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She's making movies on location, she don't know what it means 
17th-Dec-2008 01:49 pm

The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007). Even though trusted pals assured me of The Mist's worthiness when it was in theaters, our moviegoing schedule was kept free of Darabont's third foray into the literature of Maine's favorite son. I remained largely unmotivated until I discovered the DVD release included a version of the film in black and white. That changed everything. I don't think my conviction that this is the only acceptable way to translate this story from words on a page to film originated with me. In fact, I believe it was King's own notion, a memory Darabont backs up in a brief filmed intro included on the DVD. Having seen it, I can't imagine the film working as well any other way. It's not just that the story--involving a crowd of people trapped in a small-town supermarket by a strange enveloping fog and the bizarre, predatory monsters it contains--feels like a great lost exercise in nineteen-fifties genre paranoia. It's that the mist itself works so beautifully shot in subtle shades of gray. The tension is heightened by the ways that people slowly shift into disappearing shadows as they warily venture into the ominous cloud cover right outside the door. Otherwise, the film has all of the strengths and weaknesses characteristic of King's work. The plot is shrewdly constructed to heighten tension and the characters are allowed fully believable reactions to the extraordinary circumstances that beset them. There's also evidence of his bad habit of characters that are developed no further than necessary to trigger plot twists, a problem seen more glaringly in the intolerant bible-thumping role played by Marcia Gay Harden (who heightens the shortcoming by playing the character about a notch-and-a-half too fiercely). Darabont revels in the B-movie trappings of the story. What's more, he greatly improves on the bland ambiguity of King's original ending with a closing note that's so bleak that it borders on cruelty against the characters.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958). Paul Newman is the model of brooding, conflicted masculinity and Elizabeth Taylor radiates snippy vulnerability and aching need in this stolid adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams' most revered plays. It's hard to grapple with this as a film, since every piece of it that works wonderfully is so clearly embedded in the original work that it seems less like an achievement for anyone who punched in at the soundstage and more like residual heroics of Williams himself. Sure, Burl Ives give a performance of ferocious power as the thundering patriarch Big Daddy, but the character is tremendous on the page, a perfect role. I mean no disservice to Ives when I note that any number of capable actors could have stepped in and emerged with award-caliber work. It's one of the odd elements of bringing great stage work to the screen. Even with fantastic actors, an inspired director and artful filmmaking all around, it can still feel like a mere echo. Engaging and even pretty great at times, but noticeably an echo all the same.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951). Beats rewarding Hollywood for continuing to cast Keanu. Acknowledging that you need to be prepared to roll with fifties sci-fi flicks, accepting the cheesy with the insightful, the original film version is terrifically entertaining. A flying saucer descends upon Washington, D.C., delivering a humanoid alien and his grandly imposing robot companion. The visitor wants to bring an important message to all the leaders of the world, but his reasoned approach is confounded by the fragile nature of geopolitical relations. He goes incognito among the humans, and the film proceeds with its topical immersion in the subtext of cold war suspicion and duplicity. Wise builds the film expertly, and Michael Rennie's performance as Klaatu, the interstellar traveler dispatching a stern, benevolent warning, is a tiny marvel of charming oddity.

The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980). When he made this film, David Lynch had one previous feature to his name. Certainly it was the gonzo cult hit Eraserhead but that name wasn't fraught with all of the associations of onscreen madness that it has now. And one can imagine watching this with a sense that he would become this sort of filmmaker: serious-minded, sober and empathetic. There's a clear affection for outcasts in this drama about the life of Joseph Merrick (redubbed John for the film), even as Lynch unflinchingly depicts the pain inherent in the deformed man's life in Victorian-era London. There's a moving tenderness to John Hurt's hesitant, careful performance as Merrick. Completely subsumed by heavy makeup, Hurt somehow manages to bring his character's wounded, striking humanity forward. There's equally good work from Anthony Hopkins as the doctor who discovers, rescues and nurtures him. He's especially strong in the few scenes of dawning realization that he's inadvertently managed his own exploitation of Merrick, in the name of giving the man a better life. The film is a gentler example of Lynch's tendency to find beauty in the macabre, but it's a thing of beauty nonetheless.

Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev, 2007). It's commonplace for acts of violence to be perpetrated in films without an iota of emotion connected to them, making Julia Loktev's second feature all the more striking for its commitment to showing just how nerve-wracking it is to actually pull a trigger. Of course, in the context of Day Night, that trigger is also going to do in our protagonist charged with pulling it. Luisa Williams plays a young woman recruited to execute a suicide bombing in the middle of New York City. Loktev's film is intentionally slow going, depicting the long wait Williams' character has in the hotel room before the time comes for her to implement the plan, up to and including the last time she brushes her teeth and disposes of her leftover toothpaste and mouthwash. That focus on the plodding details that lead up to heavy drama only heightens the tension of the big moments when it arrives, as does the fiercely committed performance of Williams.

18th-Dec-2008 05:54 am (UTC)
Aw man... now I gotta see the Black & White version of the Mist.

After I told you that I saw it, you mentioned that you had hoped they'd done it in B&W and I remembered a conversation we had about that very same thing 15 years before. Having only seen the color version, the pale color version... I could see how a de-saturated look would have really enhanced the Sci-Fi Channel-esque effects.

It is a hokey story, right out of the 50s, the Twilight Zone. Marcia Gay Harden's character didn't seem like she belonged in modern times... but it was still a fun popcorn flick.

My greatest experience with this story came 20 years ago when I was 15. One summer, I rode the Amtrak with my sister from somewhere in western Virginia to Chicago. In the middle of the night, I listened to an audio book version of it (in 3-D sound, no less) on my walkman with a train full of people who were trying in vain to sleep while sitting upright in their coach seats. I naturally imagined what it would be like if our train would suddenly be enveloped in the Mist and how my fellow travelers would react. I shared those thoughts with my sister at one point the next morning and she called me a dork.

18th-Dec-2008 03:03 pm (UTC)
Aw man... now I gotta see the Black & White version of the Mist.

Like you're going to feel lousy about seeing The Mist again.

Marcia Gay Harden's character is, on the surface, extreme but believable. I know there are people like that in the world. They spent this last October gathering at Sarah Palin rallies. But the character has that rigid single-mindedness that King is sometime prone to, and Harden just doesn't pitch the performance quite right.
18th-Dec-2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
I really, really need to see The Elephant Man already. Think I've scarcely seen anything at all by David Lynch, philistine that I am.
18th-Dec-2008 08:50 pm (UTC)
Elephant Man is safe Lynch, as is The Straight Story. Much of the rest of it, whether you like it or not, can be kindly described as batshit crazy.
18th-Dec-2008 10:18 pm (UTC) - Jeremy Piven, Thermometer
Funniest goddam thing I've heard in months. God bless David Mamet.
19th-Dec-2008 04:07 am (UTC) - Re: Jeremy Piven, Thermometer
Mamet clearly won that battle, didn't he? To a degree that you wonder how Piven manages to generate any respect whatsoever in the industry for the next five years, at least.
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