Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas
Since 2005 I have kept a list of every new film I have seen. With this film I have hit the 1000 mark. Before long, I’ll probably be hitting 2000.
The Lovely Bones (2009, dir. Peter Jackson)
Starring Saorise Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon
Before he was known as the director who brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, Peter Jackson was a small budget New Zealand filmmaker. Among his work was the wacked out zombie flick Dead Alive, the Muppet show on crack Meet the Feebles, and the amazing Heavenly Creatures. And it is Heavenly Creatures, that seems to bear the strongest kinship to Jackson’s latest film. Both films focus on female protagonists and involve their subconscious being brought to the surface in surreal landscapes. However, where The Lovely Bones is an improvement in technical achievement, it lacks the narrative strength of Heavenly Creatures.
Based on the 2003 novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is a first person narrative where the newly deceased Susie Salmon chronicles her afterlife and her family’s reactions to her death. Susie is unable to be at rest in the afterlife, due to her murderer still wandering free. She begins to influence the actions of her family and direct them towards the murderer’s house so that the case can be solved and she can move on. This is juxtaposed to her living out fantasies in a strange surreal afterlife landscape.
This film felt as much like fantasy as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While there are no orcs or wizards, characters are so unrealistic they might as well be wielding magic wands and riding dragons. Susie is so perfect in her actions and attitudes that I could not connect or empathize with her at all. Susie’s biggest rebellion as a teenager comes in being embarrassed about her new knit cap. Everything Susie does is framed by the film in a sort of gauzy light. In contrast, Mr. Harvey, her murderer is filmed in an equally absurd but menacing way. He constant sweatiness and heavy breathing is over-emphasized, and Jackson employs low camera angles to create a sense of looming danger.
This over simplification causes the film to come across as shallow as a silent film. I half expected, Mr. Harvey to start twirling his mustache and tie Susie to a railroad track. I assume the audience is meant to be wowed by the CG effects employed in the afterlife sequences, but because of the initial depthless nature of the characters it was simply some pretty pictures. At the end, the characters are so poorly developed it doesn’t seem possible to have the strong emotional response I’m sure Jackson and co-scripter Fran Walsh intended. It seems that since, and in despite of the success of, the Lord of the Rings series, Jackson has been returning a diminishing product (see King Kong as well). One hopes that he can make his next project a bit more meaningful and more character-driven.
The Road (2009, dir. John Hilcoat)
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce
The post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road does not feel all that distant. Set mainly in rural areas and rundown smalltowns, these are settings familiar to my own youth growing up in Springfield. There is an extreme nature to these places though, all animals and crops have died and now roving bands of modern barbarians troll for fellow humans to slaughter. Into this setting is dropped The Man (Mortensen) and The Boy (McPhee). The characters are never named, purposefully, and the story contains traces of allegory moreso than speculative fiction.
Though I have not read the novel this film was based on, I was familiar with McCarthy’s work through Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men. I was elated when I heard John Hilcoat was signed to direct this picture. Hilcoat directed the 2005 independent Australian western, The Proposition and in that film I could see the themes and spirit of much of McCarthy’s work. Both men are contemplative and almost mystical in their narratives, while juxtaposing that with sudden and brutal moments of violence. Hilcoat seemed one of the few directors best suited for speaking for McCarthy on the big screen.
The Road is by no means a perfect film, and in moments feels like a filmic self-flagellation, watching humanity suffer in such hopeless squalor. There are few moments of happiness, which is understandable when the world around our characters is literally crumbling and dimming out. The structure of the plot is episodic, with the Man and the Boy mostly encountering hostiles and the occasional old man (Duvall). Flashbacks are provided wherein we see how The Man and The Boy came to be on this odyssey to the East Coast and what happened to the Man’s wife in the early days of the Apocalypse.
The most obvious parallels to be drawn between the two main characters are that of the Old Testament Jehovah and the New Testament Jesus. The Man is thoroughly convinced that all people they encounter possess base, survivalist instincts. Within the Boy though, he talks about a fire that burns inside him and is his responsibility to carry on. The Boy is the half of the duo willing to trust those they meet, and chance that they will find some sort of company in the wilds. And despite all of the film’s bleakness and atmosphere of a shattered world, it does offer hope in the final moments, specifically in The Boy. You see that, unlike The Man, the Boy is able to trust and understands that without that capacity to risk in others life would truly be over.
The super hero movie is valuable stock in Hollywood these days. From Batman to Iron Man to Spider-Man and the X-Men, every superpowered being in print is fodder for the next big budget blockbuster. On the flipside, existing parallel to the Big Two (DC and Marvel), has been an independent and creator driven comics industry. Out of this alternative has come unique and quirky stories that use the sequential art medium to tell stories off the beaten path. Here’s a few that would make for a dynamic and engaging film festival.
While I am no big fan of this adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, it is still decent film even though it loses the essence of the original work. The story follows British Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp) who has been brought onto the Jack the Ripper case. He befriends East End prostitute Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), whose friends are being picked off one by one. The mystery unfolds as part of a dark Illuminati conspiracy and the Ripper’s motives are attached to satanic machinations. The Hughes Brothers, best known for their contributions to African-American cinema with Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, and the wonderful documentary American Pimp, devise a few clever visual tricks but nothing that can raise the film too far beyond a mediocre level. The best part of the film are those metaphysical and occult concepts of Moore’s that made their way from the page to the screen.
From my earlier review: “American Splendor is one of the most unusual comic book adaptations of the 2000s. While this is an origin story, there are no capes or tights. Instead its vintage records and perpetual scowls. Cleveland native, Harvey Pekar began chronicling his life in underground comic books in the 1970s after befriending cult comix artist Robert Crumb. The film works as a docudrama, that features the real Pekar commenting on his life mixed with Giamatti acting out the anecdotes. Even the illustrations from the comic books are animated and spliced amongst the live action sequences. The entire form and style of this film is unlike any other I have seen and have not seen it attempted since. Giamatti does an excellent job mimicking Pekar, but if you have seen the film you can agree nothing surpasses the natural curmudgeon of the original.”
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World follows the post-high school graduation summer of surly teen, Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend, Rebecca. The two girls move from episodic moment to episodic moment, slowly growing apart. Enid is the voice for many of the mid- to late 90s proto-hipsters. She has a love of old blues vinyl and kitschy ironic pop culture, and it comes across in a less forced away than many contemporary hipsters do. The summer is a growing time for Enid as her poor temper is forced to dissipate as the responsibilities of adulthood set it. A very sharp, clever film that appeals to the introverted English major type (as I can speak from experience).
Based on the overlooked graphic novel by crime writer John Wagner, Cronenberg reinterpreted it and took the main character, Tom McKenna (Viggo Mortensen) in a different direction. The inciting incident, a pair of murderous thieves hold up Tom’s small town diner, is the same but the choices the character makes and how figures from his past choose to interact with him is where the changes occur. This is a wonderful film that displays Cronenberg’s gifts as a filmmaker. He is totally comfortable in quiet moments and knows how to jolt the audience without playing to cheap shocks. This is also a film that gives an ending that doesn’t need a twist to create a powerful impact.
Unlike the other films of this list, the author of the graphic novel had a direct hand in the adaptation and direction of their work. Persepolis chronicles Marjane Satrapi’s adolescence in Ayatollah-ruled Iran and her eventual relocation to Europe when her parents become afraid of the oppression in their country. Both the film and graphic novel give a wonderful history lesson on Iran and showcase how great America’s ignorance is about Iran’s relations with Iran and the rest of the Arab world. On a microcosmic level, it is also the story of a young girl who tests the borders of rebellion and transitions through the awkward moments of childhood into a confident and brilliant young woman.
East of Eden (1955, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives
This month, I’ll be looking at the three core works of James Dean’s sadly short career. I didn’t see any of these films until 2007 when, while living in Washington state, I decided to check out Giant from the public library. What I discovered was the reason behind an icon. So often a pop culture figure’s work has been so far removed from our contemporary experiences that it is hard to understand exactly how they became so iconic. I have found that Dean was indeed a brilliant actor with a potential I don’t see in many others.
Dean made his starring role debut in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (based on the novel of John Steinbeck), playing the tragic loner Cal Trask. Cal is the son of Adam, a farmer and brother to Aron. Throughout his life, Cal has been overshadowed by Aron’s accomplishments and looked at as the black sheep of the family. The mother mysteriously disappeared when the boys were children and Cal remembers little of her. The story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and mixes it with the gorgeous landscape of Salinas and Monterey, California.
The filmmaking at work here is a unique artifact of its time. Kazan is a deft director who is responsible for such masterpieces as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. And it was Kazan’s keen eye who discovered James Dean as he was performing on Broadway. Dean was a major proponent of method acting, a technique that transitioned from the more classical theatrical style of acting into a more psychological and physically interpretive method. Method acting bridges a sort of gap between acting and dance. This is seen in the way Dean almost spasms through his performance, he twists and contorts his body in unison with the psychological torment. The character of Cal is stunted mentally and Dean chooses to express that through his movement. Cal is constantly jamming his hands into his pockets, kicking at the dirt nervously, just like an awkward adolescent.
Dean was reportedly very uncooperative on set, and Kazan admitted he would encourage this by antagonizing the actor. Kazan believed that keeping Dean in such a mentally upset state would, in turn, enhance the anger and frustration of Cal on the screen. Dean’s co-star, Julie Harris is credited with truly enhancing the performance by adjusting her own to become more low-key and further highlight the distinction of what Dean was doing. For a first major film performance, Dean delivers in an astonishing way. Method acting was a new and exciting development in theater and its no wonder audiences were entranced with Dean.
Coming up next: I take a look at the film that made Dean an icon, Rebel Without A Cause.