Pix & Flix

Movie News & Reviews from Hennessey Hometown Critics.
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Monday, December 22, 2008

Golden Compass Needs Direction

How the movie, Golden Compass, could be considered controversial is beyond me. The naming the "souls" daemons was the only element that seemed jarring in this interminably boring piece of fantasy. All the pieces were there and we took off on the journey with the young protagonist, but it never seemed to become interesting.

We have a young girl of unknown parentage who is the only one capable of reading a golden compass that tells the truth of a situation. Her friends are captured and taken away to have their "souls" separated from them so they cannot become dissatisfied with the lovely life the Authorities have planned for them. Of course, she sets out to rescue them and meets fantasy characters along the way.

Rather than a tight knit comradeship, this fellowship is fluid with characters coming and going and disappearing from the plot only to reappear later. It's very tiring. The viewers have no chance to become a part of the journey and end up as spectators waiting for some kind of bonding to occur.

And--heaven help us!--there's an open ending suggesting a sequel.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Dark Knight

Finally, "The Dark Knight" has arrived to save Gotham City once again. Unfortunately, you may not recognize this Batman as the same one from the other movies. The political aspects of this movie seemed to dominate over the action in my opinion. Perhaps the pre-release hype built expectations too high, but I didn't feel there were stellar performances by anyone in this movie, including Heath Ledger (sorry). You will still want to see this movie to keep up with the storyline of Batman. Just don't expect the best Batman movie ever.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Last Picture Show--Save a Seat for Me

I came to this AFI winner late--by about 37 years--but the popcorn was still warm and the screen still flickered its silver image, and I fell in love. How could I have missed this one?

It was like stepping back into the tired, dead towns that surrounded my country life in the 50's, though my drought-deadened, passed-by places had trees and hills rather than the flat Texas terrain. The terrain of the heart was, however, identical. Everyone wanted something they couldn't have.

It's a coming of age story, but screen writer Larry McMurtry's quirky sense of human foibles and clear-eyed observation of human interaction leaves the viewer with no rosy ending--everyone is trapped and no one escapes but Sam the Lion--the Ben Johnson role of the man who is not compromised by small town life. And Sam escapes by dying.

Sam the Lion.

Ben Johnson dominates the role and the role dominates the movie. Sam owns the pool hall, the movie house, and the diner, and holds the town together by the force of his character. In the central scene of the movie, Sam takes two boys fishing at a water hole that has no fish and reminisces about his past, a trysting time with a young married woman. The key to Sam is that he loved the woman, and continued to love her, but did not make the move that would have broken her marriage. He is a man of honor in a town of desperate intimacies. He is the bedrock character that redeems the town and the movie.

Cybill Shepherd is introduced in this movie, a small town Scarlet O'Hara who gathers hearts like other girls gather flowers, and who pulls them apart and discards them. Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms are poignantly young on the screen, two best friends set at odds by Jacy, the Cybill Shepherd character. Cloris Leachman plays a pathetically needy older woman who tucks Sonny, the Timothy Bottoms teen, into her bed. And Ellen Burstyn is convincing as Lois Farrow, the wife of the "rich" man who has no love for her husband, engages in sex with Abilene,one of his men, and advises her daughter to sleep with Duane, the Jeff Bridges character, in order to get it out of her system and move on. Clu Gulager is Abilene, the cold-eyed, hard oil hand who uses sex as power without compunction.

The interesting twist is that Lois Farrow is the woman with whom Sam has been in love and who has continued to love him. Both characters understand the difference in sex and connection, and both retain their honor--though Sam is the "good" man and Lois is the "bad" woman. McMurtry never disappoints.

When Ben Johnson was offered this role, he initially turned it down, considering the nudity and swearing "dirty," but when his scenes were rewritten, eliminating the language and elevating the character, he consented. His recreation of Sam illuminates the movie.

There is a cemetery at Foraker, Oklahoma--the little town where Ben Johnson was born. It's in the tall grass prairie, surrounded by blowing grass and blue sky. There's the most unusual grave monument I've ever seen there, a monstrous, misshapen chunk of rock with pipe and barbed wire and odd pieces of ranching paraphernalia embedded in it. It is solid and true though a little worn around the edges. It will stand after all the prettier stones are beaten into smooth-faced slabs by the Oklahoma weather. Johnson's character is like that stone. True to itself. Solid.

In a town that is losing its soul, Sam the Lion stands guard.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Beowulf, the first preserved poem in Old English, should have been preserved in print just a little longer. This movie was so bad on so many different levels, English Lit teachers across the continent cannot count the ways.

The writing was uneven--from somewhat OK to farcical. The Nordic drinking songs could have come out of a Monty Python flick--the whole movie would have made a good Monty Python send-up, but it missed out on a good thing.

The director turned out cardboard stick-figures, leering, simpering, yelling, pouting, caracatures of epic personages gone California Bay. The line, "Don't touch me," can be sinister, cold, threatening, or whiney. The director goes for the whine. I really didn't like the Queen as she was interpreted and couldn't decide what image Beowulf was supposed to convey.

One expected blood and gore, at least if one has read the poem, but the wenching and the naked bodies were stilted and gratuitous. Beowulf fighting Grendal sans clothing could have been a golden moment if the director had been a little less modest, but the objects thrown into view to shield our male hero's proof of masculinity got to be so comical that the entire scene became ludicrous. For gosh sakes, show all or get the man a loin cloth, don't play maiden aunt censor!

The concept was excellent--just the kind of idea that would play well in a Senior English class--hero who goes out to build his legend at the expense of truth, then finds himself forced to step into the words and become the image he has created. There's some really fine depth there, using the events that the poem hyperbolizes to explain the poem that emerged. Unfortunately, neither the director, nor the writers, nor the actors were able to breathe life into the concept, and the movie became a lost thing trying to find its voice.

Poor movie.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Fifth Element, Yeats, and the Second Coming

Who would have thunk it?

The Fifth Element campy send-up of the save-the-world genre is closet poetics, putting on the heavy overcoat of W.B. Yeats' darkly prophetic poem, "The Second Coming." No dry, existential propaganda piece, The Fifth Element galumps its way through a world gone techno-crazy 300 years in our future and gives us Bruce Willis at his rough-hewn, tough guy with soft interior best. Ex-military cab driver, Willis picks up a fare that drops in out of the sky and turns out to be the Spiritus Mundi, the element of spirit that carries all memory and activates earth, fire, water, and air.

The race against time to save the world from the slouching beast, the dark expanding mass that proceeds toward earth to swallow up all life forever is peopled with comic-pop characters both good and evil that bring life and laughter to the sci/fi formula.

I had no intention of watching this movie, but my insightful critic friend insisted, and I am richer for it.

Watch this! It's fun.