Noah

Noah posterEveryone seems to have an opinion about Noah. Some say it’s a fresh and creative, yet appropriate, adaptation of the celebrated story.  Others say it borders on blasphemy. Having seen the film, I can say that one thing it is definitely not is blasphemous.

Which is good, I suppose. But just because a movie isn’t blasphemous doesn’t mean that it’s good. The sad thing is, this movie showed so much potential. You can tell that Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel studied their Bibles while writing the script. There is an abundance of creative interpretations, such as rock monsters as the Nephalim and ice age animals boarding the ark, beautiful images, such as stars visible in the daytime sky (which may have been a reality in the pre-flood atmosphere), and some truly touching subplots. The best of these is the one in which Noah’s family rescues a girl named Ila from a massacre and raises her as their own. Years later, Ila (Emma Watson) and Shem (Douglas Booth), Noah’s eldest son, are in love. However, due to a sword wound, Ila can’t have children.  As the ark is being built, she wrestles with her inability to repopulate the earth at this crucial time, and wonders why she has a place on the ark. There is a beautiful scene in which Noah (Russell Crow) comforts her, and the crowning moment comes when Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) “blesses” her and takes away her sterility, after which she runs into Shem’s arms.

Film Bible Blockbusters

“You’re dressed strangely. Are you one of the watchers?”

There are a few problems early on. For instance, Noah gets the idea that the purpose of the ark is to save the animals because “they still live as they did in the garden,” despite the fact that animals routinely tear each other limb from limb. The movie pushes the idea that Noah and his family are vegetarians, and that that is part of their righteousness, yet Noah thinks nothing of hacking down human beings at several points in the movie. It’s very unlikely that the real Noah was a vegetarian, given that God told him to bring extra animals onto the ark for food, (Gen. 7:2) and that Abel had been sacrificing animals to God nine generations earlier. (Gen. 4:4, 5) But that’s okay. I can forgive some Ferngully-esque nonsense for an otherwise good movie.

Most of the way through, I was enjoying this movie, problems notwithstanding. My hopes reached their highest about midway, when Noah ventures into a camp where Tubal-Cain, the villain, is building an army, hoping to find wives for Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll). There he sees the extent of human depravity, witnessing infanticide, cannibalism, rape, child slavery, and *gasp!* meat-eating.  Aronofsky and Handel had opened the movie with a visual retelling of man’s fall into sin, and were even brave enough to use the word “sin” as the explanation of what’s wrong with our world. I was impressed. Now I saw this graphic depiction of sin’s effects (It’s amazing this movie didn’t get an R rating). Noah is watching a man commit a sin, and suddenly, the man’s face becomes his own. This is immediately followed by a vision of the snake in the garden. “Wow,” I thought. “Are they really going to go there? Are they really going to point to the Gospel with this movie?”

Noah snakes

Indiana Jones would not have lasted on the ark. Those aren’t tree trunks.

After all, the flood narrative is one of the four pivotal stories in the Bible, the first being the story of how man disobeyed God and brought suffering into a perfect world. The second is the flood story, in which God destroyed all of humanity except one righteous family in order to start the world over. And it worked, for awhile. But as we saw in the above scene, sin is inborn in every human being, and it soon resurfaced. This lead to the third pivotal story, in which God selected a nation, Israel, for himself, and gave them the Law, instructing them on how to live like righteous people. And it worked, for awhile. But the Law is powerless to bring life or renewal; it can only bring death. Sinful Man cannot keep it. Thus, there was a need for the fourth pivotal story, the Gospel. Because we could not keep the law, it was necessary for God to become a man two thousand years ago, and to live a perfect life, keeping the Law for us, pay the penalty we could not pay, dying a death more horrible that you or I can really imagine, and conquer death, rising from the grave. It is by this that “a multitude no one can count” (Rev. 7:9, 10) will be restored to their pre-fall glory, and that there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

But that’s all pretty heavy for a Hollywood movie.

Noah returns to his family, still working on the ark, and callously reports “There will be no wives!” and orders his family to get back to work. Noah tells Naameh, his wife (Jennifer Connelly) that evil is present in all of them, sympathetic and unsympathetic characters alike. As proof of this, he asks her “is there anything you would not do for your sons, good or bad? We would both choose to kill for our sons.” Of course, Noah has previously thought little of killing men for less than his sons, so I’m not sure why it’s such a shocking revelation to him now. We eventually learn that Noah has concluded humanity must be snuffed out so that the animals will be left in peace, but we’ll get to that later.

Methusela

Anthony Hopkins does well as tender patriarch Methusela, but there’s still something creepy about hearing Hannibal Lecter’s voice say to children “come closer.”

Ham, who looks to be about 14, cannot except this and runs toward the camp to find himself a wife. He eventually stumbles into a ditch full of bodies, where he finds a girl about his age named Na’el (Madison Davenport), who is terrified of him and swings a rock at him to drive him off. Given Ham’s age, and the urgency of the situation, I half expected to see him physically overpower her, then drag her by her hair back to the ark. However, we are treated to a couple of surprisingly moving scenes, in which Ham feeds Na’el and comforts her in the ditch, as she refuses to leave her dead family. Only when the rain begins to fall does he insist she come with him. The two of them run through the woods to the ark, not far ahead of Tubal-Cain’s advancing army. Na’el becomes caught in a leg trap set for an animal. Ham can’t pry it open, but he refuses to leave her. Until Noah shows up. Our hero pries the two screaming children apart and drags Ham away. We then get a cringe-inducing shot of Na’el reaching after them, before she is trampled to death by the army.

Watching this movie is a bit like watching The Passion of the Christ, or a Michael Bay movie, in that you get the sense that you are being punished for something, but you don’t know what. It’s like every moment is calculated to stick a knife in you and twist it, and the bombardment of violence, misery and heartbreak begins to feel like clubs hitting your head from all directions, and you want to shout “Make it stop! Whatever I did, I’m sorry!”

Noah and Ham reach the ark, and there is a pretty awesome battle scene between Tubal-Cain’s army and the rock giants, after which, the world gets swamped and Noah’s family hunkers in the ark. This is the point where the movie plunges irretrievably downhill. Noah, still believing Ila to be sterile, explains to everyone that they will be the last people to live on the earth; there will be no reproduction. That way humans will not “ruin the garden” again. A few days later, Ila becomes pregnant. For some reason, she, Shem and Naameh are stupid enough not only to tell Noah, but tell him immediately, when he’s obviously working through some issues. Noah throws a tantrum, pleads with God (it’s unclear if he gets a response) and finally announces that if Ila’s baby is a girl (who could mature into a mother), she will be cut down at the moment of her birth. The last act of this film is absolute agony to sit through, as it follows nine months of screaming and yelling about this in the confines of the ark. I will say one thing for this movie, the cast does a fantastic job with what they have to work with. You have to wonder what they must have been thinking, belting out the lines of such a contrived and sadistic script. There are no words to describe how bad it all is. I spent the last act asking “Why, Aronofsky, why this?” First, there’s no support for it in Scripture. God expressly told Noah to build the ark to insure that earth would be repopulated with men as well as animals, and after the flood, explicitly gave men permission to eat animals (if he hadn’t already). (Gen. 9:1-3)

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Darren Aronofsky is coming! All who wish to avoid embarrassment, into the ark!

Second, even if you ignore Scripture, it makes no sense. Why would Noah leap so quickly to such an extreme conclusion? There’s nothing in the film to suggest God has told him man must die out. And even if he does kill Ila’s baby, what’s to stop Ila and Shem from running away after the flood and having more babies? They’ve got the whole globe to choose from. And if Naameh wants her other sons to have children badly enough (and she clearly does), she may well copulate with them herself. Don’t look at me like that, it’s been done. Desperate times call for creepy measures. To accomplish his ends, Noah would have to kill everybody.

Third, it’s not as if this movie doesn’t shove enough horror and suffering in our faces (as it must). There is another side to the flood story. And it was taking shape in the first act. Noah’s relationship with his sons. Methusela’s tenderness with his great-grandchildren. Naameh’s adoptive care of Ila. Amid the wickedness of the world, this movie started with a beautiful depiction of familial and adoptive love. And that was exactly what God was trying to save when he told Noah to build the ark. (Gen. 7:1) God knew better than Noah that Man was inherently sinful. (Gen. 8:21) He was still giving Man a chance to start over.

But the touching story from the first act is out the window now. Ila gives birth to twin baby girls. Naameh comments that “He (God) sent us what we needed.” So … Ham and Japheth are supposed to marry their nieces? And very young nieces at that? I know I said desperate times, creepy measures, but why do we need this in the story? Considering the fact that Noah was 600 years old at the time of the flood (Gen. 7:6), (Shem was 98) his sons were most likely grown men, with grown women already at their sides. Why, Aronofsky, why? This leads up to what is supposed to be the climactic moment, when Noah has his dagger raised over Ila’s twin daughters, and — big surprise – he can’t bring himself to do it. The ark runs aground, the waters go down, and they start to rebuild. There is a scene where, for no clear reason, Ham packs up and walks away from the rest, implicitly never to return — so what was even the point of the twin baby girls?

But what about that bold and visceral depiction of the sinfulness of man? Noah is, after all, correct that evil is just as present in him and in his family as in Tubal-Cain, and that killing 99% of humanity will not end sin. Is this film going to at least hint at the coming of Christ? Noah and Ila sit on a beach. Ila says “The choice (of whether to kill her children) was put in your hands for a reason. He showed you the wickedness of Man and knew you would not look away. But as you looked, you also saw goodness.” So, no such luck on the Gospel. We went through all that agony just to hear one more canned Hollywood speech about faith in … goodness, I guess. Whatever that is. We then see Noah giving his blessing to his wife, two sons, daughter in law and two granddaughters, telling them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and we’re right back in creepy town, but at least the movie’s over.

I could have forgiven a movie that didn’t accurately depict the events in Scripture. I could have forgiven a movie that watered down the message in Scripture. I could have forgiven a movie that was just another piece of mindless Hollywood tripe. Hell, even a blasphemous movie would have been less painful to sit through than this. The worst part is, this was on track to be one of the greatest movies ever made. The talent was there. The creativity was there. The visuals were there. The source matter was certainly there. A full-budget rendering of the flood story was long overdue, and I was looking forward to a thorough exploration of the pre-flood world, and some awesome 2012-esque world destruction scenes. Instead of that, I had to sit through the manufactured misery of the most dysfunctional family on earth (literally). While Noah isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it may be the biggest disappointment of my film-watching life.

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The Grey

THAT’S IT ?!?!?!

I literally shouted those words at the screen when it went black after The Grey. In a full theatre, no less. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up at a night spot by director Joe Carnahan, titillated and swept off my feet with rides in sports cars and parties at private pools, enraptured in building anticipation, only to find out in bed that Carnahan has this … “little problem.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this let down by a movie. Perhaps it is partly my fault for allowing my expectations to get so high. Since our daughter was born, it’s gotten much harder to get to the theater, and last weekend was the first time I had been since the Fourth of July, when I reviewed Green Lantern. But after seeing the trailers, I couldn’t wait to see The Grey. It had all the ingredients for a perfect wilderness adventure:

A group of tough guys who know a thing or two about the out doors (in this case oil-rig workers in Alaska),

A plane crash in a harsh, remote location with little hope of rescue,

A pack of very large, very hungry wolves on the hunt (the trailer made it clear this movie was not afraid of PETA),

and Liam freaking Neeson, who, in the closing seconds of the trailer, is surrounded by wolves. He tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right. The Alpha wolf lunges forward, then Neeson does the same, and we see the title. I was hooked. I knew whatever happened in the moments after Neeson charged that wolf, was going to be AWESOME!

It was the perfect formula: a primal battle! Brain against brawn! Teeth against tools! What could possibly go wrong? I walked into the theatre thinking I might be about to witness the greatest man vs. beast movie since Jaws.

It starts out well enough. The plane goes down in the subarctic tundra, and John Ottway (Neeson) and six other men crawl from the wreckage. Once they pull themselves out of the shock, they begin to build a fire, make a shelter out of the plane and look for food. Their spirits have begun to lift when their dinner around the fire is interrupted by a howl. They stand up to see a huge wolf just inside the campfire light, and a sea of glittering eyes behind it. After a standoff, the wolves retreat into the darkness. A few hours later, a member of the group gets up and actually walks away from the fire to urinate. After what he’s seen, this makes no sense, but whatever; I guess it’s kind of a movie staple. He dies, of course.

The next day, Ottway, the group’s wolf expert , decides that if they can reach a forest some distance away, they could better defend themselves. On the day-long trek through knee-deep snow, they loose one more to the wolves. As night falls, they reach the forest, just as it begins to fill with the dinning and barking of the wolves. They hastily build a fire to keep the wolves at bay, then build four smaller fires to make a perimeter that they can sit inside. Ottway produces five straight branches and five shotgun shells he salvaged from the plane, and begins to instruct the others in making bang sticks to fight the wolves.

Alright. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Out of nowhere, a wolf jumps on John Diaz (Dallas Roberts), despite the fire. There follows a wild flurry of yelling, thrashing, and a couple of loud bangs, presumably bang sticks, and finally, we see Diaz on top of the wolf, thrusting his knife in and out of it. The thing is, we never really saw the fight with the wolf. So far, we’ve had a lot of great buildup and a lot of great suspense. The movie has created an atmosphere where we can never really relax, and the wolves, even when not seen, are always felt. But we really haven’t seen any good action.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

This is where the movie starts to go downhill. Ottway decides for some reason that they have to move, and they go walking through this forest full of wolves in the dark. For some reason, there is never an attack, and they stop at a place where Ottway decides they will be safe. And they build ONE campfire. We’ve already seen how the wolves have become bold enough to enter the circle of fires they made earlier, but all fear of the wolves seems to have flown away for some reason. Even more strangely, the wolves seem to oblige. The next day, the group reaches a canyon and decides to climb across. They manage to attache a rope to a tree on the other side through means very hard to swallow, but whatever, it’s a movie. As the last member of the group (Durmot Mulroney) climbs across, the rope breaks and he swings across, hitting the tree hard and falling to his death. His body is then immediately pounced upon by the wolves, almost as if they were waiting at the base of the tree! Now, how did that happen? How did the wolves climb down one side of the canyon and then up the other? And even then, how did they know exactly where Mulroney was going to fall? And why hadn’t the rest of the group shouted anything to him about wolves at the base of the tree? Why did the wolves magically disappear the night before when it would’ve made sense for them to be attacking, only to reappear in such a ridiculous way here?

Let it go. The climax is going to be awesome.

Neeson poses and never delivers in “The Grey.”

The group presses on, as their number continues to dwindle. Strangely, we never hear a word about the bang sticks after that first campfire in the woods. It sounded like they used one or two during the attack at that point, but they have to have some left. The other reason this doesn’t add up is that, shortly after the plane crash, there is a scene where Ottway is attacked by a wolf. It latches onto his leg, and two other survivors run up and apparently beat the wolf to death with bits of the plane. This confirmed my impression from the trailer and set a good tone for the movie: these are tough guys. Some of them have been in prison; all of them have spent months working an oil rig in Alaska. They’re used to these elements. Even in a situation this bad, they would have a fighting chance. But now, every time the wolves show up, all they can think of to do is run. And as anyone who has spent time around dogs knows, as slim as your odds might be fighting a wolf pack, they’re going to be even slimmer running. When am I going to get what I paid for?

That’s okay. The climax is going to be awesome.

As predicted, Ottway is the last one left alive. Trudging through a clearing with most of his equipment gone, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by wolves. The Alpha advances from the pack. The excitement builds as he empties the contents of a back pack. He kisses a picture of his wife, tapes a bunch of empty bottles to his left hand and smashes them against a rock. Then he tapes a combat knife to his right.

Oh, boy, this is it!

Ottway reaches inside himself and recites a short poem composed by his father. Then we see his eyes, now devoid of fear. The Alpha lunges forward, Ottway does the same, and …

THAT’S IT?!?!?!

I couldn’t believe it, but that was the end. There was nothing of that scene in the movie that wasn’t in the trailer. If fact, I got online when we got home and checked out the trailer again. They actually show you a little bit more in the trailer than they do in the film! Talk about false advertising! Where was my glorious man-wolf battle?? CARNAHAN! You lied to me!

A few hours later, I read that there was one more scene after the credits, in which we see Ottway and the Alpha, both on the ground. The Alpha is apparently dying; Ottway’s condition is harder to determine. Even if I had stayed for this scene, it would have been small consolation. That only means that Carnahan didn’t consider it a forgone conclusion that Ottway had no chance. So why didn’t I get to see him fight?

Anyway, for those of you that are complaining “you spoiled the ending,” I did so because, really, there was no ending. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the ending. All of it. I did you a favor, saving you time and money. And for those of you saying “you missed the point. The wolves are a metaphor for death and the story is really about being brave when death is coming for you …” I can understand that. But this is a movie. It’s based in the visual. What is the point of having a story of internal struggle leading up to a physical confrontation, if you’re not going to show the confrontation — especially when it would have been so simple to do! In Jaws, for example, we still have most of the same themes — over coming your fear, a bond that developes between three very different men when they face death together, etc. But we get the pay-off at the end. We get to see what happens. We get to see the symbol of fear and death destroyed. And even if said symbol had won, it would have been a more satisfying ending than that of The Grey.  And in any case, if all the movie was trying to do was tell a story about philosophical ideals, why was it sold to me as an action/adventure picture?

I can contemplate the meaning of life without buying a ticket, thank you.

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Adjustment Bureau

I really hate to down-grade a movie just because it doesn’t fit into an established genre. After all, some of history’s greatest sleeper hits, like The Crow or Dark City, are impossible to find a shelf for. Some, like The Matrix, actually wound up founding their own genre. The problem is, those genres do exist for a reason. There are certain kinds of stories that hit the mark and resonate with humanity, and for every movie that was good enough to break the mold, like those above, there are probably several that tried and failed, like this one. It brings to mind a scene from Tales from the Crypt, in which a starving artist protests to a museum curator, “You promised to give me a showing if I came up with something new!” She laughs, “I meant something new, and good.”

At the start of The Adjustment Bureau (Dir. George Nolfi, 2011), we meet David Norris (Matt Damon), who is running for Senator from New York. He is way ahead at first but, over the course of a five-minute montage, the campaign takes a turn for the worse. On election night, he realizes he’s done and enters a rest room to work on his concession speech. Inside, he finds a woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) hiding from security (long story). He is quite taken with her, and, after security shows up, and she runs away, he reenters his “victory” party and gives the greatest speech he has given in his life.

The scene switches to one month later, and Norris has returned to his old job in a corporate office, anticipating the next senate race. He boards a bus and, to his surprise, finds Elise. He sits beside her, they have instant chemistry, and he gets her phone number.

So it’s been a long set up process, but it looks like the story is finally starting to go some where.

Norris arrives at work, walks into his boss’s office, and suddenly sees his boss, immobilized in a standing position, surrounded by menacing figures in suits and opaque helmets who are scanning him with lasers. Norris runs, and is chased by an army of men in suits. Each time he stops at a coworker’s desk for help, he finds them immobilized and apparently unconscious.

Well, alright! This movie turns out to be a Matrix-esq thriller. Sure, it won’t be as good as The Matrix, but I’m intrigued. Who are these guys? From what sinister place do they come? What twists in this movie will make us question what we think we know?

Norris is captured and finds himself tied to a chair in a warehouse, surrounded by the men in black (above). The man in charge identifies himself as Richardson (John Slattery) and tells Norris “We are the ones who make sure things happen according to plan.” He responds to a few more question with equally cryptic, bureaucratic terms. They gave Norris’ boss an “adjustment.” He will be fine, and will not remember what happened. This is being done because Norris was not supposed to see Elise a second time, according to something called “the Plan,” which is being developed by the head of the Adjustment Bureau, known only as “the Chairman.” If Norris ever reveals what he’s seen to anyone, he will be “reset” (essentially lobotomized). Richardson burns Elise’s phone number and tells Norris to forget her. Norris is then returned to his office, where no one else is aware of what’s happened.

David takes the same bus for the next three years, hoping to see Elise. One day, he finally does, and tries to reconnect with her.

So … now we’re back to the romantic comedy?

She initially pushes him away for not calling her for three years, but seems unable to resist the natural chemistry they always have. He winds up taking her to lunch. As they walk around town, enjoying each other’s company, Richardson and the Bureau start following them around, trying to interfere. Richardson will give an order such as “have his aide call him now.” And then Norris’ cell will ring. A Bureau member tells Richardson “If they kiss, anything strong enough to break them up will cause ripples over your limit.”

Really? … This movie has an army of threatening figures in suits, armed with seemingly god-like powers and scarily cryptic dialogue, and this is what they spend their time on?

This is how the movie goes. As Norris and Elise flirt, fight, fall in love, break up, and get back together, we see these “agents” peeking around corners, running in and out of magic doors, and causing things like lost keys and untied shoes to nudge events back on Plan.

As I waited for this movie to end, I found myself wondering who out there would really get into it. It doesn’t work as a guy movie. There isn’t enough action to make it interesting. The agents are cool at first, but never develop into anything. Their offices and their attire are something right out of the 1940s, and they all have banal, hyper-anglo names like Mitchell and Thompson. By the end, watching them work is about as interesting as watching a clerk file papers.

While these guys look like something out of The Matrix, they might be more at home in a movie like Just Like Heaven or Simply Irresistible; films that play with the idea of some higher power intervening in romantic relationships. But The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t work as one of those movies either, partly because we don’t see much of Elise and there isn’t enough attention paid to the details of their relationship. So, as a chick flick, it still comes up short.

It also fails to deliver as any serious contemplation of the questions it raises. We see arguments about fate vs. free will, love vs. success, etc., but none of them do more than throw out the standard lines. All the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo really gets old after awhile. There are a lot of eye-roll-inducing lines like “Chairman has the Plan. We only see part of it.” Why can’t they just call him “God” like everybody else?

Most ships follow the established trade routes and, in so doing, still deliver some worthwhile goods. Once in a while, a ship leaves all known territory and discovers a new world. But this one leaves one harbor, only to make a dash for the safety of another, only to turn at the last minute and head for another, until it’s lost at sea. I have to give Nolfi some credit for trying to be different. So here’s to those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.

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The Real Wolfman

Man has not always been at the top of the food chain. Our lack of fangs, claws, etc. once made us a temping treat. Only in the last two centuries or so did our ingenuity give us the tools to consistently overcome the world’s top predators. Before that, humans huddled around campfires for eons, jumping at bumps in the night and teaching their children to fear the dark. Most of the time, the fear of fire would keep our primitive superiors at bay. However, there are many instances in history where a human settlement became little more than a buffet to a lion, a pack of wolves, or the Beast of Gevaudan.

The Beast of Gevaudan (pronounced je-voo-DAN) lived, killed, and died in southeast France in the disturbingly recent 1760s. It fataly mauled and mutilated 102 people, most of them women and children. It was hunted by hundreds and shot at by dozens, many of whom were sure they had hit it, but this only seemed to increase its boldness. One cannot study this period without sensing the terror peasants must have felt, cowering in their homes as the Beast walked unchallenged through their villages. But the most frightening thing about the Beast? Nobody knew what it was.

George Deuchar

Enter the History Channel. This story has long been a source of fascination for crypto-zoologists, because whatever this creature was, it left 102 bodies behind. Ergo, it couldn’t have been a hoax or a myth. So it only makes sense that the History Channel would enlist the talents of crypto-zoologist Ken Gerhard to investigate the mystery. Why they paired Gerhard with Jersey criminal profiler George Deucher is less clear. Deucher is sort of the Dana Scully of the pair; the hard-bitten, no-nonsense skeptic. For most of the film, while Gerhard insists the Beast must have been some previously undiscovered animal or mutation, Deucher is equally adamant that it was a human serial killer. How he plans to identify this killer, however, is beyond me. One of the tricky things about crime detection is that the trail goes cold fast. It’s hard to catch a murderer a few weeks after the killing, let alone 240 years. I’m sure the man is good at his job, but it would seem Deuchar was included less for any particular expertise than for the sake of having a skeptic voice in the cast of characters.

Most of the way through, the film progresses about like you’d expect, with the cheesy reenactments that we’ve come to expect from documentaries, and the monster-cam effects that we’re used to from B-grade horror films. We see a lot of retellings of documented instances where the Beast killed. Humorously, we see the same four or five actors die over and over. These are interspersed with Deuchar and Gerhard’s visits to sites in France and arguments between them about

what the few bits of evidence they have mean. For instance, Gerhard reads an excerpt to Deuchar from one scholarly compilation

Ken Gernhardt with a statue of the Beast

of sightings. It says that one man said he heard the Beast “laughing.” He then shows Deuchar some footage of hyenas in Africa. The sound they make resembles a human laugh. His argument: laughing sound = laughing hyena. The only question is how did one get to France. This is a classic crypto-zoologist explanation, known as the out-of-place-animal.  Deuchar retorts “when I hear about a killer laughing, to me that means one thing: human serial killer.”

Realistically, the Beast could not have been a human. Too many people saw a quadruped animal, including some who were attacked by it and survived, often in broad daylight. Doubtless, the witness accounts include some embellishments. One man said he saw the Beast walk on water. Witnesses also reported the Beast to be as big as a horse. None-the-less, I don’t think there can be any doubt that there was a real, unknown animal involved.

But in its exploration of what the real animal was, The Real Wolfman betrays the problems that plague many documentaries: fast assumptions and a rush to meet a deadline. To support his hyena theory, Gerhard leads Deuchar to the Caves of Sarlat in the Gevaudan province, where the Beast was said to prowl. There they appear to discover cave paintings of over-sized, prehistoric hyenas (the editing is a bit rough here and it’s hard to tell if our detectives are seeing what we’re seeing or if this is recycled footage from somewhere else). Deuchar asks “So do you think one of these was still around in the 1700s?” Gerhard replies “Well, give me two months and a shovel and I might find evidence.” What he doesn’t say, but we all hear, is “… but we need to finish a TV show here. We don’t have time for that.” Too bad. On their way out of the cave, they find the skeleton of a goat. Gerhard says “It looks like some predatory animal drug it in here for a snack.” Deuchar pipes up “Like a human.”

We’ll never know for sure what the Beast of Gevaudan was, but, based on what I have read from the time, there are a couple of theories worth taking seriously. One thing we can be sure of is that it was no wolf. Many wolves were killed in the hunt for the Beast, yet the attacks continued unabated. What’s more, this rural shepherd population dealt with wolves on a regular basis, and the wolf had been a symbol of evil across Europe for centuries (just read a few fairy tales). A wolf killing people would not have mystified the locals. Likewise, it seems that French peasants would have recognized a bear, had one been the Beast. And with world exploration well under way by this time, they most likely would even have recognized a great cat had they seen one. A mutation has been suggested by crypto-zoologists, and cannot be totally discounted, but it should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of mutants die in infancy. Obviously, this thins the list of known large predators quite a bit, but, as Sherlock Holmes would say, once we have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I think the hyena theory is plausible. As noted, prehistoric hyenas once roamed across Europe, and were larger than today’s. While they were supposed to be extinct in 1764, it would not be the first time, or the last, that a supposedly extinct animal was found alive. Failing that, it was fashionable for European nobility to collect exotic animals. One could have escaped. A hyena (above) would match most of the witness descriptions of the Beast very well, with reddish-brown, flecked or striped fur, a pig-like muzzle, and an arched back with a fringe of fur. Finally, this species would probably not be recognized by the average Frenchman in 1764. There is another most interesting, and credible, explanation I have read from a crypto-zoologist. He proposes that the Beast may have been a mesonychid, a species of hoofed predator that once roamed Europe, but supposedly went extinct around 5000 years ago. A number of witnesses said the Beast had hooves; sometimes a hoof on each toe. The mesonychid’s hooves had developed a split design that made them function more like claws. Looking at the picture (right), you can see how a mesonychid would fit descriptions of the Beast as well, and would have puzzled any witness (who lived long enough to puzzle) as to what it was. With the world being sparsely populated, and no mass media to speak of, an unusual animal could have migrated a great distance through rural Europe in those days, even killing the occasional human, without being noticed before taking up residence in Gevaudan.

Toward the end, The Real Wolfman really falls apart. The pair has found a fair amount of evidence to bolster Gerhard’s hyena theory. Out of nowhere, and maybe out of jealousy, Deuchar espouses a new theory of “a man, killing with an animal.” He asks a wolf expert if a wolf could be trained to attack on command. The wolf expert says he does not think that could be done. They then show an interview with a zoologist who works with hyenas. Looking slightly surprised at the question, he says he SUPPOSES it MIGHT be possible to train a Hyena to attack on command, due to the level of intelligence they exhibit. Where this theory came from is beyond me. They hadn’t found any evidence to support it, and it isn’t necessary to explain anything. But from there, Deuchar, at least, is on the hunt for evidence of a human trainer behind the Beast.

The official story of the Beast’s death is that a hermit named Jean Chastel, a Protestant outcast whose son had been jailed on suspicion of being a werewolf responsible for the deaths, had his bullets blessed by a Catholic priest and went out to hunt the Beast on June 19, 1767. He was charged by the Beast in the company of several witnesses and slew it with one shot. (One shot, of course, was all anybody had back then.) Upon being opened, the creature’s stomach was found to contain human remains. Being unable to identify the Beast as any creature they were familiar with, Chastel and his companions put it on a cart and began the long trek to Paris to show King Louis XV, who had promised a reward. However, this was southern France in August, and the carcass reeked unbearably before long. Needless to say, they didn’t have any cameras, and were apparently not equipped for taxidermy in the field. Somewhere along the way, the remains of the Beast were lost to history. The other problem was that, officialy, the Beast had been dead for 2 years. Louis had dispatched Francois Antoine, his Leutenant of the Hunt, who had killed an unusually large wolf. Antoine had  been given a hero’s welcom in Paris, and the matter had been closed. When the attacks in Gevaudan continued, and the peasants again begged Louis for help, he hadn’t wanted to hear it. Chastel never did recieve a reward. However, he is now considered a national hero.

At a coffee shop in Paris, Deuchar, having pretty much accepted Gerhardt’s hyena theory, argues to Gerhardt that the only way Chastel could have killed the hyena is if he had trained it. He believes he has found a motive in that “Chastel had a chance to go from from outcast to hero.”

What case they have against Chastel is completed back in the U.S. Deuchar invites Gerhardt to the shooting range where he and his cop budies hang out. In France, someone told our detectives that Chastel used silver bullets when killing the Beast, a story they seem to have accepted at face value. Deuchar has had a friend cast some silver bullets. It should be noted these are bullets of a modern design, to be fired from a modern rifle, not the musket balls Chastel would have used. Deuchar has a marksman fire three lead bullets, then three silver, at a man-shapped target. He isn’t able to be nearly as accurate with the silver as with the lead. Announcer Jonathan Adams then explains that the rifling in the gun can’t dig into the silver as well because it is harder than lead. Therefore, the bullet doesn’t spin, reducing accuracy. Next, the marksman fires a lead bullet, then a silver, through two bricks of ballisitc gel. The gel is meant to simulate the effect of a bullet on flesh. The lead bullet fractures and spreads out on its way through the gel, causing massive “tissue” damage. The silver bullet, being harder, retains its shape and makes a slim, clean puncture (although it also punches further into the gel). Deuchar argues to Gerhardt that, if Chastle had managed to hit the hyena with a silver bullet, it’s very unlikely he could have inflicted a killing shot, unless the hyena had been trained. Gerhardt muses “It’s possible the use of silver bullets at that time had more to do with superstition than actual science” (Duh.) “so you might be right.” Deuchar tells the camera “silver is lousy ballistic material.” Adams takes over. “… so how did Chastel manage to kill the Beast with a single shot? Because it was a trained animal. It knew Chastel. It obeyed him.” So there you have the veteran big city cop’s case against Chastel for 102 counts of murder: Silver is lousy ballistic material. Therefore, the Hyena of Gevaudan was trained by this impoverished hermit to kill women and children. Wait a minute.

The story of Chastel killing the Beast may simply be a folktale. Why didn’t Chastel take the Beast to the nearest taxidermist? If he couldn’t afford it, surely someone would have paid for it, in celebration of the monster’s death. Couldn’t Chastel have promised a share of the king’s reward? None-the-less, the attacks stopped, so something must have happened to the Beast. This version seems to have more support than any other.

Most records from the time don’t say anything about Chastel using silver bullets, and this was probably a story that developed later, especially considering that the silver bullet is a relatively recent addition to werewolf mythology. (See Witchcraft and the Occult, Robert Jackson, 1995.) He probably used a perfectly ordinary lead ball, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to try having it blessed by a priest (assuming that part of the story wasn’t fabricated later for church propaganda). With the hundreds of men that hunted the Beast, it’s no surprise one of them was finally in the right place at the right time. Assuming Chastel did try a silver musket ball, and had the funds to obtain one, Deuchar’s accuracy test was flawed. Guns in 1767 didn’t have rifeling anyway, so that wouldn’t have been a factor.

Even Ken Gerhardt, on his own blog, later admitted,

“I am still not 100% convinced about the guilt of Jeanne Chastel. I mean, why didn’t anyone ever notice the hyena in Chastel’s care, with so much reward money being offered… and where did a poor outcast like Chastel acquire a rare animal in the first place? With so many eyewitnesses to the Beast, why didn’t anyone report Chastel prowling the area?”

You also have to ask, even if Chastel was such a monster, why did he keep killing children for three years, thereby increasing his risk of getting caught, and missing out on the reward? None of these questions are asked in The Real Wolfman, however. It seems that the element of the human killer needed to be forced into the History Channel’s explanation of the Beast to justify their inclusion of a cop on the investigative team. In the final scene, Gerhardt and Deuchar walk down the street, congratulating eachother. Deuchar says “It looks like we were both right, huh?” They seem oblivious to the seriousness of the accusation they have just levied against an actual historical figure with known living decendants. Seriously, if any such decendants happen to read this, it would be worth talking to an attorney about a libel suit. In summary, The Real Wolfman doesn’t deserve to be called a documentary. It’s just a lot of wild jumps to conclusions and groundless (and needless) accusations. I suppose I’ll give it a star for putting forth the Hyena theory, though it wasn’t the first work on the Beast to do so.

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The Mummy

Several people commented during our Avatar contest that they would like to see us  review The Mummy (1999). I happen to have a unique perspective on this movie, as it has somehow wormed its way into an odd place in my life. I first saw it in college, and while I didn’t hate it, I felt no interest in sitting through it ever again. Steven Sommers’ obsession with mindless spectacle and pointless deaths was enough to ruffle even my then-adolescent feathers.  I put The Mummy from my mind, and didn’t even bother to check out the over-hyped sequel in the summer of 2001.

Seven years later, I got married, and I learned that The Mummy was one of my wife’s all-time favorite movies. Since it had been so long, and out of affection for her, I gladly endured one more screening. The problem is, one was not enough for her. For the last two years of my life, every time there’s laundry to fold or iron, The Mummy goes in the VCR. I usually try to busy myself in some other room, balancing the checkbook or something, whenever she watches The Mummy. Despite this, I can still hear it, and have learned all the screams of the movie by heart.

So, what’s in The Mummy? We start around 1200 B.C. when Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), high priest of Pharaoh Sethi I, and Ank Su Namun, the Paraoh’s concubine (Patricia Velasquez, above) conspire to murder Sethi. They take turns hacking him with swords, causing him to go “Aaaggh!” “Eeee!”  “Aaaaa!” Ank Su Namun then kills herself to avoid punishment for the murder. Imhotep later tries to resurrect her, but Sethi’s guards stop him. He is sentenced to be mummified alive for his crimes. (Just for the record, that’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. In real life, you’d be dead halfway through step one.) Some priests cut off his tongue, resulting in a scream that is really more of gasp. Imhotep is then buried alive, and placed under a curse that says, should he be resurrected, he would return as a pestilence to destroy the earth.

Before Scott Evil can jump up and say “Why don’t you just kill him and be done with it?” we are transported to the 1920s. We meet Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), a British librarian and Egyptologist, who emits an “Eeeek!” when her brother, Jonathon (John Hannah), makes a mummy pop out of a sarcophagus, startling her. Jonathon has found an artifact that intrigues Evie, and she begins assembling a team to travel deep into Egypt to find the lost city of Hamunaptra. They are joined by Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), an adventurer from the States, and four treasure hunters, along with many other nameless pieces of monster fodder, destined to emit screams.

On the journey, their ship is attacked by fighters who protect Imhotep’s tomb called the Medjai. O’Connell sets one on fire, who jumps off the boat, screaming “Hoo, hoo, hoo-aaaaah!” (splash) Once they arrive at Hamunaptra, three Arabic-speaking guides are melted by acid in a booby trap,

Aaagh!

Aaagh!

Owwie!

A warden has a golden beetle come to life, burrow into his foot, then up his body and into his brain, causing him to go mad and run screaming down a corridor into a wall

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Smack

And finally, Evie reads from the Book of the Dead, bringing Imhotep back to life. “Noo! You must not read from the book!” As soon as she does, a storm of locust comes up, forcing the adventurers inside the ancient temple that is now stalked by Imhotep. One by one, all the extras are killed either by Imhotep, the beetles, or booby traps, resulting in screams to numerous to transcribe.

They return to Cairo but the Mummy follows them. Four treasure hunters are under a special curse for opening Imhotep’s organ chest, and he kills each of them before moving on to the rest of the world. While the first one dies screaming “No! Please, please, please …” the rest of them go out with more of an “Aaaeeeiiieck*” as Imhotep drains them of their life. Each time he does so, he partially regenerates, until he looks like a living man. Which raises some questions: what would he have done if fewer than four had opened the chest? If no one had opened the chest, but Evie had read from the book, would he have just destroyed the world as a walking corpse? For that matter, since he plans on destroying the world anyway, why bother with these guys?

The Mummy; half-way through his curse victims, so ... 50% regenerated?

The answer is, you have to think like Steven Sommers. For Sommers, making sense is nothing; spectacle is everything. Nothing goes into the “plot” of this movie unless it will lead to either a fight scene or a horrific, screaming death (although the deaths involve an implausible omission of red liquid to keep that all-important PG-13 rating). The curse on Imhotep’s organ chest is nothing more than an aside, crammed into the movie to give Sommers an excuse to kill four more guys.

Frankly, the rest of the movie is pretty much the same thing. More screams, people dying by the hundred, and inane scripture quotations with no meaning. Beth eventually showed me the sequel, and I actually liked it a little better, though I think it was mostly because I had lower expectations. If you’re interested in Sommer’s work, or in Universal Studios monsters, your time would be better spent checking out Van Helsing (2004). It has all the same stupidities as The Mummy, but at least has cooler characters, awesome action scenes, and some really wicked gadgets.

To summarize my impression of The Mummy:

Sitting through it once: “Eh.” (In other words, )

Being subjected to it over and over:

“Aaaggh!” “Eeee!”  “Aaaaa!”

“Hoo, hoo, hoo-aaaaah!” (splash)

Aaagh!

Aaagh!

Owwie!

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Smack

“No! Please, please, please …”

“Aaaeeeiiieck*”

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Megalodon (times 2)

In the summer of 1975, people crowded into movie theatres to see the work of a young genius named Steven Spielberg. They watched as a young woman, drunkenly laughing, led her boyfriend to the water’s edge, then began swimming out to sea. She was having a great time – and then suddenly, she disappeared. A few seconds later she reappeared, screaming, gasping and trying to fight, and then she was gone again. The whole thing took maybe ten seconds.

Movie goers sat transfixed, still feeling the terror that woman felt in her final moments. For years afterwards, millions refused to go into the water. And they never saw a thing. Oh, sure, for the next two hours (and then for three inferior sequels) Jaws turned the sea white with thrashing and red with blood, but no one has forgotten that first scene to this day.

Naturally, a classic will have imitators, and shark films have abounded ever since, but none have ever figured out what it was that made Jaws great. Most have clung to the belief that “bigger is better.” This is probably why there is a whole subgenre of “Megalodon” films.

Carcharodon Megalodon is the designation given by many scientists to a number of poorly-preserved fossils. These fossils seem to be essentially identical to those of the Great White Shark – except much larger. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carcharodon_megalodon)

Megalodon, lovingly termed “Meg” by paleontolgists, is thought to have grown to 60 or 70 feet, and to have been extinct for 2.5 million years (Although a 60-foot Great White was reported around 500 years ago). So if a 25-foot Great White in Jaws was scary, a 70-foot Great White is even scarier, right? Sigh.

A meg mouth reconstructed in 1909.

I decided to get my feet wet in this world of the Hollywood Meg last night and came away with all my toes still attached. I first watched Megalodon, Dir. Pat Corbit, 2004 (hereafter Meg) and then Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, Dir. David Worth, 2002 (hereafter SA3).

Meg is actually not too bad. You kind of have to get past the fact that they used prehistoric CGI to go with their prehistoric monster, and the fact that the editing is never quite right for building suspense, but the plot is straightforward and not too implausible. Two journalists arrive at a new multi-billion dollar oil rig to cover its first bite into the floor of the north Atlantic. But of course (say it with me now) Something Goes Wrong and the drill sinks into a previously undiscovered subterranean ocean. A few hours later, the rig begins to shake as something big swims out of the hole. Several people go down to check it out and they don’t all make it back up.

Painting by Csotonyi of a meg attacking a mosasaur.

If Meg has a strength, it’s its simplicity. In a 90-minute film, no time is wasted on character development. They give us just enough scenes to understand the general situation and what equipment the characters have to work with before introducing the threat. We are then treated to shots of the shark swimming around, crashing into steel girders and ramming it’s head through ice caps, trying to get at the people on top. These scenes are kind of cool, and in an undersea story, it only makes sense that we see the shark. All this might sound like damning with faint praise, but Corbit does deserve a nod for not trying to do more than he could.

The biggest problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any miniature work in Meg. This can be a good thing only if the CGI is flawless, and this CGI is … not. Still, it’s fun watching a giant shark chase a submersible through a maze of I-beams.

If there is anything good about SA3, it’s that the overall plot is very well put together. The action centers around a seaside resort in Mexico. It’s not surprising that a millionaire communications CEO (George Stanchev) is staying at this resort. It’s also not surprising that the area happens to be the crossroads for his company’s trans-pacific cable. And it’s not too surprising that the cable’s electro-magnetic pulses have lured a prehistoric shark out of the Challenger Deep, which has followed the cable to this very spot. As parts of large marine animals, and then people, begin to wash ashore at the resort, Ben Carpenter (John Barrowman), a life guard, begins to worry about the safety of vacationers. When he finds a strange tooth in the cable, he sends the picture over the internet. A paleontologist in San Diego, Catlin Stone (Jenny McShane), recognizes the species and travels to the resort to study the meg. Thus it makes sense that all these characters are in the same place because they’ve all been drawn her by the effects of the cable. There’s plenty of conflict between them, too. Carpenter is intent on killing the shark, Stone wants to study it, and the rich guy just wants his system to get up and running.

Sadly, this movie has too many millstones around its neck to keep it’s head above water. It’s got the worst acting I’ve seen this side of grade school pageants. It’s downright painful to sit through scene after scene of cheesy dialogue, where you actually see actors turning their heads away from the camera right before they break out laughing (did they not have time for second takes, or what?). The low production values are also something to behold. If it hadn’t been for repeated references to the internet and cell phones, I would have sworn this was filmed in the ‘70s.

If you think this is real, you'll be terrified by "Shark Attack 3."

And of course, we have the token lack of subtly. Right in the first scene, we see a shot of the shark’s face rushing at the camera, and then chomping down on a welder. Later, a couple starts to make out on a water slide, which drops them into the ocean, and they are instantly attacked. No circling to be realistic or build suspense. We see the shark through the whole movie, and – get this – it actually growls! None of it is remotely plausible or scary, unless you’re the sort who has nightmares about being photographed and superimposed over a shark’s mouth.

The most pathetic thing about SA3 is that it tries so hard to be Jaws. The main characters go out on a boat and shoot guns and harpoons at the shark, the shark eventually sticks its head into the boat as in Jaws; the movie even copies Jaws 3, when the first meg is killed and then a bigger meg (possibly mom?) appears in the last 15 minutes to attack a cruise ship and swallow motorboats whole. It seems Worth was making it easy on himself with this one, counting on the principle that a movie doesn’t have to be good, as long as there are plenty of scenes of girls taking their bathing suits off.

Incidentally, don’t ask me what SA3 is a sequel to. A search of IMDB for “Shark Attack” turned up more movies than I could shake a stick at. Doubtless, the future will bring many more. Other marine monsters have made it to the movies from time to time (e.g. The Beast, Lake Placid), but none of them capture our imaginations the way sharks do. As the mayor explained in Jaws, “You yell ‘barracuda,’ everybody says ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘shark,’…”

Panic scene from "Jaws."

Megalodon

Shark Attack 3: Megalodon

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Ugly Truth

You will not enjoy The Ugly Truth. At least, for your sake, I hope you don’t. When I saw it, I was repeatedly asking myself two questions: One: why am I watching this? And two: do members of our culture really have so little hope that they can’t aspire to anything more than this?

The Ugly Truth might be interpreted by some as a “chick flick,” however it attempts to bring the male perspective into the ugly picture it draws of relationships. I emphasize “attempts.”

At the beginning, we meet Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) a high-power TV producer who is successful in all things except love. By far the most entertaining scene is one of the first, in which she goes to a restaurant and meets (for the first time) a bachelor that she has been paired with by a computer dating service. Their conversation goes something like this:

She (opening black leather folder): I was so excited to meet you, because your profile had nine out of the ten characteristics on my checklist.

He: You brought my profile to our date??

She (turning pages): Oh, my assistant put it in my bag. She doesn’t like me to be caught unprepared – not that I am ever not prepared. Kudos on your comprehensive car insurance plan, by the way.

He: That wasn’t in my profile.

She: No, but it was in your background check.

He: Uh …

She (after a pause): Oh, don’t worry, I brought a list of conversation topics in case this happened.

He (rubbing his face): So, I take it this has happened before…

Director Robert Luketic figures we can probably guess how the rest of the date goes, and cuts to a scene of Abby returning home, dejected. She starts channel surfing and comes across Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a brash, shallow, foul-mouthed guy in tight pants doing his call-in show called “The Ugly Truth.” Chadway is throwing relationship books into a barrel and setting them on fire like the refuse they are.

He declares “Men are simple! You want a relationship, ladies, here’s how. It’s called a Stairmaster …” Scrub out a lot of profanity and stomach-churning innuendo, and Mike is essentially saying women need to get an ideal body, put on a revealing outfit, and then men will want to have sex with them. Only then is a relationship (albeit a fairly one-sided one) possible. Incensed, Abby calls him and demands “Do you really expect us to believe men are incapable of feeling love, and are all as perverse as you?” He asks if she knows a man who is not. Abby takes a breath and begins describing the ideal man who lives in her mind. He replies:

“Oh, I get it, you’re a lesbian.”

“What??”

“You must be; you just described the perfect woman!”

The next day, Abby goes to work and finds out, to her horror, that her boss thinks their programming has gotten boring, and has hired Mike to spice it up. Mike’s first appearance on Abby’s station is to be with unhappily married anchors Georgia (Cheryl Hines) and Larry (John Michael Higgins), who are more-or-less Regis and Kathy Lee. Abby coaches the two of them before the show to humiliate him on the air.

Mike and Abby have a stare-down over makeup

Mike and Abby have a stare-down over makeup.

However, once on the air, Mike gets them to admit to all of their marital problems, finally getting Larry to acknowledge that he is so embarrassed by the fact that Georgia makes more money than he does, that he has been impotent for several months. After some coaching by Mike, Larry demands, “Georgia, let me be a man!” He suddenly attacks her with passionate kisses and then throws her over his shoulder and carries her off the set. Everyone in the control room is cheering, Mike’s popularity is now assured, and Abby is next seen curled up on the floor of the closet in her office.

In between all of this, Abby meets her neighbor, Collin (Eric Winter). Collin is an orthopedic surgeon who has somehow found time to maintain the body of a professional weight lifter. He loves poetry, cooking, and giving foot massages (when I saw this, I rolled my eyes hard enough to pull a muscle). Hoping to take Mike down a peg, Abby announces to him that she has actually met the perfect man she has been dreaming of. Mike asks “has he asked you out yet?” Abby immediately marches to her phone, and calls Collin to ask him out. When Collin hesitates, Mike hangs up Abby’s phone with the comment “He was blowing you off.” Abby is angry, but it gets her attention when Collin calls back, as Mike predicted. Mike instructs “Now make him suffer. Put him on hold.” Once again, Collin reacts as Mike predicts. Mike and Abby make a deal that if she does as Mike says and she lands Collin, she will cooperate with his efforts at the network. If not, he’ll quit.

The rest of the movie is scenes of Mike giving Abby tips on seductive dress, flirting and teasing. None of it is funny, however, and a lot of it is disgusting. Every exchange follows this pattern:

He: We need to change your hair/clothing/eye color/butt.

She (indignant): What is wrong with it?

He: It makes you look sensible/professional/mature.

She: What is wrong with sensible/professional/mature?

He: Nothing, except no-one-wants-to-f.ck-it.

Eventually, Abby does land Collin. But by this point – you guessed it – Mike has fallen for her. We also learn a little more about Mike’s background; how he has been burned by a lot of girls that didn’t really like him, and made him what he is today. He eventually goes on a rant about how women don’t care about you, they only care about their checklist. All of this could have been fairly interesting if Luketic had taken the time to really get us inside the characters heads, but he seems to prefer to spend the time on shock value. By the end of act one, I was looking at my watch.

Mike, after wrestling with twins in jello. Don't worry; he only slept with the one that could read.

The script for this film was written by three women, and Mike Chadway seems to be their attempt to incorporate the male perspective on relationships. Mike is a tad likable for a minute here and there just because he’s not ashamed of being a guy. But in the end, what his lines amount to is a restatement of the same things that bitter, sexually frustrated women say about men. In other words, Mike has only found a more phallocentric way of saying “men are pigs.”

For example, in one scene where he coaches Abby, he tells her “Never criticize. For men, self improvement ends with toilet training.” Doubtless a lot of women feel this way. It is nonsense, however. Men have plenty of interest in self improvement. The problem is women tend to think that they can mold a man into who they think he should be through nagging and criticizing. It doesn’t work on them, so I don’t know why they think it will work on us.

The worst thing about The Ugly Truth isn’t the gross dialogue or the choppy editing. It’s the utter sadness I felt for anyone who could actually connect with this movie. As I sat watching it with my beautiful wife curled up next to me, I wondered what it would be like to have to believe that there is no hope of anything better than the occasional cheap thrill in relationships.

Because that’s what the writers seem to believe. Neither Abby nor Mike ever really grow or learn anything; they just inexplicably fall in love with each other on a hot air balloon. Cut to the final scene of the two of them in bed. There was actually another ending filmed that involves the two of them getting married. Mike gives a speech in which he says “It’s true that every woman has a checklist, but occasionally a regular guy like me can sneak onto that checklist by using good old fashion true love.” They could have at least partially redeemed the movie if they had used this ending. Sure, the theatrical ending fits better with the spirit of the movie, but why would you want to do that?

So I hope you’re as repulsed by The Ugly Truth as I am. If nothing else, watching it made me appreciate my love-filled and passionate marriage. Which brings me back to the question: why was I even watching that tripe? The reason was, she asked me to watch it with her, and I knew it would make her happy if I did. Yeah. I’m a stud.

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Glory Road

GR posterHistory has often shown us the power of sports to inflame people’s passions and sway their opinions. Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t miss a chance to cash-in on this fact. One such attempt is Glory Road.

The movie is a good illustration, however, of just how hard it is for movies to do what sports do. They rarely do anything to challenge our views, but rather reinforce our comfort in what we already assume. Ironically, they have a habit of acting as if they are saying something revolutionary. Consider, for instance, the end of Remember the Titans, from Jerry Bruckheimer, also the producer of Glory Road. The end of the film jumps to several years later, at a funeral, when the narrator, Sheryl Yoast, says “They say it can’t work, black and white. But when they do, we remember the Titans.” I found myself wondering “Just who are ‘they’?”

Glory Road sets the same mood as Titans, starting off at about the same time (mid-sixties) when schools, and therefore sports, were generally segregated. Josh Lucas of Secondhand Lions becomes a white Denzel Washington as Texas Western’s head basketball coach. What do you call a white man surrounded by five black men?

Frustrated with the lack of good players who want to play for TW, Lucas’ Don Haskins combs the ghettos and recruits seven black players for the team. This gives rise to the film’s first really cheesy line: “I don’t see color; I see skill and I see quick.” In the predictable spirit of Titans, for the most part, all black schools and black basketball teams seem to disappear, so the unsympathetic characters are all white (although they meet one team with a few black players midway through the movie). They win consistently, until the black players, angry over a graffiti incident, refuse to pass to the white ones, resulting in the season’s only loss. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Haskins decides to play only black players in the national championship game, and they go on to narrowly beat the all-white Kentucky team. So the question becomes, is Bruckheimer trying to convey the message that he was in Titans that the discipline brought on by working through racial tension builds strength, or is he simply saying that black guys play basketball better than white guys?

Either way, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. It’s never been any secret that competitive basketball became widely black as skill began to show through prejudice, and then became almost exclusively black when television took over and skill took a backseat to image. Ironically, the film has to establish a mentor-student relationship. Consequently, there are a few scenes of Haskins schooling black players on the court.

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Let’s look at some of Hollywood’s other efforts to cross-breed sports and race. In 1992, The Mighty Ducks was released. A hot shot attorney (Emilio Estevez) is caught driving drunk and has to do the community service of coaching a washed-up athletic team from a poor district. In the tradition of Hollywood happy endings, he turns the team around completely and they win the league championship. At the championship, they meet the team that haunts Estevez’s memory – his childhood team, sponsored by a wealthy district. The players on this team are all essentially identical to one another, forming a single character more than a team of individuals. The Ducks, conversely, represent a schmorgasboard of cultures and personalities and provide the colorful characters that every movie needs (and that sports teams tend to suppress for unity).

It was no accident, of course, that Disney chose the sport of hockey as a setting for this story. It was the only sport where the “bad” team could be all white with any credibility. Once hockey was used up, Little Giants and The Big Green couldn’t present quite the same hegemony. I always looked forward to a similar movie about basketball. It figures that when one finally came, it would be set in the sixties.

I’ve been around the block enough that I’m comfortable saying a lot of black people will not find Glory Road particularly inspiring. Average black people have often complained  that the most athletic members of their culture hog the spotlight, leading their young men away from solid careers in a hopeless bid for stardom.                                                              Coach C poster

To round out my perspective I rented another basketball movie, Coach Carter, which addresses exactly that concern. Quite different from Road’s images of grandeur and triumph, Coach Carter ends with crushing defeat – on the court. But the epilogue shows success in much more important areas. Coach Carter is also more fun, because the team has a token white guy.

Here’s an idea for a basketball movie that would follow the standard formula, and would be a lot more fun. Start with a black coach in a ghetto neighborhood. Have him get pegged as an “Oreo,” or otherwise ostracized from the community. So he has to put his team together from neighborhoods outside his own. Naturally, this would involve including some white, Asian, and Hispanic members. Throw a few women onto the team just to shake things up. When his team goes up against a district full of all black, all male teams, no one would expect them to win – but hey, it’s a movie! Now you just need to figure out a way for the fate of the universe to hang on the championship game, and you’re set.

Can a basketball game really change the world? If it does, count on Hollywood to pretend they got there first. Perhaps the line from the Texas Western assistant coach rings true: “This is just proof that knuckle heads come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”

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