Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sin Nombre

Imagine traveling hundreds of miles along the length of Mexico, from Chiapas to Texas, on the top of a freight car. I am told that my grandfather, a German immigrant to Canada, rode the tops of freight cars from harvest to harvest during the Great Depression. He lined his clothing with newspaper against the cold. How dangerous, uncomfortable, dirty, hot, wet, and cold this must be is what Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre effectively gets us to feel as it depicts the ordeal of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran girl riding the rails toward Texas with her father and uncle, whose journey becomes entwined with that of Willy/ El Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican fleeing his connections with a ruthless street gang in Chiapas. Willy’s gang is so ruthless that initiation into the gang involves a thirteen-second beating by all the other gang members, and after a captured rival gang member is shot by Willy and a young initiate, the dead man’s guts are fed to the dogs.

In the same way the epic train trek in Doctor Zhivago depicts the cold and filth of the journey for displaced Russian families, Sin Nombre follows the hazards of fortune of desperate emigrants hoping for a better life in the U.S.A. – if they can get there. The film beckons you to experience the grime and discomfort. The journey is marked by curious episodes along the way. As the train passes one slum, children show their sympathy for the travelers by tossing up oranges. Along another stretch, the children throw rocks. When the train passes a mountaintop shrine, the travelers summon the energy to kneel and pray.

Deft, artistic cinematography transform the train into a monstrous entity that has the power to provide death or deliverance. As the seething machine pulls into the station and refugees scramble for places on the tops of the cars, we feel we are witnessing a grand epic. But the epic story ultimately shrinks to focus on Sayra’s miraculous compassion for a young man with a brutal past. Their moments of closeness are touching, but they seem more contrived to provide us with relief than they are believable. As Sayra and Willy head north, evading pursuit by vengeful gang members, Willy’s fate is predictable. Sayra’s fate is simplified and left completely up to our imaginations. Sin Nombre is visceral, shocking, and touching, but the drama is better when the film stays with the desperate vagabonds and the lumbering, unfeeling vehicle of their dubious destinies.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Earth, Predators, and Prey

When it comes to nature documentaries, I definitely prefer the graphic predators-and-prey genre. (The March of the Penguins put me to sleep.) My favorite nature documentary is a National Geographic T.V. episode about the Serengeti. In one sequence, we follow a massive migration of wildebeests. When the wildebeests are forced to ford a swollen river, crocodiles leap out of the water and clamp their jaws onto the nearest meal. The crocs respond to instinct. The wildebeests try to survive the random lottery of death. What a fascinating conflict! The predator’s compelling imperative is as much a part of nature as the instinct that drives flocks of male penguins to protect their mates’ eggs from the cold, and I never feel sorry for the prey. Predators have to eat too!

Hoping for depictions of that compelling imperative, I went to see Earth on Earth Day. In the long tradition of Disney nature films, Earth, narrated by James Earl Jones, is a family-friendly look at the fascinating world of animals and their habitats depicted by means of stunning cinematography. Perhaps too ambitious for its 90-minute length, the film covers the activity in natural habitats ranging from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Along with wonderfully dramatic moments, the film specializes in images of animal multitudes that are beyond belief – the kinds of images we are used to seeing rendered by means of CGI. We see countless birds that blot out the frame and an incredible migration of Cape buffalo, but the most stunning crowd scene depicts a seemingly infinite herd of caribou spread out across the vast tundra.

Earth truly earns its G-rating. It starts off in January with a polar bear mother and her two cubs that awaken from a sleepy winter and “ski” down the powdery slopes. The cubs are like “disobedient” children. Appropriately, the film’s pervading theme is the instinct of the mother to protect its young. In addition to the mother polar bear, we see a mother elephant guiding its baby toward water. In the film’s most touching spectacle, a mother humpback whale keeps in touch with its calf in stormy seas by slapping its flipper on the surface. Of course, the film plays for comedy as well. In the New Guinea jungle, a bird of paradise “scrubs” his “house” in preparation for a “date.” In describing the “partying” antics of the male as it dazzles a possible mate with outlandishly surrealistic plumage, the rich, sober voice of Darth Vader and Mufasa actually loses its dignity for a moment. Another fun scene shows elephants swimming - one of the most incongruous images in the whole world of animal behavior and one of my favorite things to watch - but these images are brief.

Predator and Prey Spoiler Alert:

Then, on the Arctic tundra, a white wolf pursues a baby caribou. How far would this film go to shield us from nature’s imperative of predator and prey? After a long pursuit of doubtful outcome, the wolf finally snags the caribou’s tail. The end is inevitable though we never see the wolf chow down. In another scene, a cheetah pursues a gazelle. It looks like the desperate ungulate is going to give the world’s fastest predator the slip, but it loses its footing and the cheetah is all over its dinner. Then, in slow motion, the cheetah’s mouth travels almost caressingly along the gazelle’s neck until its teeth find the soft throat. In that instant, we cut to another sequence but the point is clear.

I wasn’t disappointed. This was dramatic stuff, leaving the gore up to your imagination. I was later quite pleased with an amazing scene in which forty lions take on a full-grown elephant and another scene in which great white sharks leap out of the water with sea lion flippers sticking out of their mouths – an image dwelt upon in very slow motion. Another episode of nature’s savage struggle is less fortunate for the predator. A starving polar bear that had been caught out on rapidly melting ice tries to get at a walrus pup protected by a phalanx of blubbery adults that use their long white tusks as lethal weapons.

Earth offers a diverse cast of trillions, majestic cinematography, and the mesmerizing drama of nature’s struggle for survival.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Confessions of a Hannah Montana: The Movie Viewer

What took me to see Hannah Montana: The Movie? First of all, I was granted the privilege of seeing it with devoted Miley Cyrus fan and pop-culture expert Jane, my avid movie-going daughter. I also wanted to see it because I like to keep up with pop culture so I can compare notes with the girls in my 8th grade history class. It’s only fair, since they have been open to and very patient with viewings of Citizen Kane and The Third Man as part of our spring-term-long film history unit. Now it was my turn to see a favorite film of theirs. Sort of, uh, the best of both worlds. Fortunately, Jane allowed me to accompany her. (I couldn’t go alone. I needed the cover of taking a daughter. Nobody knew she had seen it already with her friend).

The story is simple. Miley Stewart (Cryus) leads a double life. With her chubby cheeks, puckered lips, and toothy smile crowding a small face, she’s the blonde-wigged pop star Hannah Montana; in secret, she leads a “normal” life as the daughter of country-western singer Robby Ray Stewart (Billy Ray Cyrus). But when Daddy Ray determines that Miley is getting kind of spoiled (fighting over a pair of shoes with Tyra Banks, appearing in a cameo as herself; and demanding a jet to fly her to a concert in NYC), he detours said jet to Tennessee, and Miley, as Hannah, gets off the plane expecting to see screaming teen fans, only to be greeted by the moo of a solitary cow. Yee, ha, and wee, doggies! Miley has been whisked back to her down-home country roots on her grandma’s farm where the good old boys including Rascal Flatts (as himself) pluck away at country tunes on the porch of a night and Taylor Swift (as herself) sings at the local dancehall.

At first, Miley rebels, but then she gets into it, especially when she starts falling for her old first grade crush, Travis (Lucas Till), now a tall, blond, handsome horse wrangler. Indeed, the atmosphere of this film is so family-values-down-home-white-Americana (even though, strangely, the mayor of Lily-white Town is African-American) that you almost expect one of the good old boys on the porch to start plucking out that ominous Deliverance tune.

Despite some very silly and embarrassing scenes, mostly in the beginning of the movie, (including the horrid shoe fight scene), the film develops into a rather entertaining, well-meaning experience that provides genuine laughs and some truly touching moments. Perhaps the film’s greatest drawback is the nagging and inordinate presence of Billy Ray Cyrus, sort of creepy in his cowboy hat, long greasy hair, and lower lip whiskers. Clearly riding on his sixteen-year-old daughter’s incredible fame, he doesn’t have the acting skills to warrant his presence. Miley can actually act, upon occasion, and you may not like her songs (though “Butterfly” and “The Climb” are notably touching), but she’s got a good voice. She emotes believable torment as she is torn between impersonating Hannah and just being Miley – a dilemma that leads to predictable but fun comedy when her personae must appear at two different places at the same time. How her hectic double life causes pain and confusion for a disillusioned fan and Miley's ardent boyfriend is visualized comically and metaphorically as she gets spun around by a revolving doorway, incriminating blonde wig in her hand.

Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana bring a lot of joy to a lot of young people. As a girl in my 8th grade class proclaimed last Friday, “You know, Mr. --, Twilight is to Paula (a Robert Pattinson fanatic) as Hannah Montana is to me.” Remembering the fervent look in her eyes, as I watched very happy little girls guided out of the theater by their mothers and heard Jane singing the closing credits song, it seemed clear that a movie that provides this much happiness has got to be a good thing. I admit it. Miley won me over. She made me laugh and smile; she got me kind of choked up. I feel all glowy. I think I’m going to have to watch The Deer Hunter tonight.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I've Loved You So Long - DVD Introduction

Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) is a touching, quiet film about a woman who suffers extreme inner pain in silence. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Juliette, a woman who is released from a fifteen-year prison sentence and who comes to live with her sister, Lea, whom she hasn’t seen or heard from during those fifteen years. Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), married, with two adopted children, wants nothing more than to bond with her sister and break through the walls of that prison of silence.

The superb performances of Thomas and Zylberstein provide a study in contrasts. Juliette seeks solace in silence. She shyly adjusts to her sister’s household but snaps at one of her nieces when the little girl asks too many questions about her past. She seeks refuge in the book-filled room where Lea’s father-in-law, who has lost his speech to a stroke, spends most of his day reading.

Lea is a sunny day in contrast with Juliette’s gray aura. She is bright-eyed, energetic, and affectionate. She wants nothing more than to get to know and understand the sister she was told to forget for the past fifteen years. She is curious about what has caused her sister’s painful silence. I don’t quite understand why Lea can’t seek out newspaper archives to find out the details of the shocking thing Juliette did to be sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, but her sleuthing and persistence show her empathetic devotion to her older sister. Lea wants nothing more than to have a relationship with the sister whose existence had been removed from her life for fifteen years.

This is a fine film that is never melodramatic or contrived. Scenes are simple and believable – conversations in a café or at a park bench; a visit to a museum and the viewing of a painting called “Pain;” dinners with family and friends that lead to tension and/or revelation. Similarly, the performances are always true – and Zylberstein’s admiring younger sister shines through as a well-developed, finely evoked character as much as Thomas’s suffering Juliette who never gains complete triumph over her pain – only the hope of a quantum of deliverance.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Yellow Sky (1948)

Yellow Sky, directed by William A. Wellman, is a dramatically exquisite black-and-white Western shot in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills of California. It is the kind of Western that makes you feel the heat and dust as well as the sting of bullets ricocheting off granite.

Played out almost entirely in exteriors set in an isolated wilderness of desert and rock, it is a raw tale of greed, redemption, and sexual awakening.

Uncharacteristically dirty and bearded, his lip cracked deeply by dehydration, Gregory Peck plays Stretch, called James Dawson prior to his outlaw days, the tough leader of an outlaw gang that’s been together too long.

Stretch’s leadership is tenuous, always threatened by Dude (Richard Widmark) and Lengthy (John Russell), so he has to be tough. He’ll share water with his horse, but he won’t share it with a gang member stupid enough to fill his canteen with whisky.

After a bank robbery, the gang is pursued by the U.S. cavalry and forced to cross a hellish salt desert. Extreme long shots lose the outlaws in a vast gulf of emptiness between civilization and the desolate ghost town of Yellow Sky.

In Yellow Sky they meet a Winchester-toting young woman named Mike (Anne Baxter) who lives on a ranch outside the town with her Grandpa (James Barton).

But all bets for peaceful coexistence are off when the outlaws learn that Grandpa has been working a bountiful gold strike in the mountain. Sympathetic to Mike, Stretch wants to share the gold. Dude, played by Widmark as a cold, asexual sociopath, only wants the gold. Lengthy could care less about the gold; he just wants a night with Mike.

Baxter plays Mike as a feisty hellion. Raised by Apaches, she’s a sure shot with her Winchester and she can wrestle like a wildcat.

But Mike is torn between the rough exterior she must assume in order to survive and the feminine side within. Her strides are swift and determined, but she is all hips, her tucked-in blouse reveals a shapely waist, and her given name is Constance Mae.

At first, Stretch is a threat as an outlaw. Then he is a threat as an attractive man who shaves, changes his shirt, and hopes to give up his lawless days if he can spend them with Mike.

Stretch’s longing for Mike and a new life, Mike’s sexual awakening, Dude’s monomaniacal greed, and Lengthy’s lust for flesh are powerful forces that come crashing together in a rugged setting. Protagonists and antagonists are framed against a vast pale sky and massive rocks or choked by dark shadows.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Adventureland: A Dose of Reality

After I graduated from college, I blew my money on a trip up to British Columbia to visit friends “in the bush.” Back in Berkeley, with unemployment in California at a record high, I ended up washing dishes by hand and cooking burgers at a diner with the ominous-sounding name of the Terminal Inn. Reality bites.

Sometimes so real it hurts, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is the ironically titled film about that post-graduate time in your life when you learn about the realities of employment and relationships and yourself. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a graduate whose trip to Europe is derailed by family financial difficulties, ends up taking the summer job from hell as a games attendant at Adventureland, a shabby amusement park outside of Pittsburgh, run by a guy named Bobby (Bill Hader) who has no qualms about cheating the games players. The job sucks. James has to deal with asshole customers, vomiting kids, and fellow employees such as his former high school buddy Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who persists in whacking him in the nuts as a joke. Frigo is indeed an asshole. We can probably think of friends we’ve had like that.

But the saving grace for James is that Em Lewin (Kristen Stewart) also works there. She’s been mourning the loss of her mother and has been having an affair with a married man, but James quickly falls in love with her and hopes that she can be the one to help him lose his virginity. Stewart plays Em with the downcast eyes and hesitant articulation that have become her signature style, but her investment in her character evokes Em’s tender vulnerability and her bruised psyche. Along with Eisenberg, she helps build the film’s naturalistic realism.

Adventureland is an enjoyable movie. At the same time, it’s a peculiarly disquieting one. We see the reckless things we do in our 20s: dating, going to parties, smoking dope, getting drunk, smashing Dad’s car into a tree, juxtaposed with some more hurtful behavior involving betrayal and intolerance, and all of this is presented in comparison with images of adulthood that are possible destinies for some of these characters. Em’s stepmother, who moved in on Em’s father while Em’s mother was dying of cancer, is a pretentious bitch, while the father is a passive pushover. James’s father is a private drinker whose bottle, stashed in the car, becomes incriminating evidence pinned on James while his father sits by too afraid to confess.

But James and his friends are responsible for their futures and have to make the decision to move ahead or remain behind. In a touching scene, my favorite, James and his friend Joel (Martin Starr) lounge on a sloping lawn while Frigo, pretending he’s shooting down Vietcong in a war movie, arcs Roman candles into the pale sky above them. It is a spare, memorable image that highlights this pivotal moment in James’s life. He plans to take the risk and seek a heavier dose of reality in the big city. Given what we’ve seen so far, we’re nervous for him.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Top 10 Favorite Film Characters

Taking up the Cooler’s challenge, I offer my Top 10 Favorite Film Characters, picked on the basis of how endearing they are to me and how they have influenced my life and my psyche. It was difficult to hone the list to just ten; I have a number of disappointed characters complaining in the wings. Nevertheless, here it is – presented in order of appearance.

The Lone Prospector (Charlie Chaplin) from The Gold Rush (1925)

Ever resourceful in a teetering cabin or at evading someone who thinks you’re a chicken, ever stoical in the face of boot-eating starvation, ever passionate for the flirtatious Georgia, the Lone Prospector waddles through perilous, hilarious, and touching situations with memorable flair, whimsically oblivious to disaster.

Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) from Rear Window (1954)

She’s so hot when she kisses James Stewart in slow-mo, and I love her clothes. Her debates with Jeffries about lifestyle are priceless. She seems hopelessly tied to her way of life. Then, in party dress, she scales the fire escape and enters the lair of Lars. Wow! And when she points at the evidence on her finger, yeah, dumb, but what a gutsy, sexy thing!

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) from The Searchers (1956)

God, you feel so sorry for him when he rides over the ridge and sees his brother’s ranch in smoldering ruins and he has to look in on Martha’s mutilated body. He’s a classic – a cross between Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab – but beneath his monomaniacal bloodlust, there is a true heart and a sense of humor. “You get the picture. Come on, blankethead.” “That’s grounds for dee-vorce in Texas!” “That’ll be the day.”

Messala (Stephen Boyd) from Ben-Hur (1959)

He’s my favorite villain – the Darth Vader of the Roman epic; he’s gone over to the dark side and has become a fervent Roman conqueror, unabashed about the depradations of his empire. “Barbaric city, but fascinating, or was until we destroyed it. Now it’s nothing but ashes.” Without a qualm, he condemns his innocent best friend and family to horrible fates. Unlike Darth Vader, he is cruel to the end. “Look for them… in the Valley of the Lepers… if you can recognize them.”

Professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) from Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Partly it’s because he reminds me of my father: proper British, doggedly determined, optimistic in the direst of situations, always trying to solve the hopeless problem. “The three notches of Arne Saknussem!” He is so delighted to be lost many miles beneath the earth’s surface. He is always the scientist. “I must have a sample if it’s the last thing I do.” In rags, with no food or equipment, he has one last idea!

Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) from The Great Escape (1963)

Talk about an influential character! I went home and my brothers and I pretended the backyard was the prison camp and we surreptitiously tunneled out of the tool shed. Our bicycles were our motorcycles. We had gone too far when we tied string across the street in imitation of Hilts’s motorcycle trap. He can make hootch out of potatoes; he’s the cooler king; he’s a great American hero.

Pasha Antipov aka Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay) from Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Strelnikov made me want to be a Russian revolutionist. I loved his intensity. You can see it in his fierce eyes under those wire-rimmed glasses and in the livid scar he got from a cavalryman’s saber. “The personal life is dead.” If your cause is more important than your wife, and your wife is Julie Christie, you are one cold, zealous Bolshie!

Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) from True Grit (1969)

She won’t rest “till Tom Cheney is barking in hell.” She can talk down the crusty Rooster Cogburn. “You sorry piece of trash.” Undaunted, she rides little Blackie across the river when Cogburn takes over the ferry. Bitten by a rattlesnake, her arm broken, she’s still a possessive little tightwad. “I want Papa’s gold piece.” She’s a tough little bitch, judgmental to the end. “You’re too old and fat to be jumping fences.”

Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) from The Edge (1997)

He’s rich. He has a supermodel for a wife. He reads a lot of books. What’s more important, he’s a survivor. Lost in the wilds of Alaska with Bob Green, the man who covets his wife and wealth, Charles turns into the ultimate Survivor contestant as he exhorts Bob to keep alive. “Did you know that you can make fire out of ice?” Bart the Bear is Charles’s biggest challenge, but he can do it. “Today… I’m gonna kill the motherfucker.”

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from There Will Be Blood (2007)

This is one tough dude. He breaks his leg in a mine shaft, discovers silver, and crawls the whole way to the assayer’s office. He makes his fortune on oil. “If I say that I am an oil man, it’s true.” He wants to blot out all competition, makes his millions, and go somewhere “away from all these… people.” He can’t stand Eli. “It’s called drainage!” He’s an always compelling, hard-driven enigma.