Tag Archives: 2010 Reviews

Hard-boiled eggs: The Killer Inside Me **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 3, 2010)

There have been a number of good films adapted from pulp writer Jim Thompson’s novels and short stories. Neo-noirs like The Getaway, Coup de Torchon, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and This World then the Fireworks reveled convincingly in the author’s trademark milieu of tortured, brooding characters and dirty double dealings. Unfortunately, as much as I was rooting for it, The Killer Inside Me is not destined to be held up amongst the aforementioned. Filmed once before in 1972 (with Stacey Keach in the lead), it’s a nasty bit of Texas noir about a sheriff’s deputy (played in 2010 by Casey Affleck) who leads the proverbial “double life”-with a dark side much darker than most.

Affleck plays Lou Ford, a taciturn,  well-mannered 1950s small town lawman whose gaze always appears to be fixated on an indeterminate point just beyond your shoulder. When he is assigned to personally deliver an “out of town by sundown” ultimatum from the sheriff’s office to a prostitute (Jessica Alba), he learns quickly that this young lady is not easily intimidated. In fact, she instigates what escalates into a slapping contest between the two. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, we’re witnessing what could be the beginning of a beautiful sadomasochistic relationship.

This is our first inkling of what may be lurking beneath Lou’s robotic politeness and  “yes ma’am, no ma’am” countenance. In accordance with Film Noir Rules and Regulations, the two overs are soon embroiled in a complicated blackmail scheme. Yes-he is a bad, bad deputy; not to mention that he’s already fooling around on his sweet-natured fiancée (played by a virtually unrecognizable Kate Hudson). His transgressions get worse. Much, much worse (take a moment to ponder the film’s title). Corpses accumulate.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this film didn’t work for me. Director Michael Winterbottom is no slouch; he has demonstrated a talent for effortless genre-hopping with notable films like 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, Tristram Shandy and The Road to Guantanamo. Maybe it was the “near-miss” vibe of the film’s essential genre elements. He catches the look of a small west Texas town circa 1950, but not necessarily the flavor; it’s too glossy, perhaps too “stagey”.

John Curran’s screenplay (with additional writing credits to the director) is adequate, but not spectacular (we’re not talking Chinatown here). It’s a great cast; with good supporting players like Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker and Bill Pullman, but they are window-dressed as noir archetypes, given nothing substantive to do with their characters. Also, everyone mumbles their lines-I couldn’t follow a good portion of the dialog (“What?”). In particular, I found Affleck’s vocal inflection (a peculiar, reedy croak) to be annoying.

There has been some controversy regarding the violence in the film; viewers are subjected to not one, but two uncompromisingly brutal scenes where a female character is punched, kicked and stomped to death. There are no artful cutaways; it is grisly, and hard to stomach.

Now, one could argue that murder is a horrible act, and should not be sugar-coated or glorified; after all this is a film about a psychotic killer (Goodfellas had some of the most sickening violence I’ve ever seen on screen, but in the context of the world that its characters live in, it “worked”). But in this case, it feels gratuitous, especially since I can’t really say that the film surrounding those scenes redeemed their inclusion in any major way. I’ve seen this movie before (think American Psycho, The Stepfather, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) Speaking for myself, I think I’ve had my lifetime quota.

Don’t ask, don’t tell: The Freebie ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 9, 2010)

Men and Women stoop to conquer

Men and Women stoop so low

Men and Women filled with doubt

They scream about what they don’t know

 -from Myn and Wymnyn, by Uncle Bonsai

The tagline for the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally triggered a flurry of panel discussions around the water cooler back in 1989 with its rhetorical question: “Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?” In her 2010 directorial debut, The Freebie, actress Katie Aselton (The Puffy Chair) ups the ante by asking “Can a married couple award each other a mutual pass to sleep with someone else for one night…and still love each other in the morning?” Perhaps the bigger question is: “Are human beings even wired in any way, shape or form to remain truly monogamous?”

Aselton casts herself as Annie, one half of an attractive, happily married thirty-something L.A. couple (no kids). Well, at least on the surface, it would appear that Annie and her Jackson Browne lookalike hubby Darren (Dax Shepard) are a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky pair. In fact, they are so goddamned good looking, textbook compatible and in tune with each other’s feelings that you want to throttle them. Well, not literally-but you catch my drift; especially if you’re as bitter and disillusioned as me (and isn’t everyone?).

However, you know what they say about that dreaded “7-year itch” (guess how many years Annie and Darren have been betrothed). The first harbinger of trouble in paradise arrives one night, following an awkward mission abort on a lovemaking session. Before any uncomfortable conversation can ensue, Darren quickly suggests a “race” to see which one of them can first complete a minute crossword, and Annie eagerly agrees to this whimsical distraction from the elephant in the bedroom (I was reminded of the classic scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is ranting in the middle of the night to his significant other about the JFK assassination, and she suddenly blurts out with “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me.”). The Talk inevitably occurs a few nights later, wherein they realize that, despite their undying commitment to the marriage, their sex life could use sprucing up.

This is the point in the film where you may feel compelled to start yelling at the screen. Darren and Annie agree to give each other a “free pass” for one evening; in short, mutual “permission” to have a one night stand outside of the marriage, with a few “don’t ask, don’t tell” caveats. The theory is that this will strengthen their love and trust in each other. This is an interesting idea, in theory-but if you know anything about human nature, as I said, you may begin yelling at the screen at this juncture…begging them not to do it.

They do it. God help them. Why do people always tinker? It’s never perfect enough, is it? Is anyone ever truly happy and content, no matter how good they’ve got it? Silly creatures. There are unanticipated consequences, natch. Still, you will be compelled to stick with these two idiots, to just see how it all plays out (in for a penny, in for a pound).

I would have been doing even more yelling at the screen, had this been a typical Hollywood rom-com, but it’s not. Aselton has delivered a well-acted, refreshingly realistic look at the complexities of love and modern relationships; warm, touching, funny and engaging without leaning on hackneyed plot contrivances. I liked the fact that there is no pat denouement, wrapped up with a bow; because real relationships (and our lives in general) rarely play out that way. I understand that many of the scenes were improvised; this gives the film its naturalistic vibe. It’s rare these days to discover a perceptive film for grownups, that actually has something substantive to offer, without wearing out its welcome. Kind of like a perfect relationship…if you’re lucky enough to be in one, it would behoove you to heed the film’s message: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Krill, baby, krill: Disney’s Oceans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 1, 2010)

 Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

-Rachel Carson, author of The Sea around Us

 We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.

-Jacques Yves Cousteau, author of The Silent World

 Oops.

-Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez

 In their magnificent documentary, Oceans, directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud don’t need to hit us over the head with cautionary rhetoric about mankind’s tendency to perennially poison the precious well of life that covers three-quarters of our planet with pollution, over-fishing and unchecked oil exploration. Any viewer, who becomes immersed in this stunningly photographed portrait of the delicately balanced aquatic ecosystem, yet fails to feel connected to the omniverse we cohabit (and a sense of responsibility) surely has something missing in their soul.

More of an aqueous 2001: a Space Odyssey than Discovery Channel nature romp, the film follows a narrative path reminiscent of Perrin and Cluzaud’s previous collaborative effort, Winged Migration. In that 2001 film, the pair (with Michael Debats) introduced audiences to a new paradigm in nature documentaries. The innovative camera work conveyed a bird’s eye view of, well, a bird’s world, that literally made you feel like a member of the flock, disaffected by gravity and those other pesky laws of physics which conspire to keep bipedal creatures earthbound. The narration was sparse, poetic, at time stream of consciousness. Corny as this sounds, I felt truly bonded with the avian “protagonists” by the end of the film. Ditto for Oceans.

Not that one normally “bonds” with a cuttlefish or a mantis shrimp in a conventional sense, mind you. However, if your contemplation of marine biology rarely extends beyond schlepping the occasional Mrs. Paul’s Breaded Fish Filet from the freezer to the microwave, this film will be a guaranteed eye-opener for you.

Granted, some of the scenarios have been covered in other nature documentaries; orcas snatching seals right off the beach, newborn sea turtles making a desperate break for the surf through a gauntlet of predators, and requisite footage of everyone’s favorite Antarctic marine birds-although the penguin antics are mercifully brief.

That said, there are unique, exquisitely rendered sequences in the film as well. A pod of humpback whales, breaching majestically in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A vast army of spider crabs (seemingly numbering in the tens of thousands) scuttling about the ocean floor en mass. A gargantuan ball of sardines getting decimated simultaneously from above and below by lightning-fast dolphins and dive-bombing sea birds. And in the film’s most sublime moment, an unexpectedly balletic display of maternal tenderness by a walrus, gently coddling her calf through his first undersea swim.

I would love to see the European cut of the film, which apparently runs 14 minutes longer; chiefly because I’m quite curious to see what Disney has excised. According to some reports, the chopped footage centers on our negative impact on the marine ecosystem. There is some extrapolation along those lines (endangered species entangled in tuna nets, satellite photos that clearly reveal ominously dark tentacles of pollution snaking the globe through every major body of water, etc.) but it does seem perfunctory in the U.S. cut.

The narration by Pierce Brosnan, while competent, doesn’t carry the gravitas that this type of meditation cries out for. Those few quibbles aside, I feel that this film is well worth your time. And as that horrendous oil “leak” in the Gulf of Mexico continues unabated, this rumination about what is at stake could not be any timelier.

Let them eat yellow cake: Fair Game ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 6, 2010)

And now,  I would like to invite you along for a little stroll down memory lane…to a time, not so long ago, when we had this man in the White House who, well…went a little ‘funny’ in the head after a terrorist group attacked America. You know, funny, and what he did was, you see, he sort of…girded his loins to invade a Middle Eastern country that actually had very little to do with the specific group of terrorists who attacked America. Naturally, he first had to come up with a viable reason to do so. And what he did was, he convinced the Congress that the country in question was not only chockablock with evildoers, but evildoers who had weapons of mass destruction that surely would be wielded against America in the near future.

Now, he couldn’t actually produce any photos of these Doomsday Machines, but they did discover some suspicious aluminum tubes. Oh-and they heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from another that they had been messin’ around with a substance called “yellow cake” which can be used in the manufacture of WMDs. Again, no real evidence, but nobody in the Congress wanted to be labeled as unpatriotic or anything like that, so they all went “Booyah! Shock and awe!” and opened those bomb bay doors wide.

So, the invasion was going swimmingly for a spell, and even those Americans who may have been scratching their heads a little over the aluminum tubes and yellow cake and such were keeping mum, because they didn’t want to be labeled as unpatriotic, either.Besides, all the journalists on the TV were supporting the troops, too! And they wouldn’t lie, because they’re all purely objective about these kinds of things!

But then, as the war began to drag on, and no stockpiles of WMDs seemed to be turning up, sleeper cells of not-so-patriotic grumblers could be detected all around America. However, as they turned out to be mostly aging, drug-addled old left-leaning hippie panhandlers and radical progressive pundits, the White House didn’t pay much mind to such gibberish-that is, until the summer of 2003.

That is when a former Foreign Service officer and ambassador named Joe Wilson published an op-ed in The New York Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Africa”. Wilson had been sent on a fact-finding trip to Niger in 2002 at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney, to investigate a report that Iraq had purchased some of the aforementioned yellow cake back in the late 1990s.

The gist of the piece was that there seemed to be a credibility gap between what the guy in the White House (you know, the one who went, sort of ’funny’ in the head) was claiming regarding the alleged stockpiling of yellow cake in Iraq, and what Wilson had actually discovered. ‘Someone’ obviously lied.

And it wasn’t Mr. Wilson.

That’s why ‘someone’ involved with the White House became very cross with Wilson. As a result, ‘someone’ accidentally-on-purpose allowed some confidential information about Wilson’s wife to get leaked. In fact, it was only 8 days after Wilson’s op-ed appeared that conservative journalist Robert Novak published an article in which he identified Valerie Plame Wilson as an “agency operative” (as in CIA). The Wilson’s life became hell, and the question of whether or not ‘someone’ in the Bush administration was guilty of a criminal act (by outing a CIA operative) became a widely debated issue.

Eventually, following a Department of Justice investigation, a member of the administration, Lewis “Scooter” Libby (former chief of staff for VP Cheney) ended up taking the fall in 2007, when he received a 30-month sentence for perjury and obstruction The President (apparently still feeling a little ‘funny’) commuted Libby’s sentence, 4 months after the conviction. You’ll note that I said Libby “took the fall”. I don’t want to name names, or put on a tin foil hat and suggest that there was a powerful cabal behind the smear, but in 2007, the Wilsons did file a civil suit against Messrs. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Richard Armitage (it didn’t take). Ah-(*sigh*) those were the days.

Indeed, many “Kodak moments” from the BushCo era came flashing back as I watched Fair Game, Doug Liman’s slightly uneven dramatization of the “Plame affair”. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two separately written memoirs by the couple-The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame. Sean Penn and Naomi Watts bring their star power to the table as the Wilsons, portraying them as a loving couple who were living relatively low key lives (she more as a necessity of her profession) until they got pushed into a boiling cauldron of nasty political intrigue that falls somewhere in between All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

Viewers who are unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the Paul Greengrass-style opening scenes-complete with pulse-pounding music and hand held “shaky cam”. You get the impression that you might be in for a Bourne-style action thriller. The conundrum is that the part of the story concerning Valerie Plame’s CIA exploits can at best be only speculative in nature. Because of the sensitivity of those matters, Plame has only gone on record concerning that part of her life in vague, generalized terms, so what you end up with is something along the lines of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (although I would wager that Plame has slightly more credibility than Chuck Barris, nu?).

The most important part of the story, however is what transpired for the couple once Valerie was “outed” by Novak, and how they ultimately stood up to the White House. The CIA, of course was no help; they dropped Plame like a hot potato once her cover was blown (essentially throwing her under the bus while wishing her best of luck).

Although Valerie (the more guarded of the two) is initially reticent to go on the counteroffensive, Joe is able to convince her that there is much more at stake than merely salvaging their pride by pushing back. Liman wisely shifts the focus of his film to showing us how they weathered this storm as a couple, eventually becoming something greater than the sum of their parts once they decided to take Karl Rove and his merry band of ratfuckers head on.

In light of this past Tuesday’s depressing results,  the timing of this film’s release could be seen as an unintentional bit of serendipity in some respects. We know from experience how ugly it’s going to get, and also learned that a bully is a bully until you start pushing back. So why not take a bit of inspiration away from this little political David and Goliath tale from our not-so-distant past? We’d best get in shape now. So…drop and give me 20!

The (toxic) loan arranger rides again: Inside Job ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 6, 2010)

Rising up to break this thing

From family trees the dukes do swing

Just one blow to scratch the itch

The law’s made for and by the rich

 –Paul Weller

I have good news and bad news about the documentary, Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

To their credit, writers Chad Beck and Adam Bolt don’t stoop to hyperbole (pandering to those steadily depressing, low down mind-messing, workin’ at the car wash blues that we’re already feeling as a result of this economic nightmare) but step back to give some actual historical perspective. The filmmakers start at the very beginning-all the way back to where the seeds were sown-during the spate of rampant financial deregulation during the Reagan administration (aka, “morning in America”-remember that?).

No POTUS (including Obama) who has led the country post-Reagan is let off the hook, either. The film illustrates, point by painful point, how every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, did their “part” in enabling the current crisis-mostly through political cronyism and legislative manipulation. The result of this decades long circle jerk involving Wall Street, the mortgage industry, Congress, the White House and lobbyists (with Ivy League professors as pivot men) is what we are now living with today.

The film is very slickly produced; it’s well-paced, nicely edited and Matt Damon’s even-toned narration helps to keep the somewhat byzantine threads of the story accessible. Ferguson was able to assemble a fascinating cross-section of talking heads, including financial insiders, economists, politicians, academics…and even a Wall Street madam (who comes off, relative to the kinds of people she provides services for, as  one of the more virtuous and forthright interviewees).

In fact, the overall impression I came away with was that the entire financial system, taken along with its associative ties to lobbyists, legislators, economics professors and corporate-backed MSM lackeys, is nothing less than a glorified prostitution ring-funded by America’s working poor and middle class taxpayers.

This brings me to the film’s one flaw. Ferguson is very good at getting us riled up (there’s plenty here to get pissed about)-but doesn’t necessarily offer solutions (maybe some suggestions on how to fire up grassroots activism?). But I suspect that you already figured that out (that it’s up to “us”). Me? I’m kind of slow on this stuff-that’s probably why I just do movie reviews around these parts.

Guys have body issues, too: A Matter of Size ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2010)

You know-us dogs aren’t really so much of the dogs that we think we are.

-from the 1955 film Marty

When you think “star athlete”, it invariably conjures up an image of a man or a woman with zero body fat and abs of steel. It certainly bears no resemblance to the doughy disappointment peering back at us from our full-length mirror (well…speaking for myself). Granted, there is the odd exception-Babe Ruth, CC Sabathia, David Wells, George Foreman, John Daly and Charles Barkley come to mind (and give some of us hope). Not that I ever considered pro sports as a career-but at some point in our lives, those of us who are “persons of size” must make peace with the cards we have been dealt.

Herzl (Itzak Cohen), the unlikely sports hero of a delightful audience-pleaser from Israel called A Matter of Size has been dealing with his “cards” for some thirty-odd years, and has yet to come up with a winning hand. Sweet-natured, puppy-eyed and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, he lives with his overbearing mother, Mona (Levana Finkelstein) and works at a restaurant, commandeering a salad bar.

Mona loves her son, but has odd ways of expressing it (chiefly due to her lack of a social filter). “You’re getting too fat!” she scolds, belaboring the obvious; in the next breath she’s encouraging him to finish up some leftovers in the fridge (eating and complaining…two things my People excel at).

Just when you think the situation couldn’t get more demoralizing for the hapless Herzl, he gets fired from his job, essentially for being visually unaesthetic to the workplace (read: Management objects to having a morbidly obese employee tending the salad bar).

But then, two things happen to Herzl that could potentially turn his present state of gloom around: he experiences a mutual spark of attraction with a lovely woman in his weight watchers group (Irit Kaplan) and finds a new job at a Japanese restaurant, managed by an ex-pro sumo coach (Togo Igawa). Guess what happens? (Hint: As you probably know, sumo is a sport that celebrates and reveres big fellers, elevating them to rock star status).

It would have been easy for directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor to wring cheap laughs from such a predominately corpulent cast, but much to their credit (and Danny Cohen-Solal, who co-scripted with Maymon) the characters (and actors who play them) ultimately emerge from their trials and tribulations with dignity and humanity fully intact.

Even the sight of four supersized Israeli gentlemen bounding through a grassy field, garbed in naught but their lipstick-red mawashis makes you want to stand up and cheer (as opposed to pointing and snickering). Ditto for an endearing, sensitively directed seduction scene between Herzl and his girlfriend, and a subplot concerning one of Herzl’s buddies who, empowered via the sumo training, begins his journey of coming out as a gay man. Needless to say, the film is ultimately about self-acceptance, in all of its guises.

And that’s a good thing.

Staring at a blank page: Paper Man **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 8, 2010)

Did you ever encounter a married couple who left you pondering: “How in the hell did those two ever get together? Did somebody lose a bet?” I would lay odds that this thought has crossed the minds of husband and wife Kieran and Michele Mulroney, because in their first effort as co-writer/directors, Paper Man, they have created a fictional married couple who leave you pondering: “How in the hell did those two ever get together?”

“Those two” are Claire (Lisa Kudrow) and Richard (Jeff Daniels) Dunn. She is a successful and renowned vascular surgeon who works at a New York City hospital. He is a not-so-successful writer, whose last book went in the dumper. Needless to say, Claire is the breadwinner of the family; she’s the “responsible” one, and a bit of a control freak. Richard is a man-child; taciturn and socially awkward, with a tendency to daydream (typical writer). There is a third member of the family-but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Richard is struggling with a new book, and Claire has decided that setting him up in a rented cottage in the Long Island boonies will help him focus on his work. As we watch the couple getting settled in, it becomes apparent that Claire is more of a caregiver/guardian than a wife; she is not unlike a doctor clinically observing her patient.

Her exasperation over her husband’s chronic underachievement is palpable beneath her forced cheerfulness as she prattles on about her busy work schedule for the upcoming week, and then casually asks Richard what he has planned for his first week alone at the cottage. “I’ll start from the very beginning,” he says nebulously, adding  “…which is a very good place to start.” Before she leaves for work the next morning, she asks him, with an air of foreboding, “You didn’t bring ‘him’ with you, did you?”

‘He’ is Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). He is a figment of Richard’s imagination, his imaginary pal, ‘super-hero’, muse, conscience-that “little voice” in our heads (what…you don’t hear the voices?). Although he has assured his wife that ‘he’ didn’t come along, he “appears”, the second Claire pulls out of the driveway. “I sense danger,” he warns Richard.

This “danger” comes in many forms. Richard tends fixate on things (the couch in the cottage, for instance, really, really bothers him). Thinking too hard about his “half-dead marriage”, as the Captain refers to it. And of course, every writer’s nightmare: staring at an empty page for days on end, with no inspiration in sight.

The Captain’s early warning system goes into overdrive when Richard ventures into town on a Spyder bike and espies a young woman named Abby (Emma Stone) nonchalantly setting fire to a trash can. For some reason, this intrigues him. He follows her, and when she confronts him, Richard blurts out that he is new in town and needs a babysitter. For some reason, this intrigues her, and she says yes.

Imagine her surprise when she shows up and Richard tells her that there is no baby. He just wants her to hang out at his house while he goes out for a spell. In spite of the red flags, she says OK. In accordance with the rules and regulations of indie film, this marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So-is this yet another quirky, navel-gazing dramedy, a la Lost in Translation or Me and You and Everyone We Know, offering up a wistful and pithy examination of lonely, desperately unhappy people yearning to connect amidst the vast desolation of a cold and unfeeling universe, set to a requisite soundtrack of lo-fi pop and angsty emo tunes? And was I a tad gob smacked that Ellen Page or Zooey Deschanel were nowhere in sight? Yes, and yes, pretty much.

That being said, I still didn’t mind spending two hours with these characters, thanks to the sensitive direction and excellent performances, particularly by Daniels and Stone. Lisa Kudrow is always fun to watch, and I was surprised by Kieran Culkin’s touching turn in a small supporting role.

The Mulroneys seemed unsure  how to best end the film, but I’m willing to grade them on a curve since this is their first collaborative writing-directing effort (Kieran Mulroney is the younger brother of actor Dermot, if you care). Perhaps they are staring at a blank page, cooking up their next project. I hope Captain Excellent is looking over their shoulder.

Monkey gone to heaven: Creation ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27, 2010)

The story so far:

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

-Douglas Adams

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.

-Charles Darwin

I cannot persuade myself that it has been 50 years since anyone has bothered to make a film in which naturalist Charles Darwin’s seminal treatise on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of the Species, plays a significant role; but five long decades have elapsed between Stanley Kramer’s intelligently designed (no pun intended) 1960 courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind (based on the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial”) and the new Darwin biopic, Creation. Perhaps this indicates that Hollywood itself has not evolved much, nu?

Perhaps I judge too harshly. After all, “Hollywood” has little to do with this particular film, as it was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council. The problem stems from U.S. distributors, none of whom initially appeared willing to touch the movie with a 10-foot pole following its debut at the Toronto International Festival last year. Maybe it had something (everything?) to do with that peculiarly ‘murcan mindset that trucks with reviews like one recently posted on Movieguide.org., which states (among other things):

Manure, nicely wrapped with a bow, is still manure. A lie that there is no God and that somehow we have randomly shown up here on Earth as an accident is still a lie, even if it’s well written and acted.

Minds like steel traps. Okay, I do realize they are a staunchly Christian-oriented website, and are certainly entitled to their own opinions. At any rate…thank Ardi that someone eventually picked it up, because the film has now found limited release here in the states.

Although Jon Amiel’s film (written by John Colee and Randal Keynes) leans more toward drawing-room costume melodrama, focusing on Darwin’s family life-as opposed to, say, an adventure of discovery recounting the five-year mission of the HMS Beagle to boldly go where no God-fearing Christian had gone before in the interest of advancing earth and animal science, those who appreciate (to paraphrase my  brethren over at Movieguide.org) thoughtful writing and fine acting…should not be disappointed.

Real-life married couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play husband Charles and wife Emma Darwin. The story covers Darwin’s mid-life; from several years after his voyage on the Beagle and culminating on the eve of the publication of his most famous book.

Darwin is not in a healthy state when we are introduced to him; he suffers from a variety of stress-related maladies. Aside from the pressure he is under from peers like botanist/explorer Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) to organize 20 years worth of scientific notes and journals into his soon to be legendary tome (especially after Alfred Russell Wallace beats him to the punch with his brief 1858 essay on natural selection), he is literally sick with grief over the death of his beloved daughter Anna, who died at age 10 from illness.

He is tortured with guilt over her death; he suspects Anna’s weak immune system to be the result of inbreeding (his wife was also his first cousin). Indeed, this was a tragic and ironic epiphany for the man whose name would become synonymous with groundbreaking theories on evolution and natural selection.

Darwin also wrestles with a two-pronged crisis of faith. On the one hand, his inconsolable grief over the cosmic cruelty of a ten year old dying of complications from what should only have been a simple summer chill has distanced him even further from the idea of a benevolent creator (a confirmation in his heart of what the cool logic of his scientific mind has already been telling him).

Then, there is the matter of the philosophical chasm between his science-based understanding of all creatures great and small, and the religious views held by his wife (whom he loves dearly). He continues his work, but hovers on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which distances him further from Emma and his surviving children (the Darwins eventually had ten, although only five are depicted in the film).

He rejects counseling from long time family minister and friend Reverend Innes (Jeremy Northam), alienating him as well. Darwin’s subsequent journey to recovering his well-being and finding the balance between commitment to his scientific life’s work and loving devotion to his wife and children is very movingly told.

Bettany had a “warm-up” for this role in 2003, when he played ship surgeon and naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin, in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He delivers a strong performance, and if you look at the Daguerreotype portraits of Darwin, even bears a striking physical resemblance.

Connelly is in essence reprising her character in A Beautiful Mindl; intelligent, strong-willed, compassionate, and sensitive. Toby Jones is memorable as Thomas Huxley (who once famously exalted “You’ve killed God, sir!” to Darwin in reaction to his breakthrough paper). Young Martha West steals all her scenes as Anna (her dad is actor Dominic West). There are nice directorial flourishes; as in a  “bug-cam” cruise through the wondrous microcosmic universe in the Darwin’s back yard.

Despite what knee-jerk reactions from the wingnut blogosphere might infer about what I’m sure they consider as godless blasphemy permeating every frame of the movie, I thought the film makers were even-handed on the Science vs. Dogma angle. This is ultimately a portrait of Darwin the human being, not Darwin the bible-burning God-killer (or however the “intelligent” designers prefer to view him). Genius that he was, he is shown to be just as flawed and full of contradictions as any of us. After all, we bipedal mammals with opposable thumbs are an ongoing “design in progress”, aren’t we?

First there is a mountain: North Face ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 20, 2010)

The hills are alive:  Lukas and Furmann in North Face

The language of cinema may be universal, but certain genres seem to be nation-centric. The American western, the Japanese samurai film and the French farce come to mind. Germany’s claim to fame (arguably running neck-in-neck with Expressionism) are the Alpine “mountain films” of the 1920s and 1930s, ruggedly adventurous tales pitting man (and occasionally, the ruggedly adventurous Leni Riefenstahl) against nature.

The narratives generally applaud moral fiber and strength of character (bet you’re glad I didn’t say “triumph of the will”), as well as variations on the theme of “What doesn’t kill you, can only make you stronger.” Many of these mountain films hold up well, mostly due to the genuinely exciting on-location climbing sequences, which obviously had to be filmed without benefit of enhancements like CGI. Okay, there were some camera tricks and such, but the actors and crew were often working in relatively perilous situations.

This brings us to Philipp Stozl’s remarkably authentic mountaineering tale, North Face (released in Germany in 2008 as Nordwand, and currently making its theatrical debut in the U.S.). I will tell you one thing. Despite what I know in my heart of hearts about the “magic” of movie making, days later I’m still pondering how the hell they produced this film without any cast or crew members going “Whoopsie!” and plunging to their doom.

The film is based on the true story of four climbers (a pair of two-man teams, one German and the other Austrian) who tackled the previously unconquered north face of Switzerland’s legendary Eiger in 1936. This particular route to the summit of the formidable 13,000 foot peak was considered suicidal at best; due to its dauntingly sheer ascent, dicey traversals, unforgiving exposure to mercurial weather conditions and relative scarcity of safe bivouacking options. Based on my research about the actual events, Stolzl and co-writers Cristoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber have taken artistic license in their dramatization, but have still delivered a riveting adventure.

The German climbing team of lifelong friends Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are professional rivals of their Austrian counterparts, Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz). Toni and Andreas have been persuaded by the government to represent Germany (and for Nazi propaganda purposes, the “superior” Aryan ideal) in a multi-nation  competition to scale the Eiger.

The two are much more enthusiastic about the potential to become the first to successfully navigate the north face than they are about scoring political points for the Fatherland. In fact, neither are party members. Although they are in the army, they are ambivalent about their military careers. They cheekily respond to the standard greeting of “Heil Hitler!” with either a cheery “Guten tag!” or a jaunty “Berg heil!”

A childhood friend of the pair named Luise (Johanna Wokelek), now an aspiring photojournalist, is assigned to accompany her editor (Ulrich Tukur) to cover the competition (for those who fret about historical accuracy, she’s a complete invention). It is intimated that Luise and Toni share a romantic history.

For one reason or another, the Germans and the Austrians are the only two teams who end up making the climb; initially as competitors but eventually merging as one team due to unexpected circumstances. The ascent subsequently is aborted and becomes a harrowing survival tale that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Despite a narrative invention or two, Stolzl has delivered a believable film; immersive, exhilarating, heartbreaking. The mountaineering sequences are astounding, instilling a sense of admiration for what these men were able to achieve, outfitted in their relatively primitive 1930s climbing gear (no Gore-Tex or GPS tracking devices in those days).

The Nazi politics are downplayed, but there is a pointed juxtaposition made between the porcine “spectators” and journalists reveling in warm and cozy opulence at the nearby four-star hotel, and the tortuous, sub-zero life-and-death struggles unfolding just a few miles away on the Eiger. Whether this was intended as political allegory is up for debate.

I detected an echo of Billy Wilder’s cynical noir classic Ace in the Hole in one scene. When news reaches the journalists that the climbers have aborted the attempt and begun a premature descent, Luise asks her editor why he has made an abrupt decision to abandon the story as well and immediately leave the hotel. He snorts, “You either need a glorious triumph…or a horrible tragedy. An unspectacular retreat is nothing more than a few lines on page 3.” Plus ca change

Wolves, lower: The Wolfman **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 13, 2010)

Inga: Werewolf!

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  (startled) Werewolf?!

Igor There.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  What?

Igor (pointing) There…wolf. There…castle.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  Why are you talking that way?

Igor:  I thought you wanted to.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein:  No, I don’t want to.

Igor:  (shrugs) Suit yourself. I’m easy.

 -from Young Frankenstein.

 Why are people so fascinated with the concept of vampires and werewolves? I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked in our  lizard brain. Both of these “monsters” are  predatory in nature, but with some significant differences.

With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once consummated, it’s off to  the next victim (no rest for the anemic). In criminologist terms, vampires are serial date rapists…so why  do people find that sexy?.

Werewolves, on the other hand, are much less complex. They are spree killers, pure and simple (“He always seemed like such a sweet, quiet guy. Until the full moon.”) With them it’s all about the ripping, and the slicing and the dicing.

Vampires are quite self-aware of their “issues”…but they can’t stop doing what they do. They have highly addictive personalities-which is an element a lot of people can identify with on some level (with me, it’s chocolate…and yes, you may call me Count Chocula).

Werewolves, on the other hand, generally have no cognizance of their actions, until perhaps after the fact. They have true schizophrenic personalities, which I think makes them the scarier creatures. I suppose that even those of us who are not homicidal maniacs can relate on some level (“I did what last night? Jesus, I’ll never get that drunk again!”). Werewolves scare us because they remind us of the duality that exists within all human beings; after all, Hitler and Gandhi walked the planet at the same point in history.

My favorite “monster movies” don’t necessarily involve characters literally shape shifting into wild beasts. One example is Jean Renoir’s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine (reworked by Fritz Lang as the 1954 film noir Human Desire) with the great Jean Gabin as a train engineer plagued by blackouts, during which he commits horrendous crimes, usually precipitated by sexual stirrings. And who can forget Elvis’ immortal line from Jailhouse Rock, after an uninvited advance: “Ah… sorry, honah. It’s just the beast in me.”

You know what “they” say-it always comes in threes; especially in Hollywood, where the studios have recently been on a Victorian kick. As of this weekend, we have Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman snapping away in theaters, on the heels of Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria. Basing their film on the eponymous Lon Chaney Jr. classic, director Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, who adapted from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script, have re-imagined a few elements, but are fairly faithful to the original.

The film opens with a vintage Hammer Studios vibe. It’s England, 1891. There’s a full moon, an old dark manor, and (wait for it) a fog on the moor. A terrified man is fleeing from an unseen bestial horror, as fast as his Wellingtons can carry him. Not fast enough.

Local myth attributes a recent spate of these brutal killings to an elusive  creature of unknown origins. The villagers are a superstitious lot, believing they have been cursed; naturally, the nearest group of Gypsies is suspected. This is the milieu that an American actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself in when his brother’s mysterious disappearance precipitates a return to his boyhood home and a wary reunion with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins).

Lawrence has not returned at his father’s request, but rather at the urging of his missing brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt). The elder Talbot’s misanthropic demeanor has not exactly endeared him to his neighbors either, and when an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate, they happily cast their suspicions in the direction of the Talbots. Through fate and circumstance, Lawrence becomes suspect #1, and a dark family history unfurls.

Was this a necessary remake? 69 years seems a respectful moratorium. Johnston’s film does evoke the mood and atmosphere of the original; it’s fitting homage to Universal’s classic horror era (which also includes wonderful creature-less chillers like The Scarlet Claw, my personal favorite of their Holmes series). The transformation scenes are genuinely creepy, and creature effects master Rick Baker’s prosthetic work is aces. Danny Elfman’s gothic score fits in nicely.

On the down side, despite the impressive cast, no performance stands out; even hammy Hopkins seems oddly detached. While I can appreciate that Del Toro was trying to “internalize” the inherent tragedy of his character, he never gets to develop it fully-which could be due to the rushed narrative in the second act. There are some interesting peripheral characters introduced (like a Gypsy seer, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who we don’t get to see enough of these days) but again, they are ultimately given short shrift.

Fans of old school Gothic horror will fare best. While the film has graphic violence, it stops  this side of gratuitous (unlike the odious “torture porn” genre, which has given horror movies a bad name). With a sharper script and more plot development, they could have had a minor cult item. But for the time being, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff can continue to rest easy.