A few months ago, one of the entertainment periodicals had an article about the special effects in Independence Day, and accompanying the piece was a remarkable picture of a matte painting used in the film. It showed a Western landscape, eclipsed by an encroaching starshipan image more breathtaking than all of the hit movie’s explosions combined. The photograph was a captivating reminder of the sense of awe and wonder that comes from a long, lingering shot of an unusual view. Rapid-fire editing can’t replace the visual poetry of unbroken motion across eye-catching scenery.
If nothing else, Carroll Ballard’s latest film Fly Away Home is loaded with just such visual poetry. As photographed by Caleb Deschanel, Fly Away Home resembles an especially vivid nature documentary, with a girlhood coming-of-age narrative carefully woven through. It’s ostensibly a children’s movie, but it has such a strong, elemental tug that children really shouldn’t see it alone. Adults should be there, to reassure, to answer questions afterward, and to validate the whole experience.
Over the opening credits, Fly Away Home establishes the seriousness of its intent. Mary Chapin Carpenter sings about saying good-bye as a young girl rides in a car with her mother. Suddenly, a truck emerges out of nowhere and an ordered world gets disrupted. Ballard and Deschanel film an entire car crash sequence with an unvarying, fluid camera, giving the scene an evenness that belies its grim content.
When the young girl wakes up in the hospital, we find out her name is Amy (she’s played by The Piano’s Anna Paquin), and we meet her long-absent father (Jeff Daniels), who takes Amy back to live with him in rural Canada. Amy is spooked by the loss of her mother and the eccentricities of her sculptor-inventor-aviator dad, and though she has trouble getting used to her new family (which also includes her father’s girlfriend and a spacy uncle), she gains strength from the welcoming Canadian countryside.
Ballard takes his time sketching the setting and then, about 45 minutes in, he introduces the plot. On one of her walks, Amy finds a nest of abandoned goose eggs in the wake of a bulldozer. She brings the eggs home, warms them until they hatch, and becomes a kind of mother to the flock. The problem is, come winter, a bird’s gotta fly, and without a parent to guide their instinctive urge to go south, the geese will likely get lost and die. Sensing a chance to make an impact on Amy’s life, her father sells his favorite sculpture to buy a pair of ultralight planes so that he and his daughter can lead the flock to a wildlife refuge in North Carolina.
There are villains in Fly Away Homehunters, land developers, and game wardensbut Ballard makes only a half-hearted, awkward stab at demonizing them. That’s not the movie he wants to make (although it may be the movie that screenwriters Robert Rodat and Vince McKinnen wrote). Ballard is struck by the differences between man and beasthow animals are born with an innate sense of what to do to survive, while humans seem to wander about in a fog of confusion. All creatures, though, adapt when they must. Amy, motherless, finds peace by playing at motherhood and by sticking with her “children.”
When she’s flying solocruising into North Carolina over a lake so smooth that the plane and the birds appear to be reflected in the skythe song from the opening credits returns, and Fly Away Home truly soars. All the deliberate pacing and impressive, low-special-effect aerial photography pays off. The finale is captured in the same elegant tracking shots as the opening wreck and the flight training scenes of mid-film, so that they all have the same weight, and so that they accumulate the indiscriminate force of nature itself. As Amy brings the flock home, the movie hums and thrills and has a resounding impact. You’re not watching anymore, you’re feeling. That Ballard and Deschanel evoke all this with a handful of long takes is no accident. They have something spectacular to show, and we appreciate the chance they’ve given us to see it.Noel Murray
Mirth vs. the Flying Saucers
The cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (now blown up to feature-film size) is based on a sublimely simple idea. A man named Mike Nelsonwho took over for Joel Hodgson, the show’s creatorsits in a movie theater aboard a satellite with his two robot buddies, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. Together, they make fun of some old, cheaply made piece of B-movie product.
It sounds like a show that anybody could do, but not just anybody could so masterfully combine keen observation, ridiculously obscure pop-culture references, and cute puppet characters to create something more than just a smug stunt. MST3K is smart and hip, and it expects you to keep pace with the jokes: If you don’t know that Roger Dean designed album covers for Yes in the ’70s, you won’t know why the people around you are laughing.
The new Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie probably won’t win the show any new fans. The only advantages it has over the TV version are a larger screen, no commercials, the chance to laugh with a larger audience, and the chance to hear Tom Servo swear (which is worth it for his “whoop-de-shit” line alone).
If you’re already a fan of the show, though, you won’t want to miss the movie, as Mike and the ’bots riff on the colorful, lively sci-fi flick This Island Earth. The result is basically a better-than-average episode of the show. This Island Earth isn’t as ripe for ridicule as previous turkeys like Manos: The Hands of Fate, Red Zone Cuba, or Mitchell (now on video!), but it’s full of wacky art design and ponderous philosophy, and it’s blessed with the surprising mid-film appearance of Russell “The Professor” Johnson.
The film also has a small handful of what I call “MecSTastic moments”moments when the jokes fly so fast that they completely demystify cinematic illusion. When those moments hit, the creators peel back the very process of watching a movie until the audience is yanked out of its suspension of disbelief. Viewers are forced to understand that they’re watching a man with tinfoil on his hands and his head in a box talk about spaceships. Before you know it, you’re in a euphoric state where everything is ridiculous.
There are, of course, people who never catch these highs and therefore despise MST3K. They find it snide and dangerously dismissive of the hard work of others (though they themselves are dismissing the show’s hard-working creators). To those nay-sayers, I offer a piece of advice from the show’s own theme song: “Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show/I should really just relax.’ ”Noel Murray
Exes and Oaths
The drag-movie trend may have cooled its stiletto heels a bit, but the makers of The First Wives’ Club may revive the genre with a masterstroke: casting real actresses as drag queens. As three affluent women in their 40s who declare war on the husbands who dumped them for younger trophy mistresses, Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn exchange catty one-liners, brandish cocktails, and lip-synch “You Don’t Own Me” for a big finale. Not to worry: There’s a scene that juxtaposes the heroines with severely butch women in a lesbian bar, just as buddy movies frequently include a swishy gay man someplace so we can, ahem, keep the difference straight. But the main difference between Midler et al. and the cast of To Wong Foo... is that Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo had costumes that seemed to have been designed this decade.
A weird retro feel hangs over the entire movie, adapted by Robert Harling (and an uncredited Paul Rudnick) from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel. The First Wives’ Club will no doubt be a huge hit, partially because audiences are starved to see Hawn, Keaton, and especially Midler given plum comic roles, partially because its revenge theme is irresistible. (Any man who dumps Goldie Hawn for Showgirls’ Elizabeth Berkley, Bette Midler for Sarah Jessica Parker, or Diane Keaton for Marcia Gay Harden deserves whatever he gets.) The movie’s tone, however, resembles some smirky late-’50s “adult” comedy, down to the swanky decor in the apartments and boardrooms. With only one trifling exception, the women are made scrupulously asexual (which they’re not in Goldsmith’s book), and they can’t think of any better revenge ultimately than getting their husbands’ money. How does this do anything other than confirm what their exes already think?
I laughed a few times: once when Midler, the heiress to the Mae West tradition, narrowed her eyes to slits and socked across an incredibly nasty line about Parker’s bulimia paying off; once when Maggie Smith, as a New York dowager, gave a regally disgusted lilt to the word “fork”; and once when the camera inexplicably startled former New York Mayor Ed Koch by a buffet table. (He has the same look he had when he endorsed Al Gore for president.) And if you arrive late, you’ll miss the movie’s best performance: by Stockard Channing, whose last exhaled breath of cigarette smoke is the classiest exit I’ve seen from a movie in a long time.
Otherwise, the movie is overplayed, overwritten, and constructed so dully that in the second half voice-overs have to tell us whenever the location changes. And for all the talk about sisterhood, I couldn’t help but notice most of the humor comes from one woman saying something insulting about anotherKeaton’s mid-movie disclaimer to the contrary.
In a final delicious twist of irony, a news story over the weekend reported that screenwriter Harling is trying to prevent an actor from playing the lead woman’s role in a Memphis production of his play Steel Magnoliasthe one script in the world with a more refined drag sensibility than The First Wives’ Club. At one point, Hawn delivers a zinger about Hollywood having three ages for women: “babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” With The First Wives’ Club, Harling defines a new age: post-AbFab shrew. It adds injury to insult that a man could play it just as well.Jim Ridley
A Clockwork Peach
Celestial Clockwork is a charming end-of-summer surprise, an honest-to-God musical comedy filled with romance, opera, salsa, wild costumes, outrageous coincidences, and voodoo. The Spanish actress Ariadna Gil plays a Venezuelan bride who flees the altar and flies to Paris in her wedding dress, hoping to become an opera singer. Describing the plot that ensues would be impossible without a flow chart, but the movie basically becomes a Cinderella story replete with a wicked stepsister (a luxuriantly evil Arielle Dombasle), magic potions, a missing slipper, a production of Puccini’s Cinderella, and a fairy-godmother psychiatrist (Evelyne Didi) who ultimately proves to be a Princess Charming.
The movie, a French-Belgian-Venezuelan-Spanish coproductionit’s mostly in French, with subtitlesis feather-light, even though the whimsy-overload quotient is sometimes high. (Exclamations of “Celestial caca!” should’ve been red-lined with a paintbrush.) Nevertheless, the director, Fina Torres, her cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, and designers Claire Dague and Sandi Jelambi have exerted themselves to make every frame visually striking. The musical numbers, which are filmed in a garish, kaleidoscopic Bollywood-derived style, are a color-saturated riot in themselves. But Torres and her crew consistently find unusual angles, backgrounds, patterns, and locations that dazzle the eye. Their fun in playing with all the tricks movies can do is infectious. So is the movie.Jim Ridley
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…