Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Zombieland: A Review (Review #75)


I don't know why people love zombies. I've never had much use for them, either in straight horror or comedy. They are, by their nature, not vehicles for expression: they just eat the living and that's it. I understand they mostly feast on brains, and that they can either be super-fast or super-slow, depending on the plot requirements. Zombieland has opted for the comedic route. I'm glad people had fun watching it. I didn't.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is one of the few survivors of a world-wide plague that has turned most of humanity into flesh-eating zombies. He has managed this (in spite of being quite a frightened and insecure young man) by following simple rules, such as "Double-Tap" (shooting a zombie twice to be sure he's dead), and "Cardio" (keeping in good running shape to outrun zombies). His rules appear on screen EVERY TIME he either mentions them and/or follows them. As he heads out from UT-Austin to Columbus (hence the name) in search of his parents, he encounters another survivor, zombie-shooting redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). They reluctantly join up, Tallahassee agreeing to take Columbus all the way to Texarkana. The duo stop at a grocery store to satisfy Tallahassee's never-ending quest for Twinkies and discover two girls, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who have their own unique survival skills via their abilities as con artists extraordinaire. The girls are heading out to Pacific Playland in California, where they've heard there are no zombies. Eventually (and more reluctantly) the four join up.

My problem with Zombieland is that, to me, it was so PAINFULLY self-conscious that it was a comedy. Maybe that was the whole point of the film: that it was a spoof of a spoof of zombie films. For me, I just couldn't laugh, except once, with one of the best cameos by one of the most talented (and mercurial) comic actors of our time. Even that didn't strike me as funny for long because when he attempts to play a joke on Columbus, the first thing I thought of was, 'wouldn't it be OBVIOUS that Columbus would react the way he did? Could the people there be THAT clueless?' The fact that I KNEW what would happen sucked the laughs out of the situation, and that's why I wasn't overwhelmed with the film.

I give credit where credit is due: director Ruben Fleischer did a great job bringing the performances he wanted from his cast. Eisenberg has the frightened nebbish down pat. It was like watching someone try his hand at a successful Woody Allen impression. As for another Woody, Harrelson certainly shows he's having fun with all the goings-on around him and he devours the screen, letting his Tallahassee be as wild and outrageous as imaginable. I really loved Stone and Breslin as the new version of Paper Moon-type cons (the ring bit was great), both showing both dramatic range and an ability for comedy. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's script also had good moments, as in a montage while the characters were taking turns driving.

Still, overall I felt everyone in Zombieland were trying too damn hard to make me laugh. I just didn't. I'm sorry--there are many people who I'm led to believe were rolling in the aisles, but I didn't laugh. If a comedy is suppose to make me laugh, and Zombieland was a comedy, and it didn't make me laugh, then it failed in its purpose as far as I'm concerned. Frankly, I was bored because I felt everything was so predictable. I recognize that may have been the point, but even in a comedy is it too much to ask for a few surprises? How do I laugh after being told about the death of a child with the line, "I haven't cried like that since Titanic?"

As it stands, I felt like a zombie at the end of Zombieland, praying there would be no sequel. Without sounding too harsh, I get the sense those who think this is the Citizen Kane of comedy might actually BE zombies.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day: A Review


One of Them Days...

The song What A Difference a Day Makes could have been the theme to Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, if that song had been popular in 1939. In the course of one amazing day, Miss Guinivere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) lives LIFE! She sees things and does things she's never done before and is swept up into a wild world that she had only heard faint rumors of: one of decadence, frivolity, and romance.

The source material for the film, I'm told, was pretty risqué and outrageous for its time. The film itself, which having good moments (see picture above) never quite lives up to its billing.

It's the height of the Depression in Britain, and war looms ominously over that sceptered isle. Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), nanny, has been made redundant (fired in American English). Her agency, tired of her constant dismissals, won't send her to anyone new. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. She takes the card for a new employer and goes to be interviewed.

Miss Pettigrew appears at the home of one Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), American singer/actress who has a most complicated love life. She has been maintaining an affair with Phil (Tom Payne), a producer's son who could get her the lead in a West End show while living with Nick (Mark Strong), the owner of the nightclub she's been performing at, all while dealing with conflicting emotions about her pianist Michael (Lee Pace), who is passionately in love with her.

Within minutes of her arrival, Miss Pettigrew finds herself rescuing Delysia from her own antics. Grateful for her help (and believing her to have been Carole Lombard's social secretary) Delysia accepts Miss Pettigrew as her new social secretary and sweeps her up into her world: one of fashion shows and fashionable nightclubs, where there are no soup kitchens but caviar all round.

In the course of one day, Miss Pettigrew gets a make-over, meets a dashing fashion designer named Joe (Ciarán Hinds), convinces Delysia who she should end up with (and if you can't guess who she chooses, you don't go to the movies much), and discovers the joys of life and love.

Miss Pettigrew has all the elements for a light, inoffensive little comedy, but somewhere along the line it felt as if it got tired and bored by itself but decided to push on anyway.

I can't point to anything specific as to what went wrong because on paper, everything should work. However, things didn't quite gel as they should have. McDormand starts out fine as Miss Pettigrew but then I started wondering about WHY she had never lived. Was it her poverty or her religious upbringing or a combination or neither. She wasn't completely convincing as a suppressed prude.

Lee Pace, whom I shall always harbor a slight dislike due to Pushing Daisies (a show I HATED from the get-go), is excellent as Michael as is his British accent. Mark Strong, who has had a bad run of films in recent years (Body of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass) surprised me in his small role: he was actually able to do comedy and do it well.

The real star is Adams. She is delightful as Delysia (love the name): she is for most of the film a flighty, self-absorbed creature who is nonetheless delightful and sparkling. When she relates to Pettigrew that she was in the film Four's A Crowd with Errol Flynn, Pettigrew, a big film fan, is thrilled. "Which part were you?" she asks. Without missing a beat, Delysia responds quite innocently and nonchalantly, "The crowd".

However, near the end of the film, as she struggles between fulfilling her dreams of stardom via the West End show Pile On The Pepper and following Michael back to America, we see the giddy mask drop slightly. We see a hardness to her, a determination to succeed and not be left out in the dark. Her talk with Pettigrew as they head for the nightclub for her Farewell Performance shows what range Adams has.

Bharat Nalluri directed things well, but I think the failure comes from the adaptation of Winifred Watson's novel by David Magee and future Academy Award-winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire). Given that they only had one day to get everything done, at times it felt oddly slow and at times as if they were trying to throw EVERYTHING they could think of into the story. Miss Pettigrew just goes along with all the wild goings-on but even though the film is centered around her we don't ever get a glimpse into her worldview or her feelings on the madness she finds herself surrounded by. Her romance with Joe just seems tacked on, even though I believe it was a major part of the novel (not having read it, I'm in no position to say that for certain). At the end, when Delysia makes her choice, I felt the audience at the club applauding at the kiss was just far too clichéd to believe.

Charm and lightness can only go so far, and while Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day has both, it doesn't have them in enough measures to carry the film all the way through. It's amazing that even though it was only 92 minutes long, it felt A.) far longer than that and B.) telling less in that amount.

It isn't offensive, it isn't bad, but it isn't all that interesting. I'm glad Miss Pettigrew lived for a day. I just wish she'd lived through a faster and more interesting day.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Regeneration Examination. Thoughts on Doctor Who Debut Stories.

With The Eleventh Hour having premiered, I thought I'd take a few moments to examine a particular brand of Doctor Who story: the regeneration story. When The Doctor faces a particularly dangerous life-threatening situation (one where he could quite literally die), as a Time Lord, he is able to survive by "regenerating", or taking on another body altogether while still being The Doctor.

As I understand, a Time Lord is able to do this, but it's been established that this can happen only twelve times. As it stands, the Doctor has regenerated TEN times, so he has only two left.

Be that as it may, the first story of a new Doctor is always an exciting thing: not only is this the debut for a new actor to take on the role, but it also seems to set the mood for said actor's entire run. We're being introduced to his interpretation of the role, and as is true in life, first impressions are so important.

As it stands, technically there have been only nine regeneration stories. The First Doctor didn't need a regeneration story since, as he explained in The Five Doctors, he's "The Doctor; the original, you might say". Curiously, the Ninth Doctor didn't have a regeneration story, probably for the same reason as the First. Since it was a relaunch of the series, it might have confused first-time audiences to see a new character just coming into being. It's hinted that he's a new version (Doctor 9.0, you might say), but we just have to take it on faith that he has already gone through this change, more than likely from the Time War that destroyed his home world of Gallifrey (which I still refuse to acknowledge). Therefore, we have Doctors Two-Eight, then Tenth & Eleventh, given proper debut stories.

The Eleventh Hour made me think: which one was the best (and conversely, the worse)? At the moment, all the regeneration stories save the lost story The Power of the Daleks (from Doctors One to Two), Time and The Rani (Doctors Six to Seven) and Doctor Who: The Movie (aka The Enemy Within, from Seven to Eight) have been released as of this writing. I think it might be instructive to look over the past and examine them, to look back and learn from how things were and how things went.

In order, they are The Power of the Daleks, Spearhead From Space, Robot, Castrovalva, The Twin Dilemma, Time and The Rani, Doctor Who: The Movie (The Enemy Within), The Christmas Invasion, and The Eleventh Hour. Here is how I've ranked them from worst to best (not including The Eleventh Hour):

  1. The Twin Dilemma
  2. Robot
  3. Time and The Rani
  4. Doctor Who: The Movie (The Enemy Within)
  5. Castrovalva
  6. The Christmas Invasion
  7. Spearhead From Space
  8. The Power of the Daleks
Now, how did I come about to these conclusions? The Twin Dilemma is at the bottom because it is recognized as one of the WORST stories in Doctor Who, period. Doctor Who Magazine readers ranked it at the very bottom of the list, and I won't argue that it isn't very good, especially for a debut story (more on that another time) but I can't say it's the WORST of all time (more on that another time as well).

Robot, to my mind, felt a little out of place, as if they were trying to horn in Jon Pertwee's Doctor into how Tom Baker's interpretation was going to be. It just may be that Baker looked odd and a little ill at ease riding around Bessie, the car that was such a prominent feature in the Third Doctor's story. Although Terrance Dicks (one of my favorite Who writers) wrote the story, I think the overall effect failed (maybe because the special effects weren't the most convincing). It is curious that while Robot was not the best way to introduce the longest-serving Doctor (to date), the following story, The Ark In Space, is brilliant and I think would have been a better debut story.

Time and The Rani suffers from the bad feelings that brought about the regeneration in the first place: Colin Baker basically being fired from the role and made the fall guy for dropping ratings when (minus that frightful outfit) he did the very best he could under extremely difficult circumstances. Also, the fact that The Rani could NOT have fooled anyone into thinking she was the Doctor's companion Mel Bushman just doesn't seem to work.

Doctor Who: The Movie had the advantage of better effects and a new location (San Francisco), but the story ultimately doesn't do as well as it could have. In fact, the bigger budget and the first half push it above average.

Castrovalva has the benefits of going for a wild world where the sets all seem to fall into each other, not unlike the M.C. Escher paintings that inspired it. The visuals, while not brilliant, were daring and inventive for its time. It also, more than any other regeneration story that I know of, is conscious of the fact that The Doctor has had other versions of himself in what he says and does early on before establishing his own persona.

The Christmas Invasion is technically brilliant, with first-rate performances, but it has the flaw (to me) of shifting to a more dark interpretation of The Doctor, and it does throw in an anti-Bush jab that I didn't care for (not because I'm pro-Bush but because I'm not fond of having fictional programs take sides in political issues whether on the right or left). That, and the fact that a British Christmas has nothing to do with Christ creates a problem for me. While not denying its strength, its weaknesses leave it from achieving the top spot.

Spearhead From Space is the first Doctor Who story made in color and on film: two pluses in my book. It also introduces the Autons, one of the best and most brilliant monsters in Doctor Who, right up there with the Daleks and Cybermen. The scene where they come to life to terrorize the city works brilliantly here, as it does when they made their return in the first Doctor Who story of the revived series, Rose.

The winner, however, has to be The Power of the Daleks. Yes, it is a lost story: no complete episodes from this six episode story are known to exist. However, what makes it the BEST regeneration story is the fact that it's the FIRST regeneration story. Troughton had the unenviable job of having to convince viewers that he WAS the Doctor, even if he didn't look like William Hartnell. Troughton established for all future Doctors that he could create his own interpretation to the role and that one wasn't limited to how the previous fellow had done it. The Power of the Daleks set the standard for all regeneration stories, and for that, it is the Best Regeneration Story.

Now, what about The Eleventh Hour? Where does it stand? Well, the story is good though not great, moves well, has two compelling and competent leads. It also has the benefit of being slightly lighter in tone than its predecessor, so it gets points for that. In the final analysis, here is the revised rankings (again from worst to best):
  1. The Twin Dilemma
  2. Robot
  3. Time and The Rani
  4. Doctor Who: The Movie (The Enemy Within)
  5. Castrovalva
  6. The Christmas Invasion
  7. The Eleventh Hour
  8. Spearhead From Space
  9. The Power of The Daleks
It is a comfort that there will be two more regeneration stories (at least), so it may be revised yet again. Perhaps in time I shall reconsider my views and shift them. Who Knows...Only Time Lords will tell. Sorry--couldn't help myself.

Doctor Who Story 207: The Eleventh Hour


An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor To Stay...

This is the debut story for Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor. We have a most curious situation with The Eleventh Hour. For the revived series, David Tennant WAS The Doctor, considering that Christopher Eccleston was there for only one season. Given that, Smith (who at twenty-seven is the youngest actor to take the role, and relatively unknown even in his native Britain let alone The New World/Australia) had an extremely difficult act to follow.

How did he do? It isn't fair to judge a person's success or failure based on ONE story, but given The Eleventh Hour, I think Smith will turn out to be a memorable Doctor.

We pick up where we left off at the end of The End of Time, with the TARDIS crashing down to Earth. Once he finally lands, he encounters an inquisitive young girl named Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood). She invites him into her home where he tries all sorts of food which he says he likes (and then proceeds to reject) until arriving at his liking for custard and fish fingers. Amelia shows The Doctor a crack in her wall, where something unearthly lurks. Using his handy-dandy sonic screwdriver, The Doctor opens to crack to reveal a giant eye and a voice stating, "Prisoner Zero has escaped". The Doctor realizes the TARDIS is still in danger of terminal failure, so he leaves but not before promising to come back for Amelia in five minutes.

As can be expected, the Time Lord misjudges time...badly. He unwittingly returns to the same place, desperate to stop the danger he realizes lurks within. However, he is knocked unconscious by a leggy policewoman, who we discover is Amelia (Karen Gillan), who now goes by Amy, and who is not really a cop but a Kiss-O-Gram Girl dressed as a cop. We also discover Prisoner Zero, and that the Atraxi (a form of galactic Interpol from what I understood) demand he surrender himself or "the human residents will be incinerated". There are only twenty minutes to save the world...plenty of time for The Doctor.

However, Amy is none too thrilled to see him again, given no one believed her when she told them about "the raggedy doctor"...twelve years ago. Prisoner Zero has been discovered to be taking the form of various patients at a nearby hospital who are in a coma (living but non-active lifeforms). Using a handy laptop to attract leading scientists, he with their help create a virus that will attract the attention of the Atraxi.

Once Prisoner Zero is finally apprehended The Doctor selects a new wardrobe (Amy taking a bit too much interest in seeing him in various stages of undress) and The Doctor summons back the Atraxi to let them know in no uncertain terms HE is the Earth's champion against all enemies foreign and alien. We get a coda where he comes back, and again misjudges time...this time by two years. The Doctor asks Amy to come with him, and she does, leaving her wedding dress behind...

Given the darkness and despair of The End of Time, I think writer/producer Stephen Moffat made the right decision to make the Eleventh Doctor's debut story a bit lighter while still having some sense of danger. Here, he isn't facing down the conquest of the Earth by the Daleks or The Master, though there is still menace due to the possibility of the destruction of the Earth by an outside source.

It was also a wise decision to start with a child who later grew into the new Companion. It establishes a history with his future Companion, something he didn't have with Rose Tyler or Martha Jones (while he had some history with Donna Noble, she was an adult at the time, so it was far briefer than with Amy). A side note: The Doctor seems to have a strange knack for interrupting weddings: Amy basically ran off with another man on the eve of her wedding, and Donna was literally walking down the aisle when she find herself in the TARDIS in The Runaway Bride. Curious, that, but I digress.

We can allow ourselves the opportunity to reflect on how Amelia/Amy would have coped all those years with memories of the Doctor, not to mention with the sense of abandonment and lost hope that disappearance would have left her with. Also, since children are a strong fan base for Doctor Who, I think many children would love a chance to travel in the TARDIS, so by starting out with a child Moffat allows them to tap into their own fantasies of time/space adventure.

Prisoner Zero in his various guises was scary but not too frightening, which is again a great nod to the children's audience. The supporting performances were excellent: I especially give credit to Patrick Moore's cameo as himself. Sir Patrick (who always reminds me of the actor Charles Coburn) is a respected British astronomer and television presenter, so his cameo would be more appreciated by a British public than an American one (unless you though Charles Coburn was still alive).

Tom Hopper as Jeff (who I think was Amy's brother, the episode never to my memory established who he exactly was) didn't have much to do on screen, but he managed to create a bit of comedy with his small role. Arthur Darvill, who plays Nurse Rory Williams (a young man who keeps seeing comatose patients wandering around town and may be Amy's fiance) does a fine job of projecting both fear and confusion to all the goings-on.

As for the leads, they are both instantly successful. Karen Gillan makes of her Amy a girl both bright and forlorn, someone who has abandonment issues but who is determined to move on with her life regardless. Like Tyler and Jones, she can take her of herself thank you very much. However, like Noble, she has insecurities about her own future and perhaps, herself. Certainly, she shows that she isn't completely honest about her profession: she tries to explain away how she could have been dressed as a policewoman and a nurse AND a nun and had all those be her 'jobs'.

Now, moving on to Smith. His Doctor appears to be more Eccleston than Tennant in that he's a bit more manic, even a little bit crazy and frantic. However, he seems to owe more to his sartorial hero Patrick Troughton in that I get the sense he will be a slightly more comic (though still serious when necessary) Doctor. Tennant near the end turned rather dark and intense, and while the stories called for it he lost some of his light touch and sense of adventure. Saving everyone took on too much of his time.

Smith, on the other hand, seems to be a Doctor who is now rediscovering the excitement of being able to travel through time and space. He knows he's intelligent, and he DELIGHTS in that. However, he also delights in telling other aliens that he's got the Earth's back.

The Eleventh Hour has beautiful cinematic moments courtesy of director Adam Smith (no relation). The highlight for me was near the end when The Doctor has the Atraxi analyze the Earth's history. The Doctor asks the Big Floating Eye to see the threats the Earth has faced. We get a montage of monsters new and old: along with the revamped Cybermen and Daleks, we also get a shot of the Sea Devils which have appeared in only two stories (their eponymous story and Warriors of the Deep, and both from the original series).

He then asks them who has been there all this time, and we get treated to a brilliant montage of all the Doctors from Hartnell through Tennant, and then Smith walks in through the montage and tells them (and us), "I'm The Doctor". It was such a perfect moment I kept repeating it over and over, awed by both the beauty of it and the respect it showed to Doctor Who's past and all the actors that preceded Smith (who curiously was only seven when the original series went "on hiatus").

However (and here's my flaw-finding), I wasn't overwhelmed with that fish that was Prisoner Zero in unaltered form. Maybe I had images of the documentary Oceans floating in my mind (pun intended) but I kept thinking on how it looked like something from the depths of the sea. I also thought the comedy routine about the Doctor finding the right dish to munch on after regeneration went on too long and while it might have been humorous didn't really add much to the story at large.

Finally, on a more technical point, if The Doctor had not changed between the first and second time Amy sees him, why didn't she recognize him sooner? At least, I didn't get the sense that she knew who he was until at least after she goes into the 'secret room'. Granted, maybe I didn't notice it, but that did leave me wondering. One more thing: Prisoner Zero's warning to the Doctor about "Silence will fall"--not a big fan of foreshadowing in television.

It may be that I'm too nit-picky on such things. As it stands, The Eleventh Hour is a first-rate introduction to a new Doctor. Near the end, when The Doctor comes up to the TARDIS and asks it, "What have you got for me this time?", that is a question ALL of us are asking. Judging from this first story, what it has for us is excitement, adventure, and a lot of fun. The Eleventh Hour may not be its finest, but it certainly is a most jolly good time.


Next Story: The Beast Below

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oceans (2010): A Review


A True Poseidon Adventure...

"From space, the planet is blue. From space, the planet is the territory, not of humans, but of the whale". Thus begins Sarah Brightman's CD Dive, and it's a pretty fitting way to capture the spirit and message in Oceans, the newest DisneyNature documentary. Following up the success of Earth, the filmmakers dived (pun slightly intended) into the waters of our planet, creating a film both beautiful and pleading.

We start with a group of children running to the sea, and narrator Pierce Brosnan asking the philosophical question, "What IS the ocean?" That is the starting point to an extraordinary journey into the depths of our home and to encounter the denizens of the seas both familiar and exotic. There is the blanket octopus, who appears to almost have wings that float majestically under the waves. We get the stone fish, a relatively unattractive creature who lives up to his name in looks. There is even a creature called the Asian sheep's head fish, which looked like The Elephant Man to me.

In its 86 minutes we get some extraordinary images, thanks to co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud and cinematographers Luc Drion, Phillipe Ros, and Luciano Tovoli. Early in the film, Brosnan wonders about how we humans can go explore the stars while we have an alien world right here. We then see a rocket take off from the distance, with a marine iguana appearing to look on in puzzlement. We next see what we THINK are stars, but which we discover are sea urchin in a beautiful transition that highlights one of the messages in Oceans: the world of the seas is just as mysterious and amazing as the world of the stars.

Another extraordinary scene is the arrival of a battalion of spider crabs at Melbourne (Australia) Bay. When two groups of crabs arrive, the imagery of them colliding as if in war is just as epic as a battle from Gladiator or The Lord of the Rings. Bruno Culais' score adds to the power of the scene, and in fact for all the film. It's comic and light when it needs to be, majestic when necessary, even suspenseful, as when baby sea turtles race to the sea to avoid getting picked off by birds.

Near the third act, we shift from the majesty of Poseidon's domain to a message picture. For the most part, humans do not appear in Oceans, as if we do not exist. However, the film makes clear that we ARE involved in the affairs of the deep, and not for the good. We learn that the Great Blue Fin Tuna is in danger of extinction due to over-fishing and vast stretches of nets that capture not only the tuna but other creatures who are discarded when they are brought in.

We are shown through space imagery how pollution is reaching out like venomous tentacles (or to my mind, The Angel of Death from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments) to the waters. One powerful moment is when we see an especially dirty section of water, where a seal is trying to make sense of a shopping cart at the bottom of the ocean. Global warming and the extension of commercial fishing to the Arctic is touched on, and it's clear that Oceans serves a dual purpose: to show us both the power, beauty and majesty of 3/4 of the Earth but also of how we humans may bring an end to the seas.

However, Oceans ends with a sense of hope: humans can also be the force that preserves and saves this world. Man and marine life can share the sea, all part of that great Circle of Life. We're left with this question: "Instead of asking, 'what exactly IS the ocean', perhaps we should be asking, 'who exactly are WE?'"

Oceans isn't a perfect film: the narration at times can be a bit ponderous and Brosnan's voice at times reflects that. I'm also on a personal level not a big fan of films that lecture me on something, even if I agree with them (and for the record, I share the filmmaker's sympathies on the environment). However, what separates Oceans from something like Food, Inc. is that Oceans isn't what I call an advocacy film. That is when it concludes by telling me what I should do (contact my Representative/Senator, boycott some product, send them money). Instead, Oceans does what a real/good documentary is suppose to do: it presents its case and asks US to reach our own conclusions--and perhaps, motivate us to do something to back up our decisions on the subject at hand.

Even if you think global warming is a fraud or that we don't have to worry about some endangered guppy, you can't help be moved by the beauty, power, and majesty of God's Glorious Creation. Seeing the sea overwhelm a lighthouse, seeing a leafy sea dragon which appears as if from another world (which, in a sense, it is) is simply amazing. Oceans will entertain and inform, and while we all may not take steps to preserve/restore the seas, we may come away from it marveling at how awesome is The Deep Blue Sea.

Letters to God: A Review


Wait A Minute, Mr. Postman...

It's hard not to think about those old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies while watching Letters to God. It's as if a church or group of Christians decided to follow in Garland & Rooney's steps and "put on a show", or rather, a film. There is nothing wrong with that: all filmmakers will bring their worldview into their work whether overtly (think James Cameron's environmental infomercial Avatar) or subtlety (John Ford's conflicted views on the conquest of the West in The Searchers).

That being the case, it's no surprising that co-directors David Nixon and Patrick Doughtie (the latter who co-wrote the film with Art D'Alesssandro, Sandra Thrift, and Cullen Douglas) would bring their faith into play. There are two ways of doing it: a good way and a bad way. The good way would be to have an engaging story with strong performances and a velvet-glove approach: gentle and beautiful. The bad way is to hammer the message of Christ over the head of the audience and just have people speak their lines with no sense of direction. Letters to God has opted for Option Two.

Tyler Doherty (Tanner Maguire) is an adorable child fighting cancer. In a bizarre and totally perverse way, his cancer makes him MORE adorable, as he continues with a bland chipperness to fight for his life. He spends his days at home, writing at least one letter to God a day. These letters are picked up by the Mailman Walter (Christopher John Schmidt), a cheerful fellow who practically knows every person on his walking route.

For reasons of plot contrivances, Cheerful Walter has to give up his route temporarily, and taking his place is Mailman Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey S. S. Johnson), who is definitely not cheerful or chipper or pleasant. He's an angry, lazy, borderline alcoholic who is tolerated at his job beyond anything that is reasonable or realistic. Taking over Cheerful Walter (and getting into "comedic" pratfalls in the process) Sour Brady has to take Tyler's letters, though as a non-believer he has no idea what to do with them.

For reasons of plot contrivance Sour Brady gets to know the Doherty family: widow mom Maddy (Robyn Lively), older son Ben (Michael Christopher Bolten), and Grandma Olivia (Maree Cheatham). Maddy continues on trying to keep herself together as her younger son's needs overwhelm her while her older son feels neglected (not without reason) and Grandmama offers rather pat answers based on her Christian faith. We also have Tyler's bestest best friend, a tomboy named Sam (Baylee Madison) who comes into Tyler's room through his window (making me wonder if they'd seen too many episodes of Doogie Howser, M.D.) and her grandpa Cornelius, a retired, slightly crotchety actor (Ralph Waite of The Waltons fame).

When Tyler is able to go to school, he even has an enemy, Alex (Carl Joseph Amari), though the feeling is clearly not mutual. Sam delights in dispatching Alex with violence, while Tyler continues to try to treat him as Jesus told him to (metaphorically as taught through Scripture--Tyler doesn't hear voices). As Tyler appears to recover, his faith and the strength he gets from it move everyone, especially Brady, who has his own demons to confront as an Iraq Intervention veteran who has lost custody of his son.

Letters to God has a deadly cocktail of bad acting and a heavy-handed nature that sink the film. It had the opportunity to make great connections between the characters and their stories but got lost trying to convert the lost. There was a wasted opportunity between the stories of Maddy and Brady. Both were close to losing their sons but nothing much comes from their mutual tragedies. There was a wasted opportunity between the stories of Tyler and Cornelius, both who were facing death and could have found kinship in that.

Instead, we were treated to rather bland, almost simplistic answers about God and how He works among us. A child dying of cancer is a serious issue, and it should be handled with great respect. Letters to God never explores just how frightening this might be for Tyler. I won't deny that his faith may have been so strong as to not have him, even once, question why or tell God just how much the cancer hurt him. However, given Tanner Maguire's performance, his cancer almost seemed like a mere cold run wild.

In fact, the performances were almost universally bad. Madison's Sam just was annoying for almost all the film, making faces and pouting to express any kind of emotion. Tyler's older brother Ben's had a very quiet anger as portrayed by Bolten. His situation would cause any teen to rage with fury. However, Ben never expresses all the anger within him because he never raises his voice. I kept getting the feeling that he was told not to speak too loud because it might disturb someone inside the house. Credit has to be given when he sings: he is a better singer than actor.

Lively didn't live up to her name: she never expressed much emotion at all. It was like watching an adult version of Kristen Stewart's Bella Swann: just a blank face offering words without meaning. Even smaller parts were almost flat-out bizarre: Derek Liondinoff's Pastor Andy spoke as if he'd been told to just "say the lines as if they were lines". Based on my own experiences, he didn't speak or behave like any pastor I've known. (Side note: it's curious that for all the Christianity in Letters to God, we never see anyone actually attend a Service. We see Brady's boss attend choir practice--even though his Christianity had never been part of his character as seen in the film--but no one actually goes to church. Curious that).

Johnson does a BETTER job than most, and if the film had focused more on his evolution from unhappy drunk to repentant sinner to blessed man we could have had a film. It isn't that there's too much going on, it is that there's too much going on too quickly. We never see how the letters to God start being sent or how Brady became more involved in the Doherty's lives.  We basically have to take it on faith (pun intended), but that's asking a bit much from us.

That could be tolerated (albeit with great reluctance), but the greater sin (an apt word) is just how hard the film-makers were at giving their message. At one point Maddy tells her mother, "I wish everyone would stop quoting the Bible to me". That would have been a good piece of advise for the director and screenwriters to have followed. You can't end a film by quoting Scripture (in this case, 2nd Corinthians 3:3--look it up to do yourself some good) and NOT be at least trying to use your work to spread the Word.

You have characters pray to accept Christ into their hearts, you have characters offer prayers for others--it's enough to scare away agnostics, antagonize atheists and disappoint some believers (like myself). Letters to God even includes the prayer captains/warriors in the closing credits (for the uninitiated, prayer warriors are a group of people who pray over people and/or their needs though the object of the prayers need not be present). I'm reminded of the words of Christ, who told us to be "as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). The people behind the camera failed on both counts.

One last point: Colin O'Malley's score was from beginning to end so wrong: too intrusive, cutesy, overbearing. Even when it wasn't employed, the music still told far more than it should have. I knew it was not a good sign when I hear someone sing Amazing Grace.

As it stands, I worry that Christian film-makers will never achieve success. I'm not talking financial; I'm talking artistic. I'm reminded of the oft-heard quote, "if you're going to cross over, be sure to take The Cross over". Film-makers with a sold foundation on the Rock of Christ must decide if they are going to make films that will bring honor and glory to Him or films that will bring sinners to Him, whether they will create art or create proselytizing literature. It is possible to make films that achieve both goals, but as of yet modern Christian film-makers can't seem to decide what audience to reach.

Are the people who made Letters to God making films for Christian audiences or secular audiences? Judging from the film, it's the former while trying to masquerade as the latter. Trying to please two masters won't work.

Ultimately, I remember something from Letters to God: Ben is a BIG fan of the band Switchfoot. He in one scene wears a Switchfoot shirt and you can see a picture of them in his room in another. Switchfoot (which curiously did not contribute a song to the soundtrack) is the perfect analogy to Letters to God. Both have a Christian background and want desperately to reach a wider audience.

There is a difference: Letters to God is open and unabashed about its Christianity, while Switchfoot always tries to downplay or disassociate from Christianity, lest it be thought of as "judgmental" or aligned with conservative politics. The former wants to be a vehicle to reach the lost, the latter would rather not. In the end, neither get what they ultimately want: either a wider audience or an accepting one.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kick-Ass: A Review


Comic Conned...

I've never been much for comic books. In fact, I've never been a big-enough nerd to have become totally engrossed in them. Yes, for a brief while I did read/buy The Blue Beetle series, but as I point out, I did this because the stories took place in my hometown of El Paso. Until then, I'd never HEARD of The Blue Beetle or read ANY comic books.

Having said all that, I can say that I've never encountered the source material for Kick-Ass, the latest comic book to be adapted into a feature film. I also guess that I'm not the target audience: dumb kids who live so vicariously through fictional characters that they fit the definition of insane: someone not of sound mind who poses a danger to themselves and others.

As it is, the trailers for Kick-Ass prepared me for an upbeat, goofy comedy about kids living out superhero fantasies who ultimately unite to fight real crime. What I wasn't prepared for was for it to be this really dark, depressing story of vigilantism gone mad, where people on both sides of the law are quite insane and wholesale slaughter is celebrated.

We start in New York City, where Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), an average teen who likes comics, wonders aloud and in voice-over why people have never attempted to be real-life superheroes. With that in mind, and perhaps to deal with the sudden death of his mother, he buys a costume and takes on the alter-ego of Kick-Ass, crime fighter. Meanwhile (and the word "meanwhile" is written as it would be in a comic book), we have the stories of drug kingpin Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and seemingly mild-mannered Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Mindy (Chloe Moretz).

Dave/Kick-Ass (K-A for short) doesn't have much success fighting crime (even getting stabbed and run over the first time he tries his hand at it), until he comes across a group beating up someone while he was trying to rescue a kitty. He takes on this mob, and this fight is captured on videophones and placed on-line. He becomes a hit, even getting the attention of the girl of his dreams, Katie (Lindsy Fonseca)...even if she does think he's gay.

To help his girl, Dave/K-A takes on Rasul (Kofi Natei), a thug who's been bothering her. Being Dave, things go horribly wrong until he's rescued in a bloody fight by Hit-Girl, another masked avenger, and her mentor, Big Daddy. One guess as to who they really are. We learn through a back-story in a comic-book style montage that Frank framed Damon for trafficking, which led to his wife's suicide and that after he left prison Damon has been training himself and his daughter to take revenge on Frank, up to and leading to Frank's killing.

Due to a misunderstanding, Frank now thinks K-A is responsible for killing his men (Rasul's crew). In order to draw K-A out (and partly to live out his own comic book fantasies and fit in with his father's business), Frank's son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) convinces his dad to let him create his OWN alter ego, a new superhero named Red Mist. Red gains K-A's trust but while Red realizes K-A has NOTHING to do with B. D/H-G's actions, Frank is determined to kill them all. K-A & B.D. are captured and come close to being killed LIVE on television/on-line when H-G comes to the rescue. Now, it's up to K-A and H-G to bring Frank and Chris/Red Mist down.

This is WHY Kick-Ass fails, and fails spectacularly. It is incapable of deciding WHAT it wants to be. We're suppose to believe it is taking place in reality, but we get elements that are clearly cinematic. The whole subplot of Katie thinking Dave's gay (right down to him having to control himself when he applies lotion on her) is something more suited to the American Pie franchise, as is when he finally unmasks himself to her, then gets laid. K-A's rescuing a kitty is done in a comedic manner, but the mob attack K-A stops is deadly serious. This is typical of the unbalanced mood in Kick-Ass, and it see-saw's back and forth, trying to have it both ways and never getting far in either.

In reality, getting stabbed AND run over by a car would probably get you killed, and if you survive you may want to stop crime-fighting. In reality, Damon's former partner (Omari Hardwick) would have turned his friend in rather than allow him to train his daughter as an assassin. In reality, you wouldn't have an eleven-year-old commit mass murder without having SOME moral qualms about it. In reality, you'd think the actions of K-A, B.D. and H-G would show them to be just a little unstable, if not downright insane. In reality, you WOULDN'T have an ultra-violent climax in Frank's apartment right down to K-A's bazooka use. All those things wouldn't happen in reality. They'd only happen in movies.

The score (credited to Marius DeVries, Ilan Eshkeri, Henry Jackman and John Murphy--really, FOUR composers: The Lord of the Rings at nine hours had only ONE), also contributes to the schizophrenia of Kick-Ass. When Dave first dons his outfit, the score swells to a triumphant rise. This gives rise to the question: are we suppose to take this seriously or are we suppose to think Kick-Ass is suppose to be a spoof of comic-book films? By introducing the story of Damon/B. D. plotting vengeance on Frank (especially with drawn panels) you have a clichéd revenge story, no different than something from Watchmen.

The villains are also rather awful. Rasul and his crew are stereotypical black thugs while Frank and his crew look like they're auditioning for an updated version of The Sopranos, right down to the accents.

Let's go over the performances. Johnson captured the confusion of youth in his Dave, but I could never believe that he could be taken seriously as a crime-fighter when he shifted from geeky comedy to ultra-violent avenger at the turn of a dime. I respect Mintz-Plasse's efforts to get away from McLovin, but his Chris/Red Mist just came off as a whiny kid. Mark Strong is a good actor, and I'm convinced he can play anything: Jordanians (Body of Lies), British master criminals (Sherlock Holmes), and now American mafia, but as good as his accent was, why are we subjected to Italian stereotypes?

Cage, who I guess did this film to pay off his own comic book collection, spoke in this odd William Shatner-style delivery when dressed as Big Daddy (looking like a cross between Batman and Night Owl). The most disturbing performance goes to Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl/Mindy. It was all right, but I do find it disturbing that at such a young age she is cursing left, right, and center.

This leads to another point. If we buy the premise that this is taking place in the real world, is anyone other than myself disturbed that a minor is killing people in such gruesome ways (crushing people in car compactors for example) with apparently great pleasure?When she rescues K-A, we're treated to a scene of an eleven-year-old slicing someone's leg off. We were already treated to the delightful introduction scene of seeing her father shoot her point-blank in the chest, and to director Matthew Vaughn, no, her wearing a bullet-proof vest does NOT protect you (no pun intended) from this being wildly disturbing to the point of sadistic.

Perhaps in the comic book series created by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., things like this, or the climatic battle where Frank is thrashing, punching, and and nearly blowing a child's head off work. That is because, and here's a shocker, a comic book is fiction. However, since we're suppose to believe Kick-Ass is taking place in the real world, for some of us, the whole thing (as well as the climatic scene where SHE kills a whole group of Frank's thugs), borders on torture porn.

Actually, the scene where K-A and B.D. are captured and beaten mercilessly is torture porn. By adapting the series to the film, screenwriters Vaughn and Jane Goldman have crossed the line. Seeing a child kill people en masse and getting beat up isn't funny, isn't clever, isn't hip. It's cruel, vicious, and yes, a sign of The End of Western Civilization. Throwing in her use of "f*%k" and "mother f*^kers" only makes it worse.

Topping off this mess, the WORST thing is that it violated one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel. That they did, and why we'd care to see Kick-Ass fight Red Mist when all they have to do is settle things in the school yard is totally beyond me.

In the final analysis, the only true thing in Kick-Ass is how grotesque society has become. When K-A is rescuing the man being beaten by a mob, he tells an onlooker to call 9-1-1. It's curious that in the film no one did. They were too busy videotaping the fight to do anything to stop it or call for rescue or the authorities. Kick-Ass ISN'T about superheroes, because none of them ARE superheroes. They are vigilantes, K-A more comedic perhaps, but certainly those who believe killing people because they are "bad guys" justifies having little girls blow people's brains out.

There's nothing super in Kick-Ass. The only thing it has is a collection of asses.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Doctor Who Story 004: Marco Polo


The seven-part story Marco Polo is now lost and one of only three stories not known to have any surviving footage. This review is based on the 30-minute condensed version released as a special feature on the DVD release of The Daleks & The Edge of Destruction (Inside the Spaceship).

Marco My Words...

It might be ironic if it weren't so sad. The seven-part Marco Polo, one of the most popular stories of early Doctor Who, is now along with The Massacre and the one-off Mission to the Unknown, one of only three stories of which there is no footage known to exist. Nothing exists from this story in terms of film. We do have photographs and the soundtrack, yet these were not because of the BBC archives.

Instead, a curious thing began to happen as the show progressed. Fans became so devoted to the series that they began to record it onto audio cassettes so that they could listen to it whenever they wanted. If it weren't for these fans, there would be nothing on which to build a reconstruction of any kind. There would have been no audio or visual record of note for not only Marco Polo, but for other lost stories, especially for the Troughton era. Yet again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Though in theory it is possible that actual film footage may still exist somewhere, it is highly unlikely that it does. What we have in regards to Marco Polo is a "Best-Of" highlight reel, if you will. As it stands, the story, the first truly historic story, offers us an interesting glimpse of what it was and what could have been.

In the course of seven stories (The Roof of the World, The Singing Sands, Five Hundred Eyes, The Wall of Lies, Rider from Shang-Tu, Mighty Kublai Khan, and Assassin at Peking), the TARDIS crew encounter the legendary explorer Marco Polo (Mark Eden) and the monarch he serves: The Kublai Khan (Martin Miller). We start with the crew discovering what appears to be a large footprint in the snow. This is discovered to be a normal footprint made larger by the melting of the snow. The TARDIS is in need of repairs, but before anything can be done they are discovered by Mongol warriors. The crew would have been killed if not for the intervention of their leader: the Italian Marco Polo.

Convinced that the crew are human and not demons he agrees to take them to Court. Traveling with him is the Lady Ping-Cho (Zeinia Merton) a young woman promised in marriage to an elderly man at Court and the Warlord Tegana (Derren Nesbitt), an emissary from a rival tribe that is going to Kublai Khan to work out a treaty...or so he says.

Polo sees the TARDIS as the perfect gift for the Khan, a gift so great that the Khan will allow Polo to leave Court and return to Venice. The Doctor is incensed at this duplicity, but he's in no position to argue. As they journey to Cathay (what we now call China), the Doctor makes the repairs while they endure bandits and a lack of water, all while mostly unaware of Tegana's machinations. Ping-Cho and Susan become friends, and once they arrive at Court the elderly Khan is delighted with the TARDIS and with The Doctor, with whom he finds a kinship in their advanced years. Eventually, Tegana is discovered and after attempting to assassinate the Khan, he kills himself. In the ensuing confusion Polo gives The Doctor the TARDIS key, allowing them to escape. In spite of the loss of the TARDIS, the Khan gives Polo leave to return to his own beloved Venice.

For what remains of this still-lost story as of this writing, Marco Polo still holds up rather well. We do have to use a great deal of imagination in regards to what the acting was actually like but based on the audio track both Eden as Polo and Merton as Ping-Cho were excellent. Eden brings a mixture of nobility and desperation to Polo, someone who will stand for those in his care but will also tolerate little disobedience. He also expresses a genuine desire to return to his homeland, and throughout Marco Polo it's this yearning for Venice that motives him. He isn't cruel to torture the crew or Ping-Cho. He merely does what needs to be done to get him to Court and then home.

Merton, who is of mixed British and Burmese ancestry, is brilliant as Ping-Cho. She projects the kindness and sweetness of a naive girl, but also the fear in being taken from her home to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. It isn't a stereotypical portrayal of an Asian character with an outrageous accent, but a subtle, strong performance of an ordinary girl thrust into a bizarre situation.

It was a good decision on part of writer John Lucarotti to include a sixteen-year-old with whom Susan (Carole Anne Ford) could build a friendship with. Throughout the first three stories there was basically no one with whom Susan could have conversations with. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), while eventually becoming a friend, was also a bit of a mother-figure, or at very best an older sister. With Ping-Cho, Susan could now have a true mate. Even in the reconstruction, the parting of Susan and Ping-Cho is quite poignant. Through the course of the story, you could see their relationship develop to that of true kinship.

Oddly, it serves as a counterbalance to that between The Khan and The Doctor. While the latter find their old age a building block to their association, the former find unity in their youth. The plus for Ping-Cho and Susan is that they had seven episodes to build their friendship, while The Khan and Doctor had only two.

If anyone would be faulted for being slightly over-the-top, it would be Nesbitt's Tegana. However, given the fact that he is suppose to be a villain (and that we can't see HOW he actually acted) one can be forgiving. Not so much for Martin Miller's Khan: he did appear to veer close to the traditional interpretation of Asian characters with the "Ah, so"speech pattern. As it stood, he was only in the final two stories, and here is where I would find fault.

It may be that I am not a fan of long stories. I'm from the "four episodes is good" school of Who stories, so a seven-parter (or longer) tend to wear me down. Even though Marco Polo as it stands now was only 30 minutes long, I get the sense that the journey from the Himalayas to Peking (or Beijing) took WAY too long.

I would have preferred that Tegana's plots be cut down so that we could spend more time at Court. There was an opportunity in Episode Five (Rider from Shang-Tu) to have ended the story, but it would have occurred without the crew actually getting a chance to meet Kublai Khan. I realize the story called for seven episodes, but still, I keep wondering whether the overall story could have been cut or revised to allow more interaction at Court than on the way to Court.

The story should it ever be found, be an interesting sight: back when Doctor Who was thought of as being on the slightly educational bent, this would have served as a history lesson on ancient China.  In due course this idea faded to more science-fiction stories, but a little history now and then never hurt anyone.

As it stands, Marco Polo, the first lost story of Doctor Who, is still, even in its truncated edition, a first-rate story. It would be wonderful to have a full restoration, though I wouldn't think an animated version would work. We should be joyful that we have WHAT we have. It only shows we, like the title character, may yet discover a long-lost world.

Next Story: The Keys of Marinus


Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Great Buck Howard: A Review (Review #70)


Howard's Comedic End...

Second generation performers generally fall into two categories. There are people like Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Liza Minelli, and Angelina Jolie: children of legends who rise to prominence and become respected performers in their own right. Then there are people like Kate Hudson, Bridget Fonda, and Freddy Prinze, Jr.: people who stumble in their careers and don't match the records of their forbearers as of yet.

Colin Hanks is somewhere in the middle: he has the talent to become a star himself but has yet to achieve that breakout performance that will allow him to emerge from the lengthy shadow of his father. The Great Buck Howard wouldn't be a major box-office hit. It will, however, show he is a first-rate actor who, if given the right material in the right film, could be a rarity in Hollywood: an actor who can actually act.

Troy Gable (Hanks) has reached a crisis point in his life. Pushed into going into law school, he finds himself in total misery. He quits school to pursue his dream of being a writer but finding himself in need of a job, he accepts the job of road manager to mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich), who is always referred to as "The Great" Buck Howard due to Johnny Carson having named him so after one of his 61 appearances on The Tonight Show when Carson was the host.

Howard has hit a low point in his career: instead of The Tonight Show he plays small theaters around the country but is secretly planning a comeback (or should I say, A Return) that will put him back in the spotlight he believes he rightly deserves. Gable endures Howard's erratic temper and raging ego as Howard sets his plan into motion: in Cincinnati (he has a large following in Ohio) Howard will hypnotize 300 people if memory serves correct and then bringing them back as if from a sound sleep. While the stunt is a success the coverage is a disaster, and Howard blames junior publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) and Troy.

Valerie retaliates by giving Howard a scathing pre-release article about him. The shocks of his stunt and the article cause Howard to collapse, but this is a good thing: the ensuing publicity puts him back on top. After making the rounds on other shows, he achieves his goal: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That, however, also turns into a disaster, and Howard agrees to go to Las Vegas. There, his signature act (finding his fee hidden among the audience using only his mental powers) fails for the first time, and his long-hoped for comeback ends. Eventually, Troy and Buck part ways, but they reunite when Troy goes to see Howard's show in a small theater. There, Buck shows his former road manager, metaphorically, that the magic is back.

The Great Buck Howard reminded me of the brilliant Sunset Boulevard, not in terms of cinematic achievement but in subject matter. Both are about major stars who don't realize that their time has passed, but while Sunset's Norma Desmond retreats from reality Buck Howard merely ignores it.

Howard is totally self-absorbed to the point where he's oblivious to anything and everything that isn't Buck Howard-related.  It's an egoism not out of meanness but almost out of innocence that anything could genuinely be more important than himself. Howard is completely clueless about the world and his clueless nature is what makes it all the more amusing

When told that Valerie has set up an interview with "an Internet columnist" Howard is clearly frustrated. "You see, I don't even know that paper" he responds sincerely, almost innocently. He also is completely unaware of what exactly his 'good friend' George Takei worked on. When singing What the World Need Now as part of his act, Howard pauses to say, "George, may The Force be in you". When the Cincinnati press rushes out of his comeback act, he is puzzled as to why anyone would care about a traffic accident, even if it did involve some person named Jerry Springer.

It helps tremendously that the title character is played by John Malkovich, who adds another great performance to his established career. Malkovich creates a man who is almost innocent in his utter lack of knowledge of the world today and in his lack of tact. When he first meets Valerie, he is very displeased. "You're practically an embryo", he tells her. Coming from almost anyone else, you would dislike Buck Howard, but coming from Malkovich, you laugh.

That's the thing about the performance, which is one of his best: though he can be terribly insulting and egocentric, Howard is also passionate about his line of work. Even though he repeats phrases like "I LOVE this town" whenever he performs, and his act never changes, there is a sweetness and endearing quality in just how out of touch he is.

This is best shown when he's riding his comeback by appearing on various television shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Late Night with Conan O'Brien: for the former he tells the host about his concern over kids and drugs and for the latter calls the host "Colin", clearly unaware of who O'Brien actually is. He also is beyond shocked that The Tonight Show would consider Tom Arnold a bigger name than The Great Buck Howard. "I don't even know who that is," says a clearly stunned Howard. It's his obliviousness that makes him a delight.

Matching him is Hanks, through whom we see the film (he serves as narrator, and while I'm generally opposed to voice-over, here it works). He manages to make his Troy an affable young man (even though he was around 30 at the time) who is sincere in his fascination with Howard's act (if not the man himself) and someone who like most of young America has no idea who this star is. When given the names of television appearances Howard has been on, Troy is completely confused (it's highly unlikely he would have heard of a woman named Dinah with her own show).

Blunt is also wonderful as the publicist with whom Troy develops a relationship with. Writer/director Sean McGinly (basing his story on his time with The Amazing Kreskin) creates a fast-paced and fascinating story of someone who believes himself a star even though no one else does. Again, instead of retreating into depression, Buck Howard pushes on, knowing that in the end it's his job and the passion he has for it that is his true love. I should point out that as far as I know, The Amazing Kreskin is a pleasant man who is full touch with reality.

Even in smaller parts, Steve Zahn and Debra Monk (playing uberfans from Hell Kenny and Doreen) manage to create wonderful comedic performances. Zahn usually annoys me as a performer, but seeing that he was suppose to be annoying in the film, it worked. The only performance that I thought was off was that of Tom Hanks playing Troy's father in a cameo. Curiously, I think having Colin Hanks' real-life father play his film father didn't work: the elder Hanks didn't have the full sense of anger about his son leaving to pursue his own dreams. It's strange to say that Tom phoned it in, but in an odd way, I wasn't convinced that was his the film, not real life.

The Great Buck Howard lives up to its name. It's an inoffensive comedy that makes us love the title character while identify with the central character. Both Malkovich and Hanks give first-rate performances that establish them as extraordinary talents.

Yes, Buck Howard is reminiscent of Norma Desmond: both yearning for a comeback (or Return) and who are unaware that they are no longer the big names they were. However, while Sunset Boulevard is from the dark side of fading fame, The Great Buck Howard shows there's light and humor in the fall of a former legend. I only hope Colin Hanks gets the attention and roles his talents deserve, and that the shadows be lifted from his career.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Doctor Who Story 003: Inside the Spaceship


Getting To Know You...

The third Doctor Who story was a last-minute addition. The BIG SHOW was the epic seven-part historic Marco Polo, but after the expensive The Daleks and an equally lavish Marco Polo coming up, there just wasn't any money left...but there was a two-story gap. As it is, Inside the Spaceship was a blessing in disguise, since it gave the viewers (and the Companions) a chance to get a better idea of who they were.

Again, there is controversy over WHAT this two part-story should be called. The BBC refers to it as The Edge of Destruction while Doctor Who Magazine calls it Inside the Spaceship. IF we want to be extremely technical and use the revived series habit of using two titles for one story with two parts (ex. Aliens of London/World War III) we would call this story The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster. That being the case, I can only wonder WHY the revived series doesn't have that Ninth Doctor story as just Aliens of London Parts I and II.

Think on that: for the third Doctor Who story a two-part story uses the title for the first part as the overall title, but for the new series a two-part story uses the titles of BOTH parts for the overall title. Yes, it's most confusing. For this article, I will call it Inside the Spaceship only because I think it works better and because it's a personal preference.

The TARDIS crew of The Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carol Anne Ford), and her human teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill) have escaped Skaro and while leaving, experience an explosion that knocks them unconscious. When they awaken, everyone is acting strangely. They don't seem to recognize each other: Barbara & Ian call each other by their surnames even though they've been colleagues for some time, and they are disoriented. The Doctor and Susan are also behaving as if they are both slowly going mad, Susan especially so. She is armed with scissors and threatens almost everyone who comes near her. There is a major malfunction with the TARDIS, and The Doctor accuses the humans of sabotage.

This only infuriates them, Barbara especially so. The chaotic events within and without the ship are signaling the crew that something is dangerously wrong. The Doctor realizes that the power source within the TARDIS is trying to escape, and the ship signals to them that they are close to destruction. The crew unite to discover the source of the meltdown: a faulty Fast Return Switch that takes them to the very beginning of the creation of the universe (or at least the Milky Way). The Doctor fixes the problem and the crisis is over. However, still stung from The Doctor's accusations, Barbara retreats to her room. A humbled Doctor comes and, realizing he went too far, apologizes for his action and words.

Inside the Spaceship is one of the shortest stories in the original series.* It was a rushed production, but ultimately that worked in its favor: we could focus squarely on the travelers themselves rather than outside forces like the Tribe of Gum or the Daleks. In the previous eleven episodes of Doctor Who, the TARDIS crew were always a team, maybe not the most willing or cooperative of teams but basically ONE group fighting together against a common enemy. With Inside the Spaceship, they were fighting AGAINST each other. This allowed for their relationship to shift and grow, which would prove vital to the continued success of the series.

Each of the actors had great moments in Inside the Spaceship. Susan, who had been a sweet and innocent girl all this time, had become dangerous, and Carol Anne Ford brought menace and a threat in Susan that hadn't been tapped. Jacqueline Hill rose from being second fiddle to both William Russell's Ian and William Hartnell's Doctor to be a strong and independent person. It was Barbara, not Ian, who told The Doctor where to get off when he accused them of sabotage. It was also Barbara who put the pieces together as to what was going on inside the spaceship. Ian, on the other hand, looked almost weak by comparison. This was an intelligent reversal on the part of writer David Whitaker. I don't know if it was intentional, but it was brilliant in how it took early 1960s expectations on the roles of men and women and shifted them to create something intense and oddly prescient (see Smith, Sarah Jane, or Tyler, Rose or/and Jones, Martha).

Hartnell as The Doctor gave I think the best performance in the series, and perhaps the hardest. He started out as a shifty, mysterious being, almost totally unconcerned with what he did or said and how he did or said it. By the end of the story, he has mellowed, and become dare I say, a kinder, gentler Doctor, more of a truly "grandfather" figure. Throughout his tenure as The Doctor, Hartnell was given to flubbing his lines with humorous results, but in Inside the Spaceship, he shows what a tremendous talent he had. Take a look at the monologue he delivers near the end of Episode Two (The Brink of Disaster). It's only him, discussing the creation of a whole new solar system, with the camera moving in on him. In one take, he delivers an amazing and powerful speech with conviction and passion: a true bravura performance...and all without a single mistake.

In their performances, each of them (Ford, Russell, Hill, and Hartnell) found a deeper, more rounded individual to play. This works brilliantly, especially when you consider that Inside the Spaceship had TWO directors (Richard Martin for Episode One and Frank Cox for Episode Two). Though they did not as a team, there is little to distinguish that two separate individuals put the story together, and it's a credit to both Martin and Cox as well as producer Verity Lambert that it all managed to work. Both of them managed to create within the confined nature of Inside the Spaceship the sense of fear and paranoia that was engulfing everyone within the TARDIS.

On a deeper level, it is The Unexplained (or unexplainable) that causes them to fear and mistrust each other, but then that is one point where I may be reading too much into things. As it stands, the audience needed a bit of a break from the terrors of the outside to allow us to focus on this group with whom we were going to spend our time with, and circumstances worked in such a way that Inside the Spaceship ended up being a brilliant accident.

Having said all that, the biggest flub wasn't due to Hartnell, but to the Fast Return Switch. Not only did it malfunction, but the fact that the words "Fast Return Switch" was clearly written and visible and appeared to have been written with a marker made it all look a little strange. In fact, that all the chaos and terror resulted from faulty machinery seems a little pat. Another big issue was in having Susan threaten people with scissors. This caused great concern at the BBC and years later Lambert reflected that it was probably a mistake to have common household objects be used in a threatening manner on a show aimed at children. Even now, children who might get it into their heads to act out Inside the Spaceship might not realize just how dangerous this is. Finally, in a more humorous vein, Susan does appear to be wearing the world's first Snuggy. Just a random thought.

As it stands, it's curious that we have the first thirteen episodes of Doctor Who still in existence. The curiosity stems from the fact that the BBC had ordered thirteen episodes in its original run, and the show was continued based on the success of those thirteen. As of this writing, 108 episodes from 1964 through 1969, including the succeeding story, the seven-part Marco Polo, are now lost, perhaps forever, though an episode of the four-part The Crusade was brought to light in 1998, a full thirty-three years after its debut. Therefore, it is possible that another episode might turn up, but then they may ultimately truly be Lost In Time.

Inside the Spaceship has a great premise where almost everything rises to the occassion and creates a strong story. In spite of the loss of other stories, the crew of the TARDIS has managed to create something quite unique, which is still around to be appreciated.


Next story: Marco Polo

*There are a few other two-episode stories (The Rescue, The Sontaran Experiment, and Black Orchid) but by and large the average eventually settled to four-part stories. The now-lost Mission to the Unknown/Dalek Cutaway is the shortest Doctor Who story in terms of both length (at 25 minutes long) and episodes (one). 

If one wants to argue that it should be included with the 12-part (also mostly lost) The Dalek's Master Plan, it would then fall to The Five Doctors to be the shortest story. It is technically one episode, but is 90 minutes long. In the revived series, almost all the stories are one episode long but last an average of 45 minutes. I've heard claims that the Tenth Doctor story 42, which is suppose to last 42 minutes, is the shortest story, but given that its length is about average to all other one-episode stories I dismiss the claim. Little technical issues here, but worth bringing up for quiz time.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cimarron (1931): A Review


It Is Just OK...

Cimarron has the distinction of being the first Western to win Best Picture.  It also has the distinction, for better or worse, of being among the weakest or even worse, Worst Best Picture winners. By no means is Cimarron as lousy as I've been led to believe. However, it isn't up there among other Best Picture winners.

Cimarron covers the creation of Oklahoma from the Oklahoma Land Rush to its admission to the Union in 1930 as seen and lived through the Cravat family. You have Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a pioneer in the true sense of the word: a man consumed with wanderlust, always searching for new adventure. There is his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) who starts out merely following her husband but who comes to her own in the frontier town of Osage. With them are their two children, a daughter Donna and a son named Cimarron. Don't let that confuse you: the boy Cimarron is not the center of the film Cimarron. Rather, it's the decades-long story of Yancey and Sabra, as they civilize part of the Wild West.

Credit has to be given where credit it due. Cimarron opens with one of the best and wildest opening scenes in film: an intense recreation of the Oklahoma Land Rush (which was only a mere 42 years prior to the film's release and thus, an event that some in the audience might have not just remembered but lived though). Director Wesley Ruggles does a good job building the tension the settlers must have felt before they were allowed to burst forward. Once they're off, it becomes a real Wild West Show.

Cimarron is impressive in how it captures the wildness and craziness of the Land Rush, made even more so by not having any music underscore it and by cutting in between wide shots and close ups of individual groups from men on bicycles to families in wagons. Ruggles even mixed in a story between Yancey and Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), who tricks him out of the claim Yancey was aiming for.

Once the wild rush is over, Cimarron settles down, and it has a hard time recapturing the thrill it gave us in the beginning. Over the course of the film, the Cravats are at the heart of society in the boom town of Osage. There, Yancey and Sabra create a new world through their leadership and through the newspaper they create, the Oklahoma Wigwam. There are good moments cinematically: the scene where they arrive and we see various images of how the town and its population are coming together are done almost documentary-style.

However, in spite of its two hour length Cimarron feels like it has to hit all the subjects brought into the story: the outlaws, the bigotry and intolerance, even a little sexism, in a rushed manner. In many ways, Cimarron is reminiscent of another Edna Ferber story adapted to the screen, with the exception that Giant (about Oklahoma's southern neighbor, Texas) had both the appropriate length to tell its unfolding story and a stronger director in George Stevens.

Take for example a shoot-out that places the outlaw known as The Kid (William Collier, Jr.) against the law-abiding Yancey. Earlier in the film, it was established that they were on friendly terms though they disapproved of the roads they took. When The Kid is shot down, the drama the moment calls for is not captured on screen as well as it could have been. The same goes for in a long scene where religious services are held in the town casino. The whole town is there, right down to the "shady ladies" and the outlaws at the door. The long-running feud between Yancey and outlaw leader Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) finally explodes, but it isn't the most exciting bit in the film when something like that calls for a building of tension and suspense.

There are also the points of acting. Richard Dix, nominated for Best Actor, had what I would call a wildness and broadness to his performance. His Yancey was a large performance to put it generously. Edna May Oliver as Mrs. Wyatt reminded me of Miss Prissy, the hen who was always after Foghorn Leghorn in the Looney Tunes cartoons, not just in her looks but in the way she said, "Yes". I even wonder if they modeled the character on her performance in the film.

The one great performance is that of Irenne Dunne as Sabra, earning the first of her five Best Actress nominations. This is at the start of her career, and while the material may not have been at the level to her talent, she manages to create a well-rounded and conflicted character, one who loves her husband enough to endure basically being abandoned by him, and one who while friends with Sol Levy (George E. Stone) the only Jewish person in town, cannot fathom her son marrying a Native American only to come around at the end and embrace her grandchildren's heritage.

Let me digress slightly to address the charges of racism when it comes to Cimarron. The portrayal of the only African-American in the cast (Eugene Jackson as Isaiah) certainly is shocking by today's standards (and maybe even in 1931); hearing him call Yancey "Massa" when the film takes place after the Civil War is questionable (Yancey telling him there are a lot of watermelons in Osage for him does not help).  It not only dates the film, but leaves you with a slightly creep and uncomfortable feeling.

The fear and suspicion the Anglo population has toward the Native American is also not on the enlightened side. However, we must be careful on how we judge a film made seventy years before the Age of Obama. Yes, it would not be accepted today (as it should not have been accepted then) but it is part of the legacy of the conflicted race relations of America.

Also, we should take into account that the character of Yancey was overall much more tolerant of minority groups than his Anglo counterparts. He welcomed Sol Levy into the non-denominational service (after mentioning all the Christian denominations one could think of, Yancey ends with reference to "Hebrew church" after seeing Levy take a seat) and unlike his wife Yancey is not horrified at Cimarron romancing the Native American girl Ruby Big Elk.

He's even accepting of Dixie Lee and her situation while Sabra and the rest of the women want to run her out of town. By today's standards, Cimarron could rightly be called offensive. However, I can only judge a film by the standards of its time, which is the only appropriate standard to judge issues like this by.

After finishing it, I thought Cimarron was not the great film it could have been. However, it was not this boring fiasco of a film I was lead to believe. Not having seen the other Best Picture nominees (East Lynne, Skippy, The Front Page or Trader Horn, or even the non-nominated Morocco) I am in no position to decide whether it should have won Best Picture.  It looks like it was a weak year overall, and the spectacle of the Land Rush scene pushed Cimarron to the winner's circle.

However, time has taken its toll and has not been kind to Cimarron, which is pretty forgotten now and if remembered, remembered only for being a Best Picture winner.

My thinking is that the fact that it was a big-budget spectacle about the Old/Wild West (and especially the thrilling Oklahoma Land Rush sequence) pushed it over the top with Academy voters. However, if it's a quiet and boring afternoon you're facing, the first Western to win Best Picture is more entertaining than the most recent Western to do the same (I'm talking to YOU: No Country for Old Men).

1932 Best Picture Winner: Grand Hotel

Please visit my other Best Picture reviews as part of my efforts to review every winner of the Academy Awards' highest prize.