Monday, November 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Tortoise Formation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Bucket of Fried Chicken

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

12:01 AM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep Impact (1998) - Less Disaster, More Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How I Survived 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pumped for Destruction!

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

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

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

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

Happy weekend, bloggers!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Few Thoughts on The Box and A Christmas Carol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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