Parkland

Zac Efron about to pronounce the president dead in Parkland

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

30 March

 

Ronald Reagan shot, 1981

On this day in 1981, after just over two months in office, President Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton. His would-be assassin was John Hinckley Jr, whose attempt on the president’s life seemed to be part of a plan to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d become obsessed after seeing her in the film Taxi Driver. Hinckley’s intention was not to kill Reagan but the President – he’d been focused on killing President Jimmy Carter when Carter was in office until being arrested on a firearms charge. Reagan just happened to be the man doing the job on the day in question. Hinckley loosed off six .22 calibre shots from a Röhm RG-14 towards Reagan as he left the Hilton at 2.25pm. None of them hit the president directly, though one ricocheted off his car and hit him in the chest. A policeman, a secret service agent and Reagan’s press secretary were also wounded (the last was paralysed), while Reagan was taken to George Washington University Hospital where he was said to be “close to death”. He recovered and was released from hospital less than two weeks later, his reputation as a toughie immeasurably enhanced.

 

 

 

Parkland (2013, dir: Peter Landesman)

There are plenty of big name actors in writer/director Peter Landesman’s debut movie – Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton – though all take a back seat to the story it tells. Parkland being the hospital where President Kennedy was brought on the day he was assassinated. It was also the hospital where JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was brought when he was brought down by Jack Ruby’s vengeful bullet a couple of days later. The film tells both tales, the former in a major key, the latter in a minor. Mixing things we know about the day – we meet Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti) as he’s excitedly preparing to take some 8mm footage of the President – with things we don’t, the film’s great strength is its behind-the-scenes “you are there” sequences, first when noble doctors are battling to save a man who is, effectively, already dead on arrival, later when Oswald (Jeremy Strong) is also brought in to the same room for pretty much the same routine by the same doctors. It’s the small touches that lend the whole thing a fascination that goes beyond the morbid – the tussles between various branches of the security service to “control” the situation, the sight of the “Kennedy’s” FBI detail being sworn to defend new president, Johnson (the office not the man being the thing). And at around 20 minutes in, that’s it, the president is declared dead, and the film switches to Oswald, his arrest, and the affect this had on his family – the appalled decent brother Robert (James Badge Dale), the batshit mother (Jacki Weaver, since Animal Kingdom the go-to actor for poisonous matriarchs). Thirty years ago a film that gave so much time to the killer, asked us to feel the pain of those near to him, would have been impossible to make, for all sorts of reasons. Now, Parkland’s struggle is getting us to empathise twice – first with a man who, for all his faults, is still bathed in a heroic aura. Then again with the weasel who killed him. Or if not sympathise with him, then his family, who we see burying him while the whole of America is watching the interment of the former president on TV. Efron, Giamatti, Harden and a solidly excellent Billy Bob Thornton as the man in black trying to co-ordinate mayhem, all take second place to that task, which Landesman achieves in muted fashion, because if he’d tried it otherwise, the film probably would never have been made.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The audacity of telling the story of both men
  • Barry Ackroyd’s period cinematography
  • The brilliantly chaotic editing of Markus Czyzewski and Leo Trombetta
  • The really solid cast includes Ron Livingston, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Parkland – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Paperboy

Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless is very pleased to see John Cusack's Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy

 

 

 

You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.

Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.

What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.

Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.

We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.

Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.

This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.

Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack

Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.

Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Paperboy – at Amazon