Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Patriot


Filming continues on Slaughterhouse Live! , my new musical spectacular based upon Upton Sinclair's classic, The Jungle . My role, as Bessie the Balladeer, is not as large as that of some of my costars, but it’s a key part and there is talk of a campaign for the supporting actress nomination. Miramax plans on sending out little musical Bessie key chains along with the videotape to the members of the academy. We finished up my big musical number, filmed at the Chicago Board of Trade on Tuesday afternoon; as the traders were in full session, it was quite grueling, especially when all those screaming people would usurp my key light and keep getting in the way during my tap break.

Currently, we’re working on the slaughterhouse ballet that comes late in the film. It starts with my tap dancing in front of a herd of five hundred head of cattle, leading them into the cutest dream abattoir of black marble with gilt and ormolu rotating knives. The cows have not been particularly co-operative and simply refuse to pick up the simplest of time steps, even when drilled relentlessly by the choreographer. We may have to go to animatronics or CGI bovines. At least I wouldn’t keep slipping in all of their leavings.

Norman joined me late in the week in my suite at the Palmer House and we were able to get away for a quick matinee of the new revolutionary war extravaganza, The Patriot . Normally, we avoid Mel Gibson movies like the plague. We have enough undersized homophobic anti-Semitic jerks in our life without plunking down our hard earned dollars to pay their salaries; but it was the 4th of July weekend and Norman has been an American history buff ever since he played the demanding dual role of Abraham Lincoln and his fourteen evil alternate personalities in The Sibyl War . We were somewhat pleasantly surprised by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s epic.

Mel Gibson is relatively restrained in his role of Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina farmer who becomes a reluctant war hero (loosely based on the real life revolutionary war general known as the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion). He has a certain dignity and passionate intensity that suit the role well although I had some difficulty buying him as a true successful man of the 18th century. He seems much too modern in outlook and body language. Slightly more successful is British Actor Jason Isaacs as the villain. He seems much more at ease in his period wardrobe and weaponry, even if he has been persuaded to play his part as an homage to Snidely Whiplash.

Devlin and Emmerich, the pair behind the mega hit Independence Day , continue their love affair with jingoistic half-truths and over the top moments featuring flags and other patriotic paraphernalia. Fortunately, unlike their previous film, this script (by screenwriter Robert Rodat) is engaging and well researched (even if it does play fast and loose with the facts) and it isn't afraid to sucker punch the audience; lovable characters with whom we identify meet horrible ends without a last minute Hollywood rescue. The movie is over two and a half hours but it doesn’t drag.

Australian actor Heath Ledger is a star in the making as Gibson's eldest son, who joins the Continental Army over his father's objections. His portrayal of a mixture of late adolescent angst and zeal is subtle and interesting. The romantic subplots are underdeveloped, wasting Joely Richardson in particular - all I can say is she looks good in a corset. Great care was taken with the battle scenes to recreate several actual Revolutionary War battles. The results, while realistic, are perhaps longer and grislier than they need be. One cannonball decapitation makes the point. Multiple maimings of this sort become rather like bowling for dollars with human pins.

The DVD (which I obtained some months later) contains the film in original theatrical ratio and Dolby 5.1 sound mix. Extras include some cut scenes (which explain a bit more about the romantic subplots and that mysterious baby in the last scenes), storyboards, talent bios, and a commentary track where Devlin and Emmerich are somewhat overly self congratulatory.

I did come out of the movie feeling a little bit more like I understood what motivated that generation and how we came to be and the sets and costumes and recreation of life, supervised by the Smithsonian, are stunning. Worth a look but not a necessary addition to a film library.

Repeated acts of arson. Multiple shootings. Ridiculous noble anti-racist sentiments. Mystery baby. Gratuitous Gullah village. Symbolic lead soldiers. Collapsing rocking chairs. Comic relief Great Danes. Swamp chapel. Snarling British officers.

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