Monday, January 31, 2011

The Last Airbender: A Review (Review #186)



THE LAST AIRBENDER


Even before the end of its opening weekend, The Last Airbender was becoming infamous for the sheer awfulness of everything involved in it. It has earned a reputation as being one of the worst films of 2010, and the worst in the increasingly irrelevant career of former and fading wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan: an incredible feat given The Village, Lady In the Water, and The Happening. Once touted as the next Steven Spielberg, he is fast becoming the next Ed Wood: a man with high ambitions but little to no talent, not resting but living off his laurels from The Sixth Sense and Signs.

I took a glance at YouTube to see the reaction of the hard-core fans of the animated series, and I was completely stunned at how much vitriol they unleashed on the live-action adaptation. They pounced on the absence of certain characters and especially on the pronunciation of their beloved character's names. The collective declaration of those who loved Avatar: The Last Airbender is unanimous: it would have been better to have thrown feces at them and forced them to eat it for the nearly two hours the film ran as opposed to having to watch the film again.

As the saying goes, I have no dog in this fight: I've never seen an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, so I cannot vouch for the fidelity to the series. To be sure, the video of the fans in total disbelief and barely contained fury are far more entertaining than the film itself. The live-action adaptation is mired by a grandiose, inflated and irrational sense of self-importance, truly awful line readings (I cannot in good conscience call it 'acting'), endless exposition and absolutely no sense of fun, joy, or whimsy.



In a certain sense, I shouldn't have to go over what is suppose to be the plot, because someone in The Last Airbender will be more than happy to supply that information in the form of exposition dialogue of which there is an abundant supply. However, here is a brief overview.

In the world of The Last Airbender, there are four Nations: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. The brother and sister team of Katara (Jackson Rathbone) and Sokka (Nicola Peltz), members of the Southern Water Nation (which I figure is in what corresponds to our South Pole), discover a boy buried deep within the ice in their home, along with a very large animal. They discover that the child, Aang (Noah Ringer),  is the fabled Avatar, one who will bring balance to The Force, I mean, to the Elements. Aang, however, has been frozen in the ice for 100 years, and in that time the Fire Nation has waged a war of aggression and conquest. Therefore, when the exiled Fire Nation Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) and his loyal Uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub) learns the fabled Avatar is alive, he begins a quest to re-take him prisoner as a way to get back in the good graces of his father, Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis).

The Avatar is a bit useless because he ran away from his Temple before being trained to 'bend' or manipulate all four elements. We discover all Air Nomads have been exterminated, all save him (hence, the last airbender). Now, Aang, Katara, and Sokka go to the Northern Water Kingdom (which I figure is the North Pole) on Aang's flying bison to learn how to bend water (I figure Katara, who can manipulate water, wouldn't be a good teacher since she hasn't quite got the hang of it herself). Zuko, as well as a second group of Fire Nation troops headed by Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) head there to capture him (though not kill him since he would only be reincarnated...I figure a more kick-ass version of the Dalai Lama). There, an epic battle begins, but it is only the first part, for in three years time, we are told, the Fire Nation will be ready to challenge the Avatar again.


If anything positive can be said about The Last Airbender, it is the fact that writer/producer/director Shyamalan may be the first filmmaker to signal he planned to make more Last Airbender films in both the beginning and the end of his movie. The film near the beginning has "Book One: Water" appear on the screen, and we end with the shot of what appears to be a villainous Fire Princess about to begin her mission. Again, not having seen Avatar: The Last Airbender (the film had to drop the 'Avatar' from the title lest the public think it was a sequel to the James Cameron film) I thought that The Last Airbender itself was going to consist of four parts: Water, Air, Earth, and Fire, but it wasn't until the film ended that I realized we hadn't gotten any other parts.

Water was the only element to this story, and if there was a thought to have the other elements have their own film in the hoped-for franchise, the spectacular failure both commercially and critically of The Last Airbender makes such thoughts foolish dreams. If anyone attempts to make a sequel to The Last Airbender, it will be proof positive that Hollywood is run by thoroughly crazy people totally divorced from reality or reason.

Where to start with examining the rotting corpse that is The Last Airbender. Let's go first with the actual story and script. In spite of its hour and forty-minute running time there is never enough time to have characters develop anything like back-stories or grow/change in a psychological or emotional manner. We don't ever get to know Katara or Sokka or Aang or Zuko as people, because we have to keep moving from one location to another to set up another fight sequence.

Shyamalan somehow believes he has found a novel way of compensating for the fact that we don't know anything about the characters at least if you come into the film cold: he simply has the characters speak all the information you need to know in the form of dialogue. Why didn't anyone else come up with such a unique storytelling method: dialogue as exposition! For someone who has made several films, Shyamalan apparently doesn't realize just how bizarre it sounds to have people tell us about what came before while trying to make it sound like normal speech.



Take for example when Zhao and Iroh agree to meet aboard Iroh's ship. There, Zhao tells the crew as to the reason Prince Zuko has been banished. A more rational and logical writer would have realized such exposition would make no sense: wouldn't the troops in the Fire Nation already have known all of this? Unfortunately, Shyamalan repeats this storytelling method more than once, and The Last Airbender is rife with endless scenes which are really nothing more than excuses to tell us the background as to what is going on. If that weren't bad enough, we have Katara give us three or four voice-overs telling us either what has come before, what is going on now even though we can see it and even what will come in the future, such as when she tells us that Sokka and Northern Water Princess Yue (Seychelle Gabriel) will 'become good friends' although we already know they will fall in love). Shyamalan in short, simply doesn't trust his audience (even those well versed in Avatar: The Last Airbender) to either keep up with his screenplay or to understand what they are seeing.

Perhaps that could be forgiven; no, it can't be. However, Shyamalan makes this worse by showing us what we already know after we've been told. Take same 'Prince Zuko banished' story. So all right, we were told the whole story in the banquet scene aboard Zuko's ship. However, Shyamalan decided to show us the banishment some time later. Why not combine both to save time and not have to repeat ourselves? Somehow, that never occurred to him, because he does this again and again. Not only does that serve only to lengthen the story, but it eats up time that could have been better spent showing how Aang learned to bend water or develop other aspects in The Last Airbender that had to be rushed almost to not being there (such as the romance between Sokka and Yue, which never felt real since we never really saw them spend any time together).

Shyamalan also appeared to have lost any ability to direct his actors, for the performances bar none were either wildly over the top or thorougly lifeless. I can see how Sokka and Katara would be from the South Pole, since both of them appeared frozen and stiff in their performances. This may be the second time that Rathbone plays a dead person (we need remember he also plays Jasper in the equally dreadful Twilight films, excuse me, Twilight SAGA films), and the fact that he is dreadful in two film franchises should be a sign that Rathbone is not an actor no matter how generous the definition of the word has become.

Ringer's Aang is also lifeless and joyless, and few performances of the title character have been so dull and comical in the wrong way. When he is called upon to react with horror and pain at the discovery that his fellow Air Nomads have been killed en masse, the reaction from the viewer is not sadness but laughter at how awful he is. It could be hoped that Dev Patel will be able to find roles that will return him to Slumdog Millionaire territory than The Last Airbender. His Zuko has no real personality but comes off not as nothing more than a whiny kid with daddy issues: an Episode One Anakin Skywalker without the personality. As with everyone else in the film, his motives and whatever internal conflict he had either had to be told to us via exposition or was non-existence.

As is my standard, I opted not to see The Last Airbender in 3-D, and frankly, I missed nothing. My views on 3-D are well-known (I HATE IT, I HATE IT, I HATE IT), and it didn't add anything to the story such as it was. The special effects were not amazing or overwhelming, but like a lot of the film, boring. In what is suppose to be the climatic battle between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Nation, I was fighting to stay awake, for the reliance on slow motion and what appears to be fighting using Tai Chi methods made things more dull. This ability to induce sleep may explain why James Newton Howard's score was so loud, pompous, and overblown: it must have been an effort to keep the audience awake by blasting it away to full power.

Finally, let me address the pronunciation issue. I'm told by fans it is pronounced Aah-ng, so why Shyamalan and Company opted for Awe-ng. This irritated them to no end, and it is an illogical decision though one not noted by non-viewers. However, I will fault them as if they needed more things to be faulted for for never deciding whether it was Ah-vatar or Aah-vatar. In short, they could never decide to make the first A either a long or short vowel, and this inconsistency, while ultimately a minor issue, is endemic of how chaotic The Last Airbender as a whole is.

In short, everything involving The Last Airbender: acting, plot, directing, script, music, art direction, costumes, special effects, and I think even the catering, was a complete and totally unremitting disaster. The Last Airbender is so horrid that if it were shown at Guantanamo Bay, there would be no argument that we indeed were using torture.

No doubt Shyamalan will survive this epic and monstrous debacle. In any other industry, having a job performance rating go from 85% to 7% within ten years would have gotten you fired. Fortunately for him, he works in Hollywood, which is the only industry where having a consistently failing rate almost assures one of continued employment.  As the quality of Shyamalan's films continues to come crashing down, people still give him millions upon millions of dollars to make his films with the hope they will make them profits. However, I run the risk of this going from a review to a personal reflection.

Shyamalan will make one or two more movies, but if his track record does not improve, he will be the first director to be Box Office Poison. No one, not even in Hollywood, is insane enough to want to make another film so despised by both the fans of the original and those who've never seen the cartoon. Therefore, this certainly will be The LAST Airbender.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It Just Won't Run. The Mechanic (2011) Review


THE MECHANIC

This is just a fact of life, like the rising of the sun and the turning of the tides: you don't go to a Jason Statham movie thinking it's going to be a character-driven piece. You go to a Jason Statham film to see people killed and things blown up, sometimes at the same time. Therefore, when going into The Mechanic, one has to go in with the understanding that this will not be a film that needs such trivialities as character development, story structure, or even plot. We Want People Blown Out or Blown Up, confound it!

It's a pretty safe bet Jason Statham won't be working for Werner Herzog anytime soon, and I doubt either would want to. Statham to his credit, knows what his job is, knows his limitations as an 'actor', and frankly, doesn't care. For good or ill, the intellectual level of any Jason Statham film is pretty low. Even by those standards, however, The Mechanic really failed to do what it could have done because the story never holds up.

Arthur Bishop (Statham) is a hit man, but a good hitman: good in that he kills only those who should be killed. Drug lords, other assassins, corrupt cult leaders, those are the types he will kill; he is contracted by a shadowy company headed up by Dean (Tony Goldwyn), and the newest contract is one too close to home: his mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who is in a wheelchair to top it off. Once Bishop learns that Harry is responsible for several of his compatriot's deaths, it does become a little easier to follow through, though not by much.

Once Harry's dead, his dissolute son Steve (Ben Foster), comes back to New Orleans seeking revenge for his father's murder. Instead, Bishop takes him on as an apprentice and trains him in the art of killing, a remarkable feat given Steve is hot-headed, at times irrational, a drunk and pot-smoker: all things that the professional and disciplined Bishop opposes. After Bishop and Steve have filled out two contracts (both of which the hotshot rookie nearly bungled), Bishop learns a shocking twist involving a major conspiracy within the Company, but Steve also discovers the truth about Harry's killing. Both are now united in their determination to get Dean, but will they catch on that one or both know that the other knows?

Take a guess.



I can enjoy mindless entertainment: I stand by my enjoyment of The Transporter and the first three Fast & Furious films and will say they are good films; not Citizen Kane good but good in the way a double cheeseburger is good: unhealthy perhaps, but damn delicious. This is especially true in a Jason Statham film, since his whole career has been built on giving mindless entertainment to his fan base: teenage boys and those who think like them.

In The Mechanic, he doesn't go far from his persona: a guy who kills. He brings all his Jason Statham mannerisms: a growling East End British voice, his distinctive bald head with a hint of hair, and his complete lack of facial expression barring a scowl. Therefore, when I went into the theater, I was expecting nothing more than a lot of violence, a lot of killing, a lot of action. Certainly, The Mechanic delivers these things, oftentimes quite gruesomely; in one sequence, we do see, albeit from a great height, what a body crashing on cement would look like.

The problem with The Mechanic is that it leaves people who think about plot or character development scratching their heads. Yes, I'm aware these types of films don't necessarily have any of those, but The Mechanic does make the attempt to have those things. We are suppose to believe that Steve has some knowledge of Harry's work and in what esteem Harry had for Bishop, so there would be great dramatic tension between Steve (the son Harry got) and Bishop (the son Harry wanted). However, we never see the exploration between their characters. We never understand why Bishop would want to take Steve under his wing. I figure some vague sense of guilt but given Statham's near total lack of actual acting we can never gauge his emotions if we were to use his face or voice to let us know all that.

There is also a strange sequence involving Steve and a rival hitman, Burke (Jeff Chase). The whole sequence, if one things about it, shows Bishop to be highly calculating in keeping Steve in the dark, but it also to my mind taps into the latent homophobia Statham fans (teenage boys and those who think like them) may have. As the scene progresses, one wonders how far Steve will go to do things his way. It certainly is a new twist in how hitmen are portrayed but I wonder if director Simon West needed to go as far as he did in this scene.

The characters are rather cliche: the upstart and undisciplined assassin trainee who doesn't go for that clean kill crap (Steve), the rather campy villain (Dean), even the girl with no name who basically serves as Statham's sexual outlet. It's good to see women are really good for nothing more than a distraction for an hour or two, and while Mini Anden's character does have a name (it is Sarah), I don't remember ever hearing it.

Then again, it really isn't necessary to learn it since she really isn't necessary to Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino's screenplay (adapting the original 1972 Charles Bronson film which I have yet to see so I can't compare it to the remake). I suspect she serves to remind audiences that Bishop himself is not gay and unlike Burke (and perhaps Steve) has no homosexual inclinations or suggestions.

There certainly were many action sequences, though none blew me out of the water (although some actually did take place in the water). The killing of the cult leader was perhaps the most dramatic, but at times The Mechanic was far too enamored of how easy it was to kill people off. For example, when Steve witnesses his first kill, he seems remarkably emotionalless about it, almost as if it's a bit surprising the man was getting killed but nothing all that out of the ordinary.

Now, I have to say that I've seen Foster only in X Men: The Last Stand as Angel, so I believe he has talent as an actor given his performance there and here, albeit one where action is more important than acting in both films (which were on the whole, either not very good or downright terrible). It is fun to see Sutherland in basically a cameo to get the story rolling (no pun intended) and he certainly seems to revel in doing an action picture, though again whatever drama there could be (or even lightness or anything that could pass for friendship between Steve and Bishop) is not there in The Mechanic.



Finally, I want to criticize the ending. When we come to what could have been the ending, we would have had a film that had a touch of pathos to conclude it. However, we have to have one last twist which seemed created to please Statham's reputation rather than serve the story. Given his guilt over killing his mentor/Steve's father, we could have had the film close well. Instead, we have an ending we should have seen coming.

Again, I'm of the mind that certain films should be judged by the standard they are trying to meet. The Mechanic is trying to be a mindless perhaps brainless action film, and it does come close. Some of the action sequences are intense. I would argue The Mechanic sometimes falls when it asks Jason Statham to act: there is a scene when he is I figure suppose to be contemplating his actions, but given he cannot register emotion, it's only a wild guess.

It would ultimately be best to wait for The Mechanic to be on DVD, and only if there are few choices. Going to see it in theaters is like going to a real-life mechanic: you more than likely will be overcharged for the services rendered.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Aliens: A Review (Review #184)


ALIENS

Only once have I ever jumped in fright while watching a film. The film was Aliens, and it really wasn't a frightening scene. The exact moment is when they are examining what appears to be a dead alien...and then, WHAM! It jumps up, and I jumped with it.

It's a sign of Aliens' brilliance that it engrosses you so deep in its story that you become a part of it. When a film envelopes you in its artifice to become utterly real, then it is a brilliant production.

An even better sign of Aliens' genius is that one really doesn't have to have seen Alien to follow the plot. We don't have to worry about backstory because it is filled in for us both early and easily: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the spaceship Nostromo, has been awakened after 57 years in suspended animation to a disbelieving corporation which doesn't believe her story of an Alien having killed everyone she was with on the Nostromo.

Still haunted by her terrifying ordeal as well as the knowledge that her family is dead, she tries to move on with her life. However, the planet from which she had escaped her encounter with the Alien is now being colonized, and the company has lost contact with said planet: LV-426. She agrees to go help a group of marines, but not for them, but to free herself of the nightmares she's been plagued with.

On LV-426, the only survivor found is a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). The Marines also find two 'facehuggers', spawn of the Alien that literally suck the life out of its victims. While the Marines, along with the android Bishop (Lance Henricksen) whom Ripley mistrusts due to her experience with a previous android in Alien, try to rescue those caught in the Alien's nest, Company executive Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) wants to use the 'facehuggers' and the Alien itself for whatever weaponry can be cultivated from them. Slowly the Marines are getting picked off by the Alien, leaving Ripley to face off against her monstrous nemesis while trying to save Newt.

I've had issues with some of director James Cameron's later films (Titanic, Avatar), but when he gets it right he goes all out to create a frightening, thrilling, intense, and emotionally involving film that gets you from the very start and keeps you locked in until past the end. Aliens (which he wrote the screenplay to from a story by himself, David Giler and Walter Hill which was based on the film Alien), is smart about its material.

Cameron trusts both his audiences: those who saw the first film and those which didn't. The Court of Inquiry early in Aliens allows those who have no idea who Ripley or the Alien are to get the backstory without it being overt, and it flows easily from the original. This is vital to the success of Aliens as a film in its own right: we don't have to have seen Alien to follow Aliens (although as a side note, I would recommend Alien immediately).

Cameron builds on the tension by restraining any inclination to be graphic. Instead, the attacks from the Alien are more terrifying because they are visually limited. It leaves us to imagine what the attacks on the colonists look like for example, and what we can imagine can be more frightening. He also holds off on us actually seeing the Alien itself: it takes over an hour before we see the Alien Queen in all her horrifying glory, and even at our first glimpse it is through the weak and failing cameras of the Marines. In this scene, Cameron builds on the terror not just through the chaotic nature of the Alien attack, but on the decision to have our heroine watch helplessly, the character we identify with is rendered powerless just when she and by extension we build a need to jump in.

The script is also highly intelligent in how the Marines and Ripley must solve the situations they find themselves in. The problems keep building on the exploration and rescue, but the problems are ones that can't be resolved with weapons. By continuously making things harder for the crew, Cameron builds more tension as the audience is kept in suspense as to how anyone let alone Ripley will be able to survive. The trump card in Aliens on the issue of terror is Newt, for there are few things that will cause an emotional response as that of a child in mortal danger.



Massive amounts of credit need to go every element within Aliens: the art direction of Supervising Director Terence Ackland-Snow, Ken Court, Bert Davey, Fred Hole and Michael Lamont and set decoration of Crispian Sallis, James Horner's tense and dramatic score which shows he can write good music, and Adrian Biddle's cinematography. The last one is especially noteworthy in that it is in the darkness of Aliens' frightening imagery (real and imagined): the playing of the black and gray sets and the reds enhances the fear that Cameron builds and builds to where it becomes unbearable and totally pulls you within Aliens.

There can be no discussion of the success of Aliens as a film without singling out Sigourney Weaver. She has created a rarity in action/science-fiction films: a vulnerable heroine. It isn't just her gender that makes her unique in a film like Aliens although action leads for women are still few and far between. Even if Ripley were a man (and from what I understand, Ripley was suppose to have been a male in Alien), it is nearly impossible to find a hero who has any emotions akin to vulnerability, fear, protectiveness, gentleness. I don't know if the fact that Ripley was a woman released a 'mothering' instinct when it comes to her relationship with Newt, but it adds a greater depth and dimension: this character who can be extremely strong when needed can also be caring and fearsome in her protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

Her performance runs the entire spectrum: from someone who is genuinely frightened to someone who has no fear or at the very least, has fear but knows it has to be faced. Ripley is all business, who can face down a monster like the Alien Queen while also being tender with a child.

Ripley thanks to Weaver's performance can be as tough as any of the men, but doesn't have to be manly in her attitude toward life. The fact that she can be vulnerable is a strong counterpoint to the only other woman in Aliens, Jenette Goldstein's Private Vasquez (really, a nice Jewish girl as a Hispanic?). Goldstein's Vasquez is uber-tough: almost more macho than her male comrades, and it maybe that I may be the one reading too much into Aliens, but there is a curious mirror image between Vasquez in her macho posturing and Ripley in her acknowledging of fears but facing them. Still, Goldstein gives a strong performance, as does Henricksen as Bishop, who in spite of being an android is almost human in his own vulnerability and willingness to sacrifice.

I would, after a second viewing, still have to say that Bill Paxton's performance as Private Hudson was still terribly annoying: part of you almost want him to die because he's so insufferable as a character. In fact, all the Marines appear rather stereotypical in their tough outgoing demeanor, but perhaps this is a case where it shouldn't be taken too seriously. Even Paul Reiser as the sleazy businessman manages to be good, and I say this as someone who found both My Two Dads and Mad About You endlessly insufferable...and him especially so in both projects.

Everything in Aliens works: the acting and the action, the story, the directing, the music, even the sets. Every element in Aliens builds to a brilliant and terrifying story that builds and builds on the suspense, making each decision the characters make and each situation the face a life-and-death struggle against a monster. One of the most memorable lines in Aliens is near the end, when the Alien Queen threatens Newt. With the audience fully identifying with Ripley, with us knowing what Newt has suffered, with us wanting them to survive and the Alien to die, you cheer when in righteous fury Ripley yells:
Get away from her, you BITCH!
James Cameron doesn't let us have a true moment of rest until we leave the theater or the DVD ends, and at the end of Aliens, we need that time to recover from one of the most terrifying and thrilling films made.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Keeping His Chin Up. Early Thoughts on Matt Smith as The Tenth Doctor




THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR: MATT SMITH

Now we are at last able to get a better idea of who and how Matt Smith has shaped the character of The Doctor to suit his own talents and/or persona. For better or worse, he will be identified by people as "their Doctor" in the same way some look back to say Tom Baker or Peter Davison or even Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant.  With one season under his belt (and at least two more in the wings) how does Mr. Smith match up to the role of Doctor Smith?

From Season/Series Five, Matt Smith's Doctor is far lighter than his predecessor. Near the end of Tennant's era, the Doctor was quite dark, almost miserable in his loneliness and nihilism. Smith has made his Doctor more light-hearted, a bit more manic too. To his credit, Smith draws from the fact that The Doctor is closing in on being a thousand years old, so seeing his rather youthful face against the physicality he gives the Eleventh Doctor (hunching over, constantly rubbing his fingers) is a good take on the Doctor. He also has adopted his own catchphrase of sorts, declaring anything he likes (bow ties, fezzes, Stetsons) to be "cool". One wonders how The First Doctor could refer to anything as "cool".

Smith has given The Doctor a renewed sense of joy and fun, and most of the stories play on what appears to be his lack of understanding of Earth. How else can you rationalize his cluelessness when popping out of a cake and informing the guys at the stag party that a lovely young girl in skimpy outfit was in there before he was? The Eleventh Doctor is also a very fast speaker, much more than those who went before him. Listen to him speak: he's going ninety words a minute at times, making keeping up with him nothing if not fun.

Obviously, a full analysis of his tenure won't be possible until he takes his last bow and regenerates yet again.  I would argue his youthfulness has actually aided his take on a character as old as The Doctor. He does however, run the risk of going too far in the comedic take, so there is always that. On the whole, Matt Smith's first year is a strong sign that he could be one of the better Doctors if he tones down the idiocy.

Series/Season Five Overview

Next Story: Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 (The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Father Time Lord. Doctor Who Story 217: A Christmas Carol



STORY 217: A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Now, it seems that a Doctor Who Christmas special is a given. Before The Christmas Invasion, the only real mention of Christmas in Doctor Who that I am aware of was in the lost episode The Feast of Steven from the incomplete story The Daleks' Master Plan. With the revival, we've had besides the aforementioned Christmas Invasion, one special per series/season with none of them involved what used to be the central story of Christmas: the birth of Christ.

Granted, it wouldn't make sense to have a religious holiday be part of a science-fiction program, and I can live with that. Some of the great Christmas movies (It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street) have nothing to do with Jesus. It's one thing to celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas, it's another to do what The End of Time did: declare Christmas to be merely a festival of the winter solstice rather than a celebration of someone held to be God in human form. This may be what Richard Dawkins and his cohorts may proclaim, but for a vast majority of people, there is still a faith-based aspect to the holiday.

It was this odd dismissal of the Christ in Christ-Mas that troubled me, as if the whole concept of what Christmas was/is was no longer valid. A baby in a manger, it seems, is simply too controversial and too upsetting to tolerate. I can live and embrace a non-religious acknowledgement of December 24-25, but cannot accept a nearly overt hostility to a central tenet of a faith system. Then again, with regards to The End of Time, we may have been looking at it from a Gallyfreyan perspective, so I shouldn't be too harsh.

In any case, it seemed nearly inevitable that Doctor Who would tackle one of the great Christmas stories, right down to using Charles Dickens' title; a side note: perhaps next year, they'll do a riff of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, or maybe Miracle on Regent Street? I confess to a wariness when I heard both the title and the plot of A Christmas Carol, and the trailers didn't ease my fears. However, we have the final product before us. And now, after watching A Christmas Carol, we can see Stephen Moffat drew inspiration not just from the Dickens classic, but apparently, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Star Trek and even Jaws.


There is a giant spaceship about to crash. Aboard it are Amy Pond-Williams (Karen Gillan, and I added the Williams since she now is married) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill). The clouds they are traversing are making it impossible to land safely, and in fact said clouds are what is causing them to descend out of control. The clouds are controlled by one Kazran Sardick (Sir Michael Gambon), a miser of a man who has no interest in the lives about to be lost.

Enter The Doctor (Matt Smith), who at first attempts to persuade Kazran to stop the storm clouds from causing the deaths of 40 thousand people. Kazran is unmoved and tosses the Doctor out. The Doctor is still attempting to come up with a solution when he hears Christmas carols being played over the planet's loudspeakers, and that brings to mind "A Christmas Carol". With that, the Doctor presents himself as The Ghost of Christmas Past, and shows Kazran a film of him going back to the young Kazran. At first Old Kazran has no memory of The Doctor ever coming to him, but as The Doctor starts working with Young Kazran, the memories do flood back.

Those memories involve the beautiful Abigail (opera star Katherine Jenkins). The Young Kazran wants to see the fish that are able to float in the air with the greatest of ease. The Doctor is able to show him this, but he inadvertently attracts a floating shark. They are saved but now the shark can no longer float in the sky. Kazran then remembers Abigail. She is frozen deep within the bowels of Kazran's home (he takes relatives of those with debts as security), and it is her beautiful voice that brings a shark to life.

Kazran is so enraptured that he promises to release her on upcoming Christmases, and in a montage we see the Doctor and Kazran opening up her frozen coffin to spend it with them. Romance develops, but then there is a break when Abigail hints that something will keep them apart. A broken-hearted Kazran seals her in and refuses to release her ever again.


Enter Amy (as a hologram Ghost of Christmas Present). She shows Old Kazran a group of children singing Silent Night, thus showing those who will die if he refuses to soothe the storm clouds he controls. Still, he refuses, for he is angry that his past has been so altered that his memories of Abigail are doomed, for we learn that if he releases her, it will be her last day of life. Some sacrifices are too great to make. The Doctor returns as The Ghost of Christmas Future, but in an unexpected twist it isn't Old Kazran's future we see. Abigail then emerges, and his love for her shows him the error of his ways. It is her voice that saves the day.

I can't fault A Christmas Carol for being incredibly rushed since it only has an hour to pack in a story. I can fault it for being a rather uninteresting, throwing in moments of comedy where they weren't needed.

Take for example when we first see Amy and Rory. For the vaguest of reasons she is wearing her "sexy policewoman" outfit from The Eleventh Hour and he is in his Roman soldier wardrobe from The Big Bang. This is suppose to be their honeymoon and when last we saw them they were in their wedding tuxedo and gown. It's suggested that they wore these outfits as some form of sex game which the storm cloud rudely interrupted, but seeing them in these outfits takes away from what is suppose to be rather serious tones of potential life or death.

This thing with their outfits being comedy relief is enhanced when Amy attempts to be The Ghost of Christmas Present. With all that is going on, with four thousand lives (or perhaps four thousand and two if we count Mr. & Mrs. Williams) hanging in the balance, Rory's biggest concern is that Kazran will get a look up Amy's skirt? Seriously? It would have been better if she had appeared in a nightgown or negligee; it would have kept the honeymoon aspect of the story without having them wear past outfits for little reason other than to remember previous stories.

Another bit of non-comic relief comes courtesy of The Doctor himself, and he does it twice. The first one I recall is when he takes Abigail and Kazran to celebrate Christmas dinner with Abigail's family: the entire routine of 'take a card, any card' to me fell flat. It was neither clever or amusing. The second comes when he takes them to celebrate Christmas in 1962 California. Marilyn Monroe to my mind has suffered quite enough, thank you very much. No, wait, I forgot a third time: when the Doctor chides a child for not believing in Santa Claus/Father Christmas. It so happens the Doctor has met 'Jeff' himself. St. Nick's real name is Jeff. Ha ha.



Even in the moments when it is suppose to be serious, A Christmas Carol can't draw us into the danger. We're told that 4,000 people will die, but in a strange twist we never feel any urgency about it. It may be that it is because we never get to know anyone aboard the ship, or even see the ship apart from the bridge. Somehow, since we get thrown this danger straight from the get-go, we don't get the sense that there is really any danger to begin with; at least I didn't. We just have to accept that people will die, but it all felt rather fake to me.

I put this because the only people we see on the bridge are Amy, Rory, and three crewmembers, and here A Christmas Carol is where it starts echoing other programs. The bridge was far too reminiscent of the Enterprise from Star Trek. There was even a black pilot with a strange eyepiece whom I kept referring to as Geordi LaForge. At least I gave them names (the credits simply read The Pilot, The Captain, The Co-Pilot).

I am willing to wager that director Toby Haynes was not, repeat not trying to spoof Star Trek, but the bridge aboard this crashing ship were so familiar (right down to visualizing on the large screen) that I flat-out wonder how they thought comparisons wouldn't be made.


In short, we really never get a vested interest in saving those aboard the craft because so much of the story is focused on Kazran and Abigail that those up in space are short-shifted. Stephen Moffat to his credit did create a good story where logic is concerned (altering Young Kazran's memories to where Old Kazran would later remember) but again, some things just couldn't be helped. "Back on Earth, we called this Christmas or the Winter Solstice (emphasis mine), Kazran in voice-over tells us.

Really? I don't think of myself as being sheltered, but I don't know anyone who refers to this time as the Winter Solstice. They just can't help themselves, can they, to downplay the religious aspects of Christmas. Honestly, just who refers to this particular celebration as Winter Solstice? When I heard that line, I couldn't help think it was done to placate those who find Christmas (and by extension, Christianity) odious.

There was one line in A Christmas Carol that had me howling with laughter. It is near the end, when Amy shows Kazran the children (think of The Children, won't someone please THINK OF THE CHILDREN) who will die. Side Note: to Moffat and Haynes' credit, the children were singing Silent Night, which may be the first time in the history of Doctor Who were the role of the Christ Child Jesus played in the Christmas story is suggested. Kazran, growling with fury, asks her, "Why are they singing?".

Maybe it's because I'm an American, and maybe it isn't as prevalent in Britain as it is in America, but this line appears to have been stolen from Dr. Seuss. Isn't that what The Grinch said when hearing the Whos on Christmas Day after having stolen all the presents from Who-ville? Was that suppose to be some odd reference that we were suppose to get? You know, "WHO-ville", "Doctor WHO"? It might not be an unfair comparison between Kazran and The Grinch since both their hearts are two sizes too small. That's all I could think of when I heard Kazran ask this. There is also a quick moment when we see a shark fin float past us in the icy fog that was missing two cello notes playing.



Getting aside from some of the sillier aspects of A Christmas Carol, there are certain things I didn't follow. Why did Abigail not mention that her time was running out much sooner? How did Abigail emerge from her frozen state that last Christmas when no one was seen releasing her? Why do we have to see Amy & Rory in silly costumes to begin with?

Since Gillan and Darvill aren't in A Christmas Carol that much, we can't say much about their performances except that we hope Season/Series Six gives them more to do. However, if anything elevates this story it is Gambon and Jenkins. I understand that this is Jenkins' debut as an actress, and she did a wonderful job. Her Abigail projects a sweetness and innocence that is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Gambon, an experienced an actor as we have, doesn't make Kazran all ranting and raging. He does give him bits of a soul, so we can see that he too has been hurt by the past (both pre and post-Doctor). As for Smith, well, I personally could do with a little less of the lightness he's brought to his Doctor, but he certainly has a way with making comedic lines not sound as if they were trying to be funny, so that's a plus.

I couldn't get into the main story because it wasn't about saving any ship: it was about saving Kazran from being evil. A Christmas Carol has only Gambon and Jenkins (and her beautiful singing voice) to make it even a so-so story in the Doctor Who canon. If it weren't for them, A Christmas Carol would have been remarkably lifeless, dull, devoid of any real action and poorly-timed comedy done at super-speed, almost as if we have to do this story because we have to have that Winter Solstice Special.

Monday, January 24, 2011

God-Awful. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier Review

STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER

In the ultimate case of "If he can do, why can't I?", William Shatner decided that he was just as good a director as Leonard Nimoy was in The Search For Spock and The Voyage Home. With that in mind, he decided to direct Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Promises, promises...

The Enterprise is going through major retrofits. This proves to be a blessing in disguise, for it gives most of the crew an opportunity to take shore leave, and apparently they decided en masse to go to Yosemite National Park. In one group, are Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner), Mr. Spock (Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley). In another group, is the comedy due of Anton Chekov (Walter Koening) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei). Scottie (James Doohan) is continuing to bring the Enterprise up to speed (no pun intended), when their shore leave is cut short via an urgent message.

There is trouble on the planet Nimbus III, which is located in the Neutral Zone. The ambassadors from The Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Romulan delegation have been taken prisoners by a ragtag army in the poorly-named Paradise City, and the Enterprise is sent to rescue them from the Galactic Army of Light (or as I've dubbed them, GAL).

A rescue attempt is made but it has all the efficiency and success of President Carter's rescue of the American embassy hostages. Now the Enterprise itself is captured, and we discover GAL's leader. It is Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), a renegade Vulcan who has rejected the cool, dispassionate logic of his people and embraced all emotion. He is also Spock's half-brother, the son of Sarek and a Vulcan Princess no less.

Sybok is a powerful being, able to with just his words bend the will of almost anyone. Almost, I should point out. Neither Kirk or Spock and to a lesser degree, McCoy want to go where Sybok wants to: beyond the Great Barrier to see what Vulcans call Sha Ka Ree, Romulans call Vorta Vor, Klingons call Qui'Tu, and Humans would call Heaven. In short, Sybok believes that beyond the Great Barrier is God Himself. Using his powers Sybok crosses the Great Barrier and he, Spock, Kirk, and McCoy encounter a being who proclaims to have "one voice, many faces". As it turns out, maybe this being isn't The Divine. As if all this weren't enough, in mad pursuit of the Enterprise is another Klingon ship who wants to engage the Enterprise for glory and revenge.


The Final Frontier, I don't think, was trying to answer any deep metaphysical questions about life, death, or what truly there may be beyond our comprehension. The end result doesn't answer any questions or really add anything to the Star Trek mythos except Spock's extended family tree. David Loughery's screenplay (based on a story by Loughery, Harve Bennett, and Shatner) appears to try to go into deeper themes, but it is undone by not being able to give answers to even the most basic questions The Final Frontier poses.

Take for example just who is the being they encounter beyond the Great Barrier. It becomes quickly apparent that he is not God as understood by any of the world's religions, let alone by whatever concept Romulans, Klingons, or Vulcans may have. However, we never learn who exactly he is or why he's kind of just laying about beyond the Great Barrier or how he got there. Was he just waiting around until someone came along to give him a lift?

Since we never learn who or what he is, we really don't care because in spite of being the object being searched for he really isn't all that important to the plot as presented to us. Yes, he is a bit like V'Ger from The Motion Picture or the big floating tube from The One With The Damn Whales: the thing that the characters are after/want explained but which has no existence outside the story itself.

The bigger problem in The Final Frontier is just how uninteresting the whole adventure is. This I blame on the screenplay, which did not give them a powerful adversary. Sybok comes across as nothing more than an off-kilter New Age Guru: a Vulcan version of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, able to soothingly convince, daresay, hypnotize anyone to do his bidding. Everyone who comes under his power in The Final Frontier appears to be in a form of haze, so Sybok really is nothing more than a Cult Leader; even GAL's name is vaguely cult-like.

When we see exactly how he manages to turn them to his side, it plays out like nothing more than a therapy session gone wildly awry. It also leads to one of my pesky Points of Logic. It appears he is able to tap into their innermost secrets and pains to convince them to apparently seek redemption by going beyond the Great Barrier and see God. However, when Sybok shows us both McCoy's and Spock's hidden worlds, they apparently are visualized to where everyone can see them. Thus, when Sybok shows Chekov his past (which we don't see, but I suspect he sent someone to the Gulag, he is Soviet, after all, since in The One With the Damn Whales we learn Leningrad is still around in the 23rd Century), does this mean everyone aboard the bridge saw it? I'd be embarrassed by all my secrets being on public display, but I digress.

Luckinbill is very enthusiastic as Sybok, and he is able to command the presence of a vaguely Jesus/Buddha-like figure, but overall he is the exception. The performances I think are not as strong because Shatner decided to throw in bits of comedy where they weren't needed. There is a seemingly endless camp scene between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that doesn't build up their relationship but that is just going for laughs at the expense of Spock's inability to understand why Row Row Row Your Boat is worth singing, and when they say goodnight to each other, one wonders if they are going into The Waltons territory.

More comedy comes in the way of Doohan, where he tells the main three attempting to retake the Enterprise that he knows the ship like the back of his hand. Any guesses as to what happens to Scotty immediately after? There is also a rather embarrassing scene when first attempting to rescue the hostages that involve a seductive dancer that frankly ends up being rather creepy.

Shatner's direction was weak to say the least. The action scenes weren't exciting: the storming of Paradise City were rather bland and boring, with no sense of tension and excitement and danger that the endeavor would have warranted. Same goes for the crossing of the Great Barrier, which wasn't all that great, and wasn't all that dangerous. The battle with the Klingon seemed almost superfluous to The Final Frontier, almost as if it had to be there because the Klingons are the Federation's greatest nemesis.

On a side note, I think The Final Frontier would have benefited greatly from having another villain either from the series or an original creation lead them onto the Galactic version of Mt. Sinai. When Sybok is telling us his plans to go to Sha Ka Ree, Shatner's direction almost makes it look like he's speaking directly to us, which appears rather offsetting, not to mention bizarre.



Finally, the subplot of the poor shape of the Enterprise is abandoned as soon as Sybok takes the ship. We never hear about all the difficulties the ship is facing even though we are led to believe it will be be a major part of the plot. The reason for this is simple: we can't go crossing the Great Barrier in a rickety old ship now, can we? Dropping story elements like these when they are no longer convenient is a sign that The Final Frontier just didn't have anywhere to go.

Ultimately, The Final Frontier is a rather dull, lifeless affair, and whatever good Sybok could have brought is wasted on a silly journey that really takes them nowhere. For all the dangers the Enterprise faced in trying to meet God, they really learned nothing.

It's almost enough to make you an atheist.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let's Be Adultery About This. The Dilemma: A Review



THE DILEMMA

I think Vince Vaughn would make a great narrator, not just because he has a good voice but because he has a knack for setting up either the plot of a film or the conclusions the film reaches. He goes for the former in The Dilemma, telling us early on that basically, you can't really know people even after years with them.

For the rest of the film, Allan Loeb's script attempts to prove this, but neither it or director Ron Howard are unable to decided exactly where to take The Dilemma, which makes it either a weak comedy or an odd drama.

Ronny Valentine (Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (James) are not only business partners, they are the very best of friends. Together, they appear to subconsciously quote The Pet Shop Boys' Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money): Vaughn's got the looks, James' got the brains, to create an automotive revolution: a new technology that will make hybrid cars attractive to men by giving the cars the power and roaring engine sound of a hot rod with the efficiency of a hybrid.

As they continue with their endeavors, they enjoy life with their significant others: for Vaughn, it's Beth (Jennifer Connelly) his longtime girlfriend, and for James, it's Geneva (Winona Ryder) his wife. Vaughn decides to propose to Connelly and while scouting locations, he comes upon a shocking surprise: Vienna in the arms of a much-tattooed hunk named Zip (Channing Tatum).

Vaughn keeps this secret to himself at first, for fear of pushing the already-on-edge James over the tipping point, but eventually he knows James has to know the truth. Therefore, he does what any sensible man in his 'dilemma' would do (hence the title): he tells Vienna that he knows. At first she says she'll break it off but we learn she won't, and when confronted again Vienna tells Vaughn that she isn't the only one who gets love on the side.

Seeing the difficulty he is in with James, Vaughn does what any other sensible man in his position would do: he follows Vienna and Tatum to Tatum's home with a camera to photograph them in compromising positions. As it happens, Tatum and Vaughn fight, which makes Vaughn late for Connelly's parent's anniversary dinner where Vaughn makes a bizarre speech about honesty.

Connelly, however, suspects Vaughn isn't being honest and that he's fallen off the wagon for his gambling addiction; did I forget to mention he had a gambling addiction? To help him, she stages an Intervention, and among those there are James, Vienna, and even Zip (whom James, having followed Vaughn, suspects is his bookie). Here, everything comes out, and while James is understandably devastated, they soldier on in their business, though not without a few punches being thrown. Eventually, all's well that ends well, with these bestest of best friends solidifying their bromance, their ideas being successful, and even managing to score, in hockey.



You may have noticed that in my summation of The Dilemma I didn't use the character's name. The reason for this is very simple: it really doesn't matter what their names are because for all intents and purposes they are playing the same characters they've played before. Kevin James plays the Kevin James role: a clueless husband/schlub (although, to his credit, we are suppose to believe he is a genius). Vince Vaughn plays a Vince Vaughn type. You know,
thequickwittedrapidfireguywhotalksatninethousandwordsasecondandmakesitallsound
asifitwereonewordlongbecausehedoesn'tappeartotakeasinglebreathwithinwords.
We really don't have to worry about either Connelly or Ryder since they don't appear to have any outside existence (or last names) or even that they would be friends if not for Ronny and Nick (see, I do remember the character's names). I do confess to deliberately misnaming Ryder's character as Vienna as opposed to Geneva because A.) I kept remembering it was the same name as a European city, and B.) Vienna as a name sounded more realistic than Geneva. Minerva I could believe, but Geneva? Why not Oslo or Bratislava? As for Zip, it's a memorable name, so we might as well stick with it.

The Dilemma doesn't break any new ground, and it doesn't attempt to, so we shouldn't be too harsh in how it approaches the material. We even get the rather cliche scene where by the sheerest of coincidences Vaughn is at the exact place where Geneva and Zip are having a rendezvous. It even goes the way one would expect a present-day romantic comedy to go:  have all the characters be incredibly stupid in how they handle things.

For example, rather than get a professional to tail Geneva, Ronny opts for a do-it-yourself model of operating, apparently unaware at just how difficult it is to follow someone without being noticed (especially if the person doing the following is 6'5"). He also apparently doesn't even bother to check the camera he accidentally left at Zip's before handing the 'incriminating' evidence to Nick.


Where The Dilemma starts to go wrong is by not giving us anyone to care about. Under normal circumstances, we would want to feel sympathy for the cuckold Nick, but when Ronny sees him entering a massage parlor and lie about it, we suspect that we should almost think Geneva is right in having an affair because he is supposedly having one himself. I digress to wonder: who started cheating on whom first, and does it really matter?

The 'Vietnamese sexy-time' aspect of the story is dropped pretty fast, to where it is never mentioned by anyone, so it does become irrelevant to the story. (Side note: honestly, if you had the choice between bonking Kevin James and Channing Tatum, is that meant to be a had decision?)

We might shift our affection for Ronny, but given how the idea of revealing such a shocking secret to his longtime girlfriend apparently never entered his mind, we can only speculate as to how much trust there is between them. The fact that he continues to hide it not merely because it might be upsetting to his BFF but because it might also cost him a fortune makes him slightly selfish in his secrecy.

The real downturn in The Dilemma comes at the Intervention. It's here when the film makes a wide turn from comedy to a remarkably heavy drama. The gambling addiction angle along with the actual revelation of Geneva's affair, though nothing is mention of Nick's dalliances with girls who tell him they love him long time, are directed as if Neil Simon had morphed into Edward Albee. It never fully recovers any sense of humor until we get to the very end, where the scene at the Chicago Blackhawks hockey game seems merely tacked on and attempts to remind us that it was suppose to be a comedy.

Having already covered Vaughn playing a Vince Vaugh-type and James a Kevin James-type and seeing that neither Connelly or Ryder had anything resembling a fully-formed character, we can shift to two others in The Dilemma. Queen Latifah has at most three scenes, and she is there to show that a woman can be just as sexually suggestive in her dialogue as her male counterparts. Channing Tatum is there to show us that he can't handle comedy, thus showing that while he's pretty, he fails at both drama and comedy (a remarkable feat indeed). He simply tries too hard to make things funny instead of letting the humor flow naturally from the situation, and his face never registers anything resembling any emotion to where one starts to wonder if it's because of a lack of talent or possibly an excess of Botox.

I digress slightly to point out a scene near the end of the film, where James and Vaughn confront each other right before having to give their joint presentation. Seeing them face each other is quite a sight because it only emphasizes just how tall Vince Vaughn is and short Kevin James is. James' height is officially at 5'8", and seeing stand before the 6'5" Vaughn makes their nine inch difference look even more odd, almost as if we were going into Gulliver territory. One almost wondered whether they could get both of them into frame.



Finally, I also want to address the controversial 'gay' line. There was an uproar when the trailer opens with Vaughn saying that 'electric cars are gay'. In fairness to the trailer, Vaughn's character does point out it wasn't meant to offend actual gays but that electric cars were somehow not 'masculine' enough. That line, though cut from the trailer, remains in The Dilemma. I don't see anything in the pasts of Vaughn or Howard to indicate they are bigoted, but I would have cut the line altogether, less so because using 'gay' as a pejorative isn't a smart move (although I could see how gays would be offended even though it sadly is used in a rather common manner), but because it just isn't funny.

In fact, must of The Dilemma isn't funny, and where it tries to be, it fails. However, in one instance I'll stick up for the film: in the trailer we see Vaughn make a Helen Keller reference, showing just how dumb he is. Unfortunately, no one laughed at this joke at the screening I went to, and my suspicion is because they flat-out didn't get the joke. They did laugh when Latifah's character said to Vaughn, "I'm your Deep Throat".

On a personal level, I think it's rather sad that Americans get a Deep Throat joke but a Helen Keller one goes over their heads. Can we as Americans be that ignorant of history, let alone that dirty?

The Dilemma isn't a funny film, especially when it decides to become a dramatic one. No one stretches as actors which given that Vaughn has genuine talent, is especially sad; unsolicited advice to Vince Vaughn: do some drama and stop being the Vince Vaughn-type

There really isn't anything to recommend in the film. It's not a dilemma; it's a bore.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rabbit Hole: A Review (Review #181)

RABBIT HOLE


The reactions to the mourning process exercised by Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are almost polar opposites: the former determined to push forward despite whatever pain is buried inside, the latter to linger in the memories of the son that is gone forever. It is a fair argument that neither is a good coping method for the extremely difficult circumstance they find themselves in because neither addresses the core question in Rabbit Hole: how to continue living when your life has been torn asunder by cruel fate?

In fact, the emotional torture both endure (one by suppressing the agony, one by wallowing within it) ultimately is how both return to each other emotionally in an effort to rebuild their life together.

Becca and Howie move through their lives, physically together but emotionally apart after the loss of their son, Danny. While he takes great comfort in a support group for parents who've lost children, Becca finds the platitudes she hears contemptible and foolish. She is especially aggravated by Kevin and Gabby (Steven Mailer and Sandra Oh), who continue coming to Group as all refer to it even after eight years since their child has died.

Becca makes it very clear she won't go back, but Howie continues to go. It appears that no matter where she turns, Becca finds reminders of children: in Danny's room, the child seat still in the car, with her own mother Nat (Dianne Wiest), who still carries memories of the thirty-year-old son she lost, and with her reckless sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), who has no job prospects but is pregnant by her musician boyfriend Augie (Giancarlo Esposito).

As much as Becca strives to move beyond Danny's death, Howie can't seem to put his ghost away. Every night, he takes his phone and looks at the last video he took of his family when they were all together and happy. Howie nurtures and cradles the images as if they were Danny himself.



Eventually, their divergent views on how to deal with Danny's death is to seek out comfort not with each other, but with other people, one with the one who hurts like him and the other with the one who inadvertently hurt her. Becca spies Jason (Miles Tenner), the teen who accidentally killed Danny in that accident, and begins to meet with him.

She discovers Jason to be a simple teen who is quiet and almost innocent about his role in Danny's death. He apologizes to Becca by telling her he might have been going faster than the speed limit: instead of going thirty miles per hour, he might have been going thirty-one, maybe thirty-two. Jason gives her a copy of the comic book he created, called Rabbit Hole, and tells her the story he created that involves alternate universes.

By the end of Rabbit Hole, Becca does confront the agony she thinks she's stronger than, Howie accepts that he does have to let go, and both see that there can be life after death.


Whatever discomfort there is in the subject matter is handled with great care by David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his stage play) and director John Cameron Mitchell. Lindsay-Abaire creates for the most part realistic people and situations to inhabit Becca and Howie's world.

There is a birthday party for Izzy at a bowling alley where Becca believes that her non-baby related gift is inappropriate to a maternity outfit Nat has given her younger daughter. Becca, in a barely concealed tone of frustration, insists on taking it back and giving her something more related to Izzy's condition, even after Izzy insists her gift is fine. There is even a resulting fight between Becca and Nat over the comparisons between the loss of their children, and it all sounds authentic, real, not like dialogue.

It is because Lindsay-Abaire resists the temptation to give grand statements for the characters to speak; instead, he allows them to sound like average people who are caught in terrible circumstances.

It isn't to say that some of the scenes between the brittle Becca and the ghost-like Howie aren't difficult to watch. To its credit, Rabbit Hole doesn't have them screaming at each other at every turn although some of the fights between them, especially dealing with Howie's telephone video, are especially hard to witness. Instead, most of the time they are arguing they speak in at most above average tones, presenting their points of view not with dispassion but with restraint of how to behave. It not only makes it more realistic but also more painful.

Much credit should be given to Mitchell, who does not drown the situation with a heaviness but allows the characters to be fully-dimensional. It would have been easy to make one or the other the villain, but both Becca and Howie are presented as flawed people who come at the situation from two wildly different points and yet reach the same conclusion: they do love and need each other and that they have to rebuild their lives both as individuals and their life as a couple.



The performances by everyone in the cast, even the smaller roles, are true to life. Blanchard, in my view an underused actress, creates in her Izzy a woman who is unapologetic about being more irresponsible in her private life: her first scene involves getting bailed out by her more responsible sister, but she also shows Izzy as a sister who cares about Becca. There is quite a difficult scene in Rabbit Hole at a grocery store, and while Kidman has to carry the agony it builds to, Blanchard matches Kidman in her quite and moving response to the situation.

Teller appears a little blank as Jason, but this is not a flaw. Rather, he plays Jason as a quiet, good kid, who just got caught up in an especially tragic situation not of his own making, and since I believe most teen boys are a little blank, I hold that Teller did a good job.

Wiest is in strong form here, her Nat being a woman who cares and loves her daughters but can't seem to help either through their situations. There is no effort to make Nat either an all-wise mother or a clueless harpy, but a real woman who reaches out the best way she can and who, in spite of the difficulties she unwittingly causes, makes clear will be there for both her surviving children.

The biggest burden goes to the leads, and both Kidman and Eckhart prove what strong actors they are when given the opportunity with a good script and strong directing. Eckhart makes Howie into a man who feels so much that grief gives him purpose, to where removing anything related to Danny somehow means seeing him die again. Whenever he looks at the video, we see a man not just mourning what he's lost but also what could have been.

He is not a saint (especially in his dealing with Gabby or when he does explode about Jason), but he is clearly the more emotional of the two. It is one of his best performances, one where the agony of loss is registered so deeply within Howie eventually shifts to a more realistic understanding of what will happen when both of them return to a sense of normalcy.

Kidman matches him as Becca, a woman who loves her son but does not want to be metaphorically haunted by his ghost. She takes a more blunt attitude to dealing with Danny's death: she will move on, she will move on is her unspoken mantra. In spite of it all, of all her declarations, she does feel pain, and when it does show it becomes all the more heartbreaking because in a sense she created the situations that lead to her moments (note the plural) of misery. Given that the roles Kidman has played post The Hours have been rather sub par (The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, Australia), we were in danger of forgetting that she is rather a good actress. Films like Rabbit Hole remind us of her talent: in her Becca, she channels grief behind a mask of acceptance, somehow attempting to go from Stage One to Stage Five in one fell swoop.

If I find any criticism of Rabbit Hole, is in to whom Becca and Howie reached out to. There was a danger in turning his relationship with Gabby into something more than it should be, and one wonders if it almost sadistic for Becca to start a friendship with the person responsible for her son's death, albeit with no malice or intent to harm. It's a minor point, but it is a bit puzzling as to how both came to the wrong people.

I go back to the dialogue and directing. Near the end of Rabbit Hole, Becca and Nat are alone in the basement. Becca asks her mother if it ever goes away. There is no attempt to sugarcoat the nature of the truth, no big speech, no effort to build this into a grand moment. It's actually rather quiet, when Nat tells her that grief does not go away, but eventually it becomes bearable.

We are left at the end of the film with questions about where they will eventually end up but we do end with a sense of hope for both of them, that Becca and Howie will be able to survive all this and share the burden of sorrow rather than carry it separately. While the end doesn't spell it out for us, it's as happy an ending as possible under the circumstance: their mutual need for each other.

DECISION: B+

Friday, January 21, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris: A Review



I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS

Last year while in London, I saw adverts for I Love You Phillip Morris all about the Tube. I was surprised that this film did not play in America first, and I thought about going to see it in London but time was against me.

As time went on I Love You Phillip Morris kept getting delayed and delayed, heaped with controversy, even scandal. No distributor! Jim Carrey engaging in gay sex! There was doubt the film would ever be seen outside DVD. Now, I Love You Phillip Morris has arrived in a wider release, nearly a full year after its foreign release. Was it worth the wait? Did it live up to its shocking pre-release reputation?

It has moments of high intelligence, but somewhere along the way, I Love You Phillip Morris runs out on us faster than Carrey's character runs out of prison.

Steven Russell (Carrey) is a police officer married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), a God-fearing woman. By all appearances, Steven is happy with his wife and child, except for some issues. One, that this adopted child was rejected by his birth mother, and two, the fact he is gay. He manages to keep his life private until a massive car accident, which he feels liberated him to be his authentic homosexual self.

Without missing a beat he dumps his wife, moves to Miami and gets himself a young boy-toy, Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro). As Steven so helpfully tells us, "Being gay is really expensive". To finance his lavish lifestyle and in his mind, keep Jimmy happy, he turns to a life of crime: usually either faking injuries and suing the establishments or simple fraud. Eventually, he is discovered and after an either humorous or gruesome escape/suicide attempt (depending on your point of view). Steven is locked up.



In prison, he becomes the unofficial King of The Joint, procuring anything for anyone. There, he sees a vision of pure loveliness, a most divine being. He meets this beautiful boy at the prison library, and learns his name, the most beautiful sound he ever heard, to quote a song. His name is Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor).

Phillip and Steven instantly fall in love, and thanks to Steven's powers in prison he manages to put them together in a single cell and thus, allow them to pursue their romance with passion. Once Steven is released, he hoodwinks the State of Texas into releasing Phillip, and the two resume their passionate romance. However, old habits die hard, and Steven now wants to treat Phillip like the King he is to him. Therefore, it's back to a life of crime, this time as the Chief Financial Officer of an insurance company.

As Phillip is oblivious to Steven's larceny, the company is oblivious to Steven's larceny, until he is caught yet again. Phillip, who not only finds himself caught up in his True Love's web but who discovers he was let out early through fraudulent means, breaks with Steven and is back in prison. Now, Steven attempts various methods to break out and be reunited with Phillip, right down to in a certain way faking his own death. Eventually, we are told that Steven is kept inside prison for twenty-three hours of the day due to his rather outrageous and ingenious escapes.


I Love You Phillip Morris is frankly too bizarre to be believed, but what makes it even more bizarre is that it is a true-life story. Co-writers/directors Glen Ficarra and John Requa, adapting the non-fiction book by Steven McVicker, keep the story remarkably grounded in spite of the rather outrageous nature of it precisely by emphasizing the outrageous nature of it all.

While we are told early on this is a true-life story, the elements within it are just so flat-out bizarre that we can't help but laugh at both Steven's ingenuity and the clueless minds of prison officials, judges, and insurance company bigwigs who can be so easily fooled.

Take for example when Phillip and Steven share their first slow dance and kiss. It is quite a romantic scene, and they are so in love with each other that the fail to notice a group of guards attempting to silence the man in the next cell who is providing their love song. The fact that the romance between Steven and Phillip is so oblivious to anything in the Outside World elevates the comedy.

Another point of humor is the mutually confused and accepting role Debbie has in Steven's life. When he is caught for the first time, she asks Steven's boyfriend, with a perfectly straight face (no pun intended) if Steven's criminal behavior is a result of his homosexuality. Though it is an odd question, she actually is closer to the mark than she realizes since Steven is committing all this fraud in order to buy the happiness of first Jimmy and later Phillip.

Mann is not a large part of I Love You Phillip Morris, but her Debbie is a woman who does love Steven even if his life and lifestyle do confuse her. It's a brief performance, but a strong one.



Carrey creates a rarity for him: an actual performance with Steven. He is so believable as a upstanding man who loves his wife and daughter that when we do discover his 'secret' (which in voice-over he freely tells us), it is a bit of a jolt. By the end of I Love You Phillip Morris, we come to admire his audaciousness, if not his methods. Carrey never goes overboard with the more flamboyant aspects of Steven's persona but instead plays him as a man who is motivated by love, most of the time.

We also see through Carrey's performance a man who is also considerably selfish and does not shrink from hurting people that genuinely love him, someone who will go to almost any method to escape the consequences of his actions. On at least two occasions, he attempts suicide, but they are not the acts of a man who no longer wants to live but a man who wants to escape one last time. Anyone who would use AIDS to try to get out of a predicament can't be held up as folk hero.

What is surprising is that while Carrey has the comedy aspects of I Love You Phillip Morris down, he also shows a surprising gentleness, even heartbreak, to the dramatic scenes. Near the end, he recalls the last days of his time with Jimmy, and just with his face he communicates the heartbreak of losing someone he loves, although, given what we've seen of Steven Russell, it's always open to debate just how capable he was of loving anyone totally.


At the end, Steven is rather a sad and pathetic figure: a man who expresses love through what he can give others materially. In all his relationships he's never been honest, and in spite of how much Debbie and Phillip care for him, Steven is never able to give of himself. It is his lack of honesty in all aspects of his life, be it with his lovers or his employers, that make Steven a tragic character. Carrey shows a range that he usually isn't thought of having, and here he gives an adult performance to counteract his image as a rubber-faced, rather manic comic.

Carrey's shady Steven is matched by McGregor's innocent Phillip. McGregor adopts a remarkably convincing Southern accent, which helps in his interpretation of a rather sweet man who sees his Steven as his soul mate. One does question if Phillip is rather naive about where exactly all their money is coming from since, in spite of knowing Steven's past, he never questions him about just why, for example, Steven gets a Christmas bonus in July.

McGregor makes his Phillip simply a man in love, perhaps in love with love, but certain in his sincerity of feeling toward Steven. He is a man who loves deeply but not too well. The best thing about McGregor's performance is that he never makes Phillip a figure of ridicule, even when he clearly is being played for a fool.

As good as the leads were, I Love You Phillip Morris stumbles near the third act when it takes a very dramatic turn. After seeing so much lunacy in how Steven manages to get away with so much like when he fools a judge into not only thinking he was a lawyer, but actually winning his case through basically rambling off nonsense, we get thrown a rather dark tale involving AIDS that kills the comedy. We also switch from a story of a con man into one of a desperate man who tortures himself and emotionally tortures others to stay out of prison. Once we think we have reached a conclusion, we get thrown another loop.

At the screening I went to, audiences were laughing at Carrey's tender love confession to Phillip, which I don't think was the intended effect. Once we slip from marveling at Steven's cleverness at outwitting officials, we start to feel some revulsion at how his antics affect those unfortunate enough to get caught up in them. This unbalance tilts the movie down a bit, but it manages to keep itself afloat enough of the time to survive some rather dark moments in I Love You Phillip Morris.

It is quite true that truth is stranger than fiction. Few people would believe Steven Russell could get away with so much so often or that the love of his life has the same name as the tobacco company. However, the story is true, which makes it all the funnier. Now I confess not laughing at much of I Love You Phillip Morris because it all just seemed so bizarre, and one of his suicide/escape attempts seemed rather horrifying.

Oddly, I Love You Phillip Morris isn't about a con man who continually stumps the system but a love story between a sincere man and a duplicitous man. In spite of its flaws, I Love You Phillip Morris has strong performances from Carrey and McGregor that hold the film up.

Truth is Strange, but then again, Love Is Strange too, isn't it?

Steven Russell: Born 1957