The Insider: A taut thriller grounded in realism, which is helpful since it’s based on a true story. (What does taut even mean? How is a movie pulled tight? No one says that. Whatever. It was taut.) Director Mann shows his mastery of mood in a movie that overflows with suspense and shady characters. The Insider follows Al Pacino’s character, Lowell Bergman, a 60 Minutes producer, who tries to get an exclusive interview about big tobacco from a former tobacco company research, Jeff Wigand, played with perfect tension by Russell Crowe. Wigand has secrets to spare, but the tobacco company makes it hard, putting pressure on everyone involved, and in the process drawing out moral questions about honesty and journalistic integrity.
If that sounds boring, let me assure you, Mann does create a taut world, asking us to question how free the press really is in a nation ruled by money. He is fortunate to have a fantastic cast. Al Pacino, so good at chewing the scenery in recent years, here is wonderfully sincere and understated. His character may come across as unrealistically idealized (how common is journalistic integrity these days?). But Pacino makes it work by portraying him as a man who feels like a kid with his thumb in the dam trying to build the dam at the same time. He coaxes Wigand into a revealing interview and desperately fights tooth and nail to get it aired. Russell Crowe’s Wigand reminded me of his John Nash character from A Beautiful Mind, but less neurotic, and his love for his children is more front and center. He’s a matter-of-fact man, but Crowe shows the conflict as he feels compelled to blow the whistle even while it may mean trouble for his family. Christopher Plummer plays Mike Wallace, the 60 Minutes anchor, with a certain amount of arrogance befitting a TV star, but also makes it clear that he cares about the stories he does and about the reputation of his profession. Mann gives him some great, explosive scenes.
Great movie- but did the outcome even change anything? Look around- people are still smoking, even though we know cigarettes are full of poison and addictive substances that lead to cancer. The press still makes compromises with their integrity. But it is worth it to know that somewhere, sometime, people stood up for the moral right.
The Talented Mr. Ripley: This 1999 movie has a great cast, an intriguing plot, a beautiful locale, a jazzy score, but, well…it’s boring. It’s billed as a thriller, but it takes too long to really become a thriller. The first half, while seemingly set up to help us get to know Ripley and his situation a little bit better, never lets us in on who he is. He’s a cipher, and while that’s good for some characters in some movies, it’s not good for this one in this movie. Considering he’s the protagonist, this means the audience has no stake in the plot at all.
Speaking of the plot, it’s a good one. Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley is hired to fetch a man’s son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, the best part of the movie), back from Italy, but when Ripley arrives, he falls in love with both the man and his lifestyle. I won’t reveal how, but Ripley ends up impersonating Greenleaf and living off of his money and reputation. Talented is genuinely suspenseful and at times succeeds as a thriller, but too much is left uncovered about Ripley. I like ambiguity in movies, but this felt more like they were afraid of making Ripley one thing above another.
Okay movie- squanders a great cast in a film that isn’t sure what it wants to be and never succeeds in becoming the thing a movie needs to be above all others: interesting.
Beloved by Toni Morrison: I’ve never read a book quite like this. This book was intense on a whole new level. The atrocities that the characters endured are way over my head and out of my scope of knowledge and experience. I don’t know if these things really happened in America, but I suppose I should not be so surprised.
Beloved follows an African-American family escaped from slavery to Ohio just before the Civil War. The family consisted of a mother and father and four children. The father did not escape with the family, but the rest of them found the father’s mother and lived with her. Aside from the absence of the father, things were okay until their former owner showed up to reclaim them. The mother (and this isn’t a spoiler) attempted to kill her children to spare them from becoming enslaved again and encountering the same terrible treatment she received. She only succeeded in killing the oldest daughter. The book is set about 20 years later; the two sons have left their mother and sister and grandmother, and the dead daughter’s ghost haunts their home. This is a twisted setup for an incredible story. I haven’t even begun to unearth everything the book contains. That would spoil the experience.
I am white- I cannot relate to or understand this book the way a black man or woman would be able to. I think Americans (white ones) tend to water down the crime we committed against the Africans we brought over to own and enslave, and then against the children they bore on American soil that we treated just the same. I think we forget that this consisted not only of ownership of other human beings, but of rape, torture, murder, pedophilia, and other inhuman acts. Morrison doesn’t water this down. She gets at the heart of what enslavement was and what it did to human beings mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. This story (based on a historical event in which a woman killed her 2-year-old daughter to protect her from enslavement) is riveting, from the plot to the characters to the beautiful prose.
I’m grateful to Morrison for opening my eyes to the true level and impact of what happened in slavery. Beloved may appear on the surface to be a ghost story, but I guarantee it is grounded in the truest of feelings and emotions. Morrison exposes the broken families, the emotional turmoil, the loss of identity, the rape, assault, murder, tyranny of slavery that you can’t get from history books. This book may never be one of my favorite books (there are others that I simply relate to better and respond to with more passion), but it’s one of the best written and the most affecting. Keep in mind, The New York Times conducted a survey in 2006 naming it the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. It’s a weighty book, but so worth it.
Albums I Liked:
Tramp by Sharon Van Etten: Some of the most interesting folk music I’ve heard recently. Van Etten’s lyrics tend to deal with her own complex identity, dissecting her multi-faceted personality. I have to wonder who the title is referring to; my guess is herself, based on the self-deprecating bent of her songs. At least in these songs, she judges others, makes terrible decisions, supports the wrong men, and doesn’t trust her own judgment (see: “I’m Wrong”). Even through all this, Van Etten manages to walk the line of dark lyrics and intense arrangements without becoming depressing. Tramp is actually strangely empowering. Favorite songs: “Serpent” “Leonard” “All I Can”
Animal Life by Shearwater: Is there such a thing as quiet bombast? If so, then Shearwater’s got it. No one would accuse them of being subtle, but Shearwater is good at sneaking up on you, even while banging on your head with overenthusiastic production. Their music is theatrical, and on this album they include a lot of metaphors about animals that don’t always make sense, but whatever- the music is affecting, singer Jonathan Meiburg sings with operatic passion, and what do you know, I got swept up in it. Next album please. Favorite songs: “You as You Were” “Pushing the River” “Breaking the Yearlings”
Songs I Loved:
“Serpents” by Sharon Van Etten: One for the wronged-woman annals. I’ve never felt like there were serpents in my mind, have you? Apparently Sharon Van Etten has, when a man betrayed her, failed to take her seriously, killed her dreams (“You enjoy sucking on dreams/so I will fall asleep/with someone other than you”). She gets straight to the point, and the driving beat in the fastest song on the album carries her bitter anger to the end, where she expresses some semblance of hope that he’ll change eventually.
“You as You Were” by Shearwater: Nowhere are Shearwater’s theatrics more stirring than on “You as You Were.” I have no clue what it’s about, but Meiburg sings with conviction about rocks and a river and the loss of civilization and whatever, the cool thing is the churning percussion instruments and driving piano building on Meiburg’s soaring voice.