Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

It’s one of the hardest things in life. You’re in love with someone and everything seems to be going fine and then you find out that that someone doesn’t feel the same way about you. Am I speaking from experience? I’ll let you guess. Whatever the case, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer realistically addresses that scenario with a vibrant style and a light sense of humor by following the days of Tom Hansen’s relationship Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) – the girl of his dreams – or so he thinks. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic who believes strongly in fate – that there’s a special someone waiting for him. Summer, however, is more cynical about those issues and makes it clear from the beginning that she’d just like to enjoy the moment, have fun, and not complicate the relationship with serious commitments.

The film’s most clever device is not following the days of Tom and Summer’s relationship chronologically. The numerical counter that precedes many scenes might indicate a day at the sad ending of the relationship. Then the film jumps to earlier scenes. We are able to see where this twosome is going and what points clearly indicate the road to breakup, and the contrasts between earlier and later days provide much humor. We’ve seen plenty of films that cover the fateful meeting, the gradual falling in love, the passionate moments, the frictions, the breakup, the painful aftermath, but spreading out the scenes non-chronologically puts a fresh face on a hackneyed genre.

Other devices make (500) Days of Summer a fun film to watch. When Tom starts to feel like he’s losing Summer, he sees himself in various heavy foreign films – one reminiscent of Jules and Jim, another in imitation of The Seventh Seal. In bright contrast, after Tom has made love to Summer for the first time, he walks down the street and ends up in a sappy musical production number, complete with marching band and animated bird. After Tom breaks up with Summer, and she invites him to a party, we see him climbing the stairway to the apartment in split screen: one side is “expectations” and the other side is “reality.” When we see his romantic wishful thinking juxtaposed with images of the sad, hurtful truth, the result is touchingly realistic. In addition, when we learn that Tom saw The Graduate at a young age and misinterpreted the ending, taking it to mean that we are all destined to meet that right person for us, footage from the final scene plays an integral part in showing that perhaps Tom and Summer see life too differently to be together, and Simon & Garfunkel’s poignant "Bookends" accompanies a montage of flashbacks that juxtaposes moments of cheerful togetherness with moments of doubtful division. In fact, that montage is a simple concept that is brilliantly employed.

As for the performances of Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt, whatever it is that they do makes them very convincing as individuals, and very realistic as a couple, and we can more easily identify with their characters than if they had been played by glamorous, big-name performers. Gordon-Levitt convincingly displays his love for Summer, and we’ve seen plenty of montages following the brokenhearted lover, but Gordon-Levitt always makes it fun. I like when he goes to the liquor store in this bathrobe to buy snack cakes and whiskey and then shuffles down the sidewalk, expressing his bitterness to a passing couple. Meanwhile, gorgeous eyes are all that Deschanel needs to show us what attracts Tom to Summer, but she is also excellent at letting us see what she holds back from the relationship even while she seems to be enjoying it.

Although the film is chiefly light in tone, Tom learns a hard lesson. He sees how he misinterpreted Summer’s character and misread the signals she gave him, though, at times, he is somewhat misled as well. Perhaps the film should have ended before the hopeful scene in which he meets someone else. Is she the person meant for him? The scene seems fabricated to end the story on a happy note but possibly an ambiguity is intended. In the same way the final shots of Ben and Elaine in The Graduate suggest doubt, perhaps this scene suggests that Tom might once again fall in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same way about him. Tom might be one of those passionate romantics who need to have their hearts crushed repeatedly before they learn to be more careful. Am I speaking from experience? I’ll let you guess.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Days Three and Four

Day Three:

The plan is to see the sun rise at Chimney Rock, perhaps the most famous natural landmark along the Oregon Trail. Visible for miles around, it is the 120-foot spire atop a 205-foot base that told emigrants that the journey was almost half over but that the hardest part was yet to come. I get up at four in the morning. I drive eastward about thirty miles, turn off onto a dirt road, and drive to a dead end close to the eroded butte. As I drink my tea and eat my muffin, I wait for the sun to reveal this distinctive formation of Brule clay mixed with volcanic ash and Arikaree sandstone, but a patch of black clouds covers the East. The light changes, slowly revealing Chimney Rock. Distant horns announce the regularly running trains on the railroad paralleling the North Platte, but the Nebraskan sun never rises – or so it seems. I take ample shots of the rock in the changing light, but then it’s time to leave. As I drive back to the highway, I see bands of sunlight like an upside-down halo radiating downward from a sun I never see.

Like the emigrants of old, I head westward. Embarking on their 2000-mile trip, the emigrants acknowledged that they were “going to see the elephant” – something unusual. I’m certainly game to see the elephant. Once more I drive a Nebraskan 25 mph up Old Oregon Trail and I cross the pass through the bluffs of Scotts Bluff – just like one of the nearly 400,000 emigrants who followed this route west.

I cross into Wyoming. In a small town I see a trail-grubby cowboy on horseback leading two packhorses against the background of a gas station, a convenience store, and a plastic fast food joint.

Wyomingites are straightforward and serious about what they do. They are content with their lot in life, convinced that they live in God’s country. They have a sense of humor. A sign reads, “Welcome to the town of Fort Laramie, Wyoming. 250 good people. 6 sore heads.”

I stop at what turns out to be another highlight of the trip: Fort Laramie, a fort built to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail and as a place for the emigrants to restock supplies and prepare their wagons for the second half of the journey. Here the U.S. government made the Treaties of 1851 and 1869, designating the lands apportioned to the Indian tribes, the land that the U.S. would take away shortly after. Here 10,000 Indians of various tribes, the largest gathering of Indians in American history, camped out for the Treaty of 1851.

This is the kind of historical location that takes you back in time. Some of the old buildings – barracks and officers’ quarters – have been restored. Some buildings have been reproduced. Rooms are dressed like historical movie sets. An officer’s room – with improbably short bed covered with buffalo robe – is decorated with garments, books, maps, letters, and artifacts picked up on excursions into the territories: rocks, bones, antlers, arrowheads, fossils, feathers. This is the room of a Victorian romantic who pictured himself embarked upon a glorious adventure in the wild Western land of the savage red man.

I continue westward. I pass through the town of Guernsey, location of a National Guard base. I pass a training obstacle course (looks very hard) and a big field where a full company of guardsmen is camped out for training maneuvers. It looks like a set for a Michael Bay movie – maybe Transformers 3 - with the soldiers in desert fatigues – standing in a group next to tanks, helicopters, and rows of desert-camouflage pup tents.

Next stop, Register Rock, is a disappointment. The emigrants chiseled their names and years of travel in the soft sandstone, their graffiti still visible today. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who dug their names into the rock. Thanks to the locals, the register is up to date. When I hear an explosion from the direction of the National Guard training session, I wish I were back there on the Michael Bay set. Nearby, you can see the sandstone ruts cut by tens of thousands of wagons passing over the same ground.

After nearly three full days of driving, and getting up this morning at 4 a.m. for the Nebraskan sun no-show, I’m kind of exhausted. I look forward to checking into the Comfort Inn in Casper, Wyoming. As I wait for my room to be ready, I have a burger at the nearby iHop. I have no reason to be tired when I think of those westbound emigrants walking beside their wagons, day after day, in all kinds of weather. Actually, I could go for a 12-mile hike next to an oxen-drawn wagon, have biscuits and beans for supper, sleep out under the stars. What an epic journey!

There is no great sound film about the Oregon Trail worthy of that epic trek. A few shots from How the West Was Won (1962) capture the grueling yet majestic scope of the journey, but the film is fascist about the nearly religious righteousness of Anglo-American occupation of the land. It is briefly sympathetic to the displaced, deceived Native Americans, but their situation is lamented as a necessary misfortune of progress. The image of Richard Widmark as railroad tycoon Mike King, (perfect name for a railroad tycoon) standing on the front of a locomotive, is an image of the inevitable dominance of white technology, and the film ends with Cinerama vistas of skyscrapers, strip mining, and a confusion of cloverleaf freeways teeming with cars - progress!

My evening’s viewing in Casper is the complete idiocy of Spielberg’s Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). The story is a King Kong remix with elements of Hatari thrown in. The acting is horrid. Spielberg stages synchronous, overlapping dialogues with Julianne Moore rattling off facts to one character as Vince Vaughn spews worthless information to another character – a lame attempt at Robert Altmanesque realism. Meanwhile, everything is a gimmick. The dangling trailer routine is a mess of cliff-hanging gimmicks –with characters falling multiple times to the last handholds – that amounts to comedy.

My last night’s viewing, in Billings, is the lengthy climactic battle sequence from Saving Private Ryan. Ah, Steve. I tend to like his straightforward suspense efforts better than his “serious” films. For all its graphic, often hyperbolic violence, seriousness leaks out of this film through many holes. Too much of the action has the gung-ho we’ve-got-to-flank-‘em (the Germans never flank anybody) tone of 1950s boys playing war in the backyard. Then you’ve got American soldiers climbing on a tank getting ripped apart by a cannon, and we see obvious headless dummies. In addition, we have the German babbling about Mickey Mouse and that ridiculously teary-eyed scene in the cemetery. But the film certainly set the requisite look for all subsequent World War II films. The Band of Brothers series takes that same look – but those episodes get one up on Spielberg by being impeccably realistic and serious.

Day Four:

Last day on the road I drive 276 miles north from Casper, through Wyoming back to Montana. The snow-capped Bighorn Mountains rear to the west. This is the Powder River Country prized by the Oglala and their allies. I pass the site of the Fetterman Massacre, December 21, 1866. The Lakota called it the Battle of the Hundred in Hand. The elements of this story parallel Custer’s Last Stand on a smaller scale. A brash officer – Captain William Fetterman – went against orders, took 80 soldiers, and pursued a decoy led by Crazy Horse, got surrounded by thousands of Indians, and got killed along with all of his men. As with Custer, here is an example of the chauvinistic temerity of the Anglo-American: Fetterman had boasted, “With 80 good men I could rise through the whole Sioux nation.” Serendipity came back to bite him!

I make my sixth visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, but this is my first stop at Garryowen, a privately owned “town” on the site where Major Reno first attacked the Indian village and got turned back to the bluffs above the river. The town consists of a Conoco gas station, a Subway, a post office sharing space with the Subway, and a historical museum; this past winter the whole shebang was for sale on the Internet. Outside the museum lies a bronze plaque flanked by bronze busts of Custer and Sitting Bull. Here lies an unknown soldier killed in the beginning of the battle – or so we are told. A loudspeaker blares a continuous narrative of dubious scholarship explaining the battle and related events. The museum includes an interesting collection of vintage photographs, a lock of hair cut from Custer in death by Trooper Martin, and artifacts collected from the battlefield before it became a national monument.

At the Little Bighorn Battlefield Trading Post and Café, run by Crow Indians, I have my lunch. The cheerful Crow waitress recommends the special: beef stew and fry bread. The stew is more like a soup, but I relish the real meat and vegetables, and I’m not crazy about fried dough, but the fry bread is light and not greasy. Coincidentally, I learn from Indian Killer that beef stew and fry bread is a popular Indian dish. This is appropriate since I know that Indian women usually boiled their meat in containers filled with hot river rocks; they didn’t roast hunks of meat over a fire, as one might imagine. Also, once they acquired flour from posts like Fort Laramie, Indians loved making fry bread, which they like to eat with honey. Over time, Indians grew to love white products such as sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Crazy Horse, a purist, stayed away from that kind of stuff, but he had no problem carrying a Winchester repeater into battle.

Most of the rangers at the national monument are Crow. Ironically, the Crow were enemies of the Lakota. Crow, along with Arikara, served as scouts and interpreters for the U.S. army, and a number of them died at the Little Bighorn, defending “the Crow way of life,” as the site-of-death markers read, though the Crow scouts had no problem attacking a village containing women and children and stealing horses, the traditional spoils of war.

I ask one Crow ranger if she knows any Lakota language. She says she doesn’t. I wanted to know the definitive translation of the Lakota word “hokahey.” Many people erroneously think it means, “It is a good day to die” because one use of the word was as a generic war cry that preceded that positive but fatalistic philosophy. Some sources state that the word suggests the meaning “Hold on! There is more.” Nowadays it can be used to mean “welcome.”

The ranger tells me something about the complexities of Crow and Lakota. Apparently a given word is said differently depending on your sex. She tells me that when the Lakota taught Kevin Costner their language, on location during the filming of Dances With Wolves, they played a prank on him and taught him the female inflections for words.

Although it’s hot, I have a last hike – from “Last Stand Hill” where Custer died with 50 of the men from the five companies under his command, along Battle Ridge where the rest of his 170 men died fighting. I look for rattlesnakes. I want a shot of one as the opening image for one of my videos, but it’s too hot for them.

As I drive out of the park, the last thing I see is a little Crow boy from a church field trip standing in the tall grass, launching an incredibly long arc of pee onto the ground where his forefathers fought for their way of life by attacking a village filled with women and children.

Back in Billings, having come full circle, after driving 1300 miles over four days, I look through the materials I collected during the trip, peek at some of the video, and get ready to get up at 4 a.m. for my flights home to Denver then La Guardia then Boston.

In the frivolous but very entertaining movie Somewhere in Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the time travel method employed (a tribute to the device used by Jack Finney for his fabulous time-travel novel, Time and Again) is a sort of psycho-time-transference. You basically think yourself into the past by dressing from the desired period and placing yourself in a historical location devoid of any contrasting modern references. (Camping out at night on the Gettysburg battlefield, modern-day Civil War re-enactors have attested to feeling such a jump back in time for a second or two.)

I’d like to believe it’s possible. That’s an element that draws me to historical sites. I love the Little Bighorn Battlefield for its back-in-time ambiance. In many places, you can look out over the grassy ridges and not see any modern distractions. You’re seeing basically what the combatants saw back in 1876.

Another excellent place for such a psycho-time trip is Fort Laramie. Sitting on the second storey verandah of the restored officers’ quarters called Old Bedlam, I look through the cottonwood limbs across the parade grounds to the Laramie River where officers’ families enjoyed picnics. This place has seen a lot of historical traffic: nearly 400,000 plodding emigrants with tens of thousands of creaking wagons; 10,000 Plains Indians for the Treaty of 1851.

It is here that I can imagine a grand film epic of the West. A lengthy sequence about the 1851 gathering can establish the main characters, conflicts, and promises that will be broken, as the camera moves through the various tepee circles, through the dusty gathering of tribes, through the fort, with overlapping Altmanesque dialogues establishing a turbulent mingling of languages and tones that suggest the inevitability of a tragic outcome.

Visually, I would go for an imagist’s approach: a Terrence Malick style. The siltstone spire of Chimney Rock at dawn. A cavalry officer’s artifacts arranged neatly at his bedside. A Lakota family’s accoutrements organized in their tepee. The grass and cacti on the ridges above the Little Bighorn. Custer fallen. Crazy Horse shying from the bars of the guardhouse. Chief Big Foot frozen forever in death. End of trail.

(For more historical background and commentary on related filmography, please go to Into the West: A Road Trip Preview.)

(Did you miss Day One or Day Two? If so, check them out.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Day Two

Day Two:

I get out of Rapid City quickly and drive south toward the Badlands and Pine Ridge Reservation. Farmland gives way to grassy folds of earth that suddenly transform into the ash-colored strata of Badlands formations. In one section of the Badlands called the Stronghold, Ghost Dancers hid from the U.S. Cavalry’s crackdown on the new religion. The American government feared an uprising, but the Oglala had no uprising planned; they just wanted the grass and the bison to come back and the whites to disappear. (Similarly, the FBI feared members of the American Indian Movement, campaigning for civil rights in the early 1970s, and considered them communists and subversives.) I realize the car in front of me has no glass in the rear. A mini-van passes me with its shattered windshield held together by a broad band of tape running down the center. Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in the United States.

I stop at the Badlands Visitor’s Center at Scenic and talk to the Lakota park ranger about Lakota language. He suggests I stop at Oglala Lakota College, a brief detour from my planned route. The college is comprised of very modern buildings set in the middle of nowhere. At the student bookstore, I buy a beginner’s Lakota language book for children and Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie’s novel about the racial hatred and alienation suffered by modern-day Indians in Seattle. I visit the college’s compact historical museum. Four walls of exhibits tell the story of treaties made and broken and the dramatic loss of Indian lands from the 1850s through the 1870s. Here are the famous photographs of the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, December 29, 1890: the mass grave; the bodies piled in the snow; Minneconjou Chief Big Foot – his contorted body frozen forever in death.

I reach the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. A shoddy metal placard, in the middle of a dusty, gravelly crossroads, marks the spot and explains how the massacre occurred. A board with the word “Massacre” is screwed over what must have been the word “Battle.” On a nearby hill, a marble tombstone marks the mass grave. Additional graves have turned the place into a community cemetery. Gravestones designate the resting places of citizens of Pine Ridge like Emily Her Many Horses and Leo Her Many Horses. Many of these Lakota served in World War II. Graves are adorned with pictures, toys, medicine bags, twists of sage, and bundles of sweetgrass. Ribbons dangling from tree limbs flutter in the wind.

West of Pine Ridge I drive through the broad, grassy valley called Buffalo Gap. I imagine riding across this land in the 1800s – fold after fold after fold of grassy, featureless land. You can see why millions of bison loved this area.

I cross into the northwestern corner of Nebraska. I’ve never been to Nebraska, and I’ve always wanted to go because of its Oregon Trail history. As I drive across the border, I’m thinking of Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate, and Malick’s Badlands.

I stop near Crawford, Nebraska, at Fort Robinson, a U.S. army post from 1874 to 1948. It’s a shady spot to stop on a hot day. A park-like quadrangle contains reproductions of headquarters and barracks buildings from the 1870s. One of the buildings is the guardhouse. Here, on May 5, 1877, Crazy Horse resisted arrest and ran onto the parade grounds where he was bayoneted to death; a pedestal marks the spot. There is also a reproduction of the room where he died – Teshunka Witko – the strange man of Oglala Lakota who refused white encroachment much more than Sitting Bull did. There are no authenticated photographs of Crazy Horse, and no one knows what happened to his body. Legend says his heart was buried at Wounded Knee Creek.

Here at Camp Robinson ended the flight of the Cheyenne refugees who escaped poor conditions on the reservation in Oklahoma on September 10, 1878. For over a month, the band of Cheyenne men, women, and children, crossed Kansas into Nebraska, eluding the U.S. army at every step. On October 24, 149 of the Cheyenne under Dull Knife surrendered and came into Fort Robinson where they were stuffed into an unheated barracks with little food in an effort to force them to return to Oklahoma. Freezing and starving, the Cheyenne assembled a few guns whose parts they had hidden in their clothing, and broke out of the barracks on January 9, 1879. Shot down as they crossed the parade grounds, or run down later by the cavalry, 64 were killed. Some survived by hiding in the rugged bluffs near the fort. Today you can see the reproduction of the famous barracks. The bluffs where the survivors hid lie to the west.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964), John Ford’s last Western, tells the story of the Cheyenne exodus. The film tries hard to be that epic of Plains Indians vs. whites conflict. Though it fails, I love it for its earnest effort and its visual beauty. Ford captures memorable images (with his signature Monument Valley, Utah, doubling as locations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska) of the refugees crossing the land and using its ruggedness to elude the cavalry as well as long shots of the cavalry in pursuit diminished by the terrain that thwarts them. Ford stages a thrilling cavalry charge reminiscent of Stagecoach and Fort Apache, but the film’s attempts at drama fall flat.

Ford picked an epic story that could stand for most of the conflicts between the white army and various tribes at the end of the 19th century, but its episodes, which seem to promise drama, lack strength. The film splits its attention between the plight of the Cheyenne, led by Gilbert Roland as Dull Knife, and the persistent pursuit of the cavalry, led by Richard Widmark as a fictitious cavalry officer, and this shifting focus is a detriment. The barracks breakout sequence is promising. It builds tension and achieves some seconds of visceral impact, but the sound stage set detracts from the very brief bland violence that is merely representational of the massacre of the 64 Cheyenne.

The film’s greatest blunder is a lengthy middle sequence that played after the intermission when the film was shown in theaters. In Dodge City where the fearful citizens expect an attack by “rampaging” Cheyenne, James Stewart as Wyatt Earp engages in a comical poker game and extracts a bullet from a cowpoke’s foot. Then the citizens form a ridiculous, slapstick army, including buffoonish dancehall girls (a frequent Fordian weakness), who ride out to do battle with the Cheyenne – a scene as absurd as anything in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Unfortunately, the reasoning for the insertion of this very silly film-within-a film is that the producers felt the rest of story was too tragic, which means that John Ford was on to something that could have been memorable.

It’s a tragedy that there is no epic theatrical film on Plains Indian history. Made-for-TV movies/mini-series such as Son of the Morning Star, Crazy Horse, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are noble efforts that employ real Native Americans as performers and adhere to the facts more than older films, but they are softened by that small-scale TV look, a bland didactic tone, and a stilted political correctness.

After enjoying the shade of Fort Robinson and strolling around the quadrangles of officers’ quarters that served the men over decades of service during many wars, I drive the last leg of the day’s journey of 275 miles to Scottsbluff.

Nebraskans are nice and polite, not effusively so, but they are real sticklers for propriety and the rules. My bladder on the point of bursting by the time I reach the Comfort Inn, I dash through the lobby to the men’s room before checking in. The woman behind the desk – no doubt a descendant of Oregon Trail emigrants and hard-working Nebraska farmers – gives me a shocked look. And even though I check in as politely as possible, I have started off on the wrong foot, and I get a sharp look of distrust whenever I pass through the lobby.

Since I have a couple of hours before dinnertime, I decide to visit the Scotts Bluff National Monument rather than wait until Day Three as I had planned. After consulting a very confusing city map, I find and follow a street called Old Oregon Trail through a residential area. Seeing the siltstone and volcanic ash bluffs rearing up directly ahead beyond the city, I know I’m on the right road. Excited, I want to push it to 30 or even 35 on the 25 mph street. But – and this is a huge adjustment for a Massachusetts/Cape Cod driver used to adding at least 10 mph to any speed limit – the young dude in the pickup truck in front of me will not go 26. I conclude it’s just this guy – but, no. Next it’s a 35 mph limit, and the vehicle ahead of me, driven by the type of driver on Cape Cod who tailgates you as you drive 45 on a 35 mph road and then speeds past you, mouthing “Fuck you,” will not go 36! It is a most uncanny experience. But figuring the Nebraskans know something I don’t know about the stringency of the local police, I make the titanic effort to drive like a Nebraskan.

Scotts Bluff National Monument is a much bigger attraction than I had expected, and a highlight of the trip. The road follows the old Oregon Trail up a pass through jutting bluffs, and you stop at a very sprucely kept Visitor’s Center with an intelligent museum and wonderfully kept grounds where you can stroll past old emigrants’ wagons. A road winds up the side of the largest bluff, passing through two tunnels, and takes you to the top where you can follow hiking trails to the brink of the cliffs and see views of the land crossed by the wagon trains coming from the east, the North Platte River down below, and the way west to Wyoming and the ascent of South Pass.

Movie viewing in Rapid City was slim pickings. I had to settle on the final action in David Fincher’s Alien3. I remember when it came out. I went to the theater hours ahead of time, expecting Aliens-lines, but hardly anyone went to see it opening night, or any night. I was so disappointed by that movie. Now it’s kind of fun to watch. Wow, those aliens – no matter what movie they’re in – are so awesome – so outlandishly creepy and inexorably vicious. And they don’t even have a name! Aliens. They’re just Aliens. I love how skinhead Ripley becomes a Christ figure. Arms flung out – crucified by fire.

My night at the Comfort Inn in Scottsbluff, I switch between The Transporter and that silly dragon movie with Dennis Quaid. Then I hit paydirt on TCM. Overlord (1975), directed by Stuart Cooper, has just been introduced. I’ve always wanted to see this – and I get to see the whole thing, no commercials.

Overlord is a simple but stunningly powerful anti-war film set during World War II, about a refined English lad who is called up for service in 1944, just in time to be trained for Operation Overlord: the Invasion of Normandy. Innocently practical about getting ready to leave home, Tom makes sure to get the copy of David Copperfield he loaned to a friend. With his fine but mischievous features, Brian Stirner as Tom looks like a cross between James Franco and James McAvoy. What follows is elemental. He goes off to training camp. He is trained. He meets a young woman at a dance. He kisses her. He goes off to war, convinced he will be killed outright.

Director Cooper melds his own black-and-white footage with black-and-white wartime footage of the bombing of London, various strafing runs, and preparations for D-Day. Sure, the war footage is not Cooper’s own, but he manipulates it to produce some mesmerizing, surreal images: bombs completely isolated in white air; strafing bullets chewing up a locomotive, a barge, a river. Meanwhile, Cooper’s own camera uses light and lines dramatically to capture images that achieve that distinctive visual clarity caused by a fatalistic soldier’s adrenaline rush.

Ah, the supreme joy of one’s first viewing of an excellent film! The movie starts late, I’m planning to get up at 4 a.m. so I can see the sun rise at Chimney Rock, but I never move from the bed as I watch the film, but I’m careful to turn the volume down during loud scenes so the disapproving desk lady doesn’t call the stringent Scottsbluff police.

(For more historical background and commentary on related filmography, please go to Into the West: A Road Trip Preview.)

(Look for Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Days Three and Four – coming soon.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Hurt Locker - A World of Hurt in a World of Madness

I have enjoyed aspects of all the post-9/11 films depicting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq (yes, all, including Rendition) though most of them have been disappointing in some way, and I can’t help feeling the same way about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a film that follows the perilous and psychologically taxing experiences of three members of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Demolition) team in Baghdad. The film has definite strengths, but something was missing for me.

The film’s best strength is its depiction of the madness of the mess in U.S.-occupied Iraq. As presented in the film, Baghdad is a nut house. A reluctant suicide bomber is padlocked into a vest of plastic explosives. A charge is hidden in a dead boy’s stomach. Defusing unexploded bombs in wartime London must have been pretty hairy, but imagine trying to defuse a bomb most likely hooked to a cell phone-activated detonator while Iraqi civilians stand watching as casually as people watching workers in a construction site. Somebody even videotapes them! A shopkeeper is on his cell phone. Who the fuck do you shoot? In a most telling scene, a taxi driver stops beyond a roadblock. He seems stunned – or stubbornly rebellious in a city gone mad – and doesn’t back up even at gunpoint.

Another strength is the film’s narrow focus on the three members of the bomb team. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), distraught over the death of his previous technician (Guy Pearce), plays by the book. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is jittery and uncertain; what’s he a specialist at? Both of them are perplexed by the seemingly suicidal behavior of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who throws off his headset during a tense situation and inexplicably obscures his approach to a bomb with a smoke grenade. He keeps a box filled with various detonation devices he has collected from his experiences. He seems to thrive on the adrenaline rush of extreme peril. At first, there is division amidst the threesome. Then we see a developing camaraderie: James talks his friends through a dangerous sniper standoff in the desert, encourages Sanborn to drink a juice bag so he won’t pass out in the heat, and incites Eldridge to make a crucial decision. Unfortunately, a surprising cameo by Ralph Fiennes as an undercover operative starts the sequence out like a generic shoot-‘em-up though things get more serious when Fiennes’s character is out of the way.

Unfortunately, only briefly, the film does a wonderful job of depicting the culture shock and alienation any veteran of the experience in Iraq must feel back in the States. We see James perplexed before the vast varieties of choices in a supermarket cereal aisle that must seem to him like something on an alien planet. Then we see him helping his wife in the kitchen, washing mushrooms as he describes a horrid explosion. Not the best thing to bring home with you.

The film’s final scene – which in many ways is its climax – must have seemed brilliant on paper. Throughout the film we have seen how many days are left on the bomb team’s rotation, and the whole film sets up how harrowing explosive ordnance demolition is – throw in all the surrounding madness of Iraq – and then we see James stepping off a helicopter and plodding yet again toward an IED, as we read that he has 365 days left in his duty rotation. Oh, yeah, 365 days! Wow! (Good thing I didn't miss the superscript.) Knowing all that has gone before, this moment should have delivered more impact, but it doesn’t. It’s just a shot. I’m just not worried about James. He’s done wild things before – ripping through a burned-out car to find an elusive detonator (which EOD specialists say they would never do) – but nothing’s happened to him, and I don’t feel anything will, nor do I feel that attached to him.

Movie over – and I felt disappointed; I wanted more – of something. I liked the film's parts, but not its whole. Some of the bomb-defusing episodes are tense; others seem to suffer from poor timing and loose editing. In addition, all James’s tugging on wires to find detonating devices doesn’t work to show me his recklessness – because I don’t believe it’s possible. (In contrast, in Battle for Haditha, a cell-phone-rigged detonator seems to be a much more volatile thing.) As for the shaky-camera style, it does absolutely nothing to make me feel like I am there in the frenzy. Now, whenever I see that style on screen, it just distances me. Another silliness, along with Fiennes’s action hero appearance, is the role of Cambridge (Christian Camargo), the army psychologist. Could anyone be that ridiculous at communicating with civilians at an unexploded bomb site? Could it be any more obvious that he’s going to get blown to bits? As for Renner as James, he is excellent – perhaps. For all of Bigelow’s tight focus on the three-man team, I don’t know that much about him, and I don’t feel what he feels when he plods once again toward yet another IED – but perhaps part of the fault belongs to Renner who doesn't quite have the talent to let me in far enough.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Day One

It was all the Westerns that did it for me. Growing up in the 50s and 60s – all those old Westerns caught on TV or seen at the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Manor Theater in San Mateo, California – all those new Westerns viewed upon release in theaters. I especially loved anything about Custer’s Last Stand and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Films like They Died With Their Boots On (1942) and Chief Crazy Horse (1955), with Victor Mature as Crazy Horse, started me off on the legends; later, extensive reading filled me in on the facts. Fact or fiction, I am obsessed with the history of the Plains Indian wars, and I have always been drawn to the places where that history happened: the southeastern corner of Montana, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the northwestern corner of Nebraska, and the Powder River Country of Wyoming. So there I had to go to seek out the sites connected with Plains Indian history and the Oregon Trail, to shoot video, and to imagine a grand theatrical film epic depicting the rise to power of the Lakota nation and their allies, the defeat of Custer, the sudden defeat of the Plains Indians with the deaths of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the last hope of the Ghost Dance, and the final tragedy at Wounded Knee – the film I would make if I had the resources and could make any film I wanted.


It takes me three flights to get to Billings, Montana, where I check into the Country Inn and Suites and walk across the street to Applebee’s for dinner. A group of young twenty-somethings occupies a nearby booth: three blonde-haired Lauren Conrads; a guy who looks like a California surfer boy; and a scruffy guy. The topic of conversation is the scruffy guy’s problem relationship. The queen Lauren Conrad holds forth with her sage and very extensive advice. I feel like I’m in an episode of The Hills. I thought I was in Billings, Montana.

Day One:

I get up early and drive the 65 miles to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I was here last year with my younger brother, but now I literally get to see the rolling ridges and coulees in a different light. Under threatening clouds (I swear I saw a tornado starting to form just like in The Day After Tomorrow), with promising patches of blue sky peeking through, the light is soft on the faintly green battlefield, not washed out with garish sunlight.

The rain and periodic drizzle keep people in the visitor’s center, and I am mostly alone with the ghosts of the white bluecoat soldiers and the Crow scouts under the command of George Armstrong Custer who fought against the Hunkpapa, Oglala, Minneconjou, Brulè, Arapaho, and Cheyenne protecting their village on June 25, 1876. I drive the five miles to the end of the road – to a bluff where Major Reno and his surviving soldiers retreated after their attack on the village below was met by overwhelming Indian resistance – and I follow it back, stopping at sites in chronological order: the ridge where Custer first saw the vast village he thought he could rout with the 220 men in his unit; Medicine Tail Coulee where two companies sent down to the village engaged in a skirmish and were turned back up Deep Coulee; the ridge where companies under Calhoun and Keogh were stationed as a rear guard but where they were eventually overtaken and killed; and Last Stand Hill at the end of the ridge where Custer and 50 men fought and died.

As far as theatrical films, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) comes the closest to an authentic depiction of the battle in an authentic-looking location. We see an attack on the village. We see Custer’s companies retreating from the village. We see the confused battle on the ridge with companies separated and overrun by the Indians. Most of all, I like this rendition because it captures the spirit of the historical event: Custer’s temerity; the Indian’s jubilation. In addition, we see the dusty chaos, the panic, and the disjointed action. The moments of the aftermath, with the victors riding back and forth over the field, getting off their horses to count coup and take trophies, is superbly portrayed.

After capturing ample shots, I follow Highway 212, a beautiful 203-mile stretch of two-lane blacktop that crosses the southeastern corner of Montana from Crow Agency to Belle Fourche, South Dakota. It is called the Warriors Road. Here the Plains tribes followed the bison and camped in the protection of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn, Rosebud, Tongue, and Powder River valleys. Near the Rosebud, in the spring of 1876, after the U.S. government had proclaimed that all Indians that did not report in to a reservation would be considered hostile, the Lakota staged a sun dance. For his part in the ceremony, Sitting Bull cut fifty snips of flesh from each arm and sat bleeding in the sun until he got his famous prophetic vision of bluecoat soldiers falling upside down into the village. It was also along the Rosebud that Custer led his companies, after leaving the greater column at the Yellowstone River on June 22, 1876. He came upon the sun dance site where Sitting Bull's vision seemed to predict Custer's doom.

I make a 25-mile side trip south of 212, up the Rosebud Valley to the site of the Battle of the Rosebud. Basically what happened there is that the 1,300-man column of General Crook, part of the three-pronged army sent to capture or kill the “hostiles,” was met by a very enthusiastic group of Lakota and allies led by Crazy Horse on June 17, 1876. It was a haphazard battle that resulted in a stalemate, but Crook had to turn his column around and withdraw from the area due to casualties and low supplies. The Indians left happy. Because a Cheyenne woman named Buffalo Calf Woman rode out under fire to save her brother by slinging him up on the back of her pony, the Indians called the fight the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.

I risk the rental car on a gravel road that leads to a severely rutted road that takes me to a rather picturesque draw along Rosebud Creek where the battle occurred. If I wreck my little economy car, I’m stuck; my cheap cell doesn’t get a signal out here. But it’s a beautiful location – and Crazy Horse was here, and Buffalo Calf Woman rode out under zipping bullets to save her brother, and I am here.

Back down the rutted road, back along the gravel road, back 25 miles to 212, and I continue my journey eastward. This was spirit land for the tribes. I can feel it. This is the land of the sun dance and the vision quest. Crazy Horse wandered this land. Here, too, Custer led his men in search of glory.

Charging into battle, the Plains Indians blew shrill eagle-bone whistles. The bluecoats charged to the trumpet. Although Custer didn’t have his regimental band along with him at the Little Bighorn, he probably heard the echo of his regimental tune, the Garry Owen, in his head – though his regimental band played the tune as he charged the unsuspecting Cheyenne village at the Washita River on November 27, 1868. Since the use of the Garry Owen in They Died With Their Boots On as a lively theme celebrating the righteous heroism of the more legendary Custer (Errol Flynn), the use of this tune became synonymous with Anglo-American dominance over the Indian tribes whose unfortunate role was to be conquered and set apart on Indian reservations in order to allow for the inexorable but desirable progress of white civilization. For John Ford in The Searchers, the tune is a glorious tribute to America’s military strength, though the film doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side effects of that military presence. In Little Big Man, in which the skirl of fifes playing the Garry Owen announces Custer’s attack on the Washita River village, the stunning extreme long shot of the charging ranks of 7th Cavalry turns the tune into an anthem of merciless Anglo-American aggression – the kind of thing going on in Vietnam at the time of the film's release.

Back on 212 East it’s a long haul across spirit land. I pass through the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Some properties are neat ranches with beautiful horses grazing in the pastures. On other properties you can hardly see the ramshackle mobile homes for the jumbled collections of junk cars.

I pass through Belle Fourche, the destination for John Wayne’s cattle drive in The Cowboys (1970). Wayne pronounces it “Belle Foosh.” In the movie, the locations for the cattle drive scenes look very much like the terrain I pass: wide grassy valleys, sparse stands of pines, rugged rimrock.

For the last 60 miles of the day’s journey, I follow a busy interstate flowing with traffic headed to resorts near Deadwood. A billboard promotes tickets for Aerosmith and Chuck Berry. Wow, Chuck Berry has staying power! But Mount Rushmore is the main attraction. In Rapid City, the gateway to Rushmore, motels are booked full by families planning to see the granite presidents. Recently, Greenpeace was at Mount Rushmore too.

I travel light: an assault pack for essentials and a small duffel – so I don’t have to check any bags at the airport. My only technology: my trusty camcorder and a cheap cell phone that I never turn on. No laptop means no DVDs to play at night, so I am forced to forage for movies on TV – most of them already in progress.

First night, in Billings, I happen upon the beginning of Field of Dreams (1989). The film is a fantasy through and through – even the scenes that do not involve the phantom baseball field and the ghostly baseball team. I love it when Ray (Kevin Costner) asks his wife if he should go ahead and plow under their corn crop so he can build a baseball field because a voice told him, “If you build it, he will come,” and his wife (Amy Madigan) just looks at him and says that if that’s what he feels he has to do, then go ahead and do it. What a nice wife!

I’m starting to get drowsy; it’s been a long day, but this gets my attention. That's just like my wife! I basically asked her, “Do you mind if I take six different flights to fly 4000 miles round trip so that I can drive 1300 miles over a period of 4 days and stop at pieces of ground where famous things happened,” and she said fine! Though I’m sure she was thinking, “If that’s your idea of a vacation, go right ahead.” Ah, I love how movies hold “the mirror unto nature.”

(For more historical background and commentary on related filmography, please go to Into the West: A Road Trip Preview.)

(Look for Western Reflections: The Log of a Road Trip – Day Two – coming soon.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gone West

For the next week I will be away from my blog (for the most part) out West on a road trip that will take me from Montana, through South Dakota and Nebraska, and then up through Wyoming, taking in historical sites such as the Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, Fort Robinson, Fort Laramie, and landmarks along the Oregon Trail – as described in my post Set in the West: A Road Trip Preview, which includes commentary on Westerns depicting the famous events connected with those areas. I’m looking forward to seeing some open range and big sky country. I plan to shoot footage for a video, ponder famous Westerns, write a log of my road trip adventures, and post Western Reflections: A Road Trip Log and Video by the end of the month.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cinematic Pyrotechnics: Explosions That Matter - A Video Montage

I got the idea for this post shortly after seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with its excessive displays of explosions followed by more explosions that elicit yawns more than exclamations from this viewer. When I started thinking of some of my favorite uses of pyrotechnics in film history and decided to make the video montage below, I realized that my favorites are not about size, quantity, or duration. Each example included in my montage is about dramatic effect and aesthetic appeal; it’s about meaning; it’s about what this explosion adds to the story.

The basic idea for this video is not original. You can go to YouTube and view numerous montages of movie explosions as well as clips of “The Best Movie Explosion.” Looking at these I noted that posters seem to prefer more recent films with huge explosions rendered by CGI. If a clip shows a single explosion, it is a lot of flash and fire, with redundant shots from various angles – all of this signifying nothing. One “Best Explosion” is from Stealth, which the poster admits is one of the worst movies ever made. I’ve seen the movie and the explosion. But how much does that explosion matter beyond eliciting an “Awesome!” in response to its flash, size, and duration? For most of these explosions, there is no dramatic build-up.

Here I have chosen single explosions or multiple explosions that achieve a dramatic effect because they provide a meaningful conclusion or they say something significant about a character. All of my selections also achieve an aesthetically pleasing effect because they incorporate thoughtfully composed cinematography, judicious use of musical score, imaginative sound mixing, and wise editing. At the end of the montage, you will find a list of titles, directors, and studios in order of appearance.

I offer this post while at the same time acknowledging the irony of deriving pleasure from a powerful force capable of ghastly destruction. But that irony has existed ever since Chinese monks discovered gunpowder and used it for religious purposes and later for entertainment while the military employed it as a revolutionary weapon. In addition, throughout history, humans have continued to use explosives for destructive purposes while at the same time deriving aesthetic pleasure from them, usually under peaceful circumstances.

In 1814, after the 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, the stronghold that guarded Baltimore from British invasion, the people of that city celebrated with a fireworks display. You’d think they would have been tired of hearing explosions! Strange! There must be something aesthetically fascinating about what explosions do.

From a filmmaking point of view, blowing stuff up is an art form. I love the extras on DVDs that show how demolition experts devote their expertise to making an explosion happen and look the way the director wants it to happen and look. In The Dark Knight a derelict building, posing as the hospital, was demolished by timed charges to achieve an artistic effect. For the World War I battle scene from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the charges were planted in holes filled with peat moss, so that the lightweight and relatively harmless peat moss looked like clods of dark earth springing up from the explosions. Explosions are a special effect as old as the earliest silent films, and it’s nice to see that CGI hasn’t totally displaced the use of real explosions.

Enjoy my montage of ten explosions that matter. (For better viewing, allow the video to buffer completely before playing.) I may have left out your favorite – my choices were dictated by my DVD collection, and I left out a favorite due to technical difficulty – but I encourage you to respond by including mention of your favorite cinematic pyrotechnics. Also, you may try to guess which display of pyrotechnics included here is my top favorite of all time.

Public Enemies, Private Lives

(Here there be spoilers.)

More than halfway through Public Enemies Michael Mann’s depiction of famous gangster John Dillinger’s last days on the lam, comes an expertly staged and filmed shootout and chase through the nighttime woods pitting John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his gang against the G-men led by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The sound of Thompson machine-gun and shotgun fire is amplified into forceful booms suggestive of lethal impact. Gangsters are ruthlessly shot down. Dillinger and his friend John “Red” Hamilton flee through the dark forest. Baby Face Nelson, riddled with bullets, slumps to his knees, his Thompson spitting blinding flashes of fire that illuminate his death – the film’s most strikingly shot image. After escaping the shootout, Dillinger watches Red die. Dillinger is affected; he sees Red’s death as an ominous portent. But who is Red? We don’t know, and we aren’t touched by his death.

From the woods sequence, it is a short jump to the film’s climactic sequence in which Dillinger attends a movie while the Feds gather outside the Biograph theater, ready to shoot him down. This sequence is also masterfully composed and shot. I like how it cuts from portentous images of the Clark Gable/ Myrna Loy gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama to shots of the Feds waiting outside where amplified street noises create a gripping sense that you are there, and Elliot Goldenthal’s musical score repeats a swelling theme that suggests we have covered epic, dramatic ground to get to this infamous moment at the Biograph. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I had covered much ground at all with Johnny Depp as Dillinger. In fact, I felt like I hadn’t gone anywhere with him until the woods shootout and chase. Made up of disjointed vignettes that amount to very little – or sometimes present very little information – the first half of the film took me nowhere.

Marion Cotillard, as Billie Frechette, the coat-check girl who follows Dillinger for the thrill of the risk and the allure of his charm, takes you along with her from her very first appearance through her harrowing interrogation ordeal to the film’s final image of prison bars closing on her. She gives the film’s best performance, and she delivers the film’s best speech – when she describes how stupid the Feds were to arrest her and totally miss Dillinger who had been watching nearby. The cruel treatment of her is more shocking than any of the shootings, and that is a tribute to Cotillard’s sensitive treatment of her role. Some credit is due Cotillard as well for Bale's best moment in the film: when he compassionately carries her out of the interrogation room.

Another strong supporting performance comes from Billy Crudup as a slightly awkward, mild-spoken J. Edgar Hoover determined to establish a force of Federal cops. But one of my favorite characters is Charles Winstead, the no-nonsense lawman with the craggy face and the piercingly cold eyes. As played by Stephen Lang, he is a man of few words, but he exudes the toughness and ruthlessness of an Old West marshal tracking down outlaws in lawless Dodge City. In the light of his and Cotillard's wonderful performances, it is nice that they get to share the film's final scene. In addition, Channing Tatum with his winning looks is a clever choice to play Pretty Boy Floyd for his few seconds on screen.

As for the musical score mentioned above – it is credited to Eliott Goldenthal, but why does it quote verbatim from a theme from The Thin Red Line, composed by Hans Zimmer, at the moment during the opening prison escape sequence when a wounded man, held by Dillinger, is being dragged along by the getaway car? It also borrows musical lines from Terrence Malick’s film later in the movie. And another question – why the use of digital film that looks more like old-fashioned news-quality videotape than digital? I suppose it suggests 1930s newsreels- but it didn’t work for me.

Like Public Enemies, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford examines the last days of a famous American outlaw. But even without the backstory narration, Brad Pitt as Jesse James shows us who he is and how we should feel about him by what he does and by what we see in his trail-weary eyes. Pitt carries us along with him toward an assassination as well-known as the shooting outside the Biograph. In addition, major and minor members of the James gang, Robert Ford, Charlie Ford, Ed Miller, Wood Hite, and Dick Liddil, are clearly etched personalities, and we know who they are when they are killed or captured, unlike Dillinger’s cronies Baby Face Nelson and Red. As for Public Enemies as a whole, I enjoyed two masterfully shot sequences – the woods shootout and the Biograph shooting – as well as Cotillard’s portrayal of Billie, but I felt detached from and unaffected by the inconsequential vignettes that precede and connect these moments in Mann’s mostly ineffective film.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

3 in D.C.

I just got back from my 5th annual visit with Jason Bellamy of the Cooler in Washington, D.C. – a weekend that included a tour of the Capitol building and visits to various museums. But a weekend with the Cooler always includes movie-going, and this year we took in three viewings.

We had hoped to see Moon or The Hurt Locker but, alas, they weren’t playing in D.C., so we started off with Year One, which I found pleasantly entertaining. (Actually, it made me laugh a lot more than The Hangover, which I had seen with my teenaged son – who loves Superbad-style raunch. Most audience members were laughing a lot; we hardly laughed at all. As I was watching, I acknowledged that certain situations were inherently funny but, due to bad timing and poor writing, they just didn’t make me laugh.) As for Harold Ramis’s Year One, I enjoyed the picaresque journey of cavemen Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) as they move through episodes from Genesis. Jokes on Biblical elements such as Cain’s murder of Abel and the custom of circumcision as well as historical jokes on the invention of the wheel were quite amusing. Michael Cera provides comedy by employing his timid teenaged muttering during situations such as a public stoning, but his persistent routine eventual grows tedious. Meanwhile, Jack Black makes the most of every one-liner, emphasizing sexual innuendo with raised eyebrows, bulging eyes, and precisely pursed lips.

We saw two films at the Landmark E Street Cinema – one of my favorite little movie houses in the country. First we saw Food, Inc., Robert Kenner’s visually slick muckraker documentary about the horrid injustices to animals, consumers, and laborers perpetrated by America’s food industries. The film presents such horrors as hormone-enhanced chickens whose accelerated growth gets ahead of organ and bone growth to the extent that they can only take a few steps at a time before collapsing under their own plump weight. In contrast, the film examines the methods employed on an organic farm – methods as basic as allowing cattle to graze instead of feeding them hormone-laced corn. Yes, the film leaves you depressed about what you eat (I didn’t order a chicken dish that night), but it also provides a list of simple things you can do to help change food-processing hazardous methods like mixing an ammonia-treated additive in with fast-food burger. The film emphasizes how the consumer ultimately dictates the success of certain products. Next shopping trip, I’m definitely buying the organic chicken.

Our last theater viewing was The Stoning of Soraya M., the story of an Iranian woman who is stoned to death after being falsely accused of adultery. Although I found it a well-intentioned effort meant to expose a horrid injustice, the film is problematic. I am fascinated by any story that takes place in a Muslim country, and I totally empathized with the hopeless plight of Soraya, played effectively by Mozhan Marnò, but clearly this is a dangerous presentation for Americans already prejudiced against Muslims. The film presents a world of heartless, ignorant, narrow-minded people, and Soraya’s aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is the only one who tries to prevent the cruelly unjust execution. When the film arrives at the inevitable stoning, the act is unsparingly graphic, but the length and choppy pacing rob the scene of any intensity. Despite enjoying the alien atmosphere of this small, rocky village in the mountains of Iran, as well as some of the cultural details depicted, I worry about this film’s lopsided view.

The weekend’s most enjoyable viewing experience, however, was watching Michael Mann’s masterful film Heat, (the best crime drama ever filmed, as far as I'm concerned), enhanced by a Blu-ray player on a widescreen television. I had just read an analysis of the film published by the British Film Institute, and this viewing nicely anticipated the release of Public Enemies. It was a joy to watch a strong Robert De Niro performance on a par with his efforts in Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter rather than his stints in more recent films. Meanwhile, the film's superlative cinematography makes you exclaim aloud at its best-framed shots. As always, the bank robbery/shootout sequence is a masterpiece of pacing, editing, musical score, and sound mixing. It amazes me how a lengthy shootout like this one maintains its intensity throughout while action sequences of similar length, especially in more recent films, come off as mere noise. We’ll see if Mann can bring off the action sequences in Public Enemies with the same skill.

Thanks to the Cooler for an awesome weekend!