Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cher And Cher Alike: A Review of Burlesque

BURLESQUE
In order to enjoy Burlesque, you have to be willing to forgive a lot. You have to forgive that Christina Aguilera, playing the lead role of Ali, is not an actress. You have to forgive that Cher, playing her boss/mentor Tess, can act better than she did here. You have to forgive a cacophony of clichés that make up the plot. Still, given that Burlesque is basically a vehicle for Aguilera to segway into film doing what she does best (which is sing), the film itself can be remarkably entertaining.

Ali leaves Iowa for the big lights of L.A., looking for a chance to sing and dance; she becomes entranced by the Burlesque Lounge, where she sees Tess on stage, as well as resident Queen Bitch Nikki (Kristen Bell). Ali is also taken in by the charms of bartender/composer Jack (Cam Gigandet). Ali dreams of being up on stage, but Tess doesn't think our heroine has what it takes. Tess, however, has problems of her own. Her ex-husband/club co-owner Vince (Peter Gallagher) wants her to sell the Burlesque to real estate mogul Marcus Gerber (Eric Dane). Ali soon catches McSteamy's eye. The pregnancy of another dancer, Georgia (Julianne Hough) gives Ali a chance at last to be up there, in the lights. Another fortuitous opportunity comes for her to show Tess, the wardrobe master Sean (Stanley Tucci), the ticket seller/performer Alexis (Alan Cumming), Marcus, Jack, and all the other burlesque dancers that she's got A Voice. Soon, she becomes the toast of the town, squired by Marcus while Jack secretly pines for her but, alas, he's unable to pursue her because he's engaged to an actress in New York. Eventually, Ali and Jack do come together, but there are other things to deal with, specifically with Tess only a day away from losing the Burlesque to Marcus. Ali comes up with a clever solution, and it all ends with a mega-production number.

Writer-director Steven Antin borrows freely (if not downright steals) from the Kander & Ebb musical library. The first time we are at the Burlesque Lounge, Cher's number, Welcome to Burlesque, is shamelessly reminiscent of Willkommen from Cabaret, right down to the Burlesque Girls and the orchestra coming out to show how beautiful they are. I truly expected Cher to turn to the camera and say "Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome, Im Burlesque, Au Burlesque, To Burlesque". (I should point out the lyrics to the song DO indeed say, "Welcome to Burlesque". Coincidence?) There is another number involving Cumming and two female dancers that it is basically the Two Ladies number from Cabaret in all but name. (Given that Cumming won a Tony for the revival of Cabaret, it makes this number, the only one I remember intercut with a scene between Marcus, Vince, and Tess, both pointless and a reminder of a better musical. Cumming's Emcee is no match for Joel Grey's version, who was downright creepy as the decadent Master of Ceremonies, but I digress). The staging for the numbers, where each song is sung on stage, echoes Chicago (stage and screen). In fact, when Nikki performs a rather sleazy version of Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, it ends with Ali imagining taking Nikki's place in an elaborate number...not unlike when Roxie Hart dreams of All That Jazz in the film version of Chicago.

In short, Burlesque is not original.

You also have some very odd choices in who does what. Gallagher has proven that he is a good singer (see The O.C.) but he's not given a chance to perform. In fact, he is wasted in Burlesque, given very little to do but look anxious about not getting his ex-wife to sell the club. The same goes for the aforementioned Cumming, who really had nothing to do with the story. The worst waste was Tucci, who played basically the same character from The Devil Wears Prada. Is he the go-to guy for gay best friend to the star? Hough, taking a breather from Dancing With The Stars (there was a good joke about that show that flew over my head since I don't watch it and only recognize Hough by name, not face) didn't contribute much, but did a remarkably good job given the small role she had.

The bigger roles didn't distinguish themselves at all. Bell was comically over-the-top as Nikki, fuming and making faces throughout to where I wondered if she was supposed to have been played for laughs. Gigandet (making this an unofficial The O.C. mini-reunion) brought to mind a line from the trailer to Tangled: he brought The Smolder. That was his expression throughout the film, and while he took great care to show off his physique he didn't take much care to project any real emotion or conflict to Jack. McSteamy, to his credit, took a rather clichéd character and did the best he could with the role but wasn't quite convincing as either a suave man-about-town or a greedy developer.

The two leads are good singers. Cher managed to have a strong solo number (You Haven't Seen The Last Of Me), even though the song and accompanying performance were irrelevant to the story (such as it was). She played yet another cliché: the wise mentor to the rising star. However, while for most of Burlesque her performance was weak (whenever she was suppose to be upset about the situation with the bank it never looked as if she truly was upset but was trying to be), she did manage to have a strong scene where she is showing Ali how to apply make-up. As for Aguilera, she is magnetic whenever she is performing. I don't doubt that she is a strong singer. As an actress, one shouldn't be too harsh, given that Burlesque is really just a vehicle for a possible second career for Aguilera. She managed not to look foolish, and perhaps with more training she may become a competent actress, if not one on the Meryl Streep level.

As I've stated, the musical numbers are too close to Chicago to be thought of as original, but they are remarkably catchy and if you aren't too harsh with the production value you could enjoy them. One thing that WAS a major problem was Bojan Bazelli's cinematography. It went over-the-top on some of the production numbers (MORE LIGHTS, I could almost hear him scream), but in one scene where Marcus first offers Vince and Tess his offer, the camera was unwieldy, as is whoever was holding it was losing his grip and trying not to let it fall out of his hands. It was not just distracting but downright bizarre.

That is ultimately the only real thing you could ask from Burlesque: to be mildy entertained. It isn't original. It doesn't have great performances. It doesn't have a compelling story. In spite of all that, it isn't a bad film. Still, now one knows why Burlesque is not as popular as it once was.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cracked Shots

KILLERS


You make a film with two 'stars' best known for their television work. The Powers That Be are absolutely determined to make Katherine Heigl (best known for Grey's Anatomy, where I understand she had sex with a ghost) and Ashton Kutcher (best known for That 70's Show, where I understand he had sex with everyone) into legitimate film leads/major box office draws. Killers is the pairing of two people playing the same characters they've played in all the other films they've failed at and trying to make both a successful and entertaining film this time round. It's amazing that while Hollywood is insane, they don't know what the definition of insanity is.

Jen Kornfeldt (Heigl) is an uptight, insecure, recently dumped girl (or to be more specific, a Katherine Heigl character). She goes to Nice with her parents (Tom Selleck and Catherine O'Hara). There, she runs into Spencer (Kutcher), a good-looking guy who isn't funny or clever or smart (or to be more specific, an Ashton Kutcher character). While she wants to forget her recent romantic tribulations, he is there for a specific reason: Spencer is an assassin for the government. Both are attracted to each other and have a whirlwind romance. Spencer decides to walk away from being a hit man, much to the anger of his superior, Holbrook (Martin Mull). Three years have passed, and Spencer is living the life he's always wanted, but before you know it, one of those wacky neighbors/co-workers, Henry (Ron Riggle), tries to kill Spencer. Why? Well, because he has been deep undercover, infiltrating Spencer/Jen's lives in order to get the $20 million bounty on his head. Of course, Jen never knew about Spencer's past, but plot contrivances have her walking in just when the first attempt is made on his life. Now, both are on the run from the various killers. You should be able to figure out that all those wacky neighbors and offbeat co-workers of both Spencer AND Jen are not there merely by accident. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a movie.

Spencer and Jen have not only to stay one step away from the contract killers after them, but they also have to find out who put out said contract, who killed Holbrook, and deal with Jen's newly discovered pregnancy. At the end, we get a "surprise" twist as to who has unleashed all these killers (one guess as to who that could be), and at the end, it all ends with a joyful baby guarded by two generations...take it from there.

I kept wondering through Killers how much better it could have been if co-writers Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin had made a few different choices. It would have been funnier if the roles were reversed: if it were HEIGL who was the trained assassin and KUTCHER was the lovelorn put-upon son. I figure that couldn't have happened because we wouldn't have been treated with the obligatory shirtless Kutcher sequence (which may be part of his contract). The film would have been funnier if Jen not be aware that people were trying to kill her husband. Let her go off to San Francisco (as she was intended to do before coming back at the exact moment necessary for the plot), and he, fearing they are after her, tries to get to her while avoiding all these murderers. Jen, meanwhile, is romanced and menaced by other assassins who get confused and think the hit is on her. See...I fixed the script without even meaning to.

Robert Luketic couldn't get a performance out of anyone in Killers. Heigl (who's cornered the market on uptight yet romantically desperate girls) and Kutcher (who I don't think changed his facial expression throughout the film) delivered their lines in a forced and unconvincing manner. Even when they are suppose to be stumbling over their words, it looked fake. They don't sound real or convincing. Take the moment when Kutcher, after their first date, confesses to Heigl that he is a government contract killer. It didn't look like he was even trying to act. Instead, Kutcher was merely reciting words given to him without any sense of emotion. He wasn't interesting, he wasn't funny, he had nothing to offer...except some abs, but frankly, given they are now a dime a dozen, it isn't much to offer. Heigl seems content to appear dumb and desperate. Seeing them together attempting jaunty banter is especially painful because neither appears interested in what is going on: Heigl appears to think she's too smart for the material and Kutcher appears to think he's acting.

The supporting cast added nothing. Mull (who I don't remember from any movie since Clue) is underused (and I don't think we actually had a reason to kill his character, which is a remarkably downbeat moment for a comedy. Furthermore, I don't remember if we actually found out WHO killed Holbrook). O'Hara was wasted (in every sense of the word) throughout Killers, and Selleck was confusing looking stern for looking funny.

The comedy isn't funny, the action isn't exciting, the performances are dull, the situations idiotic. Basically, Killers is about a rather violent family squabble where the women are basically out of it and the men remarkably stupid. There really is nothing to like about Killers, not even Kutcher's killer abs (and frankly, having seen Taylor Lautner, Kelso's looking a bit past it).

If anything, I grudgingly admire Heigl and Kutcher's persistence. You would think that Heigl and Kutcher, who are both 32, would somehow have the intelligence of adults their age to see that Killers just ain't that good on any level: comedy, action, romance. Given that neither appears to live within what is generally called 'reality', it's almost a given that both have either given up trying to actually act and just get quick cash and a nice trip to Nice (no pun intended), or both, at age 32, aren't on the same mental age as their physical age would indicate.

At one point of Killers, Ashton Kutcher pulls out a gun to Katherine Heigl's surprise and disapproval. "That's my training, baby. I'm sorry," he tells her. All I could think of was, it certainly wasn't his acting training he was referring to.



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wanding Down

HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I


At least THIS can be said about the Harry Potter series: whatever whimsy, whatever lightness, whatever cuteness, whatever sweetness, whatever child-like innocence there was in the franchise is completely gone (along with Dame Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and John Cleese as Nearly-Headless Nick, the latter not having been seen since Chamber of Secrets...five films ago). Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part I (to stop from having to write all that over and over, from this point on I shall refer to the film as just Part I) is a dark, unhappy, and very self-important film. The fact that it is STILL thought of as a children's film is absolutely boggling to my mind. There is killing, there is torture, there are Nazi overtones, and yet somehow because it is a fantasy world, it is considered Juvenile Cinema. It is not. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to take my child to see Part I no matter how much he/she begged, and I would not allow my child to see it as part of a field trip. Yet I digress. Part I is a long, slow intro to Part II, and whatever enthusiasm I had built up for the previous Potter films is also gone.

The Wizarding World is under siege. The Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has reunited his coven: the Family Malfoy--Lucius (Jason Isaacs), Narcissa (Helen McCrory) and Draco (Tom Felton), along with Narcissa's sister Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Baldy-mort (as I lovingly call him) is still trying to get at Harry Potter (Daniel Ratcliffe) and stop him from getting the remaining horcruxes (objects that contain parts of Voldemort's soul...I think). With this Dark Group having taken over the Ministry of Magic (aided by non-Grease Pink Lady Dolores Umbridge--Imelda Staunton) Harry, along with his bestest best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) eventually set out to find the remaining horcruxes (of which there are four or five). To destroy the horcruxes, they need the Sword of Gryffindor (last seen in Chamber of Secrets as well). Once that's found, we then find that they now have to look for The Deathly Hallows: three objects (The Elder Wand, The Resurrection Stone, and The Cloak of Invisibility) that will make whoever possesses all three the Master Over Death.

In short, Part I is a gigantic scavenger hunt, and the overview I have given is an amazingly abridged version of the actual film, where all this is spread out over an incredible two-and-a-half hours (side note: if Part II is just as long, and if we are to consider Deathly Hallows to be ONE film, that would make the whole thing an astonishing FIVE HOURS long, which is about the equivalent of the first two The Lord of The Rings films: Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers combined or half the length of the original cut of Greed). It is an indication of how for such a length as this very little actually happens that in said running time, our trio manages to find exactly ONE horcrux (and there at least three if not four more to go). Part I suffers from frankly too much going on and too many characters flitting in and out, sometimes for no real purpose other than to please the hard-core Pot-Heads who won't be satisfied unless every word of J.K. Rowling's magnus opus is put in.

Take for example, the wedding between the characters of Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) and Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson). My first question while watching was, "WHO'S getting married?" My second is, "How is this relevant to the overall plot of Part I?" The fact that Fleur came from Goblet of Fire (three films ago) and hadn't been seen since because she wasn't relevant to the plots of any of the following films has the non-reader asking, 'Where'd she come from and why is even back in the first place?' I figure their romance was something expanded upon in Sprawling Rowling's work, but given she wasn't important in Order of The Phoenix or Half-Blood Prince, couldn't it have served to shorten the film by just cutting out their wedding? That is, unless they serve a greater purpose in Part II, which would then reduce Part I to merely a trailer for another film that will be in 3-D for no reason other than to make Rowling & Company even richer.

I bring up 3-D for a reason: Part I was suppose to be in 3rd Dimension, but the technical aspects couldn't be worked out by director David Yates in time for the premiere, so the idea was abandoned. I would argue they should never have attempted to make Part I (or Part II) 3-D in the first place, and I digress to say how vociferous I have been in my furious objection to having 3-D in any recent release. Whatever my problems with Avatar and James Cameron, to his credit he always intended Avatar to have been in 3-D: he conceived it, planned it, and executed it with that intent. All other recent films (Part I & II, Clash of the Titans, Despicable Me, Megamind, the upcoming Yogi Bear) were either hurriedly converted or shaped to merely cash in without much if any thought as to how the effect would work for the overall plot. The after-effects of this misguided idea are apparent in Part I: there are at least three moments when the planned 3-D effect was obvious, and when seen on the flat screen it's also apparent just how silly and pointless it all looks. When we see a snake for the first time leaping into the camera, when our Troubled Trio meets a ghostly figure lunging at them at a safehouse, when Bellatrix throws her wand at the fleeing group: it all looks so fake and dumb and such a waste.

Back to my original complaint. It's a sign of the chaos in Part I that I was completely unaware that two of Harry ex-girlfriends, Cho Chang (Katie Leung from Order of the Phoenix) and Padma Patil (Afshan Azad, first seen in Goblet of Fire but at least in all succeeding films) were even IN the film. I did recognize Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), but let's be honest: it was a cameo (and frankly, given the chaos going on about them, why would any student calmly go back to Hogwarts on the Hogwarts Express to begin with). Given that Longbottom actually had SOMETHING to do in Order of the Phoenix but nothing since, why was he even here for his thirty-second appearance is a mystery (unless, again, it's because it's important in Part II, which means Part I is again, just a trailer for something half a year away). Also mysterious is the sudden need to have wand-maker Ollivander (John Hurt) in the story, given we haven't seen him since The Sorcerer's Stone...SIX films ago. SIX, people. He hasn't shown up since the first movie, and now, NOW he shows up?

We also have the Sprawling story to contend with (again, adapted by Steve Kloves). What Part I is a series of searches, but we soon start getting searches within the searches. Ostensibly, the Trio are looking for the remaining horcruxes, but then they have to start searching for the Deathly Hallows. I started to wonder if the Deathly Hallows were also horcruxes, or were they needed to destroy the horcruxes (which I figure they weren't since the Sword of Gryffindor fit that description, although we needed to search for that as well). Soon, it becomes all a jumble as to what exactly they are suppose to be looking for, and the various searches take so long and take them so many places one soon starts forgetting where and when they are in the story. Near the end, when they go look for Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and her father Xenophilius (Rhys Ifans, and I digress to point out how I hate these elaborate names Sprawling Rowling gives her characters, although I suppose his name is to signify he is a Lover of Foreigners, unlike the Xenophobic Voldemort & Coven), I actually wondered out loud, 'Have they left The Shire yet?' When Ron returns after leaving the group, Hermione states that they've been wandering the forest for weeks. Weeks? I thought. Just how long IS this journey? I though it was a mere days, not weeks.

Given that the story was so sprawling and expansive, it's difficult to give a fair assessment of performances since the screen was dominated by the three leads (which gives me pause to wonder if my thoughts that the adults weren't all that necessary has proven accurate). With the exception of Grint, they were bland, blank, and boring. When Harry & Ron fight and Ron walks away from the quest, I didn't believe a bit of it; they hadn't fought because they'd reached a point where they couldn't tolerate each other anymore. They fought to give them something to do. Later, when Harry & Hermione dance in the tent (magically provided by her never-ending pursue), it all looked so mechanical, so forced, so glum and unhappy. There was no joy in their dance, and no rhyme or reason for it. The audience didn't think so: they were laughing at this point. While I figure this dance bit was done to lighten the heavy and dark mood of Part I, it didn't have that effect. Never have the three leads felt like puppets being pulled as opposed to real people. Watson, Ratcliffe, and even Grint did what they were told to do because they were told to do. Frankly, they all looked exhausted, as if they just want to get the film done and over with (don't blame them).

As stated, Rupert Grint, who has been the most consistently effective of the three, continues to delve deeper into the conflicts within Ron: his genuine love for Harry in conflict with his growing passion for Hermione coupled with his own fears for himself and his family. When he travels with Harry & Hermione, Grint manages to show how Ron is spent both physically and emotionally with his eyes and face as well as mixing in a strong anger and jealousy at his perception of a romance between his best friends. Sometimes it can get a bit silly: when we get to the horcrux, the imagery Ron sees borders on pornographic. I was taken aback at how that moment pushed the boundary of 'children's entertainment', and if you see it, you'll know why I say it put the 'whore' in 'horcrux'.

As for the adults, Fiennes was still all breathy delivery as Baldy-mort. Bonham Carter clearly relishes being a villainness, and her Bellatrix is one of the better performances: she looks delightfully deranged. However, they are they exception. Given that the adults from various other Potter films pop in and out so quickly, one can't accurately gauge their performances for brief appearances. The fact that house elf Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones and last seen in Chamber of Secrets) gave the most emotionally compelling performance should tell you where most of the characters (and the actors who portrayed them) fit into the scheme of things.

There ARE good things in Part I. The animation for the telling of The Story of Three Brothers (telling us how the Deathly Hallows came to be) is remarkably beautiful (and sadly, a far better and more interesting story than Part I overall). It was reminiscent of shadow puppets, and it was far more unique than recent animation, which made it more spellbinding (no pun intended). There was also some very good camera work in the final chase in the forest before the Trio are captured and taken to the Malfoy's lair. Part I may also be the first (and only) film to show the Dursleys in even the slightest sympathetic light; again, given they disappeared within the first seven minutes at the most, it's hard to say, but it is the first time Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley aren't abusing Harry in one form or another. They actually look...sad.

There is a strong undercurrent of the struggle between multiculturalism and Aryan/Nazism in Part I. The obsession Voldemort & his crew have about the purity of the blood is very Nazi-like, as are the uniforms worn by guards at the Ministry of Magic (which looked like SS or SA outfits). When Hermione has the word 'mudblood' appear on her arm, it brought to mind memories of concentration camp prisoners tattooed with numbers on their arms. Whether Rowling or the filmmakers made this a deliberate part of Part I or whether it just grew out of the story I have no way of knowing. However, it does indicate that there is a deeper story itching to get out, but unfortunately Part I drowned in so much searching high and low for various things that it we could only get inferences from what was on the screen.

I have two points of logic from Part I. Assuming that Draco (Felton, unfortunately underused) really didn't recognize Harry after Hermione altered his appearance somewhat, wouldn't he have easily recognized Hermione and Ron? Am I suppose to guess that Draco (who always appeared conflicted about being part of the coven) was secretly working in his own way to save the Trio? Will all this play out in Part II? Second, how is it that Dobby can easily find a way in and out of the Malfoy's lair? This last one is another one of those Deus Ex Machinations Rowling simply can't live without. It would be a Harry Potter film without something suddenly popping in out of thin air to save our heroes (as oppose to having our heroes actually DO anything to get themselves out of their scrapes).
It's sad that a series I was starting to slowly embrace has so quickly pushed me away. My mind started wandering more that our Trio. I started writing verse to match Jo's work. Here it a rough draft:
History will not record/The Darkest Deeds of The Dark Lord
The Pure in Heart cannot perceive/The Weak of Mind, so easy to deceive
The wicked work of the Family Malfoy/United in their love to kill and destroy
First draft folks. Part I is an unhappy production: bored performances, quick cameos that didn't add much if anything, a massive story that really tells very little, and endless scenes of nothing going on. In the end, I found that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I was more Deathly Hollow.
DECISION: D+

Friday, November 26, 2010

Big Blue Something



MEGAMIND

Here's a pitch for an animated movie: There's a super-villain who's really a softy at heart, and he fights against an even more despicable villain to save the day. Sounds familiar, you say? Seen it before, you say? Well, see it again but different.

The use of the word 'despicable' is deliberate, since Megamind has more than a passing similarity in plot to Despicable Me, another animated feature with 3-D aspirations where the bad guy is really a good guy. They are even similar in that both have rather large body parts: Despicable Me's Gru had a large nose, the titular character from Megamind a large head. They, even more surprisingly, have minions called 'Minions', with the exception that in the former, there are many while in the latter there is only one...who is named Minion. The fact that two animated films with a similar plot being released the same year shouldn't be a surprise: Hollywood is if nothing else, repetitive (need we remember they released Armageddon AND Deep Impact--aka the meteor hitting the Earth movies, and both Volcano AND Dante's Peak---aka the volcanoes erupting and causing chaos movies, the same year). Therefore, between Megamind and Despicable Me one is rather spoiled for choice.

We start with the destruction of two worlds, each of which has one child put on a spaceship and sent to Earth. On one planet, we have the future Megamind (Will Ferrell), a baby with a fish companion who will become Minion (David Cross). On another, we see the future Metro Man (Brad Pitt), a more humanoid-looking child. Metro lands in a home of wealth and privilege, while Mega lands in prison. We get to see their upbringing: at their school (which Megamind pronounces as sch-ool) the cocky, overly confident Mega is the idol of his classmates, while Mega is literally the last boy picked. Deciding that it's his destiny to be Metro Man's arch-nemesis, he decides to turn to a life of supervillainny. We then have a montage of newspapers showcasing how inevitably Megamind fails in his efforts, and then to the dedication of a Metro Man Museum. Being a master villain, Megamind does what he always does: kidnap Metro Man's erstwhile girlfriend, reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) and sabotages the dedication. Metro Man attempts to come to the rescue, but somehow, Megamind and Minion (which would make them M & M, wouldn't it), bumble their way into permanently defeating Metro Man.

With Metro Man gone, Megamind can do as he wishes, and he does, for a while: a bit of stealing, painting the dome of Metro City (which he pronounces as metrocity) his trademark blue, but then he soon tires of his domination. Deciding he needs a hero foil, he creates one, accidentally investing Roxanne's nerdish cameraman with Metro Man's power, and he soon turns into Titan (Jonah Hill). While Mega and Minion train Titan, Mega begins romancing Roxanne while disguised as Megamind expert Bernard. Titan, far from being a hero, turns villainous after his own unrequited love for Roxanne is rejected. Now, it's up to Megamind to stop Titan.

While watching Megamind, I kept thinking how strange that he had no great powers himself. Unlike Metro Man, Megamind couldn't fly, couldn't melt things with his eyes: the only thing he had going was his ability to create gadgets. I didn't think this was a contest between a superhero and a criminal mastermind. It reminded me more a World Wrestling Entertainment match: two excessively flashy caricatures with silly costumes and theme music. I would say that neither Metro Man nor Megamind fit their traditional roles as hero and villain. Metro Man as a character was rather unpleasant: conceited, egocentric, self-absorbed. Megamind may have been inept, but it always seemed he KNEW he would fail because he apparently never had high goals or plans. True villains made sure to enslave the population and hold them in check: even Serena from Supergirl held the citizens in a police state. Once Megamind defeats Metro Man (in a rather horrifying way for small children), he really has nowhere to go.

As a film, Megamind is somewhat entertaining, though at times a bit too strong for small children. One thing I will take director Tom McGrath and co-writers Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons to task on is for the imagery. Granted, some of the visuals were brilliant: when Titan takes Roxanne to the highest tower in Metro City one felt as if one was close to falling. However, when Titan is attacking the city, the smoke rising in the horizon and the citizens walking in a daze away from the chaos over a bridge was to me far too reminiscent of New York City, September 11th, 2001. Whether this was a conscious decision or not I have no way of knowing, but for my mind it was all just a bit too much to accept for a children's film.

Certainly there are things that will fly over the little one's head: Ferrell doing a Marlon Brando impersonation (unless they have seen the original Superman: The Movie--which I think is doubtful, and even then Ferrell seemed to sound more like Don Corleone than Jor-El, but I digress) or in the training of Titan montage where it looks like they ripped off the Donkey Kong game. I figure these parts were created to appeal to their parents. Kids I figure will generally like the story (seeing Megamind as being actually a hero more than a villain might appeal to them, and certainly the colors and overall look of the film are at times almost beautiful).

I didn't understand some of the choices with the acting. I didn't understand why Ferrell had to mispronounce so many words. I don't know what the humor is in saying 'metrocity' rather than 'Metro City', or 'milan-coly' (which confused the people behind me until they figured out he meant 'melancholy'). To her credit, I didn't recognize Fey's voice, and her Roxanne was more world weary about the constant and repetitive struggles between Mega and Metro. Pitt had the cockiness of a raging egomaniac (whether he drew from his life I leave up to the audience, although at times he sounded more like his fellow Sexiest Man Alive George Clooney--and even in looks he bore a strong resemblance to the worst Batman in history). In a curious twist, I recognized Hill's voice quickly, and it didn't seem to be a stretch from his more recent fare.

(Side note: I wonder if McGrath and Schoolcraft/Simons have a thing against education or just like puns. Besides Megamind's curious pronunciations, when Titan uses his laser eyes to change the city's name, he spells it 'Tightenville'. Are we to think all supervillains and aspirants to said title are basically illiterate? Just a thought).

Megamind is a harmless film, slight, with good visuals (though nothing that struck me as needing 3-D enhancement). It certainly wasn't serious, and I confess to laughing only once: when we saw the poster Mega created which was a parody of President Obama's campaign poster for "Hope" (or was it "Change", I can't remember--it's been so long since the election). Those touches were intelligent. I knock points for the 9/11 subtext (which was offputting for me) as well as what seemed to me a slight diss on the Shroud of Turin (Metro Man's cape having his DNA which will be the source of the future Titan's power). Still, it was suppose to be light and basically harmless...not unlike Megamind himself. He's neither villain or hero...just a little boy blue.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cash And Carried Away



INSIDE JOB


One watches Inside Job, the documentary about the economic crisis of 2008, with a certain disbelief; it seems absolutely incredible that people with Master's and Doctorates in Economics, those who are suppose to be captains of industry, could have been so utterly foolish, downright deranged, about how their actions were bringing about their own destruction. It brings to mind a saying my mother has: translated from Spanish, it goes something like, "You are so smart that you're dumb". In short, one may have a great deal of knowledge about how things work, but you don't ever apply it to reality.

Charles Ferguson's film starts us in Iceland, a wonderful little country that was doing rather well, until deregulation came, allowing the corporations and the banks to rape the land (which is what they always do) and take people's money to do as they wished. The collusion between the banks and the government meant no one was watching the store and when the banks became insolvent, chaos erupted over the once peaceful (and once thoroughly regulated) land. We then shift to the United States, where Matt Damon narrates us the bizarre story of how banks decided to use their patron's money to create an unsustainable housing bubble that when it burst, took people's life savings, homes, and jobs...while those who walked away from it left with millions of dollars in compensation and those who created the situation (such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) are there to help clean it up. (Side note: it just hasn't been Larry Summers' year in film. Besides being one of the villains in Inside Job, he wasn't all that helpful as the Harvard President in The Social Network. He'll just have to cry on his money).

Director Ferguson and co-writers Chad Beck and Adam Bolt take us in Inside Job through five parts: How We Got Here, The Bubble 2000-2007, The Crisis, Accountability, and Where We Are Now. Unlike most 'documentary as advocacy films', Inside Job doesn't ask me to take the filmmaker's position and take action minus at the end where Damon tells us we don't need the same people who created the problem to try to fix it, strongly suggesting we get them out (whether in favor of someone like billionaire George Soros, unwitting madame Representative Barney Frank or former Governor/Hooker Solicitor Elliot Spitzer is not made clear, although all three were interviewed for the film to offer their perspective on the financial meltdown). Ferguson makes his case slowly but steadily: deregulation, starting under Reagan and right on down to even Obama, created an atmosphere in Wall Street where men starting grabbing the dough without a thought about what could happen in the future. The collusion between banks and the government, which turned a blind eye to the impending explosion, was a monster that fed itself until it teetered on collapse and needed rescuing by us taxpayers.

One aspect of Inside Job that came as a surprise was how academia was wrapped up in Big Bank's pocket. Studies extolling the virtues of whatever actions the banks were taking were made by educators, who in turn received high financial compensation. In basically is bribery by another name, but even after all the evidence is presented to those in charge, there is a total denial. John Campbell, the Chair at Harvard Business School, tells the interviewer he sees no conflict between consulting for private industries and teaching on the same subjects. He, in fairness, does see a conflict if a professor of medicine also worked as a consultant for a drug company.

The most fascinating thing about Inside Job is the sheer and massive amount of denial by everyone involved. No one appears to understand how any of this could have happened: those in the banking industry or the Federal Reserve or the federal government appear to live in what can be called reality. There is more than enough blame to go around, with the central cause being greed. One watching can't help laugh at some of the offbeat things being said by people who should know better.

Ferguson also did a good job explaining just how, bit by bit, through charts, the industry created the situation that eventually would nearly break the bank (pun intended). Such concepts as Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) and the Securitization Food Chain, while still a bit perplexing, become easy to follow thanks to the animation created. Ferguson, to his credit, trusts his audience to follow the money (pun intended) and show us where things started going wrong. He offers no real solutions (aside from casting off those in power who nurtured the situation to fruition), since providing the solutions would be the work of more than one man.

If I would find any fault with Inside Job, it's the digression it took in Part V: Where We Are Now. There was a lot of discussion about how we today are a more unequal society than in recent memory and how the Bush tax cuts are a source of said inequality (it wouldn't be a political documentary without slamming Bush, which is de rigueur). I figure Ferguson and Damon believe in a more equitable society, though I wonder HOW they would go about achieving a goal of having more people have the same amount of money. I kept thinking, 'Are they in favor of wealth distribution?' which is a deal-breaker for me. (I will change my view if multi-millionaire Matt Damon is willing to give some of his fortune to me, but I digress). It also struck me strange that the film would downplay Elliot Spitzer's sexcapades merely because he shares a similar worldview to Ferguson/Damon. It's OK that the Governor of New York was using his taxpayer funded salary to have sex with prostitutes with whom he wouldn't wear a condom (but would wear his socks): at least he wouldn't hire prostitutes AND use cocaine like those guys at Lehman Brothers. I'll be frank: I think a crime is a crime and don't distinguish between soliciting and theft.

Inside Job is a fine film: intelligent, direct, easy to follow. Information is vital if we are to avoid a repeat of the economic chaos that we lived through in 2008 (and which we are still being affected by). It's so true: the LOVE of money is the root of all evil, and Inside Job shows us how that is a most twisted love.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stuck In The Middle School With You

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID


I don't have negative memories of middle school. Granted, it may be because I have few memories of middle school: endless running at P.E., violin concerts, Christmas shows (they were still called 'Christmas shows' back then). However, since I knew most of the people in middle school from elementary, there wasn't this gigantic shift between the two points. My, how things have changed, at least that's what I gather from Diary of A Wimpy Kid, the film based on the wildly popular book series by Jeff Kinney. Middle school now is fraught with dangers ranging from spoiled cheese to spoiled kids.

Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is forever confident of his own genius. As one of the great beings of the late Twentieth Century, he finds the entire concept of middle school to be the most idiotic waste of his time, which could be better used having the world discover what a genius he is. Be that as it may, Greg, along with his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) do the best they can to navigate the lunacy that is middle school. Greg has to contend with the machinations of his evil older brother Roderick (Devon Bostick), the cluelessness of his parents (Rachel Harris and Steve Zahn), and the never ending frustrations of his schemes to get the recognition his genius entitles him to. It should be in athletics (in spite of not being able to use the wrestling he's seen on television to good use against guys or girls), and it should be as Safety Patrol commandant (even though he would let his best friend take the fall for his actions), and it should be as a cartoonist (even if his output may be a little too refined for the average middle schooler, which he's not), and it should be as the star of the school play (even if he is relegated to a chorus of trees).

Diary of A Wimpy Kid might be better called Diary of An Obnoxious, Self-Centered, Egomaniac Kid. Greg as a character is so unlikeable: he belittles everyone, has a highly-inflated opinion of himself, and treats everyone around him with a genuine contempt. His treatment of his best friend Rowley is especially mean. I think it's fair to say that Greg isn't an actual friend to Rowley. Rather, Greg is with him because Greg can dominate him so easily. In short, Greg is so mean we end up wanting him to FAIL merely to see his ego be brought down several pegs.

Nothing shows off our 'hero' to be so awful a person as when Rowley is stripped of his Safety Patrol status (although when Greg pushes Rowley to do something that injures him physically comes a close second). This would have been a good moment to show that Greg does genuinely care for/about Rowley, protests notwithstanding. However, his actions right up to the end make him to be a rather bad person. We can't ever sympathize or empathize with someone that shallow and narcissistic.

The humor of Diary of A Wimpy Kid comes from the cruelty Greg inflicts on those around him, especially Rowley, who seems to be made to be tortured and abused (sometimes physically) by his best friend. It makes watching the film hard when you stop to consider that Rowley is the only person Greg's age who holds him in high regard while Greg appears to have contempt for this basically sweet (albeit dimwitted) kid. It also comes from the fact that all of Greg's grandiose ideas of how to obtain the adoration he was born for always end up backfiring. Of course, we expect them to fail, so when they do, we end up not caring one way or the other.

Whatever incidents in Diary of A Wimpy Kid goes through aren't either original or funny. The two montages of Greg wrestling don't go anything. The Halloween sequence ended in the most predictable way (here's a hint: Zahn is waiting to ambush teenagers with a bucket of water, and one guess as to who gets it). Part of the problem with Diary of A Wimpy Kid may be that there are FOUR writers (Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs, and Jeff Judah) for one film, and it may be a case of too many cooks.

Perhaps the strangest choice in the film concerns Roderick. When we're first introduced to the older brother, he's emerging out of his garage rock band in a massive fog of smoke (which strongly suggests marijuana use in a kid's movie...an odd choice I thought). Later, through circumstances in the constant one-upmanship between Roderick and Greg, their mother discovers a magazine with a bikini-clad beauty on a motorbike which looked more Maxim or Lowrider than Playboy. What I got was that the suggestion that porn (or a facsimile thereof) was bad, but the suggestion of pot was OK. Further confusing things is Roderick's affection of referring to the mother by her first name. Is Susan his step-mother or natural mother? I didn't know where to stand.

The performances were nothing extraordinary. Gordon played Greg as if he were an adult trapped in a kid's body, and I'm going to figure that it the correct way of interpreting the role. However, it makes his rather harsh way with everyone, his mean-spirited nature, even more jarring. Capron's Rowley was a far better character and the film would have been more entertaining if he rather than the self-absorbed Greg were the center of the film. Capron both as a performer and a character is more like able than Gordon/Greg. One character I didn't understand was Karan Brar's Chirag Gupta. While it's a positive step to see more minorities in film, I didn't understand why this Indian-American child had to have an Indian accent. If that's from the original novel, I would be reluctant to have my child read it in the first place. I'll grant that Roderick as a character was one-note (forever cruel to Greg), so Bostick's performance was appropriately mean. Harris and even Zahn (an actor I simply have never warmed up to) are wasted in their tiny roles of clueless parents, but Zahn manages to make his clueless father even dumber than the usual characters Zahn plays.

Kids may love the Wimpy Kid series, and they actually be good. However, my diary is too full to include another entry (although, alas, there WILL be another one).

DECISION: D+

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Laughing On the Ledge



SAFETY LAST!

Very few films, let alone silent film, have iconic images that are almost instantly recognizable. Even though pre-sound pictures aren't popular now, the sight of Harold Lloyd hanging precariously from a clock in Safety Last! is as well-known as Gene Kelly on a lamppost in Singin' In the Rain, Marlon Brando petting a cat in The Godfather, or Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the ship in Titanic. While all those films and stars are still within the public consciousness, both Safety Last! and Harold Lloyd have been lost to time. Fortunately, the film itself still survives, and it is not just one of the best of the silent era but one of the funniest and most thrilling films in any period.

The Boy (Harold Lloyd) is headed off to the Big City to make a success for himself and make enough to marry The Girl (Mildred Davis) (names seem so unimportant to the story). The Boy (who, curiously enough, does have a name, that being 'Harold Lloyd') isn't a big hit. In fact, he's quite poor. It doesn't stop him from writing tall tales to The Girl about how he is a high level manager at the De Vore Department Store and from buying her things he can hardly afford. By all sorts of tricks and schemes does he manage to avoid both The Floorwalker (Westscott Clarke) and being fired.

Then, The Girl comes to town. Somehow, he manages to keep the ruse up and then discovers that the real manager will give $1,000 to anyone who can come up with a successful publicity stunt. Enter Harold Lloyd, who knows the perfect solution: get his friend/roommate The Pal (Bill Strother) to climb the side of the building to draw a giant crowd. The Pal agrees, but the day of the stunt The Law (Noah Young) manages to track The Pal down due to an earlier incident involving The Law and building climbing. The Boy, who has already proposed to The Girl, desperately needs the money, so he and The Pal hit on a solution: The Boy will climb the first two floors and The Pal will surreptitiously take his place to complete the climb. As it happens, The Law keeps chasing The Pal higher and higher, forcing The Boy to keep climbing higher and higher into greater and greater heights of danger and laughter.

There is simply so much genius in Safety Last! that it can't be singled out to the famous climbing scene. Few movies start out hilarious from the get-go, but Safety Last! does. We are given a scene with Lloyd behind bars, a noose hanging ominously behind him, a distraught mother and girlfriend by his side as all are accompanied by a priest. Within minutes we're given a clever and surprising twist that we just see that the tone of Safety Last! is going to be one of inventive comedic genius. We get laughter in just about every scene: Lloyd at his apartment, Lloyd on his way to work, his hijinks with a friend who happens to be a policeman, outsmarting The Floorwalker, him at work, him trying to keep up the act to The Girl, right down to when he has to climb a building to win the cash and The Girl.

The brilliance of everyone involved (from co-directors Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor to writers Taylor, Hal Roach, Tim Whelan, and an uncredited Lloyd) comes from the fact that the creative team trusts their audience to keep up with the plot. In fact, they not only don't dumb down the situations but actually put us a step or two ahead of the characters, therefore we already realize what is happening (and what will happen) before they do.

Another aspect as to what makes Safety Last! such a brilliant film is that the situations have a logic to them. It isn't slapstick where random occurrences come from nowhere to set up a joke. Rather, everything in the film makes sense; even though the situations themselves are rather outrageous, they follow a train of logic that is reasonable. For example, the situation between The Pal and The Law comes from what happened before the big stunt, so when we see where The Pal and The Law ultimately end up, it makes sense.

At the heart of the brilliance of Safety Last! (I digress to point out that I wrote the word 'brilliant' often in my notes while watching the film) is Harold Lloyd's performance. He represents the Everyman, the WASP in all of us who has middle-class aspirations. We can relate to him, a person who is a bit of a schemer but by no means cruel or self-interested. In fact, it's his desire to impress The Girl that brings him all his problems. We can relate to his work situation: the demanding customers, the pompous supervisors, the desire for upward mobility (no pun intended). It's the circumstances Lloyd is in and the reactions to them that pushes Safety Last! to a higher level of comedic brilliance (again, no pun intended). Harold Lloyd was such a physical performer that the sight gags come off funnier because he looks so mild-mannered with his glasses and straw hat.

Even the more gentle moments in the film are a comedy goldmine. Take for example when Harold purchases the chain to go with the pendant he has sent The Girl. To purchase the item, he has to use his entire paycheck, and as we see him pay bit by bit, we see the special meal he wants to buy disappear, bit by bit. It's a brilliant bit of editing that is far ahead of its time.

Of course, the highlight of Safety Last! is when poor Harold Lloyd, forced into circumstances beyond his control, is compelled to climb the building. We not only sense his frustration at having to do it in the first place, but we also see how each time he comes close to ending his (and our) ordeal, something will always come up to frustrated him. At every floor he is faced with one bizarre situation of some sort or another: everything from eager birds to violent dogs to sweet grandmothers telling him that it's dangerous to be climbing tall buildings. The tension keeps building and building (once more, no pun intended), and the audience is held in awe and fear and laughter wondering just how far he (and we) can go. It's again, that anticipation that makes Safety Last! just so unbelievably funny. Once it appears he's made it, WE see a potential pitfall (I really don't mean to write so many puns), but every time Lloyd appears close to it, something gets in the way. The film plays with our anticipation of what will happen, putting us on edge (sorry).

If I would find any flaw within Safety Last!, it would be with how both blacks and Jews are seen in the film. It isn't anywhere near The Birth of A Nation, but today how they appear on screen will be seen as (mercifully) dated. Fortunately, this is such a tiny part of the overall product that we can soon forgive this almost insignificant flaw.
It's a curious thing to my mind. Silent films are seen as dull, boring, almost pointless. Present-day comedies (such as Due Date, Killers, The Ugly Truth, What Happens In Vegas or any other movie with either Katherine Heigl or Ashton Kutcher) are seen as funny, even witty. In reality, (again, to my mind) most are formulaic, lazy, and terribly unfunny while the inventiveness of something like Safety Last! or The General is almost forgotten. In fact, modern audiences seem almost terrified of silent films because of their own prejudice. Still, being an optimistic person, I have full faith that Safety Last! will outlive the glut of idiocy that passes for romantic comedy or comedy in general. Everyone should follow Safety Last! (OK, this time pun intended).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Alas, Poor Laurence. The Purist Doth Protest Too Much: Hamlet (1948) Review



HAMLET (1948)

People have told me that I quote Shakespeare too much. I never thought that was a flaw but today, when 'text' and 'friend' are now verbs, I can see their point. I do not consider myself an intellectual, which is why I am always puzzled as to why these same people insist that Shakespeare is too grand for the everyday man. I find it pretty easy to follow what the characters are saying. It IS in English, after all.

A great proponent of The Bard was Sir Laurence Olivier, and in Hamlet, Olivier uses all his skills as both actor and director to create a moody, atmospheric version befitting the Melancholy Dane. His film version of the play has faced intense criticism for cutting a great deal of the text (more on that later). The final product itself serves as a fascinating introduction to both one of the great works of the stage as well as one of the greatest interpretations of the title character on film.

On the off-chance that you don't know the plot, it involves the Royal House of Denmark. King Hamlet has died, and his brother Claudius (Basil Sydney) has married the widow, Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) within a month of her husband's death. The Court rejoices, except for Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier), who is displeased that his mother appears to have forsaken his father (and himself). While he broods, guards have seen a ghostly figure walking the castle at night. They persuade Hamlet's friend Horatio (Norman Wooland) to have Hamlet speak to the specter. Hamlet discovers it is the Ghost of Hamlet Senior, who tells him Claudius murdered him and asks his son to avenge him. Hamlet begins his plot of vengeance by feigning insanity, even if that means pushing his naive love Ophelia (Jean Simmons) aside brutally. After Hamlet has a traveling acting troupe reenact the Old King's murder in front of Court, Claudius has Hamlet exiled to England, but a twist of fate brings him back. However, Hamlet's brutality of Ophelia along with his accidentally killing her father Polonius (Felix Aylmer) has driven HER mad. Her brother Laertes (Terence Morgan) seeks revenge, and as the saying goes, 'everyone dies in Shakespeare' (technically, this isn't true, but in this case, we do end with a lot of bodies).

Olivier opens up Hamlet to the possibilities of film with his brilliant camera work and Desmond Dickinson's cinematography. Olivier doesn't speak many of his monologues openly (including the famous To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy) but relies on voiceovers, as if we are allowed entry into Hamlet's mind. It brings a reality to those scenes because this is how we are when we have thoughts floating in our minds. Olivier doesn't limit this technique to his own scenes. When Hamlet comes to visit Ophelia after having seen The Ghost, she narrates the scene as we watch, and both Simmons' vocal performance and her and Olivier's visual acting makes the scene fascinating rather than repetitive. Whenever The Ghost is felt we hear a slowly beating heart and the camera moves slowly closer and closer, each movement matching the heart's beat. When we finally see The Ghost, it is a figure straight from a nightmare: the shadows and fog creating an otherworldly feeling to Hamlet.

The shadows, the fogs, the panning shots up and down staircases creates a very German Expressionist style to Hamlet, a dark, oppressive world that is slightly off-kilter, somewhere between barbarism and civilization. It never felt stage-bound but it was never realistic-looking either, and this is the brilliance of Hamlet. Olivier visually takes great advantage of the vastness of the sets, even using the empty spaces to great visual advantage, as when the Acting Troupe arrives seemingly out of nowhere with only joyful music to announce their arrival. A more haunting moment is when Ophelia finally succumbs to her insanity. We do not see her suicide but Gertrude in a voiceover tells us what happened. We do see her floating in the river, and the soft delivery of Herlie's monologue mixed with William Walton's score creates a tragic, mournful mood befitting the emotional destruction of a gentle soul, a true victim of the evil men do.

Olivier as director not only creates great imagery but also leads his cast to remarkable and beautiful performances. Aylmer's Polonious is a delight as a comic figure, foolish in his perceived wisdom. The same can be said for an early appearance of Peter Cushing as the foppish Osric, who creates the few comic relief moments. In his one scene as the Gravedigger, Stanley Holloway has a rustic wit to match Olivier's Mad Prince. The Players of the Play Within The Play (including future Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as the Player King) create performances in basically a silent play (with only Walton's score to serve as guide), yet while we miss one of my favorite lines from the play (when Getrude says that the Player Queen 'doth protest too much'), we really don't miss it since Olivier trusts the audience to keep up with the plot.

The women have the best performances (apart from the title role). Herlie's Gertrude is a remarkably loving and gentle woman, frightened for her son yet unaware of much of what is going on. She is both regal and motherly in Hamlet. However, it is Simmons' Ophelia that is the hallmark of the film. She brings the gentleness and innocence when we first see her, but when she becomes confused, then terrified, then heartbroken at Hamlet's rejection of her in the brutal Get Thee To A Nunnery scene, we see how both her spirit and mind become completely broken. When we see her for the last time, her wandering about the palace to the horrified sight of the King, the Queen, and her brother is that of a living ghost, totally within her own world yet realizing that she has gone mad. Simmons' performance is simply brilliant and will be the benchmark for any actress who dares tackle on the role.

Olivier was forty at the time he played a teenager, but his performance has a vitality and a fury along with his constant indecision and wavering. Herlie was twenty-eight when she played his mother, and the twelve year age difference, while noticeable, doesn't impeded their scenes together. Olivier does create an Oedipal overtone in Hamlet, especially when they are in her bedchamber, creating an almost frenzied thwarted love scene. Earlier, when Gertrude leaves Hamlet, she and her son kiss on the lips for a rather long time, making the scene strange and uncomfortable. As the center of the film, Olivier creates a man who truly cannot make up his mind, who is never sure when to take action or when to think things out. When we 'read' his mind in the To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy, his performance and direction give one the impression that somehow Hamlet himself is hovering between the worlds of the living and the dead, as if the fog is both within his mind and in the open air where his thoughts run. When he speaks as The Ghost, the soft, hushed, slow delivery makes the Ghost even more a frightful specter to the audience.

Now, on to the controversy. Olivier's Hamlet cut approximately two hours of the four hour play, and some of the most famous characters were completely absent, most noticeably Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. This is how I will answer that criticism: frankly, I didn't even notice their absence. It may not be a faithful, to the letter adaption of Shakespeare's play, but Olivier did instead create a brilliant psychological portrait of a confused 'young' man. It seems a silly argument to suggest that Olivier, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors and proponents, would create something that would somehow diminish one of the great plays. Ultimately, Hamlet creates an intense story of revenge and loss, and if one would prefer a more literal interpretation, there are other adaptations readily available. However, the performances and the magnificent imagery within Hamlet lift this version to being one of the greatest in cinema. Hamlet should not be criticized for not being a direct adaptation, but should be embraced as a great primer to Shakespeare, giving audiences both an appreciation for great acting and brilliant storytelling.

Hamlet is not quite a filmed version of the play, yet not quite a play itself; rather, it's a conscious mix of two styles that work brilliantly. I won't argue that 'the play's the thing, but Hamlet is the film that makes the play work as film.

DECISION: A+

1949 Best Picture: All The King's Men
Here are more Best Picture Winner reviews.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beware of Strangers In The Woody

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

If you've never been to Disneyland or Disney World, in the Tommorowland section there is a ride called The Carousel of Progress. It tells about how technology has evolved from the turn of the century until today. Ostensibly, you are moving from scene to scene, where we see the same family talking about how life has improved since the previous scene. I admit I enjoy that ride very much, but I got the similar feeling while watching You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger: I was watching a series of scenes flowing one after the other, with barely a connection between them, as if I were being rotated while in my seat.

We are in London, and the stories revolve around a group related only by family. You have Helena and Alfie (Gemma Jones and Anthony Hopkins). You have their daughter and son-in-law, Sally and Roy (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin). Into the mix you have Sally's lust interest, Greg (Antonio Banderas), who is her boss at the art gallery she works at, and you have Roy's lust interest, Dia (Freida Pinto) a beautiful musician who lives next door or thereabout, at least far enough to let us get a looksy through the window. Now, Alfie is going through a post-middle life crisis--he's divorced Helena, started working out feverishly, got a hot new car, and is now with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a girl near Sally's age who dresses like a hooker...because she is a hooker, who at least now has moved up to plain gold digger. To cope, Helena goes to quack psychic Cristal (Pauline Collins), who helps Helena cope with all her troubles and gives her advice on not just her life but on her family's as well. Roy, who's written one successful novel but has dried out creatively since, not only pursues Dia with abandon but steals a far better novel from a poker buddy who is in a coma, while Sally never consummates her desire for Greg because, even though he's married, Greg begins an affair with the artist friend she introduced him too. All this is told by narration by Zak Orth accompanied by a uptempo jazz/Dixieland score which should indicate it's a comedy. Unfortunately, it's one bereft of laughter.

Frankly, the narration (which sound like it was spoken by a nicer-sounding David Sedaris--I should point out how much I DETEST David Sedaris, so that isn't a compliment), always got in the way. Allen, it seems, doesn't trust the audience to be able to follow the story of who's zooming whom. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger doesn't work because Allen doesn't seem to populate his plays with real people. In fact, throughout the film, it looked as if we were watching a filmed play rather than a film itself. He hits things that either he or other writer/directors have already hit: the old man with a younger woman, that younger woman as a tramp, the beautiful woman across the way. Nothing seemed original or interesting.

The acting was at times embarrassing. Hopkins was attempting to do a Woody Allen impression, but the scene where he's waiting for the Viagra to kick in was painful to watch, almost sad. The same goes for Punch as the hooker with the heart of brass. Her coarseness wasn't funny, there was nothing endearing about her vapid nature. Brolin didn't come off as a charmer because he was always so cranky. It seems unbelievable that Dia would fall for him. Then again, Pinto is remarkably flat and dull in every scene she is in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. When she tells her parents and her fiancee's family she's ending the engagement no one on screen appears to be genuinely upset or angry. Pinto herself seems disengaged (no pun intended) from anything going on. Worse off, she actually appears physically unattractive at times--something that appears impossible on the surface but which Allen somehow accomplishes. It may be due to his decision to always have her wear red. She might as well been labeled The Lady In Red (in fact, I wonder if he took part of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger from that film). From the very beginning, when Helena goes for her first consultation with Cristal, it appeared as if the people on screen were 'acting' as opposed to 'being', and while you have a collection of relatively good actors, the material could never hold up. The fact that the Greg & Sally subplot went nowhere to the point where it was superfluous and thrown in just to give Banderas a chance to appear is an indication of how weak Woody Allen's script is.

Certain decision by Allen/the characters made no sense. If I were told that someone had been watching me constantly from their window I would not be flattered: I would find that creepy. However, Dia seems curiously unaware of how bizarre it is to be told that a man you've never met has been watching your every move. Roy, almost always angry (and few actors do angry as well as Young Brolin), never bothered to check WHICH of his poker buddies had actually been killed and which ones were still in a coma? You would think Roy would have gone to the funeral of the one that died, but apparently he didn't, otherwise he would have known that the man who survived (and who could come out of the coma) was the one he had plagiarised. Again, another subplot that went nowhere, along with Helena's new romance with a New Age bookshop owner.

All these stories should or could have been connected by the framing device of the false psychic, but Collins (who probably gave the only real good performance in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger) was not a major part of the film. In fact, her presence wasn't even necessary. Helena could easily have gone to a therapist (although from what I understand, she'd already been to several to deal with Alfie walking out on her). Also, given how Alfie and Charmaine met, it is AMAZING that she would ask him what kind of woman he thought she was, especially after he caught her with one of his fellow (and younger) gym members on top of her. There's a scene between the three of them where they do literally pull their punches.

I also go back to Allen's script. In the last scene between Banderas and Watts (who like most everyone, seemed detached from whatever character he/she was playing) it looked and sounded as if they were speaking two different conversations, and not to each other. Sally was all but BEGGING Greg for sex (and given that it's Antonio Banderas, that seems like what a lot of women would do), but he didn't seem to be hearing either the subtext or the actual words, prattling on instead about the new woman in his life. It's this kind of detachment: from the performances to the story to the directing, that sinks the film to where it doesn't work as either comedy or drama.

That seems an apt description of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger...a film that tried to be a comedy but where the jokes (if any) are obvious and uninteresting, where the acting was almost all around flat, where the narration was pointless, where the music was at odds with the story, and where we don't care either about any of the characters or what happens to them. I say to Woody: get back to being funny, or at least meet us halfway.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Past Expiration


DUE DATE

It's the strange thing about Due Date; rather than make me laugh, it makes me quite defensive about NOT having laughed. A film like this releases a feeling within me that I have to somehow justify that I found nothing in it to recommend. Yes, I know many people in the audience found all the antics hilarious. However, I didn't (save one), and because I wasn't laughing I get the sense that people will say that I have no sense of humor. I could provide evidence to the contrary (see my reviews for The Hangover and I Love You, Man), but that won't satisfy certain people. They think jokes about infidelity, masturbation, quasi-cannibalism are great, and so when I don't, I've all of a sudden lost my ability to see the funny side of life. Well, I will take it upon myself to present my case against Due Date (which is what a review really is anyway).

Due Date, I've been told, is a bit like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Not having seen that film, I can neither verify or deny the comparisons, but if it has more than a passing similarity, it may mean that people are truly running out of ideas. High-strung architect Peter Highman (Robert Downey, Jr.) and aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) are on their way from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the former to be with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) when she gives birth to their child, the latter for an audition. In what is called a plot device, both of them get thrown off the plane due to suspicions of terrorism and placed on the No-Flight List. Peter has no money and no ID, so in another plot device sees no option but to join Ethan since he is 'going his way' (more on whether Peter HAD to go with him later). Hilarity and hijinks ensues as this odd couple tour America, and among the highlights are 'medicinal' marijuana, a horrifying car crash, suspicions of adultery between Peter's wife and his best friend Darryl (Jamie Foxx), Ethan's father's ashes, an unplanned side trip to Mexico, punching kids, getting shot, and masturbating dogs. Yes, masturbating dogs...and masturbating humans. Mixed in with all this are gentle moments of fathers and fathers-to-be, loss and mourning.

It's par for the course that risqué comedies will have gentle moments almost as a way to justify the more raunchy moments. In the right hands, that balance can make the film a sharp, delightful romp (cases in point, I Love You, Man; The 40-Year-Old Virgin) Due Date puts them in so that we can like the characters, but the problem is that we can't because both of them are so unlikeable and at times downright stupid. I figure the comedy comes from the brutality and stupidity the characters either go through or inflict on others. Ethan, with the exceptions of a few moments, goes beyond being clueless or annoying--he's obnoxious and even mean-spirited. There's a scene when he channels genuine loss about the death of his father, but then when Peter reveals a painful moment between himself and his father, all Ethan can do is laugh uncontrollably. There's an inbalance between how we're asked to think of Ethan and how Ethan behaves in his selfishness, his egocentrism, and his thoughtlessness that you can't ever really take him to heart. Late in Due Date, we get a revelation that not only comes straight out of left field, but makes Ethan a truly heartless person, one a sane character (or for that matter, a REAL person), run away from him at all costs. Galifianakis does a decent job with Ethan, but one never truly likes him as a character, and he doesn't give him much sense or likeability for us to want to spend a whole cross-country trip with him.

The same can be said about Peter. He's always a tick away from going postal. Granted, Downey, Jr. shows us the bubbling anger that Peter constantly suppresses (no matter how many times he is physically abused and assaulted), but throughout Due Date I kept wondering if he's an architect, how can he be so dumb. Four writers (Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel, and director Todd Phillips from a story by Cohen and Freedland) created a series of scenarios that went from dumb to almost sadistic. There are so many points of logic that I wondered why these two would join forces or even become friends (other than that's what the script told them to do). Take the Darryl sequence (side note: Jamie Foxx not only did NOT add anything to the overall story except a respite from driving, but gave a nothing performance--perfect for a nothing role). I thought to myself, 'If Darryl is Peter's friend, why didn't Peter ask for his help in Atlanta by sending someone for him (being a football star, he could afford it) or going there himself? At the very least, get Peter on a train in Dallas to Los Angeles to get away from Ethan--problem solved'. Of course, another Golden Rule of Film-Making is Characters Will Never Do The Logical Thing Because The Film Would Then Be Over. If that isn't enough, Ethan introduces the suggestion that Darryl and Sarah (Peter's wife) are not only more than friends but that it's Darryl who should be rushing to L.A. That suggestion to me was completely unnecessary because it ended up being a massive set-up for the quickest (and most useless) joke in film history with no payoff whatsoever. The side trip to Mexico also seemed to be thrown in to stretch the film, as did a scene at a Western Union that involved a paralyzed Iraq Intervention vet brutally assaulting Peter while Ethan watches in a state of confusion. I wondered why didn't they just take turns driving instead of leaving all the driving to a nearly deranged character like Ethan.

So much about Due Date is predictable: you should know where things are going to go. When Ethan is at the Grand Canyon ready to spread his father's ashes (which are kept in a coffee can because it makes sense to Ethan), it was extremely sentimental...but I kept wondering how long it would take them to squash this sentimental moment. Didn't take too long. You can pretty much predict what is going to happen, and by the end, both Ethan and Peter have so annoyed you one doesn't want to spend any time with them.

I think that I missed out on a lot of humor because I don't watch a lot of television. For example, I've never seen Eastbound & Down, so I would fail to comprehend the harsh/mean humor of Western Union employee/angry Iraq Intervention vet Lonnie (Danny McBride). I know OF it, and perhaps the majority of the audience loves his work (and it and the show might be good)--but for those of us who've never seen it, we might be a little lost. The same comes from Two & A Half Men. This is the show Ethan is desperate to be on (and being a movie, one guess at to how it ends). Now, I've HEARD of it, but I've never seen an episode bar one time when I caught the last minute or two. In it, Charlie Sheen's character (who, curiously, is named Charlie) is in bed with a young girl. We discover she's related to him somehow, and he finds that one bridge too far for him to screw her like he does others. A couple of character overhear this, and are thrilled that "incest is the one boundary he won't cross" (cue laughter). I watched just that and thought, 'Did they just make a joke about INCEST? This is standard sitcom fare?' If people find things like THAT funny, I can see why Due Date would be a hit.

As a side note, the bigger problem is that Ethan doesn't come off as a serious actor, but more an obsessed fan of Two & A Half Men (he'd even set up a website for it). He doesn't appear to do anything other than make a guest spot (not even try to be a regular). If that's the case, all the talk about him being an 'actor' is just a waste...not unlike Due Date itself.

Much of the humor falls flat, is violent, and you even have a few bad puns. The characters en masse are either pointless or so horrible you wouldn't want to be near them, let alone want them around. After all Ethan has done TO Peter, it stretches belief that he'd want to be friends with him. I now feel sorry for Michelle Monaghan--every comedy she's in somehow ends up being hideous (case in point, Made of Honor). It is another case of very talented people in a very bad film. Due Date is a film built for the highway to Hell.

DECISION: F

A Lost Girl In A Lost World

 DIARY OF A LOST GIRL

Technically, Diary of A Lost Girl is a foreign film, but as I've stated before, one of the glories of silent film is that they truly are universal films: only the intertitles need to be changed, in this case from German. The fact that it is European and Pre-Code signal that what might be considered unacceptable in future American features could be tackled more frankly and openly; however, Diary of A Lost Girl isn't explicit but at times is suggestive of certain plot points, which only enhances the film.

Thymian (Louise Brooks) is the innocent daughter of Robert Hemming (Joseph Rovensky), a pharmacist who is a serial adulterer, knocking up the governesses with reckless abandon. She is presented a diary where she writes her tale. Since Thymian is purity personified, this only excites Meinert (Fritz Rasp), the druggist assistant who seduces her and in turn knocks HER up. She refuses to name the father of her child, but her family gains access to her diary and discover the truth. Meinert, who now owns the pharmacy, is untouchable, so Thymian is sent away to a reform school. This is a brutal, cold place, where all is forbidden and the staff is uncaring and harsh.

Eventually, she and her friend Erika (Edith Meinhart) escape with the help of Thymian's friend/love interest Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne). Thymian discovers that her child is dead and her father has married the domineering governess Meta (Franziska Kinz), who has children of her own. Thymian finds Erika and Osdorff, who are both employees of a brothel run by a kindly-looking madam. Thymian becomes a prostitute herself, where she finds a semblance of happiness. Then, she finds her father, stepmother, and seducer go to the club where Thymian holds court and she feels sadness and shame. Three years later, her father dies and makes her his sole heir, to the delight of the Count who marries her. This is her chance to make a new life altogether, but she sees her stepmother and half-siblings, now destitute, and decides to give the money to them. The Count, upon learning this, commits suicide, leaving the new Countess a widow. The Count's uncle adopts Thymian as penance for having driven his nephew away, and she is invited to join the Society for Saving Young Girls, which runs the same institution she was once held in. All the memories of her time there, and the treatment the girls still receive, flood back, and she tells them the truth of who she was and what goes on there, and leaves. The Count joins her, telling the shocked ladies (and us), "With a little more love, no one on this earth would ever be lost".

A good eighty years after its premiere, Diary of A Lost Girl still has a heartbreaking emotional impact. Almost all the tragedy is expressed in Louise Brooks' face (always bringing to mind a line from Sunset Boulevard, "We had FACES"). She had a FACE--a beautiful face that communicated so much without dialogue. She projects an innocence throughout the film, from when we first see her right down to when she sees her sister may end up following her footsteps into a brothel or worse, the streets. Brooks' performance is gentle, projecting the kindness Thymian has and the disappointment that she has ended up selling herself.

Director G. W. Pabst shows us in little details what is going on. Take the beginning, when the governess is sent away. We aren't told anything, but just the sight of the baby clothes she has suggests that something untoward has occurred. We can also see Thymian's innocence just by how she is dressed: all in white and crown of flowers. Pabst also shows the lasciviousness of Meinert with the way he looks and looks at her, and in the actual seduction of Thymian is visually both quite gentle yet horrifying, as if the shock to her world was too great.

Diary of A Lost Girl depends a great deal on the visuals, and Pabst did a great job in casting. Rasp looks evil in his uncaring attitude, while Andrews Engelmann as the Reformatory Director looks almost ghoulish, especially in his introduction when he rises in front of the camera like a monster. It's a curious counterbalance that while the Matron of the Reformatory is a severe-looking woman in almost mannish garb the Madam of the Brothel is a plump, sweet-looking matronly-like woman right down to her pince-nez. In fact, the only true kindness Thymian is ever shown is within the halls of The House of Ill Repute.

Pabst is playing with expectations, and he does so brilliantly. Again, nothing is really seen: we don't see Thymian's deflowering nor when she first is paid for sex. All that is intimated, suggested, and we as the audience are smart enough to follow the plot without having everything explained to us. Pabst also shows himself as a master of transition, as when we again suggest the Count has jumped to his death. We go from the flowers on the floor to the flowers on his coffin with an ease and beauty that isn't found in most modern/sound/color films.

Diary of A Lost Girl isn't as sensational (especially today) as the title may suggest. However, it is a beautiful and tragic film about how people can abuse the innocent so cruelly, and how those who are abused may still maintain a kindness and dignity that more "respectable" people do not have. We have Lulu's beautiful and heartbreaking performance as Thymian, and a strong story that still holds up. When the Count gives his parting shot, it is obvious that he is speaking to the audience. We would be wise to follow his advise.

DECISION: A+

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Women of Tyler Perry's Place



FOR COLORED GIRLS

I come at For Colored Girls without a background on the original play by Ntozoke Shange or the emotional impact it has on African-American women. Therefore, I can't compare how the original play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf, is different from the film version. However, I can get enough from the film to see where the monologues went. On the whole, that is where things went wrong.

The film connects several stories of a group of disparate African-American women. There's successful magazine editor Jo (Janet, Miss Jackson if you're nasty). Her assistant Crystal (Kimberly Elise) lives in relative poverty in an apartment building. In this same building there is Tangie (Thandie Newton), a woman who lives for one-night stands, in another apartment her sister, aspiring dancer Nyla (Tessa Thompson) and their religious fanatic mother Alice (Whoopi Goldberg). The president of the building is Golda (Phylicia Rashad), who babysits Crystal's two children and keeps tabs on what's going on around. The same building also has the on/off boyfriend of nurse Juanita (Loretta Devine), and somewhere else is Nyla's dance instructor Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose). Finally, there's Kelly (Kerry Washington), a Child Welfare inspector who is looking into how Crystal's children are doing. Their lives are rather disparate throughout For Colored Girls but eventually all of them come together through their various connections and rather horrifying tragedies ranging from rape to murder. If I were to believe For Colored Girls, this is just the typical life of a black woman.

In For Colored Girls, almost all black men are destructive in some way to black women, ranging from Michael Ealy and Khalil Kain's abuser to Omari Hardwick and Richard Lawson's cheater (with Hill Harper being the only black man with any sense of decency). For the film adaptation, it took another black men to screw up the seminal work to African-American women: Tyler Perry. Perry has built his career on catering films toward the African-American market, and granted he does a good job in telling their stories. However, here, he shows that he hasn't mastered how to adapt work that he didn't write himself. I understand there were concerns that he would somehow weaken the Shange play (maybe even introduce his signature character of Madea into the mix). I argue that the problem with For Colored Girls is that on the contrary: he was too REVERENTIAL to the work.

Perry could have reshaped the play to work cinematically. From what I understand, the play is basically a series of monologues where women tell their tales (sometimes with words and dance) but are connected only at the end. He tried to shape all the stories to fit into one, but Perry decided to keep the monologues AS monologues, which brought the whole film down. You could tell when each character was speaking the words from the play (which I confess to never having seen), because it didn't sound like average speech and because only one person would speak. Devine's Juanita had THREE monologues, and while Perry made an effort to put it in some context (one of them was when she talks to the women she is teaching safe sex to), they never sounded like a person speaking.

Shange's words (which Perry adapted to the screen) are far too poetic to be passed off as everyday conversation. This works on the stage because there is greater freedom to be more expressive, more theatrical if you will. In a film, when a character is giving a long speech to no one (or when the other people around them don't ever speak) it looks and sounds forced. It reaches a nadir when Goldberg's Alice and Newton's Tangie finally confront each other. Both of them have monologues at the same time, and it becomes impossible to follow both of them, especially when Perry shifts between them. Neither sounds like they are speaking to each other. They both sound like they are delivering monologues straight from the play. Even in Macy Gray's one scene, it comes off as if she isn't speaking to Nyla but to a theater audience. Granted, she was suppose to be slightly drunk in the scene, but it still didn't sound or look real. Therein lies the main problem with For Colored Girls as a film: it didn't sound or look real, a problem which a stage production doesn't have because we can accept that it isn't real.

Other decisions Perry made in the adaptation were curious, most of all his camera work. There is a scene between Janet (Miss Jackson if you're nasty) and Omari Hardwick where while both are in the frame, the camera keeps shifting back and forth between them. When Janet speaks, Omari is out of focus, then when he speaks, he is in focus but Janet goes out of focus. It jumps back and forth, forth and back, again and again, to where it became so distracting. I thought, 'If Orson Welles could get two people in focus in Citizen Kane, why can't Tyler Perry?'

I think the actresses did the best they could with what they were given. Rashad didn't have much to do in For Colored Girls, but when she was on the screen she dominated it. A perfect moment was when she was babysitting Crystal's children, telling them a story about meeting her husband while trying to block out the noise of the abuse. Although she wasn't able to overcome Perry's blank direction when she had her monologue, she did an excellent job. Jackson was more restrained in her big moment, but for most of the time she came off as trying to do the black version of Miranda Priestly (The Janet Wears Prada, anyone?). Devine was a strong mix of drama and even what little comedy there was, and Rose has a beautiful and heartbreaking monologue after being violated.

As stated, almost all the men were rather brutal or harsh, but there were exceptions. Hardwick's Carl was mostly blank, and we got only the slightest hint that he was 'on the down low' (unfortunately, what could have been a great moment between him and Jackson was ruined by Perry's weak direction). Harper, being the only black man who would qualify as a real man, was for the most part wonderful, except when he has to interview Yasmine, when even though he's a police officer appears rather clueless about dealing with a traumatic experience she has endured. Goldberg handles herself rather well, except near the end, when as she screams "REPENT", she does go over-the-top.

Unfortunately, some of the effect of the acting didn't go over well. Although the screening I attended was sparse, I heard some laughing at Miss Jackson's monologue. I keep going back to that: ALL THOSE DAMN MONOLOGUES. Perry opted not to make a screenplay, and that made For Colored Girls not as good as it could or should be. The tone of the film was SO DARK and unhappy, sometimes it made Precious look like a romantic comedy. Perry didn't give us much if any hope that the various women will ever be happy or recover from some of the truly awful things that happened in their lives. Given that the men in their lives are almost all users and abusers, dangerous if not evil, it's no surprise.

For Colored Girls COULD have been good, COULD have been a great introduction to the original play, but Tyler Perry, in spite of having cornered the African-American market, still has a great deal to learn about adapting OTHER people's work to the screen. The fact that both the words and the delivery made it sound as if the film were more audition tapes for a revival of the play as opposed to an actual movie makes For Colored Girls less than the sum of its parts. In short, Color It Bland.