Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

March 28, 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:41 am

There are classic ghost story/horror films which start off with just a hint of unease, then gradually build upon subtle menace to full-fledged terror. “The Woman in Black” does this – but first it punches you right in the guts to get you in the mood.

“The Woman in Black,” based on the 1983 novle by Susan Hill, is Daniel Radcliffe’s first feature film after the conclusion of the “Harry Potter” series, and also stars fellow Hogwarts alumnus Ciaran Hinds.

Harry Potter made Radcliffe a very, very rich young man, and put him in the enviable position for an actor of being able to pursue art for arts sake for the rest of his life.

He does not disappoint.

Judging from this film, and the 2007 made for TV movie “My Boy Jack,” Radcliffe has taken his craft very seriously. Here he takes on a role where there are
long extended scenes with no dialog and he has to act with his face and body language.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a soliciter in Edwardian England, who is sent by his firm to settle the estate of a reclusive woman who has just died. The estate is Eel Marsh House, a rambling wreck of a place on an island in a salt marsh which is cut off from the coast when the tide is high.

Kipps’ backstory is revealed in flashbacks and instruction from his boss. Kipps is falling apart personally and professionally after his wife died giving birth to his now four-year-old son, and this assignment is a make-or-break for him.

The backstory of Eel Marsh House and the nearby village is the place is haunted by the aparition of a woman in black, whose appearance always means children are going to die.

The setting couldn’t be more appropriate, the sky is nearly always overcast and the area either fog-bound or rain-drenched. The London scenes, the house, the village, the train, and the train station have a remarkable authenticity. Any prop department can knock together a period piece set, but how did they get the look of the scarred wooden windowsill on the train for a scene of a few seconds length?

There is nothing original in the plot, which is entirely appropriate. There are no original ghost stories, just variations on a theme that is very old.

Herein there is madness, old scandal, surly suspicious villagers, suicide, unburied dead, possession, a vengeful ghost, and a vulnerable adult. Shades of “The Haunting” via “The Ring.”

There are things that move by themselves, windup toys that start to play themselves, doors that won’t open until they’re good and ready to open, bumps in the night, and corpse-like faces and figures illuminated by flashes of lighting.

I know, I know, “Been there, seen that.”

Just take my word for it, if this genre is your cup of tea – see it. I really can’t tell you a lot about the plot and the events without spoilers. But I can tell you this is the first movie in a long time that made me jump in my seat, not once but several times, and literally sent chills down my spine.
(That is by the way, is why it’s a great date movie – but I’m still glad I saw a matinee and came out of the theater into the bright sunlight.)

If I have any criticism it’s that the richest guy in the county Sam Daily (Hinds,) is skeptical beyond reason, given all that’s happened. The convention is to have the Skeptic bow to the overwhelming weight of evidence slowly and reluctantly. Sam just caves in to belief in the supernatural nature of the events too easily.

Like I said, see it. Kids? I don’t know. My 10-year-old is into giant shark and monster movies at present, but this is a whole ‘nother thing. I don’t know how he’d deal with supernatural horror/ghost stories. Use your judgment.

March 19, 2012

Review: John Carter

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:45 am

Note: This appeared slightly edited in the TV Guide of The Marshall Independent. (I don’t get to say “you moron!” in print.)

As a youthful fan of Edgar Rice Burroungs wonderful Mars books, I, like every other would-be pathan (soldier of fortune) of Barsoom (Mars) awaited the opening of “John Carter” with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread.

Well dread not. In spite of a lot of bad reviews, it’s not terrible.

On the other hand, it’s not terribly good either.

It’s not doing very well at the box office. “John Carter” cost around $350 million to make, and made a paltry $30 million its opening weekend.

We fans had to wait for the CGI technology to film the stories of Capt. John Carter of Virginia, formerly of the Confederate States Army cavalry. His
better-known literary sibling Tarzan, who also first appeared in 1912 (!!!) could be filmed on a studio tricked up to look like a jungle, with lots of African-American extras. (Or if there was even a hint of physical attraction between characters, Hispanic extras standing in for hitherto-unknown light-skinned African tribes.)

But Capt. Carter’s best friend is a nine-foot-tall four-armed green giant. He rides eight-legged thoats, and has a pet that’s kind of a cross between a dog and a frog, but is nonetheles adorable.

So now they’ve got the tech. And they had for a director Andrew Stanton, who previously directed “Finding Nemo,” and “Wall-E,” produced “Monsters Inc.” and “Up,” and wrote the “Toy Story” trilogy.

So what went wrong?

Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross said, “Moviemaking does not come without risk. It’s still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success.”

Well there may not be a surefire formula for a hit, BUT YOU COULD TRY STICKING TO THE STORY YOU MORON!

Firstly, John Carter is immortal, ageless, and does not remember a childhood. He is nonetheless some kind of uncle to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a Virginian.

He is also the (self-confessed) best swordsman of two worlds.

Native Virginians to this day have distinct accents, manners, and mannerisms. Believe me, my mother is a Virginian.

Taylor Kitsch is young, and it shows. He can’t do a Virginia accent, or couldn’t be bothered, and his fight scenes are CGI enhanced “wire-Fu” rather than fencing.

Lynn Collins however does look rather like what I imagined what Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium to be. They’ve made her a professor and given her skills with a sword to satisfy modern conventions of female heroism, but the Princess of Mars was always courageous and clever.

Still I confess I miss the old corny dialog, “Fly Sola! Dejah Thoris stays to die with the man she loves!”

In the original trilogy of what eventually became a series of 11 books, the Therns were one of the ancient races of Mars (which aside from the dominant red race included black, white, and yellow humanoids) who were running a very long religious con. For some reason Disney chose to recast them as shape-shifting aliens from somewhere outside the solar system, who are exploiting both Earth and Mars for their own nefarious designs.

To be said for the film, visually it’s Barsoom brought to life. The cities, fliers, the green men and strange animals do not disappoint. My son thought it was great, so perhaps this will be his gateway into Burroughs’ Barsoom.

Burroughs was, to paraphrase George Orwell about Rudyard Kipling, a writer of good bad literature. His incredible imagination and ability to paint vivid word pictures made you suspend disbelief in scientific absurdities like flying boats kept aloft by tanks filled with mysterious “rays.” You never stop to wonder why warriors who have pistols and rifles that can fire “radium bullets” to the horizon prefer to fight with swords. You aren’t even taken aback by earthmen who mate with beautiful women who look human but lay eggs. You just enjoy.

Starting in 1918 with “Tarzan of the Apes,” Burroughs’ adventures set in the jungles of Africa, on Mars, Venus, inside the hollow Earth, and in hidden lands in Antarctica have been filmed many times, but seldom if ever with scripts that stick to the stories.

Do you suppose that would be too much to ask?

March 9, 2012

Review: Act of Valor

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:16 am

Note: This is my weekly review for The Marshall Independent TV Guide.

“The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.”
Lt. Gen. Sir William Francis Butler (1838-1910)

Act of Valor is going to make movie history and is already generating a huge amount of critical controversy.

The film about Navy SEALs on a mission to stop a terrorist threat was made with the full cooperation of the Navy, and featured actual SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen in the major roles, and a lot of really cool gear. This of course raises questions of how beholden the directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh were to the Navy for the content.

The Navy did in fact exercise a right of final cut over the film for security purposes, and kept some footage for training purposes. Though that itself speaks to the realism of the film.

For another, it was an Indy film with a production budget estimated at $15 to $18 million. Though this begs the question of whether the use of the Navy’s expensive equipment on training exercises should be counted as a subsidy.

Compare that to $250 million for “The Dark Knight Rises,” and $270 million for each of the two parts of “The Hobbit,” to cite two guaranteed blockbusters.

Many action scenes were filmed with Cannon Eos 5d mark 2 digital cameras mounted on helmets, motorcycles, etc. That’s a $2,299 camera! Not cheap but well within reach of anyone serious about making Indies.

Can you feel the major studios starting to get nervous?

Professional reviewers have generally not been kind to the movie. Of 90-odd reviews on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing, there was a 29 percent approval rating.

But a lot of people like it. “Act” opened at $24.7 million the first weekend.

It is no secret that among the intellectual and artistic community, a significant faction openly despises the profession of arms. Hollywood continues to invest considerable capital in movies that portray the military and intelligence community in an unfavorable light, despite the fact they tend to do poorly at the box office compared to patriotic-themed movies.

Critics of “Act of Valor” have called it “recruitment propaganda.”

So what does that have to do with the artistic merits of the film? Many classics made during the Second World War as war propaganda have stood the test of time. “Destination Tokyo” with Cary Grant is a rollicking good adventure story, as well as a deeply idealistic and thoughtful movie.

There has also been criticism of the “wooden” acting.

I grew up around sailors and marines and have interviewed a fair number of active-duty soldiers. What I saw was the demeanor common among professional military men, far more “realistic” than Cary Grant.

But don’t take my word for it.

“I respectfully disagree with those reviews. Considering they were not professional actors, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the acting and almost all of the movie was very realistic,” said Anthony T. O’Brien Sr., Lieut. Cdr., U.S. Navy Seals (Ret.)

Obviously what is going on here is an argument about world view.

One of the severest critics, Chuck Koplinski, Illinois Times, entitled his review, “Simplistic Valor lacks the courage to face reality.
Yet Koplinski’s sneering criticism is just flat wrong on a number of points.

“They have gathered 16 Filipino Jihadists (yes, you read that right) and outfitted them with explosive vests that contain 500 ceramic ball bearings.”

Has Koplinski never heard of Abu Sayaf, the Filipino chapter of Al-Qaeda? Does he deny that jihadists do in fact support R&D to develop better means of killing us? Or the existence of working alliances between terrorist groups and smugglers?

Koplinski echos a number of critics in calling the drug smuggler Christo who hires out to terrorists, “one dimensional.”

“Christo has no problem giving the order to have her (CIA Agent Morales) tortured until she talks…” but, “when captured and given a “veiled threat towards the smuggler, promising him he’ll be locked away for the rest of his life and miss the key moments in his daughter’s life. Wouldn’t you know it, the guy folds like a house of cards.”

Hmmm, a ruthless gangster, who is by the way a Russian Jew allied with Chechen jihadists, capable of unspeakable cruelty yet genuinely loves his wife and daughter. Sounds pretty complex to me, and unfortunately all too realistic.

So with such pronounced disagreement among reviewers, and between reviewers and moviegoers, there is only one thing for me to tell you.
Go see it for yourself and make up your own mind. What you think will say a lot about yourself.

Footnote: One of the events in the movie that Koplinski and others have poured scorn upon is a scene (minor spoiler) where a SEAL is shot not quite point blank with an RPG, which fails to detonate. Wow, what luck ( pouring scorn.)

To be fair, the movie doesn’t explain, they just pass it off as a dud. The fact is, an RPG is designed to detonate only when it hits something HARD. As in concrete or steel hard. Some Swedish biker gangs discovered this when they acquired some RPGs to use on each other a few years back. (See how well gun control works in Europe?) A stray RPG went through the window of a grade school class – and just lay on the floor thank God, because the window didn’t offer enough of a barrier to detonate it.

March 8, 2012

Today is Purim

Filed under: Culture,Movies,News commentary — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:26 am

Note: Cross-posted from my newspaper blog.

Today is Purim, a Jewish festival celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar in the Hebrew calendar. This year it runs from sunset on Wednesday, March 7, 2012, and ends sunset Thursday, March 8, 2012.

The Purim holy day celebrates the salvation of the Jews of ancient Persia from a plot to annihilate them by Haman, prime minister of King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BC.

The word “Purim” comes from a word meaning “lots,” because Haman picked the day of the massacre by drawing lots.

Haman’s plot was dramatically exposed when Ahasuerus’ new Queen Esther revealed at a feast that she was Jewish. The planned annihilation was canceled, Haman was hanged, and Esther’s cousin Mordechai replaced him as prime minister.

There was once a colorful expression that came from this when hanging was still used as a method of execution, to be “hanged higher than Haman.”

There was a later historical parallel that seems too good to be true, except that it is reasonably well attested to. In the 14th century King Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great) of Poland, the last of the Piast Dynasty, invited Jews from all over Europe to settle in Poland. They eventually constituted about 15 percent of the population before the Holocaust.

Legend has it that Kazimierz had a Jewish mistress he loved greatly, who influenced him for the benefit of her people. Her name was Esterka – or in English, Esther.

Persia is of course, modern day Iran. The name “Iran” means “Aryan” and is a modern invention. I have had Iranian friends who still prefer to call themselves Persians though.

The parallels between the story of Esther and the boasts of the leaders of Iran that they will annihilate the Jews today are not lost on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who earlier this week presented President Obama with a copy of the “Megillah of Esther,” the Purim story.

However there’s an interesting historical factoid that nobody seems to notice, perhaps because we think of the stories in the Bible as myths, rather than history. The King of Persia’s name is recorded in the Book of Esther as Ahasuerus, but when studying history from a more secular point of view we use the Greek rendering of his name, Xerxes.

Xerxes was of course the Persian emperor who led the invasion of Greece that was delayed for a crucial time by the 300 Spartans and their allies at the Battle of Thermopylae, then defeated decisively at the naval battle of Salamis and the land battle at Plataea.

And if that’s not enough historical trivia, does anybody remember Grade B movie actor Richard Egan (1921-1987)?

In 1960 and 1962 Egan made two movies in a row. The first was “Esther and the King,” co-staring Joan Collins, where he played King Ahasuerus/Xerxes. In the second, “The 300 Spartans” he played King Leonidas of Sparta.

It’s still around on DVD in cheap movie bins and well worth the trip down memory lane. Egan had a style of acting that was a tad wooden, but I don’t think they ever got a better performance out of him.

March 7, 2012

They stole his heart

Filed under: News commentary,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:45 am

Note: Cross-posted on my newspaper blog.

On March 3, the heart of Lorcán Ua Tuathail, also known as St Laurence O’Toole, (1128 – 1180) was stolen from its iron cage mounted on a wall in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.

Christ Church Cathedral is not Roman Catholic, but Church of Ireland, an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion.

St. Lawrence was canonized in 1225 by Pope Honorius III, but I don’t suppose many on this side of the Atlantic would have ever heard of him if his preserved heart hadn’t been stolen. Reliquaries containing body parts of saints are a holdover from an earlier time. The Catholic Church still declares sainthood, but tends to be more low-key about relics these days. Though a vial of blood of Pope John Paul II, recently beatified, has been preserved and displayed.

Once in the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria I saw the preserved body of a local saint on display. The body was covered with a cloth, with a hole over the hand. People would buy cards with images of the saint and the monks would stroke them on the dessicated hand to sanctify them.

Since its separation from Rome, the Anglican communion has declared precisely one saint, the martyred King Charles I, so I suppose they have to take care of the ones they’ve still got. (Since my personal opinion is that Charles Stuart was indeed guilty of treason, this has been a source of some tension with my Anglo-Catholic relatives…)

One wonders what the heck the thief or thieves expect to get out of the heart of St. Lawrence? Do they intend to sell it to one of those rich collectors of stolen artwork one reads about in novels? And are there really any such? Is there really a black market in stolen masterpieces and holy relics?

Or was the motive religious in some twisted way? Did someone think a relic of the patron saint of Dublin didn’t belong in a church considered Protestant?

Of did someone steal if for their own private veneration? In which case, I’d think their conscience would start to trouble them after a while…

This is indeed a curious case, but I would not have you think I am inviting you to laugh at these things. I think all of us, whatever our religious opinions, have visited a place, or handled an object which seemed… somehow different and special. Call it holy, or sacred if you like. And quite obviously people have thought this way for some time. We have archeological evidence that shows places and objects treated as sacred going back to the stone age, and that Neanderthal Man treated their dead with reverence.

It is also odd that reportedly the thief or thieves took the heart and left several golden candlesticks alone. Curiouser and curiouser.

I shall be waiting with interest to see how this case turns out.

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