It’s the night before their mother’s funeral, and eldest son Thomas (Gary Lewis) insists on a dignified vigil. But for the scrupulous Thomas and his brawling brothers, Michael (Douglas Henshall) and John (Stephen McCole), dignity is just one misstep from absurdity. Each in his own way, the brothers insist on making preposterous shows of macho intransigence. While Thomas spends the night in church with his mother’s body, painstakingly trying to reassemble an ill-fated statue of the Virgin, Michael wanders through Glasgow, bleeding from a knife wound he’s decided not to have treated, and John takes the murder of Michael’s attacker as his sacred quest. As for the brothers’ disabled sister, Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson)—the burden of whose care the men have just solemnly taken from their mother—she ends up abandoned and rescued by strangers.
Orphans is a queasy black comedy, written and directed by Peter Mullan, who played the title character in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe. (Gary Lewis was also in that film, playing Joe’s friend.) Poignant, earthy, and violent, Mullan’s film is anything but the glib, gushy homily that Hollywood would offer in similar circumstances. Mullan identifies fiercely with the siblings, sometimes too much: The film is occasionally as overstated as its central characters’ grief and rage. But then Mullan wants to elicit mixed emotions, as he makes clear by sending John and his brutish accomplice, Tanga (Frank Gallagher), on their murderous mission with a Billy Connolly comedy routine playing on the tape deck of Tanga’s delivery van. Life’s joke is a nasty one, at everyone’s expense.
Michael is the most charismatic of the lot and is sensible enough not to seek another confrontation after he’s stabbed in a bar fight that begins when he defends Thomas’ maudlin delivery of a song in their mother’s memory. It’s John, eager to negate his emasculated reputation as a “college boy,” who insists on revenge, turning to bitter middle-aged delivery boy Tanga to get a gun. Still, Michael has his own wild plan: He’ll leave his wound open until morning, then report for work, pretend he’s been injured on the job, and demand compensation. As he bleeds, Michael visits the kids he had by an estranged lover and battles with a foul-tempered publican. His behavior is really no less self-destructive than that of John, who at one point picks a fight with a bus. Then, the next morning, when Thomas finds himself the only sibling at the cemetery, he tops both his brothers with an act of preposterous sentimentality.
Mullan is one of the few people who consider Loach’s naturalistic dramas overly contrived; he has publicly criticized the ending of My Name Is Joe as melodramatic. Still, the two films share a lot, including dialogue that’s been subtitled to decode urban Scottish dialect, which employs such regionalisms as “cannae” (for cannot) and “ween” (for child). Both movies are rooted specifically in Glasgow’s working-class precincts, but the futile quest for honor depicted in both seems the stronger link between them. Although the film is dedicated to Mullan’s own late mother, nothing about it (except Craig Armstrong’s sappy music) attempts to transcend life’s messiness. If Mullan sees Thomas’ desire for dignity as laughable, it’s no more ludicrous than any other response to the adamant meaninglessness of death.
Orphans is the second in a series, sponsored by the Shooting Gallery and Loews Cineplex Entertainment, of six films considered too edgy for mainstream distribution. One will open every other Friday through May 5 at the Foundry Theater; on the Monday before each opening, the films will be introduced by a screening and discussion hosted by one of two NPR film critics, Bob Mondello or Pat Dowell. For more information, call 333-FILM.
The first shot in Mission to Mars is a virtuosic long take, in which director Brian De Palma’s camera tracks through a party, introducing the principal characters: Jim (Gary Sinise), Woody (Tim Robbins), Luke (Don Cheadle), and Terri (Connie Nielsen), astronauts all. The scene, which recalls the similar opening gambit of De Palma’s notorious The Bonfire of the Vanities, takes place at a house in suburban Houston, but its technical bravado is as airborne as Mission to Mars ever gets. The farther from home the movie attempts to travel, the worse it gets lost.
The director has cited Destination Moon, a flag-waving 1950 flick, as one of his inspirations, and Mission to Mars’ gee-whiz sensibility certainly seems antique—if not Eisenhower Era, at least Reagan. Although the space race is long over when the movie begins, in 2020, the glory still goes to NASA right-stuffers like Woody and Luke; international cooperation is embodied by an unbilled Armin Mueller-Stahl, the prim European space station boss whose only role is to have decided—wrongly, of course—that the recently widowed Jim is too distraught to fly.
A year later, when Luke’s exploration party is attacked by an unknown force on the Martian surface, Woody insists that his rescue mission needs Jim as co-pilot—and gets him. This move sets the stage for both men to take good ol’ American individualism to extremes: Woody to save Terri, his beloved, if bland, wife, and Jim in pursuit of—well, it’s supposed to be a surprise. But first the space jockeys have to experience a few intergalactic epiphanies with such helpful consumer products as Dr Pepper and M&M’s, and then replant the American flag that’s been knocked to the Red Planet’s sandy surface.
The film has what it evidently considers a cosmic kicker, one that shifts the tone dramatically—and disastrously—from science-rooted realism to pseudo-scientific revelation. The final sequence aspires to the sort of vision that 2001: A Space Odyssey almost got away with, but Mission to Mars has little future as a stoner cult classic. The story and script—credited to Jim and John Thomas, Lowell Cannon, and Graham Yost—are clunkily literal and dedicated as much to exalting matrimony as explaining the mysteries of the universe. Before Jim’s surpassing love for his lost Maggie (Kim Delaney in a few video clips of bygone happiness) inspires him to go where no man has gone before, Woody and Terri frolic in zero gravity to Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away.” Incredibly, De Palma seems to think that both these moments are profound. But then this is a movie that acts as if filmgoers had never seen simulated weightlessness before—and imagines it’s heroic for one character to refuse to put on his helmet when a ship’s oxygen is rushing out a hole in the hull.
NASA denies a new book’s claims that the agency has been testing the possibilities of intercourse in space, but Mission to Mars holds that sex beyond earth’s gravity is irrelevant: Couples like Woody and Terri are erotically uncharged helpmates in a firmament so sanitized that it won’t even contain any four-letter words. (This movie makes Sinise’s last space voyage, Apollo 13, look like Pink Flamingos.) The other astronauts all seem to take their cues from yet another faux-folksy performance from Robbins, whose Cradle Will Rock was sunk by his smug notion of how gosh-darn earnest Americans used to be. Whereas Mission to Mars gets lost in space, Robbins stays lost in period. CP