Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


 

The Lord of the Rings; Fellowship of the Ring

Now there’s an idea for the Kentucky Derby – arm the jockeys with swords.

(2001) Fantasy (New Line) Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Sarah McLeod, Peter McKenzie, Harry Sinclair, Sala Baker. Directed by Peter Jackson

 

There was much concern when it was announced that the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be made into movies that it be done right. Anything less than a classic movie would be heartbreaking to the millions of readers who love Tolkein’s work, let alone the smaller but very vocal crowd of the Middle Earth-obsessed.

Middle Earth is threatened by a grave power. A prologue shows us how, thousands of years prior to this story, a wizard king named Sauron (Baker) crafted a ring to dominate all the races of the land – human, elf and dwarf – and give Sauron ultimate power over Middle Earth. The bravery of Isildur (Sinclair), a human king, defeats Sauron’s plans; Isildur’s greed, however, causes the ring to escape destruction and allow Sauron to eventually return. The ring ultimately falls into the hands of an adventuresome hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Holm) who brings it home to Bag End, in the village of Hobbiton, where it remained dormant.

Now, it is many years later and Bilbo is readying for a massive party to celebrate his 111th birthday. His old friend Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), a powerful wizard, arrives to celebrate with a wagon chock full of wonderful fireworks, and is greeted by Bilbo’s nephew, the bookish Frodo (Wood). Bilbo is worn out, although he looks much younger than his years would indicate. He wants to see the Misty Mountain again, and dwell among the elves in peace so he might finish the book he is writing of his adventures, “There and Back Again.”

At the party, Frodo’s friends Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), get into mischief involving Gandalf’s fireworks, setting the tone for their roles in the tale. Bilbo makes a sudden and startling departure at the party’s conclusion, using the ring to become invisible. The wizard immediately realizes that there is much more to Bilbo’s ring than even he had realized. He confronts Bilbo and convinces his old friend to leave the ring to Frodo. Gandalf warns Frodo, “Keep it secret; keep it safe,” then rides off to find out the truth of this ring.

When Gandalf returns to Bag End it to urge Frodo to flee. Nine ghastly riders, the nazghul, have been dispatched to retrieve the ring, which by Gandalf has determined to be THE ring. Frodo’s friend, gardener Sam Gamgee (Astin) overhears some of the discussion and is confronted by Gandalf, who asks what he heard. “N-nothing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a dark lord, and something about the end of the world, but please, Mr. Gandalf, sir, don’t hurt me. Don’t turn me into anything… unnatural.”

Sam is sent to accompany Frodo. The hobbits run into Merry and Pippin, who are pilfering vegetables from a farmer. The reunion, however, is brief; the hobbits are nearly discovered by one of the terrifying and mysterious riders nazghul.

In the human town of Bree, they meet the ranger Aragorn (Mortensen), who saves them from a disturbing attack from the nazghul, and sets out to lead them for the elven settlement of Rivendell. However, the nazghul catch up to them at Weathertop, an ancient fortress, where Frodo is stabbed with a poisoned blade. Aragorn drives off their foes and steps up the pace to go to Rivendell, desperate to save Frodo. They are met along the way by Arwen (Tyler), an elven princess and daughter of Elrond, who puts Frodo on her horse and rides a thrilling race against the murderous nazghul. Gandalf, in the meantime, has been imprisoned by Saruman (Lee), head of his order, whom he had gone to consult. Saruman, believing that Mordor cannot be defeated this time, has decided to ally himself with Sauron. Gandalf finally manages to escape, using a giant eagle to fly from Isengard, the wizard’s tower which is Saruman’s base, but not before learning that Saruman is breeding an army of Uruk’hai, a crossbreed of orc and goblin that have none of the weaknesses of either race and many of the strengths.

Elrond calls a council to determine the fate of the ring, and after some deliberation, decides to send a small party to Mordor, to Mount Doom itself, to destroy the ring. This despite the objections of Boromir (Bean), son of the Steward of Gondor, the ruler of that land in the stead of a king who is lost – a king who turns out to be Aragorn, who doesn’t want the job.

There is much arguing and distrust among the races as to who will bear the ring, but finally Frodo speaks up and declares that he will carry the ring to Mordor, though he doesn’t know the way. Gandalf pledges to assist him, as does Aragorn and Boromir, as well as an elven prince named Legolas (Bloom) and a warrior dwarf named Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Sam, Merry and Pippin also proclaim that they are going wherever Frodo goes. Thus is formed the Fellowship of the Ring (cue dramatic orchestral music).

On the eve of their departing, Arwen presents Aragorn with a token of her love; Aragorn begs her not to give it to him, knowing she would give up her immortality for his love, but she gives it to him nonetheless. The fellowship then departs for Mordor.

The way is hard. In a snowy mountain pass, Saruman attacks them magically, forcing them to go the one way Gandalf didn’t want to travel; underground, through the mines of Moria, where Gimli’s cousin rules.

After surviving the attack of a hideous kraken at the gates of the mines, the Fellowship travels into Moria, and it becomes obvious that the entire colony of dwarves has been massacred. They are attacked just then by orcs, goblins and a massive cave troll and when it appears they will be surrounded, something frightens the thousands of orcs and goblins off; it turns out to be a balrog, a fire demon from the depths of the earth. Gandalf fights off the balrog, but then is yanked off a precipice, and is lost to the Fellowship.

Disheartened, the survivors of the fellowship make their way into Lothlorien, stronghold of the high elves, where they are greeted by King Celeborn (Csokas) and the ethereal Queen Galadriel (Blanchett), who allow the weary travelers rest. After receiving gifts of elven cloaks, waybread and other items, the Fellowship resumes its journey, now by river.

At camp they are ambushed by the Uruk’hai, Boromir is confronted by his own weakness, and the Fellowship is broken, with one member giving his life in battle.

The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring is a captivating, compelling movie that is only the first step in a journey that will take us to the eventual fate of the ring, of those who bear it and of those who seek it as well. Given the performances here, it is easy to care very much about who gets there and in what shape they are in when they arrive. It is a journey we can all take together.

The visuals are stunning, jaw-dropping at the time this was released. The elven communities of Rivendell and Lothlorien are beautiful in an alien way, blending naturally with their forest environments. Hobbiton in the Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo live, looks exactly as I imagined it, calm, peaceful and rustic but with a hint of the English countryside implicit in every nook and cranny. The ruins of ancient kingdoms, statues of forgotten kings and warriors dot the journey’s landscape, giving the world an old and lived-in appearance. The attention to detail in establishing each individual place in the movie, each with its own specific character and feel, is nothing short of astounding.

Jackson has an epic palette to paint his picture, and he uses every color imaginable. The bright colors of the Shire contrast with the dark, stormy terrain of Mordor; the Elven territories are in a perpetual autumn, as their race prepares to leave Middle Earth, lending a further poignancy to the tale. Jackson obviously holds the source material in high regard, and stays as true to Tolkein’s words as is possible.

Wisely, the various characters are developed slowly, becoming who they are during the course of the movie. There is not a disappointing performance throughout; Mortensen carries a quiet intensity as Aragorn, McKellen a grandfatherly presence as Gandalf. The extras are well-cast, helping set the background tone in each location; folksy and a bit comic in Hobbiton, suspicious and tense in Bree, graceful yet sad in Lorien.

What makes this so successful a movie is what I would call a sense of place throughout; the architecture, scenery and characters all contribute to the overall mood. Middle Earth becomes a living, breathing place because of it, and the rich textures of Tolkein’s world come to life before our very eyes.

Overall, this can only be called a labor of love, and that love can clearly be seen on the screen in every frame. Jaw-dropping special effects and eye-popping scenery from the wilds of New Zealand dazzle at every turn. Howard Shore’s haunting score serves to enhance the film, and having Enya contribute a pair of vocalizations to the movie is a wise move; her ethereal voice is perfect for it. When this was released back in 2001, it not only met the high expectations of those anticipating (myself included) but exceeded them. It has, with its successors, become a true classic, a movie that I happily watch over and over again and enjoy almost as much as the first time I saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing spectacle, faithful to the book and exciting and heartwarming all at once. A modern classic that still bears repeated watching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re not into fantasy, you’ll surely hate this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scary images and an epic battle sequence that depicts plenty of hacking and chopping.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most major films have from time to time more than one unit shooting simultaneously, generally just two or three. There were occasions when this production had as many as ten units shooting at once.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There have been several different releases of varying size of the film and there are so many different and fascinating features that listing them all for each edition would take up far too much space here.  Suffice to say that you will essentially have a choice of two different versions of the film; the two hour-plus theatrical release and the nearly four hour extended director’s cut. The latter only last month arrived as part of a box set to take advantage of the renewed Middle Earth fervor generated by the Hobbit trilogy, the first film of which arrives at Christmas this year. Even the bare bones DVD editions have plenty of wonderful features so that no matter which version you choose you’ll have plenty of things to occupy many hours of viewing time but the extended edition Blu-Ray has enough special features (some brand new) to make even the hardiest of Frodo fans faint.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $871.5M on a $93M production budget. The movie was a gigantic blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Straw Dogs (2011)

Dark Shadows


Dark Shadows

You’d be grinning too if you had a sex scene with Johnny Depp that ended up trashing a set.

(2012) Gothic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee, Gulliver McGrath, Ray Shirley, Alice Cooper. Directed by Tim Burton

 

Sometimes without meaning to we cause harm to people. We never know exactly who we’ve created an enemy of, or what they’re capable of doing though even if we’re innocent of any real wrongdoing.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) was living the high life, 18th century style. His family owns a wildly successful fishing fleet in Maine; the town built around their enterprise, Collinsport, is thriving; they’ve built an extravagant mansion overlooking the town and the Atlantic that would be the equivalent of a castle. And Barnabas is deeply in love with Josette duPres (Heathcote).

This is bad news to Angelique Bouchard (Green). She and the handsome Barnabas had a fling which meant much more to her than it did to him. She was a maid, he the master of the house; a relationship between them would not be appropriate if it were even possible. Scorned, Angelique resolves to get even and since she happens to be a rather powerful witch, that’s even worse news for Josette. Angelique casts a spell on her, causing her to throw herself off a cliff into the sea despite Barnabas’ desperate attempts to save her. Heartbroken, he throws himself off the same cliff but fails to die. You see, he’s been cursed as well – to become a vampire, a hideous creature of the night.

The implacable Angelique lets the good citizens of Collinsport know they have a monster in their midst and Barnabas is dragged out into a remote field where he is chained up and buried alive. There he remains, deep in the ground in the woods far outside of town.

That is, until he is dug up some 200 years later by contractor. It is now 1972 and two centuries without a meal can make one…peckish as the workers find out to their dismay. He longs to find his estate and get his bearings. When he gets there, he is overjoyed to find that the family still survives (although it’s never explained quite how, since he apparently was the only son – perhaps some other Collins’ emigrated from England to take over the family business). However, they are definitely down at heel. Their fishing business is a shadow of its former self. The mansion is crumbling and what was once a vast army of servants is down to two – the elderly Mrs. Johnson (Shirley) and the booze-addled Willie Loomis (Haley) who does most of the heavy lifting.

The family is down to four members – matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), widowed mother of rebellious teen Carolyn (Moretz). Her brother Roger Collins (Miller) who is also a widower and a womanizer, not to mention somewhat useless. The last is his son David (McGrath) who talks to and sees his dead mother. This tendency to dwell on his late mother has alarmed Elizabeth who has opened her penurious pursestrings and hired Julia Hoffman (Carter), a psychiatrist who seems more interested in drinking and smoking than therapy and Victoria Winters (Heathcote), a governess who bears a remarkable resemblance to Josette.

They welcome Barnabas with mostly open arms although Elizabeth alone is aware that Barnabas is that Barnabas rather than a distant English relation (the cover story they use for Barnabas’ unusual and sudden appearance). Elizabeth wants to regain the family name and glory and she knows that his keen business acumen can only help (it doesn’t hurt that as a vampire he can use his mind to control others to do his will). However, they have a long ways to go to catch up with Angel Bay, the corporate entity that has taken over the fishing business in Collinsport. However, Barnabas is dismayed to find out that at the head of Angel Bay is an old nemesis (emphasis on the old) – Angelique (going by Angie these days) who hasn’t aged a day. Like as not, their old quarrel is going to resurface and there’s going to be fall-out and only one of them will be left standing.

On the surface this seems like a perfect fit – Burton, one of the quirkiest directors in Hollywood but one who knows how to tell a good story and the iconic gothic soap opera from the 60s and 70s. He has chosen to go the cheeseball route, not just by setting the movie (mostly) in the 70s but by changing its original dark, gothic tone to one that is more comedic. In all honesty it doesn’t work as well as I would have hoped.

It’s not Depp’s fault. He takes the late Jonathan Frid’s (who played Barnabas in the series) mannered, courtly vampire and takes that to the extreme, playing up the fish out of water angle a great deal more. In the original, Barnabas seemed to adjust much more quickly and readily to his new time. Frid was a sex symbol in his time albeit not to the same degree Depp is now. Depp’s Barnabas seems sexier more by accident than by artifice; indeed, the original Barnabas was far more evil and dangerous than Depp who is almost apologetic when he feeds. In fact, Frid seems to revel in his undead status more than Depp who would just as soon be rid of his curse.

The supporting roles vary wildly. Pfeiffer is always magnificent and although she seems a bit young to play the matron, she pulls it off here well. Green is the most impressive; with her carefree grin, she sees to be having the most fun of everybody (she does get to have a hot and somewhat violent sex scene with Depp so I suppose she comes by her smile honestly) and it translates into making her character more attractive to audiences. She may be vindictive and cruel but she’s a woman scorned – they’re supposed to be vindictive and cruel.

Personally I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity there. She was supposed to be desperately in love with Barnabas despite his rejection, but as he noted she saw him as more of a possession than a partner. I think if she had shown real love towards Barnabas it would have been much more poignant, but then it might have ruined the comic tone which I also think may have been a misstep – the film rarely achieves more than being amusing which is not what you want in a summer comedy.

The movie looks impressive with Collinswood being an amazing set, full of nautical touches that are gratifying in their detail and fully understandable given the family’s source of income. However, as lavish as the film looks and as well as Green and Depp do, it doesn’t hide the fact that there isn’t really a whole lot of passion displayed by the filmmakers; at least, I never feel inspired by the movie to do much more than smile occasionally. The movie felt to me almost workmanlike which is a shame because I had high hopes for it. Despite a lot of nice little touches it doesn’t add up to a satisfying film overall; but those touches are enough for me to recommend it with the caveat that it isn’t going to remain in your memory as long as the original series did.

REASONS TO GO: Depp inhabits his role well. Green has fun with her part. Nicely Gothic sets.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the funniest bits are in the trailer. Purists will bemoan the comedic tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence, a fairly bizarre sex scene, some drug use and smoking and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To prepare for his role as Barnabas, Depp subsisted on a diet of green tea and low-sugar fruits in order to slim down to 140 pounds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews have been mixed although leaning more towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires Suck

DARK SHADOWS LOVERS: Original series cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby and Jonathan Frid (in his last onscreen role before his death earlier this year) have cameos as guests at a party at Collinswood.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Pirates! Band of Misfits

New Releases for the Week of May 11, 2012


May 11, 2012

DARK SHADOWS

(Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Eva Green, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller, Bella Heathcote, Christopher Lee. Directed by Tim Burton

Young Barnabas Collins, an 18th century wastrel and scion of a wealthy New England family, makes the dreadful mistake of breaking a witch’s heart and is cursed therefore to vampirism and is consequently buried alive to think about the error of his ways. By the time he is released (inadvertently I might add) it is 1972 and the world is a far different place. He returns to his beloved Collinwood manor to discover the family has fallen upon hard times and the house is a ruin. He sets out to restore both, although there are forces conspiring that wish to keep the Collins family low.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips, interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Gothic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

(Fox Searchlight) Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith. A group of English  retirees answer an ad for a resort in India that is meant to cater to the needs of golden age residents with all of the lushest amenities and scintillating service. However when they arrive, they find a hotel and staff with grand ambitions but little else as the resort fails to meet even minimal standards. As the hotel begins to transform around them, the seniors discover that they themselves are being transformed.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)  

The Cup

(Myriad) Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Curry, Daniel McPherson, Alice Parkinson. The Oliver brothers, sons of a family that is legendary in the Australian horse racing world, are at the top of their game, considered among the favorites to win the upcoming Melbourne Cup – the most prestigious horse race in Oz, the equivalent to the Kentucky Derby. However when one dies in a tragic accident mere days before the Cup, the other is heartbroken and considers leaving horse racing for good. However a respected trainer will encourage him to run the race in his brother’s honor, leading to an event that caused the entire horse racing world to hold it’s breath as one.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: NR

Dangerous ISHHQ

(Reliance Big Picture) Karisma Kapoor, Jimmy Shergill, Rajiniesh Duggall, Divya Dutta.  A business tycoon and a supermodel are one of India’s most celebrated couples. When he is kidnapped, the crime becomes front-page news. But the police believe that even if the extravagant ransom is paid that he will not be returned alive anyway. With time ticking away, the supermodel must put herself in harm’s way to bring home the man she loves.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: NR

Girl in Progress

(Pantelion) Eva Mendes, Matthew Modine, Patricia Arquette, Cierra Ramirez. A single mom, robbed of her teen years by pregnancy, is spending all of her focus on her own needs and gives little to none to her daughter who desperately needs a mom. As her daughter becomes engaged in coming-of-age stories, she becomes convinced that the way to adulthood is through sex.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, sexual content including crude references, and drinking – all involving teens)  

God Bless America

(Magnet) Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton  A man, fed up with the venal nature of Americans, the trash quotient of reality TV and the general celebration of rude behavior, goes on a murderous rampage. He is cheered on by a teenage girl who becomes his willing accomplice, although reluctantly on his part. This is the new movie from comedian/director Bobcat Goldthwait and played at the recent Florida Film Festival. You can find the review here.

See the trailer and stream the movie online here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Black Comedy

Rating: R (for strong violence and language including some sexual sequences)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

(Magnolia) Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto. The world’s foremost sushi chef – and the only one in the world to be honored with three Michelin stars – operates from a tiny ten-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. At 85, he works harder than most a quarter of his age. His sons are being prepared to succeed him but can anyone live up to the daunting legacy he has built? Another film screened at this year’s Florida Film Festival; you can read the review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR 

Hugo


Hugo

Time flies when you're making a Scorsese film.

(2011) Family (Paramount) Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emil Lager. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Our dreams guide us, sometimes into odd territories. We can be spirited away to fantastic landscapes or sent hurtling back into our own memories, into our own past. Dreams are the lenses through which we view reality.

Hugo Cabret (Butterfield) lives in the cavernous Montparnasse train station through a set of tragic circumstances. He fixes the clocks and makes sure that they are running on time – important work for a train station, particularly in Paris in the early 1930s.

He didn’t always live this way. He once lived with his father, a clockmaker, who had discovered an automaton (a kind of early robot) while doing some work in a museum. His father had attempted to fix the machine but now it was up to Hugo to get the thing to work. He is convinced that the automaton carries some sort of message from his father and in order to fix it, pilfers parts from a grumpy toymaker named Georges (Kingsley).

Hugo is also trying to stay one step ahead of the station inspector, one Inspector Gustav (Cohen). Gustav, who has an eye on pretty flower girl Lisette (Mortimer), was injured in the War and wears a mechanical leg brace to allow him to walk in a kind of shuffling gait. It freezes up from time to time and Gustav must move it manually, causing him a great deal of humiliation. Gustav relies on a Doberman to help him patrol the station where he regularly catches orphans like Hugo to send them to the orphanage. Hugo knows if Gustav catches him, the automaton will be taken away and he’ll never find out what his father was trying to tell him.

Aiding Hugo in his quest is Isabelle (Moretz), the goddaughter of the toymaker who is being raised by Papa Georges and his wife Jeanne (McCrory). Isabelle is a plucky sort who can relate to the intense and somewhat shell-shocked Hugo. She loves a good mystery and yearns for a good adventure of her own. She spends most of her time reading books lent to her by the kindly bookseller Labisse (Lee).

The automaton has all the parts it needs but lacks a heart-shaped key to fit a heart-shaped lock that will wind up the mechanism and get it working. Hugo must find that key and in the discovery of it will find out that the magic of movies, which he attended with his father, was far more ephemeral than he thought and that fame is even more fleeting than that. He will also discover a key to Papa Georges’ past and a path to his own future.

The movie is based on an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick called The Invention of Hugo Cabret and marks Scorsese’s first foray into family films as well as his first 3D movie. Once again the great director has hit a home run.

The setting is amazing. Much of Hugo’s world revolves around the inner workings of the clocks of the station, so there are gears and cogs aplenty. The train station itself recalls the romance of train travel of the era much as Murder on the Orient Express did. Labisse’s bookshop is a magical repository of imagination and knowledge, much larger than you’d expect to find at a train station.

Much of the movie rests on thin shoulders of Butterfield and Moretz. Moretz is one of the better actresses of her generation, with films like Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer to her credit. She has a role that requires her to be the kind of English plucky heroine that have overpopulated film and literary franchises like The Chronicles of Narnia‘s Susan Pevensey and Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger. Moretz gives the role a little bit more soul and humanity than you might expect.

Butterfield has amazing blue eyes and has received some criticism for his role for not expressing a lot of emotion. Personally, I think that was the perfect way to play the part. With all the things Hugo has gone through to this point, I think it would be natural for him to be a bit shell-shocked and plenty wary about expressing his emotions as he’s had so much taken away from him and so many people leave him. In the film’s final scenes he seems to finally be showing some joy and love and for my money it’s a terrific performance. Phooey on the critics who say different.

Ben Kingsley is, well, Ben Kingsley. We all know he is one of the great actors of the past 20 years, going back to his scintillating performance as Gandhi. He inhabits the role of Georges with dignity and a hidden reservoir of pain. I think it’s one of his best performances ever, one that should merit some awards consideration although thus far it hasn’t.

A word about the 3D. Generally I’m not one to recommend 3D to anyone – it rarely enhances the movie and more often than not, detracts from it, forcing viewers to look at a cinema screen through polarized sunglasses which does nothing for the brightness and the color of the film. However, here the movie actually benefits from the 3D which opens up Hugo’s world and makes it more lifelike and real. This is one of those rare times when I’d urge those of you going to see the movie to see it in 3D if you can. It’s well worth the upcharge for once.

The movie obviously has a direct connection to a soft spot in Scorsese’s heart. His passion for the preservation of old films is well-known and you can almost feel the pain in the great filmmaker’s soul when he talks about how the celluloid from old silent film were melted down to make the heels in ladies boots. Through Hugo we get to experience a time when movies were new and nobody quite knew what to do with them. While I won’t reveal the plot point that takes Hugo Cabret from automatons to motion pictures, I will say that film buffs and history buffs will be pleasantly surprised by the turn the movie makes. Be wary though – other reviews tell you precisely what that turn is and since I hadn’t read any before seeing the movie, I found the turn to be more effective.

All in all, this is a delightful motion picture, one full of fantasy and clearly a labor of love. Even the villains of the piece aren’t all bad – they have just had some hard times. It’s a bit on the long side – if your children are fidgety you might want to take that into account – however this is a terrific family movie that the kids may actually enjoy less than their parents; but the kids should like it a lot.

REASONS TO GO: Generally raises an air of wonder and magic. Terrific performances all around. Fantastic sets realistically depict Paris of the early 30s but also lend an air of fantasy.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too long for fidgety sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence, children put in peril and of course, smoking. Fiendish!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The automaton is based on actual machines that draw similarly complex drawings, complete with head movements and eyes following their own drawing except the real ones were built in the 18th century – they can be seen at the Musee D’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchatel in Switzerland.

HOME OR THEATER: I never thought I’d say this but not only do I recommend seeing this in a theater, but it should also be seen in 3D.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Agora

Boogie Woogie


Boogie Woogie
But is it Art?

 

 

 

 

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gillian Anderson, Alan Cumming, Heather Graham, Danny Huston, Jack Huston, Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Simon McBurney, Meredith Ostrom, Charlotte Rampling, Amanda Seyfried, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaime Winstone. Directed by Duncan Ward

Art for art’s sake was the motto at the old MGM studio, and that might well be the battle cry for all artists. There is always a sense that art elevates the soul, but too many take that to mean that it elevates themselves as well.

 

Art Spindle (D. Huston) is a London art dealer with a distinct lack of scruples. He is charming to the max, but lethal if you get in between him and what he wants. What he wants at the moment is the Piet Mondrian painting “Boogie Woogie,” which is owned by an elderly gentleman named Alfred Rhinegold (Lee) who is reluctant to part with it, despite the urgings of his wife (Lumley) who knows that they are in dire financial straits.

 

Art’s assistants Beth Freemantle (Graham) and Paige Oppenheimer (Seyfried) are ambitious and have their own agendas. One of them is to service Bob Macclestone (Skarsgard), a wealthy client who has a roving eye not just for art but for the ladies as well (and in particular for Beth), much to the despair of his wife Jean (Anderson).

 

Meanwhile, up and coming performance artist Elaine (Winstone) has been making a name for herself with her tapes of her lesbian sexual encounters, much to the chagrin of Dewey (Cumming), her manager who has a huge crush on Elaine. For Elaine, Dewey is a means to an end and nothing more. Her cold-heartedness leads to tragedy which sends repercussions throughout the London art scene.

 

This is an ensemble piece along the lines of Robert Altman, albeit set in contemporary London. This is also based on a stage play which was set in 1990s New York. The subject for both is the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the art world. That is much like writing a movie about the corruption of politics. It’s not any great revelation after all.

 

Huston does a serviceable job in the type of role he typically excels at – the smarmy snake oil salesman type. He has as foils Graham and Seyfried, two of the most beautiful women in the world. Lumley, who made her career in “Absolutely Fabulous,” has a bittersweet role here, while veterans Rampling and Lee hold their own.

 

Unfortunately, the cast is given mostly one-dimensional portraits of people who are absolutely rotten to the core, so much so that you may smell decay in your soul for weeks afterwards just for having watched them. They’re the kind of people who operate from the same moral compass as Rupert Murdoch does.

 

The movie bounces from vignette to vignette without any discernable rhyme or reason. The flow of the movie is therefore choppy and at times it feels like you’re watching two or three movies spliced together with duct tape. The pace could have used some tweaking too – they could have easily cut 10-15 minutes out of the script and gotten away with it.

This is as talented a cast as you’re likely to assemble. It is also the biggest waste of talent you’re likely to see. It’s unfortunate too; an ensemble like this deserves better material. Sadly, this is a case of a script that doesn’t have too much to say about a subject that doesn’t require much.

 

WHY RENT THIS: There’s a lot of talent here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A waste of talent. The movie feels like a collection of scenes strung together at random at times. Pacing could have used some tightening up.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a very sexual element here; lots of innuendo, graphic nudity and frank sexual discussions. There’s also foul language throughout as well as a smattering of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Graham and Lee voiced the characters of opposing leaders in the videogame “Everquest 2.” Skarsgard and Seyfried also worked together in Mamma Mia!

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47,527 on an unreported production budget; this didn’t even come close to making its money back.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: My Blueberry Nights

Season of the Witch


Season of the Witch

Oh, those kinky Catholics!

(2011) Supernatural Action (Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee, Stephen Graham, Rory McCann. Directed by Dominic Sena

In a land ruled by fear, decimated by plague and depleted by war, innocence and guilt can be more of a matter of political expedience. Fingers, looking for blame to point at, may choose the most convenient target.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are medieval knights, pledged to the service of the Church in the Crusades of the 13th century. For a dozen years, they labor in the Lord’s army, smiting down the infidels and butchering the soldiers of God’s enemies. When they are ordered to put an entire city to the sword, butchering innocent women and children, Behmen balks.  He rejects his oath and deserts from the army, his faithful pal Felson walking off with him.

They return to Europe to find it in the grip of the Black Plague, victims rotting in their beds. They ride into a town to purchase horses and supplies but they are recognized – apparently word travels fast in Medieval Europe – and arrested. In order to avoid execution, they agree to transport an accused witch (Foy) to a remote abbey where the last copy of the Key of Solomon, a document containing all the spells meant to exorcise demons and destroy witches, resides.

They will be accompanied by Debalzaq (Moore), a zealous priest and Eckhart (Thomsen), a grieving knight whose entire family (including his beloved daughter Mila) had been taken by the plague. They also recruit Hagamar (Graham), a swindler who is the only one who knows the way to the abbey. Behmen, weary of killing the innocent, agrees to go on the condition the girl gets a fair trial at the abbey and is not just summarily executed.

Along the way they’ll deal with escape attempts, a precarious bridge, a wolf-infested forest and things that go bump in the night. The journey is so perilous and things go wrong so coincidentally that it’s not a coincidence even Behmen wonders if the girl may not actually be a witch. 

This movie was a victim of MGM’s financial difficulties passing from studio to studio, release date to release date. It’s actually been in the can for two years but only just saw the light of day as the first wide release of 2011, which may sound like an honor but is generally bad news for a movie; usually the first weekend of the year is absolute death for a new release, competing against the big releases over the Christmas week.

I think that some of the critics who saw this were predisposed to disliking the film given its checkered past. It’s gotten really horrible reviews and I found some of the criticism unfair. Quite frankly, this is an action movie with horror overtones that’s not meant to be a serious study of life during the Black Plague; it’s supposed to be fun and mindless, and boy does it succeed in that regard.

Nicolas Cage has taken his lumps as an actor of late, and he has taken his lumps for this performance. He underplays the role big time, leaving his over-the-top twitchiness which he often employs at home. Behmen is terse and all business; it’s perfect for what the role requires.

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman. He’s great not only in the Hellboy movies but in virtually every role he assays, going back to his “Beauty and the Beast” days. He has enormous presence and he can take over a movie without thinking about it. Here, he acts as a great foil to Cage and they play nicely off of one another. It’s a bit of a buddy movie in that regard. 

Graham, who was recently seen as Capone in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is fine in a small role. Foy mostly gets to cower although she has a few moments where she displays her considerable sexuality. However, of all the backing players Moore is the most memorable, walking a fine line of the character’s dogmatic devotion to the Church and his desire to be a caring prelate. Christopher Lee is unrecognizable in a brief cameo as a cardinal stricken by the plague – that’s him on the bed in the photo above.

The action sequences are fairly well-done, although the battle sequences from the Crusades at the movie’s beginning are almost all filmed with hand-held cameras which is annoying as all get-out. There are a number of battles placed back-to-back with minimal differences, which drag on far too long. The point could easily have been made with a single sequence and a few lines of dialogue.

Most of the special effects are practical make-up effects until near the end. The climactic battle is well done, and the shots of plague victims are stomach-churning but in a good way. While the vistas are meant to portray a dying land, the Austrian Alps are far too beautiful to have their majesty hidden by mud for too long. It isn’t what I’d call grand sweeping cinematography but it suffices.

This really isn’t a bad movie at all. There are far worse movies out there wrestling for your entertainment dollar but the horror aspects might be putting off a certain segment of the audience while the medieval fantasy elements put off another. It’s a tough sell, but at the end of the day, it succeeds in entertaining and you can’t really ask for more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Decent special effects and solid performances by Cage, Perlman and Moore made this a better movie than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many battle sequences in shaky-cam style and a few action film clichés submarine what could have been a really strong movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and some disturbing horror imagery. In addition, there’s some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Key of Solomon is an actual work, a grimoire attributed to the biblical king but more likely first produced during the Italian Renaissance. Several editions exist today.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a few of the scenes are definitely better on a big screen, the movie works just as effectively on the small.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Quarantine

New Releases for the Week of January 7, 2011


January 7, 2010

Gwynneth Paltrow is a little bit country.

COUNTRY STRONG

(Screen Gems) Gwynneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Cinda McCain, Alana Grace, Katie Cook. Directed by Shana Feste

A promising young country singer-songwriter gets involved with a fading superstar who has had some substance abuse problems and embarks on a tour with her (along with a beauty queen turned singer) for one last stab at recapturing her former glory, as organized by her husband slash manager. However, their inner demons, romantic entanglements and egos threaten to derail the tour – and their careers.

See the trailer, promos, interviews, music videos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content)

Inspector Bellamy

(IFC) Gerard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac, Jacques Gamblin, Marie Bunel. A respected chief of police chooses to spend his vacation time at the family estate of his wife, despite her desire to take a nice, long, well-deserved cruise. The fact is, he hates to travel and there’s always an excuse not to – as when his alcoholic younger half-brother arrives, followed by a wanted man who shows up demanding Bellamy’s protection. Job…life…job…life…so many decisions!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Suspense

Rating: NR

Season of the Witch

(Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Christopher Lee. A hero from the Crusades is tasked by the church to transport a young girl convicted of witchcraft to a remote abbey where she will be destroyed during an ancient ritual. The hero is unconvinced of her guilt, while others are convinced she’s responsible for the Black Plague. Some people just need a scapegoat.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Action

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, violence and disturbing content)

I, Vampire


             First of all, the movies are all bullshit. Especially those new ones. We don’t sparkle – ever – for one thing, and I don’t look anything like that boy. There’s nothing soulful about my kind; by definition, we’re soulless.

            We aren’t anything like Christopher Lee, either. And Stoker got everything all wrong, too. Flash all the crosses you want at us unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness. Now those guys scare us; they just don’t take freakin’ no for an answer. Holy water doesn’t faze us and garlic doesn’t bother us except for one guy I knew who was allergic in life to the stuff; made him break out something awful.

            I’m a vampire, by the way. I figure you’d have guessed that by now. I’ve been one for about 75 years now. By my reckoning, that means I’ve been in a foul mood for…oh, about 75 years. My name is Harvey – yes, I know, like the fucking rabbit. I get that all the damn time; it was never funny. If Jimmy Stewart were still alive, I’d tear him a new one. As a matter of fact I was going to back in 1961, but cooler heads prevailed.

            I was 51 when I was Changed. I lived in New Orleans at the time; it was 1935 and I was drunk (as usual), walking home from a bar near the Quarter when I decided to take a piss in an alley. I often wonder what would have happened if I had been able to hold it that night; instead, I was grabbed from behind and felt a sharp pain in my neck; then I felt sleepy. I passed out in that alley.

            When I woke up, I felt strange. I chalked it up to the alcohol and stumbled back home. It was almost dawn; thank God it had been Friday. I slept well into Saturday afternoon. When I woke up, I felt this terrible pain in my stomach. I was also not alone.

            He was sitting in a chair, watching me as I woke up. He was thin, almost to the point of emaciation. He was immaculately groomed, but he had a crooked grin on his face. I would learn later on that he was considered quite a joker by our race although I didn’t know it at the time. Of course, I didn’t even know I was a new member of a different race either.

            In any case, he said “You’re probably feeling some awful pain in the stomach. Don’t be alarmed, that will pass. You are also wondering who I am. My name is Edgar. I’m a vampire.” At that point, I figured he was a nut case and I tried to get out of bed and away from him – he might be dangerous. My legs were like rubber and they weren’t working right. I fell flat on my ass on the floor. He guffawed. “I wouldn’t try to walk right now, brother. You have been reborn; your body is adjusting to its new situation.” I looked up with him and my confusion must have been apparent. He laughed again. “I have Changed you; made you one of our kind. One of my brothers has been unmade recently, so I needed to replace him; you happened to be handy.”

            I tried to get up again, but my arms and legs weren’t working properly. He smiled and walked over to where I lay on the floor. He grabbed the front of my pajamas with one hand and lifted me onto the bed as if he were lifting a candlestick or a paperweight. “No sense in leaving you on the floor; it’ll be hours before you can walk. Now be a good man and just lie still, all right? It will make this less time-consuming.” I let out a big sigh. There seemed to be nothing for it.

            He smiled. “Good choice. Now, let me tell you what’s happening to you. You are not dead; you don’t have to die to become one of the Fallen. That’s what we call ourselves, the Fallen, as in fallen from grace, fallen from the eyes of God. It’s a bit of an ironic joke, considering most of us don’t believe in God. It’s hard to when you are a walking, talking violation of all His laws.”          

            He made a dismissive gesture. “But I digress. You are becoming a vampire. Think of it as an incurable disease, like leprosy or polio. And that Bela Lugosi movie is all wrong. I’m sure you’ll have a thousand questions, so let’s just get to basics.

            “That pain you’re feeling is hunger. You’ll get it from time to time, but not nearly as often as you might think. The only thing that will relieve it fully is human blood. The blood of cattle or other mammals will relieve it for a short time, but not like human blood.” I felt queasy; for the first time I was beginning to believe him. You see, when he mentioned human blood I felt a craving, like you might for ice cream or steak. I spoke to him for the first time, in a weak voice; “I don’t…I can’t…”

            He smiled again. “You don’t have to kill anybody. The human body contains more blood than you can drink. Think about it; do you drink gallons of water, milk, wine? No and neither do we. We just need a pint or two and we’re right as rain and for weeks. The most voracious of us feeds no more than once a month.”

            He went back to his chair and sat down. “And that hooey about changing into bats? Forget about it. We don’t turn into mist and we don’t turn into wolves. There is nothing all that supernatural about us. As for fangs, your incisors will change somewhat, grow sharper but you won’t grow full-fledged fangs. Not noticeably, anyway.

            “You will grow stronger, unnaturally so. You will also be faster and have more endurance. However this stuff about living forever – forget it. Nothing is eternal, especially not us. We are much longer-lived than our human cousins, but we do die eventually. We call it being unmade; our bodies simply disintegrate. Our kind leave no remains.”

            He was wearing a greatcoat and from one of his pockets he pulled out a bottle. “Here, drink this it’ll help with the stomach pain.” The truth was, it was really growing truly unbearable. I reached out and grabbed it, pulled out the stopper and drank it greedily. It was red and thick and warm; it tasted delicious. “That’s calves blood; there’s a butcher nearby who does me favors from time to time.”

            He looked at me. “Incidentally, daylight bothers us. It doesn’t kill us, but our skin becomes very sensitive as do our eyes. Go out in daylight only with sunglasses, and heavily cloaked; you will get very intense sunburns with even just limited exposure. They are very painful and take days to get better. You won’t burst into flames or anything, but you’ll feel as if you had.

            “Stakes through the heart do kill us, but then they’d kill anybody. We are decidedly hard to kill and we heal quickly, although we do feel pain. We can only be killed by piercing our heart, or cutting off our heads. That damned Stoker got that right at least.

            “We’re really quite harmless, for the most part, but people feel uncomfortable around us, even if they are unaware of our condition.” He got up and stretched. “That’s pretty much it for now. Oh, and we don’t age. You will always stay as you are now. You might change your hair and your clothes but you will always look as you do now. Sorry about that.”

            So was I. I was 51 then, and back in those days that was pretty old. I had kept most of my hair but it was mostly grey, and I had the pot belly of a man my age – and the wrinkles to prove it. I was certainly not the Adonis most movie vampires are.

            He left then, and true to his word the pain had dissipated. A few hours later I was able to walk short distances; a few hours after that it was as if nothing had happened. Fool that I was, I thought I had dreamed everything and went out into the daylight. It was if someone had poured acid all over me; I only managed to go a few feet before I was screaming in agony. I ran back inside and pulled all the shades. I was in horrible pain for days.

            It did get better, but shortly after that the stomach pains began again. I felt like I was going crazy; I was never hungry and rarely drank anything, water or stronger beverages. I slept very little; mostly, I read voraciously. I had always loved to read.

            Once the pains began, I wondered what I was going to do. Fortunately, my doorbell rang for the first time in days. It was the middle of the night, and it was Edgar. “May I come in?” he said politely. I gestured, and he followed me inside. “Have any more calves’ blood?” I said in a husky voice. He smiled and said “No, not this time. I’m going to take you out hunting so that you are able to feed yourself. Something I forgot to mention; because I changed you, we are bonded. I can sense when you’re hungry; you will also be able to sense certain things about me. You’ll know when I’m unmade, for example. When you Change someone, you will also be able to sense things about them. You will also be responsible to train them, as I am you. I am like a parent, a mama goose teaching my gosling to be a gosling. From time to time I will check in on you but we will never be friends; it is not in the nature of our kind to befriend one another.”

            He took me out that night, over to a place by the river where the lighting was poor. Mist was rising from the Mississippi that night; it was just like the movies. We watched a night watchman at a warehouse making his rounds. Edgar whispered to me “That’s our prey. Now, watch what I do.”

            He moved silently alongside the warehouse; the man had no idea he was there. He walked into a guard shack and sat down to drink a cup of coffee. The radio was playing. It was a warm night, and I suspect the man had more than coffee in that cup. Edgar motioned to me to follow. I was like a whisper behind him. I could feel my hunger growing, and I was almost salivating. I looked in the glass of the guardhouse and noticed my reflection (yes, we cast reflection in mirrors too); my eyes were red and there were noticeable fangs. I looked at Edgar and saw he was the same. The watchman looked up at the moment and saw me. Edgar cursed and ran in, faster than I could see. He was on the watchman in a heartbeat, biting his throat.

            The watchman slumped, his eyes growing glassy before they closed. He looked as if he had been drugged. Edgar remained there for a few moments and I heard a distinct slurping sound, then he released. He beckoned me over. “Only use your upper teeth. Don’t grab with the lower teeth; you’ll find you have fangs there as well, and the bite of those fangs will Change him. Just use your upper fangs; you’ll find it natural as eating. Once they are inside his neck, you’ll feel blood flowing into your mouth. Simply swallow until you feel your pain lessening. It shouldn’t take long, just a few moments. Once the pain is gone, disengage. Never take too much; you can kill, and killing draws attention to us.”

            He motioned to the unconscious watchman and I bent over him. The hunger pains were fierce indeed, and I sank my upper teeth into his neck, taking care to avoid biting him with my lower. In moments I felt his warm, sticky blood in my throat, and it was as creamy as a milkshake. I sucked as if at a mother’s breast, and within moments the pain began to fade and disappear completely. I took a few more sucks, but I noticed Edgar shaking his head and then he tapped me on the shoulder. “Enough,” was all he said. Somewhat reluctantly, I disengaged my fangs, the salty taste still in my mouth. I licked my lips; I felt utterly at peace with the world.

            I frowned. “He saw me, didn’t he?” Edgar nodded. “Only for a moment, though. He will wake up in an hour or two with a bit of a headache feeling as if he had the flu. He’ll finish his shift, go home and take the next day off. After that, he’ll be fine; his body will replenish the blood he just lost. As for the sight of you, he’ll chalk that up to the whiskey in his coffee. I’ve used this man as prey before for new Fallen; even if they’re clumsy enough to allow themselves to be seen, as you were, he’s always been prone to hallucinations. He’ll just believe he saw another one.”

             He walked me back to my small home. “It is important,” he said for once not grinning, “that the humans never see you feeding. The sight of it is terrifying to them. They believe our kind to be myths; when they find out differently, they get absolutely crazy. We are few and they are many; should they declare war on us, even though we are stronger and faster, their numbers would eventually wear us down. We would be annihilated as a race. You must learn to use your speed and be silent when you hunt. Exsanguinating your prey also calls attention to us. If you are discovered, we will not aid you. If anything, we may help the humans exerminate you.”  We had arrived at my door and he stopped for a moment and looked at me hard. “Keep to yourself. Make no human friends, at least not for long. In ten years, sell your home and move away; tell your neighbors only that you are retiring to the south of France, Florida or wherever you think they’ll believe. People who remain the same age for forty, fifty years also garner suspicion. There are those among the Fallen who are charged with keeping our existence secret from the humans. Do not attract their attention; they will destroy you utterly and without mercy.”

            We went our separate ways after that. I rarely saw him but from time to time he’d pop by, still grinning that crooked grin. We would have a meal together, talk about what we were doing. Edgar had been in his 30s when he was Changed, and had liked to paint. He still did, and some of his artwork was amazing – but then he’d had two centuries to practice.

            Money was never a problem for us. I had some savings, but I discovered shortly after Edgar left me a deposit had been made in my account; I was a millionaire. When I asked him about it later, he smiled and just said “We take care of our own.”

            As time went by I discovered a few things about the Fallen. Whatever our condition was, it also heightened our creative senses as well. We all became successful at whatever endeavor captured our fancy. Some were great financiers, others poets and painters. Myself, I became a novelist; I wrote several best-sellers under a pen name, many of which became movies. After thirty or forty years, I arranged for my alter ego to pass away and began writing more under a different pen name. I also had some luck at the stock market. The millions I made from my writing turned into tens and then hundreds of millions.

            I now live a life of luxury. I visit New Orleans from time to time, but I live in the South of France now. I have Changed several men and women; I discovered that each of the Fallen must Change their fair share, to keep the race alive. Of course, recruiting by normal means is impossible; there are rules, after all.

            For one thing, we cannot Change children or babies. Their systems can’t handle the shock. We don’t Change the young and foolish; their arrogance can compromise the secret of our existence. It is for that reason we authorized those books and those movies. Yes, their authors are Fallen too.

            It’s not a terrible life, but it is a life of solitude. We can’t make lifelong friends with humans; once they notice we don’t age, they either fear us or they want to be like us, but those who long for immortality tend to make poor vampires. For one thing, we are not immortal. One day, I will be unmade just as naturally as normal humans die. I was Changed because one other among us was unmade and when Edgar himself was Unmade back in 2003, I Changed a young woman to replace him. She, like me, became a writer of some repute.

            The truth about our kind is that we are just as human as you are in many ways; I feel a sense of responsibility to put down the truth about us. This manuscript I am sealing in a vault hidden to all but one whom I trust; one day, he will find it and publish it. Chances are, nobody will believe it.

            Your skepticism is our greatest protection. Indeed, vampires dwell among you, in greater numbers than you can imagine. We are no danger to you; we rarely kill humans unless we have to. It is in our best interest not to. Even though we are many, your numbers are vast compared to ours. If you chose to seek us out and hunt us down, we would be exterminated, and that would be sad; so many of the greatest people in history have actually been vampires.

            Oh and the sunlight thing? One of the Fallen figured out how to make a sunscreen that protects us. We can walk in daylight openly now, thanks to our chemist friend.

            Don’t worry though. If we come to you in the night, you won’t even notice that we’re there. We’ll just take a little sip and then be gone. You might feel like the flu is coming on the next morning but nothing more. We’re no more harmful to you than that breakfast cereal guy that’s supposed to be a vampire. Eat enough of that cereal and you’ll have far more problems than any vampire would ever cause you. Just a word of advice; if you think our way of life is attractive think again.

            I have spent 75 years as a middle aged overweight man. I have arthritis in my elbows and knees. I have a bad back and allergies to bumble bees and pollen.  I wake up every morning in pain, and the pain never abates; I am perpetually 51 years old with the aches and pains of a 51 year old man. I haven’t enjoyed the taste of food, other than what I drink to sustain myself, in all those years. I have read many books, surfed the internet and watched television. Most of the time I’m bored.

            They don’t tell you about that in the movies, nor in the books. They don’t tell you that you have few friendships and rarely talk to people. Oh, we can text and e-mail just like you can, but the inclination just isn’t there. I miss people, but when I talk to them, I find myself loathing them. You don’t have the same kinds of experience – you can’t possibly relate. As for the Fallen, we don’t associate with one another much. We are prone to feuds that can be spectacularly violent, so the less we interact with one another the better it is for our own kind. We’re like predators in the wild; we each stick to our own territory and we are not pack animals, association with wolves be damned.

            Damned is an understatement. It’s tedious and painful our existence, punctuated by occasional moments of creative satisfaction but are those moments worth the cost? I would give it all away to fall in love again; I was a widower when I died, my Mary having died in childbirth some 25 years before I Changed, and although I hadn’t found another woman to take her place, I had my share of female companions over the years and I miss that. Then again, the Fallen don’t love; we don’t have the capacity for it. We ache for it, we long for it but we cannot have it. Perhaps that is the greatest cruelty of all. Centuries of lovelessness; I’m sure you won’t find that in any young adult novel. Then again, reality is so much more painful than fiction.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Let it be said that too much time in Hollywood can give you a big head.

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Christopher Lee (voice). Directed by Tim Burton

The world as we know it is a crazy place. Sometimes we do things for reasons even we can’t fathom. There are times that the craziest people of all are truly the sanest.

Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is the daughter of a visionary. Her father Charles (Marton Csokas) founded a successful import company on the premise of pushing beyond the boundaries of what is considered reasonable. “I often do six impossible things before breakfast” he tells his adoring daughter, soothing her whenever she has one of her frequent nightmares.

But it’s always the same nightmare, falling down an endless hole into an impossible place with strange creatures. That nightmare continues to occur even when she is a young lady, her father prematurely dead and now her mother determined to see her wed to the impossibly haughty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). This doesn’t sit well with the plucky and intelligent Alice who can’t see being married to an absolute twit, but at the same time the marriage may be necessary to the survival of her family.

She follows a rabbit racing through the underbrush at the Ascot Manor until she finds a convenient hole to fall in. There she reaches a strange place, a kind of underbrush below the world, where potions can shrink her and little tea cakes can make her grow to gigantic dimensions.

This isn’t the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll told us about. The Red Queen (Carter) has taken over, ruling the land by intimidation. Her Knave (Glover) leads a pack of mechanical-looking soldiers throughout Wonderland to intimidate and wipe out any resistance. Her iron will is enforced by the Jabberwocky (Lee) which is far too powerful for anyone in Wonderland to overcome and the only weapon that is capable of slaying it, the Vorpal Sword, is in the hands of the Red Queen.

Alice believes this is all a dream and despite her many attempts to awaken, remains dreaming. She is taken to the caterpillar Absalom (Rickman) who proclaims that she’s “not hardly” the right Alice that the denizens of Wonderland are awaiting to slay the Jabberwocky. When the Knave attacks along with the terrifying Bandersnatch, she finds her way to the Mad Hatter (Depp), once the haberdasher to the White Queen (Hathaway) but now completely insane and harmless, although he harbors much ill will towards the Red Queen. His little group of followers includes the Cheshire Cat (Fry) – an expert in evaporation, the plucky Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the nearly-as-mad March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the loyal bloodhound Bayard (Spall).

Forces are gathering with the fate of Wonderland itself in the balance as the Frabjuous Day approaches, the day that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky. Is she the right Alice? Or is she merely a plucky girl lost in a strange dream?

Tim Burton has always been one of the most imaginative directors in Hollywood from a visual standpoint with only Terry Gilliam to rival him. With movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood to his credit, he has long been a director whose work is so interesting that he has become a brand name unto himself. Quite frankly, his version of a children’s story that he never particularly connected to as a child will end up ranking as one of the very best works of his illustrious career.

This Wonderland is amazing to look at, with creatures that are both strange and terrifying wandering around the landscape. The characters are mostly grotesques, with the bulbous-headed Red Queen leading the pack looking not unlike a forced perspective illusion.

This is a fabulous cast, and Depp is terrific as the Hatter, lending the character depth that it was never accorded either in the Lewis Carroll book or in the many film and animation versions that follow. His madness isn’t just a joke; it is hard-won by devastating events in his life. As good as Depp is, he doesn’t overwhelm the movie and is content to be a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink. Carter is also clearly having a great time as the Red Queen and screams “Off with their heads!!!” with great gusto.

The story isn’t taken straight from the Alice books that Lewis Carroll wrote but is rather inspired by them. Burton chooses to take a route that ages Alice into young womanhood and while he keeps the Victorian era (which in many ways seems as strange to us as Wonderland itself does) he gives the story a logical flow that makes sense within the confines of the universe created by Carroll, and still works for modern audiences. The writing is absolutely audacious and brilliant.

Some critics have groused about the action sequences in the final act but I find that a bit prissy. Certainly Burton could have come up with something a little more talky or prosaic but I found the action curiously satisfying. It helps wrap things up from a Wonderland standpoint, and gives Alice the necessary courage to finally embrace her own strengths.

Not everyone is going to love this movie as much as I did. Certainly purists are going to grumble at the liberties taken with Carroll’s story and those expecting a live action version of Disney’s animated feature of Alice are going to be extremely disappointed. There are those who won’t like Burton’s vision and may find it too esoteric and too fantastic.

Never mind them. I admire imagination in all its forms and even when I don’t get it, I at least try to give props for the attempt. Here I clearly connected with what Burton was trying to do and I wasn’t the only one. This is a marvelous movie that has only a few minor flaws that keep it from my highest rating possible. I can recommend it without reservation to anyone except those who like their fantasies safe and spoon-fed. Those sorts probably shouldn’t be reading my blog anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Completely imaginative, this is a movie that actually improves on a classic. Great acting, a believable story and impressive visuals make this one of the year’s top movies early on.  

REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska is at times a little bland as Alice. Purists will shudder at the liberties taken with Carroll’s work.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly disturbing images and the wee small tykes may be a bit frightened by some of the fiercer creatures, but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look carefully at images of the Mad Hatter, one of his pupils is dilated and the other is not, which implies a serious brain injury.

HOME OR THEATER: This is best served on a big screen in 3D; even better in IMAX if that’s available near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Body of Lies