"Find hungry samurai" -Gisaku



I wanted to go see THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Marcellus got a job playing trumpet in a blues band, so I called Ajax. Ajax is good people. It’s just that he loves to criticize movies. You have to learn how to read him, though. If Ajax calls the movie “Craporama,” that’s pretty much Three Stars. To rate a “Sub-par” would mean the film is an award contender.

I dial up and his wife Elsa answers, breathing heavily. I was a bit taken aback. “Elsa.” I said. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” She said unconvincingly, between ragged breaths.

“Oh. Well, is Ajax there?”

Ajax comes to the phone breathing just as heavily.

“Uh, Ajax: why are you breathing so heavy, and if so, why did you answer the phone?

Ajax laughs. “You got to have priorities.” He said. “Hyperion comes first.”

I think I’ll just let that go.

So we were sitting in the theatre watching previews. After some Cameron Diaz piece of trash, we get the Jake Gyllenhaal show. I’m not kidding. I think it’s like Ben Stiller from last year: every movie must have Jake Gyllenhaal in it.

First up is JARHEAD, about marines in the first Gulf War. Same director as AMERICAN BEAUTY (Sam Mendes), and I’ve heard good things so I’m pumped.

Next is PROOF, with Anthony Hopkins as a mathematical genius who’s losing his edge as he ages. PROOF also has good buzz and obviously I relate. Add in HARRY POTTER IV, THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE and of course KING KONG and this Fall/Winter is shaping up well.

The third Jake Gyllenhaal movie is BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. It’s directed by Ang Lee (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), and is supposed to contend for Oscars. (Just this week it won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival.)

My problem is—and longtime readers know how much I hate this—the previews give away a major plot point. There is no way you won’t find out about it, but if for some reason you think you can avoid all commercials and print on the movie and yet still want to see the film, skip the next paragraph.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is about 2 cowboys; lifelong friends. Married. Kids. They’re also into each other. This comes up 20 seconds into the preview, and is obviously a big part of the marketing campaign. Just idiotic. All you’d have to do it talk about a secret in the previews, but not reveal it (a la THE SIXTH SENSE). Plus, how many people who’d normally be attracted to a cowboy movie will want to see that kind of hogtying? The only good thing was that I got in a good joke. When the title “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” came on the screen at the end of the preview I leaned over to Ajax and said, “They should call it Bareback Mountain.”

At this point, the review shifts in a major way.

The problem with Africa is that nobody gives a fuck about Africans. Most of you reading this review will get more upset about my language than the plight of any Africans. Go on; admit it: you’re one of them.

Okay, maybe that’s overly dramatic. Some people do care, but not enough to do anything about it. And most people who do want to help don’t know the first thing about African politics. Earlier this year there was a concert for Africa called Live 8. Its purpose was not to raise money but “awareness,” which is mighty tasty if you’re starving, and to pressure world leaders for debt relief. It was en vogue to talk about “0.7% of GDP” allocated to Africa, as if anyone who spouted that number had any idea why that arbitrary figure was chosen, and what it might mean in terms of help or feasibility. I mean, it sounds great, right? Africa is poor, eliminating their debt will help end poverty! Sadly, it won’t begin to do anything that’s needed.

Let me put this another way—and I say this will all due respect and no hyperbole—the images that have come out of New Orleans the last two weeks? That’s Africa.

Every day.

And let’s be honest, the Western World has better things to do than save a continent that can’t seem to save itself.

There are many reasons why Africa is such a quagmire, and why the rush to help is non-existent. In previous and perhaps future columns these reasons are discussed in detail. For now, let us—you and me—be men and admit that for all practical purposes, nobody really cares. In last year’s best movie HOTEL RWANDA a UN Colonel is explaining why the UN is only evacuating the whites from war-torn Rwanda, and not any of the afflicted people. It’s because Africa is so low on the totem pole. “You’re not even a nigger.” The Colonel said to the hotel manager, and truer words were never spoken.

With that depressing backdrop comes—yes, I’m just going to say it—the best movie of the year so far: THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Ajax called it “fair,” which translated means “best film since STAR WARS.”

Right now you and I are going to make another deal: you are going to take my word that THE CONSTANT GARDENER is an important sophisticated well-made film and you’re going to try to see it. In the meantime, you will do ALL in your power to avoid reading reviews that give away the plot. Because my friends, you really do need to see that for yourself.

In our post mortem after the movie at Denny’s, Ajax said, “People want the hamburger; they don’t want to meet the cow.” You think about that as you are watching THE CONSTANT GARDENER. There’s something going on there, something that affects you or someone in your family. See, you can’t hide from this stuff and say it has nothing to do with you. It does.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER is an angry film, based on a John LeCarré novel. I don’t always agree with LeCarré (who, for example, is vehemently against the Iraq War). That’s okay. This story couldn’t be told without his anger. You need that emotion propelling you forward as you’re watching. This isn’t the anger of SCHINDLER’S LIST or HOTEL RWANDA, but a viable anger nonetheless. A righteous anger and—this part will keep you up at night—a guilty anger.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER is shot mostly in Kenya. Having grown up there maybe I was more sensitive to what I saw on screen. However, Ajax is as white as Wonder Bread, and he smoldered as well. You need only be human to be affected.

What else do you need? Some intelligence and a little bit of patience. THE CONSTANT GARDENER doesn’t cater to idiots. It expects the audience to be reasonably smart and informed, and discerning. The movie also comes at you out of order. There is a reason for this, and it will come together. Trust me. It is okay to be a little bit confused overall early on, as long as you can enjoy each scene for itself and wait for the big picture to emerge.

THE CONSTANT GARDENER is directed by Fernando Meirelles, who last made CITY OF GOD. For those of you who have seen that film, I need say no more. Pretty amazing that his first two films are among the ten best of the decade so far. Only Peter Jackson can brag that.

Meirelles has immaculate skill. There are scenes here that surpass anything I’ve seen this year. Tell me you jaw doesn’t drop in admiration at the hospital scene. Tell me you’ve absolutely figured it out after the pesticide scene. You haven’t. Know this: besides a top-notch political thriller, THE CONSTANT GARDENER is a Byzantine twisting murder mystery, where both the murder and the mystery—or at least how you’ll look at them—will change several times throughout.

The main characters are played by Ralph Fiennes as Justin and Rachel Weisz as Tessa. Fiennes is about as underrated as you can get. Two of the top ten performances in the past 15 years belong to him.1 Here his Justin is a role that would crush a lesser actor. It’s the kind of part Anthony Hopkins could pull off.

Rachel Weisz’s Tessa is more elusive, though no less expertly played. Don’t be surprised to see dual Oscar nominations here.

Tessa brings me to the final thing I want to say about THE CONSTANT GARDENER. As you learn more about what happened and what is happening, your views of Tessa’s actions will change. But at some point you will come across a choice she made. It’s a choice that sacrifices personally for a greater good (or so she thinks).

As I sat in the theatre dumbfounded, I asked myself, “could I do that? Could I throw away happiness and stability for something I believed in?”

Don’t get me wrong: many of Tessa’s choices infuriated me. They weren’t right. But look at that big one and personalize it. Have you ever believed in something so much that you would willingly ruin your life for it? This isn’t a glib question: stop reading and really think about it. And when you see the movie, ask yourself again. I saw THE CONSTANT GARDENER last Saturday and not a day has gone by I haven’t not pondered this.

I know I get accused of taking movies too seriously; thinking about them too much, maybe. But so what? Movies (and TV) are our only common binding agent these days. A good movie can not only illuminate life’s darkness but elevate ideas. It can not only entertain but inform. It can make us think, make us want to discuss with others, and just maybe make us change the way we act.

If that’s not worth ten bucks and two hours of your time, I don’t know what is.


September 16, 2005



Thanks to Ajax

Thanks to my Denny’s hos, who always treatz me right.


1 Fiennes’s performances in SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE ENGLISH PATIENT are nothing short of amazing. Some day I should do a column just on the best performances of the last 15 years.


Anonymous said...

Will you go with me if I promise to go?

Ajax said...

FYI: I always breathe heavily on the phone when answering. It tends to discourage telemarketers.

Moving on, as discussed by Hype and myself, Hyperion also theorized that the Ajax system of movie rating also works in reverse. Meaning that if I like a movie (Constantine), its undoubtedly bad. And if I love a movie (Things To Do In Denver If You're Dead, Charlie's Angels), its rotting, disgusting, fecund, putrescence, shoveled into a paper bag and left flaming on your doorstep.

Its that sort of unrelenting brutal honesty that indicates true friendship. Right?