Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wings (1928): A Review (Review #220)

WINGS (1928)

The First In-Flight Movie...

Wings has two distinct honors: being the first Best Picture Oscar winner and being the only silent film to win Best Picture.  Silent films not being popular, Wings runs the risk of being remembered only for being the first Best Picture Oscar winner.  That would be a terrible disservice given that it still stands up as a good film on its own merits. 

At its heart, Wings is a love quadrangle.  Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with Jack (Charles 'Buddy' Rogers), who is in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who is in love with David (Richard Arlen).  Luckily, David is in love with Sylvia, so it stops the romances from going all over the place.  There is instant conflict between Jack and David, not just because both are in love with the same woman but because David is from the wealthy family (like Sylvia) while Jack is more middle-class (like the literal girl-next-door Mary). 

Soon, the clouds of war come: World War I to be exact.  With that, both David and Jack join the Army Air Service (there was no official Air Force until after World War II) and during their training, their rivalry shifts to a genuine friendship.  Sent off to France, they excel at bringing down German planes, and unknown to them, Mary herself has joined the war effort.  She is also in France, now an ambulance driver.

Jack is the more legendary of the two, earning the name "The Shooting Star".  Mary recognizes the name since she had painted on Jack's car a shooting star and he'd named his car "The Shooting Car".  By coincidence, she, Jack and David are in Paris: Mary driving her ambulance, the boys on leave.  They are living it up: drinking and whoring, unaware that their leave has been cancelled and must report back immediately or face court-martial.  Mary finds Jack at the Folies Bergere, drunk out of his mind and about to leave with a femme fatale.  She quickly gets into a slinky dress and brings him back to the hotel.  By misfortune, Military Police discover Mary in a state of undress, assume the worse, and send her home.

Now, it's off to the Big Battle.  Jack confesses that the good-luck charm he's kept with him is the locket Sylvia gave him.  Aware that Sylvia is in love with him and not Jack, David says nothing.  Jack accidentally breaks it and David discovers the inscription Sylvia wrote is for him, not Jack.  Jack refuses to let David put the picture back in, and rather than let him discover the truth, David tears the picture up.  Jack is furious, but before they come to blows both are called to fight a massive German airplane.  In their haste, David leaves his good-luck charm, a small bear he's had since childhood.

David is shot down behind enemy lines, and while Jack is successful in the mission, he now regrets the loss of his friend.  David manages to steal a German plane, but you can imagine who shoots down the enemy plane headed toward the Allied line.  Jack, discovering the truth, tearfully begs forgiveness to his true friend.

Now back home, Jack is hailed as a hero, but David's parents or Sylvia cannot celebrate.  Jack goes to David's home and begs forgiveness.  David's mother comforts him, assuring him that she knows it was the war, not Jack, that killed her son.  Jack, at home, looks at The Shooting Star car and sees Mary.  At last, with peace at home and his heart, he discovers what's been there all that time.

Wings is a remarkably beautifully shot film.  William Wellman created some scenes that are still remarkable to see nearly a hundred years after its premiere.  The aerial battle scenes and the bombing of a French town are thrilling, even more so when one considers just how limited the technology would have been in 1927.

However, the camera work is also employed for some gentle sequences.  Early in the film, we have a courting scene between David and Sylvia that takes place on a swing.  The camera is moving with them, and it makes the scene more intimate, more romantic.  There is also a famous sequence at the Folies Bergere, where the camera moves past a series of tables to end with the drunken debauchery of David and Jack.  It moves  past a whole series of quick stories, with one of them quite daringly suggests lesbianism.  Harry Perry's cinematography both in the battle sequences and the intimate scenes is extremely beautiful (I'm aware I've used beautiful twice, but it bears repeating).

Within the film itself, there are some sublime performances.  Clara Bow proves what a beautiful (there's that word again) and talented actress she was.  Her expressions of sadness whenever Jack at best treats her like a pal and at worse ignores her completely is genuinely heartbreaking.  It's not all sadness for the IT Girl, though.

The scenes when she's driving the ambulance show a plucky side to Mary, and even allow her to play a bit of comedy.  Most of the comic relief in Wings comes from El Brendel's Herman Schwimpf, whose German name causes endless troubles, all which are ended as soon as he shows his Stars and Stripes Forever tattoo.

Side note: Wings was intelligent in showing the xenophobia attached at the war's start against anyone with a German or German-sounding name.  It shows that the film was going beyond jingoistic chest-pounding and documenting a realistic view of events a decade old.  This also goes to how those left behind reconciled their private pain with the knowledge that other people's sons came back.  Even after getting sent out of the Air Service and becoming a mechanic, there are still lighthearted hijinks with Schwimpf. 

Both Rogers and Arlen showed how they went from fierce rivals to dear friends.  Their final scenes together are especially touching (thought a flaw in the script by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton based on a story by John Monk Saunders makes the transformation between them a bit too fast).  The biggest surprise will come from the smallest role.  Gary Cooper is on screen for less than five minutes of the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, but in his brief appearance as Cadet White he is magnetic.  He has a screen presence that is completely unmistakable, and it is no wonder that his small appearance in Wings was so memorable that it made him a star.

I did find a few faults with Wings.  The Folies Bergere scene (especially a running bit about Jack being so drunk he saw bubbles everywhere) ran a bit long and comes off as unintentionally humorous.

On a personal level, one never understood why Sylvia and David kept protecting Jack's fantasy about Sylvia being in love with him.  One also stretches things to think that a bathroom attendant at the Folies Bergere could communicate with Mary and get her to be a seductress albeit for the best of reasons, so quickly.  However, this is one of the benefits of silent film: language truly isn't a barrier.  What's to say Mary can't speak French or the attendant can't speak English?  That, I confess is being a bit picky, but I digress.

Still, Wings today is a film that holds up remarkably well.  There are beautiful (I give up: it's a beautiful film) scenes of tenderness within it to balance against both the lighter moments and the exciting battle sequences especially those that take place in the air.  There is a real sense of tragedy when Mary sees Jack's locket.  She remembers when she gave him her photo before he left for training, and we know what she doesn't: Jack has Sylvia's picture in it, and worse, that the locket was meant for David.  We wait in sadness for her to open the locket, and when she discovers its contents, it's liable to break your heart. 

The film itself is quite good, with strong action scenes and simply beautiful moments strong acting, especially by the IT Girl.  I hope that people will not only appreciate good silent films but see in Wings a fine example of a good film in general. 


1929 Best Picture: The Broadway Melody

Please visit the Best Picture retrospective for reviews of other winners. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Personal Reflections On The Hangover Part II

Few films have been met with such anticipation as The Hangover Part IIThe first one was one of my favorite comedies, earning a rating of A-.  I loved the fact that there was a logic to the film.  I loved the fact that the characters were merely clueless and given to irresponsible behavior.  I loved the fact that at the end, there was a sense of redemption to their lunatic journey.

That I can't say for The Hangover Part II.  As I stated, I thought it one of the meanest, cruelest, most sadistic films this year.  All this time I thought The Green Hornet was going to be my Worst Film of 2011.  At the end of The Hangover Part II, I found a new front-runner. 

I failed to find the humor that everyone else around me found.  I don't understand where the people around me found things to laugh at.  Let's consider the one point that troubled me more than anything about the 'humor' in The Hangover Part II: the relationship between Alan and Teddy.

First, a little background.  Alan (Zach Galifianakis) is the brother-in-law of Doug (Justin Bartha), who is one of Stu's (Ed Helms) best friends.  It was Alan who plied himself, Doug, Stu, and Doug & Stu's friend Phil (Bradley Cooper) with rohypnol, whose adverse effects caused the group to black out and lose Doug.  It was made clear that Alan did this in the mistaken belief that he was putting Ecstasy into their drinks and that he meant it as a way to make their night more exciting.  In short, it was done not out of maliciousness but out of a sincere desire to increase their fun.

In The Hangover Part II, Alan does the same thing, but this time there's a wide difference.  While not stated explicitly, it's clear that Alan has a wild and irrational hostility towards Teddy, who is a sixteen year old and Stu's fiancee's brother.  In his behavior towards Teddy it's clear Alan resents Teddy's presence within his imagined "Wolfpack" (Alan, Doug, Stu, and Phil).  This is worth examining closely.  Alan's age is never given in The Hangover or The Hangover Part II, so I'm going to use Galifianakis' real age.

We have a situation where a 41-year-old man is psychotically obsessed with a burning hatred a 16-year-old boy he barely knows.  It was such an irrational, pathological hatred that I made a note of it twice.  Alan is old enough to be Teddy's father, and by everything we've seen in The Hangover Alan should have been thrilled to have another member to his Wolf Pack.  However, this isn't the reaction he has.  Instead, he believes Teddy's presence among the adults in age only is so wrong he does what in normal circumstances would be considered evil.

Again, note: I am referring to a man twenty-five years his senior.  Alan decides to lace marshmallows with muscle relaxants and ADHD medication to get rid of Teddy.  In short, he isn't putting something in them to ensure Teddy and everyone else has a good time.  He's putting something in them to cause physical harm.  In short, Alan appears to have no problem attempting to murder Teddy for no reason other than the fact he has convinced himself Teddy is going to come between Alan and his "Wolf Pack".  

There is nothing endearing or sweet and I argue comedic about one of the main characters attempting to do physical harm perhaps even murder a minor.  Since Alan was fully aware of his actions, he cannot be considered clinically insane.  This sort of behavior is downright evil, vicious, cruel, monstrous.  Where is the humor in all that?  Why did the audience think doing physical harm to a minor is the source for comedy.  

This troubled me greatly.  Alan in the first film was odd but endearing.  He was endearing because we knew he meant no harm and that he was almost an innocent, unaware how his actions had terrible repercussions.   Here, he has no excuse: he knew what he was doing, though it's open to debate as to whether or not he knew it was morally wrong.  

To my mind, there is a darkness, a heartless aspect to Alan that made his character rather despicable, not endearing. 

I was also troubled with the severing of Teddy's finger.  Again, let me remind you, we're dealing with a minor.  It boggles my mind the idea that finding a finger of a minor is a source of comedy.  I can't laugh at something so cruel.  It was just so horrifying to consider our characters don't seem all that concerned that this poor kid has been maimed, and that his skills as a doctor and cellist, which I figure would both require all his fingers, will be permanently affected.  

I still can't get it around my head that Teddy, at the end, is all right with his disfigurement.  It's as though it doesn't matter that he has nine fingers, and that his brother-in-law was partially responsible for it: it's cool with him.  Even more bizarrely, it's cool with both Stu's fiancee and Teddy's parents.  After all he put his family through, I would have shot Stu right then and there, then blamed Alan's medication.

What is it with the audience's desire to draw laughter out of deliberate cruelty towards a minor?  I can't laugh at how horrible these people are, and how disinterested they are in the fact that a kid's life has been severely damaged by their actions.  What does it say about us, the viewer, that we can laugh about something so vile and unpleasant like causing injury to a minor?  

There is a wide difference between someone slipping on a banana peel and someone getting his finger cut off.  Things have to be put in context, and here, the context is suppose to be humor but it only ends up in barbarity.

Even worse, if I may digress, is the basic irresponsibility of adults taking children under thirteen to films like The Hangover Part II.  An adult should know what kind of film this is, so if any of you parents can explain to me why a film like The Hangover Part II or The Hangover itself is good family viewing I would appreciate it.  

I challenge you to justify bringing children to films like these, full of drug use (one point of The Hangover Part II is that these adults got Teddy both drunk and introduced him to cocaine use: anyone hear of Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor?) and penises in full view.  Hollywood does make films targeted at minors (Kung Fu Panda 2, though I can't vouch for how good it is), so what would possess you to bring children to this?  

I am of the mind that movie theaters are not babysitters: you can't bring children to films you want to see merely because you are too cheap to hire a babysitter or can't fathom the idea of leaving the little ones with someone else for one night.  Trust me: it is cheaper to hire someone to watch your kids for four hours than in buying the tickets, the popcorn, the sodas, and any other snacks the little ones may desire.

I digress that this odd habit of bringing children to adult-targeted films is one factor in contributing to minors behaving badly towards their parents and total strangers.  I also think that it contributes to the dumbing down of Americans in general: where people just appear incapable of exercising common sense when dealing with their children.  Some things are appropriate for adults, some for children, but the odd thing of having adults put their own needs and pleasures above those of their children is a permanent puzzle to me.  I  tire of repeating this: don't take your children to R-rated films, no matter how much you may like it, no matter how much they beg.  You are the adult, you are the responsible one, and you need to be in charge.

There's another aspect of The Hangover Part II that went beyond the pale for me.  I don't know why people thought the following line was funny: "Solid rack for an Asian".  This was said by Phil to Stu (to his face) in regards to Stu's fiancee.  This is racist humor, and I find nothing amusing in it.  Granted, a case can be made that we're laughing AT Phil as opposed to agreeing with his worldview with laughter.  However, I don't think this is the case.  

I think people laughed because they did agree with this narrow-minded view: not just that we can/should judge a woman's worth based on the size of her breasts but that somehow Asian women are supposed to be small-breasted.  I haven't seen every Asian woman in the world (Asian technically covering everything from Turkey and Israel and Lebanon to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Laos, Vietnam, China, Japan, and yes, Thailand  as well as all points in between).  Therefore, I'm in no position to say whether Jaime Chung, who played Stu's fiancee Lauren, is indeed solid for an Asian, but I can say that I don't find such dialogue funny because humor has to have some kind of intelligence with it.  Here, it doesn't.

On this point, in retrospect, I may be wrong and misheard it.  On my review, 'anonymous' wrote that what was said was 'solid rack formation', not 'solid rack for an Asian'.  If that is the case, then I'm clearly in the wrong and withdraw my previous statement.

I can also go into their bigotry against Buddhism, in their reaction to mocking an old monk by making it appear he has an erection  and then having the monkey appear to perform oral sex on said monk.  People were laughing at all this, but I found it sad: sad that an old man was being so viciously and ruthlessly ridiculed and sad that the audience thought this was the height of hilarity.  I felt just a terrible sadness to think just how dumbed down our society has come, to where boorish behavior can be held up as sources of 'inspired humor'. 

I think it would be instructive to those who may have missed the connection to the photo montage at the end of the film to note that one of the pictures was a parody of the one above.  Roger Ebert was extremely troubled by this, and I was both shocked and relieved.  I had heard The Hangover Part II was mocking a famous picture of the Vietnam War, but I was concerned that the picture they mocked was this one:

not that it would have made it any better.  I'm surprised they didn't go for this, given how the people involved in The Hangover Part II delight in their cruelty.  I don't find the humor in either photo, and the fact that The Hangover Part II does says more about the state of American culture than it does about the film. 

Of course, I will go on a limb and say that so many Americans are so clueless about history or the world outside their own circle that most wouldn't have known what the photo was referring to.  I know people who've never heard of Nelson Mandela, and there are people who are unaware we ever fought a war with Japan or that slavery was a reason for the Civil War.  I don't expect people to know every President in chronological order, especially since Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms, putting him twice on the list, but I do expect them to know some basics, such as what happened in Vietnam, and some of the iconic images of the divisive war. 

In short, I thought The Hangover Part II was more than a disappointment.  I thought it was cruel, spiteful, mean-spirited, vicious, ugly, an overall unpleasant experience.  The first film had a charm and its own offbeat delight: the guys really seemed to care for each other, and the search for Doug was paramount not just to get him to the church on time but because they genuinely feared for his life.  The second they appeared less concerned about a sixteen-year-old missing a finger than they were about a monkey and getting anal sex from a she-male Bangkok stripper/prostitute.   

I've heard that there may be a third Hangover film.  It wouldn't be a surprise, given how much money this one made, but there are a few things people should remember.  First, The Hangover was a surprise hit: no one expected it to do so well.  Second, the idea that something like this could happen for a third time would make the characters (and those who watch them) just downright incredibly stupid. 

The only single person left is Alan, and given his general demeanor and homicidal tendencies, it can't be believed he would marry.  Furthermore, after two nightmarish adventures it would make Stu and Phil, even Doug, look completely insane to consider bringing Alan or anything he gave them with them across the hall, let alone anywhere in the world. 

People have got to be pretty stupid, beyond anything that could make sense, to want to see a Hangover Part III.  The scenario never called for a Part II and would never accept a Part III.  It's only a way to make a lot of money, and the audience would have to be as insane as Alan to want to give it to them...or we really have come to The End of Western Civilization when The Hangover Part II can pass for a great comedy. 

Update, July 2017:  It seems that many think I am overreacting wildly to my utter hatred towards The Hangover Part II.  In retrospect, perhaps I did go overboard with what I originally wrote.  I was just so shocked, even angry, at what I'd seen that I let my shock and anger overwhelm me.

Looking back with a greater distance of six years and more time to reflect, some comments are correct.  It probably was an overreaction to say that people were horrible for laughing at things like severed fingers and child sex workers.  Typing that out, though, it's hard to resist the temptation to not say that there is something wrong with people laughing at such things.

The gist of the complaints about my Personal Reflections is that I took things far too seriously for a comedy, particularly one with a proud R rating.  I've seen R-rated comedies, I've even laughed and recommended R-rated comedies.  Did I take The Hangover Part II too seriously?  Perhaps.

I do understand that it is not meant to be serious, so in retrospect I might have cut it some slack.

I also think that too many people who complain about my views seem to think that the first one and the second one were the same.  Therefore, if I didn't complain the first time, I shouldn't complain now.  In a sense, they were the same film: the plot was pretty much the same, down to not having Doug be part of the antics.

My view, however, involves less the repetition of the plot than what I saw as changes in motivation. In the first, I saw Alan as more clueless than malicious.  In the second, I saw Alan as malicious.  In the first, I saw Alan slipping something into the drinks in a mistaken effort to have them all have a good time.  In the second, I saw Alan slipping something into the drinks in order to harm someone, someone who happened to be old enough to be his son.

I've been taken to task for bringing up age, the suggestion being that I wouldn't have minded if Alan tried to kill an adult.  In thinking on that, I don't think the potential victim being an adult would have made things better, but somehow it wouldn't make things creepier.

To wrap all this up, I thought The Hangover Part II was an ugly film: taking whatever was funny or clever or even charming about the first and drowning it in something almost sadistic.  I'm not the only one who thinks this: 79% to 33% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes between Part I and Part II.  The critical consensus for Part II is thus: A crueler, darker, raunchier carbon copy of the first installment, The Hangover Part II lacks the element of surprise -- and most of the joy -- that helped make the original a hit (emphasis mine).  It brings to mind what the late Robert Osborne said about current comedies: there's no wit to them, too much slapstick.

I could have pulled back a bit in how I expressed my views, particularly on the audiences who enjoyed it, but on the whole I thought then and still think now that The Hangover Part II is the ugliest, the nastiest, the most grotesque and the worst film I have ever seen and perhaps will likely ever see, one I would never watch again.

The subject is now closed, and I will not write about it again.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Hangover Part II: A Review


One Night In Bangkok And The Wolf Pack Crumbles...

I like the fact that the sequel to The Hangover is called "Part II" complete with Roman numerals rather than The Hangover 2.  I like the fact that they opted for said Roman numerals, and the "Part" gives it an almost epic quality, like The Godfather Part II.  Other than that, I hated everything about The Hangover Part II, one of the ugliest, meanest, grotesque excuses to get quick cash I've seen this whole year.

We start with Phil (Bradley Cooper) making a call just like the last time...there's plenty of 'just like the last time' tied to the film, telling his wife the wedding looks like it's off.  We then go back a week earlier, where Phil is getting a free dental exam from his friend Stu (Ed Helms).  Stu is getting married to Lauren (Jamie Chung) and her Thai parents insist on having the wedding in Thailand.  Stu is for taking Phil and Doug (Justin Bartha) but is dead-set against taking Alan (Zach Galifianakis) because he still is traumatized by his antics in Las Vegas.  Under intense pressure from Doug, Stu gives in and invites Alan.

With "the Wolfpack" reunited, they head off to Thailand, this time bringing Teddy (Mason Lee), Lauren's sixteen-year-old brother who is an accomplished cellist and pre-med student at Stanford, all of which is important information.  Alan takes an instant dislike to Teddy, suspecting that his "group" has in Teddy an interloper. Once in Thailand, Lauren's father humiliates his future son-in-law at the engagement party and makes it clear he doesn't like Stu.  However, Stu has the moral support of Phil, Doug, Teddy, and Alan.  They have what I like to call 'that fatal glass of beer'...

Next thing you know, Alan, Phil, and Stu wake up in a squalid hotel room in Bangkok.  Alan is bald and Stu has a tattoo on his face.  We also have a monkey, a severed finger with a Stanford ring, and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) in the room; it's debatable which of the last two is more disgusting.  In short order, Mr. Chow drops dead of a cocaine overdose and the three of them go look for Teddy with only a day or two before they have to make it for Stu's wedding. 

From the clues they get, they find the tattoo parlor next to a bar where Wolfpack Deux caused a riot, at the police station instead of Teddy they find a wheelchair-bound Buddhist monk, at his temple a meditation session leads them to another bar where your 'typical Bangkok strippers/hookers' are found: child sex slaves and she-males.  In a melee the monkey is grabbed and we learn that Alan is, just like the last time, responsible for getting them into this situation.

A message in Alan's stomach reveals a meeting with an American criminal (Paul Giamatti) who is looking for Chow.  Fortunately, Chow is recovered alive, but they need the monkey.  We get another twist with the American criminal and, just like the last time, Stu figures it all out before we get another mad rush to get him to the church on time...just like the last time.

I have a theory, close to a Golden Rule of Filmmaking: a franchise has run out of idea when they put the characters in a different setting.  This is only one of the reasons Sex & The City 2 was a disaster, and it may explain why The Hangover Part II is also, like SATC 2, such a complete fiasco of a film.  It goes beyond watching characters going through the same motions; it is making what was once outrageous but endearing into something vile, ugly, downright vicious.

Each of the Wolfpack sans Doug were rather boorish if not downright evil.  Nothing captures the unpleasantness of The Hangover Part II than the character of Alan.  I generally avoid comparing a sequel or in this case, basically a remake in all but name, but here, I think it's important.  In The Hangover, Alan was odd but endearing: he didn't mean to cause his future brother-in-law and his friends harm.  On the contrary, he wanted to enhance their Vegas experience albeit in the worst possible way, but in the end, we liked him because we knew at heart he meant well.

In The Hangover Part II, there was a darkness and anger to Alan that made his actions deliberately cruel, even murderous.  Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (along with his fellow scribes Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong) appears oblivious to the fact that one of their central characters was with malice and forethought attempting to basically murder a minor.  You can't like someone like that; actually, you shouldn't like someone like that.  Alan went from lovable eccentric to downright psychotic, and one can't build a pleasant comedy around a group that appears willing to be with someone who wants to kill a minor. Wanting to kill an adult is something one might get away with metaphorically, but a man who wants to kill a sixteen-year-old because he's jealous of him?

Therein lies the difference between The Hangover and The Hangover Part II: the former had characters who harmed only themselves and where their friendship motivated their actions (good and bad), while in the latter we had self-absorbed, mean-spirited, racist and homophobic characters whose desire to avoid retribution motivated their actions (all bad). 

I can draw from many examples of how The Hangover Part II went beyond raunchy to downright vicious.  Take Phil's comment on Stu's fiancee, "Solid rack for an Asian" (emphasis mine).  Take Phil's comments on the Buddhist monks who won't break their vow of silence to help them, "bald assholes".  Both times I'd like to point out Phil said these things to their face.  We also have jokes about child sex slaves (at the strip club, the owner asks our trio how young they want them...nice).  I'll also say that the cacophony of penises flung in my direction wasn't funny but grotesque. 

Moreover, in their efforts to raise the ante as to how outrageous the Wolfpack could be the writers/director/actors went beyond anything that was acceptable and veered into the sadistic territory.  I couldn't bring myself to laugh at the idea that a 16-year-old had his finger cut off; that would kill his possibility of playing the cello or performing surgeries or at least cut back on the possibility (no pun intended).  No one involved in The Hangover Part II appears to have thought this through.

It's one thing to have Stu pull out his own tooth: he's a grown man.  It's another to remove a teenager's finger and ask us to laugh at that.  The fact that people in the audience were in stitches over things like this have inspired me to write some Personal Reflections on The Hangover Part II--so disgusted with the film was I. 

There isn't much in the way of performances: if you've seen The Hangover, you've seen the performances.  One could argue that if you've seen The Hangover, you've seen The Hangover Part II.  I won't argue it except you do get some nice shots of the Thai countryside.  Of Bangkok, not so much.

The one exception was Galifianakis.  The first Hangover had me campaign for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for him.  The second has me campaigning for a Worst Supporting Actor nomination for him.  Throughout the film Galifianakis had a vicious, self-absorbed aspect to his character that made him dangerous, even evil.  I wrote in my notes "I Hate Alan!", because here, he was deranged, psychotic, self-absorbed, anti-social, unstable, certainly a danger to others but far too narcissistic to be a danger to himself. 

Now we do have new characters, so let's look at them.  Lee's Teddy certainly had to be as insane as the 'adults' around him.  In the end, he doesn't seem too upset about having lost his finger.  He seems on the contrary, almost happy about his night of debauchery even though he spent most of the film as one of those plot devices to motivate their actions.  Chung is like all the women tied to the Wolfpack: completely nonplussed that her fiancee and his friends have made fools of themselves, gotten shot, gotten facial tattoos, and caused her brother to lose a finger; so long as she loves him, I suppose. 

I digress to point out Bartha might appear to be the loser in The Hangover Part II since he was not in much of the film: perhaps ten to fifteen minutes at the most of its one hour forty-two minute running time.  However, I realize out of everyone Bartha is the clear winner in this mess: not only does he have the least to do with the film but he got an all-expenses paid trip to Thailand out of it.

Nice work if you can get it.

Structurally, The Hangover Part II is exactly like The Hangover right down to the cover band at the closing wedding party.  However, as I've stated before, there's a meanness, an ugliness to Part II that makes it such an unpleasant film to see.  Unlike the last film, which had logic to it, even if it was a far-fetched one, this one doesn't have them working things out.  Instead, we have things just thrown in there because it's expected to be funny.  That riot they caused at the bar for example: we never get a good context as to how the monk fit in to all that or how they came to be there.

As a side note, one wonders why they would call Mr. Chow to get them to Bangkok in the first place, or why Stu, Phil or Doug could never make it clear to Alan why it was so dangerous to keep in touch with the fey Asian crimelord.  There's really no logic to anything within The Hangover Part II, which for me brings the film down, as if the misogyny, bigotry, homophobia and general sadism didn't do a good job of it already. 

Curiously, there's a strange inconsistency within The Hangover Part II.  Alan says he made a pact to keep what happened in Las Vegas quiet, but at the same time he has pictures of their debauchery on his walls for anyone to see.  Could one my loyal readers reconcile those two points?

Finally, I confess that for a comedy I laughed only once: at a cameo which featured the most appropriate song for The Hangover Part II that I was waiting for it: One Night In Bangkok from the musical Chess.  I thought that song would play at the closing credits which, once again, feature a series of pictures of the evening's high-jinks. 

There is one photo in the montage (the next to the last one I think) that is a parody of one of the most shocking pictures to come out of the Vietnam War.  Roger Ebert (whom I consider the Dean of Film Reviewers) was so appalled at this he used the word "desecration" to describe it, an especially strong word which I connect only to performing unspeakable acts inside a place of worship: say, performing human sacrifices at the Temple Mount.

Luckily, Mr. Ebert, Americans are so gleefully ignorant of history that most if not all the members of the audience including, I might add, children under 13, which is an especially sore point with me about taking minors to films like this, wouldn't recognize to what the photo was referring to. 

The Hangover Part II was made for one reason only: to part people from their money.  I know the audience I saw it with were laughing uncontrollably, thinking everything was hilarious, and I suppose it was good that they got their money's worth.  In the end, for me, there's a simple reason why I didn't find The Hangover Part II funny in the slightest: simply put:

I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Review


No Eye Should Be On This Sparrow...

If I know my nautical superstitions, and I think I do, I always thought it was bad luck to have a woman aboard.  As Waylon Smithers once said, "Women and seamen don't mix".  That being the case, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides flouts convention by having a fiery Latin lass as First Mate.  Oddly, that's about the only convention it flouts because everything else in On Stranger Tides is no different from every POTC film, which doesn't bode well for this unexpected franchise. 

The curious thing to my mind about the Pirates of the Caribbean series is that while they are extremely popular by and large they are all lousy.  It's as is people just don't care that they are watching films that don't make any sense, so long as they get their Captain Jack fix.  Granted, Johnny Depp has created an iconic character in our scoundrel, but with the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, none of the POTC films are actually good, and I've always held that Curse of the Black Pearl was far too long.  Now while POTC: On Stranger Tides the fourth film of a series that was never expected,  holds some promise it can't overcome the series' fixation with length and with meandering plots.

Captain Jack Sparrow finds himself taken into the presence of King George II (Richard Griffiths).  He is commanded to find the Fountain of Youth before the Spanish find it, and to lead Captain Jack is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).  Captain Jack, unwilling to go on such a venture, especially with someone impersonating him around London to gain a crew for a mysterious voyage, busts out and seeks his doppelganger.  En route, he finds his Daddy (Keith Richards) who tells him information about finding said Fountain.  Jack finds his male/female impersonator: it is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a girl he loved and left.

She gets Jack aboard her vessel, and after a failed mutiny led by Jack we come upon the true captain, the legendary Blackbeard (Ian McShane).  He too is after the Fountain, and since Jack knows the way, he's taken in. Not to be outdone, Barbossa has his own help courtesy of royal patronage, as well as Gibbs (Kevin McNally), who memorized the map to the island of the Fountain of Youth, and they are in hot pursuit (of the Spanish or Blackbeard or both, we're not sure).

Now, in order to fulfill some rite at the fountain, a single tear of a mermaid is needed.  Ariel proving unavailable, Blackbeard lays traps for these dangerous creatures, and thanks to some luck, manages to capture one, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  Despite being murderous harpies, Syrena (which as a side note, sounds very similar to the Spanish word for 'mermaid': sirena) is a gentle creature.  Gentle and lovely, so gentle and lovely that she inspires feelings in Philip (Sam Clafin) a missionary who has been spared this long because Angelica fears for her father's soul, her father being Blackbeard himself.  We have a race of sorts between Barbossa and the British, the Spanish, and Captains Sparrow and Blackboard for the Fountain.

On Stranger Tides, "suggested" by Tim Powers' novel of the same name, could have been a clean sweep for the Pirates series after the debacle of At World's End by placing our beloved hero with a whole new set of characters and situations.  Instead, screenwriters Terry Rosio and Ted Elliott decided to keep elements within the novel: zombies, Blackbeard, the Fountain of Youth, and throw in some of the POTC characters in with the hope that the whole thing float.

As they did for Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest, and At World's End, they felt an odd compulsion to make the film excessively long at two hours twenty-three minutes, two hours thirty-one minutes, and two hours and forty-nine minutes respectively, and while at its two hour seventeen minute running time On Stranger Tides is by far the shortest in the franchise, it is far too long and complicated for the story it's trying to tell. 

Take for example the whole "Jack Sparrow impostor" situation.  The whole thing could have been dealt with in an easier and faster way by not having a Jack Sparrow impostor to begin with.  How much time could have been spared by skipping this needless bit, along with Gibbs' trial, which while clever made the opening drag to the first action scene, and getting Jack straight on to The King.  Same goes for the mutiny, the mermaid capture, and the actual search for both the chalices needed for the Fountain rite and the taking of said chalices. 

By simply tweaking these points (aka making them shorter or even cutting them out altogether) On Stranger Tides could have been faster and more intense (to echo George Lucas' primary direction from Star Wars).  How about Captain Jack agreeing to serve George II in exchange of a pardon or a blind eye to his piracy?  How about cutting the Spanish out altogether and having it a race between Jack/Barbossa and Blackbeard?  How about cutting out the suspicion that Angelica may not be Blackbeard's daughter (how would he be so easily fooled if she was a fraud, and furthermore, why introduce that plot element if you don't want to totally commit to it)?  All it would take would be a few alterations to make this meandering story fit.

However, that wasn't in their interest.  Rather, it was to make a movie feel longer than its running time by jumping from one action scene to another without stopping long enough to have us take any interest in our characters.  The primary flaw in lack of character development is between Jack and Angelica.  We're told literally that Jack seduced Angelica from a nunnery (side note: how I get frustrated at exposition dialogue) so we figure Angelica hates Jack for deflowering her.  So, she dresses up like him to get a crew for her father's ship, of course, assuming she's his daughter? Do they have real feelings for each other, and if so, what exactly are they?

Same goes for Blackbeard and Angelica: does this notorious pirate have a soft spot for his little girl, one he's perfectly willing to kill more than once?  Finally, there's suppose to be a romance brewing between Pastor Phillip and Syrena, but does anyone else think it strange that their passion comes far faster in the two days they've known each other than that of Jack and Angelica, who've known each other for years and years?

Depp knows his character intimately, so his Captain Jack is still as addled as ever.  Rush relishes his chance to amp up the typical pirate, and they have one good scene together while they are held prisoner.  McShane also appears to be having fun as the wicked Blackbeard.  Cruz appears to be playing two characters that ended up in one body: the caring daughter and the ruthless pirate.

Side note: wouldn't it have been better to have cut out Blackbeard altogether and made Cruz a Pirate Queen?

However, the best performance is by Claflin's missionary: he brought a sincerity of this man of God who abhors all the violence going on around him.  It is the best performance because he was the only one taking On Stranger Tides seriously; everyone else was playing their roles for fun, not for believably.  Given Sam Claflin isn't the best actor around, it's a very poor sign.

I do have one question, a minor one, and it has to do with Griffith's King George II.  If my history serves correct, George II was a German who became King of England because he was the son of the closest Protestant heir to the throne.  Therefore, considering he was born and bred in Hanover, wouldn't he have had a German accent?  Perhaps this is being too picky, asking for historical accuracy in a film like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  However, if your mind starts wondering about accuracy as opposed to rolling along with it, you may have some issues. 

Rob Marshall, to his credit, didn't do as he's done with some of his previous films like Chicago and Nine (have the main character dream the entire story within his/her mind).  However, he certainly let the story run on and on: the capturing of the mermaids being a primary example.  It also doesn't help when your characters save one are contradictory: is Syrena a vicious killer like her sisters (she was involved in attacking Blackbeard's crew) or a sweet innocent?  Is Blackbeard a blackheart or one who can be redeemed?  Finally, Marshall couldn't control Hans Zimmer's overblown score, one which made itself known to where it almost drowned out the dialogue and serving as cues to what the mood should be.

Overall, On Stranger Tides is a better film than some of its predecessors, but it is far too long and complex for the story buried within the film.    If it weren't for a useless post-credit scene that was a real disappointment, it would have just been barely serviceable.  However, that clip, less than a minute long, added nothing and actually knocked points off the film.

As fun as Captain Jack is, it's time he sailed away.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Something Borrowed: A Review


The WASP And The Witless...

Ah, to be young, rich, white, and incredibly stupid.  I have never read any of Emily Giffin's work, so Something Borrowed would not be on my radar.  I figured I was not the target audience of this tale of true love via deception.  Therefore, I cannot state how close the film version stayed to the book, but if the novel was like the book, then Giffin has little to no business being paid to put pen to paper. 

We have generally sweet and simple (minded) Rachel (Ginnefer Goodson), who is best friends with Darcy (Kate Hudson).  While Rachel is suppose to be a lawyer, we don't see how she could ever win a case given what a weak and remarkably dumb woman she is.  We never quite figure out what Darcy's profession is or if she has one, at least one that's legal, but we do see her intake copious amounts of alcohol: early in the morning through late-night partying.

Now, here's the gist of Something Borrowed: Rachel met Dex (Colin Egglesfied) in law school, and though both are obviously attracted to each other they never get around to going beyond the 'we're just friends' level.  In swoops Darcy, who after telling Dex to ask Rachel out, to which Rachel objects and Dex demurs, Darcy does what any good friend would do: all but order Dex to ask Darcy out.  Given that six years have passed by and Dex and Darcy are about to get married, I figure compliant Dex did as he was told. 

Now, after Rachel's 30th birthday party, plot contrivances have Dex and Rachel going to bed.  What will Dex do: break off his engagement with his hopelessly alcoholic, self-absorbed, publicly embarrassing shrew of a fiancee and be with the woman he's carried a torch for all these years, or deny himself and marry a woman he doesn't share anything with (well, I'll get into that a little later).  What will Rachel do: destroy her friendship with her hopelessly alcoholic, self-absorbed, publicly embarrassing shrew of a best friend with whom she has nothing in common with, or for once in her life stand up to her bosom buddy and go after someone Darcy knew Rachel was passionately in love with?

Decisions, decisions...

In the mix, we have Ethan (John Krasinski), who has known the BFFs since childhood.  We also have Dex's best friend, Marcus (Steve Howey).  In all the weekends to the Hamptons this group takes, Darcy continues to drink, Dex & Rachel continue to fight and give in to their attraction, Marcus tries to get into Rachel's pants (actually, into all the women's pants), and Ethan becomes both the voice of reason and attempts to dissuade Claire (Ashley Williams) from trying to sleep with him again by telling her he's gay.  Seriously. 

From start to finish, you can't believe anything in Something Borrowed.  You can't believe the story, and you can't believe the characters are real.  If you combined the brains of Ethan, Rachel, Darcy, and Dex, you may come up with half a brain.  That is because all their actions, even that of Ethan, who is really the most sensible and realistic of them all, are so patently idiotic one wonders how any of them could function in their world, let alone the real world we the film viewer lives in.

Darcy is really such a repellent character: self-absorbed and inconsiderate, one wonders why Rachel would be her best friend.  One doesn't have to have similar interests or tastes to be the bestest of friends, but there has to be some sense of affection between two people.  Something Borrowed's main female leads don't have that.  What you have is a form of sadomasochistic relationship between Rachel and Darcy, where the former is a doormat to the other.

While we understand that Rachel must have indicated to Darcy that she was attracted to Dex, Darcy doesn't appear troubled by her asking the man her best friend loves out.  If, as Rachel tells Ethan, she won't stand up to her because "Darcy always wins", why would this seemingly intelligent woman continue being friends with such a selfish drunk bitch, let alone be Best Friends with her?  How dumb or cruel does Darcy have to be to go after the man she knows Rachel is in love with, and how dumb or wimpy does Rachel have to be to let her do so? 

Same goes for Dex.  While watching Something Borrowed, Dex reminded me of Mrs. Slocombe from Are You Being Served?  I thought to myself that Mrs. Slocombe would find him extremely attractive (even letting him play with her pussy, down to letting him work Tiddles' clockwork mouse).  However, she would ultimately conclude what I did: that Dex was "Weak as water.  WEAK AS WATER!"  Dex is just a wimp, and idiot to boot.  We never get any idea as to what Dex finds in Darcy that will compel him to date her more than once, let alone want to marry her. 

In actually, there is one moment where we can guess as to the glue that holds Dex and Darcy together.  It's when both of them, as well as Rachel and Marcus, are in the Hamptons.  As Marcus attempts to seduce Rachel, they can hear Darcy emit squeals of erotic delight.  It should be noted that we heard only Darcy moan, or at least I don't remember hearing Dex reciprocate.  Therefore, I can only imagine that Dex is a remarkably weak and shallow man, willing to give himself over to a woman he probably doesn't love (but whom he's willing to have sex with) for no reason whatsoever.

The closest to a reason to let the marriage go on is when his parents step in, and Daddy all but orders him to marry Darcy.  It strikes me odd, if not downright imbecilic, to see a grown man give in to both a pushy father whom we see only once, and a drunk narcissist.

Dex is also pretty repulsive in that he appears to be troubled by going behind Darcy's back, although given Darcy's general behavior in front of him, she is no Grande Dame herself, but isn't man enough to stand up for himself, let alone stand up to Darcy.  He also doesn't mind all that much going to bed with his fiancee's best friend, pursuing her with near abandon while at the same time going forward with the wedding plans.  What a horrible person Dex is, as is his mistress Rachel.

Finally, the three minor characters (Marcus, Ethan, and Claire) are in their own way repulsive.  Marcus is everything his best friend Dex isn't: loud, vulgar, and a shameless womanizer; maybe I can see how they got to be best friends: what is it in Giffin's mind that people who share nothing in common or appear to know each other all that well can be Best Friends?  Ethan is the only one in the group to make any sense: he's the only one who uses his brain part of the time, as when he tells Rachel that she has to make up her mind: either break off with Dex or go after him rather than this Hamlet-like vacillation. 

While Ethan would have been considered the best of the bunch, it's a curious thing that while he offers sane advise to Rachel, he is incapable of following it himself when it comes to Claire: rather than tell her he's just not that into her, he gives her this idiotic tale of him being gay despite their one night of passion.  Claire, who is either obsessed with Ethan or just stupid, appears not to get that he won't be with her, but has become a passionate gay-rights advocate.

Again, I don't know whether Giffin's novel is like Jennie Snyder Urman's script, but if it, the novelist doesn't appear to know much of the complexity of human nature.  Are we suppose to hate everyone in Something Borrowed, and think just how shallow and stupid are weak and repulsive they all are? Here you have a complex situation (maid of honor and fiancee in love) but for some reason said maid of honor and fiancee are almost terrified of bride-to-be.  Dex and Rachel don't want to tell Darcy the truth, not because it might devastate our drunken whore, but because she might actually get mad and not want to be their friend.  Considering that Darcy shamelessly hit on Dex despite knowing her BFF loved him, and that Rachel was too wimpy to stand up for herself, why would we care about what happens to any of them?

Hudson can't make Darcy complex or interesting, but instead she's almost a sad character in how vapid and shallow she is.  Goodwin is pleasant but never once can we imagine Rachel is smart enough to be a lawyer given how stupid she is to be Darcy's best doormat, I mean friend.  As for Egglesfield, his primary role both on film and in terms of performance is to just smile every time he appears on camera.

How I wish I had $100 for every time Egglesfield smiled.  That was his entire performance: basically looking pretty, smiling, and being the object of desire between these two rather dumb women.  Krasinski is the only one who does himself any favors because he is the only one here who has any sense to him albeit one that is limited. 

Luke Greenfield just doesn't have the material to build Something Borrowed into a plausible romantic comedy, one where we care about the characters because none of them are really worth our time.  Even so, there are certain things that I detested in his directing: really, do we have to have so many flashbacks, unusually inspired by someone drinking Heineken, to tell us the story?

The singularly worse moment in Something Borrowed is when Darcy and Rachel are having as close to an intimate moment as they have had on film to suddenly just jump into a dance routine of Push It from Salt-N-Pepa as they did when children. I watched in not so much horror but irritation that we had to go to a musical number to stretch the film.

I can't say that Something Borrowed is good because the plot is dumb, the characters are uninteresting, and the acting is non-existent.  I especially did not like a post-credit sequence which suggests that Ethan may be more involved in Darcy's life than has been suggested.  Overall, the experience can be enjoyed if you do like all the characters: not use your brain and think the situations are actually either funny or filled with emotion.

In the end, the best way to describe the film is as such: you'll be glad to return Something Borrowed


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Priest (2011): A Review

PRIEST (2011) 

Hollow Be This Film...

Confession is good for the soul but best saved for your priest.  This was one of my dad's favorite expressions, and by that he meant that while it is good to unburden yourself of those things that torment us, it is best to keep these revelations limited to as small a group as possible.

The curious thing about this wise old saying is that neither of us would actually confess anything to a priest because neither of us are Catholics.  2011's Priest (not to be confused with a 1994 film with the same name) is a piece of junk, has a sense that it's a piece of junk but has too much pride in itself to admit to, to confess that, shall we say. 

In an animated prologue, we are given the story: humans and vampires have been at war for many a long time.  The Church (given the emphasis on such things as confessions, rosaries, and the citizens performing the Sign of the Cross I'm figuring it's either the Catholic Church or something similar) eventually created a select group of Priests (the Navy SEALS of The Faith) which managed to vanquish the vampires, but with that the Priests were disbanded, to live their lives in as close to anonymity as possible given the cross etched on their faces.

Within the confines of the cities, the Church is all-powerful, with a Council of Monsignors ruling a benevolent dictatorship.  The Head Monsignor, Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer) is not a brutal dictator, but repetitively admonishes the population that "To go against The Church is to go against God"; where's Martin Luther when you need him?

Our Priest (Paul Bettany) is haunted by one of his missions where one of his fellow Priests was taken by the vampires and he was unable to save him.  Now, he receives news from Lawman Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) that Priest's niece Lucy (Lilly Collins) has been abducted by vampires or creatures similar to them (I think the term for them is Familiars: I confess, no pun intended, to being a bit lost as to what exactly the Familiars are).  Having been warned by Monsignor Orelas and the more sympathetic Monsignor Chamberlain (Alan Dale, creating an unintended reunion of some of The O.C. cast) that to go and attempt a rescue is forbidden because it goes against Church doctrine, Priest goes out anyway into the Wastelands.

Lucy has been taken by Black Hat (Karl Urban), whose true identity is a mystery until the end.  Black Hat has an army of vampires that is going to overtake humanity, and the abduction of Lucy is all part of a plan against Priest.  The Monsignors, furious that Priest has gone against their commands, send out four Priests to capture the renegade.  Included in this group is Priestess (Maggie Q), who appears to be the leader of the hit squad.  Priestess catches up to Priest and Hicks, and they realize the plot of the vampire army and Black Hat after the three other Priests are killed in the human city of Jericho.  Now, Black Hat has to be stopped before he unleashes his vampire army on the other city, and we learn the truth of the relationship between Priest and Lucy (as well as that of Priest and Priestess).

I found myself admiring in an odd way just how seriously everyone was taking Priest.  The somber tone Scott Charles Stewart takes with the material both in how he directed the actors and how he visualized the film, suggests that he was trying to channel certain other films.  The City has the obligatory nods to Blade Runner (which begs the question why does the future always look the same) and the plot (written by Cory Goodman from the Korean graphic novel series) appears to be straight out of The Searchers (two men with familial and/or romantic connections to a young kidnapped girl go to bring her back).  To my mind, there has to be more than a passing resemblance between Priest and The Searchers in this regard: in both films, the older of the two makes it clear to the younger that if the victim is "changed" she will be killed.  Let me make it clear: I'm not saying that Priest is in the same league as The Searchers, only that they have similar plot points (and those plot points are the only things they have in common). 

I could make the case that Priest also borrows from the Sergio Leone "Man With No Name" films, since Bettany delivered his lines in a gruff, Eastwoodesque growl.  With his role in Priest, along with that of the fallen angel Michael in Legion and as Charles Darwin in Creation, I'm beginning to wonder if Bettany has gone from being merely atheistic to being downright determined to be considered an enemy of Christendom.  I am being facetious, but how else can you categorize a film that takes Christian trappings and uses them so nakedly to come almost close to making a mockery of them.

Take for example when Priest and Hicks come to a vampire reservation.  Before a climatic battle, Priest begins to quote from Psalm 23 before unleashing a group of cross-shaped shuriken or ninja blades.  Granted, it's always nice to see the cross be seen as a source of strength though not so much when it's used as an instrument of violence, but one wonders how it was that in this alternate world Catholicism (since from the rosaries that double as blades to the College of Cardinals-like Monsignors Chamber) gained such power while leaving no room for such things as an exploration of the soul.  It is a bit like seeing what a dystopian world would be without the Reformation.  Yet I digress.

I can say that I think Bettany is too an actor to be scowling around in Priest, and his Priest is a remarkably empty being.  Though the mission is to rescue his 'niece', we never see him close to showing any emotion that would signal he cares, let alone loves.  There is some understanding that Priest and Priestess may harbor romantic feelings for each other, but Priest doesn't concern itself with exploring the character's hearts.  As played by Bettany and Maggie Q, Priest and Priestess may be in love because the script says so, not because either of them projects true longing.

I'll give that flaw to the fact that the script kind of shoehorns this suggestion: we never see Priest being anything but all business, and knowing nothing of their background we figure they should have feelings because one is a man and one is a woman, but nothing in the story or performances tells us anything about each other.  I figure that Plummer was having fun in being in something as self-consciously trashy as Priest (and it brought to mind Judi Dench in The Chronicles of Riddick, another film that had a great actor in a role against type).  To be fair, the Monsignors reminded me of the Time Lords from Doctor Who with their robes and great sense of self-importance, but Plummer to his credit appears to relish his time as this unofficial dictator. 

Gigandet is also to his credit taking Priest exceedingly seriously, but again while we're told that Hicks and Lucy are in love we never see any sense from Gigandet and Collins that they even knew each other all that well.  I will also compliment him on the fact that he didn't pout in Priest, which is his usual acting technique whether on The O.C. or Burlesque.  It's a better performance than most of his career, but one wanted to tell him to lighten up and show a sense of humanity instead of trying to outdo Bettany in 'this is a serious film' mode.  Collins was in the film for far too short to give a true reading of her abilities.  Going to Urban, again like Bettany, he is a far better actor to be in Priest, and I'll say he was directed to be a bit over-the-top. 

Again and again, none of the characters in Priest appeared to be human, just rather robotic in how they approach the story: one must kill, one must not smile, one must look super-serious before going medieval after reciting the 23rd Psalm. 

One plot point that confused me was about the relationship between Lucy and Priest, perhaps because our main character never got a name is one reason why he never appeared human.  Bettany is just short of 40, and Collins is 22.  Granted, the age difference is plausible to make the 'truth' believable, but still a bit of a stretch to believe, as is the suggestion of romance between Collins and the nearly 30-year-old Gigandet (OK, 28).  In an odd way, Bettany and Collins look too young to make the story believable and even more oddly, Gigandet looks too old.

Finally, what gets me is the shameless plug for a sequel, one of the things that drives me bonkers while watching a film.   

If Catholics get in an uproar over certain elements in Priest, with a little left over for Protestants and even Orthodox Christians, they need not worry, for in a few weeks, Priest will have been exorcised from the collective minds of film goers.

It isn't hideous, but aside from the opening, quite uninteresting.  I think it would have worked better if the whole film had been animated.  If it had, it would have had a prayer of being good.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mommie Dearest: A Review (Review #215)


Mama She's Crazy...

It is curious that Mommie Dearest was done with total sincerity; there was no desire or intention in making the film version of Christina Crawford's shocking autobiography anything other than a straight, serious drama. This tale of brutal physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Christina's mother, Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford, was meant to be a searing drama, a cautionary tale.

It's curious therefore, because the end result isn't a somber tale of a woman's brutality against her own child, but a camp cult film about a deranged drag queen.   At least that is the perception nowadays, with some truly bizarre moments now the object of mockery and parody.  Like Cleopatra, I think people are no longer seeing the forest for the trees, and when they think of Mommie Dearest, they aren't actually thinking of the film itself, but of the parodies and the perceptions the film has fostered.

Granted, some of the moments in Mommie Dearest are rather outrageous (and those are the ones that have earned it the reputation as a disaster) but within the film itself there are good things (and even some good acting).  Mommie Dearest is a case study of how a story veered so far out that it ended up being the opposite of its maker's intent: instead of a serious drama, it became a comedy. 

Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) appears to have everything she has ever wanted: fame, a career as an actress and star, a handsome man at her beck and call.  However, she is missing something, and that is a child.  Thanks to her lover/lawyer Greg (Steve Forrest) she manages, despite being a twice-divorced actress, to gain a daughter.

Christina (Mara Hobel as a child, Diana Scarwid as an adult) appears at first to live a life of sumptuous wealth, but as time goes on the relationship between Christina and Joan becomes a hellish one.  Joan verbally berates her daughter, and then graduates to physically abusing her (of which we'll talk about in more detail later).   Eventually Joan sends Christina first to a boarding school, then after a romantic incident at the school sends Joan into yet another tirade, to a convent school.

Joan finds love with Pepsi-Cola Chairman Al Steele (Harry Goz).  Christina has an acting career of her own, appearing in a soap opera, but when she gets a benign tumor Joan steps in for her daughter (even though she is far too old to play Christina's part with any degree of believably).  Finally, Joan Crawford dies, with apparently only her ever-faithful gopher Carol Ann (Rutanya Alda) with her.  When Christina and her other adopted brother Christopher learn they have been disinherited "for reasons that are well known to them", Christopher remarks that as always Mother has the last word.  Christina, pensive, asks, "Does she?"

As it stands, no one save Christina and Joan Crawford will ever truly know what the truth is, and the fact that the defendant is dead does not clear up matters.  The accuracy of Mommie Dearest is still a subject of fierce debate within the Crawford family itself (Christina's two other adopted sisters are adamant that there was no abuse), and this is not the place to argue one way or the other.

The film itself makes some terrible mistakes, chief among them by not putting anything in any kind of context.  The Three Infamous Moments in Mommie Dearest just erupt with barely any idea of where the fury Crawford had came from.  Moreover, they are filmed by director Frank Perry in such a way that they all but dare us not to laugh at the sheer lunacy of it all.

Let's take Infamous Moment Num. 1: The Rose Garden scene.  In the scene earlier, Joan had just been effectively fired from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by her boss, Louis B. Meyer (Howard Da Silva).  How does she react to this devastating news?  Side note: the scene between Crawford and Meyer never establishes if the parting was hurtful to Meyer or not: Da Silva bouncing between looking satisfied to get rid of 'box office poison' and looking as though he were about to burst into tears at seeing her go.

Well, here's how I've reacted to being fired (of which I can count more times than I care to): have a good cry, get drunk, do cartwheels, eat too much, go to the movies, go to bed for a few days, or wake up and go straight to the unemployment office (though no, not all in one day).  Here's how Crawford reacted: she put on an elegant evening gown and in a fit of fury started demolishing her rose garden with gardening shears, then gets Carol Ann to wake the children (they must have been heavy sleepers to not hear her screaming about being 'Hollywood royalty' and 'box office poison' and 'creative differences') and have them start picking up the dismembered roses.  Finally, she screams at her daughter one of the most notorious and parodied lines in Mommie Dearest, "TINA!  Bring me the ax", at which point a terrified Christina brings her the ax.  Joan then chops down a tree.

The whole scene is just patently psychotic, and in a bizarre way, is reminiscent of a Joan Crawford film.  In Strait-Jacket, Joan played an ax-wielding murderess who after being released from the booby hatch (producer William Castle's terminology, not mine) she becomes the prime suspect in a series of ax murders.  The imagery of Crawford wielding an ax in a moment of insanity appears far too similar for it to be a mere coincidence (it may have been, but when one has seen Strait-Jacket one can't help think that perhaps subconsciously or overtly the filmmakers drew inspiration from the film in the Rose Garden scene). 

Infamous Moment Num. 2 is perhaps the most infamous moment in the film itself if not one of the most notorious in film history: the Wire Hanger scene.  A whole essay could be done to catalog why this particular sequence went so far into comedy and camp, but we'll try to hit the low-lights.  The entire sequence starts to go off the rails almost instantly when we see Dunaway/Crawford in heavy face cream but curiously, with full red lipstick.  It has the unintended consequence of making Dunaway/Crawford look like a clown: a psychotic clown, but a clown nonetheless.

If that didn't make the scene already downright insane, Dunaway's performance here becomes something that leaves viewers stunned.  It is true: in this scene Faye Dunaway transcended screen acting and slipped into Kabuki theater: the make-up, the sumo-style squatting she did before lunging at Christina and the audience, the wild overacting.  When we're suppose to be horrified by a woman beating a child mercilessly with a wire hanger and then a cleaning powder container, the performance is just so out of control that we end up laughing hysterically.

It is reminiscent of what Oscar Wilde said about Charles Dickens' The Old Curiousity Shop: anyone who does not laught at the death of Little Nell would have to have a heart of stone.  In the same vein, anyone who doesn't laugh at the brutalizing of Christina Crawford has no sense of humor.  Dunaway was not pulled back from going into borderline mania by Perry, and Hobol's protests of innocence and terror only seem to add to the lunacy of the scene, even to the comedy.  In short, Dunaway as Crawford looks comically deranged, almost clownlike in her fury over wire hangers.

As if to conclude this singular moment of screen infamy, after Crawford screams at Christina to "CLEAN UP THIS MESSSSSS!" and Christina asks how, Crawford just tells her, "Figure out for yourself", then ends her screen presence by crossing her eyes!  Yes, if you examine the scene, Faye Dunaway punctuated this bizarre and outrageously funny scene by crossing her eyes!  With that clownish face cream make-up?  How can one not be howling with laughter at that?  Finally, little Christopher finally appears, telling his sister he'll help her clean up.  No, he's told.  She (Crawford) will kill them if she found out, he's told.  With that, little Christopher walks away quite calmly, as if he hadn't heard his mother lose her mind.  It just adds a coda of comedy and craziness to what we've all seen.

Then there is Infamous Moment Num. 3: the Strangulation Scene.  Christina, now an adult, has been dragged out of Chadwick School after being caught with a boy in the stables.  Joan's rage is palpable as she tries to continue an interview for a magazine.  When Christina dares to contradict Joan's version of events, she takes her into the living room, where upon the mother slaps her daughter, then after being told by Christina that she is "not one of her FANS!" Joan Crawford then lunges at Christina and begins to strangle her, plowing straight into a glass table as the elder attempts to murder the younger.  Again, this moment should be one total shock and horror, but the way it was shot (including a shot that shows Christina's panties) people will only end up screaming with laughter.

As I studied Mommie Dearest, I can pinpoint the common denominator in each of these Infamous Moments: in each of them, Joan Crawford is totally deranged, if not downright psychotic.  When Crawford is reasonable, even when she's harsh but still within the bounds of comprehensible behavior, Mommie Dearest appears to try to chronicle a tortured mother-daughter relationship.  It's only when Dunaway is either directed badly or not directed at all (perhaps that's not entirely true: she may have been told to let herself go) and allowed to go into fits of insanity that Mommie Dearest goes wildly wrong. 

There was a moment when Mommie Dearest pulled itself together to present something bordering a drama.  It is a scene where Joan and Christina are in the laundry room.  Joan tells her daughter that she's had to make several cutbacks, and that Christina will have to be on a work scholarship to stay at Chadwick.  Joan then allows herself to be vulnerable, tearfully telling her daughter that she lost her contract at Warner Brothers, confessing her fears about not having a job or studio or money.   IF there had been more moments like these in Mommie Dearest, where Dunaway is featured as the strong actress that she is and allowed Crawford to appear as horror of horrors, human, Mommie Dearest could have been a deeper film.  However, by this time the wire hangers had already come out, and it far too late into the film to have rescued the project.

One thing that I think was a major contributor to the failure of Mommie Dearest is something I long have warned about: the gluttony of hands on the script.   Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, director Perry and producer Frank Yablans all co-wrote the script.  It's amazing that four people could have taken Christina Crawford's book, which is actually more shocking and grounded than the film version, and turned a rather straightforward story into a chaotic and jumbled mess.  Having read the tell-all, I can add details that the film appears uninterested in.

For example, the Chadwicks (Colonel and Mrs. Chadwick) played an important role in Christina's life, serving as surrogate parents and protectors to her.  Her forced parting from them is quite painful.  In the film, Mrs. Chadwick appears only twice: when the child Christina is dumped at the school and when the adult Christina is dragged out.  Whatever connection there was between Mrs. Chadwick and Christina is lost amid the hysterics the filmmakers appeared to think were more important.

Another moment is when Christina is sent to convent school.  Again, the book is more detailed about her experiences there, but in Mommie Dearest, she is at the Mother Superior's office, and less than two minutes later, she is leaving.  Therein lies a major problem in Mommie Dearest: we are never given any reason for anything that we see.  We never understand why wire hangers send Joan Crawford into a psychotic episode.  We only are presented with the scene where a woman goes Berserk! (pun intended) but just showing us Crawford's insanity doesn't give us an insight as to why she went Berserk! (pun intended).

You can't show us these insane moments and expect us to just accept them as realistic because we never are given any context as to what leads into them. By the end of Mommie Dearest, major characters jump in and out so quickly we never get a hold of what their presence means in terms of the actual story.  Al Steele doesn't take more than ten minutes before he dies off-screen.  Did Crawford truly love him?

Outside sources such as the documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, indicate that she did, even keeping his box of cereal and his bowl in a cupboard even though she didn't eat cereal in bed like he did, removing them being too painful for her.  However, like many things in Mommie Dearest, they are sped through, while the moments of insanity (the rose garden, the wire hangers) is given much screen time.

As a side note, while watching Mommie Dearest (including more bizarre moments like Joan tearing at Christina's hair because she thought Christina was making fun of her or removing her dolls because, like Christina and Christopher, they had been 'thoughtless and selfish') I started wondering about Joan Crawford.  I began sincerely wondering whether Joan Crawford was developing some kind of mental illness that appeared to grow stronger as time went by: going from merely shouting at her children and tearing at roses to beating and then culminating attempting to murder her children.

It appeared that Crawford wasn't evil, but just becoming more and more mentally ill, with her drinking problem only aggravating things.  As a result, I think voting Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest as one of the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Villains of All Time is not just inaccurate but downright vicious. 

I digress to put in my own view of Joan Crawford.  It may be that the biggest tragedy involving Mommie Dearest is the damage Crawford's reputation has suffered, perhaps irreversible.  Now people may not see that Crawford was a strong actress and gave some wonderful performances even in really second-rate films like Strait-Jacket and Berserk!.  Instead, she may be remembered not for her work but for wire hangers, which probably would have horrified/infuriated/hurt her: that her work, which she valued more than anything, has been diminished by her off-screen behavior which may not even be true.

Now, both Hobol and Scarwid manage to give strong performances as the deeply tormented Christina.  As much as Dunaway has disassociated herself from Mommie Dearest, she actually became Joan Crawford.  She transformed herself not just physically (the transformation is so remarkable that one could easily mistake Dunaway for Crawford) but she gives Joan Crawford the intensity to which she approached her career (including doing a good version of Crawford's Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce).  It's only in those moments of insanity that Dunaway appears to rely only on her own direction, and it's those moments when external factors (the script, the make-up: which I understand was Dunaway's idea) derail her performance. 

Compliments also should go to Henry Mancini's remarkably elegant and sad score which in another version of the film could have been poetic but serves to make the juxtaposition of the sincere and the insane all the more pronounced.  Even Frank Perry started out Mommie Dearest well with a good opening: giving us so much detail about Joan Crawford but not revealing her face until the end of the scene, where we see just how convincing Faye Dunaway was in the role.  Sadly, it all went downhill from there. 

Even though in retrospect Mommie Dearest is in so many ways a film that goes wildly wrong and veers off from its intended purpose, there is something hypnotizing about it, especially in how Dunaway commits totally to being Joan Crawford.  On a personal note, I am aware of the flaws Mommie Dearest has, but I think it's a good film, even entertaining albeit for the wrong reasons.  Every time I watch the Wire Hanger scene, as much as I try to sympathize for the brutality on screen, I can't help but just collapse into total laughter at how committed everyone appears to be in trying to be serious when it keeps going more and more into camp.

In the end, Mommie Dearest is not a perfect film, and perhaps not even a good film.  It is, however, a most fascinating one, the perfect anti-Mother's Day film.  Just, don't tell Mama...