Friday, September 30, 2011

The Summer of My Discontent


 
No, Dane Cook did not release a movie as of Labor Day 2011, so I figure we should give Thanks for Great Favors.  He really has nothing to do with these private thoughts expressed publicly, except perhaps that he is emblematic of what is wrong with Hollywood at the moment: people with a modicum of talent who find themselves both in front and behind the camera. 

 
I look back on 2011 from the beginning of the year to the end of Labor Day/September (which in the U.S., means the end of summer) and think, Dear God what has gone wrong?  Has cinema gone so far off the deep end that audiences were treated to an especially grotesque barrage of garbage in the belief that people would want more?  I've been told that I'm far too harsh, but looking back at a year that has brought us such endeavors as The Green Hornet AND Green Lantern (making the case that no one should go green), and the almost Satanic horror that was The Hangover Part II, it's rather easy to lose hope.  It appears that every summer a cavalcade of bad films rushes at us from one weekend to the next, and as soon as we see what a horrendous piece of trash we've shelled out money to see was (from The Green Hornet to The Hangover Part II to Green Lantern), we at least have the small comfort of knowing they will quickly be replaced by another film. 

This summer has been the Summer of the Superhero, with FIVE comic-book based films (X-Men: First Class, Thor, Priest, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The First Avenger...whether I count Green Hornet as one is subject of debate).    Both Thor and Captain America served as nothing less than trailers for The Avengers, though in fairness they will have their own series too.  The positive thing about them (in particular Captain America) is that they work apart from The Avengers, so they can be appreciated on their own merits.  I don't know if X-Men: First Class can work within the established X-Men film series or is intended to start another series altogether, but unlike others I was underwhelmed by it.  As for Green Lantern...a mess touching the edge of a disaster.  That one also set itself up for a sequel, and it will get one, though God only knows why anyone would want to see another bungled effort following how bad the first Green Lantern was.    Priest I think also left the door ever-so-slightly ajar for a sequel, but if there is another one actually made, it might signal the end of Hollywood as an industry.

Of the films so far reviewed, I hold The Hangover Part II in particular contempt.  How I HATED THIS FILM.  I know many people within the theater loved it, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: I find no humor in dismemberment.   The Hangover Part II was an ugly film: racist, sexist, homophobic, and just plain nasty (in every sense of the word).   The first one had an offbeat charm in its collection of oddballs and idiots, but the second one just had a vicious streak running through it, and I take my fellow viewers to task for thinking that such deliberate cruelty could be so funny.  I don't ask much, but I still think it is required to think when watching any film, and The Hangover Part II demanded that I not only shut off my brain but shut down anything resembling a soul. 

One thing that I find extremely troubling is the emphasis on remakes.  So far, I managed to count seven (Fright Night, Conan the Barbarian, Straw Dogs, Arthur, The Debt, Footloose, and The Mechanic), and at least two more to go (The Thing and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), and that was just off the top of my head for this year.  I'm not thinking about last year's The Karate Kid (which should have been if one is technical on the matter The Kung-Fu Kid), Clash of the Titans, True Grit, and The Wolfman (though True Grit was a great film and I liked The Wolfman...and make no apologies for it).  Now, unlike other people I don't have a problem with remakes (I always remember that both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are themselves remakes).  I'm not even particularly troubled by people remaking beloved films like Footloose (although I'm not keen on the idea of a Dirty Dancing remake). 

What DOES trouble me is that Hollywood is now going to remakes of films from the 1980s.  It doesn't trouble me because I'm old enough to remember when the original came out (well, maybe a little); it troubles me because it's another sign that Hollywood just does not trust its audience.  Remember a few years back when old television shows and sketches from television shows were being adapted into films?  There were some good adaptations (The Fugitive, Wayne's World, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan & 2009's Star Trek, The Untouchables) but then it became a mad rush to see the film version of almost anything (Miami Vice, The A-Team...where's the Hunter remake?)  It's this damn herd mentality within the confines of Hollywood: if it worked for them, it will work for us.  This goes a long way into explaining why after The X-Files (another one that went from screen to screen), there were more sci-fi shows, and why today shows like The Event and FlashForward are (or were) trying to be the new Lost, No Ordinary Family was vying for Heroes-like glory (it quickly fell off the radar), and The Playboy Club and Pan Am are attempting to be the next Mad Men.  Rather than try for originality, Hollywood tries to take what worked for one and make it work for others.  Nine times out of ten, it doesn't, but they keep trying.

Same with films.  A prime example is The Hangover Part II, the only film that can be both a sequel AND a remake all at once.  You take the exact same movie, tweak it a bit, and voila: a 'new' product.  People were fooled, but given that there is already a Hangover Part III in the works one can only ask, how often can people go to see the same film over and over and over once more? 

Again and again I tell Hollywood: trust your audience.  If you give something good to people, you will find they will love it.  Granted, sometimes something awful is beloved, and something great is overlooked, but by and large people will go to good films if you give them a reason to. 

 
Looking back on all the films reviewed thus far, only TWO were in my mind worth being called Masterpieces (and one of them was a documentary): Jane Eyre and Senna.  These are the only films for which I will beat the drum for and that I truly fell in love with.  However, out of the 49 films I've reviewed up to this date, there have been quite a number of good ones.  Among these are:
  • Atlas Shrugged: Part I
  • Beginners
  • A Better Life
  • Captain America
  • Cedar Rapids
  • The Devil's Double
  • Fright Night
  • The Help
  • Insidious
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Unknown 
Now, I know I may get grief over Atlas Shrugged: Part I, but I hold that it was the politics that got many riled up.  As a film, it had problems, but I didn't detest it at all.  Some of the acting wasn't good (then again, compared to the two Green films, The Hangover Part II, or Just Go With It, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is almost a study in/of Bergman-esque performances), but on the whole, it's a film I would recommend to anyone (especially my Ron Paul-loving friends, of whom I have more than I suspected).  Barring that, I think I'm within the consensus of the rest of my fellow critics.

On some of their choices, I dissent.  I was underwhelmed by Thor and X-Men: First Class, as well as Bridesmaids, The Adjustment Bureau, The Debt, and Everything Must Go.   They weren't terrible films, but not as good as I was led to believe.  As for the true horrors, I think again, I'm with the majority. 

The two films where I sharply disagree on are The Tree of Life and Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II.  Most of my brethren were enraptured with them, but I found the first dull, slow, boring and worse of all, pretentious.  A hideous film (though beautiful to look at, if one were conscious at the time), and its praise by others is a mystery to me.  As for the second, I have never bought the premise that the Harry Potter series is the Citizen Kane of literature (children's or otherwise), and while I thought the films did get progressively better (culminating in my favorite Potter film: The Half-Blood Prince), I found nothing to justify splitting up Deathly Hallows into two films (except financial considerations) and don't think it's this groundbreaking spectacle worthy of a Best Picture nomination.  I am unyielding on my insistence that both Tree of Life and Deathly Hallows Part II are WILDLY OVERRATED. 

It seems like every summer I go through this: bad movies with little thought other than to take my cash first week out only to go into that oblivion they so richly deserve.  And to think: the original Cleopatra with Theda Bara is lost forever, while The Hangover Part II will always be with us to torment us...

Now that we are in fall, we will be seeing those Oscar-bait films, the classy upmarket products that probably won't be seen in El Paso until 2012.  I figure though, that The Help will earn a Best Picture nomination (though I doubt it will win even without seeing which films will actually earn nominations), and that will be a good thing: it will mean that perhaps a good film like The Help can be released in the summer and still somehow be remembered for the quality work. 

I can only hope that like every year, Hollywood has gotten most of its bad films out of its system, and that the fall will be a glorious season in film.  How I LONG for that.

Finally, to commemorate the Winner of My Poll of Who Should Just Stop Making Films (who has made one bad film already--Water For Elephants--and will appear in an adaptation of one of the worst book series ever written--the Twilight series...excuse me, SAGA):

 
Well, there's no accounting for taste...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Legalities Never Bother Them


FRANKLIN & BASH: AN OVERVIEW

As I've stated before, I'm not one for television.  If it isn't the news (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), Turner Classic Movies, or The Golden Girls, I really have no interest.  Still, since I'm paying for it, might as well give it a try.  One of the programs I started watching was Franklin & Bash.   Now we've reached the end of Season One, and I was surprised at how much I actually liked this show.

Franklin & Bash succeeds partly because it is total wish fulfillment: two men who have vast financial resources to behave like teenagers with their parents away. Both of them are completely unapologetic about being under arrested development...for the most part. Truth be told, Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselar) have their own very adult issues which dominate their lives (even if they push them aside in the shameless pursuit of wine, women, song, and video games). 

Franklin & Bash manages to keep our heroes for the most part as two guys (men would make them sound excessively mature) who love having a good time and sticking it to The Man (even as they work for The Man). The Man in this case being Damien Karp (Reed Diamond), their nemesis and nephew to their employer, Stanton Infield (Malcolm McDowell).  The show is helped by the fact that, as silly as Jared and Peter behave both in court and in their 'man-cave' (the frat-house feel to their digs enhances their unwillingness to conform or accept adult duties), they are actually pretty sane compared to some of the other people they're surrounded with. 

Infield himself is rather eccentric (as all British characters are with his bizarre stories of his friendship with the Dalai Lama and his various travels), but the prize-winner in the almost-but-not-quite bonkers division is their agoraphobic friend/aide Pindar Singh (Kumail Nanjiani).  His fear of open spaces appears to be just one of the many things that frighten him (another major fear is germs) but it does add to the humor of the show whenever he is cajoled into leaving the safety of the 'man-cave' to work with other people.  Most of the time, Pindar communicates with anyone outside via webcam, which adds an extra level of oddness to his character.  I say extra because he is an unabashed nerd (who else would be in a near uproar over having his lightsabers taken to be used in court, then again, what other lawyers would use lightsabers except for Franklin & Bash), but conversely, this makes him more endearing.

As portrayed by Diamond, it isn't hard to see how Jared and Peter couldn't resist knocking Karp.  He is rather stiff and orthodox (two things our pair will never be).  Karp is patiently waiting for them to have their unorthodox behavior go so overboard that they will self-destruct.  Being Franklin & Bash, they always appear to come close, but in the end, they don't.  That is because for all the goofiness they exhibit in court, their is almost always a method to their madness.  Both of them are sharp lawyers who can find a way to help their clients, no matter how odd the case.  In fact, they delight in behaving badly and in finding the strangest cases possible, if only to show that they--Jared and Peter--can actually get it done.

The positive thing about Franklin & Bash when it comes to Karp is that while he is portrayed as perhaps a snob, he isn't shown to be either a moron or what I call a Sue Sylvester-type (a character whose whole purpose is to be a foil for our heroes but never grows as a person and remains exactly the same from beginning to end).  In the episode Franklin Vs. Bash, Karp is allowed to show that he is a remarkably capable lawyer.  He isn't a moron, he is capable of human emotion, it's just that he doesn't like Franklin & Bash and thinks they are clowns, or perhaps pets of his uncle.   

One thing that I found I thoroughly enjoyed is just how well opposites work together, in this case the self-confident straight-laced Karp and the insecure slightly fearful Pindar.  In three consecutive episodes (You Can't Take It With You, Big Fish, and Franklin Vs. Bash), Karp and Pindar work together quite well, allowing strong comedy between their personalities.  The best one is You Can't Take It With You, primarily because it's Karp who is the vulnerable one and who probably doesn't relish the idea of needing help, in particular from Pindar to remove a secretly recorded video of Karp performing auto-erotic exercises while asleep.  The situation itself is funny, the efforts to keep it under wraps is funny, and when Pindar not only fails but makes things worse, Reed and Nanjiani's performances are true to the characters, which only makes everything more funny.

If I could do anything with the direction of Franklin & Bash, I would make Pindar & Karp a team because they make a great odd couple.  It would be great to force these two to take a road trip: Pindar's phobias not mixing with Karp's somewhat stuffy stoicism.  Seeing how Karp could try to contain Pindar from falling apart in public or conversely, how Pindar could get Karp into bizarre situations (while still keeping some grounds of reality) would give the comedy aspects of Franklin & Bash a bigger lift.  Maybe even a spin-off?

As is often the case in real life, the most sensible characters are the women: Garcelle Beauvais as Hanna Linden, shrewd lawyer, Karp's former lover, Franklin's very occassional friend with benefits, and did I mention shrewd lawyer, and Dana Davis' Carmen Phillips, Franklin & Bash's private investigator and ex-con.   However, even then they have their quirks: Carmen is powerless over the sexual powers of a fellow ex-con, and Hanna doesn't appear fazed by using her charms to get over Karp, or Franklin for that matter.  It's a credit to both Davis and Beauvais as actresses that Davis is almost always the voice of reason in this testosterone-filled fun/mad house, and Hanna isn't a maneater.

The best thing about Franklin & Bash is that there is great attention paid to the "bromance" (which is now a word in the dictionary--thanks, boys) between our title characters.  Though I figure both Jerrod and Peter would be loath to say it out loud or to each other, these two guys genuinely love each other.  They have a strong bond between them, and not just because they see the world in a similar way (they almost always end their day by going to a diner and giving themselves quizzes: example, one could sleep with Scarlett Johansson once, but they couldn't have sex with anyone else for five years--yes or no).  Meyer and Gosselar have incredible chemistry, being able to have rapid-fire dialogue that flows so freely and easily between them.  Both play their characters as overgrown kids who love being free with no responsibilities (apart from Infield) and for whom rules are merely suggestions. 

As is the case in most television shows, while they appear to be thoroughly immature they actually have to deal with deep issues; in the case of Jared, it's overcoming the legacy of his famous father, an attorney himself (in You Can't Take It With You, Beau Bridges guest-starred as Leonard Franklin).  With Peter, it's his pining for Assistant District Attorney Janie Ross (Claire Coffee), less the One That Got Away than the One That Ran Away.  You can tell that Jared still carries a sense of anger at both how his father was with him and on the pressure of having to be 'like' him.  He doesn't want to be anything like his father, both in and out of court (perhaps his antics are not just for personal pleasure/immaturity but rebelling against expectations).  Peter, who from the episode Bachelor Party appears to hint that he is from working-class stock as opposed to that of the wealthy Franklin family, is the more mature of the two (which isn't saying much), but he appears to yearn for the stability of a long-term romantic relationship, even, perish the thought, of growing up, something Jared doesn't appear to be capable of (and no, that was not a Breckin Meyer short joke).

Now, there will be a second season, and like the first, it will be in the summer.  I say that's a good choice: Franklin & Bash appear to be made for summer.  It's not complicated or profound, but entertaining, fun, slightly goofy but a series that balances great humor (guest star Tommy Chung as a strict anti-marijuana judge--can't get better than that) with more serious issues (Peter's conflicted emotions for Janie: he loves her, he loves being free, yet he loves HER).  I'd like to see the show keep tackling quirky cases but show us more of the secondary characters (especially the new comedy team of Pindar and Karp).

At Last: Two lawyers who don't mind getting screwed...

Next: Season Two Preview



Tuesday, September 27, 2011

True Fighters Both

Andy Whitfield: 1972-2011

I start by saying that I've never seen Spartacus: Blood & Sand.  Let's say it was on my To-Do List.  I can say that it appeared to be the beginning of the career for Andy Whitfield.  Who could have imagined that at only 39, it would be his swan song? 

It all just seems so unfair.  Whitfield was starting out his career.  His first credit was in 2004, so his career was only seven years old.   He'd made a few films and television shows in his adopted Australia, but Spartacus: Blood and Sand was making it to the Big Time.   Here he was, not just making his American television debut, but being the star of a major television project.  Whitfield's career was about to go places, perhaps following in the steps of another Australian Sam Worthington.

Then came an awful twist: near the end of Season One for Spartacus, he's diagnosed with non-Hogkins lymphoma.   That in itself would be devastating, but to come at that time for Whitfield made an already terrible situation even worse.  With his illness taking precedent, there was no way he could get treatment and star in a major hit television program at the same time.  Something had to give, and what gave was Spartacus.

To Starz's credit, they decided not to recast Spartacus to keep to schedule.  Instead, Whitfield was given the time he needed to get treatment, and Starz had an unexpected time slot to fill, and with that, a chance to expand the story.  From Whitfield's illness, came a prequel: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.  It was hoped that this mini-series would not only allow for an expansion of the Spartacus mythology, but give Whitfield the chance to recover.  Why wouldn't he: Whitfield was young and physically fit.  At first, it looked like treatment had been successful and he would be able to return.  It would have been a great ending.

However, life is almost never accompanied by a Hollywood ending.  The non-Hogkins lymphoma came back, and there was no choice but for Whitfield to withdraw, and for the star-making turn he had worked so hard for to be recast.  Despite his youth, the treatment, and his incredible fighting spirit (which would have made the real Spartacus proud), Andy Whitfield passed away at only 39.

I think what makes this more sad is that refrain of 'what might have been'.  I can't say whether Andy Whitfield would have become a great actor, a big star, or just famous for this one role.  Rather, it is the fact that someone who had gained fame for being a symbol of physical strength was felled by his own body, and that whatever potential he had was taken very early.  If it is any comfort to his fans, it is that in spite of his short career and lifespan he still managed to make himself into a figure other men could admire, even more so after fighting so much for so long against such a terrible adversary.  It's always sad when anyone dies, even more so when they die so young, not through self-inflicted causes but by illness.  It's sadder when one thinks he was just starting to make a name for himself.  

In the end, one hopes that Andy Whitfield won't just be remembered for being Spartacus, but for being strong and brave and a tough fighter till the very end. 

Cliff Robertson: 1923-2011
Cliff Robertson, unlike Andy Whitfield, had a long life.  However, like Whitfield, he didn't have as long a career as perhaps he should have.   This was an Oscar winner, and one of the few winners to win not only on his first and only nomination, for Charly.  Perhaps in the fact that he won only one and was nominated only once says a lot about Robertson's career.

His performance in Charly shows that he had the talent of a good actor (his training on live television, where he had created the role of Charlie Gordon based on the book No Flowers for Algernon coming especially handy when recreating it on screen).  It wasn't the first time he was praised for a performance: he was already an Emmy winner and had originated the male lead in The Days of Wine & Roses on television (for which Jack Lemmon earned an Oscar nomination for the film version). 

Side note: I saw the film version a long time ago, but have yet to see the television version, which happily still survives.  A comparison between them would be an interesting experiment.

However, Robertson was just one of those actors who was good but who somehow never managed to break through to be a star.  He did have a long career, but when it is said he had a 'comeback' when he played Uncle Ben in Spider-Man, how can one say he had a 'comeback' when he never left? 

The forgery scandal had an odd effect on Robertson's career: he was victimized twice.  In 1977 he had discovered that Columbia Studio head David Begelman had been forging his signature on checks, and he did the right and logical thing: he reported it.  How was he repaid?  By being blacklisted.  Few industries protect their own, even in the most unethical circumstances, than Hollow-wood.  Through no fault of his own, Cliff Robertson found himself virtually exiled for calling out someone who had done him wrong.

If it is any comfort, Robertson still has some great pieces of work and a great legacy as both the humble and tragic Charlie and an entire generation that will remember him as Uncle Ben to Peter Parker.   Overall, not bad.  Despite how Hollywood treated him, Cliff Robertson appeared to have had the last laugh.   

IN MEMORIAM

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bridging The Golf Between Man And God

SEVEN DAYS IN UTOPIA

I did not plan to watch Seven Days in Utopia until I saw a commerical for it saying that this was "a film every Christian should see".  Believing myself to be a Christian, I took that as a challenge and so I did as I was told and saw it.  Based on the book Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days in the Links of Utopia by Dr. David L. Cook, the film uses golf as a metaphor on how to reach a more important goal (in Dr. Cook's view, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ).  I don't find much in Seven Days in Utopia that will cause offense (though I'm never big on films whose whole raison d'etre is to give a message, even if I agree with it), but in terms of actual storytelling, that's another matter.

Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) is having a very bad day.  Not only has he fled the golf course after having a very public 'meltdown' (though I wonder if his behavior on the links can actually constitute a 'meltdown') with cameras present to record everything, but his own father/caddie Martin (Joseph Lyle Taylor) has added to his hurt and humiliation by walking away from his son, leaving him alone at that golf course.  In his anger and fury, Luke drives through the Texas countryside (I'm guessing its East Texas), and when he reaches a crossroads, he turns towards the town of Utopia.  He's so filled with anger that he barely misses a steer in the middle of the road (having become distracted by a golf flag in a field) and crashes onto the property of Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall).  Seeing as his car will not be ready for about a week, Johnny encourages Luke to stay in Utopia (side note: I found Utopia to be the whitest town in the whole state of Texas, and the lack of color in the population--no blacks, no Hispanics--is not only disengenous but slightly creepy to me, but I digress).  He checks into the lodge and discovers (as can only happen in movies), that Johnny himself was once a golf pro.

In the seven days Luke stays in Utopia, he quickly falls for Sarah (Deborah Ann Woll), the pretty daughter of Lily (Melissa Leo--yes, THAT Melissa Leo), both of whom are still in mourning for Sarah's father after two years, runs afoul of Jake (Brian Geraghty), a local rodeo star who is sweet on Sarah (though his feelings are not returned), and learns life (and golf) lessons from Johnny.  Among the things Johnny teaches Luke are to Find Conviction, Emotional Control, and Confidence Comes In Being Prepared.  All these life/golf lessons are boiled down to a catchy slogan, in this case STF (See It, Trust It, Feel It).  Having been set right in Utopia (and I believe having given his life over to Christ), Luke now has a new outlook on life.  He goes back home, reconciles with his dad, and together go to the Texas Open, where they again face off against the legendary Korean T. K. Oh (Korean golfing star K.J. Choi).  Seven Days in Utopia ends with a final match-up between the golf superstar and the underdog, and in true film style, it's down to sudden death.  Does Luke make the putt?  Well, to find out, the film directs you to a website (Did He Make the Putt. com--I flat-out refuse to put a link to it here) to find out.

(I decide I'd bite.  On the site, Dr. Cook reads us the first chapter from the sequel, and the answer is yes, he does, and in Luke's acceptance speech he talks about his new life.  While not using the name of Christ, he makes it clear whom he's talking about). 

Seven Days In Utopia has a message, but that's where its problems begin.  I don't have a problem with the message per se (finding a more fulfilling life not from your work but from God), but it all goes so quickly I never saw where God came into the picture.  Nowhere in Seven Days In Utopia did I get a sense that the Gospel was either overtly preached or subtly placed in Luke's heart, and it isn't until the end that any sense of conversion is placed (and in a remarkably rushed and horned-in manner).  How Luke's outlook changed from a self-centered worlview to a God-centered worldview we really don't know or see, and given that this film is being marketed to a Christian-oriented audience, it's even more remarkable that the message of Jesus isn't more obvious or open.

Most of the time between Luke and Johnny was spent in their week together in this Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-san type apprenticeship where the old man teaches the younger man not just how to improve his golf but those valueable life lessons.  In one day, we have them go fly-fishing.  Now, what does fly-fishing have to do with golf (apart from perhaps eye-hand coordination and arm/hand control)?  It is to teach rhythm, balance, and patience--all skills Yoda must instill in Luke (pun intended).  When Johnny has Luke paint to imagine how he will make his shot, I wrote in my notes "a painting lesson: wax on, wax off". 

While there is nothing wrong with using unorthodox methods to improve certain sports skills, Seven Days In Utopia never made a case that Luke was actually improving his golf game with them.  If you're going to show a character improving their skills, let's see them improve said skills, not run around the rodeo (which made the hour-and-a half movie feel even longer and more drawn-out: not a good sign).

Another tremendous problem in the film is how the past was mixed in with the present.  Robert Komatsu's editing was a jumble: we see how Martin pushes his son to becoming the golf pro (although we never learn why he has this obsession to build a new Tiger Woods--did Martin love the sport, did he feel a need to build his son into his idea of what a man should be?  We never learn), but whenever Luke's memories appear, they seem to come out of nowhere to where you wonder in what context they come (dream, triggered memory, plot exposition?).  Whatever backstory Luke's troubled relationship with his father is goes wrong two ways: not only is it poorly described, but the reconciliation is both poorly directed and worse, done so quickly it becomes unbelieable. 

I have a belief, if not an actual Golden Rule of Filmmaking, which involves screenplays.  The maximum number of screenwriters should be three (ideally one, so as to keep cohesion within the story).  Seven Days In Utopia has FOUR: Rob Levine, Sarah Thrift, director Matthew Dean Russell, and David L. Cook himself.  I can't help wonder if Seven Days in Utopia would have worked better if Dr. Cook had worked on the screenplay by himself from his own novel, or at the most worked in tandem with director Russell.  As stated, the seven days themselves go way too fast on screen to show there to be any conversion on Luke's part to the core of his soul.

Even worse, the story has a load of clichés to it.  What are the odds that Luke would meet a former golf pro brought down in his prime by his own demons?  What are the odds that a pretty young thing would take a shining to him and vice versa?  What are the odds that a love rival would be there (side note: the love rival story was both quite small and done away with quite quickly.  In one afternoon, these fierce rivals for the affections of the local pretty girl, Luke and Jake, end up becoming fast friends.  Again, unbelievable).  What are the odds our redeemed golf master would face up to the titan of golf that had brought about his 'meltdown'?  What are the odds that it would come to sudden death between them?  What are the odds that the golf club that Luke was told he would use 'when the time was right' would be used 'when the time was right'?

One last thing about the negatives in Seven Days In Utopia.  If there is one thing about films that I am not a fan of, it's the voiceover.  Granted, it can be done well (Sunset Boulevard, Blade Runner), but it really should be done sparingly and it takes a great deal of skill in both screenwriting and directing to pull it off. Seven Days In Utopia has neither.  To its credit, it only had Duvall's voiceover at the beginning and end of the film, but the closing voiceover only made the actual screen ending worse (more on that later).    

In the performances, only Black and Duvall managed anything of note.  Lucas Black I remember from The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift, and the most memorable thing about his performance in Tokyo Drift (which I did enjoy, won't lie) was his thick Southern accent.  Here, he again has a thick accent (I'm suppose to believe it's a Texan accent, but as someone who actually IS from Texas I wondered if it wasn't a bit too thick and more authentic to the Deep South than Deep in the Heart of Texas).  Voice aside he did a good job, especially at the end where he's facing a literal hit-or-miss scenario: that quiver in his lips and his eyes welling up shows an emotional range that perhaps hasn't been appreciated before.  Duvall did what he could with a remarkably underwritten and cliche-filled part as that of the wise elder Johnny.

In fact, I'd argue that the screenplay failed everyone in Seven Days In Utopia.  You have Melissa Leo, fresh off an Oscar win for another sports movie (The Fighter) and both the film and filmmakers don't appear to know what to do with either her, her character, or her story.  She's suppose to be the widow of Johnny's best friend who helped him back onto the path of righteousness, but her story never appears to be even remotely relevant to what is suppose to be the plot of the story (hot-head golf pro learns that God is more important than Glory).  Is she there only because she's Sarah's mother?  If so, then neither her nor Kathy Baker (as the innkeeper) are necessary.  Woll's character of Sarah appears to be there to add a romantic angle to the story, but given how she rebuffs Luke (and doesn't appear to eager to be with Jake), again, why have her there (as if her character weren't yet another cliche in a story stuffed with them)?  I'll give Geraghty some due: he, like Duvall, did the best he could with yet another useless character.  The most incredible thing in terms of acting in Seven Days In Utopia is that you have Jerry Ferrara (aka Turtle from Entourage) on screen for about a minute and you wonder three things: 1.) Is that Turtle?,  2.) What's he doing here? and 3.) Where did he go?

Now, on to the ending.  First, am I the only one that thinks naming the golf titan T.K.Oh is just a bit silly?  What, they couldn't work in even a good pun (which is what I figure they were going for)?  T.K. Oh.  Let that settle in for a moment.  The name of the rival is T.  K.  Oh.  Clever, boys, clever.

Second, you have this big build-up to this epic confrontation between T.K. Oh and Luke Chisholm, and the ending is just flat-out unfair.  How is it unfair?  Well, unlike better match-ups in films (like that between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in Rocky) WE DON'T SEE THE CONCLUSION!  That's right, we're taken to this big moment, and just before we the audience know for certain whether all that training (physical and spiritual) paid off or whether in the end he was knocked out by T.K. Oh, the camera pulls up, we get the voiceover from Duvall asking us if it matters at all if he made the putt or not (answer, yes, because then we have a conclusion one way or another), and then the screen directs us to that website where we get to hear from Dr. Cook.

It all leads me to think Seven Days In Utopia isn't an actual film but a proselyzing product placement informercial.  It brings to mind all those films the Billy Graham group made, but at least they were open about their endeavours.  They weren't trying to fool anyone into thinking their primary goal was anything other that to use film to spread the message of Christ.  When it comes to Seven Days In Utopia, even it that were its only reason for being I could forgive.  What I can't is that it was done so poorly.

DECISION: D+

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Palin In Comparison


THE UNDEFEATED

Sarah Palin is both loved and despised, admired and detested, held as a wise woman and an idiot, caring and bigoted, a leader and a terrorist.  I believe there is a good documentary to be made about the former Alaska governor, one that doesn't try to canonize her or demonize her.  There just is no middle ground with her, An Inconvenient Woman as ever we've had in the political world.  However, at the moment I don't think we can have a good debate or a good film about Sarah Palin because we can't get away from either a fawning admiration or a fanatical hatred for her. 

How you see Sarah Palin I think goes to how you see her politics and moreover, how you see your ideas and impressions of her politics.  I can only offer my own personal views on Governor Palin: she is neither saint nor monster, brilliant or barbarian, intrepid or insipid.   The Undefeated could have gone into the paranoia and the rather shocking vitriol that has wrapped itself around her, or it could have made a case for her as an effective governor of a large state size-wise but small in terms of population.  Instead, The Undefeated went in a gaggle of directions that made it all rather unfocused.

Using the audio version of Governor Palin's autobiography, Going Rogue, as a starting point,  director Stephen K. Cannon attempts to weave an epic story divided into three acts.  Act 1: The Servant's Heart, details her rapid rise from 'hockey mom' to mayor Wasilla, Alaska up to her defeat of then-Governor Frank Murkowski in the primary to win the governorship of Alaska.  Act 2: Mrs. Palin Goes to Juneau, details her work as Alaska governor, which judging from The Undefeated was a pretty strong record that oddly would have pleased liberals (her restructuring of the tax system to get Big Oil to pay more for example).  Act 3: Present at the Creation, goes a bit into the 2008 Presidential campaign and how the campaign against the McCain/Palin ticket (an in particular the personal nature of the campaign against her), so weakened her governorship after the election that she opted to resign rather than drag the state into endless ethics charges which always ended by being dismissed.  The film ends with Palin's role as a Patroness of the Tea Party Movement.

It seems incredible to me that Cannon, with such a wealth of archival information and the participation of right-wing luminaries like Andrew Breitbart, Tammy Bruce, and Mark Levin, could have bungled the job it appears to want to do: portray Palin positively.

The first problem was cinematically.  When Cannon shows the interviews with Breitbart, Bruce, Levin, or any of the people who worked with/for Palin, he films it in an MTV-like style, moving the camera all over the place, and even worse, sometimes either making the interviewees fade out a bit or make them appear lighter.  The white background they were interviewed with did not help, nor did the fact that Cannon showed their names once, in light-colored letters, and make their names flash so quickly you couldn't remember who was who (while trying to keep focus on what they looked like).

If I may offer advise to Cannon, I find the best style of including interviews is like that of Senna or Judy Garland: By Myself,  just have their voices while we see what you're talking about with only your name appearing on the screen from time to time.  The constant camera movement of the interviewees, and even worse, the transitions between acts and 'scenes' between acts by showing a snowy background only makes things worse.

The second flaw in The Undefeated is structural.  The film really doesn't appear to know what it wants to say.  The opening montage, showing the fierce, fanatical, almost unhinged vitriol against Palin by such intellectual giants as Sharon Osbourne, Matt Damon, and her uber-nemesis Bill Maher is shocking in its hatred towards her, and I thought The Undefeated would either be or give ample coverage to the smear campaign that goes beyond the political into the personal.  Instead, once we get past that we really rush through her rise to the head of Alaska, then rush to the 2008 campaign (and that went over rather quickly), and then to the rise of the Tea Party Movement.

A sharper focus on any aspect of the Palin story: her rise to Governor, her term as such, the campaign against her, or her embrace of the populist movement, would have made The Undefeated a better film.  Instead, by hitting all those aspects (and doing them rather quickly), the audience doesn't get a sense of what truly motivates her to pursue what appear to be random actions or what her ideology is (apart from a passionate love of the free market--side note: until watching The Undefeated, I was completely unaware that the state government of Alaska actually owned a a dairy, Mat-Maid Milk, which Governor Palin privatized).

As portrayed in The Undefeated, Palin appears to be an effective governor: squeezing oil corporations for a 'fair share' to the state government, a major ethics reform, and high approval ratings for most of her term.  The film could have benefitted more by focusing more on her single term as Alaska Governor or how after her defeat for Vice-President (side note: I've always held that NO Republican could have won in 2008 so to blame her for the defeat is inaccurate) eventually led her to be an unofficial head of the Tea Party Movement.

Finally, the title is a very odd one: The Undefeated.  The film never makes the case in what way Sarah Palin is 'undefeated'.  I can only guess that she is 'undefeated' because she's still around, still drawing attention from the political class and the American public.  However, I shouldn't be making these guesses: the film should make the case for or against Governor Palin being 'undefeated'.

As it stands, Palin admirers will find much to admire in The Undefeated (although some of her supporters will become frustrated by the camera work).  The Palin haters will see The Undefeated as nothing more than a shameless whitewashing of this evil, monstrous, murderous woman.  Now, for those of us who neither love or loath Governor Palin, The Undefeated has some fascinating information and gives us some glimpse about her time as governor and how she follows her own mind rather than follow the party line.  My biggest problem with The Undefeated isn't with the subject itself, or with the information we're given.  Instead, it's with HOW the information/case is presented. 

There are good things within The Undefeated (and I figure, some good things within Sarah Palin herself).  However, The Undefeated doesn't quite get our vote.

Oh, Sarah, why do they love/hate you so?

DECISION: C-

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

All The Single Ladies, All The Single Ladies...

BRIDESMAIDS

I figure Bridesmaids are a way to show that women can be just as raunchy as men can.  In a certain way the film succeeded, but not without a few missteps. 

Annie (Kristen Wiig) is just a hopeless mess of a woman: over thirty, single, having lost her bakery business, and the booty-call girl for Ted(Jon Hamm).  Her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) then does the unthinkable: she gets engaged.  Of course Annie will be Maid of Honor, but there are a few complications.  For one, as Maid of Honor she has to oversee all the festivities for the other bridesmaids (not something she can do well with a budget of nothing).  For another, she has a rival for Maid of Honor: Helen (Rose Byrne) a beautiful, rich, glamorous woman...in short, all the things Annie isn't.   Soon, an unofficial competition erupts between Annie and Helen.

Meanwhile, the other bridesmaids: the frazzled, bitterly married Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the ubersweet newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper), and the fiancee's sister, the raunchy and vulgar Megan (Melissa McCarthy) along with Helen and Annie begin the traditions involved in accompanying the bride, such as getting the dresses, planning the bachelorette party and the wedding shower.  Of course, Annie's very limited funds are no match for Helen's large bank account, and slowly Helen starts taking over.  On their way to Las Vegas, Annie (who not only is afraid to fly but is too proud to have Helen pay for her ticket and thus flies coach), has a meltdown caused by sedatives and booze.  After they all get kicked off the plane, and after seeing how Helen used her Parisian-themed bridal shower (causing Annie yet another meltdown), Liilian and Annie break company.

Of course, into this mix we see Annie's efforts to start a romance with Officer Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd), a sweet cop who is sweet on her (and her cupcakes).  Annie being Annie, she manages to make a mess of that too.  Depressed and having moved back home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh), it is Megan who goes to her, tells her to pull herself together, and fight for herself.  On the wedding day itself, it's Helen who shows up at Annie's, desperate to help find Lillian who has disappeared.  With help from a very reluctant Rhodes, they find Lillian is at her old apartment.  Lillian, overwhelmed by all the planning, hides out.  Annie, ever the loyal friend, pulls her through and everyone gets the man they want.

I know many people found Bridesmaids funny, and I suppose it's a sign of progress that women can be just as raunchy and vulgar as men can (seeing how Judd Apatow is a producer, not a surprise).  I will say that there were funny moments and funny performances in Bridesmaids, but on the whole there were more things I disliked about it than liked.

One aspect of Bridesmaids that I was particularly unhappy with is the excessive amount of bathroom humor, and when I say "bathroom humor", I do mean that in a literal sense.  A very lengthy scene involved food poisoning by the bridesmaids except for Helen (she didn't eat the same thing everyone else did).  It may be that people today find the sight of women vomiting into toilets, onto each other, and defecating into sinks a laugh riot.  For me, I thought it was cheap, and sad, and tawdry, and a bit sick.  I wouldn't find that funny with men doing it (particularly the sink business), and I don't find it funny with women.

As much as Bridesmaids is being hailed as some sort of cinematic breakthrough, I couldn't help think Annie was a remarkably unfunny character.  This woman is self-destructive, whiny, excessively needy, insecure, a bit psychotic/irrational, and fearful of anyone who is in any way better off than she is.  I couldn't bring myself to root for such a character, and in fact I found I disliked her.  

I also didn't get much of a handle on some of the other bridesmaids, in spite of its two-hour length.  Becca is a sweet, naive girl who is still in the glow of her marriage, but really, having her share a hint of a lesbian kiss with Rita on the plane?  For a movie as long as Bridesmaids, the real story involved the competition between Helen and Annie with only Megan having any substantial role, and to my mind it felt like the other bridesmaids were there to just make a full party. 

This isn't to say there aren't funny moments, even warm and oddly tender moments, within Bridesmaids.  There are certain scenes in the film that are laugh-out loud hilarious.  The scene at the reception when Helen and Annie are attempting to one-up each other in their toasts is extremely funny, as is Annie's first meltdown on the plane.  I will also point out that every time Annie tries to sell jewelry at her job had me laughing at just how she keeps letting her personal life interfere with her salesmanship.  As I said, there are funny moments in Bridesmaids, but some of it (especially the more vulgar parts of it) fell flat with me. 

The funny people in Bridesmaids to my mind are some of the supporting players.  McCarthy as the brazen and bawdy Megan steals every scene she's in.  Hamm shows a surprisingly funny side to himself as the shallow Ted, and seeing him make such a radical departure from the generally humorless and extremely serious Don Draper of Mad Men shows Hamm can do comedy quite well.  O'Dowd brings a surprising and curiously realistic take on Officer Rhodes (and no explanation as to why a Wisconsin state trooper has an Irish accent is needed, though the script hints at it with Annie's surprise that a Wisconsin state trooper didn't have to be a citizen, but I digress).  In her final role before her death, Clayburgh was delightful as the mother who wants to help her daughter but who doesn't realize how she bungles the job of helping her child through her various crises.  She will be missed.

The scenes between O'Dowd and Wiig were some of the best in Bridesmaids because we could get at a sweet, though oddball, romance.  My take is that if the script by Wiig and Annie Mumolo (wonder if the main character's name being Annie and the co-writer's name being Annie is somehow connected) had not gone so much for raunchy humor (like the scene in the dress shop) or made Annie such a whiner and borderline psycho (the second meltdown at the bridal shower made her look like a complete lunatic completely unhinged and a danger to herself and others), Bridesmaids could have been funnier. 

I think that my biggest beef with Bridesmaids is that it is trying too hard to be funny.  The whole scene of trying to attract Officer Rhodes' attention by having Annie violate all the driving laws she can think of so that he can pull her over didn't strike me as funny but as attempting to be funny. 

In short, Bridesmaids has some positive things to it (the supporting players of McCarthy, Hamm, and O'Dowd) and some funny moments (the reception duel, the flight into 'terror'), but those were pushed down by others (I didn't laugh once in the dress shop scene--just don't find that kind of thing funny).  Still, I wouldn't reject an invite to the wedding...and I would take a puppy home too.

DECISION: C+

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Go West Young Man

1894-1973
JOHN FORD

He's quintessentially American, yet a true Irishman at heart.  The career of John Ford is one any filmmaker envies, as his extraordinary output. 

Now, where exactly does John Ford's genius lie?  I think it's in the fact that he was able to make films that were both intelligent and popular, never playing down to audiences but most importantly, trusting them to not only follow the story but care about the characters and the situations they were in, both serious and comic.

Let's look at just a few of his extraordinary films, and start with the obvious: the Western.  Ford is the man who has shaped the idea of what the Wild West was like for Americans and the world than any other director.  A central part of the myth-making by Ford was in his selection of Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah as the background to many of his films.  Here, in this sparse landscape, we see the visual theme Ford kept coming back to: the smallness of man against the massiveness of nature.  The characters in Ford's films were ones that struggled against great odds, either from nature or from man's actions himself.

I think two of the Westerns he made with John Wayne show that Ford knew how to make a picture that worked on two levels: an emotional one and an intellectual one.  The first is Stagecoach.  While it's a curious thing that the story of disparate people thrown together appears almost as a cliche today, Stagecoach may have been the first one to have that (certainly the best one to have that scenario).  Even in the characters themselves, we have stereotypes: the drunk doctor, the hooker with a heart of gold, the outlaw as the good guy.  In Stagecoach, Ford tells the overall story of the adventures the group (including an exciting climatic chase across the desert) while also keeping their individual stories interesting and never losing focus of them as individuals and as part of a larger story.

The second Ford/Wayne Western I'd look at is The Searchers, as intense a story as ever made.  As all great films, The Searchers works on those two levels.  One can watch it as an adventure story: Ethan Edwards (Wayne) and his adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) are on a search to recover Ethan's niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), his brother's daughter.  However, while it is possible to end watching The Searchers at that, one can't really go away from the film without it being a strong meditation of one man's entire way of life ending.  The character of Ethan is not someone a person would like: he is racist (holding an intense dislike for Martin because he's part-Native American and he's come to his brother's home after fighting for the Confederacy).  That fear that Debbie may end up being 'one of them' is one of the driving forces that keeps him on his desperate hunt to 'save' her. 

There is, however, more to Ethan.  Yes, he's in many ways an anti-hero, but he is also a complex character.  Within him is a righteous fury for vengeance, and in many respects he is the mirror image of his antagonists.  Still, within him there is still a spark of humanity, a need to genuinely protect and love that is in conflict with his need to take life (and in one scene, even take from the afterlife).  Despite how horrid Ethan is, at the end of The Searchers you feel a great sadness for him, a sorrow that he is the one condemned.  Above all else, The Searchers puts to rest the idea that John Wayne could not act: his Ethan is one of the great performances on film, a truly complex and conflicted individual whom you can't love but you can't hate either. 

Ford is primarily remembered as a director of Westerns; in fact, at a famous Directors Guild meeting where the issue of loyalty oaths during the Red Scare of the 1950s was at its peak, Ford began his remarks by saying, "My name is John Ford.  I make Westerns" (as if anyone in that room, even his nemesis Cecil B. DeMille didn't know who John Ford was).  However, his output showed he was really a master of all trades.  If we look at some of his non-Western films, you'll also see some extraordinary films.

First, we see Ford's genius in The Grapes of Wrath.  In 1940, when Depression audiences wanted primarily escape from the troubles of the world, Ford put it out there for all of them to see.  The film has never lost its power or relevance (which now, in the time of the Great Recession, is worth considering).  Audiences then and now can find themselves in the Joad family, the struggles they endured: from losing the farm they'd had for generations right on down through Henry Fonda's beautiful closing speech (a truly haunting moment in film).

We also see it in his homage to his homeland: The Quiet Man.  This is a bit of a departure for Ford in that its a pretty simple, straightforward story:  an ex-prizefighter going back to Ireland, land of his birth, and falls in love with his rival's sister.  In The Quiet Man we get a love letter to Eire and something rarely associated with John Ford: a flat-out comedy.  It's a funny film, full of whimsical Irish characters.  Is it misogynistic or cliched?  Well, as I believe Martin Scorsese pointed out, we aren't meant to take it seriously.

What puts John Ford at the top ranks of all directors is that he knew what would work both visually and story-wise.  His grand vision of the American West is now so iconic that we couldn't picture the frontier any differently than in the canvas he painted for us.  When we think the West, we think Monument Valley, we think the cavalry riding out into battle or into the sunset.  However, as grand as the visuals in a John Ford picture may be, Ford understood what more than a few current filmmakers don't or have forgotten: great visuals will not help if we don't have a story to back them up.  I go to one of my personal favorites in the John Ford canon: 3 Godfathers

What's great about 3 Godfathers (or rather, one of the great things about 3 Godfathers) is that the symbolism of the Three Not-So-Wise Men comes across without being overt.  Three bandits come across a dying woman and her child, and they promise to bring her child to safety (of course by doing so, they will have to meet the law).  While there is action, there is also in 3 Godfathers a story of redemption as the three bandits (who add comedy by bickering about the child's name) risk so much for a child, showing the humanity that lies within each person.  For me, the most moving moment is when one of the bandits (John Wayne), is struggling to move ahead, overwhelmed by exhaustion.  He keeps moving because someone, a total innocent, pushes him on, as do the voices of his compatriots.  Who says there can't be tenderness and true heart in a John Ford picture?  In 3 Godfathers, and in many of Ford's films, he can have the action or romance an audience would want, but not give up on the story. 

Finally, as for the myth of the West Ford created, he knew it was a double-edged sword.  In Fort Apache, Ford doesn't shy away from presenting the truth: that hatred and stupidity cost American lives and ushered the near-annihilation of the Native Americans.  However, here and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, also made it clear that we also need to 'print the legend', that sometimes history is messy and ugly, and that we need things to believe in. 

John Ford made Westerns, some of the best and most enduring and influencial.  However, John Ford made some of the greatest films in any genre: the tragedy of The Grapes of Wrath, the humor of The Quiet Man, the conflict within man in The Searchers, the tender reflections of youth against the harshness of adulthood in How Green Was My Valley.   John Ford made films.  He made Great Films.  He is and will remain a Great Director.

There are more Great Directors from the past and present, with more to come. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Maid, My Self. A Review of The Help

THE HELP

I figure that as a Hispanic man, I'm not the target audience for either the book or film version of The Help. Therefore, going into the film, I feared I would endure a chick-flick: a story of women relying on themselves for emotional support.  Truth be told, there is that in The Help, but there is also a wide variety of human experiences wrapped in the film: humor and heartbreak, the evils of bigotry and the tragedy of human failings.  The positives of The Help outweigh some of the flaws, but we'll get to that shortly.

Aibileen (Viola Davis) is a humble woman and maid to Leefolt family.  Her life is just work and church: taking care of white folk, bringing up their children while having to live without her only son and enduring the bigotry both casual and legal in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi.  While the Leefolts do not object to having Aibileen use their toilet, their friend, Miss Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), most certainly does.  She is convinced that not only is 'separate but equal' is the most beautiful thing in the world (and the way the Negroes would want it anyway), but she pressures Aibileen's owner... I mean, employer Miss Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly) to implement Miss Hilly's initiative: building separate toilets for the Negroes so as to have the good white folk avoid the risk of coming into contact with the colored's diseases.

Into this world returns Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone).  She has returned to Jackson after graduating from Ole Miss, get some experience and care for her ill mother Charlotte (Allison Janney), Skeeter doesn't like what she sees, especially her friend Hilly's Initiative.  Miss Skeeter is especially displeased that her Mammy...I mean, her family's maid Constantine (Cicely Tyson) has left abruptly without saying good-bye.  As Miss Skeeter starts lookin' round, she comes up with a brilliant idea: write about the maids from their perspective by interviewing them, starting with Aibileen.  What Skeeter proposes is dangerous, even illegal in the Deep South, but eventually Aibileen consents when she has seen and heard enough of the injustice around her.

That injustice is handled differently by Aibileen's friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spenser).  As Homey the Clown might say, "Minny don't play that".  While Minny knows she can only do so much, her breaking point comes when there's a storm in Jackson.  Minny needs to use the toilet, but while technically her employer is Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek), Missus Walters' daughter is Miss Hilly, and she ain't about to let Minny use HER toilet.  That rainstorm with high winds and fierce downpour shouldn't bother her Negro: an umbrella should be enough.  Well, it isn't, and Miss Hilly fires her on the spot.  She also makes it impossible for Minny to get hired anywhere, except in one home: that of white-trash but well-married Emmie Slattery...I mean, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain).  She is too low for Miss Hilly to bother with, so Minny gets the job from an eternally grateful and naive Celia.   Soon, both maids talk to Skeeter, and New York editor Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen) will get her book published, but not without more maids.  Eventually, after seeing an act of cruelty by Miss Hilly against her new maid and the murder of Medgar Evers, the maids find the courage to speak to Skeeter.

The secrets and revelations they tell her (all of course with pseudonyms) are published in the book, The Help, which soon scandalizes the whole town, especially the revelation of the Terrible Awful (Minny's own description of her act) committed against a woman bearing a striking similarity to Miss Hilly (and it is both funny, just, and horrifying).  Miss Skeeter also learns the truth about what happened to her Constantine and after a romance with Stuart (Chris Lowell) has grown but ended, she goes to New York, the combative Minny finds a new home and the respect and genuine love of Miss Celia and her husband Johnny (Mike Vogel), and Aibileen is acknowledged by the black community for her courage in speaking (even if was anonymously) and finds the courage to do so openly after a confrontation with Miss Hilly.

The Help has one of the best performances of the year from Viola Davis (who has a series of great performances to her credit already).  Aibileen is a haunted woman: haunted by loss and by the indignities she must endure because of her color.  She is someone who, to use the parlance of the day, 'knows her place', but also knows that it is not right but knows no way of making it right.  Just in her looks, her expression of sadness and acceptance of how things are, Davis communicates the interior life of this domestic.  She also has an extremely powerful moment when she recounts the death of her only son.  In her delivery, a mixture of calmness and hurt and fury, she tells us so much more than what her words are saying (although they say quite a lot about the pain Aibileen has suffered).  Her love and concern for the children under her care is genuine, but also her fear of her owners...I mean, employers.

As a yang to her yin, Spenser's Minny is a sassy woman who won't take no guff from nobody.  For the most part, she has an incredible amount of strength within her, and the wisdom to guide Miss Celia through her inability to know what to do to keep house.  Minny doesn't hold back but like Aibileen, knows the rules a maid has to follow to keep herself both safe and employed.  While we can imagine Minny could have done the Terrible Awful to Miss Hilly, we do get hints that she is also a battered woman (literally, her lover isn't seen on screen but it's clear she gets beatings from him). 

Another strong performance is Bryce Dallas Howard.  Few women have been as repugnant as Miss Hilly in their bigotry and their blindness to just how intolerant and cruel they are.  At one point she warns Skeeter against reading the laws governing the relations between non-whites and others by saying "real racists" would go after her.  Miss Hilly has no redeeming qualities, and her inability show common human decency makes her even more repulsive.  

Not to be outdone, Chastain has an endearing quality to Miss Celia.  She is more naive than dumb, but underneath her common exterior is a truly kind person who has, like almost every woman in The Help, suffered some terrible things which she keeps from Johnny. 

I digress to point out that Chastain has become the It Girl of 2011: she's been in The Tree of Life, The Debt, and The Help with no hint that she's going to slow down.  Her versatility in all three films show her as an actress of range and certainly one that will have a healthy career for the time being.

Of all the performances and plot points in The Help, I argue that the Skeeter part was the weakest and most boring.  I kept wondering if Skeeter was from Jackson, why would four years at Ole Miss suddenly erase from her memory the fact that Jackson was a center for apartheid American-style.  I was genuinely surprised that she appeared so oblivious to the fact that black and white women didn't mix (how she could offer to give any black woman a ride in her car without realizing how unacceptable it was is beyond me). As portrayed by Stone, Skeeter came off as a bit too chipper to see this project as anything more than a way to get her foot in the door.  She didn't seem committed to social change, just to a good story. 

Moreover, Skeeter's romantic life was of no interest and served to lengthen the film to its 146 minute running time.  Of the nearly two-and-a-half hours, I could have done with much less of Skeeter's romance with Stuart...much, much less.  I know that Skeeter was the device to get the maids to tell her story (which is how the novel by Kathryn Stockett has it and the screenplay by director Tate Taylor--a friend of Stockett's, has kept it), but for my part, I didn't care about the fact that she got the maid's perspectives. 

Another thing that troubled me and yes, irritated me, was the dialect-heavy nature of the dialogue.  I figure that perhaps this is how African-Americans spoke in 1963, dropping the "g" at the end of words, using "ax" for "ask", using "ain't" as a word.  This manner of speaking became so prevalent I was almost tempted to mock it by writing my review using the same style (examples: Miss Skeeter don't want no weddin', she done wants a job; she don't know nuttin' 'bout way things done up in this here Jackson; Minny done teach her chil' Sugar how to be maidin').  In the end, I couldn't write that way: it would make it look like I was deliberately mocking the characters (and on a personal level, I would find using that style of writing rather odious).  I figure this is why the fact that an Anglo writer wrote her African-American characters to speak in this manner is a source of controversy.  For myself, I can't say whether this was the way African-Americans actually spoke in the early 1960s, but that aspect of The Help left me cold. 

This point about dialect becomes so overwhelming at times one soon begins to wonder if The Help is taking place in 1963 or 1863.  There are two mentions of Gone With the Wind and the Mammy character, but how is Skeeter's relationship with Constantine any different from that between Scarlett O'Hara and Mammy?  Constantine's near-total devotion to "her" family appears to show that the Civil War really changed nothing in interracial relations except removing legal white ownership of blacks.   I saw Miss Celia (the way the maids always referred to their employers as "Miss So-and-So" had me wondering if Prissy or Kizzy would be popping out anytime soon) as a mash-up of Emmie Slattery/Belle Watling from the Margaret Mitchell novel.

Here is where the flaw in The Help mostly lies: the stories of Aibileen, of Minny, of Constantine, and of all the other maids is submerged with that of Skeeter's ambitions to be a writer, of her love life (which I really didn't care about) and of Skeeter's view of the help.  Actually, from what I saw of The Help the character of Skeeter didn't even appear to be that important to the plot.  When we see Aibileen or Minny, when we genuinely see things from the perspective of 'the help', we get a glimpse into the injustice of segregation and the struggles black women had on their way to genuine equality as women and as women of color.  When we shifted to Skeeter's romances, I was bored.

The Help has truly moving moments thanks to Davis and Spenser, and moments of comedy thanks to Spenser in particular.  We have some of the best performances (from both heroines and villains) and a story that has us care about the characters.  It's easy to be moved by the story of The Help and about how change is gonna come.  Who knows...perhaps in the lifetimes of the characters in The Help, America may actually elect a black President.

DECISION: B+

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Promissory Note For A Better Film


THE DEBT

The Holocaust will always haunt the Israeli psyche.  The mass murder of three million Jews was the most barbaric effort at extermination of an entire people, and it was the final catalyst to bring about the creation of a Jewish state, a homeland for those who wandered in the Diaspora.  There was also a need to punish those responsible for the barbarism inflicted on innocents.  The capture, trial, and execution of Adolph Eichmann by the Mossad is one of the most legendary feats in Israel's short history, and The Debt appears to borrow from that page in history to create a morality tale of whether the truth is as important as the myth.  There are good things within The Debt, but the good it has is undone by a ludicrous third act that brings the film down in so many ways.

The Debt bounces between 1997 and 1966.  In the present, we have three ex-Mossad agents: Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), her ex-husband and current Cabinet minister Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), and the deeply troubled David (Ciaran Hinds).  Rachel and Stephan's daughter has written an account of their greatest exploit: capturing and killing Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the Surgeon of Birkenau.  They were to bring him to trial in Israel, but as The Debt shows, they were forced to kill him.  Or so we think.

The past segments of The Debt show how it really happened.  Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is a new agent on her first mission.  With her are two experienced agents: Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington).  The trio plan out the capture of Vogel, but in the ways of film, complications both professional and romantic ensue.  In order to get close to Vogel (who goes by the name Bernhardt), who has become an OB/GYN, Rachel must enter the Soviet-controlled East Berlin and pretend she is trying to get pregnant, with David passing as her husband.  While Rachel and David share a silent attraction, it's with Stephan that she sleeps with. 

Eventually, they do capture Vogel, but their efforts to spirit him away out of East Berlin fails, forcing them to hold him while Mossad tries to find another way out.  In his captivity, Vogel taunts Rachel and David with his anti-Semitism, and we learn The Truth: Vogel was not killed trying to escape.  Vogel DID escape and went into deep hiding.  The trio, to avoid the shame of failure, create the story of his 'death', and return heroes.

Back in 1996, after David's death (in a remarkably gruesome way), Stephan and Rachel learn that Vogel may actually still be alive in the Ukraine.  Reluctantly, Rachel goes to find if it's true and to, I figure, finish it (Stephan now in a wheelchair due to another Mossad operation).  Rachel learns the truth about this "Vogel", and The Debt ends (with both Rachel and Stephan's career in the Knesset possibly ending too). 

The Debt is strongest when it focuses on the hunt and capture of Vogel.  When we have the planning and the emotional toll bringing the Nazi criminal in causes on the Mossad agents, we get a sharp, action-oriented story that doesn't short-shift the character's lives.  However, once we get away from that story, and go either into the 'love story' or any time in the present day (especially the Ukraine third act), The Debt gets bogged down in clichés and bizarre, almost nonsensical plot points.

Let's go into the cliché parts first.  One wonders how and why the Mossad, the single greatest spy agency ever created (sorry, CIA), would send a novice like Rachel for such a sensitive and crucial mission.  Further, knowing what kind of training Mossad agents go through, I kept wondering whether they go through any psychological training so as to endure the taunts of Vogel.  Sometimes it's almost laughable to think that with what he says to Rachel or David that they could crack so easily. 

However, nothing is as truly laughable as the third act, the Ukraine Movement as I call it.  Everything about it seems far too cinematic to believe.  First, Rachel has to go through some Watergate-style break-in to the small independent newspaper to find where 'Vogel' might be (couldn't Stephan as a Cabinet member employ someone to investigate it on the hush-hush?).  Even more ludicrous is when we find the actual Vogel. 

Allow me to explain.  Using Christensen's actual age at the time The Debt was released,  Vogel/Bernhardt would be 63 years old in 1966.  That part is believable.  Now, add thirty-one years to that when Rachel comes upon him in 1997.  Are we seriously suppose to believe that a 94-year-old man can be so agile and quick that he can take down an ex-Mossad agent with almost the greatest of ease?  It's completely unbelievable, laughable, and downright silly to expect anyone to stretch their imagination to think a man in his NINETIES could have that kind of mental and physical dexterity to overpower someone in her SIXTIES

If that weren't enough in the cliche department, we have in the Ukraine movement Rachel getting trapped within the office by a late-night booty call from a worker there and the man she brings to the office.  Isn't it always the case that whenever you're breaking into an office someone just happens to show up to have sex there at the same time?  And that's just in the weak third act.

The other acts have their share of problems.  Once the trio have Vogel in their possession, they have worked out the plan to get him out of East Berlin, but wouldn't you know it: they run into complications both external and with Vogel himself.  I thought while watching that, "there have to be complications, don't they.  Aren't there ALWAYS insurmountable complications?"  I know that there were complications when they captured Eichmann and smuggled him out of Argentina and when the Israelis stormed the Entebbe Airport, but at least in those real-life events the plans themselves worked.  In this plan, not only did nearly everything go wrong but there never appeared to be some sort of back-up plan in case of failure. 

Finally, there is the romance angle (which I figure has to exist because of the appearance of Chastain and Worthington, two beautiful people gaining popularity in film today).  Rachel appears to love David, and David appears to love Rachel, but it's Stephan with whom she sleeps with.  That part of the story wasn't believable because it appears to come out of nowhere.  The unspoken attraction between Rachel and David itself appears to be something out of a plot development rather than something that grows out of the situation.  I figure this is because Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan were hampered in having to adapt this version from the script for Ha-Hov (which I believe means The Debt in Hebrew) by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum. 

One problem in terms of acting is when we go to 1997.  Maybe it's the cynic in me, but I don't see how you get Ciaran Hinds out of Sam Worthington or Tom Wilkinson out of Marton Csokas.  It gets more complicated when we see that Csokas looks more like Hinds than he does Wilkinson.  I could see Chastain becoming Mirren, but since Hinds is in The Debt for such a small amount of time it doesn't appear plausible that Worthington could be a younger version of Hinds.  When we see Worthington and Csokas, you know who is who.  When we see Wilkinson, we can be forgiven if we forget which one of the two he's suppose to be. 

Both Chastain and Mirren excel as the younger and older Rachel: one who carries fear on her mission, the other who carries regret from it.  Csokas was also good as the tough, aloof Stephan, the leader who will brook no dissention or bumbling.  Even Worthington, whom I've always seen as wooden (examples: Avatar, Clash of the Titans), actually managed a good performance as the young and already troubled, haunted David.  Again and again, it's when we get to the present story that The Debt underperforms.

For myself as a viewer, I would have preferred to have seen more of the 1966 part of the story and less of the 1997 version (especially the Ukraine Movement).  Even in 1997, the story jumps around in time to where we see the same scene with slightly more information the second time round, which can be frustrating when watching The Debt.  John Madden as the director not only got good performances out of his cast (especially from Worthington), but also created moments of action and tension (particularly when we think the trio will get Vogel out of East Berlin...operative word, think). 

The Debt, however, carries those flaws that push the film down from a meditation about truth versus myth to at times both a weak 'love story' and a bizarre third act climax that could have been reworked to make both more interesting and yes, believable.

I figure that the makers of both the Israeli or American version of The Debt either never saw or took the lesson from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Therefore, boys, here you go: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".  The film appears to argue that Israel, indeed the world, need to know that Nazi monsters escaped and that the stories they tell us and each other about themselves and about there being no escaping justice are at best irrelevant, at worst wrong.  I argue against that: I think that myth is important as is the truth.  Lincoln was not a saint, neither was Martin Luther King, Jr.  However, people need myths to create a common identity, to find sources of inspiration.  The Debt may argue that the truth must always win out, but sometimes we do need to "print the legend" because the legend has value too. 

In short, while not as good as it could have been, The Debt has just enough to make it worth some time.

DECISION: C+

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Once A Bridesmaid, Always A Troublemaker

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

Every now and again, you get these little pseudo-artsy, quasi-indie films that think they are so clever but only end up showing you that you can have high aspirations but fail so badly in execution.  Rachel Getting Married is such a film.  If it were not for Anne Hathaway's performance, the film would be completely unbearable.  With her performance, it becomes merely tolerable. 

Kym (Hathaway) is being released from rehab over the weekend to attend her sister's wedding (said Rachel: Rosemarie DeWitt).  In the course of three agonizing days, we not only see the bitterness and self-loathing Kym has, but see her have a fling with the Best Man/fellow AA member Kieran (Mather Zickel), whine her way into being the Maid of Honor (which she'd always assume she'd be), and drive her whole family into both concern and frustration: her father and stepmother (Bill Irwin and Anna Deavire Smith), and her mother (Debra Winger).  We also must go through the sheer boredom of the most pseudo-hip wedding full of appropriately multi-cultural guests and trappings, various ghosts from the past that have brought the family to the state they are in, and at the end of her weekend, a semblance of acceptance by Kym for Kym.

Let me start by saying that the wedding itself had the bride and bridesmaids wearing saris.  I figure this is writer Jenny Lumet's way of trying to make the family a hip, progressive one (in almost every way possible).  For my part, I think the only people who should be married in saris are those of Indian descent, not faux-hippies.  However, truth be told the sari situation (pun intended) is the LEAST of Rachel Getting Married's problems (which is saying a lot). 

Throughout the movie I kept getting the sense that both Lumet and director Jonathan Demme were trying oh so very hard to make Rachel Getting Married some sort of quasi-independent film (with shooting the film in single camera and having it move around as if it were a home movie or documentary).  The problem with that is that we know it's not a documentary or home movie--certainly when we see Kym crash.  That penchant filmmakers have to have a shaky-camera motif drives me endlessly crazy--KEEP THE CAMERA STILL!  Moving the camera all around not only creates a sense of nausea but becomes hopelessly distracting and irritating.

Another issue I had with Rachel Getting Married was that the entire plot and the situations within it appeared remarkably manipulative.  At one point I believe Kym comments how something appears to be a "total set-up", but that could easily be applied to the movie itself: one long pseudo-artsy set-up.  In fact, let's go over that particular scene in question.

After a very lengthy rehearsal dinner (and I mean lengthy: it played more like Amateur Night on The Gong Show than any rehearsal dinner I or anyone I know has attended or been in), Rachel is furious that Kym's toast appeared to be more about her than about the bride-to-be.  The sisters have a massive fight, the dad just frets, the stepmom shows her concern/disapproval but doesn't really speak, the groom-to-be stays mostly silent.  Then, just as the fight reaches some sort of crecendo, Rachel announces she's...pregnant.  The dad does a literal jump for glee (complete with clapping his hands like a trained seal), but poor Kym is upset (apparently that the fight can't go on because now everyone is paying attention to Rachel rather than her).  Kym's response?  "That is so unfair!" 

It all seems too cute, too pat, too scripted to come off as authentic.  Rachel Getting Married never comes across as realistic.  It plays like something that is written as opposed to something that could actually happen.  In almost all the film, I kept wondering why the script rarely allowed for moments of genuine family warmth or really anything that appeared to be an authentic (or at least, non-elitist) family weekend.  Yes, the entire family (Kym included) and their guests never appeared to be anything other than a bunch of hopelessly elitist, affluent, pretensious, artsy people.  By the end of Rachel Getting Married, I really just wanted to get away from the wedding party.

As a digression, I never shook off the sense that the entire wedding party (from groom to family to guests) were all cast to fill some PC quota:  you had African-Americans, Asians, Arabs, Brazilian samba dancers, what appeared to be a folk band in the style of Nickle Creek, Fab 5 Freddy (I did wonder, he's still alive), jazz music, Arabic song, gospel music, stand-up comedy...and this was at the rehearsal dinner! Actually, the samba dancers were at the wedding dance, but really...Arabic songs at a non-Arab wedding?  It's almost as if Demme, Lumet, and everyone involved in Rachel Getting Married wanted a rainbow coalition to be included.  Nothing wrong with that per se, but when you have WASPs in saris getting married to then end with samba dancers after having had both jazz and Arabic music being performed, you have to ask yourself what world these people occupy.

For the most part, I wasn't overwhelmed by the performances as directed by Demme.  In particular dislike was Irwin--his Happy Happy Joy Joy Dance at learning he's going to be a grandpa reminded me that he was actually a clown (literally), and I kept wondering if he was a comedian.  Given that the groom, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) was almost irrelevant to the story, it would be fair to say that we never got an idea that he or Rachel were truly in love except that the script told them they were.  Winger's role was small but pivotal to discovering the truth about why Kym has become notorious in both her circle and outside the rehab center.

IF the scene between Winger's Abby and Hathaway's Kym had been set up with more than one camera and been directed to be more calm, we could have had a truly heartbreaking scene of reconciliation and acceptance of loss.  However, the confrontation between mother and daughter was so fast that it almost became difficult to follow exactly how it got to that state.  Even worse, it descended into farce: I could understand a slap, but to see them exchanging punches? 

However, this isn't to say Rachel Getting Married doesn't have good things in them.  Chief among them is Hathaway's brilliant performance as the brittle, self-destructive, narcissistic, yet damaged Kym.  She is a loose cannon (at one point she's called a 'loose cannon', which I found interesting since I wrote that phrase in my notes shortly before that was said), but she is also someone that can easily be hurt, a woman haunted not just by her own addictions but what those addictions have caused her to do.  When Hathaway acts with her face and eyes, she expresses both the brittleness and the vulnerability within Kym, saying so much with a glance or an expression.  It is one of Anne Hathaway's best performances.

There are a few moments in Rachel Getting Married where both the single-camera method and the story work.   When she speaks at the AA meeting and learn more about her past mistakes, it is heartbreaking.  When she returns to the house on the wedding day after her car accident, Rachel gives her a gentle bath in order to get her ready.  It is a beautiful, quiet, tender scene, showing without saying anything the deep bond these two sisters have despite all the difficulties they've put each other through.  However, I point out that these scenes (unfortunately being few and far between), were moments of realism, and of quiet, not where people were ranting and raging, stomping about left right and center. 

It is to my mind unfortunate that Anne Hathaway's brilliant performance in Rachel Getting Married is trapped within a manipulative story where the camera work became far too distracting and irritating to enjoy.  In short, minus Hathaway, this was one lousy wedding.

DECISION: D+