December 27, 2009

Wonder of Wonders: 'Avatar' Delights

As if I needed further proof of how wrong I can be about movies.

Avatar turned out to be quite a good show. Solid sci-fi, though the dialogue here and there was a bit expository and sometimes downright silly. And yes, it did appear to "borrow" elements from other films and literature, including Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and the Wachowski siblings' The Matrix, as well as proto-eco-pictures such as Silent Running.

Who cares, though. I had a jolly good time.

I didn't see it in 3D, in part because I wanted to see if the movie was good enough to stand on its own. It was. The theme of reality and whose it is was intriguing, and the world director James Cameron created on the fictitious moon Pandora, where Avatar was set, was straight out of the most brilliant, detailed sci-fi imaginations. Surprisingly, most of the script was on point, and the performances, especially Sam Worthington's, were strong. I kind of wanted to hate this film, but I couldn't. The world was too vivid. The themes were too prescient.

And I was just too wrong to dismiss it before seeing it. Silly me.

December 19, 2009

Yes, I Will Be Gnashing My Teeth at 'Avatar'

After all these years, I'm still not sure why I force myself to see movies that offer "spectacle"--and little else.

I have a big feeling that James Cameron's forest-fest Avatar is going to be just that. Granted, it does have an interesting subtext (the question of reality and who "owns" it) inherent in the story about the paraplegic soldier who has another, alien persona, his "avatar," while sleeping. That's the stuff of which good science-fiction is made.

Unfortunately, I'll bet a whole box of CGI effects that the script will leave a lot to be desired.

OK, so sometimes I like Cameron's style. His 1986 actioner Aliens, I believe, surpasses the original (which, in my opinion, had too much Tom Skerritt-style mumbling, despite the frightful atmosphere). And of course, 1984's The Terminator is a classic of low-budget, high-impact film making.

I think we can safely say Avatar is not cut out of that same low-budget mold.

I just worry. I worry it's going to waste a good idea and present us with woefully stupid dialogue and situations. I worry the leads are going to be wooden and uninteresting, never mind sympathetic. And I worry that the CGI effects will overwhelm the story.

I'm sure it'll be something to see. But when I see it--and that's a when, not an if--I'm sure I'll come out griping.

What else is new?

December 12, 2009

What a Surprise: Pixar's 'Up' Didn't Let Me Down

It's possible that the first 15 minutes of Pixar's latest triumph, Up, are the saddest of any animated film in history...and that includes Bambi and Watership Down.

This is no ordinary kids' movie. In fact, it's really a movie for adults disguised as a cartoon.

But it's really more than that, anyway.

Up, directed smoothly by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, is the story of an elderly widower (voiced by the amazing Ed Asner) who takes his house on a balloon trip to South America, where he yearns to see his childhood fantasyland, Paradise Falls. A significant suspension of disbelief is required when viewing this film--more so, perhaps, than any other Pixar film, even Ratatouille, which convinced me, despite my desire to resist, that rats could become great French chefs--owing to the extraordinary circumstances in the widower's life that somehow mesh together in the everyday. Still, this is a small challenge to take on...the film's rewards are much greater.

And they are myriad. A gigantic female bird named "Kevin" who squawks threateningly at anyone it dislikes but is loyal to a T. An army of "talking" dogs that serve (and eat) dinner whilst speaking in bizarre complete sentences. And, of course, the animation, as gorgeous as always, and yet highly stylized...which is part of the reason why I'm in awe of this film. This relatively "unrealistic" animation generated a movie that was much more moving than Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf or most other cartoons attempting a more fluid realism.

I'm not sure why that is, but I'll tell you: I think it has something to do with Up's initial 15 minutes.

Unpretentiously, without resorting to bathos or sentiment, this small segment tells the tale of the widower's life...and perhaps gives good reason not to judge anyone in real life by his or her cover. It's spare, sublime storytelling--much of which is done without dialogue but edited, like the great silents, with precision.

And it beats Beowulf by a mile.

I don't think Up is as structured as earlier Pixar films such as Ratatouille or Monsters, Inc.; it does feel a bit as if it's been "made up along the way" (though I suspect that's far from the truth). But its powerful sentiments and brilliant touches make it spellbinding, and I'm glad I spent the time to watch it.

I just rue the fact that I didn't bring any hankies.

December 06, 2009

Excesses Aside, 'Vikings' Proves Good Fun

Richard Fleischer's 1958 Odin-fest The Vikings should have been a piece of Hollywooden trash.

Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as Norse half-brothers? Hardy-har-har. Ernest Borgnine as a Viking leader? Excuse me while I laugh into the recesses of my horned helmet.

But lo--a funny thing happened while Trudi and I were watching this film last night: It actually was...believe it...entertaining.

To a certain degree.

Yea, verily, Trudi fell asleep during the epic castle siege toward the end...probably the best-mounted scene in the flick, though it did appear to "borrow" quite a bit of the imagery and techniques from Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, which still, in my opinion, has the greatest battle sequences in the history of film. But then again, Trudi doesn't like battle scenes. Boring, she says.

I agree...if you're watching snoozers such as Troy or Alexander.

Look, The Vikings is no great film. It's not exactly The Seven Samurai in terms of characterization. There's too much forced rowdiness from Kirk and the gang, and some of the dialogue--especially the Christian-pagan love scene between Curtis and (supposedly) English princess Janet Leigh--is a wee bit silly. Plus, the plot, which revolves around the rivalry between the slave Curtis and the Viking heir Douglas, is convoluted to the point where it diminishes the capacity to care for the characters as much as one should.

But I was kind of surprised by the excellence of the production design, as well as some of the photography (though some murky night shots were slightly off-putting). And despite the fact that some of the costumes probably weren't around in the Dark Ages (hey, Kirk, is there any film in which your sleeves aren't cut off?), there wasn't a horned helmet in sight.

At least they got that right, huh?

Anyway, most of the time I had fun watching this movie--it was spirited entertainment, and I didn't take it too seriously. Trudi, on the other hand, had a different kind of experience, as she was able to catch some Zs during the proceedings. I can't say I blame her, however; a masterpiece this wasn't. But for some good, old-fashioned, ludicrous fun, I'd say this was a good pick.

Onward and upward...

December 02, 2009

'2012' Demolishes the Grandeur that Was Earth

Sometimes it seems Hell will freeze over before Roland Emmerich learns to focus on one character in his films.

2012, Emmerich's the-warnings-were-wrong-and-now-we're-screwed eco-disaster flick, is the most recent example of the director's tendency to think big and overlook the really, really important. Like a good script, for example. Or subtle performances.

Ah, no matter. That's not what you go to a disaster film for, right?

To be fair, 2012 wasn't as horrible as I expected...though it certainly wasn't good. It had all the usual stereotypes: the divorced dad who really cares for his family and somehow winds up back together with them (played with little nuance by John Cusack in his patented likable mode); the scientist (portrayed ably but thanklessly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who really cares for humanity and doesn't want to see them wiped out by a bad script, er, the world turning into a puddle of lava and seawater; the President (interpreted with irritating bathos by Danny Glover) who decides to remain and die with everyone else, like that's gonna happen; and the evil fundraiser (!) who basically wants everyone to die so he can, er, live or something (represented by the slumming Oliver Platt). And the special effects--the film's selling point--were generally impressive, though a few screens, uh, seams appeared to show here and there, which mitigated the impact somewhat.

But oh, the script. 'Twas yucky. And the focus, or lack thereof, on multiple characters made it impossible to care about anyone. That was a problem Emmerich faced in movies such as Independence Day, though that picture had a bit of character to go along with all the jingoistic nonsense. I'd like to see a disaster film that, for once, homes in on one protagonist, rather than a multitude.

I know, however, that'll probably only happen when Hell freezes over. I'm fine with that--I can wait.

November 28, 2009

At Least 'Ruins' Had Some Nice Scenery

When a good movie tells me the world is flat, I believe it.

When a bad movie tells me the world is round, I don't.

Such was the case with My Life in Ruins, director Donald Petrie's dreadful Nia Vardalos vehicle from earlier this year--perhaps the most disingenuous film I've seen in 2009. Certainly, it had all the ingredients for an enjoyable flick: a breezy cast (including the effervescent Vardalos, who was so terrific in 2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as well as Richard Dreyfuss and a host of other character actors), a glorious setting (the lovely streets and architecture, old and new, of Athens) and a potentially charming little plot (wannabe college professor Vardalos works as tour guide for crummy company and finds love in a surprising place).

Unfortunately, nothing worked. And I think I figured out why.

Vardalos didn't write it.

Perhaps that would've made all the difference, as it did in the cute MBFGW. Because the biggest problem with Ruins is its flat, cardboard script, generated by someone named Mike Reiss. The laughs are minimal; the bathos is apparent. Worst of all, the flick descends into what I call the "friends syndrome," an ailment that usually affects bad romantic comedies by providing the protagonists with supposedly empathetic friends who do little but support their buddies during their amorous adventures. In the case of Ruins, this job falls to Dreyfuss, playing a crude, obnoxious widower tourist with a big heart and a lot of cheesy advice on love that trickles out of him like butter oozing from chicken Kiev.

As Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman would say, "Ecch!"

Sadly, Reiss and director Petrie paint Dreyfuss' character, as well as the others, in two dimensions rather than three. I just didn't care, and the purported development--in which Vardalos discovers the wisecracking Duddy, I mean Dreyfuss, to be suffering owing to his wife's recent demise--rings fake. This becomes especially appalling when the film enters The Bathetic Zone, after Dreyfuss' alter kocker is hospitalized (presumably for overacting) and then is visited by his entire tour group.

Come on, folks. Does every lousy romcom have to descend to this purportedly "dramatic" madness?

Oddly enough, the film Ruins most reminded me of was the dismal With Honors, another disingenuous flick that encouraged us to care about its tiresome, unpleasant characters while providing a Doomed Wise Man (in WH's case, played in the most over-the-top manner by Joe Pesci) as a dramatic crutch. Same treatment, different setting.

And I guess that was the element that elevated Ruins to a height just above the usual dreck. Trudi and I enjoyed watching the shots of Greece and figured if the movie comprised solely that, it would be a much greater film.

Maybe we should've just watched the Travel Channel. Eh bien.

November 21, 2009

On Family, Loss and 'Mother Night'

I think my cousin's matured into a fine filmmaker.

That was my reaction after seeing Mother Night, director Keith Gordon's adaptation of the eponymous Kurt Vonnegut novel. Gordon, an auteur who these days works primarily in TV, is a director whose works have intrigued me for some time--dating back to his interesting 1988 adaptation of the Robert Cormier book The Chocolate War.

Of course, there's another reason why his films have been on my radar. He's my cousin...although, admittedly, one I've never met.

Strangely enough, my ex-wife once admitted having a crush on Gordon during his days as an actor, when he starred in movies such as Christine and Back to School. Not sure if that has something to do with the distinctive visages so prevalent on my mother's side (the area of the family whence Gordon came), but I thought it was an interesting aside.

What's more interesting, however, is the talent that Gordon has summoned up--both internally and externally--for Mother Night, a film I wasn't prepared to like.

The story, concerning an American playwright (played superbly by Nick Nolte) who is recruited during World War II as a double-agenty spy in an effort to transmit code disguised as anti-Semitic rants from Germany to the United States, has a fascinating subtext: that of lost identity, and the ingratitude following anonymous service. Gordon films the proceedings sumptuously, in painterly tones, switching to black-and-white at times a la Lindsay Anderson's If..... The ironic quality of the tale is enhanced by some excellent, solemn music by Michael Convertino that seems to echo Javier Navarrete's score for Pan's Labyrinth. But the real star is the script, adapted wonderfully by Robert B. Weide from Vonnegut's work. It's a dark, melancholy screenplay, negative but not inhuman, and cognizant of the inextricable forces that bind people within unwinnable situations. It's very nicely done.

Which is not to say that there aren't any issues with the film. It's not completely clear why Nolte's character, Howard Campbell, takes the spy role in the first place, as he admits to being a man without politics. And Gordon sometimes gets a bit too fancy with his direction, especially in a scene between Campbell and his recruiter in which the camera circles the duo as it did in Hitchcock's Vertigo...albeit with less intrigue. (I have to admit: I'm not a big fan of the ever-popular camera-circling technique, as I feel it generally detracts from the goings-on in the scene.)

Still, Mother Night is a distinctive, unusual work and deserves to be better known. I'd say my cousin has grown up a lot from his days in Back to School. But that's what happens with talent: It matures with age. Now we have to see where it goes from here.

November 17, 2009

'Rififi' Proves Me Wrong Once Again

This might be the 2,000th time I've been off base about a great movie.

For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that the downbeat ending of Jule Dassin's 1955 jewel-heist thriller en francais Rififi would make for gloomy evening viewing.

Boy, was I wrong.

What a masterpiece. Just brilliant. I had last seen it many years ago and remembered the daring half-hour robbery scene that features no dialogue and only incidental sound, but that was only one part of this terrific film...though it was as extraordinary as ever. The frank dialogue, vivid characterizations and ugly realism were striking, and the wonderful music (by Georges Auric, who also did the superb score for Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, among others) and gorgeous, stark black-and-white photography (by Philippe Agostini, whose shots reminded me of Robert Krasker's stunning lenswork in The Third Man and Odd Man Out) augmented the picture. And yes, the ending was downbeat, but warranted within the context of the film; instead of having a negative effect, it had a positive all great movies do.

And that's the purpose of watching a good movie, isn't it? To be uplifted?

A bad movie makes me feel, well, bad. A good movie makes me elated.

Rififi did just that.

So next time, I think I'll ignore any inner voice that tells me to avoid a great film just because of its ending. The path that gets me there is worth the cost.

And I'm all about the road that should be taken.

November 15, 2009

Lock Up Your Baubles: 'Rififi' Is Up Next

Here it is, the original jewel-heist-gone-awry movie...and I just can't bear to watch it.

Yes, Jules Dassin's 1955 classic Rififi has landed, en Francais, at chez Butler, fresh from the halls of Netflix. I haven't seen it in years, though I remember it with a fondness, especially the fabled "no talking" theft sequence.

The trouble is, I also remember the ending, which is a real downer. Warranted in the context of the film, of course, but not happy.

I don't wanna see "not happy" tonight.

OK, so I've been slumming a bit. Last evening, I saw a bit of Mark Lester's 1985 squib-fest Commando, which happened to be on cable and was one of the films that required the least amount of thought at 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. There were no concerns about the amount of melancholy in that flick--especially since I didn't care about the characters enough to worry about whether things would turn out all right in the end. (Not that it matters.)

That was then, however. This

UPDATE: Trudi has just informed me that she wants to see Rififi. Looks like we're gonna watch it tonight. I'll keep you posted.

November 13, 2009

Dialing 'S' for 'Stagy'

When will everyone start to realize that Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder just isn't the classic that it should be?

Sure, it has Grace Kelly, luminous as always. Sure it has a terrific murder scene featuring a strategically placed scissors. Sure it has some great camerawork and quintessentially Hitch angles (such as the "I'm Looking at the Action from Above" perspective).

But unfortunately, the film never works for me--perhaps because it's derived from the eponymous play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote the script). And I can't get past the fact that the action in the film almost always seems stage-bound, as if all the tricks in Hitch's book couldn't make the goings-on cinematic.

One thing I noticed on my most recent viewing of DMFM is that there are some interesting long takes that feature a heckuva lot of talking. And I mean a lot. This is a Hitchy-like thing to do as well; after all, he featured it in 1948's Rope. But Rope seems like more of an experiment, while DMFM just makes the impression (at least on me) that it's a misfire. It's too stagy, too confined. It seems the actors aren't allowed to breathe like they often do in the Master's greatest films.

And yet--although I don't have the statistics to prove it--DMFM seems to come up on TV more frequently than The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes...two Hitchcock classics that use dialogue in the best, freest way possible, are completely cinematic (despite some camera trickery used to convey location) and are among the director's best films.

Something's rotten in the state of TV, methinks. But what else is new?

November 07, 2009

Settling Down with Wallace, Gromit

Revisiting animator Nick Park's extraordinary Wallace and Gromit shorts is like watching a great Bugs Bunny cartoon for the first time since your childhood.

You marvel at the subtlety of the animation: the movements, the camerawork. You relish the fine characterization that makes the flick come alive.

And you wonder why you ever stopped watching the thing in the first place.

That's how it was after re-viewing Park's triumvirate of terrific W&G shorts with Trudi: A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. These beautiful films, which I had seen for the first time in the 1990s at Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation in New York, are little masterpieces--classic romps in which the cheese-obsessed, slightly dotty inventor Wallace and his faithful dog, Gromit (one of the greatest, most expressive silent characters in film, in my opinion...on a par with Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, despite the dog's animated aspect) visit the moon, take in a paying (penguin) guest and explore the world of sheep rustling, respectively.

If you haven't experienced these worlds before, I envy you. You still have a first time to do it.

And if you have viewed them previously, I encourage you to revisit them. I think I'll do so every so often, from now on. Everything--from Park's superb modelwork to the charming, almost-too-good-for-a-cartoon scores by Julian Nott--works brilliantly, and you'll be as satisfied at the end of each film as you'd be following a date with an old friend over tea.

With some fine Wensleydale cheese, of course. I think Bugs Bunny would approve of that.

October 25, 2009

We Came, We Saw, We Discussed (Kurosawa)

Well, I have to commend Trudi. It didn't take much from me to convince her to watch Akira Kurosawa's 1957 Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood. In fact, it was the viewing of a miserable Hans Conreid fantasy called The Twonky on Turner Classic Movies (!) that led us both to put on TOB, which I had received recently from Netflix.

The good news: We watched the entire film together. The bad news: Trudi didn't like it very much.

So was I disappointed? A bit--but not too much. This is a different movie from The Emperor's The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, both of which Trudi enjoyed. TOB is deliberately stylized, a la the Noh theater from which it draws much of its inspiration, and the fact that the story was known to Trudi made the proceedings less suspenseful (though I pointed out that it was not a literal translation, and the Grand Guignol-type ending is more Kurosawa than Shakespeare). And yes, Univarn, you're absolutely right: It probably would've been better to launch into more accessible Kurosawas, such as High and Low, Stray Dog or The Bad Sleep Well.

I have a confession, however, to make: I'm a sucker for jidai-geki, and I've always liked Kurosawa's period pieces better than his modern ones. So TOB it was.

I do give credit to Trudi for sitting through it, though. It's certainly not an easy one to watch, though it's quite rewarding. On this viewing, I revisited my amazement at some of Kurosawa's brilliant touches: a bleached white spirit weirdly running through the forest; a mass of birds flying into a castle room after escaping from the trees; and, of course, the famous final scene in which Toshiro Mifune's weak, ambitious Washizu/Macbeth gets perforated with a multitude of arrows.

It still works. And it's still the best onscreen adaptation, in my opinion, of Macbeth. Somehow, Kurosawa understood the pessimistic, misanthropic nature of the play, and was able to translate it brilliantly to the screen in another context.

But don't worry, Trudi--that's enough Shakespeare for now. I'll make sure my queue in Netflix has something that's easier to digest up next, like Julie Taymor's adaptation of Titus Andronicus.

Just kidding, Trudi.

October 23, 2009

Uh, Oh: 'Throne of Blood' Is Up Next

There are two parts to watching Akira Kurosawa's 1957 masterpiece Throne of Blood. Part one, the easy part, is merely playing the DVD. Part two, the hard part, is convincing Trudi to watch it with me.

Ah...there's the rub.

I know, I know--wrong play. TOB, of course, is based on Macbeth, and it's probably the definitive screen adaptation, despite the fact that it's not a literal translation. Still, it's a movie with quite a bit of violence (especially toward the end), and because Trudi is not enamored of films with battle scenes, this will be a hard sell. I'll probably have to tell her it's not your ordinary chambara film, and there's little in the way of war action (unlike Kurosawa's King Lear adaptation, Ran). In truth, TOB is wonderfully eerie, pessimistic and evocative film, complete with weird mist and freaky ghosts, along with some extraordinary set pieces...such as the famously gruesome ending. And Trudi has good taste in movies, which tells me that she would like this one.

I'll just tone down the nasty bits when I pitch it to her. Here's hoping!

October 18, 2009

I Admit It: I Watched 'Rambo' Last Night

But only (in general) during commercial interludes following Yankees gameplay.

Why did I do this? Well, I knew Rambo--the 2008 Sylvester Stallone-directed CGI squibfest, not the, uh, "classic" 1985 version--would be too ludicrous for me to care about missing certain segments during the Yankees-Angels game...making the film perfect for post-midnight viewing. I also knew I wouldn't expend any brain cells needed to concentrate on the strategies exhibited by Halos manager Mike Scioscia and Bronx Bombers skipper Joe Girardi.

Boy, was I right. And how.

I can't say I was disappointed by the movie--especially because I had such low expectations (which were fulfilled)--but I was aggrieved at one thing in particular: the sheer laziness of the flick. It was almost proudly derivative, "borrowing" elements from movies ranging from The Seven Samurai to The Dirty Dozen. Yet the most egregious affront was the Peckinpah-esque body count, a blood cell buildup that seemed to take its cue from the orgiastic finale of The Wild Bunch...though without the contextual ideology that made the latter film so powerful. As extra after extra in Rambo got his head blown off by the eponymous, stone-faced Stallone character, I had to wonder why Sly felt like viewers should see this. To become aghast at the horrors of war? To admire the technical expertise of the special-effects team behind all this splatter?

Or to relish, without conscience, death--presented in great detail--on the ruby screen?

Sadly, the indiscriminate carnage points to the latter. There was no comment here, no subtext, a la The Wild Bunch. It was just violence. Years ago, that might've been the exact criticism levied against Peckinpah, with the suggestion that his style glorified such mayhem. But Peckinpah's films had a strangely intellectual bent underneath all the machismo, and The Wild Bunch's (mostly) unsavory characters had a loyalty and ennui that still got us involved...and made us care.

In Rambo, it was just bloodshed. Without a purpose.

Good thing I stayed up to finish the Yankees game. Otherwise, I might've been dreaming about bad filmmaking rather than good playmaking.

October 11, 2009

Deja Vu: 'Time' Sputters Again at Casa Butler

Ever watch a lousy movie more than once just to see if you were right the first time you saw it?

I did just that the other day with Simon Wells' 2002 muddlepiece The Time Machine. Despite the fact that I hated it after seeing it when it came out and I continued to hate it on subsequent viewings, I decided to view it again with the thought that "hey, it couldn't be as bad as I remembered it, right?"

Right? Wrong.

Never mind that director Wells is the great-grandson of Time Machine author H.G. Wells. Actually, mind that. He really has no excuse.

But would his famous great-grandfather agree?

I'm not so sure about that, though methinks he'd have to quibble with the outrageously tedious back story that seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of stretching out the younger Wells' adaptation of what is a very short but concise book. (This seemingly endless prologue has something to do with the the New York-based protagonist, played lethargically by Guy Pearce, mourning the death of his girlfriend.) And he's probably have a bit of a beef with the depiction of the Eloi as a competent, eloquent race of humans that lives in wicker tree houses designed, seemingly, by migratory Ewoks.

Yeah, uh, that doesn't sound like the story envisioned by old H.G.

Sadly, despite some interesting special effects and production design (the memory of which probably lured me back to this adaptation the other day in the first place), this Time Machine doesn't get past first base. It's not even close in quality to George Pal's 1960 interpretation, which still didn't approach the book in terms of economy and imagination. And the script in Wells' film is just bad. Bad, bad, bad. Watching the Eloi interact with Pearce's Time Traveller is so tiresome that the viewer can't help but wait for the Morlocks to come...and it turns out they're not so interesting anyway. (They kind of look like a cross between Crazy Harry the Muppet and the dragon from The NeverEnding Story.) And then, when Jeremy Irons--playing a white-haired Morlock dictator who seems to have wandered in from the Rivendell set of The Fellowship of the Ring--appears, it's too little, too late (though he remains the best thing in the film, despite the fact that he, like so much else in the movie, is not an invention of the book).

So what did I learn from watching this wretched Time Machine for the umpth time? Well...I learned that sometimes the viewer can be right the first time. I also learned that I should change the channel rather than stick with something I know I'm gonna hate. Gee, I wish I could get those two hours returned to me.

If I could turn back time...

October 09, 2009

And Now the Kvetching Starts

It's high time we retired zombie movies and vampire TV shows.

I'm just not much of a fan. There's only so much you can do with mindless monsters and bottled blood.

And there's only so much you can do with using these entities to make comments on society.

Look, we've had a rash of that type of thing in recent years, and it has begun to get tired. When Don Siegel and George Romero were doing it in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, respectively, it was interesting. Novel.

At about the 2,468th time, however, it stops being funny.

Now don't get me wrong. I (somewhat) enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, though I didn't think it was a laugh riot. But I'm getting the feeling that these types of films are a bit too "easy" for their makers. They don't take many risks. They cover similar ground: attacks on consumerism, mindless mob mentalities, and blase, jaded or bemused reactions to supernatural activity in urban or suburban environments. Or they try to present otherworldly creatures as character-driven folks who just wanna blend in with everyone else (a la True Blood).

I don't hate to admit it, but I'm just not into this kinda thing.

The other big problem, in my opinion, with these types of monster-hugging media is that zombies and vampires are severely limited in terms of character--owing to their very natures. There's only so much you can do with a personality who can't go out in the light, drinks blood (or brains) and smiles sharper than a saber-toothed cat. Because they're in part defined by their "monster-ness," they exhibit a similarity that relegates them to a kind of flatness. They have few prospects for change, unlike the great characters in film or literature. (I'm thinking, for example, of J.J. Gittes in Chinatown or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.)

They have, in my opinion, become cookie-cutter.

And that's why I'm not itching to see the aggressively tongue-in-cheek Zombieland. Or why I don't quiver at the mention of Twilight, True Blood or The Vampire Diaries.

I like my horror with a touch of the eerie, a la Kwaidan or Night of the Demon. It's all about character-infused atmosphere, methinks. Not zombies or vampires.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

October 04, 2009

Consarn It, Another Burton 'Vision' Is Upon Us

There's a storm a-comin'. And it's not gonna be one of those storms where those caught in it sing about how they like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.

It's a storm of Tim Burton "visions." You know--like his tedious interpretation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Or his infantile remake of 1968's classic sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes. Or his atrocious adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Now, it's a new film version of Lewis Carroll's children's book Alice in Wonderland. With Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Be afraid, folks. Be very afraid.

What I'm wondering is how Burton gets money to do these wretched films. And who lets him "augment" the tales with tiresome back stories and leaden expository content that purport to provide the audience with rationales for the protagonists' behavior.

As well as how this once-talented director has succumbed to the scourge of mediocrity.

I thought Beetle Juice was imaginative. I found much of Ed Wood to be intriguing.

I do not find overdoses of Johnny Depp to be palatable.

Granted, the Alice cast--aside from Johnny Depp--is formidable, carrying stalwarts such as Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee (as the Jabberwock, no less). And we are allowed to wait until next year before we're thumped with this film.

But I'm worried. I know it's gonna be horrible. And I can't say Alice doesn't faze me anymore.

It does. I'm afraid. Very afraid.

October 01, 2009

Yea, Verily, Yea: 'Jester' Still Draws Laughs

I have fond memories of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama's 1956 Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester from my childhood. Indeed, my sister and I still quote lines from it every so often...perhaps as a way of showing that we remain kids at heart.

So I deliberately pitched the movie as a silly bit of froth to Trudi before showing it to her last night--an effort to create relatively low expectations that would balloon once she realized how funny the film is.

I think my scheme worked. Trudi, like Garbo, laughed.

Of course, it's not hard to laugh at Kaye's antics in TCG, perhaps his most consistently funny movie (yes, even over Knock on Wood, which has a bunch of sublime moments but overall is driven by a bit too much "serious" plot for my taste). TCG, a hilarious and well-mounted spoof of swashbucklers such as 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood (hey, it even has Basil Rathbone in it!), gives Kaye the opportunity to all of his most silly bits, such as linguistic torture, patter songs and impersonations of congested old men. But the film is most remembered for the "get it, got it, good" exchanges and the memorable "flagon with the dragon" debacle...lines that invariably end up in viewers' repertoires of quotable quotes.

Still, Kaye doesn't accomplish all this singlehandedly: Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker and gravel-voiced Glynis Johns all turn in amusing performances, and Rathbone, whose name keeps turning up ominously in the opening credits, does his usual fine work as the (usual) villain. Frank and Panama, who also wrote the film, keep up a lively pace, though some of the "serious" moments tend to drag. (No one, in my opinion, goes to a Kaye movie for plot, just as no one watches a Marx Brothers flick just for the singing.) Thankfully, the "serious" moments are few and far between...something I believe Trudi appreciated.

Yea, verily, yea.

September 29, 2009

Surprises Await in 'God Grew Tired of Us'

I'm not sure how Trudi picked this one on Netflix. Frankly, I never know what's next in her queue until the film arrives at our apartment.

Well, to quote The Beatles, I should've known better. Because Trudi's latest pick, God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan, is an extraordinary film that shouldn't have slipped under my rather insular radar. But I'm glad I saw it late rather than never. And I urge all my readers, if they haven't already, to do the same.

GGTOU tells the story of Sudan's Lost Boys, a group of kids who, amidst the terror of war, were forced to migrate, on foot, from Sudan to Ethiopia and then to Kenya--all the while undergoing unimaginable horrors that no person, let alone a child, should experience. These boys finally reached shelter at a camp in Kenya, though not without cost: Starvation, disease and the evils of war claimed many children along the way, and the boys learned to bury their comrades at an early age. The camp, a United Nations facility, served as a means for the boys to become friends and family to each other, as many were orphaned during the Sudanese conflict, but the camp had limited food, and survival remained a struggle.

Then some of the boys got the opportunity through the camp to make a new home in the United States. And that's when a different kind of struggle emerged for them.

The film, directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn (who also wrote it) and Tommy Walker, focuses on three Lost Boys: Panther, John and Daniel. John, a tall, sensitive young man, settles in Syracuse, N.Y., while Panther and Daniel head to Pittsburgh. Initially, there is a sense of relief when watching their transition to America following the horrors they endured in Sudan, and there's even some amusing moments as they grow acclimated to staples such as refrigerators and supermarkets.

But the amusement stops once the Lost Boys get jobs and begin to support themselves...and start thinking of home.

The film carries a sad subtext. Only a select few of these youths were tapped to journey to America, and many of their friends were left behind in the camp. The loneliness and sadness that Panther, John and Daniel face are expressed quite frankly in the film, but one of the questions that arises is why no mental health services were provided to them following their arrival in the States? There's even a scene in the movie that outlines how one of the boys went through what appeared to be a nervous breakdown and had to be placed under observation. These kids saw what no one should see, all the while maintaining a responsibility for each other that would be unthinkable in the U.S. The stress of that burden must've been immense. So why weren't any professionals assigned to these youths in an effort to ease their transition to the States and assuage any feelings of loneliness and despondence?

One of GGTOU's other issues--this time, in terms of the quality of the film making itself--is that the narration, by Nicole Kidman, is delivered in a monotone that seems designed to call as little attention as possible to her involvement in the documentary. It seems a bit disingenuous; as long as her voice is there, wouldn't it make sense to use all of its nuances and inflections to the fullest possible extent? In this reviewer's opinion, that would've given the proceedings even more power...though it could be argued that narration was hardly necessary in the first place, owing to the nature of this tremendously powerful subject.

Thankfully, GGTOU doesn't pull any punches in its depiction of the boys' struggles--overseas or in America. The graphic, horrifying images of war and starvation in Sudan that are shown early on in the film contrast with the youths' gallant attempts to support themselves, as well as their remaining families and friends, with terribly low wages from jobs that they often take two or three of just to make ends meet. And there are many ethereal moments in the film, especially toward the end, when we follow the boys' successes in their fields, as well as their outreaches toward family members and girlfriends.

But ultimately, GGTOU's effect is sobering: It calls attention to war's terrible impact on innocents--a disaster that is still occurring--and shows that despite the fact that some may be saved, the struggles will continue...unless action on a worldwide scale is taken to address the conflict. I thank Trudi for putting this one on Netflix. I wouldn't have known of it without her doing so, and that would've been my loss.

September 27, 2009

Warm, Fuzzy Feelings Get Trampled in 'District 9'

I think the era of cute, friendly aliens, a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial--is finally over.

Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a nightmarish, what-if vision of an Earth that treats its first visitors from outer space like rats carrying the plague, shows that our cynical, suspicious society could fashion a distinctly unpleasant welcome for extraterrestrials on first contact...sans charming hand signals and Francois Truffaut. District 9 presents a scenario in which alien refugees, arriving in a massive ship above Johannesburg, South Africa, at an unidentified date in the future, are shuttled into filthy refugee camps as the government decides what to do with them and derisively called "prawns"--a reference to their crustacean-like features. Enter scruffy, officious Wikus Van De Merwe (played magnificently by Sharlto Copley), a pencil-pusher charged with evicting these otherworldly visitors from their homes, a procedure he appears to do with relish until...

Well, I won't tell you. But it's worth noting that this film has a fish-out-of-water flavor reminiscent of Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, mixed with the claustrophobic nastiness and bloody action of Aliens.

The most interesting aspect of District 9 is its political subtext--a hardly veiled-at-all comment on apartheid that is made more apparent when one considers the setting for the film: Johannesburg. The aliens themselves are presented as, well, aliens...with highly unusual and often disgusting predilections. (Eating rubber from tires, rummaging through garbage and unnecessarily wearing brassieres are among these extraterrestrials' favorite pastimes, apparently.) The fact that these visitors are so unappealing (especially considering their spiky appendages and aggressive behavior) makes the film so much more complex; the creatures, assumedly created with the help of New Zealand's WETA Workshop (the brains behind the special effects featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which District 9 co-producer Peter Jackson directed), are insect-like and dirty-looking, and speak a muttering, click-heavy language that constantly seems to suggest expressions such as "buzz off" no matter what the context.

So how can we feel for these creatures if, to paraphrase Dr. Zira in 1968's Planet of the Apes, they're "so damned ugly"?

There's the rub. These creatures are not E.T. But they are sentient, and the violence and humiliation they endure in District 9 is enough to make a viewer gasp--despite the fact that it's all (admittedly well done) makeup and CGI special effects. And that's the comment, I believe, Blomkamp is making about apartheid...or any other inhumane mistreatment levied against other people: Can one feel for another whom one doesn't understand and who represents an unfamiliar culture? Can the "other" be welcomed into society without being put down and discriminated against?

And could this be a likely scenario in case we ever achieve first contact?

It's a heady perception, and although the film at times degenerates into action-movie cliches and overly animated hand-held-camera wobbling, the subtext is a powerful one. Blomkamp's film has a lot of heart, and that's something much of the best science fiction has as well.

Not to mention green, creepy aliens. Eat your heart out, Close Encounters.

September 26, 2009

'Cartouche' Ending Not So Bad After All

Well, I wasn't disappointed--as I'd been in the past.

The ending of Philippe de Broca's 1962 swashbuckler Cartouche, which I finally got around to revisiting last night, wasn't as bad as I'd remembered it. Sure, it was a downer, but it was sensitively handled. My only complaint this time around was that it seemed a bit abrupt.

As opposed to the rest of the film, which was a brawling, thrilling delight.

I wonder if the unhappy (though now that I think about it as an older man, somewhat fitting) ending has led in part to the film's relative anonymity in the United States. After all, we like our swashbucklers happy and peppy--adventures as comedies, where everybody who deserves to wins in the end.

It was not so with Cartouche. C'est dommage. This film deserves to be better known.

September 23, 2009

La Vie en Rogue: 'Cartouche' Prevails Despite Zs

So sue me. I'm a lot older than I used to be (as is everyone, of course), and that means I just can't stay up until the wee hours merely to watch a good movie.

At least, not as often.

That was the case last night with Cartouche, Philippe de Broca's exuberant, swashbuckling romp from 1962, which Trudi and I watched about a third of before heading off to catch some Zs. With terrific, colorful cinematography by Christian Matras, a stunning, Purcell-esque score by Georges Delerue, and charming performances by the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Claudia Cardinale and Jean Rochefort, Cartouche has got what it takes to be one of those relatively unknown classics.

Except it has a really downbeat ending...which I didn't get a chance to revisit last night, owing to the soporific atmosphere at La Maison de Simon Butler.

What I did see, however, was "cherce." The story in part concerns a lovable, lower-class thief in 18th-century France, Cartouche (played disarmingly by the roguish Belmondo), who, to escape the villainous mob boss Malichot (a menacing Marcel Dalio), joins the army with two other no-goodniks (Rochefort and Jess Hahn), and then proceeds to return to his thieving ways. Trudi and I got as far as a superbly choreographed fight scene set in a tavern, in which broad slapstick was juxtaposed with delicate swordplay among Belmondo and a set of upper-class twits, and then we had to exeunt omnes.

Oh, well. Looks like we'll finish it later...perhaps tonight?

So far, the movie is even better than I remember it, which may be setting me up for disappointment once I review the ending. Still, it's got many exciting moments, including a bit of anti-war sentiment that echoes de Broca's 1966 cult classic, Le Roi de Coeur. (Two generals even kill each other in the heat of battle, which also happens, ironically, toward the end of LRDC.) I'm looking forward to seeing the rest--whenever that may be. I'm also looking forward to staying up to finish it.

That might be a much taller order.

September 20, 2009

Up Next on Netflix: 'Cartouche'

Wow. Talk about obscure.

Philippe de Broca's relatively unknown 1962 swashbuckler Cartouche is on tap for my (and, hopefully, my significant other's) viewing pleasure...and I'm still wondering why I put this one up so high in my queue. After all, I've always hated the ending--a real downer to an otherwise charming and exciting film.

And, no, it's not a warranted, dramatically necessary cinematic downer a la Carol Reed's magnificent The Third Man. In fact, it's completely pointless.

So I'm going to have to ask myself a question I've asked throughout (seemingly) eternity: If a flick is good almost all the way through but sputters at the end, can it still be considered a good film?

Another example of this is Nicolas Roeg's 1973 suspenser Don't Look Now. Wonderful stuff...until the ludicrous, frustrating ending.

How do I come to terms with these fundamentally flawed movies?

I'll have to watch Cartouche again to see if my tastes have changed. I'm not optimistic that they have...but you never know.

Anyway, I'll keep you posted.

September 18, 2009

Death Be Not Proud of 'Final Destination'

Look, I'm as much for Death as the next guy. After all, it's gonna happen to, sometime.

But I'm a little perplexed by Death's career choices. After headlining four Final Destination flicks, he's made it clear he's only in it for the money.

Which brings me to an interesting question: Do I have to see all installments of the franchise to know that it's a lousy, cheap-o set of movies?

Or can I just go by instinct on this one?

By the pricking of my thumbs/Something stupid this way comes.

Oddly enough, I have tried watching at least two of these wretched movies on TV: numeros deux et trois in the series. Needless to say, I was appalled by the ludicrous situations, horrible acting and dreadful writing. But the most offensive thing was the franchise's irritating insistence on personifying Death, who, in his apparent annoyance over being cheated by a bunch of earnest young actors, has devised countless gory ways of getting back at them.

Death, what are you, slumming or something? Don't you have anything better to do?

The fact is, I've embarked on this rant because I'm chagrined that the fourth installment in this painfully obvious series, The Final Destination (hopefully), has been advertised ad nauseam over the airwaves of late in an effort to get undiscerning moviegoers to the theaters. Frankly, this critic would rather have his brains squeezed out by a cheese press than pay 12 smackeroos for the vile jelly that is TFD.

Of course, that may be in the plans for me anyway. Maybe I can get a rain check.

September 16, 2009

Title-Challenged Films Should 'Meet' Their Maker

I've now had it with terrible film titles.

Although the dreadful trend of releases with "Meet the" in their monikers appears to have fizzled out (at least for the time being, thank goodness!), the world now has a new enemy: "All About" flicks.

I kid you not. This is truly an insidious pattern.

Take All About Steve, for instance--a universally panned dud starring Sandra Bullock (who should know better than to do this dreck) and Bradley Cooper (who may find himself knowing better after seeing the reactions to this movie). What does the title actually tell us about the movie...other than it's a riff on the 1950 classic Bette Davis picture All About Eve? My theory is that junky flicks of this ilk depend on titles that say nothing about the they're low-concept initiatives with limited, simple (or, rather, simplistic) plots. This applies to such cinematic horrors as Meet the Parents and its cheap-laughathon sequel, Meet the Fockers, as well as to bargain-basement "parodies" such as Meet the Spartans. And let's not forget the prolific Tyler Perry, who regaled us last year with Meet the Browns.

Exciting stuff, huh? Makes you just wanna rush out and spend 12 bucks on these classics.

A good movie title, IMHO, should tempt the potential viewer without giving away too much. But it shouldn't say too little, either...or nothing at all. Films such as The Exterminating Angel, The Hidden Fortress and Kind Hearts and Coronets not only promise interesting content, but also live up to their potential appeal--and each one of these pictures provides some insight into its title when viewers watch it.

So...are the days of good titles gone already? Come on--I hardly knew ye.

I guess I should be optimistic...after all, if Quentin Tarantino can weirdly misspell a 30-year-old movie title for his own Inglourious Basterds, there must be some creativity left. Then again, if we've come to the age of "All About" flicks because it's easier to slap on a movie than a moniker that offers a real perspective, then it's time for me to eschew the popcorn at the movie theater for a nice big cup of fake butter.

Cheap's to the cheap, right?

September 13, 2009

Bax, Newton Still Steal Show in Lean's 'Twist'

After watching David Lean's sinewy 1948 masterpiece Oliver Twist last night, I was struck by the fact that it seemed somewhat more heavily cut than Lean's other post-war Dickens adaptation, 1946's Great Expectations--a work of remarkable economy, especially considering the length of the original book. Strangely, I hadn't felt that way about Twist on previous viewings; I have never read the source material (as opposed to GE) and am admittedly ignorant about the full scope of the tale.

This time, however, Twist seemed more choppy than it had before...though not on account of its quality. As an atmospheric piece depicting 19th-century England, the film has few competitors: the production design is impeccable, and the casting--from the epic Francis L. Sullivan as the pompous Mr. Bumble to the wild-eyed Robert Newton (in the film's best and most frightening performance) as the evil Bill Sikes--is nearly perfect. (The criticism of anti-Semitism levied against Alec Guinness' performance as the schnoz-enhanced Fagin may be somewhat valid, owing in part to the ludicrousness of the appendage, but Guinness has finely tuned the character, and my question is: Is Fagin really any more villainous than Sikes, Bumble, Monks or any of the other nasties in the story? I say no.) Plus, the score, by Sir Arnold Bax, is eerie, brassy and very English, striking all the right notes of menace and innocence at the appropriate times.

Lean, though an accomplished editor, apparently did not work his magic on this version of Twist, and perhaps it would've been a very different film if he had. Still, there's a lot to like, from the scary opening sequence involving Twist's mother in the storm to Sikes' terrifying entrance. From a technical perspective, all is very high quality, but from a literary one, it seems there's something missing. Perhaps I'm lamenting the lack of gilding on this wouldn't be the first time--or, for that matter, the last.

September 07, 2009

All Right, I've Had Enough of 'Marked for Death'

Can someone tell me please why Steven Seagal remains popular?

Or, for that matter, why his 1990 magnum opus, Marked for Death, shows up more often than The Seven Samurai on cable?

Or--even more troubling--why I continue to watch this idiotic movie almost every time it's on?

It's not that I like bad writing, hammy acting and uninspired directing. Really. I loathe such things.

But after finding myself lapping up these atrocious elements during a recent viewing of MFD, I realized something extraordinary.

I'm a movie hypocrite.

OK...we're all allowed our guilty pleasures. Some of us, for example, crave the Francis the Talking Mule movies. (You know who you are.) Others enjoy a cheesy Roland Emmerich flick now and then.

Yet MFD occupies a different seat on the cinematic exchange. It has almost no redeeming qualities from a film standpoint. Editing, music, cinematography, script...they're all dreadful. And the story--which supposedly concerns Seagal's obsession with kicking the collective tucheses of the members of a Jamaican drug gang led by the maniacal Screwface (a completely over-the-top Basil Wallace, who nevertheless is more interesting than any of the other characters)--borders on outright racism and xenophobia.

So what the heck is wrong with me? Isn't there a junky Joel Schumacher flick always on that I could watch instead?

It's not that there's a distinct appeal to all the crummily-shot mayhem in MFD. Nor is there any rhyme or reason to the proceedings, which almost always lead to Seagal pushing someone into someone else via his distinctly vague martial-arts moves. And it's certainly not a movie that I'd call a "guilty pleasure," as "pleasure" has very specific connotations that do not jibe with this film, and "guilty" is an adjective that seems, to my mind, to fit in more with the Francis movies than MFD.

At any rate, I'm still trying to figure out this conundrum. To paraphrase The Muppet Show's Waldorf and Statler: "Why do we always come here?/I guess we'll never know."

I'll continue to ponder this great mystery of the cinematic universe while I attempt to restore any credibility this blog has as an arbiter of taste in the movie world. Heh...good luck with that, right?

September 04, 2009

Virtues of 'Viridiana' Still Ring True

How Luis Bunuel ever got the money to direct movies is beyond me.

They're anti-clerical. Superficially decadent. And as negative about humanity as anything people will ever see.

Yet this great surrealist director had a long, superb career that carried him all the way from Spain to Mexico while he thumbed his nose at the establishment.

Talk about biting the hand that fed him. And smiling while he was at it.

Viridiana, Bunuel's 1961 masterpiece, is a prime example of how this exceptional artist got away with cinematic murder. The movie--which concerns a nun-to-be (Silvia Pinal) preparing to take her vows who is coerced into staying at the neglected mansion of her lonely, dissolute uncle (the always brilliant Fernando Rey)--lampoons everything within reach, from the church (one of Bunuel's favorite targets) to human compassion. Some scenes--such as the "beggars' banquet" in which a group of unwholesome derelicts engages in a drunken party and reenacts da Vinci's Last Supper tableau--have to be seen to be believed. Others just have to be seen. In truth, the film, though hardly tame, is relatively subdued and never beats the viewer over the head with a misanthropic ideology. It's not as funny as much of Bunuel's later work (such as The Phantom of Liberty), but it's more moving...and oftentimes quite realistic, a shocker from this surrealist master of the subconscious, a director who once gave us a razor slicing through a (cow's) eyeball in Un Chien Andalou. The reality lies in the extreme depiction of its characters' obsession, from Pinal's misguided piety to Rey's malodorous fantasies about his dead wife to his illegitimate son's hedonistic bent.

Wow. Hey, Luis--those are real characters! OK, so we don't really like them, but...they behave like real people--with real neuroses! What's up with that?

It's the mark of a great director to treat an incredible subject with conviction, and Bunuel does just that. From the beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Jose Aguayo to the brilliant use of Handel's music (especially the "Hallelujah chorus" from the Messiah), Viridiana involves you in the proceedings from the start. Small wonder it was banned in Spain in its day--if it were poorly done, no one would've paid any attention to it.

My feeling is, they should've given Bunuel more money.

August 31, 2009

'Transsiberian' Off Credibility Track

There's a reason few Hitchcockian films are as good as those directed by the master himself.

Take Transsiberian, for instance: director Brad Anderson's tale of an innocent American couple caught up in a world of cross-border drug smuggling and corrupt cops whilst traveling on the famed Trans-Siberian Railway. It's got all of the ingredients necessary to make a suspenseful film in Alfred Hitchcock's style. Except believability.

And that's the most important part.

The problems start with the depiction of the couple, played broadly by Woodly Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. Harrelson's Roy, a hardware store owner who finds himself and his wife Jessie in Russia after journeying to China on a charitable trip with his church, is gullible to the extreme. After "befriending" a bunch of people on the train (a process that invariably includes imbibing large amounts of alcohol), Roy carries a smile on his face that seems plastered (literally) on while gawking at the most unexciting sights--such as as slew of snow-strewn trains. He even exclaims, "I'm an American!" during one purportedly tense scene...a cry echoed in remembrances of stereotypical tourisms past. Meanwhile, Jessie is nearly as credulous, falling for the charms of a shabby, not-really-charismatic couple, Carlos and Abby, they meet on the train (played, respectively, by eye-candy actor Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara, in a particularly dour performance) and hanging out with them, often in the same cabin.

Well, I didn't buy it. This couple is traveling in another country, and they don't get the least bit concerned that their creepy, tiresome cabin mates--who alternate between acting amorously and argumentatively in full view of these strangers--scream "suspicious characters"? Surely they don't remain with these hangers-on solely because of their scintillating conversation? (Certain awkward scenes set in a restaurant support my suggestion that there's a "communication breakdown" effect that precludes any credible feelings of attraction among the parties.) It certainly isn't likely that Roy would confess the fact that he's having marital problems with Jessie to Carlos only a day or so after meeting him. And it's quite improbable that Roy would leave his wife for a day to go exploring without notifying her or giving her any means to contact him. (Perhaps their cell phones were edited out of the script.)

Still, the burden of credibility can't be placed entirely on the actors' shoulders. Anderson's direction is sloppy, like the script, which he co-wrote with Will Conroy. In addition, the suspense-on-a-train theme has been done so frequently (and so much better) that the whole flick seems derivative, like a cross between Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express...without the breathless excitement such cinematic journeys entail. Appearances by the usually fine Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschmann help somewhat, but in the end, Transsiberian is waylaid by an overly ambitious treatment that doesn't satisfy the viewer after building up a not-so-intense atmosphere. It's like waiting a half-hour for the subway and then discovering it's crowded and not air-conditioned.

My advice: Rent a Hitchcock instead.

August 29, 2009

'Crowd' All I Remembered It to Be

This will be a short post, but it'll include a huge recommendation...of a sort.

John Schlesinger's 1967 film Far from the Madding Crowd, adapted by the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name, should remain relatively unknown. Why? Well, let's put it this way: A crowd flocking to Crowd would dilute the movie's small "in crowd" fan base. Part of the appeal, perhaps, is the flick's relative anonymity.

And maybe that's just as well. The film, which in part concerns the romantic entanglements of Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong landowner resolutely played by Julie Christie, has great direction, expert performances (particularly by Christie and her three suitors, portrayed by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp), beautiful cinematography by Nicholas Roeg, and a gorgeous score by Richard Rodney Bennett. All of these qualities point to a movie that should be better known...but watching Crowd is something like finding a diamond needle in a haystack--like the ones dotting the English countryside that the film so ably showcases.

You don't want to share it with everybody. Just with the ones who will appreciate it.

Let Crowd remain little known. All the more for people to treasure when they discover it.