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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ratcatcher

I'm not sure who said it, but there's a maxim that goes, "If you can understand what's going on with a movie with the sound off, then it works." Of course that can't be said of every movie--it certainly wouldn't work with My Dinner With Andre--but it works with Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsays' bleak but beautiful film from 1999.

Set in Glasgow during a garbage strike, there's little that's pretty in Ratcatcher. But there are moments of thrilling visual poetry, such as the opening scene, in which a boy wraps himself in a lace curtain. His mother scolds him and the curtain twists back into shape. Later, that boy will go out to play with another boy by a polluted canal. They will get into some playful fisticuffs and the first boy will drown.

The boy that lives is James, the focus of the story. Ramsay has started the film with a switcheroo, focusing on one boy and then shifting to another, which makes the audience a little precarious from then on. But the film does settle on James and his family. He has two sisters, one older and already using makeup, and one younger, who is a sweet little thing who loves Tom Jones (I'm not sure when the film is set--Wikipedia says the '70s). His parents are haggard; his dad is a hard drinker, his mother kind of just gets through the day. They are waiting for housing that will take them out of the slum and into a new development, where the land borders a field that stretches to the horizon.

James doesn't talk much. He hangs with a quartet of older boys, who are up to no good. They tease and have their way with the local easy girl (Leanne Mullen). She and James strike up a sweet, innocent romance. There's an astonishingly good scene in which the two--he's about 12, she's perhaps 15--take a bath together, but there's nothing sexual about it. Later James will run away from home and go to her flat, and he will climb into bed with her, fully clothed.

Ramsay's script is brilliant in how it manages certain themes. One of them is, as the title suggests, rodents. The garbage piles up around the neighborhood, where the kids sit on the bags as if they bean-bag chairs. This brings in rats, and the boys make a game of trying to kill them, and then carry them around by the tail as if they were trophies. But a little white mouse counters the image of the rats. He's Snowball, and he belongs to Kenny, James' neighbor, who's a bit off and has a thing for animals. James tells him that Snowball can fly to the moon, so Kenny ties his pet to a helium-filled balloon and lets him go, calling after him, "Goodbye, Snowball." We then get a fantasy sequence of Snowball making it to the moon, which is crawling with white mice. It doesn't seem like this sort of scene would work in a realistic social drama, but it does.

The other major theme is the dirty canal, which takes a life in the first act and will try to take more as the film goes on. As the Mississippi was representative of life in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this toxic canal is a symbol of death in Ratcatcher. People speak of it as if it were the bogeyman, but the children play next to it, just the same.

Ratcatcher uses mostly amateur actors, especially in the kids' roles. William Eadie is kind of amazing as James, and has a quality that only a nonprofessional can bring. You can tell this kid wasn't brought up in tap dancing school. He's mostly still throughout the film, but there's a kind of world-weariness/serenity combo in his face that catches your breath.

Ramsay has only made three features (this was her first). I've seen Morvern Callar, which was okay, and haven't yet seen We Have to Talk About Kevin, but Ratcatcher is an outstanding work.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Umpire Strikes Back

It's been over 24 hours since the Supreme Court handed down it's opinion in National Federation of Businesses v. Sibelius, or the verdict on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. I'm still a little giddy about it, and couldn't get to sleep until 3 in the morning. Yes, I'm a dork.

There has been little reason for progressives to be excited about this court, which has seemed to be as partisan as Congress. I'm convinced Antonin Scalia makes his decisions based on politics, then works his way to an opinion to suit his decision, even when he constantly contradicts himself. His jeremiad against President Obama's decision on illegal alien children and young people during his dissent in the Arizona immigration case sounded like the text of a panel discussion on the Sean Hannity show. Thus it seemed unlikely, unless Anthony Kennedy could be swayed, that the president's signature legislation would survive intact.

Therefore it was stunning, if not miraculous, that the law did survive, almost entirely unscathed, and that it wasn't Kennedy, the man in the middle, that saved it. No, Kennedy savaged it, saying the whole thing should be scrapped. Instead it was Chief Justice John Roberts, who never met a business he didn't like, that stood up for the law (albeit using some legerdemain) and may have insured Obama's legacy.

I've never held much love for Roberts. During his confirmation hearing, he talked about a justice being like an umpire, deciding cases on the facts. They did not make the rules, they interpreted them. I've always assumed Roberts was blowing smoke--the infamous Citizens United case overturned over a century of precedent--but by golly this time he said some awfully smart things. It is not the court's role to comment on the wisdom of a law, but whether or not it is constitutional, and to defer to Congress to find the way that it can be constitutional.

Roberts did not agree that the individual mandate, which forces people to pay a penalty if they do not buy health insurance, was applicable under the Commerce Clause. Instead he found the penalty is a tax, which Congress is able to due under their powers granted in the Constitution. Of course, Obama pointed out that it was definitely not a tax, because the man isn't stupid, but I'm sure Obama will take it. His speech yesterday to the American people had the aura of a man who feels like he got away with something, and wanted to move on before it got taken back.

As for this tax, and the exultations of derision from the right, I don't get the problem. It's a tax only if you don't buy health insurance, so it's sort of like a vice tax, like the one on cigarettes and liquor. If you have health insurance, as about 98% of Americans will, under this law, you won't have to pay it. Those who pay it will be paying for the law itself, and maybe will realize that it's in their best interest to have health insurance. It will hurt some small businesses, as any business with over 50 employees will have to provide health insurance for their employees, but I think the rights of those workers trump the business needs.

The response from the right is downright comical. The decision has been compared to Dred Scott and 9/11. If they are to be believed, we are now in a police state and the IRS is Obama's army. Freedom took a big blow. Freedom to do what, I don't know. I'll never get why some people are so angry about poor people getting health care. I think it's a pathological and irrational fear that somehow they will lose all their money to black and brown people who don't deserve it. There have also been some rending about Roberts, the right accusing him of betrayal and even calling for his impeachment. There's no cause for impeachment, but I wouldn't fight it, especially if Obama gets to replace him.

Mitt Romney, in his usual but still stunning obfuscation of his own career, says he will repeal it on the first day of his presidency. Of course he can't do that, not unless Congress repeals it, and it would take 60 votes in the senate to do it, which is highly unlikely. He says he will make it a capstone in his campaign, which may work, but I doubt it. People want jobs and a better economy, and boo-hooing about a law that is now settled will seem regressive. Some pundits, and I agree with them, think this will be a forgotten issue by November. Besides, Romney really likes this law. He agrees with every major provision, except the mandate, which of course was central to the health care plan he pushed as governor of Massachusetts. The man's hypocrisy is incredible.

What's most important is that the United States has taken a big step in fixing one of the worst health-care systems of the industrial world. That 30 million people do not have insurance, and use the emergency room as a doctor's office (which is passed on to the taxpayer) or don't see doctors at all, is shameful. The Republicans, under eight years of George W. Bush, never put forth their own idea. I think that time goes by, this Act will come to be as basic and welcomed as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicare. Time will prove that Roberts made the right call.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Submission

How is this for an opening chapter: a jury of various important people, including politicians, artists, historians, and one representative of the victims' families, have finalized their choice for the memorial to be built at Ground Zero for the dead of 9/11. There are some arguments, but finally, at the insistence of Claire Burwell, whose husband died in the attacks, a peaceful garden is chosen. The submissions were anonymous. All seems well until the winner is disclosed. He is a Muslim.

So begins Amy Waldman's wise and sardonic novel The Submission, which includes just about every facet of American life, from government to the media. At the center is Mohammed Kahn, the American-born and secular Muslim who becomes the center of a firestorm, defended by the intellectual left, but pilloried by various groups, including the right-wing media, victim's family groups, and even some who he would have thought would have supported him. Even The New Yorker, who cites his rights to win the contest, also believes he should withdraw. "Mo set down the magazine and flipped through his stack of unread New Yorkers. To be written about this way in its pages was like being called shifty by a roomful of people he had thought were his friends."

Kahn enlists the help of  Muslim advocacy organizations, who use him as a political football. Burwell supports his design, angering other victims' families, including the Gallaghers, the family of a fireman who died. His brother Sean leads the charge against the design, which is deemed to be an Islamic martyr's paradise, rubbing the noses of everyone who died in extremist gloating. He also starts a wave of hate-mongering by purposely tugging the headscarf off of a Muslim women.

Waldman also includes a wide kaleidoscope of other characters, including Debbie Dawson, the head of America Against Islam, which has a very real counterpart in real life. I got a kick out of the discord in her own family of three daughters: "All three had signs saying NO ISLAM ZONE on their doors: Debbie wasn't allowed to talk about 'the cause,' as they disdainfully referred to it, in their rooms. When they didn't get their way, they threatened to marry Muslims."

Other parts of the caravan are an ambitious governor of New York, who baits the public anathema to Islam, a morally bankrupt reporter for the New York Post (is there any other kind?), a vitriolic radio host who is actually something of a gentleman in real life, and, most intriguingly, a Bangladeshi Muslim woman whose own husband died in the attack, but because of her background and citizenship status, is not included in the many events for the families of the dead.

This book has been compared to The Bonfire of the Vanities, and to be sure it sprawls across the tapestry of New York City and America, feeding on petty fears and insecurities of the public. This book is sharper, though, and less smug than Wolfe's. At times the book is a little too Jerry-rigged: Kahn is in the right, but his prickly personality and stubborness get in his way. Burwell is a forward thinker, but is prayed upon by voices on the right who undo her, Sean Gallagher is basically a lout, but has moments of personal doubt, etc. These characterizations are fine etched, but at times seem too convenient.

But nonetheless, the book is an outstanding read. I still haven't seen the memorial at Ground Zero that was built--was there any controversy over that?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Brave

Some have wondered whether Pixar would succumb to a kind of creeping "Disneyfication" after the corporate binding of the two studios. I skipped Cars 2, but I can say that Brave is perfectly acceptable animated Disney film, but as Pixar goes, it is only fair-to-middlin'. In many ways, there is nothing that much different about Brave from any recent non-Pixar Disney cartoon.

For the first time, Pixar has wandered into the main domain of Disney--the fairy tale. Set in medieval Scotland, Brave is concerned with a rambunctious princess, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), who has a mass of fiery-red curls and a talent for archery. Her mother (Emma Thompson), is constantly trying to correct Merida's behavior, getting her to behave lady-like, but Merida bucks authority often. Her father (Billy Connolly), the warrior king, has a soft spot for her and indulges her behavior.

But when Merida is offered as a betrothal prize for the sons of three rival clans, she has had enough. She runs off and finds a witch, who will cast a spell that will turn Merida's life upside down. I won't spoil and go into details, but when dealing with witches, jinns, or any other being that grants wishes, make sure you are very specific about what your are asking for.

Brave was directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, at least that it is who is credited. Chapman, who conceived the project, and was going to be the first woman to helm a Pixar film, was booted some time ago for creative differences, but retains a director credit. This is also notable for being the first Pixar film that features a female protagonist, and in that respect I appreciated it, especially since it focuses on a mother-teen daughter relationship, which is usually always problematic.

The film is beautiful to look at, and I marveled at the minute details, such as how every strand of Merida's hair seemed to be acting independently, or how the fur of a bear shimmered in the sunlight. The Scottish Highlands and forests looked absolutely wonderful. I didn't see this in 3D; I don't think I needed to.

But the story of Brave is lackluster. Much of the action is slapstick, involving trying to hide a bear in the castle (the King is known for hunting bears--he lost his leg to a demon bear called Mordu, who of course will show up before the film is over). The message of the film is kind of trite, and there is little depth to the characters. The voice acting is good--it seems that every Scottish actor of note was rounded up for a role--but the dialogue isn't very special.

As Pixar films go, this is way toward the bottom of the pile, ahead of only the Cars films.

My grade for Brave: B-.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Killing of Crazy Horse

A childhood fascination with American Indians compelled Thomas Powers, who has specialized in books about military intelligence, to write The Killing of Crazy Horse, a completely thorough but at times drawn out and unfocused account of the great Lakota warrior and his murder, which was as much engineered by other Indians as it was whites.

In addition to being an autobiography of sorts of Crazy Horse, Powers also goes into great depth with some of the other players in the story, such as two half-Indian scouts, members of the U.S. military, and many other Indians, who are so numerous in the book it sometimes becomes hard to keep track of them, especially since many of them have several names.

As for names, Powers gives a clear description of exactly what Crazy Horse's name means. It doesn't mean a mentally unstable horse: "The meaning of the name Tasunka Witko would be something like this: his horse is imbued with a sacred power drawn from formidable spiritual sources, and specifically from the thunder beings who roil the sky in storms." But Crazy Horse is a lot shorter.

There are no known pictures of Crazy Horse, and the life story of any Indian of that period is reliant upon the testimony of others. He had light hair and eyes, and was a great warrior from childhood. But he never was a "Shirt Wearer," one who had been designated as one of the elite of the tribe. Perhaps this is because he stole another man's wife, and was shot through the mouth in retaliation.

Crazy Horse had no fear of death, and believed he would never be killed by a bullet. He was right. He led the Oglala Sioux in battle against other tribes and against the U.S. military, particularly a stand-off against General George Crook at Rosebud and then, of course, at the Little Bighorn, where he audaciously split George Custer's forces. Another Indian said of him, "'Crazy Horse...was the bravest man I ever saw. He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him but he was never hit." Another said, "The soldiers all fired at once, but didn't hit him."

But eventually Crazy Horse would engender something like jealousy with other chiefs, particularly Red Cloud, which was encouraged by white influence. Powers details the mistreatment and treaty-breaking of the period by the U.S. government, particularly regarding the Black Hills, which initially was left to the Indians in perpetuity, until gold was discovered there. Crazy Horse, after his victory at Little Bighorn, surrendered to the U.S. authorities and was sent to Fort Robinson, Nebraska.

Powers' chapter on the killing reads like a thriller. A Lieutenant Jesse Lee led him to the jailhouse, after orders came to arrest him. But Lee repeatedly assured him he would come to no harm, and believed that. But when Crazy Horse realized he was being taken to jail, he resisted, and a scuffle broke out. He ended either backing into the bayonet of a guard, or the bayonet was thrust into him. "By this time the soldiers of the guard, a dozen in number, had closed in around  the wounded man, and were now surrounded in turn by hundreds of Indians. Half wanted to avenge the stabbing of the chief and the rest wanted to make sure he did not escape alive."

With his dying words Crazy Horse absolved Lee, who would nonetheless feel guilty about it for the rest of his life. Crazy Horse blamed Indians, particularly Little Big Man, who held him during the fight. At first U.S. soldiers, such as William Philo Clark, expressed regret over the killing: "It's a shame! That man ought not have been killed. It's a shame the way he was treated." But hours later, in a telegram to General Crook, he wrote, "The death of this man will save trouble." Head of the army Phil Sheridan said, "Crazy Horse was a mischievous and dangerous malcontent, and it is a good thing that he is dead." But, of course, Sheridan also said that the only good Indians were dead ones.

Though this is an interesting story, I found Powers' telling to be unnecessarily confusing. It's not his fault that there are so many Indians to keep track of, but I found the lengthy biographies of scouts Billy Garnett and Frank Brouard to be superfluous. I also wondered about not telling the story in chronological order, skipping over the Little Bighorn and bringing it up only much later in the book.

Still, this is a must read for any serious student of the Indian Wars of the 19th century and of Crazy Horse in general. Even now his massive memorial is still being sculpted in the Dakota hills, though it will certainly not be finished in my lifetime.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Congressman Is a Rocket Scientist

From l to r: Campaign Finance Director Annie O'Toole, Congressman Rush Holt, Campaign Chairman Matt Wall.

One of the best things about living in this area of New Jersey is that I have one of the coolest congressmen in the House of Representatives. He is Rush Holt, who has served the 12th District since 1998. Not only is he a straight-down-the-line liberal, getting a 100% rating from Americans for Democratic Action, but he is also a scientist (working for many years at the Princeton Plasma Lab) and a five-time Jeopardy! champion.

Since his first couple of elections, he hasn't been seriously challenged for re-election, and the recent redistricting has given him even more Democratic territory. However, due to some free time because of unemployment, I decided to do something useful and volunteer for the campaign. A few weeks ago I heard from the Campaign Finance Director, Annie O'Toole, and came in to stuff envelopes for a mailing.

I worked six or seven days on that, meeting many wonderful people. They mostly divided into two camps: college interns and retired folks. It was lovely sitting around a table with people of a similar political outlook; everybody there watched Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow, and were sickened by the Tea Party and Fox News.

I was the most stalwart worker, and as a reward I was invited to one of the Congressman's fund raisers, at the Monmouth Race Track. I'd never been to a race track before, and drove out toward the coast to attend. About 20 people were there, including a few volunteers, and of course the Congressman himself and his wife. As one might imagine, he circulated through the room, giving everyone equal time, chatting about this and that (someone had a cleaning woman with an immigration problem). I asked him about whether he would appear on The Colbert Report. He said it would be fun, but he didn't see how it would help the people of the 12th District. He did say he would go on The Daily Show in a flash, and has been on Rachel Maddow's show.

Having never bet on a horse race before, I have little idea how to pick a winner. So I chose purely on the name. In the fifth race a horse called Bat Cave was running, and being a Batman fan, I put five dollars on him, and he went off at 9 to 1. Alas, he finished fourth, but I had a real nice time. It was an honor to meet the Congressman; long may he serve.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Citi Field

I completed my inaugural visits to both of New York City's new Major League baseball stadia on Friday night, as my friend Bob and I went to the Mets home ground, Citi Field, to watch an interleague match-up between the Mets and Yankees.

Bob is a fervent Mets fan, and I fervently root for any team playing the Yankees, so our interests were mutual. We arrived early, each picking up a new Mets cap (with a Chevy logo on the back) as a give-away and taking our seats in the leftfield stands. Skies were threatening, though, and dark clouds rolled in and the field got a drenching. Our tickets allowed us into the Caesar's Club, though, which allowed a dry spot to talk baseball until the game began, about an hour late. Rain started up again, but not a heavy one, and our seats were one row under an overhang, keeping us nice and dry.

The early results were pleasant; Yankee hurler Andy Pettitte, perhaps thrown off his game by the delay, walked a few and allowed a few hits, including a three-run homer that just eluded the webbing of Nick Swisher's glove, and the Mets had a 5-0 first-inning lead. The Yankees pecked back with homers; Alex Rodriguez (his 642nd), Andruw Jones, and then a monster shot by Robinson Cano. It was now 6-4.

The Mets have a closer, the unimaginatively named Frank Francisco, who was 17-for-20 in save opportunities but has an E.R.A. above 5. Clearly he makes things too interesting for Mets fans. Earlier in the day he called the Yankees "chickens" (the Post responded with a mash-up picture of Derek Jeter's head on a fowl's body), and though nobody really knew what that meant, he came into the ninth with a save opportunity. Francisco put two on but got Mark Texeira to pop out into the rain drops for a Mets win.

The field is immaculate. It's somewhat similar to any number of stadiums, with a welcoming area, this time called the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, and a Mets Hall of Fame. A person can circumnavigate the stadium, always able to maintain an eye on the field. There is the requisite giant scoreboard, this time in dead center, and some of the cheesy stuff from the old days, like the playing of The Curly Shuffle and the airplane races are no more. There are also a lot of private clubs, presumably keeping some of the riff-raff out, which is an unfortunate, undemocratic trend in baseball. There were also a lot of food choices, highly priced, of course. I bought a foot-long sandwich from Subway for $12.

During the day, with Bob driving, we had some excellent adventures on the road. After missing a turn after the George Washington Bridge, we wended our way through the Bronx, in search of the Whitestone theater, where we would see Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter before the game. We had a GPS, a Garmin, which I find gets confused in New York City. We came up upon our destination, and were told by Garmin's disembodied voice, "Your destination is on the right." It was a cemetery. After laughing long and loud, we circled around and found the theater about a half mile up the road.

On the drive back we eschewed the GWB, seeing the delays were prohibitive, so once again we traversed the scenic byways of the Bronx, but managed to find our way home. A good time was had by all Mets fans and Yankee haters.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

For those who complained that the script for Prometheus was stupid, I present to you Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, which makes the other film seem like a post-doctoral research paper. Seth Grahame-Smith, one of my many culprits in this cinematic abomination, seems to have fashioned his screenplay using a child's biography of the 16th President and a description of an episode of True Blood, as told to him by an idiot.

The film is based on Grahame-Smith's novel, and directed by the distinctly untalented Timur Bekmambetov. I have no idea if the book has any charms, other than the snort-worthy title, but the film has nothing going for it.

As imagined by Grahame-Smith, Lincoln's mother was killed by a vampire for helping a black boy escape a whipping. It seems that vampires had been in the New World since the beginning, and now live largely in the South, so then can snack on slaves. Lincoln (played dully by Benjamin Walker) grows up, vowing to avenge his mother's death, and runs into a full-time vampire hunter, played by Dominic Cooper, who teaches him the ways of the hunter, as if he were a frontier Mr. Miyagi. A scene involving Cooper prodding Lincoln to chop down a tree is one of the worst scenes of dialogue I've seen in many years, and the following training montage is almost as dreadful.

We learn that vampires can only be killed by silver, going back to the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus. As with all vampire movies, their powers and weaknesses are chosen from a buffet--in this film, they do not have a big problem with sunlight (they do all wear shades), don't turn into bats, but can turn invisible, clothing and all, a pretty neat trick.

Cooper enlists Lincoln as a vampire hunter, sending him names of those bloodsuckers in Springfield. Lincoln finally gets the man who killed his mother, and puts his axe away (he uses an axe because he's not much good with guns). However, the head vampire (Rufus Sewell), is behind the scenes in making sure the South secedes, because he doesn't want to lose his food supply. So now the answer to the question, "What caused the Civil War?" can be answered simply, "Vampires."

Lincoln, now president, understands he must wipe out the nefarious demons and pushes the war forward. But the war doesn't go well when Jefferson Davis enlists Sewell to use his kind as troops. They defeat the Union on the first day of Gettysburg, and Lincoln realizes the only thing that can stop them is silver bullets. So, in one of many ludicrous scenes, he has all the silver in Washington confiscated and melted down into ammunition in time for Pickett's Charge, which is less than 48 hours later.

There are too many stupidities to list here. Of course it's not going to be completely historically accurate, given that vampires are involved, and Grahame-Smith includes just enough facts to keep the historically literate from screaming bloody murder. But really. Lincoln is attended in the White House only by that black boy all grown up (Anthony Mackie, playing Will Johnson, who was Lincoln's valet, but not his aide-de-camp) and Joshua Speed, who was Lincoln's law partner in real life, but as far as I know never visited Washington. There is no mention of Edwin Stanton, John Hay, or any of the other cabinet members. Also, a plot involves Lincoln's son Will, who died while Lincoln was president. There is no mention that Lincoln had three other sons.

As for the depiction of Mary Todd, well, she should be happy beyond the grave. She's played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and if you've seen photos of Mary Lincoln, you'll know that's awfully flattering. Mrs. Lincoln, who was a tragic figure who certainly must have suffered from manic depression, is played by Winstead as a plucky and dutiful spouse, who is also handy with a rifle.

Those are just the problems with the script. Bekmambetov has no idea how to put together an action sequence. I hated that he included Matrix-like slow motion as Lincoln whirls about swinging his axe, and two scenes are so ridiculously over the top it's a wonder anyone signed off on them. One has Lincoln chasing a vampire as they both run across a stampede of horses--on the horses' backs. Similarly, the climax has Lincoln, Johnson and Speed racing across the boxcars of a train as it races across a burning and collapsing bridge. Not only is the history bad, so is the physics.

What's most disappointing, though, is that with a title like this you would think it would at least be good-bad, but no, there is nothing cool or fun about it. The movie ends with Lincoln going off to the theater (in a groaner, the last line of dialogue is Mary calling, "We'll be late for the theater!") so a sequel seems to be ruled out. But the creative team missed an opportunity--why not show John Wilkes Booth, after shooting Lincoln, to reveal a set of fangs? When I can write the script better than the professionals, I know I've wasted my money.

My grade for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: F.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pomp and Circumstance

Yesterday I went to my twin nephews' high school graduation. I hadn't been to one of these since my youngest sister (their mother) graduated more than 25 years ago, but what struck me was how much these things never change.

Walking across the campus to the football field, seeing the kids in their gowns; the girls in white, the boys in blue, brought back a lot of memories. There are a lot of graduation ceremonies these days, as we live in a society that rightly or wrongly seeks to reward all students--eighth-grade graduations, kindergarten graduations, even pre-school graduations. But high school remains the most iconic, even more than college (I didn't go to my college graduation, instead opting for the more low-key departmental ceremony).

All the trappings are there. Parents and other family members and friends, waiting patiently in the heat (fortunately we got some shade, but it was still well over 90). The band and chorus come out, and play a few tunes, then the processional, with the kids sweating under those gowns (the girls at least could wear sandals) as Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance is played. Elgar would be completely lost to history without this piece, and is there any high school in America that would buck tradition and play something else?

Then came the speeches. My nephews' class had three valedictorians, but due to their splitting the chore each kept it brief, and didn't say anything radical. One of them had a broken leg, and ended his speech by asking his classmates, in the theatrical tradition, to "break a leg." The principal and superintendent made speeches, but mindful of the heat, shortened them.

Then came the awarding of the diplomas. My family and I had trouble spotting our boys, as they almost all looked the same--lanky boys trying to look cool and diffident. They were separated for some reason (supposedly the kids were arranged by height, but the twins are only about a half-inch or less different in height). But when they came up my sister said, "There's Jordan!" and "There's Darren!" as if they had been purposely trying to hide.

At the end, the tassels are moved from right to left, and, against orders, the mortarboards are tossed in the air. But nobody's eye was put out, and this one last act of rebellion feels good.

Afterward there were pictures with parents and grandparents, but they were eager to see their friends. In this age of responsibility, no longer do kids go from party to party--the school arranges a mass party and they are taken there by bus.

I graduated in 1979, my dad in 1959, and we agreed that the graduation we saw yesterday was no different. It's one of the hoary traditions that seem like they will never change, and that people take great comfort in.

One my nephews is going to Michigan State, the other to Penn State, so we'll be a Big Ten family for a while (me and my dad are fans of Michigan, but neither of these boys will be playing football, so there shouldn't be a conflict). Best of luck to them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Tudors, Season 2

In the second season of Showtime's fine series The Tudors, a subtitle "The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn" could be used. Over the course of ten episodes and three years, Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), marries King Henry VIII (John Rhys-Davies), which leads to his excommunication from the Catholic church, becomes queen, bears him a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth), has a series of miscarriages, gains his suspicion, is arrested, tried and executed.

It's quite a wild ride, and the series, created by Michael Hirst, does a terrific job of showing each step of the way. There's the requisite court intrigue, as the supporters of the King's first wife, Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy), work to stop him. These include Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), who is so principled he can not countenance defying the Pope (Peter O'Toole, in a deliciously hammy performance).

On the King's side are his trusted secretary, Thomas Cromwell (excellently played by James Frain) and Boleyn's father (Nick Dunning), who sees his daughter as a way to gain more power for himself.

The first half of the season is devoted to the battle of wills between the King and Rome. Henry persuades, with twisted arms here and there, most of the bishops in England to accept the annulment of his marriage. He installs a minor priest, Thomas Cranmer, as Archbishop of Canterbury to do his bidding (O'Toole, in a mistake, signs off on Cranmer's appointment, falsely thinking a "nobody" can do no harm). Once the king is made head of the church, he rids himself of his opponents with the axe, having Cardinal Fisher and More beheaded (More's story is told in more depth in the film The Man for All Seasons).

Things look rosy for the King and Queen, although there are those who try to eliminate her. O'Toole says, "The king's whore--why doesn't somebody just get rid of her?" (echoing O'Toole's line in Becket, "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?") As in Becket, someone takes him up on it, and assassination attempts are made, unsuccessfully. But where assassins fail, the inability of Anne to bear a male heir does her in. False accusations of adultery and incest are branded against her, and Cromwell leads an inquisition that leads to the unjust executions of several, including Anne's brother, and finally herself.

Some of this is spurred by his attraction to Lady Jane Seymour (Anita Briem), which just shows Henry as a cad who likes to move on to fresher pastures. A day after Anne's execution, he announces his betrothal to Jane, which is about as tacky as you can get.

The Tudors works on all levels--well written, acted, directed, and with an eye for period detail. I would like to point out a small performance by George Irving as Master Kingston, the constable of the Tower of London, who looks after Anne as she awaits execution. He does his duty with the kind of unflappable dignity one sees in morticians, but even he can't help but be moved by her plight, and is seen struggling to hold back tears as she makes her last speech before losing her head.

I can't vouch for how accurate this all this--time is a slippery thing in The Tudors, mostly marked by how Princess Elizabeth ages. I was surprised to later learn that Anne was only queen for three years. I'm also wondering when Henry started to get fat--Rhys-Davies plays him as a vigorous man, and this series ends when he was 45 (he only has another dozen or so years to live). Also, the producers cast a very pretty young girl, Sarah Bolger, as Princess Mary, the daughter of Katherine. It is well known in history that Mary was no looker.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sweet Sixteen

Following up my review of Kes, I turn to a Ken Loach film of more recent vintage, 2002's Sweet Sixteen. The title may make it sound like a lark starring Hilary Duff or Selena Gomez, but the "Sweet" is definitely ironic.

Martin Compston stars as Liam, a boy about to turn sixteen. He lives in Scotland, and no longer attends school, but is constantly looking for opportunities. As the film begins he's selling looks at Saturn through a telescope. His mother is in prison, and visits her accompanied by her current boyfriend, Stan, a complete layabout. This guy wants Liam to smuggle her some drugs, not for her to use, but for her to sell to other inmates. Liam refuses, and gets beaten for it.

Liam has a good relationship with his older sister, Chantelle, who has a small son, but Chantelle has given up on their mother. But Liam dreams of them all having a nice life together. He spots a caravan (sort of like a mobile home) that he would like to buy. He and his best friend Pinball steal a stash of drugs from Stan and start selling, making enough money to buy the caravan.

This leads Liam to fun afoul of a local druglord, Tony, but the guy takes him under his wing. He is forced to drop Pinball, who is too emotional and unguarded to be good in the business. Liam is forced to make a decision between loyalty to his friend and to his new boss.

Eventually Liam's mother gets out of prison, and the dream seems to be coming true, but things don't work out the way Liam wants them to. He makes a rash decision, and the film ends with him on a shore, staring into the water. His sister calls him, saying "What a waste," but Liam's final line, both referring to his mobile phone and his life, are, "My battery is running down."

Sweet Sixteen is a fantastic film. Of course it is bleak--there is really no way out for Liam and his kind. They have been cast aside by school and the social framework, and thus turn to selling illicit material to make their way. It is implied that Liam is certainly smart enough to have made a life in legitimate society, but his mother, weak and distracted, failed him miserably. He stills shows remarkable loyalty, and makes a worthy and sympathetic protagonist.

Once again I am grateful for subtitles. If there's anything thicker than a Scottish brogue, I don't what it is.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Malcolm X (1992)

After reading Manning Marable's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X, I decided to revisit Spike Lee's 1992 film, which I hadn't seen since its initial release. I still admire the majestic sweep of the film, and the incendiary performance of Denzel Washington, but after learning more about the man I was a little troubled over glossing over some things.

Lee begins his film with Malcolm as a young man in Boston, running around in colorful zoot suits with his friend Shorty (Spike Lee, as a fictional character). Much is made of Malcolm "conking" his hair, to look white. He works on a train as a waiter, but when he lands in Harlem he takes up with a numbers racket, run by West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) another fictional character.

Eventually he goes to jail for burglary, and there meets Baines (Albert Hall), and you got it, he's fictional. Baines converts him to Islam, using specious arguments like the definitions of white and black in the dictionary (these definitions were formed by fear of darkness, not out of racial animosity, as Baines would have it--let's fact it, black people aren't really black, and white people aren't really white).

When he gets out of prison, Malcolm, who has foresaken his last name of Little for an X, indicating the unknown, becomes a minister of the Nation of Islam. He is ruled by Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), who was a real person, and becomes the spokesman for his group, making flame-throwing statements like all white people are devils and black people aren't Americans; they are Africans who happen to be in America.

After making snide remarks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm is disciplined by Muhammad, and later it will come to light that the great man doesn't follow the Islam law of no adultery, fathering many children out of wedlock. That, plus an eye-opening trip to the Middle East, including a hajj to Mecca, convinces Malcolm that he was wrong, and that he and white people can work together. This is his death knell, though, and he is murdered by Nation of Islam members at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965.

It's clear that Lee has chosen Malcolm's story to address his own peeves about the status of black America, by including footage of the beating of Rodney King (who has just died) in the opening credits, followed by a burning flag. At the end, he has Ossie Davis recite his eulogy that he gave at Malcolm's funeral, which is fine, but then having schoolteachers (including Nelson Mandela) praise him as a hero is a bit over the top. I happen to think Malcolm X was something of a hero, but these scenes turn an otherwise fine film into propaganda.

The script, by Lee and Arnold Perl, also makes some errors. Malcolm's conversion isn't correctly depicted--it wasn't so neat and tidy--and his marriage to Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) is given a rosy glow. In truth, there's evidence that he didn't marry the woman he really loved, who is not a character in the film, and may have strayed in the relationship. Also missing is Malcolm's overtures to white hate groups, like American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell, because the two groups both favored separation of the races. Lee does show Malcolm's family, when he was a small boy, being terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, so this seems a bad oversight.

Of course it is a three-hour plus movie. But much of Malcolm's pre-Islam days could have been cut. I'm not quite understanding the West Indian Archie stuff, since it didn't happen. Other than getting a chance to show off some nifty costumes, this film would have better had it started with Malcolm in prison.

The best thing about the film is Washington's performance. He's in almost every scene, and carries this huge film over his shoulder easily. I especially appreciated minor touches, such as when Malcolm faces down his assassins, he has time to give a quick, acknowledging smirk. That Washington lost the Oscar that year to Al Pacino's hammy performance in Scent of a Woman still rankles.

Malcolm X was a fascinating figure during a fascinating time, and this is a good movie, but I recommend anyone who would like to know more, and get some of the facts straight, read Marable's book.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

It was 40 years ago this month that David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was released. It's one of my favorite albums of all time, and surely one of the best of the 1970s, and also one of the best examples of the genre called "glam rock."

I've had this on vinyl for years, but picked up a used CD about a week ago and have been reacquainting myself with its greatness. I've also been reading about what the album is supposed to mean--I must admit it's not readily apparent on listening to the songs, though it's clearly a concept album concerning a fictional rock star (and alter ego for Bowie) named Ziggy Stardust.

Reading the lyric sheet as I listened today, it's a little clearer. The first song, "Five Years," indicates that there is only five years left on Earth. Then, Ziggy Stardust, who may or may not be an alien, arrives with a message of peace and love. In Moonage Daydream, there is a lyric that suggests an arrival of sorts:

"I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa coming for you
I'm the space invader, I'll be a rock 'n' rollin' bitch for you
Keep your mouth shut, you're squawking like a big monkey bird
And I'm busting up my brains for the words"

Then comes "Starman" (one of four songs on the album that contains the word star--both in its astronomical and pop cultural meaning), that heralds the arrival of some sort of savior:

"There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds
There's a starman waiting in the sky
He told us not to blow it
'Cause he knows it's all worthwhile"

Finally, in "Lady Stardust," it seems that Ziggy takes the stage:

"People stared at the makeup on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans
Jumped up on the stage
And Lady Stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and disgrace"

 Ziggy and his band, the Spiders From Mars (Weird and Gilly), become big stars and engage in typical rock star excesses. In "Hang on to Yourself":

"We can't dance, we don't talk much, we just ball and play
But then we move like tigers on Vaseline
Well the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You're the blessed, we're the spiders from Mars"

"Suffragette City," which is probably the most famous song from this collection, is not about the women's vote but seemingly about endless sex, with a woman "with mellow thighs that put my spine out of place."

By the end of the album, as Ziggy seems to have destroyed himself, there is a message of both despair and hope in the gorgeous "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide":

"Oh no love! you're not alone
No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain
You're not alone"




This song, as is the rest of the album, was masterfully arranged and produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson. At this time Bowie was in full weirdo mode; the pinkish hair, the tight jumpsuits, the leather pants showing off a big package, but what may get lost is how beautiful this record is. "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" begins softly, with spoken word, but swells with the anguished but hopeful climax, culminating in a transcendent violin chord.

Or consider the sweeping chorus of "Starman," which, as the title suggests, seems to take us into the heavens. One can close one's eyes and picture a rocket taking off. On the more straightforward rock and roll side, "Hang on to Yourself," "Suffragette City," and "It Ain't Easy" can't get much better as foot-stomping tunes (the latter was written by Ron Davies).

On this CD there are a few bonus tracks, including "Velvet Goldmine," which was originally intended for the record but ended up as a B-side of the UK released of "Space Oddity," perhaps due to its ambiguous suggestion of homosexual contact. It has interestingly gone on to be a kind of generic name for the glam movement, as evidenced by the title of the Todd Haynes film about the scene, released in 1998.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Saboteur

Saboteur is one of Alfred Hitchcock's second-tier films. It has some memorable sequences, including one of his most famous--a man falling to his death from the Statue of Liberty--but it also has a kind of B-movie quality, perhaps because it lacks any real star power (the lead is Bob Cummings, who would later be best known as a sit-com star) and it resembles many other, better Hitchcock films that feature the same theme--a wronged man on the run (such as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest).

Released 70 years ago in 1942, the attack at Pearl Harbor happened when the film was in pre-production. It concerns spies working against the U.S., but unlike Notorious, we're not sure who they are working for. Part of the genius of the film is that Hitchcock used friendly, all-American types for his spies, although a few of them were a little creepy.

The film begins in a airplane factory in California. Cummings is just an average Joe, and he his buddy accidentally bump into another worker, Fry (Norman Lloyd), who drops some envelopes with his name and address on them and a hundred dollar bill. Later, when a fire breaks out, he will hand a fire extinguisher to Cummings, who then gives it to his buddy. The extinguisher turns out to be full of gasoline, and the buddy is engulfed by flame. Since there is no record of anyone named Fry at the plant, Cummings is suspected, and flees.

He tries to track down Fry and ends up at the home of a wealthy rancher (Otto Kruger), who seems like a kindly old grandpa, but is revealed to be a spy. He turns Cummings over to the police, but he manages to escape, and in a scene reminiscent of one in Frankenstein, he happens upon a kindly old blind man. This man believes in his innocence, and asks his niece (Priscilla Lane) to take him to get his handcuffs removed. Lane isn't as forgiving as her uncle, and plans of turning Cummings back to the police, but she ends up trusting him and they go on an odyssey that includes hiding out on a circus train, stumbling upon a plot to blow up the Hoover Dam, and then ending up in New York City, trying to prevent the demolition of a newly-christened battleship.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this picture is that one of the co-screenwriters was Algonquin Roundtable wit Dorothy Parker. The film is full of funny lines, including a terrific monologue by a truck driver giving Cummings a lift, and when Lane and Cummings end up in a ghost town called Soda City, Cummings says, "It's the heart of the bicarbonate belt."

Where the film bogs down is in its jingoism, which can't really be faulted, since it was 1942. Hitchcock didn't believe in making political pictures, so he must have inwardly cringed at some of the speeches about how American is great and the cause of the spies (though Germany or Nazis are never mentioned) is evil. Better are little touches like when the circus freaks, including a bearded lady, a fat lady, a midget and Siamese twins, vote whether to turn the fleeing pair over to the police. The leader of the ring, the "human skeleton," exults that they are a democracy in miniature. When the midget wants to ignore the result of the vote, the skeleton snaps at him, "Fascist!"

Being Hitchcock, there are many masterful shots. The scene of the fire in the airplane plant is terrific. It's a stationary shot of a wall, and the smoke slowly rolls in from the right. There's a scene that is almost a parody of Hitchcock--Lloyd, on the loose but chased by police, heads into Radio City Music Hall (where the film actually premiered). On the screen is a movie that has gunplay, and it is intercut with the gunshots from Lloyd and his pursuers. And the climax on the Statue of Liberty is well known to many. It was interesting to learn in the extras from Lloyd himself (who is alive at 97, God bless him) how that was done in a time before CGI. Hitchcock, of course, loved having scenes on national monuments, as he would do fifteen years later on Mount Rushmore for North by Northwest.

While Saboteur is not one of Hitchcock's greatest, it's well worth a look.

Friday, June 15, 2012

So Much Pretty

Sometimes you open a book and expect one thing, and though what you are reading is excellent, because it's not what you expect you are momentarily disoriented, like biting into a peach and expecting a pear. I had that experience with Cara Hoffman's So Much Pretty, which was listed in the New York Times as one of the best crime books of the year, which had me expecting more of a genre book. So Much Pretty, though it does center around crimes, is really a literary work, and a good one at that.

So Much Pretty is set in a small rural town in New York state. "Upstate New York" is a pretty big area, which can include everything from Buffalo to Plattsburgh, but I got the sense that this was in central New York, in dairy country. It is defined as being in Appalachia, also, but other than that, the town (Haeden) is fictional, but clearly Hoffman has some place in mind.

"Haeden was the whitest place I had ever been. And it was a specific kind of whiteness, a blankness I'd never experienced. Apart from the musicians, who played at the Rooster and the Alibi, and the guy who made stump sculptures of bears and eagles, and the ladies who knitted afghans or painted landscapes on rusty saws, there wasn't much of a scene."

Those are the words of Stacy Flynn, a reporter used to the big city of Cleveland, who has landed in a hick town. She's one of the many narrators of the book. I must admit I was more than halfway through it before I got a sense of what was happening--waiting for something to happen. Besides the multiple points of view, the book is also told nonchronologically. But the wait was worth it, for Hoffman has written an angry book, centering on two topics--violence against women, and violence against the land.

The book swirls around a missing young woman, Wendy White, who was dating the scion of the big dairy farmer in town. Flynn secretly got the job in Haeden to try to expose what the dairy is doing to the environment and to the economy. Meanwhile, a married pair of doctors from New York City have relocated to the town to try to get away from civilization. Their daughter, Alice, is something of a child prodigy, and we are led to believe something will happen with her. When it finally happens (I won't tell) it hits like a ton of bricks.

Hoffman is very hard on the community she has created. In her bio it says she is an economically depressed town from New York, so perhaps there is some lingering resentment. Otherwise what is to explain this tirade from Flynn, after she has written articles connected to the White disappearance with statistics on the number of murdered and assaulted women in the U.S., when she is accused of hurting the community: "What community? Is there a community here? Don't you fucking get it? Are you from fucking Mars? When the average income is fourteen K and the average educational level is eleventh grade and the so-called dairy is a factory fucking farm that employs next to nobody in town, and the Home Depot is where you all fucking work--if you even work. That's not a community, and it doesn't become one because people shoot clay pigeons or endearingly call women 'the missus' or have fucking parades where they crown a dairy queen! That's for actors in some anachronistic passion play about a town that never was, in a country that never, ever fucking was."

I also loved Hoffman's gift of a phrase, such as "Haytes was like a block of wood who could talk," or, describing the interior of a barn, "The space was cool and smelled of mold and apples and motor oil."

So Much Pretty is a very fine book, but I would suggest those looking for a standard crime novel might look elsewhere, unless you want to be challenged by a more literary book.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kes

Ken Loach is one of the key figures in British cinema. While not all of his films can be described as "miserabilist," they certainly aren't known for their cheeriness. Most of his films are grimly realistic and set among characters whose life is a daily struggle.

Kes, from 1969, is an early film of his, and was ranked 7th on the list of greatest British films. It is a deceptively simple, yet powerfully moving, story of a young boy who doesn't have anything going for him except his devotion to a kestrel, a small hawk, which he cares for and trains.

David Bradley plays Billy Casper, and a more put upon character in film would be hard to find. He lives in a coal mining town, and wants to quit school, but refuses to "work in the pit," like his older brother, who is about as nasty as can be. Billy has a history of stealing, so everyone mistrusts him, including his boss of a paper route, who chides him for being almost late. He is routinely picked on at school, but gets along better with the students that with the teachers, who are horrifying.

One day he comes across a nest of kestrels in an old monastery. He steals a book on falconry, climbs up into the nest to grab a female, names her Kes, and following the book's instructions, trains her. While this may sound like an avian version of Free Willy, it's not sentimental in the least. Billy insists that she is not a pet, and he could never tame her, he just trains her.

The scenes at school are the most memorable. The principal is a screaming monster who canes everyone, even a poor boy who has only come to his office to deliver a message. There is a long and simultaneously hilarious and harrowing scene of a soccer match during physical education class. Gym teachers are noted for being blights in education, but this guy is the worst, playing alongside the kids, and calling fouls on them while not calling them against himself. He puts Billy in goal, with predictably bad results. Then he punishes Billy for not taking a shower by spraying him with cold water.

Only one teacher takes an interest in Billy and his hawk, and comes by to watch him, later sitting with him in the shed where Kes lives. Billy says he feels that Kes is granting him permission to watch her. The connection between boy and bird leaps right off the screen.

The film was based on a novel called A Kestrel for a Knave, and was shot by Chris Menges, who would go on to be a major cinematographer and director. It helps to watch with subtitles, for the accents are nearly impenetrable to American ears.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ed Wood

After seeing Dark Shadows, the eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, I thought back on their other films together. They are probably the most closely associated director-actor duo since John Ford and John Wayne and, on balance, their films have been better than average (Alice in Wonderland is a notable exception). But my favorite of their films, and perhaps the most affectionate portrayal of the filmmaker's spirit, was 1994's Ed Wood.

Ironically, Ed Wood may be the worst-performing of Burton and Depp's films, box office-wise. It is something of an aberration in Burton's career, as it depicts a true, if bizarre, story, is shot in black and white, and lacks many of Burton's signature elements. But when I first saw it when it was released I howled in the theater, and have loved it each time I've seen it since, the last time last night.

Edward D. Wood Jr. is generally credited as the world's worst film director, thanks to a book co-written by one-time film critic and present-day right-wing troglodyte Michael Medved, which bestowed him with that title and also anointed his magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, as the worst movie of all time. This made Wood famous, though he was already dead, and has given him legions of fans who appreciate his work, which is idiosyncratic and inspired, if at times incoherent and amazingly shoddy.

Burton's film, which stars Depp in the title role, begins the great man's story when he was a struggling and horrible playwright. He already had formed a coterie of loyal oddballs, including Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), a homosexual longing for a sex change. His girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), was, like Marilyn on The Munsters, shockingly normal. In a key moment, he meets faded monster-film star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in an Oscar-winning role) and befriends him, promising him a role in his movie, which at this point is a complete pipe dream.

Depp hears about a film in the works on sex-change recipient Christine Jorgensen, and pitches himself as director. This scene, with schlock producer Mike Starr, is brilliant, as the latter doesn't really care about the product, but already has presold the film to Alabama and Oklahoma, and has a poster. Depp ends up making a picture about his own cross-dressing (with a particular fetish for angora), Glen or Glenda.

This film is tabbed the "worst movie ever made" by a producer from Warners, but Depp is indefatigable, and hustles to get financing for his next film, which will be Bride of the Monster, starring Lugosi and the brutish but soft-spoken professional wrestler Tor Johnson (George "the Animal" Steele). The act that comprises the making of this film is scintillating cinema, as the motley crew work around skimpy budgets (they steal a giant prop octopus from a studio warehouse) and accommodate the backer's wish to have his dim-witted son play the lead role.

Finally, we see Depp make Plan 9, but not before Lugosi, a morphine addict, succumbs. The relationship between Depp and Landau gives this film an emotional backdrop that elevates this film above what it could have been. Indeed, Burton and his screenwriters (who deserve a great deal of credit--Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) never mock Wood or Lugosi. To them, Wood is an artist as much as any other filmmaker, including Wood's hero, Orson Welles. In an inspired (if wholly fictional) scene, Wood runs into Welles at Russo and Frank's. Wood is in full drag, complete with angora, which doesn't phase Welles, who gives his young protege a few sage words of advice: "Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?"

By now Wood's strange entourage would include the TV psychic Criswell (Jeffery Jones) and horror-movie host Vampira (Lisa Marie), who attend the premiere at the Pantages hero in Hollywood. The movie would go on to be proclaimed the worst ever made, but this film isn't playing critic, instead humanely allowing Wood to glory in the moment.

But there's so much more to Ed Wood. I loved little touches, like Murray watching a pro wrestling match with binoculars. Murray has many of the film's best lines, playing the part with a fey version of his usual performance. "Mexico (pronounced "may-he-co") was a nightmare," he sighs, talking about his failed attempt to get a sex change, or, discussing his wardrobe for Plan 9, Depp tells him, "You're the ruler of the galaxy! Show some taste!" On the similarities between a chiropractor hired to play Lugosi's double to the man himself, Murray says, in the back pew of a Baptist church, "Let us hear him call Karloff a cocksucker."

This is in response to Lugosi's tirade against his movie-monster colleague and rival: "Karloff did not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in Hell for all I care." I remember at the time that the Lugosi family insisted their father did not use such language, and had nothing against Karloff, but it sure works in the movie.

The film is also visually interesting. As stated, it doesn't look like many of Burton's films, but it perfectly fits the world of Ed Wood, from the miniatures used in the opening credits (Howard Shore's score, complete with Theremin, is spot-on) to the sets used for the studios, the seediness of Wood's apartment, and the Grand Guignol design of Lugosi's bungalow (which I stopped by and paid homage to on a trip to Los Angeles). The film luxuriates in darkness, as one would imagine, especially in Lugosi's house, which is lit like a Universal horror picture (cinematography is by Stefan Czapsky), but there are also scenes of abundant sunlight, an inevitability in L.A. In fact, perhaps the most arresting image from the film is Vampira, dressed to the nines in her Gothic outfit, walking down a sun-splashed alley holding a parasol.

Ed Wood was a singular talent--or non-talent--and this is the film he deserved. I think he would have liked it, as it is a valentine to the moviemakers, B or otherwise.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Too Late for Tears

If there's one thing film noir has taught us--if you end up with a mysterious bag of money that is not your own, you don't have long to live. Just leave it where it lies. It was true in No Country for Old Men, and certainly true of Too Late for Tears, a 1949 noir by Byron Haskin, re-released in 1955 with the more sanguine title, Killer Bait. It also features one of the most avaricious femme fatales in noir history.

Arthur Kennedy and Lizabeth Scott are driving through the Hollywood Hills when a car speeds by from the other direction and drops a bag in the back seat of their convertible. They open it and find oodles of cash. Scott immediately wants to keep it, while the more reasonable Kennedy wants to turn it into the police. A car comes up behind them, clearly the car the money was intended for, and Scott gets behind the wheel and races away.

Kennedy agrees to keep the money for a week, and puts in the baggage claim at Union Station. Meanwhile, the intended recipient of the money, Dan Duryea, tracks down Scott and tries to muscle her out of the money. He soon realizes he's in over his head. He's only a blackmailer--she's a barracuda.

Scott eventually kills Kennedy and schemes to get the money, not knowing where the claim ticket is. Kennedy's sister, Kristine Miller, grows suspicious when Scott tells her that Kennedy has run away with another woman. A man claiming to be an old friend of Kennedy's, Don DeFore, shows up, and he ends up helping Miller prove Scott killed Kennedy.

Scott, who was a frequent cast member in film noir, really cleans up in this movie, as once she sees that money she exhibits a pathological greed. Duryea, one of my favorite character actors from the '40s, gives a very interesting and shaded performance. At first he's the tough guy, but as the film goes on, he follows Scott's lead, which is not good for this health. I liked DeFore's performance, but he seemed kind of familiar in a sit-com sort of way, and sure enough, he was the next-door neighbor on the Ozzie and Harriet show, which kind of makes seeing him in a gritty film like this out of place.

The film has been in public domain for ages and is in terrible shape, but it's still a clever and menacing little movie, mainly thanks to Scott's ferocious performance. Remember, if you find a satchel full of cash, just walk on by.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Pink Moon

Forty years ago Nick Drake's third and last album, Pink Moon, was released. None of his albums sold more than 5,000 copies, and this one is full of very sparse music--nothing but guitar and Drake's melancholy, near whisper vocals. But today, due to admiring musicians and a Volkswagen commercial, Drake is something of a legend.

I picked this CD up back in 1999 when the title track was featured in a VW commercial, and have been listening to it for the past few days. It's not a finger-snapping record, with all the songs in a minor key and overlaid with an almost ethereal sense of death, which of course, becomes more obvious when knows that Drake killed himself with an overdose two years after the release of this album, at 26.

Pink Moon is very beautiful music, though, and very calming--it could be played in a massage parlor. Drake, a musician in the mold of romantic poets who died young like Shelley and Keats, doesn't break any ground with this record, but it's spare sound kind of penetrates to the soul.

The lyrics are enigmatic and simple. The title track goes:

"I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on it's way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all"

Is the pink moon a representation of death?

There's more astronomy in "Road":

"You can say the sun is shining if you really want to
I can see the moon and it seems so clear
You can take the road that takes you to the stars now
I can take a road that'll see me through"

And "Things Behind the Sun":

"Don't be shy you learn to fly
And see the sun when day is done
If only you see
Just what you are beneath a star
That came to stay one rainy day
In autumn for free
Yes, be what you'll be."

Drake's song on this record or so delicate, as if spun from gossamer, that a listener feels like a stiff wind would scatter the notes. It's a shame that he died when he did, for he may have reached even greater heights. But it brings up the age-old question: if Drake were in a better state of mind, would he have produced music like this?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus

I'll begin this review by stealing a line from my friend who saw the movie with me. She says, "By the year 2093, you'd think these characters would have seen enough sci-fi movies to know what would happen." Prometheus, a big-ass sci-fi extravaganza by Ridley Scott, is visually stunning and frequently exciting, but the script is a collection of cliches and flat-out dumb behavior by characters who are supposedly brilliant. For example, if I were a biological expert, and I saw a snake-like creature that I'd never seen before emerge from a pool of oil, I wouldn't talk baby-talk to it like it was a dachshund puppy.

The scenario borrows elements from the old Chariots of the Gods theory put forth (and debunked) years ago. Archaeologists and romantic partners Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, discover cave paintings in Scotland that repeat a theme from around the world: a configuration of heavenly bodies. They have a theory that a moon in that configuration may hold the origin of man.

A billionaire industrialist (Guy Pearce, under a ton of makeup) believes the theory to the tune of a trillion dollars, and commissions a two-year mission to this moon. He sends Rapace and Marshall-Green, along with corporate hatchet-woman Charlize Theron, looking as sleek and shiny as the Spirit of Ecstasy on the hood of a Rolls-Royce. She's also about as warm. I imagine that, after this film and Snow White and the Huntsman, Hollywood executives, when needing an ice queen, will say, "Get me Charlize Theron!"

The crew also consists of other experts in geology (Sean Harris, looking like a refugee from a rave) and the dumb biologist (Rafe Sprall). There is also the typically cynical, world-weary pilot (Idris Elba). The first indication that this script was dumb was when the crew, who were is suspended animation for two years, are informed of the nature of their mission only after they are awakened. I don't know about you, but before I commit two years (and presumably two more for the return trip) I would want to know all the details before I left.

The crew is rounded out by a robot, played unflappably by Michael Fassbender, who spends his two years shooting baskets while riding a bike and watching Lawrence of Arabia endlessly. Given that this film is connected to the Alien franchise, it should be no surprise that David (the robot's name, certainly a wink in the direction of Stanley Kubrick) may have his own agenda.

Once on the moon in question, the crew explores a pyramid, and finds the remains of their presumed creators, who share identical DNA as humans. But they're all dead, and holographic films suggest that they were fleeing from something. Maybe it's the oily things in all those vases that surround a huge stone head, like something out of an Olmec temple.

From here the movie goes sour, turning into a typical "Don't go in that room!" film, like a teenage-slasher movie. There's also dumb moments like when Rapace reveals that she can't get pregnant, which tells us that she will in fact become pregnant, but not necessarily with something human (the most thrilling scene in the film has her give herself a Cesarean). There are all sorts of lines that, as Harrison Ford said of George Lucas' dialogue, may be written, but can't easily be said, like "Son of a bitch," "Jesus Christ!", or my favorite, "What the hell is that?"

The film rests on a mystery that is not answered, left presumably for a sequel that I won't be all that eager to see. The connection to Alien is there, if you wait for the credits, but the H.R. Giger design scheme ties it together visually. Scott, who can make a good movie when he has a good script (Alien and Thelma and Louise for example, but not Blade Runner or Gladiator), is at sea here, the story lumbering along without any particular purpose.

My grade for Prometheus is C+, with the plus for the visual effects and some exciting, white-knuckle sequences. I did not see the 3D version, as I am morally opposed to the process.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

This Sporting Life

This Sporting Life, a 1963 film by Lindsay Anderson, may be the definitive British miserabilist film, at least in the New Wave era. It is exceedingly well written, acted, and directed, and is about as cheery as an autopsy. It's a wonder, watching these films, that suicide isn't rampant in Britain.

The story concerns Frank Machin, played by Richard Harris in his star-making role. He's a coal miner who gets a chance to try out for the city's professional rugby team, and he quickly becomes a star, buying a fancy white car. But he stays in his one room in a house owned by a widow, Rachel Roberts, who carries around her dead husband like a weight on her shoulders. Harris, despite being able to have any woman, is determined to have her, and she eventually relents, but there is little joy in it for her.

The film has a number of relationships examined. Harris is initially the favorite of the owners of the team, Alan Badel, but the man's wife tries to seduce Harris and Badel seems to intuit it. Also, Badel is the man who owns the factory where Roberts' husband died, and she lost her case for workmen's compensation. When Harris proudly shows her a check from the team, signed by Badel, she looks away in disgust.

Harris is also close to the scout who gave him his chance, an old man he calls "Dad" (William Hartnell). I wasn't quite sure what to make of this, wondering if it was a very obscure homosexual attraction, as Roberts points out that Hartnell looks at Harris as if he were a girl.

But the core of the film is the relationship between Harris and Roberts, as unfathomable as almost any relationship in real life. Why does Harris pursue her? She's not unattractive, but has a face chiseled by rough years, rarely forming a smile. She turns to him most likely for physical reasons, but grows to resent being treated like a kept woman, wearing a fur coat that she bought him, the neighbors calling her a slut behind her back.

Harris' performance is remarkable, and he amplifies the script by David Storey, who wrote the film based on his novel. Harris is not a moron--he is seen reading (albeit a paperback potboiler), and resents being referred to as "an ape on the football field." He comes to realize that that is all he is, though, and all he may well ever be. As I said, not a Hallmark card, but an outstanding film.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Two-Dollar Bettor

My Edward L. Cahn film festival ends much later than I anticipated, as the last film (and the first chronologically), Two-Dollar Bettor from 1951, stubbornly remained the top of my Netflix queue with "Short Wait" notification. But it finally came, and it's a cheesy but interesting example of a message B-picture.

Two-Dollar Bettor is sort of the gambling version of Reefer Madness, although the film does have a point: don't bet more money than you can afford to lose. A well-respected businessman (John Litel), is invited to a day at the track. He has no interest in betting, but runs into his brother-in-law, who gives him a tip. He puts down two dollars and wins, and decides to bet on the same jockey, and wins a few more times. Soon he's making bets with a bookmaker, and starts losing.

He makes things worse by dipping into his company funds (he's the comptroller) and continues to lose. He tries to get it all back with one big bet, and thinks he's done it, but the horse is disqualified. An audit of the books looms just days ahead.

Meanwhile, a runner for the bookie (Marie Windsor), is playing Litel for a sucker and she and her grifter boyfriend hook him for another $20,000. Litel catches on and goes to get his money back, armed with a revolver.

Though this film is definitely a B-picture, it does have some quality, particularly in the use of the camera and lighting. The print is badly in need of repair, but you can still get a sense of a decent man going into a downward spiral. In some ways this reminds me of other films about degenerate gambles, most notably Owning Mahowny, which also had a man stealing from his own company.

Some of the film is laughably corny, though. Litel plays a widower with two teenage daughters, and the first part of the film is like some bad sit-com from days gone by. The girls seem to be holding a continuous dance party in the living room (one of the guests is Carl "Alfalfa" Sweitzer). Playing Litel's secretary is soon-to-be legendary TV mom Barbara Billingsley.

Though I'm sure the various horse racing associations probably didn't appreciate the film, it does have a powerful message.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

11/22/63

"The past is obdurate," is the refrain heard often in Stephen King's magisterial novel 11/22/63. King, a genre writer who has cracked the glass ceiling of literary fiction many times, puts a hole in it with this novel, which though engaging one of the main tenants of science fiction, time travel, accomplishes something much richer and deeper with meaning about one of the worst days in American history.

The narrator is Jake Epping, a typical schoolteacher in a small town in Maine. He hangs out at greasy spoon run by an old guy named Al, who serves hamburgers so cheap the locals think they must be cat meat. One day Al looks years older, and tells Jake his story--there is a portal in the pantry of the diner that takes one back to a specific moment in time, just before noon on a September day in 1958. He invites Jake to try it out for himself, and sure enough Jake finds a different America, where root beer tastes better, and "To my right was a rack of comic books with their covers torn off--Archie, Batman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Tales from the Crypt. That hand-printed sign about this trove, which would have sent any eBay aficionado into paroxysms, read COMIX 5 cents EA THREE FOR 10. NINE FOR A QUARTER PLEASE DON'T HANDLE UNLESS YOU INTEND TO BUY."

Al had traveled through the portal often, buying meat at a substantial discount, which he passed on to his 2011 customers. But he finally got the idea that he had a chance to alter history. He could stay in the past for five years and attempt to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing Kennedy. But he had come down with lung cancer, and couldn't make it. So he has enlisted Jake to do it for him.

King lays out the time travel rules clearly. One can stay in the past for several years, but when they come back through the portal only two minutes have passed in 2011. Also, each visit to the past is a reset, so this avoids the running into one's self problem. Jake decides to do it, but he wants to prove to himself that he can alter the past, and knows the story of a janitor at his school whose family was murdered by his father in a drunken rage with a hammer. The janitor survived, but with a dented skull. Jake's first stop is the town of Derry, where he will try to stop that murder.

Derry, as anyone who has read multiple books by King, is a favorite place of his, a town of malevolence. He even throws in a few mentions of other books, notably It, and its serial killer dressed as a clown. "On that gray street, with the smell of industrial smokes in the air and the afternoon bleeding away to evening, downtown Derry looked only marginally more charming that a dead hooker in a church pew." Jake accomplishes what he set out to do, but the build up to it is fraught with tension, as only a horror master like King can do. Once he proves to himself that the past can be changed, he takes on Oswald.

The book is highly detailed, and we follow Jake as he whiles away the time between 1958 and 1963. He keeps his finances afloat by careful betting, as he knows the results of sporting events. This was how Biff, in Back to the Future, Part II, made a fortune. But King points out that when dealing with bookies, who are not legal entities, constantly winning on long shots can be a problem.

Eventually Jake arrives in Dallas, but is turned off by the bigotry of the city and takes a teaching job in a small town about an hour away. There he will fall in love with the school librarian, Sadie, which will enrich his time in the past but complicate things immeasurably. The past is obdurate, and there are forces that seem to conspire to keep him from accomplishing his task, whether it be illness, car trouble, or the specter of Sadie's crackpot ex-husband.

I won't go too much more into detail. King has done his homework on Oswald's coming and goings in the years before the assassination, and Jake spies on him, trying to determine whether he was in on it alone (King's determination is that he was--no grassy knoll shooter). The sequence on the morning of the dastardly day, with Jake and Sadie trying to make it to the book depository in time despite numerous obstacles, is white-knuckle stuff.

Beyond the suspense, though, 11/22/63 is a rumination on the nature of time itself, and whether the past should be left alone. The "butterfly effect" is mentioned often (fitting, now that the first author to use that, Ray Bradbury, has just died). Just the slightest change may have unforeseen and even worse consequences. A man spared from the draft by having his head caved in may not die in Vietnam, as he might if he were fully healthy. And an uninterrupted two terms of President Kennedy may not lead to the paradise some people believe--but I'll let you find out for yourself.

But this book really turns out to be a love story. Jake, though sticking to his mission, finds his love for Sadie, as time-crossed as it is, to alter his strategy. For King, a humanist and deep down a sentimentalist,  this is as it should be. The ending, which I certainly won't spoil here, is as touching as anything he has written.

There are also numerous and typical King touches of pop culture. At one point, Jake almost blows his cover by breaking into the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," about a decade before it was written. He also displays his typically dry sense of humor: "Here is one of the great truths of the human condition: when you need Stayfree Maxi Pads to absorb the expectorants produced by your insulted body, you are in serious fucking trouble."

I recommend this book highly, not only for King fans but anyone interested in a gripping read, especially Americans who remember the title day and have wondered, what if?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Gladiator

It isn't often I give a third chance to a movie I initially didn't like. Gladiator, Ridley Scott's 2000 Oscar-winning Best Picture, underwhelmed me upon its initial release, and I gave it a C-. I watched it a year or so later on DVD, and was once again unimpressed. But since I've been immersing myself in ancient Rome and gladiator films, I figured I'd look at it again, and lo and behold, I found it entertaining. Bombastic, but entertaining.

Perhaps, oddly enough, it was because I saw the extended edition, which adds 17 minutes to the director's cut. You wouldn't think a bad movie would be made better by adding to it, or maybe it's just because I was in a better mood. Also, counter-intuitively, now that I know more of the history and understand how historically inaccurate the film is, it didn't lessen my enjoyment.

The story is set in the second century A.D. Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the emperor, is leading a campaign against the Goths of Germany. His general, a Spaniard named Maximus (Russell Crowe) defeats the Germans. Marcus, dying, wishes to restore Rome to the Republic, and wants Maximus to succeed him, bypassing his dissolute son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). When Commodus is told, he doesn't take it well, and kills his old man (not true--Marcus Aurelius died of plague, and had no intention of restoring the Republic or bypassing Commodus). Commodus orders Maximus to be executed, but he escapes, only to be captured and sold into slavery (after finding out his family was slaughtered). He is trained as a gladiator by Proximo (Oliver Reed, doing nice work in his last role), and swears he will get revenge on Commodus.

Gladiator is a lot of fun, and it's an impressive production. The photography by John Mathieson and editing by Pietro Scalia are top notch, particularly during battle and gladiator scenes. The film flirts with, but does not break into high camp, especially with Phoenix's performance. Crowe, who won the Oscar for Best Actor (he most likely won because the Academy didn't want to give Tom Hanks a third Oscar for Cast Away) is above average in a role that mostly calls on acting with his forehead.

Where Gladiator fails is that it announces itself as an epic but falls short. It's a movie full of hot air. There are too many scenes of clouds and lightning, of tricky shots and a director who is constantly looking at the audience for their approval.

Now, as to the history. There's an entire page on Wikipedia devoted to the accuracy or not of the movie, and no movie is completely historically accurate (I learned today from a college student who has spent time in Rwanda how inaccurate Hotel Rwanda was). Gladiator is especially inaccurate, but mostly in fact rather than tone. In addition to the mistakes listed on Wikipedia, there are others. For one thing, Proximo, according to correct Latin, would be called Proximus. The costumes, as mentioned on Wikipedia, though they won an Oscar for Janty Yates, are historically problematic. For one thing, no gladiator would be sent out, as Crowe is, with only a sword, without a helmet, shield, or arm and leg guards. Gladiator fights were not always to the death, and someone fighting with no protection wouldn't have much chance.

Also, a gladiator would never fight another man and animals at the same time, as Crowe does. Of course, this can be explained by Commodus trying to stack the deck against him. Speaking of Commodus, he was a burly, curly-haired blond man who fought often in the arena, not a sniveling coward, but he was murdered in his bathtub several years into his reign.

But, like I said, even knowing more about ancient Rome than I did when I first watched Gladiator, I enjoyed it more this time. But I enjoyed it as a popcorn movie, not as an Oscar-winning Best Picture. Better than Traffic? Puh-leeze!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

You have to give some credit to Universal, for making a $170 million dollar picture that tells the story of Snow White much more closely aligned with the Brothers Grimm than with Disney. It also has a somewhat feminist approach--for women, then as always, youth and beauty equal power. There even isn't a Prince Charming.

It's unfortunate, then, that Snow White and the Huntsman starts with ambition but is ultimately a film that earns shrugs of the shoulders. I saw it on Saturday and it already seems like a distant memory. Perhaps the problem is that it is directed by a novice, Rupert Sanders, who graduated from short films and commercials, for this film never really takes flight and instead kind of just sits there.

As with the Grimm fairy tale, a queen pricks her finger and three drops of blood fall in the snow. She wishes for a baby that has lips like blood, skin like snow, and hair like a raven's wing. She is rewarded with a girl called Snow White, but dies shortly after giving birth.

Later, the kingdom is threatened by an army of soldiers who shatter into pieces when struck. The king rescues a hostage, a beautiful woman called Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and he marries her. Turns out to be a bad idea, because she's something of a Trojan horse, a woman who wiles her way into kingdoms, kills the kings, and takes over. She does this in short order.

The princess Snow White is imprisoned, and grows into maturity to look like Kristen Stewart. The queen has a mirror that she speaks to, and answers her by forming a silverish humanoid figure (an interesting wrinkle is added when her brother, Sam Spruell, watches her talk to the mirror but does not see the silver man, perhaps indicating the queen is whackadoo). You know the rest--"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all," yada yada yada.

Snow White escapes, and the queen hires a dissolute hunter (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. He's mourning a dead wife, and has no interest in the job, except that it pays well. But he quickly finds out that the queen is up to no good, and takes Snow White's side (in the fairy tale, he returns to the queen with the heart of a pig). Hemsworth teams with Snow, along with a group of irascible dwarfs and her childhood friend (Sam Claflin) to create an army to try to destroy the evil queen.

What works about his movie mostly stems from Theron. She gives a crafty performance, looking great but oozing evil. Her character is written somewhat like the very real Countess of Bathory of Romania, who bathed in the blood of virgins to try to keep young. Theron bathes in milk, instead, but does suck the life force out of young women whenever a few wrinkles start to show.

But what makes the character work is the sense that she's a woman trapped by beauty. She is scared to lose it, because she knows without it she has no power. The movie suggests she may be very old indeed, and has done this many times. This has definite parallels to today's society, where men are said to age gracefully while women are just about cast aside when they start to get old.

The rest of the movie is a routine action picture. The dwarfs, who are played by British character actors such as Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, and Ray Winstone (shrunk down via CGI) are not so cuddly as they were in Disney--they don't sing "Heigh-Ho" on the way to work, and are painted as possible thieves. But they side with Snow and Hemsworth because they don't like the queen's rule, either.

As for Stewart, she's perfectly fine, and shows more spine than she does in the Twilight movies. It seems kind of ridiculous to see her wearing armor and leading a cavalry charge, like Joan of Arc. Many of the battle scenes are not well shot or edited, and are simply a lot of business.
 
I did like some of the special effects. At one point Theron turns into a flock or ravens, and then back in her castle reconstitutes herself out of the carcasses of the birds, which is pretty neat. Also neat are guardians she creates out of shards of glass. If this film gets an Oscar nod for Visual Effects it would be well-earned.

But, despite the attempt at linking the fairy tale of old to today's culture, Snow White and the Huntsman is mediocre at best. Nice try.

My grade for Snow White and the Huntsman: C.