Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"March" to the Sea: The Penguins are Coming, the Penguins are Coming

It’s been obscenely hot here in normally-temperate L.A.—the perfect time, really, to see a movie about penguins braving temperatures of –60 to –80°F (*plus* windchill) in order to propagate and raise their young. I must confess that for at least the first half of the movie, I viewed Antarctica with something closer to relief and yearning than to apprehension. Having sweltered several nights in an apartment without A/C, I shivered not with empathy but with pure delight at the first sight of those massive blocks of ice rising out of a distant, frigid sea.

Polar pleasures aside, “March of the Penguins” is well worth seeing. Director Luc Jacquet and his team have somehow managed to capture a stupendously intimate look at the annual breeding cycle of the emperor penguin, through shot after breathtaking shot that will have any viewer marveling either “How did they get so *close*?” or “*Damn*, those must have been some good cameras!” The story, too, is spellbinding, given that no other animal on this planet seems to have quite as raw a deal as l’empereur when it comes to the survival of the species. (I’m reminded of the moment in “Madagascar” where those penguins, confronted with the icy landscape of the South Pole, simply comment, “This sucks!”)

“Marche” does have a slightly silly tendency to sentimentalize and anthropomorphize the penguins’ saga, which is plenty riveting on its own terms. Still, the impulse is understandable. After all, few animals, and certainly no birds, are quite as human-like as the penguin, and none as natural an entertainer: the rows upon rows of penguins waddling towards the breeding-grounds, shot from a distance, resemble nothing so much as a crowd of tiny people dressed in black, with black hoods and white waistcoats. And though it’s hard not to roll our eyes when we’re told that this is a “story of love” and that “the loss [of a chick] is unbearable,” the words sound somehow less absurd when they’re intoned by Morgan Freeman, who does the voice-over for the American version. (Freeman, I’ve concluded, could pretty much persuade most movie audiences to walk off a cliff if he tried.) By all accounts, the English-language narrative is much less absurd than the fake penguin dialogue that (I kid you not) was manufactured for the original French version. At any rate, it certainly isn’t intrusive enough to get in the way of the miraculous narrative at the film’s core. Besides...there is nothing on earth cuter than those fuzzy gray baby penguins.


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Finished “The Half-Blood Prince” today and I have to say...wow. J.K. Rowling better write book #7 up fast, because my head’s just exploded.

I can’t possibly say anything more meaningful about book #6 without giving away major plot points, so be forewarned: everything you read after this paragraph is going to assume that you’ve finished reading HBP. I’m inserting several line breaks to shield you from unwanted spoilers.

Scroll down at your own risk...

Getting closer...

Last warning...



So we now know who the Half Blood Prince is. But that revelation pales in comparison to the really earth-shattering event that preceded it. Truth be told, I’m still reeling a little from the shock.

Not so much of the event itself: I’ve been predicting all along that Dumbledore was going to pull an Obi-Won by or before the end of the series, though I thought it would be more likely in the last book. What I could *not* have predicted, in a bezillion years, was that it would be Snape, rather than Voldemort, who would kill him. The moment he did it, I internally screamed “NOOO!!”...and read the rest of the book in a bit of a daze.

But upon reflection I’m more than ever convinced that Dumbledore really did pull an Obi-Won: that is, he knew full well that Snape was going to kill him, set it up to happen, and had planned it thus.

What’s less clear is whether Snape, in killing him, was following his orders or Voldemort’s. At first blush, it looks like the rankest kind of treachery. But I’ve always believed Snape would end up fighting (and dying) for the right side. And I can’t believe that Dumbledore, for all his supposed tendency to trust, to give second chances, etc., would be so willfully blind to the dangers of using Snape as a double agent. There has to be some kind of pact between him and Snape that the latter wouldn’t dare betray. Remember that conversation Hagrid overhears between Snape and Dumbledore, where Snape says Dumbledore “took too much for granted” and that maybe he (Snape) “didn’t want to do it anymore”? Do what? Dumbledore holds him to it, whatever it is. I think Dumbledore may have made Snape promise to kill him, at the appropriate moment.

And so—when Dumbledore, at the critical moment, says “Severus” in that pleading tone, he just may have been pleading with Snape to do it, that is, to kill him. Snape’s expression of “revulsion and hatred” may have been for the deed and the man who was driving him to it, not its target. (It would also explain why he reacts so wildly when Harry calls him a coward for killing Dumbledore.) I think Dumbledore made him do it either to prevent Malfoy from being forced to do it, or to seal Voldemort (and the Death Eaters)’s trust in Snape and bring him closer to the Dark Lord. Which would also explain why Snape enters into that Unbreakable Vow with Malfoy’s mum so early on. Perhaps he’d already made the same promise to Dumbledore.

Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking...

It does worry me that Dumbledore himself admits, at one point, that “being...rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”

Still, there has to be some very good reason—the “ironclad reason” McGonagall refers to—why Dumbledore believed so deeply that Snape really turned away from the dark side (unless Dumbledore himself was lying to fool everyone, but I don’t think he was). And I’m starting to believe the reason is this:

I think Snape loved Harry’s mother.

Or there was at least some kind of secret connection between them—perhaps they were secretly related, like half-brother or sister, or something.

Oh, it’s a totally cheesy explanation, and one that I’ve previously rejected. But consider Dumbledore’s response when Harry confronts him about the fact that it was Snape who carried the news of the prophecy to Voldemort. Dumbledore says, “You have no idea of the remorse Professor Snape felt when he realized how Lord Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy, Harry. I believe it to be the greatest regret of his life and the reason that he returned.”

Harry, of course, points out that (1) Snape hated his father like poison, and (2) Snape’s a master of Occlumens, so how can Dumbledore be sure he’s on their side? Later on, after Dumbledore’s death, the other members of the Order echo these very same (and very reasonable) doubts. The only possible explanation, the one that Dumbledore kept between Snape and himself, has to relate to Lily. And, I think, to love. For love, as Dumbledore repeatedly emphasizes, is the one area of magic that sets Harry apart from Voldemort, and that Voldemort continually underestimates.

Further clues—inconclusive in and of themselves, but suggestive of a connection between Snape and Lily:
(1) Lily stood up for Snape when James and Sirius were hexing him (see Book 5). Even though he thanked her by calling her “Mudblood,” that insult means nothing now that we know he’s a half-blood himself.
(2) Lily’s talent in potions, apparently equal to Snape’s. Mere coincidence? I think not.
(3) Snape’s intense antipathy towards Harry—could be fueled not just by his hatred of James, but by the fact that (a) James married Lily, (b) Harry is their son, (c) Lily died for Harry, but also because of Snape, (d) every time Snape looks at Harry, he sees James, but he also sees Lily’s eyes. (to quote a song from “The Secret Garden.”)

My alternate theory of Snape’s apparent betrayal, and Dumbledore’s willingness to be betrayed, is what I call the “Gollum” theory: that Snape’s weakness and desire for power, or revenge, or whatever, is fated to help the Order in bringing down Voldemort. However, I’ve always thought it would be Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail, who would end up filling any Gollum-type role, because he owes that life-debt to Harry. Guess we’ll see.

As usual, Rowling ratchets up the drama and tension in the final few chapters to an almost unbearable pitch, so that you literally can’t put the book down. Also as usual, even as the narrative foreshadows and lurches towards its dark conclusion, she sprinkles it with plenty of light humor, all revolving around the trials and tribulations of being a high school student. (Alas, we’re probably going to see much less of that in book #7 if, as it seems, Harry isn’t returning to Hogwarts.) Loved the explosion of hormones—about right for sixteen-year-olds, I guess—though am getting impatient waiting for Ron and Hermione to hurry up and seal the deal.

At least Harry-Ginny fans (of which I am one) can rejoice; there’s not a doubt in my mind that they will end up back together, as they’re so clearly meant to be. But isn’t that last scene between them a total ripoff of “Spiderman”? Graveyard, funeral, “I can’t be with you because I’m going where you can’t follow,” blah blah...

Lupin and Tonks seemed a bit gratuitous. Liked the Fleur-Bill coupling, though. And loved every appearance by Luna Lovegood.

Have no idea what the deal is with the fake Horcrux, or who “R.A.B.” is. Looks like Harry’s got his work cut out for him. Or rather, Rowling has. She’s got a lot to pull together in book 7.

But that just makes me all the more impatient for it. And sad that it will be the last one. I only hope Rowling doesn't end by killing off Harry...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"War of the Worlds" Hits Us Where We Live


directed by Steven Spielberg
starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, various others, incl. brief cameo by Miranda Otto

It’s hard to believe that nearly four years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001. Time enough for pop culture to feel the imprint of that defining event, as it has, in ways both subtle and not so subtle. Yet curiously enough, “War of the Worlds” is the first movie I’ve seen that struck me as a starkly, forthrightly, and unmistakably post-9/11 movie. That’s perhaps only fitting. H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” may be a timeless classic, but like all of Wells’s work, it also reflected a certain fin-de-siècle malaise about the course and consequences of British imperialism. Spielberg’s adaptation, for better or for worse, bears the indelible stamp of *our* times. Different century, different anxieties.

Obviously, that’s not how the movie’s being sold. “War of the Worlds” is better known, after all, as the daddy of all alien invasion stories. Simply put, aliens take over the planet, and all of humankind’s might and ingenuity prove no match for their pitiless power. That’s Wells; the rest is Spielberg and the screenwriters, who manufacture a smaller focal narrative out of the trials of one family. Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise, with a difference—it’s the trademark Tom Cruise character on the verge of a mid-life crisis, his cockiness worn down to the brittlest of veneers. His name is Ray, and he’s a New Jersey dockworker with little to show for his life but a squalid apartment, an empty refrigerator, and weekend custody of two kids, products of a failed marriage. The latter turn up early on and quickly establish their archetypes: the surly, rebellious teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and the precocious wise child (Dakota Fanning). The lovely Miranda Otto (Eowyn from “Lord of the Rings”) appears briefly as Ray’s ex-wife, who’s long since moved on to a more prosperous marriage. There are broad hints that Ray married out of his class, but this isn’t really developed. More immediate concerns are at hand.

For the arrival of the children coincides with troubling cosmic signs that something wicked is this way a-comin’. First come the violent lightning storms and winds that obey no known meteorological patterns, followed by massive power outages that knock out all cars, lights, cell phones, and backup generators within a generous radius. Then—all hell breaks loose. Few directors equal Spielberg when it comes to building up suspense and fear of the unseen, and he certainly doesn’t fail to deliver here. But what’s most striking about “War of the Worlds” is not the buildup but the unsparing carnage that floods the screen when the invisible threat finally materializes. Bodies incinerating around Ray as he runs through the streets (avoiding, with typical movie-star luck, the deadly ray-guns); bodies swept along a river’s current, past the horrified saucer eyes of Ray’s daughter; bodies being piked and harvested for their blood by the unseen aliens. None of it is graphic enough to earn an R rating from the MPAA, but it’s certainly intense and suggestive enough to paint a grim landscape of chaos and death.

The visual imagery is vivid and powerful, but at some point the story doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Ray and progeny manage to procure what appears to be the one working car in all of New Jersey, and drive like mad for Boston, in search of mommy and her family. Along the way, the car gets hijacked by a fleeing mob (a gripping, if manipulative, scene) and the party proceeds on foot. They try to cross the Hudson, and end up reenacting “Titanic” on a small scale. Giant alien-bearing tripods dog their footsteps, leaving a trail of mayhem behind them. Faced with such terrors, the teenage son veers between inconsequential bickering and an inexplicable kamikaze urge to take on the tripods. Dakota Fanning, somewhat more sensibly, screams a lot (and I do mean a lot).

And so, with nowhere left to go, we drop in on Tim Robbins, lurking in a basement—which can never be a good sign. For many, this is the point at which “War of the Worlds” completely loses its direction. To some extent, I agree, yet I also found the detour oddly intriguing. Robbins, as the haggard-eyed, not-quite-there Ogilvy, who’s lost his own family to the aliens, shows a different version of Ray’s son’s madness: the impulse not to escape but to make a stand, or at least a bunker. Faster than you can say “doppelganger,” the movie pits Ray’s brand of survivalism against Ogilvy’s—and I’m giving nothing away by revealing that only one emerges intact. What’s unexpected is the grim, terse, flatly amoral manner in which the conflict is resolved. The most interesting moment in the movie is something that happens out of our sight, with a little girl’s face as the most immediately visible reflection of what’s going on behind the closed door.

But as in other recent films (“Minority Report” comes to mind) Spielberg flirts with darkness only to retreat, without following it through or commenting on it in any way. Not long after the cellar episode, the movie sputters to an anticlimactic halt—though this is largely owing to its faithfulness to Wells's text—followed by a pure Spielbergian coda. Though, in all honesty, there’s something comforting, if not exactly inspiring, about knowing that Spielberg is incapable of ending his movies on anything resembling a nihilistic note. And ultimately, it’s not the pillowy ending that prevents “War of the Worlds” from being top-drawer Spielberg. Rather, it’s the lazy retread of old tricks from Spielberg’s oeuvre (the cat-and-mouse sequences in the cellar, for example, are a direct rip of the much more effective raptors-in-kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park”), as well as other ho-hum movie conventions (why, for instance, do aliens, even scary ones, have to be vaguely anthropomorphic?), and the rather limp broken-family dynamic that Spielberg’s captured far more convincingly in other films.

Nonetheless, for all its faults, “War of the Worlds” has a relevance that most other blockbuster films these days can only dream of. And I’m not just referring to the movie’s use of 9/11 imagery, though that is hard to miss: Ray, returning to his home after the first attack, finds himself covered in gray ash, remnants of the unspeakable; later, as he flees north with his offspring, we see walls and bulletin boards filled with photographs of missing loved ones and “Have you seen?” postings. Beyond this, however, is the sense that what we’re seeing is the dramatization of our subconscious paranoia from the past four years: a nightmarish magnification of the threat that lurks unseen, and previously unsuspected, among us, embedded in our most familiar neighborhoods, finally erupting from (literally) beneath our feet. The scariest thing about the aliens is the fact that, as the tagline goes, “they’re already here,” and have *been* here for years, building their forces and biding their time. Sleeper cells are nothing to this, but the resonance is palpable. The greatest fear, the one that haunts us today, comes simultaneously from without *and* within.

RATING: ** 1/2