Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shutter Island Review (Review #56)


The praise that is being heaped on Shutter Island is a puzzle to me. Is Scorsese brilliant? Absolutely. Can DiCaprio act? For the most part, yes. Is this a good film? No, or perhaps in tribute, I should say nein. The problem with Shutter Island is that once you get it, you don't want it.

U.S. Marshalls Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been sent to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of one Rachel Solando, a patient of this hospital for the criminally insane. At least that, as they say, is The Official Story. At this point, I SHOULD say there is more to this case than meets the eye. However, I can't. There is a simple reason for this: it has to do with the fact that I still have a functioning brain.

Without giving too much away, IF YOU CANNOT SOLVE THE MYSTERY WITHIN 30 MINUTES AT THE MOST, YOU ARE A MORON. Flat out, you are stupid if you don't almost instantly realize what's going on. I give you that window of 30 minutes because part of me didn't WANT to accept the reality of what I knew to be true: a bit like Daniels. I was willing to give Shutter Island the benefit of the doubt, thinking that perhaps I could be wrong. However, nothing I wished could make me come to deny reality: I had solved the whole story. Once that happened, I gave up all hope that this could be a rewarding experience.

Here's the thing about suspense/thriller films: if you've solved the case, especially like the one in Shutter Island, you sit there bored because you know already where the story is going. To have a successful suspense film, you need actual suspense. When you don't have an element of suspense, of danger, of fear, what you have is a sense of "Oh, I know why that happened", "Oh, that would be the next logical step", "Oh, saw that coming". If there is no suspense, no tension, you really have no story.

Allow me to digress and answer some objections I've had hurled in my direction about my dislike for Shutter Island. I've been lectured ad nausiem about how I was SUPPOSED to know the big twist, about how it was SUPPOSED to be painfully obvious. 'It's not about solving the mystery', I've been told. 'It's about the journey'.

Perhaps this is true, and I'm being far too harsh.  However, I'm not buying that line of thinking, not just yet.  If you realize the truth surrounding "the mystery", you already have established what the journey will be. No matter how you turn it, you already know not only the journey, but the destination. The audience WON'T have any interest in keeping up with the merry adventures of Marshall Daniels because they are (or should be) twenty to thirty paces ahead of him. Why stick with a character who isn't very interesting to begin with when you already know where he's going to end up?

On reflection, it HAS to be obvious. The music announces itself as screaming, "This Will Be A Scary/Suspenseful Film" (there is no score, just selections from other works). The visuals are so self-consciously dreamlike and visually poetic that it all puts a searchlight on the goings-on. The performances don't do much, and perhaps Scorsese directed them to also make everything obvious. I do wish DiCaprio would stop trying to speak as if he were auditioning for the lead in The Mayor Quimby Story. This is his second stab at an authentic Bostonian accent (The Departed being the first) and this is the second time he fails miserably at it. It might have been better if he hadn't tried an accent--I find his performances are better when he speaks in his own voice (Blood Diamond being the only DiCaprio performance where the accent, while not completely believable, was somewhat acceptable).

In fact, I found it quite amusing when DiCaprio's Daniels lectures the Germanic-sounding Dr. Naehring (the Swedish Max von Sydow) on the subject of accents. He and Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) don't bother to show they are humoring DiCaprio, but Ruffalo does. This may have to do with the story, granted, yet it makes it all look like only one of them is game to try to make the film suspenseful. I also wonder about Jackie Earle Haley as George Noyce, a patient who lets Daniels in on important information. He appears to be repeating his performance in Watchmen, which makes it less interesting.

Finally, on a personal level, I object very strongly to the gratuitous nature of plot points. Again, without giving too much away, I think the Holocaust is enough of a true-life horror to make merely a plot point in Daniels' inner life, and I thought the children did suffer far too much, not to mention it was something that A.) we already knew about, and B.) was grotesque to have to watch.

I wasn't impressed by DiCaprio or anyone else in the film.  It doesn't lend any interest to me in watching.

Despite what I've been told about how it was all meant to be obvious, I still am not convinced.  Perhaps it was a fault of the advertising, as my impression was that it was supposed to be a mystery versus some psychological thriller within the mind.  I can see where people would say I was always meant to be in the know, yet somehow, I still can't get there.

I suppose if you think Shutter Island is not about what the mystery is but how it all looks, it could work. However, if you've solved the mystery, why would you bother going on the journey when you already know where it's going? That would be crazy, as crazy as realizing that it's all in the mind.

Routh Has Been Grounded. Thoughts on Rebooting Superman Again.

I think it would be of interest to look over the history of a few of the actors who've played Superman on radio/television/film.

Bud Collyer: 1941-43 both on radio and the Fleischer Animated series
Kirk Alyn: 1948 in 15 short films
George Reeves: 1952-58 on The Adventures of Superman television show
Dean Cain: 1993-1997 on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
Tim Daly: 1996-2000 on the Superman animated television series
Tom Welling: 2001-present on the Smallville television series (it should have been cancelled years ago, but I digress) and of course,
Christopher Reeve: 1978-1987 in four Superman feature films.

Now we come to one Brandon Routh. He is unique among all the other actors who've portrayed this iconic American figure in that he will now be remembered as the George Lazenby of Supermans. This is because he will be the ONLY actor in a major production to have played The Man of Steel exactly ONCE. Now, it is technically true that other actors have played Clark Kent only one time as well. However, the difference is that any other actor you mention was hired to play him once, while Routh was hired to try to relaunch a franchise and it was expected that he play Sup in a few more films. Now that the franchise is being re-rebooted, Routh is Outh.


What happened? Where did it all go wrong?

Well, I am going to take the step of sticking up for Routh. He's being dumped because Superman Returns failed to capture an audience. Super-fans were not passionate about the film and those not into the comic didn't get excited about seeing more adventures. Yes, it did make money, and the reviews have been on the whole positive (though I'd argue this is more a case of nostalgia and wishful thinking than of an objective viewing of the film itself).  The final failure of Superman Returns, however, is not being blamed on the right people.  Instead, it's being assigned to the newcomer who did what he could with what he was given.  I don't think Routh is a great actor, but how is he to blame for Superman Returns flopping?

The blame for the failure of Superman Returns to create a franchise in its own right lies with director Bryan Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. They made the film much too dark in its look (not necessarily its content), much too heavy and ponderous and frankly, much too self-important. I'll tackle a proper review of Superman Returns another time but in a nutshell it had no joy, no sense of fun or adventure, and you throw in a character I like to call Isra-El and you leave any future films based on Returns in an impossible situation. For Returns to work, you have to know what happened in the first two Reeve films but ignore the other two--a weird form of a sequel to films made almost thirty years before (curiously, they were made before the new Superman was even born). The ending leaves you boxed in where you almost HAVE to include characters who may or may not work. Ultimately, it was a situation that could never work.

Now, the powers that be have decided to start all over from scratch. We are to ignore ALL of the films and begin again with new actors, new story...and while I wish them well I wonder if they are headed in the right direction. With Christopher Nolan twittering about the Superman project, it seems highly likely the production will go into a Batman Begins/Dark Knight mode where "reality" will trump "fantasy". I sincerely hope whoever ultimately helms The Man of Steel will not do what Nolan did. Nolan did a brilliant job in Begins, but I'm one of the few who found Dark Knight too heavy to enjoy and infected with "hyper-reality": a condition where it tried to be TOO realistic and had no sense of fiction that a comic book adaptation should have. Example: I always knew Gotham City was Chicago, and that was the least of its problems.

I feel bad for Routh. It isn't the first time an actor's lost a job, but I think he should have been given a second chance to redeem himself in the role. It might have been difficult to have made him Superman again in another version that called for him to ignore everything he had been involved with to begin with, but it wouldn't have been impossible. Ultimately, it wasn't his fault, and I hope that the blame for this debacle doesn't fall on him but on those who should have known better. We now have a Spider-Man reboot and a Superman re-reboot. The Nolan Batman films are having much more of an impact than I realized.

 I can only hope they will be for good, that we won't have an endless parade of dark, depressing, almost nihilistic comic book adaptations that will make everyone go on about how "real" they are but not about how "fun" they should be. It's time for Hollywood to understand comic books HAVE to exist in THEIR own reality, not OURS. If they fail to heed this warning, they will have a series of films that won't find an audience or expand it, and they will wonder why.


Monday, February 22, 2010

An Education: A Review (Review #55)


Teach Your Children Well...

The bad thing about experience is that it teaches you after the fact. This appears to be at the heart of An Education, a respectable film about the conflict between pursuing dreams for a potentially bright future or going after a dazzling present.

Jenny (Carrie Mulligan) is a bright British girl who yearns for a life away from her respectable middle-class life, epitomized by her parents Jack and Marjorie (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). She is into all the things they are not: music, the arts, French. In short, she is desperate to discover the world her parents seem almost afraid of, to break away from respectability. While waiting for a bus in the rain, she meets David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who is also Jewish. He soon puts her in his world, one where people go to auctions, attend concerts, and stimulate her intellect. As she is swept into this new world she seems to forget all about Oxford or the young boy who is clearly smitten with her. David's relationship with Jenny is complex: not quite sexual but not quite intellectual either. In spite of his bourgeois anti-Semitism Jack is all too eager to have David squire his daughter out, perhaps seeing this as a way to relieve his burden of paying for university. However, Jenny soon senses that things are not as they appear with David or his friends Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).

An Education is a strong portrait of a girl who comes of age in every way possible. It would be difficult to portray the situation of a man in his 30s having any kind of relationship with a girl about to turn 17, but director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby never make it salacious or tawdry. This is due primarily to the fact that the story centers more about Jenny's mental and emotional growth than to some sexual awakening. As portrayed by Mulligan, Jenny is already in some ways quite mature, but in other ways terribly naïve. She balances her intelligence, innocence and yearnings brilliantly. Jenny knows there is something off about David, but she also knows he's opened up a world she wouldn't have encountered without him.

Sarsgaard also manages to make David likeable and charming but also complex. We never fully understand his motivations when it comes to Jenny. A plot twist would make us think it involved lust, but we also see that he too is conflicted, drawn to her mind and intellect but also to her body. Even the smaller performances like Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, and especially Molina are handled deftly. Each of the actors manages to create a fully-rounded character with limited screen time. Special mention should be given to Emma Thompson, who has only two scenes in the film as Jenny's school Head Mistress. I found myself quickly loathing her and thinking she was a bitch for her actions in both scenes, but that shows what an amazing talent Thompson is. She is able to make what could be called a cameo extremely memorable.

As a side note, we know that there is something curious in David when he convinces Jenny's parents to let her go up to Oxford so that she can meet C.S. Lewis, whom David refers to as Clive. For someone who has a cursory knowledge of Lewis, we know he and his circle never called him 'Clive' but 'Jack'. An intimate of the professor and Christian apologist would have known that, and the fact that David didn't should have been the first clue.

The one issue I raise about An Education has to do with her parents. I wondered why Jack and Marjorie seemed so oblivious to the fact that the man who was all but in name courting their daughter was obviously twice her age. That struck me as quite odd, and I had those doubts as I left. Were they dumb, clueless, or too dazzled by David to see what was going on?

As it is, An Education lives up to the title. Jenny learns through experiences of all kinds who she is, what is important, and how to take what she has learned to avoid the mistakes she's seen others make. Her experiences have made her a far better woman than she would have been without them, and she has learned well.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Towering Inferno: A Review


It's a genre onto itself: the disaster film. There are certain elements any Good Disaster Film must have: a gaggle of big stars, a variety of backstories that culminate at one location, a massive natural/man-made catastrophe that throws them all together, a few of the stars dying, and even a signature song. The Towering Inferno I believe is the last great disaster film, one that was both exciting and made you care about the fate of all involved.

It's the grand opening of The Glass Tower, a combination office building and apartment complex which is the newest skyscraper in San Francisco and the tallest in the world. Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) makes last preparations to make sure everything is in order while having time to fool around with his girlfriend Susan (Faye Dunaway). Meanwhile, the owner Jim Duncan (William Holden) and Roberts discover that Duncan's unscrupulous son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) has cut corners with the materials used to build The Glass Tower. At the same time, con artist Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astaire) is coming to the dedication party in an effort to woo rich widow Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones) and bilk her out of millions. Coming to the dedication are the creme de la creme of society as well as powerful figures like Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn). While the party is going on, the shoddy construction has caused a small fire that begin others, and soon all these characters are trapped in a Towering Inferno. The head of the rescue operation is Fire Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (Steve McQueen), and it becomes a desperate struggle for everyone to survive. Some of them don't.

Producer and co-director Irwin Allen knew how to make this type of film. He obviously had enthusiasm for the project and it comes through on the screen. A film like The Towering Inferno can't start out with the big fire (or overturned ship, or any other type of disaster) but must rather allow us time to get to know the characters and put them in this desperate situation. It's only by caring about what happens to them, by identifying with them and their crisis can one have a successful film, and The Towering Inferno does that brilliantly. The film builds up the anticipation of the explosions and it never lets up. The script by Stirling Silliphant does a magnificent job of cutting off easy escapes that raise the stakes again and again.

All the technical aspects of The Towering Inferno are blended perfectly. It is extremely difficult to distinguish between miniatures and other photographic effects (what Allen could have done with CGI). Throughout the film, I kept thinking the music score was excellent, and it wasn't until the closing credits that I discovered why: none other than John Williams wrote the score. Even the Oscar-winning song, We May Never Love Like This Again, is seamlessly blended into the film.

Beyond all the wizardry of the production value, the performances are excellent. Paul Newman doesn't strike me at first as the type of actor who would appear in what would have been an essentially B-Picture. He may have been too intelligent for the material, but his performance shows that he is taking the material seriously even though the plot may be somewhat outlandish. He gives a sold performance as a man in this situation who is determined to get out of it alive. Faye Dunaway is also intelligent in her interpretation of Susan, a woman who loves her man but also her career. Although she doesn't have as much to do as she could have, she still manages to make her few moments quite effective (and it doesn't hurt that she is extremely beautiful).

Fred Astaire gave his strongest dramatic performance of a man reformed and showed he didn't need to dance to have the audience look at him (though in fairness, he does dance a little at the party and shows that at age 74, he still had the moves). Chamberlain I found delightful as the sneering villain. It looked like he wasn't taking the film as seriously as perhaps everyone else was, but he is amusing at the scene where he's obliviously drunk as the world literally goes up in flames. As Astaire's love interest, Jones didn't have much to do either (is it that the women weren't given a greater focus) but she had her moments when rescuing her neighbor's children.

For my money, the star is Steve McQueen. He is perfectly calm, cool and collected as Captain O'Hallorhan, someone who knows what he's doing and does it without complaint (well, with some complaint). His magnetism is undeniable, but his performance throughout the film is that of a complete professional. Perhaps he and Newman had difficulties about billing, and perhaps McQueen could be a terror to work with...I wouldn't know, I wasn't there. Whatever the case may be, Steve McQueen epitomized 70s-era coolness, and The Towering Inferno is no exception.

I have one complaint about the film. Yes, I was entertained (though at times certain scenes felt rather long). The length, however, isn't my complaint. Without giving too much away, I was disappointed not to see O.J. Simpson burn as if he were in Hell (though whether he will in the future is still up for debate). Overall, The Towering Inferno knows what it is and does it brilliantly, lighting up the screen to full effect (sorry, couldn't help myself).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Holiday Inn: A Review

Happy Holidays Inn-Deed...

What do you get when you mix a crooner, a hoofer, a couple of girls, and some songs via Berlin? A delightful romp that shows why the movie musical is a uniquely American creation.

Jim, the crooner (Bing Crosby) and Ted, the hoofer (Fred Astaire) are part of a musical trio with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). While she's accepted Jim's marriage proposal she's not willing to give up show business and move to a farm, which is exactly what Jim is planning. She dumps him for Ted and the bright lights on what would have been their last performance one Christmas Eve. Jim decides to follow on his plans, but finds life on the farm to be a nightmare. Next Christmas Eve, Jim visits Ted and his old agent and tells them of a new plan: turn his farm into an inn that is open ONLY on holidays. Aspiring singer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) discovers the agent and he gives her Jim's card so that she can audition for Jim. She and Jim soon fall in love, while Ted discovers to his horror that Lila has dumped HIM to go after a Texas millionaire. Over the course of the following holidays the guys battle it out for Linda's affection and career.

It's a threadbare plot, but we don't care. Holiday Inn has one purpose: to give light entertainment and delightful songs, and it succeeds on a grand scale. For example, we KNOW from the get-go that Jim and Linda are meant to be together, and it's fun seeing how rather silly situations keep them from being together until the last reel. Here we get to see two of the greatest performers of their field: Crosby singing and Astaire dancing. Irving Berlin's songs are beautiful and add the right touch of romance and/or comedy to each scene.

The risk in a concept like Holiday Inn is that the musical numbers could end up repetitive, but director Mark Sandrich ensures that each song (set in a different holiday) has its own mood. For example, the number for George Washington's Birthday (I Can't Tell A Lie) has a great balance while changing the tempo from period music to uptempo jazz, and Astaire's dancing matches each perfectly. There is also the simple elegance of Easter Parade and the amazing number for the 4th of July and Astaire's inventive genius with the firecrackers. A simply amazing number.

The highlight of course is the song White Christmas. It is simple, beautiful, elegant, and nostalgic (curious that it took a Jewish Russian immigrant man to write one of the best and most quintessential American Christmas songs ever written). The song is already brilliant, but adding Crosby's beautiful voice to it makes it even more special. His singing adds greatly to the songs from White Christmas to Easter Parade to the Valentine's Day song that was earmarked as the big number in Holiday InnBe Careful, It's My Heart.

Of course, Astaire can match him with his dancing, like when he crashes the New Year's Eve party at Holiday Inn. He is suppose to be drunk, but even when looking tipsy he still has an extraordinary grace in his movement, as also when he does the Easy To Dance With number at a club or while performing with Reynolds in Be Careful, It's My Heart. It is doubtful that anyone will ever be able to dance like Astaire (with only Gene Kelly being the closest thing to his equal in film). Few films have catered to the specific and extraordinary talents of the performers.

There are a few flaws with the film that date it. For example, the extravagant 4th of July number is very patriotic but its inclusion of footage of both General Douglas MacArthur and President Franklin D. Roosevelt make it a bit of a period piece (and strike me as a touch propaganistic, though given it was made in 1942 I'm willing to forgive it). Even more shocking to modern audiences is the Abraham number for the Lincoln's Birthday sequence. It's already bad enough that Crosby is in blackface, and even more appalling that the only African-American in the cast (Louise Beavers) has to sing a song with a line about Lincoln "setting the darky free" (which in itself is cringe-inducing). What really horrifies is seeing Reynolds in blackface, looking like a frightful and grotesque parody of a pickaninny, down to the white circle around the lips and the hair. For a first-time viewer, it can cause a shock of horror, so be forewarned.

I digress to wonder whether the whole number should be cut. It goes against all my instincts because I'm a firm believer a film should be seen as it was intended to be seen, but I found the whole number so distasteful that I wonder if it might now be better to remove it and include it as a special feature. I've come to the conclusion that it is best to make a brief announcement about it before the film starts, so as to warn the audience and let them decide. Now I should point out that the plot takes great pains to give a REASON for all the make-up, but it doesn't make it any easier to accept. Also, there is nothing in the history of anyone involved in the production that would make us think they were racists. Unfortunately, this sort of thing was just a product of its time, and mercifully so.

That one flaw aside, Holiday Inn is still a delight. Brilliant musical numbers and the extraordinary talents of Crosby and Astaire lift the film to a masterful level. Holiday Inn shows that in a certain way, every day's a holiday.

Update: As part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon I participate from time to time, I wrote about the Abraham number and on the issue of whether it should be removed or not for future releases.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Great Day in Harlem: A Review


A Picture is Worth a Thousand Songs...

The course a musical genre takes is one that I find endlessly fascinating. There was once a time when people would sing arias on the street and the average citizen would think it perfectly natural in attending an opera. Now, classical music is seen as only enjoyable to those in a high-income bracket. The same for Broadway musicals. At one point, Louis Armstrong's rendition of the title song of Hello, Dolly! beat out The Beatles for the top spot on the Billboard charts. Now, while Armstrong is well-known (and I'd argue, so is the song Hello, Dolly!), it's highly unlikely that Stephen Sondheim will topple Britney Spears on the radio.

Speaking of Armstrong, jazz is now in the same boat as classical. Jazz was once the mainstay of juke-joints, played in the most chic of clubs and on the radio. It was THE music of the average man. People like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, or Dave Brubeck were common names in American households. Now, jazz too has been relegated to the wee hours of National Public Radio. Music that was once considered beneath people is now considered as too artistic to be enjoyed. A Great Day In Harlem, the documentary about a photo of jazz greats, reminds of a time when people still thought jazz was still regular music and of when artists still cared about how they were seen.

It's 1958 and Esquire Magazine is going to have an all-jazz issue. Novice photographer Art Kane is hired to get together a collection of all the jazz musicians he can find to have a group picture taken of them. From that photograph, stories flow as smooth as a solo.

Some of the names of those who were there and/or share their memories are generally known to the public (Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Marion McPartland, Thelonious Monk, Gene Krupa), and some are known more by jazz aficionados (of which I can't say I am one): Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Pettiford, Henry "Red" Allen. A Great Day in Harlem mixes the memories of the subjects of the photo who were still alive in 1994 when the film was made with performance clips of both the living and the dead.

What performances they were. The artistry of the performers is amazing and the talent they had remarkable. Even more remarkable and effective is the respect and admiration they had for each other. McPartland, for example, talks in glowing terms of Mary Lou Williams, a pianist and arranger like herself. It is a testament to the professionalism of these jazz giants that they knew talent when they heard it and did not let their own egos make them deaf to great performers. The film benefits from the fact that the photograph itself is not the only one taken that day. Mixed in with the memories of that moment are photographs taken by others as well as home movies.

A Great Day In Harlem makes it clear this was almost a bit of a reunion of sorts. So many of the performers would have been on the road or resting from performing at night so getting even the 57 subjects together would have been a challenge to the most expert of photographers, let alone someone like Kane, who was barely starting out. Everyone, it seems, was having a good time, seeing old friends, friendly rivals, and artists they respected. The film also has amusing but true-to-life anecdotes. We find out that they all unconsciously congregated to those of the same instruments: pianists gathered with other pianists, drummers huddled together. We also get a delightful tale of why Monk was nearly late for the picture: he agonized over what to wear.

This bit of information made me reflect that in 1958 even the most Avant-garde of musicians would still care greatly about how he/she looked when being photographed. A Great Day In Harlem in its own way, is more than just the story of a single picture. It's the story of a now-vanished world: vanished because as of today only 5 of the 57 subjects are alive as of today, vanished because jazz is no longer considered the hippest thing going, vanished because artists (musicians, actors) don't think much about appearing in public looking like they just got out of bed or an insane asylum. We learn not only that Monk wanted to look his very best (and dress in a way that drew attention to himself) but that Red Allen always appeared in a suit and tie. Name me the last pop/rock musician of the current generation that takes that much care in how he/she appears on stage or on the street (Michael Bublé may be one, but his style lends itself to being a bit of a throwback to that era).

A Great Day In Harlem is the correct name not just for the picture, or the film, but for the era. It captures a time when artists knew each other, respected each other, and celebrated their achievements. It got together great artists and great performances, and it is a great archive of a time when we all knew all that jazz.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Wolfman (2010) Review


There is no reason to regard the original The Wolf Man as an untouchable classic. In fact, it's a surprise that it hasn't been remade sooner, seeing as how other Universal Pictures monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein have gotten the remake treatment. Perhaps it is good that this version has come at the time it did, seeing as how wolfmen have suffered in recent years. They are in danger of coming across as sex objects: young, muscular, brainless (and usually shirtless) teenage boys who exist only to bring the third point to insipid love triangles involving vampires and even more brainless teenage girls (one hint as to what I'm referring to). The Wolfman now reminds us of what they really are: dangerous monsters who are a genuine threat to all those who don't suffer from lycanthropy. Pity the film itself didn't manage to communicate that as well as it could.

Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) has disappeared. His brother, Lawrence (the utterly British Benicio Del Toro) has been contacted by Ben's fiancé, Gwen (Emily Blunt) to return to Talbot Hall. When he does and is reunited with his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), it is too late: Ben's body has been found, violently mauled. The Gypsies nearby are held to blame, and a group of vigilantes come to take matters into their own hands. Luckily (or unluckily) we find out that they are not responsible, and Lawrence falls victim to a wolf. Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) is investigating the rash of violent attacks, and comes to a shocking realization. Now, with a full moon, Lawrence himself turns into The Wolfman, and must confront the evil within him as well as a dark family secret.

While watching The Wolfman, I found myself in the odd position of enjoying it far more than I should have. The film goes to great lengths to capture the dark, Gothic mood it requires, and it did it well thanks to the work of cinematographer Shelley Johnson and the music of Danny Elfman (who has been hit and miss for me, here a hit). Overall, it has the look and mood of a dark, mysterious English moors. I also enjoyed the fact that The Wolfman didn't fall into the temptation of using massive amounts of Computer-Generated Imagery to capture the creature's transformation and attacks. In certain ways, it was almost retro. This has to be the stamp of legendary make-up master Rick Baker (who curiously won the inaugural Best Make-Up Oscar for another variation on the theme of lycanthropy, An American Werewolf in London). That is one of its pluses: that you didn't get the sense that it was ALL done by computers.

The minuses are that you got the sense that almost all the acting WAS done by computers. We are suppose to believe Benicio Del Toro is this great Shakespearean actor before being compelled to return to Talbot Hall. However, for most of the film he has a very curious and distant manner to his performance, as if he isn't quite sure what he's suppose to do in the film or even if he's suppose to be IN the film (seeing that he is one of the producers, the latter doesn't seem likely). Blunt is all breathy delivery and appears to be holding over some of The Young Victoria manner to her. As for Hopkins, he certainly is having a good time knowing he is in a B-picture. Weaving brings intelligence to his Inspector but since he isn't at the center of the film doesn't add much. I will say that it is a pleasure to see Geraldine Chaplin in a cameo and I surprised myself that I recognized her. She has aged gracefully since her debut in Doctor Zhivago forty-five years ago.

There is another issue in the script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. It never fully exploits the situations it puts the characters in to their greatest potential. There is a scene where Lawrence is brought before a group of scientists to force Lawrence to realize that if he sees a full moon, he won't turn into a werewolf. This should have been a great scene of tension and terror, but oddly, I never got a sense of fear or excitement. The shocking twist could be seen easily and frankly doesn't come as a shock. It also has some rather idiotic dialogue and a little creature that looks so much like Gollum that the people behind me started calling out, "My Precious, My Precious".

Of course, the blame for the story falling more times than succeeding rests on director Joe Johnston. One thing I would take him to task for is in the gruesome nature of the attacks. They were at times a bit too graphic when less would have been more. I also think the ending could have been handled better and while not leaving the door open for a sequel there is shall we say a slight crack (one I suspect won't be taken).

In spite of all the things that were wrong with The Wolfman, I enjoyed it enough to think well of it. I was entertained and when I left I thought it was money well spent for an hour's worth of my time. I should have disliked it because it could have been much better. However, I thought it was sometimes fun, sometimes effective in capturing a Gothic sensibility, and in the right spirit, a howl of a good time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld (1936): A Review (Review #50)


Ziggy Star Maker...

The Great Ziegfeld is a most curious case in my reviews. I opted to watch it twice and reversed my view slightly on it. The first time I hated it, the second time I warmed up to it though still found major flaws. Perhaps I enjoyed it more this time was because I knew what to expect, but I see that I might have been too harsh the first time. Or perhaps I've just mellowed over time and warmed up to its own grandiose aspirations..rather like the aspirations Ziegfeld himself had. Or maybe, just maybe, it helped I didn't watch all three hours of it in one sitting. I have a weakness for lavish musicals and near-forgotten films. After watching The Great Ziegfeld, I think it would be a great film...if it were a half-hour to full hour shorter.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (William Powell) is above all else a showman of the first order. We get this right away when we see him at the Chicago World's Fair as he manages Sandow the Strongman, which is unsuccessful until he adds an element of SEX to it. He has a lifelong rivalry with fellow impresario Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), but it's a friendly rivalry since every time Ziegfeld has money problems (and he has them often) Billings always gets him out of them...almost always reluctantly, as if he knows he shouldn't but can't help himself. We go through Ziegfeld's lavish life and career: his wooing and winning of French star Anna Held (Luise Rainer) his lavish productions of the Ziegfeld Follies, his discovering of Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice (playing themselves) as well as Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers (interpreted by Buddy Doyle and A.A. Trimble respectively), his flirtations with women, his divorce from Held and marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and up to his death.

Perhaps the popularity of The Great Ziegfeld at its release had to do with the fact that Ziegfeld died in 1932, so his name was still very fresh in the minds of the American public in 1936. He represented the Ultimate in Theatrical Production, A Lavish Spectacle, and the film certainly does his memory honor by staging grand musical numbers, culminating with A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody that ends the first part of the film.

Even today, it's still a wildly extravagant number and hard not to be impressed by it: in one take, we get a touch of opera, some Gershwin, and girls--beautiful girls, endless visions of girls, all going around a set that keeps going up and up and up. Lavish, frankly, is too small a word for the number, and it rightly won the Oscar for the now-defunct Best Dance Direction category. We also have to remember that the stars that appear (either as themselves or performed by others) we big, big stars in 1936: Cantor, Rogers, Brice and Bolger were names the public knew, though tragically they aren't as well-known today.*

The Great Ziegfeld offers up a grand vision of what many audiences could only hope to see: an actual Ziegfeld Follies show. Therefore, a paying public would certainly get its money's worth.  If nothing else, The Great Ziegfeld doesn't skimp on the opulence and lavish nature of a Ziegfeld production.

I also have to acknowledge the great performances in the film. William Powell is perfect in the title role. He has a marvelous charm to his Flo, a man who is the living embodiment of someone who could charm the birds from the trees and sell ice to the Eskimos (or Inuit to use the correct terminology). We see this in the first few minutes, when after failing to attract audiences from Billings' dancer, "Little Egypt", he takes Sandow to dinner. Though he's on the verge of getting thrown off the fair's midway, Ziegfeld still insists on spending what little money he has to put up appearances...and charm Billings' companion away from him.

We should dislike Ziegfeld for being so irresponsible with money and cooking up all sorts of outrageous publicity to attract audiences, but we end up loving him for those qualities. Powell's Ziegfeld may be a bit of a confidence man, but one full of confidence in himself and unwilling to let details such as paying his costumers prevent him from creating more elaborate shows. Again and again, he is beset by financial problems, but again and again, he goes ahead with his plans, knowing full well that everything will turn out his way. Ziegfeld is a True Optimist and perhaps the reason we like him (apart from Powell's first-rate characterization) is that we like Ziegfeld's unfailing confidence and joy--an American original.

There is also in William Powell's performance a sweetness and vulnerability to his Ziegfeld. The scene when he is proposing to Billie Burke is very gentle and touching. He and Myrna Loy are beautiful together. Pity they didn't make any other films together...just kidding. They made a beautiful couple, and Loy was wise not to try to capture the real Burke's unique voice style (if you've seen The Wizard of Oz, you will instantly recognize the real Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch). She is Powell's equal, making her Burke an intelligent woman who is also supportive of her man.

Now, as for Luise Rainer...well, perhaps I don't have a good handle on her interpretation of Anna Held, but I still think her performance was very fluttery and mannered, full of hand-wringing and exaggerated posing. Her temperamental outbursts: one minute demanding Ziegfeld leave, then demanding he stay within the same minute in her French accent, was getting a bit difficult to endure at times.

Rainer was very pretty but her Anna came of as slightly dumb. When told Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. wants to see her in her dressing room, she asks her maid, "Why is he Junior? Is he a little boy?" Frankly, I don't know what to make of that line: was it meant to be witty or was it meant to show how dumb Anna Held was suppose to be? Her delivery makes it sound like the latter.

There are also unexpected surprises, delights, and a few shockers. A.A. Trimble did such a spot-on impression of Will Rogers that the first time I saw the film, I thought it was the Will Rogers in a cameo (which on reflection would have been impossible given that Rogers had died in an airplane accident a year before The Great Ziegfeld was released). It's hard to make the same claim for Doyle's Cantor, since "Eddie Cantor" was performing in blackface (it should be remembered that this was part of Cantor's act and acceptable at the time). Ray Bolger shows what a marvelous dancer he was, and Brice's appearance was delightful, bringing her Yiddish humor to her brief role as herself. Her scene where she doesn't realize that THE Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is inviting her to join his Follies is very funny, showing off the real "Funny Girl" as a talented comedienne.

Unfortunately, her signature song, My Man, was abbreviated in the film, which is tragic considering its three-hour length. My personal thinking is that in 1936 the majority of the audience would have known the song so there was no thought of including the entire number in the film when the audience could have just heard it on radio or records. On a personal note, this might be my imagination, but I always got the sense that Brice and Bolger were glad to appear as themselves in The Great Ziegfeld and that they had a great fondness, affection and appreciation for the man who gave them their big break.  The Great Ziegfeld was their way of paying tribute to him, and their appearances in it certainly enhanced the film as a whole.

When it comes down to it The Great Ziegfeld has two strikes against it: at three hours it's still too long to watch without a break (there is an intermission in the film), and Rainer's performance (while being a Best Actress Oscar-winning one for that year) is by today's standards the most unrealistic and exaggerated of the top three billed actors. Still, it has great musical numbers, great performances by Powell & Loy, and that makes it perhaps not The Great Ziegfeld but the Very Good Ziegfeld.


I also have personal reflections on Luise Rainer's centenary as well as more views on other Best Picture winners.

* Ray Bolger is probably best remembered as The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (coincidently costarring Ziegfeld's widow Billie Burke), while Fanny Brice won't be forgotten due to Barbra Streisand playing Brice in Funny Girl. Will Rogers may strike a note due to the Will Rogers Institute, and it's doubtful modern audiences would know who Eddie Cantor was. Amazing how big names are now barely remembered. Tragic.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Up In the Air: A Review


Going Terminal...

You know from the get-go that Up In The Air is a comedy because of the opening music, an uptempo jazzy rendition of This Land is Your Land. Laughs don't usually come from situations that involve people losing their jobs, and Up in the Air proves that they still don't. This is the type of film that thinks is funny in an intellectual fashion but is neither as smart, clever, or interesting as it thinks it is.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has the most interesting job: he fires people for a living for the ironically-named Career Transition Counseling, ironic since he doesn't actually offer any counseling but just tosses people with a dispassionate disinterest. Bingham flies throughout the country and gives people extremely devastating news with no sense of empathy or any other emotion really. This kind of life is perfect for Bingham, who wants no attachments on any level and is only truly alive when he is going from airport to airport collecting frequent flier miles. He is a stranger to his sisters, to the point where he is annoyed about being asked to take a cutout of one of them and her fiancé and taking a picture of it in front of buildings and has to be all but dragged kicking and screaming to do it.

Speaking at motivational seminars encouraging people to basically dump everyone around them makes him happy. Knowing what and how to pack makes him happy. Having little in his apartment or life to show for his existence makes him happy. Travelling so as to achieve 10 million miles makes him happy. Having a casual affair with Alex Gordon (Vera Farmiga) whom he meets at an airport and sleeps with whenever their paths cross (and who appears to be a female version of Ryan) makes him happy. In a nutshell, Ryan's thoroughly soulless, a man for whom nihilism is a source of joy.

However, Ryan's neat little world is facing a threat from Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She has brought the assembly line to the world of termination: she has created a system to fire people on-line via remote webcam. This pleases Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), the head of CTC and the only person more soulless than Bingham, a man who truly sees the increase in unemployment as a wonderful thing. It however, horrifies Bingham, and after a disagreement with Gregory has to take Keener under his wing to show her the ropes. There, the two fly all around the continental U.S. (St. Louis, Wichita, Kansas City, Tulsa, Des Moines, Miami, Detroit), he firing people and fitting in trysts with Alex and arguments with Natalie, who is at turns both perky and dumb--the CTC version of Katie Couric. Eventually, Bingham begins to wonder, what's it all about.

Up in the Air, directed by Jason Reitman and cowritten by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, asks us to do the impossible: trying to convince us to sympathize with someone who has no sympathy for anyone. Bingham is an extremely loathsome character, someone who is incapable of love and as such it's difficult to care about his journey. As a film viewer, I detest those little symbolic touches that are blatantly obvious. Take for example, the cutout of his sister and fiancé. He puts the picture in his luggage and it doesn't fit--thereby symbolizing how his family (or any other human relation) doesn't fit into his neat little lifeless existence.

(Side note: wouldn't it have been easier to mail the cutout to Las Vegas, pick it up when it arrived at the hotel, have the picture taken, then mailed it back to his hovel? It might have been, but then we needed that "symbolism" about how Bingham couldn't fit his family or anyone in his life. When films do that, they end up irritating me at their own need to call attention to their imagery rather than trust the audience to understand what is going on).

When he's told that all the CTC agents are being grounded in favor of the online terminations (which is beyond cold and cruel) he is dead set against it, not because he knows that getting fired requires the personal touch (which he clearly doesn't have) but because it will put his dreams of achieving 10 million air miles in jeopardy, not to mention it will force him to stay in Omaha rather than continue living apart from humanity. In short, he doesn't object because it is reprehensible to fire people via remote but because it will affect him personally. How can we root for someone not only that selfish but that unfeeling? We rarely celebrate the misanthrope.

We also can't find any humanity in any of the other characters. Alex has no difficulties getting together with a man she doesn't really know just for some casual sex. Natalie seems oblivious to how dreadful it is to fire people at all, let alone via the coldest method possible. As for Craig, any person who believes a down economy where others are truly suffering is a wonderful thing can't be someone we can embrace.

This is at the core of what is wrong with Up In The Air: if you have no one to empathize or identify with, you end up not caring about what happens to any of the characters. If you can't identify with anyone on screen, you don't have a successful film.

I am aware that Up In The Air is supposed to be about how Bingham grows as a human, but for so long he remains the same that when he finally realizes that "What's in Your Backpack?" IS important, we don't believe the transformation. It also is unbelievable that Natalie, who is suppose to have a psychology degree, would be so thoroughly clueless about how people actually work. Bingham makes a good point when she tells him and Alex that her boyfriend dumped her via text message. "Just like being fired over the Internet", he tells Natalie.

Bateman and to a lesser extent Clooney are self-consciously smarmy, horrid people. Kendrick's Natalie is again perky and dumb, like an overly eager child who just found out she made captain of the cheerleading squad. She was never believable. Farmiga's Alex was, and she gave a solid performance, probably the only one who did.

The film begins with a montage of people getting fired and their reactions: anger mostly, though a few defensive and all hostile. It ends with a montage of the same people (at least I think they are the same--the movie felt so long I had all but forgotten) talking about how their life is after they were terminated. They realized life goes on. A comedy has to have either serious people in a humorous situation or humorous people in a serious situation to work. Up In The Air has neither: there really is nothing funny about watching people lose their jobs or about the people doing the firing. On the whole, Up In The Air never takes off. Also, I never imagined that sitting next to Sam Elliot was considered a prize.

He Just Found Out There IS Such A Thing as The Real World


Dear John,

You have little to no talent. You are not funny. You say stupid things that insult and offend people, from your fans to your detractors. You are not a racist, just a MORON.


Rick's Cafe Texan

I've never understood John Mayer's popularity. I'm constantly told that he's this musical genius but after listening to Room For Squares, I couldn't tell one song from the other. In short, I find all his songs sound the same. Why is this person considered talented? His voice is this permanent whisper with a touch of a growl that induces sleep.

Yet all this time these really silly girls would throw themselves at him. They thought he was SO CUTE, SO SENSITIVE, SO SMART. Well ladies, you've had all three of your beliefs shattered. Look at his mug shot. I don't consider that to be a beautiful face--just one with a blank brain. On the sensitive front, I don't know of another sensitive guy who talks about how good (or bad) his ex-lovers were in bed. That, my dear ladies, is not chivalrous. As for the smart...

Where to begin? First, there's the talking about Jessica Simpson being "sexual napalm". Well, why would you want to tell the world about your sex life? I've always been told that "private life" should be, well, private. As former President Bill Clinton remarked after his testimony to the Starr (Chamber) Inquiry, "Even Presidents have private lives". Actually Mr. President, they don't, but I digress. I wonder how many women like having their sexual prowess discussed for us to giggle over?

Next, there's the "n****r" remark. Did he think he was being clever, or hip, or with-it? Mr. Meyer is around my age, so he really has no excuse to imagine in ANY way that HIS use of this term would be applauded by anyone. I find it distasteful when an African-American uses it (and wish they would stop), and this WASPy McWasp (to use a Seth Cohen terminology) using it is just inflammatory. I imagine that Mr. Mayer thought he had some cover since he was/is a big Obama supporter. Let me clear him of such thoughts: Johnny, just because you voted and campaigned for the first African-American President doesn't mean you can use a term that would insult him and his family. Now, I don't believe John Mayer is a racist, just a MORON.

Finally, let's go to his penis. No, he doesn't have black women throwing themselves at him (I imagine because by and large they have better taste in music and men). However, if he did, he wouldn't sleep with one because as he put it, his "dick" is like a "white supremacist" (I use quotation marks to indicate his words). You'd think a 32-year-old would think twice about comparing his "c**k" to former Klansman David Duke (or for that matter, former Klansman Robert Byrd--equal opportunity here), but this 32-year-old man (and I'm using that term loosely) didn't. Even if one had no desire to bed a woman because of her race or ethnicity, one shouldn't publicize such details. One may have a preference for a certain race/ethnicity, but why tell the world, "No Black Chicks" (for the record, Alicia Keyes and Beyoncé are free to call me anytime). That makes you look kind of, well, racist (even though I don't think he is). It also confirms that person as a MORON.

Now, there are many things to hate about John Mayer: his awful music, his pathetic attempts at humor, dumping Jennifer Aniston (TWICE, and once in the middle of the street to all the paparazzi), being overpaid for being undertalented. I dislike him for All Of The Above (especially the Aniston bit, though I question HER intelligence in going out with him at all, let alone after being dumped once by him). Now I have another reason: he's a MORON. Shall we look for a "teachable moment"? This is it: people who write bad songs (and paid far too much for that) are just too far isolated from reality, where one doesn't talk about their sex life or use inappropriate language. You shouldn't talk about your penis or where it's been in or where it won't be in. This is a sad case of someone who's been surrounded by too many sycophants praising his "genius" and "witty mind" and has ultimately violated the Top Rule in Show-Business: Don't Believe Your Own Press.

Dear John, I would advise you to stop talking to the press. Take this as your mantra: brevity is the soul of wit (of which you could use). Not playing with the paparazzi has worked before. It's worked for Dylan (who is more talented than you will ever be). In short, to quote Gwen Stefani, "don't speak".

P.S. John Clayton Mayer, you are not talented, you are not funny, but you a MORON.

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Complicated: A Review


Putting the 'ex' in 'sex'...

Perhaps it's inevitable that the concept of "hooking up" now has infected the baby boomer generation, for how else can I understand the behavior of the leads in It's Complicated, another romantic comedy that's light on both counts.

Jane (Meryl Streep), a restaurateur, and Jake (Alec Baldwin), an attorney, once were married, but Jake dumped Jane to marry his mistress Agnes (Lake Bell). Ten years later, Jane & Jake reunite for their son's college graduation. Jane suffers through the empty-nest syndrome, while Jake is just suffering through a marriage with a younger woman who cajoles him to fertility treatments so her son Pedro (who isn't Jake's) can have a sibling. They see each other (coincidentally, as happens in these types of movies) in the same medical office visit (she leaving a plastic surgeon's office, he on his way to the fertility clinic) and at a hotel where they're both staying for their son's graduation. They share a few drinks, a few memories, and before you know it: they wake up together after a quick roll in the hay. Now Jane finds herself in the odd position of having an affair with a married man who is her ex-husband. Things get more complicated (hence the title) for her when she starts a relationship with Adam (Steve Martin), an architect working on her house.

There really isn't anything clever, witty, or original in It's Complicated. Far from living up to the title, everything's quite simplistic. Baldwin's Jake comes off as sexually insatiable and slightly obsessed about starting up with Jane. Side note: Jake & Jane--am I the only one who thinks your main characters should have more than one letter separating them? He has no subtlety to how he approaches his ex-wife: driving up to her house for a romp, making all sorts of suggestive comments to her in front of their kids. It's as if he wants to keep the wife and the ex-wife and have them accept this relationship.

Why did I keep hearing lines from that song Stay by Lisa Loeb while watching this? Because he can't let either go since he's "so scared to lose", perhaps? Baldwin was reveling in how outrageous and immature he could be, and Streep also was having a good time being comedic, but one wonders why she would be so willing to be so upset when he couldn't get away, especially when Adam has entered the picture. I will complement Martin for underplaying Adam, bringing a touch of drama to a situation where he's getting screwed (metaphorically of course).

That isn't to say there aren't funny moments. Seeing middle-aged people smoking pot and going through the effects is always funny, as is a scene where Baldwin's character passes out right before they have another encounter due to, shall we say, a middle-aged man's medical condition. However, there is something slightly creepy about seeing a group of women celebrate that their friend is having sex with a man who dumped her ten years earlier. I felt bad for Rita Wilson, a talented actress who has been relegated to an endless parade of "best friend" parts who serves only to encourage the main character to do whatever the main character's suppose to do. John Krasinski, who plays Ja(k/n)e's eldest daughter's fiancée, does what he can with a limited role but here I find one of my main issues with It's Complicated: only in movies would lovers meet in the same hotel AT THE SAME TIME that the daughter and fiancée are there. We don't need these coincidences, and they never are believable to begin with.

There are a few other things that bothered me about the film. Ja(k/n)e's three children should be in their mid-to-late twenties, yet when they discover their parents are having an affair (yes, that scene WAS very funny--a naked Alec Baldwin always good for a laugh), they all look slightly traumatized. You'd think after ten years they would have gotten over it, but I guess not. Also, Agnes' child Pedro was the singularly most annoying child I've seen on screen in a long time. If I were Jake, I would have left her just so I wouldn't have to deal with him no matter how great the sex was.

Ultimately, It's Complicated is a mindless, forgettable little film with a few funny moments. It does prove what I have taught people for the longest time though: Never Marry Your Mistress.

The Princess and The Frog: A Review


Give Me A Kiss to Build a Dream On...

It has been a long, long time since the Walt Disney Company has made a two-dimensional animated film. With The Princess and the Frog now out, all I can say is that it was worth the wait and wonder why they left it in the first place. The film is not a retread in nostalgia but a beautiful film in its own right about how dreams can come true (a Disney staple) with a wish and some hard work.

Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a young girl from New Orleans who dreams of opening her own restaurant with her father (Terrence Howard). Even after his death she still carries their dream while maintaining a busy work life...and no social one. Enter one Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) from Maldonia, who loves jazz and girls, both of which are plentiful in N'awlens (trying to sound like a native here). However, the prince is low on funds (low meaning none) so he decides to marry Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), Tiana's childhood friend and the daughter of the richest man in town, Big Daddy LaBouff (John Goodman). This union fits into the schemes of Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo priest also known as The Shadow Man. Together with Naveen's valet, Facilier turns the prince into a frog. Naveen escapes and encounters Tiana, who he mistakes for a princess that can break the spell. Very reluctantly, Tiana kisses him but finds HERSELF turned into a frog. The only one who might know how to break the spell is a voodoo priestess, Mamma Odie (Jennifer Lewis), and so they travel the bayou with Louis, a jazz-loving trumpet-playing alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) and Ray, a Cajun firefly (Ray Cummings).

Much has been made of the fact that The Princess and The Frog has its first African-American princess (another stab at diversity like with Native American princess Pocahontas and Chinese princess Mulan) and it is happy coincidence that the character of Tania comes at the time when America has its own real-life African-American princesses in Sasha and Malia Obama. It may have been done to make a princess that a certain segment could relate to (my Hispanic female relatives never having a problem identifying with any Disney Princess, but I digress), but it makes perfect sense given the setting of New Orleans and the surrounding Louisiana bayou country.

The location is also perfect to showcase the extraordinary range of music to come from the Pelican State courtesy of Randy Newman (with the closing song, Never Knew I Needed, by Ne-Yo). The music does what all good film songs should do: serve the story by either expressing the character's feelings or moving the plot along AND be memorable. You have the requisite jazz (Down in New Orleans and When We're Human) but you also have the great zydeco numbers Gonna Take You There and the beautiful and haunting Cajun ballad Ma Belle Evangeline (which I think is the best song in the film, Academy be damned). You even get a bit of gospel with Dig A Little Deeper. The Shadow Man (who to me looked a bit like Little Richard) has his own number, Friends On The Other Side, which is remarkably scary thanks to its voodoo setting and first-rate animation.

This films should put to rest the idea that has come of late that 2D is somehow inferior or less expressive than computer-generated animation. The Princess and The Frog creates a magical world where the traditional cel animation enhances the story. On a personal note, I had come to fear that future generations would shrink in horror from 2D films because they have been inundated with CGI in the Shrek or Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs vein. There is nothing wrong with using the latest technology (if anything, Walt Disney was the first to grab onto the latest innovations and even creating a few) but in traditional hand-drawn animation (with a little bit of help from computers) there is a magic, a sense of fantasy that other films in their eagerness to appear real miss.

The Disney Studios, however, is not afraid to experiment: the Almost There number has a vaguely Art Deco style that is a departure from previous films, but it's a welcome one. As a side note, after Precious, I think it is wonderful to see a loving, positive portrayal of African-American family life on the screen.

The voice work is excellent. I single out John Goodman as Big Daddy as being the only one I recognized instantly, but I figure it would be impossible to have a good New Orleans film without Goodman. It would be like having an album of New Orleans music without Dr. John--it just isn't done. David made his Dr. Facilier both menacing and fearful of his "friends on the other side", and Rose and Campos were delightful as the no-nonsense Tania and overly self-confident prince. I must confess to not recognizing Oprah Winfrey as Tania's mother Eudora but in my defense I don't watch much television apart from Turner Classic Movies, FOX News, MSNBC (I believe in seeing both sides of an issue) or repeats of The Golden Girls.

There were a couple of aspects that I wasn't too thrilled with. Charlotte unintentionally brought back memories of Missy Anne from Roots, and at times I found her a little annoying. There was also a line that the realtors used that I found curious. When they tell her that someone else has made an offer for the property she wants they mention that "a girl of your background" should be used to waiting, or something to that effect. I thought it was a curious phrase to use.

Still, these are minor details. We get emotionally invested in the characters, we get great songs and no spoiler here Happy Endings All Around. I think it's fitting that The Princess and The Frog, the first Disney animated film with an African-American heroine, get the exact grade the first African-American President gave himself for his first year in office. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Precious: A Review


As I watched Precious, one word kept returning to my mind: heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to see how people who should love each other hurt each other so viciously: physically, emotionally. It is heartbreaking to see how so many people can go through life with great potential but be ruled out by society at large. It is heartbreaking to watch helplessly as efforts to help people can only go so far. It is heartbreaking to see how the lure of virtually free money can corrupt the human spirit. In spite of all the horror we see throughout Precious, we still get the sense that an individual can not only survive, but thrive.

Precious takes place in late-eighties Harlem. Our main character is Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight black teen who narrates most of the film. She is a bright individual (she tells us how much she loves math) but has incredible obstacles. At 16 she is virtually illiterate and is pregnant with her second child. The father of both her children is her own father. At home, her mother, Mary Johnson (Mo'nique) is beyond sadistic. She is a vicious, angry woman, more interested in her television shows and the welfare check that comes with Precious than in her own daughter. Mary has no qualms about belittling Precious and being violent towards her. Precious handles the sexual and emotional abuse by going into fantasies of glamour, of her being thought of as beautiful and exciting. The cruel realities of life always bring her back.

Precious is moved to an alternative school called Reach One Teach One due to her second pregnancy. At this school, she meets Miss Rain (Paula Patton), a young, pretty teacher who has the students in the small class write their lives. Precious also comes into contact with a social worker (Mariah Carey), who has to sort out the complex family situation with Precious, Mary, and Precious' children. It's at this school where she has a new sense of life and hope, of a world opening up to Precious. After her second child is born, she has one more encounter with Mary, which is extremely painful and difficult to watch. It seems as though every time Precious comes close to gaining a step forward, life pushes her back, with one last blow from both her parents basically dooming Precious.

One runs the risk of frightening away people from Precious if one went by the story itself, but the film is much more than a series of horrors inflicted on a black girl who is so wrecked emotionally and physically that she fantasizes on occasion that she's white. The film has parallels to another film about a black woman who is raped and abused but through education and the kindness of strangers (along with a spark within her) rises to believe herself worthy of life: The Color Purple.

Also like in that film, the performances are remarkable. Gabourey Sidibe is magnificent as Precious. She never makes her into a stock victim, but ultimately as a survivor. Sidibe creates a character who still doesn't give up hope, even in her most outlandish fantasies. Paula Patton's Miss Rain is also not just "the inspirational teacher", but a woman who has her own issues and who truly cares about all her students.

I also have to give credit to those performers who have small roles but who also leave an impressive mark. There's Nurse John, and while it may surprise some to see rock star Lenny Kravitz in the role, his performance is solid as that of a potential love interest who is confident in himself and his masculinity in a female-dominated field. Mariah Carey took an enormous gamble by deglamorizing herself and going for an extremely small role--her social worker Ms. Weiss has about three scenes in the picture, with only the final one being long. However, Carey has disproved definitively that she is just a diva trying to be a film star. In fact, she did what true actresses do: focused on the reality of the character as opposed to the vanity of the performer. By dressing down, we forget that Carey is a singing superstar and believe her to be an overwhelmed case worker who learns a horrifying tale and who is not afraid of confronting the cause of so much misery.

That leads us to Mo'Nique, a true revelation. It's easy to think of her as a raunchy comedienne, but she never hits a false note as Precious' mother. Throughout the film, she is one of the most vile women to appear on the screen, but every now and again, she lets you see the vulnerability and hurt that is within Mary, how in her own way, she let someone else's opinion of her and the conclusions she drew from that ruin so many other lives. At the end, when we hear from Mary, and see how she realizes how it all went so tragically wrong, it tears at you like few performances have. I was on the verge of tears myself, and while I cannot bring myself to excuse or justify all the terrible things she did, we experience some form of catharsis. We get something we wouldn't imagine was possible: a little bit of sympathy for Mary at the end.

Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher pulled no punches in having us dive headfirst into a nightmare world where people are devalued or considered only for what the welfare check can bring in. They never stray from making this a sadly all-too-real world, no effort to make it pretty or exaggerated. It stays true to life, and we get no sense that the world of Precious is anything other than reality, a horrifying reality but real all the same. There was the occasional odd moment (a subplot involving lesbians that I felt was unnecessary) but those are minor criticisms to an overall excellent film.

Precious isn't an easy film to see. We don't have a happy ending. Even though we know where her life WILL end up, we still leave with a sense of hope. This is due to Precious herself, someone who has endured the most horrifying and cruel of situations and is able with some good people and her own sense of worth realize that she may be seen as fat, ugly, black, uneducated, but...she's here. She has a right to exist, and have the best life possible. If in nothing else, that's what makes her and the film truly Precious.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Leap Year: A Review (Review #45)


Amy Adams' Ireland Vacation Videos...

During the romantic comedy Leap Year, Anna Brady (Amy Adams) declares twice that she doesn't believe in superstitions. However, she does apparently believe in at least ONE superstition, otherwise you wouldn't have a movie. Judging from the film itself, she also believes that women are needy and desperate to get married to men who are clueless or callous (or both) about how they keep them waiting without giving any indication that they will ever get around to proposing.

Anna has been dating Jeremy (Adam Scott) for four years now, and she's just heard that he's gone into a jewelry store, coming out with a small box. Here's a spoiler: it's NOT a wedding ring. She understandably is disappointed, especially since they are about to move in together. No problem, says her dad (John Lithgow, in film history's biggest billing for a cameo). The Irish have a tradition where on Leap Day the woman can propose to the man in Dublin. As coincidence would have it, Jeremy's IN Dublin for a medical conference. What ARE the odds? With that, she leaves her job as a person who stages apartments to appear as if they are lived in and bounces off to Eire. Hilarity ensues.

What should ensue is a walk to the exit. Leap Year is not imaginative or clever or fun. What it is really is quite puzzling and almost sad. It's one plot contrivance after another plot contrivance that appear to exist only to stretch out both the premise and the film itself. That bit about Leap Day being so close, about Jeremy being in Dublin on Leap Day, the requisite big storm that keeps Amy (I mean Anna) from landing in Dublin itself...and that's all within the first fifteen minutes I think.

I'm going to digress to question a point of logic in Leap Year (I'm big on plots making sense, even in the world a film takes place in). You have a big storm that prevents Anna's arrival in Ireland proper, so they're diverted to Wales. When I heard that, I got confused. Isn't Wales to the WEST of Ireland? Wouldn't that be like a plane going from San Francisco to Denver being diverted to New York City? Just wondering if anyone can figure that one out for me. Granted, I know nothing of proper flight patterns, but there it is. Back to the review.

Once she FINALLY makes it her ancestral homeland, she meets the requisite colorful Irish characters that were holdovers from The Quiet Man as well as innkeeper/bar owner Declan (Matthew Goode, making his second appearance in a reviewed film after A Serious Man). As I'm sure the Ireland Tourism Department has in its brochures, visitors have no real means of getting out of quaint Irish villages and to its capital. As it happens, Declan runs the only taxi...and as it happens, he could use the money Anna offers for to get her to Dublin by February 29 to save his bar/inn. More hilarity ensues.
If you haven't walked out by now, you are either being held by force or are asleep. On this jolly jaunt through the lush Irish countryside, we have cows blocking the road, missed trains, stolen luggage, a force sharing of rooms, and character exposition at a wedding Anna and Declan have managed to crash for no real reason except to have character exposition and good Irish music--as well as a gratuitous attack on the bride. Horrible. In any case, they finally make Dublin but wouldn't you know it, Declan and Anna find out that they...why bother? You should know, and if you can't figure it out I suggest you refrain from voting because the future of our country is too important to be left to people who have no perception of the obvious.

Throughout the whole movie, everyone looked so uncomfortable and unhappy to be in Leap Year. Amy Adams has talent (two Oscar nominations) and a sparkling, charming screen presence (Enchanted and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian). Yet here, she seemed curiously detached from the film, as if she knew she was going through the motions and just enjoyed the time in a beautiful country such as Ireland. Goode, who is British, managed to find an Irish accent, but he also is another person who is frankly too talented to be in something this frightful. Both their characters come off badly: she appears totally dumb and he downright cruel.

Adam Scott has a face of someone I wouldn't trust, so he appears to be perfect for Jeremy, a man so sleazy and heartless in his approach to Anna one wonders why ANY woman, let alone our heroine, would want to be near him, let alone marry him. John Lithgow had fun, but that was because he knew he was going to be on screen for about five minutes and just to serve as plot device so he could just roll with it and not worry about how everyone else would fare out.

Here's another point of logic. In all her travails in travelling to Dublin proper, I kept thinking, "If Jeremy KNOWS she's in Ireland, why doesn't he come down himself to rescue her? He could skip a seminar or two for the woman he loves. Why doesn't he send someone to pick her up and take her to Dublin? At the very, very least, SEND HER MONEY AND TRAIN TICKETS!" To quote Chandler Bing's speech pattern, could he BE any more sleazy and uncaring? Could she BE any more stupid and clueless?

Let me sum up my feelings about Leap Year this way: at a certain point, when both our leads are near a cliff, part of me was desperate to yell, "JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!"