Monday, January 24, 2011

The King's Speech

Having unfavorably reviewed "Dutch Girls" I thought it fair to give Colin Firth his due . . .

Film Review: The King’s Speech (2010)
Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay by David Seidler.

The harshest criticism of “The King’s Speech” is that it is solid. “Entertainment Weekly” calls it satisfying but square. I think this means that it is a film with no surprises. As with many historical dramas, the end of the story is already known to us; it is the journey there that matters.

Executed with delightful precision, this is an actor’s film dominated by a troupe of actors who always hit their marks. That alone, to watch such skilled performers become so completely the characters they play, gives the film a nearly documentary veracity. We literally become flies on the walls of a behind-the-scenes drama about one man’s struggle with stuttering.

The importance of his impediment comes with the importance of the man. Shakespeare knew that truly great tragedy involved potentially great people who found themselves in situations far greater than their own lives. Tragedy was the arena of kings. As we meet Prince Albert, he is not yet king but we already know he will be -- and King of Great Britain when the Second World War broke out. The gravitas underscores Albert’s personal struggle with the demon that plagues him -- his inability to communicate effectively or with the confidence of a Royal.

Albert is the second son of King George V, the king who guided Britain through the First World War and can see the second one coming. George is charismatic and confident, but troubled by the prospect of who will succeed him, eldest son David. Albert is second in line. When George dies, David becomes King Edward VIII, perhaps the least suited individual ever to take the throne. When he abdicates within the year in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Albert becomes the reluctant but necessary king, taking the name George VI.

Most of his reluctance comes from his stammer. Even as Prince Albert he was infinitely better suited to being monarch than his brother, something even their father recognized. But he cannot make a speech. No doctor or therapist has been able to help. Enter Lionel Logue, an Australian born speech specialist with his own ideas of how -- and where -- to practice. The film focuses mainly on the efforts of both men to become a team, one who is destined for greatness regardless of his own fears and the other who gladly would have embraced greatness if it had befallen him but would never attain it.

Through a series of witty and touching encounters we peer inside both men’s very souls. It is a remarkable thing to witness, and both men are so sympathetic that we find ourselves caring deeply about the outcome,. And would have, I think, even if Albert were not the man who would be king. It is a story of two men of totally different backgrounds united by a common purpose, who become friends. At times it is heartbreaking, particularly in the moments Albert reveals deep hurts within himself, but never sentimental.

At this writing Colin Firth has already won the Golden Globe for his performance as Albert and is the frontrunner for the Oscar. Geoffrey Rush was nominated for the Golden Globe for his role and Lionel Logue, in a supporting role, but the award went to Christian Bale for his work in “The Fighter.” An Oscar nomination for Rush would be well earned. Firth dominates the film as a complex, deeply flawed leader-in-the-making whose flaw is glaringly, embarrassingly visible. Rush is beautifully pained yet both exuberant and patient as Lionel, a remarkable, fiercely intelligent man whom time and society had ignored until now.

Helena Bonham Carter is loving and supportive, and regal, as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (mother of Elizabeth II and later much beloved Queen Mum). Jennifer Ehle is equally supportive in the smaller role as Mrs. Logue. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of leading actors taking marvelous supporting roles: Sir Michael Gambon as George V; Guy Pearce as the whiny, self-absorbed David/Edward VIII; Anthony Edwards as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin; Derek Jacoby as the manipulative Archbishop of Canterbury; and Timothy Spall, with a rare chance to play the good guy, doing a fine turn as Winston Churchill.

Albert became king in 1936. But it is the speech he gave on September 3, 1939, that climaxes the film. The speech announces to all citizens of the United Kingdom that Germany and England are at war for the second time in his lifetime. In it he addresses his subjects, his people, at the gravest moment of their history and must show both his concern for their future and confidence in ultimate victory. With Lionel Logue at his side, he speaks with all due deliberation, and not a single stammer, for nine minutes, and is truly the leader his people need at that grave moment.

One critic noted that the film did not address David’s sympathies with Germany, which indeed would have been interesting but distracting to Albert’s story. It is also noted that the timeline is compressed for dramatic effect, that Logue actually began working with Albert in 1926, much earlier than the film implies. Another critic mentioned that Churchill did not have as obvious a presence in the 1936 court as the film suggests. It is known that Churchill was very fond of George VI and suspicious of Edward VIII, and that Churchill’s admonitions regarding Hitler went virtually ignored until it was too late, but adding his presence to the film gives historical recognition for many of us who are vague on the inner workings of British politics in the time leading up to the war.

Otherwise, the film is as accurate as any drama based on factual events can be. And as compelling to watch.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dutch Girls, the movie

Once upon a time I promised myself to throw myself whole heartedly into blogging -- anything to be able to write every day. Looking back, I have not done very well, averaging about five blogs a month. That is not going to change anytime soon, I fear, as my life rushes toward a major move to the beautiful and exotic country of Montana. But once I am settled, I hope to be more dedicated to this fun task to which I have committed myself. And maybe, just maybe, I will have more of you following me if I can find the right sorts of things to say.

For today, though, I just want to offer for your enjoyment the following review. I offer it for two reasons, one, that it is shorter than most of my reviews, and two, that it proves that -- contrary to my own opinion -- I don't always like everything I read, hear or see. Here goes:

Dutch Girls (1985) Directed by Charles Foster. Screenplay by William Boyd.

Not every project even a great actor enters into can be a masterpiece, or even a memorable role. There will always be those parts he nor she wished they had never done, or wished had been done better. This is true particularly of their earlier works, before they made a name for themselves and could afford the luxury of selectivity. Tony Curtis once remarked how fortunate he felt he was to have been involved in a dozen or so worthwhile films in a career that spanned decades. Mandy Patinkin once commented how fortunate he was to be part of just one in particular -- it made his career worthwhile.

Having just seen “The King’s Speech” in the theater, which will stand as one of Colin Firth’s best roles, I rented “Dutch Girls.” “Dutch Girls,” released in 1985 when Firth was just coming into his own at age 25, appealed to me for two reasons: first, my affinity for anything to do with my native country, no matter how frivolous; and second, my admiration for Firth as an actor. And though Firth is the best thing about this earlier movie, unfortunately the film itself set low goals and reached them all.

“Dutch Girls” is a coming of age story about a boys’ field hockey team in England that goes across the channel to play exhibition games with teams in Holland. But the boys can only think about Dutch Girls, who are reputed to be easy. These boys frankly want to smoke, drink, and get laid, and the matches, much to their irritating coach’s consternation, take a far back seat on the traveling bus. The fact that the girls are nowhere as easy as the boys expect, coupled with the stuffiness of the boys themselves, should make for a fine comedy of errors. The errors occur, but largely are not funny.

Firth’s character, Neil Truelove, is the most interesting -- an insecure and shy young man who always steps back for his best friend. It is Firth’s awakening that we witness. The girl he meets and becomes attracted to is sweet, smart, self-assured and patient. She will help him grow up, but not in the way he originally sought -- by treasuring him for himself, and by honestly helping him figure out that his best friend is no friend at all.

Timothy Spall plays Lyndon, an oafish slob with no regard for anyone’s personal space or property. Neil and Lyndon are housed together with the family of one of the opposing players, and while Neil acts with decorum, Lyndon cannot even be bothered to flush the toilet. Yet at the end it is Lyndon who acts like a true friend, helping complete Neil’s short journey to self-realization.

All this should be either very funny or very endearing, or both, but is neither. It is played more like a ribald juvenile comedy without any zest or sex. The sequences in Amsterdam’s Red Light District may be the only truly real part of the film -- they make sex for rent look as sleazy and uninviting as it truly is. Yet this sequence is also uninvolving, frenetic and even irritating to watch.

Perhaps my biggest complaint with the film is that it is irritating. There is potential to really explore these characters, even in so short a time frame, yet the only character who grows even a little is Neil. There is no depth beyond that, and I felt as though I were nothing more than a still shot camera taking snapshots of a brief holiday in the rain.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

I wrote this poem thirty years ago, when I was at the height of my "religious period," if you can call that chapter of my faith journey that. Odd to think that recent events in my life have made me look back at earlier work with a small degree of admiration and not a small degree of agreement. Not to put too fine a point on it, lets just say my faith journey continues -- call it my journey to spiritual awareness if you like. This poem basically says I am grateful to recognize that I am on such a trek, and that it is the trek that matters.

Here goes:

Now, when I talk to you
My heart is filled with thanks.
There are times I feel desperate
And alone and very very scared
And petition you to please come help.
There are times I want success
By yardsticks of wealth and fame
And petition you to move mountains
On Publisher’s Row
On my behalf.
I ask so much of you that sometimes
Just once in a while
I want to offer thanks.
You gave me a will and a mind that ask
And you lend me an ear that listens.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Wall

The Wall is a novel by Jeff Long, published in 2006. This is my review for Helium:

Some writers surprise you. I read “The Wall,” by Jeff Long, because I had read and thoroughly enjoyed three other books by him, “The Decent,” “Year Zero,” and “Reckoning.” Each of those was decidedly different from the others, yet unified by a strong sense of both story and character and a deft hand at holding back the key strokes until just the right moment, though the clues are there. “The Wall” continues the trend that Long has established in his writing.

If you had told me that I would enjoy a full length novel about mountain climbing -- let alone hate when it was over -- I would have scoffed. Mountain climbing is not a subject that calls to me, possibly because I have a healthy fear of heights. So a climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan, even one that turns into a desperate rescue mission, would seem to me worthy of a short story at best. But Long weaves his magic, mostly through the perceptions -- eyes, ears, tastes, smells and mostly touch -- of Hugh Glass, a 50 something mountain climbing veteran looking for one last hurrah with his best buddy, Lewis. Yep, that’s Hughie and Louie -- but these guys are no joke.

They mastered El Cap decades ago, and are legend for it even though others came after, went farther, and did it faster. They were pioneers. Now they want to retrace their steps and forget all the years in between.

Hugh’s wife Annie died in the desert a little while before the story begins. Lewis’ wife Rachael wants to leave him, has outgrown him. For Lewis, the climb is an odd chance to win her back. For Hugh, the demons he keeps at bay are even more personal -- and buried so deep that Lewis cannot manage get Hugh to talk about it. Although Lewis wants to act as friend and listener, and Hugh has thoughts of helping Lewis accept Rachael‘s leaving, the code of “real men“ applies, and both men are more comfortable discussing the logistics of their climb than the tragedies in their lives.. Both men seek to escape their sadness at the wall. More, to transcend it.

But a trio of female climbers gets in trouble and Hugh finds himself in the middle of a rescue attempt spearheaded by young Augustine, a man with demons of his own. One of these is Andie, one of the three women in peril. In an environment where even the smallest mistake can be fatal, these men must climb the sheer El Cap -- the Wall -- and retrace the steps that brought the women into mortal danger. When they reach their goal, the danger is just beginning.

Long weaves a spellbinding tale, mostly because Hugh Glass himself is so stoic and closed-mouthed. Yet Glass is our point of view. We see the world as he sees it, we feel every inch of the Wall as he climbs it, and even the uninitiated can understand the process as he describes it. The intimacy is powerful and makes the climax unforgettable.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dirty Harry Turns 40

In honor of the film's 40th anniversary, and in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I offer for your consideration the following review.

DIRTY HARRY, 1971. Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, and (uncredited) John Milius and Terence Malick.

“Dirty Harry” is a remarkable film, one of those rare cinematic events that extends and defines a genre. 40 years old this year, the film has not aged because we are still asking the same basic questions it poses. The film has been lauded as one of America’s finest efforts and has spawned a great many similar stories, including three sequels.

Starting with Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt,” in 1968, stories centering on hard boiled cops who disregarded the rules and the orders of their superiors became a fan favorite. These films included “Coogan’s Bluff,” which was released the same year as “Bullitt” and also starred Clint Eastwood with Don Siegel directing, and Academy Award winning best film for 1971, “The French Connection.” The ultimate car chase sequence in “Bullitt” became a standard others tried to equal or top, but in “Dirty Harry” the action, though none stop, does not depend on imitation.

Clint Eastwood portrays Harry Callahan, another maverick cop patrolling the streets of San Francisco in his own way. For Harry, justice does not require kid gloves in the application -- Miranda is a hindrance to be avoided. In many ways, Harry is an extension of the character Deputy Sheriff Walt Coogan, but here even more of a “loose cannon.“ Facing a brutal killer named Scorpio, Harry proceeds with just the right combination of righteousness and revenge to satisfy all the members of the audience who believe in the ideals the justice system stands for, but realize that system’s shortcomings when it comes to protecting its citizens instead of its sociopaths.

The dilemma is broadly stated here. Just how far should and can you go against the rights of a suspected killer in order to save innocent lives? The audience may wonder at the answer. Harry Callahan has no doubts.

Scorpio starts a grim and deadly game of cat and mouse by coldly killing a young woman swimming laps in a pool with a difficult shot from his high powered rifle. He leaves a ransom note demanding $100,000 or the next victim will die. Harry finds the note and is assigned to the case. After a diverting but defining robbery sequence that even plugs Eastwood’s own directorial debut on the marquis of a local movie theater, the chase begins in earnest as Scorpio leaves an increasingly brutal trail behind him, then takes Callahan’s pursuit as an opportunity to flaunt his own invincibility. The end result may be predictable, but the journey is harrowing and well told.

New York City, and then Seattle was supposed to be the setting for the story, but the filmmakers decided on San Francisco instead. The City’s recognizable scenery, plus the success of “Bullitt” three years before, probably drove the change in locale.

Eastwood is perfectly cast. The original concept for Harry Callahan intended to portray him as a grizzled 50ish veteran police officer jaded by his experience. Among those considered for the role were Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. Wayne actively campaigned for the role, but at 63 was considered a bit too old. Sinatra became the frontrunner, but had broken his wrist while filming “The Manchurian Candidate” eight years earlier and found it painful to wield the trademark .44 Magnum Callahan handles like a toy. And with the success, both critical and financial, of “Bullitt,” making the main character a younger, cooler individual offered the filmmakers the chance to appeal to a wider demographic as well. With his steely eyes and quiet menace, Eastwood made Harry Callahan his signature role.

The character of Scorpio is one of the greatest villains in film history, and Andy Robinson, at the time an unknown actor with an angelic face to contrast with the hellish brutality of this killer, is spellbinding. What motivates him is not the story here. What he does, how he does it, and how to stop him are the driving forces in Callahan’s story. What Scorpio is -- a monster -- is abundantly, convincingly clear. Amazingly, the part was offered first to Audie Murphy, but Murphy was killed in a plane crash before he could answer. Robinson played the part so convincingly that the real life pacifist found himself receiving death threats and had to change his phone number to an unlisted one.

“Dirty Harry” forgets the car chase. Instead, it places the most innocent among us -- our children -- in jeopardy at the hands of someone lacking any moral code. This is a brilliant stroke: no society feels more vulnerable than when its children are at risk, which makes the undertone of the film, the underlying theme all the more real and important. By the dramatic conclusion, we find ourselves agreeing with Harry that he must do whatever he has to in order to stop an uncontrollable monster, procedure be damned. In a society squeaking with moral ambivalence, this film poses interesting questions on what is going too far, with slam-bang action to boot.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Poem: Poverty

For your consideration, a brief tome:

Poverty can be liberating
But I would not recommend it.
No alarm clock in the morning,
No uniforms to fit,
No cable TV ads or news bytes here,
No wireless internet.
The world goes on without me
And I don’t mind a bit.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

John Wayne, An Appreciation

For your consideration, the following article I published on Helium today. Politics aside.

John Wayne, Actor (An Appreciation)

John Wayne was the definitive Western Hero. From his early years as one of the “Sons of the Pioneers” to his breakout role in “Stagecoach” in 1939, and all the way through to his last film, “The Shootist,” Wayne was the personification of Western Swagger -- a combination of confidence and righteousness that could never be defeated. Eventually he only had to play himself: just his name at the top of the marquis told the audience what to expect. In that sense Wayne, born Marion Martin, became the stereotype of the Victorious American Hero. His other roles, even in war epics, did not bring out that same reassuring, old shoe comfort of knowing what to expect in a John Wayne Western -- lots of action with Wayne standing tall as the gun smoke cleared. His image became so indelible that even his outfit stayed the same from film to film, character to character.

A John Wayne character was simple, straightforward, and sure. And yet, among his dizzying body of work, there were many standout performances of characters layered in complexity, even downright ugliness, that allowed Wayne to portray a character unlike and beyond his persona. Knowing the actor is Wayne colors our appreciation and enjoyments of these roles now, where Wayne is the actor instead. But these are stellar performances in masterful films. For your consideration (listed by year of release):

“Stagecoach” (1939), directed by John Ford, is one of ‘39’s bumper crop of great films that included “Gone With The Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” it also marked Wayne’s emergence as a star, playing the young, wronged man on a vengeance trail that gets hijacked by his efforts to help his fellow passengers survive a harrowing run through hostile Indian territory.

“Red River” (1948), directed by Howard Hawkes, is my second favorite Wayne film of all time. It is his most complex performance as an uncompromising and often cruel tyrant of a cattle boss during a drive. In a film filled with rough men and sharp edges, Wayne’s performance is spot on and courageously unsympathetic.

“Fort Apache” (1948), directed by John Ford. In this brilliant story of life at the edge of the frontier lived under the command of a blind megalomaniac, Wayne gets to play the more understanding junior officer to Henry Fonda against type as the tyrannical, ill-advised cavalry commander who foolishly leads half his command into disaster. The balancer between the two men is perfect.

“Hondo” (1953), directed by John Farrow. This film may have gone a long way to creating the persona Wayne eventually would become -- self assured, rigged individualist with an unyielding moral compass. Army scout Wayne comes across a woman and her son who seem oblivious to an impending Apache uprising. The horsemanship alone is thrilling, and the scenery breathtaking in a taut, well told story.

“The Searchers” (1956), directed by John Ford. Not only is this my favorite John Wayne film, it is one of the greatest American films of all time. Wayne portrays a hardened Civil War veteran, bitter from his losses, who takes his nephew on a relentless quest to rescue his niece, kidnapped by Indians during a raid on his family’s home. The film is brutal and honest, showing the humanity and inhumanity on both sides. And Wayne’s turn as fractious Ethan Edwards is spellbinding up to the very last scene.

“Rio Bravo” (1959), directed by Howard Hawkes. This is one of several virtually interchangeable John Wayne oaters. The plots are all similar with Wayne in the same shirt, cowboy hat and bandanna and wielding a Winchester with his handgun gently riding his hip, bringing or upholding justice with the help of an assortment of secondary characters that always includes one has-been and/or drunk who rises to the occasion and achieves a level of redemption. This one, with the help of Dean Martin as the drunk (yes, he could act), Ricky Nelson as the arrogant young gun, Walter Brennan as the cantankerous deputy (does anyone do cantankerous better?), and Angie Dickinson as the way too young love interest, is the best of this crop.

“The Alamo” (1960), directed by John Wayne. For a long time this film was looked down upon as a bit of bombastic self-indulgence. The truth is, this was Wayne’s personal homage to American heroism, with himself in the director’s chair as well as portraying Davy Crockett. There are more than one pretty speech, and it takes a while to get to the final battle, but that battle is rousing, tragic and heroic all at the same time. For a study in heroism, it is interesting that Wayne chose a battle that ended in defeat. The men who died there were America’s 300 Spartans. And though Wayne did not have to stretch to portray Crockett, he did one thing admirably well. Casting himself and casting Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie lent credibility to the film because Crockett and Bowie each was fifty years old at the Alamo.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), directed by John Ford, is another of the great American films, an amazing study of new versus old and the true nature of doing what’s right. Wayne plays the odd man out in a romantic triangle who rises above his beliefs and feelings to help Jimmy Stewart bring civilization to the West and earn himself a grand political career in the bargain. Lee Marvin is a standout in the title role\.

“True Grit” (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, gets an honorable mention here because Wayne earned an Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn, the one eyed codger who becomes protector of a vengeance seeking 14 year old girl. I saw nothing remarkable in the film and believe the Academy was rewarding Wayne for his body of work. I thought Wayne was being a bit too much Wayne and the action more improbable than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. And with the new version out, it seems certain that these filmmakers missed much of the wealth in Charles Portis’ 1968 novel.

“The Shootist” (1976), directed by Don Siegel. Wayne is an aging gunfighter dying of cancer, who manages to find a way to go out in a blaze of gunfire. The character is a stoic, sad, old, finished man looking for one instant of his long gone youth to relive. With Jimmy Stewart as the doctor who diagnoses him and Lauren Bacall as the boarding house matron who rents him a room are wonderful, and Ron Howard -- who has often said he learned much about filmmaking from working with Wayne on this film -- plays Bacall’s son, an impressionable youth who relishes in Wayne’s violent past and present as much as his mother abhors it. This was Wayne’s 184th and last film, a fitting end for a man who died of stomach cancer in June 1979.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dutch Pride, American Style

Just when I thought justice was taking a vacation in America, Baseball's Hall of Fame has finally elected Bert Blyleven to its honored shrine. This is the greatest honor in Baseball, sort of an immortality. It took 14 years to get there -- I think after 15 a player becomes relegated to the old timers committee. So, bully for you, Bert!

Blyleven is a partioular favorite of mine, of course. He was born in Zeist, Holland. His parents immigrated to Canada when he was two, then to the US. I believe that Blyleven, who won 287 games in the Majors, often playing for second division teams and saddled with hard-luck losses, is the only Dutch born member of the Hall.

Go, Orange! Conquer the world! Well, maybe we don't want the headaches So just have fun!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How To Train Your Dragon

Animated feature length films always have provided movie makers with considerable freedom to tell their stories in fantastic ways, although, almost by definition, these stories are geared toward younger audiences. Still, two factors are essential to lasting success. First, the material has to work on more than one level, appealing to young viewers and their parents. Second, and paramount, the story has to be a good one.

Walt Disney Studios had a virtual monopoly on animated motion pictures until single cell animation became too costly while cheaper to produce programming invaded television, allowing young viewers to engage with a less critical eye and a shorter attention span, and their parents to ignore the proceedings altogether. Family night at the movies was dying along with the G-Rated film.

It may be fitting that Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is credited by many with starting a resurgence. But it was that studio’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which became the first animated film in history to be nominated in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, that gave animation total legitimacy as a current art form. Then CGI (computer graphic imaging) smashed open the floodgates with quality artwork and effects. When aided by quality writing, something the people at Pixar do consistently, animated films became mainstream entertainment for all ages, whether mixed with live action or not. The Oscars created a new category just for animated feature length films; last year, Paxar’s “UP!” was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, winning the later.

The key is story. Fantastic animation cannot surpass a terrible, dull or unbelievable script, but an odd or mediocre animation effort can still touch our hearts or our heads if the story is compelling. This year’s early animation hit, “How to Train Your Dragon,” proves the point. Although it is likely that Pixar’s “Toy Story 3-D” will win best animated film this year, my vote would be for “Dragon,” a product of the less consistent but sometimes brilliant people at DreamWorks. Visually, the film is sharp, smart and stunning, but it is the complex storyline, presented simply, that enthralls us. I did not see it in 3-D and can imagine the thrilling scenes of flying dragons and bursting fireballs would have been spectacular, but, as with any good film, “Dragon” does not depend on gadgets to work.

The story, by co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and writer Will Davies, is based on a novel by Cressida Cowell. In a mythical corner of Scandinavia, Vikings and dragons are at war. Young Hiccup, son of the chief, discovers he cannot kill a dragon. Instead, he learns how to be a dragon whisperer, which threatens to make him more of an outcast than he already is. While his fellow Vikings lust for dragon blood in what they believe is a righteous cause, Hiccup learns that the dragons have their own problem, one that has caused them to act aggressively toward the humans. But he cannot convince his father, or the elders, that dragons are not the enemies the Vikings believe them to be. The consequences could spell disaster for everyone, humans and dragons alike.

Many themes find resonance in the telling. Cruelty is cruelty, even again your enemy. Loyalty does not always mean agreeing with your leaders; sometime opposing them in favor of what is right is true loyalty although you might be smacked down for it. And judging anyone, no matter who or what they are, without all the facts is not only unjust, but dangerous. Finally, right will prevail if we work together to achieve it. These are powerful; ideas that no one is too young to discover.

Add to the mix a young crop of aspiring dragon hunters who themselves are more misfit than Viking, yet become the cornerstone of the film’s dramatic resolution, and a wide variety of dragon types, shapes, and sizes, and you get a wild, fun-filled story with a strong set of messages about tolerance and understanding that does not have to preach to win its point, or the audience.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Princess Bride

Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by William Goldman, from his novel.

In the mid-1970’s Diane and I somehow got a hold of a small paperback by William Goldman. This is the same William Goldman who demanded -- and got -- $400,000 to write the screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in one blow finally getting screenwriters their due forevermore. After all, where would a movie be without a script? An Academy Award winning script at that and nothing but happy endings.

“The Princess Bride: was a horse of another color, a careful, cunning tongue in cheek fractured fairy tale. Di read it first, laughing out loud next to me. “What?” I’d say and she’d tease, “You’ll just have to wait,” to which I’d reply, “Well, hurry up, then!”

When I finally got my turn I too would LOL and she’d ask, “Where are you?” or, “Have you met Miracle Max yet?”

My favorite feature of the book was that the passages in the real world, with grandpa reading to his ill grandson, were printed in red ink, which seemed so unreal by comparison to the expected bold black ink used for the narrative of young Wesley the farmhand and Princess Buttercup.

Alas, that edition is long ago toast. I have not seen any new edition with this delightful feature.

Fourteen years after its publication, Goldman adapted his novel into a screenplay for Rob Reiner. The 1987 film has become a fan favorite, a charming and funny spoof of fairy tales that stands tall among them at the same time.

True love dominates the film, but not in a yucky kid un-friendly way. A young boy, at home with an undisclosed malady, reluctantly allows his grandfather read him the same story grandpa used to read to his son, the boy’s father. Before long, the kid is hooked and so are we.

Wesley and Buttercup fall in love. Feeling unworthy of her, Wesley, in true fairy tale fashion, goes off to make his fortune in the world with full intent to come back and marry the girl. Word gets back to Buttercup that Wesley’s ship was attacked by Dread Pirate Roberts, who, it is known, takes no prisoners. Presuming Wesley dead, she vows never to love again.

Five years pass. The Prince of Florin decides to marry a commoner, as is his right no matter the girl’s feelings, and chooses Buttercup. It is a ploy, of course. She is expendable in his plans to wage war on neighboring Guilder. Three mercenaries kidnap her to put the plan in motion, but a mysterious and dangerous man foils their plans and rescues Buttercup. By accident he reveals his true identity to her -- not Dread Pirate Roberts as she thought, but her long lost true love Wesley.

Prince Humperdinck captures Wesley and takes Buttercup back. He orders Wesley tortured to death. With the help of two of the original mercenaries, even though he is mostly dead, Wesley rescues Buttercup once again and all will be well.

It is the telling that is so much fun, ripe with humor and filled with honor. And love. A wonderful subplot involves Indigo Montoya, one of the kidnappers, on a quest to avenge the murder of his father years before by a “six fingered man.” that man turns out to be the prince’s henchman. The highlight of the film comes as Indigo repeats the mantra that has kept him going: “My name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Stage great Mandy Patinkin plays Montoya. His adversary is played with a brilliant combination of bravado and cowardice by Christopher Guest. Andre The Giant plays Fezzik and Wallace Shawn is Vizzini, the other two members of the kidnapping trio. Gary Elwes plays Wesley with all the confidence of a leading man -- one wonders why his career has had so few leading men to portray. Robin Wright is Buttercup in a breakout performance. Chris Sarandon is wonderfully evil as Prince Humperdinck. In a delightful cameo Billy Crystal is Miracle Max and Carol Cane his wife, Valerie, the wizard and witch who help restore Wesley to life. Fred Savage as the young boy and Peter Falk as Grandpa frame the story artfully. Under the deft direction of Rob Reiner, the cast is perfect in this at once romp, at once genre story.

The music is by Mark Knopfler, the eclectic force behind Dire Straights , songwriter and film score composer. The song “Storybook Love” was written and performed by Willy DeVille, taken at Knopfler’s suggestion as the theme song for the movie, and earned an Oscar nomination for best song.

The Twentieth Anniversary edition has a trio of extras that are worth your time, none more so than when Mandy Patinkin, holding back tears, marvels out loud at the realization that, as an actor, he got to be part of something memorable and special at least once in his career.

It was “The Princess Bride.” If you never have seen it, treat yourself. If you have seen it, revisit the film. You will be amused and charmed.