Monday, October 31, 2011

Gaspar Henaine 'Capulina': A Personal Remembrance

Gaspar Henaine "Capulina": 1923-2011

Que Siga La Risa!

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 '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 usual bumbling 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': 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 today's comedians, 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 humor translated.  I'm just glad I can follow it.

Buenas noches, Capulina.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Ray of Light. Satyajit Ray: The Great Directors Retrospective



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 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 (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.  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.

As I study more of Ray's films, from Charulata to The Apu Trilogy, I see the craftsmanship in his work.  I look forward to exploring this fascinating filmography.

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

The Way (2011): A Review (Review #283)


A Long Walk Ruined...

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 ophthalmologist whose exclusive diversion is playing golf.  While on the course, he receives extremely bad news: his estranged only son Daniel (writer/director 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, metaphorically completing 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. 

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.  Every once in a while, Daniel appears to his father, a metaphorical ghost to his 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.  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 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 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.  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, but The Way does something that I so detest in film, another Golden Rule of FilmmakingDon'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.   

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 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, it was yet another cliché and used far too often; moreover, 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 which push the film down.  In the most curious of situations, the ambitions of The Way got in the way of The Way


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jack Carson: A Birthday Appreciation

JACK CARSON: 1910-1963

Our Man Jack...

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; curiously enough, both were in Mildred Pierce. 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 (read: 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, Carson as Fay still has smart comments for the coppers bringing him in.

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 talents were 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.

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, where Doris Day made her film debut.  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. 

If there is a 'signature' role for Carson, it is as 'Jack Carson', a shameless ham.  In It's A Great Feeling, he played a humorous version of himself, a shameless ham with no talent other than his self-promotion.  It's odd that despite how they were paired, the comedy due of Carson and Dennis Morgan never really took off.

In reality, Carson was a highly gifted talent, one who excelled in comedy but who

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 underappreciated 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 will ever make Jack Carson their "Star of the Month" or a feature in their Summer Under the Stars marathon.  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

Dookudu (Aggression): A Review


Dookudu is neither dubbed or subtitled, 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 Telugu, 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.

However, I wanted to experience my first real journey into Indian cinema.  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?  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, 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. 

I should note that I may have gotten some things wrong, what with the language barrier and all. As much as I understood of the film, the sprawling plot goes something like this: 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 Politician's 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 unbeknownst to him is the daughter of his superior officer (one who got shot by Ajay in the buttocks during a raid).  Prashanti rebuffs Ajay at first, but I don't have to be a Tollywood 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; 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 used). 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 Tollywood 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 Tollywood films to have the fighting seem exaggerated, 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 does the action scenes well, 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 Tollywood 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, 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 Tollywood 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. 

In Dookudu 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 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. 

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.


Jumping the Broom: A Review


A Clean Sweep...

The African-American tradition of signifying a couple's marriage is explained to us in Jumping the Broom itself: in slave days, where marriages between slaves were 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: 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 that five months have passed without this happening, it's time for the two families to meet.

The bride's family is from chic Martha's Vineyard.  The Watsons are upper-crust: 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, but I digress. 

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.  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, a 'shocking' family secret revealed and yet another scandal, this one financial. 

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.  The idea of 'jumping the broom' is important to Pam, who 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, 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 film. 

It isn't often that we see black families portrayed as pillars of high society and the concept of no premarital sex.  What makes Jumping the Broom go beyond appealing to just an African-American audience is that the trials and tribulations of weddings and any family drama are relatable 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, 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 used in the film, Amy refers to the weekend as like being in The Bold, Black & The Beautiful.  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.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Real Steel (2011): A Review (Review #280)


A Bot, A Boy...

It is perhaps the silliest, dumbest, most moronic premise for a major movie this year: a father-son movie built around boxing robots.  It's like Rocky meets Over the Top. or Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em: The Movie.  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 has died.  As the father to a child Charlie has never bothered to see or do anything with, 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 under-card, 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 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 ideas.

What brings Real Steel down is that the film at over two hours 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; 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, and frankly the little boy having a dance-off with a big robot could have been cut. 

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 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.  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 he has a son and 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. 

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. Still, I didn't hate it, so there's that.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. A Review


Vampires and Zombies and Werewolves, Oh My!

Any movie that has a colon as part of its title suggests that this will be the start of a franchise: 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 or a comedic romp. 

Dylan Dog, however, is just a disaster of a film.

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 finds that a werewolf is involved, but he himself doesn't want to get involved in this business.  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 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 shtick appears to guide it in that direction: one of the few bright spots involves his character attending a C.O.L.D or Coalition Of the Living Dead support group meeting.

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 or another.  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 costar Huntington appears to be overcompensating for Routh's blandness by going 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 having the vaguest explanation as to how Marcus came back to life, but we can't forgive Huntington constantly freaking out at nearly everything he encounters postmortem. 

What makes this more sad is that I think Huntington is a genuinely talented actor who deserves so much better.

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 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' that was anything but.

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 recent years; the werewolves on MTV's Teen Wolf look more realistic than the ones in Dylan Dog. There's no excuse for the first werewolf we see transformed to look like he was wearing a mask bought at a store. 

Kevin Munroe couldn't direct his actors to show anything other than hysteria or dullness; he also couldn't pull together an interesting story or give us any indication of what was going on. 

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 voice-over in Dylan Dog that is unnecessary, maddening, and downright stupid.

What truly makes the voice-overs in Dylan Dog insidious is that it is idiotically repetitive.  For example, early in Dylan Dog we see and are told in Dylan's voice-over that the vampires or  "Truebloods" 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 we see and hear the characters give us the exact same information! 

Seriously, 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 voice-over and in dialogue? 

If that weren't bad enough, making the voice-over serve as foreshadowing only compounds how disastrously wrong Dylan Dog goes.  Again and again, we hear Dylan tell us in voice-over how 'if I'd only known...', or 'I should have thought...', and this is just lazy writing. 

In fact, the pathetic and incessant use of voice-over in Dylan Dog has inspired me to establish a new Golden Rule of Filmmaking: Keep Voice-overs (Especially Voice-overs That Describe Emotional States) to An Absolute Bare Minimum

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 preferred a movie about C.O.L.D. and the zombie support group than the supernatural goings-on. 

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...

I tolerated a lot in Dylan Dog, but that was one too much, and it pushed it down beyond salvation.  Dylan Dog: Dead of Night 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. 


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Soul Surfer: A Review


Healing Waters...

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.  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 Hawaii.  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.

All things are going well for Bethany, until she takes yet another ride on the waves accompanied by Alana 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 where 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 too 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 a greater prize.

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 voice-overs, 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 as the parents who love their family and do their best to be supportive in extremely difficult circumstances. They also showed that at 57 and 48 respectively they are both in incredible shape. 

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).  Malina even wears a black swimsuit.  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. 

Born 1990


Friday, October 21, 2011

Warrior (2011): A Review


Mixed Martial Arts or 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 Daddy Paddy to train him even though he still hates his dad.

Not that Tommy's 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 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 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 it is 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 in Iraq are efforts to give him motivation to enter the contest and discovered by a remarkable series of coincidences 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, 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 enamored 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. 


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Arthur (2011): A Review

ARTHUR (2011)

I have never understood Russell Brand, and I'm not referring to his accent.

I don't understand why he is considered a 'comedic genius'.  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 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 shtick, but after Arthur I can't help think that his shtick 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, such as him and his driver racing down the streets of New York City in the Batmobile with them dressed as Batman and Robin for no known reason.  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 genuinely 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 back.  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 clueless nature 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, an adult male having a nanny for over thirty years goes beyond illogical.  It makes Arthur 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 and 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: odd 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, but there's never a reason to think Naomi would find Arthur attractive in any way. 

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.  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.

As for Arthur himself, we don't like him, not because he's an alcoholic or even a heavy drunk but because he's so unlikable: 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, how he grew into a moderately mature sober individual in those unseen six months we neither know, believe, or care. 

Everything in Arthur goes wrong: the story, in particular the romance between Arthur and Naomi, is rushed, the characters remarkably unlikable, 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, and some pretty lousy performances.

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.