Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dreamcatcher (2003): Lawrence Kasdan's Flawed Great Film

Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher is a movie I have been defending ever since I was 12 years old. How I first saw it is a story unto itself.

One Sunday morning in the spring of 2003, I devised a scheme to get my sister and my father to go see a movie with me. I convinced them that the three of us should go to church that morning, and so we did, but the Lutheran minister’s sermons had done very little to restore our faith in the wake of a family death—which had been keeping us away from church for over a year. My evil scheme was as follows: if church couldn’t exorcise our demons, then a Hollywood bloodbath surely would.

So, after church, and after a pleasant donut breakfast on the road, I asked my father, hey: instead of going straight home, why don’t we catch a movie while we’re still out here? We did. I immediately selected Dreamcatcher, knowing that this was the only way I’d ever get to see it while it was still out, and, yes, successfully managed to get myself, my sister and my father into a movie theater to see it—without telling either of them it was R-rated. I wasn’t even aware that it was directed by the same man who wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Ark, but no matter: I knew I was in for a real treat.

I loved it. My father and my sister disliked it, and were appalled—I recall—by how gory it was. In fairness to them, I pretty much knew what to expect from the movie when the three of us walked in; a couple of weeks beforehand, I had attempted to read the 800-page book by Stephen King but never managed to finish it. I was especially aware that by the time I would finish the book, the movie would no longer be in theaters, so I took my chances and dragged my family to see Dreamcatcher with half of the story already in my head. I knew how the movie would begin, but had absolutely no idea how it would end. Like Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, also released in 2003, it's a film about how an incident in the lives of a group of teenage boys leads to their even more unpredictable lives as adults.

The making of Dreamcatcher was a long, arduous 5-month shoot in Vancouver involving filmmakers who all felt differently about the material. Some of them are proud of the finished film. Consider Damian Lewis, who played the character of Jonesy. He suggests that the film is best appreciated while high ("All you need for Dreamcatcher is a big spliff, a nice comfy sofa and a bag of popcorn"), but confesses that he was often lonely on the set: "I was a young 30, very much on my own and a long way from home… I mostly just sat in my hotel room on rainy days not knowing anyone." Then listen to Lawrence Kasdan, who blames the film for doing damage to his Hollywood career: "With Dreamcatcher, the career was hurt. I was planning to do The Risk Pool with Tom Hanks... And it didn't happen. Then another one didn't happen. Meanwhile, two years have passed here, two have passed there... it is discouraging to go nine years without a movie when all you want to do is make movies." After a nine-long absence from moviemaking, Kasdan has finally returned with Darling Companion, and—unlike Dreamcatcher—it has been made and released independent of Hollywood.

Seeing Dreamcatcher again today, I am, admittedly, far more understanding (than I was at 12) of why it received such a harsh critical and commercial reception in 2003. The movie does have a fair share of problems, many of which I stubbornly ignored at the time, but which I willfully acknowledge today. The crass bathroom humor. The starkly-split narrative that tries to tell way too many stories all at once. The mean-spirited way in which a dog is killed off.

Be that as it may, I've never considered Dreamcatcher to be a bad film by any means. I still don't. But could it have been better? I would concede that, yes, it could have been a little better, especially when considering the experience the filmmakers had with this kind of material in the past. Kasdan co-wrote the screenplay with William Goldman, and the combination of their respective powers resulted in a hybrid that can be described as both a glorious trainwreck and a flawed great film of sorts. Kasdan brought to the script the dark atmosphere of Body Heat and the big-budget thrills of Silverado; Goldman brought to it the nightmarish elements of his scripts for John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, Richard Attenborough’s Magic and Rob Reiner’s Misery—the latter, of course, being another Stephen King adaptation.

Dreamcatcher is really trying to be two movies: one, a story of four telepathically-connected childhood friends, whose retreat to a cabin in the woods of Derry, Maine goes horribly wrong; the other, a story about the U.S. military’s chaotic attempts to quarantine the area once a race of aliens begin attacking. Both stories could have made presumably good individual movies of their own, but they don’t coexist very comfortably in the same film. Nor, for that matter, did they in King’s ridiculously overlong book, which is why one wishes that Kasdan and Goldman had tossed aside one narrative and kept the other—specifically, the one about the four friends on vacation. It’s when the military scenes come around that Dreamcatcher gradually begins to lose focus, a focus which Kasdan only just barely manages to regain during the film's exciting closing scenes.

Since the film doesn’t really come together as a whole, it should instead be appreciated for showcasing some of the most accomplished sequences Kasdan has ever directed. The first is the film’s most suspenseful scene, in which Jonesy (Damian Lewis) and Beaver (Jason Lee) are left alone to hunt outside their cabin. Jonesy nearly shoots a disoriented wanderer (Eric Keenleyside) out in the woods after mistaking him for a deer, and kindly lets this man inside the cabin for a nightcap—only for him to bleed all over the hallways and barricade himself inside the cabin’s bathroom. Jonesy and Beaver force their way in, finding that the bathroom walls have been caked with blood and red fungus, and that the wanderer, now sitting dead on the toilet, has excreted something that sounds as if it may be... living. What follows is a sequence of almost unbearable tension in which Beaver volunteers to stay put on the toilet seat, struggling to contain this monstrous "Shit Weasel" that literally breaks the water pipes upon its ejection. It’s a powerful scene, not just because it "does for toilets what Psycho did for showers" (to quote Stephen King on the film’s DVD), but also because it gains an unexpected irony if one reflects that, had Jonesy shot the wanderer out in the woods—instead of letting him inside the cabin—all of this madness could have been prevented.

The film’s second great sequence has Henry (Thomas Jane), one of Jonesy and Beaver’s friends, returning to the cabin and discovering, to his horror, that it’s been overtaken by the Shit Weasel and its many egg nests. When the eggs hatch, hundreds of little white worm larvae come squiggling out, and Henry resorts to burning them alive with liquid fire ignited by a single match—the only one that doesn’t come jingling out of the matchbox while the others collapse to the floor. This is a running theme in the film: single objects causing monumental damage. Another example is a single toothpick, untainted by blood, which tempts Beaver to his doom in the earlier bathroom scene. And the single surviving worm at the end of the movie, which—if it manages to infect Boston’s water supply—is lethal enough to "kill the world." It only takes one. One match. One toothpick. One worm.

The third great sequence in the film depicts a military strike led by Colonel Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and his right-hand man Owen (Tom Sizemore), as they lead a team of "Blue Unit" fighter jets in an air raid on the aliens’ mothership nestled out in the woodsy Maine wilderness. The sequence sort of feels like it belongs in another movie, but never mind: It’s well-done. I love how the aliens in this scene (who are all down on the ground before Curtis attacks them) start out looking like plain, innocent, human-shaped gray beings—before morphing into their true steely-jawed forms to protect themselves. And how they’re beamed up backwards into the mothership as it glows an angry red and self-destructs, engulfing several of Curtis’ men in a moment that reminds me of that scene in De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000) where the planet’s "security system" rips apart the bodies of a couple of astronauts. All the same, this is the only military-related scene in Dreamcatcher that doesn’t take us out of the film somewhat.

As mentioned before, the film works best during the scenes with the four telepathically-connected childhood friends: Jonesy, Henry, Beaver and Pete (Timothy Olyphant), the latter being the only one of the four friends blessed with a magical index finger. The film’s opening scenes depict the four friends getting together after each has been shown experiencing a series of catastrophes made all the more complicated by their psychic powers. There is a fun scene of night-time dinner conversation at the "Hole in the Wall" cabin, early on in the film, in which the four buddies engage in the kind of indecent, pornographic dialogue that Kasdan has specialized in since Body Heat. So effective is the camaraderie in this dinner scene, in fact, that Kasdan makes the odd decision of replaying it during the film’s end credits. Perhaps this is an indication of the sort of film he might have been more comfortable making: a simple Hawksian hangout picture about horny male friends vacationing in the woods.

The four male friends are so sex-obsessed, in fact, that it was a search for a pin-up cartoon 20 years earlier that led them to committing a good deed that would change their lives forever: rescuing mentally-challenged, Scooby Doo-infatuated Douglas "Duddits" Clavell from a pack of high school football bullies. The four boys who play Jonesy, Henry, Beaver and Pete as young teenagers (Giacomo Baessato, Mikey Holekamp, Reece Thompson and Joel Palmer) are all—like their adult counterparts—very good actors, as is the young actor playing Duddits (Andrew Robb). As an adult, Duddits is played by Donnie Wahlberg, who gives an excellent performance of his own, but appears so late in the film he almost doesn’t get a fair chance to make an impression on the audience. The actress playing Duddits’ mother, Rosemary Dunsmore (she was the slap-happy doctor in Verhoeven’s Total Recall), has what is, in retrospect, the only significant female role in the whole film—a surprising shortcoming for Kasdan, whose films have usually offered meaty parts for women. Dunsmore does, however, have the warmest line of dialogue in the whole film: "Goodbye, Duddie. Be a good boy. Now, go save the world."

All of the four actors playing Jonesy, Henry, Beaver and Pete as adults are well-cast, despite the fact that none of them were household names when the film was made. Thomas Jane, as Henry, makes for a likable action hero (possibly convincing Frank Darabont to cast him as the lead in The Mist, also based on a King story), and Jason Lee and Timothy Olyphant, as Beaver and Pete, provide some welcome comic relief ("Jesus Christ bananas!"). But it is Damian Lewis, as the alien-possessed Jonesy, who delivers the greatest performance in the film. Lewis has the challenging task of playing a dual role; as Jonesy, he retains an ordinary, American voice, while as the sinister "Mr. Gray" he launches into a completely over-the-top Cockney accent, resulting in a performance that is at once hilarious and disturbing. The final scene, in which Henry is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to shoot Jonesy because of his possession, is made all the more eerie by Lewis’ suspiciously-enthusiastic response: "I knew you’d come, Henry! I knew you wouldn’t let me die!" Interestingly, all four actors went on to deliver some of their best work on television: Lewis on Life and Homeland, Lee on My Name is Earl, Olyphant on Deadwood and Justified, Jane on an episode of Arrested Development (in which he appeared as the aptly-named "Tom Jane").

The scenes featuring Morgan Freeman and Tom Sizemore are a bit more problematic. Both actors do a solid job with their performances, but whereas Sizemore is tailor-made for the role of Owen (hardened military types are the actor’s speciality), Freeman is a curious choice for Colonel Curtis; is the actor believable as such a hawkish lunatic? Freeman is a fine actor, and is sometimes effectively menacing in the film (as in a scene where he fires a bullet into the hand of an insubordinate Blue Unit soldier), but never quite makes for enough of a convincing villain to carry the scenes involving the military—which, again, feel like they all belong in a different film. Of all the actors Kasdan has worked with, perhaps William Hurt would have been an angrier, more unpredictable presence in this role, perhaps even enough to justify the film’s military segments.

Other flaws in the film include its excessive bathroom humor, which works only when it’s reserved for the characters’ dialogue, as in the dinner conversation between the four friends. It’s when we begin hearing actual burps and farts on the soundtrack (emitted mostly by bloated victims of the Shit Weasels) that Kasdan goes overkill with the bathroom humor—after awhile, it just gets obnoxious. It’s not the first time Kasdan has used a fart joke in one of his movies (Kevin Kline’s Italian-food constipation in I Love You to Death comes to mind), but in the case of Dreamcatcher it’s a case of "too many farts for a movie that keeps insisting, with mounting implausibility, that it is intended to be good," to quote from Roger Ebert’s sorely-negative 1 ½-star review. One of the most unpleasant moments in the film involves a kidnapped German Shepherd dog, named "Ike", who dies while defecating a Shit Weasel; his death is, essentially, ignored in the background while the onscreen action is reserved for the human characters alone. It’s a startlingly mean-spirited way to kill off a dog in a movie, especially since Kasdan used to have a track-record as a dog-friendly filmmaker. Edward in The Accidental Tourist certainly would not have stood for what Ike has to undergo here.

I could probably go on and on listing the film’s flaws. I haven’t even gotten yet to its plot holes, such as how Duddits is arbitrarily revealed to be an alien himself during the climactic battle with Mr. Gray (a very different finale from the book’s ending, which I have forgotten). There is also, as Ebert complained in his review, the film’s failure to fully engage its ideas about telepathy: "The problem of really being telepathic is a favorite science-fiction theme. If you could read minds, would you be undone by the despair and anguish being broadcast all around you?" The film, alas, ignores such questions, although a joke is made out of the four friends’ strangely-inadequate telepathy abilities when Henry exclaims in one scene, "You could have run me down!" and Owen, driving a vehicle, deadpans, "Figured you’d read my mind, and get out of the way."

Dreamcatcher is, yes, a seriously-flawed film. It’s got a lot of problems. But oh, the good things about it! There are many. Kasdan admits on the film’s DVD that this was his first truly effects-laden picture, despite having written the scripts for Empire and Raiders, but whatever inexperience he may have had with CGI certainly doesn’t show in the finished film, which contains some of the best and most convincing CGI effects I’ve seen in the past decade. The film’s "creatures", designed by Crash McCreery, are inspired creations, beautiful to look at in all their lurid glory. The Shit Weasels, disgusting as they are, are frightening little devils. And the final reveal of Mr. Gray’s true form is absolutely terrifying; he’s like a shark crossed with a centipede, and his teeth unfold ferociously across the screen while James Newton Howard’s score signals their arrival with an ominous brass orchestra.

Another special aspect of the film is the cinematography by John Seale, which gleams a dark orange during the imaginative "Memory Warehouse" sequences inside Jonesy’s subconscious, its rooms containing—among other things—Duddits' secret files and the all-important lyrics to Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou". Seale's camera also takes advantage of blinding white wintry landscapes that remind us of the most famous King adaptation of them all: Kubrick’s The Shining, which King, of course, notoriously hates, but which Kasdan has cited as a film he admires.

But Dreamcatcher is more than just a visually-enticing film. It’s an emotionally-involving film as well, and, damn it all, my 12-year old self still holds a special place in my heart for it. It was better than the book. It was incredibly well-acted and directed. It had a screenplay that, while overly-complicated, still contained enough interesting characters and thought-provoking themes to make it an impossible film to dismiss. While we’re on that subject, I very nearly forgot one of the film’s central themes: a subplot involving Owen’s late military father, whose last words were, "Sometimes, we have to kill, but our real job is to save lives." That’s what all of the human characters in this movie are doing. They’re all committing sacrifices to save lives. Even Curtis, the bad guy, just wants to save mankind. Ultimately though, the two characters in the film who make the most vital sacrifices are Owen, who gives his life for Henry and Duddits; and Duddits himself, who gives his life for Henry, Jonesy and mankind, too. Soon, though, it’s just Henry and Jonesy left alone with mankind, and, well... after that, are there any more sacrifices left to be made?

Of course there are. There’s still that one last worm to be squashed. "H!" whispers Jonesy, before crushing the worm beneath his shoe. "Jonesy!" grins Henry with an affirming smile. It’s little intuitive moments like this that make Dreamcatcher, flaws and all, arguably one of Lawrence Kasdan’s most intense works, and one of the best films he’s ever made.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Ring (1927)

“It’s a story about two prize fighters who are in love with the same woman,” said Francois Truffaut. “I like that picture very much.”

“Yes,” agreed the Master of Suspense, “that was really an interesting movie.”

They were talking about The Ring, Alfred Hitchcock’s boxing picture released in 1927, at the tail-end of the silent era. “You might say,” Hitchcock himself suggested, “that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”

“The next Hitchcock picture?” A boxing movie? Really? I was mildly intrigued. I had barely even heard of The Ring before, even though I owned it as part of my treasured “Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins” box set, and had never bothered to sit down and watch it until fairly recently, when Truffaut and Hitchcock’s ecstatic comments about it caught my eye. I was having a difficult time imagining how a boxing movie could be one of Hitchcock’s major works, especially since—as Truffaut conceded—“It isn’t a suspense film and has no crime ingredients.” Sports movie melodrama just didn’t sound at all to me like Hitchcock’s forte.

I’ve now watched The Ring (not to be confused with the overrated Gore Verbinski/Naomi Watts horror movie) in its entirety, and my feelings about it are… mixed. From where I stand, it’s good but minor Hitchcock, with some rather lame acting, an even lamer storyline and a punishingly boring first half, justified only by a second half that, surprisingly, offers a good deal of legitimately exciting cinema. The film’s second half, in which Hitchcock’s gift for montage comes vividly to life, includes a visually-stunning sequence in which the hero (an underdog boxer) is plagued by blurry hallucinations of his wife embracing his antagonistic rival, juxtaposed with crazed images of party guests engaged in a mad dance while a pianist’s fingers jump up and down on a keyboard. This, I’d bet you dollars to donuts, is the “elaborate montage” which Hitchcock claims received a round of applause at the movie’s premiere.

The story? Not nearly as exciting. A banal love triangle plot involving a boxer’s pathetic spiral downwards into jealousy when he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with an Australian champion. Yes, “boxing” and “jealousy,” but don’t get your hopes up—this ain’t Raging Bull. It’s more like the 1927 version of The Room, with some boxing, some elaborate montaging and even a happy ending thrown in for effect. Is that a harsh comparison? Sure. Hell, if I listened very closely I could probably even hear Hitchcock spinning in his grave if he heard me writing this. But come on: when the hero of this movie is uttering corny lines of dialogue like, “I shall always be ready to fight for my wife against any man!” and “It seems as though I shall have to fight for my wife, after all!” well… you can see why somebody like Tommy Wiseau would have had a field day with this script.

The film’s casual racism is another concern. In the opening sequence, set at a carnival, a crowd of jeering white people is shown dunking a black man sitting in one of those water-filled booths that you usually see reserved for clowns. Time and time again, the black man is dunked into the water when a ball is thrown. His routine is to fall into the water, get out of the water, roar with laughter and then ready himself for the next dunking. I’m sure that Hitchcock filmed this scene only with the best intentions and that audiences in 1927 must have smiled at its depiction of mischievous fun at a carnival, but in 2012 scenes like this can only be met with a weary cynicism. The black man is obviously getting paid to be dunked, but we’re left wondering: what’s his story? How does he feel about a having a job that requires him to be humiliated by privileged white people? Why does he laugh every time he’s dunked? Is his laughter sincere, or is it a cover for his embarrassment? Will he be fired if he doesn’t laugh? The film, of course, addresses none of these concerns; Hitchcock treats it like stock footage, included in the film merely for decoration, completely irrelevant to the story.

Later in the film, the hero, jealous prize-fighter One-Round Jack (Carl Brisson), is planning to fight his way to the top in order to win back the love of his wife, and one of his trainers offers a bit of sly advice: “If you win this next fight with the nigger, you’ll be in the running for the championship.” Win this next fight with the what? Mind you, it’s not the mere use of this word that is offensive, but the fact that Hitchcock—who co-wrote the screenplay—brings it into the movie and then treats it casually, regarding it with the least amount of importance. If the use of this particular word in the film were to inform us of anything substantial about these characters and their prejudices, of course, then one would understand why Hitchcock chose to use it; indeed, one of One-Round Jack’s own personal trainers is a black man (seen above) who blends in perfectly with the rest of Jack’s white trainers, dining with them, drinking with them, celebrating with them. But because of this, it doesn’t make much sense for Jack’s trainers to be speaking in racist lingo when they’ve already accepted a man of color as one of their own.

I am not proud to admit that the film’s racism immediately made me think of D.W. Griffith, whose films I admire (for the part) but, alas, seem to have largely influenced Hitchcock in the wrong way here. It is no secret that Hitchcock was a Griffith fan (“Like all directors, I was influenced by Griffith,”), and in a sense that ought to be a good thing, but somehow the dunking scene, the jeering white crowds, the amazingly casual use of the N-word, etc., reminded me of the worst aspects of Griffith; the Klan’s glorified executions in The Birth of A Nation and Donald Crisp’s ridiculously sinister close-ups in Broken Blossoms both came to mind. Even a wedding scene depicting the marriage of One-Round Jack to his wife is spoiled by a crass shot of the ring-bearer (one of Jack’s trainers) picking his nose; I was reminded of a Southern maid (in blackface) in Birth of A Nation who does the exact same thing. To be sure, the guilty nose-picker in The Ring is a white man, but what difference does it make? Why does Hitchcock show him doing this in the first place? Is it supposed to be funny? What’s so funny about nose-picking?

The Ring is more successful, actually, whenever Hitchcock comes up with shots that seem to be of his own creation, rather than the ones that reek of Griffith’s influence. Had Luis Bunuel seen the film, he likely would have coveted the memorable sight gag of a pair of conjoined twins in the pews during the wedding, one struggling to pull out, the other begging to stay. I also liked the scene at the banquet following the wedding, in which the ring bearer, intoxicated, collapses at the table while witnessing a playful spar of fists between One-Round Jack and his rival; Hitchcock goes for a blurry POV shot that nicely illustrates his drunkenness. And there is a neat moment in the film’s final climactic boxing sequence when Jack looks over his rival’s shoulder and spots his wife down in audience; Hitchcock tracks down to her devilishly smiling up at him, and Jack, frozen with surprise (because he dreamt she’d be here), is so distracted that the rival knocks him down with one punch. POV shots of lines and orbs fill his blurry vision, foreshadowing that famous POV shot in Spellbound (1944) in which a revolver is turned around to fire at the camera (implying a suicide), and a burst of blood-red fills the screen. The boxing scenes themselves are intense and well-done for a silent film, although it’s unlikely that they influenced Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese once went on record as claiming that Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler was the only boxing picture that ever impressed him).

Is The Ring a great Hitchcock film? No. Its characters, for one thing, are too thinly drawn. One-Round Jack is not an interesting protagonist, his wife is too much of a hateful, scheming ice queen, and his Australian rival never comes into focus as anything more than a cardboard cut-out. And the first half, as mentioned before, is a chore to sit through. Truffaut claimed to have seen the film “several times.” I can’t imagine why. Maybe he kept coming back to the movie because he was fascinated with Hitchcock’s use of montage. Or perhaps because he liked the symbolism of the title; “The Ring” could mean anything, from the opening shot (a circular drum being beaten)  to the fighting ring itself, to the bracelet worn on the shoulder by Jack’s wife—a secret gift from her Australian lover, who is surprised when the wife ditches it for an innocent gym employee to find (“Look what I found at the ring-side, Guv’nor!”).

Because the film’s first half is so dull, for awhile I dreaded the thought of even finishing it, worried that it might fall into that rare category of Hitchcock movies that have actually managed to bore me to tears (Jamaica Inn, To Catch of Thief). The Ring has its dull stretches, yes, as well as a dull story, but in the end, the exciting second half is what redeems Hitchcock’s effort with this material. I can’t quite figure out whatever must have compelled Truffaut to want to revisit the film “several times,” but ultimately, I myself am still happy to have seen it at least once. Maybe you, like Truffaut, will want to revisit it with multiple viewings. Maybe not.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Russia House (1989) by John le Carré

The Russia House was published by John le Carré in 1989. This post will consist of my summaries of the book's individual chapters.