Depp's latest a noble failure
By Lady Liberty
The Hills Have Eyes
* 1/2 out of ****
Okay, true confession time: I've not seen the original 1977 Wes Craven production of The Hills Have Eyes, so I'm unable to tell you whether this updated version is better, worse, different, or just another remake. What I can tell you is that, as horror movies go, it's more horrible than horrifying.
The movie focuses on the extended Carter family as it makes its way cross country in celebration of the elder Carters' 25th wedding anniversary. Bob Carter (Ted Levine) is a bit of a curmudgeon, albeit one who loves his family dearly. His wife, Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) is largely along for the ride, but is clearly still in love with her husband. Their two teen-aged children, Brenda (Emilie de Ravin) and Bobby (Dan Byrd) are also there, the former grudgingly. The group is joined by eldest daughter, Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), her cell phone salesman husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), and their infant daughter, Catherine (Maisie Camilleri Preziosi) as well as the family dogs, German shepherds Beauty and Beast.
Towing their Airstream trailer behind, the Carter family is crossing the New Mexico desert when they stop at a small gas station to refill their tanks and to review their route. The gas station's sole attendant is surly, but does offer the family directions to a shortcut that will save them a couple of hours' driving time to get back to the main freeway. Though the rest of the family isn't keen on taking any back roads, Bob is enjoying the sights of the desert's stark beauty and the idea of a shortcut is even more broadly appealing.
Scant miles after taking the obscure turn off, their vehicle suffers a catastrophic tire blow-out. With severe damage to their truck, the Carters have no option but to walk for help. Bob determines he'll walk back to the gas station from whence they came; Doug, meanwhile, will walk onward to see if there are any people ahead who might help. What nobody knows is that the blow-out was no accident, and that both their accident and their subsequent decision-making is being watched from the hillsides above.
It seems that the government's above-ground nuclear tests in the two decades beginning in the 1940's were conducted nearby, and some miners who refused government demands to relocate have suffered grave genetic damage from the radiation since then. Their descendents are all too often monstrous, but they're not stupid. Unfortunately, all of their cleverness is devoted to sidetracking and killing innocent travelers. All the Carters have is their wits and their survival instinct to get through the next hours, and there's some question as to whether that will be even close to enough for them to live through the night.
Wes Craven wrote and directed the original version of The Hills Have Eyes which, by all accounts, is a cult classic. He's listed as a producer of this version which was written and directed by Alexandre Aja. There's clearly been money spent on this remake as the cinematography, sets, make-up, and other effects are very good. That doesn't mean, however, that the movie itself was all that great!
Ted Levine is a capable actor, but not much more than that; Kathleen Quinlan, who is better than capable, has a small role here that never lets her really prove it. The other actors are perfectly fine, with the stand-out exception of Aaron Stanford whose metamorphosis from metrosexual to real man is not only sensible within the context of the movie, but purely fun to watch.
The script is only okay (you can only do so much with the hokey and much over-used notion that radiation results in hungry flesh-eating monsters), and while the editing is quite good, the movie never really succeeds in being scary. There are some excellent startle moments, but there comes a point where they're so expected that they, too, lose their effect. Perhaps the most horrific moment in the movie involves the young mother, Lynne, and what she forces herself to do to save the life of her child. If more of the movie had been like that, it would have been a horror flick indeed!
POLITICAL NOTES: I'm going to dismiss the idea that the government was very, very bad when it conducted above ground nuclear testing so many years ago. It's not that that's not true; it's that even the government doesn't seem too proud of itself, and the very notion of criticism at this point seems both overkill and redundant. What is fascinating is what happens to change Doug and his attitude.
At one point early on, Bobby is loading a handgun and Doug is obviously disgusted. When Bobby offers to let Doug shoot to see what it feels like, the elder Carter laughs and says that Doug's a Democrat and doesn't like guns. Doug doesn't argue the point. But later on, we learn that hell hath no fury like a man trying to save his wife and child, and Doug's willingness to use firearms — and clubs and his bare hands — is more than impressive: it's real. This shows, in turn, that firearms are tools for both good and evil, and that they're dependent on the hands that wield them rather than on their bare existence to be either.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Hills Have Eyes is rated R for "strong gruesome violence and terror throughout, and for language." The Hills Have Eyes is, indeed, gruesome. In fact, it originally received an NC-17 rating. The movie we're seeing in the theatres now was edited to make it an R, and it's a well deserved R. The gruesome scenes are graphic more often than not, and the suspense involving the Carters (including the baby) is quite adult in nature. The violence, once it gets started, is almost non-stop. That being said, in this country we apparently think sex is worse, and though there's some intimations of sexual matters, there's nothing terribly graphic about it. I'd suggest that The Hills Have Eyes is suitable for those with strong stomachs from age 15 or so and up.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: I mentioned in a political commentary column recently that if people want better movies to come out of Hollywood, they should buy tickets for them so that movie makers are more willing to make them. I said that in light of watching the purely delightful Mrs. Henderson Presents as the sole member of the audience. This weekend, at the same theatre and at the same movie time, I sat down to watch The Hills Have Eyes in a theatre that was nearly sold out. I think I rest my case.
** out of ****
I first heard about The Libertine some months ago. Though the notion and then the trailers proved intriguing, in the interest of full disclosure I must confess that Johnny Depp alone would have been sufficient reason for me to buy a ticket. But despite the movie having been made in 2004, it took until now for it to be released. I have no idea why that might have been the case, but I can tell you that a friend and I had both waited far too long to see the film and so were standing in line to see it at our first opportunity when it came this weekend.
John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp) was a true rake, very much in keeping with the times in which he lived (the mid-1600's). The movie opens during what is likely the peak of Wilmot's "career" in debauchery when he is infamous for drinking, gambling, outspokenness, and most especially, for his sexual escapades. In point of fact, Wilmot's rich wife, Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike) is one of his early conquests who now suffers largely in silence as her handsome husband womanizes elsewhere.
Wilmot's blunt and hedonistic nature makes it difficult for him to have many friends, but among the few he can count on is playwright George Etherege (Tom Hollander). Their mutual love of the theatre also doesn't hurt their relationship, though Etherege's latest play might: he's writing the story of his friend, the Earl of Rochester. It's also Etherege who introduces the Earl to a young admirer and aspiring "member" of his small clique, Billy Downs (Rupert Friend). Wilmot honestly tells Downs that congregating with such men as he will be the death of him, but Downs just laughs and joins the men for cards, drinking, and wenching whenever he can.
In the meantime, Etherege and Wilmot are regular attendees at a London theatre which also happens to be frequented on occasion by the King of England, Charles II (John Malkovich). It's on one of these excursions that Wilmot is summoned to the King's side. The King has reversed an earlier temporary banishment of the Earl so as to seek his advice and his eloquence in his cause.
Wilmot agrees to help the King, though with little grace. He returns to his own box seat just in time to take note of actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) as she's booed off the stage. It's partly his own ego, and partly something else that leads Wilmot to offer to teach Barry to be a better actress. Though initially too proud, Barry is convinced and the lessons commence. Of course, given the Earl's reputation and his own determination, Barry eventually becomes the Earl's mistress as well.
Meanwhile, the King is beset with difficulties both within and without his kingdom, and he wants more from the Earl. Wilmot, who is utterly incapable of proper behavior, agrees to help by writing a play to honor the king in time for a visit from the French ambassador. The King tells Wilmot that "Elizabeth had her Shakespeare, and you can be mine," little knowing just what he's letting himself in for! That doesn't mean the King will rely solely on Wilmot, though, and others are recruited less overtly to assist.
Wilmot's play, when it's finally finished and presented to a packed house, is entirely amusing. It's also completely pornographic and, to sweeten the pot, lampoons the King as well. Needless to say, the Earl finds himself once again out of the King's good graces. Wilmot, who has long been far too fond of wine, begins drinking more and more. And he's also apparently suffering the effects of some illness. Despite the devotion of his long suffering wife and a pert servant (Richard Coyle), events begin spinning out of control with dramatic effects on both his physical and emotional well being.
The Libertine has been receiving mixed reviews, and after having seen the movie myself, I can understand that. In fact, my own opinion of the film is somewhat mixed! The one fact in little doubt, however, is that Johnny Depp may very well be the single finest actor of our generation. Growing up in Kentucky, in this film he's convincingly "to the manor born." His youthful appearance lets him play the much younger Earl easily, and his striking good looks make his many conquests entirely believable. But his acting abilities make all of that pale in comparison. The Earl's manic joy in life is arguably a front for his disgust with himself and his anguish in living, and Depp conveys all of that with an effortless skill that's no less than stunning on screen.
Rosamund Pike, who was so beautiful in Pride and Prejudice, is lovely here but with a spine of steel that comes through brilliantly in her scenes with Depp; Hollander's portrayal of George Etherege shows him as both a loyal friend but also a smug survivor of the Earl's many foibles. Samantha Morton and Rupert Friend are just fine, Morton particularly so in scenes that show her stage acting improvement under the Earl's tutelage. And Richard Coyle provides a delightful comic note without being overtly slapstick — something that's not so easy to do, especially in a setting like this one!
Stephen Jeffreys penned both the script for the stage production of The Libertine as well as the screenplay for the movie, and direction was ably provided by relative newcomer, Laurence Dunmore. The sets and costumes were beautifully authentic, and the cinematography portrayed that authenticity flawlessly. In fact, that's probably the movie's biggest drawback.
In the 1600's, candlelight was all there was, and the sets are faithful to that which means many of the scenes are very dim and details hard to see. Worse is the language. While it was doubtless modernized a little, much is just as it was in Wilmot's day (some of his poems are quoted verbatim), which means it's often difficult to understand, and tedious as well more often than not. (The history of the film, by the way, is surprisingly accurate. For more on the Earl of Rochester, see "Honesty and Reason: The Satires of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester." This 1999 honors thesis by Ealasaid A. Haas is fascinating, and surprisingly easy to read.)
While I don't have any true criticism of the film, I also have a difficult time recommending it broadly. I liked it to an extent, but didn't love it. The acting is brilliant, the authenticity marvelous, and yet the movie itself is neither. Is The Libertine worth seeing? Yes. But only if you're willing to work a little at enjoying it, and that's something that only a few moviegoers are willing to do.
POLITICAL NOTES: Any student of government past or presence is well aware of the value of compromise and propaganda. But seldom are we so overtly treated to the machinations of a government in its efforts to win its own way, nor do we often get to see the dramatic value of a charismatic speaker in convincing voters to do as the speaker desires. In a simpler time when fewer voices were heard, it's that much easier to see how things work (not to mention that much easier for those in charge to run things largely their way). Though there are no revelations here, it's still an "aha!" moment when a manipulative speaker turns the tide of popular sentiment.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Libertine is rated R for "strong sexuality including dialogue, violence, and language." This is not a movie for children, nor for those adults who are too "proper" to hear blunt and often detailed sexual references. Though often couched in poetry, the language is never-the-less graphic at best. In addition, the relative authenticity of the English spoken in the 1600's make this a movie suitable only for adults who are not only able but willing to follow along under such conditions.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at email@example.com.
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