Tuesday, January 01, 2008

For 2008

Thanks to my Sister for the Inspiration

"AN UNPUBLISHED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING" is going on indefinite hiatus.

Thanks for reading.

Jim Wilson

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Movie Review - "I Am Legend"

"Come Out, Ne-ville! Coooome Ouuuut!"

I have been in love with Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend" since I first read it in high

school. A horror- sci-fi story, it tells of a world-wide plague that turns the world into either corpses or vampires, except for the one man who carries the immunity who spends his days hunting, and his nights being hunted.

It's been filmed three times, each version having its strengths and weaknesses, but none of the them really coming to the heart (er, so to speak) of the story.

"The Last Man on Earth" (Ubaldo Ragona/Sidney Salkow, 1964) Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan, the last survivor of a plague that has turned the majority of the Earth's population into vampires. By day, he lathes a number of wooden stakes and hunts down the creatures, driving the stakes into their hearts to kill them. The closest the movies have come to Matheson's original concept, although the ending is changed, making Morgan an ersatz Christ-figure*, impaled by a spear in a church, his arms flung wide in a crucifixion pose. Made in Italy on the cheap, "The Last Man on Earth" is still a satisfying film merely for the strength of the ideas, the dusky black and white cinematography and Price's excellent performance. But don't take my word for it--you can download it or stream it here. It's been in the Public Domain for years (although MGM has come out with a nicely re-mastered version on DVD)

"The Omega Man" (Boris Sagal, 1971) Army Colonel Dr. Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) survives a world-wide plague as a result of a biological war between the Chinese and Soviets. Holed up in a bunkered, apartment in Los Angeles he leads a solitary life--by day blasting the mutated victims with his high-powered, high-intensity-beamed assault rifle. By night listening to their taunts, armored against their organized attacks. The mutants are light-sensitive albino's, banded together as a sort of political/sociological cult ("The Family"), led by a zealot named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), who see Neville as a threat to their way of life, and well, yeah, that's a pretty effective rifle he hauls around. Using his own blood's immunity, he's trying to bring back the pigment-challenged. One of Heston's interesting forays into sociological sci-fi in the 70's, "The Omega Man" lays it on a little thick and heavy with the race-relations metaphor, but the cast is uniformly excellent especially Heston and Rosalind Cash. Again with the Christ-allegory as Neville is impaled in a fountain, arms floating out in a crucifixion pose while giving his life-saving blood to the rag-tag band trying to carry on his work. Though not strictly Matheson, it does reflect the times in which it was made.

"I Am Legend" (Francis Lawrence, 2007) Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith)and his German Shepherd, Sam, are the last surviving unaffected Manhattan residents of a plague brought on by a mutating vaccine. All the bridges have been destroyed in an attempt to halt the disease which has become airborne. Neville is unaffected. Animals, only by contact. And the two cruise the car-jammed streets looking for food, and trying to make their way through the entire DVD inventory at the local video store. At noon, he and Sam go to the South Street Seaport, waiting for someone--anyone to respond to his broadcast plea.

"My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New
York City. I am broadcasting this message on all AM frequencies. I will be
at the South Street Seaport everyday, at midday, when the sun is highest in the
sky. I can provide food. I can provide security. I can provide
shelter. If there is anyone out there. Anybody. Please. ** You are not alone."

He has been waiting in his private hell for three years.

The effects work of a deserted Manhattan is nothing short of astonishing and several shots of Neville tracking deer in his Mustang GT500 are played out to please any action aficionado. Kudos to director Lawrence (who managed to salvage a good movie out of "Constantine" against all odds). Smith is amazing throughout this movie. He's the only game in town, literally, and he is extraordinarily frugal in what he displays throughout the first two-thirds of this movie. His rituals, his by-play with Sam, his clinging to normalcy, and his studied work ethic never give a hint that he's cracking up. Flashbacks in moments of unconsciousness are the only indication of his loss and his desperate feelings of responsibility. At some point, something's got to snap.

When they do, they take the movie with it. Oh, things are intriguing for a good long time after that, and appear that everything's fine--it's a bit like the plague really. But at some point, it becomes a confused muddle, story-wise and philosophy-wise, and that I place squarely at the hands of script-"doctor" Akiva Goldsman.***

Warning! Quarantine Zone!
Stand by for a retinal scan and display your ticket stub! This quadrant
infected with Viral Spoilers! If you have not seen the movie, proceed no
further!! I repeat, proceed no further!!!

First, let's back-track to the novel. In Matheson's original story, Neville discovers that not all the contaminated inhabitants have been turned vampiric. Some have been merely rendered sensitive to light, and during his daytime raids, Neville has killed a bunch of them. A representative from this group infiltrates his stronghold, and fills him in, telling him that he is now considered on the same scale as the the vampires of legend, coming to their houses in their sleep and killing them. Neville is eventually captured and sentenced to die for his crimes, as he ponders his fate that, now, he is the legend of death, not the ones he was hunting down.

Pretty dang bleak. But a fascinating concept, and a mind-bender of a story-turn. But nobody's done it like that. In the films Neville dies, but always as the sacrificing Christ-figure, who can one day restore the Human Race. Not the book. In the book, the Human Race is dead. Changed forever. No going back. And the last man of earth, the ancient old-guard, is the new source of horror. But the movies won't go that far--there's always got to be a glimmer of hope that the blood of the Savior can save Humanity.

Now, back to this movie. Things go swimmingly the first two-thirds of it, but things begin to snap after Neville rather ingeniously captures a female mutant to test his vaccine on (GA Series 319, compound 6, trivia-buffs). He makes a report that the mutants**** (standing in for Matheson's vampires) have stopped showing any sign of human behavior. Then he's immediately proven wrong in the most elaborate way possible--they emulate his own Rube Goldberg trap. Nothing is made of Neville's obvious miscalculation. By this time, his grief is too great and he's not thinking. And the movie is going someplace else and not using The Scientific Method doing it.

He is rescued at a very opportune time by two other survivors, who have heard his radio message and take him back to his apartment. All well and good. Something has to give in the scenario or there's no forward momentum. The woman tells him that God directed her to him to take him to a Survivor Stronghold in Vermont, to which Neville (no doubt because he's a scientist) gives her the statistics of the disease (90% dead, a few percent mutant, who eat the immune-which when you think about it, might cure them, but no such luck) telling her that with such an effective kill-rate that there can't be a God, and that we did it to ourselves, thank you very much.***** She then replies that its easier to hear God when it's so much quieter (sounds like Goldsman with the happy-meal schizophrenia, again).

So, what happens? The mutants storm Neville's strong-hold for the Third Act Attack--a staple of any action movie, and our plucky survivors head for the fairly impregnable lab, where it becomes quite apparent that Mutant #1 is going to break through the glass to get to his souless-mate. Neville grabs his vaccine, gives it to the other survivors and tells them if they find the Survivor Stronghold to give 'em that blood sample--that un-refrigerated, bound-to-go-bad blood sample--to further his work, sticks 'em in a secret hidey-culvert and tells them to leave when it's light. Then he blows himself up with a grenade and takes the mutants with him, because, as we all know from watching the news, suicide-bombing is the very epitome of heroism these days.

Fade to Black. Our two survivors end up at the fortess-walls of the colony. What will they find when they get there? More mutants? A blasted Statue of Liberty in the sand? Harrison Ford and Sean Young in that other ill-considered feel-good ending to a sci-fi movie? No, the door opens on an idyllic little town with a Main Street, and in the background a white church-steeple with a bonging bell. They've come just in time for services, it appears. And hopefully the guards with the machine guns won't force them to attend.

What we have here is one step beyond using Neville as a Christ-allegory. It's a pro-religion/anti-science zombie movie. If the Vatican was "consoled" by "The Golden Compass's" soft opening last weekend, they must be positively spilling wine on their cassocks celebrating over this one!

As good as it starts out, this one takes "I Am Legend" so much farther afield from its source material than the others, that I can't be happy about it. Smith is great. The abandoned Manhattan scenes are amazing. But...

The script obliterates a great book for another hokey feel-good ending. After all, isn't that how you're supposed to feel after a devastating plague with a 90% kill-ratio? The film ends with a Bob Marley tune (kudos to that, but Marley is used for another confused metaphor that in the context of the film is just stupid). Maybe they should've ended with a rousing up-beat group-sing of "Tomorrow" from "Annie."

Gloriosky in the highest.

"I Am Legend" is a very, very cheap matinee, but only because you'll want to see the effects scenes in theaters.

* I could do a few dozen pages on "Christ-allegories-in-the-movies," but let's just point out a few of them: E.T., the Extra-terrestrial, Cool Hand Luke, The Star Wars films, Braveheart, Narnia (of course), Blade Runner, The Superman films (especially.."Returns"), The Matrix, and ad infinitum spiritu.

** In just one of the beautiful touches in his performance, Smith's voice cracks on that one word only.

*** The name "Akiva Goldsman" on a writing or producing credit is enough to spoil any movie-going experience for me, although I have always given the benefit of the doubt--but than as I'm sure Goldsman would tell me, repeating any behavior expecting an outcome that never occurs is a sign of insanity. It was Goldsman who destroyed the first "Batman" movie franchise with his cartoonish, pun-heavy scripts. He "cracked" the script for "A Beautiful Mind" by reassuring movie-goers that schizophrenia was nothing more than delusions of grandeur with visions of Ed Harris and Paul Bethany included--forget any unpleasantness. His by-the-numbers adaptation of "The DaVinci Code" made it boring for anyone who read the book, and breezily incomprehensible for anyone who didn't. His scripts for "Practical Magic" and "Lost in Space" are incomprehensible humorless muddles. And "I, Robot" had one good, recycled and paranoid idea in its empty little head and chucked the great ones of Isaac Asimov. I'm not sure "whose windows he's washing" to be so successful with so much hack-work in his resume, but the man is the 21st Century Joe Eszterhas.

**** I've been calling them Danny Boyle "Red Bull" zombies, as they have the same out-sized aggressive energy as Boyle's "28 Days Later" zombies, but with a case of the energy drink in them. They are pigment-less, hairless albino's who start to burn at the first touch of sun, and during the day they apparently huddle in dark spaces and huff and puff spasmodically. And they screech a lot, with distended CGI-enhanced faces. So, they're basically vampires, but zombies have a higher "Q" rating, so they're called zombies.

***** I will say, however, that how the mutating disease comes to be is not only a plausible scenario, but wickedly likely.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movie Review -"His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass"

"Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return"

Genesis 3:19
Oh, there have been howls in the wilderness, and not from any armored polar bears. The Catholic Church (which's taken a few knocks lately) and the Catholic Legion of Decency have awakened like vampires and condemned this film--though the Legion is remarkably silent over the Church's own trespasses. Then there are those fans of the books who are beating their breasts with their Anniversary Editions saying that it doesn't do "justice" to them.

Well, they're both wrong, if not downright irrelevent in their arguments. The Catholics' stance won't do anything but help the movie. If they really wanted to prove they meant business they could excommuinicate Catholic Nicole Kidman, but I think that would generate so much sympathy that folks might even forgive her for "Bewitched!" And the "chapter-and-versers" will just have to live with the fact that books is books and movies is movies, and both media have their story-telling strengths that are oftentimes incompatible with each other.

Enough of the controversy, how's the movie? Immensely satisfying for a first chapter (and half-a-movie). There are unresolved issues galore, confused motivations, and the lurking feeling that things might have played out a bit faster than the time it takes to say "To Be Continued" three times fast. But the production design is killer, the performances are good (though Daniel Craig has little to do, or offer, as Lord Asriel), and the effects work is exemplary. "The Golden Compass" takes place in a world not too unlike our own, except that, instead of souls, people have "daemons," animal-like wraiths who shape-shift until maturity sets in for the host. The academics are attempting to trace the cosmic origins of "dust," a move frowned upon with great furrows by the Magisterium (headed by Derek Jacobi and...Christopher Lee, so you know they've got to be bad!) As is shown often in the film's many scenes of combat, when a person is killed their daemons go *poof* into little whisps of CGI powder with the "glimmer" program turned on "HIGH." It is this "dust," which The Church...sorry...Magisterium wants to suppress all knowledge of, despite the fact that it's right there before your very eyes. Evidently, this "dust" is a threat to the Magisterium's political power in this World. Hence, the conflict between them and the "academics." Lord Asriel has photographic evidence of this dust falling from the heavens and entering humans through the daemons--so our link to the cosmos is via "dust-bunnies" of a sort.

That's the background dust..er, stuff.

Our heroine, Lyra, is a headstrong urchin of an orphan living at Oxford as the ward of Lord Asriel, an explorer-adventurer of some note and seeker of the truth about this "dust" business, the mention of which is considered heresy by (and produce much paroxysms in) The Magisterium. Lord Asriel goes off adventuring and Lyra is entrusted with an Alethiometer, a Golden Compass, which will tell her the truth of a subject if its asked in precisely the right way--not unlike a Press Spokesman. She also comes under the slinky thumb of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, in full "evil-squint" mode), who does "official business" for The Magisterium, whom, she explains, "tells people what to do...but in a nice way...to keep things working." Lyra is always being told to behave, yet, she has, as her two mentors, two head-strong people who like to say "no one tells me what to do." So, soon Lyra is rebelling, and escapes from Mrs. Coulter (in a scene that, in all the discourse, is given dramatically short-shrift) and embarks on a series of adventures that entails the kidnapping of two of her friends, a hook-up with a band of the taken's parents, a countrified aeronaut (Sam Elliott, never more twinklingly courtly), and a displaced prince of a polar bear playing "Hamlet."

It's this section where the film really shines. The bears are marvels of CGI animation with wonderful actors like Ians McShane and McKellan (What? Him...again? Can they make a fantasy film without this guy?) breathing life through their vocal performances. One sight that made me laugh was during the Big Fight for "Polar Bear King," when Iorek Byrnison (McKellan's bear) has his armored head-piece knocked off and the camera (computer?) follows it to the edge of the ring, where the spectator-bears stare curiously dumb at it. The film is awash with pictorial touched like that, that fill in and make this world real whenever the story-telling turns miserly.

Performances are uniformly fine--though Craig under-performs. Perhaps he'll be given more to do later, although it's pretty apparent who of the characters you're supposed to be rooting for early on. Time will have to tell. But it's quite good for being half-a-movie. Certainly it makes you anticipate the sequels.

It has been reported in the news that the Vatican has been "consoled" by the film's less-than-golden opening receipts. But probably less than they were when "Deliver Us From Evil" underperformed.

"The Golden Compass" is a matinee.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Remembering Dad...and Pearl Harbor

This is a repeat from last year. I've heard new stories about my father this past year...and my Seester remembered the name of the man he waited for on the dock of the Arizona the day of the attack. Howie Whims. Yesterday, at my Sister's for Christmas, with cousins and Aunts--my Aunt Barbara looks GOOD!--there was a lot of laughing rememberances. And my Sister had on display a picture of Mom and Dad at a cocktail party--Mom, bright-eyed, compensating, with my Dad, head tilted back, squinting at the camera, a soused smile on his face. Both, younger than me. Crazy kids.

Today is my Father's birthday (he rarely complained that he had the bad luck to be born the day after Christmas...because we never forgot it and made sure that we had a separate but just as special celebration for his day of birth). I've written about him before (here and here), but one aspect of Dad's life I never considered until I was physically where he was. That was Pearl Harbor. He was there the day of December 7th, 1941. He had volunteered and was stationed at Pearl when the Japanese strike force attacked on a Sunday dawn raid, decimating our Navy and killing a lot of kids. My Dad made it through despite the fact that he was standing on the dock of the Arizona at the time of the raid. Church services were being held on that ship and Dad was waiting for a buddy who was late...luckily. The chapel took a direct hit, and the Arizona's still there, upside down, oil burbling up from its tanks to this day, and crested by what is called the Pearl Harbor Memorial. Dad belonged to the organization called "The Pearl Harbor Survivors" but he refused to go back to Hawaii for their reunions. In fact, he would never entertain the notion. Too many memories, I guess. Bad ones. He had a bit of hearing loss from the attack, and you can only imagine what it must have been like--the explosions, the alarms, the toxic smoke from burning oil-fires, the confusion and panic, the screams...the stench. The death. The only story Dad ever told about the War was that "late" story, but he would scream at night the first year back after V-J day. And buried it with the stoicism that all the soldiers did...until "Saving Private Ryan" and other clear-eyed looks at the conflict allowed them to remember and acknowledge what they'd been through.* Certainly my father wanted to get on with his life. They all did.

But I went back to Pearl Harbor. When K and I went to Hawaii for a first vacation I felt a duty to go to Pearl. I would be the first in my familty to do so, and I wanted to see. So, early into our time there, we went...and it was peculiar. My dad had seen Pearl Harbor movies, of course..."From Here to Eternity" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" were all shot on location. But being there was bizarre. If my Dad had been there with me, he almost would have freaked. The barracks are exactly the same as in those movies and at the time of the attack(they were freshly-painted as they were about to be filmed for the big Bruckheimer "Pearl Harbor" movie). In fact little has changed about it except for the addition of the visitor center...and the Memorial.

The visitor center is odd. I bought a variety of flyers and souvenier books for my Mom (she collected stuff about Pearl Harbor), and went in to the middling-sized theater to see the Presentation-an artfully produced film with a toneless female narrator that stuck to the facts of the attack without any sort of judgement or jingo-ism--a quiet, contemplative movie about a subject loaded with, well, explosive repercussions. The crowd that watched it, and it was made up 75% of Japanese tourists, did so quietly, and with a funereal respect. No cracks. No sarcasm. But a sad contemplation.

This mood continued with the short ride to the Memorial by water-taxi--the same toneless female voice pointing out facts, statistics, ship-positions...strategies. Costs. And when we got off the boat and stepped onto the marble Memorial, it was, again, like a funeral...held perpetually at a pure alabaster marble church, for that is what the Memorial, in its purity, feels like---the Arizona, rusting below it--the oil from its stores still slowly smearing the water's surface after fifty years. The names of the dead are etched in the marble and there are a lot them, too many to comprehend.

And then, Katheryn pointed something out to me, something that has filled me with wonder and mystery ever since. There is another section inside the white arch of the Memorial. A rectangular edifice that makes its way down to the water and the submerged Arizona, and it, too has names etched there. But they're not the names of men who died during the attack. They're recently buried. Comrades who survived the attack, and who are now buried with the Arizona.

Now, think about that. You survive the attack. You go through the war, and you live your life. You may have a good life or it might be horrible. You may marry and have kids, have a good life and die peacefully in your sleep. But where you choose to be buried, after all that, is back at the U.S.S. Arizona, with the ship-mates you left behind...decades and a life-time ago. When I realized what it meant, it raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and tears stung my eyes. Why? After all that time...after a full life...why here? And the concept of Survivor's Guilt hit my heart like a sledge-hammer. It was a debt to repay...beyond family and friends. You go back to the ones who didn't make it. I remember seeing a documentary about WWII veterans going back to Iwo Jima, and one of the vets, barely able to get the words out, saying "Better men than me...died here." Survivor's Guilt. As if any of it...any of it at all...was their fault.

That memory stings to this day, and I think about my Dad and wonder...did he think about those men left behind? Did he carry the names of the ones he knew didn't make it? Did it darken...even an hour...of the life he fought to achieve? And I think of his strength, and I know that if it did, he bore the burden with silence and didn't reveal it.**

Except for the screams...which he couldn't help.

My father is not buried at Pearl Harbor. He's buried in Seattle...with my Mother. He never went back.

I did...for him.

And I'll put flowers on his grave today to celebrate his birth, and that life.

*When my Mom died, I found a lot of my Dad's old papers from during and after the War, one of them a letter from the military saying, basically, "it's over--put it all behind you--don't talk about it--get on with your life." Probably everybody got that letter. My ex-wife's step-grandfather was at Normandy I was told, and when I asked him 'what the hell was that like," he replied: "It wasn't good (long pause) but I'm here."

**That popular propaganda phrase "Remember Pearl Harbor"--that was for everyone who wasn't there. The ones who were could never forget.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"The Night Visitor"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Movie Review - "No Country for Old Men"

Signs and Wonders

Llewelyn Moss is out on the Texas veldt tracking a caribou he shot, following the blood-trail when it is suddenly crossed by another blood-trail. Following it, he finds a drug-deal gone bad--five vehicles, and several dead Latinos, a truck-bed full of cocaine and eventually a satchel filled with stacks of of money, $10,000 to a stack. Fate is good to him.

Anton Chigurh is hunting, too. He needs a vehicle, and as he's driving a stolen police car, he can pull over anyone he chooses. He walks over to the driver side of the car, carrying a gas canister and a nozzle. "Get out of the vehicle," he says. And the driver complies. "Hold still, please, sir," he says, and the driver complies. He points the nozzle at the man's forehead and fires.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has been Sheriff of Terrell County since he was 26 years old, and that was a long time ago. You'd think he'd seen everything, but he's beginning to wonder if such a thing is possible. Looking over that drug deal gone bad while horse-back, he surmises the way things went down. "That's very linear, Sheriff," says his deputy. "Age'll flatten a man, Wendell," he not particularly replies.

The first time I'd heard of the Coen Brothers was a Time Magazine review of their first movie "Blood Simple." When it wound up being featured at the Seattle Film Festival I went, expecting great things and their quirky ways of telling a story, like that travelling shot (by future director Barry Sonenfeld) that glided over a bar-top, rising up and over a fallen bar-fly. But what I wasn't expecting was a sequence that is one of my favorite in all of film, and is such an obvious thing to do, I wondered why nobody'd thought of it before. Ray has just murdered his lover's husband and stashed him in the back-seat of his car to take him someplace remote to bury him. But as he drives the long, flat Texas highway at night, the corpse behind him moans and moves. He slams on his brakes, pulls to the side of the road and runs...runs in a panic to get away, into a field. He runs into the dark until he stops, panting in fright and exertion. He stands there, looking back at the car. Now what? He's "safe." He got away. but he's no better off than he was before. He has to go back. And he especially has to go back before another car or truck approach and bathe the scene in light.

He has no idea what he'll find when he goes back there, but back he must go. It's the center of the Big Undecipherable that is the heart of the Coen brothers' movies--when people start to ask "how did I get here? And how do I come out, if I can't go back?" There's no going back to Square One with the Coen's. There is only the going-forward, head up or head bowed.

In its way, "No Country for Old Men" has bits of other Coen movies all over it. The "cat-and-mouse" games of "Blood Simple." The airy philosophy of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The sharply written common dialog of all their films. The questioning law officer with philosophical questions of "Fargo," the "what's it all worth" tragedy of "Miller's Crossing," and "Barton Fink." It stands as a good primer for all that is good in their work.

Is it their best work? The "Masterpiece" that it's been touted as? Hard to say. There seems to be a decided effort on their part to NOT make it that, to undercut the impact that the film could have had had they been more direct, hit things on the nose, as they say, rather than leaving things unsaid and perhaps confounding their audience. They've left room for interpretation and controversy, to make one think about the importance of dreams, of Fate and Destiny. One has to review the film that is, not the film that could've been. And "No Country," as is, has some exquisite cinematography (by Roger Deakins--night shooting has never looked more convincing or as beautiful as here), note-perfect performances by just about everybody in the cast, but especially all the leads--not just Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, but also Tess Harper (where's she been?), Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root, and Barry Corbin.

What makes "No Country for Old Men" different from the other Coen movies is a departure from the insular, claustrophobic worlds they have presented in the past. Before the films never strayed beyond the orbits of the main characters of their films--the surroundings filled with extras were there as filler. But this feels like a fuller world, a complete world, where every character has worth and life seems to be going on beyond the frame. That's new, and it will be interesting to see where this aspect of their film-making will take them.

It is not as fully realized a vision as "Raising Arizona," or "Fargo," or even "The Big Lebowski." It is not as accessible as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" But it far outshines such experiments in style as "Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Man Who Wasn't There," or "Intolerable Cruelty." "No Country for Old Men" is a stellar summing-up of where the Coen's have been, even if it doesn't quite rise above it. But the expanded universe of theirs--the more full world they present here--presages bigger and better films still to come.

"No Country for Old Men" is a full-price ticket.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Movie Review - "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium"

"...and maybe avoid the slimey girl!"

I loved "Stranger Than Fiction." Marc Foster's direction gave depth and substance to the unique voice of Zach Helm's script. And every part was expertly cast and the peripherals presented in CGI gave a sprightly twist to the action on-screen. When I heard that Helm was directing his own script for "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," I thought "Great! Now we'll see what this Helm guy is capable of!"

Be careful what you wish for.

"Magorium" is such an insubstantial froth of a movie that before you get five minutes into it, you're saying "I'm not buying this!" And with good reason--it's "Stranger Than Fiction" all over again, but from another perspective and far more precious. When I say "far more" I'm saying "falling-into-a-vat-of-Krispy-Kreme-dough" precious. The kind of gooey sap that half an hour of scrubbing with Boraxo can't shake. The same way that cake frosting turns hard as a rock after five weeks in the desert sun. Despite some clever touches and the occasional funny line, it still makes you want to walk out and punch a nun.

What's it about? A magical toy store run by a 243 year old toy impressario, wonder efficianado (and avid shoe-wearer) Mr. Magorium who has decided that it's time to go. "You're dying?" wails Mahoney (Natalie Portman), the piano-prodigy, who at 23 has not lived up to her potential. "Light bulbs die, my sweet," he bubbles. "I will depart." To get his affairs in order, he hires an accountant ("Must be someone who counts and is a mutant," says Magorium, and thereafter Henry Westin is referred to simply as "Mutant"), who is so button-downed he doesn't play one whit, not even checkers (exactly like Will Farrell's character in "Stranger Than Fiction?" you say, and you're awarded a gold star). And what's worse, the toy store is starting to bubble underneath the velvet wall-paper and turn a tainted shade of gray.

It's all just icky--icky in the way a wet lollipop collects dog hair. Dustin Hoffman finds a pretty good balance for his twee little toy-maker, looking like he's been sticking his fingers in wall-sockets for years and elocuting like Bullwinkle. Natalie Portman is the film's biggest draw-back, tamping down any effervescence by screwing up her face and looking concerned. It's really bad when instead of carrying about what the character is going through, you wonder what kind of exfoliant the lead actress is using. Any glow she has is purely pharmaceutical. Jason Bateman plays the stick-up-his-sphincter accountant...like he has a real stick up his sphincter. He managed to make straight-laced funny in "Arrested Development" Wha' hoppened? And as the Narrator/Obligatory Little Kid, Zach Mills plays it with a seriousness and dignity that seems to say "I will rise above this." Attaway, kid. Hope you're not knocking over Winn-Dixies in ten years.

Now, see? This movie didn't enchant me or make me feel warm inside. It made me think bad thoughts. Cruel thoughts. There's a lot of surface detail to "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium,"* but no depth. It needs some grit and sand beyond having the lead character kicking the Big Beach Bucket. As it stands, it's just a wad of cotton candy that you want to throw water on...just to see it disappear.

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is a cable-watcher

* Another thing: Who is the audience for this thing? Kids won't get it or be upset by it, and adults will find it just cloyingly annoying. But then a lot of kids won't get a lot of jokes. For example: there's a shot of a Buster Keaton marionette trying to untangle itslf from its own strings--a pretty funny reference, but little kids don't know Buster Keaton. The same goes for the bit where Zack starts buildings stuff out of Lincoln Logs and when he's finally finished, he's made...a life-size Lincoln! Funny, huh? But not if you don't know what the Lincoln Logs are, and nobody under 30 DOES!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Birthday, Brother John!

The man standing next to Ernst Stavro Blofeld is my Big Brother John, who turns mrphmty-murmph today. Called him earlier (earlier than usual, anyway) and we had a good chance to chat after I gave him the traditional serenade of "Happy Birthday" in the inimitable Wison fashion (off-key, and deliberately slow). He fairly cackled that since My Seester got her cell-phone, he could leave "Happy Birthday" on TWO voice-mails (Man! Wish I'd thought of that--he's always smarter than me!).

Happy Birthday, Big Brother. We'll be talking.

What a wondrous sight to behold at this time of year. There at our front-door, was a jolly fat man with hair and beard the color of snow, a red bob of a nose, cap on his head and a laugh that made his belly shake.

It was Barney, the Electrician.

A few weeks ago (Hallowe'en, in fact), K and I were watching "The Innocents" when the set started to flicker, then konked out along with the reciever and DVD player. Right at a scary part, too. Killed the mood. But we got out another surge protector and plugged everything into that and plugged it into the bedroom socket. Everything worked fine. But ever since, the house has been electrically...intermittent: a socket would go dead. you'd plug something into another socket and it would come to life. Lights would flicker and die, with perfectly decent bulbs screwed in. Electrical efficacy would bounce around the house, with us chasing after it with our little gadgets plugging them into one socket, then another until they purred to life.

Which would be fine...be merely an annoyance...if we didn't live in a completely wood cabin. Then it gets to be a matter of concern. So, we called the last electrician who'd come out. Didn't return our phone-call. That's to be expected on "The Rock," the contractors get hired for some new development and all of a sudden you have to make an appointment to get a phone-call back. I tried. K tried. No spark. A couple of days ago, I tried again. I called, left messages--I did get one "live" one, though. He said he was booked up to January 17th, and he figured that might be a little long to wait. With such keen instincts I wanted to hire him on the spot, but I decided to make other calls.

I made ten, then called it a fine day of one-way convesations. Thirty minutes later, Barney called. He said he could be out first thing Thursday, I gave him directions, and he asked if I wanted him to call before showing up. "That'd be nice," I said. "It'll give me a chance to stash the dog some place." "Mean dog?" Barney asked, warily. "Nah, I said. More protective, territorial a bit." "Ah well, that's his job! Ya WANT one like THAT!"

Barney called Thursday morning: "See ya in thirty minutes!" And I took Smokey out to K's car with some chewey snacks, and half an old banana. When Barney showed up, Smokey didn't make a peep. Strange. After getting over the sight of Father Christmas in blue cover-alls, I said "The dog didn't bark." "Nah!" said Barney. "But he was sure curious! Where do you want me?"

I pointed to the walls with the problems--the one behind the wood-stove and the one with the view-windows. "I'll start over there." He pointed to a socket in the open. "I like to start with the easy ones." "Just like eating dessert first," I remarked. "Yup," said Barney gravely. "Life's uncertain."

As if to prove his point, he started to pound on the walls. "You'd be surprised what good this does," said Barney. "Sometimes in the cold weather, it'll just solve the problem, but at least if I see a light flicker, I can trace it." He opened out his pen-amp-meter, looking to see what sockets were "hot." "Yeah, I've had enough of winter," he said as he sat in a corner to test the plug by Smokey's crate (I wondered if winter had even started yet).* Every breath was a grunt and a wheeze as he made his way from one socket to the next alternately pounding the wall, and making his pen chirp. "Lemme go look at the box," he said, and K came out from the office to see what all the noise was about. Suddenly, from the bedroom, he yelled, "Number Six!" "Go see what that's about," said K, and eyes eide, turned to go into the office. I was curious myself. Had the last electrician put in those exotic No.6 fuses by mistake? "What's up?" I said.

"Oh!" he chuckled. "Number Six! I saw your coaster here. The Prisoner! I loved that show!" He was looking at a coaster NPR Dan had sent us from Portmeirion in Wales, where they'd filmed "The Prisoner" in the '60's. It was one of my and K's favorite shows, too, and we'd planned for some time to go there one day. NPR Dan beat us to it, but sent us some piquant tchotchkes. "Man, I loved that show! Too bad it was a limited one!" We gabbed about the show for awhile--a friend of his had made the "kit" car that Patrick MacGoohan drove in the opening. "Aw nuts, here's a white wire," he said, and did something about it. We moved a chest of drawers to see if there was a socket back there, and though we didn't find one, we found the sneakers that K had been missing for months. Then we turned to the plug where all the trouble began. He tested it. No problem.

"Have you got a...?" He opened the door to the bedroom. "Yup! Here's an outlet behind the door." It was the one we'd plugged the surge-protector into. We thought it was the only thing in the vicinity that was working. "You got a flashlight?" asked Barney on the floor. I didn't think to question why a socket-jockey didn't have a flashlight, but I dutifully went off to get one. I handed it to him. "Wait a minute!" I said. "I've got a better idea!" I handed him my baseball cap with "The Bug" on it--the LED clip-light my sister-in-law got me one Christmas. "Try this on for size," I said. "Woh!" said Barney. "That's a BRIGHT one! That's GREAT! I'm almost ashamed to BE here!" He replaced the socket, corroded and with a couple scorch-marks on it, and he managed to do it with one hand, holding the socket in his paw, and using his fingers to twist the wires. Quite the trick. Then he screwed everything in place. "I think I've screwed enough screws to go to the Moon and back," said Barney. Then with a large grunt, he got off the floor and lurched into the living room. "He found it!" he joked to K, as I wrote him a check for $85 (pretty darn cheap, we thought). "Well, have a Merry Christmas" he said as he roared out of sight.

Be seeing you, Barney. I have half-a-mind to send him a "Bug"...and one of my "Prisoner" coasters for Christmas. I think he'd genuinely enjoy that.

Speaking of bologna, I got some at the store the other day, I'm not sure why, but maybe it has something to do with my Father. I've been thinking of him a lot since the 7th, and I remember him once walking into the kitchen, and looking at the lunch my Mom had made him. "Ya know," he said a bit wistfully, "last night I had a dream where I was sent to Hell, and all there was to eat was bologna sandwiches." My Mom shot him a look that spit daggers, but he'd made his point...and maybe he didn't get a bologna sandwich the next day (if he was lucky to get a lunch at all!)**

So, I'm eating a bologna sandwich a day until his birthday, December 26th. I mentioned this to K, who thought it was a bit wierd that I'd be focussing on bologna, but I did manage to keep the dog away from her while she was eating dinner by tempting him with the word "bologna" said in the same reverential tones we say the word "bacon." I knew he'd like it, but I didn't expect the ecstatic look on his face when he tasted it for the first time. He looked like he was going to cry, he enjoyed it so much. I walked into the bedroom where K was eating, with my bologna sandwich, and told her about Smokey's reaction. "Actually," she said, "the way I've been eating lately (she's been on a strict, almost harsh diet), I'm wondering what it tastes like--I'd like to try it..." I gave her a bite. "That is really good," she said.
Ah, bologna.

K. mentioned that "Alvin and the Chipmunks" was playing at the local drive-In, and wanted to know if I wanted to go. I didn't particularly (it sounds like "My Name is Earl" with extra vermin), but Smokey might like a trip to the Drive-In. I asked her if she wanted to go, and she said "No. I hate the Chipmunks--always have." ***

I told her we could check out "Enchanted" (which we might), but I really want to see "I Am Legend." I told her the story--it's one of my favorite books, and she became intrigued, especially at the premise of deer running up Broadway. "He just stays in his barricaded apartment with his German Shepherd," I said. "Just like a New Yorker," she said, going back to her paper, "...keeping a German Shepherd in an apartment..."

*Nope. Not 'til December 22nd. Glad I didn't tell Barney.

** Which brings to mind an ethnic joke, and for the requisite "dumb" minority I will use "Irish Catholic" since they're taking a lot of hits lately, and since I was one, I can get away with it.

Three construction workers, a Latino, an Italian and an Irish-Catholic were sitting on a girder, eating from their sack-lunches. "Madre Dios!" says the Latino. "Tacos again!! I swear if I get tacos for lunch again, I'll throw myself off this building!" The Italian looks at his lunch. "Mama Mia!!" he says. Another meat-ball sandwich!! I swear on the souls of my grandparents that if I get another meat-ball sandwich I will throw myself off this building!!" The Irish-Catholic looks at his lunch. "Faith and begorrah!" he says, "Ecumenically blesssed corned beef and cabbage AGAIN!! I swear, by all that's holy that if I open this bag tomorrow and see ecumenically blessed corned beef and cabbage, I will throw myself off this building!"

The next day at noon, the three open their lunches. "Tacos! Tacos again!" yells the Latino and throws himself off the building. "Ayee," says the Italian. "Meat-ball sandwich again!!" and throws himself off the building. The Irish-Catholic looks in his bag and yells "Ecumenically blessed corned beef and.." and he's dead before he can get the whole thing out.

At the funeral the wives are bereft. "Oh, if only I could have made burritos that day," says the Latino's wife. "If only I could have put in a slice of pizza...anything different...he'd still be here," wails the Italian wife. They look expectantly at the Irish-Catholic's wife.

"Well, don't look at me," she says. "He made his own lunch!"

Thank you, try the salad bar, we'll be here all week.

*** Last time in Portland a DJ (on 106.7 "K-HITS") played "Christmas, Don't be Late" and ended the song, saying "Looove the Chipmunks...especially roasting on an open fire")
On this same radio station, this same DJ made a joke about the O'Jays song "Used to Be My Girl" that went something like"...and here, from the soundtrack of 'The Rene Richards Story'--'She Used To Be My Girl." I thought "That's a rather arcane reference for a joke about a sex-change..." and it was right then I realized I'd made the exact same joke when I was a DJ...it wasn't so arcane back then.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Movie Review - The Complex Art of Film Noir, Winter 2007

I: "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"*

In Broad Daylight

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Just ask Andy and Hank Hanson. They both need money because they want to do right by their families: Andy, so he can get out of debt and maybe move with his depressed wife to Rio De Janeiro; Hank, because he's a few months late in child support, and he wants to do right by his daughter...oh, and his mistress, and ...well, all of Hank's dreams are short-term.

But Andy has a plan that's fool-proof: a robbery. "No one gets hurt. It's perfect." Trouble is, Hank's a fool, and he agrees before he knows all that it entails. Andrew, a real estate accountant, gives him a down-payment. "There's $2,000. See what that does for you. Imagine the rest."

They can't imagine. Because, as they say in the magazine-shows, things go "horribly, horribly wrong."

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" might belong to that sub-genre of comedy films called "The Incredible Mess," where seemingly simple plans go increasingly awry, but it's no comedy, except in the perverse way perfect disasters pile upon perfect disasters. But I would contend that the movie, as written by Kelly Masterson, is a film noir, that species of film where the world maliciously has it in for an honest man, and corruption runs so deep that it's manifested in a shade of fathomless blackness--"where the world is dark with something more than night," as the saying goes. One of the laureates of the proto-noir story was Raymond Chandler, who laid out the ground-rules for his brand of detective fiction in an essay titled "The Simple Art of Murder," first published in 1944, and quoted extensively below.** In it, he railed against the "drawing room" brand of of detective fiction as weak and unrealistic, and that a detective-hero must try and find Truth in a fabric of deception, obfuscation, and agendas so thick it's like wading through a cess-pool. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is so steeped in layers of corruption that any transgression amplifies to the worst possible conclusion, and by chain reaction drags the innocent down as well as the guilty in a tragedy of Shakespearean consequences. No one is immune from the veil of evil. The world of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is so corrupt, there is no hero. And it all happens in broadest daylight.

There's been "daylight-noirs" before, like "Gun-Crazy," and, of course, "Chinatown" takes place in sun-blasted L.A. But "Devil" takes place in New York, and mostly gentrified New York at that. New York, because the director is Sidney Lumet, who quite rarely makes a movie anywhere else. Lumet's an odd choice for a noir film, although he's made many films in the squalor of New York--"Serpico," "The Pawnbroker," "Prince of the City," "Q & A," and he's made many movies that intertwine family and crime--"Dog Day Afternoon," "Murder on the Orient Express," and "Family Business." As a director, he's not very stylish, and is, in fact, pretty clunky, as in "Twelve Angry Men," and "Fail-Safe," or, dare I mention it, "The Wiz." Lumet expends his energy on performance, rather than construction. In fact, Lumet has rarely risen above his roots as a director of live television: a master shot, the occasional close-up, and that's about it. His camera work is utilitarian, at its best, sometimes inelegant, brightly lit, nothing fancy. He tends to using film scores, thinking them too pervasive and detracting from a scene's manufactured reality. When he does try something different (in other films, it was crudely distorting lenses) it's always in your face. Here, it's an editing transition that flashes forward and back three to four times, similar to the "druggy" transitions in "Easy Rider," but with an annoying clacking noise at each edit. The story-telling technique employed is similar to that of another noir, Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing," where the actual caper is viewed from one character's point of view, then rewinds back to another participant's during the same time period and beyond. The plot advances and coalesces in increments until the inevitable end-game where all stories come together. And "Devil" ends in the only way this noir-in-daylight could end.

Because it's Lumet, it's the performances where the movie shines: Philip Seymour Hoffman is all sweating self-pity as Andrew, Ethan Hawke is Hank, a pitiful train-wreck doing a poor job of trying to appear together, Albert Finney goes a bit over the top as their father Charles, and Marisa Tomei shows the promise that her early Oscar win belied as Andrew's wife, caught in the middle. But the smaller performances of minor characters like Michael Shannon and Aleksa Palladino stand out as well. It's a blackly depressing film that owes whatever greatness it achieves to the writing and performances.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a cheap (and sleazy) matinee.

II: "Gone Baby Gone"

That, in All Things

Now walk down these mean streets a little further--all the way to Boston. Here you'll find private detective Patrick Kenzie, the very definition of the term John D. MacDonald used to describe Raymond Chandler. "He writes," said MacDonald "like a slumming angel." Kenzie knows the back-alleys, the crack-dens, the gang-bangers, the dealers, the dive bars and the angles and he knows how to handle them with a cock-suredness that belies his years.*** But that street cred only takes you so far, because although he's lived in Boston his entire life, New Orleans transplant detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris--extraordinarily good) tells him "I've been here longer than you've been alive." And Bressant has seen the long continuous story of those places Kenzie merely visits. But if Bressant knows more, nobody tops Captain Doyle (Morgan Freeman, completely dominating the three scenes he's in), whose daughter was kidnapped and killed, and has dedicated his life to making sure it doesn't happen again on his watch. 4 1/2 year old Amanda McCready has gone missing from the neglectful eye of her good-for-nothing mother and Kenzie and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) have been hired by an aunt to find her, however reluctant they are to take the case. Within 24 hours, there's a good chance they can find her alive and unharmed. She's been gone, now, for 60.

And soon, after all the slumming and the chance-taking, the compromises with the police and the stake-outs gone bad, the case comes to a dissatisfying end, and like any good noir dick, that's just not good enough for Kenzie. He has to keep pushing for Truth, no matter how hidden, no matter the consequences. But the Truth hurts and can lead to decisions made for the best of reasons but the worst of consequences. And this "slumming angel," this noir-hero by Chandler's precise description, will suffer the consequnces for his decision, both personal and professional. But because he is the hero, he must fight that corruption even if the result is not a more perfect world, but the same tainted world as when he began. And maybe, even one that's worse.

As it happens, there is no moral high ground here. There is no "right" and "wrong" for the situation is too far out of control for there to be a "right" and a "wrong" and the two step over each other's line as often as a police tape is crossed. The resolution of the story, the choices made can be argued for days, and the last shot of the movie damns even as it takes the film to a logical conclusion.

This has been a great year for Casey Affleck. First, he stepped out of the star-crush to become more than a glorified extra in "Ocean's 13," carried the bulk of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," and now holds his own against Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris at the heighth of their powers. His performance in "Gone Baby Gone" shows great versatility and an amazing range. But if Casey's potential has come to fruition, the emergence of Ben Affleck as a director is nothing short of revelatory. Here he shows a command of time and place, and a wonderful eye for faces that lend authenticity to the grime of the surroundings. An action scene at night may not be as focussed and suspenseful as it should be, but the rest of the movie is assured, and negotiates moral discussions without getting bogged down in high-handedness or slowing the movie down. That fine directorial touch extends all the way to the wickedly oblique final shot that will creep on you days after the fade to black. Given this auspicious debut, one looks forward to the next film featuring Ben Affleck behind the camera.

"Gone Baby Gone" is an impressively full-price ticket

* After the Irish toast: May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head. May you be forty years in heaven before the devil knows you’re dead.

** Raymond Chandler, perfectly describing the fetid world of "noir" in "The Simple Art of Murder:"

"The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization."

Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" again, describing the detective hero:

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."