Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Career Less Ordinary. Thoughts on Ewan McGregor on His 40th Birthday.

I don't think Ewan McGregor will be unhappy to be remembered as being Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith). You'd have to be a fool to not want to be remembered for an iconic character. Of course, you'd have to be a fool to think you wouldn't be remembered for an iconic character. That's the crux, isn't it? When you agree to take on such a well-known character, you can try to leave your own stamp on it, but you will be in a sense, making your own copy. Sir Alec Guinness was already an Oscar-winning legend when he played the wise Jedi. McGregor, not so much.

It's a credit to his talent that by the time he got to Revenge of the Sith, he managed to convince us that he could grow to be Sir Alec. I thought that in Phantom Menace, he was trying to sound like a young Alec but didn't quite pull it off, but by Revenge, he sounded closer to the original Obi-Wan and even had the same gravitas that Guinness brought to the role. In a curious way, McGregor's voice has been a blessing and curse, especially when playing Americans. No matter how good his American accent may be, every so often his native Scottish brogue slips out, and we instantly recognize his roots.

What I admire on a personal level about McGregor is his enthusiasm to take on risks in the roles he takes while not being above shameless commercialism. He can go from the intense Trainspotting to the Star Wars prequels without losing credibility either to his art-house fans or those who would rather die than go to an independent film. I do sense that he gravitates more for the avant-garde, with a touch of decadence within it. How else to explain something like Young Adam, a film where he becomes one of the few male actors to do a full-frontal nude scene. Granted, Young Adam was a film I disliked until the end, when my mind rapidly changed to a positive view of the film (but to be fair, I should see it again), but McGregor has this fearlessness when it comes to film. In short, he's unafraid to go further than most actors of his generation.

I think McGregor has a weakness for the offbeat, the quirky. This would put him in the same category as Johnny Depp (another actor who thrives on rather bizarre characters). However, like Depp, McGregor can also play a remarkably tender character. My mind goes to Miss Potter: as Beatrix Potter's love interest, McGregor was the most shy and chaste suitor in recent film memory. He can communicate the agony of the lovelorn so well: not just in Miss Potter but in one of his best films, Moulin Rouge!

Now, I'm aware Moulin Rouge! is an acquired taste, but his Christian managed to be terribly innocent and devastated by the pain of love in the end. In fact, if I think of I Love You Phillip Morris, McGregor can also communicate the agony love can unleash without being maudlin and overtly sentimental. Also, in the latter film, he managed to not go overboard on the Southern accent.

This isn't to say McGregor hasn't made his mistakes. Some have been rather abysmal. There was Deception (which was basically a Showtime movie released on an unsuspecting public). There was Amelia (trying to be overly romantic he was oddly boring--though the movie itself was boring, it wasn't a big drawback).

Then there is The Island. I am one of the few people who defends The Island as being a good film, or rather, two good films which make up one so-so film. I've long argued that The Island is two films: the first a potentially interesting take on life from the cloned point of view, the second a second-tier action film.

As I reflect on Ewan McGregor, my opinion of him as an actor is going up. I think he is an actual actor, and that he has talent. He may grow to be one of my favorite actors, primarily because I never know what to expect from him. He could be a loathsome murderer/sexual deviant in one film, a sweet romantic in the next. He might be better suited to play British characters since his American accent at times can go off (case in point: Deception). Nevertheless, I think he is one of the better actors working today, and I expect great things from him in the future.

With that, I wish Ewan McGregor a Happy 40th Birthday.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cinema Sensei. Akira Kurosawa: The Great Directors Retrospective


This month marks a special celebration: it is Akira Kurosawa's 101 birthday. I ask, how could his centenary pass by unremarked on? I hope to take this opportunity to play homage to one of the great directors of all time, of any genre, in any language.

Kurosawa was a director who managed to make the epic intimate and is the perfect example of how cultures can influence one another. I reflect on two of my favorite Kurosawa films: Seven Samurai and RAN. The former influenced American Westerns: being remade into The Magnificent Seven, while the latter was influenced by the same genre: the heroes on horseback racing to see smoke coming from the horizon an homage to The Searchers.

Perhaps this is one of things that made Kurosawa such a giant in cinema: he was international in his filmmaking. Let me explain: while his films were rooted in Japanese history and in how contemporary Japan balanced its traditional worldview with its desire to be considered in the same league as The West, his films also touched on feelings that we all share.

Take Ikiru for example. I think even today, the homogeny that Japanese society appears to revere would be at odds with the main character's need to leave his own individual mark on the world. However, like Kanji Watanabe, I think all of us have that need to know our own individual lives matter, that we want to leave at least one positive remembrance of our lives before we pass.

In a sense, don't we want to be remembered for something good after we die? Kurosawa could use then a Japanese setting, with Japanese characters and values to speak about deeper, richer, more universal themes: the value of a human life. In retrospect, to borrow a title from another Great Director: It Is A Wonderful Life.

Kurosawa, conversely, could also take the West and make it uniquely Japanese. I look at Throne of Blood. It might surprise people to learn that Macbeth had been adapted into a Japanese setting, but Kurosawa showed that genius need not be limited to one language or setting. It's a curiosity to my mind that while there have been many efforts to adapt Shakespeare from the original settings of his plays more often than not these efforts fail.

I remember Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet: many people love it, I thought it was a bastardization of the play. In a sense, it was a dumbing down of the story: just by putting a contemporary setting one doesn't make the words any easier to follow. Here, Kurosawa understood something that many English-language directors apparently can't get through their heads: it's the story that people will relate to. Granted, when the works are in English one should keep the film version in the original language, and filmmakers have the conundrum of either making the words more up-to-date or stay with the original text (which may sound today rather foreign). Kurosawa could have tried for a translation of Macbeth, but his intelligence told him that would not work for his primary audience.

Instead, he transposed Macbeth to be a Japanese warlord, but kept the plot pretty much intact. Some of his imagery is remarkable: when Washizu (aka Macbeth) and Miki (aka Banquo) come upon the Spirit of the Forest (aka the Three Witches), with all the fog and the Spirit spinning his/her wheel (while I figure it was a woman, the voice was a bit deep), it was pretty haunting, even frightening and a remarkably eerie sequence. Another of my favorite moments in Throne of Blood is when Washizu is being besieged: as the forest descends upon him, a fury of arrows comes again and again to kill him. It is the anticipation of his fall that makes these assassination attempts all the more frightening.

The same ability of Kurosawa to adapt Western stories successfully to a Japanese world isn't just reserved for classics. It would be remarkable to imagine a hard-boiled detective story by Ed McBain could be a seminal work of Japanese cinema, but there you have High & Low from King's Ransom. The film isn't just a tense story of kidnapping, but also a commentary on contemporary Japanese society, the struggle between those who have achieved financial success and those who can only look on in envy. Again, I would say how is this different than any envy in any part of the world?

However, Kurosawa was best when he made Japanese films about Japan: its past or present. He could find even moments of comedy, such as The Hidden Fortress. My favorite moment from this film, the inspiration for Star Wars, was when our bumbling criminals found each other as one was being herded up a massive flight of stairs and the other herded down. The affection these two had for each other is endearing, if not necessarily their deeds.

Now we go to Seven Samurai, one of the greatest films in history. Don't let that frighten you, nor the fact that it's over three hours long, it's black-and-white, and in Japanese. I can imagine many people fleeing into the safe arms of Grown Ups after hearing that description.

Right from the get-go, we get a mixture of action, comedy, and romance, all without the story short-changing any of the elements. Most of the comedy comes from Toshiro Mifune, who plays the seventh samurai, one who may not be what he appears to be. With his peasant demeanor and excessively large sword we know who and what he truly is, but it is because he shows himself to be both brave and a strong leader that we never question his inclusion into the samurai group. He also has a winning way with the villagers, especially whenever he tries to show just how good he is.

Kurosawa also takes great care to let us know all the characters: along with all seven samurai, we know the villagers and even the marauding gang terrorizing the village. He allows us this because he is patient and asks us to be patient with him, to not expect things to be given to us plot-wise so quickly but to let us discover things for ourselves. We can understand the fear and hypocrisy of the villagers, the motivations of the samurai, and even those of the gang. We also see the romance between one of the samurai and the peasant girl grow naturally, and when they succumb to their passion, and even when they are courting in a way, the imagery is beautiful.

That isn't to say the action scenes are short-shifted. The massive final confrontation is intense, exciting, and tragic, all at once. Few battle scenes have been as good or as well-made.

Seven Samurai is the work of a young man. RAN, Kurosawa's take on King Lear, is the work of an old man. While the former is full of life and enthusiasm, the latter is one filled with world-weariness, regret, and resignation to the folly of man and the evil he does. I should caution that when first seeing RAN, one may be puzzled, even put off, but the acting; it may seem to our Western eyes rather grandiose and over-the-top.

However, we have to keep in mind that RAN, which translates to Chaos, draws heavily on Japanese Noh theater acting, where the players wear masks and the performances are deliberately broad. When one watches it, one sees the work of a man who is tired, not of working, but of the world. It is a bitter film, one where the evil that men do to each other explodes in an orgy of blood and tragedy. This is enhanced by the score: in a battle sequence, the music is not heroic, but mournful, tragic. We hear this sorrowful music as we see scenes of horror: overwhelmed by red, mutilated men holding their own hands (RAN, I should point out, influenced Saving Private Ryan).

In the end, as if to put a coda on the Chaos that has destroyed this family, done with subtlety such as when we shift from green pastures in the beginning to the black ash of a devastated world, we see a blind man on the edge of a cliff, alone, abandoned.

In the final analysis, from my perspective, Akira Kurosawa is a true genius not just because of his actual filmmaking techniques, such as the screen wipe to transition from one scene to another, and the imagery within his films, but because his themes from the hopefulness within Ikiru "to live" to his despair in RAN still resonate today.

Sensei has much to teach us, and we would be wise to sit and learn.

Month by Month, I hope to write one post about The Great Directors.  Please visit for a full retrospective.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Limitless (2011) Review (Review #202)


Do people really only use 10 percent of their brain? I'm told that the total has been upped to 20 percent, and that this notion is really an urban legend. Granted, there are people who don't appear to use any of their brains (anyone who thought The Last Airbender was actually good for example).

Limitless uses this notion as the starting point to its story: what would happen if a little clear pill allowed us to tap into our full potential? Well, judging from the film itself, surprisingly stupid things.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) narrates his story, which we start with him on the ledge of what I imagine is his penthouse apartment with angry sounding men beating at his door. With this kind of opening, you know we're going to go way back to find how he got to this state. Ed is an aspiring writer, and by aspiring I mean he never gets around to putting anything on paper. Long-haired, undisciplined, and perpetually broke, he cannot muster the discipline to write or to hold on to his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish).

Nearing the end of his rope, he has a fortuitous encounter with his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitfield). Vern tells Eddie of NZT, a new FDA-approved drug that will help him in his time of trouble. Eddie at first doesn't want to take this clear pill but in desperation and curiosity, he pops one. Miracle of Miracles: he now has the power of a beautiful mind. We see this when the shrewish girlfriend of the landlord becomes fascinated by his new-found knowledge of legal matters which she is studying, so much so that they end up schtupping.

With this new power-drug Eddie soon goes back to Vern for more, and he agrees in return for being his gofer. Fortunately for Eddie, someone pops Vern so he doesn't have to do it for more than a few hours.

Horrified, Eddie calls the police, but thinking ahead, he gets the secret stash of NZT before they arrive. Now with this Viagra for the Mind in his possession, he soon starts to fulfill his full potential: finishing a brilliant book in four days, living the high life, and gaining hundreds playing the markets. Of course, he needs more money, so he goes to Russian mobster Gennady (Andrew Howard) for quick cash. He gets enough cash to really go to town on the financial markets, and attract the attention of not just the press but of Carl Van Loon and yes, that is his actual name (Robert De Niro). Van Loon needs Eddie's wunderkind skills in a potential mega merger with Mr. Atwood (Richard Bekins), someone who emerged out of nowhere, curiously enough, to soon have a major financial empire of his own.

As is true in life, things don't always go right. Eddie's abuse of NZT has him living in fast forward, and he may have been involved in the death of a one-night stand. He starts getting sick when he's not on NZT, and his ex-wife Melissa (Anna Friel) reveals she too was on NZT, but that once you are no longer on it you may actually die or turn ill. Eddie also has been pursued by a mysterious man and now Gennady wants his money and then later the mystery pill that's been so good to him. Van Loon also becomes suspicious of how Eddie can get such mental powers.

Eventually, Eddie does manage to use his megamind (pun intended) to defeat his enemies and show Van Loon a thing or two, and get Lindy to hop back to him (pun intended there too).

It may be the worst thing in the world, but in Limitless the biggest point of interest to me was whether Mrs. Atwood (Patricia Kalember) was Georgie on the television drama Sisters (yes, she was; good to know I was still able to recognize her. The show should be on DVD, but I digress). It may be that I was put off by Cooper's narration (a personal dislike for voice-overs in general with certain exceptions: Sunset Boulevard, Blade Runner, although a non-narrated version of Blade Runner still works well), and by Neil Burger's obsession with camera work that draws attention to itself (one super speed tracking shot was acceptable, more than three is just annoying, as was his fish-eye lens when depicting a high).

Limitless didn't seem to understand that Eddie was now a super-genius. One would have thought, for example, that once Eddie gains all these mental powers, he would know the First Rule of Discretion (Do Not Draw Attention to Yourself).

Leslie Dixon, adapting Alan Glyn's novel The Dark Fields, also doesn't seem concerned that as much as Eddie's mental agility has grown almost everyone else's mental agility appears to have fallen. For example, the detectives investigating Vern's murder discover that there is an eyewitness that places Eddie at the scene of the dead mystery woman. Yet they never appear to place him under surveillance or really question him about either deaths. This man has been involved in one way or another with two murders, has hired bodyguards, and has been seen consorting with a Russian mobster. However, none of this is apparently of any concern to the New York City Police, who really don't do much investigating.

Granted, we really don't know anything about the mystery woman but since when is a suspect in two murders allowed to carry on as if nothing really happened? On an extremely technical scale, given the shoot-out at his apartment with the Russian and his henchmen there should be alarm bells going off with the NYPD, but why stop for logic?

This is not to dismiss Limitless altogether. This is not the major dramatic turn Bradley Cooper needs to go beyond memories of The Hangover, but it is a positive step. Cooper shows he can grasp at a more dramatic performance, and seeing him when he's coming down off the NZT high is unnerving.

Unfortunately, as good as he is in some moments, he doesn't seem that interesting when he is sharing the screen with Cornish, who looks like Nicole Kidman's younger sister. Here, both seem so flat, almost bored, with each other, and when the focus of a bedroom scene between them is Cooper's blue eyes than on the interplay between these lovers then there are problems. To his credit, Cooper goes into Limitless fully committed to make Eddie a fully-formed character, and while we can wonder how someone with great intelligence never fully appears to think things out such as why not just pay off the Russian right away, he at least gives a strong dramatic turn and shows he is trying to branch out as an actor.

That I cannot say for Cornish. I suspect her character really had little to do with either the story itself or with Cooper's character, but one wonders why after all she went through with both Eddie as a loser and Eddie as a junkie she would still want to be with him, even after he may have killed someone and put her own life at risk.

Operative word 'may' since the murder is never solved and there is no evidence or apparent interest in solving the crime.

The real mystery is what Robert De Niro is actually doing in Limitless. Van Loon (what a name) is suppose to be this titan of industry, but the character doesn't add anything other than De Niro's presence in the film. In fact, he appears to be playing Jack Byrnes, right down to his facial expressions.

Again, I go back to Burger's directing. He didn't seem to do much for the actual actors, who by and large look either slightly bored or confused at how they ended up here and want to get on to something else. He was, however, totally enamoured with how he could make Limitless look as much like a 3-D film without having to spend the money for 3-D. Many shots called attention to themselves: Eddie's transformation from slob to stud, the fast-forward of Eddie's drug-enhanced day, the ceiling tiles turning into a rolling stock exchange, and while this may just be something I dislike it didn't add much in terms of the story. Neither did a sequence which involved blood-drinking: yes, blood-drinking.

I also fault him for introducing plot elements, such as a couple of murders, and not following through in giving us actual answers and thus, no real reason to introduce the elements in the first place.

Finally, Burger and Dixon introduce what should be a nakedly obvious plot point involving Atwood almost from the get-go. When Van Loon tells Eddie that this Atwood just came out of nowhere, one should instantly know how Atwood came about, so if they were trying to build up a mystery there, they failed miserably.

As I saw Limitless, I could only see that in reality, this is just a story about a junkie with an overlay of sci-fi glossed over it. Dress up the film in whatever guise you wish, but if it were not for the 'mind-expanding' angle, what Limitless would chronicle is a man who finds a new drug, gets high, gets success with it, gets addicted to it, then has a big crash.

For all intents and purposes, Eddie is a drug addict. There is just no way around it. Limitless isn't glorifying drug use, but it does come close to giving us a need to have us want him to continue taking a drug we know will harm or kill us.

Limitless is a misnomer. It does have limits in terms of story and performances. However, in an odd turn, a film centered about using all the mind's powers can be enjoyed if one shuts down most of the mind's power.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cedar Rapids: A Review


Midwest Mayhem...

Surprisingly enough, Cedar Rapids, Iowa is not known as a hotbed of debauchery, decadence, or wild goings-on. The Midwest is generally known for being populated by sweet, naive people like Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), people whose idea of adventure is trying a new fast-food place. The comedy in Cedar Rapids comes not from holding the characters up to ridicule, but in throwing them into unfamiliar situations totally outside their experiences and seeing them stumble into a positive resolution and seeing them grow.

Tim Lippe has never left Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He devotes himself to his employer, Brown Valley Insurance, was a sincerity usually reserved for children waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas. Lippe is in such a state of arrested development that he is thrilled to be having an affair with his former elementary school teacher, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver) to whom he's passionately devoted to.

Now, Lippe has the most daunting task he's ever faced before him: represent the company at ASMI, a regional insurance company convention. That means going to the 'big city'; that's right, the aforementioned Cedar Rapids. This means getting on an airplane for the first time in his 34 years, and more amazingly, staying at a hotel, with an indoor pool! Lippe greets all these amazing sights with an eager 'awesome'. However, his boss, Bill (Stephen Root) gives him a few words of warning: stay away from Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilley), someone who steals clients and corrupts all who come near him.

Tim has only one task at the ASMI Convention: win the Two Diamond Award, given to the most ethical and morally upstanding insurance firm, for the company, which has won it three years running. Now that Tim is in the big city, he sees all the things that the outside world has. He shares a room with Ronald (Isiah Walker, Jr.) and horror of horrors, Dean. Joining the three is another conventioneer, Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Tim wants to do his best and impress President Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), but Dean and Fox just want to have fun, with Ronald wanting a bit of fun but primarily to win the award through his own hard work so as to get back to his self-proclaimed secret passions of antiquing and community theater.

As the convention goes on, the relationship between Lippe and Fox grows more passionate. Lippe soon learns just how Brown Valley won the Two Diamond Award, and he follows his predecessor's route in obtaining the prize. In his despair, he goes to a party with Bree (Alia Shawkat) the pleasant woman who stands outside the hotel every night (it isn't until late in Cedar Rapids that he realizes exactly why she stands outside the hotel every night). Eventually, Tim realizes that all he thought before leaving Brown Valley about ASMI and Dean and even Macy wasn't necessarily so and takes steps to fix things.

Cedar Rapids appears to be a distant relative to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, primarily in the main character: both sheltered men who can function in the world but who appear a bit perplexed by it. Given how naive and sheltered Lippe is, it is amazing he isn't a virgin, and even more amazing that two women (Fox and Bree) want him sexually and that he has had sex with two women (Macy and Fox).

This is, after all, the same man who appears unaware when a woman is flirting shamelessly with him or how what he says can be misconstrued as a double entendre, his closing speech at the Two Diamond Award presentation being a prime example.

To his credit, Helms doesn't make Tim a complete object of ridicule. Instead, Helms makes Lippe closer to a hopelessly innocent being who truly sees his insurance job as a force for good in the world. There is a fine line between being naive and being stupid. The Betty White on The Golden Girls knew how to keep the balance with her Rose.

Helms, unfortunate, does cross it. How else to explain how when trying to buy the award he appears unaware that $1500 in cash is of more interest than the $50 in a check he offers?

I figure this may more a flaw in Phil Johnston's script than either in Helms' performance or Miguel Arteta's direction. Helms never plays Tim as an absolute idiot, which is why we end up liking him. Johnston's story in on the whole a sweet tale of a true fish-out-of-water, but at times the Lippe character doesn't appear to be balanced between between a true innocent and just being a moron.

For example, Tim is shocked to see Fox remove her bra in the pool, but wouldn't someone who has been banging his dream woman who, if using the actor's ages, is twenty-five years his senior (side note: Sigourney Weaver is 61?!) already be quite familiar with naked women?

Another aspect I wasn't too thrilled on a personal level in Cedar Rapids was the notion that the Two Diamond Award, presented not based on something that could be measured like sales, growth, or positive customer ratings but on upholding a vaguely 'Christian' standard of morality, had not just been won by deception, but by a sexual deviant. It made me wonder whether ASMI was merely an insurance convention or a gathering based around a religious affiliation: having a prayer breakfast at the convention, something I don't think most multi-company gatherings have, didn't clear up matters.

It made me wonder if this was a shot at Christians, something I am always wary of since I am reluctant to go after people's private faith system regardless of what it may be.

Those are a couple of issues I had with Cedar Rapids, as well as my feeling that the film is a bit too conscious of the fact that it's suppose to be quirky and offbeat. Take for example, when Lippe's new-found friends get him to perform at the convention's talent show. While the song itself was amusing (a parody of O Holy Night with lyrics about insurance) and he does say the song was sung at Brown Valley Insurance's Christmas Party, I did wonder if it was just a bit too clever for the embarrassed and almost frightened Lippe to sing a capella.

Whatever flaws Cedar Rapids has, they are made up for by the performances. Reilly's Dean is unapologetically vulgar, crass, and lusty. Dean's uncensored honesty is what makes us like him, although trying to play at our heartstrings by giving us a backstory about a failed marriage does seem a bit of an afterthought since it's at odds with how the character is through most of the film.

Whitlock's Ronald is one of the better performances: the man of reason in the oddball group. I figure there are hints that Ronald may be in the closet: granted, his love of antiquing and reluctance to go into a same-sex wedding party Dean gets them all to crash suggest this, and if this is relevant to the general story it does appear to pop up only intermittently.

Heche has the best performance in the film: she is the most realistic character in Cedar Rapids. Heche allows us to see how innocent teasing and flirtations with Tim turn into genuine romance, but how this can only be a convention fling. Hearing her describe how Cedar Rapids itself is a break from her regular life is a wonderful moment.

Cedars Rapids has great moments of genuine humor which spring naturally from the story, and the closing credits are funny, albeit in a self-consciously obvious way. It isn't a perfect comedy, but the performances and the generally sweet story of a naive man discovering the larger world outside is entertaining.

If only conventions could be this funny...


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: A Personal Remembrance


"Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety".

That is how Shakespeare described Cleopatra, and I believe it is an apt way to describe Elizabeth Taylor as well.

Cleopatra, while not her best work, I think captures all the qualities of Dame Elizabeth: breathtaking, a bit gaudy, opulent, gigantic, impossible to miss, and never boring. I am aware that many critics hate the film, and while I recognize the problems within it, I am like the majority of the viewing public: I enjoyed it and was entertained far more than I thought I would be.

As stated, this was not her best film, and at the time she was deeply embarrassed by it. In fact, throughout her career, Taylor appeared quite dismissive of her actual acting talent/abilities. When she received the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, she said something along the lines of, "Looking at (her performances), I wasn't all that bad, was I?" She seemed, like many critics of her time, to focus on her remarkable beauty and fail to see that Elizabeth Taylor was a strong actress.

She was giving great performances even as a child. Take National Velvet. Here, at twelve, she communicated that youthful innocence mixed with a great determination to win the Grand National, and we in turn believe she can do it. Taylor created in her Velvet Brown a character children would identify with and adults will cheer for.

National Velvet, I believe, is the first truly great film of Elizabeth Taylor's career, one where her character is not dependent on an outward beauty but on the emotional connection she created between the screen and the audience.

As she grew into adulthood, admittedly, she grew more beautiful physically. There was the sweet, sentimental Father of the Bride, but for a mixture of her amazing beauty and her talent, her true acting talent, that would be A Place In the Sun.

It certainly helps to have Franz Waxman's haunting score, Edith Head's magnificent costumes, and George Stevens' brilliant direction. However, when we first see Taylor's Angela Vickers, we can see why Montgomery Clift's George Eastman was so driven in his need to be with her.I cannot remember who said it, but it is clear once seeing her on screen, I agree with whoever said that Taylor made the most beautiful motive for murder. 

She becomes that obscure object of desire, that unreachable Goddess for whom life cannot continue without. Her performance is one of innocence, unwittingly the catalyst for a terrible tragedy. In A Place In the Sun, she mixes that innocence, perhaps obliviousness to the dark side of love, with a burning passion released by the guy from the wrong side of the tracks. "Tell Mama," she coos to Clift when he cannot tell her just how much he feels for her. "Tell Mama...all". What man wouldn't melt into her arms, or do anything to be at her side?

After A Place In the Sun, she was in more masterpieces where her performances should have put any doubts as to her acting abilities to rest. First off, there's another George Stevens film: the appropriately-named Giant. Here, Taylor has to not just age physically on screen, but have an evolution in her character. Leslie Benedict has to grow from a well-brought up Southern belle to a fiery Texan gal who stands up to her husband against the prejudice she encounters against the Hispanic population dismissed by everyone born in the Lone Star State.

It could have been easy to have lost amid the grandness and epic nature of Giant, but Taylor's performance always holds your attention as the moral core of people not accustomed to have their old ways questioned, especially by a non-Texan. It is Leslie's strength that we gravitate to, her sense of doing the right thing regardless of how it looks, that makes Leslie the heroine of Giant.

Going against the moral courage of Leslie, we shift to her Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Although it's never overtly stated, it's clear Maggie wants one thing and one thing only from Brick: Sex. Passion. Desire. She wants to fill the man she loves with all of herself, and we all think Brick's crazy for constantly rejecting her advances. Maggie is an object of desire, but there's nothing obscure about it: it's blatant.

Taylor used especially her body to project her desirability to someone who seems not the least interested: how she caresses her leg while straightening her seams before an ambivalent (in perhaps more ways than one) husband, how she stands in her negligee. However, like Leslie, Maggie the Cat isn't some sex-starved nympho: she's a strong woman willing to fight for her man.

At the end of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she tells Big Daddy that she is expecting a child, which delights the old man. We are never truly sure of the veracity of the statement, but we agree with Big Daddy's appraisal of his daughter-in-law: she's got life in her. Take that statement in whatever way you wish, but it is certainly truthful.

Mendacity indeed.

Then came Cleopatra, that monument to excess, that spectacle that nearly brought down Twentieth Century-Fox and that for all intents and purposes brought about modern films: big paychecks for the stars, the ensuing massive press coverage of the good and bad of the production, paparazzi stalking of those in front of the camera. At the time of its release, critics were vicious, but I take the view of Roddy McDowall, who said that the film became so notorious that people couldn't see the forest for the trees.

Is Cleopatra a great film? No: at times it is in danger of drowning in its own excess, and at times good actors like Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and Hume Cronyn are dwarfed by their surroundings and slip into overacting. Even though Joseph Mankiewicz, an experienced filmmaker and first-rate screenwriter, was at the helm, Cleopatra still managed to bungle its efforts to reach the level of other epics like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur.

The problems that plagued Cleopatra are legendary, but even among the more chaotic elements there are still moments of brilliance: Cleopatra's arrival in Rome is, even almost fifty years after the fact, still a simply remarkable sequence.

Within it all, there stands Elizabeth Taylor: regal, grand, in perfect command of all she surveys. This is a constant with my thoughts: Cleopatra is not Elizabeth Taylor's finest hour as an actress. However, it is nearly impossible to divorce the lavishness of the Egyptian queen from the lavishness of the Hollywood royalty. Whatever the flaws, Taylor commands the screen in Cleopatra with such force that we sit in awe at the sheer spectacle of it all. Of course, we cannot ignore that this film is what brought her together with the Love of Her Life: one of the great actors of his generation: Richard Burton.

For my money, Elizabeth Taylor's greatest performance, in fact, one of the greatest performances on the screen by any actress, is in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her Martha is a person whom we should all truly hate: a vile, vulgar, hateful, spiteful woman who emotionally tortures and belittles the seemingly wimpy George. What makes her performance more remarkable is that Taylor could not rely on whatever first made her a star.

She could not rely on her beauty: Martha is a plump, disheveled person who appears to be falling apart at the seams. Her violet eyes cannot be seen in the black-and-white film. Taylor has to rely only on her acting ability, and in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she takes us into the heart of a very angry yet haunted woman. Martha is a woman filled with spite and fury, but by the end of a long dark night of the soul, we don't hate her.

We actually feel great sorrow and sadness for her when we see just how hurt and vulnerable she is, and how there truly is love between her and George (even though they hurt each other so much).

One could make the argument that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is just the Burton-Taylor marriage stripped of all its trappings of wealth, and that their next film, The Taming of the Shrew, is just the Burton-Taylor marriage played for laughs. This may be true, but just like one cannot help but marvel at the depth of wisdom and tragedy in her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one can't help but smile at her turn as the foul-tempered Katharina.

What I truly enjoyed in The Taming of the Shrew, apart from Franco Zeffirelli's directing and Shakespeare's immortal words, is in how the film ends. At the end, while Burton's Petruchio congratulates himself on the successful 'taming of the shrew', we see Kate having the last laugh by walking out and leaving her "master" behind. Has she truly been tamed? Well, that's really up for debate in the film version. This Kate might be married, but she is still her own woman: a truly happy ending for all.

As a side note: I am aware of the controversy about The Taming of the Shrew as being misogynistic at worst, sexist at best. I can only say that it IS suppose to be a comedy which we aren't suppose to take seriously. Therefore, we have to take it all with a giant grain of salt.

In discussing and reminiscing of Elizabeth Taylor's career, I would be remiss to forget her tireless work for AIDS research. She took on that cause long before and long after it became fashionable. When was the last time you saw a major star at an awards show wear a red ribbon? Once, they were de rigueur at any Hollywood event, but now, all but forgotten.

If we went by what those in the entertainment industry did, we would have thought AIDS had been cured. It hasn't: people live longer with AIDS, but AIDS itself is still sadly with us. Taylor never shied away from being associated with a sexually transmitted disease, especially one carrying a strong social stigma. People nowadays who may not know about AIDS or the fear it caused in the mid-to-late 1980s may think it is something from the past like bubonic plague.

To her eternal credit, Elizabeth Taylor was persistent in her commitment to find treatment and an eventual cure, and through her efforts at awareness and research, many people are alive. I imagine that besides her two competitive Oscars for Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the Oscar she was proudest of was her Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar for her work on behalf of AIDS research.

I think the best way to end these reflections of Dame Elizabeth Taylor are with another quote about Cleopatra, this time from the way Plutarch remembered the Egyptian queen.

"For whatever she did, she did with complete devotion. When she loved, she loved completely. When she hated, she hated with fervor. When she mourned, she mourned with all her heart".


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Doctor Who Series Five: An Overview


Now that A Christmas Carol is now relegated to the ghosts of Christmases past, I think we can pause for a moment to look back at the first series of the Eleventh Doctor, aka Matt Smith. To his credit as an actor, I think Smith has overcome whatever trepidation there might have been in thinking that no one could possibly follow David Tennant. He stayed on for three years, which is by no means a record but is the longest so far of the revived series. He left his stamp on Doctor Who, and any actor following him would have a daunting task. There was also concern that Smith, at 27, was far too young for such a part.

I think Smith has been generally successful with his interpretation of The Doctor. He is more gleeful, more manic, and certainly less despairing than Tennant in his final adventures. However, it is now time to have our own Season Five review. I present the nominees in various categories with winners in red with an asterisk.


Sophie Okonedo (The Beast Below)
Helen McCrory (The Vampires of Venice)*
Toby Jones (Amy's Choice)
Alex Kingston (The Big Bang Parts 1 & 2)

This was a tough choice. Each of them was wonderful. What got me to select McCrory was the fact that she gave a brilliant performance in a truly awful story. Her Lady Calvierri was frightening throughout The Vampires of Venice, and her delivery of the lines was in turns arrogant, menacing, and even mournful. I was spoiled for choice, but given McCrory was the best thing in something so weak as The Vampires of Venice shouldn't disqualify her from being recognized for her work.


The Weeping Angels (The Time of Angels Parts 1 & 2)
Lady Calvierri (The Vampires of Venice)
The Dream Lord (Amy's Choice)*
Restac (Cold Blood Part 2: Cold Blood)
Kazran Sardick (A Christmas Carol)

The Dream Lord was a perfectly menacing being, always keeping us guessing as to his true identity. It could have degenerated to camp, but Jones kept it perfectly straight--even when dressed as a butcher.


The montage of previous Doctors (The Eleventh Hour)*
Amy floating above the universe (The Beast Below)
Rory's First Death (Amy's Choice)
Dr. Chaudry electing to stay behind (Cold Blood Part 2)
The Doctor challenging all aliens at Stonehenge (The Big Bang Part 1)

Each of these moments are what make Doctor Who so special. I thought about which one was the one that stuck within my memory the most, which had the biggest visual impact, and which had the most emotional impact. Each has an element of one or the other, but seeing all the Doctors and so many of his enemies flash before my eyes fit into all three categories.


Winston Churchill being menaced by a Dalek's shadow (The Beast Below)
Cleric Bob speaking from beyond the grave (The Time of Angels Part 1)*
Elliot held captive (Cold Blood Part 2)
The Doctor gets boxed in (The Big Bang Part 1)
Rory dumping Amy in the worst way (The Big Bang Part 1)

What pushed the fear factor in The Time of Angels Part 1 was the fact that Cleric Bob spoke so gently while speaking words of terror. It sent chills to hear such a gentle, soothing, almost innocent voice tell the Doctor and those with him they were basically going to die. Even more effective, it was only Cleric Bob's voice. The lack of visuals made it more intense in terror.


The Vampires of Venice
Amy's Choice*
Cold Blood Parts 1 & 2
The Big Bang Parts 1 & 2 
A Christmas Carol

While The Vampires of Venice would appear to have a lock on this category, the frozen TARDIS sets of Amy's Choice were to my mind the most impressive all season. Given that they were only one set and that they still had a powerful impact, it makes it even more impressive.


The Beast Below
The Vampires of Venice*
Amy's Choice
The Big Bang Part 1
A Christmas Carol

This was a no-brainer. The Vampires of Venice clearly is a costume-driven episode, but we had a wide variety: not just the lavish Venetian wardrobe of the Lady Calvierri and her Court, but the shrouds of her minions and the stag shirts for Rory and Company. In other words, there had to be a wide variety of clothes, and each worked (although when the Venetian had to wear Rory's t-shirt, it didn't work).


Adam Smith (The Time of Angels Part 1)
Catherine Morshead (Amy's Choice)
Ashley Way (Cold Blood Parts 1 & 2)*
Jonny Campbell (Vincent & The Doctor)
Toby Haynes (The Big Bang Part 1)

It might not be fair to say Way had his way in this category because he was considered for Parts 1 & 2 while everyone else was considered for only one part or one story. However, unlike Smith or Haynes, he managed to avoid having the Part 2 Slump (where the story either loses steam or interest or even logic). He kept things going so well through two parts that he earned his win.


Stephen Moffat (The Eleventh Hour)
Stephen Moffat (The Time of Angels Part 1)
Simon Nye (Amy's Choice)*
Chris Chibnall (Cold Blood Parts 1 & 2)
Stephen Moffat (The Big Bang Part 1)

Nye kept us perpetually guessing throughout Amy's Choice as to the true nature of The Dream Lord and while it was at least clear to me which was the Real World and which the Dream World, there was always a hint that we could be wrong.


The Eleventh Hour*
Amy's Choice
Cold Blood Parts 1 & 2
Vincent & The Doctor

The Eleventh Hour had the unenviable task of establishing a new Doctor and Companion while having to be another Doctor Who story. It did it so well, matched with great performances, beautiful moments, and an interesting premise. Granted, I wasn't overwhelmed with the monster in this one, but there was enough good to overcome whatever bad there was in it.

However, none of this is to indicate everything within Series/Season Five of Doctor Who 2.0 was perfect. I think it will be instructive to go over some really awful moments.


Overweight & Multicolored Daleks (Victory of the Daleks)
The "true" reason for the 'whoosing' of the TARDIS (The Time of Angels Part 1)
The Doctor pulling out a lightsaber from the front of his pants (The Vampires of Venice)
Amy's attempted rape of The Doctor (The Time of Angels Part 2)*
The Doctor fighting an alien with an electric toothbrush while wearing only a towel (The Lodger)

I flipped long and hard between a bad moment in The Time of Angels Part 1 and a bad moment in The Time of Angels Part 2. Each is particularly atrocious because it is so unnecessary. After a lot of thought, I opted that having one of the leads attempt to force sexual intercourse on the other lead trumped one of the worst jokes to make it onto the screen (which was soon forgotten since the 'whooshing' of the TARDIS will always remain).


The Smilers (The Beast Below)
The Saturnyians (The Vampires of Venice)*
The Krafayis (Vincent & The Doctor)
The Beast Above (The Lodger)
Kazran Sardick (A Christmas Carol)

It might come off as inconsistent that I nominated Kazran as both Best Monster and Worst Monster. How can that be? Quite simple: Gambon's performance made him a great villain, but Stephen Moffat's script made him almost a silly one (I can still hear Gambon growling 'Why are they singing?' a la Grinch). Fortunately for us, he wasn't either the best OR the worst. That dishonor goes to whatever the hell the creatures in The Vampires of Venice were. Officially listed as Saturnyians, they were at various times vampires or fish or spiders. One never really knew what exactly they were, but whatever they were, I hated them.


The Beast Below
Victory of The Daleks
The Vampires of Venice*
The Lodger
A Christmas Carol

Again, how could I have Victory of the Daleks as Best AND Worst? Here's a few clues: fat Daleks! The RAF In Space! Did I mention Fat Daleks--and multi-colored at that! Even then, there were good things within it. Indeed, there were good things in every one of the Worst Story nominees, but for sheer awfullness, nothing beats The Vampires of Venice. Yes, it's won two awards, but nothing blinds me to just how dumb the whole thing was.

Well, there it is: Series/Season Five of Doctor Who covered. I have Series/Season Six on my mind, eagerly waiting to be thrilled by new adventures, and hoping to avoid more cracks.

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

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Anniversary Addendum: More Thoughts on Blog's 2nd Anniversary

Now, I note in my anniversary comments that I might have left out a few things. No biggie, just a few odds and ends that might be of interest only to me.

For example, I noted that I have a goal of watching every Best Picture winner: all 83 of them. Now, I may have written reviews for just ten of them, but I have seen 67 out of them*. If you are curious as to which ones I haven't seen, well, they are in chronological order:
  1. Wings

  2. Cavalcade

  3. The Lost Weekend

  4. Tom Jones

  5. In the Heat of the Night

  6. Patton

  7. The Sting

  8. Annie Hall

  9. The Deer Hunter

  10. Kramer Vs. Kramer

  11. Ordinary People

  12. Terms of Endearment

  13. Platoon

  14. Unforgiven

  15. Braveheart

If one is to be extremely technical, I do believe I've seen the last two, but I have no memory of them, so I've opted to include them in my "Unwatched" List. Wings is the only one not to have been released on DVD in the United States as of this writing. There is a VHS version, and Cavalcade has I believe been released as part of a package of other Best Picture winners, though no stand-alone version is available. Fortunately, both are now waiting patiently for me on my DVR.

As for the 15 masterpieces released from March 2009 to March 2011, I began to wonder which one would be The Ultimate. So first, let's see which ones were among the contenders. In alphabetical order:

(500) Days of Summer

Black Swan

The Fighter

Food, Inc.

The Hangover


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

The King's Speech

Michael Jackson's This Is It (aka This Is It)


The Social Network

Toy Story 3


Waiting For "Superman"

The Young Victoria

Quite a collection, ain't it?

I have opted to look over a wide variety: documentaries, comedies, costume dramas, and animation. A film should be judged by the quality in the filmmaking as well as the standards it was setting out to fulfill. That being the case, I can't quite bring myself to say Precious is better than The Hangover but I love them both. Each of those films is brilliant in its own way and should be appreciated as such.

As such, I have decided not to select the very Best of the Masterpieces. I will say that both UP and Toy Story 3 had great emotional impact, but then again, so did Precious (a film I still find extremely haunting, heartbreaking, and oddly, even uplifting).  The Hangover was completely hilarious, but they never had their laughs at the expense of their characters. Rather, it was their situations and their reactions to them that brought the laughter, and what's wrong with laughing every now and again?

Other films, like Inception and Black Swan, did something I always like in a film: they trusted me to keep up with them; they did not insult my intelligence by dumbing things down but rather called on my mind to put things together.

I doubt I'll finish by year's end, going over every Best Picture. I have endless drafts of reviews waiting patiently for me to finish them. I have more retrospectives to complete as well as begin. I hope to start a Planet of the Apes films retrospective before Rise of The Apes is released. Yes, my work is not finished, not by a long shot. I have much to do, but I will not be discouraged. In the words of President Kennedy, "...but let us begin".

* July 2017 Update: All the Best Picture winners have been seen, though not reviewed. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau Review (Review #200)


I think it would be only fair to say that I do not believe in predestination before going into The Adjustment Bureau. Therefore, since I believe in free will, I don't accept the notion that a group of mysterious beings, on orders of The Chairman (their terminology), will do what they can to have our lives take a particular course. These are the kind of questions The Adjustment Bureau was trying to raise: do we control our own lives or does an outside source do it for us, but the film stumbled slightly in its efforts to try to answer them.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a fast-living, attractive Congressman making a run for the U.S. Senate for New York. He is on the verge of winning when a scandal hits: a photo hits the front pages, scuttling his election. In a shocking upset, New York votes, horror of horrors, for a Republican. It must have been a truly scandalous photo to have made the blue state see red.

In any case, defeated and dejected, David goes into the hotel restroom to practice his concession speech. While there, he is surprised to find a beautiful woman emerging from one of the stalls. This mystery woman and David start to talking, and an instant attraction forms, culminating in a passionate kiss. David delivers a 'powerful' speech that puts him on the road to a comeback.

David, now in private life, bumps into the mysterious woman on the bus, and he finally scores her phone number and name. She is Elise (Emily Blunt), and with this bit of information David is on his way to his new job. There is only one problem: they were never to see each other again.

Richardson (John Slattery), one of the Men With Hats who oversee the world entire, had told another one of the Men With Hats, Harry (Anthony Mackie) that David had to spill coffee on himself by 7:05 a.m. and thus avoid getting on the bus. Harry, however, had fallen asleep waiting on the park bench and woke too late to stop David getting on the bus. As much as he tried to chase after him, even using his powers to have him spill his coffee inside the bus, David makes it to work to see more Men With Hats and every mortal at the office frozen, unaware of what's going on.

Richardson and his paratroopers take David and tell him who they are: they are the Adjustment Bureau, making sure that the plans for certain individuals stay on the correct course. He tells David that he is never to see Elise again, which David doesn't like but which if he tries will force Richardson to reset (or basically lobotomize) David.

Cut to three years. David still dreams for Elise and wouldn't you know it: he does see her walking down the street. He discovers that she's a dancer and wants to spend every moment he can with her, even if it means postponing his campaign announcement/rally where the people and press are waiting. The Adjustment Bureau is horrified by the turn of events, and they rush about to get them separated. David is determined to get his own way, and the situation starts growing more desperate for the bureau, so they bring in The Hammer, aka Thompson (Terence Stamp).

He tells David that once, he and Elise were meant to be together, but that was an earlier draft of The Chairman's plan. Thompson goes on to say that the Adjustment Bureau kept things in check until the fall of Rome, when The Chairman opted to pull them back. That of course, meant giving humans total free will, but it meant we messed it up: going through the Dark Ages until they went back in and brought about the Renaissance. Again the Bureau stayed in until 1910, but again humans botched the job: a Depression, two world wars and the bomb. Again the Bureau went in and has stayed in for our own good.

The Chairman's plans for David are quite simple: for him to win the election, and then four more races, not all of them for Senate. The Chairman, then, wants David to be President, which I figure would make this omnipotent being a Democrat. If, however, David chooses to go against his plan by staying with Elise, it will not only mean the end of David's political career, but Elise will not be the revolutionary dancer/choreographer she was meant to be, but a mere dance teacher.

To give him time to think it through, Thompson causes Elise to fall during her performance, resulting in a mere fracture, for now. David decides to leave her in the hospital. Cut to eleven months: David is almost assured victory, but he sees an article on Elise which includes her engagement. Harry, acting as his Deep Throat, steps in to help David get Elise, going so far as to give him his own hat, the hats help the Bureau members traverse the city but also limit their powers, as does water be it rain or rivers. Now, with a plan of his own, David finds Elise before she marries and carries her off, with Thompson and his men in mad pursuit. In the end, all is well.

While The Adjustment Bureau is a good film it isn't as good as it could have been. There is an awful lot of running around in the film, which is all right for an action/chase film but which leads me to ask a particular question that I didn't have answered.

If the members of the Bureau have these extraordinary powers (remember, Harry got David to spill his coffee inside the bus), why didn't they just engineer things better? Why didn't Harry just cause the bus to stop, which would have jerked the bus to cause David to spill his coffee, which would have caused him to go back to change clothes, which would have avoided him walking in on the Bureau members working at David's office? See, problem solved.

If the Bureau can get to any part of New York by going through doors that take them from say Brooklyn to Manhattan to Yankee Stadium to the Statue of Liberty, why are they finding it so hard to catch up to David and Elise, mere mortals that they are? These beings can go through any door and take people to their holding cell for wayward mortals, but they can't catch up to David and Elise? In short, it is difficult to believe the Bureau can be as powerful over mortals if they are so patently inept at keeping track of him.

It seems amazing that writer/director George Nolfi, adapting Phillip Dick's short story Adjustment Team", could have made an hour and forty-five minutes feel longer. It might have been because we needed a few chase scenes, but at times The Adjustment Bureau drags by trying to be more action and less thought.

Yes, it is trying to ask deep questions of who controls our futures:ourselves, or an outside source, but it doesn't really seem interested in offering any answers other than True Love Will Win Out. Why exactly David loves Elise or vice-versa, other than they feel they do because those are emotions left over from a previous draft of their plans, is not answered. Besides a physical attraction between David and Elise you don't see how their relationship could have been built up on what is essentially one to two dates spanning over three years.

If one wanted to get really philosophical about things, since their attraction/passion was a result of leftover senses from earlier plans for their lives, they really weren't fighting Fate or The Bureau but in actuality fulfilling their plans.

The performances were nothing particular special but not horrid. Damon's David seemed incredibly unbelieving of his situation, and once or twice even disengaged. When he is taken to the Bureau's garage for interrogation, Elise's phone number is burned before his eyes. His reaction is more whiny than angry or heartbroken at having lost the chance to know his One True Love's number.

Blunt was better, able to show the confusion as to why, even after being abandoned twice by David, she still felt that there was something between them. It is difficult to believe that after a short conversation two people would passionately kiss, but I figure in a movie one has to suspend some disbelief. Slattery appears to be having fun being the mysterious Richardson, who is a being merely interested that things go the way he thinks they should go but not interested in his charges. Stamp brings some menace to Thompson, but I would figure a character like The Hammer would play rough with David. Instead, he just warns David to get back on the plan and get elected President like any good boy should.

If any performance got to me, it was Mackie's Harry, the only Bureau member with a first name. It wasn't that it was bad, although he did have only one expression, that of being forlorn at how he handled David's life from practically birth (no Clarence was he), but in the fact that his character comes dangerously close to being that cliche of the Mystical Black Man, that otherworldly being who comes to help the Anglo character fulfill his destiny. It was getting to be Mackie was coming to being another Bagger Vance, which oddly enough also starred Matt Damon.

Coincidence, or was it all part of The Plan?.

I figure that if The Adjustment Bureau actually wanted to get their own way, they could have easily have manipulated Elise to do their bidding. Perhaps Nolfi and company wanted me to answer those deep questions about free will vs. predestination for myself with The Adjustment Bureau prompting me to do so. Trouble with that is I already have asked and answered those for myself. Perhaps the resolution to the crisis David and Elise were going through was a little pat and unsurprising.

If they had pushed themselves to go beyond a happy ending or not looked so glum and at times disengaged from what all of them were doing and saying, The Adjustment Bureau could have been a deep film. It right now is a halfway decent action film with smatterings of philosophy in it.  The Adjustment Bureau, I think, wanted it both ways: a deep introspective film and an action film, and the imbalance between the two kept it from being either.

At least one good thing did come from The Adjustment Bureau: it made me want to wear my fedora and bowler in public again.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Darjeeling Limited: A Review


Next Time Take the Express...

Having seen only two of his films, The Royal Tenenbaums and now The Darjeeling Limited, I figure Wes Anderson is the Master Chronicler of WASP alienation. If just by judging from those two films,  the only ones of his I've seen as of today, Anderson must live in some alternate universe occupied by perpetually unhappy upper-class members, forever plagued by high intellect but empty lives, without souls or personality. I'm almost tempted to say Wes Anderson has a strong streak of misanthropy, since those who occupy his films never have a true moment of peace, of gentle laughter, of familial warmth.

In fact, an Anderson family is more Tolstoyesque, except all his unhappy families are all the same: the kids emotionally removed from their absent parents, emotionally removed from their siblings, even perhaps, emotionally removed from themselves. Yes, The Darjeeling Limited is a Wes Anderson film since it has all his trademarks: unhappy people bored with their lives but finding no way out, even failing whenever they try to commit suicide, and an aversion to cutting away from one person to another.

Francis (Owen Wilson) is in India, and he has gotten his two brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), to join him. They have not seen or spoken to each other in about a year, not since the death of their father. They are so removed from each other's lives that neither Peter or Jack were aware that Francis had suffered a traumatic motorcycle accident leaving him in various bandages. They are so removed from each other's lives that neither Francis or Jack were aware that Peter is about to become a father. Francis has somehow convinced his brothers to join him in India for a spiritual quest, to take the time to bond and become real brothers again.

However, this is really a ruse: Francis' real reason to coming to India and having his siblings come is to seek out their estranged mother, who is in a convent at the foothills of the Himalayas. While Jack and Peter are unhappy about being tricked into coming, they have to go along because due to their 'ugly American' antics they get thrown off the Darjeeling Limited and now have to be together. Now with no mode of transportation, they come across three children in danger of drowning, and the ensuing action reminds them of their own lives. Eventually, they opt to go in search of their mother (Anjelica Huston), who is at the most perplexed to find her three sons there, seeking out a form of closure with her.

How hard is it for me to like Wes Anderson films? Actually, not that hard. I suppose it comes from our distinct worldviews. Although both of us are from Texas, we see the world in radically different ways. Anderson sees the world as Eleanor Rigby . I see the world as Here Comes The Sun. In short, I think the fact that Anderson appears so terribly cold and analytical to the emotions of others is what keeps me distant from his work. It might have to do with that Anderson's from East Texas, and I'm from West Texas; yet, I digress.

For a film that is suppose to be about people, we never get to know exactly who the Whitman Brothers are. For example, we never learn why Peter and/or Jack would come to a summons from Francis to join him in India in the first place. Did he just call up people he hadn't spoken to in a year, say, 'Come over to India for a spiritual journey' and both of them said yes because they had nothing else to do?

Peter buys a poisonous snake knowing it's a poisonous snake, then seems shocked, SHOCKED that it could be dangerous. Jack's main thing is to be schtupping the train hostess then seeming perplexed as to why she doesn't want to have an actual romance with him. I have an idea: you are too whiny.

Curiously, for a film that is suppose to touch on a journey of the soul, there really isn't much emphasis on actually exploring any deep spiritual practices. There is one visit to a Hindu temple, where Peter ends his prayers with the Sign of the Cross, making me think the Whitmans are Catholic, and one visit to a Sikh temple, but other than that, they don't seem that involved in looking for something to ease their troubled souls. It makes me seriously wonder whether any of them were serious about finding answers to questions of the soul, or were at the very least going on this trip to humor Francis.

As a side note, I figure many WASPs think the answers always lie to the East: be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga, or some form of mysticism requiring a swami or guru. I do not mean to disparage the traditions of the East, but why can't any Westerner find inner peace within Judaism, Christianity, or even Islam? Why can't they ever visit a Catholic monastery? Don't they have contemplation there? Just a thought.

To their credit, I can see the symbolism within the script by Anderson, Schwartzman, and his cousin Roman Coppola. At the end of The Darjeeling Limited, the Whitman brothers race to catch the train, and in order to do so, they need to let go of their dad's suitcases which they've been carrying. In other words, they can't move on with their own individual lives or their lives as siblings without letting 'the baggage' go.

I can see the symbolism of them attempting to rescue the three children in the river, saving their own childhoods, perhaps. However, given that for most of the film each of them comes off as, well, a bit crazy and out-of-touch with their various situations, one can only watch rather bored waiting for something, anything, to happen that will change them in any way. As it stands, they don't appear to have gone any great change in their characters.

Truth be told, I never believed Wilson, Brody, or Schwartzman could be brothers and not just because they bore no resemblance to each other. It's because they don't appear to really know each other, and given that they must have spent at least ten years together, they all seem rather unaware of how one will react to something they do. The fact that all three never seem to talk to each other, but just say things written for them in a near-monotone speaking manner makes them even more remote from the world at large. I speculate that the reason Anderson got Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman for The Darjeeling Limited, aside from the fact that they all run in the same circle, was simply so we could tell who was who, since nothing in their performances distinguishes one morose child from the other.

Finally, there is the camera work. I figure this is a motif for Anderson: an apparent phobia of cutting from one person to another and an obsession of putting everything in the middle of the frame. I figure he would never go for a Cinemascope picture: having all that space might put him in shock.

Here's how, for the uninitiated, Anderson shifts from one character to another: by swinging the camera from Person A to Person B then back to Person A and then back again to Person B and again, and again and once more. Throughout The Darjeeling Limited and if memory serves correct, The Royal Tenenbaums as well, Anderson just can't cut away to someone else. In fact, I can't quite remember if he ever truly cut from one person to another in the film, and after a while the camera whiplash he appears obsessed with not only gets repetitive but irritating as well.

Maybe he saves money by not having to cut his films, and it may be his way of being innovative, but would it kill him to maybe once in a while going from one person to another without moving his camera between them? Who in reality waits more than a beat to speak when one person ends?

I've been told that Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and after two films, I haven't any interest in the sad and unhappy lives of rich people who are miserable because their parents didn't love them. One would advise the Whitmans to get some therapy, stop moping about and realize their lives are actually pretty good.

The central point in The Darjeeling Limited is a line Francis' assistant who for some reason he thinks neither Peter or Jack should actually see says when the train gets lost. "We haven't located us yet". It could have been possible to have built on that, to have a real search for self.

Given how remarkably self-absorbed the Whitmans are, it's amazing they would ever take time from staring at themselves to see anything outside of themselves.  I get the symbolism of The Darjeeling Limited, I get what Anderson is saying.  It doesn't mean I believe anything he says.

From what I say, they suffer from alienation brought about by lack of fulfillment, but The Darjeeling Limited shows that they certainly have missed the train.