Thursday, March 27, 2008

Horton Hears a Who (Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, 2008)

Who gives a hoot?

Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino's Horton Hears a Who! (2008), the digitally animated adaptation of the Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) classic is easily the best to come out in recent years--which isn't exactly high praise. Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000) had a green and fuzzy Jim Carrey caper charmlessly through a bloated, digitally enhanced movie; The Cat in the Hat (2003) had Mike Myers do it all over again, this time in a cat suit. Easily the best adaptation of the lot remains the 1966 version of Grinch with Boris Karloff unforgettably grumpy as the eponymous creature, and Chuck Jones injecting much-needed wit into what has always struck me as an otherwise saccharine Christmas perennial (but then I consider the entire season is saccharine). It helps that Jones' animated short came in at a lean thirty minutes; Seuss should really be taken in brief doses, if one has to take him at all.

I haven't seen Jones' 1970 version of Horton--presumably yet another twenty-six minutes of Jones improving on Geisel's work--but I'm guessing I'm not too far off when I say that that must look like a masterpiece of economy and felicity and grace compared to this production (never mind the difference in budget), which runs for about three times that length. Geisel reportedly approved of Jones' Grinch; he probably spun in his grave upon viewing the two big-budget productions, is rocking uneasily inside his coffin at the prospect of watching this one.

What's missing, you might ask? I'm not quite sure myself. The voice performances are pretty nifty--Jim Carrey's Horton does impersonations of Henry Kissinger and Al Gore all the while he's channeling William Shatner as Captain Kirk (which has always been Carrey's default dialogue delivery style). The slapstick is inventive enough when not doing the standard-issue ploy of imitating every amusement park ride this side of Disney World (American animators have this unshakeable belief, it seems to me (or is there some handbook hidden away somewhere?), that something fun and visually spectacular and even dangerously imitable must happen onscreen every five seconds, or the kiddies will start looking for the exit ("Mom! I want more soda! Mom, I want more candy!" "Mom! I need to go to the bathroom now!" "Mom! I went to the bathroom in my pants--don't need to go no more!"). I'm of two minds about this picture dropping some of the more outré humor found in Cat and Grinch (parents need to be entertained, after all, just upping the number of pratfalls won't do it) until I remember Carrey's (and Myers') green (and white) furred face (I can see them slowly merging into a single horrifying close-up), and I stop feeling uneasy--they know exactly where they can insert their attempts at adult humor, sideways.

The plot is nothing new: Horton is your classic loner rebel of an elephant who must struggle to have the rest of the Nool Jungle community believe that he really does hold the entire town of Whoville in a speck of dust in a flower held at the tip of his trunk (think Eliot protecting a microbe-sized E.T., or poor David struggling for the attention of disbelieving adults in the 1953 Invaders From Mars). Perhaps the one twist in the story is the difference in scale, Horton being an elephant and the Whoville community being microscopic--"A person's a person, no matter how small," people say during the course of the picture (a theme Richard Matheson and Jack Arnold has already dealt with, in subtler and more poignant manner, in the great 1957 classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (and I haven't even mentioned Jonathan Swift)). But Geisel's not satisfied with that the old chestnut; he has to replicate the storyline all over again in miniature, with the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) trying to convince the citizens that they are in danger. If the filmmakers had pointed up the parallelism, maybe shown how the conversation on a macro scale affects matters on a micro scale--but no, that would be too sophisticated; we just get story on one end of the clover, basically the same story re-told at the other.

There are a few grace notes--there's blackly comic mileage made from the Whoville patriarchs desperately trying to put the best face on things, even when the whole world's falling apart around them (any reference to Al Gore and his campaign against global warming is always welcome), and no movie with the guts to play REO Speedwagon's I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore as a straight-faced climactic musical number can be utterly bad. Little Katie (voiced by Joey King) has such terrifyingly adorable eyes, and her one memorable line is so utterly demented ("In my world everyone is a pony, and they all eat rainbows, and poop butterflies") I'm disappointed she doesn’t snap and sink her teeth into someone's leg--but then I'm forgetting the nature of the sensibility that inspired all this.

It's not bad, actually, but it doesn't exactly rock one's world, does it? Partly it's the animation--I've yet to see a 100 percent digitally animated film evoke or exceed the beauty of handpainted animation (much prefer to see digital animation confined to one corner, made to behave itself, and perform only when called upon (see Studio Ghibli's use of the same in, say, Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004)), or in Steve Box and Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit in "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Wallace and Gromit in 'The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,'" released the same year).


Partly it's the source material--never been a fan of Dr. Seuss' brand of nursery whimsy and safe-as-houses moralizing, and the idea of eating green eggs with ham only makes me queasy. Which makes one ask--when is Tim Burton going to do a film version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are? If we're going to continue translating children's literature to the big screen, we might as well try adopting something with real teeth.

First published in Businessworld, 3.28.08

Bone marrow soup and steamed rice


A bowl of boiled beauty



Anthony Bourdain's death-row meal--in effect, what he would like to eat if he was going to be fried by two thousand volts the very next day--is roasted bone marrow with parsley salad.

I've tried
cooking that meal myself, and it's very good, very rich. But I've just realized that I've eaten--have been eating, for years--something even better.

In other words,
bulalo, or boiled beef shank with bone marrow. The recipe linked here is one I'm familiar with, only with a helluva lot more peppercorns. Not just the shank, which when boiled properly is full of tender meat and softened tendons and cartilage, but tail and neck bones as well.

The result--well, admittedly roasting the bones gives them a unique flavor, but boiling them to make a rich broth spooned over steamed rice (as opposed to spreading the marrow on toasted bread) is another thing entirely. Far more homey, I think, and comforting (and wonderful in the winter cold). True there's the former's contrast of textures--marrow on crisp toast--but that unctuous fat spread over pillowy rice (appreciated especially if your teeth aren't as firm as they used to be) flavored with simmering soup is, I submit, an equally complex (and arguably subtler--you get different shades of softness) symphony for tongue and teeth.

And while roasted bone marrow has been accursed with the
patina of fine dining, bulalo is still pretty much a home-cooked meal, at most a lunch-counter meal. I remember going out on client calls to the province of Batangas, with officers from the Development Bank of the Philippines in tow. I particularly remember Vivian and Liza (poor Liza, who has since passed away, was always game to try something) asking to stop for lunch, the corporate van parked before an eatery with wraparound wire-netting windows and a creaking screen door (spring loaded, of course, to keep the door closed and horseflies out). We stepped out of the van into the broiling heat (being noon and the south of Luzon, it was easily ninety Fahrenheit in the shade), walked into a crowded lunchroom with concrete floor, picnic-table benches, wooshing ceiling fans overhead, picked up our orders at the long canteen-style counter (servers with great ladles splashing hot soups into bowls; tongs deftly picking out one's choice of vegetables, meats, bones; cups scooping out rice from huge pots to be emptied, upside-down, into plates).

I'd learned much later that Vivian and Liza had been horrified--such a common, low-class place for us to eat! But I loved it; I loved the cheap prices, the workingman atmosphere, the no-nonsense efficiency. And I like to think that, despite the ambience (or utter lack of), the two really enjoyed the food (I remember Vivian--or was it Liza?--wrinkling her nose and saying "it wasn't very hygienic--you can see the cooks' sweat dripping into the broth." To which I replied: "but that's part of the flavor!"). At the very least, they must have appreciated my company.

Memories like that and, further back, of myself as a child eating bulalo, can't help but rise up steaming (like the cliché of ghostly apparitions, only with a distinctly beefy aroma) from the bowl in front of me. I like to eat the pechay (Chinese cabbage) first, as a way to assuage my guilt at such a sinful indulgence (although pechay with rice and hot soup--the bitter leaves crunchy, the soft starch soaking up the meaty juices--is in itself a wondrous thing). I use a knife to worry out the marrow (sometimes I use a chopstick, though my favorite method bone structure allowing is to press one end to my lips and just blow the stuff--like snot--out the other end), which would lie like deep-gold butter (with flecks of brown meat) on top of the rice, trembling; my hands would tremble too, almost as if in sympathetic reaction.

And then--the secret, the glory of bulalo: the patis, or fish sauce. English roasted marrows are traditionally seasoned with salt--sea salt, if you like--but that is a poor substitute for this divine, dark-brown elixir dripped from unsteady spoon over rice, fat, everything. It's as if, having decided to excavate the heart, the very essence of beef flavor, you recklessly throw in the briny sweetness (oh so slightly corrupted by aging) of the sea. Surf and turf, fermented and fresh, raised to the level of countryside poetry.

Bourdain can keep his death-row meal and my earlier self can go stuff himself with parsley salad for all I care; a death row dish--a dish so beloved you would choose it for your last night on Earth--needn't be anything read from a book or seen on a TV show or downloaded from the internet; sometimes it can be as simple as what your grandmother cooked when you were a child, or ordered at a lunch counter, or ate at home, remembering, in the dead of winter.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The most delicious banana in the world


Bought a copy of Dave Koeppel's Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World on the strength of a recent interview he did on NPR; I don't think I'm going to regret the purchase.

The fruit is fascinating not just for its nutritional properties (it rarely if ever causes allergic reactions, is easily digestible even by babies, provides a quick burst of energy, a safe source of fiber, is rich with among others vitamins C, B6, a protein that includes three essential amino acids (combined with milk the fruit is almost a nutritionally complete diet), and potassium, a crucial element for muscular efficiency) but for the way it's cultivated (bananas sold in the United States are genetically descended from a single fruit tree variety (actually a very tall herb) called the Cavendish), distributed and marketed as America's (and the world's) most popular fruit--and the story of how it came to be that way, thanks to the efforts of Chiquita Brands International, formerly the United Fruit Company.

The company's achievements are all the more impressive considering that the banana at the turn of the century was virtually unknown to Americans, and that the most popular fruit at the time, the apple, was local produce while the banana had to be imported from South America. United Fruit's solution was to grow the fruit cheaply, so cheaply that the company has played an active role in the history of South America, and not always in a morally admirable way (basically it paid slave wages to banana growers, and kept those wages low by installing and maintaining repressive regimes).

Perhaps one of the most blatant examples of the United Fruit's machinations was the ouster of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman from Guatemala in 1954. Having ascended to power as president in one of the country's earliest democratic elections, Arbenz proposed land reform; United Fruit, the single biggest owner of unused land in Guatemala, was so unhappy it stage-managed (with the help of among others the CIA and even The New York Times) his overthrow. Under threat of invasion by the American military Arbenz resigned, and was stripped to his underwear in front of members of the press before being allowed to board a plane to Mexico.

Perhaps the most appalling single episode involving United Fruit, however indirectly, was what happened in 1929 in the town of Cienaga, in Colombia. Some months before thirty-two thousand United Fruit subcontractors (they weren't considered proper employees, to help keep wages and health benefits low) went on strike, and thanks to corporate pressure the Colombian government declared a nationwide martial law.

The very next day, a Sunday, people came out of church after hearing mass and assembled in the town square, waiting to listen to a speech from a regional politician; a general--presumably trying to prevent military intervention from the United States--ordered four machine guns positioned high around the square to fire at the men, women, and children below. Ambassador Caffery later wrote Washington that he had "the honor to report...that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian mlitary exceeded one thousand." Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez would decades later incorporate this episode (with little embellishment, far as I can see) into his best-known work, Cien anos de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967)

That was decades ago, one might say; besides, United Fruit has since lost power and morphed into the more innocuous-sounding Chiquita Brands International. True enough, only just last year the company was fined $25 million for giving over a million dollars to a Colombian terrorist group.

On the flip (and somewhat lighter) side there's a story of how United Fruit developed ways of promoting the banana, including jingles, a corporate logo based on movie star Carmen Miranda, and the idea of eating it with milk and cereal; at one point Kellogg's provided a coupon inside their cereal boxes redeemable for free bananas to be sliced into the cereal, and such was United Fruit's power that it had Kellogg's pay for the bananas.

Then there was the problem of marketing such a sexually suggestive fruit. United Fruit's solution to selling such a phallic product to squeamish women was to depict conservative young girls eating the fruit always with the skin half-peeled. With the banana constantly surrounded by a skirt of its own tough skin, it looked considerably less, well, threatening...

Perhaps one of the book's most fascinating accounts is of how the Cavendish--a by most reports bland and fragile fruit--replaced the Gros Michel as the United State's banana of choice, not because it was better (the Gros Michel (Big Mike) was sweeter, tougher) but because the Gros Michel was being wiped out by a fungus; the Panama disease, it was called, because it first started in Panama. Ironically, the same disease is striking the Cavendish now (apparently the Cavendish was immune to only one strain of the disease), and is about ready to wipe the fruit off the face of the planet.

But easily the most interesting part of the book for me was Mr. Koeppel's account of the different, delicious varietes of bananas found all over the world, and top of his list was the humble lacatan (see photo above), a Filipino banana that the writer describes as having flesh "the color of creme brulee," and a taste that is "lush and full-bodied, with an intense flavor that recalls homemade banana ice cream." Jon Verdick, who runs a San Diego nursery for exotic fruits, calls it "true nobility among bananas;" in fact, Koeppel continues, "the only problem with eating this regal banana is that afterwards you may feel--as I now do--condemned to living in a world turned drab when you bite into an ordinary Cavendish."

Flattering words to read, of course, and not a little embarrassing. Truth to tell, I've taken the banana for granted all my life. I could find the lacatan everywhere, in grocery stores, at street corner vendors, growing along the sidewalk, for God's sake! We even had a lacatan tree sprouting in our back yard--and I'm ashamed to say I've never bothered to reach up and just pick one. I've always preferred something juicier--the tart lanzones, the sweetly grainy atis, the incomparable mango (that fibrous fruit found in American grocery shelves--it's okay, but the difference is as if between night and day) among many, many others. Even among bananas, I preferred the tarter, paler-fleshed latundan, or the far smaller, extremely sweet senorita; I never considered eating the lacatan a particularly special experience.

Now I'm more than a little curious; I'd love to taste a lacatan again, if only to find out what I've so idiotically missed all my life. I keep wondering about the fruit--was its flesh really the color of creme brulee?--and when I might be able to go back and try it again. I suppose it's just one more regret meant to haunt me for the rest of my life, about the country I left behind...

3.14.08

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

For your viewing penance

Joe Wright's Atonement isn't half so bad; for at least most of the running time, it's a dandy, sumptuous adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel about a young girl (Briony Tallis, played by Saoirse Roman), her lies, and their devastating effect on the lives of two young lovers (Robby Turner and Cecilia Tallis, respectively played by James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley). Along the way Wright brings Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's talents to bear, and manages to evoke a world of half-lit rooms and overcast landscapes; if the sun ever does break through (as it does in a lengthy four-minute shot, in Dunkirk), it's to bathe the characters in the warm glow of a coal fire, a dying one, meant partly to symbolize the lovers' dimmed hopes for a happy life, partly to express the Allies' slim chances for survival, partly to suggest the fading might of the British empire.

It's extraordinarily shot, and the four-minute plus sequence in particular is an impressive stunt borne out of necessity (Wright had lost a day of shooting, so he decided to film most of the Dunkirk sequence in a single take) and a presumed hunger to win one of those gold doorstops Hollywood filmmakers always scramble after (somewhat successfully; for the record it earned several nominations, among them best picture--won only for music), never mind that much of it is sentimental claptrap (the choir singing a mournful dirge, the horses being slaughtered (a reference perhaps to a similar scene in Theo Angelopoulos' great Topio stin omichli (Landscapes in the Mist, 1988)?)). Equally impressive if not more so (and far more relevant to the narrative) is a shot of the star-crossed lovers kissing at a window, and the camera descending to capture the young girl, now a young woman, standing below, pointedly exempted from their romantic bliss. It should be clear to anyone watching that Wright is doing his level best to pump up the proceedings, to shake the cobwebs from an otherwise standard-issue period picture, with anemic sensibility and doddering good taste.

And Wright might be right to do this too, if it was anything like his last work, a 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (maybe not--Austen is one of the least sentimental of great writers, and if it takes a bit of introduction to ease oneself into her world of precisely tooled social cogs and gearwheels, once in you eventually sense an overall intelligence controlling the action, commenting on it with a cool, confident air (Austen's authorial voice, in fact). That intelligence does not, I believe, need any explaining; it's immortal, universal, the source of her enduring greatness). But the source for this picture is McEwan, one of the more modern (post-modern?) of sensibilities, with a streak of perverse cruelty matched only perhaps by John Fowles. Does McEwan need any easing into his world, any prefatory note to warn us of the complexities of his narrative? I think not; I think much of the shenanigans Wright inserts into the picture are pretty much unnecessary (this including the virtuoso long take at Dunkirk). McEwan has been better served by filmmakers who recognize the strangeness of his fiction, who allow that strangeness to shine all the brighter by keeping the visual style low-key and familiar (think of the austere camerawork (in otherwise decadent Venetian settings) of Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1990)--possibly the best adaptation of McEwan to date).

Wright reveals himself in a series of missteps. The crucial scene at the library is pretty much chopped up (did Kiera Knightley insist that her nipples not be shown?), so that we're as confused about what's going on as poor Briony, who thinks Cecilia is being raped; when Briony crashes a church wedding and sits by a soldier dying in bed, the lighting and music are so stylized that we can't help but feel we're witnessed to an extended fevered dream. Which, as it turns out, may be the case, giving the game away early.

To be fair, Wright's choice of Roman as Briony is brilliant--Roman at thirteen captures the repulsive yet fascinating self-absorption of a sexually curious brat, and her equivalent at 18, actress Romola Garai, shows us in what directions of acute loneliness her monstrousness is headed. His casting of James McAvoy as the unfortunate Robbie isn't too bad; McAvoy captures the helpless anger of lower-class men promised equality by liberal patriarchs, only to have it suddenly snatched away.


Knightley as Cecilia, however, is disastrous--Knightley may have snowed critics with her performance in Pride and Prejudice (which may be why Wright believes in her so much) but here she's asked to carry the weight of epic, tragic suffering on shoulders that look as if they could barely hold up a romantic comedy.

(Romantic comedy's no joke--that's why I couldn't buy Knightley in Pride and Prejudice and why I thought Wright's version an overstrenuous affair, gothic and hyperventilating. Better yet is the 1995 BBC mini-series, which ran at the proper length (five hours' worth) to capture Austen's precise tone, or even Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995) which transposed Austen's Emma to Beverly Hills, neatly bypassing the problem of a quick and painless introduction to Austen's intricate society (Heckerling's genius conceit is that Hollywood teen flicks and Beverly Hills, 90210 have already done the job for her, and that these frivolous, totally useless social classes are worthy of attention, even of imaginative transformation into great comedy--a sentiment of which Austen herself might have approved))

Wright's ending is a disaster, a monstrously misconceived tearjerking farce to rival the climax of Kurosawa's Subarashiki nichiyobi (One Wonderful Sunday, 1947) or Peter Jackson's abysmally sticky King Kong (2005), with its hundred ton anthropoid gone ice-skating. The action has moved to present day, and Briony (now played by Vanessa Redgrave) is being interviewed on television; some startling revelations are made (startling only, of course, if you haven't noticed all the clues Wright has been dropping like thousand-pound bombs throughout the latter half of the movie), and the picture ends with Redgrave essentially pleading with the audience to clap their hands and believe in fairies. I've heard alternate interpretations--that Briony's position is just wishful thinking, and meant to be taken as such--but it's hard not to think that Wright has cast his lot firmly and unambiguously with the character when he unleashes the physically impressive Redgrave on us, in gigantic close-up (Knightley, by way of comparison, looks like an amuse bouche on a toothpick). McEwan should spin in his grave upon viewing what they've done to his novel, I think; or, since he's still living among us, he should keel over dead and then start spinning, stat.


First published 3/14/08 in Businessworld

Friday, March 07, 2008

Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007)

Age of Aquarius

Julie Taymor's Across the Universe (2007) might be the bastard result if you crossed Milos Forman's Hair (1979) with Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) and allowed Ken Russell to direct. The film is basically a series of Beatles songs strung together with a very loose plotline assembled from most of the main events of the late '60s, and a rather lame love story thrown in.

I mention Russell, but Taymor's opening image owes little to the legendary British filmmaker: a desolate beach; a camera that moves in close on a man sitting on that beach, looking over his shoulders, singing a quietly intense rendition of "Girl." The mix is so odd it might have you giggling, but it's also at the same time ominous, melancholic, and (if you allow it to be) powerful.

The same can't quite be said of the script, a surprisingly trite affair considering it was done by veteran British TV writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (they've worked with both Lenny Henry and Tracy Ullman, among others): boy named Jude (Jim Sturgess) meets girl named Lucy (Evan Rachel Ward); Lucy insists on treating the world seriously and engaging it in loud political dialogue while Jude insists on staying a step removed from the swirl of life and celebrating his love for Lucy; Lucy's brother Max (Joe Anderson) is drafted, and gives us a grunt's eye view of the war; Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy) are constantly falling in and out of love; and Prudence (pretty Filipina actress T.V. Carpio) wanders in and out of kitchen windows, looking for something to do, someone to care for.

If what I've written seems rather vague and uninteresting, that's probably because it is. The filmmakers have taken their cue from yet another source: Dennis Potter, who laced his dramas with '30s pop songs, lip-synched by the actors. Potter was working with--to my mind, anyway--inferior material, tinny tunes from pre-war radios, not as substantial or subtle or complex as the best of the Beatles (you're free to agree or disagree, and I just might sit down and join you), yet his scripts were brilliantly written, with complex, unhappy protagonists delivering memorable hyperconscious dialogue (sometimes even memorable monologues, as with Michael Gambon's bedside rant in Potter's 1986 masterpiece, The Singing Detective) that flitted effortlessly between fantasy, memory, and reality. The songs in Potter's case served to intensify the moment, give it an unearthly power (asked about his use of pop songs and why they're so effective, Potter said that's because he never confused the emotions of a pop song with the emotions felt by the people listening to that song); in this picture the songs are the moment, and when the song ends, the movie usually grinds to a halt till the next musical number rolls along.

That may be because when the dialogue ends, Taymor's talent takes over. It's not a very consistent talent; parts of Taymor's 1999 Titus are grotesque poetry (a girl with tree limbs for hands, standing on a pedestal), parts simply grotesque (Titus in a parody of Silence of the Lambs and Sweeney Todd serves the empress Tamora a meat pie made from human flesh). In this film some of the very best scenes make use of Taymor's flair for strong imagery (that opening number), lighting, and surrealism (the pinned strawberries--bleeding bright red juice like freshly torn hearts--that open "Strawberry Fields Forever"). She'll often transform setting and staging, transforming the meaning in the process (hundreds of recruits in a vast room being given a physical by hundreds of recruiters; descending walls turn the room into a warren of little offices ("I Want You (She's So Heavy)"); hospital beds lift up to reveal Vietnam vets strapped tight as if involved in some hideous medical experiment, suddenly given relief in the form of Selma Hayek (all five of her) administering a blue drug in an enormous syringe ("Happiness is a Warm Gun")). By way of comparison to other modern musicals, Baz Luhrman's
Moulin Rouge (2001) was shot and edited music-video style and at a pace guaranteed to make your teeth grind, and Alan Parker's The Wall (1982) confined itself to the darker registers of human emotion (despair, depression, druggy denial). On those admittedly not very demanding terms, Taymor's film is some kind of masterpiece.

The excess can be problematical: for the LSD drug trips Taymor resorts to clichés like "negative" film print and psychedelic colors (Taymor should have perhaps studied Richard Rush's 1968
Psych-Out which gets the ambience of a drug trip right with the minimum use of process or digital effects). "Strawberry Fields Forever" in particular is so very close to being a great number--the idea of relating Jude's passion for Lucy to America's passion for war using strawberries is brilliant, but a clearer graphic design linking the two (less digital superimposition, more editing and camerawork) might have helped immeasurably.

It might also have helped if the actors actually had any characters to play; as is, Jude, Lucy, Jojo, Prudence are little more than names lifted from Beatle songs, their problems more diagrammed than dramatized. When they start singing, though, they're mannequins brought to temporary life; Taymor arranges and poses and lights them in such a way that they're part of the landscape she's creating, and that landscape throbs with a vitality the actors don't have, otherwise.

It's maddening, frustrating, yet at the same time strangely exhilarating. Taymor's shown that she can take the greatest of dramatists and bring him (not The Bard's best work, but Titus Andronicus is itself a fascinating choice--the most beautiful bonsai, it must be remembered, are not picked from the healthiest plants) to roaring if incoherent life; she's shown she can take one of the finest of popular bands and brilliantly visualize some if not all of their songs; what might you think she is capable of, working with the script of a great dramatist who incorporates fine songs into his script? If only Dennis Potter were still alive, or if Taymor would agree to do one of his unproduced scripts, or maybe adopt one of his television mini-series to the big screen (another Singing Detective, perhaps?), maybe we'll have something.

(First published in
Businessworld, 3/7/08)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007)

Keep it simple, stupid.

On the Gold Doorstop awards show or whatever that was held recently: enjoyed the Coens' No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and Jason Reitman's Juno as easy entertainments that are not in any way substantial (much less great), thought Joe Wright's Atonement terrible (especially that syrupy ending), and felt that Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis was by far the best animated film last year, and no slick and shiny movie about cooking rodents is going to convince me otherwise. Overall, the Oscars were a keen disappointment--I had hoped the writer's strike would extend long enough to force the show to cancel, much like the Golden Globes.

Ah well, moving on. The picture at hand's story began with something Elmore Leonard wrote in 1953 for Dime Western Magazine titled "Three-Ten to Yuma," a taut little thriller where a deputy marshal escorts a captured stagecoach robber to a train headed for a prison in Yuma. Leonard didn't put much into the story--it's simply the clash between an every day Joe (Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin) and a celebrity criminal (Ben Wade, played by Glenn Ford), and any questions about why they do what they do and what's going on inside their heads are left unanswered--or rather, to our imagination. Leonard reportedly was not a fan of Daves' film, mainly because it attempted to explain the characters' motivations, how Evans' (now a rancher) cattle were dying, and in desperate need for two hundred dollars to save them.

I wonder what Leonard thinks of James Mangold's 2007 remake. Mangold (Heavy (1995), Copland (1997)) is an arthouse film director turned mainstream who's nevertheless always strove to do things a little different, and whose emphasis has always been on character portraiture more than narrative momentum (Heavy in particular was, I thought, aptly named), and who's often pulled critically received performances from the most unlikely of actors (shiny gold doorstops for Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (1999) and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (2005)). To say Mangold and Leonard are a poor fit is, I think, an understatement; where Leonard is content to keep his hero's motivations a mystery, Mangold demands a past history to construct the detailed performances he's known for; hence, I assume, the probing into Evans' (here played by Christian Bale) past, and the added curlicues of motivation given to him (a wooden leg from the Civil War that clunks noisily across rooms and gives way at crucial moments, for example, and a villainous banker who holds the deed to the ranch and orders the burning of Evans' barn).

Actionwise Mangold delivers--perhaps overdelivers. An Apache attack; an escape from sadistic miners; an entire town paid to kill the lawmen and help Wade (played with insouciant gusto by Russell Crowe) escape--Mangold enjoys a budget here he's never had before, and it's possible all that money's gone to his head. Which would have been all good if Mangold were a master at conveying spatial relationships and coherent motion--which he's not; when Wade kills a bounty hunter (played with leathery grit by a dried-out Peter Fonda) the body is tossed off a cliff that appears out of nowhere; when Wade and Evans and friends escape through a mine tunnel we're not sure if they're running forward into a new tunnel or backwards, out where they came from. Mangold does best at the climactic gunfight, where the whole town--implausibly--is roped in to shoot Evans, but that only serves to remind the viewer of similar gunfights staged by Sergio Leone in Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, 1966) and C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), where the pair of heroes brave a gauntlet of snipers. Leone puts poetry and grandeur into his sequences while Mangold has to settle for mere complexity--beautifully lit by the gold light of a setting sun, thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, but otherwise uninspiring.

Which is all a far cry from Daves' version. Leonard may not have approved, but Daves' film, I submit, captures the leanness and intimacy and scale (or lack of) of the original story. Where Mangold's picture bristles with all kinds of extraneous characters--barn burners, bankers, railroad officials, bounty hunters, mining officials, unscrupulous townsfolk--Daves' is mostly a background of distant figures that add definition and depth to what is essentially a two-character chamber piece, a battle of wills between Evans and Wade. It's all in the camerawork, I submit, done with the help of Charles Lawton, Jr.; without fuss, without color, Daves and Lawton evoke a hardscrabble West of petty burglaries and inglorious killings, of rural inventiveness and caution pitted against criminal cunning and courage; in the film's latter half Wade and Evans are confined to a room, and Daves and Lawton makes you constantly conscious of the spatial limits of the room (positions are assumed (Wade in bed, Evans in a corner), distances (to the door, to the windows, to a gun) measured and wearily watched; heads poke into the door or out the windows on occasion, making you want to cry out "For God's sake don't do that, you'll get shot!").

Yes, Daves' film bears striking similarities to Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952), only here the villain is introduced early on, and we come to know him intimately, to have good reason to fear him (he's not just a deadly shot and a ruthless killer, he's a charmer with a powerful, charismatic personality); here villain and hero are confined to a small space, and you watch them bring each other to a slow but inevitable boil.

Might as well add that while Mangold's picture is impeccably cast, Russell Crowe is no Glenn Ford (you feel that Ford could whip Crowe with just his little pinkie) and that Christian Bale may be a tremendous actor, but fails to improve on the caught-in-the-headlights bug-eyed quality of Van Heflin's performance. Mangold's version--a tribute, as he himself has admitted--is a complex reworking of what essentially was simple perfection; you can't improve on perfection, of course, you can at best mar it a little. Or a lot.

(First published in
Businessworld, 2/29/08)
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