Monday, April 23, 2012

"The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" (1972) by Thomas Keneally

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was written by Thomas Keneally in 1972. In this post I will quote from some of the book's individual chapters.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tom Cruise = No Longer A Bankable Hollywood Star?

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol officially came out on Blu-Ray and DVD today. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here thinking: Remember when Tom Cruise used to be the most bankable star in Hollywood?

Not that he should be too worried about DVD sales. Ghost Protocol was, after all, one of the Top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2011, grossing nearly $700 million worldwide. But the fact that it finally took another Mission: Impossible flick to kinda, sorta restore Cruise's popularity with the American public has started to make me ponder about where his career has gone.

Consider this: In 2002, the Hollywood Reporter conducted a poll that ranked Cruise at #1 on their list of the Top 10 Most Bankable Hollywood Stars. In 2011, Forbes conducted a poll of their own, and Cruise didn't even make the cut.

What happened? Could it be because of the strange direction Cruise's career has taken? Compare his output from 1999-2005...

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Magnolia (1999)
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Minority Report (2002)
The Last Samurai (2003)
Collateral (2004)
War of the Worlds (2005)

to his output from 2006-2011...

Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Lions for Lambs (2007)
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Valkyrie (2008)
Knight and Day (2010)
Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)

An alarming pattern indeed. How does such a seemingly popular Hollywood star go from working with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann to working with decent-but-lesser filmmakers like J.J. Abrams, Ben Stiller, Bryan Singer and James Mangold? How does that happen?

Granted, working with Brad Bird recently on Ghost Protocol did allow Cruise the opportunity to go back to work with an actual great, relevant modern Hollywood director. And yet Cruise himself is not credited as one of the major factors in the movie's success. Had he been, it's likely Forbes would have included him on their "most bankable" year-end list.

Okay, okay. I'm not saying money is the most important thing about all of this. Realistically, who gives a damn if one Cruise's movies doesn't make much money as long as it's, you know, good? Back in 1999, when Cruise was still a hot-button Hollywood item, he made two movies in one year — Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia — and they both flopped. Today, they're widely regarded as modern classics.

Nowadays, however, whenever a Cruise feature flops, it's practically forgotten in a heartbeat. Admittedly, it's because he's not making as many great movies as he used to. Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs was a boring, unsurprising political drama that didn't really have anything illuminating to say about the War on Terror. Mangold's Knight and Day was enjoyable entertainment and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing it again, but it wasn't a major work as far as Cruise is concerned. And I admit I didn't even see Singer's Valkyrie because I was scared away by the lukewarm reviews. Perhaps I'll see it someday, but what I've heard isn't too promising.

So, I guess it's saying something when even I, an unabashed Cruise fan, haven't been getting too hyped up for Cruise's recent projects. It's really saying something when the only two highly interesting movies he's made in the past 6 years are both Mission: Impossible flicks. I guess he's realized that this is the only way to keep him bankable for the time being, since very few people in Hollywood are willing to work with him anymore.

Everyone knows why, of course. It's because of Cruise's idiotic antics in the media following the release of War of the Worlds in the summer of 2005. Instead of promoting Steven Spielberg's brilliant sci-fi/terror epic, Cruise used his skyrocketed popularity as a cheap excuse to try to bring the public closer to the Church of Scientology, a movement that backfired after Cruise abused this rare power by couch-jumping on Oprah, dissing Brooke Shields for her medication usage during her experience of postpartum depression, and engaging in a memorably ugly debate about psychiatry with Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

A violent reaction from the public was inevitable. Rumors began surfacing that Spielberg threw a fit when Cruise neglected to promote War of the Worlds during his media tour (and, according to the book The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole LaPorte, allegedly hired a Scientologist to try to stop Spielberg's wife Kate Capshaw from taking meds). This resulted in, I think, a public boycott against War of the Worlds, which did eventually gross $591 million worldwide but might have grossed even more had it not been for Cruise's public persona outside of the film itself. The film currently has a 6.5 rating on IMDb. I suspect a large majority of those who voted the movie at such a low score were rapid anti-Cruise fanboys.

Honestly, I don't understand why people hate Cruise so much for being a Scientologist. That he can be a bully in the media? Sure. But what's wrong with him being a Scientologist? Admittedly, I'm largely ignorant about the religion itself, but as a supporter of our basic First Amendment rights, I'm not going to attack Cruise for his religious beliefs; Scientology doesn't sound to me like a "Hitler Youth" movement, or whatever people want to call it. I also seriously question the charges of one particular critic that Cruise is a closeted homosexual, although I do understand why Cruise's threats to sue this critic for attempting to write a book about such theories have led this critic to admit, "Consequently my feelings about him are less than copasetic." So would mine, probably, if I wanted to write such a book. I wouldn't, of course, but still. I get it.

Anyway, to prove that we should forget the artist's private life and simply focus on the majesty of the artist himself, I've decided to compile a list of Cruise's Top 10 greatest performances. Because, despite what people say, he truly can be a great actor when given the best parts and the best directors.

10. The Last Samurai (2003), Dir. Edward Zwick

This may be a flawed film, one that dabbles in the all-too-familiar white-man-joins-foreign-race genre, but by God, Cruise makes it work. As the alcoholic Captain Nathan Algren, haunted by memories of serving under Custer during murderous raids on Native Americans, Cruise makes us believe such a man could possibly wind up in 19th-century Japan converting to the side of the samurai and their classical, honorable ways. Ken Watanabe may have been the one who received an Oscar nomination for his acting work in this film, and justifiably so, but it was Cruise who opened up audiences' interest for the movie in the first place. There was even a scene where Algren was shown goofing off in his samurai robe while left alone, wittily reminding critic Leonard Maltin of Cruise's famous underwear scene in Risky Business.

9. Rain Man (1988), Dir. Barry Levinson

Another Cruise vehicle in which another star (Dustin Hoffman) was honored by the Academy, but wouldn't have been so successful without Cruise's invaluable presence. Rain Man is often snarked at by critics today as one of those movies that didn't deserve to win Best Picture -- which it probably didn't -- but I like it all the same. The role of pretentious, narcissistic yuppie Charlie Babbit could have been thankless and uninspired, but Cruise really sells the role, making us see why such a man could be so wigged out by his own ridiculous scheme of trying to get a share of his father's will from his autistic brother. My favorite scene: when Babbit, finally pushed to the breaking point, pulls the car over, runs out into the desert, and kicks some sand around before finally belting out, "SON OF A BIIIIITCH!!!!!" while his voice echoes around the surrounding canyons. Yeah, we've all had one of those days.

8. Vanilla Sky (2001), Dir. Cameron Crowe

Jerry Maguire may be the more famous Crowe/Cruise vehicle, but I recently returned to this obscure remake of Amenebar's Open Your Eyes (which I haven't seen) and was surprised by how well it's held up. I think in the past I sometimes had the tendency to write it off as a visually-interesting but emotionally-distancing misfire. Not anymore. For me, this is Cameron Crowe's best film, and it provides even more challenging work for Cruise than what was offered in their previous collaboration. Forget "Show me the money!"; I'd much rather see Cruise here, as ill-fated magazine tycoon David Aames, running through an empty Time Square (to the tune of From Rusholme With Love), falling helplessly in love with Penelope Cruz, being stalked by a batshit crazy Cameron Diaz and eventually falling so far into his own "Lucid Dream" that he can't discern reality anymore. This movie doesn't always make sense, but it might actually be somewhere on the level of greatness of Mulholland Dr., which came out the same year.

7. Collateral (2004), Dir. Michael Mann

One of my favorite Michael Mann flicks, Collateral allowed Cruise a chance to prove to audiences he could effectively play a memorable bad guy. Which, to be fair, he had already done as Lestat in Neil Jordan's Interview With the Vampire (1994), but whereas that film was messy and tedious, Collateral bursts with energy and nonstop thrills. Cruise's work as the cool, unfazed contract killer Vincent is sublime, and should have merited an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, this was yet again one of those instances when the Academy preferred to nominate another actor from the same film (Jamie Foxx). I suspect a majority of Cruise's detractors haven't even seen it.

6. A Few Good Men (1992), Dir. Rob Reiner

These days, Rob Reiner hasn't been a very interesting filmmaker. But he was once a very good one, and I'll forever forgive whatever trespasses he may have committed in the past 15 years thanks to this, his most splendidly acted, written and directed film. Everyone remembers Colonel Jessup's "You can't handle the truth!" speech, but what I like more is the way Cruise's character, Lt. Kaffee, finds a way to wrench a confession out of Jessup. "If your orders are always followed," Kaffee muses, "why did Santiago have to be transferred off the base?" I love quoting this scene, and it's a testament to the fact that, even as a younger actor, Cruise's talents had reached their peak.

5. War of the Worlds (2005), Dir. Steven Spielberg

Ray Ferrier is a lousy father and ex-husband who finally realizes he needs to rise the occasion if he's going to protect the ones he loves. Those who criticize Cruise's performance in War of the Worlds seem to be criticizing Cruise the man instead of Cruise the actor, and if there's a fault in this particular performance, I'd like to know what it is. In the scenes of Ray rushing his kids out of his house, throwing peanut butter bread against a window in a fury, screaming for his son as he watches him run towards a wall of fire and prepares to murder a deranged man (Tim Robbins) whose actions may bring harm to his daughter, Cruise viscerally brings out the instincts of this seemingly simple man, transformed into an unlikely action hero. In one scene, Cruise sings Dakota Fanning to sleep with a variation of the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coup," and although this scene must have sounded silly on paper, Cruise and Spielberg make it believable and touching. Spielberg reportedly never wants to work with Cruise again because of his failure to adequately promote this film, and that's sad. In my lifetime, I hope to at least get to see them collaborate again for a third and final time.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick's movies didn't exactly specialize in 3-dimensional characters, so it's not surprising that Cruise's work here as Dr. Bill Harford didn't attract any Oscar attention. That is not important in the case of a film like this. Part of what makes Eyes Wide Shut so fascinating is that Kubrick gets into the mindset of Cruise -- during that era perhaps the most popular male heartthrob in Hollywood -- and then considers, hey: what if we broke down this heartthrob into something subtler, deeper, less identitifable? A man who goes on a sexual odyssey without ever actually having sex himself? Eyes Wide Shut was largely dismissed by audiences during initial release as a failure, but make no mistake: it's an eerie, mesmerizing masterpiece. I'm annoyed with claims by actor R. Lee Ermey that Kubrick was disappointed with the way the movie turned out and supposedly thought Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman were bad in it; fortunately Todd Field has disputed Ermey's claims. Cruise is, really, dabbling in the sort of "memorably forgettable" (to borrow a phrase from Ed and Jason) work that Ryan O'Neal achieved in Barry Lyndon. In short: the richest kind of Kubrick performance.

3. Magnolia (1999), Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Whenever people tell me they think Cruise can't act, I ask them, "Well, have you seen him in Magnolia?" I think the reason why Paul Thomas Anderson would think to cast Cruise in the role of sex exploiter & misogynist Frank T.J. Mackey was to see just how far Cruise could break down his own ridiculous image as a sex symbol in the eyes of the post-90's American public (sheesh, no wonder Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut came out in the same year). Cruise, in this film, goes from a ladies' man completely in his element to a pissed-off interviewee who's "quietly judging" his female interviewer (April Grace), to a betrayed son weeping at the bedside of his dying father (Jason Robards). It's a brave, wrenching performance and, out of all of Cruise's Oscar-nominated work, is the one performance where I feel he completely deserved the Academy Award. He was beaten out that year by Michael Caine, who was admittedly outstanding in The Cider House Rules and even joked (3:55) that an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor would have been too insulting to Cruise's talents ("Tom... have you any idea what supporting actors get paid!??"), but still: 1999 was Cruise's year.

2. Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Dir. Oliver Stone

Remember when I argued that most rapid anti-Cruise haters probably haven't even seen Magnolia or Collateral? I'd be surprised if ANY of them have seen Born on the Fourth of July. Clearly the best performance Cruise has given that's actually been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, he probably would have won hands-down had Daniel Day-Lewis not given similarly jaw-dropping work of his own that year in My Left Foot. This is one of those situations when I try to forget the Oscars entirely because, you know, Cruise is so damned good here as the paralyzed Ron Kovic, watching his own system of patriotism and jingoistic zeal come crashing down before his eyes once he realizes that the War in Vietnam has completely and utterly fucked up his whole life. You can see some of Oliver Stone's own personal experiences as a Vietnam vet come clear in this performance (this might even be Stone's best movie), and even though Cruise himself never went to Vietnam, he sells us for 2 1/2 hours on the concept that he was actually there, and saw it all, and is about to do something about it. For me, that is the essence of great acting. I'd like to think Oliver Stone could even save his own struggling career if he considered working with Cruise again on another film.

1. Minority Report (2002), Dir. Steven Spielberg

Oh, how I love this movie, and how I love Cruise's dynamic performance in it. It reminds me of the good old days, when the release of a new Tom Cruise movie actually meant something, and when his talents as an actor where never, ever called into question. I could go on raving for days about his work in Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut and so many other films, but if you wanted me to point to the performance that most intimatetly captures the humanity of one man, it's Cruise's absolutely magnificent performance in Minority Report as John Anderton, a disillusioned Washington D.C. cop who believes the system of PreCrime is perfect... until it comes after him.

In some of the best acting you will ever see in Steven Spielberg's cinema, the film's highlight comes during the sequence where Anderton prepares to face the man he believes has kidnapped and murdered his son. "I am going to kill this man," he whispers to Agatha (Samantha Morton), and he proceeds to beat the living hell out of Leo Crow (Mike Binder), very nearly shooting him dead before pausing and deciding that it would be wrong, and that he must do the right thing and let him live. This is a scene you have to see to believe, and when I first saw it at the age of 11, it made me question my own beliefs about ethics, murder, vengeance, capital punishment and all other things. By the end of the film, you truly believe Anderton has emerged from his nightmarish experience as a better, wiser man, having come to the realization that he owes a responsibility to his fellow Americans not to let them be taken advantage of by an Orwellian justice system any longer. It's the role of his I identify with the most. It is, quite simply, a masterstroke of acting, and the greatest performance Cruise has ever given.

Nostalgic about the good old days, I did some web-surfing on YouTube and found this great Charlie Rose interview from '99, in which Paul Thomas Anderson discusses Magnolia and has some delicate comments to make about Cruise, as an actor and as a friend:

(5:48) Rose: You've got some of the hottest actors in the world in this movie. Start with Tom Cruise. How'd you get him?

PTA: He called me after he'd seen Boogie Nights. And that's the phonecall from the President of the United States of Movie Land, you know? And--

Rose: It doesn't get any bigger than that!

PTA: No, literally! It doesn't!

(9:25) Rose: There's something good about Cruise...

PTA: (nodding) Tom Cruise is... the MAN. He really is. He's a pretty amazing individual.

"President of the United States of Movie Land"? You wouldn't be caught dead in Hollywood saying that about Cruise today. He probably wouldn't even qualify for the Speaker of the House position. He's simply not as sought-after by studios and filmmakers the way he once was.

Do I believe Cruise can make a comeback? Absolutely. He just needs to find a director who can provide the right inspiration for one. Look at all the A-list directors he's worked with so far:

Stanley Kubrick
Steven Spielberg
Martin Scorsese
Paul Thomas Anderson
Brian De Palma
Francis Ford Coppola
Oliver Stone
Ridley Scott
Michael Mann
Brad Bird
Sydney Pollack
Barry Levinson
Cameron Crowe
Neil Jordan
Rob Reiner
John Woo
Robert Redford
Ron Howard

Also, back in early 2009, David Cronenberg expressed interest in working with Cruise on an adaptation of a Robert Ludlum spy novel. With luck, this project will see the light of day. As for the rumor of him collaborating with Clint Eastwood on a remake of A Star is Born, I'm open to the possibility -- so long as they get a more experienced actress to play the female lead than Beyonce Knowles.

Cruise's next movie is going to be a musical called Rock of Ages. I have no idea if it's going to be a good movie or not, but judging from this trailer... looks as if Tom is getting back in Frank T.J. Mackey mode. To that I say: let's hope so.