Wednesday, April 29, 2009

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


As Told By Homer of Springfield...

I can't remember much of the theatrical version 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. After that, I realized what this film was going to be. Troy was going to be 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.

I remember thinking it was terrible: too long, too pretentious, badly acted. Since then, the memories of Troy and of seeing the bottom of the Pitt have faded. The memory may have faded too much. I began to think of Troy as a bad movie I could enjoy, in the same way I enjoy the oddball Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine or the truly awful Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Therefore, when the extended edition was released for under $10, I opted for it. To (not) quote Virgil, "caveat emptor".

It's a bad sign for a movie when you can't tell the different between the theatrical and extended versions. I knew immediately what the new scenes in American Gangster and/or Amadeus were. I couldn't in Troy. That to me indicates just how unmemorable the project was. That, however, was the LEAST of its problems.

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 suspect a main reason is that Bloom has a face, a voice, a body that makes him believable as the wimpy but beautiful Paris (Troy), the not-so-wimpy yet beautiful Will Turner (POTC), and the definitely not wimpy and ethereally beautiful Legolas (LOTR). He is destined for costume pictures and fantasies. Yes, he was in Black Hawk Down, but even then he didn't strike one as a tough soldier like his costars Josh Hartnett or Eric Bana.

Speaking of, Bana does himself no favors either. 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. 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 his mooning of 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. My fondest memories of my father are of us sitting together, watching animals tearing another creature apart. 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 the distinctive voice of James Earl Jones says, the only planet known capable of supporting life. This is due, we're told, to the precise location and tilt of Earth. We start in the Artic, and a family of polar bears. The crowd instantly cried "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 (I wonder if they're the same ones from March of the 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 fault of our own (or the animals), death is part of life.
For me, someone who has always loved nature, it's like seeing Heaven. My favorite part was when a flock of demoiselle cranes fly over the Himalayas. I have a special fondness for birds (though I didn't "ah" when I saw the ducks learning to fly), but I thought that scene was particularly sublime.

It is amazing to think about how much life there is here. This is something we don't think much on, which is a detriment. Ultimately, while Man can be a destructive force in nature, we can also be the greatest benefit to it. We exterminated the great auk, but we saved the buffalo and are working to save the animals in the film. In that, we take comfort.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Best Picture Retrospective: An Introduction


Should The Oscar Have Gone To That? 

For better or worse, this is the face of shocking Oscar moments. You might call it the Citizen Kane of shocking Oscar moments. More shocking than the streaker interrupting David Niven. More shocking than Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White. More shocking than the tap-dance number set to the music of Saving Private Ryan. Even more shocking than Bjork's "Swannee" outfit.

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 ?!? My Cousin Vinny ?!? This can't be right, right?"

Then the rumours began: Jack Palance, the whispers went, 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. 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. Tomei might have been the only performance to stand out to them: who doesn't remember her bit about her 'biological clock'? 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: what about Best Picture? Did the winners deserve to win? Was Titanic better than L.A. Confidential? This lead me to my most recent quest: to watch every Best Picture winner available (from 1928's Wings onwards), and review them. That means going from 2009's Slumdog Millionaire to 1929's The Broadway Melody. I want to see if I can find the Best of the Best...and the Worst. Out of the 79 available as of today, I've gotten through 61. I've made a few wonderful discoveries: Oliver! and Marty should not be forgotten (though perhaps for different reasons). I've also found some true horrors. I won't reveal them now, but here are some clues:

"I want you to paint me like your French girls, Jack, wearing this...wearing only this."
"My momma always said, 'Life was like a box of choc-lates'."
"Call means everything, friend-o."

I look forward to finding good films and condemning bad ones as well as hearing from you. One can make a case for or against a particular picture. I probably will make judgments about whether it should have won, especially if the winner is a controversial choice (The Greatest Show on Earth and Shakespeare in Love come to mind). I will begin with the most recent winner and work my way back. I'm eager to make new discoveries, revisit old friends, perhaps even revise my views on certain films.

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 film is a tragedy, and not just because of the story on the screen. 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.

The rule in question is: Movies are made for two reasons--to make art or to make money. The remake of A Star is Born was made for BOTH reasons, but because of its running time the front office decided to sacrifice the former to achieve the latter. They achieved neither, and it now what we have is A Beautiful Corpse.

The story is that of Esther Blogett (Judy Garland), an insecure singer who with the help and encouragement of Norman Maine (James Mason), a matinee idol, achieves fame and success in Hollywood as Vicki Lester. 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.

A Star is Born was suppose to be the comeback vehicle for Judy Garland, whose various health problems and reputation had derailed her career. The film seemed tailor-made for immortality: screenplay by Moss Hart, music by Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin, direction by George Cukor.

What went wrong?

When it premiered at 3 hours, the reaction was fantastic. However, this would mean fewer showings. The solution they 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.

What was left 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.

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". 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 a 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.