Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Finding Nemo: A Review (Review #98)


It's a curious thing that I until now had not seen Finding Nemo. I had been on The Seas with Nemo & Friends ride at EPCOT, and had seen Finding Nemo: The Musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom, but had not seen the film they are based on. Therefore, when I went into Finding Nemo, I could argue that I had a basic understanding of the story. In spite of all that (as a side note: I highly recommend the musical at Animal Kingdom even if you haven't seen the film--it's wonderfully made), the movie instantly captures you with unique characters, a charming story, and simply amazing cinematography.

Marlin (Albert Brooks), a clownfish has one son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). As a result of tragedy, Marlin is hyperprotective of his only child. Nemo, who has one fin shorter than the other, is not happy about his father's constant smothering, so he decides to go out into the open ocean. Before either of them know what happens, Nemo is taken by a scuba diver. Marlin attempts to follow them, but eventually loses them.

Marlin soon hooks up (no pun intended) with Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a Regal Blue Tang fish with a jolly personality and short-term memory loss who has seen which direction the boat took but then can't remember why Marlin is following her. At this juncture, Finding Nemo tells two stories; one story is with Marlin and Dory travelling the ocean, where they encounter vegetarian sharks Bruce (Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna) and Anchor the hammerhead (Eric Bana), a jellyfish forest, surfer sea turtles Crush (Andrew Stanton, who also co-wrote and directed the film) and son Squirt (Nicholas Bird), and idiot seagulls (who can only cry out, "Mine! Mine!" whenever they see anything).

The other story is Nemo in an Australian dentist's office, where he meets the other members of the fish tank: the leader Gill (Willem Dafoe), Bloat, an anxious pufferfish (Brad Garrett), the mothering starfish Peaches (Allison Janney), and Deb (Vicki Lewis), who believes her reflection is an identical sister named Flo. Eventually, both father and son find each other after many dangers and realize just how important they are to each other.

Finding Nemo first has to be complimented on some simply beautiful imagery. The animation is some of the most sublime I've seen, and the ocean looks so incredibly realistic. This is a credit to all the animators at Pixar, who have created a fantastic and realistic-looking world.

The second brilliant thing about the film is the story, co-written by Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds. The story is one that can be enjoyed on many levels, from the most basic of an adventure story to a deeper level, one that touches on the role of parents and children. Parents, if one believes the story, have to eventually let go and let their children take risks in exploring the world outside their home. Different parenting methods are brought into sharp focus when Marlin, the hyperprotective anxious father, meets the totally laid back Crush. Both are accurate in the real world: sea turtles lay the eggs and the hatchlings have to crawl out from the beach to the ocean to make it back to their families. The story shifts from merely a father searching for his son to that of a father understanding that he has to trust his child to make his own decisions.

Co-directors Stanton and Lee Unkrick manage to keep a steady pace, balancing both stories without short-changing either. The moments of comedy (mostly supplied by Dory) are balanced against real moments of tension and even sadness. Marlin and Dory's journey through the jellyfish moments (again, beautifully filmed) is filled with suspense as to whether both or either will make it out alive. Just when you think you see the end result, you get a big surprise that makes you actually cheer.

There are also tense moments when Nemo attempts to escape out of the fish tank and they are balanced with the comedy of joining the tank's 'tribe' by going through THE RING OF FIRE.

A side note: I digress to say that my favorite characters were the turtles. With their surfer speak and laid-back personas, I thought they were totally cool, like, totally. One can't be blamed if one starts speaking like them once they finish the film.

The side note does go into another brilliant thing in Finding Nemo: each group has their distinct personalities. This gives the characters a wide range of emotions to draw on (no pun intended), from the simple minds of the seagulls (the chase between them and the pelican Nigel, voiced by Geoffrey Rush, especially thrilling), to the sweetness of Dory, to the sincerity of the vegetarian sharks, and the ultra-cool turtles, to the anxiety but deep love of Marlin, all create real characters with real emotions that transend animation.

Finding Nemo is a rich film: in imagery, in story-telling, and in heart. The conflicts between fathers and sons, and the love between them, has rarely been expressed with such beauty and sincerity. Parents and children will relate to this magnificent story. Finding Nemo is well worth the search, a real fish story in that it is true to the human condition.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Doctor Who Story 212: Amy's Choice


Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear...

When I learned that there was going to be a Doctor Who story called Amy's Choice where Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) was pregnant, alarm bells rang furiously within my mind.

I was already irritated with certain Doctor Who episodes like Tooth & Claw (where The Doctor is none-too-subtle in his--and the production/actors--hatred toward Margaret Thatcher--to hell, Russell T. Davies was saying, to any and all Conservative Doctor Who fans; they don't matter, only those that agree with them do). I worked hard to erase these wicked, wicked thoughts from my mind. Yes, the title was suggestive when one thinks of her pregnancy, but I was reading far too much into it. 

Once I collected myself, I then decided the best thing to do was to actually watch the episode in question. I got a good surprise: no politics here (the way I like them). Amy's Choice does have something unique to it: it is, after Rose and Smith and Jones the third episode to have the Companion's name in the title. It also has a remarkably good story, thanks to Simon Nye's script (and frankly, a better turn than The Vampires of Venice).

The Doctor (Matt Smith) visits his former Companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), and her now-husband, Rory (Arthur Darvill) in their home of Upper Leadworth. It's been five years since they parted and Amy is apparently minutes from going into labor...or so we think. The sound of chirping birds apparently put them to sleep, and they awaken inside the TARDIS, where they discover they all had the same dream, one where The Doctor visits his former Companion Amy Pond and her now-husband, Rory, in their home of Upper Leadworth, where it's been five years since they parted company.

They jump around between these two worlds, and this is all the machinations of a figure who calls himself The Dream Lord (Toby Jones). He tells them that one of these scenarios is reality, while the other is a dream. He gives them (or should I say, Amy) a choice: they must decide which one is the dream and which one is real. Choose right, and they live. Choose wrong, and they die.

The decision is made more difficult because in both universes they face a threat: inside the TARDIS they may freeze due to a frozen star which the TARDIS is fast approaching, while in Upper Leadworth the senior citizens are really ancient alien beings called Eknodine which live inside the seniors and who turn all other humans into dust (ashes to ashes, one might say). If they choose the dream world as reality, the real danger in the real reality will kill them. Decisions, decisions.

I have to say that I had decided early on in Amy's Choice which was the dream world (no clues, but I would argue this would be a good time for a pregnant pause). I was concerned that all the bouncing around between the two worlds would become a bit idiotic, but they were handled well, especially when we had the audio cue of the birds (though I confess I didn't see how the birds were connected).

I also kept wondering who the villain actually was. At first The Dream Lord made me think it was The Celestial Toymaker (from the eponymous story), which would have been quite a twist. Considering that this was some sort of game for him, it isn't too far-fetched to believe it. Once we are told who The Dream Lord actually is, it shifted my thought to another villain: The Valeyard. That is a strong possibility, especially given the history of that character, but it does open up a curious train of thought. The Doctor tells The Dream Lord that he knows who he is because there is only one person in the universe who hated him as much as he did. If we accept The Doctor's explanation for who The Dream Lord is, does that mean The Doctor has more issues than he can handle?

It's a credit to director Catherine Morshead that she maintained the balance between both worlds quite well. She directed her performers effectively: what little bits of humor melded into the overall drama and tension without sticking out (as opposed to The Vampires of Venice...the more I think of it the worse it gets in my memory, but I digress). She actually managed to make the elderly scary, though I will say that at times Upper Leadworth did come off a bit like a geriatric Village of The Damned.

The greatest performance isn't from the main cast but from Jones' Dream Lord. I remember him as The Duke of Clarence in Amazing Grace and as Truman Capote from Infamous (which I say might have had a wider audience and earned him an Oscar nomination if Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Capote hadn't beaten them to the theaters first). He was menacing and at times, even funny. If they had kept things where we thought they ended, The Dream Lord would have been a brilliant villain. Alas, the story did not go that way, so there you go.

Darvill and Gillan had an unenviable task of having to play two versions of themselves, and they managed to create variations on a theme of Rory and Amy extremely well. Smith improves in this episode after his last one, and here, he has a more manic manner to him. I think this comes from the fact that it's not the Doctor who saves the day, but Amy.

Well, I take that back. In the end, The Doctor does save the day, and here's where I would argue is when Amy's Choice became a misnomer and a bit of a cheat. What would have been wrong with ending it when we thought it had ended? It wouldn't have affected the way the story ended or how good it was. Did this twist at the end have to occur to have The Doctor at the center of the story once again? Did it happen to have one final twist?

I argue they all aren't good reasons and that it would have worked fine without all that. I also digress to wonder why we continue the bow-tie bashing. What is the point of constantly making fun of the bow-tie?  Maybe they should give it a rest.  Given some of his previous sartorial choices the bow-tie is the least ridiculous thing he's had on. I just don't understand why the production staff continues to think this is remotely funny.

I also have an issue with thje cause for all the hallucinations. Brought back memories of the "fast return switch" from Inside the Spaceship. It was a bit too pat, too simple, taking away from any otherworldly explanation. However, it doesn't take away from some truly poignant moments in Amy's Choice, especially when Rory faces death. That was a beautiful moment.

I also digress to congratulate the art direction and make-up in the frozen TARDIS section, which were well done.

Amy's Choice was a leap from other episodes, and while some of the directions the story took weren't the greatest, they did create a good, strong story, maybe not the best one of the season but overall, one that worked like a dream.


Next Story: COLD BLOOD

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Knight and Day: A Review


It seems so strange that Tom Cruise is a star (and a very good actor) and yet I can't remember the last thing I've seen him in something that hasn't involve some sort of mental meltdown (Oprah's couch, fighting with Matt Lauer, feuding with Brooke Shields). Was War of the Worlds really the last movie he made? I don't recall, but I do know it's been a while since I've seen him on the silver screen.

No, I forget Valkyrie--how time flies. So, can I call Knight & Day a comeback? What I will call Knight & Day is a second-rate vehicle where everyone (including us) deserved better.

June (Cameron Diaz) is headed home to Boston to serve as her sister's bridesmaid when she bumps and bumps again into Roy Miller (Cruise), a charming stranger. They board the same plane (after she was told the one she had transferred to was full), this one curiously having few passengers. June discovers that Roy has killed everyone on board because they were trying to kill him. She then gets caught up in Miller's espionage game.

He is some form of secret agent attempting to stop Antonio (Jordí Molla), a Spanish arms dealer, from getting his hands on a Zephir, a powerful battery that provides an endless supply of energy. This battery was created by young genius Simon Feck (Paul Dano), whose life is in danger. Miller is being pursued by Agent Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) and their boss, Director George (Viola Davis), who believes Agent Miller has gone rogue. June and Miller are pursued through the States, Austria, and Spain by both Antonio and Fitzgerald to get their hands on this new creation.

Knight & Day really has nothing going for it. There is nothing new or surprising in Patrick O'Neill's script. We pretty much know what's going on and the shocking twist isn't all that shocking. John Powell's score (specifically the use of the accordion to play French-style music) signals that this is a comedy, but I didn't laugh.

My lack of chuckles came mostly from the fact that the movie treated June quite badly: she was drugged at least four times, and director James Mangold showed us her p.o.v. when she was under the influence often. Most of all, using this device allowed Miller and June to get out of various situations without actually showing us how they did that. It was a quick and easy way to get our characters out of danger, so it had the end effect (no pun intended) of not having to rely on intelligence to get out of things. Have no way out? Just drug your main character so she (and we) don't know how we got out of it.

It's just so strange that for an action/comedy, Knight & Day has neither. There are action scenes, but they weren't particularly thrilling, and whatever bits of comedy fell pretty flat.

The performances weren't all that remarkable. Diaz in particular was pretty awful. She has a monologue while in the airplane's restroom that shows she's trying to act but as filmed looked more like she was trying to memorize her lines than actually being a character named June. As I kept watching her all I could think of was Kristin Chenoweth would have been better in the role, and that's a terrible sign for a film when your mind starts to imagine another performer in a role and thinking that said actor/actress would have given a better performance. Chenoweth can be comedic, and while Diaz can be as well, the script, the directing, and her own abilities all conspired against her.

Dano and Davis gave good performances, Davis especially so as the tough and determined Director, but unfortunately were underused. Again, it's a bad sign when you start thinking a movie would have been better if you had shifted your focus on supporting characters.

Sarsgaard remains one of my favorite actors and it is interesting to see him trying to expand to essentially light fare compared to his better turns in such films as An Education, but oddly he appears to not be fully engaged in Knight & Day, almost as if you could read in his face that he thought he was too intelligent for all this.

Molla also had little to do except be the typical raving villain, though it's nice to see the Hispanic villain be a Spaniard as opposed to Mexican, Cuban, or Colombian. It's certainly a shift from the last film I remember him in: as the excessively pious weakling Phillip II in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The fact that he can shift from royal wimp to somewhat dangerous criminal is a good indication of his abilities, but not for his English-language career should he want one.

Now, for Cruise. He can act, he can be funny, he can be the center of great action sequences. However, his character can't do any of the above. Miller is some sort of omniscient, omnipresent figure, always appearing out of nowhere and knowing things he has no way of being able of knowing, the type to be fifty paces ahead of everyone else. However, Miller isn't very interesting because we really know nothing about him.

This is a fault of the script: he disappears from the screen for stretches at a time, so we are forced to move the story along without him. When he is there, Cruise does the best he can (the fight on the plane was good), and he has this offbeat manner to all the danger going on around him and a self-assurance that he, "has this under control". However, it isn't enough to push Knight & Day to anything wonderful.

Side note: the logic of the film is a bit muddled. June does start out being taken into this against her will, but later she decides to join Miller in his escapades for no discernible reason other than he still looks good without his shirt at age 45. At least I didn't see why she would want to join with him, especially after risking her life in a blase manner and shooting her sometime boyfriend Rodney (Marc Blucas). Also, the backstory with the Knights (hence the title, although Day really didn't play into the film) is tenuous at best and isn't a big part of the overall story.

Here's where I offer my own suggestion as to how Knight & Day could have been improved: role reversals. Have the super-agent be a woman (named Knight, not Miller), and have the man be taken hostage. The female agent, Knight, should be played by Kristen Chenowith, and the ordinary man played by Tom Cruise. It certainly would have been a stretch for both, don't you think?

The man, Mr. Day (June's last name is Havens in the film), grows to action co-lead. How's that for a twist. However, that's not the film we get or will get. We have a pretty forgettable action/comedy that won't be in the canon of great Tom Cruise films.

Knight & Day isn't by far a terrible film, but for an action/comedy, it's actually rather boring on both fronts. You can definitely wait to watch it if you want. It's best viewed at home, lying on a couch...assuming Cruise isn't there to jump on it while you're watching.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3: A Review


One of my Golden Rules of Film-Making is: Part III is either a disaster or the harbinger of a greater disaster.

As evidence for the first, I present Spider-Man III, X-Men III: The Last Stand, The Godfather, Part III. As evidence for the second, I give you Batman & Robin, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. One could argue that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King broke with this rule, but I'd argue that since it was the third part of a larger story, the rule doesn't apply.

I think that the reason third parts fail is because the creative team take the characters and break apart whatever made us love/care about them in the first place.

Now we have Toy Story 3. It not only had to compete against The Curse of The Third, but had to go against the first two films which are masterpieces.

How could you take the stories and hit one out of the ball park one more time? You do it the way Toy Story 3 did: keeping what worked in the first two and letting the situation create the drama.

Andy (John Morris) is not a child anymore. He is a man, one going off to college. College men don't play with toys. Now the group we've come to know and love is facing this dilemma: they may be Andy's toys, but Andy has outgrown them. This smaller group faces a future of being placed in the attic (basically a sad but comfortable and safe retirement), being donated to a day care (a form of forced banishment) or being thrown into the trash (death).

Andy opts to take one toy with him to college: Woody (Tom Hanks) his most loyal cowboy doll. All the others: astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Rex the Dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the Piggy Bank (John Ratzenberger), are all to stay behind, including the three aliens the Potato Heads have adopted and Bullseye, Woody's loyal horse.

Through a series of mishaps they are first thrown out with the trash then they (except for Woody) decide to go to Sunnyside Day Care with Barbie (Jodi Benson) who was the only one originally sent there.

Sunnyside seems like paradise at first. The toys there welcome them eagerly, and their leader, a plush strawberry-scented bear named Lot's O'Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) or Lotso for short, is a gentle soul who tells them they'll never run out of children to play with. It's Nirvana--to all but Woody, who is determined to stay with Andy because they are Andy's toys.

He leaves without them, but in the process gets taken by Bonnie (Emily Hahn) to her home. Here Woody discovers Lotso's secret, and the rest of the toys discover Sunnyside is really a police state. Now Woody and the rest of Andy's toys have to break out of Sunnyside and return home. Of course, Lotso and his sidekick Ken (Michael Keaton) aren't about to let that happen.

Toy Story 3 works on many levels. First, it works in that you don't have to know the story from the first two films. We get quick introductions to all the characters so those who don't know the story won't be left out. Second, we get something that has been missing from many recent Hollywood films: actual character development. The returning characters, although all toys, are given remarkably human emotions that are done frighteningly well.

The sense of loss and abandonment, even rejection, that Andy's toys go through is extremely deep for an animated film (especially when Americans are absolutely dead-set to think of animation as purely a children's genre...have your kids sit through Grave of the Fireflies and see what happens). Woody has his own issues: to stay in comfort and security in a new home or risk his very existence for the sake of his friends.

The new figures are also given the complexity of emotion that has become anathema in live-action films. Lotso has the charm of a Southern grandfather, but even within his wickedness (and he get a heaping helping of it) he's far more complex than a cartoon villain (pun intended). His backstory (though unfortunately similar but not as heartbreaking as Jessie's from Toy Story 2) makes him an almost tragic figure. The same goes for Ken: a toy who wants to be one of the guys and side with Lotso and his henchtoys but who also has found love with Barbie and who struggles to not be seen as a girl's toy (in spite of his passion for fashion).

The performances from all the voice actors are still amazing. Hanks has never lost his moral certainty and leadership abilities (or burdens) as Woody, who is determined to keep everyone safe. Allen still makes his Buzz Lightyear amazingly cocky but equal to the challenge of risk taking. I confess I started out writing "Buzz still has...", which is a sign of just how intelligent all three Toy Story films are and just how strong both the animation and our acceptance of the characters are. A great film will not only make you believe the situation on the screen, but make you actively participate and care about what is going on. Toy Story 3 in that regard is no different from its predecessors.

The animation is also a stand-out. Each Toy Story film has benefited from advances in computer imagery, and in Toy Story 3 there were moments when it looked absolutely real to the where one can't be blamed for thinking director Lee Unkrich had slipped live-action into the film. From the light at Andy's house to the dark halls and yard of Sunnyside to a literal fiery furnace, the visuals in the film give it not only the emotional impact but a true beauty.

Side note: when our characters were facing an extremely perilous situation, I confess to getting a slight lump in my throat.  That is how much the Toy Story series has grown, each one simply moving in ways I didn't expect.

If I have some complaints, they would be as follows. First, the script by Unkrich, Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton was a bit of a repeat from Toy Story 2. You had the seemingly benevolent character being the villain, and you even had the villain meet a parallel end to that of Stinky Pete (not exactly but similar in tone).

You had a clear homage (or rip-off depending on your point of view) in Toy Story 3 to that of the end of Return of the Jedi--I was expecting lightning to burst out from the film. It was a little bit long and some of the fashion show as well as how the toys got to Sunnyside could have been cut.

My strangest complaint would be the lack of songs. Toy Story had the iconic You've Got A Friend In Me and Toy Story 2 had two songs memorable: the sweet and charming Woody's Roundup (I'm a big fan of Riders in the Sky) and the heartbreaking and beautiful When She Loved Me (a song I still can't get through without getting something in my eye).  With Toy Story 3, I can't remember a single number.

However, these are tiny issues to the overall brilliance of Toy Story 3. It's a bit like saying The Elgin Marbles or The Mona Lisa aren't very good because they are smaller than what you'd imagine.

Toy Story is the Citizen Kane of CGI animated films (let's face it: every computer-animated feature is compared to it). Toy Story 2 is The Godfather Part II of CGI animated films (a sequel that matches or even excels the original). Now, Toy Story 3 is the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade of CGI animated films (a third part that equaled the first).

I'd like to conclude with this Spanish lesson (seeing that a subplot involves Buzz now getting a new voice courtesy of Javier Fernandez Peña). The word "maloso" means "a bad/wicked person". If you split the word in half, the words "mal oso" translates to "bad bear". Coincidence? I think not.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010): A Review (Review #95)


*Author's Note: It's the policy of Rick's Cafe Texan NOT to take into consideration the original when reviewing a remake/reboot/reimagining of a film. Therefore, all efforts will be made to ignore the existence of the 1984 The Karate Kid in this review.

Not Well Done, Grasshopper...

Quick lesson: the correct pronunciation for the particular martial art known as karate is "kaw-raw-teh" and translated from the Japanese it means "empty hand" (kara-te). You see the same when you see karaoke, which should be pronounced "kaw-raw-OKEH" (empty orchestra, kara-oke). This information really is useless when you think of The Karate Kid, because A.) it's not karate, and B.) it's not based on anything Japanese.

Instead, it is about kung-fu, and it is thoroughly Chinese. This begs the question, if it's not about karate but about kung-fu, why not call it as it should be called: The Kung-Fu Kid? Answer is obvious: The Karate Kid is already understood by audiences, and frankly, only practitioners of karate, kung-fu, and nitpickers like myself would bother to note or care about the difference. Alas, for many in the audience...karate, kung-fu, same difference.

Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves from Detroit to Beijing to accompany his mother (Taraji P. Henson) who has been transferred to a new job there. First day he's there two things happen: Dre meets Mei Ying (Wenwen Han) a pretty Chinese violinist, and Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a bully with a gang who doesn't take kindly to this foreigner taking a liking to Mei Ying.

Dre is miserable in China: he doesn't speak the language (or ever bother to try and learn it), keeps getting pushed around by Cheng and his crew, has no friends, and just really hates it there. He does try to push back at Cheng & Company but has little success since they all practice kung-fu. In one fight, Dre comes close to apparently almost being killed but then none other than the maintenance man at Dre's apartment, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) shows up, and we find he is a kung-fu master. Han strikes a bargain with Master Li (Rongguan Yu), the head instructor at the kung-fu academy Cheng & Company go to: Dre will not be bothered while Han trains Dre in the art of kung-fu and in return Dre will fight in the Kung-Fu tournament. Han trains Dre, we discover a secret from Mr. Han's past, and then we get the epic duel between Dre and Cheng.

In a film like The Karate Kid, it's vital to be able to root and cheer and identify with the lead. That can't be done. Jaden Smith WILL BE A STAR...whether we want him to be one or not.

Agreed: he was wonderful in The Pursuit of Happyness, but does anyone think the same of his performance in the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still? (Maybe he just shouldn't be in remakes). Throughout the film he came off as frankly a bit of a jerk: dropping his jacket on the floor and always whining whenever his mother asked him to put it up, talking back to her, disinterested in learning even the most rudimentary Mandarin and expecting everyone else to speak English, and even being almost bored when visiting The Forbidden City.

Side note: if he's not impressed with The Forbidden City even in the slightest, then he's beyond hope.

Dre in short came off as the quintessential Ugly American, making it hard for me to like him, let alone cheer him on. All that could be tolerated, but Smith at this point seems incapable of expressing any emotion beyond whining and slight boredom. At the moment, young Smith has not learned the difference between emoting and acting. It's more than just saying the lines written by Christopher Murphey. When he is suppose to be angry, he gestures with his hands but doesn't communicate anger so much as irritation.

I'm going to digress on the age-appropriateness of The Karate Kid. As stated, Dre is twelve years old. I wonder whether it's right to give a twelve-year-old a big romance with another twelve-year-old. At a festival (which, unfortunately given the accents I first heard "festival" as "basketball") Dre and Mei finally share a kiss. I see nothing wrong in tweens expressing attraction via lips touching, but as filmed by Harald Zwart it was extremely lush and romantic for a scene involving even had literal sparks going off a la To Catch A Thief.

Even more disconcerting are the number of shots where young Smith is filmed shirtless while training. All the accompanying "woos" by girls was irritating in and of itself, but what seemed to be an effort to make young Smith some sort of preteen sex symbol was downright creepy.

I have already remarked at making a-then seventeen year old boy the object of lust, but doing likewise to a twelve-year-old was simply flat-out weird. Maybe twelve-year-olds express their sexual desires more readily today than when I was twelve, but the focus on young Smith's physical training was off-putting to me. All this might work for a seventeen year old, but for a twelve year old, not so much.

Leaving that aside for the moment, let's go back to other performances. Henson didn't add much to the film since she wasn't in the film that much. Basically, she served as a reason to get Dre to China, and the same goes for the little boy who got Dre to go to the park. His purpose was to get the ball rolling on the main plot, and once that happens we don't see him again until the big tournament.

Side note: he was there so briefly I don't think I even learned the character's name.

It's an odd thing to be wondering where a minor character went in a film, but it's a sign of the problems of The Karate Kid that characters can be disposed so easily and quickly once they have served their raison d'ete. In fact, when one thinks about it, the story didn't even have to move Sherry and Dre Parker to China...couldn't he have found one bully in Detroit? I heard there were some bullies in West Philadelphia, just saying.

There really was no reason to set the film in China, save for the fact that kung-fu is more prevalent there than in the States, and that Beijing is located there, as is The Great Wall (where Dre has more training, something I'm sure goes on there every day), and the Chinese market is becoming very lucrative.

Chan, as the mysterious Mr. Han, does a much better job at being the wise mentor to Dre, and the scene where his secret is revealed (all great men have torturous secrets in films) shows he can be a strong dramatic actor.

Besides Chan, there really isn't much to recommend The Karate Kid apart from some beautiful cinematography of China by Roger Pratt. For all the lush imagery of the Chinese countryside (better cinematography of The Forbidden City can be found in The Last Emperor courtesy of Vittorio Storaro) the camera work and editing of Joel Negron is among the ugliest in recent memory. There seemed to be a deliberate effort to copy the style of a Bourne film in the way the fight scenes were filmed, so much so that I thought the film might have been retitled The Bourne Elementary School.

The fight scenes were confusing and badly shot: whatever beauty there is in kung-fu was lost with the camera going this way and that, left, right, center, all over the place. Even when there were no fights, the camera had a habit of moving all around: Dre would be seen on a couch, then the camera would move to the door where Sherry walks in, then move to the jacket on the floor, then back to Dre on the couch, then again to the jacket, then to Sherry and move with Sherry picking up the jacket off the floor--one was in danger of getting whiplash.

For all the money put in the film (courtesy of a co-production with the China Film Company, which I figure is the state-run film company, and co-producers Will and Jada Smith, who just happen to be Jaden's father and mother), this is really a cheap way of making a film.

One last point: James Horner's score seemed to me to echo music from other composers. When Dre first encounters the kung-fu academy, I thought it was reminiscent of Debussy, while when he goes to a temple for more training I heard elements of Gladiator, which is curious since in that film Hans Zimmer's score had echoes of Gustav Holst's Mars, The Bringer of War.

As stated, I make it a rule not to discuss the original version of a film when discussing a remake/reboot/reimagined version, but The Karate Kid was almost goading me to do so. At the climatic match between Cheng and Dre, Master Li tells him, "I want you to break his leg. No mercy".

Forgive me, but I couldn't avoid hearing, "Sweep the leg" when I heard that.

The Karate Kid is clearly a star vehicle for the scion of a major star. It has no other purpose. Young Smith even contributes to the soundtrack: the last song has him performing with Sign of the End of Western Civilization Justin Bieber.

Young Smith may yet be an actual actor, but at the moment he still has to grow, get stronger directors and material to do so. I am interested if they decide to make a sequel, if only to hear these kids do their version of that old 1970s hit by Carl Douglas that goes, "Everybody was karate fighting..."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doctor Who Story 211: The Vampires of Venice


Vapid Vamp...

Here's the deal with The Vampires of Venice: without giving too much away, it's not about vampires. I suppose Fish Creatures of Venice didn't have the same cache. I confess to having really high expectations for this story: it had a historic backdrop (which I like), lavish costumes (I'm a sucker for period costume pictures), and otherworldly creatures.

In the first few minutes of The Vampires of Venice, it started sinking (no pun intended) in that this was aiming for a more comedic story, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, the way the comedy was put in was killing whatever tension and fear a good Doctor Who could bring, and then the big reveal only made it look more idiotic.

We start in 1580 Venice where Guido (Lucian Msamati), a simple Venetian, brings his daughter Isabella (Alishea Bailey) to the Calvierri School so as to have a future. She is accepted by Lady Calvierri (Helen McCrory) and her son Francesco (Alex Price), who are not what they appear to be.

Shift then to Rory's stag (aka bachelor) party. Rory (Arthur Darvill) happens to be Amy Pond's (Karen Gillan) fiancee whom we met in The Eleventh Hour. The Doctor (Matt Smith) crashes the party in a remarkably predictable manner, and if you didn't think so when Rory's mates rolled out the large cake then you need a crash course in surprises. The Doctor tells Rory about his near-rape at Amy's hands, well, not in those words, merely telling him that she kissed him and was a good kisser...always the best thing to tell a man that the woman he's about to marry has been locking lips with someone else.

In order to make up for all this, The Doctor whisks Amy & Rory off to romantic Venice, 1580. There, all three encounter this mysterious school, with the mysterious students, and the mysterious owners: the alleged Vampires of Venice. Amy decides to go undercover to see what has happened to Isabella and discovers this coven, but also discovers that while they may appear as vampires, they are really Saturnyians who have fled their home-world due to "the cracks" (ALWAYS THOSE DAMN CRACKS--AT LEAST I DIDN'T SEE THEM THIS TIME). Venice is the perfect place for them--full of water and all, and they intend to take over the population and failing that (seeing The Doctor doesn't approve or help) sink the city.

Frankly, Vampires of Venice shouldn't have been as boring as it ended up being. I think it would work to focus on the good things in the story.

The costumes were nice. Ray Holman designed some beautiful pieces that evoke the world of 16th Century Venice. The wardrobe for Rosanna Calvierri (I don't know if she was a noblewoman in the story, but I kept thinking of her as a Countess or a Duchess, primarily because of her costume) and Francesco were lavish without being excessive. They served as a wonderful counterpoint to the simplicity of the near shrouds the vampire girls wore. We also have to remember he created the t-shirts Rory and his fellow party goers wore, complete with a picture of Rory and Amy in a heart (how precious).

Murray Gold also pulls himself to a great standard (and has me forget how I disliked the score to The Time of Angels--all 50s horror film-style) with excellent period piece music.

The guest stars were also brilliant. McCrory's Lady/Countess Calvierri (perhaps I keep thinking she's a noblewoman because my mind went back to the story of Countess Bathory, vampire and all) was in equal turns menacing and tragic, majestic and sad. For most of The Vampires of Venice, she maintained an air of haughtiness and intimidation, almost the perfect villainness. McCrory never let up in her performance, even when we had to buy the idea that she was really just a big fish (though I must confess I thought they were spiders). She recites a beautiful soliloquy about what they will do to Amy. "We drink you till you're dry. Then we fill you with our blood, rages through you like a fire, changing you, until one morning, you're awake, and your humanity is a dream, now faded". That is beautiful writing, and beautifully delivered by McCrory.

Price's Francesco was also perfect: a lecherous momma's boy who was both for lack of a better word flamboyant and dangerous. Msamati's Guido, though a smaller and less showy role, also created a man who wanted the best for his daughter but who realizes too late the danger she and all Venice are in.

Of all the leads, Darvill is the only one who is relatively new. Gillan and Smith still have a wonderful rapport which makes him a bit of a third wheel. Darvill is in the story more of a comic foil for the Gillan/Smith double act, and while he was all right his role is the first signal of what is wrong with Tobey Whithouse's script. To quote the title of a play, this was No Time For Comedy. I don't object to comedy in Doctor Who, but in The Vampires of Venice it became far too distracting, and at times obvious and idiotic.

Take the opening at Rory's party. I knew what was going to happen the moment they rolled the cake out. It didn't surprise me, and while Smith and Darvill did as good a job as the script allowed, it didn't strike me as funny or cute or clever. It only got worse, with the nadir being when Rory and The Doctor get inside the Calvierri school. Rory has the foresight to bring a torch (i.e., a flashlight) with him. When he sees this, The Doctor pulls out from the front of his pants what appears to be this large ultraviolet lightsaber. "Yours is bigger than mine," Rory says, and it's at this point I did something I haven't done with Doctor Who in a long time: I rolled my eyes.

It was pure instinct, but it was a signal that The Vampires of Venice had just gone off the rails. Wow, what an original line. Never heard that before...

Earlier, there was a stab at a pun (or at least I think it was a stab at a pun). Rory is demanding more information about this kiss (and frankly, I still argue it was more than a kiss, it was a near-rape). When The Doctor tells Rory how Amy kissed him, Rory's furious.

"And you kissed her back?" Rory fumes.
"No, I kissed her mouth", The Doctor responds.
Hilarity did not ensue.  Groaning did.

In another comedy failure, Guido is wearing Rory's stag/bachelor party t-shirt for no real reason other than it might look funny. Given that it's an extremely serious situation (attempting to rescue Isabella and Amy), I fail to see why they went that route.

In retrospect, this is the first episode, I think, where I thought Smith's portrayal had gone from good to silly.  It was too broad, making the Doctor not child-like but essentially an idiot.  Looking back, perhaps Vampires of Venice is when I began turning on Matt Smith.  No one can be that stupid when it comes to bachelor parties.

Also what does it for me in The Vampires of Venice is how repetitive it all seems. It may be unfair to remember other stories while watching, but my mind floated to two stories from the original series: State of Decay (which featured vampires) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (which featured an alien taking young girls' life source for his own need).

I couldn't help going back to those stories because there seemed to be echoes of them in The Vampires of Venice. However, let's say you only started watching Doctor Who when Rose premiered. You still couldn't help remember stories from the revived series while watching. Like in Rose, the boyfriend is this generally dumb and weak and it takes the woman to rescue him.

Like in School Reunion (curiously also written by Whithouse) you have aliens at a school taking over the students...and oddly, both times girls. There is yet another episode (which I can't remember) where Rose Tyler and The Doctor were literally leaping with joy at the thought of danger (not unlike Amy and the Eleventh Doctor here).  Can it be that the show is already repeating itself?

I almost wondered if there were more running themes to Season/Series 5 of Doctor Who than that damn crack. You have the running theme of weak/stupid boyfriends (Mickey Smith vs. Rory Williams). You have said boyfriends in competition with The Doctor for the woman's attention/affection. You have said boyfriends being almost always remarkably inept at saving the fact, in both Rose and Vampires of Venice she had to save him. You have the recurring theme of a love triangle. Is it at Series/Season 5 where ideas are starting to dry up?

Out of all the sins of The Vampires of Venice the greatest is this: there are no vampires in The Vampires of Venice. They are actually aliens brought to Earth due to the cracks (of which frankly I'm tiring of). I wish they had kept them as vampires because not only would it have been truth in advertising but there would have been a greater menace in my view. I can see why they would want a more 'scientific' reason for the blood sucking, but when you have a setting as perfect as Venice, and when you have the title call them 'vampires', I wonder why there couldn't be aliens who were vampires.

On a side note, I wonder whether the fates of Isabella and Signora Calvierri are a bit gruesome, especially given that this appears to be intended to be more comedic. No matter how much they tried, they could never strike a proper balance between comedy and horror.

To say that The Vampires of Venice is a sorry disappointment is an understatement. It is not as bad as my reaction to Love and Monsters (the episode that made me almost completely abandon the revived Doctor Who), but the chasm between what it could have been and what it was is simply too large to ignore. McCrory was brilliant: she earns a 10/10 as a masterful villainness and an amazing performance. As for the rest of The Vampires of Venice, anyone know where I can get a nice stake?


Next Story: Amy's Choice

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bella: A Review


You have an unwed mother-to-be. You have a Hispanic family. For once, the two are not one and the same. That happens to be one of the pluses to Bella, a small film both in budget and length that tells a simple story well, though not as strongly as it could have.

Jose (Eduardo Verastegui) was a soccer phenom. I say 'was' because on his way to sign the contract for a major league club, there is a tragedy (which we see later). This tragedy, and the aftereffects, so shattered him that he is now working as the main chef in his brother Manny's (Manny Perez) restaurant. Even after all this time, Jose is still a wreck, and you can tell by the fact he has ample amounts of hair and an overgrowth of beard, making him look even more disheveled and almost unhinged.

Among the people working at the restaurant is Nina (Emmy-winner Tammy Blanchard), all decked out in her Frida Kahlo-influenced uniform. She's been late twice already, and this third time is the last straw for Manny: he fires her. There's something about Nina's predicament that piques Jose's interest, and he basically abandons his job to hand Nina her bear which she dropped.

It's then that he learns what we already know: Nina's pregnant. For the rest of the day, the two travel through New York and the outlying areas, where we discover Jose's secret (which is in a roundabout way related to her situation), see his family and its dynamic, and come full circle at the end.

Bella has this as its major flaw: bouncing back and forth between past and present (even maybe the future) without giving us clear indication of when something is taking place or even if it's taking place. There are a couple of moments in Alejandro Monteverde's script (co-written with Patrick Million and Leo Severino) where one isn't quite sure if what we are seeing is real or what a character is imagining or what will or might happen. That kind of bouncing between what appear parallel worlds may work on something like Lost but at times the audience can get lost with all these flashbacks, flash-forwards, and even flash-sideways.

That isn't to say there isn't much in Bella to praise. Monteverde (who also directed) got some wonderful performances out of his leads. Blanchard creates this externally tough New Yorker who at the end of this day becomes much more frightened and insecure about what to do with her situation. There is a monologue when she and Verastegui are on the beach where she talks about her parents and the struggles she went through with them that is a wonderful jewel of acting.

Verastegui for his part created a man extremely wounded by his actions, but oddly all his hair and beard sometimes got in the way of seeing him as nothing more than a slightly crazed man. When he does reveal his secret, we are given a flashback, and when we don't have the distraction of his wild-eyed look we can see a genuine performance.

Of course, how can we focus on his acting when he gives us those beautiful, soulful blue eyes staring at us...where was I? Oh, yes, the performances. A particularly strong (albeit small) performance was from Angelica Aragon (no relation, alas) as Jose's mother. She brings a genuine warmth to her performance of a woman who cares about everyone who crosses her path.

The best thing about Bella is its portrayal of a Hispanic (in this case, a Mexican/Puerto Rican) family. The family is shown as loving, generally untroubled, and supportive. These generally do not enter the minds of Hollywood features, which tend to show Hispanic families as almost constantly at war with each other (usually involving drugs, gangs, or a mix of the two), and living in poverty. Jose's family, on the contrary, appear almost middle-class, and add to the mix that most of the family speaks English with virtually no difficulty and only the slightest hints of accents. The father (Jaime Tirelli) is the only one in the family who doesn't speak English, but it's understood that this is more his choice and that he understands far more than he is willing to admit.

This is more reflective of the reality of a typical Hispanic family where English is as easily spoken as Spanish and which is law-abiding and remarkably close-knit.  It's a positive portrayal which I wish were more prevalent in films today.

Bella is a small film, gentle, sweet, touching. The problems within Bella (being a bit confusing as to when and if something was actually taking place) aren't enough to bring it down, but they do become distracting. For example, the ending I first thought was a fantasy scene only to discover it was the future...or the present, which would have made the story we had watched the I've said, confusing.

Yet in spite of all that, the film is a soft exploration of how tragedies and unexpected changes can alter lives for good or bad, depending on how one takes and ultimately accepts them. It's not perfect, but there is beauty in Bella.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Doctor Who Story 095: The Sun Makers


*Author's Note: At the time of this writing The Sun Makers has yet to be released on DVD. This review is based on the VHS copy obtained courtesy of the El Paso (Texas) Public Library. Yes, some people STILL have VCRs. Due to that fact, I've opted to write a review for it now rather than wait for said DVD release.

Sunshine On My Shoulders Makes Me Wealthy...

The Sun Makers, written by Robert Holmes (voted by Doctor Who Magazine readers as the 3rd greatest contributor to Doctor Who and the highest ranking author*), evoked memories of two George Harrison songs: Here Comes the Sun and Taxman. I don't think they served as inspiration for the four-part story. Instead, Holmes' own problems with taxation served as source material for the story, which proves a a valuable lesson to us writers: draw from what you experience and expand on that. I think almost everyone dislikes taxation, but it took a creative force like Holmes to bring a brilliant science-fiction element to this most dreadful of dilemmas.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his Companion Leela (Louise Jameson) arrive on Pluto. Far from being a frozen, dead planet (in 1977 when The Sun Makers premiered Pluto was still officially the ninth planet of the solar system and for full disclosure I still consider it a full planet) Pluto is warm and inhabited. The source of life is courtesy of six engineered suns that warm the planet, but instead of a paradise for the human settlers, it is a virtual gulag. The citizens, overworked and overtaxed, live within the bowels of the planet, to the point where it is forbidden for them to go outside to see the suns. Only the elites, those at the upper echelons of The Company, are permitted that privilege.

The travelers encounter Cordo (Roy Macredy), a simple D-Level worker who simply cannot pay all the taxes incurred by the death of his father. He is just about to commit suicide by jumping off the roof when The Doctor and Leela pull him away. Within minutes they are being pursued by Gatherer Hade (the appropriately named Richard Leech), who is the head of that sector of Pluto. Hade believes the travelers are part of The Others, a group of tax rebels. Cordo and the crew do get to The Others, but they in turn are suspicious of them, thinking they're agents of The Gatherer and his head, The Collector (also appropriately named Henry Woolf). The Doctor and Leela eventually win The Others over with a mix of the former's intelligence and the latter's warrior instinct and join with the rebels to overthrow the tyranny of The Company.

The brilliance of The Sun Makers comes from the universality (no pun intended) of the situation. Everyone is aware of taxes, everyone dislikes paying them, and everyone therefore can relate to the sense of oppression that taxes can bring. We also understand the sense of entitlement that those in the highest tax brackets have. It may not have been the intent of Robert Holmes, but I couldn't help think of the Soviet system while watching the program.

Like the former Soviet Union, the majority of the workers were economically suppressed perhaps not with excessive taxation but in the equal distribution of misery. There, as in the Pluto of the story, a small group controlled the resources and lives of the majority. To my mind, this correlation between Pluto and the USSR is made clear whenever the functionaries or citizens automatically proclaim, "Praise The Company!" whenever The Company is named. I also thought back to the excesses of the ancien regime just before the French and Russian Revolutions, especially when the population refers to one another as "Citizen" (which is how the French addressed each other after the fall of the monarchy and a close cousin to the term Comrade).

At the heart of the greatness of The Sun Makers are the performances. Let's focus first on the guest stars. Leech is a delight as Gatherer Hade. He brings a completely comedic turn when he's the bureaucrat indifferent to the problems of the citizens or whenever he's hopelessly crawling to The Collector. The excessively lavish titles he gives The Collector in his presence become more and more outlandish and consequently more and more comical, but rather than distracting they add a great touch to the story.

Admittedly, Woolf's Collector might now look like Mini-Me's slightly crazed cousin, but he also manages to be both comedic and menacing. His voice (a thin, tiny voice) matches the small-mindedness and greed of The Collector, and as the growing revolt slowly spins out of control he quite literally starts spinning in his chair. It's his malevolence that makes The Collector so dangerous, his perception of people as just cogs to fuel his profit margin that makes him evil.

Side note: I saw elements of Metropolis in The Sun Makers, specifically in how the workers were treated. Perhaps I'm the only one, but again I digress.

Macredy is also to be commended for his Cordo. He has the greatest character arc in the story: in Episode One he's a weak, frightened, timid man, but by Episode Four he's (mostly) overcome his fears to be a leader of the revolution. David Rowland's Bisham, who is a higher-level worker on Pluto and helps start the revolution, isn't as strong as he could have been, as is William Simon's Mandrel, leader of The Others.

Let's move on to the leads. Tom Baker (who was ranked Number 4 on that same Doctor Who Magazine list and the highest-ranking Doctor of the three to make the Top Ten**) has a face children can trust. He brings a combination of eccentricity and joy at adventure that makes him excellent in his performance. Baker exudes confidence that his plans will work but who does not flinch from danger.

Jameson's warrior princess Leela (voted the 7th favorite Companion of all time in that same poll) is the perfect counterpoint to Baker. She is a full warrior, down to her way of relating to the world (when she meets with The Others, she tells them that Cordo "wishes to join your tribe"). She's strong and fearless, but her strength should not be confused with toughness (a quality better used to describe the 6th favorite Companion, Ace from the 7th Doctor's time, but I digress).

Jameson makes Leela more than just a "kill first, don't ask question at all" brute. She has in her performance almost an innocence to her. When trying to understand why she and The Doctor fled when they heard The Gatherer was coming, she remarks "Perhaps everyone runs from The Tax Man". To deliver a line like that without breaking character is a sign of a strong and steady actress.

This is where I complement Robert Holmes for creating one of his best Doctor Who stories (given that he also wrote The Caves of Androzani, voted The Best Doctor Who Story of All Time, that's saying something). He has wonderful comic lines that add that touch of humor to The Sun Makers. I've already referenced the above line, but there's also this exchange:

Leela: These taxes, they are like sacrifices to tribal gods?
The Doctor: Well, roughly speaking, but paying tax is more painful.

The best stories work when they maintain the balance of comedy and adventure, and here, they complement each other brilliantly. The seriousness of the oppression the citizens of Pluto face is not overwhelmed by the funny lines of dialogue. Holmes wrote a wonderful adventure story as well as a biting satire on excessive taxation and the oligarchy that can emerge from such a system.

If there's anything to complain about the script, it has to do mainly with Leela's near-execution, which felt a little stretched, as was the Doctor's capture and near-brainwashing. In the end, these are little things that don't take too much away from the story.

On the technical side, director Pennant Roberts kept things moving at a steady pace where by the end of Episode Four you don't realize nearly two hours have passed by if you watch the story in one go. Christine Rawlins' costumes were excellent: The Gatherer's lavish wardrobe (complete with elaborate hat) was impressive in itself, but so were the plain uniforms of Citizen-D level workers and the rags of The Others. Tony Snoaden unfortunately didn't get as much attention with his sets (apart from The Gatherer's office and the execution chamber) but this was beyond his control. There was a lot of location work in The Sun Makers, and at times frankly this was a bit of a distraction (sometimes the corridors to The Collector's Palace looked like a large hospital hallway).

Again, we should remember that Doctor Who was not the most lavishly-financed production, so given their limited budgets Rawlins and Snoaden created wonderful work. Dudley Simpson's music can always be counted on to be excellent, and here again he doesn't fail.

There are a few things to criticize about The Sun Makers. The effects weren't at times very convincing (when a guard is electrocuted especially so). When The Gatherer is thrown off the building is also a point of failure. It's obvious that it is a dummy (and a very unconvincing one at that). It also brings into question whether it was a good decision to in essence kill someone via mob violence. I wonder what kind of message that sends. In retrospect I think The Gatherer could have been taken prisoner and Cordo and company declare that he would be tried for his actions. Mob violence is something that should not be cheered, and I understand this caused some controversy when it originally aired, and frankly I side with those that thought this was going too far.

The Sun Makers was clever, witty, and a great deal of fun. In short, watching it is quite pleasurable and in no way taxing.


* Russell T. Davies was voted Number 1 of the Greatest Contributors to Doctor Who, and he is a writer, and he is a very good one. However, his primarily role was as executive producer for the revived series while Holmes was primarily a writer and was secondarily a Script Editor in the classic series. 

The fact that Davies wrote Love & Monsters (which I consider the WORST Doctor Who story of all time, which got me to stop watching Doctor Who for at least two years, and which I shall always loath in my memory for time and eternity) knocks him down in my mind, though I won't argue his importance in Doctor Who.

**William Hartnell (The First Doctor) and David Tennant (The Tenth Doctor) were the other two Doctors to make the list at Numbers 7 and 9 respectively. Patrick Troughton was ranked 14th when the list was expanded to the Top Twenty.

The A-Team (2010): A Review

THE A-TEAM (2010)

I have great difficulty reviewing The A-Team because I was a big fan of the television series.  As such, I want to extend some grace to the film version and not have it stomp on my memories.  That is a hard task, given that the film version has the right elements but not the heart or joy of the source material.  

We begin in Mexico where corrupt police have taken Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) prisoner. Col. Smith being Col. Smith, he won't stay one for long. In another part of Mexico, B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson, better known by his mixed martial arts nom de guerre "Rampage") is getting back his beloved black van. Somehow these two meet and Smith forces B.A. to help him rescue Smith's protege, one Templeton "Faceman/Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper), who's already in hot water for having seduced a General's wife. They do manage a daring escape/rescue, and at a military hospital get another Army Ranger (funny how there are so many Rangers in Mexico), Captain Murdock (Sharlto Copley), who is A.) an masterful pilot and B.) wildly eccentric to the point of clinical insanity. Somehow they all join forces to make a daring aerial escape from Mexico into the U.S.

Flash-forward eight years later, in the last days of the Iraq Occupation. These four are now the best covert team around, and now they get a mission: to recover stolen monetary plates that have fallen into counter-insurgency hands. The CIA also wants these plates, and the agent in charge, Agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson), while not sanctioning the A-Team, gives them a free hand. The Department of Defense also wants these plates, and who is sent but none other than one of Face's former lovers, Captain Sosa (Jennifer Biel).

This mission (which means getting into Baghdad when that's not allowed) is secretly (though unofficially approved) by Hannibal's friend General Morrison (Gerald McCraney). A private Black Water-type goup (called Black Forest) also wants these plates, and the head of Black Forest, Pike (Brian Bloom) is also planning his scheme to get at them. The A-Team manages to get them, but just before they hand them over Gen. Morrison's vehicle is blown up and the members framed. With three in prison (and Murdock in a mental hospital) the team is unofficially aided by Lynch to try to discover where the plates went, who has them, and to get them back. Sosa, ever determined to get them and be restored to her previous rank after her demotion as a result of their loss, goes in pursuit after each of the A-Team manages a daring series of escapes.

We find that behind Pike there's a mysterious figure known only as The Arab. In a big operation in Germany, the A-Team gets the Arab (his identity not a big surprise to anyone with an I.Q. of 7) and we get Pike and Lynch trying to outdo each other (even when they are forced to join forces) and Sosa trying to get at all of them (and stay out of Face's advances).

This culminates in a massive (and I mean massive) action scene at the Port of Los Angeles, where things are resolved and the door is left open for a sequel (no point in going over the violation of one of my Golden Rules of Film-Making: Never End A Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel).

As adaptations go, The A-Team isn't horrible compared to others, though I can't help feel I'm being overly generous. There were some good things that director Joe Carnahan and his fellow scriptwriters Skip Woods and Brian Bloom (the same Bloom playing Pike) brought to the film. The action sequences are almost always fun and entertaining (though at times pointless and wildly over-the-top). The scene at the Konigsbank where the team gets the plates is especially quite effective and fast-paced.

There were also some good performances. Bloom (who is not as big a name as his performance in The A-Team suggests he should be) is thoroughly villainous as Pike, his raspy voice making him even more threatening and dangerous. His character is certainly more intelligent than Lynch, but then this was the point, and Wilson appears to be having fun with his character who is both highly duplicitous and shrewd and at the same time completely stupid. The scene where he takes Pike from Sosa's authority shows Lynch does think of everything going on around him as a live-action video game (a pretty apt description for the film itself).

The individual members of the A-Team were on the whole, not terrible either. Rampage doesn't break any acting challenges as B.A., but he manages the comedy bits rather well. He wasn't as believable when he had to be dramatic, but then again he isn't a trained actor and shouldn't be judged too harshly. Neeson gets the cocky self-assurance of Colonel Smith and it's fun seeing him be more light in his role than he usually is in films like Taken. Cooper spent more time showing off his six-pack abs than his acting chops and he wasn't as convincing when he came up with the plan than when Smith came up with them.

Copley handles an American accent well (a scene where he and Face pretend to be South African reporters only reinforces how remarkable the shift from his native South African voice to a thoroughly-American sounding voice he makes is). In Murdock's lunacy (real or faked) Copley gets the comedy the character always brought to the series, though I'd argue he really wasn't insane but rather had a joie de vivre that knew no bounds. Carnahan it appeared let him have a free hand, and Copley took full advantage to create a fun, outrageous character.

The problems with The A-Team, however, were many. The way the team came together took far too long and could have been handled more believably (what are the odds B.A. would show up just when Smith needed someone to help rescue Face). As I watched the Mexico sequence I wondered whether it was important that the audience really had no idea what the story was.

We didn't know the characters (if you didn't know the television series) and we were not getting any information about any of them. It seems strange that we were being plunged into a film without having much knowledge of who they were and it was far too coincidental how they managed to form.

I also question Carnahan's decision to both have the characters explain whatever the plan was and show us the plan in action simultaneously. Truth be told the entire issue with the monetary plates was a Maguffin (a plot device where the object being desired really was of no importance to the story). This double/triple/quadruple crossing business was getting exaggeratedly complicated for a simple story The A-Team was trying to tell. The identity of The Arab didn't come as a surprise or shock at all.

There were other issues. Some of the action scenes were quite ridiculous, even for a silly throwaway project like The A-Team. Everything between when Murdock is broken out of the mental hospital to when they land in a German lake in a tank was so patently idiotic and outlandish it couldn't be believed. The film being shown in the hospital especially was idiotic as well as Carnahan's decision to have The A-Team television theme being played as part of this film-within-the-film.

General Morrison's funeral (complete with rain) was hopelessly cliched as was the montage of the team's trial. The comedy bit involving Baracus and Murdock's passports can't be believed if the four of them are as professional as they are suppose to be. It seemed to be part of another film altogether, going for a quick laugh when it wasn't necessary for the plot at all.

I'd also say that Biel was, if not a problem, not the best for a foe of the team. I also could have done without the backstory of Sosa and Face having been lovers. It might be something done today, but it didn't add anything except a needless complication to the story.

Overall, The A-Team was at almost two hours too long (the whole Mexico sequence could have been cut) with no real story. However, that isn't to say that it's trying to be something other that what it is: a forgettable summer film that gets some good action sequences and even some good performances (Sharlto Copley and co-writer Brian Bloom in particular). It was also oddly too complicated for its own good.

The television series wasn't a Roots-level production by any means, but it was fun. The film wasn't as fun as the show, trying too hard to be all action without getting the goofiness of the original. The fact that it opens the door to another round (which I'm leaning against) puts it over to a negative. The A-Team may love it when a plan comes together, but this film didn't. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

And the Honorees Should Be: Part 3. Kennedy Center Honors Suggestions

Well, it's been a while since I mused about who should be saluted by the United States for their contribution to the arts with a Kennedy Center Honors. My feeling is that the upswing in popularity of Betty White (made possible by a hilarious Super Bowl ad) might push her name into strong consideration. With that in mind, I'm throwing in a few more names into the mix of potential Kennedy Center Honorees.

Dustin Hoffman (Born 1937)

Let's start with The Graduate, the film that for many captured the insecurity the baby boomers faced at the end of the 1960s. It was the debut of an extraordinary actor. He wasn't satisfied in playing more Benjamin Braddock. Instead, he went all over the map: Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, All the President's Men, down to Hook and even Meet the Fockers. The epitome of the intense young Method actor, over time he's learned to laugh at himself but still remain the first-rate actor he always wanted to be.

David Mamet (Born 1947)

Mamet continues to be one of the most original writers on Broadway, highly respected by his peers. The man who gave us Glengary Glen Ross as well as The Verdict shows no signs of slowing down. His interests are varied: writer for television, film and stage, and director.

Joni Mitchell (Born 1943)

In the Janet Jackson song Got 'Til It's Gone guest star Q-Tip stated, "Joni Mitchell never lies". I don't know if that's true, but what I do know is that she is one of the most original singer/songwriters we've seen in the last half of the century. Everyone knows Big Yellow Cab but she also saw Both Sides Now and Help Me, which are instantly recognizable with her distinct voice. A true artist who goes wherever her Muse leads her, she still has songs to sing before she lets them put up a parking lot on her Paradise.

Maureen O'Hara (Born 1920)

The fierce and fiesty Irish lass has contributed to some of the great films. What would The Hunchback of Notre Dame be without her Esmeralda? Would we believe someone else as the cynic turned believer in Miracle on 34th Street or as the conflicted Welsh girl in How Green Was My Valley? Her long collaboration with the genius John Ford goes into Rio Grande and that love letter to her homeland, The Quiet Man. She makes one proud to be Irish (even if one isn't).

Christopher Parkening (Born 1947)

The word genius may be overused, but not when it comes to the master of the guitar, Christopher Parkening. He has made the guitar an expressive instrument and his Internation Guitar Competition has opened the door to future artists. I doubt Parkening would disagree that his guitar playing is an act of worship to his God. His playing is truly a reflection of his faith and of the maxim to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord".

There is it: some names to consider. It may be I'm the only one that cares about such things as the Kennedy Center Honors, but I give myself a little leeway on such things. I'm not afraid of the arts. No one should be.

Update May 2017: Maureen O'Hara died in 2015 at age 95.  Dustin Hoffman was honored in 2012.  As of 2016 none of the other mentioned here has been selected.