Wednesday, June 24, 2009

ÜberTransformers: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I will say next to nothing here regarding this summer blockbuster’s minimal plot nor about the expedient acting talents of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, and I suppose it would be too obvious to say that the film is (to take a tip from Megan Fox who loves to create big words by adding the prefix über) full of überaction, überexplosions, überCGI, and übernoisy sound effects that make you feel like you’re being hammered on an anvil, and that the action goes on too long and the pervading references to testicles (including the shot of one Decepticon’s clanking, iron balls) grow exceedingly tedious, so I will be brief here and mercifully positive by saying that I enjoyed some of the images, especially in the final battle in the Egyptian desert.

Sorry. This is not an image from the desert battle, but I just had to put it in.

Once again, this is not in the battle sequence, but she is awesome. She is a Decepticon in college co-ed's skimpy clothing, and when she transforms, boy does she transform.

Okay, now. Here we are in the desert. This is the Devastator. He's one hell of a mean bot that sucks things up like a vacuum cleaner. Most of the film is so overloaded with CGI images entangled in battle that you get dizzy and confused, and you find it hard to distinguish the good bots from the bad bots, so when the battle is more spread out in the desert, and you get some nice panoramic shots as above, I found it a much more enjoyable viewing experience.

There's a lot of running in this movie.

There's a lot of running in this movie.

This is just awesome. There are lots of explosions in this film. Michael Bay does explosions well.

This is not an image from the battle, but I loved it for its refreshing minimalism. There is very little minimalism in this film.

Can you guess the purpose of this shot?

Still more running here, but I'm not being facetious when I say that in the desert battle sequence there is some artful attention paid to the composition of images, the extreme long shots, and the colors employed in the mise-en-scène, and a little artistry with your basic CGI overload always makes me überexcited.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

ÜberFox: “Clearly not ugly”

Just in case you’re dying to know more about Megan Fox, Shia La Beouf’s co-star in Transformers (2007) and this summer’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, there is an edifying interview with her in the 6/19/09 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

When asked how she felt about being cast as a sex object, dressed in a stars-and-stripes bikini at the age of 15, Megan remarked that she “wasn’t a feminist yet.” We’re glad you’re a feminist now, Megan. When asked if she considered herself good-looking, she responded, “I’m clearly not ugly.” Well put, Meg.

Asked if she could rise from her sex symbol status to deliver a transforming (sorry) performance such as Charlize Theron’s in Monster, she replied, “I think that I’m so psychotic and so mentally ill that if I could tap into it I could do something really interesting.” Uh, like what? I mean, thanks for sharing.

For me, the biggest revelation comes when Megan declares, “I’m smart and … I can go toe-to-toe with anybody in a conversation.” I guess that means using big words like “übersexual,” “überconfidence,” and – here’s my favorite – “überexcited.” Amazing vocabulary, Megan!

Does her tattoo in the photograph below suggest that she’s read King Lear? I'm impressed merely by the possibility.

Was she wishing she had worn her sports bra to film the scene below?

Could Megan Fox do "something really interesting"?

Who knows? Anyway, thanks for sharing, Megan.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Set in the West: A Road Trip Preview

I love Westerns, and I love the West. Growing up in California, my family vacations took me on road trips to the great National Parks west of the Mississippi River. In later years my younger brother and I went camping or backpacking in the Sierra Nevada whenever we had the chance. A cross-country drive with my wife included a requisite stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Last summer, I did a road trip starting from Billings, Montana, taking in the Little Bighorn again so I could shoot video for a documentary for my history class, and continuing on to Yellowstone National Park. (Below is the prologue to this documentary.)

This July, I will fly back to Billings, Montana, to start another western road trip. Day One: Back to the Little Bighorn to take some footage in a different light; down to the site of the Battle of the Rosebud, the precursor to the Little Bighorn that turned back General Crook's column on June 17, 1876. Day Two: Parallel the Black Hills to the east; Pine Ridge Reservation and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre south of the Badlands; into Nebraska to Fort Robinson where Crazy Horse was killed. Day Three: From Scottsbluff, Nebraska, along the Oregon Trail; Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock, Register Rock, Fort Laramie. Day Four: Independence Rock; Devil's Gate; back to Montana; stop at the site of Reno's attack west of the Little Bighorn River. In late July, I will post my Log of a Road Trip along with a video of sites of historical events depicted in Western films. What follows here is an introduction to history and filmography related to those events.

The area between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming has always been my favorite area historically. This was the sacred hunting ground of the Lakota and other plains tribes, and it was the location of the final conflicts between the whites and the plains Indians in the latter part of the 1880s, the history encompassed in Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Within this area, or nearby, Custer bit the dust, Crazy Horse was killed, and the last tragic Indian “battle” took place at Wounded Knee. This is my spirit land, too, and when I’m there, I travel back in time to that period of history, and I visualize scenes from films that depict those events and locations.

Alas, there is no great theatrical film about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876. Films like They Died With Their Boots On (1942) nurtured the Custer legend but the battle scene has little basis in fact; Custer’s men don’t even attack a village. Here Custer (Flynn) is a martyr sent in Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade fashion to certain death. Appealing to World War II era emotions, Custer's final departure from wife Libby (Olivia de Haviland) is a beautifully shot scene made achingly poignant by an eloquent Max Steiner theme. This Errol Flynn feature is a fun entertainment – and I like how it established Custer’s regimental tune Garry Owen as the iconic anthem for a movie of this kind – but the oak trees and golden hills of southern California are a poor match for the cottonwoods, coulees, and ridges of the Little Bighorn Valley.

In Little Big Man (1970) the Custer’s Last Stand depiction is more accurate in regards to terrain, and it captures some of the truth and the spirit of the event from the Indian point of view; otherwise, it is much more representational than historically accurate. Closest to the historical truth, and filmed at a location near the real battle site, are the Little Bighorn battle sequences in the TV mini-series Son of the Morning Star (1991) (image below), with Native Americans playing the parts of the Lakota and Cheyenne. I love the meticulously accurate details: officers wearing straw boaters; Springfield rifles jamming; soldiers committing suicide in fear of torture; Indians stripping the dead bodies and taking the soldiers' accoutrements. To date, this film includes the best depiction of the battle, the most historical portrayal of Custer, and the most authentic depictions of Crazy Horse and what his people were like.

You would think the more recent HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, released in 2007, and based on Dee Brown’s book, would be meticulous about historical accuracy, but the depiction of the Little Bighorn battle that comes in the beginning of the film is ludicrously fallacious in regards to terrain and how the battle occurred. With the recent publication of James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn: The Last Great Battle of the American West, an excellent piece of non-fiction incorporating all the latest research that radically revises what occurred on the ridges above the Little Bighorn River, the time has come for a great director to undertake the production of a theatrical film about this crucial event in the history of the Lakota and their allies.

A bit of a digression here to say that in my opinion Little Big Man incorporates the best portrayal of Native Americans in a theatrical film. Through the eyes of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) – who knows the Cheyenne “for what they were” – the Cheyenne are, indeed, romanticized, but they are also presented as the very alien persons they must have appeared to white men. We see their peaceful, family-oriented culture, but we also see the realities of that culture. One reason for their nomadic nature is their mounting “garbage dump” and the accumulation of human and horse waste this seems to imply. The Cheyenne are shown doing the things they liked to do – stealing horses and engaging in conflict in order to win coup feathers. They acknowledge that it is “a good day to die.” Yes, Jack Crabb’s “grandfather,” Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), is as whimsical as he is wise, but he is also bloodthirsty and earthily graphic about his sexuality. As for Jack Crabb, he is a white man accepted as a Cheyenne, but he is just another one of the Indian guys, not a great white leader they look up to and follow.

Kevin Costner would like to think that Dances With Wolves (1990) is the definitive American theatrical portrayal of Native Americans. The film is lauded for employing Native Americans to play all the parts, speaking in Lakota with subtitles. (Back in 1970, Little Big Man also used Native American actors.) But the film idealizes and romanticizes the Lakota more than it paints a realistic picture of them. Yes, they kill cruel Pawnees and white cavalrymen, but the latter are portrayed as dirty, sleazy degenerates, and audiences don’t mind it when the Lakota kill them to save a white man. In the beefed-up video re-issue of the film, the Lakota come back from killing and scalping white buffalo hunters, but the hunters have laid waste to a herd that is crucial to Lakota survival. The film never shows that a Lakota might kill merely for the sake of counting coup; the Indians are never shown glorying in the fight for the sake of honor and prestige.

In contrast, Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is graphic in its depiction of Apache-perpetrated violence. Yes, the Apaches have reason to be bitter about white encroachment, but they kill innocent white women and children because it is part of their culture. When they kill an enemy, they assume the power of the dead victim. Ulzana’s Raid and Little Big Man are about Indians. Dances With Wolves is about Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) and his relationship with the Lakota. At first, Dunbar is initiated into the tribe and taught the language and customs of the culture. But very soon he assumes the role of the paternalistic white man who conveniently finds a captive white woman he can marry. (Jack Crabb has four Cheyenne wives at one time.) Wind In His Hair, played by Rodney A. Grant, is the film's most realistic Lakota character. His first appearance is awesome – the wind playing through his long hair and the decorations hanging from it. He is wild, elusive, and alien, but he looks up to Dunbar and he cries out in pain when Dunbar must leave the tribe. Losing his white friend is portrayed as the greatest loss in his life.

I much prefer Rodney A. Grant’s portrayal of Crazy Horse in Son of the Morning Star. He is truly the strange man of the Oglala. He takes no scalps. He refuses to adopt white culture (though he is not averse to carrying a Winchester). Without mercy, he kills white gold miners encroaching upon the Black Hills. His portrayal of Crazy Horse comes the closest to the truest portrayal of a Native American living in the late 1800s.

Southeast of the Little Bighorn, in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, is Camp or Fort Robinson where the great Oglala leader Teshunka Witko (Crazy Horse) died. On September 5, 1877, he came to the fort expecting to be given his own reservation. Instead, he was arrested. Resisting, Crazy Horse was held by an Indian named Little Big Man and stabbed by a white soldier with a bayonet. Another version of the story says he was accidentally stabbed by Little Big Man. Crazy Horse died that night. The final scene in Son of the Morning Star is a dramatic depiction of the mortal wounding of Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse lies dying in the dust, singing his death song, while onlookers form a circle around him - the symbolic hoop of the Lakota nation that has been tragically broken.

Another movie made for TV, Crazy Horse (1996), starring Michael Greyeyes in the title role, is another historically accurate account of the famous Indian leader’s life, and it includes authentic depictions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Crazy Horse’s death. Camp Robinson is also the place where, on January 9, 1879, Cheyenne prisoners were shot down while trying to resist their return to the reservation, an event depicted in John Ford’s last Western: Cheyenne Autumn (1964) (below). Contradictory in mood and over-long, the film still displays John Ford's inimitable talent for grand visuals. Starring Richard Widmark and Patrick Wayne as cavalry officers, and Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban as Cheyenne leaders, Cheyenne Autumn serves as a tragic concluding chapter to the famous director's cavalry films.

Not far from Fort Robinson, on Pine Ridge Reservation, is the site to the Wounded Knee Massacre. Apprehended after leaving their reservation at Standing Rock following the death of Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, approximately 350 Minneconjou men, women, and children were escorted to a camp near Wounded Knee Creek and surrounded by 470 members of the 7th Cavalry of Custer fame. On the morning of December 29, 1890, as soldiers were disarming the Indians, a struggle over one man’s rifle resulted in an accidental gunshot that started the indiscriminate slaughter of over 200 Minneconjou by Custer’s old regiment.

For a long time, films have shied away from depicting this shameful episode in American history. As far as I know, the first brief depiction of the massacre came in Hidalgo (2004), with Viggo Mortensen, but what we see is small-scale and merely representational. The HBO movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (image above) focuses mainly on the last days of Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) and the experiences of Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a Lakota physician, but it also includes a depiction of the Wounded Knee massacre that redeems the film somewhat for its silly Little Bighorn depiction. Although shown as a fleeting flashback that robs it of gripping immediacy, the incident unfolds accurately. Most effective are shots of the aftermath: the bodies lying scattered in the snow and the frozen body of Chief Big Foot matched with the famous photograph. A more detailed, more visceral depiction of the Massacre at Wounded Knee comes in the sometimes silly but often gripping and mostly authentic TV mini-series Into the West (2005) (image below).

As for accuracy of the depiction of conditions and conflicts at Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, in the 1970s, Thunderheart (1992) (see below), directed by Michael Apted, starring Val Kilmer and Graham (Dances With Wolves) Greene, is a noble effort that dramatically employs the stark Badlands terrain in its climactic scene. Michael Apted’s 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala is a noteworthy depiction of those same conflicts and of the conviction of Leonard Peltier for the deaths of two FBI agents in a 1975 shootout.

The Oregon Trail, like the Battle of the Little Bighorn, deserves a worthy depiction in a theatrical film. During this 18-year migration, considered the largest human migration in recorded history, over 300,000 emigrants made the 2,000-mile journey from places like Independence, Missouri, to the Williamette Valley in Oregon. The silent film The Covered Wagon (1923) and Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, with John Wayne, capture the realism of terrain and hardships, but they did much to promote the factual inaccuracies adopted by subsequent Oregon Trail films: unwieldy Conestoga wagons pulled by horses or mules – not the light wagons drawn by oxen; families riding in the wagons – not walking alongside; hordes of Indians attacking fortified circles of wagons – not stealing in at night to take livestock.

The Way West (1967) (image above) gets the terrain right, but nothing much happens in this ponderous, disjointed adaptation of A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s novel, starring Kirk Douglas as a zealous, hard-driving senator with dreams of establishing his own city in Oregon and a tired Robert Mitchum as a washed-up wagonmaster. There are some historically accurate details that have stuck in my memory: the engraving of names on Independence Rock; the discarding of furniture as the wagons climb South Pass. But there isn’t much story here and, sadly, very little panoramic sweep, which is a shame for a film about the Oregon Trail. All I remember from my viewing of this film back when I was fifteen is a very young Sally Field playing a randy farm girl who gets pregnant by a married man, but when he gets hanged to prevent an Indian war, she marries a teenage boy with a crush on her and introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh.

How the West Was Won (1963) (image below), a silly film I rather enjoy, depicts how the Oregon Trail was not done: Conestoga wagons drawn by horses, a high-speed pursuit by Indians that seems to echo Stagecoach, and Debbie Reynolds leading sing-a-longs. The TV mini-series Into the West includes a depiction of families moving west on the Oregon Trail, but the film also packs in the California Gold Rush, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the Wounded Knee Massacre in typical made-for-television, family-saga fashion, and the Oregon Trail sequences have no memorable impact. Despite romanticism and historical inaccuracies, films like these can't help but make stunning use of spectacular western locations, and I'll watch any film set in the Old West simply for the exteriors.

On July 13, I go into the West. The sprawling country I drive through will make it easy for me to visualize the historical events that occurred here and the Westerns that depict those events. Upon my return I will post my Log of a Road Trip with a video, historical commentary, and further reflections on films set in this part of the West.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience: The Enigma of Chelsea

The Girlfriend Experience, Stephen Soderbergh’s artsy, 78-minute experiment in minimalism, starts with brief establishing shots of some of the locations in which non-chronological vignettes later piece together a brief look into the world of Chelsea, also called Christine, a high-class female escort played by Sasha Grey. These non-linearly interspersed bits and pieces present an impression of Chelsea’s lifestyle which entails many meetings with many people: her clients, her web site manager, a former client turned friend, a current client with whom she feels an emotional connection, her financial advisor, her confidante, her boyfriend, a sleazy sex critic. These meetings blur in our memory as they must blur in Chelsea’s memory. In the end, we get no clear picture of who Chelsea is, no clear indication of what might happen in her future. Her routine continues, and she remains an enigma.

But the enigma of Chelsea is what fascinates me about this film. What do we know about her? She’s twenty-on. She wanted to “get away” from her family. She wants to be regarded as a sophisticated escort, and she feels threatened by the competition. Chelsea engages in a risky business that is realistically only a short-term career, so she plans for the future. She is shrewd about her investments and she consults “books” that calculate her compatibility with other people. On her laptop, she records descriptions of her “dates,” but these toneless passages catalogue what she had for dinner and what she wore as blandly as she catalogues details of the sex she performed. They reveal nothing about her character.

She’s attractive, not radiantly beautiful, but she provides a service that most men want: she listens, she sympathizes, she soothes. But in the same way her clients never know if they’re dealing with the real Chelsea, and some would rather enjoy the illusion, we as viewers are never sure who the real Chelsea is. Soderbergh only provides suggestions. When the camera catches a guarded expression not directed toward a client, we see Chelsea’s boredom and skepticism. Is she looking for a way out? Also, along with the shots of her acting suave and sophisticated, there are plenty of shots that capture her youthful innocence. Sometimes she looks no older than a high school student. Perhaps she knows this, and for this reason she tries to appear sophisticated. She is tasteful about the fashions she wears. She shows interest in artwork.

Chelsea’s youth is part of the sadness. She is a young woman enmeshed in a risky, sordid business. A sleazy pimp proposes that she join a group of hookers traveling to Dubai to pleasure wealthy Arabs, and Chelsea is smart enough to see it as dangerous proposition. For the most part she is tough and cool, but when she is hurt, we see a young, vulnerable, scared little girl. At times her lifestyle seems glamorous; with certain clients she seems to be enjoying herself. But her appointments with clients with unusual sexual habits leave us feeling sad for Chelsea. We want her to escape her world and find the happiness she seeks with one particular client, but Soderbergh never supplies his film with a pat conclusion. How much does she even want to escape her situation? Perhaps she likes what she does. Ironically, she provides a compassionate service that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. She provides the girlfriend experience.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Holy Catholic Horror: Stigmata (1999)

After reading about the new horror movie, Drag Me To Hell, at
The Cooler, The Film Doctor, Getafilm, TRACTOR FACTS, and other blogs, I got to pondering horror subgenres that I love and hate. (As for Drag Me To Hell, I enjoyed aspects of it but I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it.) I don’t care for the teen slasher subgrenre, and torture horror leaves me cold. Having been brought up strict Catholic and educated by nuns who told hair-raising stories that haunted my sleep, such as the one about Satan appearing in human form but with cloven hooves, I am fascinated and chilled by what I’ll call holy Catholic horror – The Exorcist being the classic. (When I read The Exorcist, I broke out in a cold sweat at the slightest thump in the night.) More recently, I enjoyed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But my favorite holy Catholic horror movie is Rupert Wainwright’s Stigmata (1999).

While Stigmata is not as scary as The Exorcist, I love it for its slick cinematography, Patricia Arquette’s invested performance as the kinky Pittsburgh hairdresser-turned-saint, Frankie Paige, and the film’s striking use of imagery.

Like The Exorcist, it starts out in a foreign country. In this case, it’s a beautifully filmed sequence shot in a small town in Brazil where slow-motion images reveal the religious fervor that has arisen over the death of a priest, Father Almeida, and the subsequent miracles: the pigeons have returned (it’s never explained where they went) and the statue of Mary is bleeding real human blood – and it’s warm! This brings the Vatican’s miracle-investigating agent, Father Andrew Tiernan (Gabriel Byrne), to this location. Meanwhile, a tourist buys a rosary that happens to have belonged to Father Almeida and sends it as a souvenir to her daughter in Pittsburgh.

Cut to very rainy Pittsburgh where we meet Frankie Paige, the very non-religious hairdresser who goes to a loud punk rock nightclub decorated with chain-link fences, does shots of tequila, and enjoys a one-night stand. When she starts manifesting the stigmatic wounds, Father Tiernan is sent to investigate, and he eventually reveals a plot to suppress an Aramaic scroll translated by Almeida – a gospel in Jesus’s own words that is a big threat to the Catholic Church (sound familiar?) because it suggests that Jesus didn’t encourage organized religion. Holy cover-up! And who better to lead the cover-up than the icy Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Houseman, who might go so far as to kill Frankie, the innocent messenger possessed by Almeida’s angry ghost. Ironically, Almeida has chosen a sinner to manifest the sacred stigmata usually suffered by someone who is deeply religious.

Granted, with all the whippings and bloody wounds inflicted upon Frankie, the film borders on the sadomasochistic. Granted, too, the film borrows elements of The Exorcist that have become clichés: the possessed person, eyes rolling into the back of the head, spouting profanities in a deep demonic voice; the levitating bed; the invisible force throwing priests around the room. But the cinematography and the stunning imagery it captures make up for any shortcomings.

My favorite moment comes at the end of the Brazilian sequence. We see Almeida in his coffin; a mirage of swirling blood begins to cover his face. The voiceover reciting the “Hail, Mary” introduces the irreverently raucous song "Mary Mary," by Chumbawamba. no virgin me, for I have sinned. i sold my soul for sex and gin. go call a priest, all meek and mild. and tell him "mary is no more a child" Then we shift to fast-cut aerial shots of the city and Frankie Paige strutting down the mean streets of Pittsburgh intercut with shots of lurid religious artwork.

Throughout the film, the camera plays with the recurrent images of water (salvation) – shots of falling water droplets played in reverse and frequent shots of rain; candles (the light of God) – ranks of candles in the church and Frankie’s apartment; flowers (sanctity) – dense displays of flowers in a market where Frankie suffers the piercing of her feet; fire (sin) - the flames roiling around Frankie's bed; and pigeons and doves (the Holy Spirit) – the dove flapping frantically in Frankie’s apartment just before she gets the wounds to her wrists. Religious imagery abounds, especially in the fast-cut montages paralleling the tortured Frankie with images of the crucified Jesus.

Besides acknowledging the film's visual excitement, you could call Stigmata a deeply religious film. The Catholic Church might call it something else entirely. Actually, back in the 60s, the Catholic Legion of Decency, dedicated to "the purification of the cinema," would call it "condemned." Ah, the movies I love to see are such a rebellion against my upbringing!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

My Favorite Movie Period and Place

Over at Getafilm Daniel Getahun has initiated a fun meme to
name your favorite movie period and place, and, I thought, this is right up my alley because I love films that have a strong sense of place with meticulous art direction that takes you back in time or into the future or into a world that has never existed.

I realized it would be very hard to pick just one place, but I wanted to pick just one. Otherwise I’d have to list just about all the movies I love. In addition, I can think of all sorts of places in films that are wonderfully evoked, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to spend much time there. The Five Points section of old New York is vividly represented in Gangs of New York, but I don’t think I’d come out of there alive.

Anyway, here it is –

Early 1900s; the Ludlow Ranch, Montana, from Legends of the Fall (1994)

When I first saw this film, the opening scenes of the three Ludlow brothers, Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Tristan (Brad Pitt), and Samuel (Henry Thomas), running through the woods and pretending to be Indians in the wilderness near the log ranch built by their father, William Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), really choked me up. It reminded me of family camping vacations in the great National Parks of the West and of my two brothers and me running through the woods, pretending to be Indians.

Because of those vacations and my deep love of Westerns, the Ludlow ranch and the land around it struck me as the most idyllic place to live: in that huge log house, next to that river, with those massive mountains rearing up in the distance. Besides being beautiful, this is a place that is haunted by my favorite episodes in American history. Here plains tribes like the Cheyenne and Lakota lived a life guided by ritual. This was their spirit land that they fought for against the encroaching whites. (The novella by Jim Harrison mentions that Ludlow despised Custer and celebrated when he learned that Custer had been killed at the Little Bighorn.) “Hokahey!” William Ludlow fought to allow the Indians to keep their land. When that failed, he escaped the madness and built this sanctuary far from the negative effects of civilization.

This place is so lucidly depicted that it sucks you in. I can smell the grass and the wood smoke and the horses. The huge house is a real place. I love the dining room where the brothers throw dinner rolls at each other. The meat looks delicious. I love the living room where William reads Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by the fireplace. Who wouldn’t want to have Anthony Hopkins as a father? Ludlow is English; so was my father, and he looked somewhat like Anthony Hopkins and combed his hair exactly like Hopkins does in the film.

I love the bedrooms. You can smell the wood and the fresh linens. I’d love to share one of those rooms with Julia Ormond. Outside, I’d love the play games and have picnics in the grass and shoot Winchesters at targets and practice roping cows and get lassoed by Julia Ormond.

Some settings are flat and merely representational. This place has depth. The magnificent cinematography of John Toll makes the mountains feel so close. James Horner’s musical score suggests the epic nature of this story and place. The ranch and the land around it constitute a very real place where I would love to live.

What’s your favorite little world in a movie? Post a comment here or post on your blog and link to Getafilm - or both.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Imagery of Up

Once again, Disney/Pixar’s new film, Up, combines humor, poignancy, adventure, brilliant artwork, and important themes.

In one scene, Carl Fredricksen ( voice by Ed Asner), accompanied by the intrepid but innocent Wilderness Explorer, Russell ( voice by Jordan Nagai), drift into a very frightening lightning storm, and as the house is rocked by the tempest, Carl runs around trying to save his possessions from being smashed – his old furniture and knick-knacks that remind him of his marriage to his soul-mate, Ellie. The scene is masterfully painted, as every scene is in this new computer-animated feature. Most importantly, the scene points out that Carl needs to let go of the past or he will miss the wonder of the days he has left in the present. As in the image above, his old ways are constantly threatened.

The theme of letting go of the past develops toward its climax when Carl throws out all his possessions in order to lighten the load so that he can fly to the rescue of a boy named Russell, a rare giant bird, and Dug, a faithful dog, equipped with a collar that allows him to articulate exactly the kinds of things you would expect from a dog, so that he can deliver them from the clutches of the maniacal explorer Charles Muntz.

But the film's major strength is its imagery. In the same way the 2008 hit, WALL-E, uses pictures to establish the world and character of WALL-E, Up starts with a nearly dialogue-free episode in which little Carl, an adventurous boy brought up on the travel documentaries of explorer Charles Muntz (voice by Christopher Plummer), meets Ellie, an energetic little tomboy who also has a passion for adventure. Then, without dialogue, a montage takes us through Carl and Ellie’s relationship: they grow up, they get married, they dream of going on an adventure to South America, their dreams are thwarted by the realities of life, and Ellie’s health declines. Suddenly we come to abrupt silence. We see Carl sitting in a funeral home and we know Ellie has died. Now Carl is a recluse in his old wooden house, which he refuses to sell to developers who build a constricting canyon of skyscrapers around him. Wow! This is serious stuff.

Up is a very good film. It provides laugh-out-loud humor: Russell’s struggle erecting a tent is hilarious. It provides plenty of action, much of it including vertigo-inducing thrills in the air accompanied by an exuberant musical theme reminiscent of the Raiders of the Lost Ark March. Additional comedy derives from the antics of Dig, but Muntz’s pack of jabbering henchdogs grows wearisome rather quickly.

Up gives us things to think about and laugh at, but its most memorable strength is its imagery - as seen in the images below.

Carl’s little house symbolizes his unwillingness to let go of the past. New buildings create a constraining canyon around him. This is no place for a frail structure of wood.

The colorful balloons suggest life and a vibrant hope. Perhaps Carl can fulfill a dream once thwarted by life’s constant exigencies.

Plateau, rock spire, waterfall, and jungle constitute a minimalist little world patterned closely after Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. In the novel, the explorers find it impossible to scale the sheer sides of the plateau. They must climb a solitary spire of rock at the top of which they fell a tree to create a bridge to the lost world.

We see Russell's innocence in contrast with Carl's glum Weltschmerz.

The floating house becomes a burden that Carl must bear. Russell originally came to Carl’s doorstep in order to earn his last merit badge by helping an elderly person cross the street or something.

He never thought he’d have to help an old man pull a floating house.

A variety of shapes and colors makes up this motley crew of heroes.

Whether you're growing up or growing old, life's a risky thing.