Thursday, May 24, 2007

Day of the Dolphin, Lost Horizon, and Tarzan's Secret Treasure

Day of the DolphinThe Day of the Dolphin

This was one of those movies that I've heard about for most of my life, but had never gotten around to seeing. The premise -- dolpins being used in an assassination scheme -- always sounded delightfully cheesy, but not compelling enough to put it high on my To See list. Had I known that it was a Mike Nichols film, it would've been higher. Regarding Henry and Wolf are two of my favorite films, and the rest of his credits aren't so bad either.

Anyway, Nichols takes the cheesy premise and gives it weight by casting George C. Scott in the lead role as the scientist who's been training the first dolphin ever born in captivity. Scott was just coming off of a couple of Oscar nominations (for Patton -- which he won, of course -- and The Hospital) and his talent is undeniable here. His character, Jake Terrell, is a nuanced, tortured man who connects more with his dolphins than he does with other people, even his own wife. We're not hit over the head with that though. There are no huge, impassioned speeches from the wife about it. We just see it in Scott's performance and the performance of Trish Van Devere (who would later marry Scott in real life) as his wife Maggie.

That's the beauty of this movie. As we were watching it, my wife observed that it would never get made the same way today. It moves too slowly. Modern producers would want to get to the assassination quicker so that we could have more cool boat chases and gunfights and explosions. They'd make do with Maggie's making a speech about her sorry marriage, and maybe another one by Jake about how much he cares about the dolphins and how much the dolphins rely on him. Nichols, on the other hand, took the time to show us Jake's relationship with his dolphins in long, thoughtful scenes. So by the time the dolphins are kidnapped and tricked into helping the assassins, we're not just detatchedly observing action sequences, we're sickened and worried right alongside Jake. It's a powerful film.

And because it's so powerful and emotional, the scene where the dolphins get their payback at the end (oh, you knew they would) is cathartically humorous. More drama than thriller (though is certainly is that too) it's just about a perfect movie.

Lost HorizonLost Horizon

Another film I've been meaning to get to forever. I've got the book on my shelf, but I've never gotten around to reading it either. Always heard of Shangri-La; never experienced the story that created it.

The plot's pretty simple. Ronald Colman plays a British diplomat named Bob Conway who's working to get British subjects out of a violent Chinese province. He and his brother George get everyone else out before hopping on the last plane themselves, but instead of traveling to Singapore where their ship is waiting, they and the rest of their party end up hijacked and taken into the Himalayas. There they find the hidden valley of Shangri-La, a utopian community that they initially distrust. When some of the group (including Bob, thanks to the attentions of a young woman played by Spock's mom) begins to get comfortable with the place, George gets even more suspicious and angry.

The conflict is all about whether Shangri-La is as good as it seems or whether it's actually hiding a dangerous secret. Is George right to be suspicious, or is he going to ruin a perfect society in order to escape? It's an effective conflict because we'd all like to believe that such a utopian society is possible. We want it to be real as much as Bob does and hope that it's not a sham, so we're invested.

The only thing that doesn't work in the movie is towards the end when the story sort of runs out of time to play itself out. Rather than following the climax ourselves, we get a character who comes in to explain to us a bunch of stuff that happened off camera. A bunch of really interesting stuff that we'd love to see. I'm more curious than ever now to read the book and see how it handles the end. The off camera events could've easily made a whole separate movie or even a series.

Tarzan's Secret TreasureTarzan's Secret Treasure

Now that I've completely adjusted to the new tone of the Weissmuller Tarzan movies, I'm enjoying them a lot. With this one, they've settled into a comfortable status quo with Tarzan, Jane, and Boy living in their Swiss Family Robinson treehouse with Cheetah and a baby elephant.

Tarzan's Secret Treasure breaks the formula of having someone from civilization show up to try and drag one of the family members back to the real world. Sort of. In this one, Boy discovers gold and accidentally lets some unscrupulous members of a scientific expedition know about it. So, it's gold and not a person that they want to take from the jungle, but the result is the same. Tarzan still has to fight them off and protect the sanctity and tranquility of his jungle home.

Like the last movie, I watched this one with my five-year-old son. Before we even started it he was excited to know if Boy and Cheetah were going to be in it. And like in Tarzan Finds a Son, he giggled a lot, especially when Cheetah was the focus. And so did I.

Not that it's entirely a kids' movie. David got bored at the end when the conflict ramped up between Tarzan's group and the villains, but I'm glad for that section. It was a nice bit of suspense sandwiched between some fun jungle antics.

My only complaint comes from watching it with a 21st century perspective. Early in the film, Boy saves the life of a young African boy named Tumbo and they become friends. When Tumbo's mother dies, he goes to stay with Boy and his family. I like that Tumbo isn't played for laughs as an incompetent sidekick for Boy. At one point, he actually saves the day for everyone. My problem though is with something Boy says later in the movie.

Boy speaks English and Tumbo speaks whatever African dialect his tribe uses. Since we're all English speakers watching the movie, it makes sense that Tumbo learns some broken English in order to communicate with Boy so that we can understand him. Boy doesn't learn a word of Tumbo's language (though Tarzan seems to speak it well enough). But when Boy introduces Tumbo to Jane, he jokes that Tumbo doesn't speak very well. And maybe I'm overly sensitive, but I get the feeling that we're supposed to laugh too. Haha, poor little kid doesn't even know how to speak English. Only I'm thinking, "But at least he's trying, you jerk. How much of his language do you know?" Boy's just a kid though, so I excuse his ignorance, except for the part where I really do think that we're supposed to be in on some kind of joke with him. But, honestly, maybe it's just me.

I don't want to end a review of an otherwise fun movie on a sour note, so let me finish up by saying how nice it was to see Barry Fitzgerald (Father Fitzgibbon from Going My Way) as one of the good scientists. Sometimes with these comic-relief roles there's a thin line between endearing and annoying, but Fitzgerald always stays well into the "endearing" side.

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