Nothing New Under the Cinematic Sun?

I finally saw Avatar. I realize it’s been out for months and earned an obscene amount of money at the box office, but I have a thing about crowds and prefer to wait until the hype has died down before I see a blockbuster like this in a movie theatre. I must say that James Cameron’s film certainly lives up to it reputation in terms of visual spectacle. The scenery is indeed dazzling, and the 3-D effects will likely spawn dozens of imitators for years to come—which is only fitting, since imitation is pretty much all you get with Avatar in terms of its storyline.

Granted, it’s nothing new for artists to build on the work of their predecessors. George Lucas freely admits that he dove deep into the archetypal pool (via Joseph Campbell) when scripting out his Star Wars saga. Likewise, the Wachowski brothers drew from a host of literary and religious archetypes when they created the Matix trilogy. However, Cameron does not pay homage to these traditions so much as he downright steals from the work of other screenwriters and filmmakers.

While watching the three-hour long Avatar, I found myself making a mental checklist of the cinematic allusions being played out on the screen.  Dances With Wolves is there in bulk, as are the aforementioned Star Wars and Matrix movies.  There are also echoes of Braveheart, Pocahontas, Medicine Man, Independence Day, Donnie Brasco, Apocalypse Now, The Search for Spock, Total Recall, and Kingdom of Heaven. Cameron even seems to borrow from himself a bit with nods to the Alien and the Terminator franchises. Plus you get a movie with Romeo and Juliet-esque star-crossed lovers and a narrator who is divided between two worlds—much like the protagonist in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novels.

Don’t get me wrong, many writers have built careers based on adaptations of other people’s ideas (William Shakespeare comes to mind), and James Cameron’s film is worth the price of admission if only to admire the work of a talented team of animators. But without the stunning visuals, Avatar’s storyline seems a bit shallow. Then again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, and in a country whose reading habits continue to decline, perhaps movies are the only form of cultural transmission we have left.

Hidden Treasures

Last night I had the pleasure of sipping one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons I’ve ever tried. It wasn’t terribly expensive (less than $10 a bottle), yet its qualities surpass many which sell for far more. A person doesn’t often stumble upon a treasure like this, so needless to say, I’m going back to the store where I purchased the wine and stocking up on few more bottles. After all, it’s these sorts of unexpected surprises that help make life interesting.

The same could be said of certain books I’ve encountered over the years. While it’s never a waste to familiarize yourself with “the classics” or other novels that are regarded as important or noteworthy, some of the best books I’ve read (and ones that I often go back to and reread simply for the pleasure of experiencing the stories once again) would be considered by many readers to be rather obscure. Here a few of my favorites:

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. Garner is a superb fantasy writer who remains somewhat unknown and underrated in the United States. In many ways, this novel foreshadows the blend of fantasy and reality that J.K. Rowling made famous in the Harry Potter series. I picked up The Weirdstone… on a whim back in high school (I had just read The Lord of the Rings and thought the picture of the wizard on the cover was cool), and since then, I’ve read every Garner book I could find, including the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. Elidor is another great Garner novel, as is The Owl Service.

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic. Here’s a novel I read for a college class on American Realism. If I ever go back and work on a PhD., I will do my dissertation on Frederic. Read this book and you’ll realize that, although times have changed, clergymen never do; truly, there are no new temptations under the sun. Frederic’s writing has all the gritty realism of a Stephen Crane with a touch of Mark Twain-esque humor thrown in to keep the story lively. Fans of classic American literature will enjoy this one.

The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy by Charmaine Craig. Based on an actual court case in medieval France involving a religious sect who claimed that human desires are innately evil, here’s a novel which transports the reader into a world marked by superstitions and inquisitions. Period details and religious questioning bring characters to life who are profoundly (and disturbingly) human. It’s a must read for lovers of historical fiction.

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Ever wonder what prompted Claudius to murder his older brother and thus acquire both his former sister-in-law and the throne of Demark? Updike imagines a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet which brings new life and insight into some of the Bard’s most famous tragic characters.

Black Robe by Brian Moore. While many novels immerse readers in different times and places, this one does it superbly. A seventeenth century Jesuit missionary is sent to the New World to convert the natives to Christianity. In the end, it is the priest who is transformed. The 1991 film version of the book is worth a look, too, as is Moore’s novella, Catholics (one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite books).

These are but a handful of my favorite—albeit obscure—literary treasures. What are yours?

The Mist: DVD Review

Cover of "The Mist (Two-Disc Collector's ...

Cover via Amazon

I’ve read most of Stephen King‘s work and liked most of it too.  The Mist was a good one, one of his better ones actually.  When I heard Frank Darabont was going to make a movie out of it I figured it would make a pretty good movie.  After all the guy clearly has a talent for making flicks out of King’s tales.  Maybe you’ve heard of a little film called the Shawshank Redemption.  Anyway for whatever reason I missed it in theaters (that happens to me a lot) and just got a chance to watch the DVD.

Holy freaking crap!  Sorry, that’s for the end.  Let me start at the beginning.  The story on the surface is a straight up monster flick.  A terrible storm in the night brings an odd fog bank in the morning.  Dave Drayton, our hero, takes his son and neighbor to the supermarket and while there the mist sweeps over the whole town.  But of course the mist isn’t the real problem.  The real problem is the hideous monsters that live in it.  Clearly, none of them belong on this planet and all of them appear to be killers.

If that’s all it was it would just be a monster flick, fun but probably not very scary.  The other layer and the real meat of the story is how the situation affects the people trapped in the store.  At first it feels a little like a Twilight Zone episode but as things get more dire (and things get into the store) it progresses to more of a Lifeboat, and then degrades quickly into Lord of the Flies.  All of this is very well done.  The movie is longer than most thriller types but well paced.  A slow burn beginning with no real explanation of the mist.  Then tension keeps cranking up until the good guys have to decide which is more dangerous, staying in the store or taking their chances in the mist.  They decide to take their chances.  They have to fight for their lives to leave and see how far a tank of gas will get them.  All of this plays pretty much as it did in the novella which brings us to the end…

Holy freaking crap!  I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t seen it.  I will say that the ending of the novella was purposefully vague.  Dave and his small group of survivors just keep driving off into the mist desperate but clinging to a very small sliver of hope.  The story itself acknowledges the ending and more or less says ‘sorry, it ain’t satisfying but that’s how it went’.  Darabont decided to go for something a little more definite.  It’s not a happy ending but it’s powerful and it fit the story he had told.  It’s also one of the ballsiest endings I’ve seen in a good long while and I have no idea how he talked a studio into it.  However he managed it I’m glad he did.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

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A Serious Slice of Life

A Serious Man
Image via Wikipedia

Over the weekend, I watched the Oscar-nominated (Best Motion Picture of the Year & Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) film, “A Serious Man“.  The cast is a great mix of instantly recognizable veteran actors and fresh faces, each attached to a well-developed character, no matter the amount of screen time.  The visuals of the Midwest of 1967 ably draw you in, giving a frame of reference for the intertwined story of father and son, Larry and Danny Gopnik, each propelled toward a crossroads in life.

The Coen brothers are as much master craftsmen of the screenplay as they are of the film as a whole.  Each conversation that takes place feels very natural while also advancing the story at a carefully measured pace.  The only time any of the characters is played against the expected is when they are involved in one of the dream sequences that are sprinkled throughout.  And, while I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the Jewish customs portrayed, it felt as though each i was dotted and t was crossed without becoming pedantic.  In other words, I felt that I was given enough information that I could follow along without breaking the flow of the story.

One deftly wielded technique that is used almost to perfection is the passage of time that occurs out of view of the two main characters (I cannot recall any scenes that did not involve at least one of them).  Minor characters go off and take part in activities that we only learn about when their orbits reconnect with the main storyline.  As in life, we, as observers of the main character’s view, are only aware of those things that occur elsewhere when we are told about them secondhand, and then only to the detail that others are willing to share.  There is likely a whole other movie that could be made, entitled “Uncle Arthur’s Off Screen Adventures”.

If you enjoy wordsmithing or witty dialogue, pay particular attention to the scenes between Larry and the Korean student or the student’s father (there are two of the former and one of the latter).  Subtly delivered, they are darkly comedic gold.

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3:10 to Yuma– Weapons as Character

I love Westerns and I don’t trust people that don’t.  3:10 to Yuma (the 2007 version) is one of my favorites for a bunch of reasons.  Great performances, gorgeous cimematography, lotsa shoot outs, and a nice tight pace.  The tight pace is accomplished partly by keeping exposition short and simple.  Get him on the train, get paid, save the farm.  It’s also smart enough to use genre convention to save time.  We’ve all seen enough evil ranchers, poor farmers, suave outlaws, and ruthless pinkertons to know where we stand. 

Yet the characters all feel real.  What struck me about this movie (and stikes me everytime I watch it) is how smart the weapons choices were.  I’m a gun enthusiast (some say gun-nut) and would guess that a lot of Western fans are as well.  In this one not only are the guns and gear correct for the period, they serve as a shorthand for the characters.

The Whip:  Okay it’s not a gun and some might (foolishly) not consider it a weapon but Ben Wade has a coiled whip on his saddle.  He doesn’t use it, doesn’t even touch it I don’t think.  So why is it there?  It’s a long bullwhip with a bone handle, a stockman’s whip and a working tool.  Wade hardly seems like the type to move cattle or drive freight.  A whip is supple, has a long reach, a wicked lash, and despite being kind of cool to look at, relies on cruelty for effectiveness.  Kind of like Ben Wade.

The Old Soldiers:  It’s mentioned early that Dan Evans fought in the Civil War.  Later he’s asked North or South but we can already guess.  The gun he uses most is a Spencer Carbine, a Union weapon and a cutting edge design in the War but at the time of our story most folks would rather have a Winchester.  His pistol is an open top Colt, an 1851 Navy with the cartridge conversion.  Servicable but again old fashioned.  In Dan’s house we even an old musket, probably a Springfield rifle-musket already a relic in the movie’s time frame.  It could be that Dan doesn’t care about fads or newfangled guns when the ones he has work fine.  It could be he’s just too damn poor to afford a new rifle.  But it could also be that he’s stuck in the War, can’t let go or get over what happened to him. 

The Hand of God:  Ben Wade’s pistol is a Colt Single Action Army.  Hundreds of thousands were made and carried and indeed it’s still made today.  It’s a fine weapon but it was by no means the only pistol in the West yet it’s the iconic ‘Old West Gun’ today and that’s it’s place in the movie.  There’s plenty of SAA’s in the film but Wade’s is special.  It’s decorated with a crucifix, has a name (Hand of God), and according to Wade is cursed.  He wears it in a holster that’s damn close to a modern quick-draw rig.  All gunman’s affectations that are largely the stuff of fiction.  There’s no doubt that there are two Wades.  The real man and the image he’s had a large hand in crafting.

‘Not the Prince of Cats’:  We’ll leave for now the question of whether Ben Foster as Charlie Prince stole the movie (hint: he did) and just focus on his gear.  Physically it’s the only thing to focus on.  With his leather jacket and leather chaps he just looks like one big holster.  It’s all about his pistols.  Smith & Wesson Schofields worn butt forward.  For the period the Schofield would be just about the pinnacle of handgun technology.  The big selling point then was it’s quick reloading capability which Prince shows off in the film.  Charlie Prince obviously loves his pistols and loves to use them.  Were Charlie Prince in a modern setting he would never own a Glock.  Sure it shoots bullets but where’s the style?  Where’s the love of using the finest tool money can buy (to kill someone)?  There’s no question Charlie is using his guns to compensate for something.  But does that make him less dangerous or more?

The Scepter of Power:  The shotgun in the movie is a brutal looking coach gun (I didn’t recognize the make but research says it’s a Colt 1873).  It doesn’t really add to anbody’s character but I noticed that whoever had the gun seemed to be in charge of the group.  First McElroy, the Pinkerton, then Wade, then Evans.  I don’t know if that was on purpose or if it’s just the natural authority of a sawed off shotgun.

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