Monday, December 28, 2009

Steampunk Holmes: Thoughts on Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr. -

Downey Jr. is superb as Holmes. Totally invested, he molds Holmes’s eccentric characteristics into the consummate mad genius. All the characteristics are here – his powers of deduction, his mastery of disguise, his sardonic wit. What Downey Jr. does is effortless, and his glib facility for speech is phenomenal. He doesn’t perform Holmes; he becomes Holmes, re-inventing him as a seedy, cynical agoraphobic adept at fisticuffs, not entirely the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but still the most engaging aspect of this film.

Unfortunately, in this film Sherlock Holmes doesn’t get to be Sherlock Holmes in the traditional sense of deducing the meaning of important clues throughout the story. He deduces Watson’s fiancé’s past, and facts about other characters, but we don’t get to hear his conclusions about all the important evidence – the potions and petals and powders and chunks of marble stuck together with a paste made of honey – until the end of the movie, after the villain’s death – and then it doesn’t matter. There’s no enjoyment derived from trying to draw our own conclusions about evidence and then hearing Holmes’s superior pronouncements. Holmes spends much more time engaged in fisticuffs than in doing what Sherlock Holmes does best.

Fisticuffs –

Way too much time spent on fisticuffs. I like the fact that Holmes can lay his opponents low, and I like how he plots out his punches ahead of time like chess moves, but the fights are too loud, too sped-up motion, and too long. The confrontation in the dry dock with the giant Lurch, who picks up the huge sledgehammer and faces Holmes who holds a much smaller hammer, is clever and fun to watch, but it comes halfway through a much longer fight and chase.

Steampunk London –

London is dark, sooty, muddy, full of dirty street people, and the accent is on a steampunk atmosphere of Thames riverboats, clanking gears, massive chains, iron hulls, the emerging steel structure of the Tower Bridge, and fantastic electrical and radio-signaled contraptions in a setting that is still old-fashioned Victorian England.

Jude Law –

Jude Law’s Doctor Watson is clever, suspicious of and perturbed with his best friend, Holmes, and he can’t give up a life of adventure and investigation. Jude Law is the best Watson yet, and we see his irritation and love for his friend all in a single affectionate but exasperated glance.

Rachel McAdams –

Pale as a ghost; horrendously bad eye makeup. It’s never clear what she’s up to – oh, yeah, working for Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s nemesis, chap with the chalky lapel. To do what? Steal some device whose function is a mystery? Oh, she’s sneaky and self-sufficient, but with Holmes and Watson so richly portrayed, who needs the American?

Cinematography –

What’s the label for the use of sped-up jump cuts (usually for flashbacks) interspersed with slow-mo (to focus gratuitously on a punch) that is often typical of violent Brit crime dramas directed by Guy Ritchie or films like Crank? Whatever the label, it was interesting seeing this visual approach to a Sherlock Holmes tale set in Victorian England. But, by Jove, a little of it goes a long way and often goes too fast to register. Got real tired of it here.

Moments of silence –

Two favorite moments: 1) In the ring, Holmes seems to be losing the match with a burly Irishman. Then he plots out devastating hits on his opponents and lays him flat. The crowd is silent as Holmes staggers out of the grimy ring. 2) Too late, Watson realizes he’s triggered a booby trap. He warns Holmes just as explosion after explosion bursts out slow-mo with muffled sound effects while Holmes shields himself with a door and runs the gauntlet of detonations.

Evil plot –

Not knowing anything about the so-called diabolical plot until the end of the movie robs the film of dread and suspense. And then Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) doesn’t put up much of a fight. It all seems so sinister in the beginning, but then the bloke hangs quite nicely. As for the plot to take over the United States, weakened by the Civil War: Yeah, maybe weakened because Lincoln is dead, but Ulysses S. Grant has formed one of the most powerful armies in the world. Anyway, whatever – ho, hum.

Best elements –

I loved the look of the film – dark and mechanical steampunk London – and it would almost be worth seeing it again to savor every word uttered by the masterful Downey Jr., but the film’s fine performances and visual trappings deserved a better plot.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Up in the Air and The Princess and the Frog

As a professional employment terminator, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country doing the firing for employers who find it difficult to lay off workers in this time of economic depression. Always on the move, Ryan spends his life keeping one step ahead of commitments and responsibilities that could tie him down. In an artificial world of airplanes, airports, and airport hotels, it is easy for Ryan to ignore the anxiety and stress many others feel as the economy declines.

Of course, Ryan’s story reflects universal truths we are very familiar with – the importance of family and commitment, and it is predictable that Ryan is reminded of these truths as he travels, fires people, falls for a fellow frequent flier, sexy Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and sees life through the eyes of fledgling terminator Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a tightly wound career girl in her 20s who is already wrestling with issues that Ryan has eluded for many years. The film is delightful, touching, well-written, artistically shot, pointed in its message, and the ride is very smooth, but it is made especially worthwhile by the performances of Clooney and Farmiga, and particularly Kendrick as angsty Natalie Keener.

Natalie Keener is one of my favorite film characters of the year. Hair pulled back severely, dressed in prim blouse and short black skirt and heels, Natalie is driven to be perfect – even if it means being perfect at telling people they have just lost jobs they have held for many years and watching reactions that range from rage to stunned silence to suicidal grief.

Coming from a generation that must be competitive in a very competitive world, Natalie has graduated at the top of her class. She’s got her whole life planned out, but she’s learning that life doesn’t always go as planned, and typing “with purpose” doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to be. Life for the employee terminator can be as sucky as life for the terminated. Yet through it all Natalie seems to know what matters in life and she doesn’t understand Ryan’s cluelessness. Her voice tied up in a controlled monotone, big eyes registering shock at how her job affects others, Kendrick shows Natalie’s vulnerability and her dawning insecurity in a world in which even perfection isn’t good enough.

Jason Reitman's film gets sanctimonious and heavy-handed at the end when fired employees, speaking as documentary-style talking heads, bare their feelings about their shaky futures and what they value in life. Family. Yeah, yeah, we got that. Is the film making a political statement? Does it really care? I took the film as a touching and entertaining character portrait.

The Princess and the Frog plays like it’s made-to-order – and in a hurry. Substitute as Cinderella: Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), an African-American New Orleans waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant. Replace Prince Charming with Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), the handsome, light-brown playboy from a fictitious country. Throw in a couple of cute animal friends: Louis (Micheal-Leon Wooley), a gigantic gator who wants to play trumpet in a jazz band, and Raymond (Jim Cummings), a spindly firefly in love with a star. Add delightful Disney songs reminiscent of previous Disney songs such as “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book and “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. What you get is a concoction of colorful, fast-moving vignettes – the best taking place in the swamps of the bayou. (There's a hilarious routine in which the firefly causes three frog-napping hillbillies to knock each other senseless in Three Stooges style.) But within this mishmash of classic Disney elements, only brief glimmers of Disney magic shine through.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

James Cameron's Avatar

Watching James Cameron’s Titanic this past week, sort of as prep work for seeing Avatar, I was again won over by the touching emotional connection between DiCaprio’s Jack and Winslet’s Rose – once I got through the silliness: the wraparound story with Bill Paxton and other wince-worthy bits such as the “spit like a man” routine and Rose’s hand on the steamy automobile window – man, that’s a lot of steam! Also, being half English, the film’s anti-British bent kind of smarts. But despite the story’s failings, I was once again struck by how each gorgeous, meticulously researched image in the 1912 part of the film makes you feel like you’re really there.

Even though it lifts its story from Dances With Wolves, Avatar achieves the same sort of visual magic that transports you to a world you’ve never seen before. As soon as Jake Sully, in his surrogate blue body, goes on his first tramp through that fantastic jungle, I was sold.

Yes, those clever South Park creators got it right: Dances With Smurfs - even though the Na’vi aren’t Smurfs. No, the Na’vi are exactly like the Lakota in Dances With Wolves: they ride “horses,” have a spiritual connection with their land, and kick butt when they need to. Though the Na’vi don’t cry “Hokahey,” any lover of Westerns has got to feel a thrill when they gear up for war against the paleface.

In spirit and content, however, Avatar borrows more from three other films. From The Emerald Forest (1985) it lifts the scenario of deforestation threatening an indigenous tribe’s way of life. As in The Mission (1986), whites side with a jungle tribe and sacrifice their lives to fight off white invasion. Also, when Avatar gets to that glowing, weeping willow tree and that hocus pocus about Eywa and the interconnectedness of all nature, I found myself thinking more of Princess Mononoke (1999) and its don’t-mess-with-Mother-Nature theme more than I thought of Lieutenant Dunbar’s adventures with the Lakota.

Although the film’s borrowings had me chuckling in the beginning, I forgot them once Cameron’s visual world turned on its dazzle. Avatar is at its best when Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) stays in the jungle with the Na’vi, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow or to connect the nerve endings in his pigtail with the nerve endings in a “horse’s” ear(?) so he can ride it, or with a fierce griffin-like flying creature so he can he can dive-bomb into the canyons of the floating mountains – the film’s most exhilarating sequence.

I wasn’t that impressed with Sam Worthington in Terminator Salvation. But here Worthington makes Jake Sully’s passion for his surrogate life with the Na’vi shine through his blue CGI disguise. In a touching, uplifting scene, Jake, a paraplegic, becomes irrepressibly giddy when he discovers he can get up and run in his surrogate body. Later, we feel his addiction to the world of the Na’vi, and I felt jarred by his nighttime breaks to go to the bathroom and eat scrambled eggs or whatever. I couldn’t wait for him to get back to Na’viworld.

Cameron isn’t very imaginative when it comes to creating supporting characters. Here he simply taps into Aliens for which he created a whole platoon of G.I. Joes. As played by Stephen Lang, Colonel Miles Quaritch is the quintessential rock-hard army dude, hair cropped, muscles scarred, determined to lock and load and blow the flat-nosed blueskins away. I guess Wounded Knee is too far in the past for Quaritch and his men to feel any pangs of guilt for repeating sordid history. Quaritch is purely a cartoon character, but he arouses the viewer’s excitement for Indian-style payback.

Cameron also taps into Aliens for the character of the cold-blooded businessman Parker Selfridge played by Giovanni Ribisi. (Get it – Selfridge?) Here Selfridge’s heartless indifference toward the fate of the Na’vi makes Paul Reiser’s Carter Burke look like a reasonable entrepreneur. Sigourney Weaver as Grace Augustine plays the resident treehugger/Na’vi lover, frighteningly toothy in her CGI guise. But my favorite supporting character is tough helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon, played by the ever buff and sexy Michelle Rodriguez (loved the little slit in her tight white shirt). I just knew she would go helicopter-a-helicopter up against Quaritch. As for Zoë Saldaña, we never see her other than as a blue Pocahantas, but her savage grimaces and aboriginal body language communicate a convincing investment in her role as Neytiri. Love it when she growls.

In the same way the horrid performance of Bill Paxton and Rose flipping the bird don’t diminish the spectacular visuals and the gripping sinking sequence in Titanic, Cameron’s storytelling weaknesses didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the dazzling, detailed world of Avatar: the jungle, its creatures, and the floating mountains. I’m not a big fan of CGI, but Cameron’s superior advancements in motion-capture technology and CGI – with the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s grotesque teeth and the scene in which hundreds of look-alike Na’vi sing around the Sacred Tree – have achieved a full-bodied, fluid reality for his characters and their actions. In the past, flying superheroes have looked flat and cartoonish. But Jake aboard his winged banshee looks like he’s really flying, and when he leaps on the top of a flying fortress, he doesn’t look like a pasted-on image.

With Avatar we are in the hands of a skilled visual storyteller and Cameron’s triumph is the creation of a richly evoked world of fantasy and adventure.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Invictus

Biopics about noble leaders of troubled countries (Gandhi) usually focus on said leader dealing with crisis after crisis. This film, about the presidency of Nelson Mandela and how he set out to repair the rift between whites and blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa, chooses the narrow focus of Mandela using his support of the mostly white rugby team, the Springboks, to show goodwill towards the whites and to build unity by supporting the team’s bid for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is predictable, simplistic, and naively pat, but it is a well-intended drama held together by the performances of Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the Springbok’s captain, Francois Peinaar.

As Mandela, Freeman imitates the South African president’s slow speech to an irritating extent, and after the first few inspiring speeches his words fall somewhat flat, but Freeman conjures a commanding presence and he portrays Mandela’s enthusiasm for the team and his love for his country genuinely and touchingly.

Matt Damon has that solid, sporty look that works for his character, and it’s hard not to root for him. He shows convincing devotion to his team, and he fits believably into the rough, chaotic action of ruck and maul, and elements of the game that must be totally alien to American audience members: the unique scrum, which is like bighorn sheep butting heads, and the even more unusual lineout (my favorite), when teammates are able to hold a leaping player up in the air so that he can catch the ball being thrown into play.

The film starts skillfully with two parallel scenes of tension. The black head of Mandela’s security is not happy about having to include white members of the police as part of the security force. After all, these are the same police who arrested men like Mandela and his followers. As they go over the president’s schedule, tensely crammed together in a small room, Mandela faces his staff, the white members grumbling about how they expect to be fired. But Mandela’s dramatic speech convinces his staff that they are all needed to guide Africa along a new path.

As politics hang in the background, the film turns into the typical sports movie as the underdog team wins its way to the championship match and, predictably, wins the big one. With all the hackneyed shots of jubilant spectators, the big game is something we’ve seen before, but Freeman’s and Damon’s solid performances made me care about what happened even though I knew what was going to happen.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

One fine Saturday morning in late October, Dale Barbara, Stephen King’s requisite outsider-hero, heads out of the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill. Suddenly, a woodchuck gets sliced in half, a plane crashes inexplicably overhead, and “Barbie” and the two thousand residents of Chester’s Mill are trapped inside a dome-shaped force field.

A town isolated by a dome-shaped force field? Ring a bell? Sounds like The Simpsons Movie, but rest assured that King started a novel with the dome idea well before the movie. As a matter of fact, the prolific bestselling author of Under the Dome proved publicly that he had written two versions of the story back in the 1970s under the titles The Cannibals and Under the Dome. Still, some of the novel’s key elements are mighty familiar: the town cut off from the rest of the world (John Wyndham’s story “The Midwich Cuckoos”, later adapted into the film Village of the Damned) and the novel’s thematic focus on the violence that results from paranoia and fear(Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" and King’s own The Mist). (In order to avoid a spoiler, I won’t mention another famous Twilight Zone episode it resembles.)

But when King grabs you with all sorts of shocking disasters, pernicious subplots, and weird surprises and never lets you go for 1,072 pages, you settle back, enjoy the smoothly written read, and forget about the borrowings. Since his early classics, King has developed an inimitable talent for sketching small-town Maine life, creating memorable characters you can like or hate out of stock roles: the outsider, the selectman, the police chief, the newspaper editor, the minister, the town drunk, often fleshing them out by delving into their dark secrets, which King just loves to do.

This talent runs throughout Under the Dome, King’s thriller/science-fiction page-turner. At first, I found it hard to accept the town’s rapid disintegration. King skips over a period of mutual cooperation that is often the case in novels about survival in a small isolated society – a sci-fi sub-genre I enjoy. (My favorite is S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, in which Nantucket Island gets sucked back in time to 1250 B.C.) In a couple of days, power-hungry town selectman Jim Rennie uses fear of the dome to take control and cover up a whole saga of corruption. He hires “brownshirts” and soon has the town under his thumb. But as an allegory, the scenario works: shades of Hitler – and after 9/11, it didn’t take the Bush administration long to raise the fear factor in America.

While examining how fear leads to social collapse, King also uses the dome device as an allegory for the dangers of global warming and pollution: as the days go by, think what the car exhaust, generator fumes, meth lab, and wood fires are doing to the air quality? In this decade of notable post-apocalyptic movies (I Am Legend) and novels (The Road), King effectively puts his two cents in on that scenario as well, and his treatment of it is superbly written and graphically shocking.

But here the conflicts and issues are the focus, not the science fiction. Not much time is spent on delineating the science of the dome, and sometimes King writes himself into a corner when it comes to technical details. In this novel, he resorts to awkward devices like sheets of lead used to make an anti-radiation suit and car tires used as breathing devices.

Meanwhile, King packs his tome with the needful things he can’t resist: references to music lyrics to reflect his cool taste in music; references to T.S. Eliot to show that he has read classic literature; allusions to his own novels to remind you of what he’s written; aggravating colloquialisms like “two days and change” that are uttered repeatedly by multiple characters; numerous references to pop culture; prolific product placement; put-downs of people not from Maine – especially people from Massachusetts who are called “Massholes;” references to masturbation, sodomy (with every mention of prison), penis size, breast size, and bodily excretions of all kinds (when characteres die they are always pissing and “beshitting” themselves).

But although he can be self-consciously silly and naughty, the King of Horror has a sharp talent for gripping and frightening the hell out of the reader – and he did that for this satisfied reader with this novel. At times, too, he can be quite terse and smoothly eloquent, as he is throughout this epic depiction of society’s tendency to feed on itself. Twisting orange-red petals of fire hung above it in the air, a flower that was still opening, an American Disaster rose.

(Note: With its action, suspense, and sci-fi, Under the Dome seems destined for the big screen – and note the jacket cover illustration (above and below). It is a CG-enhanced image designed by King himself – a ready-made movie poster. Be sure to click on it for a pretty awesome cinematic image.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Brothers

First of all, when the helicopter carrying Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets hit by a missile and goes down in a lake in Afghanistan, his family is told he is dead, and I don’t think the military would do that. I think they would say his helicopter went down in a lake in Afghanistan, and he is missing and presumed dead, but his body has not been found – an entirely different pronouncement.

Thus, Brothers starts rather early with a shaky premise that kept distracting me because at that point I wasn't grabbed by the story enough to forgive a shaky premise.

What follows is a story we’ve seen before, examining the psychological effects of war on a returning soldier – in this case a soldier returning from the current war in Afghanistan – and how his psychological torment comes between him and his family. And when a film covering some of the same ground as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home doesn’t deliver at least the same sort of emotional impact, I have trouble being engaged.

Certainly some of the acting is engaging enough. As Sam’s wife, Grace, Natalie Portman holds up the whole film with her portrayal of a woman devastated by war in two ways: first, she suffers the death of a husband and the father of her children; then, perhaps worse, she suffers as Sam returns to the family psychologically damaged by his experiences.

Tobey Maguire plays a convincingly tender-hearted father reduced to eye-bulging madness, while Jake Gyllenhaal, as Sam’s brother, Tom, spends most of his time acting disaffected: casting down his eyes, slouching, rolling his eyes at his father (Sam Shepard) who favors Sam, smirking at his own bad behavior, and not shaving. Gyllenhaal is never given much time to flesh out a clear back-story for his bitterness or to convince us that he and Sam are close. Carey Mulligan, as the wife of another soldier killed in the crash, doesn’t have much to do. In fact, her wordless first appearance is befuddling.

But the best performance comes from little Bailee Madison who plays Isabelle Cahill, Sam and Grace’s nine or ten-year-old daughter, an adult-child in the making, who is just old enough to recognize the changes in her tormented father and to express, through her rebellious behavior, that he is tearing the family apart. Jim Sheridan's direction of this young actress is the film's best achievement.

The film includes two genuinely intense scenes: one in which Isabelle builds tension during her sister’s birthday dinner, and another in which Captain Sam Cahill is forced by his Afghani captors to make a ghastly choice in order to save his life. Clearly, the film is about serious issues, but I was only briefly touched here and there by the seriousness of those issues.

Perhaps the film suffers by trying to tell a story in 112 minutes that probably needed more time. There is no time to build some tension leading up to the fateful crash. The helicopter takes off; then it crashes. There is no time to evoke an alien atmosphere in the Afghanistan scenes: we see some rugged that could be anywhere and some costumed extras holding AK-47s. I never felt there. There is no time to show a slower, more convincing transition leading to Sam’s return to his family; there’s no de-briefing, rehabilitation, delay. And there is no time to make us truly feel the supposed close bond between the eponymous brothers – which seems to be what the film is about.

As there is a minimalism to the middle-class setting in which the Cahills live (their austere kitchen has a stove standing in the middle of the floor), there is also a minimalism to some of the dialogue, but this cuts out needed development of Tom Cahill and his relationship with his brother. As for the cinematography, the movie seems filmed without any sort of aesthetic appreciation for the cinematic image. Perhaps the director didn’t want anything distracting the viewer from the seriousness of the story, but when that aspect of the film is not always very engaging, it’s nice to have something artistic to look at.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Road, Red Cliff, and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Call me movie crazy. Whenever I find myself feeling grim about exclusive releases that don’t reach my area; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November on Cape Cod; whenever I find myself involuntarily checking the same Yahoo movie listings I checked a couple of minutes ago; and especially when I’m so desperate that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from seeing 2012 a third time – then I account it high time to get up to the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge to see three movies in one day as soon as I can – which I did yesterday.

1. “Where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing stretched across the waste.” – From The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

John Hillcoat’s film The Road, based on the grim Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a man and a boy barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, certainly captures the “grayness like a charcoal drawing” described by McCarthy, and the cinematography and art direction that depict this hellish world are the film’s strengths. Telephone poles stand canted as if by a hurricane. Fields suddenly burst into flames. Trees (filmed near Mount St. Helens) have been blasted into charred sticks. A pervading grayness hangs over every scene like a leaden weight. Meanwhile, juxtaposed flashback images show blossoming oleanders and the man’s wife (Charlize Theron) dressed in clean clothing, lying on the grass, in sharp contrast with the image of the man (Viggo Mortensen) and the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) clad in damp, greasy coats and sweatshirts, hair matted, faces smeared with grime.

The father, as played by Mortensen, is a determined survivor in a land too horrid for his wife (Theron) to endure. Some unmentioned calamity has caused an extinction level event, blotting out the sun and destroying vegetation. Food is very scarce and degenerate bands roam the land, rounding up human food. In this hell, the only good that the father can find is keeping his son alive at all costs. This obsessive crusade turns him monomaniacal to the extent that he refuses to follow a lost boy seen by his son; he is unwilling to help an old man (Robert Duvall); and when a stranger steals their cart of possessions, he chases the man down and leaves him naked by the roadside. That Mortensen portrays this determined father with convincing zeal is a strength that drives the minimal plot. His voice has just the right tone, deep and matter of fact, as he gears the boy for survival without him.

Mortensen and Smit-McPhee’s performances; the masterful cinematography; and the music of Nick Cave, with brooding themes reminiscent of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, work together to pull the viewer into this bleak world, to feel the cold and damp and hunger, so that a little reprieve like a can of Coke is dramatically felt, so that the discovery of a stash of canned food is a blessing to rejoice.

But with the reprieves few and far between, the story is unrelentingly grim - and this is how it should be. The film never makes a discordant misstep; it refrains from inserting unrealistic niceties or comic relief. Man and boy can only hope to enjoy the minimal pleasures of bathing in a waterfall or washing their hair with hot water and shampoo. Mortensen’s voiceover narrative, however, feels like a weakness in that it doesn’t add anything that could not be inserted in dialogue or anything that the film’s vivid imagery hasn’t already made clear. It’s a disappointment to me that the narrative is original material written for the screenplay instead of excerpts from McCarthy’s exquisitely vivid, sometimes elusively poetic prose. With the performances, the imagery, and the music, McCarthy’s own words could have turned this excellent movie into a profoundly memorable experience.

2. The Tortoise Formation

Ten minutes into John Woo’s Red Cliff, a Chinese historical epic about warlord Cao Cao’s campaign to squelch all opposition, I thought I had made a bad choice for my second viewing and it looked like I had a slow 148 minutes ahead of me. Very quickly the story mounts up a cast of so many lords, viceroys, prime ministers, advisors, and generals you have little hope of keeping them straight and distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys. Even the name-tag superscript Woo tacks onto each character provides little help. Thankfully, the first battle comes quickly, but the combat is standard for Chinese epics: showers of arrows; charging cavalry; slow-motion, close-up contests pitting heroes (we haven’t had time to identify) against multiple foes they have no trouble cutting down with martial arts moves we’ve seen countless times.

But the film is soon saved. First, the plot becomes clear and simple: warlord Sun Quan has agreed to ally himself with warlord Lui Bei, and Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has decided to take his vast fleet downriver, accompanied by ground troops marching along the bank, to defeat Sun Quan at Red Cliff – a Chinese version of Helm’s Deep.

Then, as preparations for battle build tension, Lui Bei’s viceroy/military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takashi Kaneshiro) joins wits with Sun Quan’s Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu (Toney Leung) to defeat the enemy. When the engaging Zhuge Liang, calm, philosophical, and knowledgeable about the art of war and the workings of nature, suggests they use the Tortoise Formation to squash Cao Cao’s ground forces, you think, “Oh, boy, the Tortoise Formation!” and you are soon treated to something you’ve never seen before.

Avoiding spoilers here, I will simply say that you’ve just got to see the Tortoise Formation! Visualize the British Squares receiving the charge of the French cuirassiers at Waterloo, add some complex geometry, and you have the clever tactic that makes the film’s middle battle such a fun, eye-filling treat full of clever surprises; indeed, it is a battle you’ve never seen before.

But Woo doesn’t let this set piece stand alone. What follows is a story of grim warfare mixed with elements of whimsical legend. The sly Liang provides drama merely by planning stratagems. He can read the clouds and predict a fog that will conceal his ships. He devises a fanciful maneuver to “steal” a hundred thousand arrows from the enemy. He knows that the winds, favoring Cao Cao’s fire ships, will shift in their favor. It’s all a matter of buying time. This might be the time for a diversionary commando raid, but Zhou Yu’s charming and radiantly beautiful wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), assumes the challenge and stalls the attack by making tea for the enemy lord.

The final battle is expansive, inventive, and suspenseful. As should be the case when watching a big battle movie involving heroes pitted against uneven odds, I found myself uttering an audible “All right!” or an “Oh, yeah!” when individual characters we care about do their heroic thing.

Big battles, a cast of thousands, and colorful cinematography are standards of the Chinese historical epic. Red Cliff has all that, but its clever, often whimsical approach to the battles and its engaging central characters, the ones that eventually distinguish themselves from all the others you can't keep straight, make John Woo’s epic a distinctive, highly enjoyable experience.

3. Bucket of Fried Chicken

In Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Lee Daniels’s well-intended film about a nearly illiterate, obese, sixteen-year-old girl who has been raped by her father and has two children by him, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) doesn’t have money for breakfast one morning. On her way to school, she stops at a fried chicken joint, orders a bucket and then absconds with it, gobbling the chicken as she runs down the street. Arriving at school, stuffed, her face smeared with grease, she promptly pukes in a trash bin in the waiting room. Then her teacher comes in, scolds her for being late, and tells her to get into the classroom (strangely, the teacher doesn’t smell the puke).

Precious piles up quite a number of luridly pathetic scenes like this to catalogue how tragic this girl’s life is. Her mother (Mo’Nique) throws a frying pan at her, forces her to eat a heaping plate of macaroni and cheese and pigs’ feet, throws her newborn baby on the floor, throws a television down the stairwell at her. In a flashback, we see her sweat-covered father rape her. On top of all that, Precious is HIV positive; her first child has Down syndrome; and her father first molested her when she was three.

Unfortunately, these abuses overshadow the touching story at the film’s core: the transformation of a virtually illiterate, obese, abused African-American girl from scowling, inarticulate bitterness and ignorance to emerging dignity and self-respect. Sidibe’s naturalistic performance provides the strength for this core. In her daydreams of being a popular singer, actress, or model, we see her innocent attempts to escape from her plight. In her care for her second baby, we see her attempt to be good at something: giving her child the tender attention she was never given. Gradually, Precious transforms, and this is her triumph. She scowls less, raises her downcast eyes, dresses better, and has the intelligence to dismiss her mother’s myth about how HIV is contracted and exhort her mother to get tested.

Allowed to linger on Precious’s transformation, on the realistic tone of documentary-like scenes involving her teacher and her social worker, the film could have been a more affecting one. But the bathos of the pathetic abuses misdirects the focus. An additional weakness stems from elements that are stock trappings of a LIFETIME Channel victim-of-the-week movie: the bright-eyed, dedicated teacher (Paula Patton), the haggard but empathetic social worker (Mariah Carey), and the sassy, skanky classmates who quickly become Precious’s faithful, tender-hearted friends. These elements detract from the realism of Sidibie’s portrayal of a girl rising up from hellish ignorance and abuse. With my attention straying when the film is merely lurid, I found myself only sporadically touched by Precious’s rise from ignorance.

Friday, November 20, 2009

“Words… cannot… describe…” – Seeing The Twilight Saga: New Moon: 12:01 AM

I suppose it was destiny that I should end up seeing The Twilight Saga: New Moon with six 9th grade girls who are avid (and that’s putting it lightly) Twilight fans: Paula, Meghan, Olivia, Bianca, Gabby, and Rebecca. Last year they were in my 8th grade American history class, and during our spring-term coverage of American film history, we were brainstorming the criteria that might constitute a “classic” film, and Meghan bravely raised her hand and asked me whether or not I thought Twilight (2008) was destined to be called a classic. I was nervous, realizing that I was going to incur the wrath of the fans if I said that I didn’t think it was. So I suggested we think of it this way: Will Twilight be mentioned in a film history text ten years from now? I said that it might well be mentioned – as a popular cultural phenomenon, but not as a “classic” film. This rubbed some noses the wrong way, but later during the course, Meghan conceded that I was probably right.

Then, yesterday, it was Rebecca’s birthday celebration, her sainted mother had agreed to take her and friends to the first showing, they had an extra ticket, I got invited, and how could I turn down a chance to be part of the movie event of the year?

Thus, serendipitously, at 12:01 AM this morning, I found myself sitting in a movie theater, heated by the mounting fever of fervent fans, with the girls listed above (and the aforementioned sainted mother).

Shrieks from hundreds of fans, in love with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) or Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) – or both – broke out as soon as the first preview disclaimer appeared on the screen. Startled shrieks broke out when Pattinson appeared in the first preview – for a film called Remember Me in which Pattinson plays a mere mortal, but in the same sort of sullen, slouching, mumbling manner he plays Edward in The Twilight Saga.

Previews over, you could feel a palpable thrum of ardent anticipation.

12:01 AM.

The image of a full moon darkens with shadow and reveals the title: New Moon. More shrieks are elicited by Pattinson’s first appearance – in a dream sequence in which Bella sees an old woman who turns out to be herself – but this doesn’t lessen the shrieks aroused by Edward’s first appearance in the flesh, so to speak, when he walks across the school parking lot toward Bella (Kristen Stewart) in gratuitous slow-motion.

Taylor Lautner fans shriek when the buffed up actor, who plays a Native American who is a werewolf, shows off his mountain range of muscles. In fact, he and his other Native American werewolf chums go around shirtless for most of the movie. I guess, somehow, it’s easier for them when their uncontrolled anger transforms them into werewolves – though we never see them running around as wolves with shorts, so I don’t know what the problem is. I guess the shirtless thing is just to show off their muscles.

The passionate Edward/Pattinson fans find this installment of the saga somewhat frustrating because, early in the story, Edward leaves - to protect her, telling Bella he will never see her again. You see, she wants him to turn her into a vamp so they can be blood-suckers together, but he wants to prevent this – and he wants to keep her safe from other vampires. Bella’s birthday party chez Cullen turned problematic when Bella got a paper cut and stupidly held up her finger and said, “Oh, paper cut,” and the sight of blood caused a sort of Cullen-family vampire frenzy.

So lovey-dovey Pattinson is off screen for most of the film! I was disappointed too, for some reason. This leaves Bella to develop a thing for Jacob, but just when things are heating up, Jacob starts acting like Edward did, all, you don’t know the truth about me and, like, I’m not good for you. Holy monsters, what’s wrong with all the dudes in Forks, Washington?

But it all comes clear to Bella when she is threatened by one of the Shirtless (seems that when the boys get angry, they “Hulk” into werewolves) and Jacob needs to change into a werewolf too to fight him off – by means of awkward CGI, helped somewhat by chilling sound effects. Shocking revelation! It’s like, and I quote, “The wolf’s out of the bag!”

Now, what’s a girl gonna do? Torn between two lovers – and both of them have monster issues. This is when the film bogs down – though there’s a thrilling pursuit of the bad vamp Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre) by the boyz in th’ pack (who just love ripping vampires to shreds). So it’s all, like, don’t you love me, Bella? And, Edward, Edward, come back. But the pace picks up when Ed’s “sister” Alice (Ashley Green) appears out of nowhere (as vampires do) and tells Bella that Edward has decided to end his immortality in the only way immortality can be ended – by being ripped apart by the Volturi (don’t make me explain) who live in Italy.

So when Bella and Alice fly off to Italy on Virgin Air (I kid you not), the story goes all Angels and Demons on us but there’s fun in seeing Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen play vamps (Fanning is actually more convincing than Sheen).

2:20 AM, or thereabouts, it’s over (the film is longish and in need of tighter editing and the actors must have been directed to think about their lines for a long time before saying them).

I need to rush home, get some sleep, and get up at 5:30, but I linger with the girls to get their feedback.

Rebecca says, “It was perfect. It followed the book perfectly.” (I have a beef with this. The big fans, starting with The Lord of the Rings, feel that the movie should follow the books religiously; they want a cinematic copy of the books. But I don’t agree. I think a film is a separate entity, and the director should have the freedom to capture the essence of the novel by means of his or her own artistic vision. I allow directors full freedom to do this with any of my favorite books.) Olivia says, “It was more of a Hollywood movie than the first one, while at the same time it remained faithful to the book.” Says Gabby, “It was… good.” Meghan says, “It’s my favorite movie of all time.” Bianca's smile is too wide for her to form words. Paula, one of the school’s resident Twilight gurus who was one of the first to start reading the books back when she was in the 6th grade, comes up to me, face all flushed with rapture, and says, “Words… cannot… describe… how I feel.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep Impact (1998) - Less Disaster, More Drama

After seeing the excessively silly 2012 with its extravagant scenes of destruction, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Deep Impact (1998) which, in comparison, plays like a dead serious drama about fate, self-sacrifice, and the importance of family, with less than three minutes of disaster.

Like the 1997 hit Titanic, Deep Impact develops touchingly-portrayed characters we care about before it kills many of them in a diasaster: in this case, a massive comet on a collision course with Earth.

Téa Leoni heads the cast as Jenny Lerner, a fledgling TV reporter thrust to the forefront when she uncovers a White House leak suggesting an illicit affair in high places. This leads to a well-written, dramatic scene in which she is secretly brought before the president – played with convincing gravity by Morgan Freeman – in a hotel kitchen. She thinks he’s covering up an affair; he thinks she knows it’s all about the threatening comet. All she has is a name – Ele. What follows is my favorite Internet-search montage (an ubiquitous cliché of computer-age thrillers) in which she discovers that… click… E.L.E. stands for Extinction Level Event. Ooh-ah! Now I’m gripped!

Morgan Freeman’s president is a thoughtful man with a commanding tone. He is the nation’s solid guide throughout the crisis, and his articulate explanations of the attempts to destroy the comet and of the Noah’s Ark caves, designed to save people chosen by lottery, impart information in a suspenseful manner.

But the strong cast doesn’t stop there. In her brief scenes, Vanessa Redgrave develops a wonderful character as Jenny’s bitter, divorced, art-loving mother. Robert Duvall makes astronaut Spurgeon Tanner a folksy American hero, reading Moby Dick to a blinded crewmember, and realizing that the only way to destroy the comet is to make the supreme sacrifice. Elijah Wood, in his pre-Frodo days, is earnest in his role as a teenager who helped discover the comet, and his marriage to his teenaged sweetheart (Leelee Sobieski), designed to save her family, is shown in a heart-rending montage intercut with Jenny’s mother tastefully choosing an outfit and jewelry as she prepares to commit suicide.

Finally, Maximillian Schell, as Jenny’s estranged father, is memorably touching. In a scene that rivals the most heart-rending moments of Titanic, Jenny and her father are reunited and reconciled on the beach in front of their family beach house. There they embrace each other as the monstrous tsunami rears above them.

2012 delivers multiple scenes of destruction by earthquake, volcanic eruption, and tsunami throughout its overlong length, but the drama in Deep Impact comes in the build-up and the attempts to destroy the comet. There is a gripping scene on the surface of the comet as astronauts try to implant nukes before the sunrise melts them. Morgan Freeman’s addresses to the nation and Jenny Lerner’s coverage of the rescue mission also build suspense as they narrate the failures to stop the comet.

When a smaller chunk of the comet hits the Atlantic, the disaster is brief but visually impressive for its time. Notably, we see a satellite’s view of the impact with the resultant explosion curling under the exosphere while the shock wave radiates outward. As usual in disaster movies, New York goes under. We see the wave toppling the Statue of Liberty, bursting between the towers of the World Trade Center, and hitting Washington Square and Times Square. The destruction is swift, but the images are impressive, even though the state of CGI back then didn’t render water as convincingly as today. (In the clip below, note the old gentleman obliviously reading his newspaper as the wave hits Washington Square. I've always wondered if this was meant to allude to the famous old gentleman who sat reading as the Titanic sank.)

Kept taut by means of intelligent writing, fine performances, expertly edited build-up, and a thrilling James Horner score that taps themes reminiscent of Titanic, Deep Impact is one of the best disaster movies ever made.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How I Survived 2012


You know that much-used, much-abused action-movie gimmick in which our hero or heroes manage to run/drive/fly just beyond the reach of a rapidly following wall of fire/water/lava? (It would be fun to research what movie started the gimmick; I would assume its overuse began in the late 70s, but I imagine it’s an element as old as the silent era.). In 2012, Roland Emmerich’s disaster-movie extraordinaire about the end of the world caused by the disintegration of the Earth’s core and the collapsing of its crust, this gimmick is used to ludicrously hyperbolic extents.

First, the story’s savior father Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) drives his family in a limo ahead of an earthquake rolling up the street behind them, through a gauntlet of collapsing overpasses, skyscrapers, and parking structures spilling an avalanche of cars.

THEN a small plane keeps a few feet ahead of a growing chasm, flies through shifting canyons of skyscrapers toppling like dominoes, and leaves Santa Monica to fall into the ocean beneath it.

THEN, at the wheel of a Winnebago this time, Jackson manages to evade an obstacle course of volcanic eruptions and flying chunks of lava, as he races across Yellowstone National Park.

THEN a massive Russian cargo jet takes off as Las Vegas crumbles beneath it and barely manages to rise above the towering resort casinos in its way.

And THEN Emmerich overuses another standard action-movie element: the-vehicle-flying-over-the-impossibly-wide-chasm. Keanu Reeves did it in a bus – going uphill no less – in Speed (1994). Cusack does it a couple of times in the limo – and once with the Winnebago!

Yes, 2012 is a very silly movie but, wow, it’s kind of like a thrill ride. And I’ve always considered thrill rides to be rather silly, but they’re also kind of thrilling. So what do you do when the poor workers, shut out of the gargantuan ark/ships, constructed to save heads of state and anyone who can pay a billion Euros, are rioting at the gates, plummeting into a chasm when pressed from behind, and the blonde bombshell playmate of a wealthy Russian shows her little lap dog how he can save himself by crawling over a cable to the secret passageway that leads the Curtis family and friends to safety? Well, you either walk out or sit back, enjoy the thrills, and shout, “Yee-haw!” There’s just no other way to survive.

So I sat back and enjoyed the silly thing. I loved how Emmerich borrows unabashedly from (or pays tribute to) When Worlds Collide (1951) (ark/ship constructed to save the human race); The Poseidon Adventure (1972) (capsizing cruise ship; silly song during the credits); The Towering Inferno (1974) (cameo by the aging actor – then it was Fred Astaire; this time it’s George Segal); Dante’s Peak (1997) (massive volcanic explosion); Deep Impact (1998) (gigantic tsunami and the loved ones that embrace each other as the wave approaches; African-American president); The Core (2003) (similar problem with the malfunctioning core); and War of the Worlds (2005) (the determined father trying to save son and daughter).

I enjoyed the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor (spelling is correct) as the dedicated scientist who tries to make government bigwigs acknowledge the impending danger. I enjoyed John Cusack as the divorced writer of a science-fiction novel that serendipitously parallels the film’s final moral dilemma. Danny Glover does a touching job as an altruistic president who refuses to save himself. Woody Harrelson is wacko as only Harrelson can be as a radio talk-show host who has gotten wind of the impending disaster and knows about the plan to build ark/ships (he thinks they’re space ships) at a dam in Tibet.

I always love to see disasters wipe out famous edifices. This time, besides smashing the White House with an aircraft carrier, Emmerich hits Rome with an earthquake that cracks the Sistine ceiling right between the famous pointing fingers of God and Adam and rolls the cupola of Saint Peter’s over a throng of praying Catholics.

And just when we might be getting bored with all the destruction, the film turns kind of 50s sci-fi, very reminiscent of When Worlds Collide, as the passengers fortunate enough to have had a loose one billion Euros board the huge ark/ships, which are also loaded with animals and artwork like Michelangelo’s statue of David. The design of the ships – sort of a cross between a cruise ship and a submarine – are like something out of an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

(Unfortunately, I couldn't find an image of one of the huge arks - my favorite gimmick in the movie. But the above image shows a glimpse of one being threatened by a collision with Air Force One. "Air Force One!" says the helmsman. Now, that's a bingo, and my favorite line in the movie.)

The captain of the American ark, with his sharply chiseled face and fascist uniform, like something an officer on a Star Wars Imperial cruiser would wear, starts going through the launching phase, and the whole moral dilemma of what to do about the unfortunate workers who didn’t have a billion Euros arises. The panicked mobs throng the gangways - just as in When Worlds Collide - also reminiscent of the mobs of underworlders who get flooded out in Metropolis (1927).

I love all the techno silliness as the ship’s bridge goes through the countdown before collision with the tsunami, which involves bracing the arks with massive clamps. Love it when the American ark collides with another ark, and a computer screen on the bridge shows a graphic display of the two ships and the pulsating warning: “Collision.” Then, is that an iceberg ahead? No, it’s Mount Everest (and a huge joke on Titanic)!

I felt like I was a kid back in the 60s when I used to go the 35-cent Saturday afternoon matinee to see silly sci-fi movies, some of which we look up to as classics now. Well, some of those classics were just as hokey as 2012, just as devoid of any sort of plausibility, but what did you do? You sat back and had fun and wondered what you would do if the Earth’s crust fell apart and caused humongous tsunamis that threatened to submerge the continents. Try to raise a quick billion Euros? Better yet – start acting like a dog.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pumped for Destruction!

Today is 11/13/09 and I don't need to be Nicolas Cage and have a sheet of paper with a bunch of numbers on it to know what this date means. It means 2012 opens today - and I am pumped for destruction.

I love all types of movies. I'll embrace your beautifully written, character-driven indie or foreign film, but I get all excited about disaster movies - a favorite genre of mine since enjoying Ray Harryhausen's clever stop-motion destruction of famous edifices in his 1950s sci-fi classics.

My favorite disaster movie is the pre-CGI Crack in the World (1965) for its imaginative disaster scenario: an underground nuclear explosion opens a crack in the world that threatens to, you know, crack the world in half. But I embrace most CGI disaster movies. I loved Deep Impact (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). I also loved this year's Knowing - much to some bloggers' dismay. When it comes to the destruction of the world, I just let myself go and have fun.

Though in 2012 Roland Emmerich ups his own ante by providing multiple disasters instead of just freezing the Northern Hemisphere, Knowing already burned Earth to a cinder, so I don't know what the big deal is here, but I'm open. I'm there! I'm planning to see it at least twice this weekend, and then I shall report.

Happy weekend, bloggers!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Few Thoughts on The Box and A Christmas Carol

The Box tries hard to be very weird, and it succeeds at that. Sometimes it is gripping in its weirdness, but sometimes it’s very irksome.

It goes something like this: a creepy guy in an overcoat and homburg named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) presents Mr. and Mrs. Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with a box that looks like something from a party game or a reality show and has a button under a protective glass bubble. Steward, his face half excavated by a burn or a lightning strike, explains the rules: push the button and they get a million dollars (that was a lot in 1976), but someone they don’t know will die.

Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have been feeling financially strapped even though they live in a big house in Richmond, Virginia, and the only setback is that Norma’s faculty-child tuition for their son at the private school where she teaches is going to be discontinued (uh, so send him to public school!?). However, they could really use the money to replace the horrid oval-pattern wallpaper in their kitchen – which seems to have some connection with the story, but I can’t tell you what it is.

Anyway, you can guess what Norma does with the button, and then people start getting nosebleeds and the story cuts back and forth to scenes at Langley, where Arthur Lewis works and everybody’s excited about the recent photographs from the Mars probe and talking about the possibility of life on other planets. Meanwhile, a motel has a pool that’s a portal to somewhere; and a library has a bunch of open-mouthed zombified “employees” walking around it – plus three watery gates to, uh, somewhere, and we start guessing that all this weirdness is about aliens.

This head-scratching ordeal is at its best when it mimics the wooden acting, slow-paced oddness, and eerie music reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock, that make you feel like you’re watching a 1950s B-sci-fi movie or an Outer Limits episode – or a Twilight Zone episode. Turns out, it is based on a Richard Matheson short story that was made into a Twilight Zone episode – but for the most part it plays like a TV reality show situation with lethal consequences.

It’s sort of a SPOILER to say that it’s all about aliens testing humanity’s worthiness with according to something called the altruism factor. In order to be heavily enigmatic, we’re left up in the air at the end, but I think the intimation is that we are not worthy; I could have told you that. As a whole, the film doesn’t give you enough of an explanation to make this the kind of film plot you can easily tell a friend. If anybody out there can tell me how it all fits together, I’d appreciate the help. Any theories on the wallpaper?

Even though I love Charles Dickens’s novels, I’m not a big fan of A Christmas Carol. I always found the story rather silly and overly sentimental, but I’ve always preferred the book to the film adaptations, since they eschew the darker elements of the original story, particularly the scariest scene in the book – when the Ghost of Christmas Past parts his robe to reveal two emaciated, sunken-eyed children, more like beasts than humans, who represent Ignorance and Want. Dickens can be quite disturbing!

I also don’t care much for motion-capture (Beowulf was ridiculous) and I have a love-hate attitude toward Jim Carey, but I have to say I really enjoyed Walt Disney’s A Christmas Carol for the most part. The open scenes have a very real presence – achieved by sweeping shots taking you through the streets of London and by means of wonderful sound effects. Jim Carey is perfect as Scrooge – and he’s easier to tolerate when he’s a motion-captured image than he is when he’s real and unrestrained by animators.

This is a much scarier adaptation than it is a silly, sentimental one. The appearance of Marley’s ghost (Gary Oldman) is superbly gripping. And the film is dark – at times very much NOT a kid’s movie. Ignorance and Want are depicted as feral children that morph into multiple specters of gruesome depravity. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is subtly done as a shadow that merely looms and points the way to Scrooge’s grim future.

The above elements, and more, are absolutely brilliant, but the film as a whole is kept from consistent brilliance by long sequences of silly action or overloaded images that are not always convincingly done by motion-capture technology. When the film sets up its opening sequences with vivid realism, all gravity is destroyed by images such as the dance scene in which Old Fezzwig (Bob Hoskins) and his buxom lady look like paper cutouts spinning impossibly in the air.

Jim Carey, as tiresome as he can be, is one talented, schizophrenic guy, but the film lets its CGI run rampant to the detriment of a story and a classic character that have been successful without CGI for more than a hundred years.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Big Battle Movies

One of my favorite escapist film genres is what I call the big battle movie, a grand genre popular in the 60s and 70s that satisfies my passion for history and visual epics. The ingredients of the classic big battle movie include a star-studded cast, an emphasis on drama and a concern for visual historical accuracy over factual accuracy, a cast of thousands (as in living, breathing, human soldiers, not CGI-rendered combatants), and the requisite depiction of a big, historical battle.

Recently I was bemoaning the absence from my video collection of a DVD version of Waterloo (1970), one of my favorite big battle movies. Back in the 80s, I was delighted to discover it on VHS, but that version is unfortunately full screen and missing key footage.

Browsing through Amazon’s customer reviews, however, I learned that the Russian edition is playable on all DVD players and, fortunately, comes with an English language option. Not only that, one customer noted that it contains footage missing from the VHS edition. Needless to say, I bought it, and received my copy in its black slipcase, the Cyrillic title above a window revealing Rod Steiger as Napoleon. And, true to customer testimonials, the digital image proved to be dazzling.

From a visual point of view, Waterloo, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, is my favorite big battle movie. This titanic recreation of the classic 1815 battle involving over 200,000 soldiers employs 17,000 members of the Russian Army, including Cossacks, and a regiment of Scottish Highlanders, to present a broad view of the battle that incorporates a number of extreme long shots that are simply stunning in their beauty and detail.

Christopher Plummer is worth watching as the Duke of Wellington, retorting glibly with the Duke’s famous witticisms. When asked what his battle plan is, he responds, “To beat the French.” “They’ll break every bone in my body," he says when it seems clear that his army can't win.

Meanwhile, Rod Steiger as Napoleon provides solid dramatic presence as the ambitious and egotistical “monster of Europe.” On the battlefield he shows consummate confidence. He never considers defeat a possibility, and when the Old Guard is repulsed and Napoleon’s officers are panicking, Steiger employs his signature emphatic delivery to give resonance to my favorite line: “At Marengo, I lost the battle at five o’clock, but I won it back at SEVEN!”

The rest of the cast is pleasantly functional, and the first half of the film is merely half-hearted build-up, but the battle is what the film is all about. One criticism I have is that it mostly provides a broad, sweeping view of the battle, and rarely a more intimate soldier's view of the combat. Another is that shots of approaching ranks of soldiers build tension but then lead to nothing. (I am aware that even this version of the film is still missing footage from the original release.) But the extreme long-shot widescreen views of the battle are undoubtedly stunning as they capture thousands of soldiers all at one time.

The film achieves grand imagery: an impressive pan across the entire battlefield; the obscuring smoke and bursting bombs (no CGI) of massed artillery; Hougoumont farm engulfed in bright yellow flames; the charge of the Scotts Greys imitating the classic military painting “Scotland Forever;” and the advance of the French Old Guard’s dense single column. But in the film’s most visually striking scene, the wide ranks of the French cuirassiers are followed in an aerial shot as they charge across the battlefield, crest the ridge, and collide with the implacable squares of British redcoats.

From a critical point of view, Zulu (1964), directed by Cy Enfield, is one of the best movies ever made about men in war. With a strong cast headed by Stanley Baker and a young Michael Caine in his first significant screen role, the film is mostly accurate, it incorporates wonderful writing with some nice character development that focuses on the grunt soldier’s point of view of the fight, it includes an impressive army of real Zulu warriors, and it features plenty of gripping, well-staged battle scenes.

Featuring functional performances by Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, Denholm Elliot, and Simon Ward, as well as a more heartfelt performance by Bob Hoskins as a color sergeant, Zulu Dawn (1979), directed by Douglas Hickox, has a rather slow lead-in and the plot is slim, but the whole movie is merely an excuse for a depiction of the 1879 Zulu victory over the British army at the Battle of Isandhlwana that’s a whopping grand battle employing thousands of extras. As epic movie battles go, this one is one of the best staged battle depictions. The location is historically accurate and full-scale; the thousands of Zulu extras convincingly represent the Zulu army of 25,000; the battle movements are accurately depicted and easy to follow; and the view of the battle alternates between long shot sweep and closer, soldier’s eye views of the action.

The British have a talent for the big battle movie. They certainly have a varied military history that provides some colorful contrasts – those bright red uniforms juxtaposed with desert sands or African savanna. And the British present their history straight, with a minimum of macho bravado that detracts from realism. And although they might depict the virtue of incredible tenacity, they are not blind to the absurdity of war, an element that is caustically portrayed in Tony Richardson’s harshly visceral debunking of Victorian glory in his version of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

Though not purely a big battle movie – you don’t get to the Battle of Balaclava until the end – Tony Richardson’s film is one of the best portrayals of life in Victorian times, and one of the most disturbing looks at British military stupidity and blind courage in the 1800s. Blending in a love affair between David Hemmings (playing the non-fictional Captain Nolan) and Vanessa Redgrave, the film presents the clashes between Lord Cardigan (Trevor Howard hamming it up effectively) and his officers, and shows the pathetic waste of British involvement in the Crimean War – as the alley-rats-of-London turned brightly-uniformed-cavalrymen fall to cholera before they can ever be mowed down in assaults that are the pig-headed blunders of pompous idiots.

The Alamo (1960) is very slow to get going, and the film evokes John Wayne’s vision of legendary American heroism more than it adheres to the facts, but the final battle scene is clearly staged and full of striking images, mounting suspense, and dramatic to-the-last-man fighting. The accompaniment of Dimitri Tiomkin’s superbly rousing score alone makes it a battle scene that remains dramatic after multiple viewings.

For sheer non-CGI scope of setting and battle scenes, 55 Days at Peking (1965), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a favorite of mine for its recreation of the foreign compound in Beijing, 1900, and for its interesting variety of battle scenes incorporating a veritable army of Chinese extras who employ some agile, stylistic acrobatic skills to tumble down ramps or plummet fearlessly off walls.

As expansive in sweep as Lawrence of Arabia, Khartoum, directed by Basil Deardon, is a favorite of mine for its desert battles and massive final assault of Khartoum, 1885, as well as for Charlton Heston’s skillful portrayal of the fervently Christian military leader, Charles Chinese Gordon, one of my favorite figures in history. Heston and Laurence Olivier, as the Mahdi, utter some memorable lines as they bicker over whose God will be remembered more.

As for World War II big battle movies, two of the best are The Longest Day (1962), directed by Ken Annakin and Andrew Marton, and Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), both of them wisely based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction classics that incorporate personal, close-to-the-action accounts by men who landed on the beaches of Normandy or engaged in the disastrous blunder of the Market-Garden campaign.

Both are quintessential big battle movies. The battle is the story, the episodes are historically accurate, and the film clearly shows the grim futility of war – the latter much more so than the former. A Bridge Too Far is also notable for the realism of its violence; the visual artistry of a massive paratrooper drop; the visual variety of its battle scenes; its memorable depiction of the fierce battle for Arnhem Bridge; and the touching portrayals by both Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins, performances that are not lost in a very lengthy star-studded cast.

Though awkward and disjointed at times, Is Paris Burning? (1966), directed by Rene Clement, (screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola), is praiseworthy for its artistic black-and-white shots of intense street fighting; its use of Paris locations for its depiction of the liberation of that city; and its beautiful Maurice Jarre score.

Finally, Battle of Britain (1969), directed by Guy Hamilton, is a treat for aviation enthusiasts and history buffs as it employs hundreds of vintage World War II planes and authentic English locations to tell one of the most amazing underdog victories in British history. As you enjoy thrilling dogfights between Spitfires and Luftwaffe planes, you get strong performances by Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, and Robert Shaw, as well as brief appearances by Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Edward Fox, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Moore.

The general dearth of big battle movies nowadays keeps me browsing the Internet for DVD releases of the classics. 55 Days at Peking sorely needs a digitally re-mastered DVD edition playable on American machines, and my dream is for a fully restored Waterloo.

In the past twenty years, the best that more or less fill the criteria of the big battle movie have been Black Hawk Down (2002) and The Alamo (2004). Though not purely a big battle movie, Glory (1989) stages the Battle of Fort Wagner with gripping, visually striking style, as the blue coats of the Massachusetts 54th “Colored” Regiment appear in bright contrast against the white sands of South Carolina. Ted Turner’s Civil War epics Gettysburg (1993) and God and Generals have depicted famous battles vastly but blandly, while Pearl Harbor (2001) stages a dramatic depiction of the famous attack that is lost in a bloated story.

Meanwhile, I applaud any director who takes on the risk of staging an historical epic, especially one with a big battle. Although historical epics are a risky venture, state of the art CGI technology has the capacity to depict any battle in the whole history of human folly without employing extras.

In a remarkable closing image in Waterloo, we see Wellington after the battle is over, riding exhaustedly amidst windrows of dead bodies. When he stops to survey the carnage, Plummer as Wellington intones the famous line “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.” Yes, it’s undoubtedly sad either way. Nevertheless, the number of books and films that depict battles suggests that we can’t resist a fascination for this tragically destructive side of the human condition.

(A note about the video montage: The first clip from Zulu Dawn includes the excerpt from Elmer Bernstein’s score used in Inglourious Basterds when Marcel approaches the pile of film reels and gets ready to set it on fire. Also, for better results, allow the video to buffer before playing.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Amelia

Come Oscar night, I doubt that Hilary Swank will be winning her third award for Best Actress. If she gets nominated, I’ll eat my hat. It’s not that her performance is bad. It’s just that her performance is not enough of anything, much like the film she stars in, Amelia, directed by Mira Nair.

First of all, bad title. Sounds like a Disney Channel movie. Second, the supporting performances by Richard Gere as George Putnam and Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal are serviceable, but the actors don’t get much to do. George begs Amelia not to fly around the world. Gene and Amelia have an affair that does little else but make George gloomy and tight-mouthed for a couple of scenes.

Thus, in a film with so little story and conflict, it’s amazingly irritating for us to hear Amelia and Gene repeatedly calling his son’s first name, “Gore… Gore… Gore,” just so we have time to register that this boy, whose presence in the story is totally unnecessary, will grow up to be the famous writer.

Nevertheless, I found this little film rather pleasant. The flying scenes are stunning, especially when the film taps its inner Out of Africa to fly over giraffes and jungles. These scenes carry you away; there’s something very pure and beautiful about a propeller-driven plane. But for a film about a woman’s passion for flying, we don’t get to spend enough time off the ground.