By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
There’s neither message nor lament in John Boorman’s fabulous The General, which is also about a man who’s out of control before every authority but his own. The difference is that he makes a thriving career out of being a loose cannon. Martin Cahill, a Dublin gangster who masterminded a series of astonishing heists during the 1980s and pocketed over $60 million in stolen goods during his 20-year career, was a prankster and a thug who thumbed his nose with equal disdain at the Irish police, the IRA and the Ulster Unionists. Though many were hurt by his escapades, the iconoclastic Cahill must have come as light relief to Ireland, where partisan affiliation is served along with mother’s milk. He was also a public scandal who lived openly in a m√©nage √† trois with his wife and her sister (and sired a brood of children with both), and a scourge with a reputation for sadistic revenge and iron discipline within the ranks of his gang of hand-picked thugs. Cahill didn’t smoke or drink, loved his kids, remained faithful to his women, and spurned the drug culture that overwhelmed Dublin’s underworld in the 1980s. His one great love was stealing, which he did with style, meticulous planning and conspicuous success until ill health and betrayal put an end to him.
It’s lucky for us that Mel Gibson didn’t get his paws on Cahill’s story, for he’d have cheapened this hugely contradictory man, as he did William Wallace in Braveheart, into a textbook Robin Hood crusading for the welfare of the Dublin oppressed. Boorman, whose house in Ireland was once burgled by Cahill, is too sophisticated for that kind of reductive claptrap, nor is he interested in the usual bio-pic explanations for Cahill’s pathological charisma. No wicked parents appear in The General, beyond a brief appearance in grainy flashback by Cahill’s mother, laughing over the stolen booty brought home by her young son. (Cahill as a boy is fittingly played by Eamonn Owens, the young star of The Butcher Boy, whose title character might have grown into a Martin Cahill.)
Though The General is shot in a gorgeously textured black and white that hints at documentary, there’s nothing dispassionate about the movie. Dispassion is a foreign language for the flammable Boorman, who loves a good myth as much as he loves unpacking it. If what happens to Cahill in the film’s opening scene reminds us soberly that even myths are vulnerable, the rest of the movie is a rambunctious tease, complete with jazzy score, that keeps flirting with — then pulling back from — the glorification of its real-life subject. With his overhanging gut and hooded anorak, his greasy hair plastered to one side and one hand perennially hovering over his face to avoid identification, Brendan Gleeson’s Cahill hardly looks the stuff of Arthurian legend. Yet Gleeson’s marvelously capricious rendering wrings worlds of charisma from this mercurial man, by turns tender father, vindictive Godfather, and naughty boy to the plodding detective (played with weary grace by Jon Voight, co-star of Boorman’s Deliverance) who recognizes both Cahill’s promise and his tragedy.
It’s a brilliant performance, and Gleeson is doubtless taking studio meetings by the dozen as we speak. More power to him, but I hope he sloughs off the soubriquet — "the Irish Depardieu" — that’s being bandied right, left and center. Depardieu sold his soul to Hollywood for a Green Card and a mess of pottage, then slipped off the map into obscurity and the occasional swordsman epic. If Gleeson doesn’t choose carefully while he’s on top, he could end up as point man for the next five Irish bomb dramas. He’s way too good for that.
And so to the message movie. If your kids are barking at the new spouse, or vice versa, if the old spouse is barking at the new spouse, or vice versa, if you are barking at all relevant spouses and kids, this one’s for you. Or would be if it were in any significant way a movie about stepfamilies. In truth, Stepmom is a PSA about how cancer makes everybody behave themselves at Christmas. And under director Chris Columbus’ guidance, the wicked mother is not stepmom, but mom. It takes five minutes to establish that leather-panted fashion photographer Isabel (Julia Roberts) is very good at her job (she even knows how to say, "It’s a wrap!"); five more to establish that she’s very bad at parenting the offspring of her very much older lover, Luke (Ed Harris); and a further 80 minutes to show her growing up. Much of this time is spent in forbearing reaction shots as Luke’s flannel-shirted soon-to-be-ex-wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon) yells at her. Meanwhile, supermom proves she’s a superbitch for close to an hour, then — in the hopeless stages of terminal cancer — warms to her rival, while the recalcitrant kids go from horrid to gooey.Stepmom’s screenplay credits are as long as your arm — a sign of copious rewriting, none of which helped much. The movie is based on young co-writer Gigi Levangie’s experiences as a stepparent, and she has, to put it mildly, a rather partial view of domestic politics in such families. If she is to be believed, all those middle-aged men are rushing to rob the cradle because their middle-aged wives have turned into harridans and houseproud bores. Admittedly, there is great satisfaction in watching Sarandon spit Bette Davis fire in all directions before caving in to maturity and earning back the affection of her former husband. But what if the shoe were on the other foot and stepmom, not mom, expired of a disease that made her retch unbecomingly into the toilet bowl? Would Luke go back to the wife for whom he now has nothing but warm feelings, or make a beeline for the nearest babysitter?
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