Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Mysterious Island: Jules Verne’s Little World

The recent films Jonah Hex and Knight and Day were forgettable wasted efforts and I have nothing to say about them, so I thought I’d bemoan the absence of imagination in most of this year’s films and pay tribute to that master of the imagination, Jules Verne, whose novel The Mysterious Island (1874) I am currently re-reading.

As my blog title might suggest, I yearn for imaginative films that transport me to other worlds – those little worlds of imagination that films have the power to create. James Cameron’s Avatar features a richly detailed little world. On the moon Pandora, jungle vegetation lights up with bioluminescence; thanator, viperwolves, and hammerhead titanothere, oh, my!, roam the dense jungles; winged banshee swarm over the floating mountains; and the blue Na'vi people live in harmony with all around them. (How nice!) Despite its corny dialogue and borrowed storyline, the film's imagined world has consistently engaged me throughout nine viewings at the movies and on DVD.

Similarly, when I was ten years old, I was totally transported to another little world of the imagination by the film Mysterious Island (1961), directed by Cy Enfield, based on Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel. Enfield also directed Zulu (1964) and wrote the screenplay for Zulu Dawn (1979).

Even today, this movie captures my imagination and engrosses me completely. I love the use of matte paintings to establish an otherworldly atmosphere, but a masterstroke is the use of islands off Spain that provide the real beaches, jungle, and rocky slopes of the island. Unfortunately, the film strays dramatically from the plot of Verne’s novel. There are no giant creatures in the novel, but one of the main attractions of the film is Ray Harryhausen’s magical stop-motion animation that renders a thrilling giant crab (a real crab), an oversized dodo bird (funny but sinister), huge bees (realistically menacing as they seal two islanders into a honeycomb), and a multi-tentcled nautilus (frightening as it is revealed but ultimately a dud). The film is especially memorable for its rich, brooding, deep-toned musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Everything is Kung Fu" - The Karate Kid (2010)

As Jackie Chan, playing reclusive maintenance man, Mr. Han, says in Harald Zwart's passionate remake of The Karate Kid, "Everything is Kung Fu." Cool. I guess that means there's a magic to kung fu. Indeed, there's a magic to this story, first made in 1984, the decade of many many sequels, because the up-from-obscurity-to-kung-fu-victory formula here works once again, gives Jackie Chan a chance to play a troubled character, presents the very promising debut of Jaden Smith, and takes us to China as well.

Now I've only seen parts of the 1984 original on television, though I've seen Hilary Swank tap her inner Million Dollar Baby in ubiquitous training montages in The Next Karate Kid (1994), so I'm not a devotee of the franchise, and I'm not missing the whimsical and witty Pat Morita here. Nevertheless, I was taken for a wonderful ride in this rendition, starting with an absorbing opening chapter in which director Swart is not afraid to take time to develop the alienation felt by twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Smith) when he ends up moving to Beijing with his mother (Taraji P. Henson).

A nice attention to detail makes you feel the jet-lag, the dense air, the alien sights and sounds. You feel the dampness with its suggestion of alien smells. Of course, we know little Dre will end up victimized by bullies. We know he will try to fight back on a number of occasions. And we know that Mr. Han will intervene to teach Dre the way to fulfillment: learn kung fu and kick butt at the big tournament. But it's believable fantasy.

It's also very atmospheric fantasy. The opening scenes, as I have said, realistically portray the feel of an alien land. In addition, the requiste training montages play out in beautiful settings. Yes, they do some training on the Great Wall. At the beginning of Dre's training program, Mr. Han makes the boy climb the many steps to a mountaintop monastery, where devotees of Chinese spiritualism do their thing in picuresque courtyards. "This is like Mulan," my daughter, Jane, said next to me. On the top of the mountain, Dre watches a kung fu guru hypnotize a cobra and control its movements on the edge of a high precipice. This skill will serve Dre well in the climactic tournament, an ending that is gripping despite its predictability.

Jackie Chan gets to do a little more acting than usual. He is a tormented individual who feels responsible for the death of wife and son in an automobile accident. Every year he rennovates the culprit car to vintage condition and then bashes it with a sledgehammer on the anniversary of the fatal accident. For Mr. Han, Dre helps fill some of the loss of his son, but training him is also a chance to teach a lesson to the cruel teacher of the kung fu boys who have victimized Dre. As Dre, Jaden Smith is suitably engaging; his father can be proud. The Karate Kid is a rousing, touching adventure, a film worthy of your time in a summer of lackluster offerings.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Teaching Watching, Part II

School's out! Summer vacation! Last month, I shared the term-long film history unit I teach to 8th graders. In this brief follow up, I present passages from spontaneous, uncoached student responses to the ambiguous endings in The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Graduate

This is not a completely happy ending. Elaine will no longer be able to associate with her parents or friends. She has also just run off with a man she barely knows and who has had an affair with her mother. They awkwardly look forward, which implies that it will not work out between them.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tampering With Nature: The Human Centipede and Splice

A big fan of the novels of the H.G. Wells, I love The Island of Dr. Moreau for its jungle island setting, its way-out weirdness, and its exploration of the theme of scientific tampering with nature. In this mordant tale, a wayward vivisectionist cuts and pastes animal parts so that his creations have human traits and are smart enough to acknowledge the pain Dr. Moreau is causing them and to wonder about their place in the world of humans.

Two recent films explore the theme of tampering with nature with varying degrees of success. In Tom Six’s The Human Centipede: First Sequence, a brilliant but psychotic surgeon, Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), kidnaps three tourists and knits them into a human centipede. (How he achieves this I leave to your imagination.) In Vincenzo Natali’s Splice two brilliant American geneticists, Clive (Adrien Brody), and Elsa (Sarah Polley), combine a potpourri of animal DNA with good ol’ double-helix human DNA to hatch a creature that looks human from the waist up but is all kangaroo rat below. But while the low-budget The Human Centipede succeeds as a disturbing, gripping tale of the macabre, the CGI-enhanced Splice stumbles between haunting commentary on scientists playing God and standard horror-movie schlock and splatter.

Both films tinker with horror-movie tropes, but The Human Centipede uses them to tweak the suspense while Splice blunders into them, sometimes unintentionally as it seems, thus marring the film’s initial tone of thoughtful seriousness. In the former, two lost female tourists, played by Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie, their nightclub dresses soaked with rain, come upon a house - very isolated, of course. But if a scowling recluse, who looks like Jim Jones but is all Dr. Mengele, opens the door on a dark and rainy night, you just don’t go in! Forget the rain! But we go along with the inside jokes, knowing what we know about Doc Heiter from the beginning, and the clichés tease our tension as the clueless women blunder into their own doom, to be joined by a third victim, a Japanese tourist named Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura). In Splice some of the early images of the rapidly growing creature in its more animalistic stage at once evoke a gut-wrenching sense of awe and horror at the creation of a life that should not be, but when a scene of hyperbolic gore that you assume must be Clive or Elsa’s nightmare turns out to be a real event, the film’s seriousness is blown away in an instant. Later, too, as the creature called Dren evolves into a winged demon, the similarity to recent winged-demon schlock is regrettable.