Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Battle of Algiers: A Review (Review #234)


Casbah Conflict...

I always bristle when people tell me that 'it's just a movie'.  It isn't that I should take everything in a movie seriously.  However, I reject the idea that a movie can't have an impact on people because I've seen for myself just how a film, if done correctly, can shift attitudes to manipulate an audience.

The idea that a mere movie cannot have a powerful impact on an audience is a false one, and the definitive case against that is The Battle of Algiers.  Is it art?  Is it propaganda?  Is it just a movie?  I think in fact, The Battle of Algiers is a brilliant example of how a movie can be so strong visually that one becomes part of the story, though not sometimes for the good.

The Battle of Algiers tells the story of the final few years of the French occupation of Algeria.  Long a part of their empire, after World War II the native Algerians start demanding independence, but after being thrown out of French Indochina (now Vietnam), the French aren't willing to give up another bit of the realm, at least, not without a fight.  Unfortunately, they get one, and a particularly brutal one where both the French and the Algerians commit horrifying acts of murder that only cause the sides to dig in deeper, and bring misery to non-combatants.

We begin with an old Algerian, who has obviously been tortured, revealing the hideout of four agents of the FLN (National Liberation Front).  The French army surrounds them, and of those trapped, including a woman and a child, only one stares out in stern defiance.  That would be Ali La Ponte (Brahim Haggiag), a native Algerian.  We go back three years earlier, to 1954.  Ali is a petty street criminal who is imprisoned, more than likely because among other things, he dared strike back at a European.  While in prison, he witnesses an execution of an FLN member and becomes radicalized to join the cause.  Once out, he quickly rises through the ranks to become a leader, albeit a hotheaded one. 

The FNL continues their harassment of the French living within Algiers, while the French strike back by requiring indignities of the Arabs in their own country, ranging from checkpoints around the Casbah and requiring the Algerians to carry identification papers at all times to searching them at will.  The fight between the FNL and the French grows, with more and more barbaric acts: two brutal bombings that are shocking in and of themselves but also by how freely both sides appear to kill those not actually doing the fighting.  The city of Algiers is a city besieged, where fear and paranoia grip both populations.  Finally, the French paratroopers are brought in, led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin).

The Colonel is efficient in his efforts to quash the insurrection/rebellion due to his response to a planned general strike by the Algerians.  His plan to root out the leadership, Operation Champagne, bears results, but again at a particularly brutal cost.  Eventually, Colonel Mathieu has cornered Ali and his compatriots, and after given warning to come out, the four of them choose death before surrender.

In a coda, we see the uprising has not quieted down.  Instead, a fiercer one has emerged.  On December 21, 1960, the last day of demonstrations that take place after the main events of The Battle of Algiers,  a voice calls out to the unseen demonstrators, asking what they want.  The response comes out clear: "Freedom!  Independence!"

The film ends with women waving the Algerian flags in a frenzy of fury, a dance of defiance to where they will not stop until they get what they want.  A voice-over tells us that on July 2, 1962, Algeria at last gains independence.

The Battle of Algiers' brilliance comes from many fronts (no pun intended).  Chief among them is Marcello Gatti's cinematography.  Although everything in The Battle of Algiers was filmed specifically for the film, the look of the film is one that could easily pass for a documentary.  This director Gillo Pontocorvo accomplished first by filming in black-and-white and second by the brilliant camera work.  Pontocorvo does not have exaggerated angles or shots that draw attention to themselves.  Instead, he shows things as they would have happened.

Take for example when the paratroopers come marching into Algiers.  The angles are from the street, sometimes from the feet of the marching soldiers, which gives us a feeling that the footage was gathered from a newsreel as opposed from a professional film crew.  Other examples are from when either bombings take place (from the French coming into the Casbah, or the FLN going to the European quarter).

Another brilliant element within The Battle of Algiers is Ennio Morricone's score.  Every time his music appears, it enhances the scene and makes it far more powerful.  We start from the first note, where the music signals chaos and fierce fighting, right down to the music when the bodies have to be pulled from the wreckage.  In these moments, the score is exceptionally sad, mournful, and in a stroke of brilliance, it is the same music repeated over both when the Algerians and the French are killed.

Here, Pontecorvo subliminally signals to us that death is death regardless of who it has struck.

Side note: I found it ironic that the song the French teens about to be bombed were listening to was a Spanish song with the refrain "Hasta mañana, Rebecca", (Until tomorrow, Rebecca), when we the audience know that for some of them, there will be no tomorrow.  The scene when the Algerian women are about to set off to do their act of terror is set to the tense beating of native drums, which only enhances the tension of the sequence.  

We must also point out to the performances.  All the actors in The Battle of Algiers are non-professionals and with FNL leader Saadi Yacef playing a fictionalized version of himself called Jaffar, with the exception of Martin as Col. Mathieu.  It would have been easy to paint the Algerians as heroic and the French as villainous, but Pontecorvo does not make things easy for the viewer.

Mathieu is not portrayed as a monster but as an efficient military man given a task and doing it to the best of his ability.   At a press conference he tells the reports the truth: that the conflict they are in boils down to one thing: "the FNL wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay".   What he thinks of it is immaterial.

In the same vein, Yacef/Jaffar is not portrayed as a barbarian bent on killing every Frenchman he can lay his hands on.  On the contrary, he realizes the truth about terror as a weapon: "Acts of violence don't win wars.  Neither wars nor revolutions.  Terrorism is useful as a start, but then, the people themselves must act". 

Even for a film about revolution such as The Battle of Algiers, where the temptation to make the FNL and their supporters heroic is strong, Pontecorvo allows moments of barbarity to seep in.  For example, we hear a voice-over making the newest pronouncements from the FNL about living a more Islamic life.  Among the proclamations is a death sentence for those who are drunk.  While the voice-over continues, we see a group of children harassing an old drunk, making look like a miniature mob.  It is a remarkably terrifying and sad scene. 

The emotional impact of The Battle of Algiers is still so powerful, so real, that watching it may make one almost sympathetic to violent overthrows of governments. It is no accident that it looks like a documentary. It is no accident that it takes a strong point of view.  I confess that after watching it for the first time, I got so caught up in its emotion that if I had been asked to right then and there, I would have been tempted to join the resistance against French occupation, and I'm one of the most socially conservative, bourgeois individuals I know. 

The Battle of Algiers is still relevant today: in the anger of occupation, the stubbornness of combatants, and now with the rise of the Arab Spring a willingness of the man and woman on the street to continue fighting and dying for freedom.

Is it propaganda? Yes.  Is it art? Yes.  Is it just a movie? Yes and no.

The Battle of Algiers is a thrilling and powerful film, with an emotional impact that will stay with you long after you finish it.  For a film to do that, even after nearly fifty years, is a sign that the battle goes on.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Switch (2010): A Review


I shouldn't be harsh on The Switch because it knows what it is: a dumb romantic comedy, operative word: dumb.  In a nutshell, a woman who has a straight male best friend will end up with said friend regardless of how ill-suited they are.  This will especially happen when there is another man, usually better-looking or smarter or wealthier or more stable either financially or mentally, is also courting our heroine.  The Switch could have done good things if it hadn't been bogged down with some rather horrible people.

Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) has reached that critical age of 40.  She is unmarried and knows she has a limited window to have a child.  Therefore, she opts for artificial insemination.  This does not sit well with her hypochondriac, neurotic platonic friend Wally (Jason Bateman), who is doing voice-over work in The Switch.  Wally has no tact: he sees nothing wrong in showing pictures of his penis to ask if there's an unhealthy growth, is hyper-sensitive (being called a beady-eyed little man-boy by a homeless man causes him endless worries), moans when he eats, is controlling, and selfish: all of which cause a break in their friendship.

Nonetheless, she is undaunted, and her best friend Debbie (Juliette Lewis) is throwing an insemination party.  At said party, people will eat drink & be merry before Kassie goes and gets knocked up privately.  Despite their slight falling out Wally is invited, where he gets plastered.  Naturally, the donor is there to: a married man named Roland (Patrick Wilson) who is doing it for the money and noted, with his wife's consent. 

It really is all for naught: in Wally's inebriated condition, he literally spills it, and with the insemination a few moments away, must rise to the occasion with a little help from Diane Sawyer: don't ask.  With the insemination successful, she opts to leave New York.  Seven years later, she decides to move back to the city, bringing her son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson).  The curious thing about Sebastian is that he is a hypochondriac, a bit of a pessimist, and moans when he eats.  It takes a few moments for Wally to realize that Sebastian is his son.  It takes longer for both Roland (who by now is free from his wife and interested in Kassie) and Kassie herself to figure it out.  Actually, Kassie never figures it out: Wally has to confess the truth. 

Here's where The Switch goes terribly, terribly wrong: Wally is such a loathsome character in his neuroses and his hyper-controlling manner with Kassie that no one in their right mind would want to be around him, let alone end up with him.  For example, at a party Kassie sees someone she is interested in, both romantically and in providing sperm.  Wally locks her out on the balcony, tells the guy she's either a nut or a slut (can't remember which) and sends him on a wild goose chase.  And we're suppose to like him? 

Allen Loeb's screenplay (based on Jeffrey Eugenides' short story "Baster") doesn't try anything new or interesting with the premise.  You have a standard imagined love triangle (between Kassie, Roland, and Wally) and remarkably stupid people.  I did wonder why Kassie never noticed that her son moaned when eating just like Wally did for example.  It's also now a standard in romantic comedies where the woman will not choose a man who appears to be better.

One thing that I found rather creepy and slightly unbelievable is the Insemination Party.  I figure this was the only way they could find to get Wally's sperm into the film, but it only came off as almost grotesque as opposed to funny.  One would think the sperm would be protected, instead of just lying around the bathroom.   I thought it would have been funnier if Wally had donated years before and Kassie had unwittingly received his sperm unbeknownst to both, but I digress.

Granted, as played by Wilson, Roland is a bit dim himself, more interested in athletics than intellectual pursuits.  However, the film would have been more interesting if Roland had been a more well-rounded character.  The Switch would have been more interesting if any of the characters had been more well-rounded.  However, to his defense Wilson made Roland a remarkably pleasant character, at least in the beginning when we could understand his motivation in donating sperm.  It was only when he returned that he became blank (no pun intended) and Roland just proved to be a mere impediment to Wally's thwarted hopes for Kassie as opposed to taking a role in his son's life. 

Neither Aniston or Bateman were interesting because one couldn't believe they would want to be around each other, let alone friends.  I'll say that Bateman did a good job if he wanted Wally to come off as a touch stalker, a pessimist who brings everyone down.  Aniston has mastered these types of film characters (woman in search of a man who finds Mr. Wrong is Mr. Right), but she has not expanded her range much.  It would do her well to get away from these types of films.

If Wally had been more sympathetic, more pleasant, had a genuine yearning for fatherhood or a woman instead of being a down, unhappy, even cruel character, The Switch would have been light fare.  However, his character makes the experience quite unpleasant.  At one point, I begged Kassie in my mind to stay with Roland even though I knew she wouldn't, and kept wondering why in modern-day romantic comedies women appear to go with a totally unsuitable man. 

The Switch is predictable, which makes it unfunny and slightly unpleasant, with people going through the motions attempting to make us laugh and failing at it.   No one would, in the end, want to be in this Wally World.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Back-Up Plan: A Review


Not Having My Baby...

The desire to be a mother can be taken care of so simply these days: all that is required is a bit of sperm, some good eggs, and voila: a child is born.  The Back-Up Plan takes the idea of a woman not waiting for marriage to be a mother but throws a wrench: finding the perfect man post-pregnancy.  Despite some flaws within the story, The Back-Up Plan has enough wisdom to know what it is that it makes the viewing experience palatable. 

Zoe (Jennifer Lopez, aka J-Lo) is a successful pet shop owner who wants to be a mother.  However, she hasn't found "The One".  Therefore, she opts for artificial insemination, and after the triumph of the procedure not even the rain can dampen her spirit (no pun intended).  However, a stranger who gets into the cab she has hailed can.  In the way only film can make it, this same man keeps appearing and reappearing.

His name is Stan (Alex O'Loughlin), a cheese maker.  He charms Zoe into going out with him, and a romance begins.  However, shortly after starting this relationship, Zoe finds she's pregnant. 

Despite her fears, Stan stands by her, even if it means enduring her worries of abandonment and a particularly horrifying birthing scene with the members of her Single Moms & Proud support group.  However, after stating that the children Zoe's expecting (we discover they are twins) 'aren't his', she dumps him.  Eventually, here Nana (Linda Lavin) who has had her own commitment issues with her fiancee of 22 years (Tom Bosley), convinces her that despite what Zoe thinks, Stan is The One. 

The Back-Up Plan, to its credit, doesn't even bother pretending to be a deep film;  it does pass itself as a comedy, but the actual laughs are few and far-between.  In the entire movie, I laughed only twice: at a romantic dinner that ended badly, and at the birthing scene of another mother.  In the first one, the comedy, to my surprise,  flowed naturally from the scene, at least the beginning, and actually funny.  The second time I laughed I admit it was more because it was so idiotic that it compelled you to laugh at the stupidity of it all.

However, Kate Angelo's script would have worked better as a television series than a feature film.  The Back-Up Plan did play out like a sitcom, with some exceedingly exaggerated characters: the New Age-style support group and Zoe's "wacky" sidekicks were especially weak and cliched.  Further adding to the weakness of the story itself was Anthony Anderson's two scenes as "Playground Dad" (that is how he's billed). 

Here's how he's introduced: after Stan wanders into a park after discovering Zoe will have twins, he watches the kids in a park, drawing the suspicions of Playground Dad.  They then sit together after Stan tells him how shocked he is to find he's having twins (from the dialogue it makes it sound Stan is the actual father) and Playground Dad gives him a few pointers.  One wonders why Playground Dad in his two scenes wants to frightening Stan so much about the future, or how they got to be confidants. 

There were other parts in The Back-Up Plan was trying too hard to be funny when a more subtle approach would have worked.  One particularly grating scene was when Zoe was taking her pregnancy exam.  The entire scene, or any that include her dog, did not work, and if Angelo and director Alan Poul would have done better to not tried as hard as they did to attempt laughter.  Take the surprise dinner scene: the beginning of the comedy worked because it was believable, but the rest of the scene looked rather forced, as if they were going for making audiences roll in the aisles but only ended up having them roll their eyes.

The supporting characters, as I've stated, are thin and almost unimportant.  In the beginning of The Back-Up Plan, Zoe asks a male friend/employee to give her some of his sperm.  We then see him a few times but never understand the relationship: were they just friends, or did they have a past, or just boss/employee, or what?  The same goes for Nana, who is on screen so briefly in two scenes that her character suffers when,  if they had taken a different tact, would/could have been the voice of reason to an insecure Zoe.

One thing that did surprise me was that in the opening scene of The Back-Up Plan, we have Zoe's voice-over narration, something that I've never been a fan of, only to never hear her narrate her story again.  A film that drops voice-over so quickly has issues keeping an even tone: flat-out comedy or tender romance. 

Given all that, The Back-Up Plan still has enough charm to it to be a mildly amusing film.  O'Loughlin makes Stan a more three-dimensional character than the script does, and although like most of the characters is rather thinly-written his performance is one of a man who will stand by the woman he's fallen in love with despite his and her fears.  Granted, sometimes he did appear blank, almost as if he were reciting lines, but to his credit I think he did the best he could.

Same goes for Lopez.  J-Lo made Zoe no real different from Charley in Monster-In-Law: a generally sweet woman who finds a dream man only to find complications on the road to wedded bliss.  At times she can be quite charming, almost endearing, and at others a bit distant from her character.  On her performance (as well as O'Loughlin's), I put the blame more on how they were directed than on their abilities to act. 

In short, The Back-Up Plan is not a smart film, and it plays like an extended pilot for a television series, or a best-of highlights of the first season.  However, if one goes into it without high expectations and allows themselves to be charmed by a perfectly good premise, admittedly with some flaws, The Back-Up Plan could work as a back-up movie for a rainy day.


Bad Teacher: A Review


I hadn't thought of going to see Bad Teacher but was persuaded to.  It wasn't a horrible movie, and there were a few laughs.  However, it's more forgettable than regrettable, a comedy that tries but doesn't give us any reason to see our lead succeed.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is an unabashed, unashamed golddigger who is about to leave John Adams Middle School (JAMS for short) to marry her very rich fiancee.  Just as she's about to plunge into the good life, said fiancee dumps her, due in part, to the overbearing pressure of his overbearing mother.  That being the case, she now has to return to JAMS, back to the closest thing she has to a friend, Lynn (Phillis Smith), back to Gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Seigel), and back to her rival, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). 

Elizabeth has decided the best thing to do is get a boob job, convinced the enhanced seduction technique will land her a sugar daddy.  He comes in the form of Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a substitute who is the heir to a watch-making family fortune.  However, Elizabeth has two complications in luring Scott: her tiny boobs and Miss Squirrel, who has charmed Mr. Delacorte into going with him.

It's now all-out war between Elizabeth and Amy, and the former will use all her feminine wiles to get her way.  Money is no object when she can lather up at a car wash (making the fathers ask that it be a weekly event), or in the bonus offered to the teacher with the highest test scores.  The latter may be a problem for Miss Halsey since she is a total slacker at JAMS: she spends all her time showing the kids various teacher-related films (Stand And Deliver, Stand By Me, one of the Scream films, don't ask me which one), at least when she's sober and conscious, sober as in either not drunk or stoned. 

Now with major moolah involved, recess is over and she gets the kids reading and studying To Kill A Mockingbird.  However, she is taking no chances: she seduces and drugs an Illinois test employee (Thomas Lennon) in order to get a copy of the test.  She wins the money, continues to fight her rival, somewhat seduces her dim-witted love object, all while Coach Russell still makes it clear that he doesn't approve of any of this but still wants her. 

Bad Teacher leaves one major question unanswered that, if resolved, would have gone a long way to either elevating or sinking the film altogether: did Elizabeth actually cheat on the state test?  The question is never answered, though the evidence would indicate that she did: she does go on to not just hire her Craigslist-solicited roommate to threaten test employee Carl Halabi but blackmail him as well with risque pictures. 

If that is the case, then she would have had to have gotten her whole classroom to go along with this, which makes our Bad Teacher into more a repulsive one.  Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg's script could have gone one of two ways: either confirmed that she did cheat or show that despite all evidence to the contrary she actually got the kids to pass through their own work.  If they'd gone for the latter, it might have been cliched but it would have given the audience a chance to pull for her.  If they'd gone for the former, we would have turned against her and rooted for her to fail or at least one would hope so. 

Side note: on more than one occasion Miss Squirrel is asked to pull back on her behavior/accusations, reminded about what happened in 2008.  I don't think we ever learned what happened in 2008, which was frustrating to have something introduced without a resolution.  It might have been answered: I don't remember, but I doubt it.  Leaving those things out there is a major flaw. 

Instead, the film opted to leave that question open, and it brings up a more general complaint about Bad Teacher: are we suppose to like or dislike the lead?  Elizabeth is by all measures a rather horrid person: openly smoking pot in her car where her students can see her, using her body to get ahead, even being openly bigoted (at Teacher-Parent Night, she tells her student's folks, 'That's my spiel, as the Jews say').  Therefore, we have no interest in her getting what she wants (in this case, bigger breasts and Mr. Delacorte).  However, when she offers words of encouragement to one of her students, albeit in a horrible way, the script asks us to see her as slightly human.  I don't think it can have it both ways.

It is especially difficult when almost all the characters are either repulsive or downright crazy.  The parents of one student torment our teacher with an excessively gleeful Christmas party, Miss Squirrel is one millimeter from being certifiably insane, her only friend Lynn appears to be totally weak, and Scott is a total nitwit.  The only person with any redeeming qualities is Russell, who is the only person who appears vaguely human.  However, the fact that he keeps going after a woman he should know is a mess makes us question his own intelligence.

It's standard in a film like Bad Teacher to have the characters either insane (the student's family at Christmas) or almost completely psychotic (Miss Squirrel, a woman who makes Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials look like Simone De Beauvoir).  As a result, we never care about any of them because their actions have no motivation.  We never get a reason apart from being a complete pushover, why Lynn wants to be around Elizabeth; we never get a reason apart from the fact that she's hot, why Russell would want to be around Elizabeth; in an important plot point, we never get a reason as to why Squirrel wants Elizabeth out of the way. 

Yes, she may worry that she might steal Scott away, but given his turn-ons are education, why would such a hopeless slacker cause her any concern? 

Diaz knows how to command a dark, misanthropic persona, and to her credit Miss Hurley is thoroughly unrepentant about being a golddigger who doesn't care one bit about her students.  Segel is also good as Russell, who appears to actually enjoy his job as a gym teacher.  However, it isn't that she is unattractive, far from it, but she's so remarkably shallow and unpleasant that one wonders why he would want to be with her.

However, the rest of the cast left a lot to be desired.  Timberlake never appears sure whether he's suppose to be naive or just dumb.  At times he appears aware that women are fighting over him, as in real life I suppose, at other times he's suppose to be an innocent, totally engrossed in bad dancing to 80's music and bad singing/songwriting.  He could have succeeded in making Scott a sweet but dumb character except for when he is dry-humping Elizabeth on a school trip.

Side note: this is the first dry-humping I've ever seen, and really, did we need to see the stain on SexyBack's pants?

One can't come off as sweet and naive when you've schtupped your girlfriend's rival.  Smith was basically playing Phyllis from The Office at least from my memories of the show, so it's not possible to say whether she did a good job in Bad Teacher.   I also question how Lennon could play someone named Halabi, which I'm guessing is an Arab name, but I digress. 

I further digress to point out two things.  First, I might have misheard, but at one point I thought I heard Diaz's character refer to Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird as a 'he', which if correct is absolutely horrifying that they got the sex of the character wrong.  Second, when the students went up to Springfield to learn more about Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln impersonator asked the kids to follow him and see how Mary Todd was doing churning butter.  While I'm not a history expert, I refuse to believe the real Mary Todd, a Southern belle extraordinaire, would ever churn butter. 

Bad Teacher isn't lousy, but it never is as raunchy as it could have been or as interesting as the premise would suggest.  I think of all the education that I missed...but I wish I had missed this film instead.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Just Go With It: A Review (Review #230)


There were times, I confess, during Just Go With It where I did laugh. However, those moments were more from shock than from genuinely funny situations: shock that people could be so cruel to others, shock that people could be so incredibly dumb and horrid right down to the children, and total shock to see Nicole Kidman and Dave Matthews pop up in this film.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a shock to see an Adam Sandler comedy where the objectification of women creeps in and where the Sandler character is irresistible to females.  If anything he is consistent in his roles: the man-child whom women want.  However, Just Go With It also carries other unfortunate traits: a shameless misogynist worldview, hints of homophobia, and a general contempt for the audience.

Danny Macabee (Sandler) is about to get married in Temple when he overhears the bride and her party discuss what a loser he is.  Devastated, he leaves and goes to a bar to drown his sorrows.  It is here that he makes an interesting discovery: women will go with him so long as he's wearing a wedding ring.  Cut to twenty years and a major rhinoplasty later.  Dr. Danny, now a plastic surgeon, is still trying this old shtick with considerable success: despite being in his forties, he can still get beautiful women old enough to be his daughters.

Now his loyal assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) looks on with bemused disapproval on his hijinks, but other than that is uninterested.  However, Danny's days as a swingin' middle-aged bachelor may be coming to a close.  A beautiful elementary school teacher, Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), has entered his life and in one magical and surprisingly chaste night, he has found love, and she has found his faux-wedding ring.  Outraged, she storms out.

In an effort to win Palmer over, Danny tells her that he is married, but is going through a divorce.  Of course, to have a divorce, we need an ex-wife.  In comes Katherine, who tortures Danny with excessive demands for a new wardrobe and Palmer by making cracks about her age.  Just as Danny is about to see 'Devlin', the fictitious wife's name drawn from Katherine's college rival and a euphemism for using the toilet, off, Katherine gets a call about her kids.  Well, now Danny has children, and in order to keep up this subterfuge he has to talk Katherine's children, Maggie and Michael (Bailee Madison and Griffin Gluck) into all this.

They are willing to go along, but for a price: for Maggie, acting classes, and for Michael, a trip to Hawaii to swim with the dolphins.  He doesn't want to pay, but they create such a scene with Palmer that he agrees to take everyone to Hawaii.  Into the mix comes Danny's cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson), who now tags along as Dolph Lungren, the fictitious lover to Devlin/Katherine.

In Hawaii, all is not going well.  Eddie/Dolph, sporting an insulting/idiotic German accent, can't get into Katherine's bed, and neither can Danny get into Palmer's.  However, in a surprise twist, the real Devlin (Nicole Kidman) is at the same resort, along with her husband Ian (Dave Matthews).  Now it's bedlam with Danny and Katherine pretending to be married while every person is trying to find someone to screw.  Eventually, Danny discovers the joy of 'fatherhood', Michael learns how to swim, Katherine learns that Devlin's life isn't perfect, and I discovered I might have made a mistake in paying to see Dave Matthews in concert.

Just Go With It is just so mean to the females, to all the females, making them into remarkably stupid people without any depth and worse, just a vehicle for men's gratification.  This is especially true for Decker's character.  We're suppose to believe she's a teacher, yet for a teacher she seems dumber than some of her students in her almost naive acceptance of everything told to her.

Every explanation, no matter how bizarre or ridiculous, such as how 'Dolph Lungren' sells sheep on the Internet, she accepts so unquestionably that she would make Rose Nylund look like the Queen of MENSA.  Granted, we should accept that women in almost every Adam Sandler film  are incapable of deep thought (The Wedding Singer being a strong exception), but considering that when we first meet Palmer she is both intelligent and with a sense of decency it seems more insulting (unlike every other woman he's met, she is horrified by the thought he's married).  What could have been an interesting twist (the one woman he wants is the only one that won't give in to him) is dropped almost as quickly as Decker's clothes.

All the characters are rather repulsive in their behavior, even the children.  Actually, let me amend that: especially the children, two of the most repulsive, self-centered, manipulative creatures that have come down the pike in a long time.  Maggie has grandiose aspirations to be a 'grande dame' of film, and to assure this, she adopts a British accent when meeting Palmer, a simply insane act whose explanation Palmer again accepts without question.

Michael, looking all stern, blackmails her mother's boss into paying for a trip to Hawaii to fulfill this dream of swimming with the dolphins without bothering to tell him he doesn't know how to swim.  On paper (via Allen Loeb and Timothy Dowling's script) it might work, but as executed by director Dennis Dugan (who has helmed other Sandler works such as Grown Ups, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, and Big Daddy) can't make it funny; my theory: the gap between a child forcing a grown man into taking everyone on a very expensive trip and the discovery of his lack of nautical skills is too great.

In fact, most everything about Just Go With It is not funny but cruel and mean-spirited.  The whole idea that women are so shallow that they will sleep with a man they think is married makes them look like shameless sluts.  The two main women appear dumb (Palmer) or vicious (Katherine) in how they interact with Danny.  There was no reason for Katherine, even in the guise of Devlin, to make rather sharp comments about Palmer to her face.

I don't want to go into the performances of the men.  Suffice it to say that Sandler didn't stray from his fan base (teenage boys) by making Danny less of a man who won't commit due to heartbreak and more a man who can't accept he's entering middle age and still behaving like a teenage boy; at 44 there is a twenty year difference between him and Decker, so yes, he is old enough to be her father, making the situation even creepier than normal.

I don't want to get into Swardson's cousin so in one phrase I can sum him up: the guy who is even less mature than Adam Sandler.

There are certain moments that are cringe-worthy (seeing Dave Matthews pick up a coconut with his buttocks and not subtle messages that he is gay, with Devlin oblivious to her husband's almost naked desire for sex with other men) and some that have the wrong reaction.  You're not suppose to cheer when a child falls face-first into mud, but the children were so horrible in their fake accents and manipulative manner that you can't help but enjoy them getting some comeuppance.  Just Go With It asks for far too much by having these children be terribly, terribly vicious and mean to Danny and then ask us to feel sorry for them because their own father was not there.

It short, Just Go With It is trite, mean-spirited, witless, with the only thing going for it being beautiful shots of both Decker and Aniston showing off how good their bodies are at 24 and 42 respectively.  It's good to know both work out, but Just Go With It makes no effort to show off their acting talents.  It does go to show that what passes for 'romantic comedies' requires two things: the stupidity of women and the adolescent minds of men.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Art of Getting By: A Review


I don't know what it says about me, but don't hold this fact against me: as of this writing I still have not read The Catcher In the Rye.   It's no reflection on my teachers (I did learn about Shakespeare and Shaw) or me (I did read The Stranger in high school, just so you know).

Despite not having read it, I do know elements of the story and have even heard of its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, and his war against "the phonies" in society.  Now, throughout his cantankerous, misanthropic, reclusive life J.D. Salinger refused to sell the film rights to his novel.  However, I imagine if it had been made into a film, it would look something like The Art of Getting By (formerly known as Homework) because writer/director Gavin Wiesen appears to have shamelessly taken a great deal of Holden Caulfield and how he sees the world and plugged it into this film.

George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) is your typical fatalistic/nihilistic teen, with his perpetual black overcoat and indie rock.  He knows we will all die, so he takes this as his reason not to do any assignments at his elite prep school.  Why do so if we're all going to die?  Despite describing himself as a 'misanthrope',  he appears to find a kindred spirit in Sally (Emma Roberts), who unlike him likes to go out, has a circle of friends, and appears to be a relatively stable girl despite having a hopeless lush slut of a mother (Elizabeth Reaser).

George's one real ability appears to be drawing (side note: why do angsty teenage boys always draw?  I guess I never had angst in high school because I could barely do stick figures, but I digress), but even here he has no real interest other than to please himself.  His teachers and especially his principal (Blair Underwood) fret about George, but they certainly allow him a great deal of leeway when it comes to how they handle his situation, right down to apparently letting him call all adults by their first names.  This curious habit extends to George's mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather Harris (Jarlath Conroy).  Yet I digress.  As I've pointed out, George does love to draw.   Basically blackmailed into being a guide for Career Day speakers, he finds a mentor of sorts with up-and-coming artist Dustin (Michael Angarano). 

Dustin advises George to pursue Sally, but George decides not to, especially after an unofficial date on Valentine's Day she perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, asks him if he'd like to have sex with her.  George is crushed by this request, seeing Sally as just another 'phony', so he locks himself in his room, playing the same song on his iPod and becoming more fatalistic.  Eventually, he's given an ultimatum: either complete all the homework he's declined to do or he won't graduate.

After discovering the truth of his parent's finances, he attempts to go to Sally, but she has moved on to Dustin.  George decides he must help his mother, so he goes and does his homework, still grieving in his heart over Sally, who is going backpacking around Europe with Dustin.  Still, he manages to succeed, and we're left to wonder whether he can get the girl.

The Art of Getting By could have been a good movie, but it's cocooned in its own smugness.  All the kids appeared a little too smart for this world, all the parents/adults were a little too dumb for it.  Maybe it's a sign of rebellion and hipness for all the minors to call all the adults by their first names (and having seen some parents with their children, not entirely beyond the realm of possibility), but truth be told nothing in The Art of Getting By felt or sounded true. 

I have a big problem with George's character.  He is so in tune with Albert Camus I was surprised he didn't have a copy of The Stranger with him; he might have: George was reading a book from time to time but I couldn't make out the title.  However, we need more than character sketches to have a fully-believable person.  We never got an idea as to why he saw the world as hopeless, and we certainly never understand what George sees in Sally or vice-versa.  His melancholy appears to spring from nothing: no reason is ever given for why George's world has turned to black, to quote a refrain. 

He may be presented as an intellectual, but it takes more than taking a girl to see Louis Malle's Zazie Dans Le Métro to make you wise beyond your years. 

Throughout The Art of Getting By, I kept thinking that I was watching a film based on the second draft of a story that had potential but kept getting in its own way by trying to be excessively clever.  All this angst George and to a point, Sally, are suppose to have really comes from nowhere.  Why did Sally take a shine to George or George to Sally?  Wiesen never makes clear, and he certainly never makes clear why his teachers, who've been badly treated by George, would want to save him, besides being told he has 'potential'.  Given how self-absorbed in his own wisdom George is, one would think the teachers would be thrilled to see him suspended, instead of having some Educational Intervention to get him to change his ways. 

Herein lies The Art of Getting By's greatest flaw: George never comes off as a teen trying to make sense in a senseless world.  Instead, he comes off as a moody whiner who holds everyone in contempt for not thinking the way he does.  Highmore's performance does little to shift that view.  I will give him extraordinary credit for having a thoroughly believable American accent, but through the film he maintained the same tone to his voice: never expressing any emotion other than slight confusion as to why the world was not as he thought it should be.

I got the sense that if he tried to express emotion with his voice, either by raising it in anger or cooing love to Sally, he would lose his accent and slip into his native British tones.   One thing I will say is that Highmore gave as good a performance as he was directed to, and that he can sound American flawlessly.  He definitely will give fellow Brit/moody actor Jamie Bell a run for his money should he decide to play American more often. 

Roberts looked blank and unnatural in The Art of Getting By, showing almost a slight disinterest in the project.  It may be unfair, but the film was reminiscent of another film of a needlessly-troubled artistic teen which has Emma Roberts (It's Kind of A Funny Story).  In that film, she had some backstory to her and was allowed to be both funny and serious.  Here, she's nothing but blank: even when trying to be a party girl she appears to be slightly bored.  Having seen her in It's Kind of A Funny Story, I know she is capable of much more than what she did here, but I put that fault on the script and direction, which came from the same source.  Her 'seduction' of Dustin is especially painful because if appears so forced and unnatural. 

Angarano (filling in the Zach Galifianakis character from It's Kind of A Funny Story) fits only because, like George, he has a terrible smugness to his character.  Side note: I'm  not a big fan of modern/post-modern art and have held that almost everything past Picasso's Guernica is junk, but I digress.  We're suppose to believe Dustin is perhaps the only adult Holden, I mean, George, sees as anything close to authentic (although in one scene George confesses he thinks Dustin is also a bit of a fraud), but there no hint that these two like each other, let alone are of the same mind.  The invented love triangle never appears realistic because none of them play it as if it were real. 

Finally, let me point out a technical flaw in The Art of Getting By.  When Principal Martinson (the underused and curiously disinterested Underwood) has his close-ups in a scene with George, the camera is perfectly still.  Whenever it's Highmore's close-ups in the same scene, the camera is jerking about, noticeably moving around. 

The Art of Getting By has the potential to be a good story: a young fatalistic man discovering there is a reason to love and live thanks to a vivacious girl and supportive adults.  However, the film as it stands is basically too smug, too overly-confident in its false insight into teenage agony and confusion to be anything more than an exercise in pseudo-intellectual posturing.

The best way I can describe The Art of Getting By?  In a word: Phony. 


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Green Lantern (2011) Review


Imagine, if you will, you've been whisked to the most exclusive brothel in Paris for your 16th birthday and been told you're going to lose your virginity to the most experienced courtesan in the world, only to find her experience comes from being a 97-year-old hooker.

That's the best analogy I can give between the expectations for Green Lantern and the execution of Green Lantern

My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) always mocked the character of Green Lantern: that magic ring, he'd always sniff.  The fact that Fidel could, unlike myself, tell the difference between DC and Marvel made his snobbery over our hero more perplexing.  For myself, I always thought Green Lantern had a lot of potential and never understood why there had been no film.

After having seen Green Lantern, I see why there had been none and why hopefully there won't be a follow-up unless it undergoes new management.

It won't be easy to give an overall plot to Green Lantern because frankly there isn't an overall plot to Green Lantern.  What it has are three stories connected to each other by the thinnest of threads.

Story One is of our hero, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds).  He is a cocky pilot for Ferris Industries, going through life with a smirk and a self-confidence that hides his fears, both I think stemming from the plane crash that killed his father and that he witnessed.  After costing Ferris Industries a major contract which will cause them to have massive layoffs, he is fired, or quits to put it in his terms, then goes to drown his sorrows.

Meanwhile in Story Two, taking place both before and after Story One commences, a powerful being called Parallax has escaped his prison, and the being guarding him has been wounded attempting to recapture him.  This alien, one Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), is part of the Green Lantern Corps, a collection of intergalactic warriors protecting the universe from evil.  However, Abin Sur has been mortally wounded, and must now crash on the closest habitable planet.  In this case, it's Earth.

Now, I should pause to explain the source of power for each member of the Green Lantern Corps is a ring and a green lantern, hence the name, and Abin Sur now sends the ring to find a worthy successor to it since the rings select the future members.  Somewhere in all this, elements of Story Two mixes with Story One, for the ring has selected Hal Jordan.

Curiously, Hal is the first human ever selected to join this intergalactic fighting force: the Jackie Robinson of Green Lanterns, so to speak.  This selection does not sit well with Sinestro (Mark Strong), Abin Sur's protege who holds humans in contempt as being too inept to be part of the Corps.  Despite the training in the ways of a Green Lantern by Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) and Kilowag (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), Hal believes himself both a coward and a failure, so he ups and leaves.

Now into the mix is Story Three.  Abin Sur's body has been recovered by some secret government organization headed by Dr. Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett).  To perform an autopsy she brings in Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who is suppose to be a genius but apparently isn't the life of the party.  It helps that Hector is the son of a Senator (Tim Robbins), though Hector deeply resents his father giving him this gig and resents even more that he was unaware Daddy Dearest was involved.  During the autopsy, Hector is infected by something in Abir Sur's body; it appears to be an element of Parallax, which now can use him as some sort of henchman to destroy Earth.

From what I understood, Parallax gets his power from the fear of creatures, making him stronger and larger.  The Green Lanterns use the 'power of will', the opposite of fear, to combat the forces of evil.  Those rings: they can create anything in the imagination to help them fight.

With Story Three jumping around (Hector is being turned into some sort of monster), Story One joins in (Parallax is not going after both the Earth and Hal, since he has Abir Sur's ring).  Story Two comes into it when Hal decides to rejoin the Corps and urges the Guardians, the Immortals who created the Corps, not to tap into the Power of Fear by using the Ring of Fear they created.  Instead, Hal Jordan, mortal human, will face Parallax alone and defeat him or die trying.

Somehow giving the scenario for Green Lantern, one can quickly see how chaotic and convoluted the whole film is, needlessly so for a comic book-based film.   I tire of repeating myself, but Hollywood appears determined to ignore my suggestion, which is about to become another of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: A Film Should Have A MAXIMUM of Three WritersGreen Lantern has at least four (Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg, with screen story credited to the first three).  It's clear that by having so many people on the project, Green Lantern never had a true focus as to what it wanted to do.

If it was an origin story, it was ridiculous to have a threat like Parallax: a villain we never knew, never understood its motives, and frankly looked utterly ridiculous.   No matter how much money was thrown at it, you can't make a menace out of a black cloud with tentacles with the head of an alien from Mars Attacks

It might have worked if Hector was the source of the threat to humanity, but again, we never got anything more than the slightest hints of what Hector's beef was.  There was one scene where Hector and Hal were together, and we get the idea that they know each other, and that Hector has a one-sided rivalry with His Hotness.  Alas, this is never explored because Green Lantern was more interested in the visual splendor of the Corps homeworld of Oa than in the human characters. 

Unfortunately, the actors in Green Lantern didn't seem anything more than decoration to the film's lavish visuals; some, like Oa, are quite splendid, while others, like the battle between Parallax and Green Lantern Hal, were just creepy. I don't feel comfortable seeing films where people are running down the street being chased by a large black cloud coming down the street, but more on that later. 

When I heard Ryan Reynolds had been cast as Hal Jordan, I thought it was perfect casting.  He certainly has the build for it: there is one scene where we all can get to marvel at the magnificence of his taut, muscular, and splendid body, especially for a 34-year-old, and he has that cocky persona down.  However, this is where the problem lies.

There are probably a few readers who are too young to remember Reynolds in the television show Two Guys, A Girl, and A Pizza Place (a show I am unapologetic about liking).  While watching Green Lantern, I kept thinking Reynolds was playing another version of Berg.  There was a lot of smugness to Hal, a lot of attempts at quirky quips to make him a bit of a wisecracker.  That works up to a point, but it doesn't when he comes off as horribly insensitive.  He's been told the company will have to lay off, if memory serves correct, nearly half of the employees, and it doesn't seem to phase him at all.

In short, Hal Jordan played to the worse aspects of Reynolds' screen persona: a bit of a slacker who thinks a witty remark and a stare will get us on his side or for a woman, to his bed.  We know Reynolds can act, and while the material isn't there with such ample lines as "You're afraid to admit you're afraid!"

It just appears that Hal/Ryan isn't taking any of the dangers he's facing seriously.  He is suppose to have all these powers, be able to fly beyond the stars at will, and it barely registers on his face.  No sense of wonder, or fear, just slight disinterest. 

Worse was an effort to give Hal some sort of backstory by having him go to his nephew's birthday party.  It is not a good sign when your brothers and their families appear only once in a movie to where you wonder why they were there in the first place.  If it was suppose to give us insight into Hal, it failed spectacularly. 

The other characters don't fare better.  Director Martin Campbell has a lot to answer for in Green Lantern, but perhaps his biggest crime is in having Angela Bassett in only two scenes.  How could you have a talented actress like Bassett in two scenes? What could have developed into an interesting character is reduced to serving as plot exposition.

The relationship between Senator Hammond and his son Hector is both relatively unexplored except to suggest a mutual dislike and rather boring.  Both Hector and Hal have Daddy Issues and a good writer/writing team could have had a parallel between them, but somehow this potential, like most of Green Lantern, was wasted for second-rate action scenes.  Robbins looked either bored or confused as to how he ended up here since his character was neither villain or important to the story.

Sarsgaard, another good actor, was laughable in Green Lantern, and I mean that literally.  The audience laughed twice when he appeared.  Again, note to the screenwriters/director: no matter how evil or dangerous a villain is, you can't expect people to take any of this seriously when one of your threats comes off looking like a cross between Peter Boyle's Frankenstein and Stephen Hawking.  Again, if they had merely opted to have Hector Hammond as the threat, Green Lantern might have fared better.  It would also have given us a chance to develop the rivalry between Hector and Hal only hinted at in their first of two scenes together. 

Part of that rivalry involves Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), the women both men apparently love.  Lively, however, has a rushed delivery to her lines, as if by speaking them as fast as she could she could get out of this mess the faster.  Their love scenes are so dry and fake, and it also leads to a curious situation.  Despite wearing a skin-tight green outfit, complete with mask that show his formerly brown eyes to light green, and trying a Christian Bale Batman-style voice, Carol recognizes Hal within minutes.

How she recognized him?  Well, she recognizes his cheekbones!  That's the height of intelligence in Green Lantern.

There's one bit between Hal shows his buddy the power of the ring.  It was a thorough attempt at comedy which fell completely bad in at least two parts: some silly dialogue and Hal putting on the ring in a way that makes it look like he's thrown a finger at us all; wonder how that came off in 3-D: which I didn't think would have improved the film at all. 

Sadly, the best performances were the voice work of Duncan and Rush, although the training sequence went by so quickly that it appeared that after one session Hal quit.

What A Wimp.

That being the case, a lot of character development or internal struggle was left out, making Green Lantern more of a misfire than it could have been.  Strong is an actor that I've loved and hated in equal measure.  In Green Lantern, he did a much better job  than in the past: it takes talent to make us believe a red-faced, pointy-eared flying creature could both be real and an adversary to Hal; sadly, it all fell apart when he had to speak to The Guardians.  However, like all the characters, we never got to know his reason for his anti-human intolerance or what would motivate his actions before and after the credits started to roll.

Yes, I should mention: there is a quick bit involving Sinestro after the first credits start which officially pushed the rating for Green Lantern down.  Not only was it a shameless plug for a sequel, but given what we DO know of Sinestro, makes absolutely no sense.  Here again, another violation of one of the Most Sacred of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel

I have to point out one thing that I had a big problem with: the score.  Loud, overbearing, I knew I had endured such lousy music before.  When the credits announced the music was by James Newton Howard, I just blurted out, "KNEW IT!"  Maybe it's a good sign that I'm beginning to recognize a film composer's work.

However, when said composer has been responsible for such horrible music such as the scores to The Village, Defiance, The Green Hornet, Water For Elephants, and the nadir of filmmaking, The Last Airbender, I have an emotional reaction: one of total anger at having to listen to his work.  It's not a good thing when you recognize a film composer because you think the music is generally lousy.

What I can say about Green Lantern is that it's not a disaster.  It is however, an absolute mess, with a plot that lurches from one scene to another with no connection to each other, performances that range from bland to bored, a villain that not only is useless but horribly echoes September 11, 2001 in an almost obscene way, and nothing to recommend making a sequel.

Maybe Fidel was right: maybe it is a stupid ring.  It certainly was a stupid movie.  It looks like the light for a Green Lantern franchise has gone out...

Post-Script: Look at the Green Lantern advert above & then look at the one for The Phantom.  Is it my imagination or do they bear an eerie similarity (eerie in that they are both bad films)?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Howl (2010): A Review


A Little Off the Beats...

Is it fair to say that James Franco is just too handsome to play Allen Ginsberg?

I think Ginsberg was done a big favor by having Franco play him, and in a strange way, vice versa.  Few things, I imagine, would appeal more to this Avant-garde artiste than to play one of the most controversial poets of the Twentieth Century. I suppose there was no money for a William Carlos Williams biopic.

Howl is a curious film in that it is neither a biopic of Ginsberg nor a film about the actual creation of the poem "Howl", or even about the trial the poem's publication brought.  It might be all three, but at times Howl itself doesn't even appear to know. 

We begin with, to my mind, a rather pompous opening: "Every word in this film was spoken by the actual people portrayed.  In that sense, this film is like a documentary.  In every other sense, it's different".  Then we plunge in.  Howl jumps between a series of interviews Ginsberg (Franco) is giving to an anonymous reporter, the reciting of the poem itself, the obscenity trial of the poem's publisher, and scenes of Ginsberg's life before and after its publication.  "Howl" itself is represented by a series of animated renditions depicting the words of the poem. 

For my mind, Howl was trying too hard to be three films in one, and worse, each of them artsy in its own way.  Writer/directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman did do some things right, so let's start there.  First, we have an excellent performance from Franco as Ginsberg, although I still think Franco's too good-looking to be Ginsberg, but I digress.  Franco captured Ginsberg's voice inflections and cadence brilliant to where he sounded just like the poet.  Some of the animated sequences are also quite beautiful despite the words being a little risqué. 

However, there is more wrong than right with Howl.  First, we never get to know Ginsberg as a person.  We do have scenes where he is with his buddy and fellow Beat Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotundi), all filmed in documentary-style black-and-white), and we see Ginsberg recite the poem in a club, also filmed in documentary-style black-and-white, but there are certain things not made clear.

Is Ginsberg being interviewed because of the trial or because he is an infamous poet?  We don't know the context of his interview, so we don't get why his views are important.  We get brief moments of his romance with his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), but I don't remember Peter speaking at all.  He might have, I think he did have some dialogue, but overall he just showed up and we took it on faith that they loved each other.

I don't remember seeing or hearing much from Kerouac either.

Howl flips between black-and-white and color to signify the past/poetry reading and the present/trial respectively.  Those kinds of 'artistic' touches do get distracting over time, with the animation merely enhancing the artistic ambitions of the film. In the trial section, we may have the dialogue taken straight from the transcripts, but the performances are so stilted from the two attorneys (David Strathairn and Jon Hamm).  The prosecution (Strathairn) is a thoughtless boob while the defense (Hamm) rather hollow save for his intelligence in knowing "Howl" is a masterpiece.

Again and again, throughout Howl, we don't know any of our characters.  We don't know why Ginsberg created such passionate following among the fellow Beats listening to his masterwork. I do confess I was expecting the listeners to snap their fingers in approval.  When you don't really know what motivates our leads, either the prosecution's utter contempt and hatred for this 'dirty' writing or Ginsberg's need to create the Poem of His Generation, you have no vested interest in the end result of the trial.

Truth be told, as I listened to the poem itself, it sounded like stanzas of gibberish (I confess I still gravitate to poems that rhyme).  What pushed Ginsberg to pour his soul into this confessional work?  Why were people so outraged with the words?  We really don't know.  Above all else, this is what pushes Howl down: we never learn who the people are or what motivates their actions pro or con.

I will be honest: if I had been at Ginsberg's "Howl" recital, I probably would have fallen asleep.  I didn't fall asleep at Howl, but I found little to make this an interesting film save Franco's performance.

Ginsberg may have seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, but I saw an interesting story destroyed by excessive pretensions at art.


Sorry Al, James did you a BIG favor.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Red Riding Hood (2011): A Review


Maybe we're just going to have to admit that Twilight will have an impact on the culture for a while and it will be completely bad. Since Stephanie Meyer published her first piece of trash we have had endless variations of the lovelorn vampires and the women who love them series: Vampire Academy, Evernight, House of Night, Morganville Vampires.  It's a mad effort to cash in on this curious freakshow of literature: the bad boy as monster that can't be resisted. 

Now, the Twilight mystique is infecting movies.  Case in point: Red Riding Hood.  Certainly things are made muddier by the fact that Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke directed Red Riding Hood, that Chief Swann (Billy Burke) is playing the protagonist's father, and that one of the finalists for the role of EDWARD CULLEN (Shiloh Fernandez) is playing the somewhat brooding main male lead.   I can't say for certain that Hardwicke borrowed from her previous film, but Red Riding Hood can't be a coincidence. 

We are in Europe (the script by David Leslie Johnson doesn't make exactly clear where our story takes place, but given the snow and the name of the town, Daggerhorn, I imagine it's a German or Swiss setting), and the village is a remarkably idyllic world, except for the sacrifice the villagers must leave for the wolf.  Valerie, our Red Riding Hood, as a child is smitten with woodsman Peter, our EDWARD CULLEN-like lead. 

Ten years later, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is still smitten with Peter (Fernandez), but she has been promised in marriage to Henry (Max Irons), the local blacksmith, which I figure in Daggerhorn makes him upper-class.  The match is ideal to her father Cesaire (Burke) and mother Suzette (Virginia Madsen).  However, we have a horrible tragedy: Valerie's older sister Lucie (Alexandra Maillot) has been murdered.  The killer is obviously The Wolf.

I could'a been a Cullen...
The villagers, including Peter, Henry and his father, and Cesaire go off to track and kill the beast, and while they do, alas, Henry's father is killed.   Father Auguste (Lucas Haas) has already sent for a Werewolf Killer, the famous Father Solomon, and it appears he has arrived too late.  However, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) knows the Werewolf is still alive, and that he is one of the villagers. 

Is it Grandmama (Julie Christie)?  Is it the village idiot (Cole Heppell)?  Maybe Father Auguste himself?  Could it be Henry?  Worse, could it be Peter?  It couldn't be Peter, especially after he and Valerie had a roll in the hay, quite literally, after celebrating Mardi Gras Northern European-style (well, celebrating the killing of the wolf anyway, but with the debauchery and costumes, you might as well have had a zydeco band playing). 

As Solomon continues his search for who among them is the Wolf, he makes a shocking discovery: Valerie can speak and understand the Wolf.  It is irrelevant that this comes as a shocking discovery to Valerie herself: now Solomon has an accomplice of the Wolf's here.  Therefore, she is to be sacrificed or at least used as bait to lure the Wolf to town.  She manages to escape thanks to Peter & Henry, who've put their differences aside to save the one they love, but even then Valerie is suspicious until she reaches Grandmama's house, and we discover the real identity of The Wolf (who oddly enough, is the only person who hasn't been targeted as a suspect).

In its efforts to be clever, Red Riding Hood made a glaring mistake that would have solved the mystery in ten minutes.  Fathers Solomon and Auguste make it clear that the Wolf cannot set foot upon Holy Ground, so wouldn't it have been simpler to have every villager take a stroll into the church and see what happens?   For a werewolf hunter Solomon is pretty inept: just making grand pronouncements and having a escort of strong black and Asian warriors carrying a large elephant where he can lock people away.

Side note: I applaud Red Riding Hood's efforts at multi-ethnic casting, but I kept wondering how black and Asian warriors found themselves in medieval Europe, but I digress.

Another problem with the film is that it has a curious obsession with presenting everyone Valerie comes across as the suspect, even Grandmama, then almost as quickly establishes that they couldn't be the Wolf.  A good mystery should allow us clues, sometimes false ones, granted, but clues nonetheless, to allow us to solve the mystery, not throw a suspect our way, have us examine him/her, give us strong evidence for his/her guilt, then say, "Nope, guess again". 

When we're given the actual identity of the Wolf, we say, "Well, the only person we haven't been given any indication of is the guilty one".  It might not be exactly cheating, but it doesn't play fair with us.

Red Riding Hood goes for a quasi-real, quasi-fantasy look that is too self-conscious to draw us into the story.  Mandy Walker's cinematography is very pretty, but even in the early part with the children Valerie and Peter you got the sense that this was a set.  Its unreality became a problem: if you look at the village and it looks like something built for an amusement park, you won't ever accept it as being real.  You also started to wonder why it was, to quote a book, "always winter and never Christmas".

The film has very good actors, and Billy Burke, so one would think the acting would recommend it.  Alas, this is not the case.  Any movie that reduces Virginia Madsen to mere decoration just doesn't know what it's doing.  She is underused in Red Riding Hood, as is Christie, who is only there to provide a "Grandmama" to the story.  Burke is still trying to act, but regardless of what his character is, I couldn't shake off Chief Swann roaming in my head. 

Oldman was, well, doing his Vlad the Impaler from Dracula, right down to the accent.  I did expect him to talk about how he had "crossed oceans of time" to be there.  It wasn't so much a performance but an imitation of previous work. 

Sadly, there were echoes of Van Helsing with Oldman's performance in Red Riding Hood, and some points that just didn't make sense.  His first scene is when he arrives in town with that big elephant and his retinue of warriors.  Among those he brings are his two daughters, but almost as soon as they arrive, they are sent off by Papa in tears, never to be heard from again.  That being the case, why bother introducing them if you're not going to use them?

Our love triangle left much to be desired.  Seyfried did the best she could but was hampered by both a weak script and poor direction.  It was as if she were told to deliver all her lines in a breathy tone though truth be told, I think Hardwicke gave that direction to every actor; I wasn't a big fan of her voice-over narration but then again, I'm never a big fan of voice-over narration unless done right (examples: Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard). 

I can't gauge how well either Irons or Fernandez are as actors since they were, judging from the film, directed to look pretty and pout: the latter for Fernandez more than for Irons.  It's their breathy deliveries and constant forlorn looking at Valerie that became almost a parody of Bella Swoon, I mean Swann, EDWARD CULLEN, and Jacob...Black...Oooh from Twilight .

Yes, Irons and Fernandez are very pretty, but they, like Seyfried, are not given much to do. Given how brooding Peter was in Red Riding Hood, I can see why Fernandez was a finalist for EDWARD CULLEN.

At one point in Red Riding Hood, the film appears to be channeling The Crucible, with people accusing Valerie of evil, but it's played in such a way I did expect the villagers to cry "A WITCH, A WITCH" and have Father Solomon ask "And what do we do with witches?"  Worse for the story, we get all these love triangles and quadrangles and dodecahedrons that it soon begins to turn into Peyton Place: Medieval Times

Here are the problems with Red Riding Hood in a nutshell: an excessively complicated mystery, a ridiculously somber and serious tone for the story it's trying to tell, a stereotypical village idiot, a lot of moody cinematography (though granted, it was pretty), and ending the film with a strong suggestion of bestiality.  Seriously, you can't have a woman looking at a wolf with a smile and not wonder exactly what they are thinking. 

The characters are not allowed to grow and develop and consequently, the actors aren't allowed a chance to show said character's growth and development, because too much time was spent on solving the mystery of who is the Wolf. 

It was a good try, but Red Riding Hood takes itself far too seriously to be truly enjoyed.  Even in the parts that could have provided a bit of levity (those Dark Age folk could really get down), the film is determined to be moody and excessively romantic. 

In short, Red Riding Hood is not everything that a big bad wolf would want. 


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Border Between Fantasy & Reality Is The Imagination. Federico Fellini: The Great Directors Retrospective


I can't think off the top of my head of another director who made the unreality of cinema come as fully alive as Federico Fellini.  I confess that the first film I saw of his (8 1/2) I did not like.  It was a little too weird, too bizarre, for me to take it all it.

I suppose in retrospect it is instructive that I did not warm to Fellini immediately.  It gave me a chance to grow in my appreciation, and moreover, to grow as a person.  Off the bat Fellini can be rather difficult to grasp: of the Great Directors he certainly is the one most fascinated by the power of the visual, dreamlike quality a film can have.  His world is one where fantasy and reality overlap, blend, and sometimes become indistinguishable. 

My journey into loving Fellini was an arduous one.  As I stated, 8 1/2 just left me puzzled, but in my defense I was a bit too young mentally to grasp it all.  I finished it in film class and thought, "What the hell was that?"  In this case, I might have been missing the forest for the trees.  I spent too much time focusing on details: the crazy woman screaming about her youth in his harem, that fat woman rolling about the beach, and not enough on the overall story: a creative being retreating into his own dream world while the real world was colliding with him. 

I was encouraged by my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) into giving Fellini another try, but with the caveat that I might try for early Fellini, where he was a little more traditional in his film-making (note I said 'a little more', because even in some of those films he still had those Felliniesque touches).  With that, I went first to La Dolce Vita (the one where Jesus flies over Rome, as I called it). 

I loved it: the insane world of celebrity and the man who is both attracted and repelled by it, who wants to create something good but finds himself too enraptured by all the decadence around him to truly free himself from that world.  I got the symbolism: Anita Ekberg, that blatant object of desire, dancing in the Trevi Fountains,  Marcello being unable to hear or understand the girl at the beach: it was a devastating and brilliant and mad portrait of a man being something he knew he shouldn't be.

From there, I floated, on my own, to I Vitelloni.  Here, I found perhaps not a kindred spirit, but someone whom I could understand.  I too felt the frustration of a small town, of men who figure there's a world beyond their home but who are still figuring out how to get there.  Strange, but I related to these guys, to their hopes and struggles, up to a point: I've never impregnated anyone, but I digress. 

However, this time I began to admire, even love, some of those cinematic moments I found so frustrating in 8 1/2.  The film ends with one of the men leaving the town via train, but we see each of his friends, still at home, asleep, and watch them as if we were leaving them at the station.   I was simply entranced by the ending, which to my mind signaled the beginning of Fellini's Felliniesque world.

I then went over to La Strada, and finally admitted to myself that Fellini was a genius.  It was grounded in reality but there was also a sense of wonder and magic within it.  I think this was due to his wife Guilietta Masina's beautiful and haunting performance as Gelsomina, the innocent who sees joy even within the harsh world she finds herself in.  At the end, I came close to tears; perhaps I did cry, but am too proud to admit it publicly.

Whimsy marked with despair: such is the stuff of life.

Now, while I have learned to love Fellini, I also still fear him.  Some of his later films appear to my mind too bizarre, too flat-out weird, as if he's trying too hard to be fantastical.  Fidel, a great admirer of Fellini, always mocked me for my overall impression of Federico Fellini's later period: he always thought my use of the word "Decadent" was in itself funny.  It is one thing to have one foot in reality, another in fantasy.  It is another to go so much into fantasy that you are not grounded in anything other than the Master's Dreams. 

I still fear Roma, I still fear Satyricon, I still fear Amarcord, I still fear Intervista,  I even fear Ginger & Fred.  I did have the chance to see it on Turner Classic Movies, but it was shown rather late, and I was concerned that it would be too weird for such a late hour.    My fear increases every time I see a film with his name as part of the title: Fellini's Roma, Fellini Satyricon, Fellini's Intervista, Fellini's Casanova

This to me does not signal a great film: it signals a self-consciously weird one, a film that is trying too hard to be outrageous, to be flamboyant, Avant-garde, dare I say, decadent?   8 1/2 or La Dolce Vita or Juliet of the Spirits may be fantastical, visually splendid,  even a bit nutty compared to the somberness of someone like a Ingmar Bergman or the gritty realism of a Martin Scorsese.   However, at least I found them coming close to a semblance of reality. 

In fairness, I shouldn't judge the latter films of Fellini without seeing them and giving them a fair chance.  I will see them and perhaps I will find that I really had nothing to fear.

We also should take a few other things into consideration: that some of Fellini's greatest work was not just a result of his vivid and brilliant imagination, but with the people he surrounded himself with.  First, there is his wife Guilietta: her sweet face made those films even more funny or heartbreaking, depending on what she was doing.  Second is the music by Nino Rota; from the tragic score for La Strada to the free and wild one of La Dolce Vita and right through the best score of a Fellini movie: 8 1/2 from Saraghina's seductive dance through the closing circus, Rota was as important to the success of Fellini's movies as Fellini himself. 

In short, I can best sum up my views of Federico Fellini thus: after watching 8 1/2 in college I swore never to watch it again.  Go forward five to seven years: I decide to have my best friend Gabe watch 8 1/2 to see for himself what a loon he was and compare it with Nine, the musical it was based on. 

His view was that it was interesting but with a few things he didn't get.  Mine?  I had fallen in love: hopelessly and totally and utterly and absolutely, with Federico Fellini and his Wonderful World.  It truly was as if I'd seen 8 1/2 for the very first time.  I finally GOT IT!  I once was blind...

The list of Great Directors keeps growing and I encourage you to visit my other retrospectives and make your own discoveries.