Sunday, October 31, 2010

Spell Cast Check



The tale that has been told has taken now the form of legend. Here she is, a woman struggling to make ends meet with a baby to care for. She takes the child in her stroller to the local cafe, where she writes a story about a boy wizard whilst her child sleeps. It reminds me of another story, this of a respected professor who took a blank page from a student's exam and wrote, "In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit".

Before ANYONE says anything to the contrary, no, I'm not doubting that's how Joanne Rowling began her Harry Potter series or that it came about in any other way than she has stated. It is an inspirational tale of a woman who had a story to tell, one that children in particular but many adults soon embraced with a fervor and a passion usually reserved for God or the Beatles.

Now, on this All Hallow's Eve, when we celebrate the dark side, I thought it would be good to pause before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I to look over Miss Rowling's work and the films on which they are based. Let me start off by saying two things:

  1. I am NOT a fan of the Harry Potter books.
  2. I don't think she is involved in any way, shape, manner or form in witchcraft or Satanic arts, nor does she actively promote such things.
I feel it's imperative to state both from the start because there has been a great deal of controversy, even scandal, about Points One and Two. Let me address the second point first.
Yes, the books involve Witchcraft (Hogwarts is called the School of WITCHCRAFT and Wizardry) but there is a wild difference between fantasy and those who believe themselves able to summon the forces of darkness. As far as I know, children are able to distinguish between the two, and if they can't, they may end running for Senate. Yet I digress. I think Rowling just comes from a rather secular background that treats things like Halloween and witches as more comic than dark. It would be interesting to see the post-Potter generation see if they proclaim allegiance to Satan. I doubt they will, instead seeing Potter books as merely fantasy.
However, I look at the books, and I shudder. One of my biggest complaints about Rowling (whom I lovingly call J.K. SPRAWLING) is that she writes FAR TOO MUCH. I have read only the first book, and frankly, I never understood why people went overboard in praising it as virtually the Citizen Kane of children's literature.

This guy wrote pretty good stuff too, you know. I don't discount that Rowling could have taken inspiration from C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Certainly, they have a similar target audience. There are a few differences, however. I look at my copy of the complete Narnia, and all together, they run a little under 800 pages. 800 pages for a total of seven stories. Rowling also has seven stories, and Deathly Hallows alone runs probably more than 700 pages if not more than 800 pages. In short, Lewis was able to tell a massive story in about the same space where Rowling is able to tell just ONE PART of her massive story. My biggest issue with Sprawling is length. I simply don't understand why she felt compelled to make her story just so damn long, going into minutiae about everything. How many Quidditch matches does she need to talk about?

My contention has not shifted: the story simply got away from her. What started out as a story about a boy wizard soon became An Epic to dwarf Lewis' Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It HAD to be big, it HAD to be grand, it HAD to be gigantic. Note that starting from Goblet of Fire, the books themselves have gotten thicker, and thicker, and thicker. As a result, the films have gotten longer, and longer, and longer. In fact, they've gotten SO LONG that the final book (Deathly Hallows) HAD to be split into two films. There was just no way to compress it into one, at least one that would run about two hours. I can enjoy a long story, but I'm still of the school of "brevity is the soul of wit". I think of some of my favorite books (Call of the Wild, Huckleberry Finn, And Then There Were None) and think they aren't that long. Therefore, why make Deathly Hallows this book that a child would need BOTH HANDS to carry? And think, that's just ONE part of the overall story: there are six others, three of those also rather large. Nothing has convinced me that she couldn't have cut out...a lot.

Of course, I go again to a point: I have read only one book--Philosopher's Stone--and didn't care for it. In fact, it discouraged me from reading any other Potter books...not that their massive lengths didn't do a good job of that. Frankly, I never cared to read them, so I've relied on the films. The first two films left me rather unimpressed. In fact, a reason I voted down Chamber of Secrets was because it struck me as basically the same story as Philosopher's Stone.

However, as the story has gotten darker, less cutesy, the films have gotten better. Harry has shifted from this cute boy wizard into a teen in danger from the ultimate evil...no, not George W. Bush (although Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuaron believes there is a parallel between Bush and the antagonist in the Potter stories--I leave it up to readers/viewers if they agree with his views--I don't) but Lord Voldemort. At least Harry now has a common theme running through the series rather than just a series of adventures. Overall, I think Rowling is quite intelligent to keep one massive narrative when it would have been easier to create merely a series of smaller ones with the same character. To her enormous credit (and I hope to be fair) she has created a truly fantastical world for her creations to live in. To validate my view that the longer stories (at least in the films) are not for children anymore, I want to ask my Potter-Heads, whatever happened to Nearly Headless Nick?

I digress to say that another aspect of Sprawling's work that I dislike are the names. You have names like Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger--not particularly grandiose names but not run-of-the-mill names either. Actually, perhaps with Harry Potter--that would give him a regular 'one of us' style wouldn't it? As she continued to write, the names got more and more elaborate: Bellatrix Lestrange, Luna Lovegood, Alecto & Amycus Carrow...it really is becoming more and more difficult for me to tolerate. She appears to think the fancier the name the greater, while I am of the mindset that simplicity often works best. I further digress to wonder why she is so fond of Deus Ex Machinas in her stories. Something will almost always turn up at the most opportune moment for Harry to allow him an escape when one was not readily available from his talents or mind. Chamber of Secrets was the worse: Harry had THREE D.E.M.--the Phoenix, the Phoenix's tears, and the Sword of Gryffindor, all of which magically (no pun intended) show up to save Harry from the memory of Tom Riddle. I call that a cheat. As we would say, "How convenient".

There is something else, yet another point where Lewis is up on Rowling. Lewis has a wide variety of literature: alongside Narnia, he wrote science-fiction (The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength ), romances (Till We Have Faces), and of course, great philosophical works defending The Faith (my personal favorite and a great influence on my life, Mere Christianity). Rowling, on the other hand, has written nothing save Harry Potter stories. It seems like a trend in modern writing: Stephanie Meyer writes virtually nothing but Twilight and Twilight-related books, James Patterson has Alex Cross and Vince Flynn has MITCH RAPP. Therefore, one can't be too picky about the fact that she hasn't created anything else separate from her creation. However, I long for the days when writers can come up with various stories involving different characters. Granted, one of my favorite writers, Agatha Christie, had many stories with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, but it should be remembered that one of her best novels (and one of the best novels ever written) had neither: And Then There Were None. For that, I will hold off saying J.K. Rowling is this genius until we see more non-Potter related work.

Finally, on to the rankings pre-Deathly Hallows. At the bottom of the list is Chamber of Secrets (merely a Philosopher's Stone retread). Philosopher's Stone is next, though in retrospect I should be more kind given its whole reason was to introduce everyone and get the ball rolling. Prisoner of Azkaban fared better, and would have ranked higher, if it weren't for that damn time-turner device (perhaps the Citizen Kane of Harry Potter Deus Ex Machinas...no need to have them sort it all out, let's just go back in time!). Oddly, we can then go in chronological order after that: Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, and at the top of the list, Half-Blood Prince. Of course, this is before Deathly Hallows, and I'm still debating whether to count it as ONE film cut into two parts or TWO films, period.

I intend on giving Deathly Hallows a fair hearing. So far, I think the Potter stories have gotten better and better, and if history is any indication, Deathly Hallows may come close to getting an A (that's the Golden Snitch of rankings, by the way). All decisions will be held off until after viewing.




Sorry Jo. His is better than yours. Still.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Poor Na'vi Gation


I am, perhaps, one of the few people on Earth who was not overwhelmed with Avatar. I looked on with puzzlement on the people who flocked over and over to indulge in their visions of Pandora, and I certainly didn't understand (and never will understand) all those people who were truly depressed, perhaps even suicidal, because they could not live in this fantasy world. Somehow, these people (who frighten me in the fact that they can VOTE) somehow came to believe Pandora was either more real or far better than their own worlds/lives. I cannot answer for the emptiness of their lives, but I can say that I have seen Avatar once and haven't had a need to see it again.

I haven't changed my views on the film: certainly visually arresting, but without an actual story. I've seen Dances With Wolves, and somehow I had no desire to see Dances With Na'vi. I'm not unsympathetic to having a greater awareness of the importance of preserving Earth's resources and preserving the environment, but somehow James Cameron has got it into his head that humanity need HIS guidance, HIS wisdom, and more importantly, HIS filmmaking, to make us more aware of these things. If there is one thing I detest in a film, it is being lectured at one, regardless of whether or not I agree with the message. Avatar to my mind, basically was a heavy-handed allegory about how:

  1. Corporations are evil & determined to destroy both planets and living things.
  2. The natives ALWAYS live in peace and harmony with nature.
  3. The U.S. was evil for invading Iraq, and by extension Vietnam and in reality coming over to the Americas in the first place.
  4. The military is almost always evil, period, interested only in destruction and death.

It does surprise me that some very politically conservative people I know have embraced Avatar as the Citizen Kane of films, that there were no films before Avatar, and no films after Avatar. That is, until now...

Cameron has announced not one but two Avatar sequels, diving deeper into Pandora (no pun intended). I ask the cynical question: if the film had been a flop, would we be getting more Pandoran Productions? Be that as it may, I frankly haven't been clamoring for more stories on the nobility of the Na'vi and the evil of all non-Na'vi.

I give Cameron credit when credit is due: he has created an absolutely fantastic visual world, and Avatar should be appreciated for how it looks. As for what it says, and how it is said, Cameron is not the best writer around. He did a poor job writing Titanic, and he did a poor job here. If one starts telling me the scripts were brilliant, I would like to point out that neither film received a Best Original Screenplay nomination (even when Titanic swamped the nominations). His dialogue is always heavy-handed and unreal, the plots and situations not the most original. Cameron is a visual master, but a screenwriting villain.

Now we will have TWO Avatar follow-ups, and I suspect they will make money. I don't know how well those films will be: I did give a positive rating to Avatar, although I made my issues with it plain. Frankly, I don't understand the hold Avatar has on so many. I see Avatar as an amazing visual spectacle, but nothing more. It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know or suspect, and some of the acting was rather bad (Sam Worthington wasn't worth the high cost of 3-D, and that includes Clash of the Titans).

Financially, this is a brilliant move: Cameron has a ready and eager base that will pay much to indulge their Pandora Fantasy. Artistically, that remains to be seen. In any case, I can only hope that they will tell better stories and not be as blatant as their inspiration.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Butler Did It...Really




LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

To my mind, the thinking behind Law Abiding Citizen is bizarre to say the least. How does one cheer for either of the main characters when Kurt Wimmer's screenplay practically demand we hate both of them?

Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is a seemingly ordinary man, with a loving wife and adorable daughter. Within the first five minutes they are the victims of a home invasion by Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte) and Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart). Darby is the more vicious of the two, for while Ames wants to just rob them, Darby comes close to raping Mrs. Shelton and there is a strong suggestion that he murdered the adorable daughter.

The case is handled by Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who cuts a deal with Darby: in exchange for pleading to third-degree murder he will testify against Ames and basically send him to Death Row (and no, not the record label). Shelton is hurt and outraged by how the system has let the man who destroyed his life off so easily. Of course, this calls for vengeance...

Ten years pass. Rice now has his own family (by sheer coincidence a wife and daughter). Darby is out, enjoying the life of a career criminal while Ames is about to be executed. What is suppose to be a gentle lethal injection turns violent and agonizing. Rice, D.A. Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill), and Rice's protege Sarah Lowell (Leslie Bibb) watch in horror, and suspect foul play was involved. Darby is pursued, with only a mysterious voice aiding him...or so it seems. We soon discover Clyde has created an ingenious Master Plan to take revenge on all those who allowed the criminals to get away: besides Ames and Darby, there is Darby's attorney, the Judge, the D.A. and his team of lawyers, even the Mayor (Viola Davis), with Rice apparently being last on the list. Even after Clyde is arrested, then put in solitary, the elaborate murders continue. Where and how will this reign of terror end?

Law Abiding Citizen, I imagine, started out as a version of Death Wish but it veered into Saw territory. This is what kills the movie (no pun intended) from being anything other than torture porn disguised as a meditation on Justice vs. the Justice System. Take for example when Clyde captures Darby after luring him into a rather elaborate trap (side note: why are these plans always elaborate?). Once he has Darby tied down, Clyde goes all Mad Scientist on him and decides that for justice to be served he has to torture Darby by slowly dismembering him while he is alive. To top off his nefarious scheme, Clyde decides to send a DVD to Rice's home, but I'll give you one guess as to who ends up watching it.

As portrayed by Butler, Clyde is someone we can't possibly embrace. It is possible to ask an audience to care about someone whose family was slaughtered in front of him, but how can we ask that said audience continue to care about that same person when he is creating more and more elaborate (sometimes rather outrageous) ways of killing people whose connection to the case is tenuous at best? Sarah had nothing much to do with the case aside from perhaps doing research, so killing her seems more an act of cruelty than justice. The screenplay makes Clyde a Samson of Justice--pulling down the Temple full of Philistines. However, his methods end up being so grandiose that Clyde soon becomes Philadelphia's version of The Joker, this Master Mind Criminal who holds the city hostage. He goes from vigilante to psychopath, and how do we rally to like or approve of a psychopath's actions?

Foxx does himself no favors in Law Abiding Citizen either. We already start out not liking him for having cut this nefarious deal, so when he has to face off Clyde to stop his reign of terror we can't rally around him. Foxx seems almost bored that he has to fight Clyde, maintaining the same expression throughout the film.

Every other actor appears similarly bored, though trying desperately to bring emotion to a project that goes off the rails rather quickly. Ranging from Colm Meaney as one of the investigating cops to Davis as Philadelphia's Mayor, they carry this seriousness that again, just seems like boredom, almost confusion that somehow they ended up there.

The actual plot of Law Abiding Citizen is just so idiotic one wonders how Butler (who has had legal training in his native Scotland) would believe any judge would allow someone who killed TWO men (even going so far as to videotape the torture and dismemberment of one of them) to be released WITHOUT BAIL OF ANY KIND, merely because Clyde pointed out some forms of legal jargon that any first-year law student could out-argue. Regardless of how hard Butler, Wimmer, and director F. Gary Gray try to make Clyde heroic--an injured man fighting against the corruption of the legal system--we just watch and wonder how anyone could rally to this serial killer. One just can't be sympathetic to a master criminal, and in the middle of Law Abiding Citizen we get new information about Clyde that just strips him of this "average man out for justice" status and turns it into a mastermind fighting those unequipped against his genius. Brian Tyler's score is like everything in the film, excessive--loud, intrusive, and overly dramatic without any sense of subtlety.

Law Abiding Citizen is a grotesque revenge film, filled with stupid people and cruel people who come up with excessively elaborate ways to execute people, some of whom should not have been killed. This is a case of 'he fought the law and we all lost'.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Give Until It Hurts

NEVER LET ME GO

Let's start by saying that whatever twist there is in Never Let Me Go isn't a surprise because the trailer pretty much spells it out for us: the characters are basically born to be killed for their body parts. However, we are asked to think about deeper things than Never Let Me Go actually tackles. Ostensibly the film based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel involves the concept of organ harvesting (though in a remarkably elegant manner). Instead, we have to ask ourselves about what is human, what makes one human, how we treat our fellow humans, and what life is: what we were bred to believe or what we choose to be.

We start in Hailsham School, where we are introduced to three children in particular: Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy H. These children live in splendid isolation from the rest of the world (in this case Britain). They are raised in this sheltered, insular world where they are instructed in art and also in how to behave in the outside world. There is a reason for this: a teacher tells them that they will be used for 'donations' to other people, and that if they make it to their fourth donation, they will die at that point. Even this knowledge does not stop Kathy from falling in love with Tommy, but even though Tommy seems to feel the same way Ruth steps in and seduces him (as much as an eleven-year-old girl can seduce an eleven-year-old boy). Six years later, they leave Hailsham and move to The Cottages, where the three of them (still basically unaware how the Outside World works), await their first donation. While the romance between Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) deepens, Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is left out but still holds on to her love for Tommy, forever playing the cassette he gave her back at Hailsham, which contains a blue-eyed soul song called Never Let Me Go. In desperation and frustration, Kathy becomes a Carer (one who cares for donors pre and post donation).

Time passes. Kathy is a Carer for another donor when she discovers Ruth has already donated twice at that hospital. They reunite, and Ruth tells her where Tommy is. They go to see Tommy, who is remarkably strong in spite of having been through two donations already. While they are together, Ruth confesses she knew Kathy and Tommy had always meant to be together and that she used Tommy to try to get a Deferral, rumored to be given to Hailsham students who were found to be truly in love. While Deferral didn't grant them exemption from donations, it granted them a few years together. Kathy and Tommy go to get a Deferral, only to find it truly was just a rumor. Their time is brief, and soon both Tommy and Ruth have ended their duties. The film ends with Kathy facing her first donation, and in a field she meditates in a voice over (having narrated the film) on his life, on Ruth's life, on her life, on the Harvesters (those for whom they will surrender their organs), and on what it all means.

Mark Romanek takes Never Let Me Go as a straightforward story, not giving in to the rather sensational plot. The main characters in the film brought to mind the North Korean people: both accept the world they are shown as reality when it really isn't. They don't question the fact that they will be basically killed. Rather, they accept it as a basic fact that cannot be altered. Even when they seek a Deferral, it isn't to escape their fate of being harvested so as to let others live but to merely have some time together as a couple. It's a passivity that suggests that both the world they emerged from and the world that surrounds them accepts the situation as normal.

Curiously, Alex Garland's script suggests this rather than flat-out states it by hints in how during the three ages (1978 in Hailsham, 1985 at The Cottages, and 1994 at Completion) the Britain they live in shifts in attitude. In the first time period, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) is terminated for informing her students the truth, and the Head Mistress tells them that many might not understand but that this was 'progress'. In the second period, Kathy is transported for her Carer training via a van from the National Donor Programme, which suggests the government now sanctions the situation. In the final period, they find they have no recourse for even a delay, no one to champion their cause, for as Madame tells them, who would want to go back to the age of lung or breast cancer?

(Side note: Never Let Me Go was to my mind similar in tone to Children of Men, which makes me wonder what it is about the British mindset that sees the future/alternate past with such a dystopian and bleak worldview. Yet, I digress).

Romanek and Garland create a balance between the characters of Ruth and Kathy. The latter offers true love, while the former merely the pleasures of the flesh (and even in the love scenes between Tommy and Ruth there appears to be a mechanical nature to their lovemaking). Tommy does not appear to be enjoying sex with Ruth, but when he and Kathy finally share a bed (we are not treated to a love scene between them), the mood is remarkably beautiful, tender, and romantic. All this is aided by Rachel Portman's haunting and beautiful score, which adds to the hushed, melancholy tone of Never Let Me Go.

Two of the leads give restrained, gentle performances. Mulligan creates a girl heartbroken not by the inevitable loss of life but by the loss of love. There isn't a hint that she wants revenge for all that Ruth has done, though she does at times express in her face a slight hurt and anger at having to endure this silently. Knightley doesn't come off as a villain, but as a girl who in her own way wants to live, to be more like a Harvester than a Donor. In the Cottages section of the film, they suspect that her Original (the person she was modelled after) lives nearby. They go to see her, but find the resemblance is scant. Ruth's reaction to her reality is one of both fear and hurt.

My biggest complaint about Never Let Me Go I will express here: Garfield's Tommy. Now, he may have played the part correctly, but to my mind Tommy came off as such a simple-minded idiot it was a wonder that ANY woman (let alone TWO) would be struggling against each other for his love. Still, I can't say that when he realizes that there are no Deferrals, that his expression isn't indicative of a strong and talented actor.

I will take time to single out Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson as Chrissie and Rodney, two older Donors living at The Cottages who know their way around all non-Donors. They ask the trio about the Deferral rumors, and when they realize none of them understand what they are referring to (let alone confirm the validity of the rumors), both actors show in their faces their hurt and fear about being separated.

One has an overwhelming sense of sadness in Never Let Me Go, and certain scenes are quite difficult to watch. The best example I can give is when Ruth has her last Donation. The disinterest among the medical team is truly heartbreaking.

This is the type of films that are thoughtful, that force us to ask questions about morality. Throughout the film there is talk of The Gallery. At Hailsham there is speculation about what the teachers do with the artwork the students create. Tommy believes that "art reveals your soul" and that The Gallery can prove that certain Donors are Truly In Love and thus eligible for Deferrals. Madame tells them that The Gallery wasn't created to look into their souls but to see if they had souls at all. If one expands on this theme, we can go back to other points in humanity's unhappy history (the conquest of America, the Holocaust, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan) where the idea of 'others' having souls, being like 'us' was questioned with horrifying and tragic results.

Again, I go back to North Korea. There, like the students at Hailsham, they believe the world created for them is reality. They are not aware man has landed on the Moon. They even question whether South Koreans look like them. The world of Never Let Me Go is not too far from reality. We know that people have had organs stolen for transplants (and in some cases, people have sold their organs voluntarily so as to make a great deal of money). The film gives us a world where the lives of those created to die so others may live past 100 are given a true meaning. We see that, perhaps, those questions that stories like Frankenstein first asked have not yet been fully answered. It is a haunting, elegant, albeit depressing film. Never Let Me Go is a well-crafted film, but given its subject matter and dark, unhappy tone, not one that will be embraced.

DECISION: B+

Monday, October 25, 2010

Entomb With The Times


BURIED
I was surprised by several things in Buried. I was surprised in how involving the story became. I was surprised that director Rodrigo Cortes could hold both suspense and interest with the smallest of sets. I was surprised how Ryan Reynolds has fully committed himself to becoming an actual actor and is pushing his Van Wilder persona from him. Finally, I was surprised at how much dislike Buried inspired among the viewers.

Paul Conroy (Reynolds) wakes from a groggy state to discover he is trapped within a coffin, buried beneath the Iraqi desert. He is a truck driver whose convoy was attacked on the night of October 23, 2006 (the date he gives as when they was attacked). Paul is naturally terrified about his predicament, but he finds that buried with him are a Zippo lighter, a pencil, some alcohol, anti-anxiety medication, and most importantly, a cell phone--one with video and text capability. In the short 95 minutes Buried takes place, Paul desperately tries to contact anyone who can help him (the question of how someone underground can get almost excellent cell phone service being answered by one of the people he contacts--he must not be buried too far deep). Paul calls everyone and anyone he can think of: his wife, their mutual friend, 911, the State Department, the FBI, his mentally diminished mother, the Iraq Intervention military, all in a desperate race to emerge alive. He doesn't have much time, especially when we discover the reason he has been buried: Iraqi criminals put him there to hold him hostage, demanding money for his release.

As it stands, Buried is an excellent exercise in minimalism. You have one set (the film never leaves the coffin save for a quick look at a video the criminals send Paul and a few brief moments of hallucination) and one actor (again, except for the phone video of fellow truck driver Pamela Lutti--Ivana Miño). Credit has to be given where credit is due: Cortes finds many ways of shooting Buried within the confines of the coffin with various angles and lighting (variations from the Zippo lighter and the cell phone, though at times you have to see a dark screen with only audio to guide you). Cortes' editing is also first-rate: he emphasizes Paul's growing terror by various techniques, such as cutting closer and closer to Paul's face or spinning the camera to reflect his growing panic. Victor Reyes' score doesn't intrude on the film and manages to emphasize the moments of terror without suffocating the film (pun intended).

Reynolds is the only person in Buried (everyone else save Miño being voices). He gives a performance that simply astounds. One might not think Reynolds (who has built his career on action and comedy films) could reach such a deep, dramatic performance. (Side note: I would have thought this role would be more in line with the work of avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling than Ryan Reynolds). Reynolds has to hit so many notes: terror and fear, shock and pain, loss, regret, hope, anger, frustration--and throughout the film he never fails in revealing all the conflicting emotions Paul feels. (Side note: I think Gosling would have been just as good, and perhaps the fact that my mind shifted at times about how Gosling could have equalled Reynolds should trouble me, but more on that later). Ryan Reynolds has an unenviable task: he has to keep the audience's attention, and he is thoroughly up to the task. His performance is one that will surprise people in its richness, its depth, and intelligence.

I will take a quick digression to also compliment the voice acting of Stephen Tobolowsky as Mr. Davenport, the legal representative to the company Paul works for. His cold monotone as he spells out how the company will protect itself against any action Paul may take and in his dispassionate disinterest in Paul's life is chilling but sadly strikes a familiar tone.

Given all that, Buried is not a masterpiece. Chris Sparling's script at times seems more interested in pointing out the foibles of modern communication than in making those Paul reaches intelligent and caring enough to try desperately to save his life. I wondered how someone in Iraq could get 911 with the greatest of ease...he didn't even have to dial an international code. I wondered why the Iraqi criminals would imagine someone as lowly as Paul would get anyone to pay $5 million or $1 million in less than three hours. It seems strange that the video Paul made could have had thousands or millions of YouTube hits so quickly. I wondered why the safety number he was given in case of such an emergency was stolen from the wallet left with him was the one number he apparently never bothered to memorize. The Iraqi criminals suggestion that Paul was working for "Black Water" when they obviously must have known he wasn't seemed more a quick commentary about the evil the Iraq Intervention unleashed among the people than anything else.

Finally, what brings Buried down (no pun intended) is the ending. I have never been a fan of twist endings, and while it might not be strictly speaking a twist it felt forced, almost mean-spirited and cruel.

I don't mention audience reactions as a rule, but I'll make an exception for Buried. The sense among those watching the film was one of frustration and unhappiness. I had seen a man in uniform and his wife. When the film ended, she got up and was visibly displeased. "Why would you take me to something like this?" she berated him. He got up and looked at me. "That was the lamest movie," he told me. "I'm going to write the guy who made The Proposal and tell him he was STUPID for making this movie".

To a certain point, I disagree. I think Reynolds was actually SMART for making this movie. It shows he wants to push himself as an actor, that he wants to expand his range and show he can do so much more than his screen persona has so far shown. However, it also shows many viewers would prefer him in more commercial, crowd-pleasing fare like The Proposal and the upcoming Green Lantern (perhaps even such films as Waiting...) than in something like Buried.

There is a danger in alienating your audience. This is where Ryan Gosling comes in (curious how only now do I realize both have the same first name). He is already known for taking more offbeat, art house fare (Lars and the Real Girl, Half-Nelson, The Believer) than for his turns at more mainstream efforts (and, with the exception of The Notebook, having poor luck when he does work in films like Fracture or Murder By Numbers). It doesn't help that Ryan G. and Ryan R. look very much alike (right down to Gosling being only an inch shorter than Reynolds AND both being Canadian).
There isn't a big danger of one being confused for the other, but it seems that when either tries to get away from what made him known audiences tend to shy away. One can applaud their efforts, but they should know that they should try things in increments. Yet I have digressed too much.

One final point: the title sequence is extremely reminiscent of something Saul Bass would have made for such Alfred Hitchcock films as North By Northwest or Psycho. This does not appear to be an accident, and overall it adds to the effect that this will not be an ordinary film.

Overall, Reynolds anchors a strong film with a remarkable performance. However, as good as Buried is, there is almost a nihilism within it that clouds whatever good the film has. At the end of the film, one feels nothing much for it. In the end, Buried will probably remain an underground film.



Is it me, or could they be brothers?

DECISION: C+

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kingfish Story: All the King's Men Review

ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949)

The saying is not, "power corrupts". Lord Acton's actual phrase is "Power TENDS to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". All The King's Men, the film based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, makes this axiom come to life while giving it an American twist. Politics has always made for a fascinating subject in film making, and All The King's Men, in spite of its time, has not aged in its view of the corrupting nature of power and its dangers on almost everyone it touches.

It was only three years since Warren's novel had been published. The man who is supposed to have inspired the fictional character of Willie Stark, former Louisiana Governor and then-Senator Huey P. Long, had been assassinated in 1935. Therefore, most of the audience watching All The King's Men would have, in a sense, been watching Long's story as how it was imagined, or at the least be familiar with the details of the larger-than-life, only-in-America story of a powerful Southern politician who was beloved by some, hated by others, and known to all.

Journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland) hears of a local man who is fighting a one-man campaign against the good-ole boy network running the county. This man, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), is sincere in his struggle, but lacks an education: his wife, schoolteacher Lucy (Anne Seymour) gives him his schooling. Burden is impressed by Stark's willingness to fight against the system, even if it means physical intimidation, even violence. Stark had warned that shady deals had been cut to build the local school, and after a tragedy there Stark's reputation begins to rise among the populace. Soon, he is recruited to run for governor, at first unaware that he is really there as a stooge to split the 'hick' vote. Once he learns the truth from Burden and Stark's minder, Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), Stark is filled with a righteous fury against the political machine. Stark soon builds a machine of his own, helped by 'the people', and he gains election to Governor. Burden's fiancee, Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru) becomes enthralled with Stark's version of "Hope & Change", while her brother, Adam (Shepperd Strudwick), is more suspicious.

Soon, Stark becomes just as tyrannical and corrupt as any Roman Emperor, manipulating the people to do his bidding while trying to manipulate, and in some cases, suppress whatever negative press and opposition there may be to him. In his beliefs that "the ends justify the means", he gets Burden to dig up all the dirt of his political rivals, including Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf), Anne and Adam's father whom Burden admires greatly. Stark also has a corrupting influence on his son Tommy (John Derek), a star on the University football team. Stark also begins a series of affairs: having already seduced Sadie he soon discards her to make the elegant and patrician Anne his newest mistress, an easy task given just how besotted she is with Stark. Stark's ambition grows greater, as does his danger. In his drive for greater power (always for the greater good), Stark destroys the Stanton family and Burden, with Adam finally taking the ultimate step against Stark.

Under Robert Rossen's direction, All The King's Men has almost a documentary-like look, as if this were not so much a movie but a true-life experience, as if Stark were real and we were watching his life unfold before us. Take for example, the Victory Rally to Stark's election. The extras look like average people celebrating the election of one of their own, and the camera angles (along with Al Clark's editing), create a sense of almost cinema verite, a bit like newsreels contemporary audiences would have been familiar with. At the end, Rossen brilliantly captures the chaos the assassination creates for both the people and the characters.

Rossen (who also wrote the screenplay) also balances the colliding stories between Stark's rise and Burden's eventual disillusionment to the corrupting forces around him. Rossen does this with clever, subtle bits. In the beginning, Stark doesn't drink because his wife disapproves. Near the end, not only does Stark drink heavily (and wear a monogrammed bathrobe, denoting his growing ego), but goes so far as to offer a drink to his wife. The writer-director-producer gives his characters balance, almost never making anyone all good or all evil (with the possible exception of Mrs. Stark, who is portrayed positively, though strongly hinted that she knows about Stark's mistresses and angrily tolerates them). At the center of All the King's Men is Stark, and Broderick Crawford gives a brilliant performance. You start out liking him when he fights the good fight, and like Burden, watch with growing sadness as his drive starts becoming monstrous in his lusts and appetites. Ireland as Burden also shifts in our eyes, from the eager aide to Stark to a man so brought down by the compromises he's made to stay at Stark's side that he helps destroy all those he truly loves either directly or indirectly.

McCambridge doesn't shift from the operator Sadie is. She is always cynical about what good politics can be, but she also tells us that she is a woman who can be hurt. Take the scene when she finally tracks Burden down after he hides out to not give Stark incriminating evidence against Judge Stanton. She looks at a picture of Anne that Burden has, and compares herself (Stark's former mistress) to the more regal and elegant current mistress. McCambridge expresses both a resignation and regret at having been cast aside, and at having seen just how far Stark has fallen from who he was and could have been to what he has become.

Going back to Lord Acton's axiom, the second part holds true in All The King's Men. Stark had become all-powerful: naming things after himself, taking over the newspapers and radios, even suggesting that a newsreel shown to him about him remove the closing line of, "Willie Stark: Messiah or Dictator?" Whatever noble qualities he had were swallowed up by his lusts for power, women, and drink (the film appears to suggest that alcohol is a cause of Stark's spiritual corruption). It's an age-old story: how even the best of men soon find themselves more interested in power than in doing good, and even whatever good they give (such as a hospital and roads to the citizenry) is undermined by the shady and corrupt deals they cut to maintain power.

As a side note, I couldn't help reflect on current American politics while watching All The King's Men. I thought of the populism espoused by those like Sarah Palin, thinking that such lines that Stark spoke like, "And no poor man's land can be taxed or taken away from him" would appeal to the Tea Party Movement members. I thought about the idolatry inspired by President Obama. At one point, Burden tells Anne, "There is no God except Willie Stark. I'm his Prophet and you're his..." that last part left unspoken but understood. While it quotes the Islamic creed of Shahada (There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet), it brought to mind a t-shirt I saw someone wear during the 2008 Presidential campaign. The shirt read, "The Only Truth Before Us Is Obama". A sentiment like that is similar to something near the end of All the King's Men, when a caravan of Stark's supporters descends on the capital (curiously, the state where the story takes place is never mentioned, though it's understood to be somewhere in the American South). A bus had the banner "Willie's Law Is Our Law". Even that line about "Messiah or Dictator?"---that mindset is being applied to the President, who is seen by some in an almost divine-like light and by others as almost a usurper and crypto-Socialist/Muslim. The Faith and Fear any politician inspires (Stark/Long, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Obama, Palin)--these things do not change, which makes All The King's Men still resonate today.

At the end of All The King's Men, we still have a mystery about Willie Stark. Was he truly evil? Was he just a good man corrupted? His final words were a meditation about what he could have done. "It could have been the whole world, Willie Stark", he says before he dies. What was he thinking about? How he gained the whole world yet lost his soul? How he could have ridden his populism to the Presidency? Was it a regret for what he had become? Was it anger about what he would never achieve? Those questions are left to us, the audience, to answer.

All The King's Men has brilliant performances and a deft story that rings true (sadly). Long never made it to the White House, but his influence has lingered within the halls of power from City Hall to the Halls of Congress. All The King's Men truly is a Stark picture.

Please visit my Collection of Best Picture Winner reviews, which is always growing. Also, see the review for the 2006 remake and a comparison of both films.

1950 Best Picture: All About Eve

DECISION: A

Thursday, October 21, 2010

And The Race Is On...

SECRETARIAT

The world of horse racing doesn't have many stars that roll off the tongue of the average American. You have Willie Shoemaker, the legendary jockey, but I think he's the only human that the man/woman on the street can name who was involved in horse racing. Out of horses, there are perhaps three: Seabiscuit, Barbaro, and perhaps the Citizen Kane of racing horses, Secretariat. Like all legends, it was inevitable that Secretariat would get a biopic. Secretariat is unapologetically rousing, and that is one of its pluses.

The film runs the course (no pun intended) of the legendary horse's life, starting from when Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) learns of her mother's death and her father Christopher's (Scott Glenn) physical/mental decline. She's pressured by her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) and her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) to sell the family stables and horses, but she resists. She believes one of the horses born there may be a winner. With nothing but determination and confidence, she decides to hire temperamental trainer Lucius Laurin (John Malkovich) to train the newly-christened Secretariat, and they discover his amazing abilities to run fast. Taking a gamble, they decide to enter him to win The Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes--something that has not occurred in over twenty years. Penny must balance her racing life (and the sexist attitudes of the other horse owners and trainers) along with her family life (which has a disapproving husband and four children, with her eldest daughter joining the anti-Vietnam War movement).

Secretariat doesn't have spoilers: if you DIDN'T know Secretariat DID win the Triple Crown then you are amazingly ignorant. The trick in a film like Secretariat is to make it exciting in the racing scenes without short-changing the human drama of Penny Chenery's story. Director Randall Wallace manages this because he gets us so involved in the story that, even though we already know the outcome, we still sit at the edge of our seats when Secretariat starts to pull away at Churchill Downs. The reaction in the audience at the screening I attended testifies to this: when Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby they burst into cheers and applause. He also handles unabashedly sentimental and touching moments deftly: the scene where Penny goes to her dying father is as unapologetic about its sentiments.

His directing is complimented by some wonderful acting, chief among them Diane Lane as Penny. She is the appearance of a perfect, genteel, elegant woman, with her coiffed hairdo and elegant wardrobe. However, Lane does not make her a plastic being nor a Mad Men-tortured woman. Instead, Lane's Penny (does that just sound a bit peculiar) is an intelligent, strong woman who doesn't see the need to be abrasive to get what needs to be done. This makes her scene when she does lash out at Laurin and her jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) even stronger. Penny also is subtlety progressive: she supports her daughter's struggle to express her anti-war views. Sometimes just her facial expression speaks for itself. "I'm a professor and you're a housewife", her brother tells her, showing a condescending 1960s thinking. She doesn't verbally respond but makes her displeasure clear. Malkovich's Laurin is a bit crazy (especially in his garish wardrobe) but matches Penny's toughness in his determination to redeem his reputation.

Of the smaller roles, they are excellent all-around. Former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson brings his gruff likeability to Bull Hancock, a friend of the Chenerys who serves as an early mentor to Penny, as well as Drew Roy as Seth Hancock, Bull's son who joins Penny's quixotic quest to raise the funds to pay off the horse's growing costs. James Cromwell as the financier Ogden Phipps (who loses Secretariat to Penny in a coin toss) has the patrician mannerisms down pat. Margo Martindale's Miss Ham (how Southern) has moments of both comedy and drama which make her a delightful character. Nelsan Ellis' Eddie Sweat serves as guide to Penny, belying any sense of bigotry. In fact, given that we were only a few years after the civil rights movement, the relationship between Sweat and Chenery is one of mutual respect and courtesy rather than servant and master. Chenery never treats Sweat as anything else but her equal, and Ellis brings Sweat's genuine love for Secretariat and horse racing to the forefront.

Even really small parts, like that of chauvinist/rival horse owner Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano) and sports reporter Bill Nack (Kevin Connolly), while brief, still manage to make an impression in the overall story. No character in Mike Rich's script is minimized or ridiculed, but instead is given their moment.

Secretariat has the goal of making audiences cheer for both the horse and his owner, and it does it well. Wallace builds great tension in the way he stages the races, giving us both a birds-eye and audience's view of them. He also anchors Secretariat with the song Oh Happy Day, which serves as its unofficial theme. The sense of joy, of optimism, and hope Secretariat has is communicated so sincerely that by the end of the film, one will likely leave either singing or humming the Edwin Hawkins Singers signature song. The film is yes, shameless in its goal to give you an inspirational story; however, when it works, like it does in Secretariat, you do rejoice. Oh Happy Day indeed.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Red Queen Menace. A Review of The Manchurian Candidate (1962)



THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

The United States is unique among nations. Throughout the two hundred-plus years the Republic has existed, the transfer of power has been legal and peaceful, where one person relinquishes power to a duly-elected successor. The United States has had no military coups, no overthrow of the government by an invading force. There has been only one major invasion of the United States (The War of 1812), with a lesser invasion in 1916 when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico. There has been only one violent rebellion as well: the Civil War. Curiously, American films have had a fascination with the overthrow of the U.S. government. Among those is John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, a brilliant study of Cold War paranoia mixed with a psychological thriller and anchored with some of the finest performances from a group of extraordinary actors.

During the Korean War, a group of U.S. soldiers is captured by the enemy. They escape with only two casualties, and the man responsible for their rescue, Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is given the Medal of Honor through the recommendation of the highest-ranking officer in the captured platoon, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). Shaw is none too pleased that his commendation is being manipulated by his stepfather, right-wing Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) and his mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury), both of whom Shaw despises. Soon, Marco begins having recurrent dreams that he and his platoon are at a garden club meeting that shifts into a gathering of Soviet and Chinese Communist military officials. Even more horrifying in the dream is that Shaw, rather than having rescued the platoon, actually killed the two members who did not return, having been brainwashed by his Communist handlers. Marco's fears that Shaw may be a covert (albeit unwitting) assassin for the Red powers are first dismissed by his superiors, but when a second member of the platoon states he has been having the same dream they become suspicious that there may be something going on.

Marco is ordered to keep an eye on Shaw, who now writes for a newspaper (the previous writer and Shaw's mentor having been mysteriously murdered). Shaw tells him of his doomed romance with Jocie Jordan (Leslie Parrish), who happens to be the daughter of Senator Iselin's political rival, fellow Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), a romance broken up by the manipulative Mrs. Iselin. As fate would have it, Jocie comes back into Raymond's life, courtesy of Mrs. Iselin, who sees a marriage between Raymond and Jocie (who truly love each other) as a way of controlling Senator Jordan. However, Jordan will not consent to having Iselin placed as the Vice-Presidential candidate of the party. Jordan then, will have to be taken care of. Marco, aided by Rosie Chaney (Janet Leigh), a mysterious woman Marco meets on a train, realizes that the suggestion of solitaire will leave Shaw open to taking orders, and when he sees the Queen of Diamonds he will follow the first suggestion given to him. Marco soon fears that Shaw will be used to get Iselin not onto the Vice-Presidency, but the Presidency itself, leaving both the Senator and his wife in power, with dangerous results.

Frankenheimer and scriptwriter George Axelrod took Richard Condon's novel and created a frightening film not just about political assassination, but also about the evil that people will do in order to gain power. The Manchurian Candidate has some bravura scenes, in particular the Garden Club meeting, where Frankenheimer manages to meld the conflicting scenes between what the soldiers see and what is reality brilliantly. The assassination of Senator Jordan is also brilliantly shot. Frankenheimer has no music to intrude on this horrifying scene, but it is a frightening moment not just because they are being murdered but because we know Shaw is not evil for doing so. Frankenheimer even manages to say a lot about the characters without being overt. At the Costume Party the Iselins give for the Jordans, Mrs. Iselin's costume of a Shepherdess suggests that she may appear the epitome of genteel womanhood, she really is controlling the masses, while Raymond's costume of a cowboy looks for suited for a little boy than a grown man.

All these things enhance some of the best performances in the careers of everyone involved. Laurence Harvey portrays both the haughtiness and torment of Raymond Shaw, a man who has been ground into the earth by a manipulative and domineering mother. His best scenes are when he is broken emotionally, knowing that something is wildly wrong but not realizing just how controlled he is. Sinatra delivers a great performance as Marco. He's both tough and smart, who is relentless in his pursuit of whoever is behind this dastardly plan but who also shifts his views of Shaw, from dislike to genuine sympathy. James Gregory's Senator Iselin captures the blowhard, pompous idiot that his character is. It's a curious thing that while he sounds in his Red-baiting like Senator Joe McCarthy he also happens to look a bit like Senator Barry Goldwater. McGiver and Parrish as the Jordans also give strong performances as people who get caught up in the machinations of foreign agents with tragic results.

The hallmark performance in The Manchurian Candidate is Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin. She is cold, unscrupulous, thoroughly and irredeemably evil, a woman who will not shrink from using her own child to commit unspeakable acts (and, in a pivotal scene, strongly suggesting that she herself commits unspeakable acts with Raymond). Her barely masked contempt for both her husband and son (whom she refers to as her 'little boys') gives her a more menacing air. It is a brilliant performance of a cold-blooded monster.

Interestingly enough, while Leigh was also wonderful as Rosie, throughout The Manchurian Candidate one wonders exactly what her role was. Is Rosie also an agent assigned to Marco? Just a concerned bystander who falls for him? The mystery of who Rosie actually is isn't resolved, so we have to just guess she is just a woman Marco happened to meet who falls in love with him.
Credit also has to be given to Ferris Webster's editing, especially in the climatic convention scene. Webster's speeded-up film and quick cutting reflects both the chaos of the convention and heightens the fear of the impending assassination.

If I find any flaw in The Manchurian Candidate, it is that I would have preferred, curiously enough, a more violent and graphic ending. Given the truly shocking twist a more visual punch would have made what we'd seen even more horrifying...let alone cathartic. Still, perhaps given the times it was made in, it was the most we would be able to get.

The Manchurian Candidate is a brilliant, frightening, shocking film, with extraordinary performances by Sinatra, Harvey, and Lansbury (who oddly, was only three years older than her 'son'). It seems that the characters in The Manchurian Candidate drew a deadly hand.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Funny You Should Ask...

IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY

Call it a case of really bad timing. It's Kind of A Funny Story begins with a sixteen year old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) contemplating suicide on the Brooklyn Bridge, eventually falling into the water at the end of this dream sequence. It has the unfortunate case of being released two weeks after the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi off the George Washington Bridge, which makes that particular scene difficult to watch. Given that, it makes It's Kind of A Funny Story even harder to appreciate, because what we see is not a young man close to having exceptional problems but rather an ordinary kid who doesn't know the first thing about true emotional/mental pain.

Craig has decided his life is not worth living, so he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital for his claims at suicidal tendencies. He soon realizes he may have to stay there for 30 days, horrifying him. Informed by head psychiatrist Dr. Minerva (Viola Davis) that he'll have to stay there at least five days, he opts to make the best of it. A plot device...I mean, remodeling in the teen wing of the hospital...forces Craig to stick it out with the adults. He meets Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), who appears to be the unofficial King of the Ward. He also encounters another teen, Noelle (Emma Roberts), who while not stated appears to be a cutter. In that week, Craig discovers a few things:

  1. His life really ISN'T as hard as he thinks
  2. Others really have it hard
  3. The girl of his dreams may not be the girl for him
  4. He can make his own decisions and be happy in them, not in pleasing his parents.
It may be my upbringing, but the situations Craig feels are pushing him to the edge don't appear to be anything that any other teenager has ever faced. Not fitting in with all his classmates (including his friend/love rival Aaron Fitzcarraldo--Thomas Mann) (side note: the only thing I could think about when I heard 'Fitzcarraldo' was the brilliant Werner Herzog film of the same name and wondered if they got that from Herzog and not the novel by Ned Vizzini) and sacrificing his own artistic talents to please his father (Jim Gaffigan) is not new, familiar, or really reason enough to go into the funny farm.
In fact, throughout It's Kind of A Funny Story, Craig came off as the straight teenage version of David Sedaris (sometimes right down to the speaking voice), which is NOT a compliment. He didn't seem to be suffering from a major mental breakdown more than he suffered from a whiny, odd form of self-absorption (just like Sedaris). In fact, Craig seemed to check into the psychiatric hospital almost as a spur of the moment decision, as if it were a whim.
The film seemed to be full of clichés and efforts to be artsy, courtesy of co-directors/writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (full disclosure: I have as of this review NOT seen either Half-Nelson or Sugar, so I cannot validate their reputation for making great films). You have the collection of loveable eccentrics (like the Egyptian recluse who won't leave his room, the Hasidic acid tripper, and the woman who was driven insane/paranoid by the PATRIOT Act--another thing that is George W. Bush's fault). You have Bobby's real reason for being at the psychiatric ward, a reason that isn't all that original and is a shameless attempt to tug at our heartstrings. You have Craig declaring his love for one woman while another one just happens to come in at that exact time. You have Craig's narration, which oddly doesn't give us that much insight into Craig's mindset (just like Sedaris--get the feeling I don't like David Sedaris?).
The scenes are at times quite difficult to tolerate in their efforts to be artistic. You have animated scenes of Craig's art, you have his narrating the difficulties of his special school, but the lowest point is when as part of music therapy Craig has to sing Under Pressure. Something so obvious could barely be endured, but when it slips into a full-scale musical moment with Craig being Freddie Mercury and Bobby turning into David Bowie while both lip-synching just becomes so annoying. Also, whenever a character used a pay phone, all I could do was wonder exactly how many people would not know exactly WHAT a pay phone is, given they are now virtually extinct, yet I digress.
The performances also have issues. Gilchrist for most of the movie is a bit zombie-like, with a monotone and no real moment in his face. However, given he's channeling David Sedaris (who is pretty much the same at his readings), I'll give him some slack. Both Gaffigan and Lauren Graham as Craig's parents have little to do in It's Kind of A Funny Story, and when they do show up they appear to be rather blank. Davis is taking the film and her performance more serious than perhaps she should, since the film borders the area between comedy and drama.
However, there are a few saving graces. Roberts is displaying a wonderful range in her performance as the actually-troubled Noelle, a girl who has to work on her issues and finds a connection with the only other teen in the ward. She is developing into a strong actress who, if she continues taking good roles, will assure herself a long career. The central role oddly is not Gilchrist but Galifianakis (his first appearance had the audience already laughing). He tones down whatever high-level lunacy he usually has to give a soft performance of a conflicted man, but still manages to show a more zany side to Bobby. He is going for a more nuanced and dramatic part, and he achieves it, giving a strong performance while not totally drowing in the sentimentality the script gives him.
There are some wonderful pieces in It's Kind of A Funny Story. The scene between Gilchrist and Roberts where they talk using only questions was quite good, as are the scenes between Gilchrist and Davis as she questions him about his life and those between Galifianakis and Gilchrist. It's unfortunate that those moments are pushed out by the overtly artistic efforts of the film-makers and scenes of Craig vomiting to express stress.
I am conflicted by It's Kind of A Funny Story. As I look back at it the bad things (the efforts at being clever and artsy) outweigh the good (some really good acting by Roberts and Galifianakis). Call me crazy, but it really wasn't all that funny.
DECISION: C-

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fashion Police State

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA

The old axiom is true: clothes are a reflection of who we are. How we present ourselves is who we'd like to be seen by the world. The Devil Wears Prada makes the case that while the fashion industry can be seen as frivolous, even downright strange, that the people who work there really are no different than any of us.

Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway), better known as Andy, has landed a plum assignment: second assistant to Runway Magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). If she stays there for the year, Andy can have the virtual pick of any newspaper or magazine she wishes, for Miranda yields great power in both fashion and publishing.

However, Miranda is a Boss From Hell: demanding and demeaning, one who terrorizes and terrifies all who work under her, from her first assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) to her Art Director Nigel (Stanley Tucci). Miranda's whims are their commands, her views are sacrosanct, expecting everyone to follow her instructions to the smallest detail (no matter how difficult the task). Miranda is an imperious creature, disdainful of the less-than-stylish Andy but secretly impressed by her skills. Andy tries to balance her life with Miranda against her life with her sweet cook boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier--I say Gre-near, he says Gren-yay), and her circle of friends, Lilly and Doug (Tracie Thoms and Rich Sommer) while fighting an attraction to magazine writer Christian Thompson (Simon Baker). In the time she is with Miranda, she comes to realize that her own ideas may yet be wrong, and that Miranda is both villain and victim.

What makes The Devil Wears Prada an enjoyable film is that it is extremely relate able to everyone who has had a job. In the beginning of her time there Andy has so much thrown at her, things she's expected to know and understand quickly. How many of us know exactly how that feels, especially when starting a new job. The film also does not make fun of the characters. Rather, the comedy comes from the situations they are in as opposed to merely laughing at them. It would have been easy for director David Frankel to go for making people like Miranda, Emily, or Nigel silly, but he and scriptwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (adapting Lauren Weisberger's novel), instead decided that they would give them a method to their madness.

This is best shown when Miranda takes Andy to task for laughing about the staff being unsure which belt to use for an upcoming photo shoot. While Andy (and the audience) may see the belts as identical and the whole idea of being in an intellectual quandary about something as simple as a belt laughable, Miranda goes into a logical explanation about how Andy may think she's above them all but that in reality their decisions both set trends and have wider impact in the fields of employment and innovation...right down to Andy's sweater color. It's this respect for the culture within a corporation/organization that makes The Devil Wears Prada less a film about the fashion industry than a film about a common experience: the work environment. Conversations about how to do certain tasks at a job site may sound strange, even laughable, to those looking from the outside in, but to those in those jobs they realize that they are only trying to make their jobs more productive.

Understandably, the star of The Devil Wears Prada is Hathaway, and she does a wonderful job in showing the transformation of Andy from intimidate girl to a more confident woman. She also communicates the physical transformation of Andy. In the early part of the film, she is almost proudly contemptuous of the emphasis those at Runway place on clothes and clueless about anything those in the magazine would consider basic information (she for example, asks a person on the phone how to spell Gabbana, believing it to be an actual Mr. or Mrs. Gabbana). Later, under Nigel's supervision, she comes to realize there is nothing wrong with improving one's appearance, not just to fit in, but also to boost self-confidence.

There are also some wonderful performances by supporting players. Blunt is delightful as Emily (side note: one wondered, given Miranda's penchant for referring to Andy as Emily, if this was her actual name or just a generic name the fashion editor gave to her assistants). Blunt has a marked ability for mean-spirited comedy, where we tend to dislike her for being so harsh and snobbish with Andy but who we also see as both adoring and terrified by her idol Miranda. The scene where she realizes she will not be fulfilling her long-held dream makes Emily both shallow and mean yet oddly endearing...which we credit to the fact that Emily finally starts to eat. Tucci serves as both a dismissive superior of Andy and as a mentor of sorts, guiding our heroine in her new role as a budding fashionista. He is sharp but never overtly cruel with her, but tells Andy basically she is being foolish in how she is tackling the hurdles of Runway and what she can do about it.

Baker and Adrian However-It's-Pronounced seem to play variations of themselves: the former a suave ladies' man who attracts women easily while the latter doesn't seem any different from Vincent Chase in Entourage. This isn't to say that they weren't good in the film: both were pleasant enough. It's just that it doesn't make full use of whatever talent they may have (a stronger case for Baker can be made than can for Grenear/Grenyay).

We now turn to Meryl Streep. She is ice cold as Miranda, a woman who never shouts or even raises her voice when cutting someone down. Streep gives Miranda a coolness that shows her to be not oblivious but disinterested in how others are affected by her demands. Miranda cannot comprehend how Andy cannot get any airplane to fly her out of Miami just because a hurricane is pounding the city. She is the type of woman who expects to be obeyed, to have her Starbucks ready at the moment she calls for it, and to have not one but two copies of the unpublished Harry Potter novel. Yet Streep is too intelligent and talented an actress to go for straight parody (even of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, highly suspected of being the inspiration for Miranda). Streep has a scene where she allows the mask to slide ever-so-low, revealing she has human hurts and emotions just like everyone else.

Not everything about The Devil Wears Prada is good/perfect. We have an unfortunate cliché in that Andy has to decide between going to Nate's birthday party and Miranda's benefit...which fall on the same night. Why do these sort of things ALWAYS happen in movies? The break-up between Nate and Andy wasn't the best bit of acting, which was unfortunate given that for most of the film both Hathaway and Grenear/Grenyay had given pretty good performances of a regular couple deeply in love with each other.

Still, these are minor flaws. The Devil Wears Prada is a light, enjoyable film, one that even those who don't know their Oscar De La Renta from their Oscar De La Hoya will appreciate. The film is a very good fit.

DECISION: B-

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All Singing. All Dancing. Not All Bad: The Broadway Melody Review

THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

The Broadway Melody, the first sound film and musical to win Best Picture (they would go together, wouldn't they) has been bashed, and I think unfairly. By today's standards, it is dated, but

A.) one has to apply the standards of the time when watching it, and

B.) there are some great songs that for all lovers of film will be shockingly recognizable.

Given that, I think watching it today we should be a bit milder on The Broadway Melody, which is by no means a brilliant film or even a particularly good one. However, it is not as horrid as one is led to imagine.

This is in many respects, a rather simple backstage story. The Mahoney Sisters are a double act trying to break into The Great White Way. Hank (Bessie Love), the older of the two, is a tough hoofer who has a fiery determination. Queenie (Anita Page) is a more innocent and delicate girl, more the beauty to Hank's brain in the operation (side note: I kept wondering why they had such odd names, but I digress). Hank has a fiancee, song-and-dance man Eddie Kearns (Charles King), waiting for her in New York. He's already set to star in a show called The Broadway Melody, to which he's also written the title song. He can get into Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld...I mean, Francis Zanfield's (Eddie Kane) show. Eddie does get them in, but he also falls in love with Queenie and she with Eddie. Neither want to hurt Hank, so Eddie suppresses his love while Queenie starts inviting the attentions of a stage-door Johnny named Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thompson). Eventually all comes out amid elaborate dance numbers like The Wedding of the Painted Doll, with Queenie and Eddie finally together and Hank once more on the road, determined to be the Broadway star she is determined to be.

I think the best way to describe The Broadway Melody is to say that it is a bridge between the previous Best Picture winner (the silent film Wings) and its immediate successor (All Quiet on the Western Front), a film that connects what a silent film was capable of doing and what a sound film was capable of doing. As a movie in its own right, The Broadway Melody suffers from many problems looking at it today. It is difficult to imagine a casual viewer being able to tolerate listening to the same song THREE TIMES or to understand why some of the staging seems so flat, with no camera movement to speak of.

This would be in the fact that director Harry Beaumont did not take many if any imaginative leaps in what sound could do. Rather than try something innovative with the technology by being able to make the musical numbers come alive, he played it safe by having the camera locked in one position, but which meant that the audience missed a great deal. Take the Wedding of the Painted Doll number (which had been shown in color and has since been lost, leaving only the black-and-white print). It's a very active number with a lot of elaborate dancing, but because we only see a few people at a time we don't get the full impact we could have had. The Truthful Parson Brown number is even less imaginatively shot and almost makes the hour-and-forty minute film drag; in fact, it almost seems like it came from a short-subject film rather than having anything to do with the movie itself. There are, however, some good moments: The Boy Friend number (which, incidentally, is the first time we see the Mahoney Sisters actually do a number by themselves--strange that it comes near the END of The Broadway Melody) is quite pleasant, and the scene where we HEAR the car that takes Queenie and Jock to his party while seeing Hank's reaction showed that people were beginning to realize just what an innovation sound was.

Sometimes, however, there are moments that play well...if the film had been, ironically enough, in a silent picture. Take the scene where Queenie reads the card Jock sent with flowers: there is no sound at all, and Love gives a brief but beautiful silent reaction. The same can be said in another scene when Queenie is admiring the bracelet Jock gave her. The fact that there are basically title cards throughout The Broadway Melody (ex. 'Zanfield's Theater, during the rehearsal of the latest revue') makes one wonder if the film would have worked better if it had been like The Jazz Singer: a silent film with musical numbers interwoven within it.

The story also had problems. You never fully understood why Eddie fell so hopelessly in love with his fiancee's sister (apart from lust), or why Queenie felt the same (same reason). You also never understood why Flo (Mary Doran), one of the Zanfield Girls, became such a bitter rival to the Mahoney Sisters, or how you had a twist with her in the end. Finally, one never understood why Hank was so quick to give up Eddie (apart from loving Queenie so much she'd sacrifice her own love for Eddie so as to make her more innocent sister happy).

Finally, yes the acting had issues to deal with. King was at times annoying as Eddie: we weren't sure what to think of a guy who had apparently little qualms abandoning one sister for another. Love and Page however, were better as the Mahoney sister. Love had a toughness to her Hank, but she always showed her true affection for Queenie and her concern for her safety and happiness throughout. Page created a character who at times appeared dim if not downright stupid, but also at times she created a character who was more naive and sweet, unwilling to harm anyone intentionally. At times all three leads did come off as a bit over-the-top, but then given that the technology was making it difficult to curtain what might have been more acceptable in a silent film (though I've long argued that silent film acting has never been as broad as people think it is) it is forgivable.

As it stands, The Broadway Melody is a good picture to watch if one wants to see how the transition between silent and sound pictures was handled. You can see where they went right (musical numbers, including You Were Meant For Me, later immortalized in Singin' In The Rain, certain sound effects), and where they went wrong (keeping the camera still, some curious staging and acting). Still, one will enjoy the songs of Arthur Freed and Herb Nacio Brown, and as a historic piece The Broadway Melody will be a gold mine of information about that era in film spoofed so brilliantly in Singin' In the Rain (which was produced by...Arthur Freed, who by now had become a respected musical film producer). Granted, it might not have been the best picture of that year, but it was a dance step in the right direction.

1930 Best Picture: All Quiet On The Western Front

Here are more Best Picture Winner reviews, with the aim of reviewing every Best Picture Winner available.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Full Tea Party Set

I WANT YOUR MONEY

Are conservatives just incapable of making good movies? It is as if those on the right are still looking in vain for their Michael Moore, their Morgan Spurlock (whom I lovingly call Mor-Lock), someone who can make a non-fiction film both manipulative and entertaining. Say what you will of Moore and Mor-Lock, at least they know how to put a movie together. I Want Your Money is now the latest effort by a right-winger to give us his take on current events, and while it being an improvement over some other efforts (Celsius 41.11, Weapon of Mass Destruction: The Murderous Reign of Saddam Hussein), it just seems that they are still working at getting it right (no pun intended).

Director Ray Griggs serves not as narrator but as guide, speaking to us directly, to set up his premise: starting from the 1940s, there have been two competing economic/political ideologies in American life. On the one hand, there is the one best articulated by President Ronald Reagan:
Government is not the solution to our problems. Government IS the problem.
On the other, there is the one best articulated by President Barack Obama:
The question we ask today is NOT whether our government is too big or
too small but whether or not it works.
In short, while one has a mistrust of government (especially in economic management) the other has a full trust in government (especially in economic management). He sets his case up by going through the past 60 years, suggesting that every twenty or so we have basically the same liberal policies which, according to Griggs, always have the same result: failure and greater government dependency. In the 1940s, it was The New Deal. In the 1960s, it was The Great Society. Now, we have Obamanomics. Griggs makes his case with the example of California, a state that is teetering on total insolvency, and takes us on some Tea Party rallies. Throughout I Want Your Money, Griggs tells us his thoughts from the beauty of former President Reagan's Rancho Del Cielo and Washington D.C., and intercuts interviews with a cavalcade of conservative commentators and politicians ranging from Steve Forbes and Star Parker to Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.

What you think of I Want Your Money may come from where you stand on the political spectrum, but on an artistic level, Riggs opted for some rather strange choices. The bulk of I Want Your Money has animated figures of a gaggle of former Presidents (Reagan, Obama, both Bushes, Carter, Clinton, and even Nixon--pity he forgot Ford) and a few other political figures (former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) in a variety of situations which serve to tell various stories. Some of the details within the animation are quite clever. Take for example when we first see the Oval Office. We are treated to none-too-subtle hints of President Obama's penchant for self-importance (down to having the President's face plastered onto paintings in the style of Andy Warhol and even onto a portrait of George Washington). Griggs, to his credit, takes equal shots at almost all the political figures (having President Clinton hit on Palin and Pelosi and Secretary Clinton slapping him at every turn, Bush Jr. barely able to speak, Palin being a giggling girl), though he is respectful to Reagan. While they do serve their purpose of illustrating (no pun intended) Grigg's views on economics and government involvement, at times they go for the obviously easy target than tackle a complex issue.

Let's be clear: there is no intent of being non-partisan. I Want Your Money is practically naked in its view that Reagan's philosophy is better than Obama's and is a film that is fully in favor of the Tea Party Movement. I don't begrudge them that--most documentaries nowadays are shamelessly biased. However, Griggs doesn't know when to take advantage of certain scenes and information. One odd moment is when Riggs is running up the Lincoln Memorial a la Rocky (right down to the grey sweatsuit). There's no attempt to make the connection between that iconic character's struggle to win and the average American's struggle to overcome an increasingly intrusive government. Griggs comes off as passionate but we really have no idea who he is or why he is taking on this subject. I wondered if he couldn't get whatever conservative Hollywood has (Jon Voight? Gary Sinise?) to narrate or host. When Ray Griggs first appears, the natural question to ask is, "Who is Ray Griggs?"

Given some of the information and footage I Want Your Money has, Griggs would have been better served to rely on the opposition's own words to make his case. A highlight: Speaker Pelosi's bizarre assertion that "we need to pass the bill in order to know what's in it". Griggs seemed more intent on making an animated feature to make his case then whatever actual information he has at hand. There is a wealth of information at his disposal: statistics from the Great Depression and how government agencies like the Postal Service and Social Security are either bankrupt or on the verge of it. He also touches lightly on important points: the criticisms of Reagan's economic policies on the issues of debt growth and who exactly benefited from the tax cuts (though he is slightly harsher on Bush Jr.'s spending, especially on Iraq). In short, Griggs would have had a better film if he'd stepped away from the camera and simply balanced the ideologies of Reagan and Obama.

There is some wonderful footage which unfortunately wasn't used to the best of its potential. Who doesn't want to remember President Carter's Malaise Speech--one of the lowest points of ANY Presidency or go to Reagan's A Time For Choosing Speech--which didn't save Goldwater but launched his own political ascendancy. Griggs could also have taken more time to present the Tea Party Movement members as rational, thoughtful individuals rather than the lunatics they are commonly portrayed as. The interviews, while at times informative (Forbes is still going on about his beloved flat tax) are unimaginative in execution: all with the same black background as if they were done all in the same room.

Given all that, I Want Your Money is still worth your money. For conservatives, it is preaching to the choir. For liberals, it is a call to arms against the rising tide of Tea Party activism. In either case, there is just enough to make one question where one stands. Ray Griggs is not the right-wing answer to Michael Moore, but he may be taking the right step.

Her Lack of Awards Is An Unsolved Mystery




Talk about the two sides of Angela Lansbury. How soon we forget that she was once a glamour girl who was considered a great beauty. It seems a curious turn that while most remember her from her years as Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, she actually has had a long and varied career in film.

How many can boast of an Oscar nomination their first time out? Well, she can, when she received the first of her three nominations (all for Supporting Actress) for her turn as the scheming maid in Gaslight. The very next year, she gets a second nomination for The Picture of Dorian Gray (and manages to squeeze in a small film called National Velvet). One figures this portrait of English country life is closer to Lansbury's own life than the other two films. She has always managed in her career to be both very British and quite American. There is a certain elegance to Lansbury, a bit like a classy aunt. She showed that as Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (which I like to think as the original Minerva McConagall--at least in the witch part). However, when she played tarts, she really played tarts, and you can't get more temptress than Semadar in Samson and Delilah (no, wait, CECIL B. DeMILLE'S Samson and Delilah).

As it stands, Lansbury is remembered for a few particular things. For cinema lovers, it is her turn as the villanous Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate. She is a monstrous being--willing to use her son (with whom she shares a rather shockingly intimate kiss) to gain the power she and her brigade so passionately desire. It's her coldness/efficiency that both shocks and fascinates us. This would earn her the final Supporting Actress nomination (losing to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker), and in a sense, it would signal the end of a film career. She did continue to make movies (the aforementioned Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Death on the Nile--one of my personal favorites), but it seemed more and more that when she appeared in movies, it was her voice we heard.

This is where the second thing Lansbury is known for. For people of a certain generation (that would be mine), we know her as Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast. She had a sweetness in her pleasantly semi-British voice that made the title scene from the film even more beautiful. I prefer her rendition to that of Celine Dion, but that may be because j'e deteste Madamoiselle Dion. In any case, Lansbury got herself a new generation of fans who will always love her for being in one of the best animated films ever made.

We don't know whether she will be in more films...in body as well as voice. The last film I see working in (that isn't just voiceover or a television movie) is Nanny McPhee, which I haven't seen. She seems perfectly happy working primarily on the stage, which seems her first love. I don't begrudge Lansbury that if that is where she finds her greatest joy. However, I wonder if film lost a good actress to television and Broadway by not capitalizing on Angela Lansbury post-Manchurian Candidate. We'll never know. Still, she has a great body of work--working with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra right down to Emma Thompson. She is a great talent, so how come she hasn't won a single Oscar or Emmy--not even an Honorary One? I find that strange, but I wish a Happy Birthday to Angela Lansbury.