Wednesday, August 19, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. A Review (Review #20)


Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Bother...

I start with a confession. I didn't watch the cartoon series of G.I. Joe and didn't play with the toys except for a Cobra Commander figure. I played with it so much that I ended up tearing it in half, but still kept playing with it for some time afterwards. After watching G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I am still amazed that today, it isn't television shows that are being made into films (I'd line up for a Mr. Belvedere film), but TOYS that are the inspiration for features. 

Weapons manufacturer Mr. McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has created a new weapon involving nanotechnology of some sort. Basically, these weapons eat everything in their path: tanks, buildings, people I imagine too. To transport these weapons, you have a military escort headed by Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans). They are attacked by a shadowy group but are rescued by another shadowy group. The latter are G.I. Joe, headed by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid). Duke & Ripcord join this elite squad to stop the other group, Cobra. One guess as to who is behind this nefarious SPECTER knock-off. You have the evil scientist, who is in league with Cobra to try to conquer the world. It ends up in a massive battle above the Artic Circle (bringing memories of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider to mind).

There were quite a few things wrong in this film. The biggest problem I had was with the flashbacks. There seemed an endless series of flashbacks to explain things (I counted four). In fact, the movie begins with a flashback. It takes you out of the film when you have to go back to explain things that are happening now or will happen in the near future.

The flashbacks lead to the second, and bigger problem I had with G.I. Joe. There were too many coincidences in the film. One flashback explains why Duke and The Baroness (Sienna Miller) knew each other. Why did they need to? Why did they need to have a romantic history? Why couldn't she just be a villain to be a villain? Another flashback explains the animosity between Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow. To be honest, it wasn't important to the story. 

Why did they have to have a history, and what are the odds that they would meet again? Near the end, Storm Shadow says, "You took a vow of silence after our Master was killed", or something like that. While that explains why Snake-Eyes didn't speak, it was something we would have no knowledge of. That, to me, is cheating. I never gave a thought as to WHY Snake-Eyes was silent because I didn't care.

Then there is the matter of the performances themselves. Channing Tatum made Duke the strong, silent, stoic soldier. From what I saw, he has no real emotion, which might be correct for a military man but doesn't add much to Tatum's range. Wayans was all right as the comic relief but didn't add much to the story. As for the others, well, they range from the odd to the laughable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt must have had fun as the Mad Scientist, but frankly, Gordon-Levitt is simply too good an actor to waste his time on something as schlocky as Rise of Cobra.

Miller was a non-entity as The Baroness, and if keeps at this she won't convince people she's a genuine actress. It's their elders that should be embarrassed. Eccleston tried to ham it up, but couldn't bring himself to either play it straight or be in on the joke. As for Quaid, he just says his lines and cashes his paycheck. When he barks out, "Release the sharks", I bursted out laughing. In fact, I laughed a lot during the film, and I doubt I was suppose to.

It seems that there is one thing people watching the film have not taken note of: that G.I. Joe is no longer a Real American Hero. That's because he's no longer a Real American. It's now an international force, a steroid version of the United Nations. That's all well and good, but it isn't what the toys were about. When the film version of a toy series violates the spirit of the toys themselves, you're headed down a bad path.

Out of all the things wrong with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the biggest problem was the ending. There was none. Instead, what the film ended up being was an extended trailer for the sequel. It violated one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End A Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel. It won't make me want to figure what happens to them because I don't care. 

I figure I should cut G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra a little slack, but even by the low bar it sets it fails. It fails as goofy entertainment, let alone intelligence.

Ultimately, G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is made for kids who like to play with toys. Eccleston, Quaid and Gordon-Levitt are good actors, and deserve better. As for star Tatum, I don't know if this is a Step Up for his career, but if he keeps Fighting for scripts like this, he'll end up having to go back to stripping.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It Happened One Night (1934): A Review


It Should Happen Every Night...

Almost everyone who participated in It Happened One Night did not think this was a good film. Claudette Colbert said to a friend after production wrapped, "I just finished the worst picture in the world". Clark Gable was alleged to have been forced to make the film for Columbia Studios when he refused to make another one for his studio, M-G-M. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, few thought it had a chance. The film industry was therefore shocked when It Happened One Night not only won Best Picture, but became the first film to win "The Big Five" the same year: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay.

History has proved Colbert wrong: it was not 'the worst picture in the world', but rather a bright, sparkling romantic comedy that was the genesis for the screwball films like Bringing Up Baby or My Man Godfrey.

Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is desperate to escape and be reunited with the man with whom she eloped with. She does so by literally jumping ship, diving off her family yacht off the Florida coast. She boards a bus for New York where she meets down on his luck reporter Peter Warne (Gable). 

At one stop, she is stunned to discover the bus left without her despite telling the bus driver to wait for her. Warne recognizes her and makes a deal: in exchange for helping her avoid her father's agents and get her back to New York, she will give him an exclusive to her story. Along the way, they have a few misadventures, culminating with a famous scene involving hitchhiking showing that Colbert had a "leg up" on the competition. As they are forced to share rooms, Warne has come up with the concept of "The Walls of Jericho" a blanket thrown between a piece of rope to divide the room. Knowing this is a romantic comedy, you can guess what happens to them as they go on their journey together.

Few people could tap into the "common touch" as well as Frank Capra. He had an instinct and talent for making films that were both good and popular. With 1934 being a Depression year, he allowed us to laugh at the rich, identify with the average Joe, and yet still find the humanity in the characters. We see their attitudes toward each other (and those in their position) soften over the journey. We have the theme of the star-crossed lovers, people we know should be together but for various reasons and misunderstanding aren't.

Gable gave great performances in such film as Gone With the Wind, Red Dust (and its remake Mogambo), and Mutiny on the Bounty among others. Here, in his only Oscar-winning role, he made Warne both a wise-guy and a romantic at heart. Colbert also showed the resilient, smart side to a woman detached from her fellow humans. These are two great performances that set the standard for all who followed in the romantic comedy genre.

While It Happened One Night is a comedy, we see Gable and Colbert give fully formed performances: the creeping romance, the moments of frustration and even drama.  

Ultimately, you care about them and want them to be together. We cheer when "The Walls of Jericho" finally come tumbling down. A witty script, deft direction from Capra who keeps things moving and light and fun-filled performances from Gable and Colbert give us one of the first screwball comedies, a delightful romp that really should be better known.

It all just goes to show people have a lot of fun when It Happened One Night.

For the complete Best Picture Winners Reviews please visit the Best Picture Catalog

Monday, August 17, 2009

Personal Reflections on The Rocky Horror Picture Show Experience

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is something that should be experienced, even just once, by everyone. At the Plaza Theater Classic Film Festival, it was screened not in the large Kendle Kidd Performance Hall or the smaller Philanthropy Theater but out in the Arts Festival Plaza, the open space between the theater and the El Paso Museum of Art.  

In retrospect, I think the reason is simple: as a historic site, The Plaza Theater might not survive the audience participation The Rocky Horror Picture Show inspires.  It HAS to be held either outside or at a venue which doesn't mind cleaning up.

I've always felt that El Paso is not a town that welcomes excessive individualism. Being weird here is still frown upon, not like our state capital Austin, which revels in its eccentricities.

That is reflected in the audience at the film's screening: most people were not dressed up like the characters and were taken by surprise by the various activities that make up the RHPS Experience. For example, in the opening moments most everyone around me was thrown off by having all this rice thrown all over the place. I heard someone say, "The pigeons are going to explode!", causing me to burst out in laughter. 

As as sign of how square I am, I was shocked when I saw what appeared to be pieces of bread flying through the air until I made the connection between this and Dr. Frank N. Furter's cry of "A toast!"

Yes, naïve is a quality I have in spades.

It was clear that most of the audience didn't know any of the songs, but like respectable El Pasoans sat quietly while trying to listen to them. All, except for Time Warp. That one definitely got just about everyone trying it out. The fact that it was held outside might have been the problem. Sometimes it was hard to hear what was on the screen because the true devotees were up front and the noise they made, along with the outside noises like cars, made things hard to hear at times.

For myself, I enjoyed what I could make out of the film. What I would really like to do is go to an actual theater that allows for such intense participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, after seeing it, was to me a cry to reject "normality" and surrender to a near-anarchy. It is the ridiculing of standard behavior (certainly by referring to the squares Brad and Janet as "Asshole" and "Slut" respectively) and the celebration of the bizarre and non-conformist that the film gets its holding power. 

I'm probably too much of a square to fully get into The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I admit it. I certainly wouldn't appear in drag but if I did go to a midnight screening, it would be as more observer of the audience than the film, which I wasn't overwhelmed with. I can't say I didn't enjoy myself, but I was a bit puzzled by it all. I may find the people who dress up odd, but time has softened me to where I can see them as more curious than insane.

I can, however, see the appeal. It appeals to all those who feel different from their peers, out of place in a world where you are not in a clique--the Jock, the Nerd, the Beautiful People. It's a cry to loosen yourself from the restrictive patterns of accepted behavior. 

I have nothing against nonconformity and individualism. I do have an issue with flying toast and exploding pigeons.

DECISION: B- (for the viewing experience)
DECISION: C- (for the film itself)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: A Review


It Makes Sense At Midnight...

I came into The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a complete innocent. I'd only heard about the film and its cult, but had never actually experienced either. Now that I've been Horrified so to speak, I can't say I was overwhelmed by my first time.

The Criminologist (Charles Grey) narrates the tale of Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), two innocent kids who find themselves in the lunatic and decadent world of, well, freakish aliens from "Transsexual Transylvania" such as Riff-Raff (Tim O'Brien). 

At the head of this merry group of hedonists is Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), This Sweet Transvestite has created his perfect man, Rocky (Peter Hinwood). In the course of the film, the mad doctor seduces both Janet and Brad, traps the alien-hunting Dr. Scott (Jonathan Adams), and gets them to join in the oddest cabaret show. However, the wanton immorality of Furter's world cannot be, and there's a rather sad ending to all the camp wildness.

I figure The Rocky Horror Picture Show is meant as a spoof of horror films, musicals, and films in general. It is good to know that everyone participating was in on the joke. Can't say that I was. The movie has its own logic which I couldn't get. What happened to Frank N. Furter's court once the squares were I figure deflowered? How do you celebrate cannibalism? As stated earlier, the ending was rather sad, given how crazy most of the film had been. Also, it didn't resolve anything: Janet, Brad, and Dr. Scott ended up in the middle of nowhere. There was no real point to their journey, and thus, no real conclusion.

That isn't to say there aren't good things in it. Tim Curry delivers a star-making performance as the demented Doctor, abandoning himself with outrageous glee to the role. He goes all in and creates a memorable performance, one that stands out for the sheer madness of the character. Also, the songs were great. Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul (sung by Meat Loaf) was great fun, as were Sweet Transvestite and Time Warp. In fact, I would make a case that Time Warp should have been one of the 100 Greatest Film Songs in the AFI list because it's so memorable and yes fun. 

I think Sarandon and Bostwick too did well playing the ultimate squares.

Still, The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn't a film per se. It is an experience, and it's understandable why it has a cult following complete with people in costumes and props. As a movie itself, it doesn't quite work. I will grant that perhaps I am too much of a square to fully give myself over to the frivolity and camp nature of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's a fair argument by those who swear by the film. It is by no means horrible, with Tim Curry going all-in in an all-out performance. I however was not won over to the mad, mad world of Frank N. Furter.

For myself If interested, these are some thoughts on the cult of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Personal Reflections on Gone With the Wind

I had the great opportunity to watch Gone With the Wind on the big screen as part of the Plaza Classic Film Festival. The theater was nearly full, and I thought that it was interesting that a seventy-year-old film would have this much power over audiences who would never had seen it when it debuted.

However, as I watched it, the audience reaction had me wondering about how the film is seen by today's viewer, especially one who hasn't come across it. Certain thoughts came to me, and I've decided to share them.

The first surprise was the power of Clark Gable. You have an actor who has been dead for more than forty years, yet the audience erupted into applause when he first appears on-screen. Could it be because women still swoon over him and men still want to be like him? Gable exudes masculinity and adds wit to his persona. He could always be counted to be "the man's man", which appeals to us men.

To the women, it has to be his looks (ears and all), the sense that he could love them as no other man could, and that they would be safe in his arms, as Lynn Redgrave once observed. "You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how," Gable as Rhett Butler scolds Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara. The women, I imagine, feel he certainly knows how.

The second surprise came shortly after intermission. Tara had been overrun with Yankees, and here comes a Union straggler. In an act of justifiable homicide, Scarlett shoots him point-blank in the face. Again the audience spontaneously applauded. This really surprised me.

Yes, we are in Texas, but we're not THAT Southern as to still celebrate the killing of Yankees. It had to be more than that. I figured out that it was strictly audience identification. We now identified with Scarlett, to the point that some imagined themselves as Scarlett. That being the case, we couldn't allow our heroine (and by extension, ourselves) to be attacked or violated in any way. We had to fight for ourselves, and taking the deserter's life was the way to do it.
That showed to me the power of film, especially good ones. It is harder and harder to find films where we so completely identify with the characters on the screen. I don't know anyone who could relate to Gerard Butler in 300, Shia LeBeuof in Transformers, or Patrick Dempsey in Made of Honor. They are not only not real, they are so obviously not real.

Scarlett and Rhett on the other hand, may not be "real" in the sense that they don't exist, but are "real" in the sense that they could be, and therein lies the key. We get insight into their lives, their struggles, and we can identify with them. That is why we cheer when she commits murder: not because we think it's moral but because we believe that's what we could and should do if faced with similar circumstances.


This is the third surprise, and perhaps the most troubling. The audience laughed at the first appearance of Mammy, and had lots of laughs at Prissy.  OK, I confess to laughing at the infamous "I don't know nothing about birthing babies" bit.  I wish I could point to something specific: perhaps Butterfly McQueen's voice and hysterics, perhaps the idea of one of the world's first 'bitch-slaps', perhaps the somewhat overblown nature of it all. 

It made me wonder however: were they laughing at stereotypes of African-Americans? Did they find humor in images that to many African-Americans and non-African-Americans would find demeaning? I don't think so, or at least hope so.

Rather, I think the audience was laughing at the circumstances Mammy and Prissy were going into fits over. We have to remember that Mammy was yelling at Scarlett about not inviting the Tarlton twins over to supper (thus violating almost arcane standards of conduct) and it would be humorous to think a "servant" would be in a position to order someone about.

As for Prissy, Butterfly McQueen's voice did not help in taking her seriously, and she was at times silly. It's almost impossible not to laugh at her telling "Miss Scarlett", "I don't know nuthin' bout birthin' babies".


The fourth and final surprise, at least to me, was in how slavery itself was treated. This was the first time I really took note of the fact that Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), and the male slave Pork (Oscar Polk) were never called "slaves", but "workers" or "servants", as dainty a euphemism as could be culled.

The harshest term used to refer to them to was "darkies", and while unpleasant, it is far better than the alternatives (ones that the book is full of). Gerald O'Hara at one point admonishes Scarlett that she must be firm with "inferiors" but gentle with them, especially "darkies".

That 'inferiors' thing does not sit well with me, and it adds to the myth of the "moonlight and magnolia" Old South as some marvelous fantasyland rather than one built on human misery. However, when one sees Gone With the Wind, one has to judge these things not by today's standards in the Age of Obama but by the standards of the times of both film and setting (1939 and 1865-66).

In those years, such language would not have been disturbing en masse. In reality, it would have been an improvement. In the opening, Mammy, Prissy, and Pork are not labeled the O'Hara "slaves", but their "servants". The distinction between the two worlds is an immense one, implying the three were almost there by choice. Still, I can't help but wonder when Pork asks "Miss Scarlett" who is going to milk the cow if he was hinting at something being left unspoken. "We is house...workers", he reminds her. I found that pause curious.

Could it be he couldn't bring himself to say "slave" but was sending a subliminal message to the black audiences about the truth of the situation? I have no way of knowing for certain. I can say that ultimately, the images of slavery in Gone With the Wind don't bother me only because I KNOW they are not real. For that, we have Roots: a far more accurate portrayal of the "peculiar institution".

I can't and don't endorse the film's imagery of slavery.  It is grotesque.  That being said, not only should we judge the film by the standards of the time but also understand that slavery is not the point of the film.  It's about the romance of a rather horrid woman and a misunderstood man.  Gone With the Wind is not history, but romance and fantasy.  As such, we should assess soberly the disingenuousness of how it portrays slavery without throwing out all the good things in it.  The film, while flawed in that respect, is miles ahead of something as truly vile as The Birth of a Nation.
Ultimately, Gone With the Wind will have a hold on audiences until the last copy disappears from history, and even then, the memory will still possess the imagination of romantics long after we've all passed from the scene. It is a Great Film, made with great care by craftsmen in front and behind the camera. Thus, it will be enjoyed by generations of film lovers.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gone With the Wind (1939): A Review


The Rose Bowl of Epic Films: The Granddaddy of Them All...

1939 is held as the greatest year for film in history. Among the films released were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Mr. Lincoln, Love Affair, Stagecoach, Beau Geste, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, The Women, and The Wizard of Oz.

Out of all those epics and masterpieces, there was one that towered over them all: Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The novel had captured the imagination of Americans and continues to thrill audiences with its tale of fiery passions set amid the chaos of the American Civil War.

Fiery Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) thinks she is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the neighboring plantation owner's son. Despite her temptations, Ashley is in love with his distant cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Scarlett is determined to make Ashley her own, but the dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is equally determined to make Scarlett his own. The lives and loves of these characters go on with the American Civil War as a backdrop.

What makes Gone With the Wind a film so powerful, so great that it towers among cinema's greatest achievements? There are many components.

The performances are the first part. Vivien Leigh makes Scarlett a beautiful, intelligent, and dangerous woman. She's independent, and not afraid of anything that will stand in her way of her goals, be it a man or in keeping her beloved plantation of Tara. Her performance as the original Southern belle is more remarkable given that she is not Southern or even American, but British.

She not only has the physical beauty to make one believe men would kill for her, but she conveys Scarlett's determination to succeed, to go on, to keep fighting even when it looks like all the odds are stacked against her. There is a lot of Scarlett in Leigh: the fact that she was unknown outside America and not well-known within Britain itself but still beat out all others for the role speaks volumes about her own will and determination. Her Oscar was well-deserved.

Equal praise goes to Clark Gable. His power has not been dimmed by the years. His introduction to the film is still among the best: all he has to do is look at you, and you're powerless under his spell. His Rhett is a match for Scarlett: tough, ambitious, but also with a remarkable wisdom about himself and others. Gable also gives him a vulnerability, a soft side that makes the losses in Rhett's life all the harder to bear.

De Havilland comes off strong as the seemingly weak Melanie, a woman who in Rhett's words, "had no strength, only heart". Howard has been criticized for being a weak romantic hero, especially compared to Gable. However, I argue that the whole point of Howard's Wilkes was that he was fantasy. Scarlett was in love with a fantasy, not a real person. If one takes it from that angle, one appreciates Howard's characterization much better.

Many other roles should be recognized. Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy. While she was a slave (curiously, a status never mentioned on screen), she was far more wise and moral than her "masters". Butterfly McQueen's Prissy, while more cartoonish by today's standards, did well when you consider that she was suppose to be the opposite of the wise Mammy. Her unmistakable voice made one of the most memorable lines in film ("I don't know nuthin' about birthin' babies") all the more memorable.

Thomas Mitchell, who would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for another 1939 masterpiece (Stagecoach) could easily have been nominated for his performance as Gerald O'Hara, the rough Irish proprietor of Tara. Ona Munson's Belle Watling makes the madam of Atlanta almost respectable, certainly a more complex character than the traditional "hooker with the heart of gold".

The second aspect to Gone With The Wind's greatness is the story itself. Americans for the most part identify with those who struggle, and there can't be a greater struggle than to pick up the pieces of your life after it's been crushed and burned to the ground by an invading army. The audience relates with Scarlett and Rhett, and wants them to be triumphant, to be together.

The story itself sweeps you into an idealized vision of a lost world of romance. Martin Scorsese commented once that the film unlocks the fantasy aspects in our minds, and Gone With the Wind is fantasy: romantic fantasy, and a ridiculously idealized idea of the Old South. However, the epic sweeping nature of it just carries you totally into this lost world (mercifully so).

That being the case, the films should not be seen as being historically accurate. The portrayal of slavery in Gone With The Wind is so genteel that one wonders what all the fighting was about. We have to remember, however, this is not a history lesson or documentary. It's a romance, and it is historic fiction. We mustn't be too harsh in our judgment.

There has been a push to discredit films like Gone With the Wind and all the films it spawned: large-scale films like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. They're derided as "lumbering", "excessive", "overblown". This, I believe, is quite unfair. These films last and are loved by the people because they speak to people's basic needs: partly to escape, partly to find characters that one can identify with. So long as people continue to want to triumph over all adversities, people will continue to love Gone With the Wind.

Gone With the Wind is this massive, sweeping epic, less a paean to a lost world and more a story of ambition. Vivien Leigh gives perhaps the greatest female acting performance as Scarlett O'Hara, beautiful and horrible woman, matched by Clark Gable's titanic force of nature's Rhett Butler. An epic of epics, Gone With the Wind towers over cinema, even in Hollywood's Greatest Year.

I conclude by including some thoughts on the issues Gone With The Wind brought up while watching it.


1940 Best Picture: Rebecca

For the complete Best Picture Winners Reviews please visit the Best Picture Catalog.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Terminator: A Review


The Terminator is a rarity in films today: an action/sci-fi film that is both entertaining and intelligent. James Cameron probably did not imagine that when he co-wrote and directed the film that it would spawn an ever-expanding franchise. Despite being a bit dated The Terminator still holds up extremely well, thanks to excellent performances and a logical story.

Two beings are sent from 2029 to 1984 Los Angeles: The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). The former is a cyborg sent on a mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of the leader of the Resistance, John Connor. The latter is a soldier sent by John to protect Sarah.

Sarah becomes terrified when two women with her same name have been murdered, unaware of the danger she is in. As both Terminator and Reese continue struggling for Sarah, including a massive battle at the police station Sarah has taken refuge in, we get twists and turns as the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.

This is the film that made Arnold a one-name star, with just three words to put him in a league of his own. Contrary to myth and impersonators, "I'll be back" was, to my ears, pronounced rather normally, albeit robotic which was the correct interpretation. I didn't hear "Bach" but "Back", but that somehow has entered into the American lexicon.

His performance was pitch-perfect for the character he plays: he's suppose to be a machine, and he speaks his lines like a machine. In the movie, he's a terrifying force: an unfeeling, unreasoning killing machine that won't be satisfied until it destroys what it came to destroy. His relentless pursuit and inability to be reasoned with is what gives the film the extra sense of terror: nothing apparently can stop him.

Linda Hamilton makes her first turn as Sarah Connor a vulnerable woman, caught in circumstances she can't possibly understand but realizing that she has to live, to survive. This is at the heart of the picture: her unwillingness to be killed versus the Terminator's inability to let her live.

Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese brings both strength and a hint of sadness to the role, fitting for someone who has lived his whole life in a post-apocalyptic world.

I've had my issues with Cameron (Titanic being a major source of consternation), but when it comes to science-fiction films, he is among the best. The plot makes sense, and the performances both large and small such as Paul Winfield as a cop investigating the killings of the Sarah Connors, are effective and efficient.

Also, the special effects still hold up quite well despite the advances of technology. The visual effects also do something that a lot of films with more elaborate effects cannot: they serve the story rather than showcase the technology itself.

The world of the Terminator has taken on a life of its own. There are now Terminator-based  television shows and even a Universal Studios experience. It's tapped into the fear of the future many people have, of technology run amok, but also into the belief that the future is not written and can be changed.

The Terminator, as a film, does its dual jobs well. It tells a fascinating story well and in an entertaining manner. It may have started a franchise but divorced of that expanded universe The Terminator is still a strong action/science-fiction film that stands on its own merits.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Vertigo: A Review (Review #15)


Necrophilia Was Never This Weird...

While Alfred Hitchcock is called The Master of Suspense, it appears to me that few of his films involve suspense exclusively. Some of his very best films are about love with the veneer of suspense. Films like NotoriousSpellbound or Rebecca all revolve not so much on suspense or mystery but on love.

Vertigo, one of his greatest films, is also about love: a very twisted love, built on obsession that borders on necrophilia, if not actually about that.

John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), a San Francisco cop has to retire from the force after his fear of heights and accompanying vertigo causes the death of a fellow officer. An old Army buddy, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks him to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). He says that his wife believes she's being taken over by the spirit of a dead ancestor and fears for her life. Scottie agrees, and after he rescues her after she jumps into San Francisco Bay they fall in love.

He tries to help her solve the mystery within her mind, but the pull of death is too strong. She throws herself off a church bell tower as Scottie attempts to save her but cannot due to his acrophobia. Madeleine's death plunges Scottie into a complete breakdown, from which his best friend and former fiancee Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cannot help him emerge from.

Eventually, he recovers, but it's an empty recovery. He haunts all the places they would go, following the trail he would use to follow Madeleine when she lived. In one of his wanderings, he finds Judy, who bears a striking resemblance to his lost love. Scottie convinces Judy to essentially become Madeleine, but there's one final twist that will plunge them all to tragedy.

While there is a mystery within Vertigo, the film is really about how love can be an illusion, and that the illusion can grow into an obsession that destroys all those that come in contact with it. Scottie becomes so obsessed with Madeleine that once she leaves, he tries to recreate her in Judy. His obsession with his memories takes on a doomed nature, where in his fragile mind he soon no longer can tell reality from fantasy. His methodical way of recreating Madeleine becomes possessive, and when Judy reemerges to fit his fantasy world it's as if the line separating reality and fantasy blur into ultimate tragedy.

Stewart's performance is among his greatest. There is no folksy down-home mannerisms to his Scottie. He's a man obsessed, unhinged, totally given over to love that he sacrifices sanity to keep his myth of love alive. Novak also shines in her role, the object of a man's desire who would go along with his madness for the sake of love. Barbara Bel Geddes brings a touch of humor but also of pathos as the woman who loves Scottie but cannot save him from himself.

Hitchcock creates one of the greatest films of all time, and his skills are unmatched in capturing the subconscious. For example, when Stewart is getting the backstory of Carlotta Valdes, the ancestor, note the lighting in the room. It's a brilliant piece of directing.

Also, note how there are long periods when there is no dialogue, only the music to provide the mood. This is the place where special recognition needs to go to Bernard Herrmann. His score evokes the intense longing in the characters, their doomed romance, even the swirling nature of the plot.

Vertigo is a dizzying exploration into the madness of obsessive love. It's an intense, mournful experience. Part psychological horror film, part twisted romance, Vertigo is Hitchcock at his darkest.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Some Like It Hot: A Review


Good Night, Honey.  God Speed...

Marilyn Monroe was an incredible mix of beauty and vulnerability. She was a figure who easily inspired lust just by looking at her. However, as soon as you heard her speak, she inspired another desire: protectiveness. It's unfortunate that she valued herself so little, and that critics of her time valued her less. Still, we have the proof that she was a first-rate talent, and Exhibit A is Some Like It Hot.

Billy Wilder's farce is about two musicians: tenor sax Joe (Tony Curtis) & bass fiddle Jerry (Jack Lemmon), in the wild days of Prohibition-era Chicago. After the speakeasy they work at is raided and its owner, mobster Spats Columbo (George Raft) is arrested, they seek their next gig.

They end up witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre that Columbo oversaw. On the run from Spats, they escape in the last place the mobster & his henchmen would ever think of looking for them: as the newest members of an all-girl band.

Now, tenor sax "Josephine" and bass fiddle "Daphne" find themselves falling for the charms of voluptuous singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). The band heads on down to Florida, where Joe woos Sugar masquerading as 'Shell Oil, Jr.' and "Daphne" fights off the amorous advances of Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), a very randy and eager old playboy.

However, there's a hitch: guess who's having a Mob Convention in the same resort? It's a wild romp of mistaken identity and narrow escapes where Joe and Jerry not only could be rubbed out but end up in the women's morgue.

The comedy comes from the sheer outrageous premise of the plot. No one could possibly believe Josephine & Daphne are real women. As a side note, Monroe resisted playing the role because she thought it would make her look too stupid).

However, that's all part of the fun. Lemmon's Oscar-nominated performance shows him to be a first-rate actor. He gives Jerry/Daphne a wild sense of abandon, someone who would be so suggestible that he could talk himself into believing he really was a girl and be genuinely shocked to find he wasn't.

The train sequence when he ends up having a party with all the "other girls" is hilarious because we know just how difficult it is for him to resist all that candy and sugar. However, when he ends up willingly engaged to Brown's Osgood, he becomes a man/woman unchained from any sense of sanity other than his own. When Joe asks him, "Why would a guy want to marry another guy?", Daphne/Jerry's answer, "For security!", makes sense in the oddest way.

This doesn't take away from one of Curtis' best performances, and few have acknowledged the difficulty he faced with playing three characters: Joe/Josephine/Shell Oil Jr. The latter is a bit of a send-up of Cary Grant, but he carries it off brilliantly. He goes full circle from being a shameless womanizer who would take advantage of Sugar to a guy who has really fallen for her and wants to protect him from guys like him.

The greatest recognition, however, has to go to Monroe. She takes a character that she's played before (the dumb blonde) and gives her a world-weariness and intense vulnerability, something she took from her real life. The stories of her being difficult on the set are legendary: how she needed cue cards to memorize short lines of dialogue or how she needed something like twenty takes to say "Where's that bourbon?"

However, Wilder was right to assess that on the screen, she was magic.

Her performance is the highlight of the film, at both comic and tragic. I read somewhere that two songs she sings in the film accurately reflect her life, I Want to Be Loved By You and I'm Through With Love. The scene where "Shell Oil, Jr." calls to tell her that they will never see each other again demonstrates she had far greater depth than given credit for in her lifetime. Her performance in this scene communicates her genuine heartache. Whatever problems she had, whatever torments she was enduring, she never failed when she went before the cameras.

In his own role, Raft did a strong send-up of his previous gangster roles without slipping into farce. Brown's lovelorn millionaire balanced the oddball hijinks with a total sincerity that made this very odd couple plausible if not sane.

With standout performances by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and especially Marilyn Monroe and masterful directing by Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot is a bright film that takes an outlandish idea, runs with it, and makes it if not believable at least plausible in its world. 

It's true: Nobody's Perfect, but Some Like It Hot is pretty close to it.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Twilight (2008): A Review (Review #13)

TWILIGHT (2008)  

Like All Vampires, It's Lifeless and It Sucks...

I could never finish reading Twilight, the first book of a 'saga' about the love triangle of a mortal, a vampire and a werewolf. Try as I might I could not endure such awful prose. The audiobook was little help, only causing me fits of laughter at its dialogue and plot.

It was only a matter of time until we got the film version, and to be fair Twilight sticks close to the novel.  That is also its curse, as there was no great improvement on any level to make one of the most truly dreadful films of Young Adult fiction (with the rest of this series...excuse me, SAGA) probably being equally bad throughout).

Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) moves from sunny Phoenix to rainy Forks, Washington to live with her father, Police Chief Charlie (Billy Burke). There, while all the boys appear besotted with the plain-Jane Bella, she encounters the Cullen family, whom all the kids at Forks High are fascinated by due to their ethereal beauty and perfection.

Chief among the perfect people is Edward (Robert Pattinson), the most perfect being to ever walk the earth. Amazingly, Edward notices Bella, and even more amazingly, he becomes attracted to her; soon, he cannot deny his passion for her. Someone as beautiful as Edward Cullen is in love with her.

Eventually, she discovers the Cullen Family secret: he & his "family" are vampires, but their "good" vampires since they don't drink human blood. This condition does make their mutual desire all the more difficult to consummate.

Near the end of the film, another group of vampires threatens her life, and Edward saves her. In the midst of all this is a potential love rival in Native American Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who also is beautiful, though not as beautiful as Edward.

There is the idea that Jacob may be a werewolf, and you have the first part of this "saga".

There were a few improvements in the film version to the novel. First, all the boys at Forks High were not as obsessed about Bella in the movie as they were in the book. It seemed in the novel that every guy wanted to be with her in every way possible, falling all over themselves to make this plain Jane theirs.

Second, there was an element of danger introduced earlier in the film with a series of killings, while the majority of the book delved endlessly about Bella's obsession with Edward and his perfection.

Finally, we didn't have to hear the name "Edward Cullen" repeated so much. This endless repetition soon starts taking on the form of a deranged mantra, to the point where it becomes another thing to laugh at.

The book is awful. The film, however, takes already pretty weak material and stomps it to death.

In order to capture the nearly-eternal cloudiness of Forks, Twilight has this hazy shade of grey almost all the time, even with scenes taking place inside. It's as if no light ever comes into any room. Not only does it become distracting, it becomes ridiculous and unrealistic.

There is also the problem with the length, not so much of the movie but with the source material. It makes the romance between Bella and Edward appear very rushed. The sheer scope of the book's narrative made it impossible for the romance to blossom on the screen.

Why we got a rushed romance in order to move on to more important things, like a Vampire Baseball Game only the filmmakers know.

Twilight's greatest sin is the performances themselves. The film was cast to compliment everyone's near total inability to act. The scene in the hospital with Bella, Tyler (Gregory Tyree Boyce), Chief Swann and Dr. Cullen (Peter Facinelli) will be studied in acting schools forever, under the heading, "Don't Let This Happen to You". No one gave a hint of any actual emotion, and none of them were any good in reciting their lines either.

In the book, Dr. Cullen was described as an amazingly beautiful creature. As visualized by Facinelli, with his light blond hair, chalky face, and bright red lips, he ended up looking like the Joker's bastard son.

The whole scene had me bursting with laughter at how horrible the acting was. Chief among the lousy performances was the Chief himself. Billy Burke spoke the lines with the conviction of a not-too-eager middle school theater arts student.

Another horror was Jackson Rathbone's Jasper, one of Edward's brothers. When the Cullen family make their debut in the cafeteria, I wouldn't have thought they were beautiful. I would have thought they were on their way to perform at a Kabuki theater. Specifically with Rathbone, whenever I saw him on screen, with his up-swept hair, bulging eyes, confused expression, and little dialogue, he reminded me, not of a perfect being, but of Beaker from The Muppet Show.

He doesn't compare to an even worse performance by Cam Gigandet as James, a rival vampire. In fact, all the villainous vampires were pretty bad. Their entrance was wildly and obviously overly cinematic, capping off some of the weakest special effects since Howard the Duck.

When Edward was suppose to sparkle, it just looked like he was reflecting sweat.

Only Ashley Green as Alice brought any sense of fun to her performance. Her performance was the most "human" of the vampires, but at least she had a personality that stood out from all the others.

As for the leads, I will give credit to Robert Pattinson for speaking with a very convincing American accent, although he had little to do except look longingly and beautiful. Since that was all that was asked of Edward Cullen, I guess he did it well, albeit without any hint of what can be called emotional range.

However weak his performance, it was Kennedy Center Honors-worthy compared to Kristen Stewart's Bella Swoon. She looked perpetually dazed and never spoke like anything resembling an actual person. Her constant protest of love to and for Edward were in a curious monotone. In her efforts to appear the Every-girl, she only succeeded in making the Ever-ygirl a whiny, brainless twit.

Finally, Taylor Lautner's Jacob Black had little to do, so it will be hard to judge whether he can actually act.

Watching the film, a song that I heard in a Goth bar came to mind. I can't remember who sang it, but I remember the chorus included the line "Christian Zombie Vampires". Take the 'Christian' out (maybe substitute 'Mormon'), and that's what you have: Vampires who look and behave like Zombies.

There are some positive things to Twilight. I think it's a positive both in the book and film to see Native Americans portrayed as regular people, not as either bloodthirsty savages or superior spiritual beings. I also commend the film for having a multi-ethnic cast. We had an Asian in Eric and an African-American as Tyler (I guess the Hispanics were too busy in the cafeteria kitchen to notice all the goings-on around them). The fact that it's making positive steps in portrayals of minorities does not remove the fact that the actors were themselves still pretty awful.

Twilight is, in short, the erotic fantasy life of someone with the mind of a 14-year-old girl.

Next Twilight Film: New Moon

Here are more thoughts on the Twilight Series...excuse me, SAGA.

POST-SCRIPT: Riddle me this, Twilight fans. Remember that scene in the ballet school where James and Edward fight? If I know my vampire lore (and I think I do), vampires cast no reflection. Why is it then that their faces appear in the mirror?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Plaza Classic Film Festival 2009: An Introduction

It's good to see movies being shown at the Plaza Theater again.

The first Plaza Classic Film Festival was sensational although the Western-themed opening light show did get on my nerves after the fifth time. With this the second year, I intend to report on the films I see.

Last year, I saw seven films overall. This year, I hope to see nine. 

What's great about the festival is that people get a chance to be exposed to great films in a great setting. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I have nothing against multiplexes. However, they strip away some of the elegance that there was to seeing a movie. Movies used to be an event, something you did that was to be savored.

Today, it seems the most important thing is how much money a film made the first week-end, as if the total it takes in equals the quality. Seeing a movie in a Movie Palace like the Plaza and seeing it in a multiplex is like the difference between making love and having sex: both are the same activity, but the first involves passion, the second merely mechanics.

It's unfortunate that too many people nowadays have been robbed of a true Movie Watching Experience. Places like the Plaza Theater remind people that once, not too long ago, the cinema wasn't a place where one sat passively and let the images ooze into your brain. Rather, you became a participant in the joys, pains, struggles, and/or triumphs of the characters on the screen. We laughed with the Marx Brothers, wept with Davis & Crawford, sang & danced with Mickey & Judy, fell in love with and alongside Bogart & Bacall.

As I think on it, cinema is still a collective experience, but somehow the elegance of the movie palaces like the Plaza lend it an extra touch of class that the larger screens somehow miss, at least to me.

That leads me to my second point about the importance of classic film festivals like the Plaza Classic Film Festival. These films should be seen by everyone, and to those who've never seen them but are going to, you're in for a real treat. You'll discover movies can be good as well as fun.

Tragically, many people won't see a pre-Star Wars film, not because they can't but because they don't "want to be bored". They've judged something without even knowing what it is they're condemning.  Events like the Plaza Classic Film Festival allows for those who have never seen these films a chance to be exposed to things outside their comfort zone.

Film festivals serve two purposes: to bring films to audiences who have never seen them and to bring films that audiences have seen multiple times. I hope that people will appreciate just how fortunate we are when it comes to film festivals like the Plaza Classic Film Festival.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Harry Potter Retrospective: An Introduction

I'm Just Mild About Harry...

The Harry Potter book and film series is a phenomena that I can't get into and don't understand. However, since they are dominating the world of children's literature and are beloved by critics, I thought it would be good to take another look at the series as a whole.

In terms actual literature, I have not been impressed. In fairness, I've only read one Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and I didn't like it. I have serious problems with its execution. I hate the portrayal of the Dursleys: they make the orphanage in Oliver Twist look like Candyland.

I think it was also a mistake to reveal all at the very beginning. It would have worked better in my view if we and Harry learn gradually that he is a wizard. I think there should have been an air of mystery to it all, rather than explain everything at the outset.

I also object strongly to the length of the books as they progress. The first two (Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets) are a decent length for children's stories. While Prisoner of Azkaban is a bit long, it's still serviceable.

All the others after that: Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and especially Deathly Hallows, are far too long for children in my view. I get the sense that either J.K. Rowling let the story get away from her, or she was convinced/convinced herself that she was writing an epic in the style of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
When you consider that all seven Narnia books are about the same length as Deathly Hallows, you can't help but wonder which one will be easier and/or better for children.

I admire her efforts, but I doubt Harry Potter will achieve the lasting status of other children's stories like the Narnia stories or Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, or The Hobbit. Few books for children embraced by kids achieve the status of Great Literature. If one notices, all the other aforementioned books work on two levels: as stories or allegories. Harry Potter doesn't, at least from my initial readings.

Time will tell if Harry Potter really stands the test of time or if it relegated to a less lofty status.

Now, are the books dangerous?

I can only offer my view, and it is this. I do not believe reading Harry Potter books will lead children to become Satanist or break out the Ouija boards. I don't think they are good books, though again I have not read the entire series. I'm neither for or against Harry Potter and think it should be up to the individual.

Personally, I think both groups, those who see them as dangerous and those who see them as a turning point in literature, are excessive.

I can only judge by my experiences. I grew up reading such things as Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators, and my favorite T.V. show growing up was Hunter. Reading all those books didn't make me want to be a policeman or detective, and the show did not desensitize me to crime and murders. Even though I think children are not as bright as adults, I have trust that they can distinguish between reality and fantasy.

It is true: I wouldn't like my children to read Harry Potter, but not because I fear they would start performing occult ceremonies after Nap Time. Rather, I object to the killings galore in the books, and I find the size of the latter books far too much for children to handle.

Finally, I state here and now that I reject the idea that the Harry Potter books gets kids excited about reading. It gets them excited about reading more Harry Potter, but that's different. Children respond to the fantasy elements in the books. I have a sense that when they grow up, they may see it as a cherished childhood memory.

If this idea that Harry Potter leads to a lifelong love of learning is true, why are people still stubbornly reading less for pleasure as adults? This again, something to be studied over a long time, but so far I'm not convinced.

Now, at last, as for the films. Since I've only read one I can only judge by what I see on the screen. I intend to do so, by going through every Harry Potter movie currently available. Which one is the best? Which one is the worst?

I am nonpartisan in this issue. I do not despise Harry Potter nor am I a Pot-Head who goes into the nuances of every word. I'm genuinely neither here nor there when it comes to our wizard. I hope to go into this Harry Potter Retrospective with an open mind and open heart. The fact that I'm not a Harry Potter fanboy or a detractor I think is an advantage in that it will not color my views. I go into the films knowing little about what was lost or added, seeing only what is presented.

I ultimately hope this Retrospective will be both informative and entertaining.

Film Number One: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The Harry Potter Retrospective