Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016)

"The Bravest Boy I've Ever Met"
Ain't Them Dragons Saints?

The latest live-action remake of a past Disney film, Pete's Dragon, does not draw inspiration from the original (made during that period after Walt's death when the studio lost its way and produced "product" rather than innovation), but basically ignores it and starts from scratch, tossing out the songs, the period setting, and hammy performances from stalwart movie veterans to deliver something that hues closer to the main focus of the story, which is "a boy and his dragon."

The result is a far more satisfying film, not so much concerned with eccentrics, than with some core-values, which, although it may not have the slapstick elements of the original or all the schmaltz, still seems much more fitting the bill of "family-friendly" no matter how much mugging Jim Dale and Red Buttons could provide to amuse five year old's.

The film starts with young Pete contentedly sitting in the back seat of a station wagon driving a back-country road, while his mother and father talk about how they're "going on an adventure." They don't know the half of it. To avoid hitting a deer, Dad swerves the car off the road, flipping it and leaving Pete an orphan and alone in some pretty spooky woods that have their fair share of very carnivorous wolves. This is such a "Bambi" moment (and the director stages it with something like that film's strategy) that some kids might be traumatized by it. They won't be traumatized for long, though. No sooner do the wolves start baring their canines, do the trees begin to move and sway like nature's out of joint.
There emerges a very large, furry, winged creature who sniffs out the little kid and, having satisfied itself there is no threat, extends one paw, into which the child climbs. The creature then heaves into the air, flying undetected through the misty sky. Pete calls the creature "Elliott" (after the puppy in the book he carried with him from the wreckage of the car accident) and the two begin their "adventure" together.
Time, like a dragon, flies by. It is six years later, and Pete and Elliott seemingly have the forest (called "Millhaven") to themselves. Pete (now played by the rather stoic little Oakes Fegley) has become quite the little Mowgli, running through the trees, scampering over fallen limbs, fashioning a makeshift tree-house for himself (when he's not hanging out in the dragon's cave) with the snaggle-toothed "Elliott" keeping pace like a protective, obedient pet. Not only can "Elliott" fly, but it also has the ability to camouflage itself, blending in with its surroundings, making it virtually invisible. This becomes handy when eluding detection or for startling any bears that might see Pete as a potential meal...or a threat. No one disturbs them and no one encroaches. They're "Calvin and Hobbes" with no parental controls or supervision. What kid wouldn't love that?
But, that's a fairy tale. The town of Millhaven has stories and songs about the Millhaven dragon and one of its citizens, a retired woodcarver named Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have actually seen the dragon back in his younger days, which he is only too pleased to regale to young kids who hang on his every word, to the amusement of his ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who treats the story like the too-often-told tales on Thanksgiving, with a resigned smile and the faintest of eye-rolls. For Meacham the experience was an example of "magic" made real. For Grace, it's an old man telling stories. As she says she "knows the woods like the back of my hand" and has seen no evidence. She's too busy monitoring the encroaching of man to be noticing 50 foot myths.
Grace may have commitment issues. She's engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley) who, with his brother Gavin (Karl Urban), runs the local saw-mill. While Jack does the books, Gavin does the "harvest," which is going deeper and deeper into protected areas of Millhaven and for which Grace does a certain amount of what is often termed "environmental terrorism" (she grabs the keys from a CAT and tosses them and paints over spray-painted "tagging" marks) to impede his progress (Really? She's going to marry into this family?). She is noticed by Pete and "Elliott" and the boy manages to grab a compass she drops during her walk. 
The boy is curious about the fellow humans, especially when he sees Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). It sets up a series of encounters between the disparate parties that will expose "Elliott" to the "outside" world and separate the two and their bond. Plus, once Gavin gets wind of the dragon, he is determined to capture it for his own gain. What was once idyllic will be destroyed, never to be regained, and it will take sacrifice—a lot of it—if any semblance of "right" can be brought back to the world.  
What's great about Pete's Dragon is that it was conceived and directed by David Lowery, the independent film-maker who, a few years earlier, made the very good Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which took the simple story of crime and sacrifice and turned it into an elegaic film where images are most important and where the dialogue is circumspect and actually avoiding spelling things out, lest the hopes and secrets of the characters might be exposed and their lives...and dreams...destroyed. At the time, I wondered what other glories Lowery could be capable of. I never expected it to be a Disney film, Or a damned good one.
Pete's Dragon is not so guarded, whether in story or dialogue, and the characters are much more direct—none of them are doing anything illegal or dangerous, and at the most are just bending some rules to get by. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and their actions follow their desires, whether they're good, bad, selfish, or caring, and even the worst of them is not so shallow that they can't change their heart. It is a film of heart...and soul. And Lowery is enough of a dramatist...and a realist...that he isn't afraid to make things very bad for the characters (after all, he killed the kid's parents in the first five minutes). A good dramatist risks much, even the loyalty and comfort of the audience, in order to engage them, rather than placating. The rewards for such a strategy are great. And Pete's Dragon earns those.
The dragon's amazing, created by New Zealand's WETA with an air towards creating something oddly ungainly while plush, with the playfulness of a puppy but the eyes of an old soul. It is quite the imaginary friend, and one feels as much for the dragon as for the kid, as the two are separated from what is essentially a good thing in order to integrate them into what society considers normal. Just as the loggers are making little encroachments into the woods, reality makes its own in-roads into fantasy and the way Lowery plays it, it feels like a horrible incursion, like something precious is about to be forever lost, never to be regained, and, like the path to Hell, always asphalted over with good intentions.
But, don't tell the kids that. This is one that will keep them from being fidgety or wondering why they had to go someplace to see it, rather than just watch it on TV, and it isn't so insufferable to cause adults to check their I-watches and looking longingly for the "Exit" signs. It's a good, solid surprising "family" film that extols the virtues of family, even while it's questioning that it always has to be the best thing. Like dragons, this movie is something odd and rare and unexpected, especially given the source of Disney, who can do cinematic things that take you aback with how good they can be.

They can even spin gold from the threads of their less-accomplished films, answering the question of "why don't they remake the bad films, rather than merely try to recreate the glories of the good ones (and failing)?" Here, "they" do exactly that and make something wonderful out of it. Something that actually brought well-earned tears to my eyes.
The "original" Pete's Dragon—don't even go there.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: Rio Bravo

The Story: Okay. Here is where Hawks spells out his problems with High Noon—its story was about a sheriff who was facing a gang of cut-throats, badly outnumbered, but unable to get any of his fellow townspeople to help him face them.

Fred Zinnemann, the director, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe, saw it as a cautionary tale—"of democracy dying" due to cowardice and self-interest.

But, Howard Hawks thought that was all hooey, whether it was a metaphor or not. The way he saw it, if Gary Cooper's sheriff was any good, or had a sense of civic duty, he wouldn't have gone around town asking people to help him, to be deputized. He just would have done it himself. It's his responsibility. The men are coming after him. To ask other people to fight your battles—that's just wrong. Against the code. Even if democracy is dying.

And so, Rio Bravo. Sheriff John T. Chance has arrested the no-good scion of a western baronage, the Burdettes, and the family has hired a bunch of very good guns-people to keep an eye on things and strategize getting the kid out "by any means necessary." No one gets in and no one gets out, without the Burdette say-so. Chance and his deputies ("a game-legged old man and a drunk") are surrounded, with no opportunity for reprieve. (And in case you hadn't noticed, autocratic rule, whether by villains or businessmen or anybody, that's democracy dying, too).

So, Chance doesn't go asking for help, even if he could use it. He'll fight with the army that he's got, not a "bunch of well-meaning amateurs" who'll just become collateral damage when the tempers and bullets start flying. And, of course, he could use the help, but he's distrustful of anybody wanting to volunteer. How useful could they be if they're reckless?

It's a Catch-22. Chance wants you if you're "good," but if you ARE "good," and really smart, you're not going to volunteer in the first place. 

So, he will play the hand he's dealt, with as few people to watch out for as possible. That's Hawksian professionalism. But, the Hawksian ideal of democracy is of disparate people bonding for a common goal. In the Hawks-world, Chance will get the help whether he wants it or not.

The Set-Up: Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) is in jail and the town is being blocked and watched by thugs hired by Joe's brother, Nathan. Stuck in jail with the prisoner are Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), his deputy, a recovering alcoholic named "Dude" (Dean Martin) and "Stumpy" (Walter Brennan), the Sheriff's gimp-legged, elderly jail guard. A wagon train has come into town led by Joe Wheeler (Ward Bond), an old crony of Chance's. Wheeler wants to help the trio out and has been asking around town for recruits. Chance gets wind of this and decides to put a stop to it. 


The bar is busy and games are going at the tables. At one table Wheeler is playing poker with some other men including Colorado and a fat man in a checkered vest, and with the girl Feathers.
Chance and Dude go to one end of the bar where they can watch the room, and Dude speaks to the bartender who goes away to draw a glass of beer. Chance and Dude look over the room. Carlos, who has seen them, takes the beer from the bartender and brings it himself, looking worried. He gives Dude the beer and speaks to Chance. There is no one close enough to overhear.
He crosses to the table where Wheeler is playing and speaks to him.
PLAYER: The kings full.
PAT WHEELER: That's good. Beats me.
SHERIFF JOHN T. CHANCE: Spare a minute, Pat?
FEATHERS: Good evening, Sheriff.
WHEELER:(throws down his cards and gets up) Deal me out.
CHANCE: Evening.
(Wheeler follows Chance—they return to the bar where Dude is drinking his beer) 
CHANCE: You two know each other?
CHANCE: No thanks, Carlos.
CHANCE: I've been wanting to talk to you.
CHANCE: You've been talking too much.
WHEELER: What do you mean "talking too much"?
CHANCE: Anybody that sides in with me right now's liable to find themselves up to their ears in trouble.
WHEELER: Is that why you haven't asked for any deputies?
CARD-PLAYER: Give me a new deck of cards. I'm not having any luck with this one.
Carlos takes the old deck, goes to the bar and gets a fresh deck from the bartender, putting the old deck on the bar near Chance. Chance fusses idly with the cards while he talks to Wheeler.
WHEELER: I was talking about why you haven't asked for any new deputies. You could get some. How about my drivers? You could use them.
CHANCE: Suppose I got them, what would I have?
CHANCE: Some well-meaning amateurs. Most of them worried about their wives and kids.
CHANCE: Burdette has thirty or forty men, all professionals. Only things they're worried about is earning their pay.
CHANCE: No, Pat, all I'd be doing is giving them more targets to shoot at. A lot of people would get hurt.
CHANCE: Joe Burdette isn't worth it. He isn't worth one of those that would get killed.
WHEELER: Then what are you going to do?
WHEELER: All you got for help is that old man down at the jail and this--(indicating Dude)
DUDE: Borrachon is the name, Mr. Wheeler.
DUDE: I'll go outside so you can talk more freely.
CHANCE: Wasn't good, Pat. Let's sit down.
WHEELER: Yeah, I know. I shouldn't have said it.
WHEELER: I meant nothing by it.
WHEELER: But I'm so used to stumbling over that fellow.
WHEELER: I don't think I ever did see him standing on his own two feet...without something to hold him up.
CHANCE: How long you been coming here?
WHEELER: Going on two years.
CHANCE: If you'd have come through three years ago, you wouldn't have stumbled over him. Dude was good. He was my deputy.
CHANCE: Best man with a gun I ever worked with.
WHEELER: That's pretty hard to believe, Chance.
CHANCE: A girl. Just a girl that came through on the stage.
CHANCE: She was no good, but couldn't tell him that. I tried and he damn near killed me. Anyway, he was hooked. Went away with her. Six months later he came back without her. That's when the Mexicans started calling him borrachon. That's Spanish for--
WHEELER: -I know. He told me.
CHANCE: So, for two years he's been drinking...all he could buy, or somebody would buy for him until last night.
WHEELER: And how long do you think that'll last?
CHANCE: I don't know.
WHEELER: So in the meantime, you have to take care of him.
CHANCE: He's been doing a pretty good job of taking care of me.
WHEELER: I'm supposed to be your friend, too. Why don't you let me help you? Why don't ya deal me in?
CHANCE: You're not good enough.
WHEELER: I don't know! I'm as good--
CHANCE: If you're so good, why did you have to hire Colorado?
CHANCE: No thanks, Pat, you keep out of it.
WHEELER: That's an idea.
WHEELER: Ryan. "Colorado," you call him. He's young, Chance, but he's good. Real good.
CHANCE: I could use him if he's good. But that's up to him.
WHEELER: We'll see what he says.
He goes to the table, speaks to Colorado, and comes back with him.
COLORADO: Good evening, Sheriff.
CHANCE: Any luck, kid?
COLORADO: It's a pretty fast game.
WHEELER: Son, I...asked you over here because the Sheriff's a friend of mine. He's got trouble. He can use a good man.
COLORADO: To go against the Burdettes, Sheriff?
CHANCE: That's right.
WHEELER: I told him you were one of the best.
COLORADO: I'll tell you what I'm a lot better at, Mr. Wheeler. That's minding my own business.
COLORADO: No offense, Sheriff.
CHANCE: No offense.
WHEELER: Well, I never expected that.
CHANCE: He showed good sense. I'd like to have him.
WHEELER: I don't see why you--
CHANCE: Quit stewing, Pat. You tried. I appreciate it.
WHEELER: Alright, if you don't want me, I'll round up my men......and get set for an early start in the morning.
WHEELER: See you before I go.
Rio Bravo

Written by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman (and Howard Hawks)

Pictures by Russell Harlan and Howard Hawks

Rio Bravo is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.