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Sunday, Mar 25, 2007


When last we left director Terry Gilliam, he was waging a one man war against THINKFilm and their Region 1 DVD release of his latest effort, Tideland. Angry over the way in which the addled “adult fairy tale” was treated – from a purely technical standpoint – he had called for a kind of boycott. The disagreement was over that most tenuous of digital dynamics, the original theatrical aspect ratio. THINKFilm made a decision – rightly or wrongly – to change the film’s framing from a longer and thinner 2.35:1 (how it played during its short big screen run) to a wider and more ‘open’ 1.85:1. To make matters worse, only the Region 2 version from Revolver Entertainment maintains Gilliam’s original ‘vision’. All other presentations have, for some reason, perverted his compositions.


Some have questioned the filmmaker’s motives in this case, citing various conspiratorial reasons why he would purposefully decide to undermine his own film. Such sentiments were further amplified recently when Gilliam released yet another statement, suggesting that anyone who bought the Region 1 release of Tideland place black masking tape across the top and bottom of the image. He even provided some crude instructions on how to freeze-frame the opening credits and apply the image-blocking material. Instead of destroying our TV sets in such a manner however, SE&L has decided to apply science to a question of tenuous technology. With a copy of both the Revolver release from Region 2 and our trusty THINKFilm’s Region 1 title, we’ve taken screen caps of similar scenes from the film, and offer them up for comparison. Pay close attention to the black bars featured on the overseas transfer. It is the supposed telltale sign that something is amiss with this release.



Jeliza-Rose Meets Dell - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose Meets Dell - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose Dreams of Life Underwater - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose Dreams of Life Underwater - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose and Dickens Play Dress Up - Region 1 release (1.85:1 aspect ratio)



Jeliza-Rose and Dickens Play Dress Up - Region 2 release (2.35:1 aspect ratio)


From an initial look, it’s obvious that the Region 1 edition provides a minor amount of additional information at the top and bottom of the screen. In the scene where the character of Jeliza-Rose is imagining her life in an underwater world, you can clearly see more of the floating table in the top right corner and make out the base of the pillar in the front foreground. In the sequence where Dickens and our lead share a quiet, intimate moment, more of the man’s leg is visible. In the first images of Dell, all that’s obscured is the top line of the horizon. In fact, throughout the Region 2 version of the film, insignificant moments like this have been cropped. In addition, it’s quite clear that NO information is lost along the left or right edges of the frame. Some websites had complained that, in order for THINKFilm to maintain the compositions created by Gilliam within a 1.85:1 aspect ratio readjustment, the print would have to be digitally “zoomed”. Clearly that is not the case here.


As the result of such a side-by-side comparison, what stands out most of all here is that this entire OAR argument appears to be a case of much ado about principle. As we have seen, the movie doesn’t really suffer from the rather unnecessary reconfiguration. The visuals are still stunning to look at, and THINKFilm has not altered the size of the images to fit its designs. Watching either version of the title will still provide you with the aesthetic intent of the cinematography and art design. What does suffer, however, is Gilliam’s rights as an artist and a man of integrity. His film has undoubtedly been fiddled with, and it appears to be a situation out of his control. What this says about the future of the digital format, and how the creative clashes with the commercial for the sake of some higher ethical standard could be something very concerning indeed. In fact, it could be the beginning of a whole new ‘pan and scan’ style argument – the kind that more or less killed off the VHS format.


When one starts with the basic acknowledgement that Tideland is definitely NOT being offered in its original aspect ratio, two questions immediately cloud the conversation – (1) why was this done, and (2) is it really a circumstance worth committing career suicide over. While the later inquiry may seem harsh, it does hit on the reality behind the reaction by Gilliam. A filmmaker already walking around with a dark cloud of difficulty surrounding his reputation doesn’t need to add further fuel to such a raging character inferno. All throughout the commentary track on the DVD he complains about the difficulties of working independently and how he longs to be back in the mainstream moviemaking fold (at least, he admits, until he gets booted out again). He definitely doesn’t earn any employability brownie points with this kind of schaudenfreuda shenanigans. Or perhaps, it’s a case of whistling past the given graveyard. Gilliam really isn’t anyone’s fool. He clearly knows his already skittish status in Hollywood. Maybe he thinks this kind of goofball grandstanding will endear him to someone looking for an outsider desperate to crawl back in. Either way, he doesn’t lose so much as deflect attention back toward his distributor.


That’s why the first question is a far more intriguing – and lasting – consideration. It seems clear that THINKFilms felt it could marginalize this movie, removing the black bars present on the Region 2 release to “open up” the image. Little else about the DVD itself is different – both versions contain nearly the same exact supplementary features and added content. Maybe they still believe – as company’s like Blockbuster and Disney claim – that audiences prefer home theater images that fill the frame. And since they couldn’t get away with a standard 1.33:1 edition, they instead decided to make the letterboxing as likable as possible. Of course, this remains a mere theory, especially since the Academy screener they sent out in November was also formatted for the 1.85:1 image. If Gilliam is to be believed – and there is always a bit of the carnival barker about this extremely talented man – all of this was done without his knowledge. Whether he even had the right to interfere and demand his original vision be offered is another story for another day.


In the end, it appears that the Tideland scandal – or whatever lesser variation of said word you want to use – boils down to idealism vs. intent. On the pragmatic side, the OAR has been altered, and yet the effect is negligible. On the motivation surface, it seems THINKFilm’s undermined its product by presenting it in a manner that made its creator very angry. No matter how much salt one takes with Gilliam’s basic ‘boycott’ comments, you don’t want the maker of your merchandise calling for a embargo. Visually, you are not missing anything if your purchase the Region 1 DVD. But behind the scenes, away from the camera and the cast, the issue lingers. Was it just a mistake? Was it meant to be a kind of demographically demanded compromise? Was THINKFilm simply out to lunch when they made the decision to handle this already tripwire title in such a manner? The plot thickens. Sadly, we may never have an answer. Leave it to Terry Gilliam and everything he touches to always remain a pleasantly puzzling enigma. 


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Saturday, Mar 24, 2007


An elderly couple’s car has broken down along a lonely country road. With their tire flat, the man struggles to change it with little success. Suddenly, a motorcycle gang shows up, a bunch of leather-wearing weirdoes with their sleazy old ladies along for the ride. But instead of harming the aged pair, they proceed to repair their car and send them on their way. While still out for a sometimes illegal good time, this Harley-riding horde is also considerate and concerned for their fellow man. Recognizing that the freedom they seek must be provided to others as well, they only use their bad-ass image to undermine the Establishment.


When the girlfriend of a dead buddy’s brother is assaulted, the police naturally pin the crime on the Club. Turns out, it was a rogue officer that was responsible for the frame-up. With the help of the gal’s frantic father and a local weapons lover who masquerades as a nature-loving sportsman, the town hopes a little vigilante justice will drive the bikers away once and for all. Resolved to clear their name, the clan prepares for a showdown. A funeral for a fallen member provides the perfect backdrop for a standoff, and with everyone loaded for bear, it’s not long before the Northville Cemetery Massacre is in full, fatal swing.


Let’s just call this two-wheeled wonder Uneasy Rider and get it over with, shall we? Like Robert Altman directing a Roger Corman biker epic, Northville Cemetery Massacre defies description as precisely as it plays with certain cinematic classifications. Some sort of counterculture experiment by first-time filmmakers Thomas L. Dyke (his only credit) and William Dear (who would go on to helm Harry and the Hendersons and Angels in the Outfield), this combination of cinema vérité, born to be wildness, and standard cautionary storytelling is one bizarre bit of motorcycle mayhem.


Both embracing and examining the outlaw nature of the chopper champion, Dyke and Dear originally called their movie Freedom: R.I.P. , with good reason. This movie was meant to symbolize the inner corruption among so-called law-abiding citizens, including the police themselves, while striving to show the leather-wearing biker as a righteous dude with an undeserved rowdy reputation. Oh sure, there’s some bar-based fisticuffs, and the movie ends in one of the biggest bloodbaths captured on independent film, but at its heart, Northville Cemetery Massacre wants to draw a distinction between brutality based in the support of brotherhood, and cruelty as a sense of civic duty.


Buried inside all the “us vs. them” underpinnings are class-crossed lovers who just want to get high and roll in the hay. With a voice dubbed by a very young Nick Nolte, our slightly fey hero is an ex-Vietnam vet whose decision to drop out has a lot to do with the treatment of his dearly departed brother at the hands of authorities. His potential old lady is a typical small-town twinkie who’s lost in her own inner world of frilly drapes, romantic phone calls, and sexual assault at the hands of a psychotic sheriff’s deputy. Together, the duo makes an uneasy core for the average audience member. He feels like an afterthought to the whole narrative construct, a drive-in denizen who presents passion pitters with a like-minded weed head they can identify with.


As for the gal, she emanates about as much sex appeal as a socket wrench, and her moments of tasteful toplessness do very little to stir male viewing interest. It would be interesting to see a version of this film sans the lovebird life lessons, one that uses the real-life Detroit Scorpions Motorcycle Club as a foundation for a pragmatic look at how ‘70s society viewed such “gangs.” Instead, we get the gratuitous rape, the sportsman/serial killer who can’t wait to hunt that most dangerous of games, and an ending that’s both perfunctory and profound, questioning all that’s come before while offering little in the way of easy solutions.


For many a seasoned grindhouse fan, this sounds like solid sleazoid stuff, right? Well, the truth is trickier than that. While obviously aimed at an exploitation-appreciating throng, there is a strange, audience adverse approach to Dyke and Dear’s designs. Obviously unable to “direct” the real-life bikers, we get a clashing confrontation of styles and substance, amateur acting accented by professional performers trying to add to the authenticity. Many of the scenes are fascinating free-for-alls, dialogue constantly overlapping and conversations collapsing in on each other. We never really get to know the riders, and their women are pure props, positioned on the back of their Harleys for maximum hot mama effect. But this was probably not Dyke and Dear’s point. With that original title of Freedom: R.I.P. , they were clearly responding to the idea that America was becoming a nation divided along generational lines.


To the conservative clans who held the power, a group like the Scorpions represented lawlessness and defiance. That many of them were actually decent people drawn together by a sense of family that was sadly lacking in a post-‘60s society never really mattered much to those in charge. Bikers were an easy breed to pick on (the Hell’s Angels not helping matters much). By turning them into amiable anti-heroes here, the directors manage the mirror reflection on the culture that so many movies of this kind miss. For those who long for the days of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper puffing their way across a dying America, Northville Cemetery Massacre will be a big, bad, bloody mess. But for those looking for more depth than defiance in their motorcycle storyline, this movie makes a very strong, if rather surreal, point.


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Friday, Mar 23, 2007


Serafina Delle Rose is a proud woman. She has a pompous self-importance that makes her stand out among the other Italian women in her small Gulf Coast community. Her marriage to truck driver Rosario saved this destitute wretch from a miserable life in the old country, and she has faith in his love and affection. Unfortunately, Rosario has secrets, and when he dies in an accident, the truth comes pouring out. He was not only transporting produce—he was smuggling, and cheating on Serafina with a local slut.


Pregnant with a son when Rosario died, Serafina had a miscarriage, and now spends her days in a stupor, unable to connect with herself or with life. Her teenage daughter, Rosa, worries about her mother, fearing that she will fall deeper into depression. Serafina feels the need to protect her child, especially when she learns how serious Rosa’s relationship is with young sailor Jack Hunter.


Then one day, Serafina meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a vibrant, slightly silly man who instantly falls for the melancholy madam. Naturally, Serafina wants nothing to do with him. But slowly, and gradually, she learns that there is more to life than the memory of her late husband and the scandal with which he left her. Serafina must forget the past and embrace the future. With Alvaro, she has that chance.


It is said that the legendary playwright Tennessee Williams was desperate to craft a vehicle for his longtime friend and occasional muse, Italian actress Anna Magnani. Hoping to showcase this fiery, intense diva with a play equal to her supreme stature, Williams devised a simple story of an Italian widow wounded by her dead husband’s infidelity, only to be courted by a new, brash beau. It would mix elements from his previous literary successes as well as celebrate the Sicilian heritage he learned from his companion, Frank Merlo. The result was The Rose Tattoo, featuring another of Williams’s certified strong, slightly unhinged women at its center.


The stage was literally set for Magnani to take Broadway by storm. Problem was, as the time came to essay the role of Serafina Delle Rose, Magnani balked, claiming her English wasn’t good enough to effectively bring the character to life. She refused to appear, and Williams was left to recast the part. He got the far younger Maureen Stapleton for the lead, and The Rose Tattoo opened on the Great White Way in February 1951. It was another Tennessee Williams smash, going on to win four Tonys, including Best Play and acting honors for stars Stapleton and Eli Wallach (as Mangiacavallo). When the time came to make the movie, Magnani was again approached. Again, her English was less than graceful. So, via a very unique performance style, Magnani was fed her lines by a dialogue coach, and she mimicked the sounds she heard. The result was a monumental thespian turn, earning Magnani an Oscar as Best Actress.


Magnani is indeed the main reason to visit The Rose Tattoo. Those who enjoyed—or suffered through—the works of Williams while in school will recognize the arcane, poetic writer’s style all throughout this early piece. Tattoo was written after The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (two classic works of theater if ever there were any), but before Williams’s other successes like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.


Specifically crafted to emphasize—and perhaps stereotype—certain ethnic Italian ideals, as well as to showcase the fall and rise of a stubborn, selfish immigrant, Tattoo has all the trimmings one associates with a stage show. Magnani must work around all the obvious imagery, shuttling symbolism (especially the awkward title emblem) and incidental iconography within this standard slice of melodrama to make Serafina a real, vital individual. It is to her well-deserved credit that the actress takes what could have been a harsh, almost unsympathetic character and imbues it with life and substance.


Magnani is all sex and shame in The Rose Tattoo, a mixture of Old World classicism and New World haughtiness molded into a defiant, somewhat desperate woman. Though she is dowdy and depressed throughout most of the film, Magnani manages to hint at both the life and the love still locked inside Serafina. Saddled with a couple of obvious showpiece moments (her visit to the church bazaar and the confrontation with Rosario’s mistress come to mind), she still managed to cement this overwrought work with the earthy neo-realism of her amazing performances from Italian cinema. She is the heart and soul of The Rose Tattoo, and after watching her for nearly two hours, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.


As the other major element in the movie, Burt Lancaster is a bit of a problem, albeit a very minor one. He has the size and the heft to play Alvaro Mangiacavallo, and as an actor, he matches Magnani’s efforts bravura to bravado. But he makes an ethnically blank Italian. Lancaster, who was purely Anglo-Saxon, tries his hardest, and sometimes he succeeds. When not required to mutter and bumble over Williams’s culturally queer dialogue (there are times when The Rose Tattoo feels like a parody of a Mediterranean melodrama), the usually magnificent actor finds the sincerity and strength at the center of Alvaro’s persona. We are supposed to feel an instant connection between Serafina and the strapping suitor, and it’s as much a testament to Magnani’s smoldering sexuality as Lancaster’s matinee idol attractiveness that the combination works.


There is a tendency in The Rose Tattoo to see the actors as working at stylistic cross-purposes within the film. Magnani wants to keep Serafina grounded while still successfully existing within Williams’s mannered circumstances. Lancaster, on the other hand, wants to go with the hyper-realistic flow, to make his character as large as—or occasionally larger than—the life the author prescribed for him. Such a dichotomy would normally kill a film, but it works in The Rose Tattoo only because of the immense talent of both actors. Had director Daniel Mann—a Hollywood journeyman responsible for such diverse films as Come Back, Little Sheba, Butterfield 8, and Willard (1971)—utilized someone like Marcello Mastroianni or Anthony Quinn, the film may have been more culturally sound. But Lancaster brings something to Tattoo that both adds and subtracts from the experience.


For a modern moviegoing audience, the real enemy here is the stagy, almost claustrophobic nature of the film. Mann keeps the majority of the action inside the cramped, closed-off Delle Rose home with its shuttered windows and low ceilings. While all the ominous trappings are supposed to suggest the cloud of grief overwhelming Serafina, one has to wonder how much of her dilemma comes from the death of her husband, and what percentage derives from a lack of sunlight and fresh air. There has been no real attempt to “open up” the play, to make it less like a single setting circumstance. Certainly, the scenes at the festival, and Serafina/Alvaro’s trip into town are an excuse to introduce the real world into the insular domain of the Delle Rose’s, but the overall impression given off by the film is of a distinct, compact world (which may be what both Mann and Williams wanted).


Equally uncomfortable is the standard subplot silliness of Serafina’s teenage daughter, Rosa. All the clichéd checkpoints are here: a child embarrassed by her mother’s raging ethnicity, the over-attached puppy love for a milquetoast man (the sailor, Jack), and a near-constant sense of public and private adolescent angst. Marisa Pavan is given the difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to find a compassionate center to what is basically a living, breathing reminder of Serafina’s shame. While such a blatant object—either human or otherwise—may work on stage, it’s far too obvious a device on film. Though it is occasionally hampered by such histrionics, The Rose Tattoo is still a solid drama with excellent performances piercing through the poppycock.


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Thursday, Mar 22, 2007


It’s finally here – no, not a decent selection of first run films on your favorite premium movie channels. In this case, were talking about the arrival of Apple TV, the computer giant’s IPod-ish answer to the TiVo – or something like that. Anyway, as the hype blurs all reality on the system’s necessity and effectiveness, you can use this week’s offerings as a guide to whether you’d require something so sophisticated and/or superfluous. Not that there’s much to choose from. Of the main movie’s offered, we are treated to a noted celebrity skank’s continuing career nosedive, a decent indie drama, and a thug-lite character study featuring a famed musical phenomenon.  Truth be told, you’d be better off programming your overpriced digital VCR to focus on the outsider networks this week. The big four are mired in a mid-season malaise that is clearly affecting the choices beginning 24 March – even the SE&L suggestion:


Premiere Pick
16 Blocks


Richard Donner, whose prolific profile recently increased with the release of his original cut of Superman2, returns to the action category, eight years after the last Lethal Weapon film, and the results are uneven but effective. Bruce Willis is an aging cop set to deliver a key witness (Mos Def) to court. The title indicates the distance he must traverse. Naturally, shadow forces want to silence the stoolie, and our hero ends up caught in a crossfire of competing interest. Once the truth is uncovered, the case becomes even harder for our loyal policeman. Released in March 2006 to little fanfare and mediocre studio support, critics actually enjoyed this return to form for the one time creator of box office blockbusters. And since it already premiered on Cinemax back in January, it’s now available in a manner that may allow fans a chance to discover this genre gem. (24 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Just My Luck


There are only two words you need to know about this release, two small soundbites that will guide your love or hate of this ridiculous romantic comedy – Lindsay Lohan. If the underpants (and moral) –less one floats your entertainment boat, by all means, check it out. But if you prefer your stars to be talented, not tacky, you may wish to skip this lackluster, gimmick-ridden love story. (24 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Friends with Money


This 2006 indie drama, centering on a group of women who share similar problems with family and finance, was roundly praised for its uncompromising performances (especially that of Fargo Oscar Winner Frances McDormand). But after the awards season sheen dissipated, many found the actual narrative cloudy and cloying. Now is your opportunity to decide for yourself. (24 March, Starz, 9PM EST)


Get Rich or Die Tryin’


Trying to tap into the lucrative hip hop market, Hollywood’s trend of taking famous rappers (Eminem) and placing them in loosely autobiographical dramas (8 Mile) may have come to an end with this underachieving effort. 50 Cent creates a magnetic onscreen presence, but director Jim Sheridan can’t find a way to freshen up the film’s turgid thug life narrative. The results are both routine and decidedly dull. (24 March, Showtime, 10PM EST)

Indie Pick
Stoned


It remains a stellar subject for a motion picture – the meteoric rise, and unexplained death, of the Rolling Stones’ artistic soul, guitarist Brian Jones. While many believe his passing was the work of drugs and their accompanying downward spiral, there are a few who believe that murder was the case made against the enigmatic musician. There are even those who would go so far as to push for a conspiracy and cover-up. While many have faulted this film for being one dimensional, vague, and less than conclusive, most agree that Leo Gregory’s performance as the title character is well worth paying attention to. Someday, we may have all the answers. Until then, we have this uneven entertainment to keep the tale – and the very talented and tormented man at the center of it – very much alive. (29 March, Sundance, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Glengarry, Glen Ross


There is only one word to describe this amazing movie – brilliant! Or maybe, masterpiece! Whichever you choose, there is no denying the power inherent in the performances brought to David Mamet’s award winning play. Thanks to James Foley’s no nonsense direction, and the verbal fireworks contained within the script, you have the recipe for acting excellence. And the stellar cast does not disappoint. (25 March, IFC, 10:50PM EST)

Velvet Goldmine


Johnathan Rhys Meyers is David Bowie – sort of. Ewan “Obi-Wan” McGregor is a punked out Iggy Pop – almost. Together they take center stage in Todd Haynes homage to the glam rock rebellion that linked the Beatles to the Sex Pistols as Britain’s meaningful musical trend. With equally effective turns by Eddie Izzard, Toni Collette and Christian Bale, this overlooked gem deserves a second chance. As with most of Haynes work, there is more to this decent into debauchery than meets the eye. (26 March, IFC, 10:35PM EST)

Vital


As part of their tribute to the (now dying) fad of J-Horror, Sundance summons up this uneven effort from the original Japanese cyberpunk, director Shinya “Tetsuro; The Iron Man” Tsukamoto. While all agree this is not one of his finest works, this uneasy tale of an accident victim who attends classes in dissection as a way of dealing with the death of his girlfriend has its horrifying moments. (25 March, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Where the Buffalo Roam


Long before Johnny Depp perfected the fictional onscreen persona of famed author Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Murray took a stab at one Raoul Duke – and almost got it right. This intriguing abstract bio pic, complete with a monstrous turn by Peter Boyle as the lawyer/lothario Oscar Z. Acosta (here, renamed Carl Lazlo for legal reasons) expands beyond the whole ‘fear and loathing’ ideal to deal with Thompson’s battles with Rolling Stone and his infamous coverage of the Super Bowl. Some may prefer the way Depp, and Benicio Del Toro took on the depraved, doped up pair, but there is something intuitively real about the way in which Murray manipulates the material to make this larger than life figure seem very real. Until the definitive Thompson movie appears, we will have to settle for this slightly surreal exercise in explanation. (28 March, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Night of the Living Dead/The Crazies


Repeating installments from months past, TCM’s Underground (which may or may not feature host Rob Zombie, depending on if this is a REAL rerun or not) looks back at the legendary first films of zombie titan George Romero. In this case, we have his genre defining cannibal corpse epic, as well as a variation on the theme involving a town filled with chemically created madmen. Both blow away modern interpretations of the genre thanks to this director’s unflattering, cinema verite style. (23 March, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Blind Beast


For 1969, this was some incredibly sick stuff. Blind sculptor Michio, with the help of his conniving mother, kidnap a young woman so that sonny boy can “study” her for his sculptures. Talk about your Psycho sidetracking. Of course, things turn kinky, then craven, as lust translates into longing, and then something quite lethal. An inspirational effort in its native Japan, we can now sample its strangeness, thanks to Showtime’s specialist channel.(27 March, Showtime Beyond, 10PM EST)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Sergio Leone steps up and delivers yet another stellar spaghetti take on the overwrought Western genre, this time focusing on three gunmen out to find a hidden treasure. With a signature score from none other than Ennio Morricone, and as much stylized cinematography as a Frank Miller adaptation, it’s the kind of mindblower that just gets better with age. Removed from the John Wayne jingoism of the cinematic category, what we end up with is a landmark of moviemaking machismo. (28 March, Retroplex, 8PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007


With the anemic Eragon hitting DVD the week of 20 March, perhaps it’s time to ponder the problem with dragons. Not as mythic beasts, mind you. No, few fictional entities are as intrinsically interesting as these winged lizards. From their symbolic battle with St. George to the numerous kid vid variations of same, the fire-breathing baddie should be a sensationally cinematic being. After all, it can fly, it has all the inherent horror of a dangerous dinosaur and – as long as you believe what fantasy fiction has to offer – can help guide the naïve and unappreciated toward the coming of age they’re so desperately in need of. But when 2002’s Reign of Fire is the best your beast can get, it’s time to give the whole folklore a much needed kick in the creativity.


Actually, that’s not wholly correct. Peter Jackson gave the terrifying creatures a decent cinematic shout out when he melded them seamlessly into his epic Lord of the Rings battles, and there are many who still have a warm place in their heart for Disney’s 1981 effort Dragonslayer. Heck, even Harry Potter did a bang up job of bringing the fiend to the forefront. But thanks to fabulous disasters such as Dragonheart, Willow, and the notorious role-playing rot of Dungeons and Dragons, the rampaging reptile from tales of yore has become a snooze-inducing varmint that can’t quite decide if it’s cute, cuddly, sensible or just stupid.


Thanks to Christopher Paolini’s pathetic Inheritance Trilogy, of which Eragon is the first installment, dragons have once again found themselves on the short end of the entertainment stick. In this case, our farmboy hero becomes one of his land’s legendary ‘riders’, with an oversized Jiminy Cricket – a blue beast named Saphira – guiding him through the ins and outs of such a status. Naturally, there is a despotic king that requires overthrowing, an Alex Guinness like sage ready to test our hero’s unmolded mantle, a wispy young elf girl that needs saving, and a rebellious horde desperate for a sign that there is some salvation from their present state of persecution. Along with a sinister sorcerer who resembles a granny gone gangrenous, Eragon stinks like a pile of oversized bat guano.


But it’s the depiction of dragons in this dreck that really seals the deal. Paolini develops his own arcane mythology here, tying beast to rider in a weird, almost symbiotic way. If you kill a dragon, the human partner can live on. Kill the man, and the beast dies as well. This means that dragons, at least in this world, are not independent entities, capable of their own mindless mayhem. Instead, they are anthropomorphic weaponry, their potential majesty reduced to nothing more than a tank with wings. In addition, the narrative requires that the creature speak. Using the lamest of creative conceits – telepathy – the dragon is given a calm, cooing voice (provided by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) and, as stated before, dishes out common sense platitudes in an attempt to direct her dimwitted charge.


Gone are the ferocious sequences of unbridled carnage. Missing are the moments when man succumbs to the beast’s destructive talons of hate. In their place is the machismo version of a unicorn, a touchy feely monster with a head full of Confucius-like proverbs. It’s the same thing that happened with the Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery cock-up Dragonheart. Again, another English speaking (or make that Scottish broguing) lizard is required to guide a disillusioned knight toward a final battle against – you guessed it – a demented and dictatorial king. Seems that whenever a ruler runs ramshackle over a meandering Middle Earth backdrop, geckos with the carriage of a DC-10 have to show up to set things right. Sadly, they also seem to require the less than helpful aid of a human sidekick to complete the deal.


As a one time wonder inducing work of fiction, dragons have never really gotten the cinematic celebration they deserve. Go back as far as Fritz Lang’s Das Nibelungen, when special effects were in their infancy and even then, our scaly scallywags don’t get the merit they warrant. In the sequence where the heroic Siegfried battles said legendary lizard, the mechanized monster looks more silly than sinister. Sure, it’s a marvel of turn of the century engineering, but as a symbol of a Medieval mayhem maker, it looks like a theme park attraction about to throw a rod. Something similar happens in Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword. There, our creature is merely a mediocre flame thrower stuffed inside a pile of moldy carpet. It’s sad but true – point to any example of the dragon in the last 100 years of motion picture history and you’ll find something that’s either stunted by stop motion, mocked by miniaturization, or inert thanks to a lack of ingenuity.


For some reason, dinos had the same dilemma. All throughout their theatrical track record, they remained lumbering and ludicrous. Either actual chameleons were cast in their roles, large plastic fins crazy-glued onto their backs for that perfect prehistoric look, or Ray Harryhausen and artists of his ilk painstakingly recreated the Mesozoic era with clay, metal armature, and months working on a scaled down set. But all that changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, what seemed old fashioned and flat was given a new computerized luster. Though revisionist history can and will carp about the film’s flaws all it wants, no one can deny the wonder inspired by the T-Rex attack, or the superb suspense of the Raptor/kitchen rampage. Whatever its final merits, Steven Spielberg and his buddies over at ILM reconfigured the archaic creature into a new, 20th century star.


What the dragon needs is some of Mr. ET‘s filmic refashioning – and making them noble creatures with the tempting voices of a sexy superstar doesn’t count. No, the ideal story needs to be melded to the perfect director, all of it filtered through a desire for invention and creative possibilities. As noted before, the closest anyone has come is Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire. Beginning with a brilliant premise – the mistaken discovery of ancient dragon eggs in London leads, very quickly, to a worldwide epidemic of the flying killing machines – it was an effort ultimately undermined by budgetary and demographic concerns. Still, the narrative follow through was intriguing, with the wasteland elements of the post-apocalyptic world nicely contrasted with the survivors’ desire for an end to the mayhem. But again, the beast takes a backseat to Hollywood heavyweights (Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey) running around in expertly decimated art designed backdrops.


Certainly there are examples when, featured in a minor or meaningless role, the dragon has persevered. But the cruel fact remains that, as potential stars of their own fantasy or fright film franchise, the scourge of every knight and squire from Camelot to the land of Ilya Muromets, our wannabe fear factor is a dud. And thanks to pathetic examples of moviemaking mediocrity like Eragon, it’s a fair bet that it will remain a wallflower in the world of creature features. How this can happen, with all that a fire-breathing terror with the ability to soar high above the populace has to offer, is a mystery that a wizard may not be able to solve. It is obvious that, by and large, writers and directors haven’t.


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