The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabin in the Woods, the genre-twisting feature, from the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, that satirizes horror movie conventions within a larger science fiction framework as it tells the tale of five college-age friends who are secretly manipulated by a mysterious high-tech agency during a weekend getaway at a mountain lake.  Filmed in 2009, it was held from release by the bankruptcy of its studio, MGM, which could not afford the cost of marketing and publicity; eventually picked up by Lionsgate Films, it finally hit screens in early 2012, when the long anticipation by Whedon’s many fans turned it into a major box office success.  Lauded by many critics for its clever restructuring and skewering of the “slasher movie” genre, it managed to find its way onto several best-of-2012 lists in addition to becoming one of the year’s biggest financial hits.

The movie begins with the back-and-forth intercutting between scenes of a large-scale government tech lab where final preparations are under way for an elaborate and unspecified project, and a group of five young people getting ready for a trip to a secluded mountain cabin.  The kids- Dana (the sweet and comparatively wholesome “good girl”), Jules (the bleached-blonde sexpot), Curt (Jules’ jock boyfriend), Holden (Curt’s studious friend, brought along as a blind date for Dana), and Marty (the pot-smoking nerd)- set out in an  RV, and, though they have an unsettling encounter with the attendant at a run-down gas station on the road to the cabin, they remain in high spirits, looking forward to a weekend of good times.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear they are being remotely monitored by the technicians in the mysterious lab, who seem to have complete control over their environment.  Upon arrival at their destination, the five friends discover that the cabin- recently purchased by a cousin of Curt’s- is an odd and disconcerting place, adorned with gruesome art, fearsome stuffed animals, and see-through mirrors, and they eventually stumble upon a trap door which leads to a secret basement full of odd and arcane relics.  Among these objects they find a diary, written by the daughter of the cabin’s original owners; as Dana reads it aloud, it reveals a horrific tale of torture, disfigurement, and murder, practiced by the family in the service of their twisted puritanical beliefs, and includes a strange Latin invocation- which she also reads aloud, unwittingly calling the long-deceased clan back from the dead.  Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that all of these events seem to be under the orchestration of the observing lab technicians, who watch with satisfied interest as the murderous zombies slink towards the unsuspecting young people in the cabin.  Needless to say, the weekend getaway is soon to become a terrifying fight for survival, in which the would-be victims will discover that their perilous situation has larger implications more dire than any of them could suspect.

The screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods was co-written by Whedon and Goddard, who worked together on Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; though it took them only three days to write, it is undeniably clever.  It’s difficult to discuss it in much detail without giving away too many of its secrets, but it is safe to describe it as a mash-up of Friday the Thirteenth and Night of the Living Dead as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft. This in itself is creative enough, but it’s also apparent that the pair have a definite agenda here, in which they use a sort of meta-drama- self-consciously utilizing all the stock characters and conceits of the slasher film scenario- to explore the deeper psychological origins of the horror genre, linking it both to its ancient roots in the superstitions and religions of ancient cultural memory and to its modern role as a fetishized outlet for the primordial and antisocial urges that still lie at its core.  The story of the five not-so-innocent kids is enfolded into a larger plot that allegorizes the makers of such formulaic horror vehicles themselves, using an elaborate metaphor to satirize their motivations and criticize the growing trend towards “torture porn” within the genre.  The concept is ingenious, audacious and inspired; the writers have constructed a puzzle box of a movie, in which several layers of plot fit neatly inside each other, with each addressing larger and more significant themes, ultimately providing both homage to and an indictment of a genre which celebrates the bloodlust lurking in the core of human nature.  At the same time, they endeavor to create a movie which works simultaneously as a high-concept art piece and a wildly entertaining example of schlock cinema.  With the first goal, they come respectably close; with the second, however, they are much further from the mark.

On a conceptual level, The Cabin in the Woods works well; the underlying conceit, though veiled, is apparent from the beginning, allowing us to appreciate the way it informs the narrative as it gradually emerges to our full understanding.  It’s a good choice, because on the surface level, what we are given is far too ordinary to hold our interest for long.  The movie-in-a-movie storyline, with its hapless young victims being stalked and slaughtered one by one, is so familiar and predictable as to be completely devoid of shock; it’s deliberately derivative, of course, but the unimaginative, by-rote handling of the formula is no less dull for its intentions.  To make matters worse, the dialogue, loaded with obligatory comic banter and snarky “fanboy” in-jokes, is stale and stilted, with a decidedly sophomoric reliance on cliché and self-indulgence; the characters, though an effort is made to give them more personality and depth than the typical stock figures in such fare, still behave like one-dimensional stereotypes, and despite the fact that we are clearly told that their actions are being manipulated by their white-collar puppeteers, again, it makes little difference to our level of emotional investment in them- or rather, our lack of it.  It’s true that. as the movie expands from the killer zombie hillbilly scenario, they (the survivors anyway) are seen to have a little more on the ball than they’ve managed to show so far, but by the time this larger plot has taken over, so much screen time has been squandered on the regurgitation of shallow horror convention that it’s hard to care.  Even though it happens too late in the game, the development of the framing plot, in which we discover the real horrors of the cabin in the woods, is far more original and engaging, though it, too, suffers from the malady of unconvincing dialogue; the film’s final quarter is so much more interesting that it heightens our disappointment over everything that has gone before.  Still, when the movie finally reaches its endgame, fully revealing its devilishly clever dual purpose as a satirical exploration of form and a cynical commentary on human nature, it succeeds in winning us over with its sheer audacity, leaving us with a sort of grudging delight and making us wish that Whedon and Goddard had spent more than three days writing their screenplay.

The movie built on that script is certainly made well enough; directed by Goddard, with Whedon serving as producer (presumably too involved with his myriad other creative endeavors to get behind the camera on this one), it succeeds in emulating the stylistic sensibilities of the teen scream genre it draws from, using time-honored techniques of visual vocabulary to tell its story (with a good bit of sly humor) and expanding to a slicker, more contemporary mode as the focus shifts loose from the constraints of genre formula. There is nothing truly mind-blowing here, in terms of visual style or innovation, just smart utilization of the established tricks of the trade, but Goddard has clearly done his homework, and he pulls it off in a workmanlike fashion. More overtly impressive, from the standpoint of cinematic creativity, is the work of the movie’s designers and technicians, who give us a number of delicious visual treats, particularly in the climactic scenes involving an everything-but-the-kitchen sink catalogue of movie monsters ranging from the familiar (murderous clowns, werewolves, sadistic hell-spawn) to the not-so-familiar (a killer unicorn, a lamprey-faced ballerina, and a decidedly grotesque merman). These sequences were accomplished by an impressive assemblage of the finest effects artists and technicians in the industry, requiring the rental of extra facilities to accommodate the sheer number of workers, and shooting at the huge aerospace building of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, since the available studio space was inadequate for the necessary scale. The unprecedented effort was worth it- this section is by far the most fun and memorable few minutes in the movie, generating more actual laughs and thrills than the entire pick-em-off-one-by-one saga that takes up the first three-quarters of screen time.

The film’s other production values are solid, as well; the cinematography by Peter Deming, the musical score by David Julyan, the production design by Martin Whist – all these are several cuts above the level of the low-budget exploitation thrillers upon which The Cabin in the Woods depends for inspiration, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little amateurish roughness around the edges might have gone a long way towards bestowing Goddard’s film with more of the authentic grindhouse flavor it sorely needs.  The higher quality is appreciated, however, when it comes to the performances, since bad acting is rarely a plus, and since the film requires a bit more nuance from its players than the typical horror entry.  Though it’s notable that two of the cast members are Chris Hemsworth (as Curt) and Richard Jenkins (who shot their roles here before making it big as Thor and earning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor, respectively), the true stars are Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, as Dana and Marty, who are both charming enough, and more importantly project the intelligence and spunk needed to make them into a convincing hero and heroine.  Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are goofily likeable as the pair of elder-generation nerds who serve as team leaders for the mysterious behind-the-scenes project, and Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams, as the remainder of the youthful adventurers, succeed in making their characters more than the mere ciphers they might have been.  Sigourney Weaver, who seems to have made a supplemental career for herself playing self-referential cameos in this kind of satirical sci-fi fare, makes a surprise appearance near the end, but disclosing the nature of her role would be too much of a spoiler; suffice to say that her presence onscreen is welcome and her performance is amusing without being over-the-top.

I suppose I should confess that I have never been particularly fond of the “slasher movie” sub-genre, though most of my generation, which grew up with them, seems to consider them essential touchstones of pop culture experience.  I always thought they were predictable and dull, and rarely frightening; consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the effectiveness of The Cabin in the Woods, either as a legitimate entry or as a parody.  Many viewers have responded much more positively than I to Whedon and Goddard’s Lovecraftian mind-bender, but even I can say that it’s worth a look.  Even though, ultimately, I found it as predictable and unengaging as the films it sends up, it contains many aspects that impressed me, and yes, even entertained me.  For one thing, it has a lot more “heart” than most of these cold-blooded slaughter-fests, reminding us that alongside those savage instincts in our unconscious there are also nobler ones; though, in the end, the film’s “message,” if you can call it that, is cynical and even nihilistic, it leaves you with a more or less positive view of mankind- in the individual, if not in the collective.  It’s also a very smart movie, with canny observations about human behavior on the personal, social, and cultural level, and it weaves these into its formulaic plot in a way that illuminates the stock situations and conventions, revealing the deeper implications of the well-worn narrative structure and helping us to see it as more than mere repetitive drivel.  Finally, I can truly embrace its creators’ avowed purpose of decrying the level to which the horror genre has sunk in our modern era; most horror movies today are mindless spatter films, capitalizing on flavor-of-the-week trends and using sensationalistic formats to earn a quick buck and nothing more.  At best, they are meaningless, and at worst, they are thought pollution, celebrating cruelty and violence for their own sake and reinforcing some very ugly behavioral tendencies in an audience that is typically of a very impressionable age.  The Cabin in the Woods attempts to address this state of affairs by offering an alternative which both satisfies the need for a good scare and stimulates the intellect, as many (though certainly, admittedly, not all) of the so-called “old school” horror films tried to do.  It’s very clever, alright; unfortunately, in the end, it’s too clever for its own good.  Those who are likely to clue into the brainier aspects of the film will probably not respond to the horror, and those who are in it for the cheap thrills will undoubtedly be disinterested in any higher purpose.  Of course, there is a convergent group of viewers- most of them, probably, already fans of Whedon’s nerdy-cool fictional universe- who will find both levels of The Cabin in the Woods right up their alley, and they are the ones for whom this movie is made.  You might not be one of them, but it’s still worth watching; even if it doesn’t quite work (and even if it doesn’t look like it, at first glance), it’s refreshingly intelligent filmmaking.  There’s precious little enough of that out there, so get it where you can.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1259521/?ref_=sr_1

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that looking at the pictures below might be a mistake.  I try not to provide spoilers, but some of these images might give things away that you don’t want to know ahead of time, and once you see something, you can’t unsee it, so view at your own risk.

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Serpico (1973)

Serpico (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Serpico, the 1973 classic by director Sidney Lumet, based on the true story of the first New York police officer to speak up about the widespread graft and corruption in the city’s police force, featuring Al Pacino in an iconic early performance that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars and offering one of the finest examples of the kind of gritty, authentic filmmaking that made the seventies one of the richest and most influential decades in the history of cinema.  Shot entirely on location in the streets and interiors of New York City, it was made on a budget of a million dollars- small even for the time- and made over 30 times that amount at the box office, riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that had begun in the late sixties; its financial success helped pave the way for a sort of mini-genre that exposed injustice and corruption in government while exploring the difficulty of maintaining individual honor and integrity in such a dishonest system- a theme found in many of the period’s greatest films, reflecting the zeitgeist of an era marked by disillusionment in the powers that be and a growing mistrust of once-respected institutions of authority.

Adapted from Peter Maas’ bestselling book, the film follows the true story of policeman Frank Serpico beginning with his graduation from the New York police academy and his subsequent rapid rise from beat cop to plainclothes detective; a dedicated and exceptional officer, he excels at his job, using his spirit of innovation and his street-savvy sensibility to become the best cop he can be.  Along the way, however, he repeatedly encounters colleagues who resort to unethical behavior- physical abuse of suspects, accepting handouts and bribes, and, most pervasively, extorting money in the form of shakedowns and payoffs from criminals in exchange for looking the other way.  It’s a tradition that seems to be as old as the police force itself, and one in which everyone is expected to participate; those who refuse are viewed with suspicion, intimidated, scorned, and threatened by other officers.  Though at first Serpico is able to remain aloof to the widespread corruption, the pressure from his colleagues eventually becomes unbearable; he tries to take action through official channels inside the police department, only to find that the entire chain of command- all the way to the top- seems bent more on ignoring and covering up the problem.  When he finally joins forces with a lawyer friend and takes his story to the Mayor’s office, he is again rebuffed.  When his personal life also begins to crumble due to the emotional strain of his professional situation, he finally decides to go public, telling his story to the press and forcing the department to begin a widespread internal investigation.  It is Serpico’s testimony that will be the key to exposing the extensive wrongdoing on the force; perceived as a traitor to his fellow policemen, he is soon placed deliberately in danger while on duty, set up by his partners during a drug bust; shot in the face and abandoned at the scene, he nevertheless survives to bear witness at the hearings conducted by the Knapp Commission, a government agency set up to investigate largely because of his determination to make his story heard.

Though the screenplay for Serpico does take a few liberties with the true events, it is for the most part a faithful depiction of the real story.  Maas’ book, written with the participation of the real Frank Serpico, was adapted faithfully for the screen by Waldo Salt, with later modifications by Norman Wexler, who restructured the narrative when director Lumet decided it was too long.  In order to pack the decade-long saga into a manageable running time, the story is told in a sort of collage, constructed of mostly short scenes which document the progression of events over time; most of the faces change as Serpico is variously transferred throughout the department and makes changes in his personal life, but the thread of continuity is maintained by the main character’s presence at the center throughout and the unchanging circumstances of his dilemma- though the names and places may be different, the underlying situation is always there, showing not only the widespread nature of the problem but suggesting, by extension, that such corruption is a universal issue.  It’s an approach which also helps to reduce the sense that we are seeing a “movie” with actors (though many of them are recognizable faces), lending the piece instead a feeling of genuine, fly-on-the-wall credibility.  This kind of pseudo-documentary authenticity was no doubt enhanced by Serpico’s direct involvement; he was initially present on the set during shooting, until Lumet and producer Martin Bregman deemed him too distracting (or, perhaps, too intimidating) for the cast, and he was Pacino’s guest for several weeks at a rented house in Montauk, where the actor spent time with him in order to gain insight in preparation for the role.

The slice-of-life perspective Serpico uses to take us through this true story of heroism is ultimately made possible by its director.  Sidney Lumet was a filmmaker with a long and varied career, starting as a child actor on Broadway (indeed, the memorable party scene early in the film was shot in the apartment of Sidney Kingsley, the playwright who hired the 11-year-old Lumet to appear in the original production of his classic Dead End), whose studied, realistic approach and emphasis on the psychology of his characters had developed through years of work in the theatre and the early days of live television drama, and had made him the kind of “actor’s director” perfect for helming the strong, character-driven films that dominated the cinematic heyday of the mid-seventies.  Marked by a refusal to sentimentalize and an observational sensibility that allows both an empirical detachment and an intensely emotional connectivity, his style reached its peak during this era when polished Hollywood glamour was supplanted by a stripped-down, cinéma vérité honesty in popular filmmaking, and nowhere is it more clearly on display than in Serpico.  He wasn’t the first choice for the project, however; originally slated to direct was John G. Avildsen, but creative differences with Bregman led to his eleventh-hour replacement- a fortuitous twist of artistic fate, for it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film through the lens of another director.  Lumet’s instincts are a perfect match to Serpico’s story, and his  love for the craft of filmmaking- and for the city of New York, in all its contrasting splendor and squalor, photographed with equal reverence by Arthur G. Ornitz- is as evident as his technical skill here, helping to capture a visceral, on-the-scene portrait not just of the city, but of its people, and transporting us so completely into the place and time that we feel we know it as well as if we were there ourselves.  It’s a more genuine environment than most of the plastic-and-glass urban settings we see in modern police dramas, and one that reflects the economic reality of urban bureaucracy; it also provides a tangible sense of the rough-edged, oppressive conditions which may contribute, in some way, to the temptation for many to abuse their positions for personal gain.  Lumet’s most powerful and effective tool though, is the respect he gives his actors, allowing them to command every scene and placing primary emphasis, always, on their characterizations.  There are no flashy feats of camera artistry here; Lumet uses his lens unobtrusively, in full service of his cast, knowing that the story comes to life through them, and not through cinematic trickery.

Specifically, of course, it comes to life through the actor at its center.  Al Pacino, already proven as an intense and charismatic performer through his star-making role in The Godfather, solidified his status as one of “New Hollywood’s” hottest talents with his scorching portrayal of the title role; he gives us a man of intelligence, humor, compassion and honor, without being afraid to show us his flaws with equal honesty.  His Serpico is a hero whose fight for moral integrity also becomes a fight against himself, as the escalating frustration and pressure bring out his anger, depression, pettiness and self-doubt, and Pacino lets us have it all in an unvarnished and compelling tour-de-force that deservedly earned him an array of award nominations and wins.  It’s all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the film was shot in reverse sequence, in order to accommodate the changes in Serpico’s appearance.  Since his facial hair was required to become progressively more pronounced throughout the story, Pacino grew out his hair and beard before shooting began, and then gradually trimmed it back throughout the course of production; it is routine for a movie to be shot out of sequence, but even so, the clarity of Serpico’s emotional throughline is astonishing, considering it was achieved, essentially, backwards.  Though Pacino carries the vast majority of the film himself, he is surrounded by a fine gallery of supporting players, most significantly Tony Roberts, lending his dry and urbane charm to the role of the department lawyer who becomes Serpico’s friend and ally, and including such stalwart and familiar (or soon-to-be-familiar) actors as John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Lewis J. Stadlen, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh, Judd Hirsch, and Tony Lo Bianco.  The entire cast becomes fully immersed in the film’s reality, without a single “actorish” performance among them- though Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe, as the two significant women in Serpico’s life, seem stiff and more than a little out of their depth as they attempt to share the screen with their formidable co-star.

Serpico, when it was released four decades ago, was as topical and current a movie as you could get, offering for consideration a subject and story fresh from the nightly newscasts and the national papers.  Today, of course, it seems somewhat dated, to the casual viewer; the world it shows us, though utterly authentic in its day, now feels almost quaint, a nostalgic reminder of a time before cell phones and computer networks became standard operating equipment and video surveillance equipment captured virtually every move an officer could make on duty.  The environment and the situations strike us as a pastiche of familiar cop show clichés threaded with liberal naïveté; indeed, the corruption of Serpico’s fellow officers is amateur stuff compared with the staggering cases of corporate and governmental chicanery that have come to light, over and over, in the years that have gone by since.  Even so, Serpico remains a powerful cinematic document of its time and place, infused with a sense of moral outrage and antiestablishment fervor that is still quite capable of moving us.  Much of this has to do with Pacino’s electrifying, impassioned performance, of course; but it’s the film’s focus, built into its screenplay and shrewdly maintained by its director, that ultimately allows it to transcend its era and stand as more than a well-crafted period piece.  Lumet doesn’t care about the details of the corruption against which his hero fights- the nuts and bolts of the investigation are passed over in his movie, with only enough specific circumstance to set the stage for the real drama that concerns him.  That drama is not about the external events of Serpico’s life, but about the effect those events have on his inner self- the struggle, the emotional stress, the conflicting guilt that comes of being forced to betray one deeply held ideal in order to uphold another.  Serpico emerges, most of all, as a meditation on heroism- not the guts-and-glory kind that is usually the focus of police dramas, but the kind required to withstand the inner turmoil that makes standing up for your principles something that is easier said than done.  It offers us a portrait of a real life figure willing to sacrifice the thing which mattered most to him- being a cop- in order to be right with his own conscience, and it does so without the kind of cloying sentimentality that so often makes such movies feel more insincere than inspirational.  The real-life Frank Serpico told Al Pacino, when the actor asked him why he decided to come forward about the corruption inside the NYPD, that he had done it because, “if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”  It’s a rare man who can recognize the importance of such a distinction, and a rare movie that can help us recognize it, too.  Serpico is such a movie, and that in itself- even more than the towering performance of its star- is what makes it a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070666/?ref_=sr_1

 

John Carter (2012)

John Carter (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: John Carter, the 2012 sci-fi/action blockbuster based on the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal series of adventures about a former Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known as “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he becomes a hero in the planet’s struggle against domination by an immortal race of super-beings. A lavish production from Disney Studios, it marks the first “live action” feature to be helmed by Andrew Stanton, the acclaimed director responsible for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, although the extensive use of CG technology blurs that definition somewhat; the studio’s certainty that the project was a sure-fire hit is evidenced by the fact that they spent a whopping $250 million dollars to make it. Unfortunately, with such a price tag, the film was required to gross near-record sums in order to simply break even; thanks to a lukewarm critical response and even less enthusiastic audience reception, it instead became one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, leading to recriminations and resignations within the studio and a massive financial loss on the quarterly report. It’s a shame, really, that the movie has now become known as a notorious bomb- an assessment that is not entirely accurate, for overseas returns were substantially better than in the U.S., and home video release ensures that, in the long term at least, it will ultimately recoup its losses and turn a decent profit- because John Carter is not at all a bad film, for what it is, and will likely prove, in time, to gain an appreciative following.

Adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon from Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, John Carter concerns a struggle for power between two Martian city-states- Helium, a peace-loving capitol of science, art, and learning, and Zodanga, the “walking city,” a warlike and totalitarian kingdom bent on absolute rule of the planet. The battle has raged for generations, but now, with the aid of a powerful new weapon that has been bestowed upon their leader, the ruthless Seb Than, by a mysterious alien race, the tide is turning in favor of the Zodangans. Meanwhile, on the planet Earth (where it is the late 19th Century), a former Confederate officer named John Carter searches for his fortune in the frontier of the American West; while fleeing an Apache war party, he inadvertently discovers a legendary cave of gold, in which mysterious carvings and glyphs seem to come from an ancient and forgotten civilization- and where an altercation with a mysterious robed figure results in Carter’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable transport to a vast, unfamiliar plain located (as he will later discover) on Mars. After adjusting to the effects of the differing gravity- which, due to his Earth-born bone density, gives him superhuman strength and the ability to leap hundreds of yards in single bound- he soon finds himself captured by a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned humanoids, called Tharks, led by a chieftain named Tars Tarkas. This is only the beginning of his adventure, however, as his fate brings him into the heart of the conflict over the destiny of the Red Planet, in which he must help the Princess of Helium to discover the source of Seb Than’s mysterious new power before she is forced to marry the Zodangan warlord and doom her people to eternal domination.

There’s not much point in offering a more detailed synopsis of John Carter’s convoluted plot than the one above; like the novel from which it is derived, it is a piece of melodramatic pulp fiction in which the story is merely an excuse for the action, romance and imaginative fantasy that keeps an audience coming back for more. Burroughs’ novel was originally published in serialized form of course, in All-Story magazine, beginning in 1912. It was by no means the first episodic science fiction story, but the way it combined elements of other popular genres- sword-and-sorcery adventure, westerns, romance- was a unique and ultimately influential feature that makes A Princess of Mars the direct forerunner of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Star Wars, to name only an obvious few. This particular sub-genre, known as “planetary romance,” has proven more enduringly successful than science fiction proper (in its strictest sense, that is), and continues to inventively manifest itself through, among other things, the vast wealth of comic book literature (and its related media) that has developed into an increasingly massive force in the entertainment industry. In other words, for anyone out there who is a fan of The Avengers, it all started here. With this in mind, it is only fitting that the saga of Burroughs’ planet-hopping hero should be given, at long last, the kind of lavish, top-shelf Hollywood treatment that has been afforded to so many of its offspring, and though many critics complained of the film’s sprawling, sometimes incoherent storyline and questioned its emphasis on action and spectacle over character and logic, these things are in fact part of the essence of this particular style of fiction; Burroughs was out to thrill his readers with imaginative and impossible scenes of otherworldly escapism, not to stimulate their higher cognitive functions. More accurately, perhaps, he was out to make money by doing it, and the fact that he succeeded- to the point of building an empire that pre-dated Walt Disney, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas by decades- is a fact made clear simply by looking up the origin history of Tarzana, California.

The world of a hundred years ago, however, was obviously a different one than we live in today; decades of technological advances- including probes and landing craft on Mars that have yet to discover the existence of mobile cities or multi-limbed green giants- have made us much less naive about the notion of interplanetary adventure, at least this close to home. Part of the commercial failure of John Carter must be ascribed to this; the premise of Burroughs’ story, though always far-fetched, of course, seems particularly dated in the 21st Century, with its swashbuckling warriors and princesses in distress evoking memories of our own antiquated fictional heritage rather than visions of otherworldly experience. Though such elements are present in more contemporary sagas like Star Wars, they are easier to swallow by virtue of a distance in time and place- not to mention a heightened sense of metaphor- which is carefully established from the outset. Not so with John Carter, which takes place in a recognizable part of our own history and asks us to believe in a conceit that feels old-fashioned and far too familiar to be taken seriously.

However, its familiarity is not due to its being derivative or formulaic, in the usual sense; rather, it results from the fact that a century of imitators has made Burroughs’ original seem old hat. Even those who have never read (or even heard of) A Princess of Mars and its sequels will know exactly what to expect in the story of John Carter, because they’ve seen it all before; and though the reason is that this, in fact, is the original blueprint for all those space-adventure-clichés, it makes little practical difference for those who are looking for something new and exciting to occupy two hours’ worth of their attention. This is, in essence, little removed from the cheesy space-opera serials of the ’30s, except by the feature-length format and the gargantuan budget which allows for breathtakingly realistic special effects instead of miniature spacecraft on wires; it is pure escapist nonsense, boy’s adventure at its most rambunctious, designed to stir excitement and elicit fantasies- and, hopefully, to sell the next installment. Except, thanks to the perceived failure of the undertaking, there is not likely to be a next installment.

As I said before, however, John Carter is not a bad movie; though it suffers somewhat from the need to pack too much story into a commercially viable running time, thereby eliminating the opportunity for anything more than perfunctory character development, and lacks the kind of mythological scope that gives such emotional resonance to the Star Wars films, it is nevertheless an obvious labor of love. Corny as it is, it has an infectiously earnest sensibility that makes it hard to dislike- at least, for those approaching it with reasonable expectations. It strikes well the difficult balance in tone that keeps it from becoming too campy- like the painful 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, with which it shares numerous parallels- without taking itself too seriously. That’s the key to enjoying John Carter; remembering that it was never intended to be the kind of “important” sci-fi epic that has now become the standard of the genre, with serious undertones of sociopolitical allegory or philosophical subtext, allows us to simply surrender to its lightweight melodrama without faulting it for not being something it was never intended to be. This is not brainy, Asimovian science fiction designed to stimulate the intellect, but pure, testosterone-driven wish-fulfillment at its most adolescent.

Indeed, there is a lot to enjoy in this unapologetically overblown spectacle, once you accept it as it is. Burroughs’ Martian civilization is given the kind of intricately detailed, fully realized treatment that only big studio money can buy. The cities, with their spacious, retro-futuristic architecture, full of bridges and balustrades, palatial throne rooms, and majestic plazas, are executed with imaginative grandeur; the various alien technology, from great, bird-like airships to pseudo-scientifically-powered cosmic map rooms, as well as all the creatures- besides the Tarks, there are giant fanged apes, massive dinosaurian beasts that serve as mounts, and an oddly lovable amphibian-esque dog that becomes Carter’s loyal pet and protector- are brought to life by state-of-the art screen wizardry in a slick style that combines the iconic illustrative work of artists like Frank Frazetta with a modern-flavored Steampunk sensibility, resulting in a visual design that reimagines the classic Victorian milieu of the original with a firmly contemporary twist. These elements are imposed upon location settings in Utah- where, in fact, the author created his saga over a century ago- which are used to great effect in creating the arid, desolate Martian landscape, with its harsh deserts and monumental geography, making for an utterly convincing otherworldly environment. Of course, it’s no surprise that the film would be visually stunning, given the monumental budget and the participation of Disney’s all-star design and technical staff; as always with such effects-heavy blockbusters, the real test of quality lies in the less showy creative aspects of direction, writing, and acting.

As for the first of these, Andrew Stanton is a proven master of visual storytelling, and he uses his skills here to forge a clear path through the oft-confusing details of the plot, setting up early the crucial points and maintaining a strong through-line as he takes us through the meandering, episodic developments that make up the narrative. He keeps the pace quick with rapid edits and a roving camera, and composes his shots succinctly to convey a maximum of information without lengthy exposition. This is particularly helpful in keeping the audience on track, given the multiple storylines in play here- which brings us to the second foundational element of the film, its screenplay. It has already been mentioned that the novel’s sprawling narrative has been compressed too tightly into the relatively short running time of John Carter; the story might have been better served by being split over two movies, as has become the trend, for better or worse, with other big fantasy epics in recent years. Given the probable demise of this would-be franchise, it’s fortunate that Stanton and his co-writers did not choose that path, but if any one thing could have made John Carter a more satisfying film, it would have been the chance to invest more time in getting to know its characters. Pulpy as the material may be, a more in-depth exploration of the people that inhabit it- both human and non-human- might have gone a long way towards winning the emotional involvement of the audience in its action. Instead, we are presented with short, lightning-quick character sketches that give us the pertinent information about what makes each one tick, and then we’re off and running, knowing everything we need to know about them in order to understand their place- and easily predict their actions- in the story, long before it reaches its climax. As a result, the entire saga often feels as if it were a mere pageant, populated by one-dimensional ciphers who are mainly present to model the costumes and lend scale to the sets; since the story’s heart necessarily lies in its human element, such streamlined writing places a substantial burden on the director and cast to fill in the blanks and provide a greater depth of characterization than is apparent in the dialogue. Stanton, whose previous directorial outings have featured casts of animated characters (each of which are brought to life not only by actors, but a whole team of artists skilled in adding layers of nuance to every movement and expression), may have been at a loss here; his ensemble of performers seem to have been left to their own devices in filling out the inner lives of their roles.

Which leads us to that third crucial pillar of good filmmaking, the acting. The cast of John Carter is, if nothing else, a marvelous-looking bunch; Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, spends most of the film without his shirt, displaying the kind of chiseled body that was presumably much rarer in the 19th Century than it is today- after all, this was a time before the advent of personal trainers and nutritional supplements. Likewise, his co-star, the beautiful Lynn Collins, is costumed in a manner which strategically showcases her considerable physical assets, and most of the other human cast is similarly dressed- or rather, undressed- throughout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; sex appeal is a big part of what makes these kinds of epic adventures so exciting to their target audience- the young teenager in all of us. In order to elevate these larger-than-life characters above the level of mere pin-ups, however, there must be something under the pretty exterior that will keep us interested, and though both the film’s stars make a noticeable and admirable effort, neither manages to give us much beyond the immediate requirements of any given moment. Their performances are all surface, convincing but never compelling, and though they carry themselves suitably enough for the stature of their roles, there is a decidedly contemporary flavor to their personae; they seem more like a pair of fitness models at a photo shoot than a hardened soldier and an enlightened princess. In the supporting roles, James Purefoy shows some charisma and character as a loyal second-tier hero and would-be sidekick to Carter, but his role is far too brief for him to make more than a fleeting impression; the gifted Ciarán Hinds, as the Princess’ father, is utterly wasted, as is Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as a cavalry officer who inadvertently becomes Carter’s companion for the discovery of the cave in which his destiny lies; and the film’s primary villains, Mark Strong and Dominic West, are saddled with two of the least interesting characters in the film- the former disaffected and aloof, the latter merely a mindless brute- and are therefore unable to make either into the kind of formidable antagonist needed in such a swashbuckling tale as this. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most engaging and memorable performances come from the actors lending their voices and movements (through motion capture technology) to the principal Thark characters (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church), who provide us with a hero, heroine, and villain, respectively, that we can truly care about. This may be because of the higher caliber of their acting (Dafoe, as Tars Tarkas, reportedly accepted the role because he relished the challenge of giving a performance dressed in pajamas while walking on stilts, and, arguably the film’s most prestigious star, he brings no dishonor to his reputation here), but it is surely not just coincidence that these roles are essentially animated characters- the kind with which director Stanton is clearly more within his comfort zone.

It’s interesting to know that John Carter probably holds the record for the longest development period in cinema history. It was 1931 when Bob Clampett- later to become known for his genius work with Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series- approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to purchase the rights to A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom novels; he planned to make an animated adaptation, knowing that a live action version would be impossible at the time, and he did manage to produce several reels of test footage before the studio (MGM) pulled the plug with fears that stories of an Earthman’s exploits on Mars would be too ridiculous for most American audiences. There were later efforts to produce a screen version throughout the next 80 years, but various creative conflicts and financial concerns sank the project, each time. Finally, when Disney considered the title (for the second time, having intended to produce it in the 1980s as a vehicle for Tom Cruise), Stanton- a fan of the books since childhood- fought hard to get it approved, with himself as the creative force behind it. Based on his previous track record, Disney okayed it- a decision they likely came to regret. By all reports, Stanton’s inexperience with live action production proved an obstacle which may have inflated the film’s already-massive budget, and his rejection of studio ideas about marketing and publicity might very well have been the deciding factor in making John Carter one of the biggest flops in Disney’s long history. There is a theory- which I more or less agree with- that the most significant reason for the movie’s failure was the decision to change the title (already altered from the book’s original name) from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. Stanton said he preferred this because the movie was an “origin story” that told how the character became John Carter of Mars, and studio executives reportedly changed it due to a study which showed that films with the word “Mars” had all suffered some degree of financial failure- including their own Mars Needs Moms. Whatever the reason, and whoever was responsible, it was ultimately this change, coupled with the vague and unexciting marketing campaign that accompanied the movie’s first release, that sealed the doom of Stanton’s lifelong dream project; though earlier generations may have needed no reminders about who John Carter was, in today’s market, where many have never even heard of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, let along the hero himself, it was vital to give audiences more of a clue about what the film was about. Without such a clue, they stayed home and saved their money for the then-upcoming release of The Avengers.

It’s unfortunate that in writing about John Carter, I have to focus so much attention on its supposed financial failure (again, it was not really a flop, just not the mega-hit the studio had hoped for), but sadly, it is a significant part of the public’s perception about the movie, and it must be addressed; as years go by, its box-office receipts will become less and less important to commentators, and perhaps it can be discussed on the basis of quality alone. I hope so. Despite my quibbles about the script and the acting, I enjoyed John Carter, rather more than I had expected. Indeed, I tried very hard not to like it; but by about the halfway point I gave in to its goofy, old-fashioned charms, and by the end I was- dare I say it- glad the movie had been made. It deserved to be made. After a hundred years in which filmmakers have “pillaged” Burroughs’ stories for their own derivative efforts (the reason cited by director Robert Zemeckis when he turned down this project, specifically in reference to George Lucas and Star Wars), it’s fitting that the granddaddy of all those swashbuckling outer space fantasies should at last get the Hollywood treatment that has long avoided it. Fanatical followers of the novels (and they still are legion, even a hundred years later) may wish it had done better justice to the original, and many other audiences may wish it had made more of an effort to contemporize or sophisticate the material, but there are many, too, who will enjoy it just the way it is. Indeed, there are many who already have enjoyed it, myself included, and the seemingly passionate dislike the movie has generated from some (and some who have not even seen it, I might add) makes me once again question the value of judging a piece of art on the basis of personal expectation rather than on its actual merits; if we are too busy complaining about a movie’s not being what we want it to be, how can we enjoy it for what it actually is? Of course, there is also an unavoidable debate about the wisdom of spending enough to feed a small country for a decade on an inflated piece of escapist fluff like this one, but that is a question of ethical economics better left for discussion in another forum; in the long run, the fact that John Carter of Barsoom is at last represented in cinematic form, whether or not he is all he could have been, is a good thing, and though I have yet to discover if the movie proves more rewarding on multiple viewings (which I suspect it will), I am certainly looking forward to doing so.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/?licb=0.42602754768506235

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Winter’s Bone, the 2010 thriller by director Debra Granik, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell about a teenaged backwoods girl who goes searching for her missing father within the meth-entangled and dangerous web of her extended family. Gritty, realistic, and haunting, it received almost universal critical acclaim but failed to generate much box office success, perhaps due not only to its bleak subject matter but also to its lack of well-known actors; nevertheless, the performance of its young leading player, Jennifer Lawrence, catapulted her to stardom, leading to important roles in two of 2012’s biggest movies- the blockbuster adaptation of The Hunger Games, which turned her into a household name for most of the under-twenty set, and the runaway sleeper hit, Silver Linings Playbook, which may well snag her the Oscar that eluded her here.

Set in a poverty-stricken rural community within the Missouri Ozarks, Granik’s movie (which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini) explores the dark realities of life within an insular world of strict and deeply-ingrained ethical traditions, where the interrelated and secretive residents keep to themselves and form a tight protective ring against outsiders. In the midst of this isolated world, Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of escaping into military service, is effectively the head of a household in which she cares not only for a mentally unstable mother but two younger siblings; her absentee father, Jessup, like many of the local men, is deeply involved in methamphetamines- or “crank,” as they refer to the drug- and is currently on bail, awaiting a court appearance for violating his parole. The town sheriff shows up at her doorstep- catching the immediate interest of the curious neighbors and initiating the lighting-fast chain of gossip that keeps the community informed about everything that happens within its confines- and warns her that Jessup has, in fact, used their house and property as collateral in his bail bond, and if he fails to appear in court, Ree and her family will lose their home. Though Ree, with the fierce and defiant family loyalty she has been raised to maintain, insists that her father will show up, she resolves to go looking for him; she meets, however, with immediate resistance from her closest relatives- particularly her father’s brother, Teardrop, who warns her to keep her nose out of a situation that is more complicated and dangerous than she knows. Not to be deterred, the strong-willed Ree continues to ask questions among the friends and family that make up her extended circle, and eventually follows her father’s trail to a more distant relation, Thump Milton- a terrifying figure who presides over the region’s illegal drug trade. Though he refuses to see her, she persists in her efforts to confront him, even after she begins to deduce that Jessup is already dead; the result of her efforts is a vicious beating from Thump’s ferocious wife, Merab, who then- along with the rest of his family- takes the girl captive. She is unexpectedly rescued by her Uncle Teardrop, who shows up and assumes responsibility for her, swearing she will keep her mouth shut or he will answer for it himself. He tells her that her father is in fact dead, killed by someone in Thump’s gang when they learned he was giving information to the sheriff in order to protect his own family, but that he doesn’t want to know who the killer was because he will then be required by family loyalty to seek vengeance. For Ree’s purposes, however, the important factor now becomes finding Jessup’s body, for if she can prove he was dead before his court date, his bond will no longer be forfeit and she can save her family’s home. Her cause seems hopeless, even when Teardrop agrees to help her despite his oath, putting his own safety at risk; but with eviction imminent, the deeply-rooted code of family honor begins to work its powerful influence, and help emerges from a surprising source. Even so, Ree must still endure a number of horrific tests to her mettle before her family’s security can be restored.

In adapting Woodrell’s novel for the screen, Gravik and Rosellini have focused tighter attention on Ree, removing details about the surrounding characters and their lives and making the teenage protagonist our sole access into the isolated society in which she lives; this allows us, like her, to discover the truth as she delves deeper into the mysteries concealed there. This world seems, at first glance, familiar enough, and straightforward in the sense that it conforms to our expectations and assumptions about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit it- at least, on the surface. So, too, does Ree believe she knows the score; she has been raised in this harsh, savage environment, and she is all-too-well-acquainted with the inflexible morality, the angry and abusive men, the suffering of their women, and the hard-scrabble existence that might better be described as survival than as life. However hardened and wise-beyond-her-years she may be, though, there are unseen depths to be plumbed here that she cannot yet fathom, and we are to accompany her on the grueling voyage of discovery she must undertake. It’s a rite of passage for her, by which, for better or worse, she becomes a fully-initiated member of her “tribe,” and by which, as witnesses, we are forced to set aside our own deeply-rooted preconceptions and see the ancient and universal patterns that tie these strange, seemingly alien people to the same core of humanity that unites us all.

To be sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow; for most of us, presumably, the world of Winter’s Bone seems a horrible, dehumanizing place, populated with people who, locked into a rigid and insulated Old Testament mentality that stretches back for generations and precludes any idea of progressive or compassionate thinking, strike us as just plain mean to the core. The men are brutal and arrogant in their assumption of male privilege, the women bitter and hostile in their endless drudgery, and the notion of equality is a moot point; the roles are proscribed by a tradition as unbendable as the unwritten laws about keeping out of each other’s business. Even deeper than the unquestioning acceptance of socially-sanctioned dysfunction, however, is the mandate against betrayal of blood; family trumps everything, and it is this imperative that fuels the conflict here, placing Ree and all of her relatives- both near and distant, ally and antagonist- in a complex moral dilemma that throws the entire social order of the community out of balance.

It is here where Winter’s Bone connects, perhaps unexpectedly, with the primal archetypes of classical mythology; both book and movie have been compared to the Greek story- as told by Sophocles in the final installment of his Oedipus cycle- of Antigone, in which the title character demands the honorable burial of her brothers’ bodies after her uncle, the king, has declared them traitors and forbidden it. Antigone decides for herself that her uncle’s decree is unjust, immoral, and contrary to the law of the gods; the kingdom suffers in turmoil and the king’s family is torn apart by the conflict, until Antigone takes it upon herself to defy the law, burying the bodies and suffering her uncle’s wrath in consequence of her actions. In Sophocles’ version, she eventually hangs herself while imprisoned, and the king is subsequently punished by the gods, suffering the loss of his own son and wife, for his hubris; in other variations of the tale, however, Antigone is saved by the intervention of the gods, and the natural order of the kingdom is restored. In Winter’s Bone, Ree enacts this same drama, standing against the injustice done to her family despite the danger of retribution from the male-dominated power structure presided over by Thump and his clan; alone among the women of her community, she has no man to rule over her, having inherited- by her father’s abdication- the role of provider and protector, and this in itself is an affront to the ordained status quo; but like Antigone, Ree transcends the social order by virtue of special circumstance, and invokes a power greater than the worldly dominion of Thump and his “kingdom,” the timeless and sacred bond of family. It is this bond that ultimately dictates the outcome of Winter’s Bone, exerting its influence through an irresistible sense of duty and honor, and overriding the unnatural dictate against compassion which has been imposed by an egocentric tyrant.

You might think that a comparative analysis between classical Greek literature and a tale about modern-day hillbilly speed freaks is a case of reading too much into a few coincidental parallels, but Winter’s Bone contains a number of clues that this connection is intended, not the least of which is a climactic journey by boat which evokes a passage to the underworld across the River Styx- a common element of many Greek myths; and should the references to pagan mythology fail to appeal to you, the plot is also rich with suggestions of Old Testament stories about strong and righteous women like Ruth or Judith, who step outside their traditional feminine roles to perform acts of bravery and heroism under dispensation by God Himself. These ancient underpinnings share a strong proto-feminist sentiment, which fits Winter’s Bone, despite its modern-day setting, by virtue of the rarefied environment in which it takes place; the characters live in a social vacuum, created by a combination of economic hardship, mistrust of outsiders, and fundamentalist beliefs, which has left the core of their cultural identity unchanged for countless generations, and though they may be surrounded with the weathered trappings of the modern world- motor vehicles, power tools, and guns (lots of guns, everywhere)- they exist only on its fringes, observing customs established by ancestors beyond their memory. In this context, Ree’s assumption of a moral authority in the search for her father, a self-appointed elevation above the accepted station of her gender, is a serious transgression against the social contract of her people, and the shock waves it creates are momentous enough to rock her entire community.

All these lofty themes and classical allusions add a great deal of resonance and weight to Winter’s Bone, but they are not its whole purpose; layered over the structure of its drama is a portrait of life as it is today for a very real segment of the population. The deplorable poverty of this Ozark community- and thousands like it- fosters an atmosphere of desperation, an attitude of disenfranchised resentment, a dog-eat-dog survival code, and an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. It’s a place where drugs offer both an easy escape from the day-to-day ordeal of living and an opportunity, for enterprising individuals, to rise above the crushing economic hardship which surrounds them; the cost of turning to this social scourge, of course, is that it turns the community upon itself and forces an even greater isolation from the outside world- a phenomenon seen time and again in poor areas from the rural south to the inner-city streets of the biggest urban centers of the world. In her movie, Gravik uses a documentarian’s approach, creating an in-the-moment authenticity to the action through improvised dialogue, hand-held camera work, and the casting of most of the extras and supporting players from real residents within the Missouri shooting locations. Her scenes play out against a backdrop of ramshackle buildings, cluttered rooms, overgrown yards, and remote woodlands, all saturated in the muted, icy tones of Michael McDonough’s cinematography and capturing the stark character of the region during the inhospitable season of the film’s title. In creating such a tangible sense of place, the director reinforces our feeling of being participants in the drama, making it harder for us to judge these people by our own sensibilities, however much more enlightened we may feel ourselves to be. Even so, the ease with which this society can be used to transpose a story reflecting the moral values of a millennia-old civilization is, in itself, a devastating piece of social commentary.

Winter’s Bone has another level, of course, a more visceral and immediate experience than the intellectual stimulation provided by its reworking of classical myth and its contemporary social observation; it is, on its surface layer, a noir-ish thriller, in which the typical urban landscape is substituted for a bible-belt backwoods setting and the hard-boiled private eye is recast as a hard-edged teenage girl.  It is here that Granik’s movie solidifies itself as superb filmmaking, keeping us riveted with its taut suspense and its constant aura of dread; it’s a testament to the director’s faith in her material that she permits the story to work on its own, eschewing showy cinematic technique or overt depictions of violence and horror. Nothing particularly horrible happens onscreen in Winter’s Bone, with a couple of notable exceptions, but there is a constant expectation that, at any moment, something could go terribly wrong; the air is pregnant with danger, even when we are unsure from whence it comes. When violence does occur, it happens in sudden bursts, catching us unaware and giving it the uncomfortable edge of realism- an approach which only reinforces our constant, nagging fear. As Ree goes deeper into the web of deceit and treachery that hides the answers she seeks, the interwoven relationships and the complexities of the situation become progressively convoluted, making the plot as opaque- and the morality as ambiguous- as in any novel by Raymond Chandler, and despite the pastoral backdrop, the drama is no less gritty. In the end, though resolution is achieved, many questions remain unanswered; in the best noir tradition, the mystery being explored here is really the human experience, and accordingly, the solution can never be complete. The real question of Winter’s Bone is not who did what to whom nor even why they did it, but how to make sense of it and give it meaning.

In all this analytical discussion, it might be easy to neglect giving credit to the cast for their substantial contributions. First and foremost, of course, is young Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as Ree, a remarkable achievement for an actress of any age, in which she forgoes the temptation to sentimentalize and instead gives us an honest portrait of a steely, no-nonsense product of her environment, and yet still manages to let us see the little girl underneath an exterior forced to grow up too fast. John Hawkes is riveting as Uncle Teardrop, another double-edged figure, capturing his volatility and menace and then peeling back the layers to show us the sensitivity and compassion he is forced to repress and the sadness of a man resigned to his station and his fate. Dale Dickey is unforgettable as Merab, perhaps the movie’s most enigmatic character, the sphinx-like guardian at the gate who personifies the adamantine epitome of female power in this backwoods culture- and offers, perhaps, a glimpse of Ree’s future. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame) has a touching cameo as Jessup’s former mistress, tracked down in her home by the determined Ree, and Garret Dillahunt is effective as the sheriff, whose tough-guy front fails to mask his absolute- and justifiable- fear of the people under his jurisdiction. The rest of the cast- many of them non-professional, as mentioned above- add an authentic flavor to the proceedings with their simple, glamourless portrayals; particular mention should go to Marideth Sisco, who makes a powerful appearance as a singer in a living-room bluegrass ensemble as well as contributing her haunting vocals to a handful of other traditional songs prominently featured on the soundtrack.

So, you may ask, is it worth watching? The answer, from my perspective at least, is a definite and resounding yes. Winter’s Bone is a deceptively simple, well-crafted movie that keeps you thinking for days after viewing it, and it’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in its execution, short of nitpicking about divergences from the novel or matters of personal taste. It is not, however, an easy movie to digest, let alone categorize. It presents a harsh and unpleasant vision of a world most of us would prefer not to see, and offers little hope or solace for those who like their slices of life tempered by a Hollywood ending; it will doubtless be equally unfulfilling for viewers who feel the need to walk away with a clear-cut moral stance about what they have just seen. On the surface, it might seem easy to determine the right and the wrong of the various characters’ positions in the events depicted here, but Gravik’s film, like its source novel, will not allow us to make so pat a judgment; though much of what we see may shock us or offend our sensibilities- particularly in regard to the treatment of women and the role of drugs in this community- it is soon becomes difficult to separate our feelings into comfortable black and white categories. Ree is sympathetic, but she her full indoctrination into the ways of her people is never in question- she mistrusts and disrespects the laws and authority of the outside world as much as any of the others, and she makes it clear both by word and deed that she is cut from the same cloth as the rest of her sizable clan; though she fantasizes about escape, she embraces her as a Dolly woman, and there is little doubt that after the final frames, despite the rebellious crusade she has just completed, she will carry on the unbroken tradition of this world, taking her place as a staunch and redoubtable member of the community and teaching the siblings under her charge to respect and preserve its ways. Likewise, Teardrop seems at first to personify everything that is wrong here, unapologetically snorting speed, waving his gun around the kitchen table, and physically dominating “his” women- but as the story progresses we are forced to acknowledge not only his nobility and his kindness, but his own status as a victim of the very behavioral code he represents. He is forced to be a brute, just as surely as the women are required to be subservient. Finally, though the world of Winter’s Bone seems unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable, throughout the film is a thread of the universal redemption that is offered by the shared experience of family; keepsakes, memories, and old photo albums surface throughout the story, and when we see Ree with the little brother and sister that have become, in effect, her children, the dire circumstances that surround them seem distant and unimportant. In the end, it is this sense of the importance of family that comes through, giving us a feeling, however vague, that no matter how much the world may conspire to drag us down, the eternal bond of blood still endures to give us purpose and at least a glimmer of hope that our struggles are not in vain. The title, Winter’s Bone, as explained by the book’s author, is a reference to the idea of a “bone” as a small token, or gift; the coldest season, in this sense, offers up a consolation, for those who work hard enough to find it.  In the story itself, the title is evoked by several circumstances- the most literal will be grimly obvious when it arises- but is, perhaps, finally most pertinent in the way that the tale offers up, out of its difficult and dismaying mix of complications, the clear recognition of family as the center of human existence. It may not be much, but it’s something.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1399683/

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

The Long, Long Trailer (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Long, Long Trailer, the 1954 big-screen showcase for the talents of America’s then-favorite TV couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, directed by Vincente Minnelli and casting the two stars as a pair of newlyweds on a cross-country honeymoon in a super-sized luxury trailer home.  Designed as a vehicle for the tried-and-true antics that fueled the duo’s highly popular comedy series, I Love Lucy, it was considered a risky project by its production studio, MGM, who were skeptical that audiences would pay to see Ball and Arnaz in a movie theater when they could watch the pair, for free, in the comfort of their own living room; Arnaz reportedly made a $25,000 bet with the studio heads that the film would out-gross their highest-earning comedy to date (1950’s Father of the Bride).  Moviegoers responded well to the opportunity to see the couple’s wacky hi-jinks against the expanded backdrop of location-filmed American scenery, turning the film into one of the year’s biggest hits and winning the bet for the confident Arnaz.  Though the movie is ultimately a side note in the success story of these two American entertainment icons, it nevertheless has remained popular among their fans and offers a rare opportunity to see their beloved matrimonial shtick transported out of the studio-bound confines of their classic television show.

Based on a 1951 novel by Clinton Twiss, the screenplay (by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) tailors its plot for the needs of the Ball/Arnaz team’s familiar joint persona.  Framed as a flashback, it tells the story of “Nicky” and “Tacy” (noticeably only a few letters off from “Ricky” and “Lucy”); he is a civil engineer whose job requires his travel to various projects around the country, and she, seeking a way to keep them from being separated during the early days of their marriage, hits upon the idea that they should purchase a travel trailer in which they can set up housekeeping wherever his work takes them.  Though he is skeptical, she convinces him with the notion that a trailer will cost them far less than a house and allow them to save more money for their future.  With their new, enormous, top-of-the-line trailer (plus the new, more powerful car they have had to buy in order to tow it), the couple sets out on their honeymoon- a leisurely road trip across the Sierra Nevadas to Nicky’s next job assignment.  Things start out pleasantly enough, though their trailer park wedding night doesn’t go exactly as planned; but as the trip goes on, the mishaps begin to pile up and take their toll on the relationship.  A rainstorm leads to a night spent stuck in a mudbank, Tacy’s attempts at directing Nicky’s steering results in major damage to her aunt and uncle’s house, and her effort to cook dinner in the moving trailer ends in disaster.  The final straw comes when her growing collections of preserved fruit and souvenir rocks become so heavy that the trailer is dangerously overweight, placing the newlyweds in serious danger as they attempt to drive up a steep and winding mountain road- a trip which, even if they manage to survive, may well mean the end of their marriage.

The Long, Long Trailer is hardly the kind of film that warrants an in-depth analysis, though if one wanted to use it as a springboard for discussion about sociological and cultural characteristics of post-war American life, it would likely provide plenty of fodder.  Indeed, watching it today, it seems like a perfect snapshot, glossy and idealized, of the particular mindset of mid-fifties middle class America, personified by a young (well, young-ish) couple on the road to a shining new tomorrow, blessed with a new affluence, possessed of a can-do attitude, and excited about the endless possibilities that wait to be explored right here at home.  Of course, the entire premise of the comedy hinges on the fact that this romanticized fantasy is not quite in tune with reality- the adventure of building a new world on the domestic front is fraught with unforeseen difficulties and offers its own challenges to the character and spirit of those who undertake it.  All of which sounds deeper than it needs to sound, for in The Long, Long Trailer, social commentary is as heavy and unnecessary a burden as Tacy’s rock collection.

What this movie is about, nostalgic retrospect aside, is laughs; the American-Dream-on-wheels premise is entirely geared towards providing a mine of zany situations for the then-reigning royal couple of comedy to exploit.  Though the names are different (barely), the characters are, in essence, the same as their TV roles; Desi is the modestly successful, good-natured-but-hot-tempered immigrant husband (here, inexplicably, not Cuban but Italian), and Lucy is the well-intentioned manipulative housewife whose hair-brained schemes inevitably lead to hilarious complications.  The movie depends entirely on their comfortable chemistry together, their combative-but-affectionate dynamic, and Lucy’s consummate skill as a comedienne.  It is this last element that carries the film, of course; though they made a great team, and although he certainly holds his own during his moments in the spotlight, Desi was always the foil for Lucy’s comedic persona, a relationship upon which their act was utterly dependent.  The biggest laughs in the film come when she unleashes her flair for physical comedy- the classic sequence in which she tries to prepare a meal in the trailer while it is on the road is the movie’s highlight- but these moments work so well because she sets us up for them; she makes Tacy (which is short, by the way, for Anastasia- I know, it’s a stretch, but go with it) as endearing to us as to the hapless Nicky, and thanks to her rubber-faced expressions, we feel like co-conspirators with her, because we can read every thought and plan even as she hatches it herself.  It’s comedy genius, and to over-analyze it is pointless- it works because it works.  Lucy and Desi knew their audience, and they knew what that audience wanted; they weren’t about to take the chance of messing with a successful formula, especially when that formula was at the height of its popularity.  There is even a musical number, though not the kind of elaborate, slapstick-laced showstopper often featured on I Love Lucy, but simply a pleasant little duet performed as an interlude while the stars are driving into Yosemite National Park.  To be sure, the stakes feel a little higher in The Long, Long Trailer than they do on the TV series; there, no matter how big the disaster that results from Lucy’s schemes, we know it will never really threaten the blissful marriage at the center of the show, but here there is at least a more palpable illusion that they could end up apart- though, of course, on an intellectual level, we know that’s not very likely.  After all, this is a comedy, and even if it pokes a little bit of situational fun at the perfect domestic dream of the mid-fifties, it also embraces and reinforces that ideal; you can be sure, by the final frames, Ricky and Lucy… I mean, Nicky and Tacy will be locked once more in a tender and loving embrace.

Although The Long, Long Trailer is mostly an on-the-road installment of the Lucy-and-Desi Show, this is not its only appeal.  There are a few interesting cameos from other familiar personalities of the era; Marjorie Main of Ma and Pa Kettle fame makes an appearance, as does an uncredited Howard McNear (better known as “Floyd the Barber”) and a prominently-billed Keenan Wynn (who has less than 30 seconds of screen-time- and no scripted lines- as a traffic cop).  Vincente Minnelli, one of Hollywood’s seasoned veterans at turning out crowd-pleasers, wisely keeps the main focus on his stars, but frames them in a gorgeous visual environment; fans of mid-century roadside Americana will adore this film, which sometimes looks like a travelogue produced by the U.S. Tourism Bureau and sometimes a montage of picture-postcards, interlaced with stylish tableaux of glamorous settings that look like vintage magazine ads, brought to life.  Minnelli (and his stars) were smart enough to utilize the advantages of the big screen, giving audiences a scope they couldn’t get from I Love Lucy, so there is an extensive use of breathtaking location footage, most notably in the aforementioned Yosemite scenes, but also in the hair-raising climax when the couple drives their trailer up the mountain (Mt. Whitney, to be exact).  The realism of this latter sequence aids considerably in its effectiveness, and captures the universal anxiety shared by anyone who has ever attempted to navigate one of the winding, narrow roads that lace the mountainous regions of America- or, for that, matter, the world.  The road trip experience, naturally, must include a good deal of focus on the vehicles used, especially the title “character” (for it is, truly, a character in the plot), which is a beautiful, canary yellow, 36-foot 1953 “New Moon.”  Those who care about such things will doubtless be delighted by the extensive depiction of this remarkable piece of mid-century design, in all its improbable luxury, as they will also be by the car which tows it, an equally beautiful 1953 Mercury Monterey convertible.  Of course, the costumes also add to the movie’s nostalgic appeal, with both Lucy’s and Desi’s outfits representing the epitome of mid-fifties fashion- not high–fashion, mind you, but modest, popular, middle-class clothes that conjure images from the countless grainy home movies taken by couples and families during the era.  In essence, The Long, Long Trailer is a love letter to its time, a nostalgic walk down memory lane for those old enough to remember it first-hand and a wide-open window through which younger viewers can catch a glimpse of an America before affordable plane travel and utilitarian super-highways made the delights of the road trip into a thing of the past.

It’s somewhat tempting, today, to watch The Long, Long Trailer with a sense of irony.  The feeling of gee-whiz wonder and self-discovery that permeated the cultural psyche of the fifties has long since fallen under the wheels of progress, transformed by the turbulent decade which followed into a quaint and kitschy joke; it’s almost impossible to believe in the naïveté we see displayed here, and the knowledge that Lucy and Desi, like so many of the “perfect” couples of the Eisenhower era, would later end their real-life marriage in an acrimonious divorce casts a somewhat cynical pall over the proceedings, and makes the inevitable happy ending seem like just another carefully packaged lie- which, of course, it was.  The whole of the movie is sentimentalized dream-factory nonsense, but that’s not a negative criticism in this case; it was never meant to be anything else, and it’s easy to forget, from a modern perspective, that the audiences of the day were no more fooled by the pretty-picture images of society presented by their popular entertainment than we are by those we are fed today.  Indeed, much of Lucy and Desi’s appeal for their many fans came because they (or at least, their characters) were a couple whose efforts to fit into a cultural ideal never seemed to go quite as planned; at the end of every misadventure, no matter what affectations they may have tried on or pie-in-the-sky dream they may have chased, what was left was simply them as they were, imperfect perhaps, but together- and that was all that mattered.  Though they themselves were icons of their era, forever associated with the now-archaic ideals and attitudes it held dear, their message transcended it; they were champions of love and companionship, acting out the universal experience of living together despite difficulties and differences- not an easy task in any era- and making us laugh at our own relationships by reflecting them back to us in exaggerated form.  To put it more simply, The Long, Long Trailer might seem like a movie we can watch with an aloof detachment, making arch commentary or snarky observations based in our modern-day sophistication- but it’s not.  It doesn’t take long to forget our superior stance and get caught up in the somehow endearing ridiculousness of Nicky and Tacy’s great experiment, and we end up laughing exactly as we were intended to laugh by the film’s creators- not with the hip, contemporary irony we may have expected.  Don’t mistake me here; I’m not saying that The Long, Long Trailer is anyone’s idea of great cinema, and I’m fairly certain that nobody involved in it thought of it that way, either.  It is, however, a fine example of slick Hollywood entertainment, designed to exploit the popularity of its stars and the mood of the time, and the fact that it still works as more than a mere curiosity piece is a testament to the considerable talent behind it.  Lucy and Desi made their true mark in television; their pioneering work there changed the medium forever, in countless ways, and their big screen projects were really little more than a footnote in their legend.  Even so, The Long, Long Trailer is a charming and worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes, and even the most jaded viewers are likely to be won over by it.  Of course, you might not be able to keep from wondering exactly when Fred and Ethel are going to show up, or when Nicky is going to break out the conga drums, but even if those things never materialize, you won’t miss them- at least not too much.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047191/

Brave (2012)

Brave (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Brave, the 2012 animated feature from the Disney/Pixar powerhouse, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, and based on Chapman’s original story about a medieval Scottish princess who, unhappy with her proscribed role as a courtly lady, resorts to magic in order to “change her fate.”  Intended as the Pixar Studios first foray into the realm of fairy tales, it features a highly contemporary viewpoint on traditional gender roles and offers a heroine who takes action to determine her own destiny, as well as reinforcing the importance of maintaining family bonds and assuming responsibility for one’s actions.  It also features a lush, technically dazzling visual style, geared towards its original 3D theatrical presentation, and an array of stellar voice talent.  Not as successful as many of the studio’s previous efforts, it nevertheless has garnered much praise and received several award nominations as best animated film of the year.

The plot concerns Merida, daughter of Fergus, the King of Dunbroch, a fierce warrior known as “the Bear King,” who carries the scars of his many battles and sports a wooden leg as a reminder of his encounter with Mor’du, a giant and seemingly demonic bear who haunts the surrounding forest.  Though the princess is a tomboy and a free spirit, encouraged by her doting father in her enthusiasm for adventurous pursuits (such as horseback riding, swordplay, and archery), her mother, Queen Elinor, maintains a tight control over her, preparing her daily with lessons in the more feminine activities that will someday be required of her as a great lady- elocution, music, embroidery, and the duties involved in the charge of a royal household.  Merida is displeased with the prospect of such a sequestered future, a fact which continually puts her at odds with her mother; their conflict comes to a head when the king’s three most prominent lords bring their sons to Dunbroch for a competition of skill to determine which of them will get the hand of the young princess.  Merida, refusing to bow to tradition, takes the field and defeats all three contestants, declaring herself the winner and claiming the right to be her own consort; Elinor, furious, reprimands her severely, causing the girl to run angrily into the woods.  There, she follows a trail of will-o-the-wisps to a hidden cottage inhabited by an old witch.  At first the crone insists she is merely a wood carver, but when Merida offers a priceless royal pendant as payment, she agrees to help the princess with a spell that will “change” her mother.  Returning to the castle with an enchanted cake, Merida presents it to Elinor as a peace offering; when the queen takes a bite, however, its effects are not quite what her daughter had anticipated.  The spell transforms Elinor into a large black bear- placing her in mortal danger from Fergus, whose previous experience with Mor’du has made him an avowed bear-killer.  Merida, horrified that her scheme has led to such a turn, must now serve as her mother’s protector as they go in search of a way to reverse the spell before its effects become permanent; their quest leads them to Mor’du’s hidden lair, where they discover secrets that link the monstrous bear’s fate with their own.  During their adventure, mother and daughter gain new appreciation for each other’s strengths and reforge the emotional bond that was broken between them- but they still must race against time- and the pursuit of the ferocious Mor’du- to break the witch’s spell before Elinor slips away forever, trapped in the body and mind of a bear.

Aimed at entertaining young audiences and stimulating their imagination as well as fostering healthy ideas about identity and self-esteem, Brave is unmistakably the product of the titans at Pixar, who have proven time and again their particular genius for producing works of cinematic art that also meet the needs of the popular marketplace; in addition, it marks the studio’s most technically advanced and visually complex effort to date, made with a completely re-written animation program (the first upgrade of the studio’s software in 25 years) and released not only in 3D but with Dolby’s new Atmos sound format.  It’s unquestionably a stunning treat for eyes and ears of any age, possessing a level of sensory realism previously unseen in animated filmmaking, yet still maintaining the whimsical and stylized design touches that mark it as a cartoon fantasy.  As always, the Pixar team has used their expensive toy box to create a truly polished and exceptional visual gem, rich with the kind of subtleties that elevate their work above and beyond that of more pedestrian artists whose attention to detail rarely reaches past the requirements of the plot.

Another aspect of the movie that meets Pixar’s usual high standards is the exceptional voice casting; utilizing a fine group of talented and prominent actors, but without the “stunt casting” of big stars solely for the sake of having their name in the credits, the characters of Brave are given as much dimension in their vocal personalities as the graphic artists and animator a have given them in their physical presence.  Merida is voiced by the charming and vivacious Kelli Macdonald, known for her work in such diverse fare as the films Trainspotting, Gosford Park, and No Country for Old Men, as well as for her role in the critically acclaimed HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.  Elinor gets her voice from the redoubtable Emma Thompson (another familiar screen veteran known for everything from her Shakespearean roles opposite former husband Kenneth Branagh and her Oscar-winning turn in Howard’s End to her more recent family-friendly success as Nanny McPhee), who bestows the maternal queen with warmth, wit, and intelligence; we sorely feel her absence when the character is magicked into a non-verbal bear.  King Fergus is played by Billy Connolly, perhaps Hollywood’s most quintessential Scot since Sean Connery, and Julie Walters lends her inimitable blend of dottiness and wisdom to the all-too-brief role of the witch.  Rounding out the main cast are Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson, as the trio of comical lords who bring their equally comical sons to vie for Merida’s hand.  As a side note, no less than four of these cast members- Macdonald, Thompson, Walters, and Coltrane- are alumni of the Harry Potter franchise, perhaps insuring a bit of extra box office appeal for a sizable segment of devoted young audience members and representing, on second thought, a little bit of “stunt casting,” after all.

Still, in spite of all the stellar work that is obvious onscreen and on the soundtrack, ensuring that Brave measures up to the high standard of professional excellence that is the hallmark of Pixar, it is a movie that doesn’t quite manage to pull off the studio’s usual magic.  As conceived by Brenda Chapman, it is a new story in the familiar vein of traditional fairy tales, but with a completely original plot and a decidedly different focus; instead of offering the archetypal princess, whose happy ending is usually dependent on the love of a handsome prince, she built her fantasy adventure around a strong-willed, independent girl whose ambition is simply to win the freedom to be herself.  Rather than reinforcing old stereotypes, the tale of Merida presents a new kind of role model for young girls, one that encourages individuality and self-determination, while still embracing the importance of family relationships.  Along the way, key issues of communication and responsibility are explored, as well as the notion of learning from the stories and legends of the past; indeed, Brave includes a fairly lengthy checklist of subjects on its agenda, all of which are geared towards the conceit of reinventing the old-fashioned fairy tale format as a vehicle for teaching a modern lesson about self-empowerment and progressive thinking.  While there is an undeniably laudable sentiment behind an effort to create an appealing fable which promotes contemporary values instead of reiterating centuries-old moral imperatives, one can’t help feeling that the whole thing seems more than a little forced.

Chapman, who had developed the project from the beginning, was initially named the film’s sole director- the first woman to be hold this position on a Pixar film- but was replaced by Mark Andrews halfway through production due to “creative differences.”. Whenever two or more visions clash in the creation of an artwork, either the conflict yields a hybrid solution that somehow transcends the original ideas, or- more often- a compromise that fails to live up to the potential of either; though Chapman’s contributions to the screenplay remained, as well as enough of her influence to warrant a co-directing credit on the final cut, and she has stated that her original intent comes through clearly in the film, one can’t help but wonder what Brave would have been like if she had been allowed to finish it as she planned.  In her original conception, for instance, the story would have taken place in the harsh highland winter, with a stark backdrop of snow for most of the film; such a bleak setting might have gone a long way towards providing, at least psychologically, a more authentic feeling of life in the Middle Ages for a young non-conformist.

It’s pointless, however, to speculate on what the movie might have been like, and in any case, the true flaw here lies in a screenplay- authored by both directors alongside Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi- which takes pains to present as softened, politically correct a portrait of medieval life as possible.  Not only are we given a highly contemporized version of family dynamics and an incomplete picture of the ironclad mandate to maintain social tradition, we are presented with a sanitized picture of the realities of the era; battle and warfare are just another comical aspect of the rambunctious male personality, with little hint of their horrific consequences, and the standard archetypal figures of myth and legend are repurposed through the prism of modern perspective.  There are no villains here- the stern parents are merely a little old-fashioned and need only a magical nudge to come around to a more permissive attitude, and even the witch is, more or less, a benevolent old soul.  The closest thing to an evil character is Mor’du, the demonic bear who is more an agent of dumb, blind chaos than an adversarial personality, and even he, ultimately, proves merely to be a misunderstood and unfortunate victim of circumstance- even if it is a circumstance of his own misguided creation.  More disappointing than this lack of a clear antagonist, though, is the story’s deflection of its central conflict into a cute-and-cuddly adventure quest in which mother and daughter work through their differences during their joint effort to solve a secondary problem. Of course, it’s all metaphor, but even so, it contains the suggestion that, once the women have things worked out between themselves, the opinions of the king or his lords will be of little consequence- a decidedly feminist undercurrent, when you think about it, which also has the somewhat dubious implication that it was the women themselves who perpetuated the social assignation of gender roles and the menfolk just went along with it.

Though arguments about believability or historical accuracy might seem inherently ridiculous when discussing a fantasy about magic cakes and ursine transmogrification, the setting for Brave makes the very premise of its story highly unlikely, at best.  Though history offers proof that there were, from time to time, remarkable women who defied cultural custom and strictures to become powerful and exceptional figures, the atmosphere and attitude here does little to suggest even a softened version of the harsh reality that would await such a girl at the inception of her dream to be different.  Today’s world deems an inclination to follow a different path to be an acceptable “lifestyle choice,” but in the 12th-or-so Century world that provides the background for Brave, the consequences for such a display of social heresy would be dire, indeed- as someone like, say, Joan of Arc would certainly testify.  To be sure, a story instilling modern ideas of tolerance and diversity is certainly possible in such a period tale as this, but when the magnitude of the cultural obstacles to be faced is diminished to the point of irrelevance, reducing the conflict to a simple disagreement between parent and child, the promotion of noble ideals comes at a high cost.  Teaching positive values to a future generation is a worthy undertaking, but reinventing history in order to do so is something akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Perhaps I’m being over-analytical.  I don’t mean to suggest that a movie aimed at family audiences should feature pestilence, rapes and beheadings.  Brave is not, after all, Game of Thrones, nor does it try to be; but it did seem to me, in watching this painfully correct girl-power fable, that in its effort to emphasize positive, nurturing attitudes it might be guilty of inadvertently perpetuating some not-so-positive ones.  This is the danger, for me, of presenting historical inaccuracies- and I’m not talking about using artistic license to fictionalize real events or mistakenly using the wrong heraldry to decorate a particular king’s armor, but the deliberate imposition of anachronistic attitudes and perspectives onto a place and time where they simply did not exist.  Even in a children’s story; to sanitize the past for modern consumption is a dangerous luxury, for in removing the unpleasant parts we risk creating a false sense of who we are today, and worse, we lessen awareness of those whose struggles got us this far- the real-life role models who might provide inspiration for those who must continue to work towards making a better world for future generations.  At the very least, such well-intentioned bowdlerization of our history creates complacency about our present, but at the worst it can foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of preparedness for the future- for as the saying goes, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

All that said, Brave is by no means a bad movie.  As discussed above, it is gorgeous to look at and its story is executed with the utmost professionalism and talent; and though the plot as a whole may fail to be as compelling as one might wish, the movie is filled with delightful set pieces (such as the archery tournament) and characterizations (Merida’s brothers, a trio of troublemaking toddlers whose antics prove an invaluable aid to the princess’ endeavors on more than one occasion) which make for a highly enjoyable 90 minutes.  There is no reason kids would not have a good time with this outing, particularly those who hunger for the kind of fairy tale magic associated with Pixar’s production partner, the venerable Disney Studios itself.  This, as noted, is the first time Pixar has tackled a Disney-style fantasy, their other films having all been modern-day stories; perhaps the reason, in fact, that Brave falls a bit short of the mark is that it is, ultimately, better suited to the Disney treatment than to Pixar’s.  The studio’s sensibilities, smart, hip, and irreverent, seem mismatched to this period tale; indeed, Disney’s Tangled, a recent attempt to bring their own traditions of classic princess fantasy into Pixar territory with computer animation and a contemporary mindset, was a more appealing package than this one is.  Both Disney and Pixar at their best, whether together or separately, make films that entertain young and old audiences alike; a family can truly enjoy the experience together.  With Brave, while the young folk may be delighted, their parents might be checking their watches a little more frequently than with previous Pixar films; they might well wonder what has happened to the disarming imagination of Toy Story, the transcendent surrealism of Up, or the masterful visual storytelling of the sublime Wall-E, surely one of the best examples of animated cinema- or any kind of cinema, for that matter- to be released within the last quarter-century.  Given Pixar’s remarkable creativity and impressive track record, I wouldn’t be too worried- the magic will almost certainly be back.  In the meantime, mediocre Pixar is still light years better than most any other “family-oriented” fodder being thrust into the marketplace to vie for your kids’ attention and the contents of your wallet.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1217209/

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 comedy-horror film by John Landis, about a young American who survives an attack by a mysterious assailant while backpacking through England, only to find that he has become cursed to transform into a monster by the light of the full moon.  A quirky mix of madcap humor and gruesome horror, it was a fairly respectable hit upon its release, despite mixed reviews, and has since become something of a cult classic.  It was particularly notable for its then-groundbreaking make-up effects, which garnered their creator, Rick Baker, the first-ever Academy Award in the new category created to honor such work.

The movie opens on the moors of Northern England, where two young American friends, David and Jack, are on the first leg of a European hiking tour.  Arriving at nightfall in a remote village, they decide to stop off at the town pub in order to get some rest and sustenance.  The locals view them with suspicion, and when Jack asks about a strange 5-pointed star carved into the wall, they become downright hostile; the two young men decide to leave, and though they are warned to stick to the roads they soon become lost on the moor.  Things get much worse when they realize they are being stalked by a mysterious animal; when they try to run, it abruptly attacks them, savagely killing Jack and mauling David before the villagers arrive and shoot the beast dead as the young traveler loses consciousness.  He wakes up some days later, in a London hospital, where he has been sent by the locals to recover from his injuries.  The physician, Dr. Hirsch, and the attending nurse, the lovely Alex, are kind and sympathetic, but their young patient is troubled by the villagers’ official report that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic and not a ferocious animal.  Though the police put little stock in his traumatized memories, Dr. Hirsch decides to do a little further investigation on his own; meanwhile, David strikes up a relationship with Nurse Alex, moving in with her upon his release from the hospital.  Their romance is blissfully therapeutic, despite the young man’s troubling, violent nightmares; but harder to ignore are the visits from the increasingly decomposed ghost of his unfortunate friend Jack, who claims that they were actually attacked by a werewolf, and that David is now a werewolf himself.  Worse yet, Jack and all the other victims of the monster’s bloodthirsty rage are doomed to wander the earth until their killer’s bloodline has been severed- meaning that David, as the last surviving carrier of the curse, must die before the next full moon can transform him into a ravenous beast and lead to more senseless slaughter.  Though David is skeptical of the warnings, Hirsch is sufficiently convinced by a visit to the moors that his former patient may be a danger to himself and others, and he joins forces with Alex in an attempt to protect the young man from the darkness- whether supernatural or psychological- that threatens to take control of his destiny.

As written by Landis, who was inspired over a decade earlier when he witnessed a group of Central Europeans performing a ritual to prevent a deceased fellow villager rising from his grave, this grim and familiar tale is laced with the kind of hip, contemporary humor that marked the youth-oriented films of the period; arch, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, and self-referential, the comedy is a major ingredient in the mix, but Landis stops short of letting it undermine the gravity of his horror story.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, and many critics were at a loss to reconcile the seeming opposition of the movie’s two aspects; nevertheless, the apparent cross purposes complement each other in a way that makes for a unique and highly entertaining ride.  In addition, the two cultural sensibilities reflected in the film’s title are brought into the equation through the film’s overall style; the flip jocularity of the American mindset is superimposed against a background of traditional English influences that resembles a blend of Hammer horror and the Carry On series, with a slight dash of Monty Python thrown in for good measure.  The resulting subtextual implication in which the youthful, callow naïveté of the distinctly American personality is thrust into the Old World subtlety of European experience, suggests a story that is ultimately, perhaps, about the dangers of being overconfident in a world that is deeper and more complex than we know.

That’s not to propose that Landis’ purpose here involves any kind of socio-political statement; the “babe in the woods” undercurrent, extrapolations about cultural identity aside, serves mainly as a foundation for the uneasy sense of foreboding that pervades the film from its opening frames, when the hazy atmosphere of the isolated moors seems pregnant with ominous possibility and fills us with the dread of something unknown, lurking just beyond the hills or, perhaps, hiding in plain sight.  Confronted from the start with this landscape that is at once familiar and alien, we immediately bond with the two fresh-faced adventurers who, a few moments later, arrive on the scene- in a truck full of sheep, like proverbial lambs to the slaughter (to reinforce this idea, the pub through which they will soon begin their descent into horror is called “The Slaughtered Lamb”).  We are charmed by their banter, comfortable in their camaraderie, and touched by their friendship; we share their bemused outsiders’ perspective because we, too, are outsiders here, a commonality that helps us identify with them, but because they are so endearing, we also genuinely like them.  It is this factor, cannily accomplished by Landis in his script, that makes us cringe at a deeper level when they become victims of the inevitable carnage; and with this foundation laid, as the film follows the subsequent adventures of David, despite the cheeky comic tone maintained throughout, we can never quite escape or ignore the soul-sickening undercurrent of sadness which pursues us to the end.

Landis is able to pull off this delicate balance largely because he seems unconcerned with pre-conceived limitations of genre; as the director of the wildly popular Animal House and The Blues Brothers, he was the undisputed master of the kind of irreverent and iconoclastic humor that is on display in American Werewolf, and he confidently delivers the same lampooning style in his approach.  There is a definite anti-establishment flavor here that is cut from the same cloth as those earlier films, manifested in a continual opposition between stodgy decorum and free-spirited permissiveness.  The guarded discretion of the villagers regarding their town’s dark secret, the by-the-book attitude of the bumbling policemen assigned to de-brief David, and the stiff-upper-lip dispassion of Dr. Hirsch and even Nurse Alex as they become more deeply involved with their patient; all these are contrasted with the repeated disregard for rules of behavior displayed by the young Americans.  Jack and David challenge local custom with their questions in the pub, and later on, David flies against procedural form with passionate protests regarding the truth about his attacker on the moors, and he skirts propriety by crossing professional boundaries to initiate a relationship with his nurse; it is a similar lack of concern for the rules that allows Landis to blur the lines between comedy and horror with such disarming audacity.  In a way, it is as if he is attacking repressive authority on multiple fronts; not only does he sideswipe convention and cliche with satirical absurdity, and disturb order and decorum with gruesome violence, he also flaunts conservative standards of decency with a high level of sexual frankness and pointedly gratuitous nudity.

An American Werewolf in London uses all these ingredients, ultimately, in the service of providing entertaining thrills for the youth audience at which it was targeted.  The hip, comedic tone and the willful exploitation of sex and violence create an appealingly loose, edgy atmosphere, but it is the narrative itself that keeps us hooked, and Landis the director handles it skillfully.  The leisurely opening sequence is a small masterpiece in itself, and could stand on its own as a fine short film; the jocularity of the protagonists is slowly overtaken by the undercurrent of menace in a textbook example of building tension through visual storytelling.  As the tale progresses, we are subjected to alternating moments of hilarity and terror, often spiking one with the other, keeping us off balance at a visceral level while Landis fills the screen with artfully arranged variety of culturally telling details, from the recurring ironic presence of a Mickey Mouse figurine to the ludicrous porno send-up being shown at the cinema where David has his final meeting with Jack.  Along the way he continues to build on our emotional connection to David (as well as to Alex and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Hirsch, who become his allies) and offers up numerous stylish set pieces- a handful of nightmare sequences, a zany romp at the London Zoo, a gripping predator-and-prey chase in a “tube” terminal, an erotically-charged love scene between David and Alex in the shower- until he reaches the climax, an over-the-top blow-out of carnage and confusion in Piccadilly Circus that plays like a deadly slapstick farce.  Up until this point, his recipe works; the excesses of the finale somehow push the limits of plausibility to the breaking point, and the callousness with which he treats the deaths of all these innocent bystanders feels a little too mean-spirited to be excused under the license of black comedy.  The final tragic confrontation which closes the film, a forgone conclusion since the very first frame, is also, undeniably, a bit of a letdown, and the promising potential for emotional payoff remains unrealized; it’s as if Landis, who has expertly managed to pad out what is essentially a familiar and simple scenario with clever distractions, has reached the bottom of his bag of tricks and decided to end his movie by hurriedly delivering the expected ending with as little fuss as possible.  Despite this anticlimax, however, Landis’ has invested enough into his main characters, on a deeper level than the snarky disaffection of the movie’s surface, to leave us in a state of satisfied melancholy as the end credits roll, and though we may have wished for an worthier ending for his clever mash-up, it must be admitted that his effort to present an oft-told tale in a fresh and surprising package has been, on the whole, a success.

A good deal of that success deserves to be credited to the charm of Landis’ leading players; in particular, of course, the considerable appeal of his star, David Naughton, whose earlier career as a pitchman for Dr. Pepper had made him a familiar face for most audiences, contributes significantly.  Attractive, affable, sincere, and possessed of a devilishly sly but somehow wholesome quality that makes him both sexy and endearing, his personality is well-suited to the demands of both the lightweight and dramatic aspects of American Werewolf, and watching him here makes us regret that, for whatever reason, he failed to become the rising star that his talent seemed to promise.  Matching him well is the beautiful Jenny Agutter, another familiar face (Logan’s Run¸ Equus) who never quite achieved full stardom, at least in the U.S., as Alex; she carries the same, sweet-but-sexy aura as her leading man, with an added layer of maturity and intelligence that makes her far more interesting than the standard damsel-in-distress usually found in monster movies.  John Woodvine is witty and refreshingly likable in his role as the benevolent older authority figure, Dr. Hirsch, and the assortment of recognizable English actors that constitute the cadre at the “Slaughtered Lamb” do a fine job of infusing life and dimension into the stock “superstitious villagers” characters that they represent.  The standout performance, though, comes from Griffin Dunne, as the doomed Jack; his lovably nebbish, self-deprecating nerd persona provides a perfect complement to Naughton’s all-American boy, and the chemistry they share is tangible- a factor that helps to add resonance to later developments when the deceased Jack returns to haunt his best friend.  Dunne manages, in those scenes, to bring the likable humanity of his character to the forefront despite the progressively hideous make-up he wears, undercutting the body horror of his walking-dead image with wit, pathos, and personality.

On the subject of the make-up, the aforementioned Rick Baker- whose prolific work in this field has always helped to redefine and push the limits of the craft- leads the pack in terms of kudos for Landis’ technical crew.  Not only do his remarkably detailed and gruesome prosthetic creations make for an utterly convincing conversion of Dunne into a grisly walking corpse, his work with Naughton’s transformation sequence, in which the handsome actor becomes the fearsome title creature, is a ground-breaking display of wizardry; a far cry from the old stop-motion effects used to morph Lon Chaney, Jr. in the classic Universal Wolf Man and its sequels, it is a truly hair-raising (literally and figuratively) pre-CG spectacle that reminds us all that movie magic did not begin with the computer age.  Also noteworthy is the cinematography by Robert Paynter, capturing the character and mood of the numerous English locations, from the desolate moors to the garish lights of Piccadilly, with a richness that gives weight to the proceedings; again, it’s a reminder of a now-bygone time, before the distinctive visual quality created by photography on actual film was supplanted by the high-definition digital imaging that dominates cinema today.  Finally, Landis gives his film a soundtrack that is comprised partly of effectively unsettling original scoring by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, and partly of a rather tongue-in-cheek selection of various popular recordings linked together by the subject of the moon, with several varied renditions of the standard, “Blue Moon,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” and Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” each figuring prominently in highly memorable sequences.

An American Werewolf in London is another one of those films that figured prominently in my own younger years; I have fond memories of seeing it, multiple times, on the big screen, and there was a time when I could quote virtually every line of dialogue.  In the ensuing years I assumed that my youthful enthusiasm, coupled with a fondness for monster movies and all things English, had probably paid a large part in my enjoyment of a film which, really, was little more than pulp cinema.  Upon my recent viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in fact, Landis’ odd little film holds up extremely well, and, in fact, boasts many nuances- some of which are explored above- that I had not previously recognized.  It’s really a tight, stylish, and yes, classy movie; though it deliberately strives for the lurid, sensational atmosphere of both Hollywood exploitation cinema and British “penny dreadfuls,” and it offers up a considerable amount of nudity, sex and violence (the gory, nightmarish kind so gleefully proffered by the blood-spattered horror films produced in England throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s), it nevertheless maintains an elegant, restrained sensibility, suggesting far more than it shows and allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in a lot of the blanks.  Landis, for all his excess, does himself credit in his handling of the werewolf and its reign of terror, giving us only brief glimpses of the beast itself and using cinematic artistry- sound, camera perspective, editing- to build the suspense and fear; of course, we would feel cheated if he didn’t also deliver some good old blood-and-guts, and he gives us just enough of those to make us happy (if that’s the right word), but its also to his credit that we walk away feeling as if we’ve seen much more of a bloodbath than we actually have.  In the end, though, American Werewolf is most truly memorable for its unique hybrid personality, which lets us laugh, cringe, and cry a good deal more than we might expect.  It’s a smart, sexy, and surprisingly affecting film that has aged well, which is more than can be said for many of the more lauded-at-the-time works from the period.  Though it may not, at the time, have been as highly esteemed as Landis’ previous hits (mentioned above), and though, for many, his most important and lasting creation will always remain his video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” An American Werewolf in London  may well, in truth, be his best work as a filmmaker; at the least, it’s a definite crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to evoke a grin and a grimace from even the most hardcore horror buff.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082010/