Category Archives: Reviews

Desert thoughts

alis_wellLawrence of Arabia aired on local public television last weekend, and I persuaded the household to watch it with me. Even though I’d only seen the film once before on television in the late 70s, it made a lasting impression, and I was very excited to watch it on a larger and more proportional screen. (I still hope to see it in the theater some day.) Just like the first time, I fell hopelessly in love with the desert and was transported by Peter O’Toole’s performance.

My fellow viewers thought the film could have used some editing, that some of the sequences were too long. Though I see their point, I don’t necessarily agree. Some of their response corresponds to a change in cinematic expectations over the years: audiences today want the film to give them a sense of the place and get on with the action. Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t work that way. The desert is not the setting — it is the most important character in the film.

The first half of the film is a love letter to the desert, but even those long, slow pans can only hint at something so vast, complex, inscrutable, and achingly beautiful. I reminded those watching with me that these scenes were filmed on location and not the results of special effects wizardry. The scale is too staggering to be grasped through briefer shots – the eye takes a moment to notice the tiny human figures and the mind still more moments to process the image as a whole.

The desert is the chief antagonist in the film, against whom all the other characters must contend, and against whom they stand in sharp relief. The desert is immense, and in that immensity often seems indifferent and harsh. It is not, however, the villain. That role falls to any number of characters who fail to act on a human scale, where fellow feeling is a human quality and indifference is a choice. Blaming someone else — the desert, the war, the empire — for one’s lack of human sympathy is the worst kind of villainy. Those who own both their actions and the consequences thereof, however unbearable, are the true heroes.

The tension of the film turns on Lawrence’s inner conflicts, and the battles he wins or loses are those within his soul. By the end, it is clear that he is no knight in shining armor, but it’s equally clear that he is no villain.

For those who get Kentucky public television, the film airs again tonight at 9:00 EST/8:00 CST.

War of the Worlds: a review (with spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds a couple weeks ago. I’d mostly heard that Tom Cruise played an obnoxious jerk (some claimed this was type-casting) and that everyone was rooting for the Martians to get him. I was mostly interested in the special effects; I already knew the story, and it didn’t sound as though the characters would be all that interesting.

The special effects were fantastic, as they should have been, but the characters really caught me by surprise. Ray (Cruise’s character) was indeed a jerk, a thoroughly unlikeable person to the very end. But Spielberg and Cruise pulled off something wonderfully tricky and subtle with Ray: they got me to care about him, even to sympathize with him, despite my distaste for him. They did it by showing his anguish, his terror, his desperation, his impotence – emotions that resonate at the level of instinct. In other words, they made him deeply human, flawed and vulnerable, and I found myself immersed in the nightmare of the Martian invasion through his experience.

The other surprise was Rachel, played by Dakota Fanning. She began as a very sympathetic character, a sensitive child who ended up more or less abandoned, stripped of all sources of comfort and security. As the action unfolded, however, she descended into a kind of monotonous hysteria that rendered her an object of pity when she was quiet and a source of irritation when she wasn’t. I found myself wishing the Martians would get her so I wouldn’t have to listen to any more of her shrieking, a base response that was at once perfectly understandable and horrifying.

I was delighted at the little touches in this movie that paid homage to George Pal’s classic 1953 film adaptation. The church near the opening of Spielberg’s film reminded me of the church at the end of Pal’s, and the eye-stalk and portions of the cellar scene were adopted wholesale from the earlier film. Best of all, though, were the cameo appearances of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson at the end.

I was most intrigued, however, by how closely Spielberg’s movie paralleled H.G. Wells’ original novel. I immediately recognized the opening and closing voice-overs as Wells’ memorable prose, setting the story firmly within the novel’s Darwinian framework. Other little details throughout the film caught at my time-fuzzed recollections of the novel, so that I dug up a copy and reread it within days. From the neat folding of Wells’ curate and artilleryman into the single character of Harlan Olgilvy (played by Timothy Robbins) to the significance of the boot in the cellar scenes of both works, great care was taken to translate Wells’ 19th century horror story into a 21st century horror film.

My only quibbles were with the design of the aliens themselves (Pal’s 1953 aliens were much closer to Wells’ descriptions) and the fact that Robbie (played by Justin Chatwin) turned up alive at the end. I realize this is also consistent with the ending of the novel, but it was artificial and unnecessary to the story as Spielberg told it. The film’s climactic triumph had already been achieved with the destruction of the tripod; Ray’s and Rachel’s reunion with the pregnant Mary Ann was sufficient assurance that life would indeed go on. Robbie’s miraculous appearance struck me as more saccharine than poignant, and somewhat spoiled the ending of a film that I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed.

A river runs through it

It’s a rare talent that can begin a story with its tragic conclusion and tell it so engrossingly that the reader is nevertheless shocked to arrive once again at the ending. Charles Roe displays such talent in his fourth novel, Barren River, a gripping tale of friendship, betrayal, love, and loss set in the cave country of southern Kentucky.

The story opens with a coroner’s inquest into the death of Morgan Hargett, who met his end while exploring a cave with his best friend Arnie Travers. After being trapped in the cave for hours, Arnie found a way out and returned, too late, with help. Suspicion falls on the survivor in the minds of some, but the jury eventually decides that the death was accidental. Intent on retribution, Morgan’s widow then takes matters into her own hands, plunging the town of Greenfield back into incredulous grief.

After this prologue the narrative shifts to the ill-fated caving excursion, which serves as a backdrop for all but the final chapter of the novel. From the outset there are signs that things will not turn out well: a forgotten rope, a slipped knot, a foothold that gives way. Prepared and provisioned only for a brief scouting foray, Morgan and Arnie find themselves on a full-blown expedition to secure their very survival.

The taut description of their underground ordeal is punctuated by flashbacks to events from the months leading up to the calamitous venture. Morgan and Arnie consider what has happened between them during that time, and between each of them and Verna, Morgan’s wife, and Fern, Arnie’s new love interest. The cave, with its treacherous terrain and disorienting darkness, is eerily analogous to the confusing landscape of human relationships in which the two men find themselves.

As the narrative unfolds within the cave and without, the mystery deepens: what actually took place between them in the chill blackness, and how did Morgan die? The gravity of the situation forces the trapped men to grapple with their inner demons, and each makes choices that ultimately and inadvertently bring tragedy down upon them both.

Barren River has elements of romance, intrigue, mystery, and morality, but as a whole it is a nuanced exploration of the unraveling of the human heart under the quiet frictions of daily living as well as the pressure of extreme circumstances. The principal characters’ joys and struggles are universal and familiar, and the rural small town setting creates an intimacy that deepens their poignancy. Most pleasing of all, it is a tale so well told that the reader is taken as unawares as the characters by the final act of shattering violence foretold in the prologue.

Barren River by Charles L. Roe © 2008 (AuthorHouse)  ISBN: 978-1434376343  248 pages  Paperback  $9.95 (US)

Wonder Pets meets Transformers

I went to see the rodent action flick G-Force with my mom and kids today. It was an entertaining and remarkably benign way to spend a couple of hours on a summer afternoon. It was cute and funny by spells, though it got a little heavy-handed with life lessons right before the action-packed climax.

I loved the fact that there was absolutely no profanity, and that no one died, not even bad guys. Furthermore, the bad guys weren’t demonized and were shown actually being rehabilitated at the end — everyone got a second chance in this film. The sex is incredibly understated by today’s standards, consisting entirely of a delightfully confusing conversational thread among characters as to whether or not they are “interested” in one another.

The only reason for the PG rating is the exciting action sequences, which would indeed be too intense for children too young to distinguish imagined danger from real danger. I truly can’t remember the last time I went to a PG movie without feeling outraged at some adult who had brought along a child for whom the film was clearly inappropriate. There were no infants or toddlers in today’s audience, and it was wonderful not to feel sorrow or indignation on behalf of anyone in the theater with me.

G-Force may not be the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it was a big hit with both the younger and older members of our party and it impressed me with its genuine kid-friendliness. I’d say that’s worth at least two thumbs up.

Side note: I was half hoping for some kind of tie-in with a cartoon show I watched as a kid entitled Battle of the Planets. This anime adaptation featured a group of young superheroes known as G-Force. Alas, there appears to be no connection.

Angels and Demons gets two thumbs up

Saw the film Angels and Demons this weekend and loved it! Liked it better than the book, in fact. The scope and setting worked so much better (for me, at least) on the big screen than it did in text because the story is much more visual than Dan Brown’s other works. Except for a couple threats and a riddle, the clues in this tale are physical and visual: sculptures, buildings, maps, etc. The story revolves around a literal trail of physical locations and features rather than a metaphorical trail of abstract concepts and shades of meaning, as was the case in The DaVinci Code.

I’m the kind of reader who visualizes individual scenes but not the broader geographical setting of a story. In fact, maps are too abstract for me to use unless I can connect them with the physical reality they represent. This was a real handicap for me when reading the novel, as the plot depends so heavily on the specific geography of Rome. In the film, I could see the city and the physical relationship between the various sites where the plot unfolded. Even though the protagonist, Robert Langdon, consults a map of the city fairly early in the story, the audience doesn’t actually get to see a map until we’ve visited several sites with Langdon. That worked beautifully for me, because by that point I had some physical sense of the place and could translate that to the map.

Another reason this story worked better in film than in text is the rich detail of the setting. Rome in and of itself is a feast for the eyes, and the Vatican is a living allegory: everything that exists or occurs within its walls carries a profound weight of meaning. A single shot could set up a scene in this deeply symbolic location that might take four pages of description in the novel. Indeed, the filmed scene was very likely to include far more detail than the written scene would permit, which I appreciated immensely due to my predilection for the metaphorical and my eclectic education.

Finally, there is the element of time. The action portion of the story takes place within a little more than four hours, and Langdon is in a race against time. Film is a great medium for building and capitalizing on this kind of tension, as it must compress the entire story, regardless of its length, into two hours, give or take a few minutes. A certain amount of detail was stripped from the original story to accomplish this, but much of that detail, such as the sadism of the assassin, was used to generate tension in the medium of the novel. It was not needed for that purpose in the film and would have actually had the opposite effect of bogging down the story.

The film was fast-paced and engaging, well-written and well-acted, and beautifully realized on the screen. In other words, a perfect summer entertainment for adults whose sensibilities are not too delicate — violence is both shown and suggested, and its consequences are shown but not dwelt upon.

Listening to chickens

I have just finished reading Catherine Goldhammer’s wondrous memoir, Still Life with Chickens. I took a chance on it because it had the word “chickens” in the title, and to my absolute delight I found a kindred soul within its pages. I liked Ms. Goldhammer from the very opening of the book:

I did not have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. I did not have a farm in Africa. Instead, my diminished resources dictated a move to a run-down cottage in a honky-tonk town where live bait is sold from vending machines. (p. 1)

Right away the reader knows that this is not going to be one of those soaring, romantic stories from which movies are made. This is not escapist literature. Instead, it is a tale about a woman whose heart leads her more deeply into her own life — not just any life, not the good life or the life she always dreamed of — HER life. And interestingly enough, reading her story placed me all the more firmly in my own life, like a hen settling down to roost. I could imagine myself faced with the same choices, and I could imagine myself choosing as she did for much the same reasons.

It isn’t easy being an alektorophile (someone who loves chickens). Most urban people think of chickens simply as an entree and most rural people think of them as a chore. In truth, few people think of chickens at all. It is rare to find anyone who appreciates and admires chickens as creatures, and rarer still to find someone who gives expression to those feelings. So it was with utter delight that I read what Ms. Goldhammer has to say about chickens.

She introduces the chickens by explaining that they were superficially intended as a bribe to secure her tween-aged daughter’s cooperation with the unavoidable move. A page or two later, however, Ms. Goldhammer reveals deeper motives:

I had wanted chickens for a long time, along with a goat or two, but my husband — who had put up with, but not been happy about, cats, dogs, gerbils, snakes, and fish — had drawn the line at livestock, and I figured I better not push it. (p. 19)

(I feel such affinity with this statement that Catherine and I are henceforth on first-name terms.) She is divorced from her husband, and chickens have come to represent the thousand little sacrifices that people make to be with each other. These “chickens of the mind,” as she calls them, are as much an enticement for her as they are for her daughter; they draw her forward into each next step of her journey, each new day of the life that is becoming more surely hers.

Chickens of the mind pale in comparison with chickens in the bathtub, in the library, in the back yard. Flesh-and-blood chickens are much more of an investment in time, energy, and worry, not to mention dollars, than their up-front cost (a couple of bucks per chick) suggests. Late in winter, Catherine is at the end of her rope, and the added complication of chickens feels like the last straw. Then a workman tells her about his ninety-three-year-old aunt who keeps chickens because, she says, “They’re what gets me out of bed in the morning.” (p. 140) Catherine has to concede “that if Leonardo’s ninety-three-year-old aunt could do it, I could do it.” (p. 140)

In addition to all the practical things Catherine accomplishes in pursuing her life with chickens, she gains the wisdom and humility to see them as teachers. To her they become “Zen priests, with minds like cloudless skies.” (p. 154) A neighbor asks Catherine not to put up a privacy fence because the chickens are soothing to watch, like fish in an aquarium. Pondering the chickens’ attraction, she writes:

…although the chickens were busy, they were not in a hurry. They were calming. They were funny, although they had no sense of humor. They puttered, but in a serious sort of way. Chickens take themselves very seriously, actually. They have a sort of mindless gravitas. (p. 168)

She begins seeing the Buddha in them, realizes that nearly every piece of wisdom in the Tao Te Ching could be said about a chicken. “I had followed the chickens this far,” she says, “and would follow them farther. They were still talking to me, singing to me, telling me a story.” (p. 173) Because she has the audacity to listen, they tell her a story of her life.

Catherine concludes her tale much as she begins:

I did not have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. I did not have a farm in Africa. It turned out that my life was not someone else’s book. It was not a picture and it was not still. It was moving, variegated, unpredictable. It was a life, with chickens. (p. 176)

For the reader who has the audacity to listen, Catherine’s story will in turn tell a story of the possibilities of the reader’s own life.