racial and sexual elements of the story work better in this milieu, are probably not much more than me outsmarting myself. I spent most of the film trying to anticipate what the punchline was going to be, and the eventual total absence of one was a little disconcerting. This shouldn’t be a concern of yours, of course – the fact that Far From Heaven is an impeccably made and involving drama should.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 10th June 2004: 

In any kind of extended artistic career, there is bound to come a moment when one runs the risk of repeating oneself. This is not to say that there isn’t merit in choosing to explore the same themes in slightly different ways: but when you’re the director of blockbuster science fiction films, this sort of behaviour is a bit more noticeable.

And so it proves the case with Roland Emmerich, whose personal antipathy towards New York seems to border on a psychotic vendetta. So much so, in fact, that he seems to be running out of ways of devastating the city. Having demolished it with an alien death ray in Independence Day, and inflicted a giant irradiated iguana on the population in Godzilla, he’s now reduced to basically just clobbering the city that never sleeps with really rotten weather.

Such is the core of Emmerich’s latest offering, The Day After Tomorrow, a slightly oddball event movie which mixes terribly earnest ecological didacticism with good old-fashioned Hollywood carnage and destruction. The importance of the former can be deduced from the fact that this is the only summer blockbuster – in fact the only film – I can think of where the plot is powered by desalinisation. Basically, western civilisation has caused global warming to the extent where great big chunks of Antarctica are falling off into the sea (says the film), and this vast influx of fresh water makes the Gulf Stream and other warm-water currents pack up. This in turn (told you it was didactic) deprives us here in the northern hemisphere of our lovely mild climate – and being an Emmerich movie, this is demonstrated by hail the size of grapefruit mowing down salarimen on the Tokyo ginza, downtown LA being wrecked by giant tornadoes, and the British Royal family freezing to death in Balmoral. But it’s not all good news, as it looks like the world is headed for a new ice age. As soon as the news breaks, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck are launched into space – not because this will help avert the catastrophe, but at least it’ll cheer everyone up a bit. Seriously, though, folks, this is a film with the potential to be really rather bleak and depressing, no matter how cheering the sight of mass death and destruction is: the tone throughout is of futility and despair, with only the faintest (and implausible) glimmerings of hope near the end.

But, this being a studio movie, the film-makers break the glass on the ‘In case of emergency’ script box and pull out that trusty old plotline, the troubled father-son relationship. This is the human story going on in the foreground as millions meet agonising deaths somewhere off in the distance, and it’s all about Jack (played by Dennis ‘Like Harrison Ford only cheaper’ Quaid), a maverick palaeo-climatologist (yes, another movie about one of those), who predicts the whole disaster but is wilfully ignored by the wicked and greedy American government (any resemblance to the current administration is, of course, entirely amusing). But Jack has more important problems to worry about than the collapse of civilisation as we know it. He has to see about fixing up his relationship with his teenage son Sam (played, rather somnolently, by Jake Gyllenhaal from City Slickers). As this could prove tricky if Sam turns into a corpsicle, off Jack treks to the frozen wastes of New York, where Sam is trapped with his geeky friends, his girlfriend (Emily Rossum), and a few other appropriately socially-and-ethnically-diverse survivors. The film doesn’t really go into details about why Jack bothers going in person, as all he does on arrival is radio for help – something I doubt you need to be a maverick palaeo-climatologist to do.

Yes, sorry, I’ve sort of given the end away there, but this isn’t a deep or challenging narrative in any way. Not to put too fine a point on it, the script of this movie stinks in all sorts of ways. It is, for one thing, toe-curlingly sentimental in the most obvious and glutinous way: there’s even a little boy with leukaemia, included for no apparent reason except to try and coax an ‘Ahhhh’ out of the audience. Fine actors like Ian Holm and Adrian Lester (Mickey Bricks from Hustle) stumble unwittingly into this stuff, thrash around helplessly for a while, and then vanish despairingly out of sight. (The script also clearly can’t decide whether burning books in order to survive is justified or not.)

It’s very clear that this is a film with A Message About Global Warming but it’s caught between its desire to be ecologically aware and the requirements of a big summer movie. As a result its credibility suffers – the meteorology seems incredibly suspect to me, and I’m usually so oblivious to the weather I can’t even tell when to bring the washing in. And even then the film really struggles to provide the small-scale action and excitement that’s the meat of this sort of adventure, eventually reduced to contriving sequences where characters are chased down corridors by wolves or nasty low-pressure fronts. The special effects are undeniably spectacular, but nearly all the big moments happen in the first half of the movie, and even then they’re impressive rather than actually exciting. (And you can’t help but suspect that if only the writers could have thought of a way for global warming to cause volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we’d have those in the movie too!)

But the film shows flashes of wit on occasion, and it’s novel to see a summer movie that so clearly wants to be socially aware, even if it goes about articulating this in such a stunningly crass and obvious way. I can’t honestly claim to have been swept off my feet by The Day After Tomorrow, it’s too stolid, clichéd and silly for that. But if you like watching catastrophes it will hold your attention. And, as I said, as blockbusters go this is something a bit different – but different isn’t necessarily better, as this movie proves.

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