Monday, December 31, 2007


Renaissance (2006) is an animated French film set in Paris in 2054.  A mega-corporation called Avalon, which specializes in prolonging life and youth, dominates the world.  A detective named Barthélémy Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig) is assigned to investigate the kidnapping of a brilliant young research scientist, Ilona Tasuiev, whose research concerns the disease progeria, which causes rapid and unnatural aging in children.  In the process of his investigation he uncovers a vast corporate conspiracy focused on a discovery made by one of the corporation scientists.  Some want to suppress the discovery while others want to release it to the world.  There are numerous turns of plots, unexpected surprises, and dark revelations.  People who seem to be good turn out not to be, and villains turn out to be something else.

The film turns on the notion that death gives life meaning.  I kept looking for Keats allusions but didn't find them.

Renaissance is an intelligent and well made animated film.  It is filmed in the style of Sin City, using motion capture photography. The animation consists almost entirely of high contrast black and white images.  The effect is something like a comic book.  This kind of animation would soon become tedious, monotonous, were it used in film after film, but in this one it works well enough.  Much of Renaissance takes place at night, when it is frequently raining or snowing.  This film could easily have been made as a live-action production.

The film reminded me in moments of Blade Runner and in others of films such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep because of the sudden turns of plot and revelations.  I was even reminded of Wuthering Heights

Renaissance is basically an animated film noir.  It takes a dim view of science, scientific research, and the notion of progress.  It suggests that technology imprisons humankind rather than offering new freedoms.  In this sense it has numerous connections to such films about genetic engineering and advanced technology as Gattaca and Minority Report. I'm surprised this film isn't better known.

Microcosmos: Le peuple de l'herbe

Microcosmos: Le peuple de l'herbe (1996) is a French film that uses close-up and time-delay photography to show the lives of insects and plants and other forms of life in the countryside. The film is beautifully photographed. There is only enough narration to place the film in context. For the most part the film is not narrated. Thus we rarely recognize the creatures we are seeing or learn anything about them. Most of their actions are clear enough--mating, eating, moving along the ground or the stems of plants. Photographs do speak for themselves, but this is mainly because they use images--human forms, for instance—that we can recognize and understand, at least to some extent. In the case of insects and other small creatures, the ignorance of viewers can be an obstacle to full appreciation of the images. Beauty by itself is insufficient. Beauty with some explanation would be an improvement over the mute images we have here.

I suppose one of the points of the film is that life in whatever form it takes is miraculous and impressive. The soundtrack to the film does not always contribute in a positive way. It can be distracting. It occasionally involves music or sounds that do not match the images displayed (in one scene, a woman is heard faintly singing in the background).

I enjoyed the parts of Microcosmos that I did not sleep through. Had the film given names and meanings to the creatures it so beautifully displays, it would have had greater interest and significance.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) is a dark, grim melodrama about Russian émigrés in London. An emigrant family apparently associated with the Russian mafia operates in London. A fourteen-year old prostitute linked to the family hemorrhages to death in a hospital emergency room. A midwife tries to identify the woman so that she can find someone to raise her infant child. One discovery leads to another. The midwife discovers the girl's diary, written in Russian, and asks her uncle, a former KGB agent, to translate it. As he does, she at first suspects that the girl was raped and abused by the son of patriarch of the Russian family. Later she discovers that the patriarch himself raped the girl and fathered her child and then allowed her to be brutally abused.

The two main characters in the film are the midwife Anna, played by Naomi Watts, and the driver for the family, Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen. He turns out to be an undercover agent who had infiltrated and been accepted into the family. He is excellent in his part—which is very unlike his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films or like the role he played for Cronenberg in A History of Violence. Mortensen's acting is the single most impressive element in the film. Also effective is the father of the Russian émigrés, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, whom we've seen previously in such films as Shine. He is fine as a benign and avuncular old man who turns out to have a deeply malevolent dark side.

A point of interest in the film is how the Russian mafia family continues to operate and maintain its basic structure and principles while it appears to assimilate into London society. It continues to commit acts of cruelty—murder, rape, drug smuggling, prostitution of young girls, various acts of brutality—in the middle of one of the world's most supposedly civilized cities.

Anna's intrusion into the world of the Russian émigrés seems headed for no good end. Her good intentions place her in potential danger at the hands of a cruel and violent group of people whom she can barely begin to understand. Only because of the intervention of Nikolai do things for her and her family come to a positive conclusion. Nikolai's intrusion does not fit smoothly into the dark and forbidding texture of the film. It seems a faulty and contrived intervention.

This is a well acted and effectively made film. But there's not much depth beneath the surface, despite the fact that Eastern Promises is in part about how deceptive surfaces can be. Others have had much stronger and more positive reactions to the film, and I may have misunderstood or misperceived it.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Entertaining and long, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) spends little time in the Caribbean. Instead it spends at least some time in the seas of South Asia and more time in an unknown location where all the pirates live and where the nine pirate captains gather for a big confabulation. The film also spends time in a place called Davy Jones' Locker, which is apparently where pirates go when they are lost at sea but not killed, or something like that. It's a surreal sort of otherworld—like purgatory or one of the long queues at Disneyworld.

The film begins by picking up the plot created at the end of the second film: the rescue of Captain Jack Sparrow from Davy Jones locker. There are numerous subplots. There is the love interest between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and (apparently) between Sparrow and Swann. There is Davy Jones' many tentacled quest for control of the seven seas. There is Turner's quest to rescue his father from the clutches of Davy Jones. There is the beating heart of Davy Jones kept in a chest in the possession of the British navy. The British navy is the enemy in the film. There is the resistance of eight of the nine pirate captains to the efforts of Davy Jones to take them over. And there is Calypso, trapped in her own body. She is a pirate goddess, and when the pirates and the British conflict comes to a crisis, she is released to wreak meteorological havoc that basically comes to naught. These plot lines intertwine and in the end combine together in a way that is satisfying and that makes no sense whatsoever.

All the characters in this film go through the same motions they went through in the first two films. Johnny Depp continues to be whacky and swaggering as Sparrow. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley remain the romantic young love interests in this film. Geoffrey Rush is great as Sparrow's rival pirate captain Barbossa. As good as these actors are in their parts, they were also good in the two earlier films, and this one doesn't get us anywhere new.

The Pirates of the Caribbean films are a fantasy series. The first film sets up a world that functions according to a particular set of rules involving the fact that the pirates on Sparrow's ship the Black
Pearl are ghosts—which is what they are on the Disneyworld ride that inspired the film. During the day the pirates appear to be real, but in moonlight at night their ghoulish nature comes clear. The later films basically abandon this convention, and the third one makes little reference to it at all, except for the fact that the men on Davy Jones' ship are in some sort of supernatural state of being. My point is that the first film sets up a set of rules which the latter two films either break or ignore.

Although I found the first film entertaining, I was disappointed that it made the pirates into ghouls. The film would have been more fun had they been real.

Keith Richards makes a brief if murky appearance as a senior pirate captain in the third film. His appearance is fitting since Johnny Depp supposedly modeled his character Jack Sparrow on Richards. However, it's difficult to recognize Richards as Richards. He simply seems a bit uncomfortable.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Spider Man 3

Spider Man 3 (2007) shows us what happens when a super hero runs out of steam. It is entertaining enough, but not as successful as its two predecessors. Part of the problem with a single film that attempts to perpetuate itself through multiple sequels is that novelty and creativity can wear thin. My memory of the Spider-Man and Superman and Batman comic book series is that they used basically the same plot-lines in issue after issue. This was possible because their audience consisted mainly of young readers who didn't mind the repetition and who even depended on it. Film audiences are somewhat more varied demographically than comic book readers, and in general probably more demanding and discerning. It's easy to recognized an overused and hackneyed plot. Once a film about a super hero tells the origin story and engages in several variations of stories about the good deeds super heroes can do for the world at large and its inhabitants, other plots are limited. Many super hero narratives show their heroes in conflict with other super-human or with alien nemeses. A few show their heroes struggling with the challenges of trying to live as normal people in a normal world. But these plots wear thin eventually too. For the most part I stopped reading comic books forty years ago, so I am not as aware as younger readers may be of the fact that comic books have grown more sophisticated and "adult" in recent decades—an attempt to maintain a more mature reading audience and to stay current with the modern world, also the result of the increasing creativity, imagination, and ambition of comic book artists. The Superman and Batman and Spider-Man stories have grown more complicated, more ambitious, much darker. Cinematic adaptations of comic book super heroes often don't seem able to keep pace with these developments. Only the Batman films—some of them at least—have succeeded in doing so.

One of the main interests of the Spider-Man series is that Peter Parker starts out as a normal kid who, after the infamous radioactive spider bite, finds himself possessed of superhuman powers. He struggles with wanting to continue his life as a normal American teenager and with facing up to the challenges of his powers. The first and second Spider-Man films made this struggle a central focus. The same is true in this third film, but here the plot begins to seem too familiar. So too do the continuing concerns with Peter's wavering romance with his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and his relationship with his best friend and worst enemy Harry Osborn. Perhaps recognizing the need to freshen the story up, the film offers up as adversaries (in addition to Harry's alter-ego the New Goblin) an alien creature that infects Peter and brings out his evil side, a criminal (who Peter believes killed his uncle) who accidentally falls into a particle accelerator beam and is transformed into a superhuman sandman, and an ambitious rival news photographer. Peter is overcome by his own celebrity, begins acting like a disco king (with echoes of Saturday Night Fever, not to mention The Simpsons Disco Stu) and is insensitive to Mary Jane's problems with her career as an actor. He's never quite able (until the end) to convince Harry that he didn't really kill his father. And so on. It doesn't profit too much too think too deliberatively about this film. It's an overly complex and meandering mess whose action sequences manage to keep it interesting and loosely coherent.

Portions of this film are sillier than one has a right to expect. Some parts are simply a bore. Given the outcome of this film, especially Harry Osborn's death, it's difficult to imagine where and whether the series will go from here. Toby McGuire does have acting talent, but he has expended a lot of it on the Spider-Man films. Would he really want to do another?


Superbad (2007) is about three nerdy high school seniors on a night two weeks before graduation. Two of them have been friends for life but are beginning to drift apart—one has been accepted to Dartmouth while the other was rejected. These boys throughout high school have always been on the outskirts of things. One of them, Evan, the most normal of the three, is asked by his friend Becca why she never sees him at parties. He answers with an elaborate lie about how he is busy with other engagements when in fact the real answer is that he has never been invited to parties. His friend Seth, a heavy-set boy who is full of talk and plans for getting laid but is never able to carry through, offers to get liquor for a girl who is having a party—she invites him. He is certain that if he brings the liquor she'll reward him with sex. Their friend Fogell, the nerdiest and wildest of the group (his fake ID says his name is "McLovin"), pals up with two bumbling and wayward cops. The cops enjoy playing pranks on and in general terrorizing teenagers. They have a dark side—when the windshield of their cruiser is shattered, they decide to lay blame on Seth and Evan, and they enjoy a bit too much the tricks they play. Mostly, however, they're simply dimwit incompetents mourning the fact that they can no longer have the kind of fun the boys are having. Together and individually, the boys have a series of improbable adventures that involve booze, drugs, wild parties, attempts at sex, mayhem, physical danger, and whatever else you can imagine.

This is one of those films that, after two hours of total abandonment, brings its main characters to a point of enlightened understanding, moral uplift, and friendship. This seems to me a patently tacked on resolution to a film that is mainly a series of low-level skits about teen-agers running amok. I didn't particularly enjoy the film, and much of the humor was weak and lame.

Seth Rogen appears in the film as one of the two cops. He is said to have written the screenplay while still in high school. His co-screenwriter is Evan Goldberg. Obviously, the characters Seth and Evan in the film are self-portraits, or approximations thereof.

My high school experience was, unfortunately, not like the one shown in Superbad.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Am Legend

In I Am Legend (2007) New York City is once again the place where the world—at least the human world—comes to an end. Three years after a man-made virus wipes out most of the human race, and turns a few million into flesh-eating zombies, the only man left is Robert Neville (played by Will Smith), a scientist from the research group that developed the virus, intended to cure cancer before it began mutating. (The film never acknowledges the statistical near impossibility that the man immune to the virus is a one of the scientists who developed it). Although the trailers for I Am Legend focused on Smith's efforts to evacuate his family out of New York City while the virus is in its early stages, the film itself begins three years after the virus has wiped everyone out. The back-story (everything in the trailers) is revealed through a series of flashbacks.

I Am Legend is based on the 1954 cult classic of the same title by Richard Matheson. Two previous films—The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Omega Man (1971) were also based on the novel.

Neville is the only man left in New York. His companion is a German shepherd named Sam. He spends his days hunting for food, foraging, sending out radio messages that ask survivors to contact him, and working in a lab in the basement of his apartment building, looking for a cure to the virus. At night he closes all the windows of his apartment and hides—the zombies come out at night—they survived the initial onslaught of the plague but changed into hyper-aggressive human mutants, always on the prowl for flesh.

The film is sad and wonderfully poignant in its first half. Neville drives at breakneck speed up and down the streets of New York in whatever car he chooses for that day. He enters a video rental store and selects DVDs to rent, returning the ones he has previously borrowed. He flirts with manikins he has apparently placed in the store. He hunts deer in the streets of the city, chasing them down in his truck. He grows corn in Central Park. He has decorated his apartment with famous paintings taken from well known New York museums. There is not much whimsy or irony in this film, which finds little to laugh at in the empty world. Rare moments of humor include one scene in which Neville recites the lines from Shrek aloud as the DVD of the film plays on his television—he has watched it often enough that he has memorized the screenplay. But there are moments of sad desperation as well, including one scene in which he begs a manikin to speak to him, and another when he realizes his dog Sam has contracted the virus.

In its second half, I Am Legend becomes a zombie film, with all the clichés that entails. Why is it in films like this one and 28 Days and Resident Evil and others that a virus necessarily turns victims into flesh-eating, ravening zombies? Why don't the victims just throw up, bleed out, and die? For my part, the arrival of the zombies (or whatever they are) marks a failure of imagination. The zombies are depicted with fairly unconvincing CGI special effects. They reminded me of the cover of Pink Floyd's The Wall, or of a Ralph Steadman drawing, or (as my son suggested) Munch's The Scream. They aren't real or credible, and they take the film with its convincing scenario of a New York stripped of human inhabitants, overrun with deer and escaped zoo animals and weeds and trash, and virtually turn it into B-grade schlock. Digital effects in the film in general are weak. The scene in which a lion attacks and kills a deer is lame—both animals look simulated, fake.

Many scenes in the first half of I Am Legend resonate with memories of the September 11 attacks. There are no direct echoes, but the film lingers on scenes that demonstrate the profound emptiness of the city. When Neville recalls the panic-stricken struggle of residents to escape the city before the government seals it off from the rest of the world—New York is where the virus was developed and where it first began mutating—we recall the crowds of people rushing to escape the burning or collapsed World Trade Center Towers. Images of such iconic locations as Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art drive home the notion that New York is (to Americans at least) the center of the world, and that if New York is empty then everywhere else must be as well.

Will Smith's acting is excellent. He's the heart of the film. Virtually all of his dialogue is with his reflection in mirrors, with his dog Sam, with manikins, with thin air. His ability to convey emotions and inner turmoil simply by his play of facial expressions is amazing. Smith keep this film going even when it begins to falter with the arrival of the zombies. He recalls Tom Hanks in the Robert Zemeckis film Castaway. There a man was stranded on an island after an airplane crash. There is hope for Hanks' character—the human world is still out there, he is simply lost, cut off from other humans. Someone may find him, or he may make his way back to the human world, which indeed is what finally happens. In I am Legend there is no human world out there. Will Smith's character Robert Neville is lost in an empty and wholly depopulated New York City—everyone is dead.

Although there is no real rescue for Neville, he does encounter another survivor, a woman who heard his radio broadcast in Maryland. She is convinced that God meant her to find Neville. She believes they are providentially destined to find their way to an encampment if survivors in the New England mountains. This insertion of theology into the film seems arbitrary—it softens and undercuts the grim and bitter portrait of a world emptied of humanity. She wants to insist that God has a plan for everyone and every event, while Neville insists, given the events that have occurred, that there is no God.

There are plot holes in I Am Legend, and the film makes little effort to explain the science behind the virus—why it mutated, how it kills, why it turns people into zombies, how Smith is trying to find a cure. But it is best not to think too much about such matters. The scenes of an empty New York City and Will Smith's acting make the film worthwhile.

Originally published at Blogcritics.

In It Wasn’t All Dancing and Other Stories, by Mary Ward Brown

In It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2001), her second story collection, Mary Ward Brown continues the exploration of small-town and rural Alabama life that she began in Tongues of Flame.  The central theme of these stories is age and change.  Brown considers these themes through stories about widows coping with isolation and uncertainty and through stories of others unsettled by change.  The title story is told from the sick bed of a once vivacious and (by her own account) self-centered woman, Rose Merriweather, who knows she will soon die.  She virtually never gets out of bed.  She must cope with her own concerns of memory loss and identity along with the knowledge that her daughter (who has little to do with her) is gradually selling off family possessions to pay the cost of caring for her ailing mother.  The friendship that Rose tries to develop with the black nurse who is taking care of her allows Brown to explore another facet of changing race relations in the rural South.

Some of these stories are contemporary while others range back as far as the 1950s.  Many concern disappointments of one sort or another.  In "The Birthday Cake," the narrator and her older sister come to terms with a close friend's death.  In another, "Once in a Lifetime," a woman once considered the most beautiful girl in her high school lives in a small apartment with her adolescent daughter.  She is divorced after an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband.  While working in a restaurant, she meets a man from her high school who admits to having always been attracted to her.  They begin an affair, and at last the woman is truly happy, but when her young daughter becomes pregnant she breaks off the relationship.  The whole focus of the story falls on the woman's disappointment in life.  It is reminiscent of some of the stories in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, especially those concerned with the character Kate Swift, though Brown's stories are less intense and psychologically intrusive than Anderson's.

One story, "Swing Low: A Memoir," is actually a memoir about Brown's mother and a black man named William who worked for her most of his adult life.  Not always the most industrious of workers, and sometimes a petty thief, the man is devoted to Brown's mother, who invariably succeeds in talking her husband out of firing him each time some transgression has occurred.

Brown's attitudes towards African Americans and race probably reflect the sentiments of many rural white Southerners during the Civil Rights era.  To many readers her stories may seem anachronistic, concerned as they are with issues and events that occurred decades in the past. She writes to an extent from the viewpoint of the white residents whose position of power and privilege was overturned by the civil rights movement.  Her stories recall a particular kind of relationship between blacks and whites of the pre-civil rights South—one of friendship and mutual dependence.  Some might argue that such relationships never existed, but Brown clearly believes they did. At the same time, she seems aware that change was inevitable and necessary. And she accepts in her stories that many of the assumptions held by whites before the civil rights era (such as the notion that black servants always loved the families they worked for) were sometimes presumptuous.  It's important to have this perspective, to understand the reactions of rural, conservative whites to the civil rights movement, to appreciate their altered situations. Brown is not an ideological writer. She records human relationships as she sees and remembers them along with the factors that shaped them.

Brown is particularly effective in such stories as "A Meeting on the Road" in dramatizing the consternation that many Southern whites must have felt when time-worn social codes and conventions were challenged by events they never anticipated. The story concerns a lawyer who loses his job as town attorney when an election upends the racial balance on the county commission.  He is fired by the end of the first meeting and must come to terms with the reality that the job he thought was his by rights no longer belongs to him.  Towards the end of the story he encounters on a country road the grandson of the African American woman who raised him. They almost come to blows.  The outcome of this story is both humorous and serious—it confirms the new position of the main character, and his bemused acceptance of the change that has come to his world.

Sometimes what's at stake in these stories may seem small.  In "The House that Asa Built" a mother leaves her husband after he buys a television set rather than the washing machine she badly needs.  After spending several days with her sister's out-of-control children and their sometimes drunken and abusive father, she returns home to the husband whom now she sees in a different way, and who has realized his own error.  What's at issue for the characters in this carefully and minimally drawn story is crucial to their well being, but the reader must exercise some empathy to recognize the importance of the disagreement between the couple, and its resolution.  There's an element of local color here, of Kate Chopin when she was writing deftly executed vignettes but before she was writing the stories for which she is most known.  We learn a lot in these stories about human character and the concerns of small, constrained lives. What Brown's characters experience—old age, the deaths of friends, displacement, isolation, a changing society, bitterness and disappointment—are problems all of us experience. Brown's ability to open up these experiences and to compel us as readers to identity them as our own is a measure of her success as a writer.

Originally published at Blogcritics.

Monday, December 17, 2007

George Washington

In George Washington (2000) David Gordon Green depicts an alternative Southern landscape and in doing so redefines the terms in which the South can be cinematically envisioned. Rather than a traditional rural South, or an urban modern South, he presents a South in some transitional new world. Watching the opening scenes of this film is in some sense like watching the opening scenes of Terrence Malick's film The New World. The similarity is not coincidental since Malick is Green's model. But the South we see in Malick's film is a South undefined—it is all Nature, unspoiled, undeveloped, unmarked by any historical or ideological conflict. It is only after we begin watching The New World that we realize that the land on which the events of the film take place is the land that will become part of the South and of America, and that the early events depicted in the film mark the first step in the process of defining that geographical space.

Green's film is superior to Malick's—The New World has its merits
but is the least successful of his four films.

George Washington shows us the side streets and back lots and overgrown weeds of the lower-economic districts of a mid-size Southern town. This is not a space we can recognize from most previous films about the South (Nothing but a Man is a significant exception). It therefore appears unaccompanied by the values and themes of other Southern films—no plantation houses, no drag races, no battle of the old South with the New. It quickly becomes apparent that African American children will play a role, and soon after them a few African American adults and young labor class white men. With their appearance some themes of race and racial conflict become apparent, but even then they do not appear in their traditional forms.

The children who are the main characters are from the lower-economic class. They are not profoundly poverty-stricken—perhaps lower-middle class would be a more appropriate designation. Poverty in itself is an indicator of racial themes. Yet the film refrains from fully embracing this kind of theme by including young white and black men who work for the railroad. They all work under the same sets of circumstances. When Damascus—a young black man around 30—quits his job on the railroad after being docked a day's wages , we could possibly see racial implications in the act of a white manager firing a black laborer, yet the situation could quite possibly have involved the white manager firing one of the white employees.

The world presented to us in George Washington is not explicitly a racially defined world, though the racial conflicts of the modern South are implied. Rather it is a world defined by poverty, limited horizons, and the aimlessness of modern times.

It would be easy enough to view George Washington as a sociological tract focused on children without parents—children of the modern Southern ghetto. Once again, the film does not categorize its characters racially, and though we can draw conclusions from the film based on race, they are not the main concern.

Descriptions of the plot of this film usually mention that it is about the efforts of a group of children to respond to the unexpected death of a friend. The film explores that issue, but it is not the film's only or even central concern. Rather it is about children and the experience of being children in a modern world. It's also about the struggle of children to define themselves and to come to grips with approaching and uncertain adulthood. To me the central concern is not the child's death (though he does seem to be the main character of the film's first third) but the boy named George.

George is clearly a strange child. Everyone knows he has a soft spot in his skull, the result of a fontanel that never grew together. He apparently has to wear a football helmet to protect his skull (whether this is his choice or something he has been ordered to do by a doctor is not clear). He can't swim or immerse his head in water because he has severe headaches as a result. People give him a wide berth. Some people may think he is mentally deficient, and his strange behavior at times may bear up the impression. Yet the more we get to know him, the less we consider his possible defects, and the more perhaps we see him as the representative character of the film, the vessel for the film's message, if indeed it has a message.

Nasia, the film's narrator, a 13-year old and preternaturally mature young girl, idolizes George. (Nasia's poetic, poignant voice specifically recalls the voices of Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven). The film's first scene shows Nasia and Buddy in the act of breaking up. Nasia later tells Buddy's friend that she broke up with him because he was too much like a child. She wants someone more grown up. After Buddy, she chooses George. It's clear she comes to believe in him as a person who will do great things, who will become president of the United States, who is (after he endangers his own life by jumping in a swimming pool to save a drowning child) a hero. George is specifically associated with the first president of the United States, George Washington. He is attracted to figures of fame and prominence. After a July 4th parade, he sees the man who played Uncle Sam in the parade and tells him that he was the best thing about the parade.

A lot of what George wants for himself is really what Nasia tells us that he wants, or imagines that he wants: "My friend George said that he was gonna live to be 100 years old. He said - He said that he was going to be the president of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the Fourth of July. He just wanted greatness." George becomes her way of dreaming about the future, and even though in some ways he might be the most disadvantaged character in the film, his aspirations, specifically his desire to be a hero, to save people's lives, to have significance, are what attracts her.

Others in the film, if not desiring fame and recognition, at least agonize over what they will do, over the future. One of Nasia's friends wants to become pregnant because she feels that would be her entrée to adulthood. Vernon, a large boy in early adolescence, feels ridden with guilt for Buddy's death. He doesn't know what to do. He tells Sonya, "I just wish I had my own tropical island, I wish . . . I wish I was . . . I could go to China, I wish I could go out of The States . . . I wish I had my own planet, I wish I . . . I wish there were 200 of me, man . . . I wish I could just sit around with computers and just brainstorm all day man. I wish I was born again." He and Sonya, who is probably no more than 10, try to run away and leave town together, but she rolls the car they steal and they limp painfully away. Sonya thinks of herself as "no good": I don't have much to look forward to. I ain't smart. I ain't no good. My whole family ain't no good. And for the first time in my life, I don't got no excuses for my future."

Another way that George Washington doesn't fit the mold of many other Southern films is its depiction of race. For the most part the children in the film have not grown old enough to become conscious of race. Sonya is the only white child in the film. She's innocent, corrupted already, and blonde, and to the black kids in the film she's simply another one of their group. Buddy and later George have frequent heart-to-heart talks with Rico Rice (played by Rob Schneider, the only name actor in the film). There is no sense of condescension in Rico—he talks to Buddy and George as equals—the fact that they are black and younger than he doesn't come into play.

In a more general way, the white railroad workers that Rico works with and with whom he pals around—advising them on how to eat a healthy diet—talk to the black kids just as kids, and the kids themselves see nothing out of the way in spending time with the white men. This is a South where race matters hardly as much as class and economic status. One might argue that this is unrealistic, and that the film portrays a world that doesn't exist.

In a sense Green uses the black and white characters as vehicles for giving expression to his own sentiments about life and fate and the future. Do kids Nasia's age and George's age really talk like the characters in this film? Do they have the thoughts these characters have? Is any 12-year-old as self-conscious and aware as Nasia is?



John Waters' 1988 film Hairspray was campy, perverse, and tongue in cheek. His casting of Divine—the famous obese transsexual—as the Edna Turnblad character made clear that he was working new territory. The original Hairspray—set in the 1950s--was a silly film that gave itself some degree of respectability by using the Civil Rights movement as a faint backdrop. The main character Edna Turnblad campaigns for the right of African Americans to appear on the Corny Collins television show. The Corny Collins show is an all-white show, except for one month a day, "Negro Day," when blacks are permitted to appear. The stereotypical assumption in the film is that African Americans have life and vigor and rhythm that whites lack. Their appearance on the show becomes a blow for civil rights and a step towards redeeming a bland white culture.

The 2007 film Hairspray, based on the Broadway musical based on the Waters film, is not campy and is not perverse. Sometimes is veers towards blandness, but for the most part it is thoroughly entertaining. It is, admittedly, slightly off the beaten path as musicals go, but not too far off. Waters doesn't direct the remake, though his 1988 screenplay is the basis for the new one, and he makes a brief appearance as a flasher. The film's plot is basically the same as the original. The lead role of Tracy Turnblad is played by Nikki Blonsky, a diminutive and rotund girl who had never appeared in a film before. She is great in the film. Every time she sings she brings the film to life. This means that the film's first half, where Blonsky appears often, is livelier than the second half, where she sings and dances less frequently.

The musical Hairspray uses the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore, MD, late 1950s, as a backdrop. Tracy Turnblad is sent to detention one morning for some minor offense in the classroom. Detention is a room filled mostly by African American students. They are dancing and singing and full of life, and Tracy is immediately attracted to them. She feels that her excessive weight places her in a similarly oppressed group—she feels a natural affinity. The fact that the film mines this racial stereotype for all it is worth—the idea that African Americans have a life force that whites don't—doesn't undermine the racial message of the film—although the racial message is not especially earth breaking or revolutionary. In general, the civil rights themes make it easier for the audience to identify the good characters from the bad in this film—just in case there is any doubt. The bad guys are white and often blonde, wealthy and affluent, contemptuous of those who are not. The good guys are outsiders or African Americans or ethnics of some other sort or, like Tracy, divergent from the physical ideal.

John Travolta plays the Divine role as Edna Turnblad. He gives himself up to the role and is amusing if never quite convincing—the makeup and the fat suit never quite persuaded me. The film gives Edna much more of a role than she had in the original. Christopher Walken is his usually creepy and engaging self as Wilbur, Edna's husband.

The Corny Collins show is a fictional version of American Bandstand and other similar shows that proliferated on television during the 1950s—shows that made temporary stars out of teen-age dancers and that gave rising musical groups an opportunity to perform. One of the points of the original Waters film and of the musical remake is that these shows showed a cross-section of American youth that often wasn't representative and that was idealized for commercial purposes.

The main attribute of the film is the music, the dancing, and Nikki Blonsky. Hairspray is satisfying entertainment.

Ghost Rider

Based on a comic book series that I've never seen nor heard of, Ghost Rider (2007) is about a young man, Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in return for having his father cured of lung cancer. Both the boy and his father are motorcycle stunt riders, aka Evel Knievel. As soon as the father is cured, he is killed in a bike stunt—the accident is caused by the devil. The devil, played by Peter Fonda, agreed to cure the father of cancer but not to keep him alive. The boy grows up to be a famous stunt rider, played by Nicolas Cage. To avoid honoring the contract with Mephistopheles, who may appear to demand his soul at any time, Blaze executes daring stunts, each more dangerous than the previous one, hoping to be killed before the devil demands his soul. Later in the film we learn that the devil has been present at these stunts to ensure that Blaze survives. There is a rebellious faction of devils led by Blackheart, the son of the head devil. He's attempting to overthrow his father, so he's competing for Blaze's soul too. (For some reason, all of the devils in the film wear long Goth overcoats and heavy eye make-up—is this standard attire in Hell?).

The plot grows increasingly intricate as the movie sludges onward. For instance, the beautiful girl Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes) whom Blaze loved and left behind as a young man appears later in his life to interview him before one of his stunts, and the romance rekindles (no pun intended). There's little to be seen of the famous Cage persona here, but even that could not save this film. Cage is game enough, he occasionally seems to be channeling Elvis in a minor key, but you suspect that he's imagining the paycheck as he mugs his way through scene after scene. (You also think this about Peter Fonda, who may be pleased to be cast in any film). At a key point, when Mephistopheles appears to demand that Blaze find the lost contract, Blaze catches fire and becomes a skull-headed demon motorcyclist. Every time he is in the presence of evil, he catches fire—if and only if it is nighttime. During the day he is his normal self.

There are a few impressive effects in this film, and I enjoyed each time Cage burst into flame. I enjoyed watching him on his fiery motorcycle, especially when he rode it up and down the side of a skyscraper, and also when he rode it over the arch of a bridge. I even enjoyed watching him ride his fiery motorcycle through the desert alongside another ghost rider (Sam O'Neill) on his fiery horse. But these were brief, painfully fleeting moments. At its best, and especially at its worst, which means most of the film, Ghost Rider is simply an acted out parody of the comic book series which, if it is anything like the film, is flat and silly. Nicolas Cage was once a great actor, and may still be, but in Ghost Rider he seems to have flamed out.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Knocked Up

Despite reviews that comment on its warmth and maturity, Knocked Up (2007) is really only a series of Saturday Night Live–type skits. Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl bring some depth and humanity to the story of a heavy-set web-designing geek, Ben Stone, who meets attractive television reporter Alison Scott in a bar one night and who, after a lot of beer and talking, fall into bed together. The next morning he can't believe his good fortune (though he cannot remember much of it either) while she is aghast at the naked man she finds sleeping in her bed. Eight weeks later she discovers she is pregnant and calls Ben up for a discussion. The rest of the film is about how they react and adjust to this unforeseen news. Ben's equally geeky friends (an array of types we've seen in other films—nothing new here) congratulate him on his so-called conquest of Alison. Her friends and relatives including her mother advise her to "take care of it," meaning to have an abortion. After seeing the beating heart of the developing fetus on a sonar gram, she decides to have the baby.

Knocked Up does not preach. Alison's decision to have the child is not presented as a preferred option. Rather it is simply a decision she makes. This is not a right-to-life film. If anything, it is a right to choose film. Once the decision is made to bring the child into the world, however, it is difficult not to see a message in Ben and Alison's struggles to adjust to oncoming parenthood and their very different lifestyles and personalities. One review described the film as "conservative" in its depiction of this couple's situation. While that may not be the right term, the film does suggest that acts engender consequences (in this case living consequences) for which those involved bear responsibility. Is this a conservative position, or simply an obvious one? The relationship that Alison wants with another man—the relationship that she looks for with Stone—is one of fulfillment and happiness. The film contrasts the marriage she hopes for with the unhappy one of her sister and brother-in-law—a marriage of unhappiness, neurotic frustration, and betrayal. This is a common contemporary view of marriage—that it is anything but what it is supposed to be. Yet in this film and in 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), which also shows example after example of frustrated people in desperate search of meaningful connections, director Judd Apatow seems to argue that marriage is actually a possible source of happiness and of mature lasting relationships.

The real issue in this film concerns whether Alison and Ben will decide to adjust to one another, whether the consequence they have produced is a reasonable basis for building a marriage. This is not a romantic question. It's a practical one. Alison and Ben are very unlike each other. They would never have been attracted to each other in normal circumstances. But given the special circumstances of Knocked Up, can they make a life together? Should they?

The humor in this film is on the same level as in 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad (2007--produced by Apatow but directed by Greg Mottola)—not much sophistication but a lot of genuine laughs stemming from jokes about human biology, scatology, sex, stereotypes, class differences, and so on.

Apatow may be a successor to Chris Columbus and John Hughes, who together and separately as producers, writers, and directors idealized white-middle-class family life in a seemingly endless series of films from the 1980s and 1990s. Apatow makes raunchier films, but they are, perhaps, more realistic and even more compassionate in their portrayal of characters in need of what society increasingly seems to say they do not need and should not have.