Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Chamber Potter

HARRY POTTER & THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS

It's a new year for Harry and his friends and enemies, but some things remain the same. The Dursleys are still abusive, someone is trying to kill Harry, and Hogwarts becomes a center of terror as opposed to a school of learning.

Harry Potter (Daniel Ratcliffe) misses his school and his friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). He must spend the summer with his guardians, Uncle Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths), Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), and his dreadful cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Harry is surprised to find an elf in his room (his uncle and aunt most reluctantly and angrily acquiescing to moving him from the cupboard under the stairs). It's Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones), who warns Harry not to return to Hogwarts, for his life is in danger. Dobby causes trouble for Harry, and the Dursleys hit a new low in their abuse of Harry: Uncle Vernon now literally holds him prisoner by placing bars in his window to prevent him from going back to Hogwarts. Needless to say, Harry does go back, aided in an escape by Ron and his brothers, who pull the bars with their flying car. More mysterious mishaps: Ron & Harry miss the train and have to take said flying car to Hogwarts, which causes more 'hilarity'.

In their second year, in between Herbology Classes and a new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, a braggart and teen heartthrob named Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), we get more murderous mayhem. Harry hears voices warning him of danger, and then, written in blood, we have the message "The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of The Heir, beware (at least it rhymes). The suspects of who opened the chamber (and is The Heir, in this case heir of Slytherin) are many: Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Hagrid (Robbie Coltraine), even Harry, who can speak with snakes. Hogwarts is becoming more and more dangerous: students, even ghosts like Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese) are being Petrified (frozen in a near-death status). Harry discovers a book that appears empty, but is really a diary kept by a Tom Marvolo Riddle (Christian Coulson), which gives him details of when the last time the Chamber was opened, pointing at Hagrid. They go to Hagrid, and he tells Ron & Harry (Hermione having been Petrified) to follow the spiders, and in The Dark Forest the giant spider Aragog tells them Hagrid is innocent. Eventually, Ron & Harry discover where the Chamber is, go down inside, and confront the memory of Tom Riddle, who is really...guess who?

As The Smiths would say, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before". Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets, again directed by Chris Columbus and again scripted by Steve Kloves, is basically the same story as The Sorcerer's Stone, at least it is to this Muggle. (Side note: I think this is why A.) I stopped watching the Harry Potter films, and B.) did not read anything after The Sorcerer's Stone). You start with monstrously abusive guardians, then danger for Harry at Hogwarts, followed by an investigation (complete with false clues), with Harry having two people go with him only to have to face danger (He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named) all alone, said villain being defeated, and then all ends well and back to Muggle-landia. Besides a few new details (Dobby, whom I kept calling 'Doobie', the flying car, Draco's father Lucius--Jason Isaacs), there isn't much difference between the first and second films. It is a case of 'you've seen one, you've seen them all'. In fact, I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking that every Harry Potter book will be variations on a theme.

Of course, the second is different from the first in this regard: I hated this one while I didn't hate the first. I hated Dobby, who looked like a cross between The Lord of the Rings' Gollum and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace's Jar Jar Binks in looks and voice respectively. If you think of it, he appeared in the beginning and end of Chamber of Secrets, and what exactly did he add to the plot? I HATED the Dursleys (and still wonder why few if any people have called out J.K. Rowling for having such vicious child abuse in her books and/or making all Muggles look so evil--I can't think of any other Muggles in Chamber of Secrets). How is literally imprisoning our protagonist can be considered anything other than idiotic and over-the-top? I hated Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), a whiny, quite appalling child ghost (always fun having to explain ghosts of dead children to the little tykes, isn't it?). I hated the flying car: while it might pleased the fans to see it in the film, the whole sequence in the film took so much time and, again, what exactly did it add to the plot?

In fact, the whole flying car sequence (along with the accompanying Whomping Willow bit) is one of the reasons Chamber of Secrets runs a whopping TWO HOURS, FORTY-ONE minutes (nearly THREE HOURS in the extended edition). Compare that to a few other films:


  • Citizen Kane: Two Hours

  • Casablanca: One Hour, Forty-Two Minutes

  • Psycho: One Hour, Forty-Nine Minutes

  • 8 1/2: Two Hours, Eighteen Minutes

  • Aguirre, The Wrath of God: One Hour, Thirty-Three Minutes

  • Sherlock, Jr.: Forty-Five Minutes

  • Singin' In The Rain: One Hour, Forty-Three Minutes

  • Dr. Strangelove: One Hour, Thirty-Five Minutes

  • Rocky: One Hour, Fifty-Nine Minutes

  • The Battle of Algiers: Two Hours, One Minute

There are a few films that are actually LONGER than Chamber of Secrets: Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Gone With The Wind. I'm willing to wager that not even the biggest 'Pot-Head' thinks Chamber of Secrets is on the same level as any of the aforementioned films, at least if they've seen any other films other than Harry Potter ones. Columbus and Kloves didn't know when to cut, and one soon becomes tired waiting for the ACTUAL story to begin. The story is about who opened the Chamber, not about how Harry & Ron are NEVER punished by Hogwarts administration like their House Leader Professor McGonnagal (Dame Maggie Smith). In fact, that's what I thought about as the film ended: no matter what happens or what Harry, Ron, or Hermione do, they never actually face consequences in terms of school discipline--in fact, quite the opposite (the administration actually appear to help/coddle our heroes). No suspense or worry that they will be punished no matter what/how many rules they break leads to no real worries about what will happen to them.

Another point of contention with Chamber of Secrets is the excessive amounts of Deus Ex Machinas in the film (perhaps in the story as well, not having read the book I can only judge the film). Deus Ex Machina (or D.E.M. for short) is when something magically appears that resolves whatever situation our heroes face that will get them out of trouble/danger. For example, when Aragog's children menace Harry & Ron and they can't find a way out, that damn flying car magically appears to spirit them away. Oh how very convenient. (Side note: seeing how Ron & Harry basically stole the car from King's Cross Station, I kept wondering how Mr. & Mrs. Weasley got back to their home which I figure must be in Muggle-landia and not Wizarding World, otherwise there would be no need for Platform 9 3/4. Also, a scene where Hermione's Muggle parents are at Diagon Alley makes me wonder how Muggles can be allowed into Wizarding World and how they get in/out. Just a thought). When Harry has to face Tom Riddle in the climatic battle, we have THREE D.E.M.s: the Phoenix, the Gryffindor Sword hidden from the Sorting Hat the Phoenix brings, and the Phoenix's tears. Oh how very convenient. I have no idea how the Phoenix could navigate the subterranean lair of Hogwarts or how it knew to have the Gryffindor Sword and place it inside the Sorting Hat--unless Dumbledore put it in there even though we shouldn't imagine he actually is getting involved in this as much as he is...oh how very convenient.

The performances were varied. Branagh, known primarily for his Shakespearean roles, relished the opportunity of vamping it up to the Nth degree, even though Lockhart is so obviously inept it's a wonder how anyone could have thought he was good at anything. His feature role appeared to be at the cost of Smith (who if memory serves correct wasn't in the film all that much), Coltrane (still delightful but much diminished), and Richard Harris' Dumbledore (still slightly tottering around and tragically dying shortly before the film was released). The children have gotten better. Radcliffe's Harry is a young man starting to embrace his heritage, evolving into more wizard than Muggle. Felton matches him (albeit in a smaller role) as a sheer villain delighting in his growing evil and snobbery, complete with henchmen. You can see how much Potter and Malfoy detest each other in the duel between them, and this speaks well of both of them that at such young ages they can portray a fierce rivalry convincingly. The best one is Grint, who manages the shifts of childish fear with Aragog and his children to his anger at Lockhart's reluctance to help rescue his sister to his ineptness with his broken wand to his courage in going down into the Chamber. Never does Grint hit a wrong note in the various shifts of character, making Ron Weasley one of the most believable of the Potter characters as well as, after Hagrid, my favorite character. Watson was frozen (literally, she was Petrified by...guess who), but her reaction to being called 'mudblood' (someone of Muggle heritage) did come off as a bit whiny and not as one who could cast better spells than all the Malfoys for all their racial purity.

The special effects were all right but nothing extraordinary, but unfortunately used to stretch the plot rather than serve the plot. When Ron & Harry face Aragog & his children, my mind found it impossible to not wander into the Doctor Who story Planet of the Spiders. I never got a great sense of fantasy in Chamber of Secrets, and that I believe is not just because the story was far too long, or that it appeared to be a repeat of Sorcerer's Stone, but because the visuals (and the sets, especially in the Chamber itself) called attention to themselves rather than serve the plot.

There were frankly too many things I disliked about Chamber of Secrets (Dobby, that damn flying car, miraculous rescues for Harry, the repetitiveness of the plot from the last film, the actions of the Dursleys) to counter the good things (Lockhart, the first hints that Ron & Hermione might become more than friends, the Wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet). A line from Chamber of Secrets stuck out to me: "Funny, the damage a silly little book can do..." I think this is as apt a description for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as I can find.


I wish they would get on with the story and stop horsing around.

DECISION: D+

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Sorcerer of A Franchise

HARRY POTTER & THE SORCERER'S STONE (Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone in the U.K.)


Would it be wrong to say that I'm not a fan of the Harry Potter books? It isn't anything to do with the charges of Satanism and witchcraft. Rather, it has to do with that I have read only one in the series, and I wasn't overwhelmed with it. In short, I don't think Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone was well-written. I have been told by the fans and champions of the series that the first one ISN'T the best of the bunch, so at least I don't feel all that isolated in my views. The film version is faithful to the source, and this may be part of the overall problem with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.(Author's note: from henceforth the film shall be referred to as The Sorcerer's Stone).

Harry Potter (Daniel Ratcliffe) is an orphan left at the doorstep of his nearest relatives, his Uncle Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths), Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), and cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). He's left there by Professor Dumbledore (Richard Harris), a wizard, Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith), a witch, and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a giant. The Dursleys are HORRIBLE guardians (I'd argue to the point of being child abusers, although I'm the only one who seems concerned with this): boorish, cruel, indulgent with Dudley but at the very least verbally abusive to Harry. On a trip to the zoo, Harry discovers he's able to talk to snakes. Later, Harry gets mysterious messages from owls which Vernon promptly destroys. He takes them to a remote home, but Hagrid discovers them and gives Harry amazing news on Harry's 11th birthday (which the Dursleys typically ignore): he is a wizard, and all those messages for him are to inform him he's been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Hagrid takes him from the Dursleys and guides him to Platform 9 3/4 to board the Hogwarts Express. On board, Harry meets Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), who also starting out at Hogwarts and is from a large but poor wizard family. They meet Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who may be their age but is a mistress of spell casting. Once they arrive at Hogwarts, they encounter Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), a member of one of the oldest (and most snobbish and evil) wizard families. Their first year at Hogwarts is extremely eventful: they survive a troll attack, learn all about the game of Quidditch (which seemed to me a cross of soccer, rugby, and polo with flying brooms), and then get to the main point: the mystery of The Sorcerer's Stone. Someone is trying to get this magic object that will give the owner immortality. Someone is trying to kill Harry. Are the two related? Is it Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), head of Slytherin House? Is it He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named (Voldemort, the wizard who killed Mr. & Mrs. Potter but couldn't kill Harry) or an agent of his? After going through a series of dangers, Harry faces his foe.

There really is much to admire about The Sorcerer's Stone. Steven Kloves, adapting J.K. Rowling's book, kept much of her inventiveness, such as Platform 9 3/4 and the Hogwarts Express, her way with names (Slytherin, Draco Malfoy, Severus Snape--all sound quite villainous), or the Mirror of Erised (that's Desire spelled backwards in case you missed it). Certainly there are wonderful ELEMENTS for a fantasy story in The Sorcerer's Stone: the school for wizards, complete with wizard-themed snacks and classes, all can bring kids into another world full of fantasy and adventure. Another great highlight is John Williams' magnificent score: the opening theme (Hedwig's Theme) sets the mood beautifully: a magical, light theme that suggests a hint of mystery within it.

The performances are also above par. The best performance is that of Coltrane's Hagrid: he was a wonderful rustic charm to this gentle giant. Smith is the type who no matter what she plays she can be both the character and 'Maggie Smith', and her McGonagall is one who has authority and an unspoken sweetness. Harris at times seems to be tottering around as Dumbledore, one who is not prone to be action-oriented but lets his wisdom be his weapon. Rickman wasn't a big part of the film, but his Snape was frightening in his severity, always wearing black.

The younger lot was also good. Ratcliffe emerges as someone who has been beaten down by his Muggle relatives (Muggles being non-magic folk) to someone who starts developing a sense of self-confidence and security. The scene where he is expressing his loss and hurt due to his parents' death when seeing himself in the Mirror of Erised was a wonderful performance. He was more than matched by Grint's Ron. He is delightfully scared when needed (adding comedy), and brave when needed (adding gravitas), and childlike when needed (adding innocence). It takes great talent to deliver such lines as "And I thought the Potions Finals were dangerous", or something to that effect, without it coming off as ridiculous. Felton looks the part of a villain with his Malfoy (the slicked back hair, his sneer), but also manages to show that he is still also a child. Only Watson appeared to be a little blank, a little disengaged, a little boring.

With all the good things in The Sorcerer's Stone, why, after a second viewing, did I still not like it? I think this is the result of director Chris Columbus and Kloves to be SLAVISHLY faithful to the source story. It's as if they decided that NOTHING could be cut or changed lest it displease the fans. This is why the film feels even longer than its two and a half hour running time (an extremely long time for a children's film). There were just such long scenes, such as the Quidditch match, that just seem to go on and on. I have to wonder what exactly the match added to the overall plot. Yes, it did seem to make Snape the villain (which any thinking person would know is a red herring since he's too obvious a choice), but that whole scene could have been shortened without affecting the story. It was there because the fans demanded it, but for those who are not fans, things like this don't invite us to be fans. The same can be said for Neville Longbottom's flight on his broom. That might have been fun in the story, but how does it relate to how someone is plotting against Potter and to get the Sorcerer's Stone? That, as I understood it, was the central issue of the movie.

I kept thinking of these points of logic that I, as a proud Muggle, did not understand. If the Dursleys hated Harry so much (and I suspect this might be a subliminal message to children about how each of them is special regardless of what their parents/others may say), why did they fight so much to keep him with them? If I were as horrid as they were, I would have flung Harry to Hagrid and told him to keep Harry forever and never bring him back. My overall problem here (as with the book) is that how much I HATED the portrayal of the Dursleys. I see it as cartoonish, vulgar, even cruel. Rowling created a strong world for Harry Potter, but the Dursleys seem to be leftovers from a previous draft. There's the issue of when Potter, Weasley, Granger, and Malfoy are sent to The Dark Forest as detention for breaking curfew (side note: is there any other kind of forest beside a dark one?). Why would they send these children to a place where they had been told it was obviously dangerous to go to, to the point the children may be killed out there? This is especially bizarre when you consider that EVERYONE knows Harry Potter is in extreme danger due to He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named. Moreover, EVERYONE knows who Harry Potter is: he already enters the Wizard World as a superstar (the one who survived Voldemort--another strong name suggesting evil). All the "Harry Potter" "Harry Potter" "Harry Potter" mentioning was frankly getting on my nerves. It's quickly established he's Harry Potter...I don't need to have it repeated endlessly.

Also, as imaginative as Rowling was with certain elements in her books, some of her ideas are not. Dumbledore and McGonagall dressed as wizards and witches is just stereotypical, as is the business of dropping a child on the doorstep. I also wasn't too thrilled on how everything was basically explained in the first few minutes. I still hold that the story could have worked better if Harry had slowly uncovered the truth of his background, instead of everything being revealed pretty quickly. I didn't think the business of the Mirror at the end was very good, in fact I thought how the Stone came to appear extremely simplistic and easy. Harry never did much to actually FIND the stone (it was Ron, it should be remembered, who was in the Wizard's Chess, the first time I noticed a montage). Finally, the end of term awards were a rip-off: a quick and easy way to get the 'right' school to win.

As it stands, The Sorcerer's Stone serves one purpose: as massive plot exposition to all the succeeding films in the franchise. We need to know who and what the various characters are to get the ball rolling, and if that's the case it did it well. My issue is that a film adaptation should always welcome non-fans, and when it doesn't, when it is made ONLY and almost STRICTLY for fans, it fails. For a lengthy series like Harry Potter, each film should stand on its own. The Sorcerer's Stone barely managed to do that. So far, I still am not a fan of the series, though I see wonderful elements within it. Harry Potter has not been able to put a spell on me.

Who would have thought that a few short years later, our little Harry would grow into this?





Oddly, the word Harry seems rather inaccurate now, doesn't it?


DECISION: C-

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tales From The Underground




STORY 052: DOCTOR WHO &
THE SILURIANS

Script editor Terrance Dicks was determined to prove that the box Doctor Who was in could be broken. With The Time Lords having disabled the TARDIS from being able to leave Earth, there could be only two types of stories: alien invasion or mad scientist. Dicks came up with a novel approach: the aliens were already on Earth. From that, screenwriter Malcolm Hulke created Doctor Who & The Silurians. This story is the only Doctor Who story to have the words 'Doctor Who' as part of the title (not counting Episode 5 of The Chase, titled The Death of Doctor Who). Why the words 'Doctor Who' were included is lost in the fog of history, but in the seven episodes of The Silurians (which is how I'll refer to it from this point for ease), Hulke not only created a unique monster but touched on important topics of the day couched in entertainment.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee), now basically stuck on Earth, is the scientific advisor to UNIT (the United Nations International Taskforce, now the UNified Intelligence Taskforce), which is under the command of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). The Brigadier has been investigating strange goings-on at a nuclear research power station within the caves of Wenley Moor. There are unexplained power drains and several staff appear to go insane. These incidents reach a crisis point when one of the power station workers is found dead. The Brigadier summons the Doctor and his Associate, Liz Shaw (Caroline John) to find the source of all these troubles. This investigation is loathed by the head of operations, Dr. Lawrence (Peter Miles), who thinks whatever problems there are (if they exist at all) are minor and the work of saboteurs. His second, Dr. Quinn (Fulton Mackay), is concerned about how close the power station comes to meltdown, but he and his aide Miss Dawson (Thomasine Heiner) are hiding secrets of their own...secrets that would reveal all.

The Doctor comes down and does discover the cause of these power drains: it is a previously-unknown race, the Silurians. They had entered into a secret alliance with Quinn: in exchange for nuclear power to awaken them from hibernation they would give Quinn their advanced scientific knowledge, which he would use for his own gain/glory. The Silurians now plan to return to the surface and remove humans from the planet. The Doctor convinces their leader that he might persuade humanity to co-exist with the Silurians, who would then move only into uninhabited parts of the planet with the sufficient heat to support their reptilian bodies. However, the younger Silurians want to take full charge of Earth, and begin by releasing the captured Major Baker (Norman Jones), head of Security of the center, with a virus. The Doctor is given the virus to find a cure, but this costs the Silurian leader his life; the Silurians have had a coup d'etat, killing their conciliatory leader and deciding to stop the Doctor. The virus is fast-spreading among the workers, including the Permanent Under-Secretary for the center, Masters (Geoffrey Palmer). The Silurians and UNIT battle it out to rescue The Doctor, who has been taken by the Silurians. The Silurians return to their hibernation, and The Doctor hopes to revive them slowly and integrate them into the surface. However, the Brigadier has their base destroyed, leaving The Doctor and Liz outraged and saddened.

The Silurians touches on quite a few contemporary themes. There is the then-popular concept of detente, in this case the peaceful co-existence between the Soviet Union and the Western powers (the United States and Britain). There is the hope and fear of nuclear power. There even is an undercurrent of racial genocide (remembering the Silurians attempted to exterminate humans while the humans blew up the Silurian base altogether). Of course, this is all couched within the confines of a science-fiction program, so we get to delve into deep themes without losing entertainment value. It's only in the realm of fantasy where the fear of 'first strike' can be discussed without being a lecture: 'kill them before they kill us' is really the mindset of both Silurians and Humans, as is their mutual fear, hatred, and distrust. Miss Dawson says as much after Dr. Quinn is found dead: "We must destroy them before they destroy us", she screams. Though The Silurians is closer to the Cold War in its allegory, I still see only the struggle between Arab Palestinians and Jewish Palestinians, two groups that cannot appear to live in peace with each other because neither wants to give in. This unwillingness to compromise is the cause of Human and Silurian misery. (Side note: in retrospect, given that the Soviet Union did collapse and that the horrors the population endured--and still endures in such places as North Korea--have since come to light, it does appear naive to think there could be peaceful coexistence between East & West. However, the fact that topics like these could be brought forward in such a smart and entertaining way is a sign of the ambitions of Doctor Who: entertainment and enlightenment).

We also get greater insight into the Doctor's views. "Typical of the military mind, isn't it?" he tells Liz. "Present them with a new problem, and they start shooting at it". The Doctor is determined to bring about a peaceful solution, which is consistent with all his incarnations (right down to the current Eleventh, who attempted to bring Silurians and Humans into peaceful coexistence in the story Cold Blood Parts I & II). At his opposite is The Brigadier, though I stress to point out he isn't a villain. He isn't this 'shoot first don't ask questions' type. His top priority is to protect those in the center (and his men), and the Silurians have killed military and civilian alike, and they had released a virus that killed many people and threatened all humanity. In his mind, removing the threat of the Silurians was the only way to ensure the safety and survival of the humans. It also isn't fully established whether the bombing of their base is of his own initiative or orders from his superiors. Finally, there is no guarantee that if awoken the Silurians would have been as peaceful as the Doctor had hoped. There was still a chance that they would have decided to launch a full invasion of the surface. That being the case, one shouldn't be too harsh on The Brigadier. However, it was a wise decision to bring The Doctor and The Brigadier into conflict. A relationship that lasted as long as theirs, there was bound to be inevitable conflict, which didn't remove the affection and regard they had toward each other.

Timothy Combe created a strong sense of suspense in The Silurians. He held off revealing the monsters until the end of Episode 3, almost halfway into the story. He would give us the p.o.v. of the Silurians, but for those first episodes, he would tease us with nothing other than people's reactions or at the most a hand. The fact that there was a lot of location work also added a sense of epic to The Silurians. He also got wonderful performances out of all his cast, especially the guest stars. Miles' Dr. Lawrence is the quintessential bureaucrat: unimaginative, removed, more interested in the success of his project than in the safety of those underneath him. The fact that his constant push to have UNIT and The Doctor removed from 'his' facility makes you hate him is a sign of an excellent performance. Same goes for the opportunistic Dr. Quinn. Mackay at first appears to be a good guy, worried about how the center keeps coming closer and closer to killing people. However, as The Silurians progresses, you see that he is actually a villain, who will keep an injured Silurian hostage as a bargaining chip to gain more knowledge. Mackay makes his transformation natural, never giving away his plans until the right moment. Special mention should go to Peter Halliday, who provided all the Silurian voices. Not once did the Old Silurian, his assassin, or his henchman, appear to have the same voice. His voices for at least three characters were brilliant.

The regular crew were also wonderful. Pertwee's Doctor is a man of action, but also one of deep thought. He never tires of struggling to get both sides to see things his way, and his failures to do so don't discourage him from continuing throughout The Silurians. Balancing him is Courtney's Lethbridge-Stewart. He isn't straying too far from the stiff military man with little sense of humor, but he has a strong authority and an incredible ability to play everything straight. John, unfortunately, was relegated to the sidelines because of her gender, but the fact that she recognized this made her performance all the better. She is openly contemptuous of the Brigadier for insisting that, although she is a trained scientist, she be relegated to trivial, almost secretarial work. Still, it was at times hard to take her seriously when she wears such short skirts. This, I take to be a reflection of the times, when women were slowly coming into their own. The success of future Companion Sarah Jane Smith was laid by Liz Shaw. Yet I digress.

There are other elements to the success of The Silurians. Hulke created wonderful monsters in that they did not come from without but from within. The actual look of the Silurians is a great success: yes, they were rubber monsters, but they still manage to work because of that powerful third eye that does almost everything for them, from debiliate their enemies to open their doors. Carey Blyton's score is also quite memorable, though still controversial. I can see why: when The Doctor is taken captive by the Silurians, the music they come in with is both menacing and oddly, cheery. In fact, that whole scene is unintentionally funny: the music, the Silurians head-shaking while using their third eye to weaken the Doctor, Pertwee's face when being brought down. In both the closing of Episode Six and the reprise in Episode Seven, I was overcome with laughter. Granted, it is an iconic moment, but it's also terribly funny.

 

The music is one of the things that pushes The Silurians down a bit. It really depends on your mood: sometimes it can brilliant, sometimes it can be maddening. Another is length: I've never been a fan of long stories, and this one at seven episodes did try my patience at times. Finally, the special effects with the dinosaur (who was almost secondary) just didn't work. The dinosaur (and I'm figuring it was a dinosaur living inside these caves) just didn't look convincing once. We also have that little business of the actual term 'Silurian'. Technically, it isn't correct: there couldn't have been life forms that complex in the Silurian Age. Picky, picky, picky, says I. It's a good title (although yes, he isn't actually called Doctor Who, again, picky, picky, picky). Besides, that's how they are known, let's not lose sleep on these rather small points of logic.

The ambiguity of the ending to The Silurians is the final touch to what makes this a strong Doctor Who story. Was it the right thing to do? That decision was already made, and it's up to each individual to come to his/her conclusions. The fact that it touches on such current issues while still entertaining us with a fantastic story makes The Silurians a good, strong story, especially given that this was the Third Doctor's second story. It doesn't matter if it's Homo Sapien or Homo Reptilia: both can be monsters.

 

10/10
 

Friday, July 23, 2010

Addendum to Comic Commentaries

There are more comic book film adaptations which I did not get a chance to discuss. Let me rectify that by touching on other features that will grace our screens.



THE GREEN LANTERN















Now we get a firmer idea of The Green Lantern now that we have pictures and articles promoting the film. I like the Green Lantern as a character, though my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) always ridiculed him (the one with that silly ring, he'd always say). The push for The Green Lantern, scheduled for release on June 17, 2011, is coming on fast & furious. We're starting to get articles and Comic-Con publicity for it.

I think that the cast they've assembled is quite impressive. Peter Sarsgaard has always been a 'serious' actor, and I thought he was wonderful in An Education. It is not surprising that producers would want someone of his caliber for this sort of film. It was that kind of thinking that convinced the Salkinds to get Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, with the added bonus that Hackman made him both menacing and very funny without it descending into camp. We also get Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins (hopefully he won't be going into any political rants), so there certainly is an effort to make The Green Lantern as serious as possible. My one reservation is Mark Strong as Sinestro. It isn't that Strong isn't a strong actor (pun intended), but that he's been awful into the last two films I've seen him in (Kick-Ass and Robin Hood), with the fact that one of those is a comic book adaptation making me more wary.

As for Reynolds, I think (so far) it is an excellent choice. He certainly has the physicality for Hal Jordan, having become as famous for his body as for his body of work (this coming from someone who still remembers him from Two Guys, A Girl, and A Pizza Place...which I am unapologetic about enjoying).

About that film career of his, The Green Lantern is different than what we normally would see Reynolds in. With the exception of Deadpool from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and he was the best thing in that film, to where the character will get his own spin-off, though I wonder how someone who was the villain in one film could become the hero in another...) Reynolds' screen persona has been better suited for comedies: romantic or raunchy. He has built his career out of variations of Van Wilder: the wiseacre who is catnip to women and has a quick remark for anything and everything. In fact, Deadpool really wasn't that much of a stretch in that he was playing a wiseacre superhero who was as fast with the quips as he was with the swords. However, there is one film where he surprised me: Smokin' Aces. Most critics hated it, but I LOVED it, my enjoyment surprising especially me. My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. and I were both amazed and shocked above all by one thing: Ryan Reynolds. We both believe he gave a very strong DRAMATIC performance. Admittedly, Smokin' Aces isn't Sunset Boulevard, but we both feel Reynolds reached further into a character than he had up to then, even among the wild goings-on. I think there is untapped potential in Reynolds as a dramatic actor, able to hold his own against an Edward Norton or avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling. If he is wise, he will build on The Green Lantern to better scripts, not necessarily all dramas but roles that will allow him a greater study of character. He may be on the cusp of an artistic renaissance, should he choose one.

He of course may just want to build on comic book accolades: Deadpool being his second turn at a franchise (and although I think he would have been wonderful as The Flash, let's follow the President's advise and 'spread the wealth' a bit here). Whether he chooses to go the safe Van Wilder/Green Lantern route or try to get beyond his persona is a decision that will affect his longevity in film. A body lasts only for so long. Talent goes on.


CAPTAIN AMERICA
















I had heard that John Krasinski from The Office was being considered for the lead in Captain America (or to be precise, Captain America: The First Avenger). Give me a moment to stop laughing....there, I'm back. The mere idea that I would get the quizzical/bemused facial expression that Krasinski has perfected as Jim on that show while he fights Nazis would have been disastrous. His resume has posted more romantic comedies than action roles (and with the exception of Away We Go--which I haven't seen--not well-liked or received). He hasn't proven he is capable of handling such a major project yet. Chris Evans, on the other hand, HAS had experience in action roles (Push, The Losers) and is no stranger to superheroes (The Human Torch in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer).

Whether Evans can actually HANDLE this project is frankly up in the air. We don't have the film to judge, but given that he was the weakest and worst thing in the Fantastic Four films (and that the few clips that I saw of London, where he was trying for a dramatic turn but only ended up making me laugh out loud at how awful he and the clips were), I have serious questions about whether Evans can actually ACT. I don't have those questions about Reynolds.

Beyond that, I have concerns that this film will not be a film that stands by/for itself, but that it will be nothing more than a trailer for The Avengers. This is especially disconcerting when one stops to consider that most people I imagine have heard of Captain America but have not heard of The Avengers. The title alone sends warning bells: Captain America: The FIRST Avenger (emphasis mine). That should tell you there will be other Avengers (as in Nick Fury, who may be of massive importance to all Comic-Con attendees but who doesn't mean a thing to those who've never picked up a comic book). I keep wondering, if Captain America will fight Nazis in the film, how can be possible live long enough to hook up with the very 21st Century Tony Stark? Given the fact that I'm predisposed to dislike Evans (he has yet to show any depth of character in a film or show anything except his abs) and given that Captain America: The First Avenger appears to be slipping into mere tie-in to The Avengers, I'm beginning to worry where the film itself will go.

Of course, I could be wildly wrong, and we can leave the connections to The Avengers, Iron-Man, or Thor to the extra clip at the end of the closing credits. I always expect the best when watching a film, so Captain America has that going for it: my benefit of the doubt. My only recommendation would be to forget The First Avenger part and concentrate on the Captain America part. If this film goes down in flames (especially if the comic book fanatics tear it apart), there may be The Avengers, but they will go in mortally wounded.



THOR

















I'm in a genuine place to think on the subject of Thor the film because I was unaware there was a comic book based on Norse mythology. Trekkies/Trekkers may know Thor as Captain George Kirk (James' father) from the 2009 Star Trek, and I think that it was wise to cast Chris Hemsworth as the guy with the big hammer. (Side note: aren't Trekkies/Trekkers also big comic book geeks? That being the case, they probably are aware of the Thor comics and that would explain why I didn't know anything about it). He's not as big a name as he perhaps will be after Thor, so we are given a different situation than either The Green Lantern (where Reynolds has achieved a certain level of name recognition) or Captain America: The First Avenger (where Evans has had more experience in comic book film adaptations).

Thor goes in with a tie-in already: at the end of Iron-Man II (2) we were witness to the discovery of Mjolnir, Thor's hammer, out in the desert. Side note: I find the whole thing rather ridiculous. I like mythology and am acquainted with the characters of Odin, Thor, Loki (one of my favorites, so delightful in his deviousness) and even Freya (top that, comic geeks!). However, I had to literally ask someone what it was that had people in the theater gasping because I had no idea that Thor A.) was a comic book, and B.) his hammer had a name. Yet, I digress.

The same questions that hang over Captain America: The First Avenger hang over Thor. Will it be nothing more than filler for the Big Show (no, not the wrestler)? I wish I could quiet my mind on that, that I could say with certainty this project will stand on its own, but having Anthony Hopkins isn't reassuring. Yes, Hopkins is a magnificent actor, but if placed in the wrong project (The Wolfman, Beowulf, Alexander) he goes off the rails and turns into total ham. With all those Nordic costumes he has to wear, I wonder whether the temptation to go over-the-top will consume him once more.

Here's where Thor's biggest surprise may play: the director is Kenneth Branagh. Yes, the man who once upon a time appeared determined to introduce Shakespeare and get present-day audiences to see The Bard as a writer of action (Henry V) and romantic comedy (Much Ado About Nothing) is now helming a comic book film adaptation. It's akin to having Laurence Olivier direct Superman: The Movie (though Olivier, unlike Branagh I suspect, would not understand the subject matter, not having grown up with pop culture as Branagh and his audiences have). This certainly is a wild change of pace for someone known primarily as an 'artiste' and who is more connected to Shakespeare than Stan Lee. The charitable side of me wants to think Branagh (who should accept a knighthood should it be offered) wants to branch out as a director, go for something new, different, put his own spin on something so low-brow as a comic book. The less charitable side makes me think he needs a hit, needs to prove that he can do something other than Shakespeare adaptations, and that a success both financial and critical will open up more opportunities for him to work. He may be trying for both, or none, or trying to prove something to himself, or just decided it would be fun. I don't know his minds and he doesn't talk to me about his projects.

For me, Thor is the biggest mystery because I have no real knowledge of the comic books, only of what I read in Edith Hamilton's Mythology. I hope to go into all the films with as open a mind as I can, given that I'm not one for comic books themselves. I've been pleased with some (Spider-Man, Iron-Man, X-Men, and their first sequels) and disappointed with others (the second sequels to Spider-Man and X-Men, the first Fantastic Four, the X-Men prequel, Superman IV & Superman Returns). I have high hopes for The Green Lantern, not so high for Captain America or Thor. I may yet be surprised. I certainly hope to be.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

For A Midget He Certainly Towers Over Others


1924-1984

Toby Jones & Phillip Seymour Hoffman

CAPOTE (2005) VS. INFAMOUS (2006)


We have perhaps the most curious case of remakes that I've come across. The situation is that the films Capote and Infamous aren't strictly speaking remakes. They do happen to tell the exact same story: how author Truman Capote (pronounced Cah-POH-tea) came to write In Cold Blood, his relationship with the convicted killers of the Clutter family, especially Perry Smith, and how that affect Capote both artistically and emotionally.

The real Truman Capote was quite a character...and in his later years, a caricature. His thin, high, baby-like voice, his mannerisms, his way of dress, all have become points of mimicry and ridicule (for the record, I do a mean Capote impersonation myself, one that I will gladly perform when sufficiently intoxicated...not unlike the real Capote). His whole persona lends itself to drama, and we now have TWO films about the noted novelist.

As is my habit when looking over remakes, or in this case two versions of the same story, I will compare them side by side but do something a little different: see who is better in the various real-life roles.

Capote takes a more sparse and I'd argue serious look at the subject than does Infamous. You can see this when Truman goes to Kansas. Infamous has almost a comedic take on his time there: dressing him up as a cowboy to "fit in", constantly being called "ma'am" or "lady" whenever he meets someone there. The only nod to Truman's more extravagant wardrobe in Capote is when he first meets KBI Investigator Alvin Dewey, whose staff look in puzzlement at Truman's scarf. When Harper Lee persuades him to dress down, he comes out in a conservative suit and shows it to her by doing an elaborate twirl, but other than that he dresses like any ordinary man.

We also have a difference in structure. Infamous is framed by "interviews" that talk about Capote from the various viewpoints of those around him: Harper Lee, his companion Jack Dunphy, even GORE VIDAL (who, as in real life, is thoroughly unimportant). Capote tells its story straight: no narrator, just a beginning, middle, and open-ending. Infamous does have somewhat of an open-ending itself, but we get a stronger impression of where his life ended (as did his efforts to complete Answered Prayers).

Another radical difference is in how they treated the relationship between Truman and Perry Smith. Capote treats it as a particularly strong but platonic relationship. Infamous goes one step further: it states that there was a physical romance between Truman and Perry by showing them kiss. It's really a subject of conjecture because no one save Truman and Perry knew the exact nature of their relationship or how deep it went. Finally, there are historic details in dispute. Infamous has Hickock and Smith brought back to Kansas in the daytime with the population caught unaware, everyone rushing toward the staircase leading to the courthouse to witness all this. Capote has them brought at night with the people already waiting for them along either side of the staircase.

Now we get to the crux of the matter: the actual comparisons. This is especially difficult because I think both films work, both films are good, and both films have extremely good actors in them who give very good performances. I would recommend both of them, and the comparisons should not suggest that one performance/performer was inferior to the other. Rather, they are simply to compare and contrast with those in Infamous appearing first, followed by those in Capote.

BEST HARPER LEE

Sandra Bullock
Catherine Keener

Keener was on screen longer than Bullock, and oddly while I don't remember her having a Southern accent, Keener brought a quiet and stillness to her interpretation of Harper Lee. She was a woman who didn't draw attention to herself or appear to want to.

BEST PERRY SMITH

Daniel Craig
Clifton Collins, Jr.

Craig has the burden of having to adopt an American accent as opposed to the Californian Collins. He was also given the opportunity to show the more gentle, artistic, at time almost prudish side to Smith than Collins was. We were given flashbacks to Smith and Hickock's time before the crime, and that allowed Craig to delve deeper into his character.

BEST RICHARD HICKOCK

Lee Pace
Mark Pellegrino

Again, this is a matter of screen time. Pelligrino wasn't a major part of Capote, while Pace was given one or two scenes before Truman shifted his attention and interest to Smith.

BEST ALVIN DEWEY

Jeff Daniels
Chris Cooper

Cooper has always excelled at authority figures. He has a steely toughness, a voice and face that makes him believable as someone who will follow through with threats and not stop until the guilty party are captured and brought to justice.

BEST SCREENPLAY

Douglas McGrath
Dan Futterman

I think it's the tone that Futterman gave Truman that gives him the edge. McGrath did a fine job, but Futterman gave it a more serious tone, while McGrath put in too many comedy bits that took away from the story as a whole.

BEST TRUMAN CAPOTE

Toby Jones
Phillips Seymour Hoffman

Forget it: flat-out impossible. After seeing both, I'd like to give the slight edge to Jones based on the fact he successfully managed an American accent, an American Southern accent, and an American Southern accent with a high, thin voice. HOWEVER, Hoffman was also incredible as Capote. He explored the inner world of Truman (no doubt helped by a better script) and at times he got the voice right (though sometimes it didn't carry all the way to my ears). Both are just so good: as actors, and as Capote, that I can't bring myself to declare one BETTER.

BEST TRUMAN CAPOTE FILM
Infamous
Capote

Again, always the tone. Capote's seriousness trumps Infamous' slightly more comic take. Both are very good films, but the first edges out the second.

I imagine that the thought he was the subject of TWO films would have pleased Capote infinitely...and displease his bitter (and I mean bitter) rival GORE VIDAL. Isn't it odd, Mr. GORE VIDAL, that TWO films about your hated nemesis Truman Capote have been made, but no one's gotten around to make a film about YOU? I have a theory as to why. In the words of Old Mr. Grace to Mr. Rumbold on the television show Are You Being Served?, "I suppose you were too boring".

Writer's Prison Block



CAPOTE


As it stands, Truman Capote is the type of writer whom everyone has heard of but whom few people actually read (myself included), at least not without it being required. It is his being, his persona, that is mostly remembered. Two films explore the author's life while creating his most famous work: In Cold Blood. The second to be released was Infamous, and the first is simply Capote.

Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) notices an article about the killing of a family in western Kansas. He goes there with his friend, fellow novelist Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) to do research on an article on how the murders have affected the citizens. He clashes with Kansas Bureau of Investigations officer Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), but eventually becomes friendly with him and his family. As he becomes more fascinated with the crime and with the denizens of Holcomb, he expands his article into a book, and after the killers, Richard Hickock (Mark Pelligrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) are captured, Capote's fascination grows. He begins a relationship with them, and the one with Smith becomes extremely close, much to the displeasure of Capote's companion, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) and concern of Lee. The success of Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird and Capote's struggle both with the book (which he calls In Cold Blood), his jealousy of Lee's success, and the conflicting emotions that Hickock and Smith's deaths stir in him, all play havoc with his life. Eventually, Capote does finish In Cold Blood with great success, but after that...

Director Bennett Miller creates a very sparse, quiet film with Capote. There is a conscious stillness throughout the film, especially when they are in Kansas, matching the endless vistas of the state. There are no big, elaborate scenes, and almost all the performances are quiet, soft. Even the sets are sparse: few pieces of furniture are seen. This isn't a flaw, it's actually a plus. We focus more on the acting and the dialogue (the script written by actor Dan Futterman), and we're given a quiet story about how a horrible crime brought down so many, not just the victims but the killers and even their chronicler.

The performances match the stillness and quiet of the film. Hoffman captures Capote's babyish voice and mannerism, but it's not an imitation but a thorough character study. The scene when he attempts to gain Smith's trust by talking about how his mother was so similar to Smith's is brilliant, this performance of someone opening up to someone so beneath his social status is raw and deep. Keener is perfection as Lee: a woman who appears to retreat into the shadows even at the height of her success with the book and film adaptation of her only published work. She lends a quiet support to Capote/Hoffman, a person who cares for her friend but cannot ultimately break him out of the prison he himself created. Collins' Smith is still a bit of an enigma, someone we really don't know. Cooper is all business, all serious as Dewey, one who grows to like Capote (in spite of not knowing anyone like him) but who knows his first loyalty is to the law and who is genuinely hurt and angry that Capote would help, let alone befriend, these murderers.

If there are flaws in Capote, it's that the trial of Hickock and Smith were very rushed to the point of being non-existent. We also get very little of the relationship between Capote and Dunphy. However, there are more plusses than minuses. One of my favorite scenes is when Capote has a reading of In Cold Blood: the power of the words, and the trust Miller and Futterman have in the audience to appreciate Capote's work and have his writing hold our attention is excellent.

Capote isn't a biopic since it doesn't cover the lifespan of Truman Capote. It's an elegant portrait of a literary giant (no pun intended) who achieves his goal, one that has a terrible and tragic cost. The film is about the process of creating, and how even a person with extraordinary gifts and a joie de vivre can be brought down when reality does become stranger than fiction.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

LiLo Lowdown Countdown Smackdown



I watched Countdown With Keith Olbermann tonight with guest host Lawrence O'Donnell (no James Thurber bedtime stories tonight, I see). The Top Story was the travails of Lindsay Lohan. Discussing this matter with entertainment reporter Jim Moret, Mr. O'Donnell seem to suggest that it was the fact that at age 11, while he (and we) were trying to learn math, she was making The Parent Trap, and that THIS led her to end up behind bars.

I think this is the wrong attitude to take in this matter. I will agree with him that her parents were rather frightful people too wrapped up in gaining from their daughter's work to actually guide her in her life as opposed to her career. However, let us take his point that her working in films did in a sense "rob her of childhood". Even if that is completely accurate, once she turned 18 she could have decided to give up her career. If she felt so strongly about it, she could have just walked away and searched for her true calling.

Instead, between then and now she became lost among sycophants and handlers, all feeding off her but who also fed her. She made bad decisions. She now is paying for the end results of those decisions. They didn't just appear out of thin air. Even if she was badly parented, she chose to drive under the influence. She chose to go out almost every night. She chose to accept sub par scripts. She chose to indulge herself, her appetites, her wants. She shifted from a talented young star into an embarrassment to Western Civilization, and no matter how awful Mr. & Mrs. Lohan were at some point Lindsay herself must take the responsibility for her actions.

Yes, I will also grant that the streets of Hollywood are littered with too many tragic tales of young talented stars destroyed: from Judy Garland to River Phoenix, but there are those who actually managed to pull themselves together and create/be creative. In the end, the blame for Miss Lohan's disastrous life can't be placed on Hollywood alone. How about all those other men and women who get involved in drugs and alcohol who do not have an acting/singing career to blame? Yes, her celebrity gave her an easier venue to indulge, but in the end the responsibility HAS TO LIE WITH Lindsay Lohan herself. Yet, even now, as night descends into her own dark night of the soul, there is still hope. Others have emerged from the lowest rungs of their own Hell to rise to a greater level. If she chooses to do so, she may yet be remembered for her talent and not her excesses. The choice is hers and hers alone. I am highly critical of those who cater to the whims of both major and minor celebrities, but in the end, her damnation or her redemption lies within her hands.





Funny how SHE never became a drunk, an addict, or someone with a criminal record. Curious how she started even younger than La Lohan and ended up Ambassador Shirley Temple Black. Granted, she had better parents, but she also had something LiLo and her cohorts seem to be missing: a sense of propriety, of knowing HOW to behave in public and private.

I wish Miss Lohan well and pray she pulls herself together. We don't need any more cautionary tales.

Comic Commentaries

Let us pause for a moment to look over some of the latest news in the world of comic book to film adaptations.

SPIDER-MAN IV


We have our Spidey in the form of British actor Andrew Garfield, age 26. To call it Spider-Man IV is actually a misnomer, since the idea is to basically start over (aka reboot). I find this most interesting, since it was only in 2002 when Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire was released. That means when the next Spider-Man is released in 2012, it will be only ten years since we first saw our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man gain his 'great powers'. Yes, Americans have a shorter and shorter attention span, but this will be a new standard altogether; the gap between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) and Superman Returns (2006) was nineteen years, and even longer between Superman: The Movie and Returns (twenty-eight). You had a whole generation between the films, while between Spider-Man 3 and the yet-to-be-titled Spider-Man will be a mere five. Will kids who remember, love, and identify with Maguire turn their allegiance so quickly to Garfield? I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I think the core fans should as well. No one thought Michael Keaton would make the best Batman (apologies to Christian Bale--you're my Number Two). Come to think of it, with the exception of Keaton, every successful comic book franchise began with an unknown or unexpected choice (Christopher Reeves' Superman, Maguire's Spider-Man, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron-Man).

As I wrote, there were only two options: start from scratch or try to push on with what the other films built. They've gone with Option A. I don't know how the core fans, or the general public for that matter, will accept going BACK to Peter Parker's high school years when they've ALREADY gone through all that in Spider-Man. It's basically telling the same story twice. However, I digress.

What about this Andrew Garfield? Is he a good actor? Truthfully, I don't know: I did see The Other Boleyn Girl but don't remember him. We'll all get our first real taste of him in The Social Network, and I bet a lot of comic book fans will be watching the story of the rise of Facebook merely to get their first impressions of Garfield. I was right in that prediction too: better to go with a fresh face/unknown than to cast someone with name recognition (no Billy Elliot, I mean Jamie Bell, web-slinging). My ONE concern is his age: Garfield will be 28 when the film is released if it's released on time. How DOES a 26-year-old convincingly play a teenager? If that's the case, I could have been the new Spidey (we need a Hispanic Spider-Man...Pedro Parker, anyone?). Zac Efron is only 22, and he wasn't all that convincing as a teen in Me & Orson Welles. If a 22-year-old couldn't QUITE pull it off, how will someone nearly 30 do it? I've read that producers, seeing this quandary, have decided to shift the setting to college. All well and good, and that might work, but won't that play havoc with the established mythology from the comic books? If we have Spider-Man's genesis at college, how will that impact the appeal of Peter Parker (the kid who doesn't fit in, a social outcast who now has these incredible powers)?

In short, I can't condemn a movie that isn't even fully cast yet. I don't know how the franchise will be if we start at the very beginning, to quote the song, or where it will go after it's released. We will have to forget everything that's come before, and we can do that (Batman Begins did that brilliantly). My concern is that Garfield will be dumped like Brandon Routh after Superman Returns didn't meet expectations (I've always held Returns was a bad film and that Routh was not to blame for its perceived failure--it was the story that sunk the film). Garfield's age pushes credibility if it's set in high school, and may not please the fans if it's set in college. However, I wish Andrew Garfield well, and will hold my judgment until I can see the final product.

One more thing. I've also read that the direction of next Spider-Man film will be in the vein of the Christopher Nolan Batman films: dark, brooding, gritty. Dear God I hope that doesn't happen. Spider-Man isn't a dark, brooding, gritty character. Batman is, and it works well in those films, but let us remember, he is "your FRIENDLY neighborhood Spider-Man", not "your MOROSE AND HAUNTED neighborhood Spider-Man".


THE AVENGERS


No, this isn't the one with John Steed and Miss Peel (the less said of that, the better). We DON'T have Edward Norton as The Hulk. I don't know what it is about this particular character that makes it appear as if there's a curse on it. For my money, the best Hulk was the combination of Bill Bixley as Dr. David Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk himself. Film versions of The Incredible Hulk just seem to fall flat. Hulk with Eric Bana as the green thing bombed at the box office and is reviled by the fans (I haven't seen it so I can't say one thing or another). I did see The Incredible Hulk with Norton as Dr. Banner, and I liked it...not the greatest film but enjoyable. You even had a tie-in with The Avengers at the very end of The Incredible Hulk, where Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark makes a quick cameo. You have here two very talented and respected actors playing this creature and both, regardless of their skills, can't get a franchise going with it.

In the case of Hulk, the disaster that it became probably played a role in not bringing Bana back. In the case of The Incredible Hulk, it's been the not-too-subtle rumors about how Norton is perceived as basically not a team player. I think that Norton should have continued on as The Hulk because I think he did a good job, and you also have a very confusing situation. Every other actor involved in a Marvel adaptation (Chris Evans as Captain America, Downey, Jr. as Iron-Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor) are all going to be in The Avengers, as are Scarlett Johanssen and Samuel L. Jackson who are reprising their roles from Iron-Man II. The only one who won't is Norton, so if an attempt is made to tie all these films together it won't quite mesh.

The latest rumor is that they are trying to get Mark Ruffalo to play the Hulk, which leads me to wonder why every producer who has dealt with the Hulk INSISTS on casting very serious actors best known for extremely dramatic work in this role. Should Ruffalo agree, he will be the THIRD actor known for more independent/art-house films to be this comic book character. I flat-out don't understand the logic. However, I understand WHY they decided to go with a name rather than cast an unknown. You have a cast that is more or less known, so having an unknown in such a pivotal role would be jarring. Too much pressure will be on him to be on the same level as all the others who've established themselves in their roles, so why not have someone on their standing?

I confess: I don't know anything about The Avengers and have a passing knowledge of some of the characters (until Iron-Man II, I'd never HEARD of Nick Fury). I don't know how all this will work or even IF it will all work: having all these superheroes makes it look like a comic book version of Grand Hotel, and I figure they have to all be given relatively equal screen time: a most difficult balancing act. You have characters who are already established in their own franchises, now you're going to put them in what I take is Marvel's version of the Justice League (which I'm guessing is DC--no, I don't know the difference and don't care). This film, set for 2012, will I believe succeed or fail based solely on whether Thor and Captain America succeed or fail. If either one collapses financially (less so critically), it will in my view damage The Avengers overall.

THE GREEN HORNET


It's a sign of my near-total ignorance of comic books that I don't know if The Green Hornet even IS a comic book, but figuring it is about a mask-wearing crimefighter, I think the odds are in my favor. In any case, I see it as related, so I'm throwing it into the mix.

I saw a trailer for it at Grown Ups, and to be quite honest, I was impressed. Here we have another case of unique casting: who could imagine Seth Rogen, best known for playing slacker/stoner parts (I figure there is a distinction between slacker and stoner) as a millionaire playboy/crimefighter. You already have the makings of a good film when you have Christoph Waltz (from Inglourious Basterds) as the villain (I hope Waltz gets to make a romantic comedy soon). If they take the material seriously, you may actually have a good film.

Of course, it's difficult to say if The Green Hornet will actually be a good film based on a short trailer. However, I think it has very strong potential to live up to the building hype, and may actually set a new franchise and even a little respect for the character. If only Bruce Lee were alive to see this...The one concern I have now is that the release date has been pushed back a month, from December 2010 to January 2011 so as to retrofit it for 3-D.

I make this announcement now: 3-D will be the DEATH of Hollywood, not its salvation. Every producer bouncing on the Avatar bandwagon is simply missing the point: Avatar was CONCEIVED, CREATED, and MEANT to be in 3-D. Clash of the Titans (as well as The Green Hornet, Thor, and Captain America) were not and should not be. That is one of the reasons Clash of the Titans is a failure (and the upcoming sequel is just flat-out unjustifiable). It may make them money (especially from people dumb enough to spend more money to have things thrown at them) but now we're short-changing quality for dazzle. It is history repeating itself: in the 50s, 3-D was all the rage to get people away from television. With few exceptions (such as Vincent Price's version of House of Wax, Dial M For Murder, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon) few of the 3-D extravaganzas are remembered, let alone admired or even liked. They didn't succeed in getting people to stop watching Playhouse 90 or I Love Lucy, and almost as soon as they came, they left. Now there's this lemming-like rush to get everything in 3-D. Most of this madness has been confined to animated films, and so far movies like Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me have done well IN SPITE of 3-D, not because of it. You don't need to see them in 3-D to enjoy them.

I fear 3-D will grow so rapidly that, as sixty years before, the novelty will wear off, and people will start going back to 2-D (and to other things like originality, intelligence, actual acting). In short, they can't keep this up for much longer. Hollywood, STOP THE INSANITY! Yet I digress.

The Green Hornet may still yet survive without the aid (or hindrance) of Third Dimension. Again, if the story is taken seriously, we may have a good film...even if it does come in January. Until we get a chance to see these films: Spider-Man, The Avengers, and The Green Hornet, I won't get worked up for or against them. It's the actual product that should be judged, not what went on before or during.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon




STORY 010: THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH

It has only been less than twenty years since The Blitz, since the Allies defeated the monstrous Third Reich and brought an end to the Nazi reign of terror. The Dalek Invasion of Earth does what all good science-fiction stories should do: creates a parallel to our world but puts it within the safe confines of another universe. That kind of story-telling elevates something like The Dalek Invasion of Earth from merely a strong fantasy story to allegory: what Britain would have looked like if they had failed in "their finest hour".

This six-part story is unique in many ways. It is the first time in Doctor Who that a monster has made a return appearance. It is the first time that the word Daleks appeared in the title (Episode Two is called simply The Daleks). It is also the first time we lose a Companion. To combine all these elements into what was essentially a children's series is incredible: giving children the concepts of loss, state terror, and totalitarianism elevates the story to something more adult. In fact, the story (comprising the episodes World's End, The Daleks, Day of Reckoning, The End of Tomorrow, The Waking Ally, and Flashpoint) might be the first one that shifted the series as a whole from something just for the kids to something more adult, one that had a greater intelligence and a desire beyond merely entertaining. We see the end results in stories such as The Green Death, Doctor Who & The Silurians, and even up to COLD BLOOD: stories that work on two levels--what we see and what we read into them.

The story itself begins with one of the most chilling openings we've seen in Doctor Who (perhaps one of the most chilling in the entire series, both classic and revived): a man removes parts of a metal helmet and walks into a river. Shortly after, the TARDIS materializes, and the travellers discover this is London. However, The Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carol Anne Ford), and her teachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) sense something is wildly wrong. The city is silent: no birds, no boats, not even the chimes of Big Ben (it should be noted that Big Ben is the bell inside, not the clock tower itself). The group is split up & while Barbara & Susan are spirited away by a group of Resistance fighters, The Doctor & Ian are captured by...the Daleks, and their human slaves, called the Robomen. Now they all eventually join the Resistance: the leader, the scientist Dortum (Alan Judd), the fighter Tyler (Bernard Kay), the young man David (Peter Fraser), and the outwardly tough girl Jenny (Ann Davies). They are captured and escape at various times from the Daleks, and all go to the Dalek mining operation where Wells (Nicholas Smith) aids them in fighting the Daleks. Through the story, the feelings between Susan and David grow, and once the Daleks are finally overthrown, the Doctor decides the best thing for Susan is for her to start her own life here. He locks her out of the TARDIS, and leaves her with one of the best speeches ever delivered in the series.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth, more than any other Dalek story since (and far more directly than The Daleks) draws on the parallels between the Daleks and the Nazis. This is most obvious in Episode 6 (Flashpoint), when the Daleks refer to the extermination of the humans as "the final solution". The phrase itself, "extermination", is also reminiscent of Nazi racial ideology. Even in one of the most frightening scenes in the story, when the Daleks wander around an abandoned London, the connection is clear every time the Daleks raise their plunger arms in a Nazi-like salute. If one expands the concept of Daleks as Nazi substitutes, we see what a defeated Britain would have looked like: empty, desolate, with the population either being collaborators (the Robomen, albeit unwillingly) or Resistance fighters. To those who had survived and endured those years of war, seeing Daleks/Nazis overrun their capital must have been more terrifying than the aliens themselves could be. For the children, it's the idea that this frightening alien force is in the here and now, in their world, bringing them into terrifying proximity.

The imagery of The Dalek Invasion of Earth is aided by Francis Chagrin's score. In Episode 1 (World's End) and Episode 3 (Day of Reckoning) the music is very minimalist: consisting of drumbeats and what sounds like hammers tapping all mashed together, they give the moments with no dialogue an even more sinister, menacing, frightening tone. Richard Martin keeps things flowing remarkably fast in spite of a six-episode story, and some of the imagery he created is still impressive: the aforementioned Dalek wanderings through London and the Resistance attempting to avoid them, the Dalek emerging from the River Thames in Episode 1, the camera moving closer and closer to match the ticking of a bomb at the end of Episode 3. This was an extremely ambitious story, and on the whole it succeeds.

The performances are excellent from the guest stars. Kay's gruff fighter is balanced against Judd's rational scientist. Fraser and Ford, under director Martin, made wise decisions to allow the relationship between David and Susan grow slowly, and the scene where David flirts with Susan with the aid of a fish is beautifully shot and acted. It's here that writer Terry Nation allows a bit of levity into a very dark storyline, and even gives The Doctor a good quip. When told that they were just cooking a fish, he replies, "I can see something's cooking", with the subtext clear. Fraser and Ford are both extremely believable as two young people discovering love for the first time, or at least serious love. Smith, whom we know mostly as the inept department head in Are You Being Served?, is very strong as the leader of the mining rebels. He is tough, shrewd, caring to his fellow slaves...all the qualities antithetical to Mr. Rumbold. Davies' Jenny at first appears tough and aloof, but as the story goes on we begin to see the vulnerability and heartbreak within her.

As a side note, there was discussion of her taking Ford's place as a Companion, and while it could have been worked out I don't know if it would have been good to have such an integral and important character replaced so easily. Children and teens would have identified most with Susan, and seeing her be replaced by another teen girl so quickly might have been jarring. Rather, the fact that the ending to The Dalek Invasion of Earth is rather open-ended (only the second time the ending of one story doesn't lead into the beginning of another, the first being the transition from The Keys of Marinus to The Aztecs) gives the audience a time to mourn and reflect on just what a powerful ending the story has.

At the heart of the beauty of The Dalek Invasion of Earth is William Hartnell's performance. Injury forced him to not appear in Episode 4 (The End of Tomorrow), but he still conveys wisdom and courage in fighting the Daleks. However, here more than he has before, he shows a tender, caring side. His farewell to Susan at the end of Episode 6 is one of the most elegant and touching monologues he ever delivered, and I'd argue one of the best monologues in the entire SERIES, both classic and revived. It is still quoted today:

One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.

Even now, his delivery of his entire speech, and the genuine sense of loss he expresses, still makes it a hallmark for all future Doctors to measure themselves with. Curiously, he never did "come back"*. Hill and Russell both have their moments, as when Barbara has to flee for her life in Episode 1 or Ian deals with Wells and a smuggler in Episodes 4 & 5 (The End of Tomorrow and The Waking Ally). They continue to act well but have the benefit of knowing their characters very well.

The flaws, though few, are still evident. The biggest was The Slyther, some form of monster that was described as a "pet" of the Daleks. Why the Daleks would want a pet of some sort is a mystery, though I'm sure he really wasn't an actual pet but some form of guard against escape in the mines. The actual look of the Slyther is rather odd if not downright silly--a rubber monster that did look like a deranged Christmas tree. It's up there with the Myrka from Warriors of the Deep as one of the worst in Doctor Who. The entire reason for the invasion: not for conquest but to take the Earth's core and pilot the planet around like a ship (as far as I could make out) seems so flat-out bizarre. Why on Earth would the Daleks want to fly around on the Earth? The two women in the woods bit wasn't needed and almost stopped the story cold, and I don't remember where Jenny went after the revolt began. She just disappeared, which I thought was curious.

Overall, with the action, romance, terror, adventure, Nazi analogies, and loss within The Dalek Invasion of Earth, Doctor Who created one of its best stories so far. Fare thee well, fair Susan.

Next Story: The Rescue

9/10

*Susan and the First Doctor DID in a sense reunite, when they were brought together for The Five Doctors. However, as of yet no television story has featured Susan or explained what happened to her after she was left on Earth with David.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Don't Sleep I Dream


INCEPTION

I have heard much talk that Inception, the newest film from writer/director Christopher Nolan, is suppose to be extremely difficult and confusing. I did not find it so. On the contrary: I found it remarkably logical and intelligent IF you are willing to go along with its premise. Once you accept the world of Inception fully, everything works remarkably well to create one of the most original, inventive, and amazingly intelligent films of the year.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, whose character's name to me sounds oddly like 'dot com') is a master thief of the most unique order: he breaks into people's minds to steal whatever his employer has requested he steal. He is aided by Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and their latest heist involves Saito (Ken Watanabe) a Japanese industrialist. Saito, however, is playing a game of his own, and after seeing what they can do hires them, not for extraction (removing ideas from a subject) but for inception (planting a thought into the subject). The victim is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Saito's rival. He wants Fischer to have the thought to break up his father's company so to allow Saito to have dominance over his industry. Inceptions are suppose to be impossible, but Cobb knows it can be done. This will require one to go into the deepest level of the human subconscious, which can be dangerous. However, they agree to do so, in exchange for Saito to fix criminal charges against Cobb that forced him to flee to France (if only Roman Polanski could hire these guys).

Cobb fled due to the mystery surrounding the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). He is desperate to return to his children, but doing so would land him in prison. He goes to his father (Michael Caine), a professor in Paris, to help him find an "architect": someone who can design the false world the subject will inhabit while the group goes in. He selects Ariadne (Ellen Page), one of his students. Cobb also hires Yusuf (Dileep Rao) and Eames (Tom Hardy), the former to induce a particularly strong hibernation and the latter as a "forger", one who can take the appearance of someone in the subject's subconscious to get him to trust him. The group sets up the plan and begins executing it, but Cobb's obsession with Mal starts interfering with the project, as do the private army already in Fischer's mind to protect him from "extractors". The thieves, who occupy three (or four) levels of subconscious thought, have less and less time to leave their worlds or they will end up in Limbo, where if the physically live their minds will now be gone. These dream-inside a dream-within a dream all start folding into each other.

In a nutshell, that's as close to a description of the overall story of Inception one can give without starting to give everything away. However, even a cursory view of the plot doesn't make the concept so difficult to understand or confusing. Nolan actually does something few film-makers do: he TRUSTS his audience to understand and to keep up with Inception. Once he sets up the premise, he doesn't go back to try to explain things or dumb things down or try throwing in things that wouldn't make sense within those dreamworlds. He (and we) understand that dreamworlds have their own internal logic, which doesn't correspond to the logic of reality itself. Nolan emphasizes this with the "totem": an object that each extractor carries with him (with the exception of Ariadne, it's an all-male team) that assures him that they are now in reality. He also gives us the concept of the "kick": the falling sensation that wakes us up (which everyone I imagine has experienced) is used by the thieves to wake from the dreams of others. Not only can you tell Inception is an intelligent film because it follows its own internal logic but also by the names and occupations the characters have. Ariadne, for example, is the name of the princess who helped Theseus maneuver The Labyrinth against the Minotaur, and here a similarly-named girl helps Cobb maneuver the labyrinth of Fischer's mind against Mal.

The more I ponder Inception, the more I like it. It has all the right elements of a heist film (the team planning and executing a near-perfect break-in/out), throws in a bit of The Matrix (the conflict between reality and illusion), and even shades of The Fountain or Shutter Island (guilt about death/loss intruding into reality--although Shutter Island is still lousy). This is what makes me love the film: Nolan thinks I'm smart and that all the various plots within Inception will not go over my head. He places that trust on us and let's us come to our own conclusions.

He also gives all the actors a wonderful platform to show us their abilities. DiCaprio has now perfected the tortured individual (see The Departed, Shutter Island, Inception). (Side note: oh, how I wish he and/or Christian Bale would do a romantic comedy, merely to keep them sane and let us see a jolly side as opposed to their brooding, morose, humorless ones. Perhaps it should be required that after working with Christopher Nolan, you should make a film with Judd Apatow). He never lets up as someone who is professional at his job but who is on the verge of crumbling internally and externally because of the torments within his own mind. Page has left her Juno persona (the uber-smart/smart-alick teen) and given us a character intrigued and repelled by all that goes on around her. The conflict between the ability to be able to do anything within the mind and the fear that can overwhelm is played beautifully. Likewise, Gordon-Levitt has left all traces of 3rd Rock from The Sun (and now has better hair) as the thoroughly professional Arthur. It is so wonderful to see him grow and grow as an actor--going from lovelorn in 500 Days of Summer to cold and methodical in Inception. Hardy brings what little humor there is to the traditional team of criminals (one of the few flaws in Inception is how no one really seems to even try to have a good time, or smile, or laugh). Murphy is in rare form: as almost an innocent within this maze of madness, someone who is trusting of what he sees and is told is deceived throughout, tortured physically and emotionally. Cotillard I think was the only one who veered close to over-acting, but given that Mal was a little crazy I'm willing to not dwell too much on it. (Side note: given how the musical cue to get ready to jump into reality was Edith Piaf's Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, I wonder if this was Nolan tipping his hat to Cotillard's Oscar-winning performance in La Vie En Rose).

I grant that both the concept of unrealities and the visuals (particularly a thrilling fight in a hotel hallway where it appears they are swimming in mid-air) are reminiscent of The Matrix, but that shouldn't be held against it because both are uniquely original ideas. Another great plus is that as in The Matrix, the special effects (such as the aforementioned floating and fighting down the hotel hallway or when they first enter Saito's mind). That actually makes it a rarity: a film where the visual serve the story as opposed to merely showing what can be done.

There are a few things to complain about. Chief among them is Hans Zimmer's score. It isn't that it's a terrible score (overall, I thought it worked within the dark atmosphere of Inception). It's that there was simply too much of it. There were very few moments of silence within the film and I think it would have benefitted it if the music didn't draw so much attention to itself. I predict the music is going to polarize people the same way the score for There Will Be Blood did: either you loved it or you hated it (I'm in the 'love' quarter). I also am not, at the moment, too thrilled with the ending. The audience I was with wasn't keen on it either: I heard a few groans when the movie went to black. I have to say at the moment because I think the nature of it is the ultimate trust with Nolan: take it however YOU want to take it, he seems to be saying. I'm not going to wrap things neatly up for you. YOU have to make your own decision.

Nolan has achieved a great film: one that is intelligent AND entertaining. He appears to validate my view that if you trust your audience, you can create an extraordinary film that will make you think and get you involved. After going through Eclipse, Grown Ups, The A-Team, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Robin Hood, Sex & The City 2, or Clash of the Titans, I wouldn't blame people for despairing that good film-making had vanished from the earth. Inception is more like Restoration: a film where the mind is engaged and that appeals to a broad audience. To sleep, perchance to dream...