Monday, October 31, 2011

¡Que Siga La Risa!


Gaspar Henaine "Capulina": 1923-2011
I won't blame anyone for not knowing who this man is.  For me, however,  I can say that on learning of the death of Capulina, a part of my childhood has now disappeared.  It's taken a while to reflect on his passing, but in this case, we cannot have tears, unless they be brought about by laughter.

Gaspar Henaine, best known by his stage name of "Capulina", was a figure from my early filmgoing days when I was a child.  It is appropriate to tie Capulina with children, because his comedy was built entirely around making children in particular laugh.  His humor was always clean: there were never any double entendres, there was never any vulgarity, any tawdry suggestions.  Instead, there was always tremendous innocence to Capulina, as if he were a child himself.

This isn't to suggest that he was dumb.  Rather, Capulina's comedy came from silly situations where he was both the victim and the hero.  Inevitably, Capulina would find himself in situations where something was putting him in some form of danger (usually the mildest or most far-fetched type) but in the end, he would always triumph.

I remember going to see Capulina films when the Plaza Theater in El Paso would run Mexican films.  My mother and grandmother never had to worry that anything in a Capulina film would be either beyond me or would require them to cover my eyes.  Everything in a Capulina film, from the story to the performances, had only one intention: to make people, all people, laugh.  He could be enjoyed by all ages, and was enjoyed by all ages, because Capulina brought a great sense of fun and innocence to his work.  There was never anything mean-spirited about him, either on the screen or off.  Everything was all in good, clean fun (operative word: clean). 

My favorite of his films is Capulina Contra Las Momias (Capulina Vs. The Mummies).   The title itself tells you the whole plot: the cab driver Capulina is trying to get a beautiful tourist to the mummies of Mexico, but in his style, gets lost.  In all this, he slips into a dream where said mummies come to life and put our hero and the maiden in danger (I think they were brought back by a mad scientist).  I remember the mummies were wearing sheets, so from the start we knew we weren't to take any of this seriously.   The film wasn't particularly clever but it was to this child watching, extremely funny.

I think this is what makes Capulina such an endearing character: he was never out to harm anyone.  There was nothing sophisticated in his comedy, nothing that was remarkably elevated.  Instead, Capulina was always just for laughs. 

How I wish a lot of "comedic geniuses" (say a Russell Brand, Aziz Ansari, or Dane Cook) would take a page from Capulina.  He didn't have to be vulgar, he didn't have to mean, to make people laugh.  All right, he was a bit frenetic, but that added to the laughter.  Capulina, unlike a lot of these "comedic geniuses" let the situations build the comedy, and moreover, he was always someone we cared about.  We can't say we cared about Brand's title character in Arthur or Cook's in Good Luck Chuck.  There was always something sleazy, something nasty, something unpleasant, about those characters.  That's something we couldn't say about Capulina: he was always a kid at heart, a kind person who was a bumbler but whom we rooted for, and who ended up being on top. 

It may be cultural, I grant that.  However, I would sooner watch Capulina Contra Las Momias than Your Highness if the latter is the height of Danny McBride's "genius".  The former always makes me laugh, the latter just saddens me.  He, I think, understood that good comedy isn't just about funny lines, or even funny situations.  You can have raunchy comedies that are hilarious (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Hangover, I Love You, Man), but one of the keys to great comedy is to have people care about your character.  We did that with those films, and we do that with Capulina's movies.


I'll miss him.  Capulina always makes me laugh (note the present tense), and perhaps one needs his humour translated.  I'm just glad I can follow it.

Buenas noches, Capulina.

IN MEMORIAM 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Light of Ray Shines On Bollywood


1921-1992

SATYAJIT RAY

Few things from my childhood I can recall emotionally, but one that I can is watching the Academy Awards.  The year: 1992.  I had no real interest in who won or lost--truth be told I didn't have a clear idea of what these awards meant, only that it was something on television.

Audrey Hepburn comes to present a special award.  I didn't know who she was, but I thought even at her age, she was particularly beautiful.   She was going to give an Honorary Oscar to Satyajit Ray.  I loved the way she said that name.  After a few remarks, we got to see a short film about his films.

Perhaps it is blasphemy to say this, but it was to my mind a bit like how Paul had the scales fall from his eyes at the end of the sequence.  I can say that I had never seen anything like that footage before in my life.  As a lower-middle class Hispanic kid from Texas, I obviously wasn't watching Indian films.  However, by the end of that sequence, I sat with my mouth opened, stunned at the sheer genius that I had just been shown. 

In short, I was simply amazed by the visual majesty and power of Satyajit Ray's films.  I will never forget the final clip: the King of Ghosts tells two men their dreams will come true.  The camera pulls back to reveal this demon-like creature sitting before a star that lit up in sequence while he chanted in a strange voice and moved his neck left right left right.  I later learned this was from the film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (which can be translated extremely loosely as The Adventures of Goopy & Bagha).  I later saw more of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, and what I saw amazed me: the Ghost Dance--a daring montage of various dances in all styles that is visually stunning.

I can't say to be an expert on Ray or know many of his films, but I do know that visually, he melded the uniqueness of the Indian culture with the sensibilities of the Western film.  If anything, Ray rejected how many Indian (aka Bollywood) films were, in particular how the music was not integrated into the film itself.  Ray did bring a humanity to his stories, touching on the shared connection between those of varied cultures to where the stories (be the comic or tragic) were things a person outside the subcontinent could relate to.

Right now I revel in the chance to expand my understanding of Satyajit Ray and his films.  Let's face it: not many are available in the States.  Still, what there is available (especially in YouTube) is worth an exploration.







This sadly is how I remember Ray: an old man, clutching his Oscar, on his literal deathbed.  Better late than never I suppose.  Even from what little I know of Satyajit Ray, I think him among the best filmmakers we've had.

Continue exploring The Great Directors with me as I continue to expand on those filmmakers who have shaped cinema in the United States and around the world.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Long Walk Ruined

THE WAY

They say it's not the destination, but the journey.  That is probably true, but in The Way, we get a lot of beautiful scenery but very little for our Long March.

Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) is an opthamologist whose exclusive diversion is playing golf (no surprise).  While on the course, he receives extremely bad news: his estranged only son Daniel (writer/director/son Emilio Estevez) has died on the first leg of the Camino De Santiago, a 500 mile trek from France to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the body of St. James is believed to be buried.  Tom goes to France to collect Daniel's body, but almost on a whim, decides to have Daniel cremated and continue his final journey with his son, taking the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

As he walks, he would rather be alone, but he soon finds himself with other individuals.  There's the jolly and avuncular Joost from Amsterdam (Yorick van Wageningen).  He walks so as to lose weight and fit into his suit for his brother's third wedding.  There's Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger).  She walks to rid herself of her smoking habit (or so she says).  Finally, there's Jack from Ireland (James Nesbitt), a writer who thinks this walk will both break his writer's block and give him inspiration to create a novel based on his own adventures (I figure two birds with one stone).  As these four continue on their trek, they meet with downright crazy people, find out secrets about each other and themselves, and come to terms with both their actions and their futures.  Oh, and every once in a while, Daniel pops out to Pop.

If anything, The Way maximizes the word 'earnest'.  There is nothing insincere in how both Estevez père et fils tackle the quasi-spiritual journey the Camino de Santiago evokes to many people, believers or not.  There certainly is a good story to be told of the many travellers on this journey (who undertake this trip for reasons spiritual and temporal), and we get to know things that the non-traveller has never encountered.  For example, we learn that the pilgrims have a special 'passport' that is stamped on each stop to verify they have make this trek.  We also get some beautiful imagery of the French, Basque, and Catalonian countryside.  Of particular beauty is when we get to the actual Shrine of St. James and witness the splendor of the Mass (with a massive incense burner being flung within it). 

However, like in all road trips, The Way takes one too many detours on its way to the final destination.  We get that almost from the get-go.  Tom's snap decision to finish what his son started isn't a surprise but does make him look impulsive when so far he's appeared to be methodical.  How I kept wondering how much better The Way would have been if Tom had decided sometime after bringing his son to be buried (or cremated) to undertake this journey--you could even have had his golfing buddies try to dissuade him.  The issue of having him come across this collection of characters (who didn't appear to be too eager to travel with Tom but did so anyway) could have likewise been better written.  Why couldn't Tom just started with a group of pilgrims but decided to trek on his own (with these other three staying loyal to him) rather than just walking with him because...because.

Finally, there were certain moments in The Way that just got in the way (pun intended) of the main story.  Near the midpoint of the film, Tom takes a rest on a bridge and takes off the backpack (the one his son had on him when he died and held Daniel's ashes).  One guess as to what happens to said jacket.   While Tom does manage to get it back, I instantly knew what was going to happen and could only roll my eyes at this cliche.  At one stop on their journey, they meet El Ramón (Eusebio Lazaro), and we're suppose to believe this is the film's stab at whimsical characters (when really El Ramón is downright bonkers).   Near the end of the journey, we get...wait for it...another complication: theft, and by a Gypsy no less.  However, this apparently random occurrence was to introduce a Roma musical number and give Tom an excuse to travel even further beyond Santiago de Compostela but to Muxia on the Spanish coast.  It made the film longer, but it didn't make it any richer.

There were other thing I found fault with The Way with (is that proper sentence structure?).  We get that Tom and Daniel have grown apart (thanks to a few flashbacks where Estevez and Sheen tell us that they see the world differently: the son doesn't want to finish grad school--oh, the humanity), but The Way does something that I so detest in film (again, another Golden Rule of Filmmaking is forming: Don't Repeat Information).   Joost, the big-hearted lug, tells Jack and Sarah about how Tom is carrying Daniel's ashes and completing the pilgrimage for his deceased son.  Granted, Sarah is the last to know, but we the audience do, so we're being told the same thing again and again.  Here is where I would have advised to make Tom more of a mystery to his travelling companions, so that when Tom finally allows them ever-so-slightly into his private grief, it would make it more painful and powerful.  I just think all that exposition could have been handled better, as could the differences between padre e hijo.   

Also, the entire scene where Jack from Ireland is introduced screams "CINEMATIC".  It doesn't seem believable, but more like something you'd see only in movies, complete with his blathering about 'roads' and the metaphors about them.  In short, it looks terribly fake and unrealistic, which to me is a bad way of making a travelogue.  Add to that, Sarah's hostility towards Tom in particular was just so odd: she was weirdly hostile to him given he didn't have much if any interaction with him.  Yes, the reasons behind her general demeanor were revealed later (and they are rather sad), but it would have helped the story if she weren't so mean from the start because since you don't know where she's coming from, you don't quite get where she's going.

Finally, every time Daniel showed up (be it appearing to be having dinner with other pilgrims, standing on the road, or being one of the men swinging the incense burner at the cathedral itself), not only was that yet another cliche (and used far too often), but it always made it look rather creepy, as if this ghost were stalking Tom.  Again, it would have worked much better if Daniel had popped out once (at the Cathedral is what I'm thinking) rather than here, there, everywhere. 

It is not that The Way doesn't aspire to be something more metaphysical (which is always a good think when so many films are superficial and wouldn't dain to touch anything spiritual).  It also helps to have as good an actor as Sheen.  He does a great job of making Tom someone who is distant, somewhat remote from his fellow travellers but who slowly (if perhaps, slightly unrealistically) warms up to the people who've elected to travel with him.  You admire Tom's determination to finish the journey, and Sheen never makes Tom unlikable (despite being at times difficult with Joost, Sarah, and Jack).  Van Wageningen adds a great deal of comic relief as the cheerful walking Dutchman and is even given a quiet moment of pathos when seeing that despite walking so much it is his self-indulgence that keeps him at a heavy weight.  Nesbitt is the cliched loquacious Irishman with a lot of blarney to him, and Unger does a good job whenever she drops her tough mask to reveal a hurt and vulnerable woman.

Again, there are some things to admire in The Way (chief among them, the film's ambitions to being a spiritual film) but this is a case of 'less being more'.  A better focus on Tom's journey (emotional and physical) along with a few less scenes of 'drama' (the near-loss of Daniel's backpack) and 'comedy' (the El Ramón sequence) would have had the benefit of making the film both shorter and tighter.  It might have been better to have Joost, Sarah, and Jack (the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woman, and the Scarecrow if you like) discovered over the course of their journey Tom's issues with Tom himself discovering that he's alive but was not living. 

There are some stumbles along The Way (pun intended) which push the film down.  In the most curious of situations, the ambitions of The Way got in the way of The Way

DECISION: D+

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Our Man Jack


JACK CARSON: 1910-1963

I figure the face is not familiar, and truth be told I don't think it's that big of a surprise. Jack Carson was never a big star in his own time, let alone today, and since his passing it's doubtful he will have a resurgence.  That, actually, is a bit of a shame.  The films I've seen of Jack Carson show him to excel in light comedy while also being able to do dark fare.

Carson's bread and butter was to be a comic actor, a bit of a straight man with the ready quip.  I like to think of him as the male Eve Arden, and surprisingly enough they were in Mildred Pierce (though I don't recall them having any scenes together).  Curiously, I think Mildred Pierce showed what great range Carson had as an actor.  His character of Wally Fay was in many ways a rather repulsive person: constantly hitting on Mildred (Joan Crawford) with a sense of antagonism against her for never agreeing to go out with him (or as we might say today, sleep with him).  He's certainly not the happy-go-lucky type that he tended to play in films, but even in Mildred Pierce he kept his quick wit manner to him.  In essence, Wally is being set up as the fall guy for murder, but even when arrested for a crime he did not commit (and which we know he did not commit) Carson as Fay still has smart comments for the coppers bringing him in.

Jack Carson could be villainous on screen, but for the most part he appeared best suited to be more a comedian.  My favorite Carson film is Romance on the High Seas (it helps that one of my great loves, Miss Doris Day, made her starring debut in the film).  The story is remarkably light (mistaken identities result in people falling in love) with the film being a showcase for Day's considerable talents as a singer.  However, Carson as the slightly befuddled private eye who has conflicting emotions as the spy who loved her (to coin a phrase) was just perfect for Romance on the High Seas' frothy story. 

He excelled as the regular guy who was a wiseguy but who in the end proved he was really a good guy.  Still, his full talent was rarely used.  Besides Mildred Pierce, Carson also played the dim but mean Gooper in the adaptation of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, a man who cares nothing for Big Daddy but for his money.  There's a pathetic aspect to Gooper, not the brightest of men but certainly not a good man.  Carson's dramatic turns in both Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and Mildred Pierce show he could handle complex roles, though he was more known for comedy.  

In the end, Carson was felled by stomach cancer at only 52, far too soon to see him enter into other films where his full range could continue to expand.  I think he is an under appreciated character actor and he should be remembered for being one of the best second-tier actors of the forties and fifties (when I say second-tier, I don't mean to say he wasn't good, but that he was never as big a star as perhaps he should have been).  I've often wondered if Turner Classic Movies should ever make Jack Carson their "Star of the Month".  He would be an excellent choice.  Ultimately, I hope Jack Carson is appreciated by movie fans as a first-rate comic who was capable of delivering complex, dramatic work as well, an actor who had charm, a quick comeback to any insult, and a lot of talent.

Honoring Jack Carson on his birthday.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Just Your Typical Bollywood Action Romantic Musical Revenge Drama

DOOKUDU (DASHING AND DARING)

I remember an episode of The Simpsons.  In I'm With Cupid, Homer and Marge are invited to dinner by Apu and his wife, Manjula.  However, a fight breaks out between our Indian couple, and Homer attempts to find out what they're saying.  As can be expected, Homer clearly has no idea what they're saying (I'm guessing they are speaking Hindi, but since so many languages are spoken in India, it is only an educated guess). 

That's pretty much the experience of anyone watching Dookudu who is not cognizant of the Tegulu tongue.  The film is neither dubbed (which is marvelous in our eyes, seeing we hate dubbing unless the original actors recreate their roles in English) or subtitled (not so good, because I never object to reading what's on the screen), so for nearly three hours you get to hear people speak in a completely foreign language, and whenever titles do appear on the screen they are in Tegulu (right down to their alphabet, making it completely illegible to almost all American readers).  Throw into the mix SIX musical numbers of which only one appears to be actually integrated into the story itself, and Dookudu appears to be a film that your average American would flee from even if people on Earth would be assured of if they watched it. 

This was a most curious experiment for me.  This would be my first real exposure to anything close to a Bollywood film (for some reason, Indian films don't play here in West Texas...wonder why). Would I be able to understand what is going on with no subtitles or dialogue to guide me?  Would I be able to enjoy sitting for nearly three hours of a movie where I didn't understand nearly anything being said? (In fairness, there was a smattering of English in Dookudu).  What about cultural differences: would I be able to appreciate the humor in the film?  I discovered something about films in general while watching Dookudu: dialogue certainly helps in appreciating a movie (and to make sense out of it), but overall while some of the subtleties are lost because you just flat-out don't understand what their saying, the acting, music, and camera work is able to fill in a lot of a story in a foreign-language film. 

As much as I understood of the film, the sprawling plot goes something like this (I should note that I may have gotten some things wrong, what with the language barrier and all): a major politician in India (whom I think was the descendant of a rajah), is beloved by his community.  However, there are enemies near him, and the Beloved Politician is killed in a major car accident.  We go to many years later, and the Beloved Politicians son, Ajay (Mahesh Babu) is now a super-cop heading up an elite squad (who are either suspended or top secret: sorry, could never figure out which one it was).  This squad is investigating a major crime kingpin, and their investigation takes them to Istanbul.  While there, Ajay meets and is enchanted by the beautiful Prashanti (Samantha), a fashion designer who unbeknown to him is the daughter of his superior officer (one who got shot by Ajay in the buttocks during a raid).  Prashanti rebuffs Ajay...for now (I don't have to be a Bollywood fan to realize that they have to eventually end up together).

Well, we make a shocking discovery: the Beloved Politician (whose statue for some reason makes him look like Stalin) is not dead!  He's actually been in a coma all these years, and now to the surprise of Ajay (who knew nothing of his father's condition) the Beloved Politician has come out of the coma.  Of course, the Beloved Politician is unaware that his son is not the patron of the community that he once was or that Ajay is really a super-cop.  Apparently, the Beloved Politician must be kept in the dark about all of this, so everyone around him must pretend that things are as they were before his accident.  With that, Ajay must get their old mansion back.  Unfortunately, their mansion has fallen on hard times and is now used as a set for films.  Somehow, Ajay convinces the producer that the Beloved Politician is going to be part of a 'reality show' (one of the few English terms floated around, which is understandable given that in Spanish, they also use the phrase 'reality show'.  The actual translation would be 'programa de realidad', but I digress). This subterfuge goes on for a long time, with comedic hijinks ensuing.

Eventually, the kingpin makes his move, kidnapping the Commissioner in exchange for one of his henchmen.  The plan goes a bit awry, and we get to Intermission.

Seriously, all this takes place before the screen reads INTERMISSION.

Well, to wrap things up, Ajay discovers that the Kingpin attempted to bribe his father the Beloved Politician, but when he refused, the Kingpin tried to have him killed.  With that, Ajay now goes after the Kingpin by hoodwinking one of the Kingpin's friends into thinking he is a film director who can turn him into a Bollywood star and get his friends/employers into yet another reality show (thus including the reality show producer).  Ajay and Prashanti finally marry, but the Kingpin puts two and two together, and Ajay finally manages to take his henchmen and the Kingpin down one by one (the last one in a remarkably grisly way).  The Beloved Politician accepts that his son is a super-cop, and things end happily after.

In terms of narrative, Dookudu is an extremely long film, but there's a delight to most of it that one really doesn't notice all that much that an extraordinary amount of time has passed by.  There was a lot of time taken up by the comedy of fooling the Beloved Politician into thinking Ajay was a major political figure, especially after the intermission.  In fact, it takes up so much time that we almost forget the police/action part of the story.  In some respects, Dookudu becomes two stories that eventually join as one, but a lot of momentum is lost by taking up so much time with the comedy.

However, this isn't to say there aren't really good things in Dookudu (even for those who cannot understand what exactly is being said).  Of primary interest are the various action scenes where Ajay is called upon to take charge.  The best fight scene is just before Intermission, when Ajay manages to temporarily rescue the Commissioner but then loses him.  Babu as Ajay goes into full Jason Statham mode: fighting fiercely in a no-holds barred brawl against all the henchmen.  The fight scenes are not overly graphic, but the fact that they hold back actually has the effect of making the idea of the violence much more gruesome.  That's not to say there aren't some surprisingly shocking moments in Dookudu: the Commissioner's end is rather startling.

Going a bit further into the fight sequences, whether it's a standard in Bollywood films to have the fighting seem exagerrated, almost comedic, or not I cannot say one way or another with any certainty.  However, at times the fights between Ajay and whomever he's going up against appear to be rather bizarre visually to this Western eye.  In one sequence, he's fighting a henchman on the roof of the hospital.  The henchman pulls a satellite dish from the roof (my only thought was the poor people who lost their programming), and whenever Ajay hit the henchmen, his fists appeared to be accompanied by flashes of light (the lightning from the sky did not help make the situation less surreal and curious).  Finally, I thought Babu's style of running on screen was rather curious, a bit strange in how his body moved when chasing bad guys.  Maybe it's because it's been a long while since I chased bad guys, but it doesn't take from the curious nature of his movements.  Yet I digress.

As I've stated, Babu (who to me looks a lot like Eric Bana), handles the action well, and has a charisma on the screen that exudes self-confidence as a tough customer.  What is interesting is that while he can match Statham in the action scenes (if Mr. Babu were ever to try to cross into more Western films, having him team up with Statham would be a good way to do so: how about having a scene from The Expendables 2 take place in India?  Just a thought), he is also required to be a charming, even light comic performer who can dance (I cannot vouch for whether he actually sings in Dookudu since I'm told that Bollywood stars don't shrink from having their singing voices dubbed). 

Here is where Dookudu becomes an interesting visual treat (if not strictly a logical one).  The film has six musical numbers, but only the last one (Adara Adarakottu--and no, do not ask me what any of the titles mean...I AM an American of Mexican descent who speaks English, Spanish, and a hint of French so how would I know Telugu) which is the wedding song between Ajay and Prashanti, appears to be anywhere related to the story.  In this number, we get to hear from not just our romantic leads, but from the parents as well.  In truth, it is close to what I imagined a big Bollywood musical number to be: grand, lavish, full of splendor and a large chorus of dancers.  You know it's a lavish number because the cloth over the wedding canopy change from pink to yellow to blue--it's pretty, grand, but don't think too hard on why the colors change as much as they do.

In all the other musical numbers save one, they appear to be related to the romance between Ajay and Prashanti.  The second musical number (Guruvaram March Okati) appears to have been triggered by an accidental kiss between them (and to its credit, does show us some beautiful images of the former Byzantium).  Musical number five (Dethati Dethati) comes about, if I understand things, from Prashanti winking at our hero.  In fact, the only lavish musical number NOT related to the romance is the first number (Nee Dookudu) which is about Ajay (I think).  I note that there is a continuity error in this number (sometimes Ajay is wearing sunglasses in one part of the number, sometimes he's not). 

The numbers certainly are lively, with beautiful scenery and costumes, but here's where someone brought up on Western musicals (ranging from Singin' In the Rain through West Side Story right on down to Moulin Rouge! and Chicago) is lost to understand the musical sequences in Dookudu.  In American musicals, characters do burst out into song and dance, but they almost always stay within the film.  For example, in the title number from Singin' In the Rain, Gene Kelly is literally singing in the rain on the street where she lives (to quote from another musical).  All the songs in West Side Story take place on the West Side of New York City.

In Dookudu (and I imagine in almost all Bollywood films), most songs appear to just pop into foreign locales and are related to the plot by the thinnest of threads.  Take for example the next to last number (Dethati Dethati).  Out of nowhere, Ajay and Prashinti appear to be in the Alps, singing about how they now found love with each other.  How they got to the Alps, we don't know.  WHY they ended up in the Alps, we don't know.  How they ended up back in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)...well, I suppose we're not suppose to take it seriously or think logically on it.  The Chulbuli Chulbuli number (where they I think express mutual attraction) has them in a desert with what I take to be Polynesian dancers accompanying them. 

Yes, musical numbers aren't really suppose to be logical in the strictest sense of the word, but this might be taking things a bit far. Doesn't take away from the lavishness of the numbers, but doesn't add to the logic of them either.

What is good about cinema is that even those who do not understand Telugu or any other Indian language will be able to follow the plot of Dookudu (as sprawling as it is).  It is because film has certain cues that tell us what is going on.  Srinu Vaitla is a competent director: the music, the camera work, and the acting all fill in the blanks for those who can't understand what is being said.  Whenever a character is close to revealing a secret he's suppose to keep quiet for comic effect, the camera moves a little closer to the character's faces, the actors have a shocked reaction, and the music is humorously menacing. 

Dookudu gets points knocked down simply because of the language barrier: how could I fully recommend a film I KNOW people will not understand (either by what is written on the screen or what is being said). Still, I didn't dislike Dookudu at all; far from it: the film was generally entertaining and certainly a damn sight better than the horrors of The Hangover Part II or The Green Hornet.

Now, finally, I'd like you to take a look at this man:


Manesh Babu
Now, get a gander at this fellow:


Eric Bana

Am I the only one who thinks they could be Australian-Indian cousins?


DECISION: C+


A Clean Sweep



JUMPING THE BROOM

I know about the concept of 'jumping the broom' thanks to Roots.  However, fortunately the African-American tradition of signifying a couple's marriage is also explained to us in Jumping the Broom itself: in slave days, where marriages between slaves was not recognized, the only way to signify a couple had been joined in matrimony was by 'jumping a broom', thus signaling to the slave community that they were wed.  As can be expected by the title, the film Jumping the Broom will be about an African-American wedding.  However, the film is also about family: the good, the bad, and the surprisingly naughty.

Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) has been going around from one guy to another, but after her latest humiliation she's made a bargain w/God: she won't sleep with another man until marriage, but God has to make it absolutely clear the man she's with is the man she's meant to be.  Wouldn't you know it: right after this bargain, she literally runs into the perfect man (and I do mean literally): one Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso).  Five incredible months later (the screen uses the word incredible), Sabrina gets a job offer from China, and Jason doesn't want to have a long-distance romance, so there's only one thing to do: he proposes.  The marriage must be done within quickly, so as incredible as it sounds, it's time for the two families to meet.

The bride's family is from hoity-toity Martha's Vineyard.  The Watsons are uber-wealthy: grande dame Claudine (Angela Basssett), her perhaps philandering husband Gregg (Brian Stokes Mitchell), and her troublesome sister Geneva (Valarie Pettiford).  They have met Jason, but know nothing of his family.

This is more than can be said for the Taylors.  They've never even met Sabrina, and a text message she sends to Taylor matriarch Pam (Loretta Devine) only serves to infuriate our working-class postal worker (how I fight the temptation to say she went postal).  Her best friend Shonda (Tasha Smith) is there to help her through the wedding plan, as is her brother-in-law Willie Earl (Mike Epps) and nephew Malcolm (DeRay Davis).  Most reluctantly, they go up to Martha's Vineyard to attend this rushed wedding, Pam complaining all the way.

Instantly, the upper-crust Watsons and salt of the earth Taylors begin a cold, cold war.  (I digress to state that most if not all the hostility comes from the Taylor side, specifically Pam, though at an especially awkward rehearsal dinner both Claudine and Pam go out of their way to be mean to each other).  Sabrina can do nothing right in Pam's eyes, while Claudine has her own problems: Gregg's 'mistress', Geneva's presence (especially a 'shocking' family secret revealed...of course, when are family secrets not shocking), and yet another scandal (financial this time...one guess as to what it could be).  Shonda is doing her best to avoid becoming a cougar with Sabrina's cousin, the ever-so-fine (and ever-so-young) Sebastian (R & B star Romeo), and Sabrina's maid of honor Blythe (Meagan Good) is doing her best to avoid Malcolm but not avoid the chef (Gary Dourdan) from cleaning her bones.  Finally, Malcolm has to contend with not being Jason's best man, that honor going to Jason's co-worker Ricky (Pooch Hall), while Willie Earl is just trying to get with the fine Geneva but other than that just watch all the weird and wild goings-on around him with a bemused pleasure.

Eventually, the crises come fast and furious: Pam doesn't like anyone not connected to her (and is displeased anyone can take her place with her little boy), Claudine is hit by one blow after another by her own family, and wedding planner Amy (Julie Bowen) is just desperate to not only put together a fantastic wedding but not say anything that could be considered offensive to her African-American employers.  Surprisingly, the idea of 'jumping the broom' IS important: Pam brought the broom she and her late husband jumped over and is shocked and angry that Sabrina and Jason won't follow the Taylor family tradition of jumping over it.   However, despite a lot of heartache and confessions (good and bad), like all good wedding stories, we have a happy ending for all, and even the Electric Slide.

Jumping the Broom has mega-pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes as producer and in a small role as Reverend James, so it's no surprise that there is a certain level of Christianity and commitment to a more positive portrayal of African-Americans in the film.  Certainly, it isn't often that we see black families portrayed as pillars of high society, and we have no sex until marriage.  What makes Jumping the Broom go beyond an African-American audience is that the trials and tribulations of weddings and any family drama are relate able across all ethnic and racial lines.  Every group has its own traditions, and each family has its own issues with odd relatives, so Jumping the Broom taps into the joys and horrors of big family gatherings.  In this case, the tradition of 'jumping the broom' serves to show the conflict between these two groups from two different worlds being brought together by their children forming one union. 

The performances under Salim Akil manage to keep balance between downright comedy and straight drama.  Patton's Sabrina did at times come off as a bit fluttery and slightly dim, and Romeo never did communicate why he'd want someone eighteen years older (and yes, old enough to be his mother).  However, it's the performances of the mothers that show what competent and talented actresses both Bassett and Devine are.  The former exudes elegance, but also the hurt of keeping her secret from her daughter.  The latter makes even her clearly mean-spirited actions almost sympathetic (I say almost because what she did, to use modern parlance, was just messed up).  Epps had the best moments as the humorous Uncle Willie Earl who is also remarkably wise in his advise to Pam (which of course, she doesn't take). 

The men were unfortunately underused.  Alonzo was a bit dull as the nearly-perfect fiancee, and Pooch's Ricky got lost in the story to where he was almost non-important as a character.  However, all this is I think more a result of Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs' screenplay than with them as actors. 

There are a few things that didn't quite work in Jumping the Broom: it's a bit cliche to have Pam show up at the exact time that the Watson family secret is revealed while the sisters are unaware they are being heard (you almost know where and when the revelation will take place).  Actually, you pretty much know where the story is going and it turns into a soap opera (in a line from the trailer which I don't remember seen in the film, Amy refers to the weekend as like being in The Bold, Black & The Beautiful) so we get no surprises.  I also think we could have had more funny moments with Amy and her efforts to integrate herself with her employers while attempting to not sound foolish. 

However, on the whole, I think Jumping the Broom was light, entertaining (if predictable) fare.  If one doesn't go into the film thinking we are going to see anything other than a mash-up of comedy/soap opera, one can enjoy Jumping the Broom as one can enjoy any wedding with a collection of wacky characters with deep issues.

DECISION: B-

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Bot, A Boy. Review of Real Steel (2011)



REAL STEEL

It is perhaps the silliest, dumbest, most moronic premise for a major movie this year (and that's including such wonderworks as The Green Hornet and The Hangover Part II): a father-son movie built around boxing robots.  It's like Rocky meets Over the Top

No, seriously, Real Steel IS like Rocky meets Over the Top: an inspirational boxing movie mixed with a father and son building a severed relationship over a bizarre sporting competition.  By all means, the film should not work, and it should be a great disaster.  Somehow, despite itself, Real Steel isn't as ridiculous as it could have been.  This isn't to say that Real Steel is good: in many ways, it's so, so wrong.  However, somehow the film stumbles into an acceptable, if not original, story.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a wastrel of the first order: shameless, irresponsible, a former boxer now using fighting robots in low-rent places like rodeos to earn quick bucks (which he appears to waste given he doesn't appear to do anything worthwhile with it).  His newest robot has been defeated in the rodeo ring (thanks to him getting distracted by a cowgirl), and as usual, he skips town before paying off his bet.  It's on the road that Charlie learns that an old girlfriend whom he knocked up long ago (a child Charlie has never bothered to see or do anything with), has died.  As the father, he now has to take some responsibility, but he doesn't want a kid to get in the way of getting a new robot that he thinks will reverse his fortune.  Fortunately for Charlie's kid, the child's aunt Debra (Hope Davis) is eager to take the child on full-time as his legal guardian.  Fortunately for Charlie, Debra's husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) wants to take his wife to Italy for the summer with friends, so they strike up a deal: in exchange for money, Charlie will take the child for the summer and will sign away his parental rights.  Everyone (except the child) wins.

With that, Debra and Marvin leave Charlie's child at his doorstep.  The child, Max (Dakota Goyo), doesn't know this man who clearly doesn't know or care for/about him, but he loves robot boxing.  Charlie uses Marvin's money to buy a new bot, and despite the misgivings of his friend/love interest Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Charlie goes off to make some money.  Unfortunately for Charlie, Max forces him to take him along.  Charlie quickly books a fight for his new robot, but while both Max and Charlie's friend/roboxing bookie Finn (Anthony Mackie) urge him to take an undercard, Charlie is so cocky he insists on the main event.  Wouldn't you know it: Charlie's robot is crushed, and now Charlie and Max have to find parts to build yet another roboxer (note: I am claiming copyright for the term roboxer/roboxing). 

In a junkyard, Max finds a sparring robot named Atom, and somehow manages to dig him out in one night.  To the surprise of everyone, Atom becomes a genuine roboxing powerhouse (namely because he is able to imitate the movements of people, in particular former boxer Charlie).  As Atom begins to take roboxing by storm, father and son soon start enjoying each other's company.  Eventually, Atom faces the Mighty Zeus, the undisputed Roboxing Champion.  One guess as to what happens to Charlie and Max, and if you've seen Rocky, one guess as to how the match ends. 

Real Steel might have just as well said in the credits "Inspired by Rocky" given how the match between Atom and the Mighty Zeus ended.  It also would have been honest if they mentioned Over the Top whenever the story focused on the father/son bonding experience as the father continues his sporting career (right down to the trailer truck both dads drive in their respective films).  I have no idea if John Gatins was inspired by the two Sylvester Stallone vehicles, the story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven, or the Richard Matheson short story Steel, which it claims to have been part of the basis for Real Steel.  However, assuming that Gatins didn't realize how Real Steel is painfully reminiscent of one of Stallone's best films (and one of his worst), it shows that in truth Hollywood does not have many (if any) original thoughts.

What brings Real Steel down is that the film at over two hours, the film is far too long for its story.  The subplot about Charlie's dealings with the cowboys makes the film run longer, getting the first fight Max is involved in makes the film longer, and seeing the 'cute' scenes of Max doing The Robot with a robot make the film longer (and while most of the audience found it hilarious and precious, I found it idiotic).  In fact, we're treated to a few more Robot doing the Robot moments, because somehow we're suppose to believe this is one of Atom's selling points to the roboxing audience. 

Everything in the film is cliched: Charlie not caring about Max until he sees just how valuable his son is, Atom's rise to the top, the climatic fight with the Mighty Zeus.  Also, the love story between Bailey and Charlie wasn't given much time (we have to see the little boy having a dance-off with a big robot).  Finally, there are things in Real Steel that don't make any sense: how on Earth did Max manage to dig an entire robot out of the ground by himself with apparently no tools to help him? 

However, despite the myriad of flaws within Real Steel, the film manages to actually be somewhat entertaining.  It can't be because of Shawn Levy's directing: Goyo makes Max one of the most annoying little boys in recent memory, and Levy manages to make little use of Lilly except as a romantic interest that never appears interested or interesting. 

If Real Steel succeeds in any way, it is because of Jackman.  He is an actual actor that sometimes has been lost in pointless films (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but every once and a while, he manages to show he is a great talent.  Granted, Real Steel doesn't show him as a great actor given his cliche role as the father who learns to love, but he does at least make the premise of the film slightly believable.  He is totally committed to being a sleazy person, but when he comes to understand that A.) he has a son, and B.) his son might actually be both smarter and a lot like him, he manages to show the caring side of someone who has never shown anything positive.

Credit should also be given where it is do: the robots do look far better integrated in Real Steel than they do in something like any of the Transformers films.  That at least offers the possibility of the plausibility of the story.

I didn't and probably will never understand why so many people in the audience were cheering Atom on in his climatic fight with the Mighty Zeus.  The whole thing was rather ridiculous from the get-go, and I can never bring myself to cheer for machines (well, given Terminator 2: Judgment Day, maybe I should rethink that).   I think we should all be grateful that Real Steel didn't turn out to be as stupid as the premise or the trailers suggested.  Personally, I've seen this movie before, and I prefer Rocky over a mechanical remake in all but name. 

DECISION: C+

Monday, October 24, 2011

Vampires And Zombies And Werewolves, Oh My!

DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT

Here again we have a curious hybrid in current filmmaking: on the one hand, it's an adaptation of a comic book, and on the other, the hoped-for launch of a franchise (any movie that has a colon as part of its title suggests that this will be just one part of more films, such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Terminator: Salvation).  Now we have Dylan Dog: Dead of Night.  Based on a comic book, Dylan Dog somewhere in it has the potential, not perhaps for a franchise, but for a good time or an effectively scary movie.  What it DOESN'T have is a heart, a brain, or the nerve to be any of the above.

Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) is a former investigator for the paranormal and peacekeeper between the supernatural factions living in New Orleans: mostly between the vampires and werewolves, since the zombies rarely bother anyone. However, an incident specified later has driven him out of the business, and he's reduced to following cheating husbands around to pay the bills.  His associate Marcus (Sam Worthington) wants to be a full partner, but Dylan continuously turns him down. 

There's a murder in New Orleans: a collector has been killed, and the dead man's daughter Elizabeth (Anita Briem) suspects there is a supernatural connection.  She contacts Dylan, who while finding that a werewolf is involved, doesn't want to get involved himself.  However, his hand is forced when this same werewolf bumps off Marcus.  Now, Dylan plunges into the investigation, where we learn that someone is after an object called The Heart of Belial: a cross that contains the blood of a powerful demon (at least I think it's a demon) who will destroy all the living and be under the control of whoever has the cross. 

Now, who is after the Heart?  Is it the vampire Vargas (Taye Diggs)?  Is it the werewolf clan, headed by Gabriel (Peter Stormare)?  To help in his investigation, we have none other than...Marcus!  That's right: in the world of Dylan Dog, not even the wacky sidekick/comic relief stays dead for long.  Marcus is a most unwilling zombie: constantly refusing to admit he's dead (despite not having an arm and being unable to eat anything other than worms, which he constantly refuses to do).  Eventually, we find that Dylan and Vargas have a past together, but while the obvious candidate for all the killings is before us, the actual mastermind (or is it mistressmind?) has manipulated the situation to attempt to bring the world under her control.

Sadly, Dylan Dog has so many things going wrong for it that despite the cult following it has, I can't imagine its hard-core fans would care for this film adaptation. First, there really is no focus as to what exactly Dylan Dog is.  Is it suppose to be a comedy?  Marcus' whole schtick appears to guide it in that direction (and one of the few bright spots involves his character attending a support group for the undead: C.O.L.D or Coalition Of the Living Dead). Is is suppose to be an action film? The 'climatic' battle between Dylan and the demon suggest that it is.  Is it suppose to be a horror film?  Certainly having werewolves and vampires suggest it is.

There in a nutshell is just one aspect of what is wrong with Dylan Dog: it always suggests that it's going to be something, but it never goes all the way in being one thing.  It can be a revenge drama, a comedy, an action film, a horror film, but it can't decide what it is, so it ends up being none of them.  When Marcus rises from the dead all of a sudden, it becomes a horror film.  When he gets a black arm to replace his white one, it is a comedy.  When he uses his arm to fight the Demon King, it's...an action comedy? 

Second, Dylan Dog has remarkably uninteresting characters and situations within a film that at least has elements to be a whole host of things.  Perhaps Routh was directed badly, or perhaps he just can't act, but as Dylan Dog he has this curiously lacquered expression throughout the film.  Whether he's fighting a demon, mourning a friend, getting information at a body shop (where they literally have bodies...get it, "body shop"), or having a love scene with his client, Routh has the same expression: one that reads one of two ways.  It can either read, "I've got to get through this because after I got blamed for Superman Returns' failure I need to show I can carry a franchise", or "I need to find another agent altogether".  When your lead is basically frozen into an expression that is a cross between disinterest and bored, you will never get off the ground (no pun intended).

As if to counter Routh's frozen face, his Superman Returns co-star Huntington appears to be overcompensating for Routh's blandness by going a bit overboard in the attempt to be the comic relief.  At times, Marcus comes off as either incredibly stupid or downright insane in his inability to accept the situation he's in.  Despite coming back to life in a morgue, despite seeing his body slowly disintegrate, despite having a black arm on his white body, he doesn't seem to get the fact that he's a zombie.  We might be able to forgive not having any real explanation as to how Marcus came back to life (it's suggested that the morgue operators, whom Dylan knows from his previous experiences as the paranormal peacekeeper), but we can't forgive Huntington constantly freaking out at nearly everything he encounters post-mortem. 

What makes this more sad is that I think Huntington is a genuinely talented actor (perhaps the ONLY bright spot in Superman Returns) who deserves so much better (Dylan Dog and as starring in television's Cavemen series will only do damage to his career, though in fairness his role in the American version of the British supernatural series Being Human not only shows he can handle comedy within a supernatural world but shows he can act if given solid material).

Diggs lives up to the 'vamp' aspect of his role, attempting to give menace to his vampire but only showing his character to be a little shy of camp.  Briem did well as the mortal in danger, until we got to the obligatory love scene (which while not unexpected, did still manage to come out of nowhere), and then cemented her failure when we had the 'shocking twist'.

Here's the thing about shocking twists: they have to be built on a logic.  Dylan Dog appears to throw in this 'shocking twist' out of nowhere, and it's a cheat to the audience to have the conclusion the film has because we're never given any clues or hints that it makes any sense at all.  It appears to be extremely random, which makes it illogical and unfair. 

However, there's even more wrong with Dylan Dog (amazing as it sounds).  The make-up is among the worst seen in a franchise attempt: the werewolves on MTV's Teen Wolf look more realistic than the ones in Dylan Dog. and certainly the zombies on The Walking Dead are a higher quality than the ones here.  I imagine that perhaps budget had something to do with it, but there's no excuse for the first werewolf we see transformed to look like he was wearing a mask bought at a store. 

Given that Kevin Munroe couldn't direct his actors (either they were hysterical or dull), he couldn't pull together an interesting story or give us any indication of what was going on.  A textbook example is when Dylan is shown changing clothes to a red shirt and black jacket.  How strange, I thought, that his wardrobe change signals an important shift (by Klaus Badelt's score and the camera work), but we the non-readers of the Dylan Dog comic book series just flat-out have no idea why it's important.  In short, we don't get it, we don't get why this change of costume is so important.  Well, actually, let me walk that back a bit.  I guess it's important because it signals Dylan is going to get involved in the case, but we won't understand why that particular red shirt, why that particular black jacket, are so vitally important to Dylan's shift from passive to aggressive.  You can't introduce elements of a story without letting us the non-readers of the series in on the joke.

Of all of Dylan Dog's sins against cinema (besides those already mentioned), it actually has two MAJOR ones.  The first is its screenplay (by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer, adapting Tiziano Sclavi's cult comic series).  There is this pathological (and illogical) reliance on voiceover in Dylan Dog that is unneccesary, maddening, and downright stupid.  Longtime readers know I have an antipathy to voiceovers (whenever we have the characters speak to us in narration).  There are exceptions to the rule: Blade Runner and Sunset Boulevard, for example, have been pointed out to me as fine examples of voiceover.  True, but then you have Ridley Scott and Billy Wilder directing, so when you have master craftsmen having voiceovers in their films they can make it work.  Having established that Kevin Munroe is nowhere in their league, we can establish that the voiceover (which appears to be trying to make Dylan Dog more a noir experience) only serves to muddle everything. 

What truly makes the voiceover in Dylan Dog insidious is that it is idiotically repetitive.  For example, early in Dylan Dog we see and are told in Dylan's voiceover that the "Truebloods" (yes, those are the vampires, though not as beautiful as in True Blood) use their own blood as a drug to sell to the mortals to get a sense of euphoria and strength.  However, when we get to Al's Body Shop (I've already established that this is suppose to be a pun) we see and hear the characters give us THE EXACT SAME INFORMATION!  Seriously, I though, why repeat what we've already been told?  How could any writer, let alone a pair of writers, not think that it made any sense to give us the same information both in voiceover AND in dialogue? 

If that weren't bad enough (and believe me, it was), making the voiceover serve as foreshadowing only compounds how disasterously wrong Dylan Dog goes.  Again and again, we hear Dylan tell us in voiceover how 'if I'd only known...', or 'I should have thought...', and this is just lazy writing.  Lazy through and through.  Don't tell us, show us: I think this advise is given to many writers, and it should have been followed here.  It was a mistake to have this kind of narration throughout the film: it sucks out (no pun intended) any sense of suspense and already tells us something is going to happen.  You can't have that kind of foreshadowing in any film because if we know what's going to happen, we aren't going to have an investment in how the situation turns out.

In fact, the pathetic and incessant use of voiceover in Dylan Dog has inspired me to establish a new Golden Rule of Filmmaking: Keep Voiceovers (Especially Voiceovers That Describe Emotional States) to An Absolute Bare Minimum.  Voiceovers that describe plot (what is going to happen, foreshadowing events), are generally a cheap way to tell a story.  True: you can use voiceover, but its use should be sparing and rare.  I know that sometimes they have to be used effectively (Sunset Boulevard is a prime example, as is All About Eve) but if you can find another way of telling the story (such as putting it on the screen), by all means do it. 

In so many ways, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night was a bore.  The climatic battle between Dylan and the Demon raised by the Heart of Bilal had no sense of urgency or danger in it.  The acting was either hyper or dull, a reflection of its chaotic inconsistency.  Its story wasn't interesting, and while some comedy moments were amusing (the support group for zombies was clever), it wasn't enough to make it worth watching (side note: I would have prefered a movie about the C.O.L.D. and the zombie support group than the supernatural goings-on). 

However, nothing, NOTHING, sinks Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, than the fact it had the conceit to think it would be a franchise.  As I've stated, the title itself announces that there was a hope that there would be a call for more Dylan Dog adventures.  However, the ending...dear God, the ending.  There goes another violation of another of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.  You have Dylan and Marcus walking away together, Marcus accepting he's a zombie and being made full partner, but both unaware that there's something behind them...No, No, No.  I HATE open-ended films.  I tolerated a lot in Dylan Dog, but that was one too much, and it pushed it down beyond salvation.  Dylan Dog will do more damage to Brandon Routh than Superman Returns' failure, and any hopes for a Dylan Dog franchise is as dead as the C.O.L.D members. 

DECISION: F

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Wrap on Reynolds



I have nothing but good things to say about Ryan Reynolds.  I've enjoyed him...or rather, I've enjoyed his work ever since Two Guys, A Girl, and A Pizza Place.   How I loved that show.  Why do I tend to like shows few people watch?  Well, I digress.

The curious thing about Reynolds is that, like Taylor Lautner, he has been objectified to where it is his body, his physique, that is the selling point as opposed to his body of work.  Is that a good thing?  Well, it's a double-edged sword.  Since the beginning of film men and women have used what God's given them to make a success in pictures.  Some (like Lautner) have nothing but their body going for them (let's be honest, Taylor Lautner is not an actor). Other, like Reynolds, have actual acting talent to back up their careers with.

Therefore, why is Ryan Reynolds involved in a lot of unpopular/bad movies?  In this last year alone, he has had not one but two flops: The Change-Up (24% positive at Rotten Tomatoes) and Green Lantern (surprisingly higher, at 27%).  I think a big part of the problem with Reynolds can be boiled down to these two films.  The Change-Up is built on the dominant Ryan Reynolds screen persona: a dim himbo who has no goals apart from schtupping beautiful women.  With his ready smirk and smooth built he can get any woman he wants, at least on screen.  This persona has haunted Reynolds since Van Wilder, perhaps even to Two Guys, A Girl, and A Pizza Place.  Looking at some of his previous work (Just Friends, Waiting..., even X-Men Origins: Wolverine) isn't he really playing the same part?  Isn't he tired of always being the overly confident sexaholic who is quick with the quips? 

Now, going to Green Lantern--well, it was a sorry disappointment to me.  I maintain that it wasn't a disaster, but it was a mess (seeing how there will be a Green Lantern 2 only makes me despair for the state of Hollywood, a place that apparently rewards failure).  One would think Reynolds would be perfect for this comic book vehicle: he's got the build, he's got the actual talent to carry the project.  It could have been like Robert Downey, Jr. with Iron-Man

Unfortunately, while Downey, Jr. and the makers of Iron-Man knew that Tony Stark could have an evolution of character without losing his cocky personality, Reynolds and the makers of Green Lantern didn't or couldn't balance the cockiness of Hal Jordan with a growth to his worldview or a sense of responsibility.  The former kept a better focus on the story, the latter just overwhelmed you with the visuals.  The former took its time to build the story (Iron-Man instills the origin aspects of the character with a strong section in Afghanistan), the latter rushed through everything it wanted to tell (Hal's training in the Green Lantern Corp, to quote Morrissey, 'it was over before (he) even began).  

Perhaps this is not Reynolds' fault alone: I doubt anyone could have done much with the lousy material.  However, when he first takes flight as a member of the G.L.C., wouldn't Hal have some emotion?  He could be excited (a pilot that could use his own body to fly), he could be terrified (how do I control this thing), he could be amazed (can this truly be real).  Instead, Reynolds as Jordan doesn't show any emotion whatsoever.  Here he is, flying, literally, flying through space itself, and...by the look of it, it's nothing special.  It was a thoroughly wasted opportunity.

Looking over his career, I see that Ryan Reynolds has had some strong performances.  For better or worse, he was the best thing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  I am perhaps one of the few defenders of Smokin' Aces, but amid all the mayhem going on, I found Reynolds' performance as the younger FBI agent to be strong, centered, emotional.  I also go to a little-seen film: Buried.  Here, Reynolds did something few actors are able to do: hold your attention and interest by himself.  It's the cinematic equivalent of a one-man show, and he did one of his best acting jobs in Buried, and it shows that with good material, Ryan Reynolds can deliver the goods. 

It is both unfortunate that both Buried was buried at the box office and that Reynolds isn't getting more roles like the ones avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling gets.  (Side note: I once offered that both Ryans look alike--even shirtless--and I stand by that, but I digress).  I think Reynolds is just as competent an actor as avant-garde actor Gosling (and I figure more fun-loving than the uber-serious, almost moody and morose avant-garde actor Gosling appears to be, Crazy Stupid Love notwithstanding).   I figure with films like Buried and Definitely, Maybe, Reynolds is attempting to stretch as an actor and shift away from his Van Wilder persona.  However, it appears the public prefers him as the goofy, smooth-talking quick witted guy that other guys could hang out with and women could sleep with than as a more serious performer.  In short, more The Proposal and less Buried

That to my mind would be a terrible shame.  Ryan Reynolds has the talent to make more serious films (along with the charm to make goofy comedies).  What he does not need is to be built up to be the big movie star with lousy vehicles like Green Lantern.  In short, he needs to be an actor, not a star.  If he wants to be an actor, he can expect to make some films that will please crowds but not be afraid of small box office returns.  He should do supporting roles in ensemble projects (like in Adventureland, even Smokin' Aces) so as to allow his talent to stand out from others, with some films where he is the center.  However, he should not take on films where he is expected to carry the whole film.  In doing that, he will aim to be a star.  If he wants to be a star, it will be the death of his career.  

With that, I wish a Happy 35th Birthday to Ryan Reynolds.  In honor of his birthday, and in order to make some people happy...



Saturday, October 22, 2011

Healing Waters

SOUL SURFER

The mere title Soul Surfer should signal that this film will have some kind of religious undertones, and I am perplexed as to how this could trouble anyone.  After all, the subject of Soul Surfer, Bethany Hamilton, has her faith at the center of her extraordinary story, and any attempt to either downplay or ignore it altogether would be disingenuous.  The film sets out to tell her story, and it does it well, so the idea that people may become irritated with how Christianity is at the heart of the film I believe would find Christianity itself to be a big problem.  That, however, is not being able to see the forest for the trees, for Soul Surfer is a strong story about how a person, guided by faith and determination, can overcome truly shocking and almost insurmountable odds.

Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) is a born surfer, with a great talent for riding the waves, not surprising given her parents Tom and Cheri (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) are themselves passionate surfers and they live in Hawai'i.  Bethany has a pretty sweet life: riding the waves, going to Youth Group, riding the waves, getting a sponsorship with the strong possibility of going pro, riding the waves, spending time with her BFF Alana (Lorraine Nicholson), riding the waves...and did we mention, she likes riding the waves? 

All things are going well for Bethany, until she takes yet another ride on the waves accompanied by her BFF and her father Holt (Kevin Sorbo).  It's at this point when Bethany is attacked by a shark as she floats on her board.  Her left arm is bitten off and there is massive loss of blood.  Rushed to the hospital (curiously, her father is having knee surgery at the precise moment Bethany suffers her attack and is taken to the same hospital where the same doctor is rushed to attend her), she is now an amputee.  With that, her hopes and dreams of being a professional surfer appear over. 

It's a time of frustration and spiritual crisis for Bethany, but taking the words of her Youth Director Sarah (country star Carrie Underwood), Bethany attempts to live her life as best she can, feeling that even this is somehow part of the Lord's plan.  The call of the sea is to strong for Bethany, and she now is determined to surf again, and she will accept no special privileges because of her condition.  It takes going on a mission trip to tsunami-ravaged Thailand to have her see that she truly doesn't have it as bad as she thought, and with her true grit and the favor of the Lord, she competes, where she loses but wins. 

Maybe it is true: if Soul Surfer weren't based on a true story, it might not be believed and seen as rather saccharine and faux-uplifting.  However, it IS based on a true story, which makes it truly inspirational that despite a horrifying incident, Bethany will not be denied.  This shouldn't shield it from some of the cliches the film embraces (such as having pop songs in montages of people surfing or voiceovers--which I'm wary of), but because this is Bethany Hamilton's story, we can take her spirit and courage at face value.

The performances by the leads were grounded in reality, never exploiting the scenario for big emotional moments.  Robb as Bethany created a whole person: a typical teenager who has to accept something extremely difficult but who still has doubts and questions as to why she is going through this awful lifetime experience.  She excelled when she had quiet moments of doubt and frustration, as as I've stated never was overly dramatic, keeping Soul Surfer from becoming overly depressing or falsely optimistic.

Quaid and Hunt worked well together (and showed that at 57 and 48 respectively they are both in incredible shape) as the parents who love their family and do their best to be supportive in extremely difficult circumstances.  Sorbo too, in a smaller role as Alana's father and Hamilton family friend, does well, although his role is relatively minor to almost being negligible.  Nicholson too had a small role, but did an effective job when putting her fears over seeing her friend.

If there are flaws to be found in Soul Surfer, the story manages to overcome them.  I can't be too harsh with Underwood: it's clear she's not an actress, but we won't hold it against her since we know she's there for name recognition and perhaps to start a career in front of the cameras, following the leads of other country stars like Dwight Yoakum and Tim McGraw). 

Having a total of four official screenwriters (director Sean McNamara, Michael Berk, and Deborah and Douglas Schwartz), and seven people receiving story credits (the first four, along with Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, and Brad Gann), in a surprise, doesn't make Soul Surfer lose focus entirely.  However, I don't think it has to do with getting seven people together and finding a wealth of talent.  Rather, it is because they were working from Bethany's memoir, they could not deviate far from her story. 

Not that they didn't give it an effort to.  You have a subplot about a hint of a possible romance between Bethany and her friend Keoki (Cody Gomes), and the cliched 'villain' of Soul Surfer, a fellow surfer with the appropriately wicked name of Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores Chung): a name that suggests she's one letter away from being a real...well, take a guess.  Malina even wears a black swimsuit...now there's a subtle hint.  Some of the moments (such as when the Hamiltons fight among themselves over how Bethany's dismemberment affects them) fall a little flat. 

On the whole, however, Soul Surfer is a strong story about a strong woman, someone who has gone through a horrible situation and has not only gone on to success despite it but has inspired others in similar situations.  Soul Surfer has Bethany saying near the end, "You have to lose what you most want to gain what you most need".  She is an inspiration, and Soul Surfer is attempting to be inspirational.  Bethany Hamilton succeeds; the film, a little less so. 

DECISION: B-

  

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Family Fight

WARRIOR

I still maintain that the UFC is a Sign of the End of Western Civilization, popularity be damned.  It is reminiscent of what I imagine gladiatorial contests must have been, the brutality of seeing two men battle each other into a bloody pulp is something I just don't understand.  I don't see the similarity between mixed martial arts and boxing.  I think that comes from the fact that boxing requires the fight to stay on the upper body (hence the negative connotation in the expression 'hitting below the belt') while MMA has them sweep the leg (sometimes even break it).  Be that as it may, MMA is for now a popular sporting event, and Warrior is capitalizing on this niche to tell a rather simple story: two brothers having to fight (literally and metaphorically) against each other and the ghosts of the past.  While Warrior does not reach the level of Rocky or The Fighter, it has a lot of heart and passion in its telling that make up for its flaws.

Tommy Reardon (Tom Hardy) has come back from serving in the Marines.  Directionless, he finds himself at the home of his father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte).  Paddy has turned his life around: he's been sober for twenty-some years and has found/rediscovered his Catholic faith.  Tommy is not one to forgive how abusive his dad was when he was a lush, or how he and his mom had to leave, or how his mom died shorty afterward.  In short, Tommy doesn't think much of Daddy.  However, Dad was a good trainer, and the former wrestling star is now inspired to go into the Sparta Tournament, a battle royale of MMA, especially after having taken down a fierce fighter virtually with no experience.  The purse will come in handy to help the widow of a friend from the war for reasons made clear later.  Tommy asks Paddy to train him even though he still hates his dad.

Not that his older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) thinks much of Dad either.  While Tommy's world is all darkness and despair, Brendan's is remarkably bright and sunny.  A chemistry teacher, he has his loving wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) and two daughters.  However, he is having problems of his own: the mortgage crisis has affected his home, and he needs a quick way of raising the money to keep their home.  Luckily for him, he knows a bit of mixed martial arts, and can earn some money fighting on the side.  The visible injuries Brendan has after a fight attract the attention of school administrators, who promptly suspend him, but this is a positive: it gives him a chance to get into the Sparta Tournament.  He trains, and the Conlons are on a collision course. 

Eventually, they make it to Atlantic City, where they fight, and they fight, culminating in a battle between them for the championship.  This after family secrets are revealed, and Tommy's real identity (he had been using his mother's maiden name throughout) and his actions in Iraq (both good and bad) are exposed.

Warrior certainly has heart: Cliff Dorman, Anthony Tambakis, and director Gavin O'Connor create a story that is not just about mixed martial arts but also about a most dysfunctional family.  O'Connor to his credit shows the difference between Tommy and Brendan with Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography: often Tommy's world is shown with dark hues and gritty surroundings, while Brendan tends to be seen with bright sunlight around him.  It suggests the worlds they live in: Brendan's more positive life with wife, job, and children as opposed to Tommy's dark world.

Out of the three main performances, Nolte was the one that carried the most weight.  He created a character who has made peace with his own demons but has not made peace with his own sons, who both detest him and want nothing to do with him.  In his first scene Nolte underplayed the hurt his son is inflicting on him by rebuking his past actions and mocking his sobriety and return to faith.  He does the same when trying to speak to Brendan, which makes Paddy's eventual (but not surprising) fall off the wagon even sadder.  Hardy (the future Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) is all angry and growling with perhaps one exception: when he speaks to the widow of his best friend from Iraq. 

I digress to point out that his buddy's widow, a Hispanic woman from El Paso (my hometown) is portrayed in a stereotypical way: in a run-down home who answers the phone and speaks primarily in Spanish.  Sorry, boys: my house is not a mansion, but structurally sound, and I answer my phones in English.  However, judging from the looks of the house, she appears to live in the Northeast.  This subplot about Tommy's actions (both good and bad) in Iraq are efforts to give him motivation to enter the contest and discovered by a remarkable series of coincidences (one that do appear to be a little hard to believe).  However, you have to go with it to make Warrior work.

Edgerton's Brendan communicates a truly loving husband and father, making him a sympathetic character whom we can root for.  Since we care about his situation (with the situation being a relate able one), we can get emotionally involved in seeing him succeed.  A man who fights for his family is a hero.

One clever idea in Warrior involves the cliche of the training montage.  Since we have two people training for the same event, we have to have split screens between Tommy and Brendan, but thanks to the editing we have the brothers in boxes floating around while one image gives way to another.  The cleverness here is that both Conlon brothers are not short shifted in screen time. 

This isn't to say Warrior doesn't have some flaws.  Tommy's behavior, especially at the Sparta Tournament, is so unpleasant that he becomes extremely unsympathetic.  While his actions in Iraq may be a motivating factor in his anti-social behavior, he really is the same surly individual throughout the film.  There is also an effort to build up the battles the brothers have with the other opponents (even though we already know they will meet up at the climatic battle).  It also is a bit hard to believe that Brendan's students would not be able to watch the Sparta Tournament together (especially since it was broadcast on ESPN) or that the whole school would be rallying to his side. 

On the whole, Warrior knows what it is trying for: an inspiration story about two brothers fighting for more than the cash reward.  One fights for his family, one fights to ease his conscience, and even Paddy fights for something: the love of his sons he has done wrong.  To their credit the fight scenes are intense and on the whole well-filmed (though they can't resist the fast-moving camera people are currently enamoured with).  Maybe it is a bit ridiculous to think that these two brothers would fight it out in the ring.  However, if you don't focus too much on that, Warrior is an entertaining main event. 

DECISION: B-

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Best That You Can Do Is Skip This Film

ARTHUR (2011)

*Author's note: as per policy we will not compare the 2011 version of Arthur to the 1981 version.  In another posting, comparisons will be done.  For now, we will review Arthur 2011 on its own merits. 

I have never understood Russell Brand (and I'm not referring to his accent).  I don't understand why he is considered a 'comedic genuis' given that I don't find him funny.  I also simply cannot comprehend his reputation as this amazing lover for whom all women lust for given that I think he's one of the ugliest men in all Creation.  Now, I have to say that I haven't seen as of today either Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which I kept referring to as 'Forgetting Sarah Silverman'--and believe me, I'd like to) or Get Him to The Greek.  Therefore, Arthur is the first real taste I've gotten of Russell Brand and his unique 'comedic genius'.  Now, granted, Brand is playing a character, so he's confined to a particular role as opposed to doing his schtick, but after Arthur I can't help think that his schtick is pretty much like the film: it THINKS its funny but is really boring and lacking in entertainment.

Arthur Bach (Brand) is a wastrel of a man: a billionaire born into wealth who indulges some rather bizarre behavior (the film opens with him and his driver racing down the streets of New York City in the Batmobile with them dressed as Batman and Robin).  His mother Vivienne (Geraldine James) is irritated by her son's antics, especially since they will bring bad publicity to the corporation she runs, and which Arthur will one day operate (though given his behavior it doesn't seem possible that any sane person would leave him in charge of a dog, let alone a billion-dollar company).  Arthur has only his driver Bitterman (Luis Guzman) and his nanny Hobson (Dame Helen Mirren) to enable his drinking and erratic (daresay insane) behavior. 

In order to make Arthur more mature, Vivienne has decided its time for Arthur to marry.  The chosen bride?  Susan (Jennifer Garner), who is wealthy thanks to her construction-tycoon father (Nick Nolte).  Arthur doesn't want to marry her, but if he doesn't, he'll be cut off.  Therefore, he chooses the lesser of two evils.  It's at this time that Arthur meets Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who runs an unauthorized tour of Grand Central Station.  In quick succession, Arthur falls in love with Naomi, but Susan will not be denied: she will marry Arthur to 'move up' in society and take over the Bach Corporation.   Arthur attempts to earn a living (failing spectacularly at it), and even is coerced by Hobson to go to A.A. (which also flops). 

However, Hobson falls ill of a mysterious disease, and her illness and death do at first make him try to sober up, but he still plunges into a bender.  He agrees to marry, but in the end, cannot do it.  He is cut off, but Naomi (who for some reason became upset at Arthur's suggestion she could be his mistress after he marries), won't take him.  Six months later, Arthur appears to be totally sober, doing for himself, and discovers Naomi at the public library, reading from her children's book.  With that, the lovers reunite.

Arthur's biggest problem (out of many, many, many problems), is that we never believe Arthur is an actual alcoholic.  There are long stretches when we don't see Arthur actually drinking on screen.  Instead, we see Arthur as an annoying, lazy, self-absorbed individual who may be quite literally insane.  His behavior cannot be attributed to a serious drinking problem, but to an amazing narcissism and thorough cluelessness about anything outside himself.  At best, Arthur is immature, at worse, downright bonkers.  How else to explain him buying a suit once owned by Abraham Lincoln at an auction and then walking out wearing it?

Even worse, everyone around Arthur is enabling him to a degree that is flat-out impossible for any sane person to believe.  No one (especially Vivianne or Naomi) question why a man in his thirties (who indulges every whim, particularly sexual), still has a nanny

Allow me to digress for a moment.  Perhaps screenwriter Peter Baynham (adapting the Steve Gordon script from the original film) and director Jason Winer thought it would be innovative and revolutionary to switch genders on the Hobson character by making the valet into a nanny.  However, the end result makes no sense.  While no one would question why a wealthy man (even a serious lush like Arthur Bach) would have a valet (as many wealthy men have manservants), an adult male having a nanny for over thirty years goes beyond illogical.  It makes the Arthur character hopelessly immature, almost imbecilic, and makes it appear that everyone around him is coddling someone who needs help, not someone to help him "wash his winkie" (and having a grown man refer to his penis as his 'winkie' only makes things worse).  

Really, what you have in Arthur is a story of insanity: every person in the film just doesn't have either a brain or a heart (in some cases, both).  Hobson never shows how or why she cares for Arthur (given that she can barely hide her contempt for his irrational and irresponsible behavior but never actually intervenes either subtlety or overtly to get him to stop drinking or doing nutty things).  A rational Vivienne would never even contemplate allowing Arthur (who has apparently never held a job in his life or a thought in his brain) to be in charge of a company.  Susan makes it clear she is only interested in Arthur for his family name, allowing her to enter into high society.  However, there's a strange and contradictory sense in her character.  One moment she's telling Arthur she wants this marriage so people will stop thinking of her as the daughter of 'the contractor from Pittsburgh", but then the next moment she's attempting to seduce an oddly unwilling Arthur (oddly because from all appearances he isn't particular about who he sleeps with).  Even if in this case SHE was the drunk one, it still doesn't make any sense. 

While Susan's motives are clear (because she tells us), Naomi's are less so.  We never get a love connection (or any connection really) between her and Arthur.  In a remarkably short time we're expected to believe they fell totally in love (in about one date), but there's never a reason to think Naomi would find Arthur attractive (even if he is played by the allegedly sexually powerful Brand). 

The performances actually made me sad.  I actually felt sorry for Garner: even if she isn't the best actress around she deserves much better than this sorry script.  Here, curiously, is another problem with Arthur: we have no sympathetic characters, no one we can genuinely care about (and thus, care about their plight).  Susan is a flat-out bitch, so we don't care about her.  Granted, we're suppose to not want Arthur to marry her, but we don't get why Naomi would want to marry Arthur.  (Side note: about the only rational thing any character did was when Naomi ordered Arthur out of her home after he suggested, but did not state flat-out, that she could be his mistress.  At best, it makes him clueless, at worst, hopeless selfish). 

Mirren, as I've stated, never demonstrated why she stayed with someone she doesn't appear to like, let alone love.  Any sane person would have tried to get her charge to stop sleeping in a room where she turns out the bedroom lights and have Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star play over large models of the solar system (hope it included Pluto, which I still consider a planet, astronomers be damned).

As for Arthur himself, we don't like him, not because he's an alcoholic or even a heavy drunk (I'd argue he isn't either) but because he's so unlikeable: selfish, clueless, immature to the point of being an imbecile.  And those are his GOOD points.  Brand appears to have a one-note persona: with his wild eyes and mane of hair making him look like a drugged-out hippie, he thinks that by being frenetic he is endearing.  Given how inept he is at everything (his one effort at working shows just how immature he is in a particularly painfully unfunny scene), how he grew into a moderately mature sober individual in those unseen six months we neither know, believe, or care. 

I make it a policy to not consider the original in a remake, but when The Best That You Can Do (Arthur's Theme) is played (albeit barely audible) in Arthur and Naomi's date, it a sign that the film is all but begging me to make comparisons.  I don't like those moments when a remake forces us to recall the original.  That kind of thing can be done in a clever way, but here, it's not.

Everything in Arthur goes wrong: the story (in particular the romance between Arthur and Naomi) is rushed, the characters remarkably unlikeable, an effort to make the childhood loss of Arthur's father as a reason for his genuinely nutty behavior a cheap excuse for a grown man's irresponsibility, playing Alcoholics Anonymous for laughs (given how dismissive he is of the A.A. group he was cajoled into attending only makes him MORE unsympathetic), and some pretty lousy performances (one does wonder how Russell Brand can be a 'comedic genius' ranking with Benny, Ball, Pryor, or Carlin when he can be so awful in a film). 

Arthur is just a bad film.  It isn't funny.  It isn't romantic.  It's just a vanity exercise for someone who thinks he's brilliant but who is just hopelessly annoying and elevated to a level he has not earned or is likely to.  You'd think Russell Brand would then be perfect as Arthur Bach since they share similar traits.  However, Arthur at least has the excuse that he is suffering from alcoholism, not a low level of talent. 

Allow me one last parting shot: I don't know why Arthur appears to be so terrified of horses, given that Russell Brand looks like one.

DECISION: F