Saturday, March 28, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 4: Race to Witch Mountain, The Haunting in Connecticut, Monsters vs. Aliens, and More.

Mostly dominated by the multiplex at the mall, Cape Cod has limited offerings when it comes to indie and foreign films. There's a rundown five-screen cinema in North Falmouth - I call it the Old Moldy - but it's still showing most of the recent Oscar nominees for Best Picture. That's old. Then there's the 1930s single-screen theater in Dennis called the Cape Cinema that looks like a cross between a barn and a Congregational Church. Though you have to sit on old armchairs covered with wrinkled linen doilies, it is my chief source for cinema of the other kind. It gets the films weeks after they have been released, but its cinephile proprietor should be commended for his undying devotion to bringing quality cinema to the Cape. Nevertheless, my choices have been limited in the past month.

7. Watchmen (3/6)

8. Race to Witch Mountain (3/15)

In Race to Witch Mountain two teen-aged aliens crash land on Earth and take the guises of two blond-haired American teens (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) so they can retrieve data that will save their planet from environmental collapse – and our planet from invasion by their military (who would prefer taking over Earth). Helped by ex-getaway driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) and an alien-believing physicist (Carla Gugino), the teens engage in a constant battle to stay ahead of a Terminator-like cyborg alien and persistent Feds in black SUVs and dark sunglasses, led by a very anal agent named Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds – delivering a totally wooden performance) whose job it is to keep the truth about aliens from the public – I guess because revealing the truth would be admitting they had been wrong, or maybe because they don’t want to make UFO geeks happy.

This derivative, silly film is a steady stream of car chases, explosions, and shootouts instigated by the Feds, as well as chases, explosions, and shootouts instigated by the Terminator-like dude – but it delivers one fun image – when one of the SUVs crashes into alien teen Seth (who has the power to alter his density), and pieces of it fly slow-mo into the air. I believe the preview for X-Men Origins: Wolverine promises the same CGI “stunt,” but we saw it first in Race to Witch Mountain.

I saw this with Jane, and I don’t think she was very impressed: too much noise and action and no heart – and, she said, “Dwayne Johnson was much better in The Game Plan. Indeed, Johnson’s performance was painfully bad.

9. Knowing (3/20, 3/22, and 4/11)

SPOILER - unless you've seen the preview. The image below is from the plane crash sequence, and it proves one of the film's numerous logical errors that have been the topic of much enjoyable quibbling in the comments section of my post above. If you've seen the film, this image proves that the cop is looking in the wrong direction when the plane descends.

Now look at the preview.

Very interesting.

10. The Haunting in Connecticut (3/27)

The image to the left appears on the poster for The Haunting in Connecticut. What the hell is curling out of that boy’s mouth? I had to find out. I guess the poster did its advertising job on me because I went to see the film. I found out what’s coming out of the boy’s mouth, and although that’s only a minor element in the story, I didn’t regret seeing the movie; I only regretted seeing it on a Friday night in a theater whose entire front section was packed with middle-school-aged teens whose mouths and cell phones never closed.

Based, supposedly, on a true story about a house that used to be a funeral home, the film is carried along by talented performances by Virginia Madsen, playing a devoted mother determined to keep her cancer-stricken son alive; Kyle Gallner, who succeeds both at realistically portraying the agony of cancer and the terrors he undergoes in his demon-plagued home; and Elias Koteas, ever subdued in his vocal utterances, who plays a dying reverend who tries to exorcise the possessed house in Connecticut.

Unfortunately, the film focuses more on cheap frights – the weakest involving the young mother’s helper who should know better than to take a shower right after what seems to be a successful exorcism. And, too, the family owns a car, for God’s sake, so why don’t they get in it and get the hell out of there?

The film’s most intriguing, atmospheric scenes come in the brief, muddled flashbacks that tell the backstory covering a séance, the image above, and horrid rituals performed by a psycho mortician on cadavers stolen from a cemetery. But I wanted to know more about this boy, the stuff coming out of his mouth, and exactly what happens in that creepy embalming room.

The CGI rendering of that velvety helix curling from the boy’s mouth and the central performances are the film’s strengths. Of the three performances, given the thin story and its standard spooky-house elements, Madsen’s memorable portrayal of a mother’s dogged, loving care for a child dying of cancer is well worth the price of admission – but is it worth the price of admission to a theater plagued by American teen-aged demons? Depends on your mood – though you might feel like the boy on the poster.

11. Monsters vs. Aliens (3/29) is a tiresome movie filled with tired puns, tired allusions to classic 50s science-fiction films, and tired action cut right out of the we’ve-seen-this-before mold. It also includes a shot of a hairy butt and a reference to someone soiling his pants – the type of crude humor that seemed to be on the decline in animated films but tries to make a comeback here. Seth Rogen supplies mild humor as he voices Bob the Blob, one of the five misfit monsters – along with Ginormica (the Incredible 40-foot Woman, less one inch, voiced by Reese Witherspoon), Dr. Cockroach, the Missing Link, and Insectosaurus - whose job it is to stop an alien invasion.

Personally, I don’t find Dreamworks’ renderings of human figures aesthetically pleasing. They look very much like cheap plastic dolls, with thin plastic necks, plastic hair, and huge eyes. Thus, Ginormica is a gigantic rendering of a big-eyed plastic doll.

As for the action, as I said, it’s mostly tired and includes the requisite shooting, explosions, and chases one expects from a science-fiction movie – or parody of a science-fiction movie – though I appreciated the meticulous CGI depiction of the San Francisco area – including the precise depiction of a rather non-picturesque stretch of Highway 101 along the bay with Candlestick Park in the distance that I have driven many times. (Image to the left shows 101 looking south; look north and you'd see Candlestick Park.) The destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge by a gigantic alien robot is the film’s most impressive bit of animation.

Without offering any intimation of my opinion, I asked viewing partner Jane whether or not she liked it. “No,” she said. “It was stupid.” Ah, great minds think alike.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Knowing When Not to Heed the Warning

Having a series of numbers, scrawled out by a creepy little girl in an elementary school class in Lexington, Massachusetts, for a 1959 time capsule, that successfully predicts the dates, number of deaths, and GPS coordinates of horrible disasters over the past 50 years, is kind of like knowing that any movie with Nicolas Cage and a bad title such as Knowing, Bangkok Dangerous (2008), and Next (2007) is going to be a really bad movie. So when I looked at the offerings for new releases for/at 320094166966270297123, I heard the little voices in my head saying, “Duplicity not Knowing. Duplicity not Knowing.” But I ignored the voices. You see, I’ll choose a disaster movie over a spy movie with Julia Roberts any Friday of the year because even though both genres tend be chock full of clichés, at least with the disaster movie you get the disaster.

So I went to the local multiplex, found the theater more crowded than for any movie I’ve seen this year, heard packs of pre-teens scurrying noisily for seats in the front, felt the teenaged girl behind me ramming my seat with her big foot, saw the old lady ascending the steps laboriously with a small dog on a leash beside her, and I thought, “Oh, shit. I have made a big mistake.”

But I had not. I was surprised. Granted, Cage’s acting ranges from tolerably utilitarian to downright right annoying, as he plays John Koestler, a desperate widower/physicist who decodes the number series and tries to get people to believe what it predicts. Meanwhile, Rose Byrne as Diana, another desperate single parent, is bland and misdirected. Clearly, the film borrows from The Day the Earth Caught Fire, E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deep Impact, Signs, and National Treasure, incorporating such hackneyed elements as the moody clairvoyant kids, the numbers clues, the mysterious figures lurking in the woods, and the use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Second Movement, as dramatic accompaniment – which has been overused but is still very cool. But all this doesn’t matter. Once the film grabs you – and I was grabbed from the beginning when the little Wednesday Addams-eyed girl in the stereotypically goody-goody 1950s classroom starts scrawling numbers like a lunatic obsessed by a higher power while all the other kids are drawing pictures of space ships and robots as their innocuous predictions of the future – it is a genuinely scary and suspenseful film.

Director Alex Proyas (Dark City 1997) delivers a lot that I love in movies. I love disasters – and this film has many – rendered by means of CGI that ranges from the silly (the blazing moose) to the viscerally effective. I love a story about a guy who can predict horrid disasters but nobody believes him. And Proyas does a wonderful job of creating very creepy settings – dark woods, a dilapidated trailer – with the spooky Whisper Men who, of course, can communicate with John and Diana’s kids (Chandler Canterbury and Lara Robinson, who also plays the gloomy numbers girl).

Think too much while you’re watching this film and you might consider it ridiculous. Let yourself go, and it is scary, suspenseful, and visually awesome. Considering that the girl behind me ceased ramming my seat and the dog didn’t bark, I had a wonderful time at the movies, and I learned that sometimes you need to pay no attention to the Nicolas Cage warning.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Beauty of Ben-Hur – A 50th Anniversary Tribute

In its 1998 list of the Top 100 Films of All time, the American Film Institute placed Ben-Hur in slot 72. Considering the competition, I was very pleased with this placement of one of my favorite movies. Despite my esteem for this epic, I would have gladly seen it switch places with The Searchers, stuck inexplicably in slot 96. In 2007, the updated AFI Top 100 Films list redeemed itself for its underestimation of John Ford’s classic by bumping it way up to slot 12, but Ben-Hur got nudged down to 100. That makes me very nervous. Perhaps a future update of the list will bump it off into oblivion. Granted, lists are subjective and arbitrary, but I’ve read other estimations of the 1959 epic that seem to write it off as a vapid Biblical epic. This is not so. Ben-Hur is a beautifully filmed, compelling story of revenge that contains some stunningly memorable imagery, and for its 50th Anniversary year, I offer this tribute to its visual and structural beauty.

The story is cleverly united by three sustaining drinks of water: Ben-Hur, dying of thirst in the desert, gets a drink of water from Jesus; again, he is given water by another savior – Quintus Arrius, the Roman who takes him from the galleys and gives him the wealth needed to enact his revenge on Messala; finally, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus carrying the cross – “I know this man.” – and gives him a drink. Throughout the film, water imagery echoes these three pivotal episodes. There is the vast sea. There is the clear stream where Ben-Hur takes a drink and recalls the drink that kept him alive so that he could return to Judea, only to learn that his mother and sister suffer from leprosy and exile. And there is the miraculous rain that washes the blood from the dying Jesus, runs down to Ben-Hur’s leprous mother and sister, and cures them miraculously. Water saves. Water cures. In the final sequence, the redeemed Ben-Hur, his heart at peace, walks through a clear puddle of rainwater that reflects Esther and his mother and sister, the family he has tried so hard to rescue.

Reflecting the story’s cruelty and violence, harsh accoutrements pervade the mise en scène. There are bars everywhere: in Messala’s austere room, in the Roman galley, in the chamber where Ben-Hur visits the dying Messala, in the gates everywhere. Hanging on walls, there are chains and spikes and whips. In the Roman bath where Messala is playing around with his whip, three coiled whips hang on three spikes – foreshadowing the crown of thorns and the spikes of the crucifixion. Ben-Hur is reunited with his friend, Messala, in a corridor of sharp javelins. The javelins are symbolic of their friendship. They used to hunt “jackals and lions” together when they were young and Messala saved Ben-Hur’s life during one hunt. Now reunited, they use javelins to refresh their friendship, the spears thrown together to the point where the beams cross – another foreshadowing of the crucifixion. Ben-Hur will later use a javelin from this armory to threaten to kill Messala if he doesn’t release Miriam and Tirzah. He will use another javelin to kill a pirate to save Quintus Arrius during the sea battle. The guard of Roman soldiers escorting Jesus to his death bristles with spears and javelins.

Painstaking art direction creates sets that are real environments. Ben-Hur’s home is not just a two-dimensional façade, Hollywood fakery. You come through the gate to the courtyard and the fountain where Messala remembers playing as a boy. In this courtyard, where grown-up Messala gleefully charms his Jewish friends, he will later approach the pinioned Ben-Hur, accused assassin, and turn his back on those friends, sending them to imprisonment. Over the gate there is the “roof where we used to stand and throw pebbles at the people in the streets below and then run and hide.” Across this courtyard there is the main door where Ben-Hur touches the mezuzah and kisses his fingers before entering the main house. Upon learning that his mother and sister are supposedly dead, he will throw himself in anguish against this mezuzah and break it. The house is broken, the family destroyed. Later, his soul healed, he fixes the mezuzah. Off the inner courtyard are the room where Ben-Hur begins lunch with his family – “Messala will not be joining us” – and the servants’ quarters where Esther lives with her crippled father, plotting to buy “death for the Romans.” And here is the stairway leading up to the landing. In the beginning of the film, Esther comes down this stairway to be introduced to Ben-Hur, who instantly falls in love with her. In the end, he goes up the stairway to the joyous reunion.

There’s a lot of marching going on in this film. After the rather silly Nativity prelude and the credits, the opening sequence is a more appropriate beginning: the conquering Roman army, columns bristling with spears and standards, soldiers outfitted with bright armor and bright red capes, marches toward Jerusalem. “We should arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow tonight.” The second procession is a more foreboding one as Governor Gratus reviews his troops and then marches through the streets of the city in a show of force. Columns of soldiers bear a thicket of golden Roman standards. The accompanying music carries the heavy tone of a death march. This leads to the fateful falling tile. “It was an accident!” A triumphal march – joyous and loud and full of floating rose petals – brings Ben-Hur and Arrius in glory to Rome. This image is the film’s biggest irony. Ben-Hur, the Jew, must participate in this pageantry and further Roman decadence for a number of years in order to be able to return to Judea to save his family and exact revenge. Later, the grand, glorious procession of the chariots is a lengthy establishing shot that situates the upcoming chariot race in a real circus with a real crowd – a vast location that needs to be enjoyed before our attention focuses on the action. Finally, the last procession is the slow, densely-packed death march to Golgotha. It starts immediately after the cut to Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the affair. Then the crosses are borne, the march begins, and the packed crowd presses against the barrier of soldiers. As the march slowly climbs a mountain of steps, the crowd presses and the soldiers push back. What are the people trying to get at?

Ben-Hur was considered a very violent film for 1959. Still, today, the violence has its effect. Bright red dominates the Roman army. In the Castle of Antonia, the desperate Ben-Hur pushes a soldier screaming to his death; he strangles another and bashes his head against the wall. In the sea battle, the rammed ship fills with water that quickly turns red from the smashed bodies and severed limbs. In order to save Arrius, Judah skewers a pirate with a javelin. When I saw the film in 1960, I remember the audience letting out a roar of horrified surprise when Ben-Hur sets a pirate’s face on fire with a torch.

The chariot race is a flurry of plunging horses’ heads and rumbling wheels, a frenzy of smashed bodies. “I’ll tell you what you see: the smashed body of a wretched animal.” The Corinthian charioteer who challenges Messala is bent in half by a chariot. Messala ends up dragged by his horses, churned under the hooves of another team of horses, and then rolled under the wheels of a chariot. The masterstroke of this classic sequence is the absence of an accompanying musical score. We hear the thundering hooves, the panting horses, the rumbling wheels, the slashing and snapping of the whip. It is a symphony of sounds of motion and violence.

Messala’s death sequence is an intense one. The Roman’s “smashed” body is as gory as it could be made in 1959. We see Messala’s head and torso, glazed with dried blood, his lips cracked and black, little bites of flesh missing from his chest, arms scored with red slashes. “There’s enough of a man here left for you to hate.” The extent of Messala’s injuries is delineated by dialogue. “We have to go to work now.” “I don’t receive him with half a body.” And Messala’s last, long expiring breath is the most dramatic note of death in any film I have seen. “The race is not over…” All this leads up to the final death – the crucifixion of Jesus. The beams of the cross are thick with red. The blood runs down the post of the cross into the bloody pool of rain. The miraculous stream of salvation is a red one.

Ben Hur is a masterpiece of lighting. The sea battle makes the most of its models by floating them in sinisterly dark green water under a grim gray sky streaked with yellow on the horizon. We never get a close-up of the dying Jesus, but we get glimpses of the carnage in lightning flashes that light up nailed hands and – at the foot of the cross – a pool of water that reflects the cross and turns red with blood. Similarly, the miraculous curing of Miriam and Tirzah is seen in brief lightning flashes breaking the foreboding blackness. The most masterfully-lit sequence comes when the leprous Miriam and Tirzah appear at night in the inner courtyard – which is turned into a dark, ghostly place, alternately monochrome gray or black, the floor covered with skittering dead leaves – in sharp contrast with the bright, clean place it was before the fall of the roof tile. “That tile is still falling.” In ash-gray rags that make them look like mummies, mother and daughter reveal themselves to Esther, but they hide, blending with the haunting shadows, when Ben-Hur crosses the courtyard. When they reveal their diseased scars to Esther, their faces appear in patches of light as they rise out of the darkness. Similarly, dark lighting is crucial in the dungeon sequence. “East section – lower level.” A circle of torchlight illuminates the slick walls and the muddy floor. The stones themselves look diseased. “Lepers!”

Thematically, the film is a story of darkness and light. Clearly, Messala is the bad guy. Later, Ben-Hur will blame Rome for Messala’s submission to the dark side. The evil empire is to blame! But in the beginning Messala is clearly the villain. “You are evil.” “No, Judah, I am not evil.” Nevertheless, Messala’s betrayal and his treatment of Ben-Hur’s family breed a smoldering hatred and lust for vengeance within Ben-Hur. “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one.” He seeks an end to vengeance in the chariot race, but this competition’s carnage brings no closure. “It goes on, Judah. The race is not over.” Even Esther, the woman he loves, cannot keep him from thoughts of revenge. “It’s over.” “Over? Over?” The tight, pained tone with which Heston intones this simple repetition marks one of his best moments in the film. Later, when there seems to be no hope, Esther delivers the clincher that adds an eerie tone to the film: “Hate is turning you to stone. It’s as though you had become Messala!”

I saw Ben-Hur for the first time at the Orpheum in San Francisco in 1960. I was eight years old. For me, it was that youthful cinematic experience that impresses itself indelibly on your memory. (For later generations, that memorable film might be Star Wars, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Jurassic Park, Titanic, or The Lord of the Rings.) I saw it again when it was re-released in 1969. During my college years, my younger brother and I made a hobby out of seeing it wherever we could find it playing. Notably, we saw it on the huge screen at the Castro in San Francisco. My best viewing, however, was on a massive screen at the Wang in Boston. My wife and I sat in the balcony and felt the floor shuddering during the chariot race. Now, for the most part, your only option is a DVD, but I encourage you to check it out. Before its 50th year is over, pop Ben-Hur in the DVD player, watch the whole thing, or check out some of its most dramatic moments. If you’ve got a big screen, put it to good use and watch that chariot race. “This is the day, Judah. It’s between us now.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen and the Big Question

The release of Watchmen on March 6th, 2009, came under the pressure of a big question. How faithful would the film be to the original source material: the graphic novel, drawn by Dave Gibbons, written by Alan Moore? I, however, had no way of answering that question when I saw the film that night. I had never read the graphic novel. I knew little about the plot. I went to see the movie mostly because I had seen what I considered a dazzling preview that promised a dazzling viewing experience and an interesting story.

What Watchmen delivers is an unconventional story about superheroes with its thrills and visual dazzle spread thinly throughout a film that feels drawn out and bogged down by … something. There is no greatness here, but once I settled into the film’s leisurely pace and perhaps excessive development of the characters, I found many bits and pieces to be enjoyable.

Playing with the typical trappings of the superhero genre, here the masked crusaders are quirky characters with some hidden issues, but they all do cool things. Working for the Nixon administration, the crass and wayward Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been responsible for massacre, murder (the assassination of John F. Kennedy?), and attempted rape – but he’s ruthless with bad guys and Commies. His Commie-disintegrating buddy is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), turned into the Not-So-Jolly Blue Giant by a nuclear experiment gone wrong, and he can fly off to Mars where he’s building a big spiky thing and where he plans to live far away from humans and their foibles. The super-intelligent Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has retired from superheroing in the guise of successful business mogul Adrian Veidt; but don’t let that slender stature and refined voice fool you, because Adrian has hatched a cataclysmic plot to end the Cold War and imminent nuclear warfare between Nixon’s America and the U.S.S.R.. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) is a mild-mannered recluse, but he’s got a cool flying machine that looks like an owl’s eyes and he is brought out of seclusion by Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who helps him get it up whilst getting back to good-deed-doing. She’s cool because she wears a form-fitting black and yellow latex garment, and it looks awesome when she whips her long straight hair around in slow-mo. But truly the most awesome and interesting character is Rorschach – a super sleuth dressed in vintage film noir trench coat and trilby – whose mask is an ever-shifting Rorschach inkblot. He provides the backbone of the plot as he investigates the death of the Comedian.

My favorite parts in the film, however, are the flashbacks, starting with a recap of what happened to the Minutemen – the costumed hero team that preceded the Watchmen. In my very favorite scene in the whole movie, it’s V-J Day at Times Square. You can see servicemen and women celebrating, but it’s the sexy, black-leather-clad Silhouette, whose sexual preference is for women, who gives the white-uniformed nurse a passionate kiss in a tremendous parody of the famous photograph.

In another parody, reminiscent of 50s sci-fi films about the science experiment gone wrong, we learn of Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s touching love affair with fellow physicist Janey Slater and his transformation into Dr. Manhattan – bald, blue, atomic, and very naked – his manhood sometimes sheathed in a codpiece, sometimes left hanging.

Finally, in the film’s most gripping flashbacks, the incarcerated Rorschach, revealed as the spindly Walter Kovacs, is asked by the prison’s doctor to interpret inkblots. For each blot he assigns an innocuous label, but the blots actually elicit graphic memories of a disturbed, bullied little boy who turns into a crusader for justice who deals cruelly with the psychotic murderer of a little girl.

Beyond the interesting characterizations, the clever and dramatic flashbacks, and the gripping performance of Jackie Earle Haley, the film fails to deliver enough wows for its extensive length. As I said in my opening paragraph, I felt that the film was bogged down by … something, and I think that “something” involves the demands on a filmmaker to be religiously faithful to the source material, which seems to be developing into a constraining trend.

Peter Jackson went to great lengths (pun intended) to be faithful to The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, to the extent of creating a trilogy of films that lasts nearly ten hours. Even so, fans of the novel complained that Jackson had left parts out. Many fans were pleased. I liked the films, but I would have preferred a single film – a three-to-four-hour epic covering the whole story – a single creative entity. My wife, who has read the novel (and I do not exaggerate) at least twenty times, is shocked by my wish for a single film that would have left out so many of her favorite parts. Ah, there’s the rub! She’s the fangirl who wants the strictly faithful film version of the novel. I’m the film lover ever searching for that quintessential cinematic experience, and even if it’s a novel I love, and I loved The Lord of the Rings, I will give up fidelity to source material for drama and the movie-viewing experience.

I don’t think it’s the job of a filmmaker to make a moving photocopy of the source material. Often, trying to remain religiously faithful to the source takes away from the film as an entity. Often, radical straying from the source material creates a classic. Read The Wizard of Oz and you will experience an entirely different world than the one depicted in the film. The film borrows the basic elements of the plot but leaves out most of what happens in the book. I love the book, but the film is a classic, a different experience entirely but a perfect entity. The novel The Bridge on the River Kwai has a very different ending, but the film’s radically altered ending is much more suspenseful. I love the book; but I love the film’s ending. In both examples, the filmmakers made creative choices for the sake of composition and drama.

My plea to fanboys and fangirls everywhere is to allow filmmakers creative freedom when it comes to the next adaptation of a much-loved novel, novel series, comic, or graphic novel. Let filmmakers take the source material they have acquired and let them express their vision.

Never having read Watchmen, I can’t evaluate the effectiveness of the film as a faithful adaptation, so I consulted various fanboys and one fangirl at the high school where I teach and got the following comments:

As a tribute to the graphic novel, it is excellent. But as an adaptation, it has flaws. The ending is changed and that changes the tone of the story.

This was the best adaptation possible for a movie version of Watchmen. What annoyed me, however, was that they tripled the gore and extended the sex scenes – and that seemed to be done to get the R-rating.

There is a lot of stuff going on in the book that is left out of the movie, but the essential message is preserved.

Watching the film, I sometimes wished I hadn’t read the book, because the faithful adaptation sort of distracted me and pulled me out of the film into my memory of the novel.

I have great praise for how the cinematography followed the comic book frames.

My favorite part is the opening credits showing the history of the Minutemen to the tune of Bob Dylan’s song.

My favorite scenes were the ones with Rorschach, and the film does the best with him as far as the adaptation: everything he is in the graphic novel is captured in the film. One of my favorite moments in the film is Rorschach’s monologue as he approaches the Comedian’s grave.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Garden of Evil (1954)

I have always been a big fan of the darker, more cynical and morally ambiguous Westerns of the 1950s: themes of lust, greed, vengeance, and murder played out against a sprawling CinemaScope panorama filmed in rich Technicolor. We often think of the 60s as the decade that saw the emergence of the Western anti-hero, but Westerns of the 1950s had already begun to depict the hard-bitten soldier of fortune with the dark past – always ready for a drink, a woman, or a fast buck, ever searching for something but never quite knowing what. Of this genre, one of my favorites is the lesser known Garden of Evil, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper.

Garden of Evil starts quickly. A broken-down steamer anchors near a godforsaken Mexican town and lets off three gold-seeking Americans: Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), and Luke Daly (Cameron Mitchell), and an American woman bursts into the saloon where they’re killing time. She’s Leah Fuller (played by earthy Susan Hayward), she’s dressed in a sweat-soaked blouse, and she’s looking for some men to help her save her husband who is trapped in a gold mine way back in the hinterland where no smart Mexican will go because of the Apaches – and it happens to be the “Moon of the White Man,” which to the Apaches means open season on pale faces. But the offer of two thousand dollars a man and Leah’s skimpy blouse are all that’s needed to entice our three soldiers of fortune, as well as a burly Mexican named Vicente (Victor Emmanuel Mendoza), to accompany Mrs. Fuller on the journey. It’s a simple story. They set off across a vast wilderness, fight over Leah Fuller, rescue Leah’s husband, succumb to the allure of gold, and then try to make it back to civilization, pursued and picked off one by one by the Apaches.

I like how the first third of the film turns the story into a perilous journey. We first see the five riders heading up a mountain side in an awesome location shot in Mexico; then cut to a matte shot of the forbidding mountains that must be crossed, and later cut to another matte shot of the narrow pass hugging an improbably sheer cliff. At one point they have to jump their horses over a gap in the ledge; gutsy Leah leads the way. When Vicente brings up the rear, his horse lands with a jolt that sends a frying pan flying out of his saddlebag. Clattering with every bounce, the pan tumbles down the slope, down and down, for a very long time, a wonderful establishment of the height of the pass. From this point on, no more mattes are needed as the riders cover a raw landscape, shot near Mount Paricutin in Mexico, of sprawling plains leading into a volcanic wasteland of jumbled lava rock piles and barren cinder cones, a majestically dark setting for a story about dark desires. Other location shots are taken in lush palm groves, suggesting the garden of the title. Along the way, it seems clear that the sardonic gambling man Fiske is after gold, and it’s clear what Daly wants when he forces himself on Leah but gets beaten into a weeping baby by Hooker. It’s unclear exactly what Hooker is after.

The pace slows down and the plot gets muddled in the film’s middle third when our adventurers rescue John Fuller (Hugh Marlowe) from the mine. Fuller seems to think Leah only came back for the gold. Meanwhile, greed rears its ugly head as Daly and Vicente grovel for nuggets. Fiske offers himself to Leah but gets a royal rebuff. “You’re nothing. Just nothing.” Wow! What a woman! Everybody wants something; Fuller just wants everyone to get lost and leave him with the mine. An elaborate ruse is concocted to mislead the Indians into thinking that the white men haven’t left yet, only to be negated when Hooker knocks Leah out, refusing to let her stay behind. Ah, now we know what he wants!

But the final chapter builds suspense as the Indians are revealed to us little by little. First, Hooker finds a feather in the cinders – an aesthetically framed shot. He also sees the ubiquitous smoke signal on the distant ridge. Later, during the return journey, just one Indian looks up over a rock; still later, Indians on a cliff blend with the color of the rock. Finally, in a stunning extreme long shot, we see Hooker, Fiske, and Leah riding across a wide plain as a band of Indians rides into the center of the frame, and another band follows them in the extreme distance. In the next shot, another extreme long, the two bands of Indians combine into a horde. During these shots, and throughout the film, a superbly dark and brooding Bernard Herrmann score intensifies the thrills, even adding a gripping tone to transitional shots of the characters simply riding from place to place. In fact, the entire film is supported by Herrmann’s eerie themes, some of them suggestive of threads later incorporated in his score for Vertigo (1958), another film about lust and dark motives.

I won’t be too specific about the final stand against the Indians, but you know it takes place on that high pass so wonderfully established by the falling frying pan and that a number of Indians will take the same plunge. Of course, Hooker ends up with Leah. Of course, the sun sets in the west, but it’s a struggling sun throttled by dark clouds over a merciless landscape that truly holds a garden of evil.

“If the earth were made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jane at the Movies

My twenty-one-year-old daughter, Jane, has Down syndrome, and for most of those twenty-one years, the writer in me has tried to imagine and describe in words how she perceives the world. Jane knows she is different; she’s intelligent enough to know what she is missing in life. Caught between the world of her special needs school friends and the “normal” world she must negotiate, I believe she feels like an alien from another planet.

On her planet, time moves more slowly. Here on Earth, everything happens too fast; people talk too fast. The speed of our world taxes her brain. On her planet, gravity is less forceful. Here, by the end of the day, gravity weighs on her poor muscle tone to the point of exhaustion. Also, on her planet, people are built differently. With a short stature and a low metabolism that leads to being overweight, Jane has trouble finding Earthling clothing that will fit her short stature. On her planet, everything happens the same way every day; but the hectic and capricious nature of our modern world causes Jane consternation when she has to alter her routine.

But Jane enjoys some of Earth’s advantages. Earth has Disneyland in Anaheim, Jane’s favorite place in the world. Earth has swimming pools that provide a liberating anti-gravity environment. Earth has a very curious pop culture with idols like Aaron Carter, Hilary Duff, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, Jane’s most admired people. Most importantly, Earth has movie theaters.

When my wife and I showed Jane our VHS copy of Bambi when she was very young and could hardly speak, bowl of popcorn in her lap, she watched the movie enraptured and then made the hearing-impaired sign for “more” and we played it again. After she was old enough to go to the movies, Jane and I developed a weekend ritual of going out to lunch on Sunday and then going to a movie.

This took me to all sorts of films that I would have definitely skipped otherwise, such as The Lizzie Maguire Movie and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium – but she also took me to see family movies such as The Rookie and The Astronaut Farmer, which I really enjoyed. Also, without Jane, there’s a good chance I may never have seen The Emperor’s New Groove – which we thought was hilarious and led to at least three in-theater viewings, and I have to admit that I only went to see August Rush because of Jane – but I really enjoyed it despite the schmaltz and Robin Williams.

Whenever Jane watches a movie, she follows it intently, never taking her eyes off the screen. Face reflecting the light of the image, eyes wide, she focuses on the dialogue that goes too fast for her to follow completely, and it’s very touching to see her eyes go especially wide for scenes of wonder – and to see them grow kind of misty during the touching scenes that she loves.

What touches her? She loves movies about little lost kids – she really liked Martian Child and Autumn Rush for that reason. She loves all versions of Oliver Twist, from the Roman Polanski film to the Disney animated film Oliver and Company. She loves movies about dogs. She loves movies about teens in love. She loves any movie with happy teenaged girls in happy families.

She’s a sucker for sports movies of all kinds, and she totally loves the unbelievable come-from-behind dramatic victory with the loud fanfare and the embarrassing reaction shots of teary-eyed coaches and cheering fans – so this has taken me to see Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Glory Road, Pride, The Longshots – all very enjoyable movies. Now that she is older, Jane doesn’t mind if she sees the likes of High School Musical 3 alone while I abandon her to see another movie. But I am glad that because of her I have seen Akeelah and the Bee and other movies I would have missed otherwise.

Because she needs to watch a movie multiple times to fully catch all the dialogue, Jane will see her favorite movies three times in a theater, and then she will add to her vast DVD/VHS collection. She gets the most out of her purchases – watching her movies many times over. Her tastes are eclectic and range from the facile to the sophisticated. Thus, her movie library contains everything from John Tucker Must Die and High School Musical to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, all six Star Wars films (little Anakin is another waif she loves), Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Finding Neverland, and The Crucible (because it has Winona Ryder in it).

Without beating around the bush, I hereby proclaim that Jane’s pick for the best film of 2008 is High School Musical 3, a film that went unseen by most movie bloggers. For the sake of research, I watched the original High School Musical, and I happened to slip in and see the grand finale in HSM3 when I came to pick her up one afternoon. I can see why Jane likes these films. They are pure, feel-good fantasy in which beautiful teens get along with each other and dance and sing in a high school world safe from ostracism and violence. If only the world could be like High School Musical. Well, maybe not quite like it.

Her second favorite film of the year was Twilight. She hasn’t followed the Twilight craze, but she went with me on my encouragement. She liked the romance – the teenage point of view; she likes any story that takes place in a high school, whether the story involves musical numbers or vampires – elements that might be anathema to other viewers. Jane also goes to movies based on her familiarity with the performers. In this case, she and I were more in the know about Kristen Stewart’s filmography, having seen Stewart as a young teen in Catch That Kid. She saw Indiana Jones and Eagle Eye because of Shia LeBeouf. We saw The Longshots because of Keke Palmer, star of Akeelah and the Bee.

After initial avoidance of it, she went to see The Dark Knight. I bet she was tense throughout the whole movie. Asked if she liked Heath Ledger, she said, “No. I liked Christian Bale.” I’m sure Ledger’s Joker was too scary for her. With equal courage – only kidding – Jane saw Mamma Mia two or three times. That’s one I was happy to let her see alone.

Along with millions of other viewers – but not with us – Jane contributed to the success of Beverly Hills Chihuahua – though she felt a little disappointed when this Chihuahua film did not include what the preview seemed to promise – huge production numbers including hundreds of computer-animated Chihuahuas. That was faulty advertising for sure! Together last year, we saw everything from The Spiderwick Chronicles and Step Up 2 to Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.

We saw Australia together on Thanksgiving Day. I knew it was long, but there was no other movie of equal length she wanted to see at the same time, so I coaxed her into seeing it with me. I was worried, but she liked it. The silliness, the exaggerated nature of it, the melodramatic romance, and the schmaltzy happy ending were perfect for Jane. The character of Nullah was right up her alley – an aboriginal Oliver Twist.

Seeing WALL-E together was an interesting experience. Since Jane loves movies about cute lost-and-lonely waifs, I thought WALL-E would be a winner. But for a girl with Down syndrome, the latter half of the film is a nightmare. It’s too fast; there’s too much going on at the same time. I, too, found it tough to follow – all those robots whizzing around, all those fast cuts – and I have only come to enjoy the second half after multiple viewings. When Jane re-watched WALL-E on DVD and focused on the expressiveness of that charming little Load Lifter, she liked it a lot more.

Finally, we saw Marley and Me together. It was Jane’s second time. I enjoyed the film – though I was dry-eyed during the film’s tragic ending. I’m not a dog lover. Our family owns a dog, but he would have to go if he was as demonic as Marley. Jane, however, got emotional; she has a big soft spot in her heart for doggies – and she never saw a dog movie she didn’t like.

This year is stacking up slowly for movies that interest Jane – though she enjoyed Confessions of a Shopaholic, and she has Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince to look forward to. I’m growing tired of the franchise, but I’ll see it with Jane, and halfway through the film, I’ll look over and see her awestruck expression washed with the light of that magical screen.