American Me (1992)

Halfway through American Me, the Edward James Olmos biographical crime drama about Mexican Mafia founder Rodolfo Cadena, a middle-aged Mexican American man named Montoya Santana, Olmos himself, is out on a date with his girlfriend, Julie. Santana is handsome, masculine, decisive, yet he seems almost like a teenager. He doesn’t know how to buy clothes. He threatens a harried shoe store clerk for disrespecting him. He can’t drive. He’s never had sex with a girl. Julie, Evelina Fernández, feels almost maternal.

Montoya Santana is no ordinary 40-year-old virgin. He is founder of La Eme, the Mexican Mafia, one of the most powerful prison gangs on the west coast, recently paroled after spending decades behind bars for killing his rapist in juvenile detention. Santana has also fired the first shots in what will become a destructive gang war between Mexican and Italian organized criminals for control of the heroin trade in East Los Angeles. We flash to a parallel scene inside Folsom prison, where Santana still wields great power. Days before, he had ordered the execution of the son of an Italian crime boss. We don’t know much about the young man, who’s doing a six month sentence for unspecified crimes, other than that he’s not very bright. When a group of Mexican prisoners tell him that La Eme and his father’s organization has come to amicable terms and invite him to a “party” he readily agrees.

What follows is clearly based on the famous contrapuntal sequence in The Godfather where Michael Corleone attends the christening of his sister Connie’s son while his lieutenants murder his rivals. The young Italian gets high with his new Mexican friends. As Santana and Julie make love, the Mexicans beat up then rape the Italian. Soon, Santana and Julie aren’t making love. Not only has Monoya Santana never had heterosexual sex. He’s never had consensual sex. He penetrates her. She screams for him to stop. He doesn’t. We cut back to Folsom prison. We cut back to Julie’s apartment. We cut back to Folsom prison. Finally Santana seems to find something inside of him that’s able to pull back from the abyss. He pulls out of Julie and climbs off her. The Italian in Folsom isn’t so lucky. The Mexicans ram a huge serrated blade up his ass, and he dies. Santana pays no price for the murder, but Julie does. The Italian crime lord, distraught over the loss of his son, takes revenge by releasing pure, uncut heroin onto the streets of East LA, a move guaranteed to kill Mexicans, but no Italians. Julie’s younger brother dies the next day of a drug overdose.

American Me never turns into a feminist parable where the love of a good woman helps a sinful man turn his life around. For Julie, Montoya Santana is two men, the naive 40-old-teenager she teaches to drive and takes for his first long walk along the beach, and the murderer and drug dealer ultimately responsible for her brother’s death. Santana has spent so much time in jail it has transformed his consciousness. I can have anything I want inside, he tells her, not even aware that there are simple things, like walking along the beach, that even being the biggest swinging dick on the inside won’t let you have. Earlier, after we saw him threaten a shoe store clerk for being disrespectful, and she scolded him that the man was only doing his job, you get the sense that yes, that’s what she thinks he should do. He should turn his life around. But it’s too late for Montoya Santana. Women, and the heterosexual world, have always been a far off, unattainable ideal. Julie is only a brief glimpse of the life he could have had outside the prison industrial complex. On their next date, he gets rearrested on a petty drug charge, and put away for good.

If the Olmos lacks the skill of a Martin Scorsese to flesh out anybody but his major characters — it’s a little difficult sometimes to know who is who — it’s more than made up for by his prophetic, morally uncompromising vision. For a Mexican American, the United States is a prison. Inside, outside, it’s all the same. We are a Darwinian society that corrupts masculinity, pits black against white, white against Mexican, Mexican against everybody, and destroys us body and soul. Entire generations are cut off from women, from honest work, from the possibility of ever having a family or a decent life. Montoya Santana was doomed even before he was born. He’s a “rape baby,” conceived during the “Zoot Suit Riots” in the 1940s when some white sailors beat up his father, held down his mother, and gang raped her. His father has always resented him.

As a teenager, Santana joins a gang, gets arrested for a minor breaking and entering charge, and sent to juvenile detention. For Edward James Olmos, rape isn’t just a problem, it’s the very spiritual foundation of the prison industrial complex. One night Santana, who expects to get out by his 18th birthday, is held at knife point, anally raped, and kills his attacker. This could have been the basis for a entire movie. What’s the morality behind a man killing his rapist? But Olmos never entertains the naively optimistic idea that you can stop rape in prison without tearing down the prisons. Santana is sent away on a 20-year-sentence that has the force of inevitability. Montoya Santana never really had the choice. Conservatives and people who talk about “personal responsibility” might dispute the film’s fatalistic assumptions. But, once out of juvenile detention and up at Folsom, Santana proves himself to be a capable man. He probably would have succeeded in civilian life if the socioeconomic odds had not been so completely stacked against him. He, JD, a white friend, Mundo, another Mexican, and a calm but brutally efficient enforcer nicknamed El Japo, quickly gain control of Folsom, and establish a thriving drug trade that gives them influence that extends far beyond the prison’s walls.

“I could run things from solitary,” Santana boasts in the voice over narration.

If Santana seems unable to cope in the civilian world that’s only because, Olmos suggests, the outside world is a foreign country. Santana becomes, in effect, the head of a Chicano state within the prison industrial complex. It’s a harsh, Darwinian state where rape is used as social control, people get hooked on smuggled drugs, and where senior members of La Ema can order an execution with a nod or a tap on the shoulder. But, as Santana later tells Julie, it was better than what came before it, a Hobbesian state of nature where, “if someone wanted your cigarettes or your manhood and he was stronger than you he just took it.” Santana maintains that he thought of La Ema as a foundation for a Chicano revolutionary movement. He read books. He studied politics. He prepared himself as a legitimate political leader. For all we know, he’s telling the truth. But he’s also living a dream that will never happen. After he’s put away the second time, Santana runs up against La Ema’s own code of justice, its brutal dictate that any member who weakens the organization will pay with his life. This is, of course, the nature of a secret society. Revolutionary groups routinely enforce a rough code of justice on their own members. Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film about the French Resistance, Army of Shadows, show us exactly that. But Olmos is a harsher, more uncompromising moralist than Melville is. Indeed, he harkens back to the spare Puritanism of William A. Wellman and films like The Public Enemy. Criminals don’t become revolutionaries. They live and die as criminals, their manhood violated, their morals corrupted, their bodies consumed.

Montoya Santana has only two options, an honorable death now, or a dishonorable one later. Like a Chicano Christ, he makes the right choice, but it’s doubtful that, by doing so, he saved anybody’s soul. American Me is one of the darkest, most unsparing visions of the dark underbelly of American capitalism ever put to film.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right is the story of a straight man and his dick who both blunder into the lives of a lesbian couple and their two kids.

The straight man, Paul Hatfield, Mark Ruffalo, is a successful restaurant owner in his 40s who, years before, had donated sperm to a sperm bank for 60 dollars a pop. Dr. Nicole Allgood, Annette Benning, and Jules Allgood, Julianne Moore, are an affluent couple who live in the Venice section of Los Angeles. One day their two kids, 15-year-old Lazer, played by Josh Hutcherson, Peeta from from the Hunger Games, and 18-year-old Joni, named after Joni Mitchell and played by Mia Wasikowska, decide to contact the biological father they’ve never met. The results are more interesting than anybody would have guessed.

I decided to watch The Kids Are All Right when I realized that most of the films I’ve reviewed on this blog were directed by men. The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenka, who made the classic High Art, seemed like the perfect way to eat my feminist cultural vegetables. The problem is that it was such a good movie, simultaneously respectful of the lesbian subculture and politically incorrect, that I enjoyed it perhaps just a little too much. Let’s just say that if a man had directed The Kids Are All Right it would have been a lot more controversial than it was. I’m a little afraid that if I write honestly about the issues it raises I’ll get a Twitter hashtag calling for my cancellation.

Where is the dividing line between gay and straight? Are gay men ever attracted to women? Are lesbians ever attracted to men?

The Kids Are All Right entertains, then dismisses the fantasy so many straight men have about lesbians, the idea that they can be converted. Nicole and Jules at first glance seem like the perfect couple. Their house could serve as the model for a photo shoot on affluent, liberal California. There son is intelligent,sensitive, and athletic. Their daughter is a straight A student headed for a college that, in the film’s closing scene, appears to be Stanford. But something’s missing, some masculine energy, some “other.”

Lazer, the son, doesn’t quite get bullied at school, but his best friend is indeed that, a bully. Joni, the daughter, the pale, intense Wasikowska, who looks like Jules but acts like Nicole, is all too believable as an honors student who doesn’t have any fun. She has a boyfriend she plays Scrabble with. How he feels about her is anybody’s guess. They certainly don’t sleep together. Her best friend Sasha, Zosia Mamet from Girls, is constantly telling her to get laid. Eighteen isn’t particularly young to be a virgin. But being an 18-year-old virgin with two mothers is more confusing than being an 18-year-old virgin with a mother and a father.

Jules and Nicole, two middle-aged lesbians who should have much more clarity about their identity than a 15-year-old boy and an 18-year-old girl, seem just as confused. They have sex to beefcake, gay male porn. Nicole is a successful physician, and a very believable one — she interrupts sex to take calls from patients — but she’s also a borderline alcoholic, a tightly wound, hypercritical overachiever. Jules is more relaxed, but she’s also a woman who’s never had a real profession or career, a perennial ne’er do well who’s currently making a half-hearted attempt to get a landscaping business off the ground.

Paul Hatfield, played by Mark Ruffalo as a charismatic, west-coast hipster Guido — if The Situation from Jersey Shore moved out to LA he’d probably look like this by the time he gets into his 40s — blows in like a breath of fresh air. He meets Clay, Lazer’s friend, actually his bully, and quickly sizes him up. Clay’s an asshole, Paul says, something that’s more than confirmed when he tries to push Lazer into torturing a stray dog. Laser, thanks to his newly found, adopted, but actually real, biological father tells Clay to fuck off. Paul gives the repressed Joni a ride home on his motorcycle. That, in turn, causes a fight between Joni and Nicole, who doesn’t want her daughter riding a motorcycle, or, for that matter, having any fun whatsoever. Joni, like her brother, finally stands up for herself.

But teenage kids break away from ill-chosen friends and fight with parents. That’s part of growing up. It’s no threat to anybody’s family. Jules is another matter. Even though she’s been in a relationship with Nicole for decades, there are times when she doesn’t seem to know if she’s actually gay or straight. Her marriage with Nicole is so far from perfect it almost seems like abuse. Why hasn’t Jules ever had a career? Why can’t she get her landscaping business off the ground? Why is Nicole always drinking? Why are they always fighting about it?

The Kid’s Are All Right’s  crisis comes when Paul, who’s well off, decides to become Jules’ first client, to hire her to landscape the back yard of his house in Echo Park. Paul, we learn, as charismatic and attractive as he may be, is not as happy as he looks on the outside. Even though he can get all the sex he wants — The waitresses who work at his restaurant make passes at him. He doesn’t make passes at them. — he’s pushing 50 and has never had a wife or a family. When he meets Lazer and Joni, there’s an instant bond. They’re his biological children. He’s proud of them. He wants to be part of their lives, and he seems well on his way to doing just that. But then Jules seduces him. It’s perfectly consensual. But it’s Jules who makes the first move?

Jules’ seduction of Paul is more straight man’s nightmare than fantasy. Paul wants to be a husband and a father, but, up until now, he’s been nothing more than a sperm donor. One of the film’s strengths is the way Cholodenko suggests that very attractive, very promiscuous men will never be anything more than sperm donors. Sleeping with as many women you can, depositing your seed in as many places as possible, might just be a biological imperative, but it’s not emotionally satisfying. “I don’t want to be that unmarried, 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out,” Paul says to one of his waitresses, even as she’s making  a pass at him. “I want to have a family.” Sadly, at the end, Paul is in fact that unmarried 50-year-old guy who’s just hanging out.

Jules is a lesbian like a vegetarian who occasionally backslides. Her diet may consist almost exclusively of plant food, but every once in awhile, she slips and eats meat. Jules is genuinely gay. She’s a lesbian not a bisexual. She’s mainly interested in vagina. But every once in awhile, she just gets a craving for dick. Paul Hatfield is nothing more than a junk food binge she later regrets, a pint of Haagen Daz or a bag of McDonalds french fries, both of which seem like a good idea before you eat them, but only wind up making you sick. The Kids Are All Right may be a comedy, but it points to a future where men are relegated to the sidelines. Paul works as a sperm donor, an occasional father figure, someone who might be fun to have around — He’s a straight man who can appreciate Joni Mitchell — but, when he gets out of line, they push him out of the family. “You’re an interloper,” Nicole says. “If you want a family so bad, build your own.”

The Kids Are All Right is a comedy, not heavy social commentary, but I couldn’t help but think of Hannah Rosin’s article “The End of Men.” It’s set in a world where there don’t seem to be any soul crushing dead end jobs, where the sun always shines, where teenage girls always get straight As and go to Stanford, and teenage boys are not only good at sports. They do the right thing and stand up to the bullies. But men almost feel superfluous. Even Paul, the film’s representative straight man, is a sensitive guy who owns an organic restaurant. The only working-class man we meet, Jules’ Latino assistant, gets fired on a stupid whim. Jules feels guilty about it, but, unlike Paul, she doesn’t pay any price for her bad behavior. She merely shrugs it off, and vows to do better the next time. Most of Paul’s employees at his restaurant seem to be women. Joni’s boyfriend may or may not be gay. When Nicole and Jules drop her off at Stanford, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else on campus. The Allgood family is a universe unto themselves.

What all this means to Laser when he grows up and wants a family of his own is anybody’s guess.

Wendy and Lucy (2009)

Kelly Reichardt, an independent filmmaker living in the Pacific Northwest, specializes in films about the kind of people who never get anywhere near Portlandia, the working-class, the socially isolated, the emotionally unstable, the misfits and semi-homeless.

Wendy and Lucy, which was made back in 2009 for only 300,000 dollars, is perhaps Reichardt’s best known film. Starring Michelle Williams, probably the main reason it actually made a profit, Wendy and Lucy is a very simple story about a young woman on her way to Southeast Alaska to work the salmon season. Wendy, the young woman, who’s somewhere in her 20s, has 550 dollars, a Honda Accord that’s probably older than she is, a few changes of clothes, a backpack, and a golden retriever mix named Lucy. One day, in suburban Portland, her car breaks down. She gets arrested for shoplifting, and loses her dog. That’s about it. She spends the rest of the film trying to pull herself together as best as she an so she can leave town.

But it’s not the plot that makes Wendy and Lucy so effective. It’s Michelle Williams. I can’t exaggerate how much respect I gained for Williams when I found out she worked on Wendy and Lucy for almost no salary, and did manual labor on the set. Her husband, Heath Ledger, had died only the year before. Whatever Lucy goes through in the film, it’s probably not as bad as losing a loved one to a drug overdose that was broadcast over half the world. Yet that’s exactly what makes her performance work so well. Williams, if not exactly a household name or an A-list actor like her late husband, still has very little in common with a poor misfit like Wendy, a young woman living on the edge of social oblivion who doesn’t even get to keep the mutt she’s been traveling with. The fact that Williams was able to transform the grief she was feeling over Heath Ledger into building an inner life for a character neither she nor anybody in Hollywood ever sees, let alone understands, is what acting, and what art in general is all about.

Make no mistake. As much as I liked Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, she was still Jennifer Lawrence, a spunky southern gal who has no trouble looking people in the eye, standing up to gun toting hill billies, or skinning a squirrel. Rhee, in Winter’s Bone, is part of the underclass, but Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t been transformed by class. As Wendy, Michelle Williams may still have a pretty face, but everything else about her, her posture, her body language, the way she speaks, the way she seems to negotiate with the gods for her very existence, embodies the kind of person who knows she can fall through the cracks and never get out. To contrast the two performances, think about the old film Giant. Compare Rock Hudson to James Dean. Jennifer Lawrence is Rock Hudson, always very obviously a movie star, even when she’s pulling her dead meth cooker father’s hands out of a frozen lake. Michelle Williams is like James Dean, she connects with events in her own life that allow her to feel the emotions of the character she’s playing on screen.

Wendy and Lucy is a race against time and a study of physical and emotional vulnerability. After Wendy makes a phone call to her harsh, brother-in-law and even harsher sister, we realize that if she doesn’t make it to Alaska and work the summer, she will indeed become fully, not semi-homeless. Kelly Reichardt understands what it’s like to have a car that barely works, a bicycle with a worn out chain, clothes that you can’t possibly wear to a job interview, no phone, a leaky roof, termites, a laptop that’s 10 years old and on its last legs, a tooth with a bad filling that could turn into a root canal if you bite down on a piece of food the wrong way. Reichardt understands the kind of people for whom any mistake, any malfunction, any breakdown, anything that goes wrong can completely upend your life. Perhaps the saddest part of the film is when Wendy, who knows little, or nothing about cars, tries to negotiate with an auto mechanic for the price of the repair. The mechanic knows anything can be wrong. Wendy is hoping against hope that it’s only the serpentine belt, something that will coast her 125 dollars, but still within the realm of possibility.

“I didn’t ask you to check the oil,” she snaps at the man after he tells her why her car won’t start. “I told you only to check the serpentine belt.”

Reichardt also manages to make us see the world from the point of view of a young woman who’s small, and vulnerable, terrified of the world, and, without her dog, without love. The mechanic who tells her how much her car will cost to fix isn’t a bad guy. He’s just a small tradesman doing his job. But from Wendy’s perspective, how he responds means having a car or not, having shelter, or having to sleep outside on a bench. So every time he interrupts her to answer the phone, laughs at her patently ridiculous hope against hope that it’s only the serpentine belt, or just sits back and puts his hand on the desk, we hate him as much as she does. The crust punks Wendy meets at the beginning of the film are perfectly harmless. We all know that just by looking at them. They’re just crust punks. They just want to smoke pot and raid the rails. Yet, from the camera’s point of view, from Wendy’s, they appear vaguely sinister. Will the crust punk girl steal her dog? Will the crust punk guys try to rape her? We know they won’t, but we’re also allowed to understand how Wendy just might think they will. The mentally disturbed homeless man who interrupts Wendy’s sleep the night after she loses her dog, and her car, is her fellow outcast, a man who’s already fallen through the cracks, permanently, yet no solidarity, no communication is possible between them.

Wendy is genuinely a truly alone, more alone than anybody I’ve ever seen on screen. She has two friends, a vaguely sympathetic middle-aged security guard at Walgreens who lets her use his cell phone, and her dog Lucy. Lucy isn’t just a pet to Wendy. She’s another person, the only thing in the world she seems to love and who seems to love her in return. When she gets lost, we feel Wendy’s grief. There’s a wonderful scene where Wendy takes the bus to the pound in the hopes that maybe she kind find Lucy. The receptionist at the desk is a sympathetic young woman. She probably even likes animals or she wouldn’t be working at a pound. But when she lets Wendy into the back room to look at the strays they’ve picked up, Wendy walks past cage after cage of homeless dogs. They’re all behind bars, which, from the angle Reichardt shoots, make their cells, and they are cells, seem bigger and more menacing then they really are.

Wendy’s role is reversed. For most of the film, she’s been the stray dog. Now she’s now the auto mechanic, the Walgreens security guard, the grocery store clerk who can call the cops on her for shoplifting, or let her go. She has the power of life or death, of giving or denying any of the dog’s freedom. And yet she doesn’t. Wendy, like the security guard or the auto mechanic, is just a powerless individual in a society that isolates most of us from one another and allows us only a few contacts, a family, a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a few co workers. The only dog Wendy is looking for is Lucy. So she passes on. And the rest of the dogs stay behind bars. What will happen to them? Is it a no-kill shelter or not? Who knows? We’re never told and Wendy never asks.

What will happen to Wendy at the end? We don’t know that either. But at least the film makes us ask.

The Bigamist (1953)

As I watched the ending of Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Bigamist, I kept thinking of a famous quote by the Anglo Irish Playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw.

“Polygamy,” he said, “when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons, is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it; for the maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one.”

Ida Lupino, who had a long career as an actress, was also one of the few women to make it as a director in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s. From 1949, when she directed Not Wanted to 1963, when she directed The Trouble With Angels, Lupino made 8 films and 2 television shows. In The Bigamist, a 1953 film that starred Joan Fontaine, Edmond O’Brien, and Edmund Gwenn, she acts as well as directs.

While it might not be out of place in the age of Big Love and hipster polyamory, The Bigamist must have struck some people during the Eisenhower era as being just a little odd. Lupino worked within mainstream Hollywood and her aesthetics are always competent, if not exactly innovative or inspired. On the surface, the unimaginative lighting, the frugal if not exactly cheap sets, and the relatively conservative camera angles give The Bigamist almost the look of a 1950s TV show, a beefed up Twilight Zone. Lupino, as an aside, would go onto act in as well as direct two Twilight Zone episodes. But under the cover of its plain appearance, The Bigamist has a quietly subversive agenda.

The Bigamist opens with Harry Graham, a puffy looking Edmond O’Brien, and Eve Graham, a statuesque, blond Joan Fontaine, in the office of a San Francisco adoption agency run by Mr Jordan, Edmund Gwenn. Eve is sterile, and can’t have children. The adoption should come off without a hitch. Harry and Eve are both in their 30s, have been happily married for 8 years, and run a successful business. But something about the way Harry scowls as he signs the release form for a background check makes Mr. Jordan suspicious enough to start poking around. There’s nothing amiss in Harry and Eve’s apartment. Quite the contrary, everything is stylish, well-ordered, prosperous. It’s the kind of San Francisco apartment that would sell for over a million dollars if it were on the market today. What’s more, Eve’s not only a gracious hostess, she’s also more than an assistant to Harry. She’s a full partner in their company, a distributor of electric freezers, which, in the 1950s, would have been a bit like saying they’re a couple who ran a software company, or a Tesla distributor, or who marketed solar panels. Freezers in the early 1950s were the future. What child wouldn’t want to grow up in a family like this?

But Mr. Jordan is not satisfied. While Eve is friendly and gracious, Harry seems tense and hostile. He decides to travel to Harry’s branch office in Los Angeles. There he finally unravels the secret. Harry Graham is living a double life. Unable to find an address under Harry Graham, Mr. Jordan spots a commemorative letter open with the name Harrison Graham. That leads to a bungalow in the LA suburbs where he discovers Harry with another wife and a baby. Harry breaks down and tells his story.

A year before, Harry had been on business in Los Angeles. Feeling lonely, he jumped on a tour bus explore the “houses of the stars.” There he meets Phyllis Martin, Ida Lupino herself. Phyllis Martin isn’t as beautiful as his wife. She works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. She’s standoffish and hostile. Yet something about her draws Harry. Perhaps he feels as if he’s met his soul mate. Perhaps he resents Eve’s inability to have children more than he’s letting on. Perhaps he’s intimidated by Eve’s business acumen. Indeed, there’s more than a hint that she’s the dominant partner in their refrigerator business, not him. Is this another case of a man being intimidated by a successful women and gravitating towards someone more dependent? In any event, Harry and Phyllis begin a relationship which, although seems less than happy, eventually produces a child.

Harry, more confused than manipulative, more needy than exploitive, decides to marry Phyllis without telling her about Eve and go through with the adoption without telling Even about Phyllis The physical appearance of all three actors really workers here. Harry is attractive to women, yet he’s puffy and round shouldered, weighted down by his secret and by the weight of managing two women at once. Eve is sleek. Phyllis is dark haired, brown eyed, needy, sensual, the opposite of the more dominant Eve, the cold, sterile San Francisco business woman without the ability to have children. Mr. Jordan, who also played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, is the wise father, or even grandfather figure who finally gets to the bottom of Harry’s double life.

What makes The Bigamist oddly subversive is the way Ida Lupino undercuts the sense of dread. Indeed, to spent half the film expecting it to turn into a murder mystery, for Harry to kill Mr. Jordan, and spend the second half looking for a place to stash the body. But nothing even remotely like that happens. Harry is relieved, not outraged. He can finally tell the truth to both two women he loves in their own way. Mr. Jordan, in turn, feels sorry for Harry more than he feels moral outrage. He doesn’t even threaten to call the police. The only consequence Harry will pay is not getting the child, something that’s probably more of a punishment for Eve than it is for him. It’s Harry himself who calls the police, who turns himself in back in San Francisco.

If the ending of The Bigamist is underwhelming, that’s the whole point. Harry’s killing Mr. Jordan or committing suicide, or murdering one of the two women would be to push the film into the realm of melodrama. But Ida Lupino is strictly realistic. The Bigamist closes in a courtroom with Harry standing in front of a judge. His lawyer pleads for clemency and the judge seems sympathetic. We get the sense that Harry will face some kind of consequences, but that he won’t do any serious jail time. The judge even remarks that a long jail sentence will prevent Harry from paying child support.

Is Ida Lupino suggesting here that there’s nothing wrong with Harry having sister wives? Is she telling us that the sterile but competent Eve, the fertile yet dependent Phyllis, and Harry make a better trio than a couple? Is she suggesting that polygamy, or polyamory, is a more natural state of affairs than monogamy? George Bernard Shaw argued that judicially enforced monogamy had been instituted by inferior men who would find themselves celibate. Here, Lupino suggests, the only snake in the Garden of Eden is Eve. It was her decision to adopt a child in the first place that led to the breakup of what seemed a perfectly workable polyamorous relationship. It’s unlikely that Harry and Even will stay married. More likely, Harry will lose them both, wind up a lonely single man on probation paying child support after a costly divorce. That, Lupino suggests, is the real tragedy.

Just a note: Joan Fontaine died last December at the age of 96. Her third husband, Collier Young, had previously been married to none other than Ida Lupino. What’s more, it was Collier Young who wrote the original screenplay for The Bigamist. So it’s probably safe to say that much of the film is autobiographical.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox Bow Incident has so much intense, dramatic focus that even its flaws, like the crappy studio lighting, only seem to lend to it a stripped down authenticity. Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, William A. Wellman’s brutal masterpiece about three innocent men lynched by a mob of Nevada ranchers stars Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Dana Andrews, and a young Anthony Quinn. That such a film could be made in the middle of a war against fascism speaks highly of American culture. That such a film could be made at all reminds us that there’s a dark, sinister side of American history that we often ignore.

It’s 1885, two cowboys, Gil Carter, Fonda, and Art Croft, Harry Morgan, ride into a small town in Nevada called Bridger’s Wells. Bridger’s Wells is not a friendly place. Not only have the local ranchers had to deal with ongoing epidemic of cattle-rustling, there’s something deeper going on. After Gil Carter learns that his favorite prostitute has been driven out of town, he picks a fight with another cowboy, an angry reaction we don’t entirely understand until we realize that there’s a big shortage of available women in town. Bridger’s Wells, like many towns on the American frontier, has a toxic, masculine culture that comes from having no women or children.

We find out just how toxic Bridger’s Well is when a young man arrives with the news that Larry Kinkaid, a popular local rancher, has been murdered. In a matter of only minutes, a posse forms. The posse, led by Major Tetley, an ex Confederate army officer, Deputy Butch Mapes,  and a genuinely frighting Jane Darwell as a hardass, butch cowgirl named Jenny Grier, is an obvious lynch mob from the very beginning. A local judge does make a token effort to stop it, but gives up at the first signs of resistance. Arthur Davies, a shopkeeper, pleads with the mob to wait until the sheriff gets back into town, or, at the very least, bring anybody they catch back for a fair trial. Gil Carter and Art Croft, not being popular, solid citizens, and fearful they might be themselves accused of rustling, decide to tag along in order to avoid looking suspicious. The mob bullies Sparks, an African American preacher, into being their unofficial chaplain. They ride out to look for suspects.

After an abortive attack on a stage coach — which contains Gil Carter’s prostitute ex-girlfriend and her newly acquired rich husband — the lynch mob comes upon three men in sleeping bags, a half senile old man, and two men who appear to be in their 20s or 30s. One is a white man named David Martin, who’s played by Dana Andrews. Earlier that day he made the mistake that will cost him his life. He bought a stock of cattle from Larry Kincaid and didn’t get a bill of sale. The other young man, a Mexican named Francisco Morez, Anthony Quinn, is a gambler and petty thief David Martin had decided to hire without checking into his background, another fatal mistake.

The real heart and soul of the Ox Bow Incident is how differently both men react to their inevitable deaths.  Francisco Morez, as a brown skinned Mexican, has no illusions about what a posse of thirty, heavily armed white ranchers means. It’s a lynch mob. He’s not going to get a fair trial. He’s never going to see a judge or get a lawyer. They probably don’t even care if he’s innocent or guilty. They want their blood and they’ll get it. After a token attempt to escape, Morez concludes that fate has quite obviously punched his ticket and his time on earth is over. All he needs is a priest, or, in lieu of that, a Spanish speaker who will take his final confession back to a priest. His final prayer, in Spanish, is so moving you can see the blood lust in the eyes of the lynch mob briefly dissipate.

For David Martin it’s not that easy. Martin is a solid, middle-class citizen from out of town, an educated family man who composes a letter to his wife that’s so well-written that the shopkeeper Arthur Davies thinks if it’s only read out loud it will prove his innocence. Davies doesn’t understand that Major Tetley, the deputy, and Jenny Grier, the three ringleaders, don’t really care if he’s innocent or not. The contrast between Dana Andrews and Jane Darwell is revealing. All the strength that Darwell exhibited as Ma Joad has become toxic. She’s a cold Maggie Thatcher of the frontier, a stone face woman without any sign of feminine gentleness or compassion. Dana Andrews, on the other hand, even though he made his career playing macho war heroes, is soft, feminine, vulnerable. At first he can’t believe what’s really happening to him. Then he pleads with his soon to be murderers to have mercy on him because he’s a husband and a father, pathetic in his inability to see that he’s no longer in a civilized country where things like that matter. They may invoke law and order, but this mob is nothing more than a gang of serial killers. David Martin is not only every solid middle-class citizen who can’t believe it when the law doesn’t realize he’s innocent. He’s a human sacrifice to the blood lust at the heart of frontier America.

Gil Carter and Art Croft represent the rest of us. A pair of everymen who know what they’re witnessing is wrong, they make the right choices. Carter especially, who tries, and fails, to stop the lynching, acts heroically. But Wellman’s vision is too uncompromising and darkly Calvinist for any kind of happy ending. All we get is a brutal, ironic twist. The cavalry, the town sheriff, finally arrives, but 5 minutes too late. Then we learn what really happened to Larry Kinkaid.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

One of the best films of the 1990s was Dead Man. With its gorgeous score by Neil Young, and spooky performance by Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch’s black and white masterpiece went back to the site of the original sin, the genocide of the native Americans. Only Lovers Left Alive, which stars Tom Hiddleston as a brooding musician, shows us the inevitable result.

Whatever you call it, Dead Couple, Dead City, or Dead America, Only Lovers Left Alive takes place in a graveyard. The lovers, Swinton and Hiddleston, are not in fact, technically alive. They’re a pair of highbrow vampires who live in the hollowed out, abandoned city of Detroit, a beautifully filmed necropolis that symbolizes the rotting corpse of the United States of America. Adam and Eve — yes, that’s what Jarmusch names them — are alive only in the sense that they embody the remnants of civilization in a country full of zombies, which is what Adam calls humans. Adam and Eve don’t feed on humans. They bribe a corrupt doctor at a local blood bank, but they’re not exactly what you would call “good vampires” either. They’re effete snobs, worried that the supply of blood is being tainted by processed foods and environmental devastation.

The film opens in a luminous, ethereal Tangiers, where Eve has “lived” during a long separation from Adam. Her companion, a man named Christopher Marlowe, John Hurt, sells her bottles of fine blood, and speaks with the kind of poetic wit you might expect from another famous, Elizabethan playwright. Jarmusch is a Shakespeare Truther. Back in Detroit, Adam lives in a dilapidated old mansion, the J.P. Donaldson House in Thrush Park, and a drives vintage a sports car powered by technology invented by Nikola Tesla. He has an unlimited supply of money, a recording studio, and a loyal employee named Ian, a human who helps him collect vintage guitars. One day he asks Ian to buy him a 38 caliber bullet made from the densest wood he can find. After Ian acquires the bullet, and Adam puts it in a revolver, which he points at his heart, we realize that he’s contemplating suicide. So, apparently, does Eva, who jumps on a plane, and goes back to Detroit to join her centuries old lover.

Only Lovers Left Alive suffers in comparison to Dead Man mainly by the virtue of its not having an original score by Neil Young. Adam is a brilliant composer who, 200 years before, ghost wrote adagios for Franz Schubert but we really have to take the film’s word for it. The soundtrack is competent but uninspired. But it really doesn’t matter. Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual, not an aural movie. We suspend our disbelief because Adam looks like a young Trent Reznor and has a cool British accent, and because he consorts with Eve, Tilda Swinton doing her best impression of a female version of David Bowie’s Thin White Duke. They both look like members of a superior race of beings who dropped out of the sky, certainly more believable as a pair of angels than Damiel and Cassiel from Wings of Desire. Adam’s recording studio, full of reel-to-reel tape recorders, ancient Marantz tuners, and the above mentioned vintage guitars has all the archaic chic that a great filmmaker can bring. When Adam and Eve go for a drive in Adam’s Tesla powered car, we can only marvel at Jarmusch’s visualization of Detroit. If you like action scenes or genuinely witty dialog, you’ll probably come away from Lovers Left Alive feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but if you can appreciate good cinematography you’ll probably watch it through twice, or even three times. If you’re a fan of Detroit “ruin porn” you’ll probably wish you could blow up each individual frame, print it out, and hang it in an art gallery. The night photography of Only Lovers Left Alive might just surpass the famous black and white cinematography from Dead Man.

Midway through the film, Ava, Eve’s little sister blows in from Los Angeles. Eva, a sociopathic little imp played by Mia Wasikowska as a sort of Buffy the Vampire, vampire, not vampire slayer, is centuries old, but she looks, and acts, more like 19 or 20. Unlike Adam, who looks to be about 35, and Eve, who’s about 50, Ava doesn’t carry herself with a heavy, brooding aura that come from contemplating the wisdom of the ages. She wants to taste her sister’s supply of high-quality blood, not like an aesthete wants her fine wine, but like a heroin addict needs her fix. She’s not a beautiful angel fallen from the heavens like Adam and Eve but a real vampire with a lustful, obsessive desire that hides behind the persona of a flirtatious party girl. Poor Ian, Adam’s lackey, never sees it coming. He has no idea his employer’s a vampire, or that the pretty young woman in the dark sunglasses, and the bright, floral dress is so dangerous.

After Ava murders Ian for his blood, Adam and Eve realize they have to leave Detroit, lest the cops start snooping around the old mansion. They dissolve Ian’s body in a vat of hydrochloric acid — a surprisingly powerful scene that makes us feel the impact of the poor young man’s death — and jump on a plane to go back to Tangiers. But things have changed. Christopher Marlowe is dying. Tangiers is just as beautiful, but Adam and Eve are no longer just cultivated visitors. Ava’s careless, cruel murder of Ian has brought out the vampire in them after all. Hiddleston and Swinton are now white, malevolent, Aryan invaders in a brown, Muslim city, a toxic presence who have sprung from the rotting corpse of the American empire, and are now ready to feast on an innocent people abroad. The final scene, where they come upon a beautiful young man and woman, a pair of tawny, dark eyed, Middle-Eastern lovers may not be quite as shocking as anything in a film like Interview With The Vampire, but it’s a promise of horrors to come.

Western civilization, having destroyed its own ecosystem, has become the flesh eating virus of Anglo-American imperialism.

Noah (2014)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Darren Aronofsky has never been a filmmaker of any considerable talent; his early work showed him to be a prototypical “cult” filmmaker of the sort the US commercial cinema produces regularly, a man so given over to the excess of a given stylistic tic that less savvy audiences can recognize this tic and proclaim it as “different” when it’s actually just more and because it’s different it must therefore be “innovative” (that awful catchall buzzword of the late capitalism we’re all trapped in.)

His latest offering shows that he has seen a couple other movies on television, and remembered some of the things he saw in them and when another studio inexplicably gave him obscene sums of money to spend on his tenth semester of filmmaking summer school he remembered enough bits of them to cobble together a large enough pile to interest cinema chains.

He has a poor grasp on the English language. In the beginning of the film there are titles giving the back story in the most hideous typeface Microsoft Word 98 had to offer saying that Cain, killer of Abel, of Bible fame, established “industrial civilization.” We later see Cain making weapons through a hand driven metal-smithing process. That isn’t an industrial civilization. Maybe he meant “industrious”? Maybe I’m being charitable in thinking so? The typeface is still unforgivable. This is but a quibble.

Added to the original story now are giant rock creatures who humanity betrayed and apparently taught them everything they know. They look hideous and not even hideous in an original way, something immediately apparent to anyone who ever saw the sub-Aronofsky Go-Bots: The Movie: Battle of the Rock Lords. They represent nature, or something.

The film presents a strict “man/nature” duality that should be an embarrassing enough cliche by now where I’m not encountering it even in the dregs of commercial action movies. Each actor tries to be “serious”-this is their prestige picture or so they think and come Oscar season maybe the Academy will remember their minimally varied countenances of constipation.

The creation of CGI worlds hasn’t vindicated itself as a good enough reason in and of itself to make a film and Noah has mediocre ones even by the low bar already set. The biblical desert basically looks like what would happen if no one watered those obnoxiously green lawns in pharmaceutical commercials.

And most pressingly, he takes a concept that would be absolutely perfect for attempting to address, confront, or in some fashion relate to the anxiety of the possible annihilation of our species that climate change has brought forth.  It decides instead to club the viewer over the head repeatedly with weakly sketched interpersonal drama and cheesy action sequences.

Boiler Room (2000)

Boiler Room, a low-key film that was released a month before the Nasdaq crashed in March of 2000, might just be a better Wolf of Wall Street than The Wolf of Wall Street.

Giovanni Ribisi plays Seth Davis, a young college dropout who runs an illegal casino out of his apartment in Queens. When his father, Marty Davis, a federal judge who’s afraid the casino might jeopardize his own position on the bench, and whose approval his son desperately craves, orders him to shut it down, Seth gets a job as a trainee stockbroker at a Long Island “chop shop” named J.T. Marlin.

A shady firm specializing in “pump and dump” stock scams, which, according to Wikipedia, “involves artificially inflating the price of an owned stock through false and misleading positive statements, in order to sell the cheaply purchased stock at a higher price,” J.T. Marlin is the proverbial fire to the casino’s frying pan. After an orientation session with Jim Young, Ben Affleck doing his best impression of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, Seth Davis comes under the wing of two senior brokers, Chris Varick, a sympathetic Vin Diesel, and Greg Weinstein, a somewhat less than sympathetic Nicky Katt. Davis, who’s charismatic and quick witted, quickly excels, passing his Series 7 exam, and picking up his first 40 sales before any of the other trainees in his group. He also attracts the attention of Abbie Halpert, Nia Long, the only woman, and the only African American in the office. She works as J.T. Marlin’s 80,000/yr secretary, seems immediately attracted to Seth, and has just ended a bad office romance with Greg Weinstein.

Before long Seth realizes something’s not right about J.T. Marlin. The same quick-witted instincts that make him a natural salesman also make him naturally suspicious. He notices that all the investors on each prospectus have exactly the same names. He visits the store front of a medical supply company J.T. Marlin promotes, and realizes that there is no medical supply company, just a vacant building. He accidentally discovers that the company’s president is building a shadow office where he can relocate after Marlin inevitably tanks. He feels guilty after he pressures Harry, the buyer for a Midwestern gourmet supermarket, played by the perennial Wit Stillman favorite Taylor Nichols, into spending the down payment on his house for stock in yet another bogus corporation.

Meanwhile, the FBI has taken an interest in J.T. Marlin. They start to lean on Abbie. They bug Judge Marty Davis’ phone. Finally, they arrest Seth, threaten Marty’s judgeship, and bully the young man into turning state’s evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Seth agrees to go into work one last day, grab a copy of the client book, and download the contents of his hard drive into a floppy disk. As an aside, even in 2000, the typical hard drive would take a hell of a lot more than one floppy disk to copy. But that’s a minor scriptwriting error, and the FBI’s plan comes off without a hitch. Seth gets them the information they want. The final scene shows a long line of squad cars filing into the J.T. Marlin building to make arrests.

It’s a thoroughly underwhelming ending to a good movie. We don’t get to see any of the brokers put into handcuffs. We don’t get to see any kind of reconciliation between Seth and his father. But that’s not the point. The point is how Seth discovers that he’s not a sociopath at all. Indeed, rather than let his father, who’s never shown him much love, lose his judgeship, he’s willing to risk jail. What’s more, Harry, Seth’s dupe, becomes the focus of the story, not the brokers. Indeed, most of the brokers at J.T. Marlin aren’t sociopaths or even particularly bad people, just callow young men willing to look the other way at ethnics violations in exchange for money and material possessions. Seth’s not. He’s genuinely remorseful over the idea that he may have ruined Harry’s marriage, and spends the rest of the movie trying to make good, to get one of the senior brokers to sign off on a buy order that will let him recover the money he lost. He succeeds. Harry, we presume, gets his money back and reconciles with his wife. Seth, we hope, has finally earned his father’s respect.

As a final note, Giovanni Ribisi and Nia Long, both excellent in their portrayals of two young New Yorkers involved in a thoroughly believable interracial relationship, seem to have disappeared from the public view. The mediocre Ben Affleck is now a superstar. Maybe we need more well-written, low-key movies like Boiler Room for good actors like Ribisi and Long to display their talents. Vin Diesel also turns in a surprisingly understated, and effective performance as Ribisi’s surrogate father figure. He’s a macho jerk, yes, but a macho jerk who seems willing to let the younger man in on the fun. He almost makes us see the appeal of working for a sleazy chop shop in Nassau County. We can imagine ourselves in his place.

In the end, there are no irredeemable villains in Boiler Room, just flawed, materialistic Americans who, for reasons as different as they are as individuals, are willing to steal from other flawed, materialistic Americans.

Scarface (1932)

I was going to watch the Howard Hawks and Brian De Palma versions of Scarface back to back, and then write a review where I talked about their differences. But the classic 1932 film starring Paul Muni and George Raft is so similar to the legendary 1983 remake with Al Pacino and Michelle Pffeifer that it’s probably better to talk about how much alike they are. It all comes down to Al Pacino’s over the top, operatic performance and a lot more fake blood and gore. Aside from that they’re almost exactly the same story. What Vince Gilligan did over the course of 5 years of Breaking Bad, what Brian De Palma took 160 minutes to do in 1983, Howard Hawks managed to accomplish in a crisp 90 minutes, all the way back in 1932.

Whether or not you like Walter White, Tony Montana, or Tony Camonte, the original Scarface, probably depends on the values you bring to each. Part of the reason Breaking Bad turned out to be such a bloated mess was how Vince Gilligan spent so much time trying to figure out how to make Walter White go out like a hero. Brian De Palma was more honest. He never tries. Pacino vividly depicts the Cuban immigrant turned drug lord as a human monster beyond redemption. Yet Tony Montana is still a hero in hip hop culture. Young men still wear Scarface shirts. People everywhere still repeat his most quotable lines as if they could channel some of his outlaw gusto through his words.

Considering how both films were made half a century apart, the difference between Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana isn’t as much as you would think. Muni’s Scarface is every small town, American Protestant’s nightmare. With his thick accent, leering facial expressions, insouciant body language, he’s like a demon coughed up from the deepest depth of the urban hellhole. Yet, Howard Hawks, and the film’s producer, Howard Hughes, were still strong armed into re shooting the end of the film to show that “crime doesn’t pay.” Admittedly, Paul Muni never quite takes on the tragic nobility of James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett, who goes down protecting the “nice girl” he’s too much of a thug to marry, or Cody Jarrett, who goes down in flames on top of an oil refinery shouting “top of the world ma.” He has a creepy incestuous obsession with his sister. He betrays his mentor. He murders his best friend. Take him or leave him. He is what he is. Howard Hawks had the integrity to portray Tony Camonte in all of his unvarnished, sociopathic glory. He’s a real artist, not a shockmeister like Brian De Palma, or a hack like Vince Gilligan.

Make sure you keep an eye out for the film’s best scene. Tony Camonte guns down Gaffney (a rival mobster) in a bowling ally, pulling the trigger a split second after he releases the ball. Gaffney throws a strike. But his luck’s run out.

For Greater Glory (2012)

Andy Garcia, the Cuban America actor who stars Dean Wright’s and Michael Love’s film about the Mexican Cristero Wars, is probably still known best for his role in the The Untouchables.

In The Untouchables, the classic 1980s, prohibition-era gangster epic, director Brian De Palma sets up a clear moral distinction. Having a personality makes you evil. Kevin Costner, a WASP who can’t act, plays Eliot Ness. Robert De Niro, an Italian who can act, plays Al Capone. We know Ness is good because he’s a block of wood. We know Capone is bad because he’s just so much fucking fun to watch. Andy Garcia, who plays Stone, the film’s token “good” Italian, is somewhere in the middle. Garcia, unlike Kostner, is a competent actor. But he’s no Robert De Niro. In For Greater Glory, or Cristiada to use its original title, Garcia plays Enrique Gorostieta, a veteran Mexican military officer who throws in his lot with the right-wing, Catholic rebellion against the leftist Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles. He’s competent, but he’s still no Robert De Niro.

The religious history of Mexico follows the French model of religious conflict and polarization much more closely than it follows the American model of religious pluralism. The ruling class in Mexico has always been closely allied with the Catholic church, and the left in Mexico, unlike the left in the United States, has usually been anti-clerical. In 1917, after the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government adopted a Constitution which put severe restrictions on the Catholic Church. In 1926, President Calles, decided to enforce those restrictions. Under the “Calles Laws,” according to Wikipedia, “wearing clerical garb in public (i.e., outside Church buildings) earned a fine of 500 pesos (approximately $250 US at the time); a priest who criticized the government could be imprisoned for five years. Chihuahua enacted a law permitting only a single priest to serve the entire Catholic congregation of the state. Calles seized church property, expelled all foreign priests, and closed the monasteries, convents and religious schools.”

For Greater Glory, a big budget, English language production partly funded by the Knights of Columbus, is an openly right-wing, openly pro-Catholic movie that glorifies the first peaceful, then armed rebellion against the Calles Laws. This is not The Chouans, Balzac’s great novel about the Vendee, which sees both the Catholic right and the Jacobin left in equal, morally ambiguous terms. Here the Cristeros, the right wing Mexican counterrevolutionaries, are good. The Calles government is pure evil. Cristiada could have sprung fully made right from the mind of Pope Benedict (who beatified 13 Cristero martyrs back in 2005) himself. But a reactionary agenda is not what makes For Greater Glory a failure as drama, and what made it a failure at the box office. It’s just not good propaganda.

For Greater Glory is no more a “bad” movie than Andy Garcia is a “bad” actor. The problem is that, like Garcia, it’s merely competent, and mere competence rarely succeeds as propaganda. What’s more, it’s not entirely clear who the film is aimed at, and why the Vatican let it fail. Make no mistake, bad films can be marketed. The Passion of the Christ, a mediocre film at best, was so popular back in 2004 that even I, a leftist and an atheist, felt vaguely guilty about not seeing it sooner than I did. But The Passion of the Christ had a very clear audience in mind, American evangelicals. Who is supposed to watch For Greater Glory? It’s an English, not a Spanish language film. Very few people in the United States know anything about Mexican history. Plenty of Mexicans, both in the United States and in Mexico, speak English, but Mexico is still a Spanish language, not an English language market. What’s more, any Mexican who knows the history of the Cristero Wars is probably going to find it one dimensional, wooden, and uninteresting. My guess is that For Greater Glory is supposed to appeal to conservative Hispanics in the United States. I would also guess it failed partly because of the xenophobia in the Republican party and partly because conservative Benedict was replaced by the more moderate Francis.

Mostly, For Greater Glory fails because it has a bad script. Make no mistake, Dean Wright, who did much of the cinematography for the Lord of the Rings movies, knows something about lighting and design. The film looks great. That 12 million dollar budget also let them hire enough good actors so that none of the performances are flat out embarrassing. But the writing, the overly complex, confusing plot, is terrible. We begin with President Calles, Ruben Blades, giving a speech about the Mexican Revolution being encircled by reactionary foreign powers, and subverted from within by foreign interests. In his characterization of Calles, screenwriter Michael Love makes a very basic mistake. He doesn’t give the devil his due. If William Blake was right, and the true poet is on the side of the devil without knowing it, Love is no true poet. He’s not even a good documentarian. For Greater Glory is two and a half hours long, but we never really learn why Calles is so determined to suppress the Catholic Church. We learn nothing about the church’s ties to the big landowners. We learn nothing about the long tradition of Mexican, liberal anti-clericalism. We learn nothing about the historical context, about Franco, Mussolini, or the Soviet Union, and the Vatican’s tilt towards anti-communism and the far right. We learn nothing about the failure of Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata, or about the Mexican poor.

Indeed, For Greater Glory may be set in Mexico in the aftermath of a traumatic decade of revolution and civil war, but there don’t seem to be very many poor people, and certainly not among the Cristeros. Indeed, except for Peter O’Toole, who plays an elderly priest who looks so ghoulishly old and sickly that it’s almost a relief when the Federales line him up against the wall and have him shot, there are no unattractive people either. Andy Garcia, as Enrique Gorostieta, is puffy and middle-aged, but he’s still Andy Garcia. Oscar Isaac, who we last saw as Llewyn Davis, is Victoriano “El Catorce” Ramírez, a badass outlaw who got his nickname after he killed fourteen Federales who came to arrest him. Isaac, in spite of some fake looking bad teeth, is much hunkier than he was in Llewyn Davis. So that’s why Cary Mulligan slept with him, we think. Eduardo Verástegui who plays Anacleto González Flores, one of the martyrs later beatified by Pope Benedict, is an actual male model. Eva Longaria plays Gorostieta’s wife. The fact that she’s devout doesn’t mean she’s not also hot, and she’s not even the prettiest actress in the cast. That honor would go to Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays a leader in the Joan of Arc Brigades, women who ran guns to the Catholic rebels. This is nothing if not a good looking cast.

But good looking people don’t make revolutions on the basis of their looks. Why were the Cristeros able to cause so much trouble for the Calles government that they later had to bring in the American ambassador Dwight Morrow to broker a deal? We’re told that Gorostieta is a military genius but there’s little evidence of it here. He’s killed in an ambush because he apparently forgot to set up a defense perimeter around the strongly fortified town he’s using as a headquarters. No military genius gets caught so completely off guard. Who are the Cristeros’ “base?” Peasants who are clinging to their religion and their traditional Catholic ways? That could be, but there’s little evidence they even exist. In fact, the only brown skinned, mixed race Mexicans we see here wear Federale uniforms and fight for Calles. Brown skinned peasants who fight for the big bad government against a white skinned elite who fight for religious “liberty?” That might appeal to a teabagger audience in the United States but it does little to throw any light on the history of the Cristero War.

Just about the only character in For Greater Glory who might represent the Cristero base of support is José Sánchez del Río, a 14-year old boy who dies under torture because he refuses to renounce his faith and say “long live the federal government.” We first see José Sánchez del Río, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, when he plays a prank on Father Christopher, the corpse like Peter O’Toole. Why exactly is Peter O’Toole playing Father Christopher, who, in real life was a mixed race Mexican named Cristóbal Magallanes Jara, and who was only 57 when he died? What is this zombie albino doing in Mexico? Indeed,O’Toole looks so much like a melanin free, blue eyed, white skinned devil badly in need of a visit from Doctor Kevorkian that the only thing we feel like doing is shouting out “run little boy. Run. It’s a pedophile priest.” But Jose doesn’t run. Instead he witnesses Father Christopher’s execution, goes from normal 14-year-old boy to potential saint, runs away to join the Cristeros, gets adopted by Gorostieta as a sort of surrogate son, gets taken prisoner, and dies under torture.

Jose’s death, in turn, saves Gorostieta’s soul. Gorostieta begins the film as a sceptic, a mercenary who joins the Cristeros for the money, but he’s so touched by the idea of a young boy dying for his faith, that it brings him to the faith. He dies at the end of the film shouting Vive Cristo Rey, yet another martyr.  The problem is that while the scenes where Jose is tortured are effective, they are also undercut by the way the torturers are so utterly depraved and sadistic that they come off like cartoon characters. Normal people committing acts of torture are terrifying. Cartoon characters are just that, cartoon characters, and these not even good cartoon characters. Never have torturers and sadists seemed so dull. Try to imagine Kevin Costner in The Untouchables playing Al Capone, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

Indeed, therein lies the problem. For Greater Glory has Andy Garcia. It has plenty of Hispanic Kevin Kostners, but no Robert De Niro. It trips over its own conservatism. At least Brian De Palma, whatever else you want to say about him, knew how to give the devil his due.