Silver City (2004)

Writer’s Note: This was originally submitted for publication December 20, 2020, over two weeks prior to the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? 

While on my recent writer’s retreat, I spent some time free of wi-fi and, when I had run out of ideas for the day, enjoying the cornucopia of DVD delights that my cabin’s hosts had left behind. There were 21 DVDs, of  which three were things that I had at home (Stranger than Fiction, Cabin in the Woods, and something I’m too embarrassed to admit), four that were exercise/yoga related, and a number of westerns that I obviously ignored. Most of them seem to have come from that 2003-2009 “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years” era, having been purchased from the now-defunct company during its last years, with a decidedly independent bent. And so it came to pass that I have now seen Silver City, the 2004 political satire directed by Passion Fish-helmer John Sayles. 

The plot is relatively labyrinthine and cribs from Chinatown (there’s even discussion of water rights in a potential real estate development) and the then-contemporary election year political discourse du jour, which is depressing both in how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was and how much more dignified it was than 2020. Our lead is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter turned private investigator after filing an explosive, provocative story whose informants later recanted under pressure from the political establishment, ending that phase of his career and ultimately bankrupting the paper that employed him. Danny is brought in when dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial hopeful and George W. Bush analog Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) accidentally hooks a dead body while shooting a bucolic political ad that sees him fishing in a  pristine lake. His cutthroat campaign manager Karl Rove Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny’s agency to help determine where the body, that of a tattooed Latino man, came from while keeping the whole thing under wraps. Danny is aided in his investigation by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a former colleague in his past life as a newspaperman who now keeps the public informed in his own jaded way: leaking enough of the incomprehensibly large, true evil done by government that is too tied up in corporate interests, in the hopes of getting legitimate news outlets to pull the thread enough to take down bad political actors. Along the way, he also receives assistance from Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez), who works within the undocumented community to try and identify the dead man. 

There are three major enemies of the Pilager campaign that Danny is sent to investigate/quell: right wing radio pundit and political commentator Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining safety inspector Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who was ousted in disgrace following a falsified scandal involving an accident; and Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), Dickie’s disgraced “nympho” sister, the free-spirited black sheep of the family and once-and-current Olympic archery hopeful. Of them, we spend very little time with Castleton, but Ferrer makes an impression as what a right wing nutjob used to look like: power-hungry, conceited, and exploitative, but educated, tempered, and articulate, back when the people in such positions were merely obstructive backward, not completely insane or opposed to scientific progress, immoral but not amoral (Ben Shapiro clearly thinks he’s the heir apparent to William F. Buckley but he could never, and Buckley himself was a terrible person, but I’d take him over Charlie Kirk or Alex Jones any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve fallen in so short a time—I’m in my mid-thirties, and I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the presidential election that happened the year this movie was released, so chew on that for a second. As a mirror of American politics of the new millennium, it feels like this movie is a reverse portrait of Dorian Gray that, though depressingly hideous, has grown more lovely with time as the body politik visibly betrays every hidden malice, every wicked act of greed, and every failure of decency

The titular “Silver City” is a proposed land development deal to build a planned community in land that is beautiful but unfit for human habitation: mining has made Swiss cheese of the hills and rendered the groundwater contaminated, but Pilager patriarch Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) made a bad investment in it and was bailed out when family friend and multi-millionaire business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) purchased the land from him far above its value. In exchange, Benteen wants to skirt the regulations that have prevented the development of Silver City and, one presumes, swim around in his profits like Scrooge McDuck. Kristofferson is fantastic here, appearing in only a few scenes but leaving a lasting impression and an air of malice, casual evil-by-way-of-enterprise. In his major scene, he takes Dickie on a horseback ride through beautiful, uncorrupted nature while decrying the regulations that keep it so; he can barely contain his bile as he curses the name of the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, and it’s evident that in his dreams he sees the purple mountain majesty in the background as crawling with excavators and bulldozers like ants, but he paints his vision of the future with such a lovely palate that Dickie buys it.

Benteen is aided in this endeavor on multiple fronts. There’s sad Mort Seymour (David Clennon), who’s trying desperately to sell local government authorities on the Silver City idea, and who gains ground when Benteen puppeteers a casual, ostensibly coincidental run-in with Dickie at a local restaurant (Dickie’s election to the office of governor is treated as a foregone conclusion). Also on Benteen’s bench is slick, sleazy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane at his absolute oiliest), who presages the Kirks and Shapiros of the present as someone with utterly no moral compunction about flat-out lying with a straight face. His moral compass points due south, as he demonstrates in one of the film’s best, most nauseating lines: “Every idea, no matter how politically incorrect, deserves an advocate.” What he’s talking about in that moment is his previous testimony to Congress that there is no identifiable link between smoking and lung cancer. The idea was absurd, even for 2004, but it foretells a time when the general public would fall for easily disprovable scientific fact, like that the earth is (generally) round, that climate change is real and affected by human action, and that COVID-19 is real and deadly. 

Narratively, Danny’s investigation is complicated by two issues in his personal life: his employer Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to Mort, which we learn late in the film, and the impending marriage of Tyson to Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a morally just crusading reporter who has a huge blindspot regarding Tyson’s lack of a conscience and also happens to be Danny’s ex. It’s clear to everyone paying attention that Dickie is completely out of his depth when he’s confronted without extensive preparation and coaching, at which point he repeats himself, cites jingoistic jingles, and makes it clear via an inability to express a single intelligent thought extemporaneously that he lacks any real savvy or acumen. (Remember, this was made in a time before The Right realized that they could get people to slurp that up with a spoon as long as it was sufficiently combined with white supremacist rhetoric.) This isn’t really relevant to the mystery of the watery corpse, however, except in the way that evil breeds evil. As it turns out,the deceased Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez) was an undocumented day laborer who died in one of Benteen’s facilities. To prevent the exposure of Benteen as both (a) a hypocrite who exploits immigrants for cheap labor while decrying the practice and (b) a manufacturer who fails, mortally, to meet the OSHA regulatory guidelines that he derides as part of his deregulation agenda, Huerta’s body was hauled into the hills and thrown down an abandoned mineshaft that had previously been used to dispose of Benteen’s toxic waste. Casey Lyle (remember him?) had been trying to blow the whistle on the fact that the mines were now prone to collecting water in times of torrential rains and causing flooding in the future home of Silver City; one such flood had washed Huerta’s body into the lake, as will everything that’s hidden there, eventually.

There’s one man who could help reveal all of this: Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar), a cutthroat who obtains and arranges laborers, including for Benteen on the site where Huerta was killed. He threatens Danny and is shot by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy,  the two men who initially told Danny about the mineshaft are captured by I.N.S. and prevented from corroborating Danny’s information; when he returns later, the entrance to the mine has been sealed. Grace also fires him, and all hope seems lost as Benteen’s organization has bought up the news outlet for which Nora writes, killing any chance of exposing the rotten heart of American politics. Except … Paine and his team have managed to expose the thread, if someone else in the media can only pull it and see where it leads. But, as every fish in the picturesque lake that girds Silver City dies in a mass event that leads us to the credits, the message is clear: even if the truth is learned, it won’t un-destroy the ecosystem.

Silver City received mixed reviews in its time, and that’s well-deserved. The core of the film’s narrative at first presents itself as a murder mystery, and it ultimately is exactly that, metaphorically—who killed Lazaro Huerta? The system. We just get there through a roundabout investigation, and by that time we’ve pulled the thread of something bigger, more insidious, and, worst of all, entrenched. Conceptually, that’s a rich vein to be mined, so to speak, but what we’re left with teeters on the edge of being a little too on-the-nose. We need to care about Danny, at least a little bit, and it’s hard not to—Danny Huston can pull of “charismatic loser journeyman” with charm to spare—but his trail of discovery has in its margins a truly harrowing story about oppression under a capitalism that seeks to consume nature for no other reason than because it’s there, and does it on the back of exploited labor while paying silver-tongued lobbyists to lie, baldly. That something like this is offset by conversations between Danny and Nora about their former relationship, in which she basically tells him that he was just too damn good and married to the job, or a scene in which Nora waxes philosophical about Danny with Tyson while the latter gears up for a bike ride while expounding on the lack of objective morality, feel very Sorkin-y and pedestrian. The comedy is just too broad, perhaps as best epitomized by Hannah’s Maddy character, a manic pixie middle aged woman who smokes pot, has a weird hobby (archery), and delivers huge pieces of exposition while jumping on a trampoline.* There’s a deadly serious thing happening here, but the whole thing feels very flippant, because—did you notice it? “Pilager” sounds like “pillager”! That gets a Perfunctory Liberal Chortle™ and then we’re on to a scene in which a man is crushed under a car while trying to learn Huerta’s identity. It’s a three-flavor swirl of political satire that’s too broad, a background event with implications that encompass broad ecological destruction and consequence-free manslaughter, and also Danny and his ex-girlfriend considering getting back together. The narrative throughline is solid, but everything hanging off of it makes the thing unwieldy. Worst of all, the film has made me wistful for the immediate post-9/11 years. Is this really what it’s come to? 

*Without taking her shoes off first!

-Mark “Boomer Redmond

Dead Calm (1989)

Recent previews of Hugh Jackman’s upcoming P.T. Barnum film, in which his wife will be played by Michelle Williams, bothered me in the pit of my stomach. The fact that actors age but their love interests are not allowed to is not news, but this is the first time that it’s happened between someone who I consider to be of “my generation” (Williams is six years older than I am, but she’ll always be Jen on Dawson’s Creek to me) and someone I consider to be of the generation that came before (Jackman is 12 years older than Williams and was, in my mind, an “adult” in the X-Men movies when Williams was still “my age” or thereabouts). Of course, this never really bothered me when I was a kid watching Dead Calm, in which leads Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman (playing his wife) are a staggering twenty years apart (Kidman even turned 20 during production!), likely because they were always from the “before” generation. Looking back now, it’s a little distracting, but that doesn’t make the film any less thrilling, creepy, and well-done.

The film opens at Christmas, when Australian Naval Officer John Ingram (Neill) detrains to find that his wife and child are not present on the platform to welcome him home. He is approached by two police officers, who take him to see his wife Rae (Kidman) in the hospital, where she is recovering from a traffic collision that took the life of their toddler son. Some time later, John has taken Rae out on their yacht, the Saracen, to recover, although she is still haunted by the image of their son as he flew through the windshield. Their calm life at sea is disrupted by the arrival of Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane in the role that won him international attention), who rows straight into their vessel from a ship he claims is sinking and unable to be salvaged, not to mention full of the bodies of his shipmates who have died of botulism. Suspicious of this story, John goes to investigate, only to discover a scene that implies Hughie may be lying, an inference that is backed up when Hughie awakes and absconds with both the Saracen and Rae, leaving the bereaved woman to fend off the madman.

This is a taut movie, full of lingering shots of the vast and empty ocean that serve to demonstrate the depth of Rae’s isolation as she is trapped aboard the Saracen and her attempts to retake the ship in order to rescue John, who is trapped aboard the other sinking vessel. John, too, must fight to keep the ship on which he is trapped afloat long enough for his wife to free herself from Hughie’s machinations and save her husband from drowning. For the first 80% of the film, all of the sound is completely diagetic: the beeping of the radar, the lapping of waves against the hull, the gentle lull of ocean winds; it’s only when John is trapped in a failing air pocket that the standard orchestral score that audiences associate with thrillers comes into play.

There’s also a great inversion of the “damsel in distress” motif that was the de facto modus operandi of thrillers of the time (and before, and, to an extent, since). Rae is no pushover, as she has to use her feminine wiles to gain his trust, and never for a moment does she let her fear overwhelm either her survival instincts or her devotion to rescuing her husband. The damsel of the film is technically John, as he is the one who is in need of rescue, although he is more active in his attempts to save himself than this type of character usually is, as he works bilge pumps and restores engine operations in order to stay alive. The choice to show the couple as a pair of loving, respecting survivors of a horrific accident–we actually see their son fly through the air after the collision, which is followed by more subtle horror as the police tell John that the boy survived the impact but died before the paramedics arrived–contrasts the “dead calm” of the ocean and the Ingrams with the trauma at the beginning of the first act.

The choice to cast Zane as the antagonist was also a stroke of genius, as his pretty boy looks and his apparent irrational behavior upon the event of his “rescue” make him seem initially sympathetic. Hughie seems more like a victim of sunsickness, malnutrition, and the survivor of a traumatic incident (like the Ingrams), until he reveals his true colors. His soft performance serves as a strong contrast to his violence once it erupts, and even after he shows his true colors, he’s so cute and harmless-looking with his dark lashes and puppy dog eyes that his spiral out of control is believable but even more unsettling. This is the role that garnered him great acclaim, and it’s not difficult to see why. Kidman is also a breakout here, and she’s phenomenal. Although he’s never gone on to have as much success in his career as Kidman, at least he was only typecast as “sinister hunk on a sinking ship” rather than marrying one (if we count SeaOrg). Aside from a last-minute fakeout that this movie should be better than, this is definitely one to catch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet