Thursday, December 30, 2010

Vox Vocis Of Rex Imperator: The King's Speech Review


Under the British Constitution the Sovereign is the Head of State, and all temporal power rests upon him/her. All governments serve at his/her leisure, all naval ships are his/hers, even the postal service is the Royal Mail. As such, he/she should project those qualities known as 'majesty', 'power', 'dignity'. You wouldn't therefore, make a shy, insecure, almost frightened stammerer By The Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India. That being the case, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York, would be a lousy candidate. Even worse, said Duke, better known as Bertie, knows it. If he is to rise to the man he is needed to be, he needs the love of a strong woman. Check. He also needs a good speech therapist. Double Check.

Bertie (Colin Firth) has had this stammer ever since he could remember. Even the shortest and most mundane of public speaking engagements bring terror to him, which only exasperates his impediment. While his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is supportive, SHE, who was not born Royal, cannot give the speeches for him. Bertie's difficulties and insecurities are an increasing burden on him, and in desperation HRH the Duchess of York seeks out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist outside established circles. Lionel agrees to see HRH the Duke, but there are conditions to his sessions. First, THEY must come to HIM in his consulting room. Second (and perhaps more outrageously), Lionel insists on referring to his patient as 'Bertie' rather than His Royal Highness. This does irk the Duke, but he agrees to it. Lionel is convinced the stammer is psychologically-based, but the Duke isn't about to delve into personal matters with a commoner...and an Australian at that. They agree to try just basic physical techniques, and they do have some success.

As he improves his speech, his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), is concerned about his elder son Edward, Prince of Wales (Guy Pierce), known to the family as David. The Heir to the Throne is besotted by his newest mistress, one Mrs. Simpson (Eve Best). In short time, King George dies, and the throne is inherited by David, now known as Edward VIII. However, since David is unmarried and childless, Bertie is now Heir to the Throne. The prospect of becoming King terrifies Bertie, even more so when Edward VIII abdicates the Throne to marry Mrs. Simpson. The anxiety of the Abdication Crisis breaks Bertie's relationship with Logue, and at the end of the Crisis, Bertie finds himself in the position he does not want: King-Emperor. He finds himself overwhelmed to the point of collapse, with his stammer returning to full force. The now-Queen Elizabeth gently gets Bertie and Lionel to reconcile, and the therapist begins to work to get him through the Coronation and then The King's Speech upon entering World War II.

We can debate the historic accuracies of The King's Speech, but since I've long argued that films are not history lessons, we can forgive any inaccuracies in David Seidler's script. Instead, the film deals with two men, thwarted in their own way (Bertie a reluctant monarch, Lionel a failed actor), who in spite of themselves find a friendship that transcends barriers of status, position, and emotion.

The heart of The King's Speech is Firth's performance as the future George VI. In the very first scene, when he has to address an audience, he already registers fear and a deep reluctance to speak. Seeing his agony and frustration when he finally begins to try to speak is heartbreaking for the audience. Considering that he has yet to speak a line of dialogue apart from the prepared speech, is a sign of Firth's talent that he communicates so much with his face and body. Throughout The King's Speech, Firth never draws attention to the stammer. Instead, it appears to be part of who he is, and when we see him slowly making strides to lessen it we cheer him on since we get to know just how bullied he was by his father and brother. We see this when the future Edward VIII tells Bertie his plans to marry Mrs. Simpson. The look of horror overwhelms him, not just because he's appalled that his brother/King would marry such an unacceptable woman but because he knows it will force him to be King. Trying to explain this to David brings an intense attack of stuttering. David gives him a look of contempt, and begins mocking him as he did when they were children. Here again, it's difficult to see someone we've come to know as a decent but troubled man be pushed down so hard by his own family.

When one is in need for kooky Australian, you call upon Geoffrey Rush, and in The King's Speech, he is another real-life kooky Australian. He makes him a bit comical, but Lionel Logue isn't someone we laugh at but laugh with. We delight in his cheeky demeanor, being deferential to HRH the Duke of York, but up to a point. His Lionel is confident in his abilities and treats Bertie as just another man, which does bother the Duke but which also allows him to open up as he hasn't before to anyone save the Duchess. Lionel, however, has his moments when he deals with his home life, which refreshingly is void of great drama. Instead, his home is filled generally with love among his wife and sons.

Both Firth and Rush work so seamlessly when they're together on screen. When George V has died, one of the first people he sees is Lionel. In between Lionel giving the Heir to the Throne rather odd instructions on how to get what he wants to say out (such as singing his words to Swanee River), the Duke reflects on somewhat on his childhood, one filled with abuse, a sense of worthlessness in spite his royal birth, and the death of a younger brother. In other films, we might have had this flashback visualized, but in The King's Speech, it's just Firth and Rush, conversing, the sadness of both men evident. It's all quite subtle, but here, the audience (if not the participants) realize that, for better or worse, Lionel Logue is the closest thing to a friend HRH The Duke of York has.

We can't leave out Bonham Carter's performance as the future Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Her role is actually rather small, but she really stands out in her scenes with both Rush and Firth, and even more so in the one scene that doesn't involve them. Mrs. Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), who is unaware of whom her husband has been treating, arrives earlier than expected when the King and Queen call on Lionel. She walks in and is understandably shocked on discovering the Queen Empress in her dining room. Without missing a beat, Elizabeth rises from her chair and informs her that the proper way to address her is "Your Majesty" the first time, "Ma'am" after that, adding it's "ma'am" as in "ham" and not "ma'am" as in "palm". She does this with the air of a woman who realizes it all may sound a bit silly but it is the right thing to do. In this brief scene she shows Queen Elizabeth to be both the regal and informal, a mix of being both a Queen and a straightforward Scottish girl. It added a bit of light comedic touch.

Finally, in even smaller parts, Gambon as King George V and Pearce as Edward VIII showed they didn't need to be the center of attention to draw said attention. Gambon not only physically resembles King George V but also manages to communicate his bullying manner mixed with whatever love and pride for his second son he could muster. Pearce displayed the future Duke of Windsor's rapt devotion to Mrs. Simpson, going so far as to think what his ascendancy to the Throne would mean for her. He is clearly under her command, and Pearce shows us just how controlled he was by this twice-divorced American.

All these performances are drawn out by Tom Hooper's direction. Hooper creates genuine tension in The King's Speech when we come to that climatic moment when he has to speak to his people on the day war is declared. Placing Firth in front of us, we have him and Rush together in the broadcast booth, and with the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony underscoring the scene, we see Lionel guide The King as if he were a conductor at a concert. Hooper builds the tension by having us see the King start to falter, and those few moments of silence are made longer by the tension of whether or not he can get through this intense and frightening moment for him. At the end of it, Lionel chastises the King slightly for still stuttering on the "w"s. The King, somewhat humorously, replies something to the effect that it was done so that people will know it was actually him.

At times, the King and Lionel appeared to come close to too many breaks in their relationship., Near the beginning of The King's Speech, Lionel gets the Duke to attempt to recite Hamlet's To Be or Not To Be soliloquy onto a record. He blocks the Duke's ability to hear himself speak via loud music he plays into headphones Lionel places on him. One can easily guess what will be the end results, but it doesn't take away from that moment when both the Duke and Duchess realize what exactly they are hearing.

The King's Speech is more than a historic drama. It really is about a man facing his fears and dealing with them because it has to be done. It speaks to personal courage, even when one doesn't believe in himself. During the worse of the Blitz, on one of their tours of the devasted London, a person cheered their sovereign by exclaiming, "Thank God for a Good King". Without missing a beat, King George VI responded, "Thank God for a Good People". On the surface, this shy, insecure, almost frightened stammerer would not be a good choice for King. History, however, showed he was perfect for the role.

2011 Best Picture: The Artist
Post Script: Since writing this review The King's Speech has won Best Picture. As such, I have included reviews for other Best Picture Winners as part of my continued efforts to review every winner from 1928 to today.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Choo-Choo Go Bye-Bye


I've always wanted to travel by train, just once. So far the closest I've ever come to it has been either at a Disney park or on the public transportation systems of New York City (the subway), London (the Tube), or Paris (the Metro). Yet the lure and mystique of rail travel has always had an allure to my mind. Whenever I hear a train whistle, I think of travel, of foreign and exotic locales filled with adventure, even romance. Unstoppable doesn't deal with that kind of rail travel. Instead, it deals with another staple of action films: the runaway train. Director Tony Scott and writer Mark Bomback have created a remarkably tense action film (a plus) with characters going through at times clichéd situations (a minus).

We begin with Will (Chris Pine), the new guy at the railroad company on his first day (cliché). He is put with Frank (Denzel Washington) the wizened old veteran facing the end of his career (cliché). On this particular day, the Hot-Shot Rookie and the Gruff Vet go about their day, while in another part of Pennsylvania a series of mishaps by Dewey (Ethan Suplee) cause a train to leave unmanned...and with the brakes off. Said train, containing toxic chemicals (cliché) is quickly gaining speed, and with no one at the controls it soon threatens to go off the rails and release its contents. In its path is among other things another train full of children learning about train safety (cliché), a couple of horses on the track (cliché from Westerns), and the Hot-Shot Rookie and the Gruff Vet. If all that wasn't enough, both the Gruff Vet and the Hot-Shot Rookie have domestic issues that intrude on their lives during this day (cliché), while the heads of the company, who were playing golf when all this started (cliché), care more about the cost to the company than about the lives that could (and are) lost because of this train (cliché). Trying to gain control of the situation is Connie (Rosario Dawson), the strong, smart, but easily dismissed female supervisor. After an attempt to land a former Navy SEAL now engineer fails, the Gruff Vet decides it's up to them to stop the runaway train, with the Hot-Shot Rookie less eager but knowing it has to be done (cliché).

In spite of how Unstoppable seems to hit every possible predictable plot device from a series of films, it isn't to say the film is boring. Far from it: Unstoppable delivers on its promise of intense action and close calls, building great tension starting from when the train starts to run away right down to the inevitable moment when a ninety-plus miles per hour train is making a turn on an elevated track meant for fifteen miles per hour turn. Scott knows how to put action sequences together: he presents us with situations that either put people in peril or attempt to stop the train and lets us see how they will turn out.

HOWEVER, where Scott goes off the rails (yes, pun intended), is the way he handles the camera. What I could never get around was how the camera would go spinning left right center for no reason. Scott does this wild camera work almost from the first few frames of Unstoppable. I even wrote in my notes, "Taking a guess Scott directed videos" because all the constant shifting and moving looked like something from early MTV. I have found out he did direct a couple, but what made this particular obsession with zooming and panning this way that way and back once over is that it was not only unnecessary, but a little nauseating. It takes away from the tension he already has, and worse, he continues this camera spinning when the story reaches a denouement. It made no sense, and it got on my nerves.

Another problem facing Unstoppable is one of the clichés: the domestic front. You can have family issues coming into play in an action film, but here, going into Frank's strained relationship with his daughters or Will's strained relationship with his estranged wife and young son figuratively slow the picture down. We really never learn anything about Connie's domestic life, and didn't take from her job performance, so why do we have to go to whether or not Will and his wife get back together or not?

To their credit, both Pine and Washington handled their roles well in spite of being underwritten characters. Washington has mastered the Gruff Vet role, showing a slight contempt for the man who is basically replacing him. We should know by now, after years of movie going, the Voice of Experience (in this case, Washington's Frank) always, ALWAYS knows best. Pine did the best he could balancing Will's worries about a family court case with attempting to do a good job on his first day. Both handled their action scenes well, and that's when both Unstoppable and their characters come to life. When we have to go their children, we lose some of the interest.

Unstoppable isn't a bad film; on the contrary, it can be quite exciting and entertaining. However, if Scott hadn't decided to let the camera go all over the place and if Mark Bomback's script had kept things tighter without going to a whole gaggle of standard situations domestic and foreign, the film would have been far greater. As it stands, Unstoppable failed to get to the station by THATMUCH.

Punch Drunk Brother Love


One can be wary of those 'inspirational, true-life stories' since they can soon drown in sentiment and have the opposite effect: instead of cheering the subject on, you're cheering his/her downfall. The Fighter can be seen as inspirational, and it is based on a true-life story: that of boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Walhberg) and his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). However, once we get over those details, what we see is a rich film about family: the good and bad, and about how love can both blind us and free us.

Dicky was 'The Pride of Lowell', a former boxer himself who knocked down the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard. That was a long time and many miles ago. When The Fighter begins, Dicky is still living off his past glories with a new goal: to get his brother Mickey up there in the boxing world. It would be more accurate to say Dicky is dying on his past glories, for he hasn't moved on either in his life or career. While a camera crew follows them around, Dicky is giving them an all-access tour of the mess of his life, with his addiction to crack being up front and center. Dicky appears oblivious to how his using crack in front of cameras can somehow be seen as remotely negative. Instead, he puts himself (when he is physically and mentally able to) at Mickey's corner, literally, as his trainer. Their mother Alice (Melissa Leo), rules them not with overt acts of love or fear but with a towering protectiveness and determination. It's clear that she, and not her husband, run the family. In fact, the whole clan is a matriarchy, with their gaggle of sisters being just as bossy as their mother.

Mickey gets bouts, but they're not good ones. While he has a chance to go with better trainers, the pull of Family constantly weighs him down. That is, until he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a bartender who catches his eye. They begin a romance, over the strenuous objections of domineering Alice and her daughters, who don't like this interloper coming between the Family and Mickey. Dicky is determined to get Mickey the money he needs to get the training Mickey seeks (and to keep him within the safe confines of Lowell). He does this by performing illegal acts, and after an altercation with the police that gets Mickey injured, Dicky's arrested. While in jail, Dicky suffers drug withdrawal and Mickey suffers life withdrawal. It's also while Dicky's locked up that A.) Dicky finally realizes his 'comeback' film is really about Crack in America, B.) Mickey MUST move or he will figuratively die, and C.) both need to make changes. They both begin to train on their own and in their own ways.

Eventually, Dicky and Charlene come to an understanding since they see how they both have been pushing Mickey in all sorts of directions, none of them good. Once again, with Charlene's blessings, Dicky is back in Mickey's corner (again, literally), to face up to The Big Match.

In certain ways, The Fighter hits all the requisites for those 'inspirational' films: a troubled man (or two in this case) fighting for a shot, the woman who loves him and will stand by him, a re-evaluation of where he stands, a requisite training montage complete with music, a few inter-family fights, and The Big Match. If Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson's screenplay wasn't based on the real lives of Mickey and Dicky, one might not believe it. Even knowing that The Fighter is based on reality wouldn't give it an automatic pass. The screenplay's intelligence (and even moments of comedy) do raise it up a great deal, but with the firm hand of director David O. Russell, The Fighter becomes more than an 'athlete does good' film, but a deeper film about the perils and promises of family bonds and of knowing that the weight of the past cannot and should not hold us hostage to the future.

In short, The Fighter is a title that works on more than the basic level: that of the character's profession. It also can describe what they do: fight for their lives, for their careers, for the ones they love (and inadvertently hurt). It could also indicate that the fighter in The Fighter can be both/either Mickey (when he's in the boxing ring or struggling against his family's stranglehold) or Dicky (against his self-destructive actions). It could also apply to Alice (to hold her place of prominence in the family) and Charlene (against those who are crushing the man she loves).

The performances are almost all-around brilliant. Bale has always been able to transform himself to whatever character he plays (I'd argue, sometimes to the detriment of his mental health--hello, Terminator: Salvation rant). Here, he has two tricks to pull off. The first is performance-wise: portray a man wrapped up in his past, one who loves his brother and wants him to succeed but cannot go about it without causing him harm at the same time. From the moment we see Dicky, he looks like a man inches from almost physically disintegrating right before us. We see beneath his swagger and self-confidence and see a man who is so lost in his past that he truly doesn't realize the documentary crew he allows to follow him is chronicling his resurrection but his self-destruction until it airs. Bale makes someone who we know we should run away from instead someone who is at heart truly loving. This is crystallized when, after failing to escape from Alice, he wins her over by serenading her with the Bee Gees I Started A Joke. It's almost as if he's regressed to childhood, but we see that he, even at his age and state, can still charm his mother.

His second trick is to speak with that distinct Boston accent. Bale manages to sound so authentic that we forget he's British. It never sounds fake or forced but flows perfectly, and it also never becomes grating. Some non-native Bostonians who attempt to speak like they are from the Bay State fail horrifically, exaggerating the 'ah' sound so prevalent they end up sounding like a Mayor Quimby parody. Bale, however, makes his accent part of who Dicky is, and we never notice that is sounds anything but real.

The actresses also handle their accents brilliantly, which compliments their performances also. Leo's Alice comes across a bit like a White Trash Queen, a classless figure who pushes everyone around her to do as she thinks. However, we see that she is motivated by love (albeit taking rather odd shapes). When she is confronted by Mickey about how he feels about her, the shock she genuinely feels about even the mere suggestion that she might favor one over the other is devastating because she never saw it. Adams also has a brilliant performance of a woman who knows herself and won't be intimidated by Alice or her daughters. She is her own person and isn't afraid of anything, even someone as intimidating as Alice.

Walhberg is also good as the conflicted and torn Mickey. Mickey is someone who does love his family yet realizes that if he continues the way he has, they will end up killing his career and sucking him into a world he doesn't want to be in. Mickey is remarkably passive early on in The Fighter, right down to taking Charlene to see Belle Epoque (not your usual working-class fare) merely because it's the closest movie playing far enough from his family and neighborhood. His performance is so good we can forgive the fact that like in his other films, he doesn't change his facial expression. Athletic Walhberg is. Expressive Walhberg is not. Even that plays to his benefit, where the only real release Mickey has is in the ring, an area he knows he's good at.

If you'd like me to find a fault with The Fighter, the only one I can give you is that on occasion having the characters have similar-sounding names made it sometimes hard to remember who was who. However, that's such a tiny flaw that it is easily overcome: Dicky is Bale, Mickey is Walhberg. Problem solved.

All good boxing films (or sports films, really) are at their core about redemption. Rocky. Chariots of Fire. Rudy. Hoosiers. They all have the common thread of not just succeeding in whatever athletic event they are in, but also overcoming the blocks in their own lives, be it lowered expectations, intolerance, what-have-you. A good sports film transcends the conventions of the sport to give us an insight into how, yes, that thing called The Human Spirit, can rise above to achieve the victory, personal or professional. The Fighter isn't just about the actual matches (although Russell filmed them so authentically they look like matches culled from television archives). It's also about the love between two siblings who wouldn't give up, on themselves or each other. It's about the bonds that can both smother and push you. In short, The Fighter is about how we can either succeed or fail, depending on who we have in our corner.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

No Nutcracker, Just Nuts.


We, the audience of Black Swan, should not be faulted for needing a primer to the story of the ballet Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky's music will probably be familiar to many, but for the most part I figure it's a safe bet that few of us attend a ballet performance outside of Christmas. Director Darren Aronofsky has therefore been gracious enough to give us the gist of what all the bouncing about involves thanks to the dialogue spoken by Thomas (Vincent Cassell), the ballet director. Normally, I would find this bit of background info a bit obnoxious, but given the subject matter, this is a case when it is to our benefit, and it doesn't interfere with the story's flow. As it stands, Black Swan asks a great deal of viewers: to distinguish between reality and fantasy, to see a near-total mental breakdown where we have to figure out what is real and what is in the main character's mind. Aronofsky has done what few have been able to do: make ballet look dangerous, if not downright psychotic.

Nina (Natalie Portman) has been toiling away in the ballet company, much to the frustration not just of herself but of her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself. Both of them, as well as Thomas, know she has talent, but somehow the passion is not there. As fate would have it, an opportunity has arisen. Thomas is seeking a prima ballerina for the two roles in Swan Lake: the innocent White Swan and the villainous Black Swan, now that his previous star, Beth (Wynona Ryder), is being pushed into retirement. Nina's technique make her the perfect White Swan, but Thomas is reluctant to give her the role because she does not have the full fury to carry off the seductive and dark Black Swan role to his satisfaction.

Enter Lilly (Mila Kunis), a young dancer full of, to borrow a line from All About Eve, "fire and music", whose tattoos and uninhibited demeanor make her a near-absolute counterpoint to the refined and repressed Nina. In spite of herself, Nina allows some darkness to emerge, convincing Thomas to give her the role. As Nina delves deeper into herself (sometimes via auto-erotic exercises, sometimes with a little lesbianism), she becomes more and more consumed with her own dark side, plunging her further and further into mental instability. Nina eventually gives herself totally to her role as the Black Swan, but now unable to see if either her actions or those of others are real or not. Is Lilly trying to seduce her? Has Nina committed murder? By the end, Nina grip on reality is held together only onstage: when she's not dancing, she is not herself.

At the end of Black Swan, my mind gravitated to thoughts of the film A Double Life. Both touch on similar themes (a performer who becomes so enmeshed in the role one can't tell one from the other). However, it would be more honest to say that the script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin creates a contemporary version of Swan Lake itself. Nina's suspicions that Lilly (who always wears black) is attempting to steal her job (and her Prince/Director) from the rightful owner (Nina herself, almost always in white) reflect the plot of the ballet. As the Black Swan drives the White Swan to suicide, so does the Dark Side of Nina drive the sane part of Nina to a psychological, even physical breakdown.

Aronofsky shows us the unraveling of Nina's mind through a subtle method: her clothes and home. When we first see Nina, her room could be that of a little girl, and in fact her mother treats her as if she were a child rather than as a young woman in her twenties. The room is filled with stuffed animals, with pink as the dominating color, and even a music box with a little ballerina playing music from Swan Lake. For most of the film, Nina is dressed in white. It isn't until she goes out with Lilly, over the strenuous objection of Mother Erica, that she starts to delve into darkness. Lilly hands her black undergarments, and Nina puts them on. Once on, she willingly tries a little Ecstasy, and then has a sexual encounter with Lilly that may or may not have actually occurred. Nina soon adds dark colors to her ensemble, and throws out her toys. Now, I want to make it clear: this process doesn't happen quickly, nor does putting on the black undergarments cause a sudden change in Nina's character as if they had magical powers. Rather, Aronofsky was I think sending out the message that Nina was starting to embrace darkness in her world, but with that, she was also losing her grip on reality. The fact that she breaks her music box, leaving a dismembered ballerina, reflects her own mental state. Those kinds of touches are subliminal, but brilliant.

Portman's performance is what holds your attention throughout Black Swan. Her Nina already appears slightly on edge, as if she is holding on merely because she knows no other way to behave. As she pushes herself to BE both the White and Black Swans, she soon cannot distinguish between insane acts and her own life. Her transformation is gradual, making of Nina a person who finds that she is pushing herself past sanity but determined to press ahead lest she lose the role of a lifetime. It's as if Nina yearns to breathe free: from her mother's expectations, from her own inhibitions, but also yearns to pull herself back to respectability and the security of being a child. The push-pull between her own version of the Swans is what fascinates you. Matching her in acting is Kunis, a totally liberated girl who just lives life as she wants to yet totally grounded in reality. She doesn't have either the technique or the hang-ups that plague Nina, but unlike her Lilly doesn't care: dancing allows her to feel, as opposed to Nina, to whom dancing allows her to be.

Even though they have smaller roles, both Hershey and Ryder leave their mark. Erica, from what I saw in Black Swan, knows her daughter can become too engrossed in her dancing and tries to keep her from going over the edge but appears to go about it by locking her in a child-like state. She is a clingling, overbearing woman who appears at times a little nutty herself. Ryder, as the prima ballerina facing the end of her career, expresses the anger and resentment of being pushed aside for another, and her final scene (which in all likelihood is another of Nina's episodes) is still frightening to watch.

If I were to find any fault in Black Swan, it would be Aronofsky's camera work, which was at times a little dizzying. To his credit, it did give us a bird's-eye view (no pun intended) of what the dancers see, but I was getting a little disoriented by it all. Again, it's really a minor point.

Nina, I wrote in my notes, breaks and breaks down, falls and falls apart throughout Black Swan, both in the actual recital and in her own life. It is when one gives himself/herself over to their own fears and obsessions that one becomes capable of anything. There is a high cost to perfection, the film seems to say, especially when to that individual, there is nothing apart from your obsession. At the end, she IS the Swan, both Black and White, sometimes quite literally. In the end, it is dangerous when The Dancer BECOMES The Dance, especially when it is a Danse Macabre.

Cyber Punked


Tron is one of those films that came and went when first released in 1982 only to be kept alive by rabid fans who found in its computer-generated effects and cyber-world something beyond amazing. My own history with Tron is like most people: I didn't see it when it came out and didn't care too much to do so. My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead), however, was/is passionate about Tron (not to the point of dressing up like the characters in his defense), and he foisted it upon me. Now, I will confess I thought the graphics were quite good...for its day, and it was entertaining, if not this monumental piece of filmmaking the fans (whom I lovingly call Tronnies) have built it up to be. In any case, Tron became a cult film, and a particularly strong cult it did spawn, so much so that nearly thirty years later, a sequel was commissioned. Tron: Legacy, to its credit, doesn't appeal strictly to its oddly fanatical base. Tron: Legacy, to its detriment, doesn't increase its appeal with non-Tronnies.

Tron creator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tells his son the story of Tron (thus putting those who haven't seen the original up to speed in a clever way from screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz from a story by Kitsis, Horowitz, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal). The elder Flynn is just going away briefly, or so we think. Now, twenty years later, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), is a brilliant but bitter young man. As much as Flynn's partner/surrogate father Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) tries to steer Sam, nothing will erase his anger at being wealthy but abandoned. After sabotaging a launch of a program at his father's company, Alan tells him he received a message on his pager (yes, apparently someone still has one) from Kevin, emanating from the Flynn Arcade. Sam goes there, and among the video arcade machines (yes, there once such things as arcades) he discovers a hidden room, and in it an operating computer. Once he starts it he is transported to the world of Tron.

Sam is almost immediately thrust into the Games, where he fights his way into attracting the attention of a younger-looking Kevin. However, this is a False Kevin (perhaps a nod to the False Maria in Metropolis), for in reality this is his creation, the program known as Clu (Bridges digitally altered). Clu has taken over this world, and the real Kevin has been trapped within it. Kevin's doppelganger wants to take both Flynns prisoner, but after a race Sam escapes with the help fo Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who we discover is Kevin's protege. She takes him to his father, who tells him how Clu, attempting to bring total perfection to the Tron world, purged all ISOS (beings within it that were judged not perfect) and overthrew both Flynn and Tron himself in what I call a "Clu D'Etat". It was Clu that lured Sam to enter The Grid through The Portal, which Clu hopes to use to escape and bring his perfection to Reality. While Sam is all for fighting, Kevin takes a much more Zen-like look to all the goings-on, preferring to remain in exile where Clu cannot get at him or his disc (that circular wheel on his back that contains all his information). However, The Portal will close soon, and if they don't escape they will all be trapped there forever. They opt to take their chances, even while Clue and club owner Castor (Michael Sheen) work to get at them.

Tron: Legacy is the first time this year that I have indulged in 3-D. All this time I have been resistant to going to see any feature in this medium and still think on the whole it's a pretty daft (or Daft Punk) idea. However, I opted for seeing this film in 3-D because if any film this year lends itself to grand visuals, it would be Tron: Legacy since this is an entirely fantastical world. However, given the fact that the screenwriters and director Joseph Kosinski have at their disposal an opportunity to create a world that can overwhelm you, they make very little use of 3-D. In fact, only once was the actual effect effective, and it's a worrisome sign when we're told in the beginning of the film that most of Tron: Legacy is in 2-D with some scenes in 3-D. We're also told to keep our glasses on at all times, but wouldn't you know it...I didn't. You could clearly see that Tron: Legacy would be just as easy to enjoy in 2-D, and given the subject matter it seems a terrible disappointment. In short, it isn't worth your money to go see it in 3-D or even Extreme 3-D (which I did), so that's a major minus to the film.

Of greater concern is that while there are two official screenwriters and four story creators, Tron: Legacy suffers from a terrible lack of actual substance. There is the cliché of the abandoned boy who grows to a brooding but brilliant young man, and of the encounter with revolutionaries at a techno club (or are they?), and as a side note, since when do computer programs come with techno clubs? Just a thought. The movie lasts a whopping two hours, yet it fills most of its time with either less-than-thrilling action scenes or the eternal struggles between fathers and sons with some odd flirtations between Programs and Users.

Tron: Legacy could have been a good ride, but the whole project took itself way too seriously, as if trying to segway into Matrix territory when it all really started from an arcade world. You can tell what the ambitions of Tron: Legacy were by the incessant use of the article "the". THE Grid, THE Portal, THE Purge, THE Betty White (OK, I made up the last one, but wouldn't it have been cool to have had her as some sort of Tron High Priestess?) In trying to create this fantastical world, we never really got to marvel at the magnificence of Tron, because we had to overthrow Clu and stop him from escaping this world.

I mentioned The Matrix, but at times Tron: Legacy looked as if it were trying to rip off other films as well. When Sam arrives in Tron-World, the movie almost seems to shift to Gladiator (and it isn't very believable to imagine Sam could get the hang of it so quickly). The biggest influence appears to be the Star Wars films, with Kevin Flynn appearing as a cross of Phantom Menace's Qui-Gon Jinn and A New Hope's Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his nemesis being nicknamed by yours truly as Darth Clu. That of course, would make Sam the Luke Skywalker in the film. When at the end, you don't actually hear the dialogue but substitute "If you destroy me I will become more powerful than you could ever imagine" you realize the story has lost its appeal. There is also when we see Clu address his Army of Programs; it looked like Leni Reifenstahl had made a post-mortem comeback to re-direct Triumph of The Will (or would it be Triumph of THE Grid). When coming to see Castor, it was all far too reminiscent of Blade Runner at least in appearance, though not in substance. The strangest ode appears to be at the techno club, where Sheen appears to be channelling Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange in what can kindly be described as one of the most embarrassing and over-the-top performances he's ever given. One didn't know whether to feel genuine sorrow or genuine anger at watching Sheen ham it up to the Nth Degree--in fact, it bordered on farce.

If Sheen gave the worst performance in his five-to-seven minutes of screen time, the rest of the cast didn't fall much behind. Hedlund's voice sounded like was Christian Bale's voice double in a Batman film, and even though he's caught in an amazing world unlike anything in existence his facial expression didn't alter much if at all. Wilde is extremely attractive as Quorra, and granted she is better than her co-stars, but since we don't have time for character development we don't really learn much about her. Bridges at times does appear to be more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski when he's the Older Flynn (at one point, he does chastise his son by telling him he's 'messing with his Zen thing, man'), but in those scenes when he's younger, he does have a good menace as Clu.

I will compliment Tron: Legacy for nearly always seemingly blending a younger Kevin Flynn into the film without it looking fake or unnatural. You believed it really was another actor...most of the time. The sets, while appearing to borrow again from The Matrix, to their compliment didn't overwhelm the imagery, but it didn't quite capture the fantastic world Tron occupies as well as they could have. There was a certain monochrome nature to it all: the film is dominated by black and white sets and costumes. Claudio Miranda's cinematography doesn't help: while it was good it sometimes grated on the eyes to see so much light and so much dark right after. I also compliment Daft Punk's original score (though their appearance at Castor's club was quite bizarre--who DJ's a fight scene?).

In the end, Tron: Legacy's ambitions overwhelm the end results. I don't know if it will please the Tronnies, and if one doesn't think too hard it can be enjoyable. However, the story does appear to cut off any chance for a sequel, and it seems a shame that for a film that inspires such rabid passion (and which left positive memories for me although I'd have to see it again), it didn't live up to its potential. Tron: Legacy may be in need of some rebooting, or at least re-programming.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Farewell To The Flesh. A Review of 127 Hours


For the first twenty minutes of 127 Hours, we see Aron Ralston (James Franco) as a free-wheeling, cocky, narcissistic thrill-seeker. He's racing on his bike (and videotaping himself doing so), he finds a couple of girls whom he charms into being their guide and frolicking in a hidden pool, and generally living life.

That's the first twenty minutes. At that mark, we see Ralston fall. We see him fall into a canyon. We see him fall into a canyon with a boulder falling right behind him. At the end of his descent, his right arm is lodged between said boulder and the side of the canyon, and for the next 70-odd minutes, we get to experience Ralston's 127 hours of hell, hope, hallucinations, and heroics.

Danny Boyle, coming off Slumdog Millionaire, tackles a rather unpleasant subject (the climax of 127 Hours involving cutting off a dead arm) but under his direction, this scene (and the movie as a whole) doesn't go into sensationalism. Instead, Boyle brings an immediacy to 127 Hours, almost a documentary-like style whenever we go to Ralston (which is almost all of the film) and blends this with imaginative and realistic fantasy sequences. Take for example, when Ralston begins to imagine how the party he was invited to by the two girls he meets (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamlyn). It is realistic for someone who is trapped, literally, to have his mind wander off to how things would be different if he were in control, but just when the audience starts to slip (like Ralston), into believing this is true we go back to how he really isn't free. This isn't done by quickly going back to Ralston in his canyon but by Raltson at the window, begging for help. Soon, elements of his life: memories of his immediate and distant past, along with fantasies of escape and even visions of the future float to his mind (and in one case, floats him away literally).

127 Hours rarely allows us to leave Ralston, and this gives James Franco the opportunity to show us an extraordinary performance of full range of emotions: from cocky self-assurance to fear to anger and self-loathing and mockery at how foolish he was at not telling anyone where we was going to sadness at what is to become of him. The success of 127 Hours lies in large part on getting to know and care about Ralston's predicament, and Franco has us care not because he is trapped with seemingly no way out except death but because we also see just how he got to be rather alone. At first, we sense that he is going through the Utah desert to show off to himself and anyone else who would come across his exploits just how great he is. Over the course of the film, we see how he systematically pushed people away; we see this especially near the end, when he recalls a lost romance with Rana (Clémence Poésy), a woman he romanced but whom he lost due to a form of self-centeredness where he convinced himself he needed no one (not his parents, not his sister, not his co-worker/friend) to live his life as he wanted to. Now that Ralston faces his mortality, the thought of dying alone where it will be days before anyone notices is one he not so much rails against but realizes is one he doesn't want. Franco gives his best performance so far (and remembering his turn in Spider-Man 3, we can safely say he's grown greatly as an actor). Near the end of 127 Hours, when he's observing the video of a message the girls left for him, Franco's face communicates so much of the heartbreak mixed with regret he faces as his life starts to ebb away.

Now, getting on to THE SCENE. Honestly, I am the type not to get freaked out by graphic violence or the appearance of violence. I wasn't shocked by Cannibal Holocaust when I first saw it (except, perhaps, for the turtle bit), so once we get to his self-dismemberment, we have been prepared somewhat for it. Earlier in 127 Hours, he has already come to the conclusion that with his arm trapped underneath this boulder as long as it has been, it is already dead. He has one of two choices: either die with his arm or take a chance at life by cutting his arm off. From what I saw, this scene isn't as graphic as I was led to believe. It is A.R. Rahman's music that makes this scene graphic. It is Jon Harris' editing that makes this scene graphic. It is James Franco's intense performance that makes this scene graphic. It is Danny Boyle's direction, putting all these elements together so masterfully, that makes this scene graphic. In short, it is the blending of so many elements and giving us the audience the opportunity to fill in the blanks that makes this a tense and frightening moment. To my mind, I was more disgusted by seeing Ralston take his contacts off than I was by the dismemberment.

Boyle did two smart things in 127 Hours. First, he was smart in not going the Buried route and keeping us only with Ralston. By allowing us to leave him and go into his mind, we not only get a brief respite from the agony of the situation (which, like Ralston, we can only imagine), but give us that insight into who Aron Ralston is as well as give us some incredible imagery. Without giving too much away, Scooby-Doo is actually almost terrifying in this film. There's also when we see Ralston conducting a mock (and self-mocking) interview on his video camera (which is where parts of 127 Hours appears to be filmed with). The off-screen audience reactions are things we would be used to from decades of television viewing, but again, it's Franco's performance where in this one scene he shifts so much in his emotional ranger. Second, Boyle was smart in not denying the difficulties Ralston faced while trapped for five days inside that canyon. He has us go through things like him running out of water and having to drink the only available liquid, and he toys with us when a large rainstorm comes.

Ultimately, while 127 Hours is based on a true and somewhat gruesome story, Boyle and Franco create a hopeful picture, one where the main character dives into despair but emerges with a fierce desire to live. It's almost like a true-life adventure version of A Christmas Carol, where after seeing the Ghosts of Ralston Past, Present and Future, Aron emerges with both optimism and a desire to live life better, both for himself and for those around him. Once he's finally free, Aron Ralston looks quickly behind at the boulder and the arm still beneath it, and whispers a soft, "Thank you", before running out to escape. Who was he thanking, and why? Was it God as he perceives Him for freeing him? Was it the rock for releasing him from the man he was before falling? Did he see that he had been living not for the day but for himself and now, being given a second chance, he would seize it with greater gusto? Boyle and his script (co-written with Simon Beaufoy) don't give us answers. We have to find those ourselves.

We're given a quick conclusion to 127 Hours once Ralston finds other hikers to help him. We see him happily married with a son, and we're told he still is a thrill-seeker, with one change: he now tells people where he's going. In its short playing time of 94 minutes, we see how quickly a life can come close to ending, and to a certain point, how quickly it can begin again. If it weren't true, perhaps 127 Hours might not be believed, but even if it were fiction, it would be an intense, at times comic, but never dull experience. Would it be wrong to say, Rock On, Ralston?


The Spy Who Was Put Out In The Cold


It is a truth universally acknowledged that George W. Bush is the most evil man in the history of all Creation (or Evolution if you please). Whatever wicked deeds of such figures as Adolph Hitler, Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden or Sean Penn BFF Hugo Chavez may have done (may being the operative word), all pale to the nefarious machinations of, in the words of Harry Belafonte, "the world's greatest tyrant, the world's greatest terrorist". Not only did he steal a Presidential election...twice, (Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004), not only did he deliberately LIE about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to kill their children and steal their oil, not only did he know about the attacks of September 11, 2001 beforehand (and not just know, but planned and executed them himself), not only did he knowingly put totally and completely innocent Afghans (and anyone else who was in the wrong place at the wrong time) in the American version of a Hanoi Hilton/Auschwitz mix (Guantanamo Bay), not only did he go and personally drown black babies in the submerged streets of New Orleans, but he also, according to Fair Game, nearly destroyed a wonderful marriage.

Forgive the rather playful tone taken in the introduction (although, except possibly for the personally drowning bit, everything else is historic fact at MSNBC), but it is when Fair Game takes its focus off the central story (high-ranking members of the second Bush Administration revealing a CIA agent's identity to get back at a critic of their Iraq Intervention policy) where the film loses its way. We're treated to a domestic drama where almost anything could be substituted for the crisis tearing at their union.

Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) is a superspy, a deep cover agent working at tracking down terrorists. Within the bowels of the CIA, she is asked about Iraq attempting to obtain nuclear material from Niger. To investigate this, Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Penn) goes, and finds nothing. However, the Office of Vice President Cheney, headed by his Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby (David Andrews), is determined to get the CIA to see things their way: namely, that Iraq is a growing threat to American security, and only force will stop Saddam Hussein from going after America. In spite of Plame & Wilson's (and the CIA) insistence that there is no there there, Plame reluctantly recruits Dr. Zahraa (Liraz Charhi), an Iraq refugee, to go back to Baghdad and contact her brother, a scientist, and get information in spite of it meaning putting everyone at risk. Dr. Zahraa goes and her brother tells her not only is there no Weapons of Mass Destruction program, but that the Americans know it. However, things are already beyond the Wilsons' control, and war erupts. Ambassador Wilson, outraged that the case has been built with lies (including the claim involving Niger that he found no proof for), writes a blistering op-ed piece against the Administration. To draw attention from the fact that high-ranking members have cooked the information, it's decided they will strike outing Plame, putting not just her life in danger, but also all her contacts, including Dr. Zahraa's family, waiting for rescue from the chaos of the invasion.

Fair Game tells its story with the intensity of an action thriller, and that should be no surprise since director Doug Liman brought The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith to life. The most exciting sequences involve, oddly, not the central story of the Wilsons, but of the Zahraas. Liman gives us great moments of the high cost of war on civilians, showing us a glimpse of how horrifying the actual bombing as well as the looting after the Americans entered was. We also have tense moments when Plame is doing her espionage work, as in the beginning when she gets someone to spy on their family.

The performances are also first-rate. Watts' Plame is not just a Jane Bond (although she handles the tension of espionage with great flare), but also a wife and mother deeply concerned about her family. The scenes she excels the best at are when she is just talking, usually with other women. Watts plays these moments with great subtlety, as when once she's exposed, she has to endure a certain humiliation when she has to explain her work to one of her friends. She's asked if she's killed anyone. Watts looks conflicted, but she doesn't let on as to what she's conflicted about: whether she can tell her friend, whether she actually HAS killed anyone, and she plays the conflict with great skill. Penn matches her most of the time, but unfortunately he makes his Wilson come off as a bit of a pompous know-it-all. When he's first asked if he knows anything about Niger, he informs the CIA agents, "I prefer to say Knee-jer", so as to not confuse that country with Nigeria. It may be a personal thing, but I have pronounced it as Ni-ger and have not confused it with Nigeria. The script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth also give speeches to Wilson to make the case against war. At times, this comes off not as dialogue spoken by real people but as talking points for anti-war supporters.

Andrews' Scooter Libby was appropriately creepy (right down to John Powell's score, which was appropriately scary whenever he appeared), a man who exudes menace by how he moves, how he speaks. He was never quite believable in that he was too obviously villainous with no real dimensions except to be evil. It was interesting to see how with just his stare he could make CIA agents quake with fear (side note: one of those agents, Paul and played by Tim Griffin, looked a great deal like Vladimir Putin puppet...I mean, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev), but I did wonder how someone like Libby could intimidate so many agents used to dealing with more dangerous people.

I will state that I didn't follow this particular scandal. I therefore cannot and will attempt to verify the veracity of everything in Fair Game. I can only judge the film based on the story presented and the performances given. In those aspects, Fair Game is an intelligent, well-performed film, telling its story with a good helping of suspense. When it veers into the domestic problems of the Wilsons, it loses a bit of its impact, as also when in particular Ambassador Wilson starts giving speeches more suited for a Pete Seeger concert than a dinner party. Minus that, Fair Game works well as entertainment. I Spy a good film.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Charge of the Fat Brigade


I come into True Grit, the latest film from the Brothers Coen, completely open and slightly concerned. Regular readers may know that of all current filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen rank at the bottom of my list of directors I think are good. I, in short, detest them. I am aware of the critical acclaim and cult following they have. In fairness to them, I haven't seen Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There, Burn After Reading, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Hudsucker Proxy, or what I understand to be the Citizen Kane of Coen Brothers Cinema: The Big Lebowski. However, with the exception of Fargo (which I did enjoy), after seeing the double-feature of No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man, I have failed to be taken in by the charms of our Dynamic Duo and am not a fan. In reality, after seeing those two films, I have turned vehemently against them (although I am willing to re-evaluate my position and re-watch these films should the time and interest arise).

This is a great source of criticism from those in my circle who worship them, fans whom I lovingly call Coen-Heads. Oh, the things I've been accused of because I am one of the few who hasn't gotten on my hands and knees and kissed Joel & Ethan's behinds! To all the Coen-Heads I say this: allow me to state my case, and don't react emotionally. A personal reflection on their oeuvre may be worth my time post-retrospective, for now let me concern myself with True Grit. On the positive side, I have never seen the 1968 John Wayne version of Charles Portis' novel, so I go into it without any preconceptions about how it matches the original. (Side note: as much as the Brothers Coen or any of the Coen-Heads may complain vociferously, since there was a previous film version of this story I constitute it as a remake and fail to understand why they all fight so furiously to make us pretend the other one doesn't exist. What's wrong with making a remake: both DeMille's The Ten Commandments and Wyler's Ben-Hur are remakes drawing from the same material and I don't hear anyone getting so huffy about that. What makes the Coens the exception? It's a remake; get over it). The brothers have created a fine Western that holds to some of the traditions of the genre while making it more in tune with Twenty-First Century viewing sensibilities.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) begins a pursuit of Tom Chaney, her father's murderer. She goes to collect her father's remains and finds a Marshall to help her track down Chaney and bring him to justice. That Marshall is Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a fat, one-eyed drunk with a reputation for ruthlessness. He wants nothing to do with this child, but she is persistent, eventually getting him on her side. Into the mix is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has also been pursuing Chaney. He and Cogburn believe it is best to leave this work to them, but Mattie will not be denied. They begin the pursuit, and after fighting the Lucky Pepper Gang of which Chaney is part of, LaBoeuf separates from Cogburn and Mattie. However, Mattie finds Chaney (Josh Brolin) almost by accident, and Chaney takes her prisoner with Cogburn in mad pursuit. Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, in one of film's curious coincidences), who has a history with Cogburn, is not pleased how things have turned out, and now him and the three other members of the gang leave Chaney to guard Mattie while they face off with Cogburn in a climatic joust. In the end, we find that a team working together is able to defeat evil. Goals accomplished, with some sacrifices, there is a haunting denouement to True Grit, where an adult Maggie's voice-over tells us, in her distinct voice, how things did end up.

There is something unique in the Coen Brother's version of True Grit...most particularly in that unlike No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man, this movie actually has an ending. I suspect that may be because they weren't working from an original script (although as it has been pointed out to me, No Country For Old Men was also adapted, so it's a bit of hit and miss, ain't it?). From what I've seen, they have made a very straight, almost traditional Western. There are moments of dark Coen humor (for example, when three men early in the film are hanged) and the Coen flashes of violence (particularly when Rooster and Mattie come upon a cabin where the outlaws are headed). However, there is no distinct Coen wackiness: Rooster isn't The Dude or the schmuck from A Serious Man. He is a drunk (and like most drunks in film, has a funny moment where he tries to show how he's still sharp in spite of his inebriation), but he is also a deadly serious character. LaBoeuf is a little more comedic, with his excessive pride in the actions of Texas Rangers, but he can also rise to the occasion.

Both Bridges and Damon give very strong performances both individually where they play off each other, almost as a comedy team mixed with an action duo. Damon mostly remains in an understated comedy role, where LaBoeuf clearly isn't in on the joke that neither Cogburn or Mattie take him too seriously until they see that in spite of his bragging, he actually has some skills. Bridges' Cogburn is similar to Bad Blake from Crazy Heart except that here, he isn't looking for or interested in any kind of redemption, only in getting his man. He gives Rooster a gruffness that belies his intensity. When he faces off against the Pepper Gang, he charges in with an impact that makes it an extremely exciting sequence.

As good as Bridges and Damon are, the heart of the film is Steinfeld. Her Mattie is a strong, direct girl who states her case with a determined and straightforward manner befitting a highly intelligent woman who knows she is always right but doesn't brag about it. She is reminiscent of a young Jodie Foster in how her take on Mattie is: that of a girl who will brook no opposition in her quest for justice, not revenge. She doesn't seek to kill Chaney, but to bring him to trial. It is almost as if she were far more mature than either Cogburn or LaBoeuf, but when she is taken by Chaney and has to be rescued, she is no different than any fourteen-year-old girl who is terrified and knows she cannot escape unaided. Her resolve and determination make me wonder that, while she hired Rooster for his tenacity, it is SHE who has True Grit. It is both the character of Mattie and Steinfeld's performance that holds True Grit together into a strong, intelligent, and entertaining film.

Compliments must be handed out to Roger Deakins' beautiful cinematography. He creates a landscape that is both sparse and beautiful, which are reminiscent of Westerns from their 30s and 50s heyday. The interiors (as when Cogburn gives court testimony early in the film) and exteriors (for example, the haunting final shot of an adult Mattie walking away with her back to us) are rendered with true visual elan. Another highlight is Carter Burwell's score, which blends seamlessly traditional hymns with his own work. I started singing softly to myself What A Friend We Have In Jesus when it is used near the end of True Grit, and these old-time religion songs (to borrow a title) lend a greater authenticity to the film, as if it came not just from a film easily made by a John Ford or Howard Hawks, but from the actual time period.

It's an odd criticism to point out the Coen's dialogue. It was well-written, and it may have come straight from the Curtis novel, but it almost sounded all too grand to be spoken by relatively simple folk. I've never heard anyone, especially a fourteen-year-old girl, refer to people as a "congress of louts". I can believe Mattie is extremely educated, but Cogburn and LaBoeuf don't strike me as having had a great deal of schoolin', so their elevated speaking (LaBoeuf tells them, "Our engagement is terminated", a rather grandiose way of saying, "We're done") strikes an odd tone. I don't object to it; on the contrary, I think quite well of it. It just seemed more akin to a Bernard Shaw adaptation than a Western. Again, this is a minor complaint, and not even that, just a curiosity.

In Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich said the classic line, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly". In the same way, it takes more than one film to change my views on the Coens. True Grit doesn't strike me as a true Coen Brothers film, since their no real offbeat humor running through it...and as I stated, the film actually has an ENDING. Fill your hands, you son of a bitch--I found a Coen Brothers film I actually liked!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Doc In A Box

STORY 216: THE BIG BANG (The Pandorica Open/The Big Bang)

It's all come down to this. For the past eleven stories, we've been treated to a series that involves a gigantic crack in time. How then, do you wrap up the fifth series/season of the revived Doctor Who? Well, by basically throwing everything you can at it: Daleks, Autons, time jumping left/right/center, River Song, and even a wedding (can't end a season without a wedding). The Big Bang concludes an exciting season for Matt Smith's Doctor in his debut, yet I've had a reluctance to write about it. That is a result of when I first saw the two-part The Big Bang (The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang--as is policy in these reviews to give two-part stories ONE title and judge them together), I frankly didn't understand what was going on. I opted to wait until the Fifth Season/Series was released on DVD to re-view the story, and it did clear up some things. A second viewing did improve my feelings for the story, but there were still things that got on my nerves to no end.

We get a bit of a greatest hits from previous stories with cameos from Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran), Sir Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice), River Song (Alex Kingston), and Liz 10 (who should be correctly referred to as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth X: Sophie Okonedo). All of them, connected to The Doctor (Matt Smith), find that they've all been given a message to send to him: a Van Gogh painting discovered by Churchill's men, who calls River and gets her to break into Liz 10's palace to get said painting and show it to the Doctor. The Doctor and Amy Pond (Karen Gilliam), thanks to River's ubiquitous message, "Hello, Sweetie", trace her to Stonehenge when the Romans were in Britannia. Disguised as Cleopatra (or as I lovingly call her, Cleo the Nympho of the River Song Nile), shows them the painting: it is the TARDIS exploding. They discover that beneath Stonehenge there is a chamber, and inside is the fabled Pandorica, a large box containing the most feared thing in all the cosmos. However, a message is emanating from Stonehenge, and a cavalcade of aliens are hovering above them and the Roman garrison, all eager for said box.

Among the Roman soldiers is Rory (Arthur Darvill), who remembers all except how he got to be Roman. He is desperate for Amy to remember him, but she cannot, even after Rory saves her from a Cyberman at Stonehenge (there's a sentence one never thought to write). We eventually find shocking fact after shocking fact: everything the Doctor and River see is from the memories of Amy (the soldiers, the Pandora's box), that the soldiers (including Rory) are in truth Autons, and that all manner of aliens (Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, Judoon, Sontaran, even Silurians) have formed a Grand Alliance to stop the most dangerous being and imprison it within the Pandorica. That most dangerous being is The Doctor. At the end of Part I, Auton Rory has unwillingly killed Amy, River is trapped within the exploding TARDIS, and the Doctor is locked away within the Pandorica.

When we get to Part II, a young Amy (Caitlin Blackwood) is praying to Santa (side note: far be it for anyone to pray to anything resembling God, although in fairness it is suppose to be an alternate world). In this world, there are no stars, yet Amy draws pictures of the sky with them. She then gets a mysterious message telling her to go to the museum, and there she hides past closing time, where The Pandorica (which is an exhibit) opens, to reveal not the Doctor, but Amy--fully alive. We then get treated to the Doctor jumping from Stonehenge, where a devastated Auton Rory (having survived the destruction of all those within the underground chamber by not going when the universe basically collapsed) pledges to protect the Pandorica containing Amy (and which will keep her alive), and the Museum, where he, Auton Rory (having stayed faithfully at Amy's side and now a regular security guard), River (brought out from the exploding TARDIS), and young Amy (up to where the plot required her) attempt to bring about Big Bang 2 (which I loving call the Bigger Bang or Big Bang: The Sequel). This will require the Pandorica (which contains elements of all life) to collide with the exploding TARDIS. It may also mean the end of the Doctor, but he must work fast, since all existence is quickly collapsing upon itself. Once he does, all those damn cracks in time are finally healed, but it will require the Doctor to be on the other side of it.

Amy is restored to her life, but with the benefit that she is no longer an orphan, but with a mom and dad, and a fully alive (and human Rory). The Doctor got her to the church on time, metaphorically. Once she and Rory finally marry, we see a figure very similar to River Song pass by, and Amy is given a mysterious book. She senses that someone should be there, and she remembers from the old adage "Something old, something new, something borrowed...and something blue". Once she (and Rory) recall, the Doctor appears, in full tux and top hat, to join in the festivities, and after the good Doctor and River say their farewells, Mr. and Mrs. Williams join the Doctor in the TARDIS, to begin new adventures.

Steven Moffat has created some wonderful, even beautiful moments, in The Big Bang. The Doctor's speech challenging the various aliens to descend on Stonehenge is one of the best individual moments in Series/Season Five of Doctor Who. Director Toby Haynes maintains a great tension throughtout both parts, and for the most part balances the jumping between the Roman times and the alternate future quite well. Haynes also brought some wonderful performances out of the main cast. I would say the best is Darvill's Rory, who has gone from the being a bit goofy and dumb to a being tormented by having human memories and emotions yet is a being made out of plastic. Never once when he's a Roman/Auton does he play anything for laughs. That mostly comes from Smith, who is in full manic, almost deranged mode when expressing joy or frustration, given he has to be bouncing all over time. Kingston is sexy and adventurous and playful and dangerous and serious as River Song. While at the time of this writing I still have yet to see her debut story (the two-part FOREST OF THE DEAD: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) I can see why she has become such a revered and now-legendary character within the Doctor Who canon.

Where I had problems with The Big Bang, it dealt with when we got to Part II. If one thinks about it, once we had the thrilling endings of Part I (Amy and River dead and the Doctor imprisoned within the Pandorica) we discover that in reality, the Doctor spent actually very little time inside the box. It made the thrilling and terrifying ending of Part I rather moot to my mind. It also brought back memories of the little I saw of another two-part story (JOURNEY'S END: The Stolen Earth/Journey's End). In that one, the then-Doctor (David Tennant) looked as if he were about to regenerate, but all he had to do was focus the regeneration energy into his severed hand which he kept in a glass jar and all is well. I stopped watching right after that. For some reason, it seemed all too convinient, too easy. We had an extremely tense, dangerous situation, and then a quick answer resolved all the tension, sucking all the energy out of the situation. I felt the same thing here: a simple Vortex Manipulator brought along with forethought by River got the Doctor out of the box. If there's one thing I hate, is being teased only to find the end result is less than the sum of its parts.

I also, frankly, hated the wedding, or rather, the dance. I hated Smith's deliverately goofy dancing more than anything else in The Big Bang. It was also as if, after we had gone through all this danger, we were going to plunge into absolute silliness to the point of idiocy. I understand the need to decompress, but this was a bit too much to tolerate. On a more serious point, I know Moffat thrilled to seeing an Axis of Evil joining together to destroy their nemesis, but wouldn't it have been easier to kill the Doctor than imprison him. Here, mainly the Daleks and Cybermen, who have consistently failed to destroy The Oncoming Storm and have also fought against each other (DOOMSDAY: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday), have finally captured the Doctor. Rather than kill him, their solution is to lock him up. No wonder they keep failing: they can't get rid of their competition once and for all when they have the chance. It might have pleased fans to see cameos from other villains, but I just didn't think it made sense. I also wondered why the Silurians popped up when in reality, the Doctor has always tried to help them, or at least in two of the three stories they appeared in (Doctor Who and the Silurians and COLD BLOOD: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. In the third story, Warriors of the Deep, they were the antagonists in league with the Sea Devils, so maybe they only want to kill him when they are allied with other beings. Just a thought).

Overall, The Big Bang kept a strong pace, with great performances out of Darvill and Kingston (Smith at times appeared dowright daft, and Gilliam did an awful lot of crying). Sorry, but Smith's dancing gets points knocked down (I just couldn't take it seriously after that, although the top hat started the descent into idiocy).

The Real Stonehenge. Curiously, I found no boxes there (though not for lack of trying).


Next Story: A Christmas Carol

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Spock


This is a case of 'picking up right where we left off'. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock not only begins right where Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ended, but it also has the added benefit of telling you in the title what the movie is all about. Thus, you already know even before the opening credits what the goal of the film is but if you didn't see Wrath of Khan, you don't have to worry about where you are in the story. Wrath of Khan was certainly a hard act to follow, and Search for Spock is a good follow-up, but in a curious way, while it is the third Star Trek film, it falls somewhere between the first and second in terms of story and tone.

We begin with footage from Wrath of Khan, at the death of Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his funeral aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The crew, still in shock and heartbreak at their comrade's death, head home. However, Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is acting strangely: although there was always an undercurrent of hostility between him and Spock, he is found in Spock's quarters, rambling about having to go Vulcan. As Captain Kirk (William Shatner) tries to make sense of all he's gone through: the death of one friend, the mental instability of another, reconnecting with his illegitimate son Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), and the end of the Enterprise itself, he receives a visit from Spock's father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard). Together, they discover that Spock's katra (the living spirit within each Vulcan--even, it seems, half-human Vulcans like Spock) is not with Kirk, but with the last person he came in contact with: McCoy. The only way to bring Spock back is to go back to Genesis (the planet brought to life by Marcus' Genesis Project) and take his remains and McCoy to Vulcan. Unfortunately, the Genesis planet has been quarantined, but when did that ever stop Kirk and Company? They steal the Enterprise and head straight to Genesis.

On Genesis itself, David and the Vulcan Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis, taking over Kirstie Alley) go to investigate unexpected readings of life forms on the newly created planet. Their ship, the Grissom, is destroyed while they are on Genesis, where they've come across both Spock's now-empty coffin a young Vulcan child. Connected? The Grissom is destroyed by Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), a member of the Federations most intractable foes: THE KLINGONS. They have discovered the Genesis Project, and decide that it would be a perfect weapon for galactic domination. Without knowing anything about what the Enterprise is up to, they beat them to Genesis, taking David, Saavik, and the Vulcan boy hostage. The Klingons are deaf to David's warnings that Genesis is unstable and will soon destroy itself. The Enterprise arrives and there commences a standoff between Kirk and Kruge (side note: Kirk has fought two villains whose name starts with the same initial as his last name successively--Khan and Kruge. I just find that...fascinating. Yet I digress). While eventually Kirk is able to defeat the Klingons, it comes at a very high price for him personally. Still, they manage to recover the Vulcan boy and go to his home world, where the High Priestess T'Lar (Dame Judith Anderson) will attempt to perform Fal-Tor-Pan, a Re-Fusion of Mind and Body (side note: I feel like such a Trekkie noting all this Vulcan vocabulary even though I've seen only three episodes of the Original Series as of this writing). Is it successful? Well, the film ends with "And The Adventure Continues..." so one guess.

Since the actual character of Spock is seen only in the last fifteen of so minutes of Search For Spock, it did give Nimoy the opportunity to direct the film without having to worry too much about acting in it. He makes mostly good use of his film directorial debut when it comes to most of the cast. One strong performance was that of Lenard's Savik. He carried an air of dignity befitting a Vulcan (and given he had played the part on the Original Series, he slipped back into it with the greatest of ease). Of the newer members, Lloyd's Kruge gave the best performance. Lloyd was intense, harsh, and brutal: all qualities needed for a successful Klingon. He played it perfectly straight as a being who will do anything to get what he is after, and if it means killing unarmed non-combatants so be it. Kruge doesn't play games, which makes him a fierce adversary.

Lloyd's sharp performance comes in sharp contrast to far weaker ones. Curtis' Saavik to my mind seemed only human as a Vulcan. She couldn't seem to master the lack of emotion Vulcans have, especially since while never stated openly, there are hints that Saavik and David were on very intimate terms. Butrick's David was also a non-entity in Search for Spock, as if he were almost bored and ready to move on in his career. Nothing will ever shake Shatner's particular line-readings. When he says to Savek, "What you difficult", it shows Shatner is up to his (very) old tricks of pausing between lines for no reason other than more camera time. The worst performance was Scott McGinnis, who was on screen for less than five minutes as 'Mr. Adventure', a young crewman who Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) has to disarm to allow the crew to steal the Enterprise. He left the biggest impression because it was so emotionless, so dull, so weak, especially when compared to Lloyd's. (Side note: future Night Court star John Larroquette was completely unrecognizable as Klingon Maltz. Wonder if he goes to any conventions?)

Unfortunately, Kruge would have been better served if he had been the primary antagonist in another Star Trek film. In Search for Spock, a lot that is shown in the hour and forty-five minutes (although it felt longer) appears almost incidental to the central story. I couldn't shake the feeling that the Klingons, the Daleks of the Star Trek mythos, were thrown in by Harve Bennett's screenplay because A.) the Trekkies demanded it, and B.) the Enterprise needed complications on Genesis to fulfill the main point of Search for Spock (namely, bringing Spock/his body to Vulcan). It's as if Bennett and Nimoy decided it would be too easy for the Enterprise crew to dash away from Federation HQ and go to Genesis; they needed an antagonist, possibly from the television series, to add another level of difficulty to the actual search. Somehow, a planet about to implode isn't a big enough crisis. In short, the Klingon wasn't important because they weren't actually fighting against them, merely trying to remove them from the more central situation.

Search for Spock, under Nimoy, appears to veer close to that reverential, hushed tone that so doomed The Motion Picture, as if the audience should all be in awe and aware of just how serious, how important both the situation and the film itself are. You can tell because there is little to no sense of urgency from nearly everyone (with the possible exception of the Klingons themselves, who are desperate to get their hands on the Genesis Project they've stumbled across). There was no sense of real tension when the Enterprise makes a run from the Federation (perhaps coming from the fact that I had already guessed that "Scottie"--James Doohan--had already sabotaged the pursuing Excelsior. Side note: I shall ALWAYS HATE Doohan's broad, broad, broad Scottish brogue). When those aboard both the Grissom and the Enterprise are facing destruction, there doesn't seem to be any real hint of danger or even anxiety by those on the ship. Instead, it almost appears that they are all saying to themselves, 'well, the ship is about to be blown up, try to act like you're a bit concerned'. The battle between the Klingon Bird of Prey (with its cloaking ability--well rendered, granted) and the Enterprise was good, but not great, nothing to make it rise to the epic battle from Wrath of Khan.

Nimoy, to his detriment, didn't capitalize on certain moments that could have become iconic. The fan base is treated to several moments that would have been especially traumatic or heartbreaking, but there was no sense of shock or awe (to coin a phrase). We see the end of an important piece of Star Trek iconography, but when shown on screen it almost looks boring. When an important character is killed, not only is it mostly off-screen to where it is almost invisible, but the reaction by those immediately connected looks almost comic. We never get the sense that he is impacted greatly by this person's death. Whatever pathos there could be in Search for Spock is swallowed up by having to go back to concentrating on the central objective of the crew when we as the audience were steered into taking this sidetrack by the film in the first place.

Also, the actual Re-Fusion ceremony could have provided some great moments of drama and visual splendor; while Dame Judith Anderson did the best she could as the High Priestess one couldn't help suppress the giggles at the actual Fal-Tor-Pan ceremony on Vulcan, a planet that has this vaguely Egyptian-style motif in its decor with hints of Shintoism. Finally, while Nimoy could have done more with McCoy's struggle of having Spock live within him (and at a bar scene Kelley shows hints of how Spock's thinking interferes with his own), for most of Search for Spock Kelley is playing Bones, not Spock trapped within Bones' mind. What could have been a showcase for Kelley playing two parts was almost forgotten except for two scenes, as if Bones would be unrecognizable if he tried to do Spock as well as Bones.

Finally, I will state yet again how much I hate it when a film violates one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel. In Search for Spock, they all but tell us to wait for Part IV.

The Vulcan saying is, "The needs of the many outway the needs of the few, or the one". I would have liked it if Search for Spock had used that axiom as the guiding light to the film: the needs of the many (general movie audiences) outway the needs of the few (Trekkies). Still, while not on the same level as Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock has enough within it to make it if not a great film, a film with good things in it. Obviously, the Star Trek franchise will most definitely Live Long and Prosper.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tales of A City


*Author's note: The screening of Metropolis I attended had the score written and performed live by the Alloy Orchestra. At the time, we were informed that their original score would be included in the re-release of Metropolis on DVD. Unfortunately, as I understand it the owners of the rights to Metropolis opted to go with the original score written in 1927 by Gottfried Huppertz. One can go about hearing it in a roundabout way merely by synchronizing their music to the video. Normally, I'm a stickler for seeing a film as shown, and I would recommend listening to Huppertz's score, but after hearing the Alloy Orchestra's version, which I think is brilliant, I would opt for their score.

How can it be that a film could survive for close to a hundred years undiscovered within the bowels of a South American archive? Frankly, that is an academic question (an important one, granted), because now, Metropolis, one of the Great Films of All Time, is now here, at last, as close to how Fritz Lang envisioned it, and even now, few films are available to capture the lavishness, the epic nature, the dazzling visuals of Metropolis.

Now in this two-and-a-half hour version (I would like to point out that Metropolis is about the same length as most Harry Potter films), we have a richer, deeper, more grand story than we've seen in any other version. The film speaks on the coming mechanization of the Twentieth Century, of how man will be subjugated to machines, and how some will be pushed down while a few will enjoy the fruits of their labor. However, it isn't a boring lecture on workers' rights, but a thrilling visual feast with the central theme stated openly: The Mediator Between the Head and Hand MUST Be The Heart.

Freder (Gustav Frohlich), is the son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), Head of Metropolis. As a child of privilege, he like his fellow citizens above ground, knows nothing of how Metropolis is kept running. The hidden hand is of the mass of workers slaving beneath the city, keeping the powerful machines running while they are virtual slaves. One day, a beautiful woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) appears in Freder's world, taking a group of worker children with her. Freder becomes entranced with Maria, and he goes into the underworld to follow her. Here, he sees the horrors the workers endure, as well as the message of peace and hope Maria gives them. Freder tells his father of what he's learned, but Fredersen is dismissive of his son's concerns. Freder, we learn, indeed knows of the dark heart of this paradise. He goes to the Mad Genius of Metropolis (who happens to be his father-in-law, or at the very least the mother of Fredersen's son), Rotwang (Rudolf Klien-Rogge). To create dissension between the workers, he shows Fredersen his latest creation, a robot that through his genius takes on the shape of Maria.

Meanwhile, as Freder learns of what is going on beneath Metropolis, he takes the place of Worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), who now goes above ground and witnesses the decadence of Metropolis itself, especially the pleasure district of Yoshiwara. The False Maria urges revolution and a violent overthrow of those above and drives the men who live in Metropolis itself to heights of lust with her Danse Erotique, while the True Maria is taken prisoner by Rotwang. The Mad Inventor has a secret agenda: blaming Fredersen for his daughter's death, he plans to destroy all Metropolis: above and below. When the workers decide to overthrow their overlords, they abandon the machines, and thus they soon start to fall apart. Those who live above ground become so insane with merriment they do not care about anything. In the chaos of revolution, the children of the workers are forgotten, but soon the water pumps start erupting, threatening all the children with drowning. The True Maria and Freder find each other in time to rescue them, and the workers seize the False Maria and burn her at the stake. Rotwang recaptures the True Maria and takes her to the cathedral. Freder rescues her, and at the end of the revolution, worker and management realize, through Maria's intervention, that the Mediator Between Brain and Hand MUST Be the Heart.

Metropolis builds up the visuals to heights remarkable today, let alone in 1927 when it premiered in Germany. Take for example when Maria is captured. The imagery is both brilliant and terrifying when she is taken. Another example is when the False Maria emerges from the robot. It also comes when we have an analogy to the Creation of The Tower of Babel, when we are shown how man continues to repeat the same folly. The title cards tell us as much:

One man's hymns of praise became another man's curses.

Lang not only captures us visually, but also (along with screenwriter and then-wife Thea von Harbau) a story that is still relevant today: how some labor unseen while others obliviously benefit from their work, and how machinery can overwhelm the humanity each person has at birth. Take when we first see the workers: they shuffle slowly, heads down, in lock formation, one group to their machines, one group to their homes beneath Metropolis. The imagery immediately captures us and at the same time is one every worker can relate to. This is counterpoint to how we see the Club of The Sons, a garden of earthly and carnal delights.

Somehow in Metropolis, Lang manages to make the machinery so massive and overwhelming that in one powerful scene, it actually devours the workers, who then having been sacrificed can easily be replaced. When we go to the False Maria's Erotic Dance for the Sons of Metropolis, it becomes visual spectacle. The action in Metropolis builds and builds as the situation in the film becomes more and more out of control, culminating in the not just a thrilling conclusion (will the children survive the flood? will the revolution destroy all Metropolis? will the True Maria survive?) but manages to give us both a peaceful and satisfying conclusion.

I will grant that at times the acting in Metropolis may appear to Twenty-First Century eyes a bit wild and exaggerated. In many silent films that should be forgiven, but I want to stick up for Helm's performance. She had to play two characters: the gentle and loving True Maria and the wicked, decadent False Maria. With the False Maria, she has to do two things: create fiery revolution with the workers, passionate lust with the Club of Sons. That she manages to do all that without speaking is a sheer acting tour de force.

Let me now speak of the restored version. With nearly half-hour's worth of new footage, we get a deeper, richer story. For example, we never saw what Worker 11811 saw once Freder took his place. Now we can, and his adventures in Yoshiwara give us a greater insight into the world Metropolis is. The same can be said for Josaphat (Theodor Loos), Fredersen's assistant who is nearly driven to suicide because he does not keep Freder in check. Admittedly, it becomes quickly clear which scenes are the newly-discovered ones: they are the ones that looked scratchy compared to the rest of Metropolis. However, while perhaps at first that might prove distracting, soon one quickly accepts it to where by the end of the film, one has thoroughly forgotten about it and it becomes a non-issue.

The effects of Metropolis are still being felt, from other innovative films like Blade Runner right down to how we must be vigilant that in order to achieve certain goals, the human element is taken into account. It is a visually amazing film with relevant themes: in short, a thorough masterpiece. Metropolis, now restored, rises to greater heights. Hands, Head, Hearts--although we are missing Health (and a few more minutes of the film), each part and viewer will be completely satisfied.