An Elephant For All Seasons

The primary problem with converting Dr. Seuss into a feature length film is that Seuss’s stories are a distillate of the very essence of drama: A stranger comes to town and changes the characters’ world views (Cat in the Hat); a curmudgeon finds spiritual redemption (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas); a bitter war is waged to the ultimate destruction of both parties (The Butter Battle Book).

A part of his greatness was his ability to play out these dramas in a short space. Even the classic Chuck Jones specials can seem stretched thin, and they run 26 minutes according to IMDB (and I think that’s an exaggeration). The prospect of stretching it out for 88 minutes is not promising, if for no other reason than everything added is not Seuss, and that’s usually painfully obvious.

Imitating Seuss is a common phenomenon, but nobody does it very well. Even Seuss can be said to not add successfully to his own material (as with the extra verses in the TV version of Grinch which he wrote). As a result, you get the abomination that was the live action Grinch, where the Whos lose their pure spiritual goodness and become horrible things that created the Grinch. (I’ve never been able to watch that movie past the first few minutes.)

The next tactic for padding out the source is to fill it with gags. But that’s not easily done, either. Seuss books are really about the essential drama. They’re fun, but they’re not really “jokey”. And they’re never scatological or sexual (another crime of the live-action Grinch). The physical comedy of the cartoon Grinch is probably one of the best approaches, and even that’s more Jones-y than Seuss-y. (For the record, Ralph Bakshi’s The Butter Battle Book is the purest interpretation of Seuss.)

As fraught with peril as the task is, wise men would refuse to take it on. Horton’s directors, Pixar alumnus Jimmy Hayward and Robots art director Steve Martino prove shockingly worthy of the task, fools though they may be.

Poor Horton (Jim Carrey) finds himself custodian to an entire world in the form of a tiny speck that only he can hear the inhabitants of. The if-not-quite-evil-then-meddlesome Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) makes it her business to squash this Horton’s fanciful imaginings, with the help of Will Arnett (as a vulture) and of course, the evil purple monkeys known as the Wickershim Brothers.

Let me say up front that the Wickershims are way scarier and freakier in the Jones cartoon than they are here, despite being pretty similar. (They get a lot more screen time in the ‘toon, and seem irremediably evil there. Plus, they sing in the Jones version. No singing in this one till the end.) Nonetheless, the Flower grabbed my arm a couple of times in fear.

Meanwhle, down in Whoville, the Mayor (Steve Carell) has to save a world that doesn’t believe it’s in any peril, with the help of Isla Fisher as the wacky Who-scientist and Jonah Hill, who plays the tiniest Who of them all.

Most of this film works quite well: Carrey is on a tight leash. In fact, the whole movie shies away from zaniness and super-broad comedy. It’s fairly straight action, for a cartoon. The required length is achieved by having Horton take a long-ish journey and the Mayor having to deal with disbelief in his world.

What doesn’t work that well is the sub-plot where the Mayor doesn’t “get” his son (which isn’t terrible, just not very Seussian) and particularly a little segment of animé, where Horton imagines himself as a ninja (which is thankfully short). In what constitutes an hour’s worth of padding, that’s fairly impressive.

Anyway, The Flower liked the movie a lot. (She was particularly excited when the dialogue actually included some real Seuss words, which didn’t happen much: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent.”) The Boy was not displeased, which is high-praise since, in his own words, he has “a low tolerance for the kind of broad humor they usually put into” these things.

Of course, someone’s always trying to co-opt Dr. Seuss. The Wikipedia tries to draw parallels between the Wickershims and Joe McCarthy (“citation needed”), while anti-abortion groups have tried to see it as an anti-abortion tale (“a person’s a person no matter how small”).

But they miss the point: It’s the conflict that’s universal, not the particulars. Horton is like a more heroic Thomas More. He’s told up-front to either give up what he knows to be true or suffer the consequences. Similarly the mayor.

You could apply the particulars to terrorism, global warming, or whatever you wanted.

That’s why Seuss is great.

And these guys are to be commended on preserving that.

The Bank Job

I wonder if Jason Statham gets tired of playing roguish burglars and assassins. If so, that’s too bad, since three of his next four films have him doing the same schtick over and over again. Well, he’s good at it, and I suppose not much different from other action heroes in that regard.

In The Bank Job, he’s a lower class swindler–a used car salesmen in debt with the local loan shark–who is tempted by the very tempting Saffron Burrows into pulling a heist on a Baker Street bank.

Pretty ballsy, if you ask me, to knock over a bank four blocks down from Sherlock Holmes.

The movie is based on an actual heist that occurred in 1971, news of which was suppressed via a D-Notice, which is apparently something you get when you don’t have a First Amendment.

Anyhow, the filmmakers posit that the gov’t had a “black power” radical cold for drug smuggling but couldn’t bust him because he had compromising photos of Princess Margaret so they needed to steal those photos without looking like they were stealing those photos, and hence used an outside crew. (This is all made relatively clear in the first time-bouncy-10 minutes.)

As it turns out there’s lots of other bad stuff in the vault, and our bank robbers end up under the gun of a lot of unsavory characters. Many of whom are employed by the crown.

There’s probably as much reality in this as there was in, say, Murder by Decree. But it was well acted and paced nicely. There was some confusion (at least in my mind) about Jason’s relationship with Saffron. The crew finds their way into the vault and decides to break then to sleep. (It’s a little far-fetched, but they had been up for 36 hours by this point.)

Anyway, the two end up meeting in the vault and having a romantic interlude. Are we supposed to, at that point, think that they had sex? It seems improbable, but a later scene with the wife suggests that is what happened.

A minor nit. This is a fun ‘70s-era flick–without all the ridiculous costumes that are usually omnipresent in a movie based on this time period–that keeps the suspense up till the end. More sex (mostly implied) and nudity than your average heist flick, I thought, though it all related back to the (rather involved) plot.

But eventually, we’re gonna wear out on these types of roles, Handsome Rob.

The Band’s Visit

One of my favorite comedies of recent years is the German film Schulze Gets The Blues. It’s not for everyone: It’s statically filmed, slow-paced and, naturally, plays a bit on German sensibilities. But it works for me because it taps into the love of music and how it can motivate people to leave their “comfort zone”.

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) is an Israeli film which might seem to have similar premise: An Egyptian police band (classical Arab music) ends up in a small town in Israel by accident, and all kinds of wackiness ensues. Or at least amusing, human episodes.

This film cleaned up at Israeli film award shows.

But, in the end, I have to say, I didn’t really get it. It seemed aimless to me. And the idea that people can get along–even Arabs and Jews–strikes me as not all that revolutionary (from the comfort of Hollywood, CA). Where Schulze’s slowness was usually a setup for some amusing tableau, like a silent movie, The Band’s Visit seemed to let the characters brood for extended periods of time. (Not dissimilar to the movie 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days.)

Unfortunately, I have little insight into what they’re thinking.

Ronit Elkabetz was pretty hot, though, and Sasson Gabai brings an odd “warm distance” to his role that makes his character believable.

But I suspect that 80% of this movie’s resonance is parochial.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

I often ruminate on how the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ’40s can’t be recreated in modern times. I’ve always assumed they couldn’t be redone because, well, they never have been. When they try, we get things like The Money Pit or Legal Eagles which, whatever their merits, do not manage to capture the spirit of those films. Often, even good modern movies are hurt by trying to be like these old movies and failing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, however, proves that it’s possible. This film is so straight out of the ’30s that it’s absolutely obvious from the trailers how the outcome has to…uh…come out. You know the poor Miss Pettigrew has to hook up with the rich guy with the shrewish girlfriend just as you know that Delysia, the ingénue, is going to end up with her true love, instead of the guys who can advance her career.

Anything else just would have–to use a non-’30s expression–sucked.

This movie, which takes place in ’39 (I think), touches on a lot of the tropes of the ’30s-’40s with just the right lightness. It starts with Frances McDormand doing a bit of down-and-out nanny that reminds one (favorably) of Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp”. That’s saying a lot right there, though the scene never goes into full on slapstick (a good thing, I think).

When Miss Pettigrew and Delysio meet, you get the screwball, fast-paced dialogue of, say, a Howard Hawks, along with some zany antics as the two try to keep the delightful Delysio from the sort of social embarrassment that comes when one of your boyfriends walks in while you’re having sex with the other. This sort of dialogue cropped up relatively recently in Joss Whedon’s series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Angel, and was a staple of The Gilmore Girls, but in this case, it’s well choreographed with the action. Actually it reminds more of Leo McCarey than Hawks.

The modernization of the story shows up only a bit at this point. First, we get some Amy Adams cheesecake. Second, the girl in the ’30s movies was usually playing with the men as opposed to actually having sex with them. There was usually a “plausibly deniable” out for the audience who didn’t want to imagine the characters being less than pure.

This is one of the things that makes a ’30s-’40s style zany comedy ordinarily impossible to remake. The audience rejects too much coquettish-ness but the character of the movie changes if it rubs your nose the characters’ sexual indiscretions.

Somehow, Delysio remains charming despite her relatively libertine ways, which is in no small part due to the charms of Amy Adams.

Rounding out the pith-perfect cast is Shirley Henderson (best known as Moaning Myrtle from the Potter movies), Ciaran Hinds (late of the HBO/BBC series “Rome”, as Julius Caeasar), and Delysio’s three boyfriends (Lee Pace, Tom Payne and Mark Strong).

Is anything off about this film? Well, yeah: The characters are mostly too old to be who they’re playing. Amy Adams is 33. I’m pretty sure ingénue age stops at 28, tops. Now, she’s quite lovely, and the character can easily be on the high end of the age range (adding to her desperation), so only occasionally did I find myself thinking, “Hmmm, she’s a little old for that.”

One of those occasions was, however, when McDormand and Hinds respond to the younger people cheering at the airplanes flying overhead with “they don’t remember the first one”. The practical age cap for not remembering WWI when WWII started would be around 25, I think. (Keep in mind that Shirley “Moaning Myrtle” Henderson is 40, however young she looks!)

Still, the whole thing works well–surprisingly well.

The boy said “Tell them the boy is pleased.”

And he was.

UPDATE: Kelly H. talks about the movie and source book in her “movies from books” series here. Turns out it is derived from a ’30s book. It would be a good template to draw from if someone wanted to re-do Thorne Smith.

Grindhouse: Death Proof redux

Oh, yeah. Way too long. It’s 35 minutes before the first car scene, which is, like, five minutes, and then there’s 50 more minutes to go. 15 minutes later…get in the car, bitches!

Sheesh. Finally!

The last 20 minutes are quite good. Quite good indeed.

I don’t really know much about Tarantino. I’ve only seen this, the little bit he did in Sin City, and Kill Bill, none of which really clicked with me. (Well, maybe the Sin City bit; Clive Owen was great!)

I’m not sure why he thinks we want a grindhouse movie that’s over an hour of talking. They had movies like that, but it was because they didn’t have any money to actually film the action they wanted. Not because they actually wanted to pad the film with blather.

Not. Grindhouse.

The Boy started out thinking it was boring but not stupid, but in the last 20 minutes switched to thinking it was all out stupid.

This is (part of) why I didn’t take him when it came out.

Update #1:Hey, is it just me, or does Mr. Tarantino actually create really shallow fantasy girl characters?

Update #2: Zoe Bell was great. But Kurt Russell makes the whole thing bearable. (And he’s not in most of the movie, unfortunately.)

Update #3: I don’t get why Stuntman Mike doesn’t attack the girls in the car at the end. The gun would be disturbing, sure, but once they’re back in cars, he should have the advantage.

Update #4: I do not believe that, at any time in the history of the universe, four hot 20-something chicks ever spent 10 minutes at breakfast talking about Vanishing Point. Period.

Update #5: I do love the QT fans on IMDB who maintain with absolute earnestness that if you find fault with this film, it is because you are a cretin devoid of intelligence. (Guilty!)

Grindhouse: Planet Terror Redux

I didn’t take The Boy with me to see Grindhouse when it came out since I wasn’t sure it was appropriate (and it probably wasn’t at the time). Also, I wasn’t sure he could relate. As he’s older now and I’ve seen it (and it’s on cable), we watched it together.

His reaction was much like mine during Raiders of the Lost Ark: I was okay with it up until Harrison Ford rode the submarine across the Atlantic. And it just got stupider from there. Not too long after, I realized that it was basically a kiddie movie, like Star Wars, and you can’t really apply rules of logic or sense to it. (And as a result I enjoyed Temple of Doom a lot more.)

Anyway he was appalled by the stupidity.

I still think it was 20 minutes too long but I found the various film corruptions a lot more interesting in the re-watch. Rodriguez cleverly used the scratches, blurs and distortions to punctuate parts of the action.

Anyway, the trailers are still the best part.

Hell is an eternity In Bruges?

In Bruges is my kind of movie. Like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Very Bad Things, Wrong Is Right, Harold and Maude, S.O.B. and the original Wicker Man, it appeals to the part of me that thinks death is very, very funny.

This is somewhere in between last year’s whimsical Death at a Funeral and, say, Shaun of the Dead which was a bit heavy-handed. In Bruges is a bit more likable than your average black comedy, as it’s actually not cynical (as many films in the genre are).

Hitmen Brendan Gleeson (prob’ly best known as Harry Potter’s Alastor Moody) and young cohort Colin Farrell (lotsa stuff, but I like his turn in Phone Booth the best) are in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges after bungling a job. They’re on orders to sight see until things cool down, and Colin Farrell’s character is bored to tears of all historical richness. (Hence the title of this entry.)

The only thing to pique his interest is the morally dodgy Clémence Poésy who seems torn between her romantic interest and her inclination to roll easily duped marks. Adding a little bit of spice to the proceedings is Jordan Prentice (probably best known for playing Howard T. Duck). They meander through the streets of Bruges until Ralph Fiennes, their boss, tells them the real reason for their visit. (Favorite role ever for Fiennes, a low-talking, yet somehow likable, uber-violent thug.)

Ironically, despite the topic and the source of humor, this is a movie about honor and redemption. You’re kind of rooting for these guys, hit men though they are. At the same time, you know it’s not likely.

Anyway, lotsa laffs (if you can laugh at this sort of thing, which I can), and great acting all around. A refreshing change from the brooding, introspective stuff that dominated the award season.