White Dog

December 17, 2008

White Dog(1982); Dir. Samuel Fuller. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1016791833/   White Dog Movie Trailer

There are films that gather a certain mystique around them because they have attracted so much controversy, were banned for one reason or another, or were so wildly popular that they become representative of the movies as a whole. Then there is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. This film was tucked away by Paramount Pictures after it was completed because the studio worried that the subject matter would ignite racial tension across the country. It was criticized for being a racist film and for all practical purposes, ignored for many years. This Criterion release is the first home video release of the film and it was not shown in theatres at all.  White Dog, I believe, touched such a raw nerve  because it is the history that many people have lived through and the sense of shame that we have never quite come to terms with. Fuller himself said that the studio were essentially cowards for not backing the picture and those that have spent any time watching Samuel Fuller films, reading his autobiography “A Third Face” or any of the numerous writings on his work, know the difficulty he has encountered throughout his career in finding support for his films. Fuller not only had difficulty getting some of his movies made but also faced obstacles after his films were completed and with the exception of critics such as Manny Farber, his films were not always that well  received in the United States. There are still many of his movies such as Underworld U.S.A., Verboten!, Park Row, The Chrimson Kimono, China Gate, and The Run of The Arrow that are still not available on video; not to mention the dozens of writing credits that he was never given proper due  for.  One of the great American genre directors along with Don Siegal,  Howard Hawks, and William Keighley, Fuller’s films always championed the underdog and never shyed away from topics such as racism, communism, and an unglorified look at war when those were not such popular issues to be discussing in the manner  which Samuel Fuller chose to present them.

White Dog is the story of a dog that was conditioned to hate black people and viciously attacks them until an african american animal trainer steps in to try and recondition the dog. The dominant image in the film is that of the steel cage, referred to in the movie as the “arena,”  in which Paul Winfield’s character Keys fights against the white dog’s engrained racism. The “arena” not only occurs throughout the film as the center of the action but also as an allegory for the combat our society must engage in on a daily basis in order to fight racism in this country. The dog is not simply a symbol of racism in this country but also embodies the sickness and hatred that has been such a part of America’s history and it is in the “arena” that Keys seeks to recondition this white dog to treat blacks the same way he treats whites. While Keys untangles the white dog’s racist instincts, which were born out of learned fear and hatred, Kristy McNichol’s  character Julie Sawyer must come to grips with the reality that this dog has been twisted and contorted by men who hate and that the racism embodied in this dog is very alive in the United States. But Juile’s answer to the problem is to kill it right there. While she might not understand the racism that is in this dog, she wants it stamped out. Keys wants to “cure” racism by retraining the dog. With these two views, Fuller takes us in a direction that is very cynical and unforgiving, yet sadly realistic.

One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when Julie meets the owner of the dog, who has come with his two grandchildren and a box of chocolates to claim the dog. She lashes out at him for making the dog such a horrible monster but the owner is very proud of the dog being a “white dog” and threatens to go to the police if she does not give him back. It is this scene that really captures the themes of the movie best because it is an extension of the “arena” motif that encompasses all of society and how this racism is passed down from generation to generation. This also is important because it illustrates what Burl Ives character Carruthers says earlier in the scene where he is having a meal with Keys and Julie and a police officer stops in to ask for directions. This comes after the dog had murdered a black man in a church. Their guilt is palpable and this is the type of emotional scene that Fuller is best at.  After the officer leaves, Carruthers says that they can never tell anyone what they are doing because no one would understand. Society is guilty of promoting institutional racism and these beliefs are so deeply entrenched that for them to try and undo this would have great consequences.

Samuel Fuller does not flinch away from the difficulty of this subject matter or attempt to force a resolution to the problem. It is a problem that does not have a solution and though Keys and Julie make an effort to defeat the dog’s sickness, in the end it is not enough. If there is any fault in this picture, it is not the subject matter or how Fuller approaches it but in the hurried feeling of the first ten or fifteen minutes. Dialogue is dissapointingly out of synch in a scene where Julie is almost raped by an intruder in her home and collapses on the floor where she manages to call 911 and have the police come out without ever picking up the phone.  This is supposed to be a key scene where Julie’s relationship with the dog that she nursed back to health is firmly set and that makes what she discovers about the dog all that more horrifying. When you watch this movie it is very evident that this was not intended to be viewed as a horror film, even though the attempt was made to market it as such, but instead as a social commentary. It just happens that this particular social commentary comes from a director whose body of work is as rough and tumble as he was, and not the polished, “do you get it yet?” type of commentary one finds in a movie such as “Crash.” It is that rough and tumble feel that makes this film so endearing and tangible because that is often how life comes at us. It is exactly that which makes Samuel Fuller’s body of work so important to American cinema and White Dog such a powerful movie experience.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

THE DARK KNIGHT

December 12, 2008

 

The Dark Knight(2008); Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Home Video(Dec. 2008)

After the much anticipated dvd and blu-ray release of The Dark Knight on Tuesday and yesterdays announcement of the Golden Globe nominees, of which The Dark Knight is not among them, with the exception of Heath Ledger’s posthumous best supporting actor nomination, it would be almost impossible to overstate the impact of this film since its release this past July. There isn’t a movie website, blog, or critic, who hasn’t weighed in with their thoughts on this filmSo after seeing the movie twice in the theatre and getting the dvd on Tuesday, I will happily join the rank and file of those having nothing but accolades and awe for this motion picture.

 The Dark Knight is one of those movies that puts stars in your eyes, if they weren’t there to begin with. It represents the possibilities of film for a new generation of movie-goers, many of whom, I imagine, will come away with an excitement for the movies  that will lead them to pursue their own creative interests. The Dark Knight has also rescued Batman from the cartoonish peril and absurdity(George Clooney and rubber nipples in case you forgot) of the late 90’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin with the superb script writing of David Goyer and the direction of Christopher Nolan.

I am not sure if you can call it a more “adult” version of the Batman story or that you can deconstruct the film and say that it reflects the moral ambiguity and cynicism of our times. Gotham City and Batman exist in a world completely outside of our own and it would not be right to try and fit them into our reality. Nihilistic characters like the Joker make more interesting fictional villains because they are elevated to the level of “an unstoppable force” as Heath Ledger’s character says to Batman in one of their scenes together. This movie, along with Batman Begins, also shows that the dark corners of the hero’s psyche make for a much more interesting superhero. After all, it is a fine line that separates what we would deem “good” and “bad.” As The Dark Knight suggests, the nature of good and evil is such a precarious one that a character can be pushed one way or the other given the right circumstances. With a single action, Harvey Dent is driven away from being the upstanding beacon of justice to a murderous criminal seeking revenge as Two Face. He is caught between the nihilism of the Joker and the conviction of Batman and it is because of this that I find him to be one of the more fascinating characters in the movie even though he is played more straight by Aaron Eckhart than the extremes of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne. This was very interesting to me because the last movie I had seen Aaron Eckhart in was Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia(I admit that I haven’t seen Thank You For Smoking even though I have been meaning to). His sensibility as an actor seems much more suited for a role such as Harvey Dent more than a hard boiled detective.

The one part of the film that did not work for me was the ending monologue and commissioner Gordon’s son running out to his father as the police beging to chase Batman. After all the destruction and bleak territory the film waded through the filmmakers seemed to really try and end the movie in a way that was suspenseful and hopeful and that did not leave the audience feeling too much despair. Personally, I think the best way to end the film would have been with the Joker laughing and swinging at the top of the building. There is a hard boiled crime feel to the story with the characters that populate the story and the visuals of the film  and I think an ending such as that would have emphasized this element a bit more without taking away from the other  aspects of the story. 

The Dark Knight is truly an epic film which finds the time to include  more artful cinematic moments such as the Joker leaning out the window(one of my favorite scenes) of a cop car after he escapes from jail and has set his plan into motion,  with a maniacally blissful look on his face and the sparkling city lights behind him as the sound fades out. This scene is brief but it adds so much to the overall visual impact of the film that you become aware while you are watchingthis picture of these little moments created byChris Nolan and David Goyer  which give the characters and the story a dramatic intensity and demonstrate their craftmenship as film makers.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

 

 
 

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; Dir. Andrew Adamson

 Perhaps it was a feeling when The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe came out that Disney was not the studio I wanted to see working on this film but I recognize that I have been very biased against this film series since its inception. I have very fond memories of reading the books when I was younger but I cannot say that they ever really captured my imagination the way other stories did and while I have always admired the writing of author C.S. Lewis(as much as that of J.R.R. Tolkien for the worlds and mythology they were able to create and the characters they populated them with) I suppose I have to admit that it never really interested me that much and while that might not be the best way to start of a review of this movie, it is the most honest way that I can because it was not an issue I could sidestep while watching Prince Caspian.
Faithful literary adaptations present filmmakers with a very fine line to walk. Especially in situations where the source material is a bit dry or even lacking in some details that would make for a good movie, the filmmaker has to dig beneath the surface of the work to excavate some of the more “cinematic” moments and thematic gems. Characters are flushed out, scenes are brought to life, and the action of a story congeals around what is central to the story, even when it is not directly stated by the author. Andrew Adamson seemed to completely miss the mark in this aspect and ended up creating a movie that seemed to exist only to make room for the next in the series.  Visually, the film glistens with impressive scenes and sets. It is a far cry from the BBC series based on the same material from the late 1980’s, but I am not convinced that this is the definitive interpretation of The Chronicles of Narnia in the way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings was. The problem is that there is too much on the surface of the film and not enough beneath that to really make a difference. The allegory of the story itself is very powerful and is historically very compelling when looked at in the context of World War II and the struggle between good and evil. I would not blame  Andrew Adamson for this. He is very capable of telling a meaningful fantasy story as he demonstrated with Shrek and Shrek 2. The fault, I believe, lies with Disney, whitewashing to deliver a movie that spends a great deal of time talking about things you do not understandand, establishing relationships that are sterile and add more confusion to the story and building the conflict to a level that results in a battle sequences which almost feels like an entirely different film than the one you had been watching for the last hour.

There are two scenes in the film which stand out and make you wish that the filmmakers had used this to set the tone for the rest of the movie. The first comes after a disastrous attack on the castle in which Prince Caspian breaks the plan they had developed to lay siege in order to seek revenge against his Uncle, the man who is laying claim to the throne. As Prince Caspian and his forces are driven into retreat, there is a moment where they look back at the men left behind and you realize that the whole attack was a waste of life. The other scene which contains the emotional core of the film is that in which Prince Caspian wavers in his faith and is about to give power to the White Witch in order to defeat his Uncle. Andrew Adamson creates a great deal of dramatic tension in this scene and it is surprisingly not overplayed, as you would expect from watching the rest of the movie. What is disappointing is that these scenes are never quite able to congeal along with the rest of the movie. Perhaps, though, it is more disappointing that they are never allowed to. The characters and plot feel restrained in a way that any creative work should never be and again, I would not not blame this on Adamson’s direction or the story. The acting of Ben Barnes, who plays Prince Caspian the way one would play a tortured prince whose kingdom is being taken away from him, far exceeds that of the actors and actresses who play the Pevensie children and unfortunately, the rest of the cast feels like caricatures of who they are supposed to be portraying, stock characters who try very hard to fit into the picture as if the audience might not be able to figure out who they are supposed to be.

This could  sum up the entire movie. It is like that person at the party who wants everyone to like them and moves from group to group making sure that there is no ambiguity about who they are or what they are about. There is something rather ingenuous about such an experience and one cannot help but feel that there is something  ingenuous about Prince Caspian. I would hope that someday, someone will get it right and make a Chronicles of Narnia that relies on the merit of being a cinematic epic. But I suppose that movie will come as a completely different series with a completely different production company.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

December 3, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army(2008); Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Hellboy II represents a watershed in the filmmaking career of director Guillermo Del Toro. For years he has moved between the more personal, mystical fairy tales of children attempting to navigate the adult world in times of great crisis or loss such as in Cronos or Devil’s Backbone and the pure action/adventure of Blade II or even the often forgotten Mimic. While Pan’s Labyrinth indicated a new direction for Guillermo Del Toro in both the scope of visual storytelling and exploring in fantastical detail worlds that coexist alongside the human world, it is with Hellboy II that his vision becomes fully realized and these two aspects of his films are brought together to create a story that is magical in a way that most films are not able to achieve.

 This world of elves, trolls, tree monsters, and other mythical creatures is one that has existed countless times in books and film and  Guillermo Del Toro uses some well tried conventions of fantasy stories such as the epic battle and retelling of the legend of King Balor, Prince Nuada, and the Golden Army that begins the film.  What is exciting about Guillermo Del Toro’s filmmaking though is that he takes these conventions of the genre and creates something that we are both in awe of and  strangely familiar with. There is a sincerity of purpose in the telling of the story as well as a wonderful understanding of how a fantasy film is supposed to look and feel for the audience. The characters are not lofty or exaggerated, even by comic book standards, but flawed in very human terms. We can appreciate them for this and it adds a dimension to the story that is rarely seen in action films.

Guillermo Del Toro is certainly not a melodramatic director but he is very sentimental both for his characters and in his style of filmmaking. He gives his characters moments where they are able to reveal themselves without seeming out of place and while Hellboy II is an action picture, it is one with a great deal of mythology and influences layered beneath the fight sequences, love stories, and comic relief that populates the film’s swiftly moving plot. One of the most difficult challenges in a sequel is to continue developing familiar characters while still making a film that stands on its own. Guillermo Del Toro does not rely on bringing back old characters to add excitement to the movie but there is that “picked up where we left off feeling” which serves the movie well. In fact, he also brings in new characters such as Johann Kraus voiced by Seth MacFarlane, who lives in a mechanical suit apparatus constructed by Hellboy’s adoptive father as well as Prince Nuada’s twin sister Princess Nuala who brings a very interesting aspect to the story.

Hellboy II represents a new direction for what action films can accomplish as much as The Dark Knight pushed the boundaries of how the comic book hero was potrayed on film. Masterpieces? Certainly not. Great Genre filmmaking? There is no doubt. What is most clear with Hellboy II is that Guillermo Del Toro is gradually building a body of work that embodies the fantasy genres’ best aspects and modern fairy tales which entertain as well as find their way to the heart of something more substantial and meaningful then just flashy action sequences, quick moving plots, and snappy dialogue.

Charles Jacob;  vanheck123@hotmail.com

Mongol

December 1, 2008

Mongol(2007); Dir. Sergei Bodrov. New Line Home Video(2008)

  • Format:Color, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Language: Mongolian
  • Rating:
  • With sweeping, dramatic camera movements that cover the vastness of the Mongolian landscape, one gets the sense while watching the epic Mongol that director Sergei Bodrov is also attempting to give the viewer a sense of the vastness of time as he inter cuts scenes from the childhood and adult life of the main character Temujin in a prophetic tone that anticipates his rise to power as the formidable Genghis Khan, a conqueror and feared warrior across the known world. As we watch Temujin develop from a young boy who watches his father die, to a young man captured and recaptured into slavery, as well as being hunted and imprisoned by the Tangut, we see a character emerge who is pushed towards his destiny by divine and human forces. Temujin, the film surmises, must achieve this singular purpose and there is never any doubt that he will.

    For anyone knowledgeable about 13th century Asian and European history, they are well aware of the importance that Genghis Khan played in this time period and what is known of his life. Perhaps it is this sense of destiny that the film makers imply in every action Temujin undertakes that leaves the film feeling a little shallow. Some of the grandiose aspects of the story actually work at times but when we are constantly made to feel that we are watching the development of greatness and a leader whose destiny was anointed by the gods and the unfolding of history, it is easy to loose a sense of the man Temujin. There is almost something mythological in the portrayal of Temujin. No matter how many times he is captured or beaten or chased, he always manages to come back to the track of his destiny. Sergei Bodrov approaches the subject of his film with reverence and a sacred timidity that does not seem to fit such a bold historical figure as Genghis Khan.

    There is no doubt that Mongol is a powerful film, just as Oliver Stone’s Alexander or Zac Snyder’s 300 were powerful films. They were powerful because they invested a sense of otherworldly significance into the actions of the characters and the events which they participated in.  But like these other pictures, Mongol offers very little of what could be a true character study or even much speculation about what drove these men to such vast conquests. Why did Temujin wish to unite the Mongol people? What was the political and social climate like at that time period? These are questions that I could not avoid while watching the film and wished that the film makers had taken a bit more time with the story and attempted to really construct the character of Temujin and 13th century Mongolia. Historical fiction is indeed a very fine balancing act but that does not always make for good film making.

    Charles Jacob;   vanheck123@hotmail.com