Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
There's an old song that starts, "What a difference a day makes/twenty-four little hours". That could have been the theme to Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, if that song had been popular in 1939. In the course of one amazing day, Miss Guinivere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) lives LIFE! She sees things and does things she's never done before and is swept up into a wild world that she had only heard faint rumors of: one of decadence, frivolity, and romance. The source material for the film, I'm told, was pretty risqué and outrageous for its time. The film itself, which having good moments (see picture above) never quite lives up to its billing.
It's the height of the Depression in Britain, and war looms ominously over that sceptered isle. Miss Pettigrew, nanny, has been made redundant (fired in American English). Her agency, tired of her constant dismissals, won't send her to anyone new. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. She takes the card for a new employer and goes to be interviewed. She appears at the home of one Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), American singer/actress who has a most complicated love life. She has been maintaining an affair with Phil (Tom Payne), a producer's son who could get her the lead in a West End show while living with Nick (Mark Strong), the owner of the nightclub she's been performing at, all while dealing with conflicting emotions about her pianist Michael (Lee Pace), who is passionately in love with her. Within minutes of her arrival, Miss Pettigrew finds herself rescuing Delysia from her own antics. Grateful for her help (and believing her to have been Carole Lombard's social secretary) Delysia accepts Miss Pettigrew as her new social secretary and sweeps her up into her world: one of fashion shows and fashionable nightclubs, where there are no soup kitchens but caviar all round.
In the course of one day, Miss Pettigrew gets a make-over, meets a dashing fashion designer named Joe (Ciarán Hinds), convinces Delysia who she should end up with (and if you can't guess who she chooses, you don't go to the movies much), and discovers the joys of life and love. Miss Pettigrew has all the elements for a light, inoffensive little comedy, but somewhere along the line it felt as if it got tired and bored by itself but decided to push on anyway.
I can't point to anything specific as to what went wrong because on paper, everything SHOULD work. However, things didn't quite gel as they should have. McDormand starts out fine as Miss Pettigrew but then I started wondering about WHY she had never lived. Was it her poverty or her religious upbringing or a combination or neither. She wasn't completely convincing as a suppressed prude. Lee Pace, whom I shall always harbor a slight dislike due to Pushing Daisies (a show I HATED from the get-go), is excellent as Michael as is his British accent. Mark Strong, who has had a bad run of films in recent years (Body of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass) surprised me in his small role: he was actually able to do comedy and do it well.
The real star is Adams. She is delightful as Delysia (love the name): she is for most of the film a flighty, self-absorbed creature who is nonetheless delightful and sparkling. When she relates to Pettigrew that she was in the film Four's A Crowd with Errol Flynn, Pettigrew, a big film fan, is thrilled. "Which part were you?" she asks. Without missing a beat, Delysia responds quite innocently and nonchalantly, "The crowd". However, near the end of the film, as she struggles between fulfilling her dreams of stardom via the West End show Pile On The Pepper and following Michael back to America, we see the giddy mask drop slightly. We see a hardness to her, a determination to succeed and not be left out in the dark. Her talk with Pettigrew as they head for the nightclub for her Farewell Performance shows what range Adams has.
Bharat Nalluri directed things well, but I think the failure comes from the adaptation of Winifred Watson's novel by David Magee and future Academy Award-winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire). Given that they only had one day to get everything done, at times it felt oddly slow and at times as if they were trying to throw EVERYTHING they could think of into the story. Miss Pettigrew just goes along with all the wild goings-on but even though the film is centered around her we don't ever get a glimpse into her worldview or her feelings on the madness she finds herself surrounded by. Her romance with Joe just seemes tacked on, even though I believe it was a major part of the novel (not having read it, I'm in no position to say that for certain). At the end, when Delysia makes her choice, I felt the audience at the club applauding at the kiss was just far too clichéd to believe. Charm and lightness can only go so far, and while Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day has both, it doesn't have them in enough measures to carry the film all the way through. It's amazing that even though it was only 92 minutes long, it felt A.) far longer than that and B.) telling less in that amount.
It isn't offensive, it isn't bad, but it isn't all that interesting. I'm glad Miss Pettigrew lived for a day. I just wish she'd lived through a faster and more interesting day.
Monday, April 26, 2010
With The Eleventh Hour having premiered, I thought I'd take a few moments to examine a particular brand of Doctor Who story: the regeneration story. When The Doctor faces a particularly dangerous life-threatening situation (one where he could quite literally die), as a Time Lord, he is able to survive by "regenerating", or taking on another body altogether while still being The Doctor. As I understand, a Time Lord is able to do this, but it's been established that this can happen only twelve times. As it stands, the Doctor has regenerated TEN times, so he has only two left. Be that as it may, the first story of a new Doctor is always an exciting thing: not only is this the debut for a new actor to take on the role, but it also seems to set the mood for said actor's entire run. We're being introduced to his interpretation of the role, and as is true in life, first impressions are so important.
As it stands, TECHNICALLY there have been only NINE regeneration stories. The First Doctor didn't need a regeneration story since, as he explained in The Five Doctors, he's "The Doctor; the original, you might say". Curiously, the Ninth Doctor didn't have a regeneration story, probably for the same reason as the First. Since it was a relaunch of the series, it might have confused first-time audiences to see a new character just coming into being. It's hinted that he's a new version (Doctor 9.0, you might say), but we just have to take it on faith that he has already gone through this change, more than likely from the Time War that destroyed his home world of Gallifrey (which I still refuse to acknowledge). Therefore, we have Doctors Two-Eight, then Tenth & Eleventh, given proper debut stories.
The Eleventh Hour made me think: which one was the best (and conversely, the worse)? At the moment, all the regeneration stories save the lost story The Power of the Daleks (from Doctors One to Two), Time and The Rani (Doctors Six to Seven) and Doctor Who: The Movie (aka The Enemy Within, from Seven to Eight) have been released as of this writing. I think it might be instructive to look over the past and examine them, to look back and learn from how things were and how things went.
In order, they are The Power of the Daleks, Spearhead From Space, Robot, Castrovalva, The Twin Dilemma, Time and The Rani, Doctor Who: The Movie (The Enemy Within), The Christmas Invasion, and The Eleventh Hour. Here is how I've ranked them from worst to best (not including The Eleventh Hour):
- The Twin Dilemma
- Time and The Rani
- Doctor Who: The Movie (The Enemy Within)
- The Christmas Invasion
- Spearhead From Space
- The Power of the Daleks
Now, how did I come about to these conclusions? The Twin Dilemma is at the bottom because it is recognized as one of the WORST stories in Doctor Who, period. Doctor Who Magazine readers ranked it at the very bottom of the list, and I won't argue that it isn't very good, especially for a debut story (more on that another time) but I can't say it's the WORST of all time (more on that another time as well). Robot, to my mind, felt a little out of place, as if they were trying to horn in Jon Pertwee's Doctor into how Tom Baker's interpretation was going to be. It just may be that Baker looked odd and a little ill at ease riding around Bessie, the car that was such a prominent feature in the Third Doctor's story. Although Terrance Dicks (one of my favorite Who writers) wrote the story, I think the overall effect failed (maybe because the special effects weren't the most convincing). It is curious that while Robot was not the best way to introduce the longest-serving Doctor (to date), the following story, The Ark In Space, is brilliant and I think would have been a better debut story.
Time and The Rani suffers from the bad feelings that brought about the regeneration in the first place: Colin Baker basically being fired from the role and made the fall guy for dropping ratings when (minus that frightful outfit) he did the very best he could under extremely difficult circumstances. Also, the fact that The Rani could NOT have fooled anyone into thinking she was the Doctor's companion Mel Bushman just doesn't seem to work. DW: TM had the advantage of better effects and a new location (San Francisco), but the story ultimately doesn't do as well as it could have. In fact, the bigger budget and the first half push it above average.
Castrovalva has the benefits of going for a wild world where the sets all seem to fall into each other, not unlike the M.C. Escher paintings that inspired it. The visuals, while not brilliant, were daring and inventive for its time. It also, more than any other regeneration story that I know of, is conscious of the fact that The Doctor has had other versions of himself in what he says and does early on before establishing his own persona. The Christmas Invasion is technically brilliant, with first-rate performances, but it has the flaw (to me) of shifting to a more dark interpretation of The Doctor, and it does throw in an anti-Bush jab that I didn't care for (not because I'm pro-Bush but because I'm not fond of having fictional programs take sides in political issues whether on the right or left). That, and the fact that a British Christmas has nothing to do with Christ creates a problem for me. While not denying its strength, its weaknesses leave it from achieving the top spot.
Spearhead From Space is the first Doctor Who story made in color and on film: two pluses in my book. It also introduces the Autons, one of the best and most brilliant monsters in Doctor Who, right up there with the Daleks and Cybermen. The scene where they come to life to terrorize the city works brilliantly here, as it does when they made their return in the first Doctor Who story of the revived series, Rose. The winner, however, has to be The Power of the Daleks. Yes, it is a lost story: no complete episodes from this six episode story are known to exist. However, what makes it the BEST regeneration story is the fact that it's the FIRST regeneration story. Troughton had the unenviable job of having to convince viewers that he WAS the Doctor, even if he didn't look like William Hartnell. Troughton established for all future Doctors that he could create his own interpretation to the role and that one wasn't limited to how the previous fellow had done it. The Power of the Daleks set the standard for all regeneration stories, and for that, it is the Best Regeneration Story.
Now, what about The Eleventh Hour? Where does it stand? Well, the story is good though not great, moves well, has two compelling and competent leads. It also has the benefit of being slightly lighter in tone than its predecessor, so it gets points for that. In the final analysis, here is the revised rankings (again from worst to best):
- The Twin Dilemma
- Time and The Rani
- Doctor Who: The Movie (The Enemy Within)
- The Christmas Invasion
- The Eleventh Hour
- Spearhead From Space
- The Power of The Daleks
It is a comfort that there will be two more regeneration stories (at least), so it may be revised yet again. Perhaps in time I shall reconsider my views and shift them. Who Knows...Only Time Lords will tell. Sorry--couldn't help myself.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
In the final analysis, the only true thing in Kick-Ass is how grotesque society has become. When K-A is rescuing the man being beaten by a mob, he tells an onlooker to call 9-1-1. It's curious that in the film no one did. They were too busy videotaping the fight to do anything to stop it or call for rescue or the authorities. Kick-Ass ISN'T about superheroes, because none of them ARE superheroes. They are vigilantes, K-A more comedic perhaps, but certainly those who believe killing people because they are "bad guys" justifies having little girls blow people's brains out. There's nothing super in Kick-Ass. The only thing it has is a collection of asses.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Troy Gable (Hanks) has reached a crisis point in his life. Pushed into going into law school, he finds himself in total misery. He quits school to pursue his dream of being a writer but finding himself in need of a job, he accepts the job of road manager to mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich), who is always referred to as "The Great" Buck Howard due to Johnny Carson having named him so after one of his 61 appearances on The Tonight Show when Carson was the host. Howard has hit a low point in his career: instead of The Tonight Show he plays small theaters around the country but is secretly planning a comeback (or should I say, A Return) that will put him back in the spotlight he believes he rightly deserves. Gable endures Howard's erratic temper and raging ego as Howard sets his plan into motion: in Cincinnati (he has a large following in Ohio) Howard will hypnotize 300 people if memory serves correct and then bringing them back as if from a sound sleep. While the stunt is a success the coverage is a disaster, and Howard blames junior publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) and Troy. Valerie retaliates by giving Howard a scathing pre-release article about him. The shocks of his stunt and the article cause Howard to collapse, but this is a good thing: the ensuing publicity puts him back on top. After making the rounds on other shows, he achieves his goal: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That, however, also turns into a disaster, and Howard agrees to go to Las Vegas. There, his signature act (finding his fee hidden among the audience using only his mental powers) fails for the first time, and his long-hoped for comeback ends. Eventually, Troy and Buck part ways, but they reunite when Troy goes to see Howard's show in a small theater. There, Buck shows his former road manager, metaphorically, that the magic is back.
The Great Buck Howard reminded me of the brilliant Sunset Boulevard, not in terms of cinematic achievement but in subject matter. Both are about major stars who don't realize that their time has passed, but while Sunset's Norma Desmond retreats from reality Buck Howard merely ignores it. Howard is totally self-absorbed to the point where he's oblivious to anything and everything that isn't Buck Howard-related. Howard is completely clueless about the world: when told that Valerie has set up an interview with "an Internet columnist" Howard is clearly frustrated. "You see, I don't even know that paper" he responds sincerely, almost innocently. He also is completely unaware of what exactly his good friend George Takei worked on. When singing What the World Need Now as part of his act, Howard pauses to say, "George, may The Force be in you". When the Cincinnati press rushes out of his comeback act, he is puzzled as to why anyone would care about a traffic accident, even if it did involve some person named Jerry Springer (whom he obviously has never heard of).
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Next story: Marco Polo
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
By no means is Cimarron as lousy as I've been led to believe. However, it isn't up there among other Best Picture winners.
Cimarron covers the creation of Oklahoma from the Oklahoma Land Rush to its admission to the Union in 1930 as seen and lived through the Cravat family. You have Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a pioneer in the true sense of the word: a man consumed with wanderlust, always searching for new adventure. There is his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) who starts out merely following her husband but who comes to her own in the frontier town of Osage. With them are their two children, a daughter Donna and a son named Cimarron. Don't let that confuse you: the boy Cimarron is not the center of the film Cimarron. Rather, it's the decades-long story of Yancey and Sabra, as they civilize part of the Wild West.
Credit has to be given where credit it due. Cimarron opens with one of the best and wildest opening scenes in film: an intense recreation of the Oklahoma Land Rush. Director Wesley Ruggles does a good job building the tension the settlers must have felt before they were allowed to burst forward. Once they're off, it becomes a real Wild West Show. Cimarron is impressive in how it captures the wildness and craziness of the land rush, made even more so by not having any music underscore it and by cutting in between wide shots and close ups of individual groups from men on bicycles to families in wagons. Ruggles even mixed in a story between Yancey and Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), who tricks him out of the claim Yancey was aiming for.
Once the wild rush is over, Cimarron settles down, and it has a hard time recapturing the thrill it gave us in the beginning. Over the course of the film, the Cravats are at the heart of society in the boom town of Osage. There, Yancey and Sabra create a new world through their leadership and through the newspaper they create, the Oklahoma Wigwam. There are good moments cinematically: the scene where they arrive and we see various images of how the town and its population are coming together are done almost documentary-style. However, in spite of its two hour length Cimarron feels like it has to hit all the subjects brought into the story: the outlaws, the bigotry and intolerance, even a little sexism, in a rushed manner. In many ways, Cimarron is reminiscent of another Edna Ferber story adapted to the screen, with the exception that Giant (about Texas) had both the appropriate length to tell its unfolding story and a stronger director in George Stevens.
Take for example a shoot-out that places the outlaw known as The Kid (William Collier, Jr.) against the law-abiding Yancey. Earlier in the film, it was established that they were on friendly terms though they disapproved of the roads they took. When The Kid is shot down, the drama the moment calls for is not captured on screen as well as it could have been. The same goes for in a long scene where religious services are held in the town casino. The whole town is there, right down to the "shady ladies" and the outlaws at the door. The long-running feud between Yancey and outlaw leader Lon Yountis (Stanley Fields) finally explodes, but it isn't the most exciting bit in the film when something like that calls for a building of tension and suspense.
There are also the points of acting. Richard Dix, nominated for Best Actor, had what I would call a wildness and broadness to his performance. His Yancey was a large performance to put it generously. Edna May Oliver as Mrs. Wyatt reminded me of Miss Prissy, the hen who was always after Foghorn Leghorn in the Looney Tunes cartoons, not just in her looks but in the way she said, "Yes". I even wonder if they modeled the character on her performance in the film.
The one great performance is that of Irenne Dunne as Sabra, earning the first of her five Best Actress nominations. This is at the start of her career, and while the material may not have been at the level to her talent, she manages to create a well-rounded and conflicted character, one who loves her husband enough to endure basically being abandoned by him, and one who while friends with Sol Levy (George E. Stone) the only Jewish person in town, cannot fathom her son marrying a Native American only to come around at the end and embrace her grandchildren's heritage.
Let me digress slightly to address the charges of racism when it comes to Cimarron. The portrayal of the only African-American in the cast (Eugene Jackson as Isaiah) certainly is shocking by TODAY'S standards: hearing him call Yancey "Massa" when the film takes place after the Civil War is questionable (Yancey telling him there are a lot of watermelons in Osage for him does not help). The fear and suspicion the Anglo population has toward the Native American is also not on the enlightened side. HOWEVER, we must be careful on how we judge a film made seventy years before the Age of Obama. Yes, it would not be accepted today (as it should not have been accepted then) but it is part of the legacy of the conflicted race relations of America. Also, we should take into account that the character of Yancey was overall much more tolerant of minority groups than his Anglo counterparts. He welcomed Sol Levy into the non-denominational service (after mentioning all the Christian denominations one could think of Yancey ends with reference to "Hebrew church" after seeing Levy take a seat) and unlike his wife Yancey is not horrified at Cimarron romancing Ruby Big Elk. He's even accepting of Dixie Lee and her situation while Sabra and the rest of the women want to run her out of town. By today's standards, Cimarron could rightly be called offensive. However, I can only judge a film by the standards of its time, which is the only appropriate standard to judge issues like this by.
After finishing it, I thought Cimarron was not the great film it could have been. However, it was not this boring fiasco of a film I was lead to believe. Not having seen East Lynne, Skippy, The Front Page or Trader Horn (or even the non-nominated Morocco) I am in no position to decide whether it should have won Best Picture. My thinking is that the fact that it was a big-budget spectacle about the Old/Wild West (and especially the thrilling Oklahoma Land Rush sequence) pushed it over the top with Academy voters. However, if it's a quiet and boring afternoon you're facing, the first Western to win Best Picture is more entertaining than the most recent Western to do the same (I'm talking to YOU: No Country for Old Men).
1932 Best Picture Winner: Grand Hotel
Please visit my other Best Picture reviews as part of my efforts to review every winner of the Academy Awards' highest prize.
Monday, April 12, 2010
The debut story for Doctor Who (An Unearthly Child) did well but it wasn't a spectacular event. It took the second story to bring the series to near mania-status, and it had nothing to do with the actual cast. Rather, what pushed the series into the public mind were the villains: odd machine-like creatures with a staccato voice that reminded people of salt-and-pepper shakers. The overarching story had no official title and there is still debate as to what it SHOULD be called. Doctor Who Magazine refers to it as The Mutants, but for this article I shall side with the BBC and call it what they do: The Daleks. Two reasons: 1.) there is already another story in the Third Doctor's time with the official title of The Mutants, so it will cut down on the confusion, and 2.) with the exception of The Chase, every story where the Daleks appeared as a major part of the story had "Dalek" in the title in the original series (as in Day of, Planet of, Genesis of, etc.). That being the case, I figure it is acceptable to have the title be The Daleks.