Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Troy (2004): A Review (Review #4)


As Told By Homer of Springfield...

I can't remember much of of Troy. I do remember a sense of amazement at being introduced to Brad Pitt's ass. I thought it the most beautiful ass I'd ever seen. Pitt must have thought it beautiful too, since it had more screen time than Odysseus. Troy for better or worse can best be described as "Homer-erotic": mixing the Iliad with a bizarre fixation on the physical beauty of Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, and Brad Pitt.

Praise Zeus they weren't fixated on Brian Cox or Peter O'Toole.

The Greek city-states, under command of Agamemnon (Cox) go to war with the city-state of Troy after Trojan prince Paris (Bloom) runs off with Helen (Diane Kruger), wife of Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). Neither Paris' brother Hector (Bana) or father Priam (O'Toole) are happy about this, but nevertheless Helen is welcomed.

Surly warrior Achilles (Pitt), somewhat cajoled into going to war, detests Agamemnon and the idea of fighting both for and under him. He'd rather be under Briseis (Rose Byrne), a Trojan priestess taken prisoner. Agamemnon wants her as well, so Achilles sulks. Many times the war could come to an end, but in particular Agamemnon keeps at it until Troy's tragic fall and the death of many heroes.

This film may be based on The Iliad, but any resemblance between the epic poem and the epic film is purely coincidental. I don't claim to be the most literate of men, but as I watched it, I kept thinking the changes made were wrong, wrong, wrong. Where was Cassandra? Weren't Menelaus and Helen reunited in the end? Wasn't Agamemnon murdered by his wife after the fall of Troy? Wasn't Aeneas, along with his father and son, the only Trojan to escape? Wasn't Paris killed before the fall of Troy? For that matter, wasn't Achilles? I do not understand the choices made throughout all of Troy.

Yes, one of the Golden Rules of Filmmaking is The Movie Will Always be Different from The Book. However, this is going too far. Just like one would never accept a film where Romeo & Juliet live happily ever after, you can't accept this bastardization of Homer.

Ironically, the only good scene is the one that sticks the closest to The Iliad: where King Priam goes to Achilles to ask for Hector's body. It helps when you have Peter O'Toole as Priam, here giving the only good performance in the film, reminding us why he is one of the great actors. Curious, when he's in the scene with Pitt, the latter appears to recoil almost in fear. Perhaps Pitt has never come across Actual Acting.

That brings us to the major source of the problem: the performances. With this, The Lord of the Rings, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Orlando Bloom has confirmed what I've suspected: he cannot play parts set in contemporary times. I cannot place a specific reason as to why Bloom can only somewhat successfully play in costume or fantasy films. Perhaps his face, voice or body suggest someone not of this time. I can only say that Bloom gave a bad performance, though for him that is closer to normal.

That does not explain Eric Bana, a better actor than Bloom. In Troy, he seems to be channeling the Hulk. You get no sense that this guy is Achilles' equal. He's not the glorious warrior of old, but a brooding, reluctant soldier. Cox, so wonderful in the Bourne films, here devours the scenery, taking the money and nothing more.

Diane Kruger as Helen is only required to be beautiful, so she does all right. Sean Bean is reduced to a virtual cameo as Odysseus, which doesn't give him enough time to make us think he's important. He might have done more, but there can only be one sun in the sky: The Man With the Golden Ass.

All Brad Pitt's choices were curious to say the least. He speaks with this Pan-European accent: a cross between British and German. He's in no way heroic: perpetually angry/moody, not a drop of emotion, not even when his cousin is killed. When Achilles is killed in battle, I wanted to cheer. Who'd want to be around such a jerk? When you have such a horrible person as the hero, there can be no identification. You cannot mourn someone you never liked, let alone rally around him. By making him arrogant, you remove yourself any vested interest.

All that could have been endured. I could even bring myself to forgive them for reducing the still-beautiful Julie Christie to a mere cameo, but not Pitt virtually mooning the audience. The fact that he decided to show his ass four times is so bizarre from a man who was worked his whole career to downplay his looks. One gets the sense he was reveling in how beautiful he was, on what a glorious body he had made. Yes, he did look like a statue of a Greek god. Pity he was as lifelike as one. That Troy earned an Oscar nomination for Costume Design when the most prominent feature is its lack of clothes is quite ironic.

I had gone in with great hopes. Given the time we live in, I had hoped Troy would be an action film that was also intelligent, speaking about the destructive force of war on civilians, how the egos of leaders bring misery to those under them, and how often wars are fought for trivial reasons. There was none of that here. Instead, it ended up a second-rate sword & sandal flick, a B-Picture with A-List Stars.

Ultimately Troy gives new meanings to two phrases:

A Vanity Project, and
Making An Ass of Oneself.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Earth: A Review


Growing up, I loved Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I have fond memories of watching animals tearing each other apart for meals. You won't find that in Earth, the new nature documentary. I figure this was to get a large family audience. Overall, this was a smart choice that doesn't diminish the impact of the film.

Earth is the chronicle of a year on, as James Earl Jones narrates, the only planet known capable of supporting life due to the precise location and tilt of Earth.

We start with a polar bear family in the Arctic (which elicited the audience to instantly cry "Ah" when the cubs popped out of their shelter). Their lives will be hard, we're warned, because of the warming of the planet. This is something we're told often, which is important to remember as we continue to watch the glories and beauty of our planet.

From there, we leisurely travel south, visiting the woodland and rainforest, which provides a fantastic montage of a variety of Birds of Paradise. We see a humpback whale and her cub as the travel the oceans to the Antarctic, where we encounter penguins and a herd of elephants in the Kalahari in Africa.

This film doesn't shrink from suggesting nature can be deadly but it isn't graphic; that is a plus since the majority of the audience was children. If they're smart, they'll understand sometimes, through no human or creature's fault death is part of life.

Earth has beautiful imagery that is accessible to all ages. Children will respond to the animals presented as adorable, while any harsh elements of animal life are just hinted at. The environmental message in Earth is also subtle but effective and sincere. It is a well-crafted film that is both entertaining and educational without one overpowering the other.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Best Picture Retrospective: An Introduction


Should The Oscar Have Gone To That? 

When Marisa Tomei's name was announced as Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny, I think the entire world gasped. Even North Koreans probably said, "Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny?!?"

Rumors then began that presenter Jack Palance had read the wrong name. By some accounts, it was accidental. More vicious reports make it out to have been done deliberately. The Academy, so the story goes, was too embarrassed to tell them of this error, so they've kept quiet while the "real winner" went home empty-handed.

In retrospect, her win shouldn't have been that big of a surprise. There were many variables that year. Tomei was the only American nominee. The film was the only big hit among those nominated in the category. Finally, just maybe, the voters thought her comedic turn was the best out of all those costume dramas it was up against.

It should be pointed out that out of her fellow nominees (Miranda Richardson, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, and Dame Joan Plowright) only Richardson has been nominated again since then, while Tomei has been nominated twice since her win.

This made me wonder about the ultimate prize: Best Picture. How would I rank them? Do some deserve to be recognized as 'the best of that year' or of any year? Are some just really oddball choices?

As such, I started this Best Picture Winner Retrospective: from 1928's Wings to of this writing 2009's Slumdog Millionaire (to later include those that follow). 

I want to see if I can find the Best and Worst of those declared The Best. Out of the 79 available as of today, I've gotten through 61 and have made a few discoveries. Both Oliver! and Marty should be remembered, albeit perhaps for different reasons.

For now, I won't concentrate on individual years, so whether The Greatest Show on Earth deserved to win over High Noon or The Quiet Man is a question for another day. Right now what I plan to do is look at each film on its own merits, and once done then then rank them on three criteria:

Is it a good film?
Has it stood the test of time?
Is it a film I would watch again?

At the end, Three Lists: The Ten Best Best Picture Winners, The Ten Worst Best Picture Winners and a Final Ranking, updated annually.

I look forward to finding good films and condemning bad ones as well as hearing from you.

With that, let us begin.

Best Picture Retrospective

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Star Is Born (1954) Review (Review #2)


The Film That Got Away...

This first remake of the original A Star is Born was meant as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland, but because of its running time the front office decided to gut so much that what was left was a beautiful corpse. The film we have now, while still extraordinary, is sadly a shadow of what was intended.

Esther Blogett (Garland) is an insecure singer who finds herself caught in a potentially embarrassing moment when film star Norman Maine (James Mason) drunkenly crashes her musical number at a benefit. Maine, despite his shamble of a life, sees potential in Esther, and with his eventual help and encouragement after a few false starts, she achieves fame and success in Hollywood as "Vicki Lester".  They fall in love and marry.

While her career rises to the heights, his career falters and then falls due to his alcoholism. The love they have for each other cannot save him from destroying himself and nearly destroying her. Rather than let that happen, he kills himself, and Vicki is devastated.  Eventually, she attends a benefit, and introduces herself by saying, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine".

A Star is Born seemed tailor-made for immortality: screenplay by Moss Hart, music by Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin, direction by George Cukor.

When it premiered at 3 hours, the reaction was fantastic. However, this would mean fewer showings. The solution Warner Brothers came up with? Just cut half an hour out of it. They didn't tell Cukor what they were going to cut, and the end result would leave the story jumbled and confusing.

The film we have now is a restoration that comes as close to what Cukor envisioned, and the result is as good as possible. However, to modern viewers, the overall effect makes the film look odd. A lot of the back story was removed, specially the developing relationship between Esther and Norman. To try and restore that, the audio tracks were laid over still pictures and outtakes of those scenes. The benefit is that it keeps the continuity flowing, but it looks strange on screen, almost fake.

Image result for a star is born slap

Despite the mess they left what remains on screen are some extraordinary moments. The Man That Got Away is one of the greatest musical performances ever captured on film. Unlike the more elaborate Born in a Trunk number, the former consists of one take, and Garland delivered this song of tortured love with a passion that has not been equaled.

It is Perfection.

There are also great acting moments. James Mason as Norman Maine has one bravura moment when he crashes Esther/Vicki's speech when she wins Best Actress (something Garland was inexplicably denied). Even when Norman is at his worst, Mason always has the audience on his side: the scene when he falls off the wagon is both believable and heartbreaking. As for Garland, her performance when she lets out her frustration at him and herself before having to sing a happy song is an extraordinary scene of acting, as is the scene where she talks about her past and how she got to the point she was when they first meet.

One actor that I would single out is Jack Carson as press agent Matt Libby.  He adds some lightness in comedic moments, but we see a darker, angrier Carson than his usual persona as the 'ham' to his screen partner Dennis Morgan's cheese.  In his anger and rage at what Norman has done to him and himself, Carson creates a fiery and furious person relishing his chance to strike back at this has-been.

The film is also both satirical and truthful about Hollywood. The scene when Esther first comes to the studio is hilarious. Early in the film, the M.C. proclaims, "Motion picture stars never forget their own", foreshadowing the hypocrisy and tragedy that was about to unfold.

Near the end of the film, when Norman is brought before a judge for drunk driving, he's asked, "Weren't you Norman Maine?" The scene where Vicki's veil is ripped off is reminiscent of a similar incident that happened to Joan Crawford as she left her husband's funeral, which occurred five years after the movie's release. Some things never change.

That isn't to say the film hasn't its flaws. If I would have cut something, it would have been some of the musical numbers. It might be heresy, but the Born in the Trunk number slows the film down and is too reminiscent of the Gotta Dance number in Singin' in the Rain (which curiously had the same effect). It's a great showcase for Garland, but adds nothing to the plot.

Ultimately, it's unintentionally autobiographical. Judy Garland in real life was both Esther Blogett AND Norman Maine--a person with deep insecurities but an extraordinary talent who under another name devolved into alcoholism and drugs.

As for A Star is Born? It would be nice to see it complete, and perhaps one day it will be. Perhaps a complete print is lying in an obscure archive or back room. It has wonderful moments but the patch-up work might throw off people. It should be seen, both for what it has...and for what it could have had. Be prepared for a long evening. If you do decide to tackle it, one thing's sure: you too will never forget The Man That Got Away.

The 1954 remake of A Star Is Born is a tragedy, and not just because of the story itself. Rather, the greater tragedy is what happened after it premiered, on how misguided efforts to keep to one of the Golden Rules of Filmmaking destroyed what could have been a true masterpiece.