Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Claim


Despite all of the frantic tabloid headlines which have hinted strongly at my demise (the ones in little type, under the Laci Peterson murder house stories), I am pleased to say that I am not dead, but have been through an ordeal. Madame Rose, my publicist, assures me that when the details of my story become more widely known, I should get both a novelization and a made for TV film out of my Iraqi adventure. It's not often that a famous star of my caliber survives what I've been through. Thank god for my recent training with Celebrity Survivor or I would never have made it.

As you will remember, I was all set to open my fabulous USO show, Vicki Lester is Shocking Awful in Baghdad in order to entertain our brave men and women in uniform. Things were going relatively well, despite the problems with electricity and the like until we got to the final dress rehearsal. We were in the middle of the first act. I was wearing my lovely rhinestone burka, sitting up on a papier mache tree limb singing that old favorite, The Bling Bling Bird in the Divi Divi Tree when our performance space was invaded by a mob of looters. They tore through everything like locusts: props, costumes, lights - all packed up in large hampers and thrown into the back of trucks and driven off. Unfortunately, in my concealing attire, I looked a bit too much like one of the light fixtures and I soon found myself squashed in with six rolls of gaffer's tape, a spare Fresnel, and three black velvet teaser curtains and being driven to who knows where. I was so upset.

My story is really much too long to be finished in a single column so I'll come back to it later. I've been recuperating at Ramstein AFB in Germany where there isn't much in the way of films to pick through. My last trip to the lounge found me sitting in front of Michael Winterbottom's 2000 film, The Claim with Wes Bentley, Nastassia Kinski, Peter Mullan and Sarah Polley. This reconception of Thomas Hardy's novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, was a major flop, even on the art house circuit, a few years back. It's a good example of interesting ideas badly executed. The original Hardy novel, which takes place in Victorian England, is a work of powerful emotion which explores the toll a sinful act in the past wreaks on the present. The film uses the same basic outline, but the emotion is muted under the trappings and some poor directorial choices.

Peter Mullan stars as Daniel Dillon. As a young man (played by Barry Ward), he and his wife Elena (Nastassia Kinski - Karola Muller in flashback), penniless immigrants, joined the hordes of desperate 49ers who trekked to California in search of gold. High in the Sierras, cold, destitute and at the end of his rope, Daniel makes a bad decision. He sells his wife, Elena, and baby daughter (who grows into Sarah Polley) to Burn (Tom McCamus) in exchange for a mining claim. Fast forward to the 1860s. The claim was rich. Dillon has amassed a fortune in gold and founded his own town, Kingdom Come, which he rules like an autocrat. He lives in a vulgar Victorian palace with his paramour, Lucia (Milla Jovovich) and does as he pleases. He needs only one thing to make his life complete, the transcontinental railroad to come through Kingdom Come as it snakes its way across the Sierras.

The railroad surveyors, led by Dagliesh (Wes Bentley) arrive in town. With them come Dillon's ex-wife, now widowed and destitute, and her nubile daughter. Elena agrees not to expose Dillon's past. He tries to right his wrongs to the women in secret, but his attempts do not expiate his sins. In the meantime, his daughter, Hope, falls for the young Dagliesh whom Dillon threatens if the railroad does not come his way. This leads to weddings, celebrations, funerals, construction projects, octagonal houses on sleds, and innumerable scenes in a brothel right out of central casting.

Winterbottom's first mistake is the resetting of the story. The gold rush and Civil War era background do not illuminate the story, characters or motivations at all. If he was interested in making a film version of The Mayor of Casterbridge, he should have done so and not disguised it in this way. The setting does give him a chance to shoot sweeping mountain vistas, but he's made a decision to make it perpetual January. This reduces the film to a stark black and white look that's awfully dreary to look at and likely to induce seasonal affective disorder in most viewers. Winterbottom, working from a dull screenplay by Frank Boyce) also makes some basic storytelling mistakes. The flashbacks are poorly structured, highly confusing, and all the swirling snow and dim light makes it impossible to tell one character from another. I've read The Mayor of Casterbridge and I couldn't figure out what was happening half the time.

There's one greatish performance in the film, from Peter Mullan. He captures the anguish of Dillon's circumstances, especially in the latter half of the film when it becomes clear that he cannot escape from the consequences of his choice those many years ago. He has a masculine ruggedness that makes him perfectly believable as a miner made good. Wes Bentley, on the other hand, despite prominent billing and publicity, continues to see his career go into post-American Beauty free fall. He looks and acts like a college student playing at cowboys and Indians and projects about as much emotional intensity, especially in his love scenes, as a demented sheep.

The three lead women, on the other hand, are adequate. It's nice to see Nastassia Kinski, who has been underused in films of late, with a decent part, even if she does seem to be doing a low rent variation on Camille. I think she thought another Hardy adaptation might do for her career what Tess did all those years ago. She was wrong. Milla Jovovich has matured into a competent actress. She should have lost the phony accent somewhere on the way to the studio, but she's by far the most interesting character in the film. I would have settled for a film about her. Sarah Polley, who has played some lovely ingĂ©nue parts in the past, has next to nothing to do except stand around and look vapid.

Winterbottom decided to shoot most of the film in long shot to get in as much of the scenery as possible. Occasionally, you can see people off in the corner of the frame; it's alright that you can't see them too well as it's difficult to hear them over Michael Nyman's mind numbingly repetitious score. Nyman's trademark Ravelesque long crescendos fit with Peter Greenway's long painterly tracking shots, but seems completely out of place with this Victorian morality play which calls out for something bombastic, rather than minimalist.

The film was made in the Rockies near Durango and outside of Calgary near Banff. The scenery is stunning, but looks nothing like the actual California gold country. If you like mountain vistas, I would suggest a nice Nature channel documentary instead. There will be fewer annoying people in the way of the scenery.

Elevated boardwalks. Narrow gage railway. Aged mining cabin. Aged locket. Aged prostitute. Gratuitous homely best buddy. Flaming horses. Piano playing. Bad Shenandoah singing. Gratuitous Portuguese references. Bank looting. Multiple acts of arson.

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