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Archive for November, 2009

Up

Up

I’m not sure how they manage it, but Pixar manages to blindside me every time. Every year, I watch the trailer for their latest offering and think it doesn’t seem that impressive or different from their competition. I read the glowing reviews and think, “Hmmm, I’ll have to try that after all.” Inwardly, though, I somehow remain unconvinced that the studio will pull it off this time…until I actually see the film. This happened to me with Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-e and now Up.

I bought the blu-ray disc of Up several weeks ago intending to watch it almost immediately, yet I kept dragging my heels. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with expectations. I hate building up huge expectations for a film because often it can’t come close to meeting them. I’d heard glowing things about Up, but I didn’t want to trust them.

Well, they were all true. Up may easily be my favorite film I’ve seen this year. It’s thoughtful, charming, imaginative, funny and poignant. I’m not a person easily disposed to either tears or belly laughs, so when a film inspires both in me, I have to admit it’s something special. In my last post, I was complaining about the pessimism bordering on nihilism so prevalent in today’s films, especially in Science Fiction. Up is the antidote for that cynicism.

Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) meets the love of his life as a boy. Ellie is an extroverted tomboy with the heart of an explorer. Carl is a bit shyer, but he too longs to play the adventurous discoverer. In the first ten minutes of the film, we watch as Carl and Ellie meet as children, play, grow up, marry and grow old together. Those ten minutes are both wonderful and devastating as we see Carl lose Ellie. This isn’t a film that shirks loss or underestimates the difficulty of recovering after such tragedy.

Into Carl’s life comes a young boy, Russell. Through a series of interesting plot twists, Carl and Russell end up in South America on a house floating from hundreds of balloons. Carl finds Russell little more than annoyance in the beginning. He still feels an adult responsibility to make sure that nothing happens to Russell, but it’s the sort of impersonal, condescending help that any adult feels compelled to offer someone else’s child. Ultimately, though, Carl realizes the reasons for many of Russell’s character traits that annoy him so much: his father has become absent in his life. Russell constantly strives to attract his father’s attention and approval.

This is just a lovely movie with lovely messages. We’re never too old or too young to have an adventure. The only thing to make life bearable after a crushing loss is to find some other way to love and to live. Pixar did it to me again. Maybe one day I’ll learn not to underestimate their wizardry or their storytelling skills.

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I’ve often had a weakness for science fiction films depicting dystopias. From Blade Runner to The Matrix, I’ve enjoyed catching a glimpse of the future even if it seemed dark. Lately, however, it seems we have very little optimism to balance out the grim worlds SF creators have envisioned recently. One could possibly blame The Dark Knight. Its runaway success certainly encouraged the trend to delve even more deeply into the dark – witness this year’s Watchmen, District 9 and the television miniseries, Torchwood: Children of Earth. Before these projects or The Dark Knight, though, we had Children of Men and V for Vendetta. Each succeeding movie seems that much more disturbing and cynical in its view of mankind. I’m almost starting to lose my appetite for dystopian fiction.

Upon reflection, these projects are doing one of science fiction’s primary jobs: holding up a mirror to the times and commenting upon current events in ways that the public finds more endurable than listening to the evening news. They are, in their own unique way, a parallel to the Gangster films of The Great Depression. Warner Brothers was known for its own gritty, realistic take on motion pictures. They were willing to show the ugly side of life in ways that rival studio, MGM, would never have dreamed of. Our own times are just as harsh and our cinema reflects that reality.

It’s an interesting fact that films that directly deal with the major current events of the last five years, the economy, the war, bomb at the box office. People have enough of that in real life, thank you very much. Yet, The Dark Knight was an enormous hit. District 9 was a surprise sleeper film that made over triple its low budget at the box office. Watchmen, the grimmest movie of the three, was only a modest success that only made $55 million more than its $130 million price tag.

The BBC/BBC America miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth drew tremendous numbers in Great Britain and was BBC America’s biggest success to date in this country. It also might be the most depressing thing I’ve watched all year. Characters that we care about make damnable choices that leave one of the most beloved characters of that universe dead and emotionally devastate another. Since this is, essentially, the third season of a television series, these actions hurt in ways that a theatrical film has difficulty reaching. Russell T. Davies, Torchwood’s executive producer, managed to defy the odds that said that such a dark, gloomy look at the state of humanity (and especially Western civilization) should draw in few viewers. I’m glad for the show’s success and wish all of its creators well, but the unrelenting darkness of Davies’s vision may be the one straw too many for me. Demonstrating darkness is always more effective when contrasted with the light. I’m beginning to long for some optimism.

Perhaps that is why Star Trek was such a gigantic hit this year. Its budget was even more extensive than Watchmen, $150 million. It’s also made over double that budget in its world-wide grosses. J. J. Abram’s vision of Star Trek is not immune to the darkness creeping into the SF world, but it is not devoid of hope. In fact, the biggest insult that Abrams could have given to Gene Roddenberry’s legacy would have been to strip it of its most potent feature: its eternal optimism that mankind survives, and even thrives, into the future. While some shocking, horrible things happen in the film they serve to ground it and deepen the characters we know so well. Suddenly, there are consequences in a Star Trek film which creates an excitement that the franchise has not had in a long time. Still, the movie succeeds in creating bonds between its characters, a fellowship that has endured over 40 years. This fellowship allows the audience to feel hope, an emotion I would like to experience more of next year. After all, as another famous SF character likes to remark, “I quite like hope. Hope’s a good emotion.” I might add that adults need it just as much as children.

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Late Halloween Offerings

 

When it comes to the perfect Halloween movies, I have a definite preference for classic rather than current Hollywood. I prefer gothic to gore and a less-is-more approach to torture porn. This week, for the holiday, I celebrated by indulging in some oldies but goodies.

First off, is Paul Leni’s 1927 The Cat and the Canary, which should not be confused with the later comedic remake starring Bob Hope. The original Cat and the Canary is one of the first American horror movies though steeped, as most of the genre was, in German Expressionism. Like most American horror films before Todd Browning’s Dracula, the menace was decidedly non-supernatural. There is a famous shot of a hairy hand coming out of a library wall to grab a lawyer. I’d seen that shot many times in documentaries, and so was more startled by a later shot where the same hand reaches out from behind a bed to snatch a diamond necklace from the neck of the young woman lying there. I’ve got an instinctual fear of something threatening me in my bed that stems back to childhood. No, I didn’t have a monster under the bed. I was convinced that Dracula was hanging in the closet or scratching at the window.

Speaking of Dracula, I finished off the remaining films on the Universal Legacy Collections of Frankenstein and Dracula. Son of Frankenstein, I mentioned last week, so I’ll move on. The other two Frankenstein films in the set are Ghost of Frankenstein and House of Frankenstein. Ghost of Frankenstein was interesting to me for two reasons: the return of Bela Lugosi as Ygor and the first mention of a reasonable if gruesome way of permanently destroying the monster: dissect him one body part at a time, reversing the way Dr. Frankenstein put him together. Of course, this method is not used, but I found the logic sound. House of Frankenstein is one of the later monster movies where Universal liked to throw a bunch of their classics creatures together in one film. In this instance, it is Frankenstein’s Creature, the Wolf Man and Dracula. Dracula gets little to do, but I enjoyed this one because of the Wolf Man and the presence of Boris Karloff (who does not play the Creature).

The other films in the Dracula collection include the Spanish version of Dracula. Filmed at the same time as the English version and using the same sets, it is a technically superior production. Unfortunately, the absence of Bela Lugosi is painfully felt. That absence is also keenly felt in Son of Dracula where Dracula is played by Lon Chaney Jr., of the Wolf Man fame. Chaney is absolutely wrong for Dracula. His strength in playing Larry Talbot, the man cursed to turn into a werewolf, is the haunted look in his eyes. Lugosi’s eyes are haunting not haunted. It creates a sense of danger and power that Chaney can’t match. Chaney’s liquid expression calls for sympathy and pathos, perfect for the Wolf Man but not for the way Dracula is portrayed in these early films. Much better is House of Dracula. Once again the Creature, the Wolf Man and Dracula cross paths. Both the Creature and Dracula fair badly in this match-up. The Creature is barely present and Dracula’s motivations veer all over the place. The highlight of the film is the hope finally given to Talbot. If you’re a fan of the Wolf Man, don’t miss this one. Last, is one of the strongest films of the collection, Dracula’s Daughter. Here we have a female vampire and some very interesting subtext between her and her female victims that had the censors of the day hopping.

Even better fare from the ‘40s includes Fox’s Horror Classics boxed set starring three films by director John Brahm: The Undying Monster, The Lodger and Hangover Square. Brahm has been largely forgotten today, which is a shame. These are three wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully shot films with great performances. The Undying Monster is an answer to Universal’s popular The Wolf Man, down to its own little warning chant that owes a large debt to The Wolf Man’s, “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night can become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the moon is clear and bright.” Other than that misstep, the film is quite entertaining. The next two films, though, are quite special. Starring Laird Cregar, The Lodger and Hangover Square are complementary pieces. The Lodger is more recognizable because it is about Jack the Ripper and is a remake of a silent Hitchcock film. Hangover Square, though, contains one of Bernard Hermann’s most wonderful and evocative scores (which is quite the feat). The concerto he composes for Cregar’s character George Bone has to be heard – intensely powerful and unhinged like its fictitious creator. This boxed set is highly recommended.

Finally, I watched two films from the ‘50s: The Bad Seed and The Fly. The Bad Seed is also highly recommended. It contains one of the most chilling performances by a child actor I’ve ever witnessed. The nature vs. nurture argument is one that has been debated endlessly for years. It’s interesting to see here that the characters profess to believe in the nurture side of things, but the movie argues that nature, and possibly fate, decide who we are. The Fly was famously remade in the ‘80s by David Cronenberg. This is the original starring Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall. It was wonderful to see these two veterans give solid performances, but at its heart the movie is a tragic love story. More terrifying than any supernatural horror is the twofold idea explored here: what if your spouse changed so much that they became unrecognizable? On the flip side, what if you had an accident which disfigured you so much that your spouse rejected you? Terrible questions, to be sure.

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