Category Archives: Movies

Batman Begins … Revisited

In anticipation for The Dark Knight, I finally got around to watching my HD disc of Batman Begins. After hearing oodles of comic book nerds complain about Katie Holmes, and Gordon driving the Batmobile, I wanted a fresh look to see if it’s as good as I remembered, or if it was just great compared to Joel Schumacher’s bat-nipple camp-a-rama and Tim Burton’s Gothic take, which concentrated more on the villains.
I wanted to see how this held up after Iron Man. The movie still has the weak points of Katie Holmes’s superfluous Rachel Dawes and Gordon’s goofy Batmobile adventure, but other than that, it’s one of the best superhero movies yet made. Christian Bale gives a nuanced performance, only dipping into the well of Patrick Bateman when he’s expected to play the sleazy playboy. We meet him as a man consumed with the desire for revenge, whose morals barely keep him from killing the man who murdered his parents in broad daylight. This is where we first meet fiery Rachel Dawes, the one Assistant D.A. in town who can’t be bought. Her fury at Bruce’s attempt at vengeance is what sends him on his pilgrimage to find what he must do. He first confronts mob boss Carmine Falcone; he tried to corrupt the young Wayne heir by putting a hit on the man who killed his parents, and this adds a layer of depth to the story. When faced with Falcone’s brute power and control over every element of justice in the city, Bruce realizes that facing him head-on is a death sentence for him and the people he cares about. He has to find another way. He needs to learn how the criminal element works.

Stop calling me “padwan,” dude.


This eventually leads him to China; a place he can disappear and infiltrate a gang of thieves, and toughen himself for the battle ahead. He is still aimless and confused, picking fights with groups, penitence for letting Rachel and his parents down. When Liam Neeson and the Brotherhood of Shadows find him, he is once again tempted down the wrong path, and this second time it nearly works. The movie’s complexities are what make it so good. We spend a lot of time watching him train, and such montages are commonplace, but here they build a bond between Bruce and his mentor, making the inevitable betrayal hurt that much more. While having three villains hurt the previous Batman movies, here they are woven together, using each other for their own purposes, creating a singular enemy unbeknown to some members of the triumvirate. It’s clever, and works much better than teams of rival super-villains ganging up for shallow reasons.

We’re telling you you’ve got issues, mate.

Bruce has allies as well; we see the young Detective Gordon as the lone good cop in a sea of corruption, and trusty Alfred kept things running for him while he fled his problems. Michael Caine is the real glue that holds the film together, since we believe everything he says and he’s wise enough to know how far to push the comic relief. Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox “Q” character together give us a foundation to make the ridiculous comic-book world believable. Yes, the latest reboot of the Batman franchise is much darker, but in essence it is still a rich man who dresses up to fight crime. The film takes great pains to justify the bat costume, and succeeds- but Caine and Freeman’s little smirks and grins at Bruce Wayne’s issues help us along as the ears get explained as communicator antennas, and the cape– shown in The Incredibles to be a deadly bit of foppish extravagance– here becomes a hang-glider, so the bat has more tricks up his belt than the grappling hooks we’ve seen since the Adam West days.

It runs on testosterone.

The film also dips into the true reboot of the Batman that began when Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns. The bat-a-rangs aren’t little flying deus ex machinas, but more akin to ninja shuriken, made by hand on a grinder as painful, untraceable calling cards. It’s too bad we never see a criminal in the E.R. biting the bullet as a nurse pulls one out of his forehead with a pair of forceps. The new Batmobile most resembles the crazy riot tank Miller used from DKR, toned down into a cross between hot rod and Tonka Toy, tapping into every male moviegoer’s inner 6 year old. It’s even sillier than the ridiculous Burton-era vehicle, but when we see it in action, plowing through concrete and stomping squad cars like a monster 4×4, all is forgiven. Miller also wrote Batman: Year One, which brought the series back down to earth in the gritty streets, and built Batman again from the ground up. It’s from here that we get Carmine Falcone– played with delicious glee by Tom Wilkinson– and the Chicago setting for Gotham makes an above-the-law don running the city utterly believable. Gordon’s sleazy partner is underappreciated, and looks like he came from a Serpico-inspired cop movie from the 70’s. Just one look at him with a badge, and you know the city is corrupt top to bottom.

We get to see Batman learn the ropes, too- his first foray into crime-fighting isn’t all that perfect. He does get better, and his first strike at Falcone has us on the edge of our seats, showing how he strikes fear into the hearts of criminals and uses their panic against them. Nolan also took inspiration from the excellent Batman: The Animated Series, which was surprisingly brutal. When Batman pulls a bungee jumping act to get a corrupt cop to talk, it’s something we’ve never seen him do in movies before; he always had a supernatural ability to appear where crime was occurring, and he never had to do any sleuth work. Batman’s roots are in Detective Comics, after all.

What? I’ve got something on my face?

The fight scenes are a bit forgettable, reminiscent of the Bourne movies, which make better use of the close-up, jarring quick-cut method. Nolan does keep the fights nasty, brutish and short as they ought to be, especially when he’s up against multiple opponents. They seem believable and real, and you’re never wondering why they don’t just gang up on the good guy… they are. This foundation once again prepares us to accept the unreal, such as Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. He’s yet another over-the-top character reined in perfectly to fit the film’s dark world, a mob-bought psychiatrist with sick fantasies of his own. The film does have flaws, but they aren’t with its villains, but its heroes.

Gary Oldman plays Gordon perfectly, but he is given very little to do except establish that he is not corrupt, and that he’s willing to help this unconventional vigilante clean up the city. He’s almost too much of a milquetoast everyman, and it feels like Oldman wanted to veer away from his over-the-top villain characters, and plays it too bland. When he echoes “I gotta get me one of these,” last uttered by Will Smith in Independence Day, it hits a sour note. It was the wrong thing for the beaten-down good guy to finally pipe up and say, when he sees the bad guys getting taken down.

Katie really nailed this scene.

I hadn’t seen Katie Holmes in anything since Go and The Ice Storm, and she seemed fine in those. Here she’s not given much to do except be a one-note character, chiding Bruce for his selfish moping, and not living up to his parents’ heroic philanthropy. I’d like to blame this on her future as a Scientologist baby factory, but it feels like the script. Unless there’s a lot of bad acting on the cutting room floor. It would have taken a great actress to do much with so little screen time and dialogue, and we all know Katie Holmes is not that actress.

That’s a small nitpick at what is a great script, executed with panache by Christopher Nolan, who wouldn’t have been my first pick for a Batman film. I was really interested when Darren Aronofsky was attached, and The Fountain remains one of my favorite underappreciated films. His Batman would have certainly looked interesting, and seeing Year One through the gritty, paranoid filter of Pi would have been something, but I think Nolan was obviously the right choice. Memento‘s complex web of motives is evident in the trifecta of villains in Begins; the noir edge of his masterpiece Following translated well to gritty Gotham.
The movie wisely never shows the bodies of its villains, and gave us a 3-year tease for the next one, all beginning with that little Joker card in an evidence bag. It set the bar high for superhero movies, and is on par with my other favorites- Iron Man, Spider-Man, and 1978’s Superman. Even if you include non-hero comic book movies like Sin City, A History of Violence, 300, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, it’s high on the list. We’ll see if Zack Snyder’s take on the uber-graphic novel Watchmen takes its place next year. The Dark Knight is assured to be as good if not better than its predecessor, but Superman is in the emo toilet in Bryan Singer’s incapable hands, so Watchmen is our only hope.


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Hellboy II: The Golden Army

There are movies from your childhood that will always stand high on the pedestal of wonder, filtered through the lens of nostalgia, to which newer ones can never compare. For me, one of those was The Dark Crystal by Jim Henson’s crew; a world entirely without humans that felt incredibly real. A place you might like to visit, but only if you had a ticket home. Another was Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, which posited that behind the walls and closet doors of our flimsy world were a maze of wormholes that could take you anywhere in time, or even to realms of fantasy. And if I were 11 again, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army would be on that list.


The movie isn’t perfect; it begins at its low point, where we see a goofy-looking young Hellboy with his surrogate father, Professor Broom (John Hurt, the go-to man for grizzled elderly) from the previous movie, being told a bedtime story- this is where we learn the legend of the ancient war between humans and fairytale-kind, and how we were defeated by the Golden Army. They got the forests, and we got the cities, but as you know, we’ve become quite greedy for land in the last thousand years… del Toro tells the story briefly with wooden little automatons, which quickly makes you forget the campiness of young Hellboy and his buck teeth.

From there the movie is an adventure through del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s world, where rebel elf-price Nuada attacks an auction house with a huge boar-like henchman and a swarm of hungry “tooth fairies.” Like in the original Hellboy, it doesn’t pay to be a human agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the folks who “bump back” at things that go bump in the night. They get visits from the tooth fairy, and it’s not to leave a quarter under their pillows.

Hellboy’s girlfriend Liz Sherman the firegirl (Selma Blair) and boss Jeffrey Tambor are having trouble with “Big Red.” Only Abe the fish-man seems to get along with him. So the Feds send in Johann Krauss (voiced perfectly by Seth McFarlane of Family Guy fame), a wisp of ectoplasmic smoke in a suit, to reign him in. We learn little about Krauss, but like Tambor in the first film, clashes with Hellboy’s need for recognition for his heroic deeds and his brash style, but they find a mutual respect by the end. As in the first one, we get romantic subplots but they never slow the film down or sidetrack the plot. There’s a hilarious duet of Barry Manilow by two men in the doghouse in the middle that hits the perfect tone for the characters. Like the X-Men, Abe, Liz and Hellboy just want to fit in; unlike X-Men, it’s much less dramatic here, and we aren’t force-fed eye-rolling allusions to civil rights issues. The characters are allowed to blossom without plot-driven acts of stupidity getting in their way.

Krauss helps them find the Troll Market, which just happens to be underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the major set piece of the film, and lives up to the hype that other critics, like Ebert, have gushed forth. In every little cranny of the scene is something you’d like to zoom in on, and I imagine the DVD will be stunning. The Hellboy 3-disc Director’s Cut box set was full of amazing extras, and this movie might fill 3 Blu-Ray discs to show us all the creature designs. The scene resembles the bazaars of old 30’s pictures as they ask around for clurs, some sneaking, some chatting, and Hellboy smacking goons around. I’m sure there’s computer-generated effects here, but everything looked so real that you can’t tell where costumes end and computers begin.

Later on there’s a fight with a huge forest god in lower Manhattan that must be CG, but it never looks like it. We’ve seen Cloverfield trash the city, but del Toro takes a different tack, making Hellboy dash through stalled traffic with a baby in one hand and a big gun in the other, dodging tossed cars and debris as he fights the enraged creature. It’s like the end scene of The Untouchables played for laughs, and it works.

Action scenes aside, Hellboy 2‘s great triumph is that when it shows us hidden underworlds beneath Manhattan and Ireland, I believed in it. It’s fantastic without being ridiculous; we know there are mole people and 175 feet of tunnels in layers down there hiding sewers and abandoned subway stations, who’s to say there’s not a troll market? And he makes great use of Ireland’s rocky knolls for a wonderful scene at the Giant’s Causeway. When you walk the broad expanses of the Irish countryside, you do feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of giants, and they make great use of it here. The final showdown with the eponymous golden army is a return to del Toro’s love of clockworks like the device in Cronos; I remember seeing that movie at the Angelika in New York in 1993 and being wowed by it. It was a fresh take on the vampire story, where an alchemist’s clockwork device, meant to give eternal life, does so at a price. It was stylish, clever, funny… and of course had Ron Perlman as the sympathetic thug sent to steal the device. Perlman and del Toro have come a long way- that same sense of humor, love of the dark fantastic, and ability to tell tales and craft characters together which inspire the imagination, have finally culminated in an action-fantasy masterpiece that will hopefully spawn another sequel. There’s nothing quite like Hellboy out there. He’s a comic book hero, but is as far away from the superman who lead secret lives in tights as you can get.

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Last Night – Remember Y2k?

I’d been meaning to see this for years- a low-key, end of the world movie from Canada that was more about how people would react to knowing the world was ending and when, than how it would end. It was more akin to the great 80’s sleeper Miracle Mile than silly stuff like Armageddon. It manages to be quite gripping by not showing or telling us what’s coming, but letting us live with a small group of people and their last days on Earth.

“This is the way the world ends- not with a bang, but a whimper.”

T.S. Eliot’s elegiac chorus from his poem “The Hollow Men” has become almost hackneyed in repetition, but Don McKellar took it to heart when he wrote and directed Last Night, a wistful look at the final 6 hours of a small group of people, and of course, the entire world. This is a more cerebral end of the world picture, reminiscent of The Quiet Earth in ways. In Toronto, we meet a small family preparing for the world to end in 6 hours, at midnight. The older mother and father are hosting a gathering, like a final Christmas send-off; their son Patrick (McKellar) becomes the link between the other folks we meet. He wants to spend the final time alone, listening to music in his apartment.

Lonesome Patrick


His friend is racking up final sexual conquests, while a woman (Sandra Oh) tries to meet with her husband for a one last romantic dinner, but he’s still at work, calling customers of the gas company to reassure them that they will keep the gas running until the bitter end. How civilized. Of course others run amok, and the loneliness and desperation of an inevitable, unavoidable demise rests heavily on everyone’s shoulders. The film creates a singular mood that is quite compelling, and the actors are well suited, culled from the incestuous Canadian film industry. David Cronenberg plays the gas company man, with surprising talent. The film is charming in how people cling to societal conventions even in the face of apocalypse.

Sandra does some last-minute shopping.

Patrick meets Sandra in the street, after he car is vandalized and she waits on the trolley for a driver who will never come. A mother and child wait stubbornly on the train, unable to realize that the system has already fallen apart. Patrick decides to help Sandra get to her husband, and tries to borrow a car from some friends- but they need it for a violin recital. You see, he’s finally got a chance to play at the orchestra, and would you like to come? Not if it was the last day on Earth, apparently. These subtle jokes keep the tone from becoming too depressing, and gives us a chance for a little introspection and inevitable dinner conversation after it’s over- what would you do?

Patrick knows his sex-hungry friend has a few cars; but he is loathe to part with any of them, because he wants to die with a classic car collection. And two is not a collection; that’s just a guy with two cars. He who dies with the most toys wins, not just a bumper sticker, but a way of life.

We never learn what’s causing Earth’s sudden destruction at midnight, except that it’s been constant daylight for the past 6 months. No night, no stars; an arctic summer for everyone in Toronto, at least. It made me wonder what things were like on the other side of the world, with six months of darkness, or if the world was heading into the sun; it’s never explained, which is good, because it’s not meant to be a science fiction picture like The Quiet Earth. It’s a good drama with some mild laughs and epiphanies, and it really drew me in to feel for the characters. A nice chance of pace from your typical end of the world film.

The movie came out in 1998, when many people were concerned about with millennial doomsday predictions, or the anticlimactic concerns over computer malfunctions. Countries that spent millions in preparation seemed to fare as well as those who didn’t, but the turning of the great odometer inspired a slew of disaster movies. This is the anti-disaster movie, and a good way to spend some time, thinking about what you’d do; better than similar pap like The Bucket List, anyway.

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80’s Trash of the Week: Night of the Comet

The Cold War inspired many post-apocalyptic nightmares from Hollywood in the 80’s, but Haley’s Comet only inspired a couple- Lifeforce and Night of the Comet spring to mind. I happen to have watched both last week, so I’ll be inflicting reviews of both of them on you soon enough.

Red sky at morning, sailor’s a zombie.

Night of the Comet is a silly post-apocalyptic teen fantasy about a comet wiping the Earth mostly clean of adults; well, except for a few survivors and of course, the inevitable zombies wandering the earth in a cannibalistic rage as the calcium in their bones is dissolved by comet dust.

I told you, I don’t wanna see “the creature from the black chinos.”

It’s a good B movie and never tries to rise above it. It even feels like an old 50’s movie, beginning with Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart– The Last Starfighter), a spunky gal working in a movie theater when everyone else is out watching the comet graze the atmosphere.

Those were the days.

She’s a video game junkie, playing my favorite- Tempest. She’s got her initials REG in all the spots except one, where a mysterious “DMK” has gotten one of the top scores. This makes her feel miffed, so she gets her angst out by going upstairs to make out with the projectionist. He likes to trade films like It Came from Outer Space with other film nerds; this lets us know what kind of movie we’re in for. When she wakes up in the morning, everyone has been replaced with a pile of red dust and clothes, and a scary black dude with a cap attacks her. This is nothing new for an 80’s movie, where he would fit the mugger stereotype, but he’s more interested in eating her internal organs than snatching her purse.

Gimme your wallet… and your liver!

She wanders the city on her dead boyfriend’s moped, and eventually finds only a few people have survived intact- her ditzy cheerleader sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney- Chopping Mall), and a young trucker named Hector. Together they seek shelter from the few cannibals at the local radio station, which is still broadcasting. It’s pretty boring for them (and us) … So what would a few teenagers do if all the adults were dead? Go to the mall, of course!

80’s overload

The mall scenes are reminiscent of the much better Dawn of the Dead, emphasizing the emptiness of the consumerist lifestyle. It seems to have influenced the Dawn of the Dawn remake too, because they run into the rent-a-cops who once ran the place, still staking out their turf. In the meanwhile, we cut to a remote underground science lab where eggheads Audrey (Mary Woronov from Eating Raoul and Rock ‘n Roll High School) and Brian (Geoffrey Lewis from the Clint Eastwood orangutan movies) are discussing what to do with the survivors… they’ve heard the kids on the radio.

Santa will trade you presents for your sweet internal organs.

The story wobbles on the tightrope between a campy teen horror like Night of the Creeps and a more thoughtful movie like The Quiet Earth, where the allusions are much more clear. This makes it a little dull in spots, but the characters get to shine. Hector is sort of a typical heroic lunk, but he never does anything mean or stupid to further the plot; the girls are likewise realistic, with the older Regina a sharp tomboy, who reminded me of Linda Fiorentino in Vision Quest.

Stupid mall ninjas.

It comes off as a bit of a satire, and while it’s certainly trashy, especially when the scientists show their true colors, it doesn’t dip into exploitation at all. No gratuitous boobies here, and the violence is usually played for laughs. I give writer-director Thom Eberhardt credit for giving the movie its unique mood and tone, but wag my finger at the sloppy “DMK” payoff at the end- it’s too flippant, and he ends up with the wrong girl! Watching the teens turn into chiding parents was a nice touch, though. If you like 80’s movies, this is one of the lesser-known ones in the post-apocalyptic genre that is worth hunting down.

Robotron 2084: Save the last human family

Beers Required to Enjoy: Two
Could it be remade today? No friggin’ way
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Sharp
High Points: Great premise and tone
Low Point: Weak ending
Gratuitous Boobies: Cheerleader in bra and panties

What pause buttons are made for.

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Tropic Thunder viral – Rain of Madness

Boy, they are really going for the Apocalypse Now vibe. If you’ve seen Hearts of Darkness, the excellent documentary cobbled together from Rosemary Coppola’s footage of her husband filming his take on blending Joseph Conrad and the Vietnam War, you see where this is going. Rain of Madness site has a fake trailer, but you need iTunes to view it.

UPDATE:
Trailer for us iTunes-hating sumbitches is at First Showing.

Even better is this skit Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey Jr. did for the MTV awards- where they pretend to make a viral video to promote the movie. If Tropic Thunder is half as funny as this, it will be a happy summer.

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Criterion Collection: The Naked Prey

Before there was Apocalypto, there was The Naked Prey. A man chased by a group of warriors through the jungle, with only his wits and perseverance to help him survive; it’s a great premise for an action film, and both Mel Gibson’s version and Cornel Wilde’s are excellent pictures. They’re both in part based on the experiences of one John Colter, known as the first “mountain man” of the American frontier. He began as a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, helping them discover passes in the mountains, and he was their best hunter, keeping them fed with wild game. After he was discharged from the Army, he became a trapper and is believed to be the first white man to find what would become Yellowstone National Park, and his tales of geysers and bubbling mud pits were laughed at, at the time.

Not-so-great white hunters

Later in life he was trapping with a companion was killed by Blackfeet warriors; Colter was instead stripped naked and told to run. They gave chase, and but Colter was able to kill one with his own spear, and eventually fled to the river, where he hid under logs until they assumed he’d drowned. It took him 11 days to walk 200 miles back to the nearest fort, with only a stolen blanket for warmth. That’s a little less exciting than being chased for days by armed warriors, but still one hell of an survival tale.

You need three fiddy, you say? Poppycock!

The Naked Prey moves the action to Africa, mostly because it was cheaper to film there. For this, the film gets decried as racist, because his savage pursuers are quite brutal in their methods. But the story felt more sympathetic to them, to me. Cornel Wilde plays the prey- an unnamed man working as a safari guide for a rich, pompous ass. When they come to hunt on the land of a local tribe, he tells him to give the natives a gift of tribute, in respect of using their hunting grounds. He refuses, and insultingly pushes past the lead warrior, to Wilde’s dismay. He even calls it a hand-out, making an oblique criticism to those who disdained LBJ’s recent societal welfare.

You can choose death… or unga-bunga!

Later, when they are hunting elephants, they are set upon by the tribe in full force. Their carriers are beaten and butchered, and soon overwhelmed, they are all dragged back to the tribe’s encampment, where they are tortured. This is probably what generates automatic revulsion to us; seeing the white hunters treated brutally, we expect it is to make us hate the “savages.” But I see it as outside of our “civilized” rules; this is the law of the land. The invaders have insulted their hosts, and this is their punishment. I really felt no sympathy for the rude guy when he’s put in the way of a cobra’s only escape route; another man is covered in clay and baked alive. Our guide fellow, the only one who showed them any respect, is given a chance to live- stripped naked, like Colter, and given a head start of a hundred yards, a warrior is chosen to kill him.

The chase begins

I don’t think the Lead Warrior (Ken Gampu- Zulu Dawn, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Kill and Kill Again) believed this was anything more than target practice for a young, untested warrior, and he’s shocked when Wilde kills him with his own spear. We cannot understand anything the tribesmen say, but from the emotions on the dead boy’s face and the leader’s, I assume he was his kinsman, or even his son- or maybe just one of the tribe’s young warriors that he was training. The chase begins, now fueled by revenge.

The enemies are consistently humanized.

I’ve said before that films without much dialogue, like Wall*E and silent films, tend to engage you more deeply, if you give them the chance. The Naked Prey is no exception. The fugitive’s adventures in the African sveldt, between five murderous men and the jungle’s menagerie of hungry beasts, makes it easy to keep us on the edge of our seats. He has only his skills as a hunter, and perhaps the inexperience of his pursuers to help him.

The blood is off-camera but feels visceral through smart direction.

Like Apocalypto, the stunning scenery is almost a character in the film. Our protagonist uses it to his advantage, hiding, hunting, and tricking those behind him every way he can. He gets a lucky break here and there, but there is nothing that says he triumphs because of any innate superiority. Later, when he sees a neighboring tribe being attacked by what seem to be slavers, he even helps fight them until they are overwhelmed. He narrowly escapes, and meets an orphaned child from the village, who saves his life; they wander together for a while. He even manages to garner a mutual respect with the Warrior Leader chasing him.

And now you decide to step on a mamba? Thanks, man.

The film is still engaging and exciting, and there’s not much a remake could add; Apocalypto has more insane stunts, but those can take you out of the spell a movie casts. The Naked Prey’s influence reaches further still- when I finally watched Duel, the little driver’s triumphant jig is a lot like Wilde’s when he pulls a fast one on his enemies. The film revels in its natural surroundings and uses them for allegory; there’s an extended sequence of a baboon and a cheetah fighting to a standstill; we’d expect the baboon to be an easy meal, but like Wilde, it’s a surprisingly formidable foe. The tribesmen are never looked down upon as savages; the hero is transformed by the land to behave just as they do. Their deaths are never as throw-away cannon fodder; they are formidable, and their obsessed leader mourns them, and treats them with value. When one is bitten by a snake, they stay behind and tend to him, whereas in your typical action picture he would be killed as a burden. And no one says “bwana.”

And let us never speak of this again.

While it’s still a pulpy type of story, it still manages to be a great survival story, and and a great action movie. The Criterion Collection DVD has a stunning picture except for some grainy wildlife shots which is due to the source material. The extras include Paul Giamatti reading the story of John Colter, commentary, and music cues created by the director for the film.

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1776 – the purfuit of happineff

Despite George Washington’s fervent wish that he not be deified, we have put our Founding Fathers on such pedestals that their humanity comes into question. Even calling them Fathers or Framers seems to impart a distant and mythic quality to them, when surely they were just ball-scratching, beer-swilling men like the rest of us; no doubt they were infused with a fiery gumption deserving our respect, and a witty intelligence that makes them endlessly quotable. To our great misfortune, this essence has rarely been distilled into an easily consumable art form.

Oh, people have tried. Most recently HBO made a mini-series about John Adams, which was actually pretty good- a bit on the long side, and it sidesteps most of the American Revolution because Adams was often in France trying to curry diplomatic favor. Hopefully we’ll get a mini-series covering most of the war someday. 1776 covers the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and manages to run nearly 3 hours to show us how the bickering delegates of 13 very different colonies managed to agree upon the need to rebel from the empire from which they sprang.

Originally a Broadway musical, it was a huge hit and was turned into a 1972 film by Warner Brothers, who hired practically the entire Broadway cast, including the director, to reprise their act on the silver screen. Part of me wishes they simply sat a camera in front of the stage, because many musicals suffer when converted into films; the energy is gone. And I’m afraid that’s what happened here.

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Martha misses Tommy’s “violin.”

It’s rather like 12 Angry Men: The Musical, with a cast cooped up in the stifling meeting room of the Continental Congress; it begins with a bland political joke about the ineffectiveness of Congress that was tepid when Will Rogers said it, and is just as milquetoast here. And but for a few humanizing moments here and there, that’s as good as it gets. The problem is the music; it’s resolutely dull. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but by this point stuff like The Sound of Music, The King and I, and My Fair Lady had come along and shown how to masterfully blend witty dialogue with equally witty and enjoyable songs. Unfortunately this has none, and feels like a Marx Brothers movie that gets rudely interrupted so the two lovebirds can sing their hearts out.

As dated as this poster design.

The Egg” was the most memorable of the songs I can recall, and is about Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams arguing about which bird should symbolize this new country: the dove, the eagle, or the turkey. Franklin famously did favor the turkey, for it was a native bird, notoriously wary and difficult to hunt. Most of the humor is of the old hindsight is 20/20 variety– ha, ha, they don’t want the eagle to be our bird? Pshaw. Or worse yet, the custodian who spouts “Sweet Jesus!” any time he’s asked to open a window, to shock us into imagining our illustrious forebears saying such uncouth things. The film was even banned from being shown in a Virginia because Jefferson says that he “burns” for his wife. I guess in Virginia, Paul Giamatti porking away at Mrs. Abigail in the HBO miniseries of John Adams precludes it from being a valid historical document.

Go fly a kite.

William Daniels plays Adams here; he’s since become more famous for playing a Doc on “St. Elsewhere,” and the voice of K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider,” so hearing him as John Adams was hard to swallow. He’s also kind of a meek voice for a character who’s chided for being so boisterous. Every half hour or so, he sings to his wife Abigail, who appears in a ghostly window to sing back to him. Harder to take was Howard Da Silva’s Ben Franklin, who seemed played for laughs throughout. I certainly don’t mind a story humanizing the man who wrote “Fart Proudly,” and coined the motto “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but he’s almost buffoonish here.

f.u. k1ng ge0rg3!

On the other hand it’s rather beautifully filmed and has a few chuckles, and if I didn’t know that “Cool, Considerate Men” was cut as a favor to Nixon, I’d think it was cut to reduce the 3 hour running time to a tolerable level. The song’s not even that good, and seeing men in wigs practically goose-step while singing “always to the right!” isn’t too subtle. If you like flowery reconstructions of our past where the arguments over the Declaration involved passionate pleas to end slavery, when in actuality the biggest obstacle was getting Quakers to agree to war, you might like it. I expected a lot more from this. The director does a good job transitioning to screen, but the attempts at injecting romance are clumsy, and any real drama is lost; these men were agonizing over whether to commit their constituents to a long and bloody war with the greatest military power of the time, and the frequent and frivolous songs seem like window dressing, artifice meant to rouse us when the spirit of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson should be doing it on their own.

There’s a lot of love for this film, but I did not feel compelled by it. I think it will be forever colored by the time it was released- it was very difficult to feel roused to patriotism during the “peace with honor” campaign of the Vietnam War, when crime and urban decay rose to such a degree that Nixon won in a landslide on the “law and order” ticket. It just didn’t feel very passionate, and it seems like they left out the Quaker’s pacifist dilemma because we were currently fighting a rightfully unpopular war. It’s not terrible, just largely unmemorable; if you watch it enough it might become so, but I don’t think I’ll be putting forth the effort. I might give it a shot if a local theater company performs it.

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