Review: V.S. Alexander’s ‘The Magdalen Girls’

themagdalengirlsA search for author V.S. Alexander’s background yields the Amazon page for his (or her) debut novel, The Magdalen Girls, and a short paragraph of details which includes the author’s literary influences: “Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Bronte sisters.” That these authors inspired this one should come as so surprise—The Magdalen Girls is a story of repression, of history slowly revealed, of reality transforming from one gothic horror to another. To write a novel about the “laundries” of 1950s Ireland depends on that brand of darkness, certainly, and Alexander pulls the curtains as tight against the light as he can—but to the point, perhaps, that most of his story’s intended expression disappears from sight, leaving the reader somewhat uninvolved with the emotional truth of the horrors themselves.

And there are many horrors occupying Alexander’s attention. The forceful imprisonment of young women at convents, their snatched infants, the abuse at the hands of family members—the list goes on and on. But what better material for a budding novelist? Anyone can see that Alexander has done his research, and even after all the carnage and his interpretation of facts, he concludes The Magdalen Girls with an author’s note signifying his reflection and personal respect for the moral complexity in the history of organizations like the Catholic Church. What’s curious, though, is how much of that self-acknowledged complexity must have disappeared when Alexander put his fictional account to paper.

For example, the two young women at the center of the novel, Teagan and Nora, never quite separate in terms of personality or behavior enough to distinguish them. On the base level, both characters do reside in certain stereotypical spheres; Teagan reads as a beautiful, easygoing girl who finds herself betrayed under innocent circumstances, and Nora reads as a spitfire with clipped wings. But Alexander doesn’t quite elevate them beyond that initial introduction, and their personalities weaken even more once joined in friendship with perhaps the only consistently remarkable character in the novel—Lea, the devotee with a tendency toward mysterious, holy visions. Even Mother Superior (who is also referred to in the text, in an initially confusing way, as Sister Anne), the novel’s designated villain, exists mainly as a cartoonish caricature of a Disney bad guy, with little of Alexander’s intended complexity embodied by the character herself. The revelation of her tragic origin story and subsequent atonement fall flat in the novel’s final pages, when the hundreds of previous ones did little to promote her potential depth or subtlety. Many of these failings, however, should have been redirected by an editor with an eye for redundancy and technique. All the novel’s internal, italicized monologues expressing what the audience already knows, for example, could have been better implemented—and elicited more empathy—as more detailed, specific language in the text itself.

To be fair, even the promos for this novel don’t seem to know how to deliver the story 100 percent. Several other reviews state that fans of the 2014 film Philomena, the story of an elderly woman seeking out the son she bore and had taken away from her as a teenager in a Magdalen laundry, would find a favorite in The Magdalen Girls. The two stories share the same setting much of the time, sure, but the comparisons end there. Philomena, after all, stars two venerable actors at the hands of a screenplay that capitalizes on their own intuition as emotional human beings, with characters growing deeper and more complex with each passing scene. No inner monologues, here. But Dench and Coogan tell us everything we need to know, and in a way that leaves room for the audience’s own involvement. Then again, Coogan and Dench have long held clout as some of the best thespians (and in Coogan’s case, best film writers) working today. The Magdalen Girls is only Alexander’s first novel.

In the end, The Magdalen Girls, as a manuscript, may not have been totally ready for the printing press. But that only means that a student of creative writing will find much to learn here, as might a student of history. And if it’s the students that Alexander is after, then he won’t find a better audience anywhere else.


I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Professional Reader

‘Pretty in Pink’ still stirs up drama at 30

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Sound on Sight website. It has been reprinted in its entirety below.


On February 28, 1986, a 17-year-old Molly Ringwald graced the screen as as the working-class Andie Walsh, a heartbroken teenager in a prom dress that launched a thousand controversies over the words “pretty” and “pink.” Regardless, Pretty in Pink remains essential material to any student of famed screenwriter and director John Hughes, the man responsible for some of the most respected portrayals of teenage dramedy in 1980s America, including two prior films starring Ringwald, whose successive fame landed her on the cover of Time shortly after Pretty in Pink’s release.

Hughes had long been inspired by Ringwald after seeing her photo in a casting lineup, writing Andie’s role with her in mind (as well as her roles in 1984’s Sixteen Candles and 1985’s The Breakfast Club) and hoping to cast her in future films like Some Kind of Wonderful. But a quick look at the movie’s credits reveals something unique about this film so closely tied to its writer. Namely, that Hughes did not direct it, relegating those duties to his then-protege and first-time director Howard Deutch.

Although perhaps just a move to allow Hughes more time to write and Deutch to gain more experience directing, interviews with Ringwald suggest that she and Hughes may have suffered an unspoken falling out after expressing a desire to branch into other types of projects post-Pretty in Pink. In fact, they never worked together again. Hughes’ other muse and Ringwald’s one-time boyfriend, Anthony Michael Hall, also expressed similar confusion about the director’s sudden distance, wondering if Hughes had simply become dissatisfied that Hall and Ringwald had “veered off script” to live a life outside of his narratives. Whatever the case, the emotional pitfalls only increased behind the scenes.

Hughes and Ringwald talk on the set of 'Pretty in Pink.'
Hughes and Ringwald talk on the set of ‘Pretty in Pink.’

The film follows many of Hughes’ traditional beats. Molly Ringwald plays Andie Walsh, a serious girl from the wrong side of the tracks who challenges the status quo when she enters into a relationship with the wealthy Blane, played by Andrew McCarthy. A veil of hopelessness prevails—her mother has abandoned the family, her father’s lack of work forces her to supplement his income, and her wacky best friend Duckie, played by John Cryer, pines for her unrequited attention. A falling out ensues between all involved, relationships are tested, but the lines that separate each character supposedly fade away into a happy ending.

But in contrast to other Hughes-penned films like Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink garnered a significant amount of critical fame for aspects of its narrative that just didn’t seem to work. In its initial test screening, everything appeared to be going well for Hughes’ next foray until, with only five minutes left, something unanticipated happened. The audience booed, upset that Andie ultimately ends up with Duckie, not Blane, at the school prom. If that ending sounds unfamiliar to anyone not present at the test screening, that’s because it never made the final cut. Deutch and Hughes were eventually persuaded by the studio to reshoot the scene so that Andie chooses Blane instead, an implied victory for cross-status romance, but a decision Deutch says still bothers him to this day.

Duckie and Andie spot Blane at the prom in the film's reshot ending.
Duckie and Andie spot Blane at the prom in the film’s reshot ending.

“Politics aside, they were like, ‘We want her to get the cute boy.’ And that was it,” Deutch said in a 2014 interview with Vulture.

That Deutch—or perhaps the original test screen audience—uses “cute boy” to describe Blane and not Duckie also has its roots in the complexity of Cryer’s casting, at least in terms of his ability to get the girl in the original ending. After landing the part by amusing Deutch with an impression of Mick Jagger’s “Start Me Up”—later reworked into the film’s iconic “Try a Little Tenderness” scene—Cryer’s performance stands out as the comedic core of the film, ad-libbing a few of the film’s most memorable lines. But despite bringing to life one of the most eccentric characters in the Hughesian repertoire, the lanky and pompadoured Cryer wasn’t exactly Ringwald’s first choice for the supporting role.

“Actually,” says Ringwald in Susannah Gora’s book, You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation, “I think he seemed gay. I mean, if they remade the movie now, he would be, like, the gay friend who comes out at the end. He wouldn’t be winking at a blonde [Kristy Swanson], he would be winking at a cute guy.”

Instead, Ringwald had a different member of the Brat Pack in mind.

“I feel bad saying that I really fought for Robert Downey, Jr.,” she says, “because it sort of seems like I don’t appreciate Jon’s performance, which I totally do — it’s just, it really did affect the movie.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Cryer, who had known Downey since they attended the same summer camp as kids, admits to feeling disappointed with the decision to reshoot the film’s ending.

“But I think it was kind of appropriate,” he adds. “Duckie always thought he was the leading man, and that was his fatal flaw.” In other words, it was Duckie’s nature, not his status, that hindered his romantic goals.

“You’re not one to face things,” Andie tells Duckie during an argument, and if Duckie’s frantic enthusiasm serve as any evidence, then Andie is right. Alone in his room as Andie goes on a date with Blane, Duckie sits on a dirty mattress listening to “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths, backdropped by a furniture-less room and crudely-drawn images on the wall. When Duckie expresses frustration that “they just don’t write love songs like they used to,” his words could be translated as his frustration that a traditional, happily-ever-after narrative like Andie’s will never be his to have.

Duckie sits alone in his bedroom.
Duckie sits alone in his bedroom.

Whether or not Hughes intended to turn Duckie into the film’s tragic hero, even Roger Ebert in his 1986 review sided with the new ending, writing that Andie and Blane were “obviously intended for one another.” Plus, as Cryer’s previous quote suggests, an ending without their reconciliation may have accidentally worked against one of Pretty in Pink’s intended themes—crossing social and economic boundaries in the name of love.

Gora records Cryer’s opinion in her book:

“I was a little hurt,” he says, “because you feel it reflects on you as an actor, because you didn’t get the audience to invest enough in [Andie and Duckie’s] relationships in such a way that it would be satisfying that they would end up together. But at the same time,” he points out, “I got it. The whole movie seems to be about trying to bridge that divide,” the divide between cool kids and nerds, between the Blanes of the world and the Andies, between rich and poor. “You can’t give people the impression that it can’t be bridged,” says Cryer, earnestly. “You can’t send a message that interclass romance just can’t possibly work.”

To forgive themselves for sacrificing Duckie for Andie’s sake, Hughes and Deutch rectified their dissatisfaction with Pretty in Pink in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful, in which Eric Stoltz’s Keith and Mary Stewart Masterson’s Watts—two working class misfits who essentially fill the rolls of Andie and Duckie, respectively—do end up in love despite the presence of popular, rich, but still amiable Amanda. In fact, the successive timing of the film’s release even prompted Janis Maslin of The New York Times to call the film “a much-improved, recycled version of the ‘Pretty in Pink’ story.”

Still, when compared to the lexicon of Hughes’ films, Pretty in Pink remains a powerhouse depiction of teenaged life rarely seen on modern television. With one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time (the misinterpretation of The Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink” aside), stirring performances, and a storyline that has remained conversational for 30 years, the film has stood the test of time. Although perhaps one of the most imperfect of Hughes’ creations, its charms make up for its shortcomings, admirable in its intention to present a world in which people find love and friendship in spite of pain.

So Andie may not have been in love with Duckie. But as one of her final lines at the prom suggests, that doesn’t mean she didn’t care.

“May I admire you?” she asks her steadfast friend, an echo of one of Duckie’s lines from earlier and the question modern audiences still pose to the film thirty years later. And the answer, in all its imperfection, is yes.

‘Raging Bull’ still transcends genre at 35

 

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Sound on Sight website. It has been reprinted in its entirety below.


Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull—oft-cited these days as the director’s magnum opus— first premiered in New York on November 14, 1980 to a volley of mixed reviews. At least, that’s what the Internet would have modern researchers believe. Now, 35 years later, digging up a negative review of this not-quite-a-sports-movie, not-quite-a-bio-pic seems limited to a shallow dig by Variety critic Joseph McBride, who wrote that Scorsese “excels at whipping up an emotional storm but seems unaware that there is any need for quieter, more introspective moments in drama.” Meanwhile, a glance at Rotten Tomatoes’ records show that 98 percent of contemporary critics have showered Raging Bull with praise, and even Roger Ebert, reviewing in 1980, rejects McBride’s view, awarding four stars to a film that does “a fearless job of showing us the precise feelings of their central character, the former boxing champion Jake LaMotta.”

Fearless though it was in the characterization of its violent antihero, Raging Bull almost never made its way to the screen at all, mostly thanks to Scorsese’s own doubts when the idea was first pitched by his friend and coworker, Robert De Niro.

De Niro, who had already starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, put himself up for the role of Jake LaMotta after reading the real-life boxer’s poorly-written but nonetheless interesting memoir and showing it to the director, who was not impressed. Famously dispassionate toward sports, Scorsese claimed he had no idea what the story was about, while future co-screenwriter Mardik Martin said that the plot—“a fighter who has trouble with his brother and his wife and the mob is after him”—had already been done a hundred times before.

Raging Bull Scorsese and De Niro

Martin Scorsese directs Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

But everything changed when Scorsese, who had been going through a depression in his career and personal life, nearly died in New York after overdosing on prescription medication and cocaine. De Niro visited him in the hospital and decided that the time had finally come when his friend, at the lowest low of his life, might finally understand the similar pains at the center of Raging Bull. So he pitched the adaptation again and Scorsese agreed to team up, reflecting later in his own words, “I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it, until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own.”

Raging Bull is, after all, more of a dramatic Shakespearean tragedy than a sports flick, and even manages to self-identify the superiority of this approach in De Niro’s opening monologue. De Niro, 50 pounds heavier as an older LaMotta rehearsing for his post-boxing career one-man show, practices in front of a mirror:

“And though I’m no Olivier,
If he fought Sugar Ray
He would say
That the thing ain’t the ring, it’s the play.
So give me a stage
Where this bull here can rage,
And though I could fight
I’d much rather recite.
That’s entertainment.”

Even the film’s groundbreaking cinematographer, Michael Chapman, referred to the piece as an opera, viewing each boxing sequence an aria. Indeed, the opening credits scene in Raging Bull—arguably one of the most beautiful openings in cinema—plays Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana over De Niro’s slow motion jabs and water-like robes in the misty landscape of the ring.

What Chapman and editor Thelma Schoonmaker did for the artistry of shots like these have since been hoisted as some of the finest decisions ever put to film (Schoonmaker would win an Oscar for her work, alongside De Niro’s Best Actor). They are exactly the introspective moments overlooked by McBride, the kind that give the film an unexpected elegance that transcends the brutality of boxing.

But this elegance and forethought still appear in some of the most terrifying scenes in the film, like the in-ring, over-the-shoulder, point-of-view shots of LaMotta facing off against Sugar Ray. Along with Chapman’s heart-pounding cinematography and Schoonmaker’s breath-snatching cuts, sound effects editor Frank Warner also crafted a nightmarish atmosphere of animal noises from elephants and horses, braying with the fighters’ punches, charges, and grunts in fearsome dehumanization. In a 180-degree turn for realism, Scorsese used the real audio commentary from LaMotta and Sugar Ray’s real-life matches to play during fight scenes, and LaMotta’s actual cornerman can be seen talking to De Niro between rounds. In other boxing scenes, the lights of cameras flash like electric sparks, or else glimmer like phantoms in smoky darkness, achieved by using flames in place of glass bulbs to create a wind-stricken impression of hell.

And a hellscape it is, from De Niro’s emotionally illiterate LaMotta to Joe Pesci’s turn as his rib-smashing brother, and especially in the hard stoicism of LaMotta’s young and battered wife, played with gravity by Cathy Moriarty. A prime example of the Freudian psychology ogled by Hollywood throughout the 40s and 50s—the main time frame in which Raging Bull takes place—LaMotta is a man defined by sexual jealousy, and the Madonna-whore complex he places upon his wives, as well as his distorted views of masculinity, contain him in a state of fury.

But Scorsese didn’t want viewers to feel the need to explain LaMotta with psychology or charts of cause-and-effect. As told by the Chapman’s up-close-and-personal cinematography and the unsentimental script, LaMotta and his cohorts’ behavior isn’t intended to be dissected and explained, but rather is intended to make the audience feel the reality of being troubled, being beaten, and of self-inflicted defeat. In fact, only one voice is ever heard off-screen during the film, the only voice that enters the solitary confinement of LaMotta’s mind, and it belongs to his next door neighbor who overhears LaMotta’s domestic abuse and yells, “You’re an animal!”

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci on the set of Raging Bull.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci on the set of Raging Bull.

These moments prolong the movie, making sure each phase of LaMotta’s life feels as uncomfortable for the viewer as the next, but Scorsese makes sure to soften the blow with a little humanism that goes along way. Toward the end of the film, LaMotta, no longer a champion and locked in a real cage—a jail cell—for fraternizing with underage girls at a bar, beats his head against the walls and screams and shouts, only to cease with a whimper. “I am not an animal,” he says.

The beats of the screenplay are familiar, as Mardik Martin said. LaMotta is a middleweight boxer with dreams of becoming one of the greats. Uneducated and uninterested in much else, he uses his physical strength to abuse women and his brother, and to compensate for the affection he neither feels nor receives. He fights. He wins some, he loses some. His brother’s ties to the Mafia eventually constrict the authenticity of his career, and he winds up in a jail as a failed boxer and a divorcee with nothing much to cherish.

Raging Bull De Niro and Moriarty

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta and Cathy Moriarty as Vickie LaMotta.

But the close of the film, a continuation of the opening scene wherein LaMotta rehearses in his dressing room, portrays best of all the beautiful rendition of a life too late regretted. Staring at his tired reflection in the mirror, LaMotta recites Marlon Brando’s monologue from On the Waterfront, this time like a ghost’s prayer at his own tombstone:

“You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit instead of making me take them dives for the short-end money. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley. It was you, Charley.”

‘The Insect Woman’ reveals the dark underbelly of Japanese cinema

 

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Sound on Sight website. It has been reprinted in its entirety below.


That director Shohei Imamura’s 1963 film, The Insect Woman, can be found in a Criterion Collection box-set called “Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes” should do more than hint at the content and themes of his work. An auteur dedicated to defying traditional Japanese stories and storytelling, Imamura famously referred to himself as a creator of “messy films,” films that—in opposition to Japanese contemporaries who emphasized taming the animal nature of humanity—explored the immutable wildness of the human condition. And as the only Japanese director to have two Palme d’Or awards under his belt, Imamura’s customary shamelessness verifies his history as one of the leading trend-setters of the Japanese New Wave, a movement dedicated to uninhibited portrayals of social structure and cultural evolution, among other things.

In The Insect Woman, Imamura examines these notions, as he almost always did, through a female perspective, this time to abolish the stereotype of passive victimhood in Japanese women. Instead, Imamura paints a portrait of a peasant farmhand, Tome, who despite her suffering maintains the persona of a sexual, resourceful, and headstrong character determined to persevere.

The Insect Woman screenshot

The film begins on the day of Tome’s birth to a lower-class family in the winter of 1918, to a promiscuous, untethered woman and a mentally retarded father with inappropriate concepts of physical affection. She grows up under the financial chains of tenant farming, but also beneath the gaze of a little stone figure on a  shelf in her home—the female “god of the mountain” to whom her family offers tributes in hopes of being blessed with good fortune. From her childhood and beyond, Tome is expected to believe that every circumstance in her life—for better or worse—is part of a preordained destiny designed to keep her in line with social and familial roles. Even when she is raped by her benefactor’s son, Tome’s mother believes the act to be a harbinger of social advancement; if Tome is lusted after enough, she suggests, she might one day get the chance to become her rapist’s wife. Even Tome’s resulting pregnancy brings few alarms; several of the farmhands, after all, are already mothers of illegitimate children.

The film moves forward in time with sudden jerks and freeze frames, mimicking the violent beats of Tome’s life. Faced with the prospect of World War II amidst the culture of abuse she already endures, Tome—played by Sachiko Hidari, whose performance would win her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 14th Berlin International Film Festival— is still a wistful soul, eventually keeping a diary through which she reveals her hopes for a better life. Meanwhile, she continues to grasp at any straw that blows her way, sometimes choosing new pains if they could mean a chance at a new future, like when she decides to keep her newborn daughter despite her mother’s urges to “get rid of it.”

The Insect Woman

Tome is forced to brush the dirt from her knees over and over again, constantly stripped of lowly jobs and sour relationships, so distracted by misery that she accidentally causes the death of a child she had been hired to care for. And when she reaches out to religion to seek salvation, she finds it in a woman she meets at a prayer meeting, but with dire, ironic results. Only when Tome has already accepted the stranger’s help does she realize that the woman is a madam, her new house a brothel, and that she has accidentally sold herself into prostitution.

Still, Tome finally begins to learn the ropes of her bitter existence, eventually moving up the brothel hierarchy until she achieves a sort of economic maturity. Even when her own daughter, Nobuko, betrays her to take over the business, Tome decides to overcome the shock and instead prides her child for displaying such animal-like survival instinct. It isn’t a particularly altruistic outlook on life, but in Tome’s experience, the road to a young woman’s success depends exclusively on her own wills and desires. Not a mountain god’s, not a man’s—her own.

The last scene in the film is perhaps the best depiction of this idea so crucial to Imamura’s work, cycling back to the film’s opening scene of a thorny beetle struggling to climb a mound of dirt. In this, the last look at Tome’s life, the audience watches her become the titular heroine, breaking her sandals and scraping her knees as she climbs a hill of her own. Grunting, cursing, but still ascending.

Tom Cruise: A Retrospective

 

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Sound on Sight website. It has been reprinted in its entirety below.


Anyone growing into pop culture consciousness during the mid-2000s will be familiar with a certain type of Tom Cruise, one labeled with some criticism in a recent Buzzfeed article as “Tom Cruise 2.0.” To them, Tom Cruise may have first become familiar as Ethan Hunt in the first Mission: Impossible movie, as an action star who, in spite of fearful insurance agents and publicists, prefers to do his own stunts—especially if they include declaring maniacal love for Katie Holmes atop Oprah Winfrey’s couch. He was probably their first introduction to the alien world of Scientology, or perhaps already known as the face of another hero thrust into the supernatural, having once served as the model for the titular character in Disney’s Aladdin.

This Tom Cruise, in spite of several critical successes in the past 10 years, has yet to shake completely the straws of tabloid fodder that prick up every time someone dares, for example, to bring up his ex-wives or his religion, or even when they don’t. This is a Tom Cruise famed for being a bit silly in the eyes of the public, to the point where many younger consumers seem to forget that Tom Cruise 1.0 is a three-time Academy Award nominee and winner of three Golden Globes, as well as one of the most lucrative producers in the film industry today.

After landing his first Mission: Impossible role, Cruise’s negotiations with Paramount earned him a near-unprecedented 22 percent of the film’s total receipts (that’s about $70 million), practically paving the way for stars to become full partners with studios. It was in light of this first of a series of negotiations that economist Edward Jay Epstein declared Cruise—along with heavy hitters like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Jerry Bruckheimer—“one of the handful of producers who can reliably deliver a billion-dollar franchise,” which means that Cruise remains one of Hollywood’s most formidable forces both on screen and behind the scenes.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 8.53.31 PM

To be fair, Cruise entered the game with a pretty large handicap in his favor, landing his first film roles at the age of 19 alongside names like Brooke Shields, Sean Penn, and with 1983’s The Outsiders, pretty much every young male actor (plus Diane Lane) who made it big in the ‘80s. His twenty-first year also brought him his first leading role and Golden Globe nomination for the social satire Risky Business, the film often credited with launching Cruise into stardom. In his glowing four-star review, Roger Ebert even praised Cruise’s performance as one of the movie’s highlights, crediting him as an actor who knew “how to imply a whole world by what he won’t say, can’t feel, and doesn’t understand.”

Top Gun arrived in 1986 with less critical aplomb but compensated with the chart-topping “Take My Breath Away” and a role that cemented Cruise as one of the biggest names in Hollywood. From that moment on, Cruise’s celebrity status rose in tandem with his roles in several more films beloved by voting committees and audiences alike, creating characters that have managed to remain fresh and interesting in spite of Tom Cruise 2.0.

Rain Man, for example, hit screens in 1988 and swept the floor at the successive Academy Awards, pairing Cruise alongside Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman, who won for his role as the autistic savant, Raymond Babbitt. When the Vietnam War drama Born on the Fourth of July rolled around in 1989, Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor against Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh, Morgan Freeman, and Robin Williams—some of the greatest actors recognized to this day. Even more notable is the fact that Cruise did win the Golden Globe over Day-Lewis, plus his additional contenders in Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino.

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In 1992’s Irish immigrant romance Far and Away, Cruise brought the world its first hint of the gossip train that would follow him later on, starring with his then-wife Nicole Kidman, whom he’d met whilst working on Days of Thunder in 1989. Even novelist Anne Rice jumped aboard when news surfaced that Cruise had been cast as the vampire Lestat in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles in 1994—something Rice was not happy about. Still, Cruise managed to come out on top yet again once the film premiered, after which Rice released a personal statement oozing praise for Cruise’s performance, in which she wrote, “The sheer beauty of Tom was dazzling, but the polish of his acting, his flawless plunge into the Lestat persona, his ability to speak rather boldly poetic lines, and speak them with seeming ease and conviction were exhilarating and uplifting.”

Cruise made good on that praise by earning his second Oscar nomination for the titular role in Jerry Maguire, a film awash with stand-out performances (Cuba Gooding Jr. Would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as wide receiver Tod Tidwell). Just a few years later, with the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Cruise would pocket his last Oscar nomination to date, earned in the midst of an already talented ensemble cast.

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Cruise had already become the action star lead in Mission: Impossible by this time, and would soon reprise the role in 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, shortly before his divorce from Nicole Kidman and his devotion to Scientology began to overshadow his achievements as an actor. And yet, regardless of the way news outlets and casual fans continue to note how Cruise’s reputation for unusual antics and beliefs might continue to harm his career, he hasn’t come close to disappearing from the limelight.

After all, Cruise still had cult-favorite Minority Report under his belt, along with The Last Samurai, Collateral, and War of the Worlds, the latter of which was, at the time, Cruise’s highest grossing film ever. The last five years have also renewed action-hero Cruise in 2012’s Jack Reacher, the post-apocalyptic Oblivion, and the surprise favorite military sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow (which may, by the way, see a sequel one of these days). Cruise even showcased his R-rated comedy chops—albeit in near-unrecognizable form—in 2009’s Tropic Thunder. In lieu of this variety, some could still argue that Cruise is less associated with his eponymous status in the 80s and 90s, but he was, come 2012, the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.

All things considered, whether the subject be Tom Cruise 1.0 or the actor-turned-character Tom Cruise 2.0, the man behind the camera—preserved in history as arguably one of the most beloved, most recognizable stars in the history of cinema—is, perhaps, someone to be grateful for. From the snarky teenager Joel Goodson dancing around in his underwear, to the five-time Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt, Cruise can always be trusted to put on a good show, whether on or off camera.

RIP Omar Sharif, star of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, and an elegant romancer

 

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct Sound on Sight website. It has been reprinted in its entirety below.


Omar Sharif, the international film star famed for roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, has passed away of a heart attack at the age of 83, leaving behind a limelight legacy rivaling any of Hollywood’s favorite leading men.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt as Michel Demitri Shalhoub, Sharif changed his name as a young university graduate landing his first film roles in his native country. In what seemed like no time for the life of a beginning actor, Sharif—in part due to his famous good looks—soon gained traction in the world of film, but also in the tabloid press, converting to Islam and marrying co-star and Egyptian actress Faten Hamama in 1955. These trysts with female leads, however, would continue during their marriage, and Sharif’s flirtations would soon become almost as notable as his films.

Still, Sharif’s screen presence won out when his first English-language film delivered to him a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his 1962 role as Sharif Ali in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, considered by many to be among the greatest films ever made. As a character both withholding and inviting, Sharif’s anticipated arrival into British cinema might even be comparable to his classic entrance in the film itself, arriving as a glimmer out of nowhere, commanding attention with an ever-growing presence.

Indeed, Sharif’s Orientalized charisma—a Hollywood-endorsed exoticism he was aware played a role in his multi-ethnic casting—never charmed audiences as much as in his next collaboration with Lean, wherein he played the titular character in 1965’s Doctor Zhivago. His role as a confident, doomed lovebird would also lend him praise for another famed role opposite Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, proving nonetheless that Sharif could fluctuate across genre and setting with an elegance that managed to hinder the type-casting thrown to other male stars like Clint Eastwood or Cary Grant.

A romancer, perhaps, but not necessarily a Romantic, Sharif had a tendency to look outside his career to explain his rises and falls, the latter of which increased in number at the end of 1960s.

“I did three films that are classics,” he said to the New York Times in 1995, “which is very rare in itself, and they were all made within five years.” Sharif expresses similar realist sentiments—but with not a hint of bitterness—in the interview clip below.

Burdened by gambling debts—an ironic vice considering Funny Girl’s Nick Ornstein’s identical dilemma—and keen to keep his family above water, Sharif left the world of big-budget hits in later years and settled into less popular roles, eventually favoring a life of minor film and television roles.

Regardless, Sharif remains one of the most unique and recognizable presences in some of the most classic films of the last century, cementing him always in the state of fame and adoration that bolstered him in the height of his career, ever-emergent on the desert horizons of the imagination.

Deconstructing the Furies of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

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WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

In Greek and Roman mythology, the furies (or Erinyes—“the angry ones”) are creatures represented as the female embodiments of justice and vengeance, born from the primordial goddess of Night more powerful than Zeus himself, and tasked to punish the unjust. Well-meaning civilians honored the furies as patrons of legal and moral order, and although often depicted as hellish beasts arising as bats or as storm clouds, they were also not incomparable to the three Graces of charm, beauty, and creativity.

How fitting, then, that director George Miller would clarify his continuation of the Mad Max saga—this time, a film led by female defenders of justice in a crazy, mythical future—with the subtitle Fury Road.

And with actual storm clouds, to boot.

I can’t be sure that Miller or his cast intended this interpretation of the title, since the dominant emotion on screen certainly screams of fury in the vernacular sense, but I’m almost certain that they did. After all, I don’t think anyone who hires Eve Ensler for the specific purpose of consulting on all things feminist would overlook the obvious equalization and overwhelming competence of the women in this film, and how the very appearance of them in the male-dominated world of action blockbusters might as well rarify them as otherworldly creatures.

But it isn’t just their number that makes Fury Road’s women notable. Rather, it’s their characterization amidst their surroundings that seems to have garnered people’s attention and praise. Neither the camera nor the titular male hero, for example, observe them as sexual objects, as the repeated line “We are not things,” illustrates. Female lead Furiosa, after all, doesn’t even arrrive on screen with all her body parts in tact, eliminating a sense of perfection in favor of the intricacy and resourcefulness symbolized by a prosthetic arm. The women are also allowed to feel sadness and doubt, emotions too often lost on all kinds of action heroes, regardless of gender (and also used to great effect, I might add, in Netflix’s amazing take on Daredevil, another action series way ahead of the curve, in my opinion).

They’re also allowed to be pretty old, which is pretty awesome.

Even the subtleties of Charlize Theron’s constantly-watering eyes—on the verge of tears or just withstanding the biting dust?—spoke volumes about the complexities of heroism. She is, like the mythical furies of ancient Greece, a tenant of a sort of underworld, accustomed to witnessing suffering and subjugation, dedicating what may be the last of her life to punishing the perpetrators. In this instance, the symbolism also suits the specific pain of female suffering, a feeling of social lowness also attributable to recognizable phrases like “the glass ceiling,” beneath which many women find themselves. And yet, even in a hellscape, the film hangs tight to themes of fertility and growth, and not just the biological kind. Here, even an elderly woman world-wearied of the fight for justice still tries at every opportunity to plant seeds of flowers and fruit, filled with hope—another theme of the film—that one day they might prosper into a new environment. Change, after all, doesn’t happen overnight. It must be tended with patience by people like Furiosa, who withstand all sorts of bad weather until the roots take hold.

Behold, the tears of badassery.

But it must also be tended by people like Max, which is why I’m frustrated to hear remarks’ like ones I found by self-proclaimed feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian, who wrote:

“Mad Max’s villains are caricatures of misogyny which makes overt misogynists angry but does not challenge more prevalent forms of sexism. Viewers get to feel good about hating cartoon misogyny without questioning themselves or examining how sexism actually works in our society. It makes me profoundly sad that mainstream pop culture now interprets feminism to mean ‘women can drive fast and stoically kill people too!’”

Her last statement, especially, fails to take into account the work these action sequences do to to enhance the equalizing goal of the movie. Fury Road may not give a lecture on the history of sexism and how it works in society, but it does suggest an idea of how sexism might be undermined and conquered.

To see this, people like Sarkeesian must be willing to observe the film’s male leads as well, and note how Miller manages to subvert even traditional action-movie characters into something beyond driving fast and stoically killing people—which, I might add, is a gross oversimplification of Fury Road’s plot.

If someone could explain this, though… that’d be great.

All of the interactions between Max, the slave Nix (played by Nicholas Hoult) and the rest of the female cast, for example, unfold in ways that simply don’t  rely on the presupposition of sexism. Neither the camera nor Max/Nix ever gawk at the women’s bodies in an overtly sexual way, regardless of what they look like or what they wear. In fact, although the film obviously depicts the physical abuse and subjugation of women, Max experiences some of these things for himself as “Blood Bag,” Nix’s way of reducing Max to only his body. Contrariwise, when Max meets up with Furiosa and the wives, he never thinks twice of Furiosa’s physicality (not even the strangeness of her missing arm), and never expects her to be anything less than his equal both in and out of combat. Max is also willing to cooperate with Furiosa during a scene where he fails to use two of his last three bullets to take out an approaching threat, instead letting Furiosa, the better shot, use his shoulder as a mount to snipe them away. And in a surprising overturn of the “Blood Bag” situation from earlier, Max—previously forced to siphon his blood to Nix—chooses to give his blood to a dying Furiosa of his own volition, becoming a hero not through “driving fast and stoically killing people,” but through healing.

♪ Give a little bit… give a little bit of your blood to me… ♪

Nix, too, previously depicted as a loony villain intent on achieving glory in a fiery death in Immortan Joe’s service, also achieves heroism through sacrifice. He may still die a fiery death, but he dies it a free man, thinking not of being the “manly-man” he’d been taught to be, but acting out of the love he learned from the wife Capable.

For a film so full of death and destruction, I find Fury Road so notable for the way it uses these events to make way for the ideas I mentioned earlier—of hope, growth, and rejuvenation. Not just through the act of a woman fighting to save other women (which is already rare enough in action films), but for the men who see them as the heroes they are. Max—and later Nix— doesn’t view these women as creatures in need of a helping hand or a charitable push, but as people to admire and emulate, and to whom he would sacrifice part of himself to ensure their victory. In the final scene, they have left the truck’s secret compartment, succeeded in the secret mission, and hoisted onto a platform before a cheering crowd, finally raised above the hell of their desert life. Perhaps it takes a little fury, after all, for a woman to serve justice in plain sight.

Watch the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road below: