Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis: A Personal Remembrance

TONY CURTIS: 1925-2010

It must be the eyes, those beautiful blue eyes Bernie Schwartz was blessed with. They certainly were one of his most distinguishing features. Over time though the man who became Tony Curtis shifted his persona: from leading man to respected actor.

His career capitalized on his looks, and it appeared as if he were no different than the Rock Hudsons, Tab Hunters, et. al., whose acting abilities were secondary to his appearance. However, in the course of time, something happened: he became a legitimate actor. This was done because he sought out greater, more difficult roles. It would have been easy to have remained just another pretty face, but Curtis figured that he could be a better actor, a stronger actor, a real actor.

It's a curious irony that some of Curtis' best roles were in black-and-white films which could not capitalize on his eyes: Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, and Some Like It Hot. Even in those three films, you could see the variety in the roles: an unscrupulous press agent, a racist on the lam, a comedic saxophonist ladies man. The fact that he could carry off all three of those (winning an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones) shows that Curtis had the talent to become such different characters. Playing against the likes of Burt Lancaster, Sydney Poitier, and Jack Lemmon is difficult enough, but to be able to hold your own against such powerful actors is even more impressive.

Now, he was also able to do the requisite big-budget spectacles; example: Spartacus. A curious historic note: a scene where Curtis is bathing Sir Laurence Olivier was considered so shocking in its suggestions of homosexuality and bisexuality that it was cut in the film's original release. It wasn't until after the mores of the times changed that the scene was restored in 1991. Curtis was able to re-record his dialogue with Sir Anthony Hopkins supplying the voice for the late Olivier. While watching, his role as Antoninus, singer of songs turned warrior, could come off as a good analogy to Curtis' career: a man at first dismissed as lightweight became a fierce actor to contend with.

It wasn't thought that Curtis didn't know where his bread and butter came from. He had a light touch to his romantic/comedic roles, and given his screen performances (including spoofing himself on The Flintstones as Stony Curtis), he was in on the joke. He really never stopped working in one fashion or another. There was television (including his turn as The Boston Strangler and the host of Hollywood Babylon), and then in the latter part of his life, he turned into a respected painter. In a sense, he never stopped creating.

Of course, in his private life there were the almost-requisite various marriages (including marrying a fellow star, Janet Leigh), the drinking, the drugs, but in the last years he achieved a level of peace that one hopes were a comfort. In the end, he serves as both an example and a hope for the various stars who populate Hollywood today, who are not taken seriously because they have, for good or ill, relied more on their looks than on whatever acting talent they possess. If they follow Tony Curtis' example (take risks, challenge yourself, not be afraid to try something different, and have a little luck), they may emerge to fulfill not just stardom, but genuine respect.

I close with one point regarding one of his greatest films, Some Like It Hot. He stated that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler. Given what we've heard about how difficult she was during the production, the feelings of animosity may have been warranted.

However, if memory serves correct, he stated later on that he said that as a joke, but that it was taken seriously. I don't know if he backtracked in order to save his reputation or to set the record straight. Regardless of what the truth may be, the proof is in the pudding, and what remains is one of the greatest films ever made, one which benefits greatly from Tony Curtis' performance.

His beautiful blue eyes are closed, but we will keep watching his films for as long as films and the passion for them endures.

Bernie Schwartz, you did good.


Howl's Moving Castle: A Review (Review #125)


A Witch Is A Dream Your Heart Makes...

I'm a stickler on foreign-language films: by and large I support subtitles and am opposed to dubbing. Having one group of actors speak lines over the performances of others actors strikes me as akin to destroying the film. To my mind, the original performances were the performances intended to be seen by everyone. I can see myself supporting dubbing when the original actors recreate their performances in another language (Catherine Denueve in English or Jodie Foster in French for example).

This isn't wrong to my mind because the original actor is merely recreating his/her role. The same holds for animation, for the most part. Hayao Miyasaki (aside from being a genius) has a way of transcending that rule. It might have to do with the fact that strong English-speaking actors are hired to speak the lines. It could also be that the animation is just so good that the voices in any language, done well, will always fit the images. This is the case with Howl's Moving Castle, a brilliant film that shows animation is not the same as 'cartoons', which unfortunately most Americans tend to think as one and the same.

For reasons of this review I will be discussing the English-language version of Howl's Moving Castle, and thus I will refer to the English-speaking actors as opposed to the original Japanese actors.

Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a shy, insecure milliner in an unnamed land (though given that the novel the film was based on was written by British authoress Diana Wynne Jones it would be safe to say that it suggests the United Kingdom or France). She goes through life no sense of her true worth, doing her best to stay out of the way of such beings as the wizard Howl (Christian Bale) or the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall).

One day, a mysterious man saves her from a group of rough soldiers harassing her, literally whisking her up. Later that night, a mysterious woman comes to the shop. Sophie tells her the shop is closed, but discovers too late it is the Witch of the Waste, who has now cursed her, turning her into an old woman, right down to her voice (Jean Simmons). Sophie opts to run away and see if she can find a way to reverse the curse, coming across a scarecrow-type being she names "Turnip-Head", and Howl's Moving Castle. She ventures in, and there meets the fire demon Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a young apprentice wizard named Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and Howl himself. Sophie decides to become their cleaning lady, much to everyone's confusion.

While he is a powerful wizard, Howl is a bit of a wimp and coward, running away from the Witch of the Waste and the powerful sorceress Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), who is the Court Sorcerer. Suliman demands both Howl and The Witch of the Waste aid the kingdom in their war against a neighboring nation, and while the latter jumps at the chance the former wants nothing to do with either the war or Suliman, his former mentor.

Sophie goes in his place to reject the kingdom's request for service, but Suliman will have none of it. She already turned to Witch of the West into an old woman with no powers and will do the same to Howl if he continues to refuse. Howl manages to rescue Sophie and even the Witch, where they take flight in his castle. Sophie learns Howl has been transforming himself into a bird to stop the bombing raids, but soon Suliman and her Shadow Henchmen track the group down. Howl wants to sacrifice himself for Sophie and vice versa. Eventually they help each other, and even help Turnip-Head, who has been devotedly following them and joining them for most of their adventures.

Howl's Moving Castle has extraordinary imagery, which has become the trademark of Miyazaki. In the first few moments, when Howl's Castle is marching in the fields, the mists are so beautifully drawn that they do look real. There is also a beautiful moment when the mysterious stranger rescues Young Sophie and they literally walk on air. The scene is already beautiful as filmed, but Joe Hisaishi's score makes it pure magic. The art direction is amazing: there is this feeling of a Belle Epoque world, which when juxtaposed with the flying battleships makes it even more breathtaking.

There are also intelligent themes in Howl's Moving Castle. The firebombing of Sophie's village must in some way be a collective Japanese memory of the firebombing of Tokyo during the Second World War. The imagery is so similar, and terrifying. Miyazaki is a pacifist, and the condemnation of war is evident.

If I may digress, there are scenes early in the film when the population cheers the coming of war (which were reminiscent of scenes from Doctor Zhivago to my mind), but at the end, when the citizens are being bombed and forced to flee, we can see the eagerness of war replaced by the horror of war. A second, more subtle theme, is that of how governments use technology (in this case, the wizards) for the pursuit of war; when one thinks about how governments today spend billions upon billions to build and pursue nuclear bombs while their people go hungry, homeless, and uneducated, is not something left in the realm of fantasy films (unfortunately).

The voices are brilliant. Bale shows that, while being mostly serious in Howl's Moving Castle (as he is in most every project he's in) he actually can be funny, especially when Howl mourns the loss of his beautiful hair color. Simmons and Mortimer convince us that they both are Sophie in various stages of age: the latter with a shy innocence and the former with a calm wisdom. Bacall manages to shift our view of the Witch of the Waste as well, starting as the villain in the first part to then make her into almost a sweet yet shrewd grandmother in the latter, and even being a lovelorn woman near the end.

Hutcherson (who was 12 at the time) makes Markl an endearing character, one who is eager to be as powerful as Howl but who also yearns for the love of a mother/sister-type. Danner is calmly cold as Suliman, who is determined to be victorious, but she never rages like a traditional villain. It is her calmness as Suliman that makes her more frightening, but in the end we see even she has a lightness to her. Crystal's voice is very distinctive, to the point where I kept thinking it was Billy Crystal and not Califer. It was the weakest point because it made it look like Howl's Moving Castle was going for the cute factor, something aimed strictly for children when the film is far richer and deeper than that.

Howl's Moving Castle is beautiful, intelligent, a work of a true master. The only real flaw in the film is that people may see that it is hand-drawn and decide it is for children only. This is a tragic mistake many parents make: thinking that if a film is animated, it must be made for those in elementary school and not for them. Far from it.

Howl's Moving Castle is a film for everyone. Children may enjoy it, but adults will appreciate it. It's the intelligence both behind it and within it that elevate it about most "children's films". Parents should watch the film before putting it for their children to decide if their offspring will be able to enjoy it.

"The heart is a heavy burden", one of the characters says. This kind of insight is not found in many films, and it's extremely rare in an animated one. The film is a pure work of imagination and wisdom blended in extraordinary visuals. Howl's Moving Castle is just that: moving.

My hat goes off to Hayao Miyazaki.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's Chuck, Not Clark. Brief Thoughts on Zachary Levi on His 30th Birthday

There aren't many things I know about Zachary Levi. I know he was mean to Sara Rue and that Chuck is a show that, like Heroes, I watched the first season only to watch sporadically if at all, afterwards. I do like the fact that his best friend Morgan is Hispanic (and given that he's played by Joshua Gomez, not too much of a stretch).

In any case, I want to take advantage of Levi's birthday to address speculation that he could be the newest Superman should the franchise pick up again. He says that he isn't, but for my part, I'd be thrilled if he were...if only so that we know there will be another Superman. Now, would he be good as the Man of Steel?

Given how he is on Chuck, Levi seems to have the Clark Kent side of the character down: that bumbling, slightly inept yet eager fellow. What about when he has to be Superman? Well, that is another matter. People must always remember that when it comes to superheroes, by and large you are playing two characters: Batman/Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man/Peter Parker, Superman/Clark Kent. Selecting someone who can do both is the key to what will make or break the film. This is why Tobey Maguire was so good in the first two Spider-Man films (the third one, not so well): he was able to show the insecure teenager and the masked crime-fighter.

This is also why George Clooney was so awful in Batman & Robin: he got the Bruce Wayne part right, all smooth ladies man (for which he's still doing research on) but the Batman...Right now it's up in the air if Andrew Garfield will be able to be both Parker/Spidey, but as with any actor he/she should have the benefit of the doubt.

Levi, for the most part, has been almost exclusively comedic, and primarily on television. You have Chuck, you have Less Than Perfect (that's where Sara Rue comes in), and you have his only hit film to date, Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. To be honest, apart from a cameo in An American Carol I can't recall any movie he's been in (and even in that case, it was suppose to be a comedy). He as of yet hasn't shown either a strong dramatic turn or even the desire to do so.

This isn't to say any comedy star couldn't be a good dramatic one. Honestly, who would have thought Michael Keaton (Mr. Mom himself), would have turned out to be one of the best Batman actors.

Who is to say Levi can't achieve the same level of success? Honestly, how many could have conceived that Ryan Reynolds, one of the two guys in Two Guys, A Girl, and A Pizza Place (a show I am adamantly unapologetic about liking), Van Wilder himself, the guy from Waiting..., would ever be heading up a major franchise like The Green Lantern?  Reynolds was smart in that he didn't let himself stay with only raunchy comedies.

While other critics trashed Smokin' Aces, with cause, I loved it, but the thing I remember the most is Ryan Reynold's performance. Among all the wild goings-on and Tarantino rip-offs of gore and murderous mayhem he managed to do an incredibly nuanced and dramatic performance. Here again, we saw a comic performer who could turn in a good drama, which is why he may yet be the ideal Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.

Zachary Levi has the ability to be a strong dramatic actor, but he hasn't ventured into a dramatic part. Superman isn't just nifty action scenes: it's about an alien coming to a new world, a being who has lost everything and now must establish himself in his adopted home, one who is unashamed "to fight for truth, justice, and the American way". There is a certain tragedy in Kal-El, and any actor who plays him on screen must be able to tap into that, otherwise we won't believe it.

If he were to do a drama, and if he were successful at it, the odds would certainly be in his favor. It would be the first time that a name (even a small one like Levi) would be the Man of Steel: George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, and Brandon Routh were basically unknown before donning the cape. At age 30 as of today Levi is only four and three years older than Reeve and Routh were and eight years younger than Reeves when they took their turn, so it's within his age range.

For him to be Superman he would need to A.) do more dramas, and B.) build himself up physically. He would need to shed a good part of Chuck Bartowski to be convincing as the last son of Krypton. It's not impossible, but it may be difficult. Even if he decided not to pursue the role of Superman/Clark Kent, I think a drama would do him well.

I end with this. There is a certain likeability to Zachary Levi. To his credit as of today he hasn't gotten arrested, isn't a tabloid regular, doesn't have any known baby mama drama, and hasn't had any scandal attached to his name. He looks like what he appears to be: just a hard-working actor & regular guy who is also mistaken for a nice Jewish boy*. Whatever the future holds for Levi (be it another season of Chuck or greater ventures in film, perhaps the stage), I wish him well.

He may yet be not just an actor, but something far more rare: a star...who can actually act. With that, Happy Birthday Zachary Levi.

*Contrary to popular belief Zachary Levi is not a nice Jewish boy because he's not Jewish either by ancestry or religion, name notwithstanding. He is actually a Christian of Welsh origin with the full name of Zachary Levi Pugh.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Moon (2009): A Review


Luna Firma...

There is something unique about Moon. It's a science-fiction film that doesn't serve as allegory but isn't an action/adventure film. Rather, Moon takes the premise it gives us via Nathan Parker's screenplay (based on an original story by director Duncan Jones) and builds it to a logical conclusion. That any film make sense in its own world is already a remarkable achievement, but Moon makes it interesting and intelligent.

Man has discovered a new source of energy: Helium-3. This resource is found on the surface of the Moon, and Lunar Industries (which I guess has exclusive mineral rights given the lack of competition on the surface of the Moon) has only one miner on the dark side of the satellite: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). He is coming to the end of his three-year term, and is looking forward to being reunited with his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and daughter Eve. As he counts down the days, he keeps tabs on the machinery, aided only by GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). As Sam continues his life in splendid isolation, he starts hallucinating, seeing things that may/may not be there. He goes out onto the Moon's surface and has an accident.

A short time later, Sam wakes up but suspects GERTY and Lunar Industries are plotting against him. He tricks GERTY into letting him go out again, then makes a shocking discovery: there is another crash with someone inside: Sam himself. Who is the real Sam? Is it in his mind? What will happen when this rescue ship, the Eliza, comes to the Moon? The Two Sams (which to distinguish between them I referred to as Red Cap Sam and Uniform Sam) unite to find the ultimate in shocking news about their true identity.

Moon asks all those deep questions about identity and the nature of self without being overly metaphysical. What is wonderful about the film is that it gives us a logical answer to all the questions Red Cap/Uniform Sam ask. The sterile and cold sets of Moon enhance the fact that Sam is alone, as does Clint Mansell's sparse yet effective and other-worldly score.

At the heart of Moon is Sam Rockwell. This is my view of Rockwell as an actor: he's very talented but has the unfortunate tendency to lapse into what I call the Blue Steel school of acting. If you see his face in film, he looks like he's trying to be Zoolander: pursed lips and narrowed eyes. I think this is just the way he is: even when he's in public he gives that look. Sometimes it can seem so odd to the point you can't take him seriously.

In Moon, he still has that when he is Uniform Sam, but he also brings a fear and sadness to both Sams. It is incredibly difficult to act with yourself because you have to basically play two character, and Rockwell does this well. His angry Uniform Sam is different from his more resigned Red Cap Sam, and at times you do forget they are not different people, let alone being played by the same person. He not only has to act with himself, but in almost all respect be the only character in the film.

He doesn't have someone else to act against physically, and all these aspects stretch Rockwell as an actor. Luckily, he has the talent and ability to carry it off. The fact that Moon was written for Rockwell (or at least with him in mind) helps him tremendously.

The negative aspect of Moon is that it is far too reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to HAL 9000's gentle cousin, GERTY. It might have been the intent to be similar to Kubrick's film, but comparisons are impossible because Duncan is almost begging us to compare them. Spacey has a perfect voice for GERTY, who unlike HAL has a heart of sorts. Like Douglas Rain's voice for HAL, Spacey is monotone and emotionless as GERTY. The only emotions we see are by images of faces GERTY flashes: a smiling one when everything is all right, and a sad one (complete with tear) when he has to tell Sam bad news. He gave a good performance but again, one can't help waiting for GERTY to sing Daisy Bell before the end.

Overall, Moon is a deep, intelligent film which might be a little confusing at first but which by the end gives the answers to the mysteries it presents us. At a little over an hour and a half it doesn't wear out its welcome, and anchored by a strong performance by Sam Rockwell, Moon delivers on a science-fiction premise that sometimes has not been used well before. Let Moon's light shine on.

Is it me, or is Sam Rockwell trying to show he'd be perfect for Zoolander 2?


Monday, September 27, 2010

The Town (2010): A Review


Ben Affleck is a curiosity in Hollywood: he's a star in spite of not having had a hit film (commercially or critically) where he was the lead in a long time. The last one I could find was Armageddon, and that was back in 1998. Let us go to some of his 'greatest hits' post-Good Will Hunting (which is the thing that puts the phrase 'Academy Award Winner' before his name):
  • Forces of Nature (1999)
  • Reindeer Games (2000)
  • Bounce (2000)
  • Pearl Harbor (2001)
  • Changing Lanes (2002)
  • The Sum of All Fears (2002)
  • Daredevil (2003)
  • Paycheck (2003)
  • Jersey Girl (2004)
  • Surviving Christmas (2004)
  • State of Play (2009)
And of course, we can't leave out Gigli (2003), something beyond atrocious. If Affleck is honest with himself, he would call 2003 his Annis Horribilis: three films, three flops, three despised projects, just before two more flops/despised projects. A cursory look shows he hasn't made the best choices in front of the camera, especially when put against his partner in crime, the critically beloved Matt Damon.

Then, he had an epiphany: he switched to directing a film, and the result was Gone Baby Gone, which, to the shock of everyone (including myself) was actually good. Damon may be the one getting the prestige projects (and made a successful franchise with the Bourne films), but he hasn't made someone a genuine star (Casey Affleck) or lead someone to an acting Oscar nomination (Amy Ryan for Best Supporting Actress). Now, Casey's elder brother has decided to expand his directing repertoire from his first film, about crime in Boston, with his second, a film about crime in Boston. This time, not only did he direct and co-write the screenplay (with Peter Craig and Gone Baby Gone co-writer Aaron Stockard) but decided to star in the film.

Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the head of a group of thieves in Charlestown, just across the Charles River from Boston, Mass, proper. His crew consists of himself, his childhood friend/hothead Jem (Jeremy Renner), technical expert Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), and muscle Albert "Gloansey" Magloan (Slaine, who I understand is a Boston-area rapper). Their latest heist is successful, concluding with them taking the bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage, releasing her after they make their getaway. Jem discovers via her driver's license that she lives nearby to them and wants to take care of her, but Doug overrules him.

Ostensibly to find out what she knows, he slowly befriends the unaware Claire, and soon they form a romantic relationship, which doesn't please Jem or Jem's sister Krista (Blake Lively), who has a daughter that may/may not be Doug's. Unbeknownst to either, FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is closing in on the gang. The thieves are at the beck and call of the neighborhood boss, Fergie the Florist, which has faint echoes of the Batman T.V. villain Louie the Lilac (Pete Postlethwaite) who forces him to take a most audacious robbery: none other than Fenway Park. The stories of the romance between Claire & Doug, the robbery itself, and Frawley's pursuit all collide at the legendary baseball park.

The Town shows us two things about Ben Affleck. Let's go to the first one: he is a strong director. The action sequences were fast and exciting, building on themselves to their climax. They even manage to have a bit of humor. The second robbery (that of an armored car where they're dressed as nuns), moves quickly to where you might begin to dodge the police cars, and then ends with a funny bit.

The actual Fenway Park (or to quote them, Fenway Paah-k) heist is a tour de force of action (side note: the Boston accents were not as grating as I thought they would be and eventually your ear becomes accustomed to it, though the actors had varying degrees of success with that particular speech pattern). Even smaller scenes carry tension. Claire could identify one of the robbers via a Fighting Irish tattoo one of them had on the back of his neck. Later in the film, Jem shows up and catches Doug & Claire together. Doug knows what Claire saw, but Jem doesn't. How does he keep the two in the dark about the other?

It isn't just the action scenes in which Affleck handles himself well. It's in the actual performances. At the top of the list of great acting in The Town is Renner, who has this volcanic fierce fury as Jem. This man is a live wire, full of anger, lover of violence, almost without a soul. It's a credit to his acting that he handles the Boston accent convincingly. His performance here shows that his nomination for The Hurt Locker was no fluke, and it would not surprise me if he scored another nomination in the Supporting Actor category for this film.

Two other supporting parts deserve equal attention. Lively is one of the stars of Gossip Girl (which I admit I've never seen), but she shows that she is capable of being a strong dramatic actress. She has a small part in The Town, but her last scene where she realizes that Doug will not be with her and its aftermath are an incredible piece of acting that gets the tragic, self-loathing character so well (although her accent wasn't as strong as it could have been).  While I have also never seen Mad Men, I know that Hamm here is as far away from Don Draper as he can get. Here, he's no smooth clotheshorse ladies man but a slightly disheveled detective who is determined to capture the criminals.

Hall as the love interest/victim isn't the best performance in the film (the heartbreak/confusion/anger when she discovers the truth wasn't as good as it could have been), but overall it wasn't bad. Even the smaller roles like that of Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper (who had one scene as Doug's father) were good but in the case of the former at times appeared to border on comedy.

The second thing The Town shows about Ben Affleck is that he still is not a good actor. He does look older (and less beautiful) than he did in Pearl Harbor but his was oddly, the weakest performance in the film. Doug often would just look forlorn, almost blank, whenever he was with Claire. He couldn't quite bring himself to change his facial expression when discussing the pain of his mother's disappearance or when trying to convince Claire he truly loved her. It isn't that Affleck was expressionless: it was that it was the same expression throughout the film. He tried to act but whenever he shared the screen with Renner it was Jem we would look at, not Doug.

There are some other problems with The Town. While Affleck did a good job directing the film, he couldn't get away from endless and repetitive shots of Charlestown/Boston. We were treated to a virtual tourism commercial for Beantown, and frankly that was both tiresome and cliché. Second, the story (based on Chuck Hogan's novel, Prince of Thieves) wasn't the most original material: you had the criminal with the heart of gold, the hothead sidekick, the idea that the lovers would run away, things we've seen before. We also had a most ambiguous ending which proved unsatisfying.

Sometimes the audience reaction was laughter when there shouldn't have been. When a child observes the robbers as nuns approach the armored car in slow-motion the audience laughed. When Fergie the Florist gets his due (again in slow-motion) the audience laughed (and the slow-motion, yes, clichéd). Finally, we had a montage of Affleck exercising, and while it's nice to see that at 38 he still has abs to show off the montage did smack of self-adulation that was frankly gratuitous. Thanks for showing us you're still buff, Ben. Now show us your acting muscles.

Ben Affleck has a solid career as a director. Right now he's hampered by the fact that both his films are Boston-centered crime dramas. It would be interesting if Affleck tried something radically different (a costume comedy, perhaps). As an actor, he's a very good director. It is the performances of Hamm, Lively, and especially Renner that elevate the film to a higher quality, along with good action sequences. Overall, The Town is a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to linger there.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rooney's Still Putting On A Show. Reflections on Mickey Rooney's 90th Birthday

He, it could be argued, was the first teen idol. Mickey Rooney has had a career that has lasted longer than some of his contemporaries entire lifespans. In fact, it can be argued that other than Jackie Cooper (who recently celebrated his own birthday, turning 88 on September 15), no other current star can claim to have started work in the silent era.

Having that vaudeville background (and youth) saved his career when sound came to cinema (still amazing he started out in SILENT pictures). In fact, it was his youthful exuberance that helped get him a part in a small film called A Family Affair (1937).

It wasn't suppose to be anything special, this story of Judge Hardy and his family. However, America fell in love with the Hardys, and MGM (which knew a good thing when they saw one), made what can be called one of the longest franchises in film: a total of 15 Andy Hardy films were made between 1937 and 1946 (with one more, Andy Hardy Comes Home, in 1958 in a failed bid to revive the franchise). There are more Hardy films than the Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men films combined. They beat out the Harry Potter series (at a mere eight) and the Star Wars films (only six).

If you account for number of films, the Andy Hardy films rank with such ventures as the James Bond films. Not bad for a film series about an ordinary family.

It was this ordinariness of the Hardy family that the public loved. It may not have been how a typical American family in the 1930s & 40s actually was, but it was the way Americans wanted it to be: a stern but loving father, a doting mother, wise daughter and irrepressible & lovelorn son. MGM more than any studio did the most to shape how America saw itself and what a family should be like (and it's a testament to their longevity that when people think of the 'typical' American family, they hearken to those like the Hardys or their television counterparts the Cleavers from Leave it To Beaver). Soon, Rooney's character of Andy became the center of the series (9 of the 15 films have Andy Hardy as part of the title). Andy Hardy made Mickey Rooney a star, and then, in 1938's Love Finds Andy Hardy, we had magic.

It was the first film to team Rooney up with Judy Garland, and thus was born one of the greatest screen team in film history. Together, they made the screen come alive with their mix of song, dance, and youthful idealism. Their films may have become repetitive (the theme of "let's put on a show" almost has become a cliché and even the titles sound similar), but in nine films Rooney & Garland worked beautifully together, and their films ranging from Babes In Arms to Babes on Broadway continue to entertain. In a certain way, Rooney & Garland set the standard for all sorts of male/female teams on screen. 

A quick glance at his films besides the Hardy pictures show his range as an actor: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Boys Town, Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy, National Velvet, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Requiem For A Heavyweight, The Black Stallion, right down to Night at the Museum.

His first film was in 1927, his most recent hit film in 2006; only an 80 year span between the two. If that isn't an extraordinary career, what is? This isn't counting his television and stage work as varied as the burlesque homage Sugar Babies to his brilliant turns in the television films Bill and The Comedian. As good as he has been, he's also made a few mistakes.

This being chief among them: Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's. I know many people love this film and see it as the ultimate in romance. However, I couldn't get over the first few minutes of the film, where we're treated to one of the worst characterizations of Asians in all film history. It was the worst caricature of a Japanese man this side of World War II propaganda cartoons.

In fact, cartoonish is the best way to describe this abysmal exhibition of racial insensitivity. It wouldn't have been any better if an Asian actor (say Keye Luke or Sessue Hayakawa) were Mr. Yunioshi: the imagery is still quite horrifying, especially if, like me, you weren't expecting it. However, at least you would have had an Asian playing an Asian.

Having an Anglo play this Japanese character, and in the way he was played, added insult to injury. Lead to believe Breakfast at Tiffany's was this beautiful love story, one of the first things I see is an obviously Anglo man with thick glasses and buck teeth screaming at "Miss Go-righ-ry". As far as I know Rooney stands by his performance, and to a certain point I'll go along with him: for better or worse the interpretation was a product of its time (and I'm so glad to say 'was'). However, in retrospect it is quite shocking and distressing to see that imagery as late as 1961. In his defense, Mickey Rooney has never been connected to any bigotry or racism, so I don't believe it was the intent to offend. The viewer of Breakfast at Tiffany's should be the judge, but I think he/she should be warned ahead of time.

Ultimately, that might be considered a glitch in a lifelong career, and one role should not blot out an entire life's work. If we look at his entire body of work, he has much to be proud of. It's amazing that he is still working. It's not the fact that he's working at his age that is amazing. It's the fact that, given how tumultuous his life and career have been, he'd still want to.

In tribute to his career, we wish Mickey Rooney a Happy 90th Birthday.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: A Review


The Girl Ain't Worth It...

Michael Cera has something in common with Matthew McConaughey (seriously): both have made a career out of playing basically the same character. With Cera, he hasn't done anything that strays from George Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. In fairness to him, he has attempted to vary the tune he plays with Youth In Revolt, but for the most part he's the eternal nerd, bumbling, insecure around women, meek, non-threatening and non-aggressive, whose only weapon is his wit (which even then he still stumbles through). Think Seth Cohen from The O.C. without any semblance of sex appeal. In fact, a love scene with Cera is almost unthinkable.

I guess he then would be the perfect person for the title role of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, right down to the fact both Pilgrim and Cera are Canadian. The film is very conscious of what it is: a hybrid of the comic book series it was adapted from (by Michael Ball and director Edgar Wright from the Brian Lee O'Malley graphic novel series) along with a riff on video games that the target audience plays. Seeing as how I never read comic books as a child or teen and was forever banned after my one failed attempt at Halo, how would something like Scott Pilgrim appeal to me? Well...

Let me start by saying the title Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a bit of a misnomer because our eponymous hero doesn't actually fight the world entire, but more on that later.

Scott is a twenty-two year old slacker in a band, Sex Bob-Omb, with his friends Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) on lead guitar, a hanger-on named Young Neil (I figure an homage to a certain Canadian rock legend whose name escapes me) (Johnny Simmons), and morose drummer/Scott's ex Kim (Allison Pill). Scott has a new girlfriend, high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), although I'd argue she's more of a fan than a girlfriend. Scott's living his life, attempting to get Sex Bob-Omb to the success they deserve and trying to stay out of the way of his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin) and his shrewish sister Stacy (Anna Kendrick).

Then, one night, a vision appears in his dreams: a beautiful girl in roller skates. The next night, he sees this girl in the flesh. She is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and instantly he pursues her with ardor. At first Ramona is cool (or being Canada, cold) to his affections, but he wins her over with his geeky charm. Scott attempts to balance his passion for Ramona with his affection for Knives, but finds it too difficult and reluctantly breaks up with the latter.

All would be well with Scott if not for the fact that Ramona has a group of past relationships/lovers who apparently cannot let her go. They are the Seven Evil Exes, and Scott now must fight each one of them (there are a pair of twins he fights at the same time) so that Ramona can be his. It isn't as if he wasn't warned: he did get an e-mail telling him he would face the wrath of the Seven Evil Exes, and wouldn't you know it, when Sex Bob-Omb is in the first round of the Battle of the Bands the first Evil Ex appears: one Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who gives us a fight in a pseudo Bollywood-style.

Scott then over the course of the film fights professional skater turned actor Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), vegan Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh) who is a band member of one of Scott's own exes, Roxy (Mae Whitman) from Ramona's 'bi-curious' phase, the techo due Katayanagi Twins (Keita & Shota Saitou) and the head of the League of Evil Exes, record executive Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

Scott Pilgrim knows the world it occupies, and visually director Edgar Wright gives the film the look of the comic books the film is based on, right down to seeing the word "ring" whenever a telephone rang and "thonk" when Scott beats his head against a pole. At times, Scott Pilgrim looks as if we were actually looking at the pages of a comic book. It also has the sounds and looks of a video game. Visually, it is what it set out to be. The problem is that you have to cram six graphic novels into one film, and even at nearly two hours I still felt as if I were watching a far longer film.

In terms of story and performance, I wondered why anyone would care about these people. As portrayed by Winstead, there is nothing interesting about Ramona. She's not especially beautiful, she's not witty, she's not short, she has nothing going for her except a sullen aloofness that is mistaken for mystery and perhaps hipness. In an odd sense, although Ramona is the catalyst for all the fighting, there is nothing about her that would inspire anyone to go after her, let alone have a titanic struggle to keep her from another man. In short, Garbo she ain't.

As for her Evil Exes, I kept wondering two things: 1.) why would they fight anyone willing to date her given she dumped them?, and 2.) did they have to fight each other beforehand? For example, did the twins have to fight the lesbian in order to date her? I don't know, and frankly I don't care. If you can't get the audience to care about the lead's struggle, you won't care how it turns out.

Now, I will compliment Evans' Jason Lee...I mean Lucas Lee (after all, what are the odds of having a comic book character named Lee who started out as a skateboarder and then became an actor?). It seems that Evans was playing a parody of himself, and with his gruff voice and lack of acting ability, he seems to have found the perfect a spoof of himself. Routh seemed to be channeling the anger he (in my mind, justifiably) has at being dumped as Superman. (Side note: I disliked the fact that Routh, who is the Third Evil Ex, had a Number 3 on his chest. Was that suppose to relate to his term as Superman also? Just a thought).

The other Evil Exes minus Schwartzman really had very little to nothing to do except show up to fight Scott, and even then, when Ramona filled us in on their backstory, you thought their "relationship" status was tenuous at best (Patel & Ramona I think kissed once. That does not an Ex make, but I digress).

Schwartzman is someone who I always want to go up and tell him, 'Son, you need a haircut'. In terms of Scott Pilgrim, I don't see how his character could be this all-powerful leader of the League or why he would create it in the first place. It might work in a comic book series, but in the film, I wondered what the point of all this fighting was about. If I go on to Wong, I would argue Knives isn't a girlfriend as much as she is just a fan of Sex Bomb-Omb, and a bit of an annoying stalker. I will say that Culkin was good as Wallace, who is so casual about his love life and about everything in general: he gets laughs when he so casually asks Scott to move out. I also did laugh when Roxy yells, "Bi-curious? Well, I'm bi-FURIOUS!" That was a good line.

Finally, let's go to Cera. I will say this for him: he did vary his typical Cera-type role with a new addition: he is now not just a nebbish, but a narcissistic nebbish. Scott Pilgrim is so remarkably oblivious to the damage he's done to all the girls he's dated (including dating both Knives and Ramona at the same time), but the fact that all these women would want to go out with someone who is both whiny and self-absorbed is a geek fantasy.

I figure that is a reason the Scott Pilgrim series is so popular with comic book readers: it allows them to live out their fantasies vicariously, about how they too can attract all sorts of women. Let us remember that at the climatic battle, it isn't just Scott and Gideon who fight, it's Knives and Ramona who also fight for Scott (in a sense). Throughout the film, I wondered how Scott could get A girl, let alone four: Kim, Knives, Ramona, and Envy Adams (Brie Larson) the girl he dated who did strike it big with her band. He's such a meek, bumbling little boy and a jerk to boot, so his appeal to all these women is a great mystery. Scott's whiny and insecure, but also a ladies man? No, even the outlandish premise of Scott Pilgrim can't hold that as a possibility.

On a personal note, I think it would have been better to have spread out the story into two or maybe even three films. The fights had a repetitive quality: although Scott appeared to be the only one to realize a bit late that he would have to fight all these people for Ramona the rest of us knew we'd have to sit through yet another video game.

The look of Scott Pilgrim was right on the money: it looked like a cross of a video game and comic book. However, I wondered why he would fight for a woman who wasn't interesting when he had a girl who was passionately devoted to him (although I wondered why she was devoted to someone who wasn't all that interested or interesting in return). I wondered why these Seven Evil Exes would want to fight anyone else for someone who had no interest in them.

The journey wasn't interesting, and neither was Scott Pilgrim Vs. Seven Annoying & Uninteresting People Obsessed With An Aloof and Disinterested Girl. In the end, whenever the screen asks, "Continue?", I kept saying "No".

Charlie St. Cloud: A Review


Zac Efron is pushing himself to be seen as an actual actor as opposed to merely a cute kid who sings and dances in Disney movies. Charlie St. Cloud (originally to have been called, like the Ben Sherwood novel it's based on, The Death & Life of Charlie St. Cloud) is a good try, but it didn't quite work as well as it could have through no fault of his.

Charlie (Efron) is a sailing phenom, all ready to take his sailing skills to Stanford on full scholarship. His mom (Kim Basinger), has to work double shifts to provide for him and his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tehan), who is as passionate about baseball as Charlie is about sailing. One fateful night, Charlie & Sam get into a car accident. Sam is killed. Charlie, overcome with grief, cannot move on because Sam won't let him. Not his memory, but Sam himself, whose spirit holds Charlie to his promise of playing baseball in a secluded part of the forest at sunset.

Go five years later. Mrs. St. Cloud has moved away from Oregon, and Charlie is now the caretaker of the cemetery. While all the girls in town fantasize about him, he is too deep in his mourning to pay any attention, in spite of being encouraged by his co-worker/friend Alistair (Augustus Prew, who might be British but sounded Australian, which might have been the intent). Charlie, however, becomes fascinated with the sailing ship and exploits of Tess Carroll (Amanda Crews), who is in the final test runs to circumnavigate the world. He is surprised to find Tess suffering from head trauma at the cemetery.

Charlie takes her in, and in a few days they fall passionately in love. Then, he makes a shocking discovery: Tess, far from being with him (and not just in the Biblical sense), has actually been missing. Could it be that Tess is really dead, just like Sam? No, he knows she is not really dead but somewhere In Between life and death, so he forces Alastair and Tess' coach, Tink Weatherbee (Donal Logue) to search for her, forcing Charlie to miss his daily game of catch for the first time.

Is she dead? Well, Charlie St. Cloud makes it quite bizarre as to what exactly the circumstances are, and logically, it doesn't hold up. If she is dead, it would make the love scene among the flat-out creepiest in film history: necrophilia (or phantasmaphilia--an erotic attraction to ghosts as opposed to corpses) never looked so erotic and beautiful.

If she isn't dead, would that put Sam in the same not-quite-dead world even though he was buried? We are led to believe that Charlie can speak to the dead: an early scene at the cemetery either tricks us or leads us to think Charlie's insane or that he can make contact with the dead. However, when it comes to Tess, she might not be dead, but that would violate the rules we've been given. It can't have it both ways. Internal points of logic (and that love scene which thanks to Enrique Chediak's cinematography was self-consciously cinematic) are the least of its problems.

Would it be too much to ask if the girls in the film could ignore the beauty of Zac/Charlie? By having all the girls look at him with desire it does make the thing border on silly, and it takes away from the story, which is suppose to be about the grieving process. There is a subplot about the paramedic who saved Charlie's life which screenwriters Craig Pierce and Lewis Colick didn't take advantage of.

Ray Liotta's performance as Florio Ferrente (said paramedic) was wonderful, but unfortunately small. His brief story was actually more interesting than that of Charlie, and when you'd rather focus on a secondary character's story than that of the eponymous character, that spells major trouble. Basinger also was given virtually nothing to do, and while not the greatest actress (her Oscar-winning turn in L.A. Confidential notwithstanding), she was irrelevant to the plot. They might as well have been orphans for all the good she was.

Director Burr Steers couldn't steer good performances out of his leads. He seemed more interested in how the film looked than how the film worked: the scene with Charlie & Sam in the rain being a prime example of visuals over story. Tahan's Sam just came off as whiny and selfish, more concerned about tossing the ball than in helping Charlie move on. Crew's Tess had no purpose other than being the love interest, and she was rather flat.

As for Efron, I give him credit for trying to communicate Charlie's pain and anger about Sam, but too often he was just blankly staring out, looking beautiful. Efron the teen idol was in abundance. Efron the actor was nowhere to be seen. There was so much he could have done, but so often Charlie was forced to be passive that sometimes it was debatable which St. Cloud brother was the ghost. There wasn't any effort in Charlie to wonder or question why he was so attached to Sam postmortem, no sense that he was in a sense being held hostage.

I'll say this about Zac Efron as Charlie: he tries, he tries the best he can, but he can't lift the character above a puzzled and blank and uninteresting one.

Charlie St. Cloud could have been a strong meditation about grief and guilt, loss and hope. Instead, it goes for being merely pretty with no real core to it. However, to the legions of his fans, why bother with a plot or interesting characters when you've got this:

No, that doesn't make up for a weak and lifeless movie (no pun intended).


Monday, September 13, 2010

Piranha (2010): A Review (Review #120)


There is something undeniably trashy about Piranha 3-D, and what's more, it's totally unapologetic. This film has no real reason for existence except a mad desire to have you laugh at its own ridiculousness and atrociousness. It has the intelligence to not take itself seriously at all, freeing everyone to be as campy and outrageous as possible. Piranha 3-D in that sense is a wild success.

It's Spring Break in Lake Victoria, Arizona (which might explain the lack of Hispanics, but I digress). That means only one thing: bountiful booze and boobies! Yes, the crew of Wild Wild Girls is here, headed up by WWG impresario Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell). He gets a local kid, Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen), to scout locations for his latest 'film'.

Unbeknownst to Derrick, Jake is the sheriff's son, and that sheriff is his mother, Julie (Oscar-nominee Elisabeth Shue). She asks Jake to watch his younger brother and sister, but he'd rather make some money with Jones, so he and his siblings strike a deal: for some cash they'll stay inside the house by themselves and not tell Mom. Off Jake goes with Jones and a couple of his beauties, Danni (Playmate Kelly Brooke) and Crystal (Riley Steele, which sounds like a porn name, since she is a porn star), as well as Kelly (Jessica Szhor), the girl Jake has a hopeless love for.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Forester along with her Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) are investigating a gruesome discovery: a body apparently devoured that's washed on an isolated part of the lake. She is aided in her investigation by a group of seismologist, headed up by Novak (Adam Scott), and his team: Sam (Ricardo Chavaria, at least one Hispanic in Arizona), and Paula (Dina Meyer). There, they make a shocking discovery: a school of mad piranhas has emerged from a long-hidden underwater cave that an earthquake has opened.

After they devour some of the crew, Novak and Forester take a captured piranha to Mr. Goodman (Christopher Lloyd), a marine life expert. He tells them that they are prehistoric piranha, and that Lake Victoria will soon be overwhelmed with them. Forester, Fallon, and Novak try desperately to get the drunken hedonists at Lake Victoria to literally "get out of the water", but with a wet t-shirt contest going on (with Hostel director Eli Roth in a cameo as the Emcee), fat chance that's happening. Soon the fish do come and partake in an orgy of blood and death.

While all that is happening, Derrick is too enamoured with filming his bevvy of beauties to care about what is going on in the isolated cove Jake's taken to. Soon, the sight of Jake's siblings stranded on an isolated island forces them to leave, and soon enough, the piranhas go after them. Soon both stories converge with even more madness and mayhem.

In all of this, you are supposed to be laughing, because the point of Piranha 3-D is that none of this is to be taken seriously. You're supposed to delight in the gruesomeness of it all, of how people are devoured left right and center. The scene where they try to get the party goers out is one wild gore-fest. It's as if director Alexandre Aja and screenwriters Peter Goldfinger (is that his real name?) and Josh Stalberg found new ways to kill people. It's a credit to the material and the way it was handled that what in a true horror film would be shocking here is hilarious.

Take when a beautiful bare-breasted woman is being dived in and out of the water. Her last time leaves what would be a horrifying imagery, but given how it shown, well, yes, there is a bit of shock but mixed with some laughter.

This is carried by the acting. O'Connell doesn't even pretend to give Jones any sense of depth: he's as shallow as they come. He delights in being sex obsessed. This is in contrast to Shue, who gives a strong performance but who also is in on the joke. McQueen, basically making his feature film debut, brings a young man's earnestness, lovelorn desire for the girl he can't quite approach, and action. He shouldn't be ashamed that he is in Piranha 3-D (one of his grandfather Steve McQueen's early efforts was in The Blob, so the family is familiar with horror/comedy). His performance is pretty good, not overtly campy but as serious as the material will allow.

Lloyd goes all out in being all crazy, which adds to the overall effect of the film not trying for anything other than a silly good time. Scott has major points knocked down due to Leap Year, but here, he also seems to be in on the joke, putting in the urgency that Novak would have.

On the actual 3-D effects, overall they fell a bit flat (no pun intended). Only once did 3-D enhance the experience, a scene that involved a penis. Besides that, the tries for 3-D are obvious and don't add much to the overall effect or story (as silly as it may be). One would think that a lengthy montage of the two 'stars' of Jones' 'film' underwater with lovely music would lend itself to 3-D. Oddly, while the scene is surprisingly cinematic and beautiful (albeit bizarrely erotic bordering on pornographic), we don't have 3-D boobs popping at us.

As it stands, Piranha 3-D skirts dangerously close to violating one of my Golden Rules of Film-Making: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel. However, you laugh so much at the lunacy of it all that you don't really mind. You know you're not suppose to take any of this seriously by the opening scene when Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss makes a cameo singing Show Me The Way to Go Home.

You can skip the 3-D, but a good time will be had. Piranha 3-D serves as evidence that fish may not be as healthy as we thought.

Supergirl (1984): A Review


It's A Kryptonite At The Movies...

I'm all for equality and can even see clear to support 'girl power', but Supergirl almost makes the case that a woman can't do the same thing a man can, at least if that man is Superman. Of course, I don't know anything about the adventures of Kara, Jor-El's cousin, since I didn't read comic books (even less likely if it was about a girl), so I can only judge Supergirl by the film itself. That being the case, one can wonder how anyone would think this film in particular would inspire a franchise.

In 'inner space' (or as I understood it, the deepest ocean), said Kara (Helen Slater) lives in peace with her family and friends. Chief among her friends is Zoltar (Peter O'Toole), the creator of Argo City. He is able to create wonderful things do to the omegahedron, a glowing ball that spins on its own power and that has incredible power. The omegahedron escapes out of Argo City, dooming Argo unless it is returned within a few days. Zoltar will be sent to the Phantom Zone and pledges to recover the omegahedron but Kara launches on his craft before anyone can stop her. She eventually emerges from a lake in full Supergirl garb and begins her search.

Kara adopts the nom de femme of Linda Lee, student, and starts a duel with Selena (Faye Dunaway), a witch. Literally, she's a witch, or if you prefer, a sorceress. Aided by her sidekick Bianca (Brenda Vacarro) and her rival/mentor Nigel (Peter Cook), the omegahedron falls almost literally into Selena's lap (technically, her mashed potatoes), and it gives her all the power she desires to TAKE OVER THE WORLD (side note: why is it that every super-villain wants to take over the world).

As Linda, Supergirl becomes friends with Lucy Lane (Maureen Tiffy), who coincidentally is Lois Lane's sister and who has a semi-romantic relationship with one Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure). Nigel, coincidentally, is a teacher at Lucy & Linda's school (side note: what we always suspected about our teachers has been confirmed: they ARE witches/warlocks), and Serena soon spots the school gardener, Ethan (Hart Bochner). She attempts to seduce him by giving him a spell where he will fall in love with the first person he sees. Ethan escapes and in the chaos of Selena trying to recapture him, whom should he see but Linda. Eventually, Selena is forced to join with Nigel to get better control of the omegahedron, and Supergirl finds herself in the Phantom Zone with Zoltan. She manages to escape and have one final duel with Selena, vanquishing her and still having time to return to Argo City.

Supergirl is in many regards a great idea for a film, even a film franchise. Ilya Salkind had already had great success with Superman: The Movie and Superman II (less so with Superman III, but that is another story), so he was well-versed in the material. That being the case, how did Supergirl go so disastrously wrong?

Well, for starters, it seems screenwriter David Odell wasn't taking anything about the mythology of Kara seriously. You can't write a movie with Faye Dunaway as a literal witch and not expect people to start laughing. That goes more to the point of a wrong-headed idea: the sorcery angle. By making the villains into some sort of second-rate coven (part of the plot was that Selena was still learning how to be a good witch, or is it a bad witch), you take away a great deal of the threat to Supergirl. If Selena had been some sort of petty criminal who had become a powerful sorceress as a result of her first contact with the omegahedron, you might have had something. As it stood, you already have a situation comedy on your hands when it appears that Selena and Bianca's efforts to become all powerful are falling flat.

You go into another aspect of the Selena coven that is just plain silly. Once she banishes Supergirl to the Phantom Zone (one exactly wonders how a human knows about the Krypton Phantom Zone, let alone could create one) she has the power to rule the universe, but what she does is basically install a mountain in the middle of the American Midwest (with a third-rate castle on top) and have herself ridden around the town of Midvale with her court jester and zombie-like boy-toy in her new police state. For most of Supergirl, Selena and Bianca's lair is an abandoned carnival, which alone lends itself to being a subtle suggestion of what the film eventually turned into.

Odell's oddball script also has several points of logic that are never answered or explained. We already have the Phantom Zone mystery (right down to how Selena could create a world where Zoltan is still wandering around), but we also never figure out exactly how Zara knows not only that Superman is her cousin, but even more bizarrely, how she knows what his secret identity is (down to quickly typing out a letter of reference signed by one Clark Kent).

We never get an explanation as to how Kara emerges from a lake in full Supergirl garb, like a cross between Aphrodite arriving from the foam of the sea and Athena emerging from Zeus' head. We never get any real idea as to why Bianca is with Selena, let alone stays with her; aside from giving Vacarro a chance to throw some quips at Dunaway, what purpose does Bianca serve (except as comic relief)? Why does Selena even tolerate Bianca at all? As Ethan wanders around, if you take the potion's power literally, one would think he would have seen at least one person he would have fallen in love with.

The film is also filled with intentionally funny lines that fall flat and unintentionally funny lines and situations. When Ethan escapes her literal fun-house, Selena manages to get some control over the omegahedron to follow his somewhat drunken stumbling into town via a mirror (although Selena admits she doesn't know exactly how she is able to do it).

 At one point, the mirror goes blank. "Oh, the cable's out," Bianca quips. "What cable?" is Selena's reply, but Dunaway's delivery makes it sound like if Selena is confused as to what Bianca is referring to, as if she is talking about a literal cable cord.

 When Selena is attempting to recapture Ethan, the chaos that ensues is suppose to be tense and exciting, but it only comes off as hilarious, made even more so by Jerry Goldsmith's dramatic score, which only adds another level of laughter. How can you not laugh when a man is captured by being figuratively eaten by an earth-moving machine? How can you not laugh when you first see the "Burundi Wand", which looks like something picked up at a New Orleans Voodoo Gift Shop (complete with feathers)?

Another unintentionally funny moment comes when Supergirl first comes to Earth and is threatened by two truckers. Even after she tells them she's Superman's cousin they still decide to try to have their way with her (which makes me wonder how dumb one has to be to try to rape someone with super-strength). If memory serves me right, after she knocks one down Slater says, "Why are you doing this?", but her delivery expresses more puzzlement than fear or anger.

This leads to another point of logic: if she knows who Superman is (and who Clark Kent is), why doesn't she know she will have his powers (especially when she's dressed exactly like him)?

What sinks Supergirl in terms of story is that by the end, the film has degenerated into a fight between two women over a man, and a gardener at that! It couldn't have been a more clichéd scenario if it tried to be, but the fact that it wasn't trying to be a super-powered catfight made it worse.

Ultimately, while the script is pretty bad, it is dealt a death blow by Jeannot Szwarc's unimaginative direction. Take the scene where Supergirl realizes just what her powers are. What could have been a beautiful moment of a naive young girl discovering abilities beyond anything she could have imagined turns into a montage of unimaginative scenes, with no sense of wonder or magic. While watching Supergirl, I couldn't help laughing at this scene, which I think was not the intended reaction.

It was Szwarc's unimaginative direction that had Slater and Dunaway deliver their lines the way they did, which might have been reflective of how confused Supergirl as a whole is. It was Szwarc's unimaginative direction that failed to make certain scenes so boring (like the aforementioned 'discovery' sequence). It was Szwarc's unimaginative direction that failed to take advantage of moments that could have been really exciting (like when Ethan escapes through the fun-house, which could have been frightening but which looked cheap).

It went worse for Slater, not because she was bad as Kara/Supergirl, but because she was actually good. She projected a childlike, innocent quality in her performance and, minus the attempted attack on her, made Kara a lost little girl. She had the task of playing two characters (Kara and Linda Lee), and she maintained the balance on the whole, very well. A better script and director could have made her a more memorable character, but while Slater did the best she could it wouldn't be enough.

Teefy's take was a bit muddled: sometimes you though she was a tomboy, sometimes you thought she was all woman for Jimmy. McClure (who has the distinction of being the only actor to play Jimmy Olsen in all four Christopher Reeve Superman films and in its unofficial spin-off), knew his character well, which is to his credit that he still could project the innocence and eagerness of Jimmy. Given that McClure, who was 27 at the time, is playing a character who has always been basically a teenager or young adult and Teefy is playing essentially a high school student at 31 that is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Bochner seemed to be having fun playing the hunk, as when he is in the power of Selena's spell. He starts out as a working-class stiff, but once under the spell he has this expression of a thoroughly love-struck moron who has no thoughts in his head apart from Linda. Vacarro doesn't have anything going for her except comic timing, but in a film like Supergirl she is wasted because her character is not believable, making Bianca pointless as a character.

A curious point of history: Crawford once said that the only actress who could play her on film was Faye Dunaway. I suspect that, besides their remarkable looks, down to the fact they have similar eyebrows, Crawford saw in Dunaway a quality she herself had: the ability to make anything believable and be fully committed to her role. Dunaway is a remarkable and talented actress, and in Supergirl she gives it her all. Crawford and Dunaway both could make you believe that what they were doing was real. However, even Dunaway's talent as an actress can't make something like this anything other than sheer camp, especially when she has to say lines like this:
This is what I want: the Salian Fireballs.
It also doesn't help that in Supergirl, it seems that Faye Dunaway never missed an opportunity to show off her legs (which were fabulous, but one wonders how they were relevant to the plot). Often, she would sweep her dress dramatically or lounge around in a certain way to show us she was in the same league as Marlene Dietrich or Betty Grable.

The oddest casting is two-fold: O'Toole as Zoltan (who only had two scenes in the film where he appears not quite sure why he's there in the first place) and Mia Farrow as Kara's mother (who basically is a cameo and also appears not quite sure why she's there in the first place). The fact that neither added much and were effectively wasted in Supergirl (no, that wasn't a drunk O'Toole joke) just goes to show that you could have acting greats in a comic book film (example: Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in Superman: The Movie) but that doesn't mean you have a great film.

If you watch Supergirl for a camp pleasure, you can enjoy it. If you watch it for any other reason, you may wonder how else to fill your time. When Kara and Zoltan are in the Phantom Zone, O'Toole tells her,
When you're my age and you make as many tragic errors as I do, it is
a different tune that you will sing.
In regards to Supergirl, he may have been referring to being in the film at all.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Scarlet Empress: A Review


The Dietrich Of All The Russias...

I figure, merely from watching The Scarlet Empress, that director and auteur Josef von Sternberg would be horrified at the trend in modern filmmaking. If anything, he was solidly against "realism" in film. All this grittiness, all the efforts to make films look like they were 'reality' struck against the core of his view of film.

Von Sternberg argued that film shouldn't look 'real' because it simply isn't real. The Scarlet Empress is his declaration of war against "realism", a lavish tale of eroticism, decadence, opulence, and the power of imagery. Of course, when you have Marlene Dietrich, it is virtually a sin not to focus lavish attention on her.

The Scarlet Empress covers the early years of a minor German princess, Sophia Frederica (played as a child by Dietrich's real-life daughter Maria Riva, billed simply as Maria), who grows to a beautiful but innocent woman. She is betrothed to Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), heir to the throne of Russia. She is escorted by Count Alexei (John Lodge), who has fallen in love with her but who is rebuffed by Sophia (which is pronounced as So-FI-ah as opposed to So-FEE-ah, which did prove odd).

Sophia is taken to Court at St. Petersberg, and is horrified to discover her future husband is a half-wit who is physically repulsive, a bit mad, and already has a 'companion', Countess Elizabeth (Ruthelma Stevens). Even after the marriage, Peter's aunt, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is furious that Sophia, whom she has renamed 'Catherine', is not behaving like a proper Russian wife and worse, has not produced an heir. Soon, Catherine succumbs to the charms of Count Alexei (who is also 'entertaining' the aging Empress), as well as various soldiers in her retinue. When Peter at last becomes Czar, a power play goes on between them, but by this time Catherine has grown up and seizes power to become Catherine the Great, Czarina of All The Russias.

The Scarlet Empress failed financially when it was released, adding to the idea that Dietrich was 'box-office poison'. Having seen the film, it isn't surprising that it was a flop: it was in some ways a bit old-fashioned and in other ways far ahead of its time, shockingly so.

When it comes to the throwback aspects, the transitions between scenes for example were reminiscent of silent films. Von Sternberg didn't cut the action when we ended one scene and moved to another. Rather, he let process shots do that, where one scene would meld into the next one. He also had various title cards telling us what has happening, like when Sophia & Company rode out to Russia or when Peter finally ascends the throne and how he was a depraved ruler.

On the forward-looking side was the attitude toward sex. Von Sternberg couldn't show overtly lurid sex scenes but certain moments are remarkably suggestive. Take for example when Alexei gives a shocked Sophia a kiss. She rebuffs him. He tells her that he has kissed her and now he must "be punished", where he then hands her a whip and she looks at him with confusion.

This not-to-subtle hint at sadomasochism is pretty out there today, let alone for the 1934. We also get an almost overt suggestion that the long-hoped for heir is probably illegitimate, given that while we never see Catherine near Peter but we see her in a passionate embrace with a soldier who has caught her.

If anything, The Scarlet Empress is first and foremost a feast for the eyes, full of lavish costumes and sets beyond anything that borders on realistic. The uncredited Hans Dreier deserves massive credit for some of the most amazing sets ever filmed. It isn't until Sophia reaches Court where Dreier and Sternberg go all out into making it an amazingly lavish spectacle. Empress Elizabeth's throne is probably not historically accurate, but it simply is amazing: it looks like it was carved from one enormous tree, a massive, unreal thing with a large bird hovering over her.

Catherine and Peter's wedding is also visually arresting, keeping with the von Sternberg motif of filling the screen with people and candles and icons and veils, as if any empty space would be a crime. The chairs of the Empress' Council are also a bit outrageous: also looking as if they were carved from trees, they look like worried old men.  The subtlety in The Scarlet Empress might have been curious then, and it is a bit now, but it is wildly clever.

The wedding feast as well lends visually to the lavishness that was the Court of "the barbarians of all the Russias". Even the briefest scene gets the full spectacle treatment. When Peter visits the body of the Empress Elizabeth, the scene doesn't last for more than a minute, but no detail was spared, to the point where the actual body of the deceased monarch is virtually invisible.

Von Sternberg also created wonderful edits in the film. His montages are amazing. Take for example when we see Russian methods of torture: the images of barbarity and cruelty change like pages being turned, the last one being a bell being rung literally by a man which then transforms into a youthful Sophia gleefully swinging on a swing. A remarkable piece of editing, as is a later montage where Czar Peter III's proclamations bring the Russian people to their knees, a series of proclamations that bring terror, madness, and even sexual depravity.

It's done in a breathless pace that tells you what horror Peter's reign was and shocks with its visuals. The final, frenzied montage, when Catherine rides her horse, leading her army up the stairs of the palace to the conclusion of her successful coup as she laughs maniacally, is indicative of the wildness of now-Empress Catherine II, of Marlene Dietrich herself, and of The Scarlet Empress as a film.

This isn't to take from some of the acting performances. Louise Dresser's Empress Elizabeth is a terror, but she is also a bit of a comic character, like when she inadvertently uses a chicken leg as a scepter, or when she orders Catherine and Alexei out of her presence. "Now get out, the both of you. I have a war on my hands," she bellows.

Jaffe's Grand Duke Peter from the moment we see him on screen appears almost as if he wandered in from a Lon Chaney horror film, his grinning face and wild, crazed eyes signaling his insanity without saying anything. When he does speak, it's in angry whispers, as if his voice itself has the power to kill (which in a sense, it could via his orders).

At the center of The Scarlet Empress is Dietrich. Her screen presence is unmistakable, her magnificent face staring at us with passion and haughtiness. Given Sophia was German, she seems perfect for the role. In the beginning it is a bit unbelievable to see her as an innocent, but once she grows to the confident Catherine, Dietrich is in her element, a cool, slightly distant woman who knows how to play men.

Acting-wise, she isn't given much to do, an ironic fact considering The Scarlet Empress is about that scarlet woman, the intelligent and lustful Catherine II, Empress of All the Russias. However, one has to remember that the film isn't suppose to be a historically accurate biopic, but a visual spectacle to be thrilled by, a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, and a rejection of reality.

Long May She Reign.



Catherine II Feature Films & Specials

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)

Young Catherine (1991)

Catherine the Great (1995)

Catherine the Great (2019)