Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Little Monky Business



STORY 017: THE TIME MEDDLER


One can wonder whether the four-part story The Time Meddler (individual episodes The Watcher, The Meddling Monk, A Battle of Wits, and Checkmate) counts as a historic story or a science-fiction story. Certainly, the setting is from Earth's past (Britain just before the arrival of William the Conqueror) but in this case, The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his Companions Vicki (Maureen O'Sullivan) and stowaway Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) aren't trying to influence history--they are trying to keep it as is.  I think it should be the first ahistoric story: one where history is merely the background to a more science-fiction driven story.  It is also unique in that The Time Meddler is the first Doctor Who story where we encounter a villain in the form of a fellow time traveller like The Doctor.

The Doctor and Vicki are mourning the loss of Ian and Barbara, when Steven appears (along with Hi-Fi, his faithful teddy bear).  The Doctor takes him on and they land in 1066 England, Northumbria to be exact.  Steven doesn't believe they are in the past (despite lots of evidence to the contrary).  They soon split up, with the Doctor going inland while Vicki and Steven climb up the hill.  Unknown to them, a Monk (Peter Butterworth) has been watching, and he isn't puzzled by their appearance at all.  The Doctor meets Edith (Alethea Charlton) who tells him where and when he is, but the Doctor is intrigued by the chanting coming from the nearby monastery, especially when the chanting carries a curious distortion, like a needle on a record going slightly off.  He goes there, and the Monk traps him.

Vicki and Steven, however, are trying to avoid capture by both the Saxons and a Viking scouting party.  They also suspect the Monk knows where the Doctor is, and they sneak into the monastery to investigate.  Both of them make the startling discovery that the Monk has a record player, but the Doctor is still missing.  To make things curiouser and curiouser, the Monk has a Progress Chart detailing his activities, culminating with the Battle of Hastings--which has yet to occur.  While searching for the Doctor, Vicki and Steven make one of the most truly shocking twists in Doctor Who: the Monk has a TARDIS of his own.  The Doctor, independent of his Companions, realizes who the Monk is...a member of his own race who he calls a Time Meddler. 

The Monk has now decided to interfere with the course of history with an audacious plan: he will defeat the Viking invasion of Britain for King Harold so as to allow the Saxon king to defeat the other invasion force led by William the Conqueror, altering the entire course of British (and more than likely, world) history.  Now it's up to The Doctor to stop The Monk from playing fast and loose with history as it will be.  He is unwittingly aided by the Saxon villagers, who become suspicious of the Monk when he asks for beacon lights to be put just when they have confirmation of the Viking scouting party.  The Saxons believe the Monk is a Viking spy and raid the monastery.  The Monk manages to escape during the chaos of the raid while the Saxons go after the two Viking scouting party survivors, but when he returns to his TARDIS, he discovers that the Doctor has altered it in such a way that makes escape virtually impossible.

The Time Meddler, especially Episode One, is far lighter than previous stories.  Not since The Romans have we had a story that borders on comedy.  This is evident when Steven is presented with a Viking helmet as proof that he is indeed in Earth's past.  When Steven insists that it isn't authentic, the Doctor snaps back, "What do you think it is? A space helmet for a cow?"  We also see the humor just from the villain.

As performed by Butterworth, the Monk isn't evil.  He doesn't want to change history for his own benefit or to cause harm.  Rather, he involves himself in attempting to change the future because he thinks he is helping.  The Monk doesn't wish to bring chaos.  Rather, he believes that King Harold will be a good king, and thus he should be given a chance to reign.  The Monk figures that without having to fight the Viking invasion, Harold can defeat the Normans and thus prevent a lot of further involvement in future European wars.  In a sense, The Monk is almost innocent, oblivious to how changing the future may lead to worse results rather than better ones.  His villainy (if it can be called that) is for the most part a childish one.  That makes the Monk an odd, almost endearing villain, but still a dangerous one nonetheless.  It's Butterworth's performance that keeps a healthy balance between the child-like enthusiasm of his chicanery and the dangers he presents in holding The Doctor hostage.  This Monk will not shrink from using force if need be to get at his aims (the Monk's laughter when he captures the Doctor is quite chilling), but by and large The Monk is a lighter, more humorous nemesis.

As a side note: while he's earned the name The Meddling Monk (more than likely due to that being the title of Episode Two), he should be referred to as The Monk.  This is how he is billed in all four parts, and while I've heard him called the Meddling Monk, he really is just The Monk, if one wants to be technical. 

Dennis Spooner's script should be given great credit because of its cleverness in both the overall plot and in creating an antagonist who is in a sense the Doctor's equal.  It also gave us in Episode Three one of the most genuinely shocking moments in the First Doctor's tenure.  In all previous stories, we really don't know exactly who the Doctor is (no pun intended).  With The Time Meddler, the mythos of Doctor Who has opened up: we now see that The Doctor has a group/species apart from Earthlings.  In short, there are more like him.  From this one point, the world of Gallifrey and of the Time Lords will emerge.

It also created long before the genre of alternative history really took off.  Nowadays, novels about what would have happened if the Nazis had conquered Britain or the Confederacy had won the Civil War are a dime a dozen, but in 1965 television such inventiveness wasn't easily found.  It is a remarkably tight story, with an interesting premise and characters.  In The Time Meddler, the Doctor now serves less as activator of events than as preserver of them. 

The one point in Spooner's script which I though was a touch weak was in how the Doctor (and later on, Vicki and Steven) managed to enter and exit the monastery at will: the whole "secret passage" deal isn't very clever or original.  On the whole, however, this is a minor glitch in an overall clever and inventive story. 

Hartnell is at the top of his game in The Time Meddler.  His best moments are in Episode One, where he delivers comedic lines in a style both humorous and almost harsh.  This same episode also has one of the unintended humorous moments when Hartnell suffers one of his infamous "Billy Flubs".  The Doctor is not interested in climbing a steep mountain.  "...but I'm not a mountain goat and I prefer walking to any day..." an irritated Doctor tells Steven.  The fact that O'Sullivan and Purves could continue without looking at least puzzled by this rather odd statement is a credit to their abilities as performers.  This for Hartnell in The Time Meddler is a rather small matter: throughout the story he is determined to stop the Monk from his plans.  As cranky as he may be (not as much as reputation dictates) Hartnell shows a softer side with both Vicki and Edith, being kind and considerate to both of them.

The curious thing about The Time Meddler in terms of acting is that Purves suffers the most.  His Steven appears incredibly thick-headed, almost stupid in his refusal to admit that he is in the past.  In fact, Steven in his debut story is a remarkably dumb and weak character: Vicki shows greater strength and courage when dealing with the Saxons and the Monk than Steven does.  From his first appearance, stumbling out into the control room with his panda bear, to when they all leave for points unknown Steven as a character isn't standing out as heroic or clever.  O'Sullivan is better as Vicki, tapering down her youthful exuberance from some of her previous stories and become a stronger person in her own right.

A lot of credit should go to director Douglas Camfield, who kept the pace steady and did not build up the twist in Episode Three but let it build naturally.  Aside from a battle between the Saxons and the Viking party in Episode Three that looked a bit comical (as if they really didn't want to fight but had to), Camfield created wonderful moments in The Time Meddler, drawing strong performances from Hartnell and Butterworth.  The closing moments in The Time Meddler, where Vicki, Steven, and The Doctor are almost literally part of the galaxy as they each stare out into the vastness of space, going into the stars to new adventures, is an especially beautiful moment in both The Time Meddler and in Doctor Who the series.


 
Here's where things get a little tricky.  The next three succeeding stories: the four-part Galaxy Four, the one-off Mission to the Unknown (both the shortest Doctor Who story and the only story not to feature the cast), and the four-part The Myth Makers are incomplete to say the least.  There is a six minute clip of Episode One of Galaxy Four (A Thousand Suns) and that's the LONGEST known surviving footage of all three.*  What few clips of The Myth Makers that exist at all are due to off-air recordings made by fans, and Mission to the Unknown is one of three stories to have no surviving footage whatsoever.

Story 021, the epic twelve-part The Daleks' Master Plan, has three complete surviving episodes.  The optimist therefore says that a quarter of the story survives.   However, the episodes (Episode Two: Day of Armageddon, Episode Five: Counter Plot, and Episode Ten: Escape Switch) are so separated that one would have to fill in many of the plot points to try to make an honest evaluation of the story as a whole.  Story 022, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve or just The Massacre,  is unfortunately the third (and mercifully last) Doctor Who story of which no surviving footage whatsoever is known to exist.  Therefore, the next complete story is Story 023, The Ark.

As a side note, it is a terrible shame for television history that so many Doctor Who stories no longer exist.  Some of them might have been quite good (and yes, some might have been awful) but we may never have the chance to see them.  A lot people worked hard to create these stories, and their work is literally lost in time.   Of course, this isn't to say there may not be a restoration in the future: Mission to the Unknown, being the shortest, seems the most likely candidate for an animated reconstruction. 

As it stands, we'll have to jump from Story 017 to Story 023, in which time we will lose one companion (Vicki, at the end of The Myth Makers) and gain another (Dodo Chapet, at the end of The Massacre). 

I have opted to take a side trip to the surviving episodes of The Daleks' Master Plan and give a review of those, but the next formal review will be for The Ark

The Time Meddler is a clever, witty story, not as out-and-out comical as The Romans but certainly less serious than The Chase or The Dalek Invasion of Earth.   It's not often one can say that the villain was delightful, but the Monk (or the Meddling Monk if you prefer) is both dangerous and endearing at once. There was strong directing both in terms of acting and visuals.  In short, The Time Meddler is an answer to our prayers. 

*Since originally written Episode Three of Galaxy 4 (Airlock) has been rediscovered.  Thus we now have a reconstructed version of this story and with that, a review of it. 

Meddling Monks Be Praised...


Next Story: Galaxy 4

10/10

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Carroll Out of Tune: Alice in Wonderland (2010) Review



ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

You can't really call Tim Burton's film Alice in Wonderland for many reasons.  One: it's not strictly speaking an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Through The Looking Glass.  Two: as many of the characters tell Alice, she really ISN'T in a place called Wonderland but actually called Underland.  The film is therefore erroneously named.  It also is more a facsimile of the books, a remarkably joyless affair that has only name recognition going for it. 

Alice (my not-so-secret love Mia Wasikowska) is now 19, and facing a most unhappy prospect of a proposal by the tweedy Lord Hamish Ascot (Tim Piggot-Smith).  She does not want to marry him, but alas, this may be the only way to restore her family's fortunes.  Instead, she leaves Hamish (and everyone else watching them at her surprise engagement party) to go chasing rabbits.  Once again, she tumbles down a hole and finds herself in a world vaguely familiar but she stubbornly insists is all a dream.  Here, Alice eventually finds the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) still in the middle of his tea party, but the world Alice enters is not a happy world.  The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has usurped the throne (thanks to the help of the Jabberwocky) and pushed out her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).  The White Queen is looking for a champion to fight the Jabberwocky, and Alice, according to the scroll called the Oraculum (I figure because it's an oracle of things past, present, and future) states Alice and only Alice can kill this beast. 

Alice, of course, doesn't want to kill the Jabberwocky or anything really.  She does feel an obligation to rescue the Mad Hatter, trapped in the Red Queen's castle.  She does so, aided by the hunt dog Bayard (voice of Timothy Spall), the Dormouse (v.o. Barbara Windsor), and even the mischievious Cheshire Cat (v.o. Stephen Fry).  Once rescued (being sure to take the Vorpal Sword with her), they are ready to take on the reign of terror of the Red Queen and her champion.  Finally, she emerges back to her world and decides to do the un-Victorian thing and go into business, sailing to the East to swindle the Chinese...I mean, bring business to the Orient.

Amazingly, in spite of its one hour and forty-eight minute running time, Alice In Wonderland feels far longer and both rushed and boring all at once.  I put it to the fact that while screenwriter Linda Woolverton had a great source of material to work with, she (and I figure Burton) decided that the best thing to do was to take out all the wit, the joy, and the fun out of it and turn it into a cross between Return to Oz and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.  The film is dark and dreary, and more blasphemous, there really is no story here.  Other than the fact that she yells a lot and has a big head, we don't see the Red Queen as a new Gaddaffi.  Other than her fluttering about we never see why the White Queen wishes to return to power.  Even more peculiar, the Mad Hatter is actually rather sane (his hair notwithstanding).  It takes a great deal of courage to take one of the Great Books of Literature (my English teacher always said the majority of quotations emerged from three sources: the Bible, Shakespeare, and Alice In Wonderland) and reduce it to a story of a somewhat stupid girl who has to lead some sort of revolution. 

I never trust a film that has a continous score, and longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman never lets up on his music.  There might have been a minute or perhaps two where there was actual silence, but to my mind I believe having perpetual music in a movie is a sign that the film needs something to keep people interested or at least not drifting off to sleep.  Granted, the sets and costumes are excellent in bringing us into this unreal (and allegedly named Underworld--side note: why change the name of the place, or better yet, why not call it Alice in Underworld) world, but besides that, what interest do we have in seeing Alice and her side defeat the Red Queen and her Knave (Cripin Glover) since we don't care about any of them.

As much as Wasikowska enchants me in her films (The Kids Are All Right, Jane Eyre), she has also not (Defiance) and here, she is in the latter.  Alice is so flat, having a blank expression through almost the whole film.  I put it on the fact that there is no story to hold our interest.  As stated earlier, Bonham Carter consists of yelling and Hathaway (who sadly given her makeup job looked 300 years old) was all fluttery.  Now, I'll say that they played their parts correctly, but they never had any actual character traits that made us either fear/hate one or rally/care about the other.  Depp doesn't go wrong playing oddballs but I'll say it again: the Mad Hatter isn't mad as in crazy; maybe mad as in angry.  When he finally performs his Futterwacken (a dance of joy), it doesn't look funny or fun--just so at odds with the somber tone of Alice In Wonderland.

The voice work is on the whole good.  Alan Rickman was perfectly cast as the Caterpillar, and his grand tones, while easily recognizable, lent that air of haughtiness to the role.  Windor's Dormouse is odd only in that it brought back memories of Reepicheep from the Chronicles of Narnia films.  Whether it was a conscious decision to do so I don't know (I doubt it) but you can't have a mouse flinging a sword without us thinking about how similar they are.  To his credit, I did not recognize Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, though Stephen Fry was more recognizable as the Cheshire Cat (side note: given Sheen's best-known performance is as Tony Blair, wouldn't it have been more accurate to have had HIM play the Cheshire Cat).

I will say that I did laugh when I heard the Cheshire Cat tell Alice that he never gets involved in politics.  If only that were true.  I bet a lot of the British-viewing public must have been rolling in the aisles or rolling their eyes.  Yet I digress.  The story itself doesn't make much sense: if all know Alice will fulfill 'the prophesy', why is everyone so clueless about what she is doing there?  How is it that the Red Queen doesn't recognize Alice (if she has seen her before in the past when she was there as a child) or even stop to think that this large creature who appears in her garden might be the mysterious Alice?

I cannot get over the fact that all that is good about the two books the film is based on was sucked dry to create something that did not have any energy, any joy, or any originality.  Alice In Wonderland is very busy but very empty, remarkably bland.  Even Johnny Depp suffers--his makeup makes him look like Elijah Wood of all people.  As long-time readers know how I feel about 3-D, I need not waste your time going over that once more. 

Alice In Wonderland the 2010 film bears little resemblance to Alice In Wonderland the book.  It was an interesting idea: to take a director known for his interest in the dark and quirky nature of life and adapt a work of joyful nonsense.  Somehow, they didn't mesh.  It's in the end odd that in Alice In Wonderland, there is no real sense of wonder...only boredom.

How Can You Tell The Difference?

DECISION: D-

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Is What America Is To Me

1897-1991


FRANK CAPRA

America is a nation of immigrants; we all take pride in our ancestral heritage but also have a great love for the land of our birth or naturalization. Americans simply love America: not just the physical territory but the idea of America, the land of opportunity where one can come from nothing, flee repression and find a land that guarantees you nothing except the chance to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It would take an immigrant to capture on celluloid what we Americans can't quite verbalize, a Son of Italy to shape what we think of as authentically American. Few directors have such an abounding and unapologetic love for America as Frank Capra, and few have captured the joys and contradictions of the nation as Capra has.  In short, what we think of as 'American': the small-town boy makes good, the goodness of our neighbors, the hope to move up--was from the work of an immigrant.

One simply cannot ignore Capra's immigrant background when it comes to his film-making.  Capra came to the United States from Sicily at age six, so his childhood was shaped by his memories of both his native land and those of an American upbringing.  Unlike other foreign-born directors who came to America as adults (say Hitchcock), Capra was of an age where the hopes that every immigrant come to America with were solidly grafted onto his soul.  He took it for granted that anyone can come and make of him/herself a success, namely because he did so.  This lent his films a spirit of optimism, of what good ol' American know-how can do to make the country (and the world) a better place.

Take his first Best Picture winner (It Happened One Night).  Capra had established the ground rules for screwball comedy: fast-paced witty conversation and two people from different worlds that end up falling in love.  Here, the average man (the Clark Gable character) is the hero, and this was tonic in the times of the Depression.  It's Capra's celebration of the man and woman in the street (from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe to It's A Wonderful Life) that makes him more than beloved--it makes his films ones that stand the test of time.  Capra is the first major talent to tackle the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans and find the nobility within them.  Capra heroes from Longfellow Deeds and "John Doe" to Jefferson Smith and George Bailey are ordinary men who struggle against such things as deception and fraud, not armed with guns but with something more dangerous to the power elite: the truth and individual courage. 

Take Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Here, our young Senator isn't calling for armed insurrection against the corruption he comes across.  Instead, he uses the weapons within his power (namely the filibuster) to stop the rot he sees taking place in the hallways of power.  Jefferson Smith is not stupid or even naive, but instead someone who has not been corrupted by cynicism.  We the audience identify with him and his struggle because like Capra, we believe in the goodness of our country and its institutions.  This is why we identify so powerfully to Jefferson Smith's plight that when it looks like he is 'licked', we are agonized ourselves. 

I think this is part of Capra's genius: the ability to have us identify with the characters.  Like George Bailey, who among us hasn't had secret (or in his case, not-so secret) dreams that remain unfulfilled but who realize that our lives in the end have been pretty good?  Those things like honesty, personal courage, family--the things that we value are the things Capra holds up to us in his films and holds up as models for us. 

This ability to identify with the average man (you and me) is best captured in the documentary series Why We Fight.  There were many men drafted in World War II who didn't have a great understanding of how the world grew into conflict (until the bombing at Pearl Harbor, there were many Americans who considered the wars on both their shores to be 'over there' and thus, unimportant to their lives).  The seven parts that comprise Why We Fight put the struggle against Fascism/Nazism/Japanese aggression in a context that could be understood.  For example, in Prelude to War, the comparison is made between Nazi Germany and the United States.  In a famous scene, we see how 'the church' (or religion if you prefer) was the last obstacle to total Nazi domination of Germany.  "The Word of God and the Word of Fuhrers cannot be reconciled.  Then God MUST GO", thunders narrator Walter Huston, and in a brilliant sequence we see a stained-glass window smashed with rocks, to reveal an image of Adolph Hitler behind it.  In a time where religion was more dominant and respected (and with the shorthand of the stained-glass window serving as the symbol of faith), the idea of 'our' faith at risk by barbarians is a call to arms.

Again, it is Capra's brilliant ability to make his movies projects to where we identify with those on the screen that makes us care about what we see on the screen.  At the heart of Capra films is a sense that good will triumph, that the 'common' man was truly extraordinary, and that you and I have worth outside whatever wealth we have outside our bank accounts. 

Those themes: the importance of family, faith (religious and personal) and the decency of the 'common' man and how he (I can't think of a Capra film where women were the protagonists) will triumph come again and again in his films.  Again and again, the celebration of what it is to be American is at the core of Capra's genius, as well as to why his films are still seen by the public at large.

This isn't to say Frank Capra wasn't a craftsman when it came to his films.  He could, like Hitchcock, manipulate audiences with his imagery: the conclusion of It's A Wonderful Life as George runs through the streets of Bedford Falls is not just iconic, but a confirmation of that character's epiphany and transformation from a bitter man driven to despair to one who has reaffirmed his desire to live. 

As a side note, I don't understand why the phrase "Capra-esque", which I take to denote an optimistic view of American life, is so dismissed.  Capra at heart was telling us that things will get better if we work at them, and rally around the truly important things: family, honesty, personal courage despite great pressure to conform.  These are positive qualities, and I agree up to a point with director William Friedkin, who stated that he prefers Capra's America, even though it's gone.  I don't know if it is completely gone: certainly the sense of community has lessened, and people today are more cynical.  However, we time and again gravitate to Capra's world, because in his films the genuine love he had for country comes through.

Sadly, he made no films after 1961's Pocketful of Miracles.  He lived another thirty years, and yet his career ended, I think because the way he looked at the world and the world he celebrated was disappearing.  Capra would not fit in to the world of hippies, free love and rampant drug use.  One senses that Capra understood that his worldview would no longer play in Peoria.  He could have made more films (at 64 he could have gone on to a few more) but Capra's America was slowly fading from existence.  Maybe Friedkin was right. 

We still have the films, glorious paens to America and as how we see it.  In his films, America and Americans are celebrated: their honesty, their ingenuity, their pride in the working-class.  We see that in It's A Wonderful Life--we have an Italian-American family moving from Potter's Field to their new home courtesy of the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan.   That must have been an extremely personal moment for Capra, and belies the idea that he was not an auteur.  In short, Capra-esque is a positive thing.

Please visit The Great Directors for other Icons of Cinema. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Partisan Our Noble Intensions

DEFIANCE

The documentary Imaginary Witness really influenced my thinking on Holocaust-themed films.  For most of the films, the central point was to convey the horrors of the Shoah and its effects on those killed, those who survived, and those who stood on the sides.  Recently though, with television miniseries like Uprising and films like Defiance, the story is about not being passive, but being aggressive, about fighting the Nazis, not being their victims.  It's a cultural shift in a barbarism less than seventy-five years old: instead of going gentle into that good night, we now learn stories of taking arms against a sea of troubles.  While these stories of Jewish resistance are ones that should be told, there is a danger that in telling them, we forget to include actual people in them.

Defiance (director/co-writer Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman adapting Nechama Tec's non-fiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans) tells the story of the Bielski brothers.  There's Zus (Liev Schriver), the hothead who wants to fight, fight, fight.  There's Tuvia (Daniel Craig), more rational (and perhaps compassionate) who will fight when the need arises but only then.  There's Asael (Jamie Bell), a bit of a naive youngster.  Technically, there's also Aron (George McKay) who is a minor and thus really is relegated to the background.  It's 1941 and the Germans have overrun Belarussia, killing or capturing however many Jews they can find.  The Bielskis, who have been in the forests for reasons not entirely clear (was never sure if they were hiding or doing some sort of illegal activities) come to find their parents dead and Aron deeply traumatized.  They go back to the forest, and soon they are joined by other fleeing Jews such as Tuvia's old teacher Shimon Haretz (Alan Corduer) and the intellectual Isaac Malvin (Mark Feurstein), as well as a host of others.

From their hidden forest camp, the Bielskis begin a campaign of resistance against the Nazi occupation.  Zus wants to fight, but Tuvia wants to survive, not go on attacks for vengeance.  Zus, unhappy with this and Tuvia's leadership, joins the Russian partisans (despite the strain of anti-Semitism within the Red Army), while Tuvia does what he can to get as many Jews out of the Nazi's reach.  Asael, having escaped a group of Nazis, brings with him Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), the girl with whom he will fall in love.  Tuvia, a bit of a loner after being widowed, finds love again, with Lilka (Alexa Davalos), and there's even a bit of romance between Zus and an equally strong woman, Tamara (Jodhi May).  Eventually, Zus and Tuvia reunite and join forces against the invading Nazis.

Defiance, for all its good intentions, suffers precisely because of said good intentions.  The main flaw in the film is that it's TOO reverential to the story.  The Bielski Brothers are reduced to nothing more than living stone figures: Zus the Wild One, Tuvia the Morose/Contemplative One, Asael the Emotional One.  We never get to know them as individuals; on the contrary, the brothers spend so much time being "noble" and "heroic" that they never become human.  The flaw of making the Bielskis into heroes rather than people starts right at the beginning of Defiance.  For all the talk the brothers made about the killing of their parents Zwick lost an opportunity to establish the family dynamic by having us see any of the Bielski family as individuals, as people.  Since we never got to know their parents, we never got to fully appreciate the impact and horror of their murder.  Instead, we jump right into them being orphans and having their world broken apart.

The family relationship between the two oldest brothers is never fully established.  In Defiance, I could only guess that Tuvia is the oldest but there was always the chance that Zus is the elder Bielski brother (the fact that Schriever is only five months older than Craig does not help sort out matters).  My guess for Tuvia being the oldest is because he was the one in charge, but for those with siblings, who is to say the oldest has to be the automatic leader of the family?  We always got the vaguest idea as to what their motivations (apart from saving themselves and more Jews) were. Why did Zus not want to take on more refugees?  He never got to fully present his case, nor did see what motivated Tuvia to have a relatively compassionate heart (unless you disobeyed his orders). 

In fact, we never got to know anyone in Defiance.  Whatever wisdom that could be drawn from Shimon or any intellectual conversations between him and Isaac the Socialist was left out.  One can wonder as to who these refugees are, but in spite of its two-hour and seventeen minutes we never get any idea who any of the people are: not the Bielskis, not the refugees, not the Russian/Soviet partisans.  They are anonymous refugees, and perhaps in the world of Defiance, we didn't need to know them because they weren't all that important to the goal of the film: which was canonization of the Bielskis.  It is hard to believe that Zus or Tuvia could fall in love with anyone because both of them are so stiff from being noble that they don't appear to harbor any emotions common to us mere mortals.

It's an unfortunate fact of the direction (in every sense of the word) Defiance took that the actors within it suffered.  You have a good cast of women (in particular my not-so-secret love Wasikowska) but the woman are not strong or independent or anything really.  Their job is to merely look with some awe at the heroic brothers and not be their own people.  You have Craig, looking all sullen and morose (in short, no different than in any of his films--has he EVER smiled on camera), you have Schriever, matching him in his stiffness, you have Billy Elliot (sorry, I'll never tire of beating that dead horse) looking all lost as the Youth.  We are suppose to believe there is a romance between Asael and Chaya, but since we never see them in anything close to a romantic situation (or even a passionate embrace) we can't ever accept that they are even interested in each other, let alone deeply in love.  His marriage proposal falls flat because like all of Defiance, it is so reverential to the leads that it doesn't have the patience or interest in making them like you and me: fully rounded people with moments of joy and pain.   

The best example I can find in Defiance about how none of the people (I am loath to call them 'characters') are cardboard comes when the camp is coming close to starvation.  Tuvia pets his horse (where he got on or stabled it or how he loved it if he loved it at all, we know not), and then the camp has meat.  We don't know how Tuvia felt about his horse or if he has any kind of bond with him/her because we never see a moment of caring or interest in the animal.  How then can we believe Tuvia made a great personal sacrifice when we never saw him bond with a person, let alone an animal?

One thing that DEEPLY troubled me about the film is The Accent Question: to use or not to use.  I'm not a big fan of adopting accents when an English-speaking character is playing a non-English speaking part (which is why I didn't beat Tom Cruise up for Valkyrie).  My belief is that we accept that Actor/Actress X is whatever nationality they are playing so accents are not needed.  There is some leeway: you can't have someone like Matthew McConaughey speak with his Texan drawl in a film like Defiance because it would sound so laughable to hear a Belarussian Jew speak like he's from Austin.  (Side note: when it comes to English, the accent should match the nationality: if an Australian is playing a South African or a Welshman is playing an American or a Californian is playing a Scotsman, he/she should adopt the accent of the country his/her character's from, otherwise that too would sound laughable). 

In Defiance, they went one over.  Rather than be satisfied with having the characters speak with Russian/Belarussian accents, they decided to have whole scenes where they spoke in Russian or Belarussian.  I found this endlessly frustrating: either commit to an accent or make the film completely in that language.  I figure Zwick thought it would add a greater air of authenticity to Defiance; what it added was more confusion.  I kept wondering why, oh WHY they switch from the mother tongue to accented English.  Why, Why, Why?

Defiance doesn't seem to care about the Bielskis or the refugees as people because it was more interested in making them heroic (down to heroic speeches).  They were, and their story is one that should be told, but Defiance does all the survivors of the Bielski camp a disservice by dismissing their stories to mere footnotes in history and mummifying the Bielski Brothers into icons for veneration, not men who did incredible things at great personal risk.  How people can take a fascinating story and make it rather lifeless defies explanation.

There's a great quote in Defiance.  "Our revenge is to live," Tuvia tells those at camp.  I think that would have made a great title: Revenge Is To Live.  At the very least, it would have signaled to the viewers that everyone in Defiance was an actual human being. 


DECISION: D+

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Neither You Or Elephants Will Remember. Water For Elephants Review

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

I find no shame in admitting I love the circus.  Off the top of my head, I can recall only three circus-themed films: 1952's surprise Best Picture Winner The Greatest Show on Earth, the 1967 Joan Crawford vehicle Berserk!, and 1932's  bonkers but brilliant Freaks.  Now I can add Water For Elephants, based on the Sara Gruen novel.  In a curious way, I find that Water For Elephants can be a combination of all three. 

Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is about to start his finals exam to be a veterinarian when he is told that his Polish-born parents are dead (their origin WILL be important later on).  With no money and the nation in the grips of the Great Depression, Jacob hits the rails, catching a ride on the Benzini Brothers Circus train.  Taken under the wing of old roustabout Camel (Jim Norton), his veterinary skills soon attract the attention of Ringmaster/Owner August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz).  August, in a private rivalry with his nemesis the Ringling Brothers Circus, is impressed with Jacob's skills with the animals (although he has an odd way of showing it), and is far more impressed that Jacob is a Cornell graduate (or almost graduate).  Soon, he puts Jacob in charge of the animals.

The Benzini Brothers central act is Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who first rides the horses but can't due to Jacob having to put one of them down.  Marlena, who is also August's wife, is soon persuaded to ride a new attraction: a pachyderm named Rosie.  Soon, Jacob and Rosie bond...and if you can't figure out that there is going to be a love triangle, then really, where is your sense of predictability?  August is a sadistic boss: abusing people AND people left right and center ring with near maniac abandon, which is counterpoint to Jacob's gentleness.  August is having a hard time with Rosie (and not merely because he abuses her terribly), but then, Jacob discovers a great secret: Rosie responds to his commands if spoken in POLISH (told you his ancestry would be important)!  Eventually, Jacob and Marlena discover they are in love, which pleases August none.  At the end, after ejecting Jacob and all Jacob's friends from the train, Jacob goes to get Marlena back, but just before the lovers leave, comes the Benzini Disaster...

The whole story is bookended by Old Jacob (Hal Holbrooke) serving as narrator to another circus manager/owner, Charlie O'Brien III (Paul Schnieder). 

Here is one point where Water For Elephants went wrong: the Titanic-esque framing story.  As much as I may quarrel with Titanic, at least there was A reason to have the framing device (not the best or brightest, but that is for another day).  With some exceptions (Sunset Boulevard, Blade Runner) I'm not big on voice-over narration, and especially in the way it was handled here.  We start with Holbrooke narrating the story behind the Benzini Disaster of 1931 (the date is also important) then slip to Pattinson narrating the story using the same words.  First off, I didn't think the framing device was even needed since the story is pretty self-explanatory.  Second, why did the Old Jacob have to segway to the Young Jacob telling the Old Jacob's story?  If one thinks on it logically (which is what I try to do at any movie), the Young Jacob couldn't possibly know the future which is the Old Jacob's past, correct?  Finally, there are long stretches where there is no narration, so when it comes back, it is not only distracting, but makes one wonder if Young Jacob or Old Jacob should be telling you this story.

Another curiousity from the script is the Polish pachyderm bit.  What EXACTLY are the odds that a Polish-comprehending elephant would exist in America and have a second-generation Polish-American come around to find her?  I don't know if it came from the novel or the screenplay but it does stretch believeability (especially since we never learn exactly how Rosie come to understand Polish). 

Also, perhaps as a side note: assuming Water For Elephants' framing story takes place today, in 2011, that would mean Old Jacob is remembering events that happened eighty (80) years ago.  If we give Young Jacob's age at the time of the main story as twenty (20), that would make Old Jacob at least 100 years old.  If we give Young Jacob Pattinson's actual age as of today (24-25), that would mean Old Jacob is wandering around a circus at well over a hundred years old.  This might be a compliment, but Hal Holbrooke looks nowhere near 100 years old either in real life or in Water For Elephants: he looks every bit his 86 years.  Therefore, if you do the math, both Jacobs don't appear to fit well in the story.

That really is just being a bit picky.  Going over the actual acting, we can pretty much dispense with Holbrooke, who is not in the film nearly enough to register in one's memory.  I have worked hard to be charitable towards Pattinson (I am one of the few people who liked Little Ashes, though Pattinson didn't do a great job there).  However, as in those Twilight movies, and as in Remember Me, Pattinson just can't seem to act.  At All.  His performance appears to consist solely and exclusively of pouting, looking lovely, and whispering his lines, shifting his eyes this way and that.  I didn't get a sense of this young man's devastation at the death of his parents or the burning passion for Marlena because Pattinson had the same model-ready expression throughout Water For Elephants

I can't hold director Francis Lawrence at fault for Pattinson's lack-of acting.  I CAN hold him at fault for what he did to Witherspoon and Waltz.  You have two Oscar-winners who were wonderful in their prize-worthy performances (Walk The Line and Inglourious Basterds respectively) but in this film, both were remarkably one (OK, sometimes two) note.  Witherspoon was forever forlorn as Marlena, but the character never came to life (it almost looked like Reese was channelling Robert's acting style so as to not stand out).  She was remarkably passive in Water For Elephants and could never bring a display of love to either man or beast.  Waltz appears to be doing the acting for two by being Hans Landa's long-lost American cousin.  When he raves (which he does) he raves with gusto.  When he menaces (which he does) he does with glee.  When he brutalizes people and animals (which he does) he holds nothing back.  August early on appears to be either sadistic or crazy, and it brings to mind those old-style melodramas where one started booing as soon as the villain showed up. 

Even the smaller parts, like the wizened old roustabout or the midget who becomes Jacob's friend appear to be cliches.  Whether this is a result of the source material or Richard LaGravenese's script I cannot say (not having read the novel), but a lot of the story doesn't make sense.  For example, if August has a nasty habit of flinging roustabouts out of a moving train so as to not pay them when he has no money, you'd think those still around (and alive) who are not allied with him would have...run away, or at least had some kind of uprising.  Instead, they take it all rather submissively.  Granted, in the Depression jobs were hard to come by, but there is a difference between a job and your life. 

A sadder part of Water For Elephants is that for all the trappings of the most spectacular show on Earth (wonder why they didn't use another phrase), we don't really get much of the actual circus.  There are a few montages, and they (along with the film itself) are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.  There are moments of great lushness and beauty (albeit crushed by James Newton Howard's grandiose score).  However, what great moments of magic the circus sequences could have brought to the film were downplayed in order to get to the love triangle.  In fact, the circus itself is almost secondary to Water For Elephants.  As a side note: whatever criticisms The Greatest Show on Earth has (some valid) at least that one moved and was entertaining--two things that can't quite be said about Water For Elephants

I bring up The Greatest Show on Earth because Water For Elephants reminds me so much of it.  You have a circus setting, love triangles, and even a closing 'disaster' complete with wild animals (although the climatic disaster in The Greatest Show on Earth was far more exciting).  In fact, the Benzini Disaster had me thinking of the big moment in The Greatest Show on Earth so much that I thought the latter inspired the former.  As for the fate of August, not to give it away, but not since we discovered who was the murderer in the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze have we gotten such a surprising killer.

Water For Elephants is certainly trying to be very romantic, lush, a film to sweep you into a now-lost world of circuses and true but forbidden love.  It is unfortunate that it is also remarkably bland in execution.  Ultimately, Water For Elephants is like Robert Pattinson: very pretty to look at but not having much depth within it.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Ghoul Time Was Had By All

INSIDIOUS

I don't gravitate to horror films but respect those that do what they set out to do: make audiences jump in fright.  If that is the standard by which a film should be measured, Insidious is on the whole a well-made, even logical film that gives the audience what they want.

The Lambert family has just moved into a new house.  Here, dad Josh (Patrick Wilson) and mom Renai (Rose Byrne) have their three children.  The one at the center of Insidious is the oldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins).  One day, while up in the attic, he falls.  He appears all right but shortly after slips into an unexplained coma. 

It's three months later, and we still see Dalton is out.  Strange things are afoot at the Lambert home: their other son Foster (Andrew Astor) wants to move rooms because he is scared when Dalton walks around, Renai hears strange voices coming from her baby monitor while she tries to work on her music, strange claw-marks drenched in blood are on Dalton's bedspread.  Josh isn't taking much of what he hears seriously, until Renai actually sees something come at her that she demands they move homes.  They do, but Dalton doesn't improve and worse, whatever hauntings there were in the old house are now at the new house.

Enter Mama Lorraine Lambert (Barbara Hershey), who believes Renai's stories because she has had a dream confirming her vision...as if a big demon-like creature standing behind Josh didn't confirm things for the women.   Mama Lambert brings in Elise (Lin Shaye), a psychic of sorts, along with her comedic sidekicks Specs and Tucker (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson respectively--a side note: I think Whannell looks a lot like Rob Bell, who curiously fits my idea of something demonic, but I digress).  Elise is familiar with Josh... because she's helped him before.

We learn Dalton is not really in a coma, but that his spirit has left his body and is lost in The Further, a netherworld occupied by all sorts of haunts.  These haunts, ranging apparently from the merely mischievous to the downright demonic, are aware that Dalton's body is free from his soul.  Therefore, they want to get inside and take possession.  In order to rescue Dalton, Josh has to get him from The Further, because he too travelled out of his body when he was a child, stopping only when Elise intervened once a ghost who looks like Miss Havisham came too close to him (even more startling when one discovers The Old Woman is played by a man--Philip Friedman).  Now it's a race to get Dalton and escape the onslaught of ghouls coming after the Lambert home.

Insidious tries at times too hard to give audiences those 'jump out of their seats moments'.  These are provided courtesy of Joseph Bishara's score (who also played the Demon).  There were a lot of violins in Insidious' score, and one felt Bishara was trying to set the mood for the film it was laid on a touch too thick. (Side note: I though the score had inspiration from Béla Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin, but that is speculation on my part).  Somehow, I can forgive this because most everything else in Insidious is effective in its efforts to scare.

Patrick Wilson was excellent as Josh, a harried father who is the only one who doesn't really believe anything supernatural is going on.  He is a regular guy, concerned about his son, who after making the "shocking" discovery that he had a hand (however unwitting) in his son's plight has to go and rescue him.  Hershey's role is small (like in Black Swan) but after that film and Insidious, it is puzzling why she isn't more in demand.  She is, granted, a bit too calm in the beginning, especially if she suspects her son's connection to Dalton's tragedy, but again I would put that on the script rather than her. 

The highlights are the actual 'cleaning crew'.  Shaye's Elise is calm and serious throughout the whole process, knowing the menace that has haunted the Lambert family but also aware that Dalton can be rescued.  Whannell (who wrote the screenplay) and Ferguson add the needed comic relief as the slightly bumbing assistants who appear to be Ghost Hunter rejects, with their matching white shirts and black ties and generally sincere but somewhat goofy behavior.  I would argue that only Byrne stumbles slightly as Renai, given to too many moments where she attempts to look frightened but never quite convincing us just by putting her hand to her mouth.

Whannell's screenplay and James Wan's directing is effective in bringing out the scare factor in Insidious.  Never has Tiny Tim's Tiptoe Through the Tulips been so oddly freaky, downright terrifying.  You had the monsters jumping out at you at all the right times, which judging from the audience's reaction brought about the desired effect.  HOWEVER, perhaps it is just the way my mind works, but without giving too much away, I figured that Josh was at the center of the demonic activity when they got to the new house.  That being the case, I was wondering when they everyone else was going to figure that out.

I also note that as much as I tried, I couldn't get away from thinking that Insidious bore a stricking resemblance to Poltergiest: the haunted child, the home under siege, the woman who can make contact--I was half-expecting Elise to say, "This house is clean".  Specs and Tucker filming their efforts does not help in the matter.  Two girl-like ghouls that pop out in a hallway bathed in red was, sadly, reminiscent of The Shining, some of the demons/ghosts look like they wandered in from the Thriller video, and when Josh goes into The Further, the lantern he was carrying made him look like the Old Gravedigger from The Haunted Mansion ride.  As a last note, when Elise puts on the gas mask to communicate with Dalton, the effect was oddly humorous--the audience started laughing. 

One thing that Insidious got wrong was the conclusion.  I don't know whether or not it was a way to set up a sequel (and regular readers will know how I feel about endings that leave such possibilities open), but it does make one wonder at times, again, how characters can be so dumb.  Once we THINK Josh and Dalton are back among the living, we wonder why Elise didn't wonder if there was a possibility that not everything went according to plan.  This 'shocking' final twist was to my mind, unnecessary, and brought the film down slightly.  One also didn't know exactly WHY Miss Havisham was after Josh in the first place, and having him shout at her in an attempt to berid himself of this specter was a bit odd. 

Still, in the end I can't fault a film for doing what it set out to do: give me some good old frights with ghosts and demons and all sorts of creatures that go bump in the night.  Insidious at times is a bit heavy-handed and over-the-top in its efforts to have me jump out of my seat (something I've done only once), and the concluding chase around The Further didn't quite live up to all the terror that it was building to.  On the whole, it was effective in the frights (given how the audience reacted to it), and not a bad way to scare people.  I just don't scare in movies--as stated with only one exception.  If I judge it by the goals it was trying for, Insidious is better than most recent films in the genre, not great but at least with a better sense of suspense than gore. 

Incidently (and yes, slightly off-topic), if and when I am asked to describe what my idea of what the Devil looks like is, I say I imagine he would look something like this:




Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Stepfather In The Wrong Direction


THE STEPFATHER (2009)

I am at both an advantage and disadvantage when it comes to the remake of The Stepfather.  I have never seen the original, so I cannot compare one with the other.  I also have never seen Nip/Tuck or Gossip Girl, so I cannot gauge how different the characterizations of Dylan Walsh and Penn Badgley are to their characters on those shows.   That being the case, I enter The Stepfather with clean eyes.  I leave The Stepfather wondering why the film didn't try to do better. 

'Dan Harris' comes to Portland, apparently to start a new life after the death of his wife and daughter.  He meets Susan Harding (Sela Ward)  at a grocery store, and six months later they are engaged.  It must be summer, because Susan's troubled eldest son Michael (Badgley) returns from military school, sent there for the vaguest of reasons.  Greeting him is his girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard), along with his siblings Sean and Beth (Braeden Demasters and Skyler Samuels).  Michael isn't too warm towards Dan, but must accept that he will be his stepfather even though relations with his actual father Jay (Jon Tenney) are also strained. 

Things appear to be going well, but there are a few things off about Dan.  He travels a lot on business but when he gets a good job as a real estate agent courtesy of Susan's sister Leah (Sherri Springfield)...or is her sister Jackie (Paige Turco) (since they were a lesbian couple I could never remember which one was the 'blood' aunt and which was the 'partner' aunt), he quits rather than submit information such as a photo ID or Social Security, let alone be photographed.  Also, a neighbor tells Susan a man who looks like Dan appeared on America's Most Wanted.  Only Michael suspects anything is off, but we already know from the beginning what it is: Dan Harris is a serial killer who has already killed at least one family and is looking for a new home to slaughter. 

I would argue that The Stepfather is actually a misnomer because Dan and Susan are only engaged and never get around to getting married, but perhaps I'm being a bit technical on a film like this.  I would also argue that director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone don't trust their audience.  This comes from the fact that there is no mystery as to what Dan Harris is: we open The Stepfather with him calmly leaving a home and looking around at the bodies of the wife and kiddies he's dispatched.  Maybe it was a way to create tension because the audience knows that Dan is going to make an effort to kill the Hardings, but for me, it didn't leave any room for doubt.  Instead, in a rather by-the-book style, you were calmly waiting for Dan to give the killing a try.

I once argued that in many comedies, you had to rely on a certain level of stupidity from the characters to have the plot move forward.  I should have expanded that to some thrillers as well.  Most embarassing is how stupid Susan is.  She is told by a neighbor that Dan looks like someone on America's Most Wanted, and a few days later said neighbor is found dead, but she never for one moment thinks to possibly connect the two incidents.  She casually dismisses her sister's doubts about how he doesn't want to turn in basic information that would have been asked at the beginning of his job.  She never seems the least bit curious that Dan doesn't have any photos of his late wife or child. 

It isn't just Susan who is bizarrely dumb.  If Mrs. Cutter (Nancy Linehan Charles) truly does suspect that Dan Harris is some sort of criminal, why doesn't SHE call A.M.W.? Why would Jay, already suspicious of Dan after Sean tells him Dan nearly chocked him (off-camera), start to tell DAN about his doubts instead of Michael?  If Michael suspects something is up with Dan (especially after overhearing the conversation between Mrs. Cutter and his mother), why can't HE do a little digging?  I figure this is because if any of them did anything ration, you wouldn't have a film. 

Most curiously, for some sort of master serial killer Dan is quite clumsy.  For example, he dispatches Jay but apparently never stops to wonder that if Jay doesn't make his flight or get back to whatever job he has, the police won't try to investigate his disappearance.  He can't get the name of his 'daughter' right, but this only leads to anger at himself, not any worry that Michael may suspect something's off.  You'd think this was the first time Dan has tried killing anybody, not his maybe third.

All this might be overlooked, but not some terrible cliches.  The Stepfather ends in what is suppose to be a dramatic confrontation between Dan and Michael, with Susan and Kelly watching from the sidelines in terror.  Did they really have to have a big rainstorm during this confrontation?  Why, oh WHY do people run UPSTAIRS when being chased by serial killers when one would think the flight or fight response would have them run OUT of the house?  How is it that when two people fall off a two-story house, one of them ends up in a coma for a month and another escapes with nary a scratch? 

Worse, in this 'great confrontation' between Dan and Michael, when we think Dan might be dead, McCormick steals shamelessly from Psycho (hint: it involves shower curtains).  My eyes rolled in irritation at this point, but then, in 'thrillers' like these, you know Dan can't be dispatched so easily.  Side note: speaking of showers, we were treated to nearly endless shots of Michael shirtless (usually by the poolside) and while it's nice to see Badgley takes good care of himself, the shots had passed the border of gratuitous to where one would think he was trying out for Jacob Black's far-skinnier cousin. 

The characters were so underdeveloped.  We never got a reason as to why Dan was a serial killer: was he motivated by a hatred of families, a pathological thrill from killing, or what?  Same goes for Michael: we know he was sent away to military school because he was 'troubled', but we never got an idea of what exactly he did that was so troubling, especially since during this summer he didn't seem to do anything out of the ordinary of a teenager during summer break (namely, eat, sleep, and make out with his girlfriend).  He's suppose to be a good swimmer, but once Dan gets him to join his old high school team's swim team during the summer on a probationary trial, we never actualy SEE Michael go to school to swim.  Those types of plot points left dangling are things that frustrate. 

I think Walsh really enjoyed being evil.  It comes out in his performance where Dan's menace does come through.  He isn't over-the-top, but you always sense that whenever he's trying to be charming, he is being insincere.  Overall, it was a better performance than The Stepfather deserves.  I have always thought it was a crime that Sela Ward is not as big a star as her talent and beauty should have made her.  It's always good to see her in any movie, but one wonders if she really is too smart a person and actress to make Susan so incredibly dumb.  Badgley didn't break ground in this film.  He looked like any slightly sullen twenty-two year old (oddly, he did look a little too old to be a teenager, but that's a minor point).  His performance consisted mostly of making faces and being shirtless, which perhaps might be his primary method on Gossip Girl (though granted, I have never seen the show) but beyond that there was no characterization here--then again, there wasn't much of a character either. (Side note: I counted a total of five shirtless scenes, putting Badgley one short of Taylor Lautner in Eclipse).  Tenney gave a short but wonderful performance as the biological father, which would have worked wonders if The Stepfather had been a straight drama but which looked slightly out of place in a slasher film like this one.  However, the genuine concern for his children at the hands of Dan did leave a realistic impression, a hallmark of good acting.

Strangely, I think I would have enjoyed The Stepfather better if the film were a drama.  Even if they had decided to go for the thriller aspects, the film would have improved if a few changes were made: giving Dan some motivation for his crimes, not letting us know from the top that he was a killer, making Susan a little more hesitant or have her grow a little suspicious of her perfect man, giving Michael a more clear reason to be hostile (I'm guessing the divorce may have affected him, but given his underused siblings didn't appear too troubled, one wonders what really was his problem). 

As dumb, standard slasher movies go, I suppose The Stepfather will fulfill all the requirements if one doesn't want to think while watching.  It might even have been a shamelessly good time with a bad movie, if it weren't for a totally ludricous ending which violates one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.  That being the case, The Stepfather will never be accepted as the real thing.

DECISION: D+

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Superman Singer's Blues

People thought I was mad, MAD, for my analysis of the failure of Superman Returns.  Well, now I feel a little justification with Bryan Singer's confessions.  After a careful analysis, I think I have been proven correct, and I'd like to add a few thoughts of my own on the failure of Superman Returns to start a new franchise.

First off, I don't blame Brandon Routh.  I think he did the best he could given the fact that he had no story to work with.  He looked commanding as Superman, but when he was Clark Kent, he had nothing to work with.  In the film, the latter character was basically missing. 

I use a scene between Clark, Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and the bartender (Jack Larson, the television Jimmy Olsen in a cameo) to illustrate this.  Jimmy tells the bartender that Clark has been on some sort of spiritual quest for the past five years, and the bartender tells them it must be strange to be back.  "Well...you know...things happen..." Clark says, and the bartender just stares at him.  Routh looks genuinely lost, as if he's trying to find some logic to his lines.  Larson appears lost as well, trying to figure out what the purpose of the entire scene actually IS and how it is relevant to whatever plot the film has (another point of contention).  Superman Returns at its heart, had no story to tell (courtesy of screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris w/story by them and Singer). 

Here's where the three of them made their biggest mistake: trying to make this a sequel to Superman II.  First, you have to rely on the fact that your audience will know the story of Superman and Superman II (a tall order given that some in the audience weren't even BORN when that film was released, let alone with Dougherty being only six and Harris one year old when Superman II premiered).  Second, by doing that, you have to have a continuity from the first two Christopher Reeve films, but that means introducing points that may not make any sense.  How is it that Lois Lane appears unaware that her illegitimate son is of Kryptonian descent (whose Kryptonian name I have given him is Isra-El)?  An audience watching Superman Returns won't have even the inkling of any of this if they haven't watched the first two films, and even if they did see them, one could make the argument that it still doesn't make any sense (when I finish my Superman retrospective, I will address this point more thoroughly).  They had one of two options: start fresh or try for continuity from the four Superman films.  They opted for a third way: go for the first two and ignore the last two.  This was a terrible decision which brought the franchise to a grinding stop until now.

This may be what Singer meant when he said it was too 'nostalgic' for audiences to embrace.  As for the 'romantic' part, here, Singer is lying to himself.  Superman: The Movie managed to mix the romance between Lois and Superman brilliantly without hampering the struggle between Superman and Lex Luther.  The romance as portrayed by Routh and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane didn't work because they frankly were badly directed.  They looked like the rest of Superman Returns: somber, overly serious, filled a sense of the 'importance' of the myth of Superman that you would think they were making The Iliad, not a comic book-based film. 

Here, Singer and I see eye to eye.  The whole tone of Superman Returns was far too ponderous and self-important to make it entertaining and fun.  This is especially true with whatever religious overtones Singer had in the film.  Superman may have been inspired by the story of Moses, and he may even have parallels to Christ (side note: I remember going to a Christian bookstore and seeing a tome making such comparisons, which I reject).  However, Singer and I appear to agree that the attempt to make these analogies so overt brought the project down.  Superman is not a Christ-like figure or substitute for Jesus.  I digress to say I don't consider it blasphemous, just badly-thought out.  Why some Christian leaders tried to embrace the parallel that was attempted is thoroughly bizarre to me (and THAT I might consider blasphemous).  By trying to make Kal-El into more than a superhero (to almost, in a sense, make him Divine), Superman Returns was going overboard in its efforts to make him into something he was not and was never meant to be.  They should have stayed to keep him as merely the Last Son of Krypton, not the Savior of the World.  That position has already been filled, thank you very much.

I understand why Singer won't cop to the mistakes (as granted, I see them) in regards to Superman Returns.  He can't bring himself to admit that there was no story to the film.  We are told that Kal-El went away for five years to see if Krypton was still around, yet they never gave an explanation as to how no one on the Daily Planet staff ever made the connection between Clark Kent's absence and Superman's absence.  I also think that not having the phrase, "truth, justice, and the American way" was a terrible mistake.  I know WHY it was done: to not make Superman a jingoistic character and downplay his American roots so as to not offend a world that appears to hate America (this is the same thing that is happening to Captain America: The First Avenger--a downplaying of the 'America' part of 'Captain America').  However, anyone watching Superman: The Movie sees that this phrase was used without a hint of irony and it has never been a source of controversy or scandal.  Let's face it: Superman is not a citizen of the world.  He is an American immigrant success story.  He won't fight as America's armed forces, but it's idiotic that a man brought up in Smallville, Kansas would possibly not have had an influence from his Middle American upbringing.  How exactly does someone brought up on a Kansas farm not believe in 'the American way' (however he may interpret that)? 

I have long argued that Superman Returns was too somber and self-serious to be enjoyable, and I am glad that Singer has come around to seeing things my way.  Yes, I know he probably doesn't care one bit what MY opinion is, but it may prove that I see things in Superman Returns that contributed to why the film didn't go over well with audiences.  Critics may have loved it (I being in the minority in this) but the public by and large still goes for the Christopher Reeve films (at least the first two) than the Routh film. 

I feel for Routh and Huntington, whom I thought were good as Superman (less so as Clark, though there was potential) and Jimmy.  Even Frank Langella was decent as Perry White (although Jackie Cooper is still so far the best Daily Planet editor).  Bosworth, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luther, and James Marsden as Richard White (a character that really was unimportant) did not fare so well, I think mostly because there simply was no story for them.  Worse was Kal Penn as one of Luther's henchmen.  Throughout the film I wondered what his reason for being in the film actually was, given he didn't have a line of dialogue and his screen time consisted entirely of staring around, looking as if he had something to do or say but never getting there.  However, now I'm digressing into reviewing the film (that is for another time). 

How I fear what will happen now that Zack Snyder is filming Superman: Man of Steel.   Yes, the film may actually be good, no way of knowing until it is released.  However, I fear that they will opt for a Batman Begins-style (very dark, gritty, morose, unhappy), which is not true to Superman as a character.  Kal-El I've always felt is an optimistic character, one who believes good will triumph over evil.  The darkness within the rebooted Batman series may work in its world (operative word: MAY, since at times it can go wildly overboard in its nihilism) but Superman (and yes, Spider-Man) should have some hope to them.  The future of the franchise should not be measured by how much money Superman: Man of Steel makes, or even on how critics respond to it (up to a point--my views will be correct).  It should be judged by the emotional impact the audience has with the character.  Spider-Man and Spider-Man II, Superman and Superman II are still loved because we care about the characters.  The sequels following those films aren't, for a variety of reasons but among them the disconnect between the main characters and us the viewer.  Same goes for the Tim Burton Batmans (the Christopher Nolan Batmans may be good but at times they are terribly cold and remote, almost unlovable--however, all that is for another time). 

I wish Snyder and his cast/crew success. I also am pleased Singer admits to something I've known for some time.
   

Monday, April 18, 2011

So Let It Be Written, So Let It Be Seen



THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)

It is now an annual television event: the screening of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments around Easter, and here is where people tend to get confused.  No matter how often I tell them, The Ten Commandments is NOT an Easter movie.  It has nothing to do with the Resurrection.  It is a PASSOVER movie because it is about the Israelites leaving Egypt and into the Promised Land.  Granted, the film is often shown around Easter, but this is probably due to the fact that Easter and Passover tend to fall around the same time (more than likely what Christians call The Last Supper was really Christ celebrating a seder with his disciples).  Cecil B. DeMille ended his career with a remake of his own The Ten Commandments, and it captured everything about his style of filmmaking: a rousing spectacle with a grand canvas to which to tell its massive story.  However, upon watching the film, we can appreciate a far richer and deeper story than DeMille is usually given credit for.

The story of The Ten Commandments is a simple one and should be known to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Scripture.  Taking from the Book of Exodus, it is the story of Moses (Charlton Heston).  Brought up in the Court of Pharoah Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) as the son of his sister Bithiah (Nina Foch), he discovers he is really Hebrew and a slave.  This makes no difference to Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the Egyptian princess who must marry the future Pharoah, but it makes a great deal of difference to Rameses (Yul Brynner), son of Sethi who has a rivalry with Moses.  Moses kills the Master Builder Baka (Vincent Price) to save Joshua (John Derek), who in turn saved his love, the water girl Lilia (Deborah Paget) from Baka's...attention.  Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who styles himself "Chief Hebrew Overseer", does not shrink from betraying his own people to curry Rameses' favor, and informs him of Baka's killer...and his true identity.  Moses is discovered as a Hebrew, as Baka's murderer, and as a man who would free the Hebrews if he could.  He is expelled from Egypt, and after wandering in the desert finds refuge in the tent of Jethro (Eduard Franz).  Here, Moses finds a wife, Jethro's daughter Sephora (Yvonne DeCarlo), and while troubled to know of the plight of his people, is content to live out his life as a shepherd with Jethro's tribe.

That is, until he hears the voice of God, calling him to go onto Egypt-land and tell old Pharoah, "Let my people go".  Rameses will not let his people go, and God sends plagues upon the land, including turning the Nile red with blood.  Still, Pharoah will not budge, until he issues a decree that the firstborn of Israel shall die.  In truth, Pharoah has brought about the final plague upon his own nation, and it is the firstborn of Egypt that dies, up to Rameses' only son.  Filled with fury and hurt, at first he finally relents and emancipates the Israelites, but on the urging of Nefretiri, decides to go after the Hebrews and kill them all.  Facing down the mighty Egyptian army, God delivers His Chosen People in one of the most spectacular moments in film history.  With the Hebrews safely away in Sinai, they still lose faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, descending into an orgy, until Moses comes down with The Ten Commandments, and he leads them to the Promised Land, though he will not be able to go over.

In retrospect, The Ten Commandments is more than a Biblical epic.  None other than director DeMille introduces the central theme of the film in a rare on-screen introduction to the film: whether man ought to be ruled by God's Law or the whim of a dictator, as he says.  "Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God?"  This theme about the nature of man (free or slave) was a powerful one in the 1950s when the film was released.  America was in the early days of the Cold War, and in a vaguely subliminal way The Ten Commandments serves as am allegory of the struggle between the Soviet Union (Egypt) and the United States (the Chosen People).  You can even see it in the fact that Rameses is really godless (not unlike Communism), and who believes himself more powerful than God Himself.  In that sense, The Ten Commandments is very much the work of an auteur, one who put his own worldview in his films and drew parallels between the time of the film's setting and the time of the film's release. 

As much as there may be dismissal of DeMille as a director and The Ten Commandments as a whole as hokey or grandiose or overblown or having 'bad acting' or 'lousy directing', I find that The Ten Commandments holds an audience's attention and never lags.  This is an extraordinary feat given that the film lasts a whopping three-and-a-half hours.  The film itself moves at a steady pace from scene to scene, with some wonderful transitions between them.  Take for example when Bithiah first draws the infant Moses from the Nile; she gives him the name 'Moses', and starts to call him that, then it goes to the adult Moses arriving in triumph to Sethi's Court. 

As much as DeMille is derided for his films, some of the work within The Ten Commandments is quite daring for 1956.  For example, when Moses presents the Ethiopian King (Woody Strode) and his sister to Sethi, there is a suggestion of romance between the Princess and the Prince of Egypt (much to the irritation of Nefretiri).  Even the idea of a white woman being jealous of a black woman's beauty is pretty radical in the pre-civil rights era, let alone hinting that a black woman could be attracted sexually to a white man and get away with it.  DeMille also has great moments of foreshadowing throughout the film: when Bithiah's slave Memnet (Judith Anderson) holds on to the infant's swaddling clothes, you know it will come up later, as well as when a dying slave looks on Moses and sorrowfully says that his dying wish was to look on the Deliverer and when an Isralite child is given a small golden calf as part of the spoils of Egypt.  DeMille trusts his audience to not only know the story but to know enough to anticipate plot points to pop up later thanks to the hints he gives us.  However, I digress.

As I stated, in spite of the film's length The Ten Commandments never feels long or stretched out.  The credit to this goes to Cecil B. DeMille's directing, which is one where the acting and dialogue was entertaining.  Granted, at times it may seem today that the script (written by Aenas MacKenzie, Jessie L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, and Frederic M. Frank) may sound excessively eloquent, but the script does have great moments of wit.  Take the exchange between Sethi and Rameses before Moses appears at Court.  When Rameses states he will succeed his father, Sethi puts him down by telling him the best man to rule Egypt will be his successor.  "I owe that to my fathers, not to my sons", he tells him.  When the High Priest complains that Moses has taken the temple grain to give to the slaves, Sethi looks at him quickly and tells him, "YOU don't look any leaner".  DeMille allowed moments of levity to counter a story that at times is rather serious, even sad, in how man enslaves his fellow man based on his race or creed.  These themes that the film tackles were extremely relevant in the late 50s when the Civil Rights movement was gaining steam with events such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock (which took place a year after The Ten Commandments was released).  Even today, the idea that one group can subjugate another due to his/her background still resonate, and this may be one of the reasons why The Ten Commandments is still seen as an event.   

The acting in The Ten Commandments is also by and large quite good.  In smaller roles, Hardwicke makes Sethi a good man but one still with the mindset that he can enslave people.  Price is effective as the villainous Baka, who does not shrink from allowing an old woman to be crushed to death to keep to schedule.  As much as comedians (and Chief Wiggum) may mock Robinson's interpretation of Dathan, he brings a menace to the role which granted, on occassion may be a bit campy, but effective whenever he is menacing Lilia.  Both Paget and Derek are strong as the young lovers Lilia and Joshua.  DeCarlo, in her first truly dramatic role, has a beautiful moment when she compares her people (and herself) with what Moses knew in Egypt (and the Egyptian princess left behind).  Her monologue was delivered with great beauty and sincerity, a simply wonderful moment.

It is the three leads in the love triangle that should be singled out.  I will agree that Baxter was on occassion a bit over-the-top when playing Nefretiri, but given that she was playing the temptress we can give her a little leeway.  When she knows that she will have to lose Moses, the love of her life, her heartbreak and agony at Sethi's Court draws you into her misery. When she is spurned by Moses and she turns vengeful, Baxter brings an intensity and fury to Nefretiri.  Brynner has the presence and bearing of the haughty and arrogant Rameses, a monarch who will brook no disobedience and will oppress the Hebrews.  However, there is a slight break to Rameses when his son dies, and while Brynner does not have a grand scene here, he is able to show a slight heartache at the death of his heir.

Heston as Moses simply commands the screen.  He goes from the powerful Egyptian prince to the son of slaves through the shepherd and down the Deliverer, filled with zeal and righteous fury against both the Egyptians and the Israelites.  Throughout The Ten Commandments, Heston is a force of nature, bringing gravitas and presence to the screen.  He can show moments of tenderness, even humor and passion, but for the most part Moses is a heroic figure, and Heston shows Moses to be a man who could lead a nation to freedom.

Chief in the technical aspects of The Ten Commandments is the visual effects.  Even after all the advances in the fifty-plus years since its release, the parting of the Red Sea is still simply one of the greatest sequences in film history, a scene that has become one of iconic moments in cinema.   This is DeMille at the heights of his powers as a visual director and as a man who could give the public an overwhelming, powerful moment which still astounds today.  This is not to downplay other brilliant moments with visual effects: the turning of the Nile into blood, the Angel of Death arriving to take the life of the firstborn (which is still effective in bringing a bit of terror to the film), and the creation of the actual commandments.  Visually, apart from the special effects, the sheer pagentry and spectacle of The Ten Commandments still overwhelms the viewer to where one becomes wrapped within the story.  Credit should also be given to the lavish costumes and sets in the film, which also serve to place one firmly within the world of ancient Egypt.  Also worth mentioning is Elmer Bernstein's grand score, with each character having a theme that cues the audience into what kind of character he/she is.  The music for the chase across the desert by the Egyptian army and the Israelite's flight across the Red Sea enhances the thrilling nature of the sequence. 

The Ten Commandments is not a film that broke new ground (apart from the still sensational Parting of the Red Sea sequence).  Rather, it is a grand celebration of traditional filmmaking: in the epic scale of the story, the sets, the costumes, the dialogue, and even some of the acting.  It may seem to some rather grandiose, almost exaggerated, even camp.  However, I suspect DeMille was going for a sense of the epic in the film, to provide the viewer with an appropriate spectacle to such a grand story as that of Exodus.  In that case, Cecil B. DeMille's final film is a brilliant piece of film-making, giving the public what it wanted and holding up long after the cast and crew have passed from the stage.  It is a glorious epic, one that is proud to be grand, with a lavish scale perhaps never to be seen again.  The Ten Commandments will remain a thrilling, beloved film not because it is a film for the future, but because in its story of the birth of freedom, of whether man will be ruled by laws or by the whims of other men still resonate today, as does the faith-based aspect of the creation of a new nation.  The themes within The Ten Commandments: freedom from tyranny, of being true to your heritage, and of keeping true to the Laws of God as interpreted from the Bible, will always have people coming back to it.  The Ten Commandments is worth keeping. 

DECISION: A+