The Valiant Virgin — the reviews are up!

My reviews of Valiant and The 40-Year-Old Virgin are now up at CT Movies. The latter review in particular gets a bit more personal than my reviews usually do, but given the subject matter, and given that I got personal in my interview in The Big V and in my articles on 40 Days and 40 Nights, etc., it seemed warranted.

The other Narnia screenwriters

A few weeks ago, I posted a few brief thoughts on the films written by Ann Peacock, who also wrote the first draft of the upcoming film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the time, I said that, based on her other films, I was glad that the script had been given to other writers after her — namely, to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. But these two writers have only one other film to their names so far — namely The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004) — and at the time, I had not yet seen it.

But now I have. And it’s probably as good as a dramatization of the life of Sellers could hope to be, even if the film’s interpretation of certain episodes from Sellers’ life is open to question.

For example, in this film, Sellers fakes his sprained leg on the set of Dr. Strangelove (1964) in order to get out of playing the Slim Pickens character, but in a making-of feature on the Dr. Strangelove DVD, an actor says he Sellers actually fell and broke his leg on the set itself; I am not enough of a Strangelove scholar to say with confidence whose story is closest to the truth, but at the moment I lean towards the story told by the actor.

The gimmick of having Sellers play the various people in his life is a handy way to encapsulate his self-centredness, his talent for mimickry, and his inability to look directly at his own self. Markus and McFeely have a writers’ commentary track all to themselves, and they note how ironic it was that Sellers was both self-centred yet utterly incapable of introspection; rather than try to understand himself, he relied all too much on the advice of others, including his domineering mother, his tolerant ex-wife, and a medium who was apparently taking his cue from the studios when he claimed to be receiving messages from the spirit world.

I think the filmmakers may have been a little too in love with Dr. Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick when they made this film — there are nods to The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), even though Sellers did not work on those films; and unless I blinked, there are no nods to Lolita (1962), which is one of the two Kubrick films Sellers did work on. Then again, the scenes that make these references do work, so I shan’t complain.

But when all is said and done, I have to say I prefer documentaries like The Peter Sellers Story — As He Filmed It (2002; my comments) to dramatizations like this one, however well-made.

Two further comments on the writers’ commentary. One, it is interesting to hear them admit that some of the film’s funniest lines were improvised by Geoffrey Rush, and in one case, one of the writers finally “gets” the funny line in question while the commentary is being recorded! Two, since this was their first produced screenplay, they remark that there were a number of things that got repeated in their script which were cut down in the actual film; they make the interesting point that repetition works and is even necessary on the page, but on the screen, it is not so necessary, and at times it may even be a hindrance.

Disney DVDs galore — update!

It has been so long since I saw Don Bluth’s The Small One (1978), I cannot remember if it was one of the good cartoons that came out between Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and the studio’s “renaissance” in the late 1980s, or if it was one of the studio’s more embarrassing ventures. But no matter; because it is one of the few Disney cartoons that deals with biblical material, I think I shall have to pick up Classic Holiday Stories, the ninth disc in the “Classic Cartoon Favorites” series, which comes out Sept 27.

FWIW, Bluth — who left Disney and went on to direct The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988; my comments), Anastasia (1997; my review) and Titan A.E. (2000), among others — is a former Mormon missionary, so his work on The Small One was almost certainly motivated by his beliefs. And as I recall, there is nothing in the film that should raise any hackles for more orthodox Christian viewers.

The disc also includes Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952) and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), both of which are already available on the limited-edition set Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Volume Two.

Beyond Francis Schaeffer …

I had forgotten all about Francis Schaeffer’s four-part “grid” — good art with a good message, good art with a bad message, bad art with a good message, bad art with a bad message — until I came across this post at Andy Whitman’s blog. He makes some very good points about the limitations of Schaeffer’s approach (does all art have a “message”? is it really all that easy to distinguish “good” art from “bad” art? etc.) and how to move beyond that approach.

Though I would offer at least a token defense of understanding art in its historical contexts — it’s more than just “dry academics”! Indeed, if one of the purposes of art is to help us become more other-centred, then it behooves us to at least try to figure out how an artist’s attempt to communicate something was received in a time and place that may have been different from our own.

Thermopylae comes to Canada

The Hollywood Reporter says Gerard Butler — the star of Dear Frankie (my review), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and the upcoming Beowulf & Grendel — will play Spartan King Leonidas I in 300, a new film about the Battle of Thermopylae. Those expecting a standard sword-and-sandals ancient-battle epic may be in for a bit of a shock, though.

The film is being co-written and directed by Zack Snyder, whose only other feature film to date is last year’s remake of Dawn of the Dead; and it will be based not directly on history, but on a comic by Frank Miller, whose work on the Daredevil and Batman comics inspired the recent films based on those characters, and whose pulpy, hard-boiled Sin City stories were recently made into a movie directed by Robert Rodriguez (my review).

And, just as Rodriguez went out of his way to capture the look and feel of Miller’s art, the Reporter says Snyder and the studio plan “to make the film in the style of the comic . . . Heavy use of greenscreen and virtual sets is being mapped out but with an eye toward maintaining the look of the graphic novel.”

Could be good, could be bad. I haven’t read this particular comic of Miller’s yet, so I cannot comment on his narrative treatment of the subject matter or the look that these filmmakers are trying to capture. On the one hand, I suspect I would probably prefer something more explicitly historical and authentic; but on the other hand, I enjoy the explicit theatricality of films like The Ten Commandments (1956), so what’s another form of stylization. The ancient-epic genre has been growing pretty stale of late, so who knows, this may be just the kick in the pants it needs.

Shooting begins in Montreal, of all places, in October.

AUG 18 UPDATE: Or maybe shooting begins in Vancouver. So says Lynne McNamara in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun.

AUG 21 UPDATE: Nope, looks like it will be shot in Montreal after all. McNamara admitted she got it wrong yesterday.

Fellini’s coming to Vancouver

Heads up, Vancouverites — the Italian film history education continues! Two months ago, the Pacific Cinematheque hosted an extensive Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective. Next month, it will host a retrospective dedicated to Federico Fellini, who collaborated with Pasolini on the scripts for Nights of Cabiria (1957; my comments) and, reportedly, La Dolce Vita (1960). While I have seen those two films, and part of (1963), I have not yet seen any of Fellini’s other films, so I imagine I’ll be parking my butt at the Cinematheque for much of next month. Could be tricky, though, what with all those film-festival preview screenings during the day, plus whatever other assignments I might have.

Canadian box-office stats — August 14

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

L’Horloge Biologique — CDN $954,672 — N.AM $954,672 — 100%
Broken Flowers — CDN $369,093 — N.AM $2,847,000 — 12.9%
Wedding Crashers — CDN $19,162,025 — N.AM $164,051,000 — 11.7%

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo — CDN $889,319 — N.AM $9,400,000 — 9.5%
The Dukes of Hazzard — CDN $5,065,793 — N.AM $57,478,000 — 8.8%

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — CDN $13,888,458 — N.AM $183,788,000 — 7.6%
The Skeleton Key — CDN $1,114,744 — N.AM $15,795,000 — 7.1%
Four Brothers — CDN $1,392,811 — N.AM $20,700,000 — 6.7%
Sky High — CDN $2,851,413 — N.AM $43,303,000 — 6.6%
Must Love Dogs — CDN $2,099,244 — N.AM $34,615,000 — 6.1%

A couple of discrepancies: Broken Flowers and L’Horloge Biologique were #8 and #9 on the Canadian chart, respectively (the former film was #14 in North America as a whole, and the latter film hasn’t turned up on the North American chart at all, yet), while March of the Penguins and The Great Raid were #7 and #10 on the North American chart, respectively.

Where would-be Timothys fear to tread …

The first time I ever heard of Timothy Treadwell was when I read the opening paragraphs of Mark Steyn’s review of the Disney movie Brother Bear (2003):

I was interested to see that among the technical advisors who chipped in their two bits’ worth on Brother Bear to ensure the accurate depiction of the grizzlies was Timothy Treadwell, the self-described eco-warrior from Malibu who became famous for his campaign “to promote getting close to bears to show they were not dangerous”. He did this by sidling up to them and singing “I love you” in a high-pitched voice. Brother Bear is certainly true to the Treadwell view of the brown bears, though instead of his sing-songy professions of lurve Disney commissioned Phil Collins, who turned in a generic score in the obligatory World Muzak style — West African percussion, Orff-cuts of choral ululating, heavy lyrical metaphors in the paint-with-all-the-colours-of-your-wind vein, just the sort of stuff your average Inuit was listening to before whitey showed up and offered to trade the land for a couple of Bert Kaempfert LPs.

Timothy Treadwell would have appreciated the story. Just as Kenai woke up to find himself trapped inside a bear, so did Mr Treadwell find himself trapped inside a bear — though in his case he was just passing through. In September, a pilot arrived at the great bear expert’s camp near Kaflia Bay in Alaska to fly him out and instead found the bits of him and his girlfriend that hadn’t yet been eaten buried in a bear’s food cache. “He would say it’s the culmination of his life’s work,” said Jewel Palovak, a colleague of Treadwell’s. “He died doing what he lived for.” He always said he wanted to end up in “bear scat”, which seems a very odd thing for a fellow who claims to love bears to say. The one thing you can rely on if you let the bear eat you is that you’re signing his death warrant: once a bear’s known to have a taste for human flesh, Fish and Game officials seek him out and kill him, as happened to the one Mr Treadwell ended up in.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter at the fate of the eco-warrior, but it does make Brother Bear somewhat harder to swallow than its technical advisor evidently was. (The central character is named after Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, where Treadwell did some of his communing.) I live among black bears, not brown ones, and, for example, while struggling to write my review of Bruce Almighty a few months back, I was entertained by a mother and cub rambling round my kids’ swing set just outside the window. Cute. But I wouldn’t start singing to them.

One of the paradoxes of films like Brother Bear is that the more earnestly they claim to respect animals the more pathetically they anthropomorphise them. Next to eco-Disney, Looney Tunes is profoundly respectful: Sylvester wants to eat Tweety, Wile E Coyote wants to eat Road Runner. To be sure, Sylvester dresses up as a bellhop to take Tweety’s cage down to the lobby, and Wile E Coyote orders elaborate contraptions from the Acme company, but that’s just a little humourous accessorizing of the core truth — that, for half a century, that puddy tat’s main interest in the bird has been to grab him and kill him.

By contrast, consider the moment when Kenai, having been transformed into a bear, meets a cuddly little cub, and they hook up together — as in Shrek, Ice Age and all the other animal-buddy road movies. In reality, if a male bear came across a motherless cub, he’d eat him. In some vague half-conscious way, Brother Bear understands that its ursine ur-text is a crock. That’s why, before Kenai turns into a bear, the bears we see are, broadly speaking, bear-like. But, when Kenai joins their ranks, he wakes up looking like Yogi and every bear from thereon in comes straight from Central Cartoon Casting.

Steyn’s caustic “heart of stone” comment aside, I quote this here partly because, as I mentioned a few months ago in my post on Madagascar, I’ve been following the portrayal of carnivores and their prey in cartoons for the past few years. Are other animals friends, or food? And how does one make the distinction?

But I also quote this here because the Associated Press has a story up now on the new Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man:

A new documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who gained notoriety for living and dying among Alaska’s grizzly bears, has many worried that the compelling close-up footage of the animals could inspire other misguided adventure-seekers to emulate him.

“Grizzly Man,” directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, relies on scenes from more than 100 hours of raw footage shot by Treadwell while he lived among the bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula.

Treadwell, 46, and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, 37, both of Malibu, Calif., were mauled and eaten in October 2003 by a bear at their campsite, which lay at the confluence of several heavily used bear trails.

Many of the film’s scenes show Treadwell chatting amiably at the camera while sitting just feet from thousand-pound grizzlies, or gingerly touching their noses with his fingers.

“Everything Timothy was doing was wrong, as far as behaving responsibly around wildlife,” said Mike Lapinski, who wrote “Death in the Grizzly Maze,” one of the several books that have been written about Treadwell since his death.

Lapinski called the film “beautiful,” but said he wishes Herzog had put more emphasis on the dangers of approaching grizzlies.

Missy Epping, wilderness district ranger at Katmai, has not seen the final version of the film, but said she was disappointed when she viewed the raw footage shot by Treadwell, particularly the sequences of him touching the bears.

“These are wild animals and we have to remember that,” Epping said. “They are not teddy bears.”

Epping and others confirmed that, since Treadwell’s death, at least a few copycats hoping to gain the same celebrity status as the amateur naturalist have been following bears somewhere on Katmai’s 5 million acres.

And so on. Given that Herzog is famous for pursuing subjects with a romanticism that borders on insanity — in La Soufrière (1977), for example, he took a few cameramen to a volcanic island to interview the one person there who did not evacuate when the authorities thought the mountain might blow — I can totally understand why he, at least, would be drawn to this subject.

Incidentally, one semi-related film that I really like is Peter Lynch’s Project Grizzly (1996), a hilarious documentary about Troy Hurtubise, a Canadian who became obsessed with getting close to grizzly bears, and thus began to develop the most bear-proof protective suit imaginable. How bear-proof is the suit? Well, he has people beat it with baseball bats, shoot it with rifles, and knock it over with falling logs — sometimes with him standing inside it. The problem is, it’s virtually impossible to move in the suit. And the irony is, by going to such extreme lengths to guarantee his safety, he can never have the intimacy, for lack of a better word, that he seems to want to have with the grizzlies.

Feel free to cue Daniel Amos’s ‘Strange Animals‘ here …

But I thought Lucas was a Buddhist Methodist …


An e-pal recently pointed me to this site, which contains a series of screen captures from a bootleg copy of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith in which Lucas’s already-stiff dialogue has been translated into Chinese and then back into English. Funny!

That’s my name at Amazon.com!

Just a bit of horn-tooting here. Three months ago, I posted a JPEG of the cover of Scandalizing Jesus?, an upcoming book on The Last Temptation of Christ that includes an essay by yours truly. Since the editor sent me that image, I have periodically checked the book’s page at Amazon.com to see if it has been posted there yet — and today, I discovered that it finally has. Ah, joy.