March Media Reviews 2007
by Rogan Marshall
SFRevu.com Article ISBN/ITEM#: RM032007
Date: 27 February 2007 /
It's a slender month for fantastic film: a couple of second-string big studio adaptations, one of which is unexpectedly decent, and several DVD releases of trashy vintage stuff.
Actually, it's not a slender month for fantastic film, exactly, but for your humble Observer, whose recently corrected schedule here at SFRevu shaved a week or two off the end of it. In any case I have little to talk about this time around, except how unexpectedly and how much I enjoyed the new Disney adaptation of Katherine Paterson's award-winning teen tragedy Bridge to Terabithia.Bridge to Terabithia (IMDB, Amazon US)
Directed by Gabor Csupo
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Bailee Madison
Walt Disney Pictures
Theatrical release: February 16, 2007
Bridge to Terabithia concerns middle school boy Jesse (Josh Hutcherson), whose life, both as the poor farm kid at school and as the weird artistic kid in a big family at home, has few bright spots outside of his unnoticed drawing skills, until a new girl moves in next door. Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb, who played Violet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), a transplanted city kid and artistically-inclined social misfit herself, draws out Jesse's affection and creativity; their friendship slowly ripens as they spend their afternoons renovating a decrepit treehouse in a spooky tangle of woods, which they imagine to be the fabulous kingdom of Terabithia, where various CG creatures reflect the daytime toils and terrors of their dreary middle-school lives. These woods can only be reached by means of a dubiously decrepit rope swing, using which they dangerously cross a wide deep creek every day, a rope swing the mere mention of which ought to produce cold shudders in anyone else who loved this book when they were the same age as its characters, like I did.
I enjoyed it much less when I reread Paterson's book as an adult; I found its lack of engagement in its own self-declared respect for imagination and fantasy (this loose adaptation creates its otherworldly creatures nearly from scratch, fleshing out an original text that never sidetracks to detail its titular imaginary world) kind of surprising, not to mention dreary. I also found its sucker punch message about death and grief a lot less interesting than its memorable portrait of a friendship between a boy and a girl closely approaching puberty together; I think Ms. Paterson perfectly captured the way such a relationship can cause the unbounded creative energy of childhood to blossom into something wild and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe, before the imaginations of its participants largely harden into things distinctly sexual. Middle school is a bleak and hideous place ninety-nine percent of the time, but there are moments during that perilous passage in which we are or were allowed access to a certain magic in the way we relate to others, a magic drawn from that gray area between childhood and adolescence; as an adult, I saw that the "land of Terabithia" reflects this in-betweenness just as perfectly as it illustrates how meaningful shared creativity between collaborators of opposing gender can be.
Of course, I didn't expect a Disney movie to capture any of this, nor did I expect it to allow the tragedy at the center of the story to remain firmly in its place, especially considering that this picture seems to be, essentially, a follow-up to last year's financially successful but aesthetically bankrupt Narnia movie, which Disney was content to allow to stand entirely in the shadow of Jackson's Tolkien pictures, without even asking that it restrain itself from slouching. To my pleasant surprise, Disney's Bridge to Terabithia does intelligently explore and develop all of that thematic and subtextual material; in fact, given that it's a brand name mainstream family film, this movie is remarkably good, one of those intermittent anomalies, like Mary Poppins or Return To Oz, that reaches for the high watermark Uncle Walt's animated fantasies originally established and reminds me why Disney is still a name that conjures.
Not that this is as good as those classics, but it's very sharp. A lot of its success is due to its excellent screenplay, a loose but thoughtful adaptation another professional screenwriter (myself, that is) might (if he were the type, which thankfully, I'm not) envy; extensive original material logically expands the text, sensitive and genuine emendations that imply lifelong obsession with the novel on the part of the screenwriters - since one of the two credited, David Paterson, is novelist Katherine's son, such might well be the case. This first-rate script is illuminated by restrained realistic direction, and a perfect cast, most particularly AnnaSophia Robb; she's just so unbelievably cute and charismatic, only a series of wild errors or a change of intent could prevent her career from taking off like a proverbial rocket. (That's an official prediction; the last time I was so thoroughly struck by the potential and presence of a teen actress, it was Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures.)
It's not just remarkable that Disney made this dark strange movie; it's also odd that they're marketing it as family fantasy, not just because it's such a dark sad movie, but because that's just not what it is - the fantasy element in Bridge to Terabithia is marginal, and the fantasy sequences are limited. In fact, in a strict sense, this movie isn't genre fantasy at all, as its fantastic landscape only exists in the imaginations of its characters. Oddly enough Bridge to Terabithia shares this structural rarity with two recent adult non-fantasies, the current surprise hit Pan's Labyrinth and Terry Gilliam's Tideland (which coincidentally is coming out on DVD this week). All three movies are literate explorations of the relationship between fantasy and reality; all three largely concern the way our personal fantastic landscapes allow us to escape or avoid, or dress up and prettify, the ugliness of our lives, the pressure of our mortality. Though it's the most mainstream and the least arty of the three, not to mention the least grim and grotesque (which are qualities I usually value most highly), Bridge to Terabithia is the one that worked best for me; though its fantasy sequences and special effects are the least convincing in themselves, they seem to me to be the most expressive, in illuminating the themes all three pursue.
It's a shame I have no similarly unexpected positive remarks for Ghost Rider because I'd hoped I would; the mediocre Marvel comic it's based on was an early childhood favorite of mine. Though the funny books were poorly written (during the original run anyway, the only version I'm familiar with), it's easy to see how they captured my imagination; the central character, an unkillable stunt biker who come nightfall turns into a guy with a flaming skull for a head and hunts souls for Satan, is intense, memorable and striking.
Plainly put, Ghost Rider is too damn cool, and that's the one thing this movie does get right; the digital F/X rendition of Ghost Rider himself still looks pretty damn cool. In between those striking Ghost Rider moments, which are few and thin and crowded toward the end, this movie is a lousy bore; not much more or else could be or ever will be expected of writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, a solid candidate for Worst Regularly Working American Director: his first movie, Simon Birch, was so bad that mangled novelist John Irving tried to get his name removed from its credits (a dramatic, unprecedented response from Mr. Irving, which implies that 1984's The Hotel New Hampshire was, in his expert opinion, comparatively good). Johnson followed that up with Daredevil, which we can try to forgive him for, as, regardless of the character's success in comic book form, making a really good movie about a blind lawyer who moonlights as a costumed ninja superhero wouldn't be easy for any filmmaker.
This starts out stronger than Daredevil; it's easy to sit through for a while, largely because the two lead actors, Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider and Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles, are obviously having more fun than anyone should at work. By halfway through, however, huge, endless problems have sunk the picture thoroughly; it's too slow and sloppy and well let's face it boneheaded, to entertain on any level. Here's one of those problems, a minor one really, but I just don't understand how it happened: writer/director Johnson doesn't seem to know that superheroes are supposed to have powers that are carefully and clearly defined, and that if you fail to do so, you're overturning a major genre trope. Among several such points that get mumbled over, it's still not clear by the end of this movie what exactly can be counted on to cause Cage's transformation. It's like a werewolf movie, with the best explanation you get being, that the antagonist's transformations to wolf form have something to do with the moon.
Here's the most serious problem this movie has, ironically enough, as it concerns the movie's sense of humor: Johnson covers his screenplay's lack of professionally-acceptable pace, plot, structure, character development, etcetera, by splashing goofy jokes all over everything, like reeking cologne through which the stink of sewage still seeps. One can almost hear Mr. Johnson proclaim defensively at a pre-production meeting, "You guys, it's SUPPOSED to be ridiculous! Look at all these JOKES I wrote!" Maybe the jokes are occasionally funny, but really, you have to wonder who approved a script that includes such high-toned speeches about its hero you figure the filmmaker is trying to attract Joseph Campbell's attention... then the same filmmaker, using the same script, shows us that the same hero is so obsessed with the band the Carpenters, that he won't allow anyone to talk while they're playing on the stereo? And boy does Johnson have a lot of problems with the basic elements of the storytelling process I enumerated above, to cover for...
Oh, I guess I'd better just leave the poor kid alone. Shall we move along to the DVD player, where I'm starting to fall behind because there are so many vintage titles coming out? Unfortunately none have been very exciting, lately. A particular disappointment I feel constrained to cover as a high-profile release (among science fiction fans anyway) is the usually reliable Criterion Collection's Monsters and Madmen box set, a 4-disc collection of British fifties genre pictures that presents, alongside two Gothic chillers starring Boris Karloff, two rarely seen SF movies. In The Atomic Submarine, a near future world wherein atomic submarines as passenger liners regularly use a sort of underwater "northwest passage" through the polar icecap, is threatened when the atomic subs start vanishing mysteriously; a military sub full of tense terse professionals investigates, to find out that Earth is being invaded by aliens. In First Man into Space, a reckless pilot testing high altitude aircraft eventually comes back down as an alien monster and runs amok.
Both movies are egregiously slow and dull, packing all their interesting moments into the last fifteen minutes each. It's hard to believe that Criterion is placing its proud name on this package, prettily designed though it is. Those craving campy genre trash to giggle at in the wee hours are advised to take it up with two Mexican children's horror movies of similar vintage, also released last month on DVD: Attack of the Aztec Mummy ("La Momia Azteca," 1957), and its sequel, Curse of the Aztec Mummy ("La Maldicion de la Momia Azteca," 1957). While they're so ridiculous I can't bring myself to place the titles in the header above, and/or cover them any closer and/or further, they're much, much more fun than the entire Monsters and Madmen box, Karloff or not.
Also a little more interesting is the new DVD edition of Michael Crichton's obscure box office flop Looker. Crichton wrote and directed this movie in which Albert Finney plays a plastic surgeon whose work altering models to fit exact specifications for use in cutting edge digital advertising ends up entangling him in a series of mysterious killings. As they play amateur detectives, investigating the sinister digital ad people, Finney and model Susan Dey are stalked by the killer, who's using this supercool gadget called a L.O.O.K.E.R. light gun: if you get shot in the eyes with it, you fall straight into a temporary trance state, which you experience as a dropout in time; among other applications, the device can render the user effectively "invisible".
Most people don't remember these days that novelist Crichton had a second career as a filmmaker when he was younger; he also directed the hit Westworld, and like that movie, this is wildly uneven, and gets most interesting in its treatment of cutting edge (for 1981) technology, which, at twenty-six years' distance, weds the stunningly prescient to the creatively inaccurate in a manner that only a habitual SF reader will enjoy easily. While Crichton accurately foresaw a culture of increasingly perfectionistic obsession with physical beauty, the models he cast don't really match our ridiculous latterday standards, for female bodies on public display; certainly, the young Susan Dey is not, as this screenplay suggests, "the perfect female type 18-25". That isn't to say she isn't beautiful; the movie's high point (striking and memorable both in itself, and as a purely visual statement of thesis), an overwhelming optical effects sequence in which Dey's nude body is "scanned in" by a giant light machine, is exciting both for its amazing light effects, and because Dey's nude body effortlessly matches their ante, in terms of art and entertainment. Does anyone remember who it was in Hollywood who originally referred to female nudity as the cheapest special effect?