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How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
Promised a goofy black comedy, we get instead a pedantic treatise on men's lib
At one point in "How to Murder Your Wife," a doctor explains to the unhappily married Jack Lemmon that a pill he subscribes is perfectly harmless unless taken with alcohol. Mixed with liquor, it makes a person engage in strange behaviors before collapsing on the floor. Appropriately enough, the people who made this movie--including, incredibly, George Axelrod, the screenwriter for "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's"--must have slipped such a pill into their own drink before working on the film.
I mean it. Quite a few movies from the mid- to late-'60s were like this, showing the influence of, shall we say, something a bit more stimulating than the average pharmaceutical. And while this movie may not be as far out as "Magical Mystery Tour," it doesn't look like the work of a mind that was totally sober. The plot is absurdly illogical in an almost dreamlike fashion, and although it is presented as a comedy, it thinks it has stumbled upon deep truths about the war between the sexes.
Lemmon stars as a popular cartoonist who has performers play out the story-lines he devises, after which he uses photos from the act to help him draw his comic strip, a serialized adventure. This is an intriguing idea, and the scenes involving the design of his strip are the best parts of the film. I wish they had been attached to a movie that maintained this level of creativity throughout.
Lemmon wakes up one morning in bed with a beautiful Italian woman (Virna Lisi) and discovers that in a drunken stupor at a bachelor party the previous night, they had gotten married to each other. This is not exactly an original plot device, but it's something that normally comes at the end of a movie, as a kind of cinematic punchline. It makes for a weak opener, because it's a situation that should be easy to resolve. The lengths to which the characters go to avoid doing the obvious is a wonder to behold. The film is heavy on Idiot Plot--the problem that would go away instantly if the characters weren't idiots--and it continues well beyond the initial setup, all the way to the inane courtroom scene at the climax.
First, there's Lemmon's lawyer friend (Eddie Mayehoff) who is apparently the only lawyer alive in New York. How do we know? Well, for one thing, the mansion-dwelling Lemmon never once considers fishing for a new lawyer, despite the fact that this one is a cartoonishly inept milquetoast kept on a leash by his domineering wife. For another, in the course of the movie he will serve as different types of lawyers, of which criminal defense attorney is only the last.
Terry-Thomas, who narrates the early scenes, plays Lemmon's butler/manservant/photographer. Fearing that the marriage will upset their gay relationship (in the "happy" sense...perhaps), he threatens to quit if Lemmon doesn't have the marriage annulled, which of course is exactly what Lemmon wants to do but finds himself strangely unable to. This is where the film begins to get surreal and dreamlike, as Lemmon can't accomplish what should be an amazingly simple task because all the other characters keep talking loudly over him and not listening to what he has to say except to misunderstand it.
The filmmakers must have gotten so hung up on the central premise--a cartoonist thinking up ways to murder his wife--that they didn't bother to come up with a plausible path to get there. Logic and common sense get thrown to the wind so that the Lemmon character can dream up a murder scenario for a situation with several perfectly sensible alternatives.
I have to admit I expected the murder plot to be more fun. I imagined some elaborate Rube Goldberg scheme (this is a cartoonist, after all), or perhaps a series of plans that keep going wrong. Evidently, it's just not that type of comedy. It seems to promise a colorful outcome with its "gloppita-gloppita" machine shown in the first scene. Though crucial, the machine plays a smaller role than we might expect from a movie titled "How to Murder Your Wife." The film has other ambitions, and they come off heavy-handed and insulting.
Apart from its flaws as a comedy and its far-fetched plot, what really got to me was the film's shameless misogyny. It develops as its principal theme a sort of bizarro reverse feminism, calling for the men in American society to rise up and assert themselves against the women who have enslaved them in unhappy marriages. And this isn't just some self-consciously ironic attempt to turn women's lib on its head: the movie seems at least half-serious on this point. It attacks women's traditional roles not out of sympathy for the women, who are depicted as mindless but malevolent creatures, but to give the men the freedom to pursue their ambitions, such as hanging out with their buddies at their all-male clubs, in peace.
I'm used to seeing older movies with sentiments that now look a bit dated, but I wasn't sure what to make of this one. It came out at a time when many of the old gender stereotypes in Hollywood were breaking down. If the film was intended as a backlash, it's a pretty lame one. I don't know whether the weird scene in the courtroom at the end was supposed to be funny or inspiring, but it succeeds at being neither of those things, and it leaves us with a peculiar feeling of discomfort.
The 10th Kingdom (2000)
An entertaining, somewhat grownup take on bedtime stories
Hallmark's miniseries "The 10th Kingdom" is not based on any book, and given the staleness of so many fantasy adaptations, that may be a good thing. But it is reminiscent of a range of novels, the kind where modern big-city dwellers find themselves thrust into a preindustrial and typically magical setting. It's a genre that has rarely been done well on screen and is usually the domain of outright camp like "Army of Darkness" (not that there's anything wrong with that). Yet here it is, a straightforward epic fantasy in this tradition, and it doesn't embarrass itself.
About a decade after its original airing, which I missed, I picked up the DVD intrigued but not excited, impressed by the big names in the cast but hardly expecting anything more than a reasonably competent production--at best. I remembered the unhappy experience of Sci-Fi Channel's "Legend of Earthsea," which not even Danny Glover and Isabella Rossellini could save from sheer awfulness. I also remembered Hallmark's solid if unmemorable "Gulliver's Travels" with Ted Danson. I assumed that was the best these sorts of projects usually got. Halfway through "The 10th Kingdom" I was hooked, realizing I had never seen a TV fantasy serial this good before, and savoring every moment.
It begins in the realm of "the nine kingdoms," where an evil queen (Dianne Wiest) plots to take over by transforming the king-to-be (Daniel Lapane) into a golden retriever. The Dog Prince escapes by jumping into a magic mirror, which turns out to be a portal to present-day Manhattan, and crashes into a young waitress (Kimberly Williams) riding her bike through Central Park. At first she thinks it is a stray, until she starts noticing its rather un-canine behavior, such as tracing messages in spilled flour. The queen sends three trolls and a wolfman named Wolf (Scott Cohen) after them. The Wolf sells the waitress's dad (John Laroquette) a magical bean in return for the address of her grandmother's apartment where the girl is headed. If you think you can guess what happens next, you're probably only partly right. Here as in elsewhere, the miniseries follows the fairy-tale conventions only to subvert them.
I was a little uncertain about these early scenes, especially those involving the dim-witted trolls who seemed to have stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon. They tromp through New York, or what they call "the tenth kingdom," calling each other "you idiot" and puzzling over such sorcerous objects as cars, boomboxes, and elevators. But the series picks up pace when the waitress and her dad, accompanied by the Dog Prince, enter the alternate world, where the classic tales of Grimm exist as historical events from a couple of centuries before. "Happy ever after didn't last as long as we'd hoped," the Dog Prince sullenly observes. The Wolf, appearing at first as a sort of Jim Carrey-esque comical villain, soon makes a hilarious and scarcely believable transformation into a fascinating character who dominates the whole story. Meanwhile, the queen sends a menacing Huntsman (Rutger Hauer) to track the group down, wielding an enchanted crossbow guaranteed to kill a living being every time it is fired.
The miniseries cruises through these events with a confidence in tone that screen fantasies often fail to achieve. It strikes a balance between seriousness and silliness, creating an involving and often funny adventure that grows in complexity as the protagonists traverse the different kingdoms. Some elements are more or less predictable, such as the way the mirror that will lead them home always manages to stay just beyond their reach. But the story has a couple of real surprises along the way, and as the Wolf character becomes the focus of attention, we realize we don't want the girl and her father to return home just yet; what's happening in this realm is more compelling.
Among the funniest scenes are their encounters with a blind, demented woodsman, a singing ring, and a trippy swamp with talking mushrooms swaying to "A Whiter Shade of Pale." We meet a few fairy-tale celebrities including a zaftig Snow White (Camryn Manheim) and a 200-year-old Cinderella (Ann-Margret), but most of the time the miniseries settles for more indirect references, such as a logical question that somehow never crops up in most tellings of "Rapunzel."
But "The 10th Kingdom" is not a "Shrek"-style parody. For one thing, while it isn't anywhere near as dark a subversion of fairy tales as "Pan's Labyrinth" or Terry Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm," much of it seems aimed at adults, despite its being labeled in many places (including the DVD cover) as a family film. (That may be one reason for its poor ratings: people were unsure who the intended audience was.) For another, it takes the fantasy part seriously. It vividly imagines the nine kingdoms with their own history and rules, and although many of the elements will be familiar to those well-versed in the fantasy genre, they frequently come with a twist. (Even something as obvious as the werewolf legend is handled in an interesting manner, emphasizing the psychological over the physical.) As usual, the magic never works quite as well as it is advertised: it's unreliable, or unpredictable, or dangerously addictive.
With high production values and a supporting cast full of British character actors, "The 10th Kingdom" has the mark of quality. But it wouldn't have amounted to much if the story weren't compelling. There are several things that make it work: a warm, natural chemistry between Laroquette, Williams, and Cohen, as the father, the daughter, and the enigmatic Wolf; two juicy villain performances by Wiest and Hauer; and a continual inventiveness on the part of the filmmakers, who seem to have put much thought into the subject of fairy tales, but who didn't let their hard work stop them from taking many risks with the material, making the story a lot more fun than it had to be.
Well, the fans asked for it, and they got it
Ever since the release of the first Harry Potter movie in 2001, I've wondered how a TV miniseries of the books would have fared. The movies so far have had difficulties showing enough of the books' events within a reasonable time slot to keep the story flowing. They've all had to omit significant plot points, which has not only disappointed the more literal-minded fans but risked the integrity of the story. This was most painfully evident in the fifth movie, "Order of the Phoenix," which awkwardly attempted to fit the longest Potter book into just 2 hours and 15 minutes of film. The result was a movie that felt choppy and barely coherent, almost dreamlike. The two best films up to now--the third and the sixth--worked in part because they took the most risks, often departing substantially from the narrative of the books, to the consternation of many fans. I was not one of the fans complaining, because I figured that as long as it wasn't a miniseries, the best approach was to interpret the story rather than present the events exactly as they appeared in the books.
Dividing the seventh book into two movies has given a taste of what a miniseries might have been like. "Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is a more faithful adaptation than any of the previous films. This surprised me a little, because the portion of Book Seven it covers is actually longer than the entirety of some of the earlier books. (As I was rereading it a few months ago, I correctly guessed where they'd end Part 1--it's at an important turning point in the story that occurs close to the two-thirds mark.) Most of the film's sequences are exactly as I had envisioned them, and sometimes better than I had envisioned them. I especially liked its approach to the Riddle-Hermione scene, to the matter of protective enchantments around their camp (which is handled with a nice dose of spookiness), and to a spell that distorts a character's face. Apart from the oversimplification of a few plot details here and there, any flaws in the story come straight from the book. The two-and-half-hour movie drags at some points, but then so did the book, particularly in the forest scenes. The plot concerns Voldemort's takeover of the wizarding world and pursuit of Harry, who goes into hiding with Ron and Hermione but repeatedly endangers them and himself in his daunting efforts to find and destroy a set of objects that keep Voldemort immortal, aided only by a few enigmatic clues Dumbledore has left him.
It is not a very accessible film for non-fans. People who haven't read or seen any of the previous installments will probably be lost. It never once pauses to explain the Harry Potter universe or anything about the background to these tumultuous events, not even a prologue like the one that began the third of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films. The good news is that it doesn't condescend to the audience. The bad news is that if you don't know or can't remember things like what a horcrux is or what happens when you point a wand at someone and say "Obliviate," you might have trouble following the story.
As a fan, however, I loved it. It's just well-filmed, and I had notably fewer complaints about acting and special effects than I had for the previous movies. The CGI is relatively unobtrusive, and there aren't too many fake-looking moments. (The house-elves look especially good this time.) Ralph Fiennes finally appears to have settled into the role of Voldemort, after having delivered somewhat phoned-in performances previously. The kids, who get to dominate more scenes than in any of the other films, when their presence was counterbalanced by a plethora of seasoned British performers who are mostly absent here, have really grown into their roles. They were well-cast from the start and always had a certain raw talent, but early in the series they possessed some of the amateur qualities common to young actors. They have become increasingly proficient as the series has progressed (which I suspect was what the studio intended when it eschewed the tradition of casting older actors in child roles). Here they display the kind of camaraderie that can only be developed gradually, after having acted together in several films, and it makes the scenes that deal with their relationship feel natural and unforced.
I actually look forward to seeing the movie again at some point, just so I can sit back and take in more of the details. I think I didn't appreciate it enough the first time, distracted as I was by my knowledge of what happens in the book and the lack of any significant divergence in the film's depiction. There is not a lot in this film that will surprise fans; the enjoyment comes from seeing how vividly it is all brought to life.
A great Harry Potter movie for fans, if not fanboys
A reviewer for the Washington Post described "Half-Blood Prince" as a Harry Potter movie for non-fans. As a Harry Potter fan myself, I not only loved this film but thought it was one of the best of the Potter movies, rivaled only by the third, "Prisoner of Azkaban," directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The reviewer was confusing fans with fanboys. Of all the movies, this one is probably the least faithful to the source material. It eliminates large sections, makes subtle changes to what it does show, and includes one violent sequence that sharply contradicts the book. Fanboys (who are not, I should mention, all male) are deeply bothered by this, because they want the movies simply to replicate the events of the books on screen. Of course that would be impossible, unless each film was at least five hours long. The best they can hope for is what director Chris Columbus did with the first two films, stuffing as many events as he could manage into two-and-half-hour slots.
I, as a fan and non-fanboy, want the movies to bring the story to life, and to do that, sometimes it is necessary to depart from the literal narrative of the books. I want a movie that can stand alone and be judged on its own terms, without depending on prior knowledge of the book. In one particularly awkward moment from the previous film, "Order of the Phoenix," a character references the code names from the Marauder's Map, a plot point that had never been mentioned before in the films. Those who haven't read the books will have no idea what the character is talking about.
"Half-Blood Prince" is actually my least favorite of the books. It has an ungainly plot, it feels transitional, and it ends with a shocking but infuriatingly ambiguous climax. There is relatively little action, much of the plot centering on meetings between Harry and Dumbledore, in which the two enter the pensieve--a magical item that lets them relive various people's memories. In this book, they are attempting to piece together the dark wizard Voldemort's past to figure out a way to defeat him.
Dumbledore has hired a new Potions teacher named Slughorn who once taught at Hogwarts when Voldemort was a student. Dumbledore wants Harry to befriend the man so that he will divulge information he has been hiding. This task may be easier than it sounds, for Harry gets hold of a Potions textbook with notes, mysteriously attributed to the "Half-Blood Prince," that make him a star pupil in Slughorn's class. Meanwhile, Harry suspects Draco Malfoy and Snape of secretly working for Voldemort and plotting against Dumbledore. But Dumbledore trusts Snape completely and refuses to listen to Harry's warnings.
The book also deals with Harry's budding love life. Harry begins to find himself attracted to Ron's sister Ginny (who had a crush on Harry when she was younger). There's just one problem: Rowling never bothers to give Ginny a personality. I almost got the sense that Harry courts her because he wants to marry into the Weasley family. I would have preferred to see Harry hook up with a better-developed character, such as the flaky Luna Lovegood.
The movie follows this basic plot outline, but excludes many of the details. We don't get to see, for example, the memories of Voldemort's ancestors, an excursion in the book that answers some questions but hardly advances the plot. We do get to see Voldemort as a child, played wonderfully by an 11-year-old actor named Hero Fiennes-Tiffin. But the movie is not all plot; it remembers to put in the small moments that bring the characters to life: the conversations between the kids, and their interactions with beloved characters like Professor McGonagall and Hagrid (who gets a funny little scene involving the recently deceased giant spider from the second film).
A few subtle changes work nicely. While the movie is unable to make Ginny into a more compelling character, it gives her a greater role in certain crucial events. As in the book, Ron gets a girlfriend and makes Hermione jealous, but the movie has a well-conceived scene in the hospital ward that satisfyingly addresses this tension. The book depicts two apparently unrelated incidents involving the appalling combination of an invisibility cloak and a "body-bind" curse. The second time it happens, it seems like dramatic overkill. The film finds a better way to handle it.
The acting and visuals are nearly perfect, making this the first Harry Potter movie with no overacting (though I continue to be underwhelmed by Michael Gambon's Dumbledore) or phony special effects (though Robbie Coltrane still does not make a convincing giant). I reserve particular praise for Rupert Grint, as Ron. I always thought he was the least impressive of the three main kids. Here, he's terrific, especially in a scene where he becomes enspelled. Also noteworthy is Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy; there are many effective scenes where the camera pans over his face and we sense the inner conflict in his character. The eminent Jim Broadbent, as the movie's guest star, brilliantly captures the personality, if not the appearance, of the flutter-brained Slughorn.
At 153 minutes, the film is continuously compelling as well as entertaining, despite the introspective tone and scattershot events. Nobody is more surprised than I am, for the director is David Yates, whose previous venture into the series, "Order of the Phoenix," was by far the worst Harry Potter movie. The pacing was choppy, and the direction of crucial scenes was amateurish and clichéd. I was disappointed when I first learned that Yates was chosen to direct the remaining films in the series. Here, he has redeemed himself, and with it my confidence that the movies will continue to do justice to Rowling's books.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Perfecting Baum's vision
A book I was once reading referred to Frank Baum's use of a dream as a narrative device--revealing the author's ignorance that Baum's novel depicted Oz as a real place, not a dream. The idea that it was a dream was an innovation of the 1939 movie. I'm always amazed at how many people haven't read the novel and make mistakes like that. It's one of the most popular and enduring stories of modern times, yet it's remembered mostly through the 1939 film.
Ironically, Baum disliked the "It was all a dream" convention in literature. I agree with him. It's a convention that usually seems contrived. "Wizard of Oz," however, is a a rare example of a film that makes it work. One of the movie's secrets, I believe, is that it keeps the idea in the background most of the time and doesn't dwell on it. Dorothy's Oz experience is far too coherent and stable to plausibly represent a dream. It isn't like "Alice in Wonderland," a meditation on absurdity. Since it's adapted from a straightforward fantasy, the events are impossible but not absurd, magical but not nonsensical.
That's why it works so well. Too many filmmakers today think they have to present dreams as, well, dreamlike, full of weird and disconnected imagery. That may be realistic, but it doesn't make for good storytelling. As a result, movies about dreams usually range from turkeys like the John Candy comedy "Delirious" to bizarre tours de force like Richard Linklater's "Waking Life." Few movies treat the subject in a nonchalant, offhand fashion, the way "Wizard of Oz" did.
Granted, occasional scenes in the 1939 film do feel a little dreamlike. There is, for example, the "lions, tigers, and bears" sequence, where as soon as Dorothy thinks a frightening thought, it immediately happens. Then there's the scene where Dorothy can't remember why Scarecrow and Tin Man, both versions of workers from her Kansas farm, seem so familiar to her. Fortunately, however, the movie avoids anything strange or off-the-wall. We can take the story at face value even as our knowledge that it's a dream gives it an added psychological dimension.
The Oz sequences are broadly faithful to the book, though they do not include some of Dorothy's later adventures. Partly as a result of this trimming, the movie feels less episodic and more focused, with a certain depth the book lacked. Glinda, a composite of two relatively minor characters from the book, has a godlike, deus ex machina quality here, and there's a sense that she is watching over Dorothy the whole time. By placing Dorothy's final confrontations with the Wicked Witch and the Wizard near the end of the story rather than the middle, the film draws greater attention to their significance.
Most important, the movie creates a whole new storyline for the Kansas section. All these early scenes--Dorothy's feeling unloved by her caretakers, Dorothy's hanging out with the three farmhands, Dorothy's attempting to rescue her dog Toto from the ghastly Miss Gulch--were invented for the film. Yet they provide the setup for Dorothy's Oz experience, where she will meet versions of the people she knew in Kansas. This not only fleshes Dorothy out as a character, but adds meaning to the Oz sequences. She yearns to be taken away to a faraway land, only to discover that once she's there she faces simply a fanciful version of the problems she was running away from at home.
The book, in contrast, gave hardly any detail about Dorothy's Kansas life. Baum's Dorothy was consequently a more passive character, victim to circumstances beyond her control, and her journey to Oz was merely a random, insane event with no bearing on anything other than that it made for an entertaining tale. The movie gave her a will and purpose that Baum's protagonist never had. When she mournfully longs to be sent home, it resonates more strongly than in the book because we know the real cause of her separation wasn't the tornado but her own actions.
Adapting the book to the screen thus involved a bundle of wise decisions, made all the more impressive because when you read about what was happening behind the scenes, you're struck by how much could have gone wrong. The film went through no fewer than five directors. Judy Garland was first told to play Dorothy with a blonde wig and baby-doll makeup. "Over the Rainbow" was almost cut from the film. Margaret Hamilton suffered severe burns from a scene where she disappears in a cloud of smoke, the original actor to play Tin Man had to quit when his face paint made him ill, and the dog playing Toto had to be replaced after an actor stepped on the animal. These stories, which have been part of Hollywood lore for many decades, make the filming of "Wizard of Oz" sound more like a comedy routine than the creation of a classic.
As an expensive, high-tech production for its time, the movie could easily have lost sight of its spirit, as so many big-budget spectacles today do. Instead, it not only remained true to Baum's vision but infused it with additional layers of meaning that speak to people of all ages, in all generations. If you've never read the book, I encourage you to do so, if for no other reason than to gain a greater appreciation for what the movie accomplished.
Lady in the Water (2006)
A good Giamatti performance can't save a flat and convoluted story
Shyamalan has had his ups and downs as a filmmaker, but all his previous films have been dependable in at least one sense: no matter how confusing they became, they always ended up revolving around a simple idea. "Lady in the Water" breaks that pattern, featuring a convoluted story that piles one arbitrary development upon another until finally losing any semblance of a coherent structure. The premise involves a youthful sea nymph who becomes trapped in the human world and must make her way back to her realm (which the film unwisely calls "the Blue World"), avoiding a wolf-like creature that stands in her path. She falls into the life of a lonely middle-aged superintendent (Paul Giamatti) by appearing one night in his swimming pool, stark naked. Any disturbing sexual overtones are kept in the background. This is a bedtime story, after all.
She is a "narf," the wolf-thing is a "scrunt," and she must wait for an eagle called the "Great Eatlon" before she can return home. Each of the apartment tenants has a specific role to play in the process. If any of this sounds bewildering, the movie does little to clear up the confusion. The film's rather forced attempts at allegory--such as naming the sea nymph "Story"--only further prevent this magical world from coming alive. It's just a tangle of exotic names and arbitrary rules.
Giamatti learns most of these details from an Asian woman who, due to some unexplained connection, knows a fairy tale describing Story's predicament. The woman speaks no English, however, and can communicate with Giamatti only through her daughter. This contrived plot device serves one purpose only, and that is to keep Giamatti from learning the necessary details all at once.
Ever since Shyamalan's film "The Sixth Sense" came out, I've heard occasional detractors complain that they figured out the main plot secret early on. My response is, well, good for you. That only shows that the secret was well-planted. (Or that these people are good liars who don't want to admit they were fooled.) Good plot twists always rest on sound logic, giving the audience an opportunity to anticipate them even if they are cleverly concealed. "Lady in the Water" is unpredictable in a bad way, surprising us without rhyme or reason--and that's ironic considering the movie's message about there being a purpose in everything.
Shyamalan is a religious man. He believes strongly that the universe is not random, and he uses this belief as an excuse for lazy storytelling, plugging in plot coincidences that are supposed to seem foreordained but which instead seem unconvincing because we're conscious of how he's manipulating the events. To put it another way: You can't prove God's existence by proving the storyteller's existence.
I've seen other movies handle the topic of cosmic coincidence more believably than he does. His problem, present in "Wide Awake" and "Signs" as well as this film, is that he so fervently wants the audience to see meaning in the events that he doesn't allow for any other interpretation, and this limits his possibilities. He's one of the few Hollywood filmmakers willing to tackle the subject of religion and faith, but I wish he took a less dogmatic approach.
The movie has another serious problem. All fantasies set in the contemporary world have to deal with the fact that people today do not generally believe in the supernatural. In most movies of this sort, the protagonist can scarcely believe what's happening, and all the other characters think he's crazy. That's not the only way of handling this plot convention, but "Lady in the Water" doesn't bother handling it at all. Giamatti never doubts that Story is a sea nymph, and the apartment tenants believe what he's saying almost immediately. None of the characters react the way we'd expect from ordinary human beings in such circumstances.
The most absurd character, by far, is a film critic played Bob Balaban, brought into the movie for some rather unsubtle digs at that profession. His presence leads eventually to a "Scream"-inspired moment of self-referential horror, designed to provide humor at a point when we're least expecting it, but managing to shatter the movie's already shaky sense of reality. If Charlie Kaufman's "Adapatation" represents the best that the self-referential genre has given us, "Lady in the Water" falls well at the bottom. It shows how awkward this conceit can become if handled clumsily.
Giamatti is a fine actor, and the core of sympathy he brings to his character makes the film watchable even as the events around him become increasingly ludicrous. His performance is all the more remarkable when you consider that his character is underwritten. He has some terrible experiences in his past (paralleling those of the Mel Gibson character in "Signs"), but he never feels fleshed out.
Bryce Dallas Howard, as the sea nymph, disappointed me, especially after her promising turn in "The Village." In that film, her clipped and stilted speech was part of the faux-nineteenth-century effect that the movie wanted to evoke. Here it's out of place, and it makes her character distant and hard to relate to, which is fatal to her relationship with Giamatti.
Shyamalan still does a good job creating mood and atmosphere in many scenes. But the film is plagued by so many flaws that I'm not sure it ever could have worked. The storyline is intrinsically artificial and contrived, and he doesn't build up enough of a human base that we can overlook this fact.
An adaptation that cannot stand on its own
It's been years since I wrote the following words in my user comment for the first Harry Potter movie: "I enjoyed this movie immensely. But...I'll never know how I'd have reacted had I seen this movie without having read the books." By now, I must admit that the movie has held up well over all those years. It is a superior fantasy, despite my reservations about Chris Columbus's directorial style.
Unfortunately, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is not likely to hold up well in the future. It has precisely the problem that I worried the first film would have: it seems designed for those who have already read the book. Those who haven't will be confused out of their mind. Necessary plot connections are left out, and the relevance of certain material is never explained. One pivotal scene even references a particular character's code name from the Marauder's Map, something that has never been mentioned before in the movie series and which will make no sense at all to non-readers. And yet, as a reader, I did enjoy the film. I once called the first Harry Potter movie a "preview of the book," but this one fits that description much more.
Part of the problem is not the movie itself, but the gradual decline of the books. In "Order of the Phoenix," the series lost much of its sense of fun as it got bogged down in the ongoing story. It contained a few elements I really liked, amidst pages of matters I found unappealing. What held it together was a wonderfully horrible villainess, Professor Umbridge, who functions as a satire of England's educational system. Even as an American, I can relate to the criticism of schoolteachers who favor theory over practice, preferring textbook assignments to practical skill-building. In the Harry Potter universe, that leaves the students in mortal peril, keeping them from learning the skills they need to protect themselves against Voldemort, the super-villain whom Umbridge, a puppet of the magical government, denies has returned. Harry creates a secret club to teach students how to defend themselves. All the while, Umbridge inflicts a reign of terror on the school, with harsh and sometimes painful punishments for anyone--student and teacher alike--who steps out of line.
At 870 pages, it is the longest Harry Potter book, and I believe it should have been cut down. The manner in which Harry languishes through the ordeal becomes monotonous, with long sections in which not much happens. By contrast, the movie is the shortest in the series so far, less than 2 hours and 15 minutes if you don't count the credits. I expected this condensation to benefit the film, but instead it makes the whole proceedings choppy. Just a few minutes of extra screen time could have substantially improved the coherence. It gives me a greater appreciation for how the third movie--still by far the best one--achieved the paradoxical effect of streamlining the story while seeming richer and fuller in some ways.
I have never heard of the director, David Yates, and I don't understand why he's already been chosen to direct the next Harry Potter film. The series has already had two skillful directors, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell, each brought on for just one film. Maybe Harry Potter directors face the same Catch-22 as James Bond actors, namely that anyone good enough for the job has better things to do in their career.
Yates makes a mixed impression at best. He gives the film some of the most unoriginal imagery the series has yet seen, drawing upon old horror movie conventions as Harry is haunted by dreams and visions of Voldemort. The technical credits show some lack of continuity with the previous films. A couple of creatures look different, and John Williams' charming score has been inexplicably replaced by a more generic one.
On the bright side, the performances are mostly quite good. Familiar cast members like Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, and Gary Oldman continue to bring warmth and style to their roles. Daniel Radcliffe maintains his natural, understated performance that goes well with the introspective tone of the story. Actors I have not admired as much, such as Rupert Grint as Harry's friend Ron, and Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, seem to have improved significantly. There are also some impressive newcomers to the series: Evanna Lynch as the flaky Luna Lovegood, Helena Bonham Carter as the Wicked Witch-like Bellatrix Lestrange, and Imelda Staunton, who seems to provide a perfect embodiment of the short and shrill Umbridge. The weakest link is Ralph Fiennes, whom I suspect spent no more than a day filming his scenes as Voldemort. He seems to disappear into the makeup, making me wonder what was the point of bringing such an esteemed actor to this role.
The movie has some nice touches that weren't in the book, such as Umbridge's office being lined with moving photographs of meowing cats (I suspect that Yates is a cat lover, like myself) and Filch crowding the walls with Umbridge's inquisitorial decrees. But my favorite scene from the book--Dumbledore's hilarious exit--is truncated here and considerably less effective. Other crucial scenes seem to have no purpose except for setting up what is to come in the later films. Overall, this is the worst Harry Potter adaptation to date.
Cloak & Dagger (1984)
Hitchcock for kids
It's quite an experience watching a movie that you haven't seen since childhood. Your memories of the film are filtered through an innocent perspective you no longer possess, and as you watch the film again you're struck by how different it looks to you now, even as the memories flood back.
Some of my favorite films from childhood, like "The Neverending Story," have not stood up well as I've grown older. Others, I've found, have been enhanced by my adult perspective. "Cloak & Dagger" falls in the latter category. Interestingly, my overall opinion of the film has not changed. Back in 1984, I perceived it as a good but not great film. I still perceive it that way.
At age seven, I enjoyed how the movie blurred the line between fantasy and reality. That's one of the techniques that make for good children's movies, the recognition that a child's fantasy life can feel as real as anything else happening around him. And movies in which the child's fantasies literally come true seem like vindication to young viewers.
Henry Thomas of "E.T." fame plays a youngster mourning his mother's death by escaping into a fantasy world of adventure games. He has an imaginary friend called Jack Flack, a suave super-spy with a passing resemblance to the boy's father (Dabney Coleman, in a wonderful dual role). The father, a hardened Air Force pilot, loves his son but wants him to grow up, telling him that real heroes are those who put food on the table, not those who go around shooting people. That may seem a harsh thing to say to a child, but the boy does appear to be having psychological problems, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality even though he's old enough to know the difference. So when he witnesses the actual murder of an FBI agent, who slips him a video game cartridge right before dying, the boy is the last person anyone will believe. He knows the murderers will be after him next, but how will he get his dad to believe him soon enough to stay home from work the next day?
What's nice about the film is the seamless way it combines the conventions of adult thrillers and children's adventures. The child as the murder witness whom no one will believe is a setup that would have made Hitchcock proud. I'm sure the filmmakers realized the connection, for there are many nods to Hitchcock, including a visual allusion to "Vertigo" as the murder victim plummets down a long stairway, and a plot that combines elements of "Rear Window" and "North by Northwest." Like the latter, the movie greatly exploits its locale. Viewers who have been to San Antonio will recognize many of the places, including the River Walk, the setting for a unique chase scene.
Then there is the MacGuffin of the "Cloak & Dagger" cartridge itself, a special copy containing information important to the bad guys (whom the kid perceives to be spies, but who may simply be mobsters). The Atari game looks quite primitive today, and the scenes in which the boy calls upon his geek friend (William Forsythe) to crack the code will probably not impress those who take interest in computer espionage. But that hardly matters. The filmmakers understand, as Hitchcock did, that the MacGuffin is there only to move the plot along, and is not independently important.
As the boy evades the villains, Jack Flack keeps appearing and giving him kernels of advice. Although we realize that Flack won't say anything the boy doesn't already know, he helps the boy keep his calm and use his ingenuity to defeat some dangerous men, while gradually learning he doesn't need an imaginary friend. This isn't like "Home Alone" where the villains are portrayed as cartoon idiots. The movie takes its relatively uncomplicated plot seriously and manages to make some sense, without feeling manufactured. While it doesn't pretend to be realistic, it does grow out of the basic truth that adults don't take kids as seriously as they should.
The movie also confirms, once again, that Henry Thomas was one of the best child actors of all time. A lesser actor could have easily sunk this movie, as indeed Christina Nigra, playing the girl next door, almost does. She is cute, but can't act to save her life. Thomas never feels like he's acting, and as a result we almost can believe in the absurd events even when we watch the movie as adults, long having set aside our own childhood fantasies.
A wonderfully authentic portrayal of Hasidic Jews, but also a compelling story in its own right
"Ushpizin" surpassed even my high expectations. I had heard it described by friends and family as one of the few movies ever to portray Hasidic Jews in a completely sympathetic and non-patronizing light. But it's so much more than that. What surprised me most was that it possesses some psychological depth. It's the type of film where you keep going back and reexamining character motives, gaining new insight with each viewing.
The story involves a rehabilitated criminal named Moshe (Shuli Rand) who has become a Breslover Hasid living in the Old City of Jerusalem. As the film begins, the Sukkot holiday is approaching, and he doesn't have enough money to prepare for it, having been passed over for a stipend. His wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) has not conceived after five years of marriage. He implores God to help them out, in what may be the most intense depiction of prayer I have ever seen in a movie. Then things start to happen. In a random act of charity (a common practice among Orthodox Jews), someone slips a thousand dollars under his door while only Malli is home. Out in the street, Moshe bumps into Ben Baruch, a sort of village idiot, who claims to have found Moshe a free Sukkah (the ceremonial hut that religious Jews eat and sleep in during the week-long holiday). What Moshe does not know is that the Sukkah was stolen from a neighbor.
Moshe and Malli think that their prayers have been answered. But the gifts are only the start of their problems. A pair of escaped convicts from Moshe's past life show up at his door, surprised at the direction he has taken in life. While not entirely comfortable, he invites them to stay with him for the duration of the holiday, according to a tradition to have ushpizin, or guests, on Sukkot. Meanwhile, he uses some of the money to purchase a very expensive etrog, or citron, the lemon-like fruit used for ritual purposes on the holiday.
The elements of this story fit well with Jewish teachings, including a tradition of stories stretching back to the Bible itself, involving people who are tested by being sent difficult guests. God, in this scheme, listens to prayers but is not a wish-maker. Every "miracle" is only the beginning of new challenges.
But "Ushpizin" is not just a simple religious fable. It has surprising layers of depth. This is partly due to director Giddi Dar, a secular Jew who interprets the story on a psychological level. Nothing overtly supernatural happens in the film. The religious motif depends on finding meaning in a series of apparent coincidences, all skillfully woven into the story in a way that never feels contrived.
The funny thing about character development is how crucial it is to most fiction, yet how rare it is in real life. People are usually set in their ways. Bad habits, such as a fiery temper, die hard. Criminals do get rehabilitated, often by religious communities, but a cynic might suggest that such individuals are simply channeling their aggression in a new direction. There's probably some truth to that assumption. "Ushpizin" recognizes these issues, amid its upbeat tone. What Moshe must ultimately learn is that he can't escape his past until he's truly confronted his own weaknesses. Morality comes not just from caring. It requires some level of struggle.
The production values of this complex yet entertaining tale are nicely high. Every shot has the mark of quality. A scene where several characters become drunk (possibly the basis for the movie's very mild PG rating) is portrayed with a subtly wobbling camera. The acting is strong all around, but the most astonishing performance comes from Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, a former theater director who never acted before this film. She took the role in accordance with her religious modesty standards, so that no one but Shuli Rand's actual wife would play his wife. With her intensely expressive face, she steals the film.
The character she plays is a tower of strength, which may come as a surprise to those people who imagine Hasidic women as weak and passive. The movie tears down negative stereotypes without ever seeming to try. It doesn't come off as the type of movie that's trying to prove anything. It is informative without being pedantic. And it is an amazing accomplishment from so many directions.
Eight Below (2006)
Good technical achievement, artificial storytelling
"Eight Below" gave me a clue why I tend to dislike animal movies even though I love animals in real life. Like most movies of its kind, it makes the animals seem a bit too much like people. That misses the point of what drives us animal lovers.
The beginning of the film, sort of a prologue, concerns a professor (Bruce Greenwood) searching for a meteorite in Antarctica. He is guided by a scientist (Paul Walker) with a team of sled dogs, as a storm approaches. It is almost obligatory in a movie like this for there to be a sequence where a character falls into the ice. Here we get two such sequences in a row, the second a lot more interesting than the first. It is the second that provides the movie's best line: "Don't tread water! Grab onto the ice! You'll freeze to death slower than drowning!" The manner in which the rescue takes place makes the film momentarily seem like "MacGyver on Ice."
When the research team gets evacuated, they're forced to leave the dogs behind because the plane has only enough room for the people. That begins the main section of the film, where the dogs fend for themselves for months, while the human characters try to get back to Antarctica but experience some setbacks. This story is based loosely on real events, portrayed in an earlier Japanese movie. Nobody knows how the real dogs survived on their own in the icy wilderness, and so both films are largely speculative. "Eight Below" offers little insight, however, instead taking the easy route and showing the dogs acting like human beings.
There's a scene, for example, where the dogs are stalking a flock of birds that always fly just out of their reach. The dogs then huddle together like members of a football team and devise a complex strategy which I doubt even the smartest dog in the real world would be capable of planning. I'm not saying that dogs are too stupid to pull such a thing off. As Stephen Jay Gould once put it in his foreword to a "Far Side" gallery, "Animals have intelligence different from ours; they are not just primitive models of our achievements." That's the kind of insight that's missing from "Eight Below." It doesn't attempt to explore how the dogs might have survived by behaving like dogs, even though such an approach would have been more enlightening.
Worse still, the adventures of the dogs are constantly intercut by the boring exchanges of the human characters on their way back to the base. Walker is the moral center who really loves the dogs, Greenwood (a dead ringer for Sam Neill) is the foolhardy explorer, Jason Biggs tries unsuccessfully to provide comic relief as the team's goofball, and Moon Bloodgood is there for a romantic subplot with Walker. There isn't much passion in any of these relationships; they exist to fill space whenever the movie wants us to take a breather from the dog scenes.
The technical direction of the dogs is impressive, making me wish there was a special award for this sort of thing. Not only are the eight dogs easy to tell apart (even a pair of identical twins are distinguished by a scar), each one has a different personality. Through their body movements and the tones of their barks and whimpers, we always understand what the dog characters are supposed to be thinking. But it's basically a story of people in dog suits.
I suppose that we all anthropomorphize animals to some degree. It's part of how we're able to relate to them on any level. But for me at least, there should be an element of mystery, a sense of encountering a mind very different from our own. That's the area where "Eight Below" sorely fails. But then, that may explain why I like cats more than dogs.