The Man Who Viewed Too Much
22 September 1997

The Game

Directed by David Fincher
Written by John Brancato & Michael Ferris
Rating: ****

Capitaine Conan

Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Written by Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Cosmos
Adapted from the novel Capitaine Conan by Roger Vercel
Rating: ***

My Mother's Courage

Written and directed by Michael Verhoeven
Rating: **

The End of Violence

Directed by Wim Wenders
Written by Wim Wenders and Nicholas Klein
Rating: * ½

A Self Made Hero

Directed by Jacques Audiard
Written by Jacques Audiard and Alain Le Henry
Adapted from the novel Un héros très discret by Jean-François Deniau
Rating: ***

The Keeper

Written and directed by Joe Brewster
Rating: **

Ratings are on a four-star scale

For reasons that will become clear momentarily, I'm gonna skip the usual leisurely introduction this week and cut to the chase: The Game, David Fincher's follow-up to the magnificent Se7en, is the most thoroughly entertaining big-budget Hollywood movie I've seen since Toy Story was released, almost two years ago. In private correspondence, I've been referring to the film as "a pop masterpiece," but lately I've been thinking that the adjective is both elitist and unnecessary. No, this fairly shallow movie isn't in the same thematic or sociological arena as the best works of Kubrick and Welles and Lang...but then, neither is Bringing Up Baby or Jaws, and only the snootiest of cinéastes would sneer at the sight of either one upon an all-time best list. Like those terrific films, The Game does exactly what it sets out to do, and superlatively: it enthralls...not with masterly character development or keen psychological insight, as Citizen Kane enthralls, but with a story well told. "Primal" is a word I'd use to describe it; it's cinema as story-told-around-a-campfire, with the prodigiously talented Fincher as golden-tongued narrator.

This is not, as you may be aware, a common opinion. Several friends and acquaintances have already sent me e-mail messages requesting -- nay, demanding -- that I justify my four-star rating, which to them seems inexplicable, even heretical. I'm happy to oblige, of course; in order to do so, however, I'll need to discuss aspects of The Game that would qualify as "spoilers" (the Usenet term for plot details the foreknowledge of which would detract from the pleasure of seeing the film for the first time) by any reasonable definition of the word. I must therefore kindly insist that anyone who has not yet seen The Game, and who intends to do so at any time between today and the grave, stop reading this review at the conclusion of this paragraph. It's on a web site; you know the URL; you can come back and peruse the whole thing at length after you've seen the movie. For symmetry's sake, I won't be placing the rest of the review on a separate page, but those interested in investigating the rest of the column can easily use the links up at the top of the page to safely bypass the forbidden text below. This is your final warning, Game virgins: TURN BACK NOW.

Okay. I am now assuming that you've already seen The Game, and that I can dispense with a token plot summary and proceed directly to the burning question on everybody's mind: What the almighty hell do I see in this ludicrous, overheated jigsaw puzzle of a movie? To answer that, I'm going to do something slightly unorthodox: rather than assert, I'll refute. I'm pretty sure that I've now encountered every cogent criticism of The Game that could possibly be made; here's why I find each and every one of them either misguided or irrelevant. Get ready to rumble, kids.

The film is totally implausible. You betcha. And your point is? Of all of the complaints that malcontents have made about The Game, this is easily the dumbest, because most imaginative films require the viewer to take at least one tentative step into the world of make-believe. Surgeons can't swap people's faces, but if you're willing to accept for the sake of drama that they can, everything else in Face/Off is logically and emotionally credible. Similarly, if you can temporarily believe that a battery of physical and psychological tests would allow CRS to predict the exact response that a person would have to any given stimulus, you should have no trouble with The Game. (That the filmmakers have a sense of humor about their patently absurd premise is evident in the invitation to Nicholas' birthday party, which states that the festivities will commence "sometime between seven-eighteen and seven thirty-seven in the evening," or something like that.) Believe me, with that objection out of the way, there is not a single moment in the movie that doesn't make perfect sense. Try me.

The ending is stupid. There are actually several different versions of this complaint; I'll attempt to tackle them all in a single paragraph. Some people find the happy ending a cop-out, apparently on the grounds that hope and catharsis are for losers. I think we can safely dispense with their knee-jerk cynicism without further comment. Others have problems with the conclusion that more properly fall into the province of the preceding paragraph -- how could CRS know from which spot on the roof he would jump, etc. As the aliens said to Sandy, "these are the wrong questions." Still others, notably Skander Halim, find the climax emotionally ludicrous; Skander skirted around the issue in order not to give away the surprise, but I believe that he's denying that Nicholas Van Orton would ever in a million years forgive Conrad and CRS and join in the merrymaking. I think he's dead wrong. I think it's conceivable that Nicholas might start feeling some anger and resentment the next day, but at that moment, knowing that his brother had cared enough about him to spend what was probably many millions of dollars engineering a plan designed to pry that albatross from around his neck (very likely saving his life in the process), and giddy from the absence of a pressure that had been weighing upon him since he was a teenager...he does precisely what I believe that I would do in those circumstances. To me, their embrace feels totally genuine.

I failed: here's another paragraph. Skander also raises the hideous spectre of The Usual Suspects, a film that both he and I found gimmicky and false. He asserts that the "twist" at the end of The Game, like that at the end of Suspects, negates everything that came before. This is not merely incorrect; it is preposterous. The ending of Suspects (which is only one of several dozen major problems that I have with that film, incidentally) truly does render the rest of the film inconsequential; the twist is a shocker, but it does nothing more than shock. The audience has been hoodwinked, but there's no emotional payoff, and the film isn't ultimately about anything but its own alleged cleverness. The ending of The Game is another matter entirely: it explains, in a succinct and moving way, what the hell has been going on for the past two hours. Everything that we see prior to Nicholas' suicidal leap "happens"; Nicholas simply misinterprets all of those events, because he has been deliberately, indeed, have we. I can't help but feel that much of the outrage about the film's ending is being expressed by people who hate to be deliberately lied to -- that Skander's feeling of "betrayal," for example, is fundamentally no different from the feeling of betrayal that he projects onto the "real" Nicholas Van Orton (i.e., the one who, in Skander's opinion, would have reacted very differently upon learning the true nature of the game). Still, there's so much armchair psych in The Game that further examples on my part are fairly redundant.

(Incidentally, I don't intend my remarks here to be construed as an attack upon Skander, whose opinions I respect and whose skill as a critic I admire. We just happen to disagree strongly about this particular film, and I chose to refute his criticisms precisely because they're among the most intelligent and considered that I've seen.)

The twists and turns are utterly predictable. To some, I suppose, they are, and I can readily understand why those people would be unimpressed (although I enjoyed The Game almost as much the second time I saw it, when I knew precisely what would happen at every moment). I made a conscious choice, some time ago, not to second-guess this kind of picture, both because it's more fun to be surprised and because "figuring it out" generally requires one to frequently detach oneself from the experience of actually watching the film in order to actively think about it. I like to do my thinking after the credits have rolled; while the movie's unspooling in front of me, I'll follow it wherever it leads me, without question, so long as it holds my attention. Speaking of which...

The whole movie is tedious and uninvolving. [Shrug.] If you say so. For my part, I found it exhilarating, both as a narrative and as a showcase for some of the most audacious mainstream filmmaking in recent memory...since Se7en, as a matter of fact. Because the characters are all either actors or pawns, the acting is strictly functional, though I'd like to extend my thanks and gratitude to Michael Douglas, who consistently seeks out flawed, unlikable protagonists and explores their warped personalities without flinching. (I'll be a nice guy and ignore his unfortunate streak of misogyny, since it's not in evidence in this particular role.) Every other aspect of the production, however, is top-notch, from the fluid editing to the superb cinematography (you think it's easy to make San Francisco look menacing?) to the sharp dialogue ("Humor me with specifics"; "That's right, you're a left-brain word fetishist") to the ingenious and careful plotting to such wacked-out jokes as the T-shirt Conrad holds up at the end of Nicholas' ordeal. Dave Cowen wrote asking me to single out specific moments that particularly thrilled me, and while I can point to the discovery of the stage dressing at Christine's apartment and the rooftop showdown as two scenes that had my ass scraping the front end of my seat, the truth is that I found the entire thing captivating from start to finish, both times. This is one of a handful of movies that never once found me wondering, even idly, how much longer it'd be before it was over.

It's a hollow, empty, meaningless formal exercise. Not in the least. In fact, only Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Bread and the Vase has touched me more deeply in recent months, so far as contemporary films are concerned. Its notion of redemption is simplistic, to be sure, but simplicity isn't necessarily inferior to complexity (it only seems that way to critics, who have to come up with x number of words whether the work was written by Umberto Eco or Stephen King). Part of the problem is that almost all of The Game's emotional power is compressed into about one minute of screen time, which causes many people to dismiss it entirely, as if Conrad's motivation for setting up the game were merely a feeble screenwriters' excuse intended to justify the various plot twists. And, hell, maybe it was a feeble screenwriters' excuse; Brancato and Ferris previously wrote The Net, which I didn't see but which isn't known for its first-rate script. However, just because it was a Hail Mary pass at the final buzzer doesn't mean that it wasn't caught in the end zone. (I never thought I'd use a football metaphor in a review, but there you are.) For me, those sixty seconds are the culmination of everything that preceded them, and transform what had been a kick-ass thrill ride into something both affecting and unforgettable. The second time I saw the film, the look on Sean Penn's face as he says "It's your birthday present" (words taken a bit too literally by the denizens of rec.arts.movies.current-films) made my eyes well up with tears. No, I'm not joking. I should note, though, by way of disclaimer, that I seem to be particularly susceptible to this particular theme, for reasons I don't quite understand; despite the nonstop comparisons to The Usual Suspects, The Game really has more in common with Truly Madly Deeply, another film about someone who goes to extraordinary lengths to help a loved one recover from a traumatic experience, and one that just happens to be my favorite movie of all time -- again, for no very good reason. In other words, I may be working through some personal issues here, though I'm damned if I know what the hell they are. Off to the shrink, I guess.

In any case, I love this movie, and I'm not about to apologize for it. It's not remotely a guilty pleasure. I stand behind all four of my stars. If you still don't understand, live with it. After all, I have to live with all of the fans of Clerks.

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To further demonstrate how arbitrary any critic's aesthetic opinions are, consider Capitaine Conan, the latest César-winner directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Perhaps the fact that I saw the film six months ago, at the Walter Reade's annual program devoted to recent French cinema (it was only recently released commercially in New York), renders my memory suspect, but I can't think of a single minor flaw or slight miscalculation about which to complain, however mildly. I've given the film three stars, a rating which generally prompts what might be called a "good-but" review: amusing but slight; moving but predictable; incisive but unfocused. In this case, though, I can't for the life of me think of the 'but.' The closest I can come, I'm afraid, is this: Capitaine Conan is an excellent movie, but it didn't wow me, for some reason.

Maybe I'm simply less susceptible than most people to war movies -- even war movies as ambiguous and complex as this one. Conan is set during and immediately after World War I, and the title character (played with astonishing physical force by Philippe Torreton, who won France's Best Actor award last year; Tavernier was voted Best Director for this film) is the imposing leader of a group of renegade French soldiers fighting in the Balkans. These men answer to nobody except themselves, and are deployed only when conventional tactics have failed or are deemed ineffective. The various treaties signed in Geneva (yes, many of them predate the two world wars) don't apply to Conan's crew; their job is to get in, slaughter everybody in sight without a second thought or glance, and get the hell out, and they're rewarded for their recklessness and lack of scruples with extra pay and extra rations. Even after the Armistice is signed in 1918, Conan and his men continue fighting the Turks and Serbs for another year, in an 'unofficial' war not unlike the one the United States would wage in Vietnam decades later. Accustomed to breaking the rules, they carry their ruthless brutality into 'civilian' life, with unfortunate results: two women are murdered in the course of a café robbery. A politically-influenced tribunal (ah, here's a 'but': this material worked better in 'Breaker' Morant) finds Conan at odds with his good friend Lieutenant Norbert (Samuel Le Béhan, also terrific), a bookish fellow who can't bring himself to condone his mentor's methods.

Basically, this is another 'war is hell' movie, though one distinguished by some of the most disconcerting and chaotic battle scenes ever filmed; Tavernier, like Oliver Stone in Platoon, shoots and edits the action in helter-skelter, unexpected ways that seem to truly convey a sense of how combat is experienced by the foot soldier. Unlike most war stories, however, it's also a fine character study; I was never entirely certain whether I ought to admire Conan or despise him -- he exhibits both heroic and homicidal tendencies, often simultaneously -- but I imagine that this is precisely what Tavernier and Torreton intended, especially since the equally conflicted Lt. Norbert seems intended to represent the audience's point-of-view. I know two people (both named Charles...hmm...) who consider Capitaine Conan one of the year's best movies, and I'm in no position to argue with them; it's certainly as objectively skillful as anything I've seen since January. Yet I'm in no hurry to see it again, even though I suspect that a second viewing might unearth further riches. I liked it a lot, but the earth didn't move, you know? Believe me, if I knew why it didn't, I would tell you.

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A year ago, I could have written a lengthy "where are they now?" article about the class of 1990. Three of the directors whose films wound up on my top ten list that year, along with one whose film just missed the cut, hadn't directed a theatrical feature since the turn of the decade: John Patrick Shanley (Joe Versus the Volcano), Jan Egleson (A Shock to the System), Michael Verhoeven (The Nasty Girl), and George Armitage (Miami Blues, the honorable mention...though today I'd rank it more highly than several of the films that did make the list). Shanley and Egleson are still M.I.A.; the former continues his acclaimed career as a playwright, while the latter has apparently been reduced to directing forgettable TV-movies. Armitage finally turned up this spring with the anarchic Grosse Pointe Blank (about a reunion, appropriately enough), and now here's Verhoeven, seven years later, with another Holocaust film, My Mother's Courage. In his case, sadly, it wasn't worth the wait.

Like so many mediocre movies, My Mother's Courage is based upon a true story, and suffers from the filmmakers' belief that what really happened is so inherently compelling that no dramatic license need be taken. One day in 1944, a Hungarian Jew named Elsa Tabori is arrested by the Nazis and placed aboard a train bound for Auschwitz; by film's end, a single courageous act results in her return to Budapest, where she survived the remainder of the war in relative comfort. It's a remarkable story, but it's also a story that could easily be told in about ten minutes (imagine an entire feature film about the day that Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus -- and only about that day), so Verhoeven pads the running time with familiar observations about the brutal efficiency of the Nazi killing machine, which pale beside similar scenes in The Last Stage and Schindler's List. Elsa, meanwhile, is essentially a non-character, passive and stupefied until she's finally prodded by someone else into momentary, semi-decisive action; this might have been interesting if it had changed her in some way, but the film ends the second she arrives back home, so what became of her worldview afterwards is anybody's guess. There's about half a reel of powerful drama here, but the rest of the film is one long holding pattern.

Local reviews suggested a daring black comedy courageous enough to make jokes about doomed Jews headed for concentration camps, but in fact Verhoeven's film is neither offensive nor particularly funny, its humor limited to occasional Brechtian bits in which Elsa's famous (in Europe, anyway) playwright/director son, George Tabori, addresses the audience directly -- pointing out, for example, the deplorable state of the uniforms worn by the SS. Verhoeven handled this kind of material much more adroitly in The Nasty Girl, where it seemed an integral part of the film's thematic concerns; here, it feels like an afterthought...or, worse, like filler. What's more, Elsa is played, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, by the very British Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine), who speaks neither Hungarian nor German, and is therefore badly dubbed throughout (as are various other actors). Collins' performance is unremarkable, and she's hardly a major box office draw, so her presence in this film mystifies me -- maybe she looks a lot like the real Elsa Tabori (not that that's a good reason for casting her). All in all, a major disappointment; here's hoping forthcoming pictures from fellow (and more prolific) alumni Martin Scorsese (GoodFellas, Kundun) and Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Desperate Measures) are more successful.

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IN BRIEF: The End of Violence is what one might charitably call a "film of ideas"; among the less inspired ones in Wim Wenders' latest angst-ridden cinematic essay are (1) the complete subordination of narrative and character to sketchy philosophical noodling; (2) the construction of a ridiculously complicated three-tiered plot about which, ultimately, nobody seems to care; and (3) the casting of Andie MacDowell. (I can't understand why otherwise intelligent directors keep making mistake the third. C'mon, folks, sex, lies and videotape was eight years ago!) For one reason or another, I hadn't seen any of Wenders' contemporary films since Wings of Desire was released a decade ago; if this turgid timewaster is at all representative of what he's been up to lately, I no longer feel that I've been remiss. Just in time for the opening of this year's New York Film Festival, one of last year's selections, A Self Made Hero, has belatedly turned up at New York's Quad Cinema. Stylish but slight, it stars Mathieu Kassovitz, the writer/director of Hate, as a chronic dissembler who talks his way into French Resistance circles following World War II; the idea, one gathers, is that his transformation mirrors that of France's equally successful (and equally troubling) post-war metamorphosis from collaborator to freedom fighter. In a way, this is the downbeat flipside of Preston Sturges' classic Hail the Conquering Hero; trouble is, while the film has surface charm to spare -- Kassovitz is wonderfully vacant -- it more or less ignores the most provocative issues raised by its story, so that what could have been a complex masterpiece is reduced to merely a solid, shallow entertainment. Still worth seeing, though. Regular readers of The Village Voice are more likely than just about anybody else to be intimately familiar with the existence of Joe Brewster's low-budget drama The Keeper, since the paper has published at least three lengthy articles about its distribution woes over the past 12-18 months. At length, the film was picked up by Kino International, but despite all of the Voice's insinuations about racial this and timid that (all of the main characters are black), I think it's much more likely that The Keeper had trouble getting a theatrical release because it isn't especially good. What begins as an intriguing story about the consequences of a selfless gesture made by a bookish prison guard gradually dissipates into a not-very-insightful examination of male jealousy, complete with a long shouting match consisting almost entirely of variations on "Did you fuck him?" I've got Raging Bull on laserdisc, thanks. Nice to finally see Giancarlo Esposito (School Daze, Do the Right Thing) in a leading role, though; I hope he finds something stronger than this well-meaning but muddled morality play for the next one.

Next time (in all likelihood): The Edge, In & Out, L.A. Confidential, The Long Way Home, My Sex Life, or How I Got into an Argument