Monday, May 31, 2010

And Iran, Iran So Far Away. A Review of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Review #90)



PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME

Let's get some things straight: 1.) the correct pronunciation is E-rawn or E-ran, not I-ran. 2.) Persians are NOT Arabs. Ask any Persian/Iranian and they will be quick to point out they may have an Islamic faith system, but they are not of the same stock as their neighbors to the West (Iraqi, Jordanian, Syrian for example).

Such details are completely unimportant to the creative team behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. After all, what we get is this vaguely-Arabian Nights feel that takes elements from other films such as Aladdin and The Thief of Bagdad and blends them into a hoped-for franchise.

Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a street urchin who catches the eye of King Sharaman (Rodney Pickup) after seeing him stand up against his guards. The King adopts Dastan and raises him among his other sons, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). Fifteen years later, Tus, Garsiv, Dastan, and their uncle Nisam (Sir Ben Kingsley) have learned that there are weapons of mass destruction (in the form of super-sabers) in the holy city of Alamut and they decide to attack it before these WMDs fall into their enemies hands. Once the city is taken, they discover there are no WMDs (excuse me, no munition factories), but there is a temple ruled over by the beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), or as I lovingly called her, Princess Tam-Tam.

She tries to get a Sacred Dagger smuggled out of the city but Dastan captures it not knowing its true importance. When the King arrives, he is assassinated via a poisoned robe (not unlike that Greek myth of Medea), a robe Dastan had given the King. Now suspected as the assassin, Dastan takes flight, with Tam-Tam joining him so as to stay close to the dagger.

We all discover that this is no mere dagger...it is a dagger that allows the holder to go back in time. However, it is the sands within the dagger that allow the holder to change the future, but that sand has run out and they must travel to find more of it, all while avoiding capture by Sheik Amar (Alfred Molina),who runs an illegal gambling empire, and the royal family and the Hassassins that have been hired to stop them at all costs.

I suppose it's my fault for not knowing the history of Prince of Persia. I was completely unaware that the film was based on a video game (the last one I've attempted to play was Halo, the end results being my banishment from ever playing it with my twenty-something friends).

I'm told that the device of the dagger to go back and change things is part of the game, and in that format it works. In terms of a film, this is the worst kind of deus ex machina: any time the characters are in a particular kind of danger for which they cannot engineer an escape all that has to be done is literally 'push the button' and their problems are solved. The script by Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard (with screen story by video game creator Jordan Mechner) takes this device to use three times, but they failed to understand that what works in the gaming world doesn't work in the cinematic world.

There is no real suspense in the predicaments of Dastan and Tam-Tam since we know they can get out of it with the greatest of ease. Worse is that the trio's script has the characters themselves tell us what we have either already seen or already know. After Dastan discovers the dagger's powers (and uses it twice in the same scene) he tells Tamina what he discovers, which is odd given that A.) she already knows this and B.) we already know this.

The tone and dialogue in Prince of Persia is so grandiose and self-important that it because at times laughable.

It may be that director Mike Newell didn't trust us to keep up and we had to be told plot points and exposition passed as dialogue. He might not have even trusted us to get the symbolism of an army invading a world that had not attacked them to stop alleged weapons from getting in the wrong hands but in really going after something of greater worth.

I have no conclusive proof that there was any attempt to suggest real-life events, but if it did, it only draws away from the fun that it was aiming for if a video-game film is trying to say something more.

This is tolerable, but what is just flat-out bizarre is all the British accents in Persia. Gyllenhaal in particular speaks with this faux-British tones that only draw more attention to the fact that he is in fact American. This is only part of the problem in his performance: there are moments when Gyllenhaal appears genuinely flustered and confused. Instead of a sure young man of action, we get a guy who just seems to stumble from one situation to another with no forethought into either how he got in or how to get out. I could not distinguish between either of Dastan's royal brethren, and the fact that they were so interchangeable leads one to conclude that they were really unnecessary to the overall plot.

Arterton's Princess was uneven: at times she was a spoiled girl who had a high opinion of herself and others she was a shrewd and feisty equal to Dastan and yet other times she was almost hopelessly naive.

As for Sir Ben Kingsley, it's hard to think he was taking any of this seriously so one shouldn't be too harsh on him.


The special effects were nothing extraordinary or amazing. In fact, they were almost creepy--Gyllenhaal looks frightening when he suspends time, and the Hassassins sent to go after Dastan and Tam-Tam were like the Princes or Sheik Amar's crew: indistinguishable.

Side note: I wonder why in the Hassassins' temple there is a Whirling Dervish dressed all in black since from what I understand the Dervish is from the Sufi branch of Islam which is a more mystical and contemplative form of the Muslim religion. The idea of a peaceful mystic performing an intimate act of prayer within the halls of a temple to quasi-Satanic killers is just odd, but I suppose the mishmash of Middle-Eastern/Persian/Islamic cultures is par for the course in a film like Prince of Persia.

Harry Gregson-Williams' score was vaguely-Arabic in sound, but it was a constant presence throughout the film, doing what a musical score is not suppose to do: draw attention to itself.

There were so many elements that Prince of Persia had were silly: I sat there thinking, 'Really? An ostrich race?' 'Really? Girls serving drinks at said ostrich race looking like Vegas waitresses?' The ending was really what killed the film: Dastan stabs himself in front of the new King Tus and then Tus hits the button to find he can quite literally turn the sands of time back, thus bringing our hero (and star for any sequel) back to life. Not that it does Tus any good to know what is going on.

As it stands, after finally entering the temple (which I guess would be the final level), what we get is the Ultimate Deus Ex Machina (ie. a cop-out), where we go almost back to the very beginning. That kind of plot device is so abhorrent--it means that basically everything is resolved and all the characters long dead are now magically back to life. We all could ask basically then what was the point of going through all this if we're just going to have everything taken care of as if nothing had happened (and in a sense, it never has), but if there is to be a sequel (and the title, complete with colon, implies there is), why invest any interest in the characters if the dagger will solve all their problems?

One last note.  If having non-Arabs/Persians play Arabs/Persians is offensive, while I am on your side, I'm sure better ethnically incorrect castings can be found.  However, having Jake Gyllenhaal play a Persian will or should rank up there among the worst miscastings, alongside Charlton Heston's Mexican and Mickey Rooney's Japanese turns.

I hope Jake Gyllenhaal had fun showing off his new physique and that he can play something other than a tortured individual (see examples: Brokeback Mountain, Brothers). He I'm sure had fun preparing for the role by playing video games. As it stands, though not very exciting or funny or interesting, I'd rather this Prince of Persia be A bomb than have the current Prince of Persia have THE bomb.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ease On Down The Road. Remembering Dennis Hopper




DENNIS HOPPER: 1936-2010


If one looks at the trajectory of Dennis Hopper's career, it's only now that we realize what an extensive body of work he left behind at his death. His first film was in 1955, and his last will be released posthumously. That is over half a century of work, and even considering how self-destructive he was at the height of his substance abuse problems, he still had an incredible cinematic legacy that can now be appreciated in retrospect.

Looking back at his first film, it might have been oddly symbolic of how his career would go. Rebel Without A Cause was an auspicious debut for anyactor, let alone to be surrounded by the likes of James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. As it stood, while Nicholas Ray so disliked Hopper that he removed all of his character's lines, Hopper actually survived far longer than the stars.

 How quickly he shifted from Goon in Rebel to Giant's Jordan "Jordy" Benedict III, the gentle son of Rock Hudson's Bick Benedict who defies his father by A.) becoming a doctor instead of a rancher and B.) marrying a Mexican girl. Was he being groomed to be a gentle young man on the screen? If he was, Hopper again defied expectations. (Side note: curious how both Dean and Mineo also appeared in Giant--small world, this Hollywood).

Then came 1969, and the film that would mark Dennis Hopper forever as the counterculture icon and spiritual grandfather of independent film: Easy Rider. Hopper set off the modern notion of 'independent film' with this low-budget tale of two bikers taking to the road on a journey of discovery. Things relevant in 1969 (drugs, free love) were openly treated in the film, and the notion that one could make a successful film (artistically/financially) outside the studio system became an inspiration for directors as varied as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Darren Aronofsky. Easy Rider spoke to that generation and its effects (good and bad) continue today.

Moving on, he kept acting, though his second directorial effort after Easy Rider was disastrous. The Last Movie wasn't, but it brought Hopper crashing down to Earth in a hard way. He was already heavily into drugs to be fully capable of being a competent director or actor, and while he continued to work he seemed to be more and more like the Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now: bordering on deranged. Lost in a haze of his own making, taking up drugs, alcohol, and wives, Hopper squandered a lot. Eventually, he managed to pull himself together and have an artistic renaissance.



In this second act of Hopper's career, two films stand out. The first is Blue Velvet. His Frank Booth is still an intense and frightening role of a man truly given over to a heart of darkness. One of the truly evil villains in film history, he made oxygen masks frightening, and after watching, few will ever hear the phrase, "F*^% me, Mommy", without shivering.

 As if to show us what range he had, the same year we have Hoosiers, where he plays Shooter, the town drunk desperate for redemption in the eyes of the town and his own son by channeling his love and knowledge of basketball to help the Hickory High team. This was his only acting Oscar nomination (though not his only overall nomination, having earned a writing nod for Easy Rider), but both these roles show his incredible range: a psychopath in one film, a flawed but loving father in another.

He still kept working in films as varied as the brilliant Speed and the questionable (though oddly adored) Super Mario Brothers, and it seemed he had settled into playing villains both believable (see Speed) and outlandish (see Super Mario Brothers). To the end Hopper showed in his characters that he was still maybe just a little bit crazy, but that he was still a good actor.

This is evident even in the last film I saw him in: a cameo An American Carol, where he plays a gun-toting judge delighting in shooting ACLU lawyers (who appear as zombies). There is a certain irony in that the symbol of Sixties counterculture evolved into a stalwart conservative who supported Republicans, certainly an outrageous thing in Hollywood. In retrospect, it's oddly fitting that he would switch political views--it is the perfect act of rebellion in Liberal Hollywood to be staunchly pro-George W. Bush.  The movie may not have been good (and there were quite a few clunkers in Hopper's catalog), but he rarely failed to make it interesting.

There is one thing that should be mentioned when discussing Dennis Hopper, one that I think he would appreciate. In the course of his life he became a respected painter/photographer and a strong patron of the arts in Los Angeles. He was a passionate advocate for modern/post-modern art, and he put his money where his mouth was by amassing a large art collection and creating his own work for exhibition.

 There certainly was more to Hopper than crazy.

In the end, Dennis Hopper is a case of lost opportunities: he could have reached more if not for his private demons. However, what he did reach were brilliant performances in some of his films of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

In time, his stock may rise, and perhaps we will be able to see Dennis Hopper as more than just someone who survived his own chaos, but for what he was: a Good Actor.

IN MEMORIAM

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Queen For All Seasons. The Young Victoria Review (Review #89)



THE YOUNG VICTORIA

When we see pictures of those that came before us, sometimes we can't imagine they were people who laughed, loved, or lived. Queen Victoria is certainly seen this way: an dour, old, overweight woman who was not amused. The Young Victoria portrays her in a more realistic way: a sheltered girl caught in the machinations of her family and opposing politicians who must will herself to be worthy of the Crown of Britain but who still has so much to learn.

Victoria (Emily Blunt) is the closest legitimate surviving relative of her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent). Her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) along with the Duchess' confidant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) want to keep Victoria as far from Court as possible, and Conroy especially want Vicky to sign a Regency Order so as to gain power for him/themselves. The King fights to live long enough for her to reach eighteen and avoid a Regency, for he detests the Kents save for his niece and heiress.

Meanwhile, in Belgium King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann) wants to have someone close to Victoria so as to assure an alliance between Belgium and Britain which will ensure his throne. He chooses a minor noble, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Rupert Friend), to woo his niece and act as his unofficial liaison/spy. Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) also wants to keep the young royal in his pocket so that he can retain power for himself and keep his Conservative rival Sir Richard Peel (Michael Maloney) and his mentor, the Duke of Wellington (Julian Glover), out of power.

In the middle of all this is Victoria herself, who wants to break free of her controlling mother and Conroy, but she knows she is inexperienced in the ways of the world. Albert, for his part, isn't eager to be used as a pawn for his uncle Leopold's schemes and starts siding with Victoria. A romance, independent of what others plot for them, starts to develop, and eventually Victoria sees that she cannot be a good Queen without him.


Director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes in The Young Victoria take a departure from many films based on the lives of royalty. The film still has the requisite lavish costumes by Sandy Powell and sumptuous sets by Paul Inglis, Christopher Lowe, and Alexandra Walker, but it has something unique: a real story and an intelligence to the script.

Take the scene where Victoria and Albert are playing chess. Fellowes trusts the audience to keep up with the subtext, aided by Vallée's direction. We never lose focus on the fact that at the heart of the film is not this grand, imperial woman, but a young girl who chafes under what she calls the "Kensington Rules" (having to always walk up and down the stairs while holding someone's hand for example). Vallée and Fellowes take the unusual step of having Victoria herself narrate her story, giving us an intimacy with her, almost making us part of her world, hopes, and fears.

Vallée also gets the best out of his actors. The smaller roles in The Young Victoria are excellent. Broadbent has little screen time as William IV, but he leaves his impression of a slightly angry monarch indifferent to 'royal decorum' to chastise his sister-in-law but who does wish to see the Crown in the right hands (those not of Kent or Conroy). Richardson's Duchess of Kent appears to be under the spell of Conroy, but we also see that there is a love for her daughter in spite of her failures to do right by her. Strong's Conroy did veer perilously close to over-the-top but he shows that he can be quite menacing in his self-serving schemes.

Bettany was a bit of a surprise to me as Lord Melbourne: I would think him far too young to play the part. However, aided with some excellent make-up work by Veronica Brebner he becomes the older mentor to the young Queen who sees too late that his efforts to fully control the Monarchy for his own gain have brought about a constitutional crisis of his own making.

In a film like The Young Victoria, it is the leads that take the brunt of the success or failure of the project, and both those portraying Victoria and Albert rise to the occasion. Blunt is brilliant as Victoria, who brings both a naivete and an imperiousness to her portrayal of a girl who grows from an insecure teen to a maturing woman. Blunt allows Victoria to be human, constantly looking at her reflection in mirrors, not out of vanity but to give herself a sense of confidence in the awesome responsibility she has to take on.

Her evolution from a girl who suffers under the domination of Conroy to a woman who finally takes a stand against him and wins shows Blunt has firm command of her interpretation of Victoria. She goes from Heiress Presumptive to true Queen, and we are witness to how Victoria has grown mentally.

Blunt's performance is equaled by that of Friend. I was astonished to discover he is British, because his German accent is excellent to the point I thought he was German. He also brings Albert to life, not a mere royal spouse with no duties or responsibilities but as a progressive man brimming with ideas about social improvement.

The Young Victoria is above all things, a love story, one where we're allowed to see the romance between two historic figures come alive. As portrayed by Blunt and Friend, Victoria and Albert are two young people who find commonality in how they are both being manipulated by outside forces and who share similar worldviews, finding in each other not just a companion but true love. When Victoria, as Sovereign proposes marriage to Albert, both actors play it with sincerity and gentleness, and the score by Ilan Eshkeri manages to complement the scene as opposed to either drowning it in melodrama or forcing the mood.

Overall, The Young Victoria maintains a dignity befitting the subject but also allows us to see the people as insecure, manipulated and manipulative, who make mistakes and who are willing to sacrifice themselves and their own interests for a greater good. It is not a dry history lesson but an elegant, respectful film of people who find love in spite of those around them. Fine performances from both the leads and the supporting players (with only Strong a little questionable), we are taken to that long-vanished world occupied not by grand historic figures but by people just like you and me.

Perhaps Her Majesty was not amused, but the audience will certainly be entertained.

1819-1901

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Retreat Hell. A Review of Couples Retreat




COUPLES RETREAT

I don't believe in "working vacations". A holiday is when you go somewhere outside your hometown and enjoy the sites without thinking about your life back home. Couples Retreat, however, can be called a "working vacation", because the cast claimed to be working on a movie on Bora Bora, but they really were just enjoying the pleasures of a tropical hideaway while the rest of us sat through their idea of entertainment.

We have four couples (and I confess to at times not being able to remember who was who in all this). There is Dave and Ronnie (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman), suburban couple with two kids and a house they're remodeling. Next is Joey and Lucy (Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis), who have a teenage daughter conceived when she was a cheerleader and he a football star in high school. After that, Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell), an overly efficient couple who have been trying for eight years to conceive. Finally, we have Shane and Trudy (Faison Love and Kali Hawk), a recent divorcee and his much younger girlfriend.

Jason & Cynthia announce to their friends that they will divorce (it's hinted that Joey & Lucy will separate as soon as their daughter leaves for college, but that's never spelled out) because of their failure to conceive, but that they will give it one last chance. This chance will come in the form of a resort called Eden, where couples can get therapy and also enjoy the pleasures of island life. Of course, the cost is prohibitive, except for the Pelican Package, which will knock down the price if three other couples come with them...Hilarity and hijinks ensue.

We have them listening to the vaguely New-Age thoughts of Monsieur Marcel (Jean Reno), enduring the Tantric yoga instructor Salvadore (Carlos Ponce), or trying to resist the temptations of the nearby island, Eden East (exclusively for singles).


Couples Retreat could have been a good film, even a really funny and insightful one, but how writers Vaughn & Favreau (along with Dana Fox) went about it was all wrong. Though I'm loathed to offer advice to the guys who brought us the brilliant Swingers, it's obvious that they decided that audiences needed a formulaic approach and predictable situations instead of putting in people we could relate to.

As I kept watching, I kept thinking we didn't need to go through all these machinations to get our four couples to Eden. Instead, we could have had an introduction of these four groups in their various situations with their holiday already planned. (Side note: I could not for one moment believe that people could take time off from work for a vacation with one week's notice--basing it on my experience of when I had to plan my vacation at least three months ahead, I couldn't suspend my disbelief that much). In short, the whole premise just doesn't work on how to get them to Eden.

In terms of performances, no one in the cast stretched as an actor, thanks to director Peter Billingsley (yes, Ralphie from A Christmas Story). Vince Vaughn brought his usual Vince Vaughn persona--a fast-talking wiseguy, but it wasn't much of a stretch from some of his other (far better) comedies. Favreau, I figured, must have thought it funny to have us see his erection in full force after getting turned on by his masseuse or getting interrupted before he begins to masturbate, but his Favreau persona (a grumpy, short-tempered man) does not make it funny.

The women were close to all being a bit shrewish, but the worst performance was Hawk's Trudy. It was bad enough she was unfunny, but she was annoying and a crass stereotype of the dumb black woman interested only in sex and not knowing the difference between "was" and "were". Bateman did have the consolation of playing a character who shared his name, but the Jason in the movie was off-putting and generally unpleasant to be around.

Truth be told, every couple was unpleasant to be around. It probably was clear to us (though not the four couples) that each of them were headed for divorce or at least estrangement. If I didn't want to spend time with any of the couples themselves, why would I want to spend time with all four of them? Here is where Couples Retreat could have been good: each of them had problems, and the therapy sessions were good and close to realistic. It was in all the superfluous material that sank the film.

The wacky New Age guru (Reno, unfortunately, did not add anything to the plot except a chance to be in yet another horrible American film), the swim with the sharks (a long scene that was still being played on near the end), the battle of the Guitar Hero between Dave and Peter Serafinowicz's Sctanley (pronounced Stanley but as he points out, 'spelled with a c' and who sounds like a young Terrance Stamp).

Side note: did Vaugh, Favreau, and Fox really think adding a 'c' to 'Stanley' was comedy gold? Really?

None of that moved the plot forward or stood out as amusing. It just sat there, making the film longer and longer.


The highlight, I've been led to believe, is the Tantric yoga session with the hunky Salvatore. From his entrance in the film (a slow-motion rise from the ocean) to his utter cluelessness as to how he made the men uncomfortable (myself included) by how he physically handled each person to how he spoke with a cheerful, oblivious demeanor was all clichéd and lazy writing and acting.

Granted, Ponce's 37-year-old body is in excellent shape, and I congratulate him for that. I don't congratulating for being yet another stereotype and being in a fill drowning in them (no pun intended).

Now that I mention age, I have this beef with Couples Retreat. Part of the 'humor' is the fact that Shane (who is 40) is dating a girl half his age, but nothing is made of the fact that Jason and Cynthia also have a large age gap. Bateman was 40 when he made Couples Retreat, while Bell was 29--that's 11 years between them. That means that he would have been 32 and she 21 when they married, yet no one mentions the obvious age difference between them. It doesn't look as creepy as it could have, but it doesn't look convincing that they could really be a couple.

Finally, what I never understood was when the group, in an effort to get Trudy back from Temptation Island...I mean Eden East so as to not be removed from the island (though I confess to wondering if the eight of them were the only guests in the West) it looked like every couple's issues were resolved while on Eden East as opposed to the couple's West. Wouldn't it have been simpler to have sent everyone to "Hump Island" (what the group called it, that being the only time I laughed) instead of wasting their time on Eden West when they could never do anything but whine about the sessions or each other (though granted, that they find the solutions to all their problems in one night is hard to believe)?

If only the writers had focused more on the characters than in putting them in "zany" or "wacky" situations, Couples Retreat could have been both funny and heartwarming. Instead, it was decided to go for the simple laugh, but there was no payoff.

I kept wondering two things about Lucy & Joey's daughter. A.) Even if she is eighteen, was it good to leave her alone since they never mentioned her after they got to the island except to explain how she was conceived? and B.) How did she get admitted to Stanford when she dresses like a hooker? Smart girls don't usually dress like streetwalkers, but I digress.

I'm happy the cast and crew of Couples Retreat had fun on their "working vacation". Bora Bora is a beautiful place, one where I'd like to go, a true island paradise. Couples Retreat is just a Bore, a Bore.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Weep Me A River. Doctor Who Story 210: The Time of Angels Parts 1 & 2 (The Time of Angels/Flesh & Bone)

Author's Note: In keeping with my conviction of using one title per story, even two parters that have two separate titles, I have given this story the title of The Time of Angels and shall refer to this story as that as opposed to the more common The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. It makes things easier for me.



STORY 210: THE TIME OF ANGELS 
(The Time of Angels/Flesh & Stone)

For reasons too long to explain, The Time of Angels Parts 1 & 2 (The Time of Angels/Flesh & Bone) is the first time I've encountered either The Weeping Angels or the mysterious River Song. (Here's a hint: I stopped watching Doctor Who after Love & Monsters, and didn't formally see another episode until The Eleventh Hour. Note the last episode I watched and perhaps you'll see why I hadn't seen either of these now-iconic characters until The Time of Angels).

Having said all that, is that a good thing or a bad thing? In short, can we just jump into this series and hope that whatever is known to other fans will be explained to us or will those not aware of what has gone on before in previous series be left in the dark? It's a mixture, because while I could figure out who was who in Stephen Moffat's scripts, I still felt a little left out of all the frantic activity.

We begin with one of the most packed opening sequences in Doctor Who: two stories, one with Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston) putting a message on a Home Box (akin to a black box on an aeroplane) and The Doctor (Matt Smith) and his Companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) in a museum where he almost seems to be looking for said box. Seeing the box has Old High Gallifryean with the message, "Hello Sweetie", he grabs it and then places the TARDIS in time to rescue River from being taken prisoner.

Together for the first time since Forest of the Dead (technically Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, but I still think Silence in the Library is a remarkably silly title--however, since I WORK in a library, perhaps I'm prejudiced), they go after the ship Byzantium which crashes on Alfalva Metraxis. River knows more about the TARDIS than even The Doctor, landing the ship without the traditional sounds by explaining that the noise occurs because he "always leaves the breaks on". (Side note: if Moffat thinks he's being clever by taking away one of the hallmarks of Doctor Who and dismissing it with a cheap joke, he's WILDLY misled. That "whooshing" sound is one of the distinct characteristics of the show, and I wonder if it will remain after The Time of Angels. We are not amused, and we're knocking down points for this misguided attempt at humor).

Now, inside the ship is a Weeping Angel, a monster that kills by taking the life energy of their victims (as much as I could make out, but don't hold me to that). The ship has crashed into a temple, and it's decided to go inside the temple. Leading the troops is Father Octavian, Bishop 2nd Class (Iain Glen) who has twenty clerics in his command (the Church having become more military-like in the future). Of course, Amy has issues of her own: having seen the Angel move and discovering "that which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel", she is trapped with a clip of the Angel that is slowly emerging from the screen.

Once inside the temple, which contains a Maze of the Dead (a series of catacombs with statues), the clerics are killed off, and The Doctor, Father Octavian, River and Amy (who thanks to her seeing the Angel now has one trying to emerge from her) realize that all the statues are an Angel Army. The Angels (communicating through the voice of Cleric Bob whom they've killed) now go after the group, but The Doctor finds a way to get to the Byzantium.


Flesh & Stone: having done something to affect the artificial gravity, The Doctor gets everyone with him aboard the ship, with the Angels in hot pursuit. They get to an oxygen factory--a forest--within the ship that help the Angels live. Inside the forest, The Doctor sees the same crack that he first encountered in The Eleventh Hour. This crack is far more dangerous than the Angels, which are still running around after everyone alive, for there is time energy itself escaping through this crack that could erase a being's very existence.

The Doctor gets the Angels to fall through the crack and they manage to escape back outside. River, who we learn through the program did all this to try to get a pardon for having committed murder (the murder of the best man she's ever known), is taken back to prison, though she hints she will see him again. The Doctor takes Amy back to the night before her wedding, and after Amy fails in her attempts to rape The Doctor he realizes that the code he saw aboard the Byzantium point to her wedding day: 26 06 2010 (June 6, 2010). With that, he sweeps her into the TARDIS and they leave.

Frankly, I didn't get much of what was going on. Granted, I'm not familiar with the guest star or the monsters, but that wasn't it. I still don't understand how The Doctor got everyone aboard the Byzantium at the beginning of Part 2.

I don't understand the bit with the crack (although I am so hoping that I won't see it again, though I suspect I will). I don't understand how River could float in space between escaping between the ship and the TARDIS without dying. There were some technical things I couldn't follow.

Moreover, what I wasn't pleased with was all the foreshadowing going on. River Song says that she can't tell The Doctor everything because it's too early in his time stream. I wondered if she meant too early in the 11th Doctor's time stream or in The Doctor's time stream in general. It must be the first, because after 11 incarnations I'd argue he's old enough to handle whatever she has to say.

She admits to committing murder, and there are strong suggestions that she will murder The Doctor in the future. Of course, there are also hints that she and The Doctor will marry. This mystery as to who River Song is is building and building to something epic, and while the show hasn't failed yet in delivering when giving us big hints (Big Wolf being a prime example), the fans better get something really jaw-dropping.

I digress to give my own ideas as to who she is: I suspect she may be a Time Lord herself. She could be The Rani. She could be Romana. She could be The Queen of the Angels for all I know. Could she really be the next Mrs. Doctor?

Given that from what I understand from The Shakespeare Code (again, haven't seen it yet), wouldn't that make The Doctor a bigamist (given he married Queen Elizabeth I)? My thinking of her being a Time Lord comes from the fact that the gun she used to carve her message made me think it was a sonic gun. The fact that she could operate the TARDIS easier than The Doctor himself also lends credence to the Time Lord theory.

Again, we don't know for certain that she murders The Doctor, because perhaps he isn't the best man she's ever met. I won't go in that direction.

One direction I wish Moffat and director Adam Smith hadn't gone was the last few minutes. Everything about Amy attempting rape is just wrong, wrong, wrong. I could forgive the idea of possibly having to explain to children why Amy is forcing kisses and trying to remove The Doctor's clothes, but I don't understand why she suddenly got this insane desire to break an unofficial rule of Doctor Who.

The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) made a very interesting point: there is never a hint that anything sexual is going on between The Doctor and the Companions. Fondness, he said, is quite different from desire, going on to say The Doctor is totally asexual. It may be a reflection of the times, but I thought it was misguided and coming completely out of left field. I will be frank: this sexual assault on The Doctor by Amy will get points knocked off from this story.

Here is my private view, first impression, of The Angels: I wasn't as scared as I'd been led to believe I would be. The scene where the Angel emerges from the screen was well-done, and seeing how the statues were shifting into Angels were also effective. Overall, however, I wasn't overwhelmed with the Angels themselves. It may be that the build-up of the Angels from Blink (which I haven't seen) was simply too great for The Time of Angels.

Strange, that while Angels would be effective in frightening children seeing Amy try to force herself sexually on The Doctor wouldn't...at least in the production team's mind.



There were some wonderful things in The Time of Angels. Using the voice of Cleric Bob (David Atkins) to communicate with The Doctor was brilliant, and having Atkins' calm, young, honest voice speak words of doom to The Doctor made things both tragic and frightening. Bishop Octavian's final moments were also excellent: that mixing of the noble and the tragic works so well on Doctor Who. Some of the monologues, especially those of Bob and Octavian, are so beautiful.

I, however, can't get past some of the things I didn't like. Murray Gold's music, usually one of the better things in the show, reminded me of a 50s horror film. How Amy is made redundant in both parts: the first by being locked inside a ship with the Angel, the second time with her literally stumbling with her eyes closed (although I thought this was the most unique way of getting rid of a Companion) wasn't that convincing.

Even worse was when she tripped while having her eyes closed and dropping the communicator. It was so close to her hand that a simple sweep to her left would have found it, but it looked like she was deliberately trying to avoid it.

Finally, that attempted rape...I just can't get over it.

The Time of Angels wasn't bad, but I found two things to take issue with. Even for a two-part story, there was a lot going on. There was so much packed into it I confess (to my shame) to not quite following it all.

Also, that attempted rape. It wasn't an attempt at seduction. It was obvious The Doctor didn't want to knock boots with Amy, and her forceful manner was completely off-putting, especially on a show that many children gravitate to. I tried to make a leap of faith, but I fell short.

5/10

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's All Rather Sketchy. MacGruber Review (Review #87)


MACGRUBER

I come from a unique perspective when it comes to MacGruber. I haven't seen either the MacGruber skits on Saturday Night Live or a single episode of MacGyver, the show they spoof. I do know about them though. On MacGyver, the title character was always able to get out of situations by making weapons out of whatever was handy. This "making an explosive out of two strings and two AA batteries" is what MacGruber mocks.

The difference is that while MacGyver himself was always successful, MacGruber was always failing and thus, everyone would end up dead. I suppose this works when the MacGruber bits are about a minute long, but now we have to go for 90 minutes, and you have fill in that time with things like story and characters. However, the script by Jorma Taccone, John Solomon and Will Forte, fail to expand the character and end up creating a horrible film and an unfunny one to boot.

I figure this is the plot: Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) has stolen a nuclear warhead.  Let me stop right here to point out that 'Dieter Von Cunth' is to those involved in MacGruber the height of hilarity. Maybe to a twelve-year-old.

The Pentagon, under Colonel James Faith (Powers Boothe) and his protege Lieutenant Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillipe) now come to MacGruber (Forte) to stop him. MacGruber has his own score to settle with Von Cunth--he is responsible for killing his wife Casey (Maya Rudolph) on their wedding day (very reminiscent of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, though I doubt that part sprung from that movie) and this is his opportunity for revenge.

MacGruber gets his old team together (all made up of WWE wrestlers, hence my utter lack of knowledge as to who they are), and promptly gets them all killed due to MacGruber being MacGruber. One member of his retinue at first declines, but upon hearing of the other's death, joins him. This is Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), and with Piper on board, MacGruber goes after Von Cunth.


I guess if you are on the same wavelength as a teenage boy you might find a lot of what is going on amusing. To its credit, MacGruber knows all the clichés of an action film: pop/rock songs playing during driving/lovemaking montages, how the authority figures 'don't get it', the reuniting of the elite team. However, it doesn't build anything special or especially funny out of all that.

Instead, I suppose the comedy comes from the fact that MacGruber is so painfully inept at his job. I guess the comedy also comes from the fact that he has an excessive self-confidence with nothing to back it up, how he doesn't change his clothes or that he is always known by one name (I guess kind of like Cher or Madonna, he's always MacGruber, even on his fake tombstone). Director Taccone got what makes some action films so bad, but no one here seems to get the idea that, while those kinds of things are clichéd, they also work within the plots of those other films.

I know, it's suppose to be dumb. However, it can't have it both ways. We're suppose to believe that MacGruber is the best, but it's obvious he's the worst. Since Phillipe and Boothe (side note: when I saw him on screen, I did say 'He's still alive?') are playing it absolutely straight, you would figure they would never go along with anything MacGruber does since it's obvious he's such an idiot.

Forte knows his character down pat, and I guess he kept things on the same level in MacGruber as on the skits. It's just that he can't make something that works in short bursts last long...which leads me, oddly, to the sex scenes. We get treated to two of them, and while the first with Wiig's character was not especially amusing (though again, knowledgeable of how many action films might handle a sex scene), the second one (where we'll call upon to believe he's having sex with a ghost when we see he's basically thrusting his penis into the air) is not funny.

It's creepy, disturbing, again, not funny, and among the worst moments in film history.

I guess this is where the major problem with MacGruber is: it knows what its spoofing, but it doesn't take it anywhere.


I notice that I keep repeating "I guess", "I suppose", "I figure", because MacGruber just isn't a funny film. Nothing makes it stand out. You get dumb people doing dumb things in a dumb way but you don't get anything particularly clever, especially when you have to rely on using the same gags over and over: the sex scenes, MacGruber taking his old-school (very old-school) radio out of his car, his utter cluelessness as to how to do anything close to successful intelligence work. All these things weren't funny the first time round, but seeing them again and again only reinforces that you can't extend a short bit into even a relatively short feature film.

One thing that particularly bothered me is how awful MacGruber is to everyone around him. He, for example, makes St. Elmo don disguise twice for no real reason other than that MacGruber thinks it's a good idea. First, she is forced to dress up as MacGruber (the idea of MacGruber appearing as himself escaping him), the second time as a dead henchman of Von Cunth, only this time with Piper dressing up as MacGruber.

The fact that either of them would go along with all this (especially Piper, who as played by Phillipe again is playing it very straight) is just dumb. It isn't funny, but here again is another example of people repeating the same action and expecting greater returns.

The performances weren't all that remarkable. I figure (there's that phrase again) Kilmer was having fun by being the villain, but not even his name was funny or original (like the movie itself). "It's time to go pound some Cunth", MacGruber says.

It didn't make me laugh the first time I heard it. It didn't make me laugh the second time either. Phillipe might have been in a comedy, but seeing as he was trying to not be funny, he really wasn't doing anything to break out of his dramatic turns. You cannot be humorous by association.

I can say I laughed only once, when I heard Lt. Piper rattle off MacGruber's accomplishments: among them sixteen Purple Hearts and, I think, starting quarterback for the University of Texas at El Paso. My hometown audience burst into applause at the mention of UTEP (though I don't know if it was quarterback). Other than this, MacGruber has nothing to say and really no point to having another Saturday Night Live character get the feature film treatment.

MacGruber simply should not have been made.  A character that works in short bursts cannot hold a feature film.  Even if somehow they could manage to create a story that would allow him to carry on for longer than a few minutes, the execution was so horrid it wouldn't have mattered.

That is something Lorne Michaels and those around him should mullet over.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Great Expectations Are Met. Doctor Who Story 163: The Unquiet Dead




STORY 163: THE UNQUIET DEAD

It has been a long, long time since Doctor Who had a historic story. Even in the original series after the now lost Second Doctor story The Highlanders stories that took place in the past were few and far-between (I think Black Orchid may have been the last purely historic story, with no extraterrestrial elements involved). Whenever a Doctor Who story took place in the past, it usually involved a historic figure/time who is involved with extra-terrestrial situations. The Unquiet Dead continues with that vein, but the story and the performances are so well done that those who like historic settings and those who don't will not be disappointed.

At first The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) tells his Companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) that he'll take her to Christmas Eve in 1860 Naples. As is customary for the TARDIS, it's a bit off: it is Christmas, but 1869 Cardiff, Wales. No matter, for Rose is excited to explore a new world (technically an old world). Of course, there is something wicked afoot: the local mortician, Mr. Sneed (Alan David) and his chambermaid Gwyneth (Eve Miles) have been plagued with corpses who rise suddenly and wander off. One such creature (I don't think they qualify as zombies for reasons to be revealed shortly) wanders off to a special Christmas Eve performance she was dying to attend (pun intended).

It is a reading of A Christmas Carol by none other than Mr. Charles Dickens himself (Simon Callow).

As it stands, Dickens is a most unhappy man. He is telling the same story, in the same way, over and over again; he is distant from his family (physically and emotionally) and feels that his career is failing and fading. Still, ever the trooper, he goes on with the show. During his reading, the gaseous creature that has given the corpse formerly known as Mrs. Peace life emerges from her, much to the shock and horror of everyone in the theater.

The Doctor storms his way in and is determined to find out what those creatures are, but Mr. Sneed and Gwyneth are also in the hunt, mostly to stop the bodies from wandering about. They get hold of Mrs. Peace and in the process kidnap Rose, who they believe knows too much. The Doctor races after them, getting Dickens involved by forcing him and his coach to follow that hearse.

Once The Doctor and Dickens rescue Rose, we learn that these bodies have been walking on their own for some time. Gwyneth, who has some sort of clairvoyance powers, is asked to contact these "spirits", much to Dickens' disapproval. They do make contact, and learn these are not ghosts but The Gelth, beings who are slowly dying because they cannot sustain their gaseous state for long periods of time. The Doctor, feeling a sense of need to save them, asks Gwyneth to act as a bridge between the Gelth and Earth so that they can enter...and once they do, all Hell breaks loose.

The Unquiet Dead is the first story not written by Russell T. Davies to air. Instead, it's the work of Mark Gattis, and he has captured all the best from the Doctor Who canon: action, danger, science-fiction, historical, and comedy. He creates a story that holds up logically and gives you a truly shocking twist, and it was wise to bring that twist not in the middle but near the end.

Even after a second viewing, I was still taken by surprise. The Gelth are given a reason why they appear and disappear instead of just being there. It even integrates the upcoming repeated theme of "Bad Wolf" into the plot without being too obvious about it.

The performances of everyone are brilliant. Eccleston returns to his more manic reading of The Doctor, especially when he's talking to Dickens for the first time. His rapid delivery brings a light, joyful touch to a very serious, even dark story. The whole conversation between him and Charlie as he calls him is hilarious.

Tyler, unfortunately, had a bit of misstep in that this is the second story in a row where she's been held hostage in a locked room, which was I think a mistake. Given she'd already been locked away in The End of The World, it runs the risk of being repetitive. However, this was a flaw in the script and not of hers or director Euros Lyn. Also, to Gattis' credit, she wasn't locked in the room for as long as was in the previous story.

However, when she objects to potentially putting Gwyneth in danger, it is very touching and beautiful. The secondary performances are also first-rate: David's Sneed isn't a clichéd evil man but one who is just concerned about how walking corpses will affect business. Miles' Gwyneth is by no means a simpleton. In fact, hers is a multi-layered performance, a girl who carries a sweetness and innocence while also dealing with these powers that she cannot understand. One of the major pluses in The Unquiet Dead is that the script never varies from Victorian speech or understandings of the world. The characters of the time explain things from the nineteenth century perspective. That does a great deal to put us in their world, which is brilliant.


The best and greatest performance in The Unquiet Dead is that of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens. He was simply born to play the author. He has that thing called a character arc, going from a disillusioned writer at the end of his hopes to a man reinvigorated by his adventure with the Doctor. He captures both the rationality of Dickens as well as the ego of a famous man.

I point again to the scene between Dickens and The Doctor in Dickens' coach. This is a double act, and we see how The Doctor's genuine flattery softens the novelist, though you could also see how Dickens doesn't take kindly to having someone criticize their work. Seeing how his worldview shifted from a total rationalist to someone who can find a logical answer to what appears supernatural is again, brilliant.

Callow gives an amazing and great performance. The final scene, where Dickens asks The Doctor if people still remember his books is both beautiful and tender. What is best about Callow's performance as Charles Dickens (and about the character of Dickens himself) is that he is actually an integral part of the plot. It isn't "oh look, here's Charles Dickens and we're just in his time and he'll just pop in and out to remind us he's here". No, the solution to the crisis is a direct result of Dickens' presence and logic.

It is a wonder to me why the revived Doctor Who will limit itself to one historic piece (as I understand it), especially given that most have very little to do with actual history but a mixture of history and science-fiction (basically an alien story taking place in the past).

I suspect it has to do with the fact that the early Doctor Who stories were a mixture of historic and science-fiction (for example, the First Doctor story The Keys of Marinus was sandwiched between the historic stories Marco Polo and The Aztecs). As time went on, the historic stories fell out of favor with both production crew and audiences with a desire for more science-fiction/action stories.

I guess I'm one of those that likes historic pieces, so my heart would like to see more of these types either as a purely historic story (The Aztecs) or a mixture (The Unquiet Dead). Overall, this is a brilliant, brilliant story. It was truly, The Best of Times...

10/10

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Complete Seventh Season. A Review of Sex and the City: The Movie



SEX AND THE CITY

I'm man enough to admit that I've seen a few episodes of Sex and the City. The one I remember involved role reversals. The Slutty One (Kim Cattrall) found a woman who was a bigger whore than she was, while The Uptight One (Kristin Davis) started raving to her sorority sisters about how she wanted a "good f*^#". How The Star (Sarah Jessica Parker) or The Other One (Cynthia Nixon) fit into all this I don't know since I only saw parts of this episode.

I was never a fan of the show, so the lives of four women in New York City who go on endlessly about clothes and sex (I believe in that order) was of no real interest to me. They were, however, of passionate devotion to many women and I gather many gay men. (Side Note: I know three men who admit to being fans of the show--all of whom say they are straight, so I've yet to meet anyone who belongs to this gay fan base, but I digress).

After SATC ended its run, the inevitable movie was made. As I see it, Sex And The City: The Movie is the equivalent of a fix for an addict: it will satisfy the one taking it but it will not benefit anyone.

It has been three years since we last left The Star (known as Carrie), The Uptight One (called Charlotte), The Slutty One (that would be Samantha), and The Other One (whoever is leftover...oh yes, Miranda). We get a quick history lesson in an opening montage for those of us not initiated into the cult of Cosmopolitans, and then we get the the story. Actually, I should say stories, because with FOUR main character you get FOUR stories:
  1. The Other One & her husband Steve Brady (David Eigenberg).
  2. The Uptight One & her husband Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler)
  3. The Slutty One & her much younger lover, Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis)
  4. The Star & her on/off/on/off/on/off/on/off/on lover John James Preston better known as Big or Mr. Big (Chris Noth)
WARNING: FOR THOSE INTO SATC THERE WILL BE SPOILERS GALORE (IT CANNOT BE AVOIDED).

Story One: The Other One is generally cold and emotionally distant from her regular-Joe husband, to the point where she tells Steve as they're having sex, "Let's get it over with". Steve, hurt, rejected, and in need of some companionship, confesses to a one-night stand but The Other One refuses to forgive or forget.

Story Two: The Uptight One is in throws of delight with her newly adopted daughter, but discovers later that she is pregnant and is concerned that she will lose the baby.

Story Three: The Slutty One is growing dissatisfied with being a one-woman girl (even if the man she's with she turned into a star and stuck by her through chemotherapy--which happened on the show) and is lusting after her next door neighbor who is also a slut (Gilles Marini).

Story Four: The Star has finally gotten what she has wanted: a luxurious apartment with LOTS and LOTS of closet space, and after 10 years she and Big are finally going to marry.

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EDITORIAL BY MR. RICK ARAGON WHICH HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE REVIEW.

I have certain rules for relationships. The Number One Rule is: After Three Years You Must Get Engaged or End It. I believe that after three years, you already know the person, their quirks, their likes, their dislikes, and they're not likely to change. Therefore, it is time to make the union official (and yes, legal). Anything longer than that doesn't make you a Girlfriend; it makes you a Mistress.

I'm not saying "Get Married at the End of Three Years". I am saying that both parties should make their commitment so unique to each other that one makes a promise to the other to be exclusive from now on. By waiting ten years, they have wasted too much time for no other reason than their selfishness.

END OF EDITORIAL.



Now, here's the dilemma in Sex and the City: what works in hourly installments on premium cable flops within the confines of a feature film, even one as long as this one (clocking in at about two-and-a-half hours). Each story is enough for a feature film of its own, but because each character weaves her way into the other stories they get all mashed up and it soon becomes tedious for someone who has little or no knowledge of who The Star, The Slutty One, The Uptight One, or The Other One are.

I figure the main story is that of The Star and Big, but we have to give attention to all the other goings-on of the three other characters. No matter how writer/director Michael Patrick King tries to unite all these disparate episodes, nothing will unite them in the time allotted.

There are also other major problems. There is nothing more contrived than having Lilly (The Uptight One's daughter) take the phone just when Big is calling The Star. (Side Note: I couldn't help but wonder why, after we learn in the final episode of the series Mr. Big's real name--the most generic name imaginable--why all the women INSISTED on still calling him Big. It's as if they're still going by the code they'd established on the show, which shows they haven't moved on, which also shows this film was made strictly for the fans, but I digress).

We then have to endure all these little bits that don't have anything to do with the story/stories themselves. The audience gets not one, not two, but THREE fashion shows, and while all the women on SATC love clothes, we are left to wonder, 'how is this relevant to the plot/plots?

One part I especially hated was the actual wedding ceremony between Big & The Star (or lack thereof). When The Star is told by Big over the phone that he's not coming, is there anything more clichéd than having the phone drop from her hand in slow-motion? Is there nothing more clichéd than Big contemplating a flower from The Star's bouquet?

Of course, when it comes to Sex and The City, the actual performers are not the stars. It's the clothes! As mentioned earlier, we are treated to three fashion montages, and I wondered if King couldn't have cut them to move the story along. It's amazing that for a film of its length, it still found very little to nothing to say. Yes, the costumes were lovely (Marie Antoinette would have been proud) but when the focus becomes the clothing and not the story/stories, then what is the point?

Again and again I keep asking 'what is the point?'

Overall, I found that while the four actresses had their parts down pat, I didn't want to spend any time with them. The Slutty One is so amazingly self-absorbed and horny, The Uptight One so dumb and a little bit bigoted (she will eat only prepacked pudding and bottled water in a five-star Mexican resort because its a Mexican resort, i.e. it must be dirty says the Queen of the WASPs--and converting to Judaism does not make you abdicate your throne, Queen Charlotte), The Other One so cold and unforgiving and even cruel. The Star struck me as just neurotic, fashion-conscious and weak.

I found each of these women so remarkably shallow I'm at a lost to understand why so many women (and yes, many gay men and my three straight male friends) would care about any of them.

There were points of logic I didn't understand. For the Valentine's Day sequence with The Slutty One, she covers her 49-year-old naked body with sushi. All I kept wondering was, 'how did she put everything on herself without anyone helping her?' (Is it strange to think it would be difficult to put some vegetables on your vagina, and then some rice on your nipples, without something falling off?).

I also didn't understand Jennifer Hudson as The Star's assistant (whether she had many assistants a la Murphy Brown or this was a new thing I wouldn't venture a guess...which reminds me, Candice Bergen has a cameo as Carrie's editor at Vogue, which wasn't bad). She really had very little to do except unpack all of The Star's boxes and sort through her mail (and Oscar notwithstanding, she gives a blank performance, pointless, rather like the movie itself).  My guess is that Hudson is there to show that there are black people in New York, something which I think the show was criticized for.

Giving one throwaway role to one black actress doth not diversity make.

As for the men, they are pretty useless (like on the show). Noth's John/Big was almost frightening in his appearance, oozing an exaggerated self-confidence that was bordering on creepy. Again, when he told The Star the penthouse was theirs by saying, "I got it" (meaning he could afford it), I wondered what exactly he did for a living.  Did they ever mention that on the show?

Handler and Eigenberg did manage to create more sympathetic characters, though given the length of the film they had very little to do. (Side Note: while I strongly object to adultery, given how The Other One had basically locked Steve out of her life, I don't blame him for his indiscretion, and I disagree with The Other One's assessment that he "broke us". I think SHE broke them, not so much by refusing him sexually, but by refusing him emotionally to the point he sought human connection outside his marriage to have any kind of connection).

There is even confusion sometimes about what exactly was going on. In a "comedy" bit, The Uptight One ends up defecating in her pants while in Mexico as part of the group comforting The Star after her failed nuptuals. My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (one of the three straight fans who may or may not be dead) thought it was because she took a small sip of water while in the shower (side note: Kristin Davis does have a nice body) and didn't think it funny. I disagreed with his assertion and told him it had to do with the fact that she ate nothing but prepackaged pudding (but I didn't think it funny either).  That, and not 'dirty water' at a five-star resort, gave her the runs.

This is a point of contention between us which will never get resolved, but I digress.


A film like Sex and The City can do one of two things: it can expand the fan base by letting newcomers into the story, or it can be made strictly for the fans. It's obvious that it was the second. In that respects, it is a failure because those not into this Cosmopolitan Cult won't A.) understand fully, and B.) care at all. A film adaptation of a television series I believe should do the former.

It certainly did with Wayne's World, because that production saw itself as an actual movie, not just a collection of more episodes/sketches. In the scene where The Slutty One is breaking up with Smith, she tells him, "I love you but I love me more". That seems a pretty apt motto for everything involving Sex and The City--the television series as well as the feature film.

I'm glad fans were able to get a fix and see their favorite characters three years on. They'll certainly get their money's worth. When Carrie gets jilted at the altar, I turned to my friend Fidel to see his reaction, only to observe he was crying. I saw the tears streaming down his cheek. I decided not to ask him if it was worse to get dumped over a text message or a Post-It note (I vote Post-It). The fans will love it, but everyone else will be bored with it.

Speaking for myself (and I am unanimous in this), I can tell Carrie Bradshaw, Charlotte York, Miranda Hobbes, and Samantha Jones, frankly, I'm just not that into you.

DECISION: D-

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

So Thin Skinned. Doctor Who Story 162: The End of the World



STORY 162: THE END OF THE WORLD


There are no real limits on Doctor Who in what stories it can cover. Since the TARDIS (the Doctor's ship which looks like a telephone booth used to call the police) can travel through time as well as space, the stories can take place in the future or the past, on Earth or in the heavens.

The End of The World takes advantage by taking place in a combination of all these: in the far future above the Earth.

Having decided to travel with The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), ordinary British girl Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) go to a spaceship above the Earth five billion years into the future. The ship is Platform One, where a select group of wealthy aliens will watch the explosion of the Earth caused by the expansion of the Sun. The Doctor tells Rose that all the humans have left the Earth long ago and that the planet has been preserved until now, a curious relic whose time has come.

Among those attending the planet's end is the Lady Cassandra O'Brien (voiced by Zoe Wanamaker), the last "pure" human (one who was not the product of a human-alien mix). Also in attendance are such exotic creatures as The Face of Boe (a large head within a cylindrical case), the Moxx of Balhoon (a small, blueish creature), and living humanoid trees from The Forest of Cheem, headed by Jabe (Jasmine Bannerman).

As the various creatures await to witness the spectacle of the Earth's last hour, small robotic spiders are wreaking havoc about Platform One. They disable the solar filters (killing the Steward of Platform One in the process) and nearly killing Rose as well. They also disable the protective shield around Platform One, which would cause the ship to be swallowed up by the Sun's expansion. This was all a plot by The Lady Cassandra, who was at first merely going to create a hostage situation where she would get money to continue her plastic surgeries and thus stay alive. Seeing as how this won't work, she goes to a backup plan: let everyone die and get money by cashing in on their deaths and making her escape.

The Doctor restores the protective shield just in time (although at the cost of Jabe's life) and brings Lady Cassandra back, where she literally disintegrates. In all this, the Earth has quietly expired without anyone noticing. The Doctor takes Rose back to present-day London; there she realizes that life does go on and learns the truth about The Doctor's past: he is the last of the Time Lords, his world and people having been exterminated at the end of the Time War when the Time Lords lost. Both realize there is no time to lose: they've only got five billion years till the shops close.



Russell T. Davies's script is a fine mix of action, adventure, intelligence, and even comedy. Both Tyler and Eccleston have short but beautiful monologues about mortality and survival. They express both hope and sorrow about how life both goes on and conversely must end.

The light touches are almost all thanks to Wanamaker's Lady Cassandra, who has a most curious take on history. When she talks about "classical music" coming from a machine called an "iPod", what we see is a jukebox and what we hear is Soft Cell's Tainted Love. The 'traditional Earth ballad' she has played when the Earth is close to destruction is Britney Spears' Toxic, and truth be told the song actually fits. The passengers aboard Platform One are coming close to having toxic poisoning from the Sun's heat, and they are "too high, can't come down".

Like all good science-fiction programs, Davies touches (albeit lightly) on social commentary: how Lady Cassandra looks down on the "mongrels" who've intermixed human with alien is a subtle jab at those horrified by interracial relations (still a hot topic today, more so in America than Britain), and also about the human desire to stay young/live forever. It also reveals more about the Doctor's past (of which viewers have had little chance to know up till now).

The leads are excellent. Eccleston's Doctor manages to maintain the his manic nature from Rose but also adds a deeper, more tragic layer. When Jabe mentions how sorry she was about his people (meaning she knew his history), Eccleston's eyes fill with tears, and for a moment he becomes such a hearts-broken being, but then pulls himself together to do what needs to be done.

Tyler also has her moments: when she tells Lady Cassandra off (referring to her as a 'bitchy trampoline') is both a sign of a strong woman and quite amusing. However, she expresses realization about the reality of the situation she's in when she recognizes that for all practical terms her mother has been dead for billions of years.

Guest star Wanamaker is hilarious as Lady Cassandra. Using nothing but her voice (with special effects production team of The Mill creating her stretched-out skin), Wanamaker makes her funny, evil, and ultimately tragic. Bannerman's Jabe does a hard job well: making us believe a tree can talk (well, technically she's descended from the tropical rainforest, but that's getting a little too detailed). Her performance is thoroughly convincing and an excellent heroic figure.

Most of the credit rests with director Euros Lyn, who keeps things going in a steady pace without losing the audience. He maintains the right balance of terror and laughter when they are needed. Murray Gold's music also adds to the comedy of Lady Cassandra and the tension of the near destruction of Platform One.

The shifts in tone never feel forced or rushed, and considering all this takes place within an hour's time (coincidentally the same amount of time the Earth has before disintegration, making it almost a real-time story), that is an extraordinary achievement. Finally, Davy Jones' make-up was brilliant: the creation of the creatures from the Forest of Cheem alone were remarkable and well done.

The biggest issue I had with the story is that Rose Tyler is not an integral part of The End of The World, certainly not as important as she was in Rose. For most of the episode she was locked within an observation deck, banging on the door and begging the Doctor to let her out. This 'damsel in distress' situation is at odds with the fact that Rose was so Companion-centered. If you have Rose and Jabe swap places, would it have been that much different (aside from the fact that Rose wouldn't have met Jabe's fate)?

In the final analysis, while the fact that she didn't seem to be a big part of the plot hurt the story, overall The End of the World is still a fantastic follow-up to the revived Doctor Who. The story was exciting, the acting excellent, the directing efficient and effective. While it may be The End of the World, I feel fine.

9/10

Next Story: The Unquiet Dead

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Knowing Me Knowing Jew: Gentleman's Agreement Review (Review #85)




GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947)


"If you want to send a message, go to Western Union".

So said Darryl Zanuck, I believe, when it came to 'message pictures'. That advise was not taken by Gentleman's Agreement, the first film I know of that tackled the serious issue of antisemitism. I've had a long-standing quarrel with films that don't seek to entertain but to 'send a message', even if I agree with it. That's not to say they only thing I expect a film to do is merely entertain. A film can be both entertaining as well as informative of a viewpoint (case in point: District 9).

However, when it is so earnest in its intent to be a serious film, an important film, a groundbreaking film, without other than its message to back up its claim, one will end up only with a lecture/sermon.

Gentleman's Agreement, while doing a good thing by tackling the bigotry against Jewish people that even "good" people have, is so determined to beat this over our heads that it starts being tedious to the point of insanity.

Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is given a new writing assignment by Mr. Minify (John Dekker), the editor of liberal magazine Smith's Weekly. It is to be a series on antisemitism, but Green (whose first name is Phil, using his middle name as a nom de plume), just can't get a good handle on the subject. He struggles at this while caring for his mother (Anne Revere) and his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell).

Eventually, he hits on a novel idea: why not get the Jewish perspective! One of Green's best buddies is Jewish: Captain David Goldman (John Garfield), but he decides not to write to him for help to get things from a real Jew. Then, he hits upon an even more novel idea: why not get the Jewish perspective by pretending to be Jewish himself! With that original notion, he decides to be Phil Green (sometimes Greenberg) and create his damning exposé, "I Was A Jew For Six Months" (I guess that beat out the other choice: 'I Was A Teenage Rabbi').

Since few people know him in New York, he's easily able to get away with this. The editorial board at Smith's Weekly, including fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), all believe he's Jewish when he tells them so. So does his secretary Miss Elaine Wales (June Havoc), who is hiding her Judaism by not using her birth name of Estelle Walovsky. This does complicate matters with his WASP girlfriend/fianceé Kathy Lacy (Dorothy Maguire), who while not prejudiced herself is remarkably tolerant of intolerance.

Gentleman's Agreement was released in 1947, and while the full horror of the Holocaust, the ultimate act of antisemitism wasn't covered or mentioned (I figure it was far too soon for a horrified world to see on screen); the film under director Elia Kazan and writer Moss Hart (adapting Laura Z. Hobson's novel) goes out of its way to show how everyone in New York City and Darien, Connecticut is an anti-Semite, or at least willing to accept it as a nature course of life.

As a side note, it does remind me of a line from Auntie Mame, where she complains that the trustee to her nephew wants to make him "an Aryan from Darien".  Just a thought.

Take the scene where the doctor he's called to examine his mother is asked about recommending a specialist. When a "Dr. Abrahams" is mentioned, Dr. Craige (Nicholas Joy) has this look of sheer horror, then suggests that the particular doctor in question may try to overcharge Green.  Not-so-subtle message from WASP to WASP: Jews are greedy!

Even worse is when Phil tries to go to a hotel known to be 'restricted', in spite of having reservations for his honeymoon there. Green asks the manager flat-out if he's hotel is restricted to Jews, the manager matching him by asking flat-out if Green's of the Hebraic religion.

In retrospect that scene is a fitting way of looking at Gentleman's Agreement altogether. The film makes its case (antisemitism is bad, and its all around us) with such a fiery determination that it becomes so hopelessly heavy-handed.

All the good intentions in the world cannot make up for a weak (or at the very least, dated) film. Even that could be tolerated (no pun intended), if only for the fact that Gentleman's Agreement really isn't about the evils of antisemitism. It's really about how antisemitism gets in the way of a "beautiful love story".

For most of the film, the real story was the relationship between Green and Kathy. He's hopelessly in love with her and dazzled by her beauty, but puzzled as to why she would be so passive in her casual acceptance of bigotry. We didn't get to really see how being Jewish is an impediment on the whole (other than a slight glimpse from Miss Wales) because so much damn time was wasted going into the romance of the leads. We never got to see/hear when and if Green was rejected for jobs, for service, for homes in certain neighborhoods because of his perceived background. It was not an interesting love story, especially since Kathy was such an uninteresting character.

The performances were never really realistic. Almost everyone in Gentleman's Agreement wasn't speaking dialogue so much as making speeches. Speeches decrying bigotry, speeches defending themselves against charges of being bigots (or giving aid and comfort to bigots), speeches about what it is to be Jewish and what exactly a Jew is. It gets boring and tedious and ponderous and almost hectoring.

Good actors can usually rise above such ponderous material as Gentleman's Agreement (even if it came from a talented writer like Hart, co-author of You Can't Take It With You and the first remake of A Star Is Born), and at times Peck and Revere do give actual performances. There is one scene between Peck and Stockwell after Tommy was taunted by neighborhood bullies for supposedly being Jewish that is especially effective.

However, for most of the film Peck is just making one speech after another about how it's hard out here for a Jew (which came as a big surprise to him). There's a scene near the end of the film that is particularly awful. In it, he's handed in the first three sections of his exposé (now called "I Was A Jew For Eight Weeks"--I figure he found it too hard to go on for another four months).

Miss Wales is shocked to discover he isn't Jewish, and he tells her he's still the same man: same eyes, face, hands. I seriously was expecting him to tell her about his "dimensions, organs, passions" and that maybe she should "prick him to see if he would not bleed".  Shakespeare already tread that ground in a much better production than this.

Maguire was almost totally blank for the course of the film (which felt far longer than its running time of nearly two hours). It's as if she's not just not merely unaware of her accepting of other's bigotry, she's apparently unaware that Kathy should have more than one facial expression.

The supporting players were far better. Garfield, most known to audiences of the time as a tough guy, played against type in his gentle portrayal of Capt. Goldman, a man who's seen the ugly side of bigotry but unlike Green doesn't have the luxury of turning Gentile all of a sudden. Havoc could have brought the conflict of someone "passing" for Gentile (which to me does make being Jewish the 1940s equivalent of being gay: something that can be kept in the closet where like one can "pass" for straight, but I digress), but she wasn't given a big enough part to do so.  It would have been a much better film if we'd seen things from their perspective versus the WASPy dishwater-dull Peck and Maguire.



The only person who gave a fully rounded performance was Holm. This is due to the fact that she was allowed to play a genuine person as opposed to a symbol or a message. Anne is a complete character: she is the only one around Green who treats him well, who never says anything negative, who shows compassion and who seems to have a jolly exterior but can also show her hurt when Green continues to pine over Kathy when a far better woman (one who shares his views) is right in front of him.

Anne is the only character who doesn't exhibit signs of antisemitism or any other kind of bigotry. She likes Phil for Phil, not for what she thinks he is or would like him to be, which makes Phil's final decision (and open-ended conclusion) of him running off to join Kathy even more bizarre.

This is ultimately what makes Gentleman's Agreement so difficult to believe: just how dumb Green is. The fact that he's genuinely shocked, SHOCKED, that Jewish people were not accepted or wanted in certain circles already makes him look naive. The fact that he still prefers Kathy over Anne makes him look hopelessly stupid.

At the end of the film, even after Anne tells Phil how she feels for him (Jew or Gentile, she doesn't care, and she's willing to fight for and alongside him), Phil still runs to Kathy after learning she has let David use of her home in Connecticut, restrictions be damned. One good act, apparently, can make Phil realize the woman he wants sexually is now more acceptable than the one who has stood by him.

I wrote in my notes when I saw Phil running up the stairs to embrace Kathy as Alfred Newman's music swelled (curiously, about the only time I heard music throughout all of Gentleman's Agreement), I HOPE HE'S NOT GOING BACK TO KATHY!!! (No exaggeration: I wrote that sentence in capital letters).

In fairness, Gentleman's Agreement did a good thing by just having the guts to face this oh-so genteel form of bigotry. In doing that, in making antisemitism the subject of the film (though I'd argue, not the central point of the film) it took a positive step to allow subject matter that needed to be addressed brought to the screen.

However, I felt there ultimately something disingenuous to Gentleman's Agreement. Phil Green can go back to being Gentile and to how his life was before. For those who are Jewish, or black, or today gay, or Hispanic or Arab/Muslim (the last two are not the same thing), they don't have that luxury.

Perhaps films like Gentleman's Agreement paved the way for America to be a more open, diverse, and accepting society (though I doubt this film had that much power). However, today the film is dated, hopelessly preachy, and as subtle as a sledgehammer.

I ultimately found that Gentleman's Agreement was not at all kosher.

DECISION: D-

1948 Best Picture: Hamlet

It is my goal to review every Best Picture winner. Please visit the ever-growing collection.