Behind Enemy Lines (2001, directed by John Moore)

When hotshot Navy flight officer Chis Burnett (Owen Wilson) is shot down while doing a reconnaissance mission over Bosnia, he finds himself stranded behind enemy lines.  While Burnett tries to avoid being captured by a Serbian general and find evidence of illegal military operations in yje demilitarized zone, Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman) tries to mount a rescue operation.  Standing in his way are the NATO bureaucrats who would rather just leave Burnett to his fate than run the risk of disrupting the peace process.

Behind Enemy Lines was released early in Owen Wilson’s acting career and, after years of watching him in buddy comedies and eccentric character roles, it can be strange to see him playing a traditional leading man, much less an action hero.  Burnett has his goofball moment but, for the most part, this is probably as dramatic a role as you’re ever going to see Owen Wilson perform.  Once you get over the fact that he’s Owen Wilson and still speaking in the same stoner cadences that he’s used in everything from Bottle Rocket to Inherent Vice, Wilson actually gives a decent performance as Burnett.  The fact that he’s not a traditional leading man actually makes the film’s action scenes more exciting.  If Burnett had been played by someone like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, you would never have any doubt about his survival.  With Owen Wilson in the role, you’re no longer quite as sure that he’s going to be able to make his way to safety.

Gene Hackman also gave a good performance, even if he didn’t really do anything with the role that he hadn’t already done with all of the other authority figures that he played from Unforgiven on.  Hackman’s intimidating as Reigart.  When Burnett says that he wants to retire from the Air Force, Reigart looks like he’s about to reach over and rip off his face.  But Hackman has so much natural authority that you understand why his men automatically respect Reigart and follow his every order.  Burnett is lucky to have him on his side because there’s no way Reigart’s going to let someone from NATO push him around.

When Behind Enemy Lines first came out, it was not loved by the critics.  They complained that the movie was heavy-handed and predictable.  They were right but it really didn’t matter.  Behind Enemy Lines made a lot of money because it was a legitimate crowd pleaser.  I remember seeing it when it first came out.  This was less than month after 9-11 and the theater was packed with people who, like me, were still dealing with the greatest national trauma of our lifetime.  When Owen Wilson killed the men who were trying to kill him, the audience cheered.  When Reigart said that there was no way he going to abandon an American behind enemy lines, the audience applauded.  By the time the film ended, everyone was on their feet and chanting “USA!  USA!”  (At least, that’s the way I remembered it.)  Critics be damned, at that time, Behind Enemy Lines was the movie that we needed.

Behind Enemy Lines was a huge box office success so, of course, it got a sequel that wasn’t as good.  I’ll review Behind Enemy Lines: Axis of Evil tomorrow.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Snake Pit (dir by Anatole Litvak)

The 1948 film, The Snake Pit, tells the story of a writer named Virginia Cunningham.

Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) is a patient at the Juniper Hill State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that only treats female patients.  Some days, Virginia knows where she is and some days, she doesn’t.  Some days, she knows who she is and other days, she doesn’t.  Sometimes, she hears voices and other times, the silence in her head is her only companion.  Sometimes, she’s paranoid and other times, she’s quite lucid.

Virginia has been admitted against her will.  Her husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), visits frequently and sometimes, she knows him and sometimes, she doesn’t.  Through flashbacks, we see how Virginia and Robert first met.  Robert worked at a publishing house.  Virginia was a writer whose work kept getting rejected.  Robert and Virginia fell almost immediately in love but Virginia always refused to consider marrying him.  In fact, she even disappeared at one point, because things were getting too serious.  However, one day, Virginia suddenly declared that she wanted to get married.  Afterwards, her behavior became more and more erratic.

In the hospital, Virginia is treated by Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), who is depicted as being a compassionate and progressive psychiatrist, even as he puts Virginia through electroshock treatment.  (Remember, this film was made in 1948.)  With Dr. Kik’s guidance, Virginia starts to piece her life together and get to the cause of nervous breakdown.  Unfortunately, it often seems like every step forward leads to two steps back and Virginia still reacts to every bit of pressure by acting out, even biting one unhelpful doctor.

The hospital is divided into levels.  With each bit of progress that a patient makes, she’s allowed to move to a new level that allows her just a bit more freedom.  Everyone’s goal is to make it to the final level, Level One.  Unfortunately, Level One is run by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig), a tyrant who is in love with Dr. Kik and jealous of the amount of time he spends on Virginia.  Davis starts to goad Helen, trying to get her to lose control.  And what happens if you lose control?  You end up in the Snake Pit, the dreaded Level 33.  Being sent to Level 33 means being abandoned in a padded cell, surrounded by patients who have been deemed untreatable.

At the time that it was released, The Snake Pit was a groundbreaking film, the first major American studio production to deal seriously and sympathetically with mental illness.  Seen today, it’s still effective but you can’t help but cringe at some of the techniques that are used in Virginia’s treatment.  (Electroshock treatment, for instance, is portrayed as being frightening but ultimately necessary.)  The film works best as a showcase for Olivia de Havilland, who gives an absolutely brilliant and empathetic performance as Virginia.  Neither the film not de Havilland shies away from the reality of Virginia’s condition nor does it make the mistake of sentimentalizing her story.  For me, de Havilland’s best moment comes when she learns that she bit another doctor.  At first, she’s horrified but then she starts to laugh because the doctor in question was such a pompous ass that he undoubtedly deserved it.  de Havilland handles the character’s frequent transitions from lucidity to confusion with great skill, without indulging in the temptation to go over-the-top.  Arguably, The Snake Pit features de Havilland’s best lead performance.

(Olivia de Havilland is, at 103 years old, still with us and living, reportedly quite happily, in France.)

Olivia de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress but she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  (A year later, De Havilland’s won an Oscar for The Heiress.)  The Snake Pit was also nominated for Best Picture but ultimately lost to Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet.

“Opal Fruit” Is More Than A Little Delicious

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Another one I’m a little bit “late to the party” in terms of getting around to reviewing is cartoonist Kat Rose’s self-published 2016 mini Opal Fruit, a challenging, bemusing, sometimes bewildering 10-page assemblage of figure (for the most part) drawings that cleverly uses its own simplicity to obfuscate what appears, after multiple “read”-throughs, to actually be a tightly-structured “suite” designed to elicit a particular set of reactions and interpretations not unlike, say, Nick Thorburn’s much longer — though equally wordless — Penguins. There’s one key difference, though : whereas Thorburn’s constructs hew much closer to a linear start-to-finish “strip” configuration, this is a legit “free-for-all” that follows a rhythm, to be sure, but nothing so conventional as an actual structure.

That makes it perplexing at times, I’ll grant you, but it also means it’s never less than thoroughly intriguing and engrossing — provided you’re the sort…

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We Left Avant-Garde In The Dust A Long Time Ago : Diana Chu’s “Rodin Du Jour”

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Does great art need to have point? Or, more precisely, does it need to have a point beyond an artist exploring an idea by visual means — for its own sake, theirs, or both?

Diana Chu’s 2017 short (as in eight pages) self-published mini, Rodin Du Jour, certainly has me asking those questions — and it’s had me asking them for some time, truth be told, hence this review coming along so “late in the game,” as the expression goes. I offer no excuse beyond “it took me some time to figure out how to approach this work,” but hey — does it even qualify as an “excuse” when you’re telling the truth?

Saying Chu’s ‘zine has a “premise” might be putting things in overly-concrete terms, but as a visual experiment it definitely has a specific set of self-imposed rules in place : she uses each two-page spread to…

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Make Time For “Making Time”

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

I’ve really been digging Elise Dietrich’s self-published minis lately, and it’s not hard to see why : meticulous in her attention to detail and determined to pack as many visual “goodies” into every panel as possible, her cartooning nevertheless seems to easily dodge the pitfalls of rigid formality and instead expresses itself as a kind of fluid, nearly spontaneous, quiet series of expertly-communicated mediations on the little things that make life — well, life, I guess. Which probably seems like a counter-intuitive thing for me to say given that in last year’s small diary comics collection, Making Time, she adheres fairly strictly to four-panel grids, hits a requisite narrative “beat” in the middle of each strip, and generally ends ’em all on something that could at least be loosely interpreted as a “punch line.” But there you go — comics, especially good comics, can be kinda weird like that.

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