Insomnia File #22: Insomnia (dir by Christopher Nolan)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were up at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the atmospheric 2002 mystery, Insomnia.

I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit by including Insomnia in a series about obscure films that you might find on cable late at night.  While Insomnia does seem to often turn up during the early morning hours, it’s hardly an obscure film.  A remake of an acclaimed Norwegian film, it not only stars three Oscar winners (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) but it was directed by Christopher Nolan.  Insomnia got a lot of attention when it was first released in 2002.  But, doing an insomnia file about a movie that’s actually about insomnia was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

I should also mention that I didn’t have insomnia last night.  I was up because I currently have a cold and I watched Insomnia in a feverish and congested haze.  And yet I couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, that was actually the ideal way to watch Insomnia.  With its ominous atmosphere and Nolan’s eye for the surreal, Insomnia plays out like a semi-lucid fever dream.

A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village.  The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation.  Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska.  He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumors that, in the past, he was a crooked cop.  He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer.  While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun.  When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart.  Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot  his partner?  Not even Dormer seems to know for sure.  He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.

Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted.  Because of the midnight sun, night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep.  Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart.  And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.

Who is the murderer?  His name is Walter Finch.  He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams.  To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction.  Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience.  When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was.  In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals an inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after.  Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.

Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia.  (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.)  As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception.  For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer score to make a great movie.  With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.

Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.

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Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth

Shattered Politics #72: Welcome to Mooseport (dir by Donald Petrie)


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The 2004 film comedy Welcome to Mooseport would probably be totally forgotten if not for one thing.  This is the film that was supposedly so bad that co-star Gene Hackman looked at the final cut and then probably looked over at the Oscars he won for The French Connection and Unforgiven and then probably looked back at the final cut and then announced, “I quit!”  There’s a reason why Hackman now spends his time writing novels and, according to most accounts, Welcome to Mooseport is that reason.

In Welcome to Mooseport, Gene Hackman plays Monroe “Eagle” Cole, the former President of the United States.  From the minute we first hear the President’s name, we know exactly what type of film Welcome to Mooseport is going to be.  It’s not enough to give Hackman’s a character a totally over-the-top name like Monroe Cole.  He also has to have a cutesy nickname.  The entire time I watched the film, I found myself wondering if Monroe Cole was listed on the presidential ballots as being Monroe “Eagle” Cole.  Personally, I always find it funny when people feel the need to include their nickname in the credits.  Is it really important for every William out there to let everyone know that some people call him Billy?

Anyway, Eagle is apparently the most popular president ever.  However, he’s also recently divorced and his ex-wife (Christine Baranski, playing the same role that she played in Bulworth) wants all of his property.  Eagle is forced to retire to one of the few residences that he has left, his vacation home in Mooseport, Maine.  In order to keep his wife from claiming that home, Eagle decides to run for mayor of Mooseport…

Now, right here, we’ve got a huge issue.  Eagle’s only motivation for running for mayor is because he doesn’t want to have to give over his vacation home to his wife.  But that could be anyone’s motivation.  One does not have to be President to want to keep the house in a divorce.  It would have been more interesting if Eagle, now out of office and struggling to adjust to no longer being the most powerful man in the world, ran for mayor because he really wanted the job.

But anyway, Eagle is not the only person running for mayor.  Hardware store owner Hardy Harrison (Ray Romano) is also running.  At first, Hardy wants to withdraw but then he sees Eagle flirting with Hardy’s longtime girlfriend (Maura Tierney) and Hardy suddenly decides that he’s going to run and he’s going to win.

I actually like Ray Romano as an actor and he doesn’t give a bad performance here.  But, at the same time, it’s obvious that his scenes were written to capitalize on his TV persona.  It’s easy to imagine stumbling across a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond where Ray runs for mayor and has a panic attack when he loses.  The difference, of course, is that Ray Barone would not have been running against Gene Hackman (much less a former President).

Needless to say, Welcome to Mooseport has a sitcom feel to it.  After every line, you find yourself waiting for a laugh track.  Gene Hackman feels incredibly out-of-place in the film and there’s a discomfort to his performance.  Watching him in this film, you can see the wheels turning in his brain.  You can literally see Gene Hackman thinking, “I’m too old for this shit.”

And I guess he was because, in the 11 years since Welcome to Mooseport was first released, Gene Hackman has not appeared in another film.  Which is bad news for everyone waiting for Welcome to Mooseport Part II

Shattered Politics #63: Primary Colors (dir by Mike Nichols)


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Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state.  After spending his entire life in politics, Jack is finally ready to run for President.  Even more ready is his equally ambitious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).  Jack proves himself to be a strong candidate, a good speaker who understands the voters and who has the ability to project empathy for almost anyone’s situation. He’s managed to recruit a talented and dedicated campaign staff, including the flamboyant Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and journalist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester).  Henry is the son of a civil rights leader and, as soon as they meet, Jack talks about the first time that he ever heard Henry’s father speak.  Within minutes of first meeting him, Henry believes in Jack.

The problem, however, is that there are constant hints that Jack may not be worthy of his admiration.  There’s the fact that he’s a compulsive womanizer who is given to displays of temper and immaturity.  When one of Jack’s old friends reveals that Jack may have impregnated his daughter, Jack and Susan respond with a pragmatic ruthlessness that takes Henry by surprise.

When one of Jack’s mistresses threatens to go public, Henry is partnered up with Libby (Kathy Bates) and sent to dig up dirt on her and her sponsors.  When the former governor of Florida, Freddie Picker (Larry Hagman), emerges as a threat to derail Jack’s quest for the nomination, Henry and Libby are again assigned to research Picker’s background.  Libby is perhaps the film’s most interesting character.  Recovering from a mental breakdown, Libby has no trouble threatening to shoot one political opponent but she’s still vulnerable and idealistic enough that it truly hurts her when Jack and Susan repeatedly fail to live up to her ideals.  As an out lesbian, Libby is perhaps the only character who has no trouble revealing her true self and, because of her honesty, she is the one who suffers the most.

First released in 1998 and based on a novel by Joe Klein, Primary Colors is an entertaining and ultimately rather bittersweet dramedy about the American way of politics.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson may be playing Jack and Susan Stanton but it’s obvious from the start that they’re meant to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to Travolta’s attempt to sound Southern, this is ultimately one of his best performances.  As played by Travolta, Jack Stanton is charming, compassionate, self-centered, and ultimately, incredibly frustrating.  One reason why Primary Colors works is because we, as an audience, come to believe in Jack just as much as Henry does and then we come to be just as disillusioned as Libby.  Emma Thompson’s performance is a little less obviously based on Hillary.  Unlike Travolta, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Hillary’s voice or mannerisms.  But she perfectly captures the steely determination.

Primary Colors captures both the thrill of believing and the inevitability of disillusionment.  It’s definitely a film that I will rewatch in the days leading up to 2016.