by Dan Fields
First published April 25, 2013 by the California Literary Review
Today’s Tom Sawyer (Mean, Mean Pride)
With just three feature films to his name, writer and director Jeff Nichols has already set himself a high standard. Both of his previous works, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, are strong dramas with compelling characters, dark intrigue and impressive economy of style. With Mud, Nichols has progressed from making a good film to making a great film.
Mud concerns a community of Arkansas river folks, and among them a pair of teenage boys who find a dangerous secret hidden downstream. More broadly, it chronicles a young man’s tentative first steps toward understanding how the rest of his life will work. The story hearkens frequently to classics of American literature, most notably the river adventure stories of Mark Twain. Though Nichols, at least in the case of Mud, shows more hope for mankind’s fate than Twain typically did, his storytelling style bears traces of the romantic recklessness and moral uncertainty which the author often underscored as those things which make even the best of us all too human. Continue reading →
by Dan Fields
First published June 23, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Och Aye! A Bonny Wee Fable
Disney and Pixar have taken an unexpected turn by going more classic than usual, but still with a few new quirks. The arrival of Brave prompts reflection on how rarely their films have featured normal human characters, and how few of those characters have been girls. In addition, the movie has a central theme that is fairly novel even in the long history of Disney – a strong mother-daughter relationship, in which the mother is neither a tragic memory or of the “evil step-” persuasion.
Kelly Macdonald leads the cast of Brave as Merida, a headstrong princess of the Scottish Highlands. She is the firstborn and only daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Raised among the wild heather and misty mountains, she has a deeply romantic soul. This is not your typical Disney princess rendition of romance. In fact, it has no essential connection to losing one’s heart to a prince. Adventure is Merida’s first love, and above all she longs for the freedom to determine her own fate. Continue reading →
by Dan Fields
First published April 28, 2012 by the California Literary Review
A Treasure for the Whole Crew. Arr!
Not only is The Pirates! Band Of Misfits ruthlessly silly, it is also educational. Where else could you learn how much buccaneers love ham? Or that they are masters of disguise in all social circles? Or of their immeasurable contributions to natural history? Aardman Studios, the force behind the UK’s wackiest entertainment – Wallace & Gromit, just for a start – turns its attention to the high seas in this ludicrous and side-splitting romp. Continue reading →
by Dan Fields
First published February 26, 2011 by the California Literary Review
Holy Gracious Hell
Taking into account all the casual profanity, copious T&A, comic book violence, awesome cars and impossibly badass gunfights, Drive Angry must surely have been written by the smartest group of fourteen-year-old boys living in America today. This is not meant to sound as snide as it probably does. Assuming that any two of those things just mentioned ever held a prominent place in your adolescent fantasy, you may find yourself thoroughly entertained against your better judgment. Conversely, anyone who has outgrown or never entertained the dream of meeting a gorgeous blonde who drives fast, punches hard and loves to cuss, might find this movie just a touch juvenile. Think of it as a big bucket of Halloween candy for the eye and the lower parts of the brain, and you will be ready to approach it in the proper spirit. Continue reading →
by Dan Fields
First published December 25, 2010 by the California Literary Review
“The Quality of Grit is Not Strain’d…”
Leave it to the Coen brothers to top off the year with a peculiar surprise. True Grit, their new adaptation of the late-60s Charles Portis novel, sidesteps any substantial resemblance to the well-known version starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell (ack!), and Kim Darby (ick!). The Coens play this western adventure fairly straight, with a healthy dose of dark humor, but without the pervading sense of bitter irony which drives films like Fargo, Blood Simple, and No Country For Old Men.
The protagonist, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), is a young girl out to avenge the murder of her father by a man named Chaney (Josh Brolin). Offered her choice of disciplined and fair-minded bounty hunters to help her find the killer, she instead chooses Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed shambling wreck of a man known for his “true grit.” Mattie, who despite all her high talk wants blood spilled even more than she wants justice done, judges him the right man for the job. Continue reading →
Guillermo del Toro has a gift all too rare in movies today – a terrific imagination. Like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam before him, he sometimes gets a little too mired in imagery to pay attention to the rest of the movie, but given the right story he can craft a thing of true beauty.
El Laberinto Del Fauno has had words like “parable,” “fable,” and “fairytale” hung upon it, and it has the right ingredients to be all of these successfully. Its simple and moving story about the power of imagination and spiritual purity over real-world oppression blossoms with both gorgeous and grotesque images. A young girl, caught up in the turbulent fallout of the Spanish Civil War, discovers her link to a magical world away from all the struggle and strife.
Charged with a number of hair-raising quests, she fights not only to save herself but also her mother and unborn brother, living under the thumb of her cruel military stepfather.
This movie hits a lot of high and low notes, and Del Toro’s airtight sense of style transports us seamlessly back and forth from the heartbreaks of everyday life to the fantastic places hidden carefully in the seams of our world.
Fairy tale though it may be, this movie is no lightweight affair. The “real” world of the film is a violent and oppressive place, and the world of the fantastic offers many horrors as well. There is enough of the gruesome and brutal to help us understand how beautiful and essential the alternatives are, especially with lives and souls on the line.
Heavy pressure fell on Marvel Studios when they announced Iron Man as their debut stand-alone feature. The studio’s track record to date features a few breezy highs (Blade, Spider-Man), some pathetic lows (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, Elektra), and a number of efforts stuck somewhere in the middle (The Punisher, X-Men). But when Iron Man‘s arresting ad campaign hit the air, people got excited in a hurry. Fortunately, the film’s director Jon Favreau delivers with an fun-filled knockout punch of a picture, in the process elevating the titular hero from comfortable cult status to high-grossing popularity with movie watchers everywhere.
At a time when most movies are trying to reinterpret storytelling via hipster pop-psychology garbage, Iron Man celebrates the timelessness of the classic hero storyline. Character has brush with death, becomes disillusioned with world, learns that said world does not revolve around him, learns to make sacrifices, uses newfound powers to make a difference.
A long-anticipated creative reunion between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, this latest Indy adventure arrived with all the proper fanfare and fuss. However, for all its size and epic trappings it runs well short on substance compared to its ancestors, and the plot is a watery disappointment.
To start with, Lucas weighs his own story down with the same compulsion for “clever” references to the previous films that so heavily plagued his last three Star Wars efforts. Perhaps blame for this hangs more heavily on screenwriter David Koepp, but anyone who has seen Star Wars will understand that Lucas set himself up adequately for such an accusation.