The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, February 06, 2003
CINEPLEX ROUNDUP: An assortment of films I've either seen recently or am just now getting around to reviewing:

Shallow Hal (Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, 2001): At their best, the Farrelly brothers walk the thin line between
John Waters and Ernst Lubitsch. This time, alas, it's more like the line between a second-rate teen gross-out movie and an After School Special.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932): One of those Hollywood ur-movies that inspired a thousand imitations. At a luxury hotel in Berlin, lives intersect -- each possessed, conveniently, by a well-established Dream Factory stereotype. The suicidal diva! The oafish businessman! The working girl! The little guy! The cynical old man! The aristocratic thief with a heart of gold! Their paths cross, their tales crossbleed, a climactic crime is committed, lives are altered radically -- then these guests leave and another crop arrives. Constant change meets eternal recurrence, yadda yadda yadda.

Some of it is dreadful: Greta Garbo's oft-quoted performance (this is the source of "I vant to be a-lone") is a sustained exercise in carpet-chewing. Some of it is great: John Barrymore is charming as the roguish baron-thief, and the climax is terrific. But the movie as a whole is neither good nor bad -- more of a time-capsule entry, something to let us see what an all-star Hollywood spectacle looked like 70 years ago.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Philip Noyce, 2002): A chase movie posing as a political statement.

Chicken Real: The Story of Holly Farms Poultry Industries (Les Blank, 1970): In a career that has spanned more than 40 years, Blank has made dozens of documentaries and experimental shorts. Initially, this seems like a radical change of pace: an industrial film sponsored by its subject, the chicken company Holly Farms. Gradually, it becomes clear that something stranger is going on: Blank's alternately beautiful, ugly, and surreal footage of the mass production of poultry is attached to the sort of narration you'd expect in a classroom movie on the dangers of tooth decay. The contrast is deeply hilarious -- an effect that was probably intended, given that Blank wrote the narration himself. Highly recommended.

Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002): A solid science-fiction thriller, adapted from one of Philip K. Dick's weaker stories. It's better than most Spielberg movies, and better than several other Dick adaptations as well. It has two significant flaws, though, one of which might be called the Tom Cruise Problem; the other, the Steven Spielberg Problem.

Cruise is miscast, but still does a reasonably capable job in the lead role. The problem: Because he is Tom Cruise, the filmmakers felt the need to add three or so ridiculously implausible action sequences -- the kind of stuff that's a lot of fun in a Mission: Impossible movie but simply doesn't fit this character or story.

And Spielberg? He can't handle ambiguity or tragedy, and thus strains to produce a tidy ending. Much of this I can take: It's obvious from the start that it's foolish to expect a tale true to Dick's more open-ended style. (Spielberg himself has described Dick as an "old-fashioned 1950s futurist," which is kind of like describing Spielberg as an "old-fashioned 1970s shark enthusiast.") But there's one big problem: the trio of characters called the precogs. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that (a) as presented in the movie, they are an unsolvable tragedy, but (b) they nonetheless get "solved," in a way that defies both theme and plot.

The Bridge (Charles Vidor, 1931): This first attempt to film Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a respectable effort, but was supplanted in 1962 by Robert Enrico's perfect adaptation of the tale -- not to mention all the movies since then that have either ripped off Bierce's plot outright or fused it with the similar Carnival of Souls. If you've already read the story or seen Enrico's film, then you may want to give Vidor's short a try. But don't let it be your introduction to the tale.

(Spoiler alert. Here's the difference between "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Carnival of Souls. In the first, the protagonist doesn't realize he's dead, and that the story is actually taking place in his imagination right before he expires. In the second, the protagonist doesn't realize she's dead -- but the story's really happening nonetheless.)

posted by Jesse 1:27 PM
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