Thursday, December 31, 2009

Personal Reflections on Sherlock Holmes

When I was in middle school, most of my friends were reading Stephen King. I, however, was usually in one of two places: C for Christie or D for Doyle. I loved mysteries and the Sherlock Holmes stories were some of my favorites (Hercule Poirot & Miss Marple being the others). The character was my hero: someone who used reason and logic to uncover great mysteries. I did my best to model myself after Holmes. I aimed to be a cold, thinking machine. I played the violin. Mercifully I didn't take Holmes' cocaine or morphine habits, so even I had my limits. Even today, I adopt the adage that if it's of no use to me I don't bother learning something. That I think has led me to make some ridiculous mistakes, but I digress.

It was in A Study in Scarlet that Dr. Watson discovers to his amazement that Holmes did not know the Earth revolved around the Sun. This is of course basic information, but Holmes replied that that was an irrelevant fact in his line of work and interest, so he didn't bother with it. In time, my passion for Holmes dissipated, but never my affection for him. I'm too much of a soft touch to be totally impassionate (though I still remain a bit distant emotionally), and I've long since hung up the fiddle & bow. I have thought of joining Sherlock Holmes Societies or offshoots of the Baker Street Irregulars, but I've been put off by what I understand is their thinking on the authorship. I've been led to believe that they think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't really write the stories, but that he was a mere "literary agent" to Dr. John Watson. That is taking things too far. It's as if for all their fanaticism, they've forgotten an old Holmesian adage: Once You Have Eliminated the Impossible, Whatever Remains, However Improbable, Must Be the Truth.

There have been several interpreters of Conan Doyle's best-known creation on stage, screen, and television, from the comedic (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) to the faithful (the Granada television series). Out of all the actors who've given life to Holmes, three now are in the public mind: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Robert Downey, Jr.

I figure that when people think "Sherlock Holmes", they see Rathbone. He made fourteen pictures as Holmes with Nigel Bruce as Watson. I'll say that he most definitely LOOKS the part. His face shows a keen intelligence with a touch of haughtiness. He also had the costume most associated with Holmes: the deerstalker cap and cloak. I haven't seen many of his films because I always HATED Bruce's interpretation of Watson as this fat, fat-headed tottering old imbecile who couldn't think his way out of a paper bag. He never struck me as right for the part of an action-oriented war veteran and respected doctor. Instead, Bruce made Watson a figure of ridicule, and to be frank the good doctor's reputation has only recently recovered. Watson is still seen in the contemporary mind as an idiot, and that's a terrible disservice to the stories themselves.

I also never liked the idea that Holmes lived in the present-day rather than Victorian & early Edwardian Britain. Sherlock in Washington, D.C.? Blasphemy, I say. Finally, I never was fond of the decision to create stories for them rather than adapt the original ones. In a sense, I can understand WHY it was done: it is cheaper to make current-day films than period films. All in all, they serve as a decent introduction to the stories...minus Nigel Bruce.

I came along when Granada Television brought the series to the small screen. It was their intention to make all the stories and novels, but tragically, that was not to be. For my mind, Jeremy Brett is THE Sherlock Holmes. No one, except Rathbone in a close race, can match him. His Holmes was obsessed, sometimes uncouth, but always on the side of right. He showed Holmes to be someone of fierce intelligence but also more human than before. For example, The Devil's Foot features as part of the story Holmes fighting, and ultimately quitting, his cocaine habit, and is one of the few times that I can remember Holmes ever referring to his associate by his first name of John. In The Empty House, Holmes apologizes for playing a trick on Watson and tells him that while he is as trustworthy as Holmes' brother Mycroft, "you have a kinder heart".

David Burke and Edward Hardwicke also do more justice to Watson. In the series, he's hardly stupid, albeit not as bright as Holmes. They are men with guns and are not afraid of a fight. Again, in The Empty House, it's Watson that comes to Holmes' rescue. Watson even gets his own: in one story (I can't remember which), Watson ends the story by telling him, "Elementary, my dear Holmes". I'll say that the best stories were feature-length (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles). They were faithful to the stories while making them quite frightening and never boring. I digress to say that I think the makers of the new Sherlock Holmes film missed a golden opportunity by not adapting these stories and instead going for an original work, and while at least it was set in Victorian times the story was too convoluted to be effective. If it were not for Brett's death, we could have seen what could have happened once all the stories had been made. There is one caveat to Jeremy Brett: I wonder if his interpretation consumed him emotionally and psychologically.

That does bring me to Robert Downey, Jr. To my mind, he did a wonderful job in making Holmes more action hero than intellectual machine. That may have been the intent: we are talking a Guy Ritchie film. Still, I can't help think that it all could have been better. This is prime example of when you give a good actor a good part but in a lousy movie. You keep thinking he could do more, show why he can solve these mysteries in a rational manner rather than being all rush-rush-rush, quick-quick-quick. He falls short of Brett and Rathbone, but if he continues with better stories (and let's be frank, better direction) he could reach their level.
Jude Law's Dr. Watson, on the other hand, is a mile high better than Bruce's. Here, he's almost totally action and nobody's stooge. Law makes his Watson a man of intelligence, action, and loyalty, things that he was in the stories. It's hard to believe Nigel Bruce could knock down a door to get in or to tell Holmes to stay out of his private life. I suppose that the best qualities to both Downey, Jr. and Law is that they are younger than the team of Rathbone & Bruce or of Brett and Burke/Hardwicke. At 44 and 37, they show a more youthful duo than either Rathbone or Bruce, even though Rathbone was only three years older than Downey and Bruce was actually Downey's age when they started their films.

I'll be frank: I don't think any Holmes can ever measure up to Jeremy Brett and don't think any will. I can hope that the new Sherlock Holmes will introduce people to the novels & stories, eventually the television series. I fear that is a vain hope, since reading for pleasure seems to be a dying art. Still, I hope.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (2009): A Review (Review #29)


Quite Baker Street Irregular...

Imagine, if you will, that you've read all the Sherlock Holmes novels & short stories and have come home drunk. In your mind, you remember the character of Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia. You remember she was the only woman to outwit Holmes. Your woozy mind starts to wonder if there could be a hint of romance between them. Your mind then incorporates another story, The Sussex Vampire, which has the element of the undead. As you start slipping further into a stupor, you remember how in real life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very much into spiritualism & the supernatural...he did believe fairies existed. Finally, you start trying to remember the plot of The Lost Symbol, or at least how it's been described to you: the secret societies, the dark rituals. It's at this point that you have passed out. Well, imagine no more. Basically, all of this is now the sum total of Sherlock Holmes.

Allow me to be a bit snobbish by declaring that I figure that the majority of the audience has never read a Sherlock Holmes story. Instead, they saw it for what it was sold action film with cool fight scenes, story secondary. Perhaps the mind boggles at Guy Ritchie tackling the legendary literary character, but it's really not a shock at all. Ritchie has a passion for the criminal underworld, and Victorian London offers him a chance to revel in his frenetic style while "branching out" by having a different time period. Perhaps this is why I cannot warm up to him as a film-maker: he keeps making the same film over and once more. It's one thing to make films in the same genre: Ford was a master at Westerns, Hitchcock of the suspense thriller. However, they told different stories and by and large tried to keep the story at the core of the film, not their cinematic style.

Ritchie, on the contrary, is all about style. You can tell that straight from the get-go, when Holmes explains how he's going to knock out someone and you get to see it in slow-motion, and then again at regular speed. This he does twice during the course of the film, and oddly he doesn't seem to do it that much when he explains how he reached his correct deductions. It's as if Holmes would be wasting his time explaining how he solved a mystery because it would get in the way of the physical action.

That is only a symptom of the poison coursing through Sherlock Holmes. The real disaster is the story. It's a damn idiotic one. One Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), has been murdering women in some vaguely occult rituals, is caught, and executed. Within hours, he has apparently returned from the dead, even though Dr. Watson (Jude Law) not only helped capture him but was the attending physician at Blackwood's execution. Blackwood intends to take over the world (or at least the British Empire) in some plot that involves knocking out any opponents in Parliament with poison gas. Throw in a potential love interest/rival in American criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who is working for the mysterious Professor Moriarty who might be playing both sides and you have a flat-out mess.

Four people came up with this (Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg with the screenplay, Johnson and Lionel Wigram with the story), and I have to ask...did any of the actually READ the source material?

They didn't have to go through all this patent nonsense of quasi-Satanic rites and Masonic-type shadowy organizations. It's as if they didn't trust the material and felt it needed more fighting, less thinking to make it palatable to kids brought up to think Michael Bay is the new Orson Welles or Federico Fellini. If they wanted to introduce their Holmes with creepy undertones all they had to do was adapt The Sign of Four or The Hound of the Baskervilles. I don't blame them for wanting to come up with an original story, but it was needlessly complex and convoluted to the point where it becomes flat-out idiotic. If that wasn't bad enough, they did one of things I ABSOLUTE HATE and violated one of my Golden Rules of Film-Making: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel. How I hate that conceit! Here, they used it without needing it. Why couldn't Professor Moriarty be the villain and escape? There would have had the suggestion of a sequel without having us go through all this nonsense.

The performances were far better than the movie itself. Robert Downey, Jr. is having a renaissance in his career, and his Sherlock, while flawed by relying more on muscle than on brain, still manages to project a quick witted, obsessed consulting detective. Jude Law's take on Watson is first-rate, less the idiot stooge and more an intelligent man who doesn't mind a good fight. I can't recall if he had the flaws of a gambling addiction in the stories, but they did right by having be an Afghan veteran (which he was in the stories). Curious, how some things remain the same more than a century later.

The interplay between Holmes and Watson, which was more in the vein of a buddy comedy, had a quality to it which made it believable that these two had an affection for each other that neither fully acknowledged. Mark Strong continues to show what a fantastic actor he is with his Lord Blackwood. The character is silly, but Strong delivers a performance that almost makes you believe he truly is some sort of Satanic entity. The one name that comes off badly in this is McAdams: pretty to look at, but adding little to nothing to the actual story, what there IS of one.

The fight scenes were done in Ritchie's frenetic pace, and if you like that you might enjoy them. One can't help but wonder, however, if there weren't TOO MANY fights that went on too long, stretching the movie needlessly. Hans Zimmer's score was rare in that it was quite pleasant. He's someone who isn't the most beloved film composers (take for example, shall we call it, his "homage" to Holst's Mars, Bringer of War for Gladiator) but in Sherlock Holmes it had an offbeat, almost playful side. Perhaps there is something wildly wrong when you pay more attention to the score than to the screen.

My sense is that there will be a sequel. Again, they'll take the characters and put them in another outlandish and idiotic story rather than ground them in their world. They'll ignore all the good work Conan Doyle wrote and decide the best thing to do is make Holmes an action hero rather than the cold, logical, thinking machine he's described at.

Of course, this is done not for those who've read and loved the stories, but for those more inclined to G.I. Joe than Sign of Four. I have a great deal of affection for Sherlock Holmes, the character. I was tempted to do something the great detective would not do: let his emotions overrun his reason. While Downey, Jr. and Law make Sherlock Holmes well-acted, the movie itself is quite...yes, I'll say it...elementary.

I've included a personal commentary on the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And The Honorees Should Be: Part 1. Kennedy Center Honors Suggestions

There are at least three people for whom I would recommend a Kennedy Center Honor: film actress Sophia Loren, television actress Betty White, and composer Phillip Glass. Each has contributed to American arts, and therefore, I respectfully submit their names for consideration to receive Kennedy Center Honors.

Every year, a group of artists in the fields of film, television, music, theater and dance are trotted out and given a big "Thank You" from the United States, a nation not known for great culture. Some of their choices have been right on the money (Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan) and some a bit, well, curious (Steve Martin, Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend). Here, I present a list of artists, in alphabetical order, who have not been so honored. They may have been approached and declined (Doris Day and pianist Vladimir Horowitz come to mind), but if not, they should be there, at least in my view.

Born 1936

A.) Albert Finney. He had wide acclaim for his performance in Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, but burst onto the world (and almost out of the screen) with his star-making turn as the rakish Tom Jones. Since then, think of his films: Under the Volcano, The Dresser, Murder on the Orient Express, The Browning Version, A Man of No Importance, Miller's Crossing, The Gathering Storm, Erin Brockovich, The Bourne Ultimatum, and even Annie. Four Oscar nominations, a continuing career on the stage, a true actor.

Born 1937

B.) Phillip Glass. Few American composers have earned the respect that Glass has. His music is minimalist (though Glass himself rejects the term), but has also been highly influential in modern classic music. His scores for such films as Kundun, The Hours, and Dracula have exposed him to a wider audience. Finally, his work for the cause of the Tibetan nation should be applauded.

Born 1934

C.) Sophia Loren. It's a rarity to have a great beauty who is also a great actress. Sophia Loren is both. It is her Neapolitan features that lure us in, but her performance in Two Women focuses on the suffering of ordinary people in war, stripping away any loveliness of her face or body. Some of her best work IS in Italian (Two Women, A Special Day, and Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow) but she has had great success in English-language films such as El Cid, The Pride & The Passion, and even Grumpier Old Men. Loren is not just gorgeous (even today, she still is a marvel of beauty), but has graduated to true actress.

Born 1939

D.) Bob Newhart. The original "buttoned-up" comic, his deadpan humor has been his hallmark, one that has gotten him not one but TWO successful television series. The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart have been placed as some of the best (and funniest) series. There is no argument I know that disputes the ending of Newhart being among the greatest of all time.

Born 1922

E.) Betty White. She is one of the last pioneers of television still working. It should be remembered she made her television debut in 1949! She was one of the first females to have control of her first series (Life With Elizabeth)--Lucille Ball being a noticeable other. White has become iconic due to two wildly different characters: the man-hungry "Happy Homemaker" Sue Anne Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the perpetually naïve Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. She is still going, and is instantly recognizable. Who else her age can claim hit films as diverse as Lake Placid and The Proposal? Finally, her work for animals has been at the forefront of humane treatment for God's other creatures.

Of course, these are all suggestions, and there will be more coming. These performers are legends because of their hard work. I therefore submit their names for consideration.

*Update: As of 2016, none of the people listed above have received a Kennedy Center Honor. Tom Hanks however, who at 60 is at least twenty years younger than just about everyone on this list, has.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Carol (2009): A Review


In The Christmas Spirits...

Dear Robert Zemeckis,

You seem determined to have us all succumb to motion capture films with the same passion you have for it. Never mind that it has failed again and again. I admire the fact that you keep trying. Now you have given us A Christmas Carol, another version of this timeless tale which almost all of us know but very few of us have actually read. I hope you are proud of what you have accomplished, and that your pride will comfort you throughout this review. You have your Oscar (which you shouldn't have won) for a film that was the genesis of your fixation (which shouldn't have won either). Never one to rest on your laurels, you keep plugging along with this technology. I wish you all the best in your efforts to make films that require few if any sets or props but lots and lots of hard drive.


Rick's Cafe Texan

I am being a little facetious. A Christmas Carol isn't a bad film, and there are some things to admire. However, I can't get into motion capture the way Zemeckis has taken up with it. The film captures both the possibilities of the technology and its limitations. The question is whether they will balance each other out or will one cancel out the other.

For those of you who've not heard of the story (and yes, there may be some), it's simple. Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), a miser's miser, is visited by three Ghosts on Christmas Eve--the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Each shows Scrooge (and the audience) how he came to be the way he is, and how he may end up. Scrooge's beaten-down employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), has a large family, but the one child important to the story is Tiny Tim (Olman again). He has some ailment that makes it hard for him to walk, but in spite of this he's a cheerful lad, who wishes "God bless us, every one" on all mankind, even Scrooge. After his long night, Scrooge discovers a new joy for life and the True Christmas Spirit.

There have been endless film versions of the story, from the iconic (the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge) to the animated (Mickey's Christmas Carol) to the contemporary (Scrooged with Bill Murray) to the puppet (A Muppet's Christmas Carol) to the musical (Scrooge with Albert Finney in the title role). It's ubiquitous in the Christmas season and I venture to say it's one of the stories most connected with the season ('Twas the Night Before Christmas and the actual story of Christ's birth being the others). One should not be surprised that the story now has received the motion-capture treatment.

In theory, this should open up the story to all sorts of visually arresting images. Up to a point, that is the result: the shots of flying over London are beautiful, and if you look at the people from a distance, they do look like actual people. You also have a greater range with characters. This is certainly the first time I've ever seen The Ghost of Christmas Past as a candle. Zemeckis has been able to open up the story to a greater range because he isn't limited by what is PHYSICALLY possible. The resemblance to real people is times. It's on closer inspection that the resemblance ends, and the people start looking like those animatronic robots on a Disney theme ride.

Take for example Colin Firth as Scrooge's nephew Fred. As seen on screen, he looks like Colin Firth, only inflated to a point you wonder if he is suffering from an illness. Oldman as Cratchit has become almost a midget, and it's speculation whether this was done to show how small he is compared to Scrooge or just because they could make him smaller.

Whatever the reason, A Christmas Carol really is Carrey's show. It gives him the ability to do what he's always wanted to do: play many characters without being hindered by things like make-up. Carrey not only plays Scrooge (in all his various ages), but all THREE Ghosts. In fairness, it works best when he's the Ghost of Christmas Past--I didn't recognize his voice there as I did when he was the Ghost of Christmas Present.

There were problems with the film. I know Zemeckis is in a passionate love affair with motion-capture, but as much as he may want to make it work at the moment it still is not at the level to where it looks totally real. I doubt it ever will be. The result is that sometimes the believability factor breaks, as when during the past Mr. Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins) leaps and does some somersaults. Also, while it may be marketed as a family film, I think the scene that ends the Present section of the film may be quite terrifying to children. You also have a chase scene in the Future section that was totally gratuitous. Finally, I didn't like the ending. I didn't believe Scrooge's conversion. It all felt too fake, too rushed, to forced. It may be because you HAD to have it (that IS how the story ends), but somehow it didn't ring true.

Interestingly, while I saw the 3-D version, I took my glasses off from time to time and found I had no problem watching it. That, oddly, is one of its PLUSES, since unlike other 3-D spectacles (no pun intended), it works on a flat screen. However, I don't even see why they opted for 3-D when it wasn't necessary. Not even that chase scene, which was suppose to be a highlight in the Third Dimension, was impressive. I would advise AGAINST paying more for the 3-D experience since you really don't get enough bang for your buck.

As it stands, A Christmas Carol is good but not great. It won't challenge the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge), which I have long argued is the Citizen Kane of Christmas Carol adaptations. As in all technology, A Christmas Carol can work quite well on occasion. However, just like all machines, it doesn't have true emotions at its heart. There's enough to admire, but not enough to truly love.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rick's Cafe Is Open Again


Now that I have greater access to the Internet, I will have to make some changes to Rick's Cafe Texan. First, I went back to previous reviews and adapted them to the ranking system.

Second, I can go into the plans that my lack of access kept me from. I hope to restart my retrospective of Hitchcock films, the Harry Potter series, Star Trek films and the Best Picture Oscar winners from Slumdog Millionaire back to The Broadway Melody (hopefully Wings will be on DVD by the time I get to it). I also will review the nominees for Best Picture and see which one should have won that year, as well as in other categories. I will also work towards more uniformity in the reviews.

Finally, I will work to be more current when I write. Time has been a terrible constraint, and lack of Internet even more so. However, I now have hope that I can get things on faster.

Thank you to all who love movies like I do. Thank you for your patience. Wish Me Luck.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Separated at Birth?

Is it me, or is there just a hint of similarity between Jasper Cullen and Beaker from The Muppet Show? Take a look and tell me if I'm wrong.

For the life of me, I fail to understand the hold the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA) has over what I would believe to be reasonably intelligent people. I confess to having gone through only the first part of this behemoth lust story. However, I can get the main point: a love triangle between a girl, a vampire, and a werewolf. I am aware from the defenders that it really is more than that. It is suppose to be about this great love, how EDWARD CULLEN has waited for close to a hundred years for this one girl, Bella Swann, how he does not want to turn her into a vampire and condemn her to his kind of existence, and how they must overcome all sorts of obstacles to be together.

I think it would be instructive to translate all the Girl-Speak to get to the heart of Twilight. It is exclusively about identification: Bella is the Every Girl (and by extension, the reader). She is not beautiful, she is not super-smart, she doesn't like all the girly things her classmates/friends are into, she is not cheerleader material. In short, she is like all the girls who aren't "popular".

You then have this perfect man, and he's perfect in every way: he's first off extremely attractive, the muscles are not excessive but fit into his clothes smoothly. He is gentle and kind, thoughtful, and above all--he is interested in YOU (I mean, her). The best part of EDWARD CULLEN is that he DOESN'T want to take advantage of Bella. Not only that, but his acceptance is now her (and the reader's) entry into the Ultimate Clique: rich, perfect, beautiful people. It's no surprise that they are also soulless.

Take this for example. Whenever Bella says, "I want you to change me, EDWARD", translated into American English, is "Screw me. Screw me NOW. Screw me like I've never been screwed before...because I've never been screwed before". When EDWARD CULLEN responds, "I don't want to", that means "I LOVE YOU so much I don't want to use you just for your body and then move on. I've WAITED for YOU so long when I finally screw YOU it needs to be with the knowledge that NO ONE ELSE has had YOU and that I've NEVER had ANYONE ELSE because there can never be ANYONE ELSE except YOU".

Now, I'm all for abstinence if that is what an individual chooses or is led to accept. I cannot stop anyone from giving in to the temptations of The Pleasures of The Flesh and am far too familiar with the frailities of man to hold such things against them. However, there is more to the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA) than this. It is the fact that there is ANOTHER person: the best male (heterosexual) friend who also wants her. He cares about her, wants to protect her, is willing to fight another man for her...and it doesn't hurt that he's built like a brick house. He is Mighty Mighty, our Jacob. Black. Ooooh. If I look at all this, the story is insanely popular because it's so insanely narcissistic. It really is All About Bella.

This is the reason the rabid fan base takes no note of how awful the writing is. Stephanie Meyer may have graduated with an English Literature degree from BYU but it looks like she learned nothing. I might be wrong: given that the writing sounds like a brain-dead fourteen year old, she may have been writing with that in mind. Certainly this doesn't look like it came from a WASM housewife (White Anglo-Saxon Mormon, in case you were wondering). I can only remember a few lines from Twilight, and not because they were well-written, but because they were so funny. "I can't believe someone as beautiful as EDWARD CULLEN would be speaking to me". "His skin...literally sparkled". (Hint to Mrs. Meyer, 'literally' means it ACTUALLY happened, 'figuratively' means it was or could be imagined).

The most amazing thing about the Twilight seri...saga is that it has taken Mrs. Meyer FOUR BOOKS (the last one well over 500 pages long) to tell a very basic, simplistic, and bad story. What this says about both the educational level of the readers or the state of present-day American literature is frightening.

As I notice with dismay how popular the books are, how girls read and reread them again and again while not bothering to learn anything useful, I officially declare Twilight/New Moon/Eclipse/Breaking Dawn one of the signs of The End of Western Civilization.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Blind Side: A Review


Every Black Child Deserves A White Family...

It's a paradox in American society today. Our First Family is black, and by all accounts, Barack & Michelle Obama are a loving couple with a strong marriage. Their daughters, Sasha & Malia, are pleasant, happy, well-brought up girls who are fun-loving and well-mannered. In short, while not a perfect family, the Obamas are a strong and loving unit.

However, if we judge by films such as Precious and The Blind Side, we would believe that black families were unstable, unhappy, and even unhealthy. There, the parents are absent or abusive (or both) and the children psychologically damaged, sometimes almost beyond repair. Both groups are heavily involved in drugs and/or alcohol, with despair and hopelessness their only companions in the ghetto.

This is what we face in The Blind Side, based on the true story of Michael Ohre, currently with the Baltimore Ravens. When we first meet Michael, better known as Big Mike (Quinton Aaron), he's the saddest sad sack in history. He has cause: absent father, drug-addicted mother...from what I understand a typical African-American upbringing if I got all my information on African-American upbringing from Hollywood.

He finds himself in a Christian (read, all-white) high school, where he stands out from all his classmates not for his wit or charm or any other attributes, but because he is the complete opposite of them: poor, large, and black. One night, Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) notices him picking up uneaten popcorn bags after his daughter's volleyball game. On their way back to their home, Sean, his wife Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock), and their children (Lilly Collins and Jae Head) see Big Mike walking, all alone, and sad. Did I mention he was walking in the rain? Leigh Anne decides there is only one thing to do: bring him to their home.

I digress to point out the Tuohy home looks like a miniature Versailles--in fact, I don't think my hometown of El Paso, TX has a house ANYWHERE that large. This is an important detail, since Michael (we find out he doesn't like being called Big Mike) sleeps on a sofa for months before the Tuohys offer him his own bedroom...or in his case, his very first bed.

The film is meant to be inspirational, meant to have us cheer Ohre on as he soon creates a new life with the only family he's ever truly known, meant to have us rejoice in his eventual success in college and then the NFL...and yet...and yet...I couldn't bring myself to do so. It isn't that I don't applaud what the Tuohys did or Mr. Ohre's triumph over his background. It's just that if it weren't "based on a true story" I wouldn't believe much if any of it. The main problem in The Blind Side is that for a biopic about Michael Ohre, the film really ISN'T about Michael Ohre. It's rather about the Tuohys.

We never see or hear from Michael himself about what HE thinks or what HE feels about everything going on around him. In short, he never really speaks for himself...sometimes doesn't even speak at all. Instead, it really is All About Tuohy, or more precisely All About Leigh Anne. As played by Bullock, Leigh Anne is a no-nonsense take charge woman who knows what's best and goes about fixing things with bluntness and no thought about how it might look. Sean, on the other hand, is generally quiet and supportive, almost passive, when it comes to anything his wife wants or thinks. My Goodness...I think they are doing their version of Sarah and Todd Palin! That would be fitting to how the Tuohys are shown: as good Christian Republicans.

The performances themselves were overall good. Bullock's Southern accent was not believable at the onset, but over time it either diminished or my ear just started adapting to it. Her performance shows that she is more than a talented comic performer but an actress who can bring a touch of comedy to a drama. McGraw is adding an impressive résumé to his film credits and is becoming an actual actor as opposed to a singer who says lines. I also give credit to McGraw's's the best one I've seen on him.

The REAL scene-stealer is Jae Head as their son S.J. He is delightfully precocious and brightens the screen every time he's on. Kathy Bates in a small role makes her Miss Sue a woman very eager to much so she "outs" herself to the a Democrat. I find it amusing when Sean tells Leigh Anne how strange it is that they had a black son before meeting a Democrat because in real life Tim McGraw is one of the FEW Democrats in country music, at least openly so.

The performances being good, it's unfortunate that the story itself did them all a disservice. People were too busy being inspired to notice little things, like the fact that as seen on film Ohre never managed to make ANY friends in his Christian school outside the Tuohys. What that says about Christians I leave up to the reader. In fact, we never see Michael make any kind of connection with ANYONE outside the Tuohys, as if all of them lived in a bubble no one can burst. It also made little to no notice of Ohre himself. It's no joke when Bullock says the rather clichéd line, "We didn't change him. He changed us", since the story was told through their eyes, not his. There were more clichés, like the snobbish "ladies who lunch" or their ghetto counterparts, the drug dealers in the projects.

Worse is just HOW DUMB Ohre comes off. His character is a simple, sweet soul, akin to Forrest Gump's black cousin. He's big, but he's soft. How else could we have a scene where he's failing to understand the rudiments of football (yes, you CAN use the word rudiment when talking about football) until Leigh Anne explains it in terms of family? Only then do we have the inner beast being unleashed and he becomes the tackle he will eventually become.

You also have a bizarre scene where Miss Sue is trying to scare Michael off from going to Tennessee (which the Tuohys all hate) in favor of Ole Miss (their alma mater). She tells him that the Tennessee stadium is filled with corpses and body parts and it looks like he believes her. In an eight-year-old, it makes him look innocent. In an eighteen year old, it makes him look stupid. Near the end, Michael has to write an essay that will give him the GPA necessary to get him into a university (shown by having college coaches pitch their programs to Michael and S.J.--pity I didn't recognize the coaches playing themselves). He is persuaded by Sean to pick Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade by putting it in a football context.

I think the other choices offered would have been better: A Tale of Two Cities provides the unofficial Tuohy motto (It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done...) while Shaw's Pygmalion IS the Michael Ohre Story: a poor, uneducated person taken into wealthy surroundings and transformed into My Fair Gentleman.

When I think of great fictional inspirational sports stories, I go to the classic Hoosiers or Rocky. If I want "based on a true story", I can revisit Chariots of Fire, Rudy, or read All Things Possible, the autobiography of NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. The Blind Side, while having good performances, lost out its chance to join the ranks of those by relying too much on standard storytelling, weak characters, and most damaging, telling the story from the wrong perspective.

The main difference is that in all the other films/books listed, we saw the story from the protagonist's viewpoint. They KNEW the odds against them (be it anti-Semitism, height, failure to get drafted) and yet they still pursued their dreams because THEY wanted to succeed. In The Blind Side, we don't get that, and if we had, it would have been better. It's not a bad film, just not a great one. This kind of story deserves better, and one needs to remember what happens when you pave the road with good intentions.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Twilight: New Moon. A Review (Review #26)


I See A Bad New Moon Rising...

From what I understand, New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) has only the above to offer. However, I also understand that this is ALL the fans actually want. If that is the criterion for the success of the film & novel, then New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) has fulfilled its duty. Perhaps never in the field of film-making have men, especially minors, been so sexually objectified. Whether this is a step forward or not is entirely up to the viewer, but how ANY of this is relevant to the plot is unknown.

We continue our story of Bella Swann or as I lovingly call her, Bella Swoon(Kristen Stewart) and her Sullen Cullen, better known as EDWARD CULLEN (Robert Pattinson) as they march on to the sappiest love story since The O.C. went off the air. They face all these Romeo & Juliet-style obstacles: she's human, he's vampire, she's dumb, he's morose, with only the fact that they both are obsessed over each other and neither has a personality to unite them against this cruel world. At a surprise birthday party offered by the Cullens, Bella gets a paper cut, and even though she knows they are all blood-suckers, she seems completely oblivious to the fact a bit of human blood will make them go crazy. In order to save her, EDWARD CULLEN must leave her...forever. Cue the violins, for now Bella will have to live her mortal life apart from the most perfect man to ever walk the earth.

Without her EDWARD CULLEN to pine after, she enters into the deepest depression any teenage girl has ever entered in the history of teenager angst. She, however, discovers that whenever her adrenaline is pumping, EDWARD CULLEN appears like a mist, so of course Bella is going to put her life in constant danger. Even a shadow version of EDWARD CULLEN is better than no EDWARD CULLEN at all.

I'd call this a might bit obsessive, but I haven't been a female teenager in love, so there's that.

It's at this time that she deepens her relationship with one Jacob. Black. Ooooh, (Taylor Lautner) a Native American she befriended in Twilight (I digress to ask if I should call it The Twilight Saga: Twilight). All we know is that he is here for her (as all men should be), but alas, there is a catch. Jacob. Black. Ooooh has a secret of his own: he is a werewolf, and not only that, but werewolves are the mortal enemies of vampires. Now, to protect her from himself, Jacob. Black. Ooooh asks Bella to stay away from HIM.

It's at this point that I actually felt a little sorry for her. She gets dumped TWICE by two hot guys, both times for her own good. It really is a case of "It's Not You, It's Me", which should thrill every girl who has read the series (excuse me, SAGA) and imagines such scenarios for herself. In any case, for plot reasons EDWARD CULLEN has decided to make his vampire status known to the world, which will unleash the wrath of the Vulturi, the Lords of the Vampire Universe. They will have no choice but to kill EDWARD CULLEN, thus freeing him from the torture of being undead without the Greatest Love of All Time, Bella Swoon...I mean Swann. Of course, Bella (and the plot) won't let THAT happen. After a dramatic rescue (and a chance to see EDWARD CULLEN shirtless) they go back to Forks, where Jacob. Black. Ooooh and EDWARD CULLEN have one last dramatic confrontation over Bella Swoon (I mean Swann). And thus, with EDWARD CULLEN proposing marriage, we end Part II.

To say that New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) is an improvement over Twilight (or is it The Twilight Saga: Twilight) is a bit like saying cyanide Kool-Aid tastes better than strychnine Kool-Aid. I personally think Billy Burke and Michael Sheen hung out together, even though they share no scenes. Why? It's due to them apparently switching acting styles. While Burke's Chief Swann is a wild improvement over his last turn, Sheen decided it was time to let it all "ham" out. Sheen definitely put the "vamp" in vampire. I no longer object to his lack of nominations for The Queen or Frost/Nixon after this laughable performance. We also have former Oscar nominee Graham Greene, who's gone from Dances With Wolves to Dances With Werewolves. Thank goodness we didn't have to see HIM shirtless.

As for the leads, there hasn't been any improvement, and in fact I think they've gotten worse. Kristen Stewart STILL has no range beyond morose, Robert Pattinson has no range, period. Taylor Lautner's Jacob. Black. Oooh has no range as well, but a well-built physique that we got treated to over and over again. In fact, there were so many shirtless men one would think we'd wandered into a gay bar.

For example, when we see Jacob. Black. Oooh shirtless for the first time, it's in the rain, as if to accentuate his body of lust. Can you say "gratuitous"? I kept wondering why all the natives had to be shirtless, especially when I remember with amusement how in Twilight (or is it The Twilight Saga: Twilight) Jacob. Black. Ooooh was all bundled up to keep out the cold. Perhaps all that fur on the inside keeps them warm... In fact, Jacob. Black. Ooooh was shirtless for almost the entire movie. Someone call the police...I smell statutory rape.

It's all for show. It was sordid, stupid, and beyond insulting. The dialogue is so laughable...and I can vouch for this since the audience was laughing. Such lines as "The greatest gift you can give me is just to breathe" said by EDWARD CULLEN might be the fantasy of every girl with the I.Q. of 1, but it's not realistic. Neither is Jacob. Black. Ooooh telling Bella that she likes him "because you think I'm beautiful". What man (gay or straight) says such nonsense OUT LOUD? The most unintentionally hilarious line was at the dramatic confrontation between Jacob. Black. Ooooh and EDWARD CULLEN. "Just stay the hell out of my head" has so many connotations one can't help but laugh.

On a more serious note, I was disturbed by a scene in the film. The Native men brought Bella to their home, where we see one of their girlfriends. Without giving too much away, we see that the effects of when she got too close to him when he got angry. The message I got was extremely disturbing: Girls, it's OK if a man hurts you physically, because it's his nature. Therefore, let him do whatever he wants to you, so long as he loves you.

I know the Twilight Twits will disagree wildly with me, but if my love left me scarred, I would not stay. Period. Nor would I justify it by saying "he's a werewolf". That just says to me, the animal inside a man can do what he likes to a woman, and she should not defend herself but rather "understand her man" (ie. take it). This is the wrong message, and the fact that too many girls accept it is not a sign of The End of Western Civilization but instead a sign of Talibanization.
Ultimately, New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) is a chance to make men sex objects and dwell in the immature fantasies of immature women (physically and mentally). There is no story, no acting, no point. Someone, bring a stake and some silver bullets. Team Jacob or Team Edward? One thing's sure--no one on either team will ever be on the Academic Team.

Here are more views on the Twilight Series...Excuse Me, SAGA.