Saturday, January 30, 2010

Buckled Up And Ready to Go: All About Eve Review (Review #41)



ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

There are few things as flat-out pleasurable as seeing people at the top of their game. It is a joy to behold people who know what they are doing and do it so well. This is the case with All About Eve, a malicious yet truthful look into human nature and folly. The setting is the theatrical world of Broadway, but one aspect of the genius behind the film is that we can see that the "actors" are much closer to people we know than we might care to admit.

The film takes place at the Sarah Siddons Awards dinner with three narrations telling the backstory of how we got to this night. The primary narration is taken between theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) and Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a playwright's wife, with Margo Channing (Bette Davis) narrating once. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a girl who has attended every performance of diva extraordinaire Margo but who is a shrinking violet in reality, too afraid to meet her idol. Thanks to an invite from Karen, Eve soon becomes part of this world where the theater and the theatrical are interchangeable. However, Eve is much more than the sweet, always eager-to-please war widow. You see, she's also an aspiring actress, one with burning ambition, and one who thinks she'd be PERFECT for a part written for someone else...

What makes All About Eve stand out is that everything in it just works so smoothly it looks almost effortless. Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz creates a world where people use words as weapons and a single put-down can cut to the core. The script is one of if not the wittiest, sharpest, shrewdest one written. Mankiewicz has the patience to let the story tell itself. Rather than rush everything or worse, have everything explained to us, he allows the dialogue to carry the film and give us an insight into the characters. More important, he TRUSTS that we will be able to keep up with the story. He also has a great ear for dialogue and attention to how intelligent people speak. During a verbal fight that Lloyd and Margo have over Eve and even after he leaves, Margo continues to use the phrase "fire and music", which Lloyd used to describe what Eve had done. I find it's human nature to repeat certain words and phrases that get at people, and here, Mankiewicz makes the dialogue both intelligent and realistic.

Take, for example, the opening. We hear the cynicism of Addison and the sincerity of Karen not just by WHAT they say but HOW they say it, from their voice and choice of words. All the praise being heaped on Eve is counter-set by the reactions of DeWitt, Channing, her beau/director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Karen, and Karen's playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Here, we quickly establish that it's not what others might think about Eve that is the truth, but what this particular group knows and says about her. There are brilliant bits of dialogue throughout the film, such as when Margo confesses (albeit a bit drunkenly) about her fears on turning 40, or the fight between Margo and Lloyd, or when Margo discusses (soberly) what it's like to be a woman with a career, between the persona of Margo Channing and the person who is Margo Channing.



The meatiest dialogue goes to Addison DeWitt. His name alone explains what kind of person he is: a sharp man who is far too smart for himself and those around him. Few people have been so gleefully malicious and snide, contemptuous of people and also understanding of how people's need for applause or love can make them do all sorts of terrible things to others. He also is cynical of almost everything and everyone. When his protogé Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles) bombs the audition, he encourages her to go into television. "Do they have auditions in television?" she asks. "That's ALL television is. Nothing but auditions", he tells her. We all wish we were that sharp and witty. Certainly, I wish I were that sharp and witty. In fact, if you listen to all the characters speak, you find that they all have something clever to say about each other, or themselves, or their various situations.

Another aspect of All About Eve that sets it apart from most films is the acting. It's rare when you get one or two great performances in the same film, but when you get ALL the major players in the cast to be brilliant, it has to be a cinematic miracle. George Sanders brings a vocal sneer to DeWitt, someone who has a great opinion of himself because he knows who he is and is entirely unapologetic about it. Marlowe makes Lloyd the perfect dupe in Eve's machinations, and Merrill brings a realistic approach to Bill Simpson as someone who isn't impressed or taken in by the subterfuge of the theater and its world but who sees it as a job like any other.

Of course, this film is dominated by the women, and what women they cast. Karen could have come off as stupid or naive, but Holm makes her a sincere friend to everyone she meets but one unafraid to tell people what she thinks. Even she is not above a touch of cynicism, as when she assures Eve she'll get Lloyd and Bill to let her be Margo's understudy by telling her, "They'll do as they're told".

Baxter's Eve makes her metamorphosis from sincere, sweet, kind, girl to...fill in the blank (here's a hint: it rhymes with 'stitch'). She holds the audience in wait, making us wonder who Eve really is, perhaps even up to the end of the film. In her surface kindness that hides a heart of mud, Baxter holds our attention, devouring anyone who stands in her way until she meets her match in DeWitt, nobody's fool.  It's a truly pitch-perfect performance.

The highlight, however, has to be Bette Davis as Margo Channing. One can make a case that Davis was playing a version of herself: the tempermental yet vulnerable actress who fears she might lose everything and have nothing left...except a book full of clippings. However, she creates a well-written character and make her real. We know Margo as a woman who loves being an actress, who loves Bill, but who while knowing she is a great star and great actress is still a woman who wants a man she fears may leave, especially now that she's hit a critical age of 40. Her discussion about this to Lloyd is a remarkable dramatic turn, one where Davis lets her guard down and has us totally sympathize with a person as opposed to the persona she may come off as. Margo Channing, however, is no wimp. She knows how to take it, and when she says good-bye to Eve it's one of the finest kiss-offs in film.

There are a few odd bits in All About Eve. For example, there's Thelma Ritter as Margo's dresser/assistant/confidant Birdie Coonan. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but curiously she disappears completely after Bill's birthday party with no explanation for her departure. There is also the scene where Addison and Eve leave the Shubert Theater in New Haven, which is obviously fake. The latter is a minor detail, a bit of 50's film-making, while the former is something not so easily dismissed.

At the end of All About Eve, we get the sense that Eve may eventually get what she deserves, but we also get the sense that Mankiewicz is making a commentary about celebrity. Margo is an ACTUAL ACTRESS, someone who while at times difficult can always be counted to be professional where it's important and who knows it's her job to be good. Eve, on the other hand, appears to want a theatrical career for the applause serving as a substitute for love. She wants to be a star, but has the talent to back it up. As for Phoebe (and all her mirror images--you'll have to see it to have that explained), it appears that fame for fame's sake is something that didn't originate with reality television and Youtube.

You have great acting in All About Eve. You have great dialogue in All About Eve (the line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night", has become part of the vernacular). You have a story that has recognizable people in All About Eve. In short, you have an extraordinary film that you shouldn't be afraid of. It's well worth the ride.


DECISION: A +

1951 Best Picture: An American In Paris


There are more Essentials, as well as The Best Picture Winners Collection.

Friday, January 29, 2010

2009 Oscar Suggestions



In a few days, the nominees for the 82th Annual Academy Awards will be announced. I'd like to take a moment to make my own recommendations. Whether they will be taken or not I cannot say. However, it would be nice to hear the following names in the following categories.


BEST PICTURE

UP*

Now with the Academy opening up the Big Prize to 10 nominees (which I still think is a mistake), I can hope that the members will pick an ACTUALLY GOOD film to their ranks. To date, only one animated film has received a Best Picture nomination: Beauty & The Beast in 1990. The Pixar line has produced many excellent films, yet they are segregated to the Animated Feature category. Let my cartoons in! UP had it all: that sweet mixture of comedy and heart, and frankly, I liked it much better than No Country for Old Men.

(500) Days of Summer

True, it did bill itself as the non-love story. It also has the tough luck of being a COMEDY, a genre not generally liked by the Academy. We have to go back to Shakespeare In Love to find a comedic Best Picture, and even that is still filled with controversy. As it stands, (500) Days of Summer is the most truthful film about love/romance made in quite some time. In an age of Leap Year and When In Rome, why are people so willing to go for cookie-cutter films that don't require thinking when people make romantic comedies that are honest...even with the musical number.

District 9*

It's Avatar all the time. Yes, it's a cool-looking picture, and now it has its cult audience who think it's the Greatest Film Ever Made (damn that Citizen Kane). While these kids are moping about how terrible it is that they can't live in Pandora (here's a suggestion: try a commune), the intelligence and intensity of District 9 is being left in the dust. Cameron wants DESPERATELY to have his opus be this intelligent allegory about the destruction of the planet due to man's greed and how the military has always destroyed the beauty of the native peoples, but it doesn't work because as in almost all Cameron films, he's far too enamored of the visuals to go into a deep story. District 9, on the other hand, managed to do both: great science-fiction and great allegory, a remarkable balancing act.


BEST ACTOR
Joseph Gordon-Levitt {(500) Days of Summer}

I'll be the first to say that his turn in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra could do to any chance he has what Norbit did for Eddie Murphy's chances for Dreamgirls. However, his performance as the eternally lovelorn man was remarkably real, and in a way more challenging because we aren't accustomed to seeing MEN be vulnerable in romances. He's a star on the rise, and with a bit of luck could achieve the level of an Edward Norton or Ryan Gosling.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Zack Galifianakis (The Hangover)

No, this is not a joke. I'm being completely serious. Maybe I just have a penchant for comedy this year, but I feel that The Hangover would not have been as successful without Galifianakis' wonderful turn as Alan. Let's be frank: his "Wolf Pack" speech will be quoted by guys from now to eternity, and it takes a great amount of talent to pull off a character that could have been seen as just insane, but in his hands was both insane and endearing. Besides, just how many comedic performances have actually won? I can go back to Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, but does Roberto Benini in Life Is Beautiful count AS a comedy?

Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes)

I didn't think much of the film. In fact, I thought it a sorry disappointment. One of the few things that were good in Sherlock Holmes were the performances of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes & Watson. Is Downey a contender for a nomination? I think so, but I'm going with Law only because it's harder to play second fiddle (no pun intended), and he, along with Downey, did it so well it almost made me give it a positive rating. Almost.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Hans Zimmer (Sherlock Holmes)*
There were few things I liked about Sherlock Holmes. I've mentioned two, now to the third. No, I'm not a Zimmer fan, but I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes' score: it was jaunty and fun--two things the film itself was not.

Michael Giacchino (UP)**

When I saw UP, the beautiful score did what all great film scores do: draw you into the film without drawing attention to itself and distracting you from the visuals. Giacchino's score was to me reminiscent of Victor Young's score for Around the World in 80 Days, which curiously also involved soaring high over the world in a balloon. Don't that beat all.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS


Yes, Avatar will WIN this category. That, I grant you, will be a deserved one. However, Star Trek did what so few visual/special effects films do nowadays: not drown you in what they can do but instead on what is necessary to the film. Imagine that: a film where the effects serve the story rather than the other way round?


Well, those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I encourage any other suggestions. Though I hope against hope for some of these (while others are a good bet), we'll see when the nominations are announced February 2nd.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Undertow (2004) Review (Review #40)



UNDERTOW

I've heard the phrase "Southern Gothic" but have never quite understood what it meant. I have a feeling Undertow is as close to mixing what I know to be a Gothic story (dark, violent, elements of the supernatural), within the setting of the American South.

Chris (Jamie Bell, aka Billy Elliot) is a rudderless teen, filled with anger about his life situation. He lives with his brother Tim (Devon Alan) and his father, John (Dermot Mulroney) in what I can describe as somewhere east of Deliverance. They moved there after John's wife Audrey died. Each copes with the situation in a different way: John by shutting down emotionally, Chris by being a bit of an Artful Dodger (without the singing or dancing), and Tim by not eating regular food but going for mud. THE KID ACTUALLY ATE MUD! Chris can't stay out of trouble with the law, and appears to be more like his uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) who comes to their home shortly after leaving prison. At the risk of giving a spoiler, there is a reason why Chris is more like his uncle than his father. You figure it out.

It's clear from the onset that Deel's a bad influence. As it is in these stories, Deel's not there to really get his life back on track. You see, Deel & John's father had a collection of gold Mexican coins, which he got from a mysterious ferryman many years ago. Deel now wants the coins, or at least his share. John believes the coins are cursed and refuses to hand them over to anyone. One day, while John is away, Deel goes on a frantic hunt for them--finding them behind a portrait of John & his family. John finds him and all the years of resentment between them finally come to a head. Audrey, it seems, had been Deel's girl before cheating on him with John. All right, do the math. As Cain slew Abel... Now, Deel's after the only witnesses, and the boys find themselves on the run.

 

One gets the sense while watching Undertow that director and co-writer David Gordon Green was going for something far grander than his abilities were able to pull off. What was attempted was a meditation on the nature of greed. What the result ended up being was a familiar story with a hillbilly accent. If he hadn't been too fond of unnecessary artistic touches (such as freeze-frames that added nothing to the plot) or just plain weird elements (as in Alan eating mud or Bell sucking a pig's tit) he would have had a better film.

The performances raise the enterprise considerably. Bell is desperate to be considered an ACTOR rather than just Billy Elliot, and he did a masterful job in having an extremely convincing American Southern accent...not since Vivien Leigh went to Tara has an British actor done the South proud. He was able to match Lucas' impressive turn as the bad-seed Deel. In another person's hands Deel could have become a parody of a hick ex-con, but Lucas creates both a person and the embodiment of an angry, soulless, dangerous man who will kill anyone (and I mean anyone) to get what he wants.

Even some of the smaller parts are done well. Though she appears only briefly, Shiri Appleby (whom I shall always love from Roswell) as a homeless girl gave a memorable performance. I even marvelled at Kristen Stewart as Chris' love interest--though her limited screen time makes it difficult to gauge if she is as limited an actress as Twilight and New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) make her out to be. I even suspect that composer Phillip Glass (a genius as far as I'm concerned) had some fun writing music for the banjo.

However, there really isn't much in Undertow as a film. Though it's only about 90+ minutes it felt far, far longer. In spite of the Southern setting it came close to being a parody of the South. Undertow even came complete with Deliverance-type men...to where I wonder why they didn't comment on Lucas' pretty mouth. The plot point of the "cursed" coins was unnecessary, as if they were trying for some sort of symbolism that didn't pan out. Neither did questions about Chris' identity. And frankly yes, the eating of mud and the sucking of a pig's tit is NOT something people should be clamoring to see. Finally, not one but TWICE do we have characters making rather miraculous reappearances. That is just plain cheating.

Ultimately, Undertow has some very good performances but there really isn't enough to make it as great a film as it thought it could be. Still, I suppose it's better to literally suck on a pig than be force to squeal like one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I Do Declare. Independence Day: A Review

 INDEPENDENCE DAY


Science-fiction films can be one of two things: an allegory of social issues or just wild & fun entertainment. They can be both, but if they're going to be one or the other they should have the courage of their convictions and go for it. Independence Day goes for the latter in a big way, and it mostly succeeds.

ID4, as it's sometimes known, takes place over the course of three days: July 2-4. Day One has the approach of alien ships that hover over the major cities of the world, three in the United States: New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. During the course of this day, we are introduced to a vast cavalcade of characters.

In NYC, we have Julius and David Levinson (Judd Hirsh and Jeff Goldblum), a Jewish widower and his son. Washington has President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), General Grey (Robert Loggia), the President's Communications Director Constance Spano (Margaret Colin), and the First Daughter (Mae Whitman). In the California section, there is Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith), his girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox), crop-dusting pilot (and ex-alien abductee) Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and First Lady Marilyn Whitmore (Mary McDonnell). All are living out their lives with varying degrees of success while these ships dominate the skies. Only David, an M.I.T. educated cable technician, realizes that the interruption of satellite signals worldwide is a countdown to an alien attack, but by the time he's able to inform the President, the aliens launch a massive attack, with all our characters barely escaping the onslaught....with varying degrees of success.

Day Two has the counter-attack by the humans, which fails, and with Air Force One going to Area 51. There, they are met by Area 51 Commander Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin, who for most of the movie I confused with Bill Paxton), and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner). Meanwhile, Capt. Hiller manages to capture one of the monsters (giving the immortal line, "Welcome to Earth" right after punching this most illegal of aliens), and gets aid in taking him to the now-not-so-secret base with the help of Casse. In another part of the country, Jasmine discovers a badly injured First Lady and thinks Hiller is dead when coming to his own base, which has been destroyed. The alien comes alive and declares through a captured Okun that there will be no peace.

Day Three has the final attack: a computer virus that David and Hiller will place inside the mother ship while on Area 51 there is a coordinated strategy that involves all the nations joining forces to defeat the extra-terrestrial menace.

 

Overall, Independence Day is extremely sprawling as it weaves vast storylines together. It does make them fit mostly well, though at times there were story elements that I found unnecessary. Having Casse's son be sick with a rare disease--a touch too much. Having Casse himself be a somewhat defeated drunk--a touch too much. Having a dying First Lady--a touch too much (though given the film was made in 1996, perhaps the fact that the First Lady at the time was Hillary Clinton might have been at the back of everyone's mind). Having Dr. Okun be a wild-haired wild-eyed wacky scientist with little clue to what's going on outside--a touch too much.

The performances were also varied, sometimes for good and other times for ill. Hirsh's Levinson came off as Jackie Mason's befuddled cousin. All I can say for the interaction between Hirsh and everyone he shared the screen with is that a little Hebraic humor goes a long way. Pullman's Whitmore was remarkably stoic throughout the film. One got the sense he had the looks of a President but not the passion of one. His speech to the fliers before their final assault is NOT one for the ages. In fact, I found it one of the worst-delivered "inspirational" speeches ever given by a world leader. It won't be remembered along with Kennedy's Inaugural or Reagan's at the Berlin Wall.

I know I'm in the minority on the Independence Day speech, for many love it and think it's among the great bits of monologue in history (and can quote it verbatim).  For me, I wasn't overwhelmed, but there it is.

A curious side-note: President Whitmore, an ex-Air Force pilot himself (what a coincidence!), would be the first President to personally lead troops into battle since Washington during the Whiskey Rebellion. Use that info any way you wish, but I digress.

You also had two major love stories playing out: between Hiller and Jasmine and between David and Connie. Smith and Fox managed to weave their story well, bringing realistic performances of two people desperately in love. Goldblum and Colin, on the other hand, played their love story in a quite detached manner. While the former said their lines as if they came from their hearts, the latter said their lines as if they came from their scripts. Smith in particular managed to be both an action star and a developing actor of depth in Independence Day, bringing his natural charm but also adding a sincerity and intelligence to the romantic aspects of the film.

There are fun parts to the film, such as how writers Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich (producer and director respectively as well) tied in the Roswell Incident, or how Morse code came back in vogue, but again, too many coincidences clutter the film. Quaid being an ex-abductee, Pullman being an ex-Air Force pilot--one wonders whether they were needed. You also have a brief moment where we are made to realize we are all one, when Israeli pilots come face to face with Iraqi pilots as they prepare to attack the true common enemy. If we could only get along...

Still, that's being nit-picky. Independence Day has one goal: to bring entertaining action and arresting visual effects. It does that well, and it is extremely entertaining with the length not being too much to take in, although it could have been trimmed. It is a great film to be entertained by, pulling the emotional strings effectively and leaving you cheering for "our" victory over the invaders who would kill us all. Whether the "our" is humanity itself or Americans in particular is irrelevant...we won! Independence Day delivers on its promise, and we do get fireworks. However, I STILL think Adam Baldwin looks like Bill Paxton.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

8 1/2 Off. A Review of Nine



NINE

As I watched Nine, I wondered if it were possible to get anything out of it without having any knowledge of 8 1/2, the Federico Fellini film on which the musical is based on. It is highly likely that many in the audience have not seen or even heard of 8 1/2 or of Fellini. I think that a musical version of any project should stand on its own and be its own creation rather than imitation of its source. For example, My Fair Lady stands independent from Pygmalion, and one doesn't have to have read or seen Oliver Twist to get anything from Oliver!. That being the case, I will ignore the source material and review the film presented to me without drawing on 8 1/2.

Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a brilliant Italian director who's facing a creative crisis: he doesn't know what his next movie, Italia, will be about. Bereft of ideas, he dodges reporter's questions, evades responsibilities to his crew and producers while trying to juggle his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and mistress (Penelope Cruz). As he keeps trying to work himself up TO work, his life starts floating into a series of big musical numbers revolving around the various women in his life: his wife, his mistress, his artistic muse (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer Lilli (Dame Judi Dench), an American reporter (Kate Hudson), his earliest sexual fantasy (Black Eyed Peas frontwoman Fergie), and his mother (Sophia Loren).

Just before yet another musical number, Day-Lewis' character asks Kidman's in his determined Italian accent, "Why is everyone suddenly interested in the script?" Pity no one asked director Rob Marshall that.

Marshall, who helmed the first musical in more than thirty years to win Best Picture (Chicago), plays the same parlor tricks with Nine, but he failed to recognize what I call The Rex Rule. Named after Rex Harrison, the rule is: You can try a particular or unique approach to film ONCE. For example, Rex Harrison could get away with starring in a musical film without actually singing (My Fair Lady). It helped that he originated the role on Broadway and that he was backed by the musical creative genius of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

When he tried to "talk in pitch" again in Doctor Doolittle, the results were an unhappy and excessive disaster--with only Talk to the Animals being worth anything.

In the same way, Marshall was able to take a creative approach to a musical by, instead of integrating the songs into the story itself, they were all taking place inside the main character's mind. This worked in Chicago because the film never lost its focus on Roxie Hart with only two songs (All That Jazz and Nowadays) being performed in "reality". Also, it helps when you have the musical genius of John Kander and Fred Ebb behind you.

Marshall tried to do the same thing here, but it doesn't work because EVERYONE gets to sing a song, and most of them are about Guido. When something takes place in one's mind, you can have one set. When you are as self-centered as Roxie Hart is, it's no surprise to have characters sing songs about YOU. When you have so many numbers, why limit yourself to one set? When everyone sings songs almost exclusively ABOUT Guido (including Guido), it just comes off as narcissistic.

Each song is a literal showstopper in that the show literally HAS TO STOP in order to perform the song. The trick in a GOOD musical is to have the songs flow naturally into the dialogue, making it almost natural for characters to sing and dance. Conversely in Nine, all the songs are rammed in just to give each performer a chance to belt out a number. Even that could be forgiven if the songs were brilliant, but it's highly unlikely that people will be singing songs like A Call From The Vatican or Cinema Italiano.  They're not terrible songs, merely not on the same level as Lerner & Lowe or Rogers & Hammerstein.

The actors all have surprisingly good voices but overall they can't carry the tunes to the heights they aspire to. Guido's Song (sung by Guido) made me smile due to Day-Lewis keeping totally in character with his valiant accent while doing aerobatics. There is something pleasurable in watching someone as artistically pretentious as Daniel Day-Lewis look so utterly and completely foolish.


I admit to being taken by surprise when Dench went into a song-and-dance (Follies Bergères) but was much better than I would have imagined. While it is wonderful to see Sophia Loren again, she didn't have much to do in the film.

That, I think, is what is at the heart of what's wrong with Nine: all the characters exist ONLY to give one song, then they are free to leave. None of the many, many women in Guido's life add much if anything to the overall story of a creative man's lack of creativity...or work ethic. One never LIKES Guido because he doesn't come off as talented, let alone this genius, just as a guy with too much time on his hands and too lazy/irresponsible to do anything except go after women.

Curiously, EVERY woman that sings to/about Guido WANTS Guido...except Lilli and Mamma. A better title to the film would have been Guido's Girls, since we don't touch on his writer's block but go into his sexual fantasies and proclivities. In fact, listening to Hudson's lyrics about Contini's films in Cinema Italiano, I got the impression that a Contini film would be a shallow one, if all they could remember were "guys with skinny little ties and shades they wear at night". Contini himself comes off as shallow in the same song, when she keeps singing "Guido/Guido/Guido/Guido/Guido/Guido" (those are the actual lyrics).

Cotillard's English has improved since last we saw her in Public Enemies, and her first song (My Husband Makes Movies) was pleasant while her second (Take It All) was like an audition for Showgirls: The Musical.

Worse was Cruz, who looked as if she was in Showgirls. A Call From The Vatican was very whorish and it came off as an embarrassing stripper number. While it may fulfill many an erotic fantasy and be the cause of men performing auto-erotic exercises, it makes her look tawdry and cheap. When you had an actual song about a whore (Be Italian) sung by pop star Fergie, it crystallized what was wrong with this picture: a director more interested in the visual spectacle he was making rather than in an actual story. Finally, I HATED the ending: everyone coming together to watch Guido return to film-making and it being a "personal/intimate" film called...NINE!

The performances are above average but not remarkable. The songs have flash but no substance and aren't memorable. The visuals are interesting but not extraordinary. Nine, in short, doesn't add up to much. It does answer the question: What would Penelope Cruz be doing if she weren't in movies? She'd be a Las Vegas stripper.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Regarding Remakes, Reimaginings, & Reboots




I've heard it said that Hollywood is completely devoid of ideas. I still have a great hope that this is not the case. However, two new films (Nine, based on 8 1/2, and a new version of Clash of the Titans) are making me revisit an aspect of this issue: the remake.

Unlike others, I have no problem with remakes. You can have great remakes of great films: the 1959 Ben-Hur is a remake of the 1925 silent version, and both Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock remade their own films (The Ten Commandments and The Man Who Knew Too Much respectively). I'm not enough of a purist to demand no one ever touch an old film and see what he/she can do with the story. Whether it's a good idea or whether the new film actually works is another question. The best thing to do in these cases is simply watch BOTH versions and decide to see which one pales next to the other. It really doesn't matter which one is seen first.

I know people who've seen the remake (or re-imagining) of Planet of the Apes first but declared the original the winner, and conversely thought Disturbia was better than Rear Window (even if the former was never an "official" remake of the latter).

Now, there is a question of semantics. There are film-makers who are afraid of the term "remake". Instead, they like to use a new term, "re-imagining". The difference between a remake and a re-imagining is that in a remake, you're telling a story already told while in a re-imagining you're telling a story already told but you want people to pretend the first version doesn't exist. These two are not to be confused with a "reboot", which is when we're suppose to ignore the versions that came before so that the story can start from scratch.



Here are examples of each:
  • A.) Remake: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) & Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). The story is basically the same (albeit with a few changes to reflect the times), and they acknowledge the original by giving Kevin McCarthy (the star of the original) a cameo role.
  • B.) Re-imagining: Psycho (1960) and Psycho (1998). This is a curious case because the new version was made to be a shot for shot copy of the original, but we were told that we were NOT take into consideration Hitchcock's film. Instead, we were to treat the Gus Van Sant version as if it were an original film. Let me make this clear: they weren't denying the original version, merely presenting the new version as if it were a new film.
  • C.) Reboot: Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005). The first four Batman films were part of a larger story. When Batman Begins was released, we had to forget the first four ever existed. This is the same theory (in a roundabout way) between something like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and all the films up to Star Trek: Nemesis and the 2009 Star Trek. I imagine this is also how they will handle the new Spider-Man film, where we put aside the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire films and go back to Peter Parker's high school days.
Now, every so often I will muse on remakes/re-imaginings/reboots. I am a firm believer that a new version should stand on its own as an independent project. In other words, Poseidon should be a good movie and The Poseidon Adventure should be a good movie. You should be able to enjoy both films without having to compare one with the other. When one STARTS doing that, then we have problems.

This is how it will work: I shall review the original, I then shall review the new version and not compare it with the original, and then write a comparison of the two--how and where they fail or succeed and see which is the best version. It's only fair to the creative team of the original to acknowledge their work and to those who worked on the new version to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I will not write out a remake or insist the original is always the best. Both deserve a fair hearing, and Rick's Cafe Texan will do its utmost to do just that. Twice Told Tales can still be good.

Anime Amazing. A Review of Akira (Review #37)



AKIRA

There are few times where my jaw literally dropped open while watching a film. One that I remember particularly well was while watching Akira, but more on that later. This is one of the most revered anime film made, but that should not be a negative to how one should approach it. The visual elements never drown out an incredible story, one that shows that when it comes to animation, the only limits are those the artists place on themselves.

We begin in 1988 with an extraordinary sight: Tokyo is obliterated in one massive explosion with no sound to add to the sight. It is entirely dependent on the animation, and Akira trusts the audience to use only the visuals to magnify the horror of the sight, beginning the film quite figuratively by blowing up in our faces. Out of the remnants of this unexplained destruction in Neo-Tokyo thirty-one years later is a biker gang led by Kaneda with his second-in-command Tetsuo. Neo-Tokyo is a mix of a successful metropolis and a world on the verge of total collapse. There are elegant dining clubs mixed with mass street protests and riots on the streets...and motorcycle gangs. While out battling their rivals, Kaneda and Tetsuo narrowly avoid running over the strangest being: a person that looks like a child but has an old person's face. The child, along with Tetsuo, is picked up by the military, having been led there by another old-looking child.

We discover the children (there are a total of three) are part of a nefarious series of experiments to tap into psychic powers to conquer. Tetsuo, we discover, has great powers and the military/scientific complex attempts to take advantage, but Tetsuo is becoming more unstable, allowing his rage and confusion to overwhelm his powers to destructive ends. As Kaneda joins forces with an underground movement to end these plans and rescue his friend, Tetsuo is terrified by manifestations of the three children in the forms of a teddy bear, a toy car and plush bunny. It now becomes a race to stop Tetsuo from becoming so out-of-control that Neo-Tokyo and the world itself be destroyed by tapping into the power of Akira--and by that recreate the beginning of creation itself.

Akira has something up on most animated films that Western audiences aren't used to: an unflinching view of violence. While people think of animation as a children's genre, or the Japanese-style of animation (known as anime) as Pokémon or Hello Kitty, Akira is sometimes more graphic than a live-action film. It is virtually impossible to imagine that a film-maker would show a dog being shot point blank or have a character be crushed and let the blood go all over. It may be possible to show a woman being attacked but in animation form it seems more shocking.

You also have a great ability to create worlds and images that perhaps could be accomplished with modern CGI, but that wouldn't have as strong an impact as an animated version has. The scene where Tetsuo has visions of attacking toys might not work in live-action, but in animation, accented with Shoji Yamashiro's score it is quite terrifying. When Akira finally makes his appearance, the accompanying images are so astounding that I did something I rarely if ever have done: my jaw dropped open and I was stunned at the brilliance and impact the images before me were having. It to me is still one of the most shocking moments in animation, as if all reality within and without the film is melting into itself.

Looking back on Akira, it seems to be a precursor to other films. It may have influenced such films as The Matrix and Children of Men, and appears to draw from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It presents a world that only appears real and one that is disintegrating beyond repair. It may not be possible to call Akira the Citizen Kane of anime, but it certainly is one of the seminal films of the genre, engrossing the viewer with a fantastical story that holds no limits.

Friday, January 15, 2010

An Open Letter to Criterion



Dearest Criterion Collection,

I Love You. I Honestly Love You. I love you so much I think it's about time we move our relationship to the next level. That's right: I want to make suggestions to you.

From time to time I will let my mind wander into what films I'd like to see be part of THE CRITERION COLLECTION. At the moment, I have nineteen (I originally had twenty, but since I started working on this list you've added That Hamilton Woman to your catalogue). Now I know, you may not be able to include any of these on my lists because of legal issues or problems with copyright, ecetera, ecetera, ecetera. However, since it's MY list, I figure, if I don't ask I won't get, right? Well, here we go.
  1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Few films have been as accurate about the horrors of war, of the suffering soldiers from both sides endure, the fear, the terror, and the madness of war. One of the great films, it doesn't cheat the audience and is one of the best Best Picture winners.
  2. Cabaret (1972). It won more Oscars than any other film that didn't go on to win Best Picture (8 in total), but that isn't why it should be a Criterion. It is one of the darkest musicals ever made, capturing how "divine decadence" of the Weimar Republic collapsed under the Nazi regime. Brilliant, iconic performances by Oscar-winners Liza Minelli and Joel Grey under the Oscar-winning direction of Bob Fosse add to its status.
  3. Chimes at Midnight (1967). This is mostly based on the reputation the Orson Welles film of the life of Falstaff drawn from various Shakespeare plays has. On this one, there may be odd legal issues, but let's see what we can do about them.
  4. A Christmas Carol (1951). This one is a particular obsession of mine. Out of the many film versions of this Dickens story (from the animated Mickey's Christmas Carol to Scrooged to the Robert Zemeckis CGI/motion capture version), none has equalled this version, with Alaistair Sim's performance as THE definitive Scrooge.
  5. The Elephant Man (1980). David Lynch is one of the most visionary directors working today. Yes, his films can be quite odd, but he is still a man of enourmous creativity. This film is one of his most accesible, with masterful performances by John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. "I am NOT an ANIMAL! I am a HUMAN BEING! I AM A MAN!"
That's it for right now. I have a few more. Please, dear Criterion, ponder on these. You may find some are right up your street. If you could have The Rock, why can't you have The Elephant Man?

*Update: Chimes at Midnight was released by Criterion in August 2016.

Past Twilight Time. Daybreakers: A Review


DAYBREAKERS

Being undead is just no fun. I've come to learn this, not through personal experience (contrary to rumor) but through recent films like the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA) and Daybreakers. The vampire of today is one that is not only almost perpetually morose, but has no sense of style, no panache if you will. Why exist forever if all you're going to do is mope for time & eternity? Why is his world dominated by the color black? Why can't he have music, film, art?

Daybreakers is by the Spierig Brothers (that is how they're billed) and already that had me worried. Not that I've heard of the Spierig Brothers, but that they chose to be billed that way. The only time I've seen this was in the Satanically-awful Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, where the creative team was billed as The Brothers Strause, as is THAT were to mean anything. The only brothers who could be called film-makers are the Coen Brothers, and I'm not a fan of theirs. Yet I digress.

The film has a world that has been taken over by vampires. Humans (and their blood) are dwindling, and now the vampires themselves are degenerating into "subsiders", bat-like creatures in body and mind. There are attempts to create a blood substitute at a major corporation (giving new meaning to "bloodsucking companies"), headed by Charles Brombly (Sam Neill). He puts this project in the hands of Mr. Dalton (Ethan Hawke), but his non-beating heart is not in it.

You see, Mr. Dalton doesn't drink human blood. He's sensitive to the human's plight and hates being a vampire. Did I mention his name is Edward? Sound familiar? I should know in my mind that this is not a copy of the perpetually Sullen Cullen from the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA), but to name a sensitive, morose vampire who doesn't want to hurt humans Edward couldn't have been a worse decision.

Edward has a brother, Frank (Michael Dorman), who hunts humans down and loves, shall we say, a nice glass of sangria. One night (of course it has to be night; he's a vampire--down to the Twilight eyes) he has a car accident and meets real humans. They are hiding and on the run from the majority population, but human Audrey (Claudia Karvan) senses Edward's different and may be able to help with a unique situation. I do believe she is entering Terra Bella.

She clandestinely introduces Edward to Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe) who reveals a shocking surprise: he used to be a vampire, but is now fully human. Edward agrees (or rather circumstances force him) to go with them to try to reverse the effects of vampirism, and possibly stop others from becoming Subsiders. Edward discovers how to become human. If only he had discovered how to be human.



Daybreakers suffers from an intense need to be profound. I am willing to accept the film's premise that vampires are now the dominant species on Earth, but must their world be so morose? Their world is so empty and downbeat...not only is there no sunlight, but no color as well, and not just on their faces. The vampires that populate the world are so dour and humorless one wonders why they would want to continue. They saw a red door and painted it black. In fact, their world is quite literally dark--ALL the interiors are in shades of black. I wonder, is that an after-effect of having the life sucked out of you? The Brothers Spierig suffer from the same idea that plagues many modern films (including the Brothers Coen): they confuse stillness with suspense.

As I watched, I kept thinking that this is like The Omega Man/I Am Legend in reverse: from the mutants point of view. Like in those films, the humans are outnumbered and being hunted by the monsters, but in Daybreakers, we see the world through the mutants' eyes--if the mutants had emotions of some kind. This could have been an interesting field to explore, but it doesn't. It also introduces plot points that aren't followed up. For example, we learn that the first step from vampire to subsider is a change in the ear structure, and we see Edward with that type of ear. However, he doesn't suffer any other effects while others I gather change rapidly. Inconsistency I say.

THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A SPOILER. YOU HAVE NOW BEEN OFFICIALLY WARNED.

The performances won't be long remembered because they were all one-note. One can say that Hawke, Neill, and Dorman should be lifeless on the screen because they were playing vampires, but the humans were oddly lifeless as well. Once Hawke becomes human himself through a controlled experiment, he remains joyless and solemn, a Sullen Dalton. I figured he would have marvelled at being returned to life, but nothing. I digress to state I think Hawke looked better as a vampire than as a human.

END OF THE SPOILER.

There were no emotions from any of them beyond glum, except for Dafoe. He acted as though he knew what life was like on both sides, but he also had this really crazy Southern accent that just sounded so funny. Neill I gather had gone to the same Vampire Acting School that Michael Sheen went to for New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) since both were quite campy bordering on parody. A subplot involving him and his human daughter Alison (Isabel Lucas) was particularly ugly from beginning to end.

There is blood galore, and even exploding corpses (since vampires are not living, we can't quite call them bodies). I figure the Brothers Spierig wanted to give the audience its fair share of grotesque imagery--wonder if this is what the Hostel/Saw Generation really enjoys watching or is just TOLD it enjoys watching. Admittedly, I don't think the violence is up there with Hostel or Saw: the Citizen Kanes of torture porn. Still, if that's your line, you may find some things to your liking. I also wasn't pleased with the ending. It veers extremely close to if not actually violating one of my Golden Rules of Film-Making: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.

As it stands, Daybreakers has possibilities, ideas one would have hoped to build on, but they weren't pursued. Maybe it didn't want to. Maybe everyone involved just wanted to see heads cut off and humanoids being torn apart. If it merely wanted to be a bloodbath of brainlessness, Daybreakers may be midly interesting. If it was aiming for District 9 or Dracula (1931 or 1992 versions), it was a bloody failure.

DECISION: D+

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In the Beginning...Doctor Who Story 001: An Unearthly Child




STORY 001: AN UNEARTHLY CHILD

Thus begins the longest-running science-fiction program in history. It may actually be fitting that in the very first Doctor Who story, the characters go back to the pre-historic age, though story wise it does them little good. However, An Unearthly Child, broadcast on November 23, 1963, began a saga still playing today.
 
 
We should get a few items out of the way. Technically, only the first episode is titled An Unearthly Child. In the first few years of the series, each episode had its own individual title even though it was part of a larger story. This was maintained until 1966, though curiously, the habit of giving two or more titles to episodes within a long story has been revived with the current series. As a result, the issue of the titles to stories has become an extremely sticky point, especially with the more devout Whovians. For purposes of clarity I will refer to the stories themselves with the titles offered by the BBC, except when noted. For example, the four-part story containing the episodes titled An Unearthly Child, The Cave of Skulls, The Forest of Fear, and The Firemaker will be collectively called An Unearthly Child.

Sometimes, however, I will veer from that practice. The two-part story The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster will be referred by me as Inside the Spaceship as opposed to the BBC's title of The Edge of Destruction. Also, when it comes to the revived series' two-parter double-titles (Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks), I will give them ONE title (Evolution of the Daleks), usually the first title of the two unless I believe the second is more descriptive or just sounds better. The exception to this is the three part Utopia/The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, which I will collectively call Vengeance of The Master. I do this because all three relate to The Master, and because I've noticed that while the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Rani are almost always featured in the title of their stories, the Master has NEVER appeared in the title of ANY of his stories. Not once. I figure I should give him his due.

Now, let's move on to the story itself. An Unearthly Child is basically TWO stories: the first part involves the mystery behind a young schoolgirl, Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford). The second is about a power struggle within a tribe of cavemen involving the creation of fire. The first part (the first episode itself) is brilliant, while the rest of the story is weak and brings the thing down. Yet I'm getting ahead of myself.

We begin with perhaps one of the greatest title themes in television history (apologies to Trekkers). It quickly sets the mood for the series, letting you know there is something mysterious and otherworldly about what you are going to see. Whether it is Ron Grainer's original electronic version or Murray Gold's lush orchestral for the new series, the title theme is one that evokes adventures into the unknown.

After that, we meet not the title character or the "unearthly child", but her teachers, Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) in history and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) in science. Both recognize Susan Foreman (Ford) is highly intelligent, but also oddly unaware of basic information. She also apparently lives in a junkyard with someone she calls her "grandfather". They follow her to the junkyard, where to their surprise they find a police box (a telephone booth which was used to call the police in case of emergencies).

Soon, the grandfather (William Hartnell) arrives, an elegant older man in Edwardian clothing. He is slightly bemused and irritated to see them there and denies anyone else is there, until they hear Susan's voice coming from INSIDE the box. Wright and Chesterton rush in, only to discover a room too large to fit within the walls of the police box. The inside is larger than the outside. The teachers are then told a fantastic story about how Susan and her grandfather, who is a Doctor, are not human. They are exiles from another world, another time. Wright and Chesterton want to leave, but the Doctor refuses to let them, fearing they will reveal their secret. Susan wants to stay in "20th Century Earth" and attempts to stop her grandfather from holding them. She inadvertedly starts the TARDIS (a name she gave the ship from the initials Time And Relative Dimension in Space), and they are transported to...

That is the first episode, which is brilliant in almost every way. The acting is first-rate: Hill and Russell are wonderful as people who come in contact with the simply unbelieavable. Ford is pretty, but she has an otherworldly quality in her looks and demeanor: she is both mysterious and innocent. As for the Doctor himself, William Hartnell is brilliant as a being who is highly intelligent and pretty much used to getting his way, but who is also underneath his bluster a kind and clever personality.

The remaining three episodes, however, don't live up to the quality of the premiere. We get a story where prehistoric cavemen attempt to build fire, and whoever does so will become the new leader. What makes it a bad story is that they are stereotypical cavemen: lots of grunting, with monosyllabic names like Kal, his rival Za and Hur, the woman they fight for. At times, the acting of the tribe is downright laughable, as when they grunt in unison or chase Kal out from their tribe. However, there are some great moments, as in a fight scene between Kal and Za, which is beautifully filmed.

In retrospect, the caveman elements were not the best ones to use to launch the series. Producer Verity Lambert admitted as much, but as always two great factors: money and time, forced them to take what was available and reasonable financially. If there had been more time, I would have suggested changing a few elements. For example, we see right away in Episode Two that the shadow seen at the cliffhanger of Episode One is a caveman. I would have held off making that discovery until later, to add mystery and suspense to where and when the travellers were. Also, I would have changed the setting to perhaps pre-Roman England, giving them a chance to have those historic elements without the cumbersome grunts.

I also thought it was a wise decision to have a variety of age groups as being the first Doctor and companions. The elderly-looking Doctor (though Hartnell was only 55 at the time) made him a figure of stature, respect, and wisdom. The younger Chesterton and Wright gave adults and parents someone to identify with, while Susan was clearly a person that embodied youth and naivete. Perhaps this was not planned, but it worked excellently. The fact that the teachers were in the subjects of history and science, which were the two topics Doctor Who would deal with, was probably more planned.

As it stands, the first episode is one of the best to launch a science-fiction series, while the rest of the story leaves more to be desired. Still, the fact that they exist at all is a miracle onto itself, but more on that later. It gets points knocked down for a second-tier story, but it still manages to be a respectable way to start an epic television series.

7/10


Next story: The Daleks

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Happy Birthday Luise! Thoughts on Luise Rainer's Centenary



Today is a very noteworthy event in film/Oscar history. Luise Rainer, who is the first person to win consecutive Oscars (1936's The Great Ziegfeld and 1937's The Good Earth) celebrates her 100th birthday. That's right: she was born January 12, 1910 and now is the oldest living Oscar winner as of this writing. I discovered this fact tonight, as Turner Classic Movies was running her movies. I knew she was 99, and I wondered one of two things: either she died or she celebrates her centenary. I'm happy for her it's the latter.

I've had my issues with Miss Rainer. I haven't seen her performance in The Good Earth (though the idea of a German playing a Chinese peasant still boggles the imagination) but did see her in The Great Ziegfeld. I thought her performance was "fluttery": very mannered and exaggerated, though I did think she was quite pretty as Anna Held, Florence Ziegfeld's first wife & star of his Follies. Still, this is not the time to go after an old woman who's reached a milestone few people have achieved--and I'm not talking about winning TWO Oscars, and BACK-TO-BACK no less. Only she, Spencer Tracy, Jason Robards, and Tom Hanks (as of today) have won their only Academy Awards in the same way.*

Curiously, she lost out her chance to appear in a genuine masterpiece when she was set to make a cameo in La Dolce Vita but withdrew before shooting her scene (she does appear briefly in a 'making-of' documentary as part of the special features on the DVD).


When she does pass, we will have lost a piece of cinema history. Think of the actors and actresses from the "Golden Age" that are still with us. There aren't that many. You have the feuding sisters Joan Fontaine & Olivia DeHavilland (both in their 90s and still not speaking to each other), Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor. Soon, all will enter history, but will modern audiences still go to their films? They aren't going to Rainer's. In fact, if she's remembered today (outside of her birthday commemoration) it's only BECAUSE she won the two Oscars.

We should remember, she was a big star in her time. Audiences in the 1930s went to films to see Luise Rainer, and it was popular acclaim that had a role in awarding her the Academy Awards she has. Today, alas, her name isn't big on contemporary lips, and I venture to say when she appeared at the Academy Awards as part of the tribute to previous Oscar winners more than one person asked, "Luise WHO?" (very Sunset Boulevard) and/or "She's still ALIVE?" It might be unfair, but I use Miss Rainer as an example to any "star" working today: you may be big, big, big, but you can as quickly be forgotten by the general public. Fame is a by-product of your work, not the end result.

There is another lesson we should take from Luise Rainer. She has now lived for a Century. Think of how many stars and actors she's outlived: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger. Some of course died of natural causes, but some died amid tumult and chaos. It's not to take away from the talent of any of them, but they would be wise to follow her example of general moderation and of knowing when to say, 'No more, my work is done'.

Still, this is a time for celebration. Rick's Cafe Texan wishes a very Happy Birthday to Luise Rainer and congratulates her on celebrating 100 Years of Life. I hope they have been overall good and happy years and offers all the best for however long she has life.

*Katherine Hepburn also won back-to-back Oscars (1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and 1968's The Lion in Winter) but the second one was in a tie with Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). Miss Hepburn had already won one Oscar before and would win another after. Miss Rainer won outright both times she received the Oscar.

A Most Tangled Web: Thoughts on Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, and Rebooting Spider-Man



As we've learned, both Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi are out from Spider-Man 4. The studio has also decided to "reboot" the series by going back to Peter Parker's high school days.

What you have in effect is a total do-over. Spider-Man began with Parker's high school days, so why on Earth would you go back? What is there to fill in terms of story? What we the audience will have to do in order to make sense of the new Spider-Man is to ignore everything we've seen from the first three Maguire/Raimi films and begin again. It will be akin to Batman Begins putting the Burton/Schumacher films from our memories.

While that makes some sort of sense, there is one point that they seem to be forgetting: there was a large gap of time between the embarrassing Batman & Robin and Batman Begins, while the gap between the embarrassing Spider-Man 3 and the next film would be shorter.

How will this work? Will audiences who've come to identify Spider-Man with Maguire readily and quickly embrace whoever takes his place? We have come to accept Christian Bale as Batman, though he still suffers from comparisons to Michael Keaton (less so with Val Kilmer or George Clooney). It won't be hard to move from Maguire but it still will come as a bit of a shock to the system, again because it won't be that long since we've seen him as Parker.

The decision to go back to Parker's high school period will make it impossible to get someone near Maguire's age. In spite of his youthful looks he is 34, and the person who came closest to taking over for Maguire (Jake Gyllenhaal) is 30 this year, as is avant-garde actor (and former Mousketeer) Ryan Gosling. It's doubtful either could play a high schooler believably, or that Gyllenhaal or Gosling would want to.

As a result, we have two options: pick a young star (in the vein of a 22-year-old Zac Efron, 20-year-old Wizards of Waverly Place's David Henrie, Kyle XY's 27-year-old Matt Dallas, or any of the males from Gossip Girl who are all in their early 20s) or look for a complete unknown. Just for the record, I'm not recommending Efron, Henrie, Dallas, Ed Westwick, Penn Badgley, or Chace Crawford, merely pointing out they are all relatively known and around the right age--God help us if they go for the vampires of Twilight (the humans, maybe). The best and safest choice is to go for someone not yet known to the general public.

As for director, the franchise would be best served by picking someone who will go away from the hyper-reality that a Christopher Nolan has infected the Batman franchise with AND the camp nature of Schumacher. What sunk Batman & Robin (among other things) was that it did not take the material seriously. What has made The Dark Knight difficult to embrace has been the ponderous nature of the material as well as the fact that it takes itself too seriously. Yet I digress. If we are going to go back in the past, we need to find a director who will in short do one of two things: make the first of the new films a "lost years" type where gaps are filled in within the already established story, or ignore the first three films altogether.

The decision to replace Maguire and Raimi shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Spider-Man 3 was a disaster: too many villains and the dark/emo Peter Parker being reduced to a Saturday Night Fever-type montage was an absolute embarrassment. It also changed the origins story by making the man who became The Sandman Uncle Ben's real killer. That bothered me--I felt I was being cheated because the story was being changed midstream. I personally feel Maguire had one more Spider-Man movie in him, and Raimi could have made a good one to replace the bad one. However, things in the script department were getting too difficult: they were doing it again with too many villains. It's unfortunate that they won't be coming back, but it's not a big surprise. They did a bad job on the last one and were being too difficult on the subject of the next one. The studio HAD made money on Spider-Man 3 but the enthusiasm among critics and fans was waning. It was in THEIR interest to A.) get this film ready for production, and B.) try to revive a flagging franchise with new blood.

Ultimately, it will not be the end of the world (or the Spider-Man series) to have the face & mind behind the series effectively be fired or pushed out. We can have good revivals (Bale/Nolan in Batman Begins) and bad revivals (Schumacher/Clooney in Batman & Robin). It will be fun to see how all this will work out: if they succeed, they will have a new star and a chance to expand the mythology as well as make more money & fans. If they fail, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man will be left hanging by the thinnest of spider threads.
 

Monday, January 11, 2010

Apocalypse Maya. Review of 2012 (Review #35)


2012

One has to admire the lunacy of 2012. As a film, it's slightly worse than most recent disaster flicks. As an experience, it's endlessly fascinating to see so many people throw themselves with impassioned abandon to something so endlessly trashy.

The basis for 2012 comes from an interpretation of the Mayan calendar, which states that this era of time will end near Christmas 2012 and a new age will begin. For Hollywood (and many other people) this signals the end of the world as we know it...so book R.E.M. quickly.

Scientists have discovered that the Earth is starting to react to solar bursts, causing the temperature of the Earth's core to rise dramatically. Informed of this, the President (Danny Glover) and other world leaders start making plans to preserve humanity. By the time these events come around, we get to the story of Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), semi-successful novelist and chauffeur to a Russian billionaire. He gets to take his kids from his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and her successful plastic surgeon husband, Gordon (Tom McCarthy). Going to Yellowstone National Park, they find their favorite lake both restricted and oddly empty of water. Curtis meets a radio talk show host in the style of Art Bell (Woody Harrelson), who tells him and his radio audience that the world that the government knows the Earth is going to collapse.

Soon, the world goes through cataclysm: Yellowstone explodes in volcanic fury, Los Angeles collapses in a massive earthquake. The Curtises and Gordon escape to Las Vegas, where Jackson's employer has a plane that will allow them to go to the secret project: a collection of arks deep in the Himalayas.

Where to begin with the problems of 2012? Here's one, a situation that never fails to aggravate me as a viewer: Too Many Damn Coincidences. In fact, I may make that a new Golden Rule of Film-Making: Characters Will Always Be Conveniently Connected, No Matter How Unbelievable The Connection Is. The main scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) recognizes Jackson and is a fan of his work. What are the odds? Jackson's employer is also in Las Vegas when they arrive and can provides them all a way out. What are the odds? The Russian's mistress has had plastic surgery performed by Gordon. What are the odds? A Buddhist monk and a worker on the arks encounter the Curtis/Russian party in the Himalayas. What are the odds? How very convenient.

 

Another problem is in logic, and it might be too much to ask for logic in a disaster film, but at certain points, you say, 'this is really dumb'. If it's 2012, I figure President Thomas Wilson has won re-election, since that is a Presidential election year. If he hadn't, I figure there would have been consultations with the next Administration. We also have to wonder, just how many times can a group escape massive disasters virtually unscathed? The Curtis group escapes not once, not twice, but three to four times: Los Angeles, Yellowstone, Las Vegas, the Himalayas, before getting to the arks. The more they managed to escape intense earthquakes and volcanic explosions, the more you wonder, 'how does one outrun a gigantic cloud of smoke and ash in a small plane?', 'how do you survive a crash in the Himalayas without more than a thin coat?' (I confess to having flashbacks of Laura Croft: Tomb Raider, where she went to the South Pole with nothing more than an overcoat and t-shirt on), 'how can you outrun an earthquake in a limo when said earthquake appears to be going at more than sixty to seventy miles per second?'.

What would be nice would be that the characters NOT be characters. Harrelson's radio talk show host is a cliché (crazy, conspiratorial minded). Wouldn't it be a change of pace to see instead a rational person who has solid proof to these plans? Still, we don't need to worry about LOGIC; we go to 2012 to see things explode and the world collapse.

However, it's insane to think that the world would have such radical shifts in hours. Forget all that you learned about plate tectonics--the continents shift so quickly there isn't time to breathe. Still, when you look at other films such as Poseidon, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, or Twister, (of which most weren't that good either), one couldn't help think of them and think it's just another bad disaster film.

Having said all that, I couldn't help admire the performances. No, they weren't good, but good actors like Cusack and Oliver Platt (the Chief of Staff who somehow becomes Head of State) are so COMMITTED to make this a GOOD FILM that they in whole have you marveling at what they're up to. They seem so DETERMINED to the project, to make you believe that 2012 is worth your time, that part of you wants to cheer them on as they plunge further and further into this trash.

I digress to point another odd point of logic: the President elects to stay behind in the White House instead of being flown to safety. The Vice President is dead and the Speaker of the House is missing. With that, Platt's Carl Anhauser elects himself the new leader of the free world. Isn't the next in line the Secretary of State? Well, again, throw out logic--we want to see things destroyed.

2012 tries to add human elements to the story, like that of the scientist and his father, who is part of a musical duo on a cruise ship (memories of Poseidon quickly come to mind), and that of the President and First Daughter (Independence Day) and most bizarrely, the murder of the head of the Louvre who is going to reveal why great art is being replaced (The Da Vinci Code). None of that ever makes the film rise above a silly, hurried, and curiously unexciting project.

IN THE INTEREST OF FAIRNESS THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A SPOLER. IF YOU WANT TO MISS IT SKIP ON TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.
 
No, the visual effects weren't that overwhelming, the doomsday scenario slightly laughable, and worse, the reunion of the Curtises at the end was forced and slightly ugly. What I want to know is, if Africa survived the cataclysm, why didn't the scientists know this and just send people there?

As it stands, 2012 is indistinguishable from other disaster films, some better, a few worse. One thing is certain: calling 2012 a disaster movie shows there is truth in advertising.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Andean Insanity. A Review of Aguirre: The Wrath of God


AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD

 
This is how Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness would have been like if it had taken place in South America, for Aguirre: The Wrath of God has at its core an insane quest led by an insane man. Instead of searching for Colonel Kurtz, it's El Dorado they are after, but instead of finding it, the conquistadors find only chaos, destruction, and death.

Aguirre purports to tell the story of a doomed expedition into the Amazon. Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro sends a small group, led by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra), to search for El Dorado, a fabled city of untold riches. Over Pizarro's objection, Don Pedro's mistress, Doña Inez (Helena Rojo), will accompany him. Ursua's second-in-command will be Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who will take his daughter Flores (Cecilia Rivera) with him, again over Pizarro's objection. In short order, Aguirre leads a coup against Ursua and places the titled nobleman of the expedition Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) as his puppet, the "Emperor of El Dorado". As they go further down the river, the members of the expedition grow more and more tired, hungry, and delusional. Yet they press on, driven by fear of Aguirre and their own gold-lust.

After a brief prologue, you slowly focus in on this group going down a mountain: Spanish conquistadors and their Incan slaves, all set to the brilliant music of Popol Vuh. There is no dialogue in these moments aside from the narrating monk Brother Gaspar (Del Negro), and the opening sets the images and themes of Aguirre brilliantly: the smallness of man to unconquered (and perhaps unconquerable) nature, and how men will plunge further and further into a hopeless project in exchange for the prospect of vast rewards rather than the reality of vast rewards. Throughout the film, the search for El Dorado drives almost everyone, even when they know the rational thing to do would be to turn back. No matter how hungry or desperate the men may be, they never talk about abandoning the project. Instead, they almost quietly fall into line.

A brilliant example of this is after Don Fernando is proclaimed Emperor. Though he has no power whatsoever the expedition treats him as if he were an actual monarch. He is fed elegant food on the makeshift raft while the rest of the crew starves. Rational men would have forced a return to the main Spanish group, but greed and the fierce nature of Aguirre push them forward. When Guzman is distracted while forcing the only horse they have out onto shore (because he finds the animal bothersome) the rest of the crew, including the monk, rush at the Emperor's table to glut themselves on his meal.

 
With the exception of Ursua, Inez, and the innocent Flores, everyone in the expedition is insane, not in the raving, threat to others or themselves insane, but insane in that they all let their desire for gold and glory overrule their fears and survival instincts. They lose all sense of reality and will not give up on their obsession or push the unhinged Aguirre out of power. Even when it becomes absolutely clear that he IS insane, they do nothing except continue to go along. They push onward, even though part of them knew they were headed toward their own destruction.

At the heart of Aguirre is the intense performance Klaus Kinski as the film's title character. His Aguirre is a methodical, plotting man, one who by his force of will forces everyone into line. He has a peculiar style of standing and walking which to me was reminiscent of Shakespeare's Richard III. Kinski never goes into histrionics, doesn't rave or foam at the mouth. In the beginning, he seems almost rational, if somewhat heartless. It's only as he forces everyone to go further downstream that he loses all grips with reality but has come to believe he is the only one seeing reality. It might have been possible to have Aguirre rave like a madman, but the fact that when he's spouting dangerous nonsense he's speaking in a normal tone of voice that makes him even more terrifying.

However, it's doubtful director Werner Herzog would have allowed Kinski to go into hysterics. His direction of Aguirre is different from other films dealing with the Spanish conquest of the Americas in that it is filmed completely on location and with few if any editing cuts between characters. There are no noticeable shifts between for example a close-up and a wide-shot. The sparse style of Aguirre gives it almost a documentary feel, as if you are really there with the expedition, bringing you into the story and almost making you a part of it as opposed to being a mere observer. Even when you have signs that this ISN'T a documentary, it fits in beautifully. Popol Vuh's score evokes otherworldly sounds that mix excellently with the Andean region and its native people. While there isn't much music in Aguirre, the music that there is provides the haunting atmosphere of men sinking into a madness of their own creation.


As the film draws to a close, a character remarks, "We are drifting in circles". This is the best way to describe this expedition: no direction and no idea of how to get somewhere they've never seen or who can take them there. By this time, they no longer can distinguish between reality and illusion, except for Aguirre himself. He knows what is literally true and literally false, but he's plunged into his own insanity: one for lust of power and hubris which is the ruin of them all. He continues to stand tall, towering over a sea of nothing.

On a personal note, when I finished watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God a second time, the lyrics to an old song from old leftist Pete Seeger came to mind. Seeger was referring to the Vietnam War (Aguirre may have too, that I don't know), but it seemed to capture perfectly the deranged nature of both enterprises real and fictional. "We're waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on". A haunting, dark film, anchored by a fiery performance by Klaus Kinski and the cool but sharp direction of Werner Herzog, Aguirre: The Wrath of God will continue to show us the darkness within all men.