29 June 2009

The Invasion versus War of the Words

The Invasion versus War of the Worlds
By Kristin Battestella

What are the odds that once golden couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would both star in remakes of science fiction classics within two years of each other? Though delayed and quieter than Cruise’s 2005 blockbuster action yarn War of the Worlds, Kidman’s 2007 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fairs somewhat better…maybe.

The InvasionPsychiatrist Carol Bennell (Kidman) begins to notice strange behavior and bizarre stories from her patients, including abused wife Wendy (Veronica Cartwright, also in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Carol has misgivings about her sickly son Oliver (Jackson Bond) visiting with his father-her ex husband and CDC administrator Tucker (Jeremy Northam)-for he and his colleagues are also not themselves. Carol consults with her boyfriend Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and his coworker Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) as more and more people go to sleep and wake up completely devoid of emotions. When violence and totalitarian rule escalate in the city, Carol and Ben attempt to rescue Oliver from his father and escape to a military base where Stephen works on a cure.
In War of the Worlds, Ray Ferrier (Cruise) hopes for quality time with daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) while his ex wife Mary Anne (Miranda Otto) and her new husband visit family in Boston. Ray’s family troubles are quickly mended when strange phenomena mysteriously occur. Monstrous alien tripods rise from the earth, destroy massive buildings, and kill all in their path, sending Ray and his family on the run.

If I had to choose, I have to admit I’d take Kidman over Cruise. When Cruise was riding high in Top Gun and Kidman was scared in Dead Calm, my feelings might have been reversed. Recently, however, I could careless about Cruise and his off screen antics. He’s become a parody of himself, and War of the Worlds only adds to this feeling. Despite the heavy action and extreme circumstances presented, Ray continually comes out a-okay. He’s never that roughed up, and the viewer can only suspend belief for so long. Help, coincidence, and deus ex machina preposterously aide Ray again and again. At some point, I found myself saying, ‘I just don’t care! Take him!’

By contrast, The Invasion turns our favorite pod people tale into a maternal vehicle. The execution is not perfect-Kidman looks too pretty for too long in skirts and high heels-but a science fiction family female is unusual enough. Instead of an action hero, Carol is intelligent and believable. She keeps her wits as instinct and emotional attachments drive her to a realistic course of action. Though a spotlight for Kidman, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Five Minutes in Heaven) and his replacement (not a good sign in itself) James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) never quite get the right balance between serious psychological drama and hard science fiction thriller. Had more time been spent on the dark places for Carol, The Invasion might have been an exceptional film.

I still can’t put my finger on new Bond Daniel Craig. In his brief but memorable roles in Tomb Raider and The Jacket, I find myself wanting more of him. As Bond however, I don’t think he’s on par just yet. The Invasion falls in the previous: Craig’s Ben Driscoll simply doesn’t have enough to do. It’s not the pairing with Kidman-maybe they do have chemistry here and in The Golden Compass. The duo is just never on screen enough to find out. We’re supposed to care about these characters because The Invasion’s summary lists Ben as Carol’s potential love interest. Like all the other soft spots in The Invasion, writer David Kajganich (Town Creek) and clean up men Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) don’t make use of Craig and all the scientific or romantic possibilities.

Unfortunately, Lord of the Rings alum Miranda Otto fairs no better in War of the Worlds. We can’t have our romantic interests be equal to their onscreen star partners, now can we? She’s successful and well-known Down Under, but Otto hasn’t faired well in supporting parts stateside. Cashmere Mafia, The Starter Wife, and War of the Worlds don’t do her justice. Mary Anne is practically an absent MacGuffin, and son Justin Chatwin (The Invisible) is cast aside in favor of supposedly touching action between Cruise and Dakota Fanning. They say never act with kids or dogs, and she is why. The Taken charmer steals the spotlight from Cruise-unlike Jackson Bond (In Case of Emergency) in The Invasion. Like everyone else besides Kidman, we simply don’t see enough of him to care.

For me, science fiction and people go hand in hand. Whether sociological or hard science, the genre works because it places a mirror of the human condition in outlandish situations-we feel for the aliens with issues, struggle with the technological debates. Unfortunately, both The Invasion and War of the Worlds excel at neither. Kidman’s maternal action is good, but not as mind blowing as Jack Finney’s source book The Body Snatchers or either the 1956 or the ‘78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers films. Even 1993’s Body Snatchers gives us the military and scientific aspects of such an invasion. For a film packed full of scientists- including a wasted Jeremy Northam (The Tudors) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale)-there isn’t a lot of science in The Invasion. One might just think it a disaster thriller, not even science fiction. I would rather have seen a picture with Kidman and Craig trapped on a military base struggling with viruses, cures, and quarantines. You know, sf that’s not so far from the scary truth. Why get iffy with all this modern political intrigue and statements?

War of the Worlds (Widescreen Edition)Of course, War of the Worlds swings at the opposite end. Trading time, place, and words of warning from H.G. Wells novel; Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) update to contemporary New Jersey and sacrifice people for every blockbuster effect in the book. Remember when blockbuster meant that a film was a hit-box office success, awards sweeps, advances in the technology of motion pictures. Today the term ‘blockbuster’ is any attempt at the formula. If we have big people, big hype, and big CGI, then we have a blockbuster! Maybe some like War of the Worlds, but it does not capture its source material any more than The Invasion. Both are too full of themselves instead of the potential story at hand.

Yes, Cruise and Kidman are imperfect in their respective science fiction vehicles. Against classics of the genre both quickly falter as vanity films. For a mindless spectacle and Cruise funfest, by all means spend a night in with War of the Worlds. For more intelligence and suspense, The Invasion is what’s watchable. Of course, for really bad comparisons we could check out Cruise and Kidman’s Eyes Wide Shut or The Golden Compass for more Kidman and Craig. But why would anyone want to go there?

25 June 2009

Cape Fear (1962)

Original Cape Fear Still Chilling
By Kristin Battestella

Many modern audiences and Robert DeNiro fans especially love to quote his maniacal ‘Come out, come out wherever you are!’ from the 1991 version of Cape Fear. Classic viewers, however, can still enjoy the 1962 fear fest starring old school men Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.

Lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) fears for his family’s safety after an ex con he helped put away returns to town. Max Cady (Mitchum) feigns innocence, claiming he has every right to be passing through. Sam’s wife Peggy Bowden (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin), however, each have threatening encounters with Cady-including stalking Nancy at school and calling Peggy late at night. When the promiscuous Diana Taylor (Barrie Chase) refuses to press charges against Cady for beating her, the authorities are of little help to her or Sam. Before Cady can do worse to his family, Bowden decides to take matters into his own hands.

We’re familiar with the story-and not just because of the films or the source novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Cape Fear dramatizes every family man’s fear. First, there’s the notion that a man’s action or inaction can bring something like this onto his family. Then we have all the naughty vibes of a criminal hunting down a man’s wife and daughter. Any husband or father can understand Bowden’s situation. Screenwriter James R. Webb (The Big Country, How The West Was Won, They Call Me Mister Tibbs) doesn’t present a tainted family man or promiscuous daughter like in the remake, but there’s enough sixties scandal to keep this Cape Fear juicy.

Cape FearHe’s tall, dark, and handsome, and good guy Gregory Peck is the ideal family man for Cape Fear. Among so many other heroic pictures (Spellbound, The Gunfighter, Roman Holiday I could go on…), we love familial Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird and The Yearling. We know he’ll stay on the right side of the law for as long as he can. Justice and family are the only things that matter to Sam Bowden, so when he takes on Cady himself, we know it’s serious. Peck may be taller than Mitchum, but can he be as ruthless as he needs to be in order to protect his family? The heated and tense conversations between Bowden and Cady keep Cape Fear saucy and interesting; yet there’s no doubt we’re rooting for Gregory Peck. We don’t question him or his performance, but he’s the good guy in a world that’s seemingly turned against him.

By contrast, Robert Mitchum has all the spooky vibes going for him in Cape Fear. Despite his handsome rugged old Hollywood style, Mitchum’s real life pot conviction and scandalous strip down here add to his underlining touch of menace. He shows his wet and deadly bare bulk, yowzah! Cady’s pursuing such a wholesome family, and that poor dog! Sure, we don’t have as much ambiguity and overt sexuality as in the 1991 remake, but Mitchum (Night of the Hunter, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Longest Day, El Dorado) pushes the envelope of what you can see onscreen-and the allusions to what happens in the shadows are sometimes more frightening. Cady creepily reverses our notions of bad guys dressed in black with his daunting Panama hat and suave cigar. He talks the talk in attempting to show us how he’s been wronged, but we are always aware his slick is just too slick. Cady ‘looks fair and feels foul’, and Mitchum oozes every iota of it.

Lori Martin (National Velvet The TV Series, The Angry Breed) as Nancy looks young for fourteen-not a little girl, of course, but still a bit too prepubescent for big and scary Robert Mitchum. It’s an innate fear of ours to be preyed about by such a sexual predator. Martin plays her innocence and fear quite naturally and understandably. Likewise, Polly Bergen (War and Remembrance, Commander in Chief) as wife Peggy gets genuinely panicked for herself and her daughter’s safety. She’s the picture perfect Mrs. in the spirit of June Cleaver-complete with pearls. We’d like things to stay white gloved for her, but we know its going to get dirty. Her screams while Cady’s about are enough to make us squirm. Telly Savalas (Kojak) also has old school charm as Charles Sievers, the Private investigator hired by Bowden. Unfortunately, his hands are tied in the swift cat and mouse game Cady’s playing.

British director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) uses his cast to perfection and films them accordingly. Innocent wife Peggy and little Nancy always wear white or bright clothing-compared to dancer Barrie Chase’s (It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) used and abused Diane Taylor in all black. The visual subtleties and timely music are very Hitchcock. The creepy black and white shadows mixed with long angles and moving camera shots also add to the noir suspense. Where the remake is all exceptional performances, this Cape Fear is much more about the craft of a scary picture. One could dare say this is the perfect horror film. There’s no blood and gore; it’s the real life menace that scares. A sunny day at the dock with Robert Mitchum in his panama hat is the most terrifying thing this side of Fred Krueger.

Fans of good old-fashioned black and white thrillers should already know and love Cape Fear. A two pack DVD featuring both film versions is now out of print, but a fully featured individual release of the original is fortunately available. Enjoy DeNiro and Jessica Lange and Nick Nolte’s version, too, but take a chance on this creepy old school classic. Study it, learn it, fear it, love it.

24 June 2009

Summer Sees and Skips

Summer Sees and Skips for the Whole Family

By Kristin Battestella

With all the holidays and vacays, you and you’re family need to know what to watch during you’re summer movie nights. Here are some tips on what to enjoy- along with a few pictures to avoid.

See and Enjoy

Napoleon Dynamite- After finally seeing this 2004 teen comedy I was pleasantly surprised by its coming of age wit and awkward stuck in the eighties silliness. Not quite for children, but teens and folks who remember graphic t-shirts will laugh.

Little Miss Sunshine- A fine ensemble cast-including Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Alan Arkin- gives this quiet picture the umph, charm, and plenty of humor. Some parts are a little sentimental, and you should know if you’re kids can handle some of the heavier subject matter before viewing; but this one has drama and family analysis for the intelligent audience.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday-He’s not as cruel as he used to be, but Mr. Bean’s hijinks still have laugh out loud moments and English wit for the whole family. This road trip sequel does far better than the titular Bean and even has some heart-warming charm, too.

The Departed- Put the kids to bed for this gritty undercover cop and mole game from director Martin Scorsese. Plenty of hardware and fine action from Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Wahlberg add spice and intrigue-and more than make up for an ambiguous ending.

The 6th Day- Sure there’s action that we expect from Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this 2000 sci-fi thriller has science, intelligence, and religious debate to thicken the mix. More than just an excuse to have two Arnolds about, director Roger Spottiswoode presents cloning issues that aren’t that far from current science.

Yes Man- Jim Carrey’s latest starts off like Liar, Liar but grows into a charming mix of humor and drama. Fine support from Zooey Deschanel and Terrence Stamp add reflection and warmth. Outside of brief nudity and innuendo, the whole family can enjoy-not often said for a Carrey picture.

Traitor- Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce are dynamite in this international thriller. Touching upon the FBI, CIA, radical Islam, and the American Way, Traitor is complex, intelligent, intricate, and yet wrapped with a fine cast and realistic action.

Donnie Darko- A little obvious and weird; but a fine ensemble, intriguing premise, and good old teen angst keep this quirky picture interesting. Go for the Director’s Cut DVD for more scenes and food for thought.

Finding Neverland- Sentimental and full of Victorian Charm, fans of Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp, and all things Peter Pan will love this little film. The whole family can enjoy the drama, fantasy, and trouble with growing up while learning a thing or too about J.M. Barrie.


In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale- I have tried to watch this poor imitation of the Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times. So many things are wrong with this Uwe Boll film-from the blatant Peter Jackson ripoffs to the woeful cast. Ray Liotta’s Goodfellas’ delivery does not work with Matthew Lillard and his Shaggy squeaks-and that’s if you can figure out what the hell is going on.

The Golden Compass- Another children’s fantasy book rushed to the screen, creating a mishmash of effects with an incomplete story. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are wasted along with some fine young talent. Some were upset about the anti-Catholic sentiments in the novels, but there isn’t much of anything worthwhile here.

Pathfinder- We don’t see nearly enough Viking pictures, but a great story idea is lost amid all the action and barely there bad dialogue. What might have happened if Vikings encountered early Native Americans? The racial stereotypes here certainly don’t tell us.

The Other Boleyn Girl-I like Medieval films and Tudoresque material, but this adaptation of the Philippa Gregory novel boils the reign of one of England’s most infamous monarchs down to a sisterly catfight. Erica Bana, Natalie Portman, and Scarlet Johansson are wonderful elsewhere, but an international cast was not needed for what should be some definitive Englishness.

17 June 2009

The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day

Visuals and Played Style Taint The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day

By Kristin Battestella

Initially, I began writing two separate reviews for 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and 2002’s Die Another Day. After viewing Brosnan’s final two Bond pictures in one night, however, I found my writing so darn negative, similar, and depressing that I combined my commentaries. Do I really want to talk about all the wrongs in these Bond pictures? It just hurts so much!

After losing an assassin in Spain, 007 James Bond (Brosnan) returns to London. Unfortunately, he unwittingly facilitates the death of oil guru Robert King (David Calder, Bramwell), an old friend of MI 6 boss M (Judi Dench). Fearing an assassination attempt or another kidnapping of King’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau), Bond protects Elektra as she oversees her father’s vision of a cross continental oil pipeline. Bond tracks down former KGB agent Renard (Robert Carlyle) and uncovers ties to Russian mobster Valentin Zuchovsky (Robbie Coltrane). When Renard steals a nuclear bomb, American physicist Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) helps Bond recover the stolen plutonium.

The Word Is Not Enough makes unique strides in its action packed and plot critical pre opening sequence. It’s the series’ longest opener at nearly fifteen minutes; and the slick assassinations, touches of MI 6 proper, and sweet boat chase make time fly here. However, I have to say I’m a little tired of snow sequences and skiing and parachute action. It’s been done so many times in these movies alone. It’s not cool anymore. It’s not nearly as action oriented-perhaps over actioned- as the subsequent Die Another Day or Craig’s updated pictures, but The World is Not Enough makes no new action attempts, either.

An international cross continental pipeline and Stockholm Syndrome, nuclear warheads and cute doctors, wow- The World Is Not Enough pulled out all the stops, didn’t it. House writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Bruce Feirstein’s plot starts off strong but meanders with double talk drivel and a mishmash of devices and locations. Onscreen titles tell us whether we’re in Kazakhstan or Turkey or Spain, but at some point, it doesn’t matter to me where the action’s at. Most of The World Is Not Enough is predictable and redundant. By time something interesting happens-like the kidnap of M- it’s just too unbelievable and too weak for the audience to care. It’s global! It’s nuclear! No its not, its pieces of every other Bond picture. The World Is Not Enough is very superficial. Real oil crisis, nuclear intrigue, and Stockholm Syndrome analysis never happen. Though not one of the franchise’s best, the title song is fine, as are the nineties psychedelic titles. It’s all so ho hum though, like The World Is Not Enough itself; not super bad, but not enough to stand out either. Really, I don’t even know who Garbage is.

Now, as much as we love Pierce Brosnan and love Pierce Brosnan as Bond, he seems to have peaked with his debut in Goldeneye and gone downhill since. Brosnan is on form here, and the bland nature of The World Is Not Enough is not his fault. The humor, innuendo, and quips are all there; but the story and script relegate Bond to a blind bodyguard. How did he not see through Elektra King from the start? Sure, he gets his fun, and villains always say that women are his weakness-but Bond isn’t usually so, well, duped. This, his shoulder injury and the youth of Christmas Jones make Brosnan’s Bond appear far older than he really is. Is he that dumb, out of practice, and far from his prime? Of course not, but the story and action in The World Is Not Enough would have us think so. Some love to hate Roger Moore’s tenure-but his films seem to alternate between horrendously bad and really, really good. Unfortunately, Brosnan’s four pictures slowly meander in story, become slaves to action, and don’t do him justice.

Like Brosnan, I really love Judi Dench (As Time Goes By, Shakespeare In Love) and I really love her hard ass M. Nevertheless, attempts to put M into the main plot of a picture don’t seem to work. Her abduction happens way to easy, and seeing such a posh and classy lady in a dingy cell isn’t dangerous, it’s laughable. Thankfully, the humor with Q and John Cleese’s R is better. A bit obvious yes with a Monty Python alum, but its fun to see someone who’s as dorky and somehow charming as Q. Tragically, this is Desmond Llewelyn’s final picture, but he’s a delight as always. While it’s understandable to have the gadgetry scene and it’s a stretch this time around for more M; but where the heck is Moneypenny? I’d like more of her and MI 6’s easy doctor, Molly Warmflash. Great name and intelligence from Serene Scott Thomas; she’s believable as a doctor and still smokin’. It would have been great fun to see her become a regular. It’s also nice to see M’s aides Robinson (Colin Salmon, Dinotopia) and Bill Tanner (Michael Kitchen, Foyle’s War) both return. I suppose we can have too many house players hogging a picture, but with an increased M and MI 6 headquarters, The World Is Not Enough misses another opportunity in expanding these players.

Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King is the series’ first true female villain, but it’s not as if we haven’t had bad girls and twisted henchwomen before. I don’t think any onscreen explanation is given for her French accent, but its okay. Her delivery is authentic and believable. It’s certainly better than all the dub jobs of old. There’s an explanation for it, but her big ass odd earrings annoy the heck out of me. Marceau (Braveheart) is beautiful and sexy and in some ways Bond’s female match, that’s all that matters. Unfortunately, The World Is Not Enough again strays from what could be so good. By time we get to the supposedly sexually angsted final confrontation between Elektra and Bond, it’s a little anticlimactic.

I like Robert Carlyle in his comedy work like The Fully Monty but his Renard is one of dumbest villains in the franchise. It’s not the bullet in the brain and no pain touches-though they are silly enough-but Carlyle’s style and accent just don’t seem badass enough here. When watching, I kept expecting him to peel off the bullet scar, say ‘Cheers’ and eat it. Also unbelievable is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) and her Dr. Christmas Jones. Like bootylicious Tanya Roberts in A View to A Kill, Richards’ is too young and her delivery to marshmallow to be scientific. Her Tomb Raider short shorts and cropped top are also ridiculous. If she’s there to look at, then don’t try to deny it. Bond pictures are the one place where its okay-nay it’s preferred and expected to have completely superficial women. Besides, for however smart they try to make Christmas, she’s still the damsel in distress. Always crying for James, isn’t she? Much time is also spent on the second series appearance of Robbie Coltrane’s (Harry Potter) Valentin Zukovsky, but this is also a rehash and uncharming attempt by Feirstein to recapture the wit of Goldeneye. One time Bond director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter) should have kept the focus on Bond and Elektra-creating a strong antagonistic relationship instead of these supposedly important people.

Fans of the cast will of course enjoy The World Is Not Enough, as will die hard Bondafiles regardless of this missed boat. I feel bad for younger folks who say they grew up with Brosnan as Bond. If you think this is the finer point of the franchise, then you are sorely mistaken. I suppose straight action fans might enjoy this outing and its nuclear intrigue, but unfortunately, middle of the road fans are somewhat left out by this middle of the pack Bond picture. After a night with The World Is Not Enough, I can see how audiences felt tired by this long-standing series and thought Bond needed time to cool and re-establish itself

The trouble is, the franchise went from bad to worse with Brosnan’s final picture, Die Another Day. In this 20th James Bond picture, 007 is captured and tortured in North Korea after the apparent death of General Moon’s (Kenneth Tsang, Parental Guidance) son Colonel Tan Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee, Witchblade). Bond is traded for Moon’s captured assistant Zao (Rick Yune) and escapes the custody of M (Judi Dench) as he plots his revenge. In Cuba, he crosses paths with NSA agent Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson (Halle Berry) and traces a series of diamonds to British playboy Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). At a special gala in Iceland, the truth about Graves and Bond’s revenge is revealed.

Like its predecessor, Die Another Day meanders like a montage of every other Bond picture. I really liked the touches of 40th Anniversary specialness in Q’s laboratory, but yes, the invisible Aston Martin is just too much. This isn’t the sixties films, where we can blame such travesties on it being an old picture. Give Bond the Batmobile complete with a Robin saying ‘Holy Invisible Aston Martin, James!’ why don’t you. The knife in the shoe, the jetpack-even the simple use of series staples like ‘Universal exports’ is all that’s needed to honor 40 years of films. Can’t you just do what makes the series good? I would trade one allusion to the hat toss over all the ice palace magic and chases. After the first five minutes, the ice chase wasn’t cool-The Living Daylights did it better. (Nobody does it better…)

Die Another Day starts off well enough, too, with a fine pre title sequence and the torture montage stylized within the titles. Very neat, we think we’re going somewhere Bond hasn’t really gone before-and then, we hear the theme song. Only modern pups who like hip hop electronic gibberish can rate this as one of the series’ top songs-the same crowd that doesn’t know of any other Bond before Brosnan. I thought the blu-ray disc was skipping! Madonna’s woeful title song is another sign of the series’ recent reliance on product placement and marketing to the MTV generation. It’s supposed to be so hip and edgy, but in the end it’s just bad. I much prefer ‘Beautiful Stranger’, Madonna’s song for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. How ironic. Die Another Day does look great on blu-ray, but the sound was so agitating- big explosions and music over such soft voices. Sure, this is often a technical issue with most systems, but it’s also more writing on the wall that stock writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s story is less important.

Die Another Day was moved to 2002 to hit the 40 years of Bond exactly, but its Korean locales and sentiments seemed to come at just the wrong time. Again, we’re given some serious political intrigue with such promise; it’s modern and realistic, but a little too much, too. How can we take the pros and cons of Korean unification seriously when its hidden behind invisible cars, ice castles, mirrored satellites, and a General’s son stomping his foot while pretending to be a white boy? Whew, I think I lost myself there for a moment. If this is the film, I’d rather have Moneypenny’s VR sex romp, too.

I don’t care for Toby Stephens in Sharpe’s Challenge and I certainly don’t care for him here. It doesn’t bode well for a Bond when we prefer the villain over him, but it’s worse for the picture if the villain is useless all together. Spoiled adventurer Graves is too obviously going to get his wings burned like Icarus. We get it already! Rick Yune’s (The Fast and Furious) Zao is a far better villain, with freaky eyes and diamonds embedded in his face. This guy looks scary-he’s the one we want to be put down by Bond. Graves is just a spoiled little rich boy with big toys to over compensate for his daddy complex. Should I make a joke about Toby Stephens only getting anywhere in film because his mother is Maggie Smith? Nah.

Of course it’s fake, but Brosnan works the shaggy hair, itching beard, and prison scrubs to perfection. If the movie sucks, again it’s not his fault. Brosnan has the suave believability as well as the spy charm, and we can like him as Bond while admitting most of his tenure was ho-hum. Brosnan keeps his Bond mannerisms on form regardless of how realistic (like the Korean torture) or unrealistic (like that frigging car) things get. We watch Die Another Day because we want to see Brosnan’s Bond make it out of this picture unscathed. It was director Lee Tamahori (Along Came a Spider, Next, XXX) that let us down. The balance between the hyperbole and Bond’s revenge is just too askew.

While I don’t dislike Oscar winner Halle Berry, I’m not swooning over her Jinx, either. Dramatically, Berry’s fine, and many Bond fans think Jinx is one of the coolest and badass Bond Girls ever. However, I find her roles in action films off somehow. Berry seems out of place as Storm in the X-Men series, and in Die Another Day, it seemed like her Jinx wasn’t even in the room when the doody hit the fan. The romance and innuendo are on, but the supposedly water rise show stopper is the film’s obvious ‘homage’ to Honey Ryder, and the backwards dive in the hot pink bikini is such bad CGI it’s not even funny. In the supposedly so serious laser battle, can you honestly tell me it doesn’t look like Berry’s scenes weren’t filmed on different days? She’s hot and sexy and all that, but Jinx is another attempt to smarten and mature a Bond Girl, and it just doesn’t work. I never though I’d prefer Madonna over Halle Berry, but her uncredited fencing instructor Verity works far better than Jinx. She looks good, makes sex jokes with Bond, and provides him villainous information that brings him one step closer in the cat and mouse at hand. Madonna serves her purpose and departs in five minutes. Not bad.

There are a few fine things in Die Another Day, don’t get me wrong. Judi Dench makes the most of her M here. She struggles to keep the political and international peace while secretly supporting James. As skeptical as M may seem, we know deep down her tough love is also on Bond’s side. Equally complex- if underutilized- is Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice) as Miranda Frost. Again, the simple formula of using a double entrĂ©e name goes a long way. She hot, she’s uptight, there’s ice. It’s a shame that Tamahori and the media upstaged this fine Bond Girl for the mediocrity of Jinx. Though he’ll never be Desmond Llewelyn, John Cleese’s first official film as Q has the wit and class of his predecessor. Again, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The quiet ‘I never joke about my work’ does wonders in tribute to all the fun and wizardry of Q’s long standing relationship with 007.

On that note, it’s also great fun to simply hear the various mixes of the James Bond Theme and hints of other music associated with the series. And humor! Some of the innuendo is corny and forced, yes, but it’s these little Bondisms that are lacking in Craig’s tenure. If you stick to what makes Bond, well, Bond, you can take a mish-mashed picture like Die Another Day-or even a not too bad picture like the subsequent reboot Casino Royale- and make it something truly great. Despite some pretty awful pictures over these forty plus years, we’re still talking about Bond movies for a reason. Stop copying Bourne and give us the good stuff!

Bond collectors surely own The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day on DVD, but the numerous editions and pricey blu-ray sets are not for the casual fan. Brosnan lovers and fans of the casts can find what they’re looking for cheap enough, but again; I drive my husband insane with my complaints regarding the uneven sets and staggered blu-ray releases. Can the pups who only like Brosnan as Bond buy a single set of his four films alone? No. Mainstream action audiences might enjoy the visuals, fast pacing, and plot loss of The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, but Bond fans can certainly find better pictures in the Eon canon. Intelligent viewers, unfortunately, should stay far, far away. Holy Bad Bond Reviews, James!

11 June 2009

The Searchers

The Searchers Is My Favorite Movie of All Time
By Kristin Battestella

As you can see, I have very high film expectations-and frankly, I’m surprised at myself for taking this long to review John Ford’s 1956 western classic The Searchers. Truly, it’s not a question of if I like this movie and why you should, too; this spoily review is about how much time you have, as this is going to be a long one.

The Searchers is perhaps the first film I ever saw at about four or five years old. Well, I’m sure I saw some television and the like, but it was a big deal in our house when the VCR came along. I couldn’t get enough of epics like Gone with the Wind, Samson and Delilah, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments-and I watched them repeatedly. The Searchers, however, was different. I thought it was so heavy and long and dark. For a kid, a two-hour movie is at best antsy and at worst agonizing. And yet, this western kept my attention. I couldn’t look away, in fact, and struggled to keep my eyes open. It was all in vain, of course, for I fell asleep before the film was over. The next morning, I jumped off the couch screaming, “Did he find her? Did he?” I watched The Searchers again from beginning to end and have loved it ever since.
My parents might remember it differently, but I quickly became obsessed with all things Indian after seeing The Searchers. My hair was always in braids, I had pipes, drums, rubber tomahawks, and moccasins. Lipstick makes great face paint, and I went through numerous construction paper feather headdresses. Years later, I carried on this tradition by teaching my nieces how to build teepees in the backyard-much to my mother’s dismay. All this imagination and delight from one viewing of an old western!

The Story
Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother Aaron’s (Walter Coy, Wagon Train) Texas homestead three years after the Civil War. Sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan, The Wings of Eagles) welcomes Ethan, as do the children Lucy (Pippa Scott, Jigsaw John), Ben (Robert Lyden, Man of A Thousand Faces), and little Debbie (Lana Wood). Adopted nephew and part Indian Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is however, not a welcome sight to Ethan. Texas Rangers Captain and local Reverend Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond) comes to recruit the men, since Indians have stolen the cattle of neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen, Casablanca). Ethan takes his brother’s place on the ride, but once the men realize the cattle theft was meant to draw them out, it’s too late; the Comanche have taken Lucy and Debbie captive. Despite objections from Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), Ethan, Marty, and Lucy’s beau Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) set out searching for the abducted girls.
It’s one of my longer summaries and yet it doesn’t begin to say anything about The Searchers. I’ve actually never read the Alan Le May source novel for fear it would change my darling perceptions of the film. Screenwriter Frank S. Nugent’s (The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) adaptation, however, goes beyond the written word. So many looks, glances, and gestures say just as much as the heavy plot and complex story. After observing sister-in-law Martha lovingly laying out Ethan’s Confederate jacket, my mother said, “What is she to him?” The subtle innuendo between Ethan and Martha brews throughout the film. She deflects him from speaking about his potential illegal business, and The Reverend Captain Clayton merely sips his coffee when Ethan kisses Martha on the forehead before he leaves. When the homestead is raided, its Martha that Ethan calls for upon his return. Is Ethan pursuing Martha’s daughters out of devotion for her?
The Searchers continues the familial relationships as the partnership between Ethan and Martin progresses. Ethan insists he’s not any kin to Marty-nor is Debbie blood to Marty. Despite his vocal disdain for the part Cherokee, it was Ethan who ‘found’ Martin as a baby; he makes a deal for Martin to run his cattle and work with Jorgesen and later writes a will naming Marty as his heir. Why does Ethan have such a mix of hate and love for Martin? Towards the end of the film, he tells Marty the Indian Chief Scar killed his mother. Well, how does Ethan know-and why does he care anyway?
Ethan Edwards also possesses a bizarre knowledge of the Comanche Indians in The Searchers. He knows which Army agencies the local tribes frequent; he speaks their language and knows their customs. How can he be so knowledgeable yet hate Indians so? Look carefully for a tombstone early in the film detailing the death of Ethan’s mother by a Comanche raid. Is this why he only knows the bad side of a Comanche? All these questions I’ve raised, and The Searchers doesn’t always provide a satisfactory answer. In contrast to some of its heavier and complex motifs, John Ford also makes sure there’s a fair bit of western humor. Mose Harper (Hank Worden, Red River) serves up just the right amount of charm, absurdities, and crazy old man. Other exchanges between Wayne and Ward Bond are funny, ironic, and even inappropriate racially. The wedding and subsequent fight between Mary and Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis, Gunsmoke) is stupid and silly. In such a serious movie, one might think these humorous moments out of place. However, the lighthearted breaks are welcome against the darker scenes in The Searchers. It’s just enough of a tongue in cheek nod to the stereotypical western: “We be texicans!”

The Cast
He’s one of the stalwart personifications of the American Hero. When John Wayne got the bad guys onscreen in so many World War II pictures like Sands of Iwo Jima and They Were Expendable, so did we. When John Wayne put his own money into the overstuffed and overzealous The Alamo, we still watched. Even when John Wayne supported US action in Vietnam in the woefully out of place The Green Berets, we still loved him. In The Searchers, however, John Wayne is not a hero. He’s ambitious, maniacal, bigoted, and driven on a quest with very ambiguous intentions. We have no doubt he’d rather Debbie be dead then live with Indians, yet we root for his search to end. John Wayne, normally so cool, level, and badass ‘cause he’s the good guy, puts all those same skills into Ethan Edwards. We know Ethan knows his stuff and one would never want to cross him. Wayne steps these attributes up and darkens his performance with spitting shouts, quick actions, and dare I say it, evil glares. Like his earlier haywire turn in my second favorite feature Red River, Wayne is a force to be reckoned with and we best not stand in his way.
Jeffrey Hunter, however, does stand in John Wayne’s way. For every “That’ll be the day!” from Ethan, we have Martin’s contesting, “Not likely!” Seemingly cast as the young pretty boy most pictures seem to require, Hunter (His Christopher Pike from the original Star Trek pilot is my favorite and I love Sergeant Rutledge) is the idealistic antagonist to Ethan. According to The Searchers’ gospel, part Indian Marty’s thoughts shouldn’t matter against big, white Ethan. Nevertheless, Martin’s quest to stay with Ethan in order to save Debbie from her Uncle’s pathos is essential for the viewer. Hunter is the perfect sidekick to Wayne. He stutters as the illiterate Marty and begins the film quite naive and innocent. Hunter’s goofs with Vera Miles’ (Psycho) Laurie are timed perfectly. Meant to be the cute and leveled headed girl in a mostly boys picture, Miles adds feminine depth and dimension in The Searchers. She’s frustrated with waiting for Marty, and despite her education, Laurie eventually shows similar true colors to Ethan’s sentiment that Debbie is better off dead. It’s not exactly a flattering role for Miles, but such statement making female performances aren’t easy to come by.

Though billed nearer the top of the cast, Natalie wood (Rebel without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass) actually has precious little screen time. Her younger sister Lana (Diamonds Are Forever) is adorable as the younger Debbie, and both are by default beloved by the audience. After all, we are in effect waiting to see Natalie Wood. Her entrance nearer the final half hour of the film is one of my favorite scenes. Even if you somehow have no clue who Natalie Wood is-as I did the first time I saw The Searchers-you know Debbie when you see her. Likewise, The John Ford Stock Company charms the viewer. Veteran character actor Ward Bond (Sergeant York, Rio Bravo) is a delight as the unconflicted Ranger Captain and Minister Samuel Clayton, and Harry Carey, Jr. (She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) gives a fine performance as the disturbed love unable to cope with his Lucy’s death. Several visual tributes to his famed father are embedded in The Searchers, and we believe his widow Olive Carey (Two Rode Together) is every bit as tough as her Mrs. Jorgensen. Of course, John Wayne would name one of his sons Ethan in tribute to his character, but elder son Patrick Wayne (Big Jake, Young Guns) rounds out the family ties here as a young and ignorant cavalry lieutenant.

The Scenery
I don’t suppose there’s much I can say about John Ford that a master of film making, history, or viewing doesn’t already know. From The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley to The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; John Ford entertained the budding motion picture generation and constructed the essentials of filmmaking that we rely on today. His direction here is harsh and wise. In some ways, The Searchers is not meant to be a pretty and charming picture. Yet, in others ways, how can it not be? Ford’s mastery of cast, cameras, and characters clicks on all cylinders. But of course, the incredible locations and vistas of Monument Valley is a character unto itself. The wide scopes and small people amid big mountainscapes were deliberately edited by Ford to heighten the wild danger in The Searchers. Ethan Edwards and his friends are unwelcome newbies to a land that does not wish to be tamed. The Texas frontier can break even the strongest; and The Searchers makes just as much case that the West should have been left well enough alone as it praises and honors our forefathers and pioneering spirit.

How out of place does the white washed Victorian farmhouse look against the shadowed red mountains? Old-fashioned blue and white china can’t bring civility to an uncivilized land. Ford films several charming indoor sequences, but the country warmth of the indoors is dark and small compared to the big and ambiguous outdoors. Multiple viewings are required to analyze all of Ford’s visual tricks. The film opens and closes with doorway scenes. Inside is still and dark, but the door opens to a beautiful and reckless country waiting to be explored. Moreover, why is it that John Wayne’s Ethan is always on the outside looking in on those shots? Is his own big and ambiguous nature so similar to the wilds? Can he also never be tamed by the simple, easy life?
One distinctly unique style of The Searchers is the deliberately minimal use of close ups. I never thought to notice this in other pictures, but it makes absolute sense here. There are only about a dozen medium close-ups, and although those zooms get closer to a characters’ thoughts and feelings, the lack of a true close ups represents the distance still between critical people and the people amid nature. Even when Ford takes his camera as close as we’re going to get, your eye is still drawn to everything else in the frame. There’s the famous zoom where Wayne turns to look at a crazy woman in an Army fort. He’s wearing such dark clothes amid a dark and cold cabin, his brim is over his face, but we still see his hardened eyes and five o’clock shadow. It’s as if Ethan’s hardened heart can stop the camera cold-or perhaps the camera represents the viewer who’s afraid to go further and accept Ethan’s deadly intentions.
Not to be outdone visually, The Searchers also boasts a fine score by Oscar winner Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Since You Went Away). I can’t help myself, I love the opening drums before the bittersweet titular song by Stan Jones (Rio Grande). Such pretty melodies carry us through the sentimental moments of the picture, but natural western sounds give us some harsh reality, too. Gunshots, horses, rocky slips, and Indian chants put us in a frontier state of mind. Strangely, the old hymn ‘Shall Gather at the River?’ is used for both funerals and weddings onscreen, and of course, if we’re a little slow on something, there are plenty of orchestral crescendos and booms for all The Searchers’ big drama and action.

Though still sensitive and easily scratched when over handled, my blu-ray viewing of The Searchers froze and skipped not. And, Sweet Jesus The Searchers on blu-ray may just be the finest thing I have ever seen. The exceptional views of Monument Valley are magnified tenfold-every jagged rock and layer of sediment is defined. The blowing sand, a horse’s sweat and flexing muscles, the detailed gingham and calico dresses and vests of old, the buffalo! Every depth of vision you can possibly imagine can be seen on blu-ray. I half expect the snow to continue from the screen out onto my carpet or the blue skies to burst out and color my walls. I always thought The Searchers was a Technicolor fifties bright and colorful production, but after years of small screen viewing and grainy VHS; I just can’t get over how blu-ray rejuvenates The Searchers. Even my DVD copy (from which the screen captures here were taken) can’t compare. Like my previous praise of the original Planet of the Apes, blu-ray makes an older picture seem twenty years newer. I hereby declare that all classics should be released on blu-ray!

The Statements
Despite its wonderful cast and visuals, The Searchers is not a western where the good guys where white hats and the bad boys are all in black. It’s reflections on racism, Manifest Destiny, and the Confederacy are clear enough to any modern viewer. From the first mention of Ethan’s allegiance to the South to Laurie’s final declaration that a bullet in Debbie’s brain is best, we know this picture says a lot more than most westerns or most of its McCarthy era compatriots. Not only commenting on its story material, The Searchers also says a lot about its time. There are no black actors in sight-and I’m sure if I researched enough I could find out that surely there were real American Indians involved in the production. Nevertheless, you can’t see any of them onscreen. Painted white actors- Scar actor Henry Brandon was born in Germany!-portray the stereotypical feather headdress wearing Injuns, and the Mexicans offered all wear sombreros. Today The Searchers doesn’t look dated; it simply looks like a film of its time that’s bravely commentating on a hundred years prior. Unfortunately, our nation’s true colors seem to have changed little in that time.
Like other John Ford pictures, The US Cavalry makes an appearance here. Instead of being the hero, however, The Searchers offers a somewhat underhanded treatment of the Army. First the Cavalry and its Indian Agencies interfere with Ethan’s search and provide little help. Later, Lieutenant Greenhill is made out to be a dumb, spoiled boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing-and he and his bugler are the only significant Cavalrymen in the picture. Some viewers think a brief scene in which Captain Clayton has an undisclosed rear end injury is out of place; however, I think he was stuck in the butt with Greenhill’s sword. He’s warned earlier by Clayton to take care with his ‘knife’, and to me the butt wound represents the pain in the backside that Northern interference and reconstruction was to the still proud South.
Also seeming to rub the wrong way in The Searchers is the juxtaposition of religion and violence. The local reverend is also the ranger captain for goodness sake, and he has no problem shouting Hallelujah after he’s shot a few Indians. Clayton also comments in the opening moments of the film that Debbie still isn’t baptized-does this mean she’s more susceptible to those Injun ways? Before a battle with Scar, Mose erroneously prays, ‘That which we are about to receive, we thank thee, oh Lord.’ Shortly thereafter, Martin has mixed feelings about his first Indian kill, but he quickly gets over it and continues firing. This observance of white hypocrisy parallels the relationship between Ethan and Scar, for both fights to avenge killed family. Ethan constantly refers to evil Bucks, non-human Comanche, scalping-he even shoots the eyes out of a dead Indian so the man will ‘wonder forever between the winds’.
Why don’t we think good of Scar-a man who has lost two sons-when he takes in a young and lost Debbie and raises her as his own? Are we to be pleased when Ethan scalps Scar? It’s not a question of if the situations were reversed, for in many ways Ethan and his Indian enemies are not that different. We’re supposed to like the white guys even if we know their ways are wrong and hate the Indians for their misunderstood violence. Although The Searchers has a feel good ending, the getting there is uneasy, complex, and complicated. The irony is that Ethan hopes to find Debbie and return her to the Jorgensen’s homestead. It’s not even really her home, merely neighbors from when Debbie was five years old. We are given the impression that she’s better off with an unrelated white family than Indians who raised her as their own. It’s never even considered that she might be better off staying where she’s acclimated. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Once Ethan sees Debbie as a full-fledged squaw, his sentiments that living as a Comanche isn’t worth the living are fulfilled.

The Legacy
Perhaps its no longer in the younger, mainstream media’s mind, but film schools, scholars, contemporary filmmakers, and movie historians are intimately familiar with The Searchers. Ford’s vision and Wayne’s performance have been imitated, studied, and written upon long before me. First released in several DVD sets and collections beginning in 2001, my now out of print single disc edition only contains an original trailer and the Warner Brothers behind the scenes shorts. When the blu-ray release came out in May 2009, I quickly moved it to the top of my netflix queue. Though affordable, I think my husband is trying to talk me out of buying the set and passing along my DVD copy to my Dad. My husband is not a fan of westerns or classic films, you see, and he knows I will beg and plead and somehow find a way of conning him into watching The Searchers. The blu-ray feature “The Searchers: An Appreciation” showcases directors Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorsese, and John Milius discussing why they love this film. Along with the Two Disc Anniversary DVD and the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, the blu-ray set has introductions by Patrick Wayne, commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, original trailers and behind the scenes recollections for the uninitiated viewer.
The Searchers’ numerous releases on DVD and now blu-ray; its preserved status with the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry; and its countless placing on numerous Top lists, critics’ choices, and American Film Institute countdowns should give you some indication as to how important this picture is to American cinema. Ranked as the number 1 western and 12th best film of all time by the AFI, you can’t consider yourself a fan of great movies unless you’ve seen this picture. Despite my praise, The Searchers is not a film one watches obsessively like others. It certainly takes more than one viewing to catch all its complexities, but The Searchers also needs time to germ and stew. There has to be time for you to forget, if possible, touching pieces or perhaps change yourself and thus your viewing perceptions. This film should be watched every few years or so and only in a proper viewing format-not cut up with commercials on television. The Searchers must be seen in its entirety every time for full effect-Ford’s epic vision demands it.

Sweet Jesus, I’ve spent 10 pages and over 3,500 words on The Searchers. If nothing else, that has to count for something!