Archive for March, 2008

TV Shows Back This Week

March 31, 2008

April, how I have longed for you!  After months and months of absolutely nuthin’ on the tube, you have finally arrived and with you, the return, at long last!, of new TV.  Here’s what’s back this week that I’ll be tuning in for (episode counts are the number of new eps coming our way before the shows go back off the air for the summer again):

Wednesday, April 2:

Criminal Minds (CBS, 9pm, 7 episodes)
CSI: New York (CBS, 10pm, 7 episodes)

Thursday, April 3:

CSI: Gil Grissom (CBS, 9pm, 6 episodes)
Without a Trace (CBS, 10pm, 6 episodes)

Friday, April 4:

Numb3rs (CBS, 6 episodes)
Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi, full season)

Of course, of the bunch, the one I’m the most excited about is Battlestar Galactica, and can you blame me?  You mean to tell me that COLONEL TIGH is a CYLON?!  My ASS Colonel Tigh’s a cylon!!  And you can take making Chief a toaster and shove that too, while you’re at it, ya bastages.  Criminy!

By the way, BSG fans, did you happen to catch the 30 minute special this weekend in which Joss Whedon waxed poetic about his adoration for the series?  The only thing that could make me happier than listening to The Whede talk about Battlestar Galactica would be learning that a BSG star had been cast in his latest series, Dollhouse (coming next Fall).

And. . . SCORE!

In other news:  baseball is back!  I’m off to the game — hope I don’t freeze to death before the 7th inning stretch. . .  Play ball!

MOVIE: Funny Games (1997)

March 31, 2008

In my review of No Country for Old Men the other day, I mentioned that I’d seen another movie last weekend that featured similarly dispassionate violence in it.  And I think I also mentioned that I found that other movie — that is to say, THIS movie — so disturbing on so many levels that I needed a few more days to process it before I could formulate an opinion.

I have no idea if I’m actually ready.  But here goes nothing.

This Austrian film opens with a happy family on their way to their summer house for a couple of weeks of vacation — it’s a husband (Georg, played by Ulrich Muhe from The Lives of Others), his wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son.  As they are pulling into the neighborhood where their summer house is located, they see one of their friends off in the distance standing next to two young men dressed all in white.  They wave and yell something about hooking up for golf the next day, and then continue the drive up to their house.

Excited to be on vacation, Anna heads into the kitchen to put the food away and start dinner while Georg and his son head down to the water to get their sailboat into the water.  The neighbor and one of the young men in white come over to help Georg unload the boat, and meanwhile, the other young man in white goes up to the house and asks Anna if she can spare any eggs.

Having just seen the man with her neighbor, Anna lets him in the house and hands over four eggs as requested.  But after about five or ten minutes of conversation with the young man, Anna’s intuition starts to buzz, and she soon begins to feel increasingly uneasy about him.  The next thing she knows, he’s been joined by his friend — let’s call them “Peter” and “Paul,” since those are two of the names they use in the film (along with a variety of others — we never learn their real names) — and the two are just acting. . . strangely.  They won’t leave, they keep demanding that she hand over her last four eggs — their social mannerisms are just off somehow.

Georg comes up to the house and finds Anna nearly in hysterics.  At first, he’s completely confused — why is his wife so upset with these two young men who simply wanted to borrow some eggs?  But when they refuse to leave when HE asks them to, he slaps one of them gently across the face, and the next thing he knows, the other has taken a golf club to his kneecap, shattering it.

From there, things spiral into . . . well, not chaos, actually.  In fact, it’s the total opposite of chaos.  Everything is calm, controlled, and practiced.  And that’s the part that is so disconcerting.  We slowly begin to deduce that these two young men are there to torment the family for no reason other than their own entertainment.  They aren’t there to rob them, aren’t there for sexual gratification — they’re just there for something to do, really.   But their torment is unlike anything we’re used to seeing in movies like this one.  There’s no real violence at first — they don’t hurt them (aside from breaking Georg’s knee, but that was sort of self-defense at the time), they don’t yell at them, there aren’t any direct threats, really.  It’s all very controlled and unemotional. 

And it just totally freaked me the hell out, not the least because I would’ve opened the door for that kid who wanted to borrow some eggs myself without even thinking twice about it. 

Anyway, without going into too much detail, bad things start to happen, and they are bad things of a nature we’re just really not used to seeing in American movies.  But the fascinating thing is, we don’t actually SEE ANYTHING happen — we just know it has, and we know it’s utterly unbearably awful.  The first person to die in this movie is the very last person who would ever die in a movie like this made in Hollywood, and while that person is killed, all we see on-screen is the OTHER killer hanging out in the kitchen making himself a sandwich.  While he’s slicing cheese and spreading mustard, we’re frantically counting to 35 in our heads (long story) trying to figure out who is about to get shot in the other room, and we figure it out just as the gun goes off in the background.  And even THEN we cannot believe it.  CANNOT BELIEVE IT!

At one point, the wife manages to turn the tables on the killers (in the only scene in the entire film where we actually see someone get shot, I might add — no accident, that) and we let out a cheer, hurrah!  Things are finally going the way we’re used to having them go!  But before the film can progress any further, one of the killers grabs the remote control from the couch and hits rewind, and the scene we just watched goes back about five minutes and then starts over again.  This time, no tables are turned.  There’s no hurrah.  There’s no sense of relief that finally this movie is going to settle into a more comfortable pattern.  No promise left of an ending that will make any sense whatsoever to us as human beings.

And it was right about then that I started to realize what the director, Michael Haneke, was doing, something I confirmed when I watched an interview with him in the special features in which he says the only people who are going to watch this film from start to finish are the people who actually NEED to watch this film from start to finish.

You see, those of us who “enjoy” watching movies in which innocent people are tormented and killed by bad guys — Haneke thinks there’s something wrong with us.  In fact, he thinks we’re complicit in the deaths of the innocents we see in front of us on the screen.  So, in this film, he decided to turn the tables on US — the viewers — to show us just how sick and twisted we truly are. 

And I will confess that this kind of threw me for a few days.  I’ve said many times before that I have no idea why I enjoy watching horror movies — why I find watching people get eaten by zombies or chopped up by serial killers so relaxing.   It does disturb me sometimes.  But it wasn’t until this movie that I realized WHY, and, unfortunately for Haneke, it means his plan here kind of backfired. 

You see, in the horror movies we’re used to seeing, things progress in a predictable manner.  Sometimes the wrong people die at first, but usually by the end, someone good is victorious and the bad guy gets his comeuppance, even if he comes back to life at the last minute to make yet another in a long line of worsening sequels.  And that’s the part that is relaxing for me — in the world of the typical scary movie, I know what to expect, and I know that 9 times out of 10, things will end in a way that makes sense to me in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things.  It’s not that I likewatching people get chopped up (well, if they’re blonde and stupid, sometimes I do, I will confess) — it’s that I like it when scary things are resolved satisfactorily.  It helps me cope with my own, much more pedestrian fears.  If the smart girl can make it to the sequel, surely that means there’s hope for me as well?

In this movie, on the other hand, things onlygo wrong.  Haneke clearly knows the genre — watched a few horror movies yourself, eh, Mike? — because not only does this movie turn every “traditional” horror/thriller scene on its ear, it even throws in a few extra details, like a moment of foreshadowing in the beginning of the movie that we cling to for the rest of the film, fully expecting it to come back at the end and save the day for SOMEONE.  But no — not even that goes the way we’ve come to expect it to.  In fact, it goes the way we always heckle bad horror movies for NOT going, frankly.  It goes the way it probably would in the real world, where killers like this aren’t stupid or careless.  Where they don’t care about justice or logic or reason or humanity.  Where they decide to kill someone. . . and so they do.

But here’s the thing — Haneke means to shame us for watching his movie all the way through, right?   The movie HE THOUGHT UP, and, even worse, the movie he made not once but TWICE (there’s a Hollywood version in theaters now, starring Michael Pitt, Tim Roth, and Naomi Watts, that is essentially, I gather, a frame-for-frame remake also directed by Haneke)?  Dude, not even at my most depraved and bloodthirsty (typically the weekend before Halloween, in case you’re wondering) could I have come up with the script for this film.  And it’s not because I lack the self-awareness or intelligence needed to knuckleball a genre like this.  It’s because I’m just not twisted enough to be able to put down on a piece of paper the things that happen in this film.  This movie is brilliant (it really is, in my opinion), but it’s also incredibly horrible.  I watched it to the end not because I was enjoying it, but because I couldn’t believe what was happening and kept waiting for it to play out the way it was SUPPOSED to play out: the predictable, “safe” way. 

Which means I’m kind of all right in the head after all, if you ask me.

I have no intention of seeing the remake, before you ask.  Not just because once was plenty with this puppy, but also because I don’t find Naomi Watts that interesting and I already find Michael Pitt plenty creepy enough, thankyouverymuch.  Of all the people who need to get back to doing romantic comedies. . .  Pitt, you were so cute on Dawson’s Creek!  What happened?

Oh, and one last thing — in case I didn’t make this clear enough in my review of The Lives of Others, I’d like to state officially for the record now that Ulrich Muhe was an acting GOD.  He has a scene in this film that I will never forget as long as I live, and all he does in that scene is sit on the floor and cry.  It’s one of the most painful moments I’ve ever experienced on film. We lost a good one when we lost that guy — man, I hateit when that happens.  Frak.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering

MOVIE: No Country for Old Men (2007)

March 26, 2008

This past weekend, I saw two movies that featured similarly disturbing and emotionless violence (and then, thankfully, I watched Scarecrows, which provided some much needed comic relief).  This was the second one — I’m still attempting to process the first mentally before I try to write about it (gimmie one more day. . .).

This brilliantly-paced and beautifully-filmed movie, the latest by the Coen Brothers, is about a bunch of bad guys in the desert chasing each other over a bunch of stolen drug money.  Well, that’s the short version, anyway. 

Here’s the long version:  Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, who really needs to do a romantic comedy next, if you ask me) is out hunting one afternoon when he comes across a peculiar sight — a group of about five pick-up trucks parked in a scattered circle on the valley below him.  He decides to head down to check it out, and our first inkling that he’s no ordinary guy comes when he gets closer to the scene, sees that it’s riddled with dead bodies, and doesn’t even bat an eyelash.   Perhaps he’s a man who’s seen this sort of thing before?  Methinks he is.

After poking around a bit, he finds A) a man who is still alive and begging for water; and B) a flatbed full of heroin.  A few minutes later, he also finds two million dollars in cash inside a suitcase next to another dead guy.  He takes the cash and heads home, and our first inkling that maybe he’s not ALL bastard comes when later in the evening, he’s apparently touched by a sense of guilt about leaving the thirsty near-death guy behind without helping him, and he fills a jug with water and heads back.   Knowing full well how thoroughly dumb (in other words, dangerous) that decision was.

While all this is going on, another story has begun to run on a parallel track.  This one features a quiet man with a VERY silly haircut named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who carries around a tank of compressed air with a cattle stun gun attached to it.  When people get in his way, he puts the gun up to their head and pulls the trigger, releasing a blast of air that shots a metal rod into their skulls and then pulls it back out again.  PfftPOW!  The first murder of this nature made me gasp out loud, I will confess — damned if I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.  But eventually, we get used to it, as the bodies slowly start to pile up.  It soon becomes clear this quiet man is a hired killer out to get that money back from Moss, and he has absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing anything besides just that. 

The bulk of this movie involves Moss scurrying from one hotel room to the next trying to elude Chigurh, while Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows closely on both their heels (although, alas for the many victims of Chigurh, not closely enough).   One of the things that struck me about these chase scenes was the speed with which Moss would run and the emotionless, steady plod of Chigurh behind him.  My first thought was, naturally, of Jamie Lee Curtis vs. Michael Myers in Halloween — she runs, he plods, and yet he always, ALWAYS catches up.  Is there anything more terrifying than a killer who isn’t in a hurry?  Who is so confident he’ll eventually take care of you that he’s perfectly content to move at a comfortable pace?

Actually, yes, there is.  Because, as with the other movie I saw this weekend that I haven’t reviewed yet, the truly terrifying thing about Chigurh isn’t really his confidence in getting the job done — it’s our complete inability to comprehend him as a “normal” human being in any way whatsoever.  He’s not even “evil,” really — that implies some sort of passion for doing wrong.  He’s just. . . nothing.  He’s nothing at all.  Noth. ing.

Various of his victims attempt to reason with him, some quite legitimately, and the most generous option he’s able to offer them is to determine their own fate based on the flip of a coin.  And it’s not because he enjoys tormenting them, as offering someone that option would surely do.  He hasn’t chosen the coin flip based on its arbitrary, and thus even more terrifying, nature.  It’s just because, well, that’s kind of all he could come up with.  He said he’d kill them, and he can’t just not do it — why would he?  And so the only option he can give them is fate.  Which, even at a rate of 50/50, isn’t much of a comfort when you’re sitting across from a dude with a tank of compressed air and a disarmingly stoic expression.

I gots chills.

The other night, I asked my husband if he’d finished watching the movie yet so I could send it back to Netflix, and we got to talking about it.  When I said I’d really liked it, he grimaced and muttered, “What the hell’s the point of a movie like that?”  What’s the point of a movie, in other words, in which nothing goes right for anybody?  It’s a question I’d already been asking myself after seeing that Other Movie over the weekend, and while I can answer it for that one (much as I resist the answer — more on that in the next review), I’m not sure I’ve come up with anything much for this one. 

In some ways, it almost seems like it’s a movie about the futility of human emotions when put up against someone or something or some entity that has no real sense of justice.  Maybe it’s a commentary on the gradual loss of social morals — we’ve stopped saying “Sir” and “Ma’am,” according to Sheriff Bell, and so maybe this is where we should expect to find ourselves.  Except, at the same time, it seemed to be about people who made choices based on what seemed to them to be a total lack of choice.  And how can we be held responsible for choosing the only option we were aware we had in a given situation?

Ultimately, however, while I can’t tell you WHY, I can tell you this movie really impressed me.  It’s beautifully, expertly made and the acting — whew.  Honestly, there’s just no one better than Tommy Lee Jones when it comes to playing a world-weary cop — I love that man.  And Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem are also extremely effective in their parts.  Actually, until I saw him in Planet Terror a year or so ago (where he also plays a mustachiod tough guy, hence my desire to see him change things up with a rom-com next), I hadn’t really seen Josh Brolin since Goonies, I don’t think.  The man’s totally blowing my mind.  Make him stop.

In any case, I definitely suspect this one will make it on my list of Top Ten Movies Seen in 2008, and I’m also planning on picking up the novel as soon as possible to see whether I enjoy it any more or less than the movie.   Incidentally, if you rent this on DVD, don’t miss the “making of” special feature, in which Tommy Lee Jones attempts to classify No Country for Old Men as a “comedy.”  Snort.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant

MOVIE: Scarecrows (1988)

March 24, 2008

This is another one of Final Girl’s Film Club selections, so be sure to head over to her site to see what she had to say about it (as well as all the other Film Club writers!). I have to say, I didn’t think a movie could possibly top The Manitou, last month’s pick, when it came to hilariously bad dialogue, but this movie totally put up its dukes for the win.

The film opens with a group of bad guys — ex-military, naturally — who have hijacked a plane and are making a getaway after stealing the Camp Pendleton payroll (which for some bizarre reason they seem to think means they’ve robbed the Army — Camp Pendleton is a Marine Corps base, y’all). At first, things seem to be working out pretty well. They’ve got a pilot and his sexy young daughter at gunpoint flying them wherever they want to go, after all. But then, curses! One of their own guys tosses on a parachute, grabs the money, lobs a grenade onto the floor, and jumps out the door.

Now, of course, in a world where gravity and physics reign, he’d be dead, as they’ve just gotten done telling us they’re “flying under the radar,” and just as he jumps out, we get a shot of the plane flying about as low to the ground as you can go and still be considered “in the air” (uh, not to mention the fact that grenade sure took a conveniently long time to actually explode).

But, my peoples, this is a movie about scarecrows that come to life and kill for procreation, and I’m pretty sure the same rules that apply to us are not going to apply here.

Anyway, long story short, the guy who bails with the dough lands (safely!) in a field covered with creepy looking scarecrows. The rest of the team quickly jump out after him, and soon the ground is covered in ex-military bad guys chasing each other through the corn in the dark, periodically pausing to say things to each other like, “I think this place is possessed by demonic demons!” (really, is there ever any other kind?) or “Now you’ve gone too far, dirtball!”

Eventually, the group finds Bert, the guy who bailed out with the money, but he’s, uh, not quite himself anymore. They drag him up to the vacant farmhouse, where they theorize he’s taken drugs so that he’ll survive their beating, tricking them into leaving him for dead without finding where he’s stashed the money.

Hah! As though THESE guys would be that dumb!

When they go to wallop Bert’s impertinent insides, though, they find he doesn’t actually have any anymore. Bert quickly starts fighting back, so the group lops his head off with a machete and are surprised to find he’s been stuffed full of money and straw. Well, wait, I guess “surprised” isn’t quite the word for it. In fact, they actually seem to take that information somewhat in stride. Their assumption? That someone evil has cut Bert open and packed him full of their stolen money to taunt them. Of course, how Deadbert then managed to fight back, they choose not to speculate on — can’t really say I blame them on that one, personally.

As the group continues their search for the bags of money, they are knocked off one by one by the evil undead scarecrows, teaching us horror movie viewers once again just how little crime actually pays. By the end of the movie, we’re down to only two survivors (not counting the cute doggy, of course — what “demonic demon” movie would be complete without an adorable puppy, after all?). Luckily, one of them is the pilot’s daughter, and she and the last remaining robber hop back in the airplane and take off. Unluckily, also on board is the pilot, who isn’t exactly dear ol’ Dad anymore.

This movie is actually surprisingly entertaining, all things considered. It’s suspenseful enough, has lots of shots of big biceps in tight short-sleeves (which is a sight I never mind admiring for 90 minutes) and, in my lame opinion, it works off a fairly original idea — it’s a nice twist on the classic zombie story, really, where the dead rise to make more dead. Only this time, instead of eating braaaaaaains, they eat straw.

And the occasional uncooked ear of corn (mrrruh?).

Meh, I’ve seen worse. And I bet Final Girl has too.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Ted Vernon, Michael David Simms, Richard Vidan, Kristina Sanborn

Eddie Vedder’s “Into the Wild” Soundtrack

March 21, 2008

Since we’ve been talking about music recently, I wanted to mention I’ve gotten a bit hooked on the soundtrack to Into the Wild.  There’s a part of me that wants to make Eddie Vedder a Boyfriend of the Week because of it, but then there’s this other part of me that doesn’t want to lose the 46,985 punk points that would automatically be deducted from my total the moment I put the lead singer from Pearl Jam on my web site. 

Not that I didn’t lose twice that many when I revealed the fact I have Phil Collins’ Greatest Hits on my iPod in the Liam Finn write-up, of course.  But hey, all the more reason to be cautious.

Nevertheless, it’s good.  I like it.  But I would definitely recommend waiting to listen to it until after you see the film, because I found the music slightly obtrusive in places during the movie and had I actually known the songs beforehand, I think it would’ve been even more distracting (that happened to me with the film Garden State — I’ve learned my lesson).

iTunes strikes again!  Damn you, one-click shopping! 

He is pretty cute, though, isn’t he? 

BOOK: The King of Methlehem by Mark Lindquist

March 20, 2008

I don’t usually write reviews for books I didn’t finish reading, but every now and then, I come across a book so bad I feel it’s my duty to let you know you should avoid it like the plague. This is one of those books. I read Lindquist’s first novel, Nevermind Nirvana, several years ago and while I appreciated the scene in which he has a Murder City Devils band member punch out my ex-boyfriend, for the most part, I thought the book was pretty bad. One of my biggest complaints about it was the constant name-dropping — every matchbook was a matchbook from a cool bar in Seattle, every other paragraph contained yet another mention of a hip band. It was like Lindquist was desperate to make sure his readers knew that even though he was a stuffy lawyer, he was still really, really cool.

[finish reading this book review, unless you object to the derogatory use of the term "douche," in which case you might want to skip the ending. . .]

BOOK: The Big Thaw by Donald Harstad

March 20, 2008

For the most part, having a brain that can’t retain useful data anymore because it’s far, far too full of inane trivia about bad horror and sci-fi movies is a bit of an inconvenience. However, every now and then, I’m grateful that my memory sucks, because it means that several years after I’ve read a terrific mystery series the author has long since stopped writing new installments for, I can go back and read the books all over again as though it were the first time. This is one of those series, and Harstad one of those writers (darn you, Harstad — where did you GO, man?). And these books are just plain FUN. I can’t wait to get all the others from the library and read them all again too.

[continue reading the book review. . .]

MOVIE: Prom Night (1980)

March 19, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that “they” (whoever they are) are remaking the old 1980 Jamie Lee “Scream Queen” Curtis horror flick Prom Night.  At first, I was disgusted by this piece of information.  To me, it was messing with a classic — first Prom Night, next Gone with the WindProm Nightwas one of the first horror movies I ever saw as a kid, and it scared the everliving beheysoos out of me.  You can’t mess with that!  You just can’t!

But, after ranting for a few minutes, it occurred to me that Prom Night is one of the rare 80’s horror movies I haven’t actually seen SINCE I was a kid.  So, I decided to give it a rental and see if it held up 28 years later.

Answer:  [with a snort] No!

This is a TERRIBLE movie.  TERRIBLE, people!  And part of the problem was  the quality of the DVD I saw (got it from Netflix), which was just absolutely abominable.   All the murders take place in the grainy, lo-fi dark, and there is, I feel safe in saying, really nothing scary about NOT seeing a bunch of teenagers get hacked to bits.  

But, even more abominably (note: in an awesome, hilarious kind of way), the plot is pure ridiculousness.  For those that either A) never saw it (what?!) or B) have let something more useful occupy the synapses that used to store their memories of it (trigonometry, perhaps?), the movie opens with a group of kids playing in an abandoned building.  Another little girl tries to join in their game and instead of just telling her to go away, they first attempt to scare her and, when that doesn’t work, force her out of the third story window, letting her crash down to her death.

Cut to about six years later and all the kids are now in high school, getting ready for, you guessed it — prom night.  Jamie Lee Curtis plays the dead girl’s sister, and she’s just gotten asked to the prom by her dream boyfriend, who just so happens to be the ex of one of the original kids from the opening scene.   Cue the cat fights, mrrrrowl!  And, of course, there’s a bad guy making spooky phone calls to each of the gang, as well as leaving them creepy photos in their lockers.  A bad guy we’re led to believe at first is this one dude, but who, of course, turns out to be this other dude at the end. 

It’s a night filled with FAR too many disco songs interspersed with excessively long death scenes during which you can’t actually see a damn thing.  Plus, for the record, there is a truly terrifying number of prom dresses that look like dresses my mother used to wear to church when I was a kid.  TO CHURCH!  But they’re prom dresses in this movie!  My god, I’m so glad I was only in kindergarten in 1980 and thus completely oblivious to the horrors of the fashions of the day.  I’m still trying to recover from the mullets and Hammerpants of the later part of the decade — at least my prom dress looked like a prom dress!

Additionally, I can’t help but find it distracting whenever I see Leslie Nielsen in a “serious” role.  I don’t care that he’s a talented actor — he’ll always be either the pilot from Airplane! or the flatulent Buck Frobisher from Due South to me, and there’s just nothing I can do about it.   Add to all this the WAY too long disco-dancing scenes and what you have is me shaking my head and wondering why I found this at all frightening when I was a kid.  How anybody could watch this movie without laughing, I really have no idea.  I didn’t go make it five minutes between each guffaw, personally.

Rad.

In any case, after seeing it again, I’m definitely now rooting for the remake.  It’s not like they could make it any WORSE, right?  And at the very least, it ought to be fun to watch the new version in 28 more years so we can mock the clothes and music.  Bring it on!

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Horror
Cast:  Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Casey Stevens, Anne-Marie Martin, Jeff Wincot

MOVIE: Into the Wild (2007)

March 18, 2008

Both my mom and I read the Jon Krakauer book upon which this movie was based recently — I read it for the second time last November (read my review here — it’s the second one from the top), and she just finished her first reading of it a couple of weeks ago.  So, we were both eager to see the film — and to see it together.  Happily, we finally got our chance to this past weekend.

For those that don’t know, the movie (and Krakauer’s book, of course) is based on a true story about a young man named Chris McCandless who, after graduating from college, donated all his money to charity, hopped in his car, and headed for parts West.  His idols, Jack London, Henry Thoreau, etc. inspired him to slip the surly bonds of everyday life and to live free from responsibilities to anyone but himself.  Part of this was a rejection of his parents — rich and miserable — and part of it was just the typical wanderlust and idealism of youth.

As he traveled, he met a variety of people — two hippies (Catherine Keener and newcomer Brian Dierker), a farmer/criminal named Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a teenaged girl who falls in love with him (Kristin Stewart), and an elderly man who, until meeting Chris, had pretty much given up on life (Hal Holbrook, in an Academy Award-nominated performance). 

Though he’s clearly a social guy, Chris believes that he doesn’t need people in order to be happy.  And so his ultimate goal becomes to travel into the Alaskan wild, alone, and spend some time living off the land.  Unfortunately, he makes a series of either naive or careless (or both) mistakes, like refusing to take a map or proper gear with him.  And, ultimately, those mistakes  cost him his life.

First things first, I thought this film was absolutely stunning.  Visually, it’s just gorgeous.  It’s been a while since I saw a movie that was so pretty it made me wish I’d seen it in the theater — actually, I think the last one was Hero in 2002 — but this was certainly one of those kinds of films for me.  And it’s a very well-organized movie as well.  I felt like it did a great job at laying out Chris’s story, as well as at demonstrating the impact that he had on the people he met — not to mention the impact they had on him, an impact Chris didn’t realize the value of until it was too late.

But I also had a problem with this film, and that was that it tells a very, very selective version of Chris’s story.   When you turn a book into a movie, of course you have to pick and choose the pieces that work best for the two-hour version you want to share, and that’s what Sean Penn did here.  But it’s also QUITE obvious that Penn didn’t just select those pieces because they worked best in the film, but also because he saw Chris in a very specific light (modern-day prophet/Jesus, would be my guess, based on a couple of scenes in the movie) and rejected the parts of the book that didn’t perfectly fit in with that interpretation or ideal.  I love Sean Penn and I think the man is a genius, but I also think he can be passionate to the point of being unable to see alternative points of view (as can we all, of course), and this movie is a pretty good example of that. 

You should also probably know that the way Chris dies in the movie is only one of about four possibilities — nobody knows for sure what killed him, only that that whatever it was (wrong plant, right plant but contaminated, stupidity, etc.) led to his gradual starvation and demise.  Penn also greatly expands the role of the teenaged girl in the movie — for very “cinematic” reasons — and leaves out a lot of stuff that I really think could have, and should have, been included. 

Say, for example, the OTHER note found at the bus after Chris’s death — the one in which he was clearly terrified of dying and was begging whomever found his note to please stay at the bus until he came back from picking berries because he so, so, SO did not want to die there alone.  Instead, Penn only shows one of the two notes found — the one in which Chris seems at peace with his death and thanks God for his wonderful life.  Do you see what gets lost in that omission?  Frankly, I don’t even know that I can say that was a good cinematic choice, as I can tell you I’ve read the book twice and I didn’t even remember the “hooray for my awesome life, God!” note.  The note I DID remember — the one that made such a heartbreaking impression on me — was the one in which it was so evident that poor kid was terrified to die.

However, regardless of my sense of uneasiness with the way the movie Chris differs from the book Chris, I still thought this film was excellent.  Yes, it has a very sad ending and I will confess I found it extremely hard to watch Chris’s demise (for the record, Emile Hersch is incredible in this and I was surprised when I looked him up to find I’d seen him in several other things and never noticed him), but this is a film well worth watching even if you don’t like unhappy endings.  Tough it out and rent it anyway, okay?  Just make sure you ALSO read the book (which too is excellent), so you can have all the pieces of the story when you’re done.

By the way, great soundtrack by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, though I think it was a bit obtrusive in places. 

Finis.

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Vince Vaughn, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook

BOOK: Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber

March 17, 2008

This novel really surprised me. When I first started reading it, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. The plot, about a fingerprint expert, Lena Dawson, working on a case about multiple infant deaths, didn’t really seem all that intriguing. And, even worse, early on in the novel we learn from Lena herself that she was raised by apes. No, like, really. It’s a long story, but as the result of her strange childhood and the emotional deficiencies of her eventual human foster mother, Lena’s turned into a rather odd adult. She’s socially inept but extremely perceptive (almost to the point where it seems she has a bit of a sixth sense, actually). She’s exactly the kind of person who would make a truly fantastic criminalist.

[Finish reading the book review.]


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