Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) takes up where The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) left off, with a similar group of characters (differently named) and many of the same actors. It's another Wes Anderson story about a lovably depressive and dysfunctional family. The father died in an accident a year before the story begins. The mother has retreated to a monastery on a mountain top in India. Three brothers—Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman—haven't spoken since the funeral. They unite for a "spiritual journey" that will eventually take them to their mother. They leave a moody sister back home. Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and others from the Tenenbaums film make appearances here. Adrian Brody also appears as one of the brothers.

Much of the film takes place on a train making its slow and painful way across the Indian landscape. We spend a lot of time watching the brothers interact in their train compartment and outside the train as well. Francis , who organized the trip, is the controlling brother who passes out agendas for their trip. He tells his brothers where to sleep, asks to keep their passports, suggests what they may say and do. They chafe against his low-key controlling nature.

A lot of nothing happens. If you need a firmly defined plot, if you expect characters who confront specific challenges and difficulties, this film won't work for you. If you're comfortable with slowly developing scenes in which three unexpressive and off-kilter characters spend a lot of time walking around, saying a few words, smoking cigarettes or chugging cough syrup, having vague disagreements, bumping into one another, then this film will work.

The plot, such as it is, is considerably less obvious than it was in Tenenbaums or in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). For me, the lack of a plot, the formlessness, is the film's charm. It's difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional group of individuals than these three brothers. It's difficult to imagine their surviving in the real world. Yet we identify with them. Their dysfunctional natures are ones we connect with our own.

A key moment comes when the brothers see three boys on a raft use a rope to try to pull their way across a river. Their raft overturns and the boys fall in the water. The three brothers spring into action, each of them going after one of the struggling boys. Two of the boys are rescued, but one is swept away and killed. The brothers take the surviving boys and their dead brother to their home village. They take part in the funeral for the dead boy. This experience somehow becomes the basis of a transformation, though it is difficult to see exactly what the transformation is.

The brothers at last reach a kind of understanding with one another when they meet their mother at the mountain retreat. The conclusion of this film is similar to that in The Life Aquatic. You know something has happened, but you're not exactly sure what. In The Life Aquatic, Zissou has lost his son and in what amounts to a communal mourning he and his crew take their submarine deep into the ocean in search of the fabled jaguar shark. Their encounter with the shark is a kind of emotional resolution. In Darjeeling perhaps it is the young boy's death, and the brothers' participation in his funeral, that prepares them for their reunion with their mother, but the focus of the film's conclusion is vague, and you know only that the film is approaching an end because in some indefinable way it feels that way. The presence of a man-eating tiger nearby may also be involved, though we never encounter it. We only hear about it.

India provides an unconventional backdrop. The problems the brothers have with one another have little to do with the setting. But India provides an unusual kind of visual and cultural counterpoint to the self-absorbed brothers. They make little notice of the people and countryside around them. One of them has a brief encounter with a hostess in her compartment. Another has difficulties with the conductor, who finally throws the brothers off the train. He's especially upset when he discovers that one of them is carrying with him a poisonous snake—for reasons never explained. He forbids them to smoke on the train, and they keep ignoring him.

The death of the boy in the river is a tragic, disturbing moment. But the film underplays the episode in a flat, unsentimental, almost cinematically comatose way. We can tell only that the boy's father is grief-stricken. One might argue that the inexpressive reaction of the brothers constitutes in itself some kind of reaction. Or one might argue that their self-absorption is merely that—self-absorption, cultural narcissism, beyond which they cannot see.

I enjoyed this film, but Anderson has carried his lovable, dysfunctional families about as far as they can go.

Monday, October 27, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) moves along with the steady pace of a metronome. You know what's coming every step of the way, no surprises, no revelations, just one stunt and effect and clue after another. This sequel features virtually all the same characters played by the same actors
as its predecessor National Treasure (2004). Both films are heavily influenced by the faux-thriller The Da Vinci Code and any number of much better films and novels of the 20th century that use paranoid conspiracy narratives. The main character Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) is told that his grandfather, whom he had long believed a patriot of the Civil War, was involved in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. Determined to vindicate family history, he sets out to discover the truth. He discovers a secret Confederate cabal that plotted the assassination and planned to start a second civil war funded with treasures hidden away in the deep recesses of Mt. Rushmore. Somehow the Masons are involved. The treasure consists of golden relics and Mayan temples somehow transported from Central America to South Dakota. Oh, and there's also a book of secrets, passed down from one president to the next, containing the truth about all the mysteries you ever wanted to know the truth of—flying saucers and Roswell, NM, Kennedy's assassination, etc. This film has the credibility of a third-rate comic book. The mystery behind the conspiracy unravels in a complicated and arbitrary way as Gates deciphers clues and puzzles and inscriptions—one of them on the desk of the president in the Oval Office of the White House. Gates even has to kidnap the President, briefly, who doesn't seem to mind. Everyone here seems to be going through the motions, even Ed Harris, who somehow made his way into the story as the villain. It's as if history itself isn't enough, and it's necessary to invent stories about Masonic conspiracies and hidden clues and hidden treasure. It's easy to sleep through long stretches of this film, rousing occasionally to check on the action, missing nothing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Civilization: A New History of the Western World

Civilization: A New History of the Western World (2006) by Roger Osborne is a 500-page tour de force account of human history in the western hemisphere. Osborne regards his story not as a series of separate episodes but rather as a continuous narrative. There are obvious highpoints, here and there—the Roman Empire, for instance—but Osborne gives an impressively full account. A pervasive theme is the tendency of western nations to attempt to impose themselves—their values and cultures—on nations they conquer or influence. This tendency accounts for the success of many western states and at the same time explains such atrocities as the murder of native inhabitants of the two American continents and the extermination of Jews and others prior to and during the Second World War.

This well written book covers not merely political and military developments but cultural and artistic ones as well.

Among the more interesting arguments advanced by Osborne are his contentions that the middle ages were never really dark at all but a period of significant human activity. Only in the last half of the medieval period do we find reason for any of the notions associated with the so-called Dark Ages. He also suggests that western civilization is primarily a Germanic affair, not a Greco-Roman one. Osborne's account of the history and influence of the Christian church, and of the influence of philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Hegel, Kant, and others on the evolution of the Western mind, are particularly interesting.

As he moves towards the present day, Osborne's account becomes increasingly grim. With its rationalist tendency towards self-justifications, with the rise of modern capitalism and the nationalist ideologies that fueled it, the West in his eyes seems bound towards some future apocalyptic moment of self-immolation, a moment somewhere just beyond Osborne's grasp, which at last comes to rest as he approaches the present moment.

Under Osborne's gaze, under the gaze of any historian taking such a broad and comprehensive view, history seems not so much a human story as a relentless natural force in which the lives and fates of millions of individuals seem to matter not much at all. Great leaders rule for a time and then pass from the scene. Nations rise and fall. Multitudes are born and live their lives and die. Under this force, the notion that individuals can have a role in determining the course of events seems fatuous.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Incest, bloody fights, hangings, sex, rape, whippings, miscarriage, alcohol, prostitutes, a man boiled alive, sexual repression, adultery, slave rebellion, depravity, decadence, cruelty, racism, decaying old mansions, mint juleps.

Mandingo (1975) is the obverse of Gone with the Wind (1939). In one Southern plantation family it embeds the whole of the institution of slavery, both as it was and as people believe it was. Mandingo serves as antidote to decades of films that extol the virtues of the Old South and ignore the dark realities of slavery. Yet as a portrait of history, it is no more reliable and accurate than the views it seeks to correct. The real intent of Mandingo is not corrective. It is prurient, sensationalist, and exploitative. Within a two-hour span, it manages to include every fact and myth imaginable about slavery and the Old South. Who knows what to believe when this film is over?

Mandingo presents a world in which plantation owners regard slaves as animals without souls. They discuss slaves as they would discuss sheep or cattle. They talk about how to breed slaves—the woman are called "breeders." Slave children are "suckers." They execute slaves who run away too often and poison those too old to work. The white male owners exercise total control over the lives and bodies of slaves. They have sex with the women whenever they like, and in fact Hammond's father (played by James Mason) explains to a young slave girl that she should feel honored to have her first sexual experience with her owner's son: "It's Master's duty to pleasure the wenches first time!" Men have "bed wenches" who give them the kind of sex their white wives are supposedly too frail and innocent to offer. Yet white women are shown as sexually repressed too.

Falconhurst is the plantation where much of the film occurs. It is located in Louisiana, somewhere between Memphis and New Orleans. Compared to other plantations, it's a pretty run-down affair, and perhaps this is supposed to imply that the Maxwells are an exception to the mythic Southern rule of leisure and gentility and beauty. Mrs. Maxwell died years before, and the place has lacked a mistress as a result. The implication is that when a new young mistress comes on the scene, she will motivate Hammond and his father to fix the place up. To do that, they will need money, and to get money they will have to sell slaves, which they never hesitate to do.

Hammond Maxwell, the son at Falconhurst, the plantation in this film, has a game leg. He is portrayed as a kind exception to the norm among slave owners. He dislikes the mistreatment of slaves. He truly loves the slave girl Blanche who becomes his "bed wench" after he buys her in New Orleans. He tells her that she will always belong to him, that no one can take her away from him. He promises that when their child grows up he will set him free. He disapproves when his cousin spanks the slave girl he has been given by a host to spend the night with. He treasures and respects Mede, the husky male slave he buys in New Orleans and who proves to be a vigorous fighter. He doesn't like to see families broken up at slave auctions. Despite all these exceptions, Hammond believes in slavery, is upset when he discovers that one of the house slaves can read, happily leads slaves off to be sold in Memphis, is enraged to the point of madness when he discovers that his wife has had sex with and become pregnant by Mede (she does this to get revenge on her husband and his bed-wench), whom he does not hesitate to murder.

Not surprisingly, slaves in the film lead a double-life. They have no choice but to accept the sexual exploitation the women suffer. They are subservient in front of whites, and more assertive, more "normal" among themselves. Out of hearing of the whites, they argue with each other as to how subservient they should be. Moke in particular is accused of trying to ingratiate himself to Hammond for his willing participation in arranged fights. He is accused by another slave, the rebellious Cicero, of turning against his "black brother." On the other hand, no one blames Blanche for loving Hammond. The movie doesn't explicitly address the fact that she has no choice but to submit to him. He tells her that he will leave her alone if that is what she wants--she responds that she wants to give him pleasure. That Hammond doesn't want to force Blanche to have sex does not mitigate the fact that as her owner he can do with her as he likes—he has the power, whether or not he uses it.

Mandingo pays much attention to racial and sexual double standards among white characters. Hammond becomes upset on his wedding night when he discovers that his wife has already had sex—she is not a virgin (at the age of 13, she later tells him, she had sex with her brother). Yet Hammond himself has been having sex with black women for years. He tells his wife, before they have sex for the first time, that he does not know how to behave with a white woman—he has only been with black women. His father has warned him that white women don't like sex and won't do for their husbands what black women are willing to do. (Black women are invariably referred to as "wenches.") In the world of Mandingo, it is accepted and expected that white men will have sex with prostitutes and with black women, that black women will have sex with the white men who own them, but that white women will have sex (infrequently) only with their husbands and only after marriage. Hammond's father tells him that he will need his "bed wench" after he marries because the black woman will relieve the white wife of having to "submit." White women, of course, cannot have sex with black men.

The primary white woman in the film is Blanche, Hammond's cousin, whom his father more or less arranges for him to marry. Once he discovers she is not a virgin, he wants nothing to do with her. She grows increasingly frustrated, especially as he continues to spend time with Blanche. At one point, while Hammond is away, she whips Blanche and pushes her down the stairs, resulting in the loss of the child Blanche is carrying. Ultimately, she forces Mede to have sex with her by telling him that if he refuses she will tell Hammond that he raped her. This is her way of getting revenge on Hammond.

At the end of the film, Hammond is forced to confront the fact that whether or not he has been a less abusive and oppressive slave master than others, he is still a slave master and capable of committing all the atrocities the role implies. Just before Hammond shoots him, Mede tells him, "I thought you was better than the white man, Masta. But you is just white!"    

One problem with this film (among the many) is historical accuracy. I do not doubt that in the abstract everything this film argues about slavery is true—that it places white owners in a position of total control over the slaves they owned. Slaves had no freedom, no control over their own lives. Many were mistreated and suffered horribly. Many slave owners took advantage of their position and had sex with and children by their female slaves. There is no doubt that slavery dehumanized both the owners and the enslaved. But did all slave-owners--or even most of them--behave as the Maxwells behave in this film? Is there any evidence that slave owners openly bragged about their relationships and offspring with slave women? Would their wives have tolerated such discussion? Would gentlemanly rules of decorum have permitted such discussion? We have ample historical evidence to document that many slave owners did sleep with their slaves, including the DNA evidence that shows Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemming, whom he may or may not have loved, and who may or may not have loved him. But Jefferson left no written comments on this relationship. There is ample evidence of such relationships throughout the slave-owning South. But to what extent is Mandingo a representative portrait of the peculiar institution? And how many white women in the 1840s—the wives of plantation owners—would try to seduce male slaves? There is certainly no evidence this was a common occurrence. Once again, when a film attempts to portray history or to correct inaccurate portrayals of history, should there be an obligation to portray fact? Or should filmmakers have license to give any version of events they want, in order to serve a particular political bias or to satisfy the sensationalist desires of their audience? Any discussion of the weaknesses and flaws in this film—the excessive melodrama, the unremarkable plot, the poor acting—must include the issue of historical inauthenticity.

Mandingo is beautifully filmed. The music is written by Maurice Jarré. The music is particularly tender in the scenes between Blanche and Hammond, suggesting that what we are seeing is a romantic relationship between two lovers--an oversimplification and distortion of the true situation. Music and visual beauty simply contribute to the overall distortions that the film presents.

The Neon Bible

The Neon Bible (1995), loosely based on a novel written by John Kennedy Toole when he was 16 years old, is a stagey, doleful, impressionistic account of a young boy's life in a torn and eccentric family in the early 1940s. If Toole is in any sense identifiable with the young protagonist of the story, then perhaps we can infer that the novel and film tell us something about the nature of his life with his own mother. But that is speculation at best.

Placed in Georgia (the credits say it was filmed on location in Madison, Crawfordville, and Atlanta), the film is contrived and artificial. It lacks life, has little to say, other than implying that life in the 1940s South was repressive. We see the boy's father (played by an unrecognizable Dennis Leary) take him to a lynching. There are several scenes involving church and revival services where the emphasis falls on sin and hellfire damnation. In one voiceover that accompanies a scene of people sitting in church, the protagonist explains that in his town you had to be like everyone else or you had to leave town—there was no alternative. The film's title is perhaps suggests the repressive atmosphere of the world in which the boy grew up.

The scenes seem to shift back and forth in time, to some extent, although the overall movement of the narrative is chronologically forward. Ostensibly, the film focuses on the arrival in the family of Aunt Mae, the older sister of the boy's mother. She is played by Gene Rowlands, who is too old for the part, but who nonetheless plays it well. Mae is a singer and performer who left the stage for reasons unspecified. She spends much of the film reminiscing about her days on the stage and the men who courted her. As the boy's mother sinks deeper and deeper into mental illness, Mae is the boy's confidante and companion. Her departure towards the end of the film traps him, since his mother has to be watched on a 24-hour basis, forcing him to quit his job as a drugstore clerk.

There are some contrived set pieces in the film, one at a revival service and another at a World War II-era fundraiser where Mae sings. There are scenes in which the camera lingers for long seconds and perhaps minutes on random images—for instance, the dark, cavernous entrance to the tent where a revival is taking place. These scenes suggest the impact of the past, of the boy's memories, perhaps, but they add to the awkward, pretentious character of the film. They seem purposeless. They take up time rather than move the film forward or somehow enhance the portrayal of a character or the evocation of a mood,.

The film is slow and melodramatic. The boy's parents argue and fight. His father doesn't want Aunt Mae in the house. They have no money. We watch the mother gradually lose her mind—we see several scenes of her suffering, mainly evinced by her tendency to cry at revivals and public gatherings. Does she go mad because of a repressive family life, because of her husband's death in the war, because of competition with the more outgoing Mae? The movie doesn't suggest a reason—it simply illustrates. The boy makes tentative but unsuccessful attempts to be friends with girls. Finally, when Mae announces she is leaving to take what she hopes will be a job in Nashville, the boy is trapped. He returns home from the train station where he has told Mae goodbye to find his mother collapsed and bleeding on the upper store of their house. Instead of calling for a doctor, he drags her into the bedroom and puts her on a bed, where he lovingly embraces her while she goes about dying. Is this intentional, his failure to seek medical help? In the novel, the boy kills his mother. In the film, after the mother dies and while he is burying her, a local preacher arrives to cart his mother off to the mental asylum. The boy kills him with a shot gun.

The whole film is told retrospectively, as the boy sits in a train car riding towards an undetermined destination. He looks out an empty dark window and remembers the scenes that the film dramatizes. To my knowledge, this film was never released in wide distribution. The New York Times review describes the film's British director Terence Davies as "a gifted cinematic poet whose semi-autobiographical films 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' and 'The Long Day Closes' present a child's-eye view of growing up in Liverpool in the late 1940s and 50s, Davies uses film like Proust's madeleine to recapture the past. Storytelling is wound around a montage of images and songs that have a mystical personal resonance." The same method seems evident here, but for whatever reason—the fact that Davies is not working with his own life, the tentativeness of the novel, his own unfamiliarity with the setting of the story, it doesn't work.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Story of Temple Drake

The Story of Temple Drake (1933) takes the dark Southern Gothic of William Faulkner's 1931 novel Sanctuary and transmutes it into a 1930s gangster story. Faulkner's novel itself is not "Southern" in a conventional sense. There is the small Southern town in which Temple Drake and other characters reside, and there is Lee Goodwin's home, the "Old Frenchman's" plantation house, which the film portrays as half-collapsed and wholly decayed. In the novel, the South provides a background against which the characters move and talk. But the novel's story of physical and moral corruption is no more dependent on the Southern setting than it would be dependent on New York if it were set there, or on Los Angeles, or Chicago. The Southern setting helps explain certain mannerisms and accents of the characters, and it provides a sordid context for the motley crew of characters who hover in and around Lee Goodwin's house. One could argue that the Old Frenchman's place is the novel's symbol of a decadent and vanished Old South. Finally, the South in the novel with its tradition of vigilante justice and of privilege for the wealthy and disadvantage for the poor helps explain the horrific conclusion of the novel.

The film gives us a few Southern accents, mixed in with Chicago and British accents. Some black servants and the house where Lee Godwin's crew lives alert us to the Southern setting. But the film is not really about the South.

In a number of ways the film replicates important aspects of the novel. Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) remains a central point of interest, as do Lee Goodwin and his wife Ruby Lamar. The film changes Popeye's name to Trigger, and Horace Benbow becomes Stephen Benbow, a former spurned flame of Temple's. Temple's dangerous flirting personality, the way she entrances men with the offer and then the refusal of her sexuality, is largely present in the film. (Made before the advent of the Production Code, the film's frank treatment of sexuality, even if by implication and innuendo, is still surprising). We can glimpse the trappings of Faulkner's novel, even if ultimately we realize there is only slight substance behind them.

Sanctuary is about the moral and physical corruption of its characters, specifically of Horace Benbow, Temple Drake, and others. Its story is unrelentingly despairing and pessimistic, and it savagely destroys most of its characters. Horace himself is complex, self-deceived, and unlikeable. His attraction to beautiful women, his fascination with the sexuality of women, is a motivating force in his defense of Lee Goodwin (whose wife Ruby he wants, just as he wants his wife's daughter, even as he wants his sister). This is a frequently seen character type in Faulkner—the deluded male who thinks he is doing good when in fact what he is doing is trying to steal another man's wife). In the film, Benbow is a young lawyer attempting to do the right thing. He is earnest and moral and lacks any fixation on young women at all. Faulkner's novel is also about the corrupting force of female sexuality—a force that corrupts men as well as women. Temple is the prime agent of this force. She is a flirtatious flapper, a vacuous Southern belle who flaunts beauty and sex and who once she experiences sex through her brutal experience of rape cannot have enough of it. She is Faulkner's paragon example of a woman corrupted by her own sexuality. Faulkner's treatment of female sexuality is complex and multilayered. Sanctuary is one of the novels critics turn to in order to label Faulkner a misogynist.

The Story of Temple Drake is about a woman redeemed. The film seems to agree with the novel that Temple's reckless and flirtatious behavior placed her in the way of rapists like Trigger, and it suggests as well that she enjoys what happens to her. Even before the rape, she tells Stephen Benbow that there is an evil side to her—she seems to imply that she is incapable of virtue. This is the film's way of suggesting her nymphomania, her inability to be satisfied with any one man. For this reason, she suggests to Stephen, she rejects his proposal of marriage, even though she claims to like and even to love him. So Temple in the film is possessed of a moral self-awareness not allowed her character in the novel. The film provides Temple with a number of opportunities to redeem herself, each of which she seizes. The first comes when Stephen barges into the room where Trigger is staying with Temple at Miss Reba's whore house. Stephen is shocked to find her there and assumes she is a prisoner. But Temple, who knows that Trigger is ready to shoot Stephen, lies and tells him she is there willingly. Shortly after Stephen leaves, she prepares to abandon Trigger, and when he stands in her way, striking her and telling her that he is not through with her, she shoots him. This is her second opportunity for redemption. And her third is when she testifies on the witness stand in Lee Goodwin's trial that she saw Trigger kill Tommy, revealing in the process that she was raped and that she killed Trigger. This moment of personal and social disgrace is her final act of self-redemption. She saves Goodwin at the cost of her own reputation. She then collapses. As Stephen carries her out of the courtroom, he turns to her grandfather Judge Drake and tells him that "You should be proud of her. I know I am." The film ends.

This hackneyed and corny cinematic ending contrasts markedly with the triple conclusion of the novel—Lee Goodwin's lynching, Popeye's hanging, and Temple's grim appearance in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. It's difficult to think of a grimmer, more disturbing, more apt conclusion for any American novel than this one.

The film captures the shock value of the novel but ignores or fails to understand the reasons for the shock—the moral hollowness of the characters and of their world. Sanctuary condemns its world, while The Story of Temple Drake confirms that in the world it portrays virtue always wins out.

Both Sanctuary and The Story of Temple Drake seem to be premised on the notion that small Southern towns are threatened by the invasion of big-city evils—gangsters, sex, crime, violence—though it is well worth pointing out that those menaces were really there to begin with, just hidden away, unacknowledged, called by other names.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Be Kind, Rewind

"Be Kind, Rewind" is the name of the video store in Passaic, NJ, where this eponymously named 2008 film is set. The store specializes in tapes, not DVDs, and business is not booming. When the owner goes to attend an anniversary commemoration of the death of his idol Fats Waller, he leaves his assistant Mike (Mos Def) in charge. A whacked out mechanic named Jerry (Jack Black) who lives in a trailer nearby convinces Mike to help him sabotage the local power plant. When their plot goes awry, Jerry is magnetized, and the next time he walks into the video store, his magnetism erases all the tapes. In a panic, and with customers demanding to rent tapes, Jerry and Mike decide to make and rent their own versions of the erased films. Their films, which they refer to as "sweded" versions of the originals, become a hit with the store's clientele.

This highly improbable plot is the center of the highly improbable comedy, which is made in as loose and casual and even careless way as the sweded films of Jerry and Mike. It doesn't try to be realistic or adhere to rules of logic—it simply takes the idea and runs with it. It's like an extended skit in a high school play. Everyone in the film is eccentric. The store owner, played by Danny Glover, who looks as if he is playing the same character he played in The Royal Tenenbaums, has convinced Mike (whom he apparently raised) that the store is located in the birthplace of Fats Waller. He never tells Mike the truth because he doesn't want to disappoint him. Jerry is a conspiracy-paranoiac who sleeps in an aluminum foil helmet to avoid radiation from the nearby power plant. Customers who patronize the video store haven't yet switched over to DVDs—they're clinging to the obsolescent format of the past. Developers want to raze the decrepit building where the video store is located and build condos in its place. Mia Farrow appears in the film as a woman who can't tell the difference between the real film Ghostbusters and the version that Mike and Jerry make on their own and rent to her. Everything and everyone in the film is threatened with obsolescence.

Be Kind Rewind pays homage to the American romance with films, and with the American obsession with celebrity and fame. It shows characters trying to rise above the quiet and desperate anonymity of their lives. In their final sweded film, the only one they make up on their own, Mike and Jerry produce a film biography of Fats Waller. They enlist all the customers who patronize the store as actors and crew.

In the end, Be Kind Rewind can't quite pull off the trick that it plays. But it's an entertaining and charming effort.

Sigourney Weaver appears in a bit role as a Hollywood lawyer who accuses Mike and Jerry of copyright infringement. She is, of course, one of the stars of the Ghostbusters films.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Invasion

There have been so many remakes of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers that perhaps we should declare a new genre: body snatcher remakes. This new one, The Invasion (2007), features Nicole Kidman as Carol Bennell, a psychiatrist who becomes suspicious when patients start claiming that their husbands or wives aren't who they used to be. She enlists the aid of a friend, Ben Driscoll, played by Daniel Craige, and of some scientists who are investigating the phenomenon of people who believe their loved ones have been replaced by cold and emotionless simulacra.

Of the various remakes I've seen, this is the weakest. It borrows from the other versions, especially the 1956 and 1978 models, and these borrowings are really the only reasons why this movie works much at all. It offers nothing new, except for a different kind of conclusion, one that hardly improves on any of the predecessors.

This "invasion" is an infection by intelligent microorganisms brought back to earth by a space shuttle that disintegrates during reentry—for reasons never entirely clear we're told that those aboard intentionally caused the shuttle to crash. The scenes of the shuttle disaster are uncomfortably close to those of the 2003 Columbia tragedy. (I am not one to complain about bad taste, especially in the cause of a good film or book, but in this case I have no such defense.) The disaster leaves a 300-mile swatch of contagion across the continent, and the infection spreads.

In the earlier films, alien forces infected the bodies of humans and caused pods to begin growing that gradually came to maturity and replaced the bodies of the poor souls infected. The mechanism here isn't so clear. Infected people chase down the uninfected and vomit contagion on them. The intelligent germs take hold and begin growing. The agent takes over when the infected person goes to sleep. But whether pods or alternative bodies are involved is hard to tell. At one point Kidman's character finds some bodies growing in a closet, but whether they belong to people already infected, or whether they will replace the victims' bodies, isn't clear.

There are some astounding logical leaps in this film. Number one among them is the declaration by one of the scientists, fairly early in the film, that, based on scanty evidence, he's convinced that intelligent alien microorganisms are taking over the world. And the ease with which the scientists find a cure for the alien pestilence is equally hard to swallow. Most astounding and fortuitous of all is the source of the serum used to develop the cure.

Everything in this film is predictable. We have scenes of paranoia and of frightened people and of menace and horror. But these scenes come straight from the earlier films—they're updated here, but without any freshness. It's convenient that everyone concerned about the invasion succeeds (or nearly so) in escaping infection. By the end of the film they've discovered an antidote that not only immunizes the uninfected but reverses the infection in those who already have it. This is a feel-good body snatcher film!

In the other films, the endings were dark and pessimistic—with a few survivors lost amongst the multitudes of those whose bodies have been untimely snatched away. There was a wondrous and dismal pessimism to these endings. The best among them, the 1956 version, ends with the main character screaming hysterically about the alien takeover, but no one believes him. In this film, we have a happy ending. It made me want to vomit—no, not that way.