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 initially hated it but opted to give it a second try. I found myself reversing, somewhat, my views 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. I think that in retrospect, I might have been too harsh the first time. It could also be that I have mellowed to The Great Ziegfeld's grandiose aspirations that mirror the grandiose aspirations of Florenz Ziegfeld himself. Add to that how I opted not to watch all three hours of it in one sitting. 

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 (Nat Pendleton). Sandow's sideshow is unsuccessful until Ziegfeld adds an element of sex to it. From his time with Sandow, Ziegfeld learns the importance of showmanship in his productions.

Ziggy has a lifelong rivalry with fellow impresario Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), but it is a friendly rivalry. The original frenemies are there for each other, though mostly it is Jack who is there for Ziggy, bailing him out whenever Ziegfeld has money problems. Why he actually does this, usually befuddled himself, Billings cannot answer. 

We go through Ziegfeld's lavish life and career. There is his wooing and winning of French star Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and the various lavish productions of various Ziegfeld Follies; along the way, we see that Ziegfeld discovered 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). Professionally, Ziegfeld has mostly successes though at times he struggles. Personally, his flirtation with women leads to his divorce from Held, a longtime romance with tempestuous Ziegfeld girl Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) before finding love and contentment with his second wife, Broadway star Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). The highs and lows of a theatrical life, metaphorical and literal, finally catch up with Ziggy, who dies overlooking the Broadway he changed forever.

Perhaps the popularity of The Great Ziegfeld when it premiered had to do with Ziegfeld having 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 byline for "Grand Epic Spectacle". The film certainly does his memory honor by staging grand musical numbers befitting The Great Ziegfeld. These musical numbers culminate with the A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody number that ends the first part of the film.

Even today, A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody is still a wildly extravagant number that astounds. It is hard not to be impressed by the sheer spectacle of A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody; 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. About three minutes in length, A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody builds and builds to where it looks like it is about to reach Heaven itself. 

Lavish, frankly, is too small a word for the number, and it rightly won the Oscar for the now-defunct Best Dance Direction category. 

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. We see this in the first few minutes, when after failing to attract audiences from Billings' dancer, the erotic "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. However, 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. Florenz Ziegfeld is an American original: brash, a bit of a rascal but a charming rogue whom you end up wanting to succeed or even join in his latest harebrained scheme.

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. While The Great Ziegfeld may not be as well remembered as their collaborations in the Thin Man series, The Great Ziegfeld shows what an excellent screen pairing they made.

They made a beautiful couple, and Loy was wise not to try to capture the real Burke's unique voice style. She is Powell's equal, making her Burke an intelligent woman who is also supportive of her man through thick and thin.

Now, as for Luise Rainer. Dear me but I cannot say I think well of her in The Great Ziegfeld; 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 supposed to be? Her delivery makes it sound like the latter. I have heard people credit her final telephone scene as what won her the Best Actress Academy Award. For my part, I tend to believe the stories that acting classes were shown that scene to show students what not to do. 

The Great Ziegfeld has some 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. On reflection, this would have been impossible given that Rogers had died in an airplane accident a year before The Great Ziegfeld was released. However, it is to Trimble's credit that his Rogers was very credible. It's hard to make the same claim for Doyle's Cantor, since "Eddie Cantor" was seen 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.

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. 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. These factors, along with the sheer lavish nature of the film, might be why The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture. I think it is one of the weaker Best Picture winners, but any hate against it for winning is in my opinion misguided. 

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, and great performances by Powell & Loy, which make up for some of the film's flaws. It in the end is perhaps not The Great Ziegfeld but the Very Good Ziegfeld.


For the complete Best Picture Winners reviews, please visit the Best Picture Winners Catalog

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 up-tempo 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 a most interesting job: he fires people for a living on behalf of the ironically named and somewhat sinister sounding Career Transition Counseling. He flies into a certain city, tells people that their job is no longer available, and flies out again. Bingham has exactly two dreams: to hit 10 million air miles and speak at a major convention laying out his philosophy of traveling with as little baggage as possible. 

Bingham is happy to spend as little time as possible grounded, describing in voiceover those 43 days in his Omaha apartment when he is not in the air as miserable. That peripatetic life, however, is threatened by Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She has come to CTC to introduce online layoffs, where CTC staff can give others their pink slips remotely. Bingham is firmly opposed to this idea, but his boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is delighted with this cost-saving measure.

Over his objections, Bingham now has to squire the perky Natalie across the country so she can learn the ropes about laying off strangers. As they travel across the country, Bingham continues his liaison with Alex Gordon (Vera Farmiga), whom he met at a layover and with whom he's being laying over whenever their schedules permit. As Natalie finds that laying off others remotely is not what she expected, Ryan begins wondering if Alex can be more than his personal duty-free shop. Will seeing his estranged sister Julie (Melanie Lynsky) marry Jim (Danny McBride) make him rethink his life? Will he and Alex be able to build a life together? Will Natalie find a middle ground between her humanity and being a "termination engineer"? 

After a second viewing of Up in the Air, I think my views have softened against it, but not by much. Director Jason Reitman (who adapted Walter Kirn's novel with Sheldon Turner), never make a case as to why we should care about Ryan Bingham. 

I think it comes from the brazenly overt symbolism that the younger Reitman places throughout the film. There is the cutout that Julie asks Ryan to take with him of her and Jim photographed in front of various locales. I get the symbolism that the cutout (or rather his family) does not fit neatly into his baggage. It is a burden that he could easily do without. As a film reviewer, I detest those little symbolic touches that are blatantly obvious.

As a side note, Julie's only request was to have the cutout be photographed in front of the Las Vegas Luxor hotel. As such, why not just have it sent there to whatever hotel Ryan is staying at, take the picture, and then send the cutout back to Omaha? Up in the Air pushes an idea that I cannot get behind: it asks us to sympathize with someone who has no sympathy for anyone. 

To be fair, I have never read the novel, but I cannot imagine how the audience can care for someone like Ryan Bingham. I found him an extremely loathsome character, someone who is incapable of love and as such it's difficult to care about his journey.  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.

I think Up in the Air wanted us to see the clash between Bingham's personal manner and Keener's cold and literally remote one. However, I think Bingham was less concerned about how those getting laid off would be impacted but by how this change impacted him. How can we root for someone not only that selfish but that unfeeling? We rarely celebrate the misanthrope. I get that we are supposed to see Bingham's change. I did not see him change all that much, if at all.

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 supposed 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. I again understand that we are to see the contrast between experience and knowledge. I also, again, am not won over by something so obvious.

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 talking about how their life is after they were terminated. They realized life goes on. I suppose that is a happy-type ending. 
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. 

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Complicated: A Review


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

Perhaps it's inevitable that the concept of "hooking up" has now 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. It's Complicated is not horrible, it's not great, but it is barely passable. 

Attorney Jake Adler (Alec Baldwin) left restauranteur Jane (Meryl Streep) to marry his mistress Agnes (Lake Bell). Ten years later they reunite for their son's college graduation. Jane is suffering through the empty-nest syndrome while Jake is suffering in his marriage as Agnes is cajoling him to fertility treatments so her own son Pedro can have a sibling. 

Jake and Jane later run into each other in the same medical office visit: she when leaving a plastic surgeon's office and he on his way to the fertility clinic. Later 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 for her when she starts a relationship with Adam (Steve Martin), an architect working on her house. Will Jake and Jane get back together, or will she turn to Adam?

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.  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.

As a side note, is it odd that the film opted to have the main characters have the similarly sounding names of Jake & Jane?

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. 

Baldwin, Streep and Martin all did an acceptable job in It's Complicated. Martin in particular did well in both the comedy and the drama.

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 good 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 is supposed to do. John Krasinski, who plays Jake/Jane'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. Jake/Jane's three children should be in their mid-to-late twenties, yet when they discover their parents are having an affair, they all look slightly traumatized. To be fair that scene was very funny (a naked Alec Baldwin always good for a laugh). However, the children's reaction of horror is a bit odd to my mind. You'd think after ten years they would have moved on past their parents' divorce, 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. Pleasant enough for a night where there is nothing else to watch, It's Complicated is fine. 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 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. She is so focused on her future that she could not care about Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) from Maldonia.

Naveen loves jazz and girls, both of which are plentiful in New Orleans. However, the prince is low on funds, so he decides to marry Charlotte (Jennifer Cody). Charlotte is not only Tiana's childhood friend but the daughter of Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman), the richest man in town. 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, whom 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 (Michael-Leon Wooley), a jazz-loving trumpet-playing alligator and Ray (Ray Cummings), a Cajun firefly. It now is a race to return to their human form before Dr. Facilier gets them for his own nefarious schemes. 

Much has been made of the fact that The Princess and The Frog has its first African-American princess, and it is to the film's credit that it is both a positive without being exclusionary to anyone. Tiana is a wonderful character: charming, kind, and determined, qualities that anyone should aspire to. It also 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 songs (Down in New Orleans and When We're Human). You also have a great zydeco number Gonna Take You There and the beautiful and haunting Cajun ballad Ma Belle Evangeline (which I think is the best song in the film). 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. There is nothing wrong with using the latest technology. Walt Disney himself was the first to grab onto the latest innovations and even creating a few. I find thought that 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 (himself part of the film with Down in New Orleans). 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.

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, a happy ending. The Princess and The Frog, the first Disney animated film with an African-American heroine, will be embraced by all races as a beautiful, well-crafted family film.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Precious: A Review


As I watched Precious, one word kept returning to my mind: heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to see people who should love each other hurt each other so viciously physically, emotionally, psychologically or a combination thereof. 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.

Our entry into this despairing world is Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight black teenage girl living in late 1980's Harlem who narrates most of the film. She is a bright individual who loves math but has incredible obstacles. At 16, she is virtually illiterate and 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 and most sadly, as white. The cruel realities of life, however, always bring her back.

Precious is moved to an alternative school called Reach One Teach One due to her second pregnancy. Here, 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 people away from Precious if one went by the story itself; the film, however, 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 plays her not like 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 the small role of Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz). It may surprise some to see rock star Kravitz in the film. However, 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 of social worker Ms. Weiss. She 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, in particular 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, the main character 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. A misstep for its star, Leap Year does not have anything to justify its existence.

Anna Brady (Amy Adams) 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. Expecting an engagement ring, Anna is disappointed to find that is not the case. This hits her especially hard given that they are about to move in together. Anna finds no solution to having Jeremy pop the question.

No problem, says her dad Jack (John Lithgow). The Irish have a tradition where on February 29, the woman can propose to the man in Dublin. As coincidence would have it, Jeremy is in Dublin for a medical conference. With that, she leaves her job as an apartment stager and bounces off to Eire. 

Anna for all her trouble is met by a variety of obstacles to get to Dublin in time, starting with a major storm that forces her to land in Wales and then sail to Ireland. 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).  Desperate to get to Jeremy by February 29, she hires Declan's taxi service to make a mad dash to Dublin; he agrees so that he could use the money Anna offers  to save his bar/inn. More hilarity and romances ensue.

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 is one plot contrivance after another plot contrivance that appear to exist only to stretch out both the premise and the film itself. The part about Leap Day being so close, Jeremy being in Dublin on Leap Day and the requisite big storm that keeps Amy (I mean Anna, it really does not matter) from landing in Dublin itself all takes place within Leap Year's first fifteen minutes if memory serves right.

If you haven't walked out of Leap Year 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. 

Throughout the whole of Leap Year, everyone looked so uncomfortable and unhappy to be there save for Lithgow, who is exactly one scene to get the plot rolling. His cameo was the most enjoyable element in Leap Year, probably because he was having a ball thinking about the check he was going to cash for this idiotic spectacle. 

Amy Adams has both talent and a sparkling, charming screen presence. Her two Oscar nominations as of this writing and such films as Enchanted and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian demonstrate as much. 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. He is a stock character: the boyfriend who is meant as an impediment to the real romance. He does not even bother acting as if this is remotely sensible. Like Lithgow, he takes the money, enjoys his Gaelic galivant and moves on.

As stated, 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 that Anna is in Ireland, why doesn't he drive down 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. I can suspend disbelief for something even as light and silly as Leap Year. I cannot suspend that Anna can be that stupid, let alone that Amy Adams would play a character that stupid.

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!"