Tuesday, August 30, 2011

No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky


HEREAFTER

As odd as it may sound, for a film about death, Hereafter is rather depressing, and slow, and boring.  When one explores the idea of life after death, you come at it from two views: it is real or it is not.  Hereafter decides that there is something 'out there', but doesn't provide any evidence for it.

Hereafter ties three stories which I've dubbed London, Paris, San Francisco.  We start with Paris (which I should technically call Thailand, but most that storyline takes place in Paris).  Journalist Marie (Cecile de France) is vacationing in Thailand with her lover.  While shopping for gifts for his children, she happens to find herself in the Tsunami of 2004.  She dies for a moment, and in that time she experiences a strange vision: a white light with people all around, including a girl she tried to rescue. 

Shift to San Francisco.  There is George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a working-class dock worker who has the power to communicate with the dead.  This ability once made him famous but it became too much for him, so he turned his back on his powers and has become a bit of a recluse.  His brother Billy (Jay Mohr) has persuaded him to give a reading to an important client of his.  With a touch, George is able to see 'the other side' and the dead can speak through him.  George hates this ability, and it cripples him emotionally.

Now to London.  Twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie & George McLaren) live with their drug and alcohol-addicted mother Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal), but despite this they love her deeply.  Both are thrilled when she finally takes steps to get self-treatment for her addictions, but after getting her medication Jason is harassed by hooligans for the medicine and his mobile (cellular) phone.  As he tries to flee, he is hit by a van and dies.

Paris is naturally traumatized by her near-death experience.  She decides there is a story here yet to be explored, so in her leave of absence from her job as a top journalist (the Diane Sawyer of France I figure), she decides to investigate the hereafter.  San Francisco just wants to live as normal a life as possible, taking night courses and hesitantly starting a romance with fellow student Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) before being talked by Billy into starting up his readings.  London mopes through life, losing his brother and his mother through her rehab, wearing Jason's baseball cap and consulting all sorts of quacks to try to contact his dead brother.  Ultimately, London is saved from the London bombings of 2005.

Eventually, all three stories converge: Paris manages to publish her book and goes to the London Book Fair to promote it.  San Francisco decides he needs to get away and, being passionate about Charles Dickens, decides to go to London--where fortuitously Sir Derek Jacobi is giving a reading of Little Dorrit at the London Book Fair.   London is taken to the London Book Fair by his foster parents to see a former foster child to help him through his troubles, and there London recognizes San Francisco.  London convinces San Francisco to give him a reading, and in return he finds Paris' address for San Francisco to hook up with (apparently in every way).

Each story has a terrible tragedy within it and Peter Morgan's script will eventually tie all these stories together (it wouldn't make sense to introduce them and not have them connect somehow).  I found that Hereafter reminds me of a funeral: the tone is reverential, quiet, somber, joyless and filled with a vague hope of "a better world beyond".  Death is a serious matter, a situation where sadness takes hold.  However, Hereafter does nothing to bring comfort or a sense of hope.  It asks questions about mortality but while offering a vague answer (there is something out there where all people exist and can communicate with us) the film doesn't give the viewer any sense that this is a good thing.  We all die, Hereafter appears to say, but we exist in a vague shadow existence.

Curious that I keep using the word "vague" to describe Hereafter.  I think this has to do with the fact that the film doesn't want to take a firm stand on the issue of the afterlife: it doesn't describe life after death as the traditional view of Heaven (because that would be endorsing one religious view over another) but instead gives us some 'mystical' view of the afterlife.  It's a bit like the ancient Greek view of Hades: the dead wandering about, conscious of who they are but really having nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no hope of things getting better. 

Here's where Hereafter goes wrong.  The entire premise of the film is insulting to both believers and non-believers.  For those that don't believe, the mere idea that there is an afterlife is anathema--once you die, you die.  That's it.  Game over.  You are food for worms.  As Melanie's lover Didier (Thierry Neuvic) tells her, the light goes out.  For those that do believe, it is blasphemy to contact the dead.  Spiritualism would be rejected in every way by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Therefore, while all faiths may adhere to the belief in an afterlife, they certainly wouldn't go about trying to reach those in the great beyond, and certainly not by psychics and spiritualists.  With that in mind, the entire idea of George being correct, of someone being able to contact with the dead, is likewise anathema.

In a curious side note, the times there is some sort of take on death by a religious figure, it shows that faith-based views of death are wholly unsatisfying; the minister at Jason's funeral appears himself to not believe himself in an afterlife, rushing through the service to accommodate a Sikh funeral (which makes me think the British really are slipping back to some sort of paganism, but I digress).  When Marcus goes on YouTube to listen to Islamic and Christian views of the afterlife, neither give him comfort (the former appears to frighten him). 

It's to Clint Eastwood's credit as a director that he is willing to tackle such heady (and heavy) subject matter.  However, it's unfortunate that it opted for a more mystical take on the subject, of this idea that we do live on, but in some sort of shadow-world, one with no hope, no sense of purpose or justice (if everyone who dies goes into this shadow-world, then Adolph Hitler and Anne Frank are sharing the same space--I figure Rob Bell would believe Hereafter is accurate since it subscribes to his view of life after death, but again I digress). 

One thing that really sunk the movie was the ending: having Paris and San Francisco get together (and suggesting via a 'vision' that there will be a romance between them) is so out of left field that it rings false.  It is almost like having to say we have to end with a version of a positive note.  It also suggests that George is not only a medium, but can see the future, which we haven't had suggested before. 

Another digression: George Lonegan can see and hear from someone's dead relatives just by merely touching them, and all I could think of was that having sex for him must have been a nightmare; since sex involves touching someone all over, he wouldn't have enjoyed sex since he would be surrounded by dead people.  Granted, I'm being facetious, but if just by touching someone brings the dead to him, just imagine when he's rolling his hands all over someone.

As befits the subject matter, almost all the performances in Hereafter are somber and morose.  Damon was unconvincing as George, perpetually whining about his 'curse', always protesting he won't do any readings (but somehow always getting talked into them).  The psychic doth protest too much, I thought.  De France was also serious as the journalist who wants to be hard-headed and realistic but who begins to wonder if there is something 'out there'.  The McLaren boys are appropriately depressing as twins who lose each other to death, but whom cannot be separated by it.

Now, the opening with the tsunami was quite well done and frighteningly realistic, but once we get over the shock of that tragedy and plunge (no pun intended) into our story of the vagueness of post-mortem existence, Hereafter becomes a heavy, downbeat, and dull experience. 

The film appears to say, don't worry: there is life after death, but it's really an unhappy existence. Most people think of life after death in hopeful terms, of knowing that we will meet those we love again. Hereafter offers a different view: not only is life meaningless and absurd, but so is life after death.  There is a nihilism in Hereafter, a somberness in it that makes watching the whole thing less a meditation of what could or is out there in the great beyond and more a case for neither living or dying.  Hereafter instead is a rather hopeless film: one that says nothing about what is attempting to address.  There is no hope despite saying that we go on after we die. In knowing that no matter where we are, we will all eventually meet and connect with the dead, Hereafter is Crash For Dead People

DECISION: D-

Monday, August 29, 2011

Fanning Out Across Time

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN

I can't help thinking that somewhere in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a good movie was to be found.  Where exactly it went wrong is quite simple: it started almost from the beginning to not trust the audience, either those who had read Lisa See's novel on which the film was based on or those who hadn't. 

This mistrust of the audience comes from the fact that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan went from one story to two stories: the actual story about Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Bingbing Li) in 19th Century China AND the story of Sophia (Jun again) and Nina (Li again) in 21st Century Shanghai.  To make things a bit more complex, both stories are basically the same.  I'm not opposed to parallel stories per se, but here, I think it wasn't necessary and only served to make things more muddled.

Let's start with the ancient story.  Snow Flower is from a wealthy family, while Lily is from humble origins.  In 19th Century China, they had the lovely custom of foot-binding, where young girl's feet were purposely bound to shape them into a circle.  What price beauty?  Out of the shape of the feet, a matchmaker could find not only the appropriate spouse but also a laotong, a sister for life to whom one could confide the deepest secrets to the other.  The code for the laotong is cryptic writing within fans they would exchange (hence the title).  Lily's feet are perfect (mis)shaped, so she is married to the son of a wealthy merchant.  Snow Flower's,  not so much, so it's off to the butcher's--literally, she gets married off to one.  We go through their lives as the sensitive Snow Flower grows to accept her sorry lot while the sensitive Lily empathizes for her friend as they live through tragedy after tragedy.

21st Century Shanghai has pretty much the same story (except for the foot binding--mercifully no longer considered as beautiful as say, destroying Tibetan culture).  Nina and Sophia meet in school, the former a poor Korean girl who tutors her wealthy friend.  Learning about the Chinese tradition of laotong, they decide this is perfect for them (side note: what they called laotong we now call BFF.  The more things change...).  When we first meet them, Nina has just been promoted at her financial institution to the New York office, while Sophia has fallen on hard times.  A bicycle accident puts Sophia in a coma, leaving Nina devastated.  Going to her in the hospital, she starts uncovering Sophia's muddled life.  Sophia was working on a story about two girls in 18th Century China named Lily and Snow Flower, drawing from the collection of secret fans in her family's collection, while in her own private life she was in a on-off relationship with an Australian named Arthur (Hugh Jackman--that's right, Wolverine himself). 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan intercuts between these two stories in Angela Workman, Ron Bass, and Michael K. Ray's screenplay, and the fact that they are so similar is one of the problems for the film.  It's a bad thing because just as you become interested in one story, you shift to the other.  Furthermore, director Wayne Wang never can quite bring these two stories together.  It looks like there were two films that were sliced together to make one.  While I wouldn't be a big fan of the transitional device of having Nina read Snow Flower & Lily's story as a way of going into the past section of the film, it at least would blend the two stories together better than how they ended up.  We also have to say that the Modern story has already so much in it, particularly of how Nina makes this discovery of who Sophia was and how she ended up to where she was, that their story almost makes the Ancient story of Snow Flower and Lily almost superfluous (and I think the Ancient Story was suppose to be the center point of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to begin with). 

The Modern story could have been interesting in itself: a discovery of where Sophia's life started going wildly different from Nina's, of how two laotongs became separated but still held on to something of their friendship, even to where Nina would continue Sophia's work on her book.  By putting in two parallel stories together, we only end up short-shifting both.

The nadir of how Wang attempted to connect the stories of Nina and Sophia and of Snow Flower and Lily was when Lily and Nina literally meet, and I do mean literally: somehow Nina ends up, ever so briefly, in Lily's dining room.  It's one thing to get the symbolism of these two women, so similar but from different worlds and times, meeting.  It's another to have it make any sense in terms of the film we're watching.

One big problem in having these two stories in one film was that the transitions kept telling us where in time we were.  I note that the screen told us the year the Ancient story began (1829) then we saw "One Year Later", "One Year Later", Two Years Later", "Six Months Later" (the last one in the Modern story only).  I kept thinking that we as the audience would know time had elapsed, so why keep telling us over and over exactly how often it elapsed. 

Still, I won't lie: I think Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has much going for it.  Both Li (as the fortunate Lily and Nina) and Jung (as the highborn yet downtrodden Snow Flower and Sophia) gave decent albeit quiet performances (even though they basically played the same characters in both stories).  I also add that Jackman didn't appear to be there as some form of stunt casting or cameo (and we not only get the bonus of seeing Jackman on screen, but also hearing him A.) speak in his native Australian accent, B.) sing, and C.) sing in Mandarin!  Let's see any of the kids from X-Men: First Class top that!). His character did appear relevant to the plot (though not a big part of it). 

A film like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan also had the bonus of being a costume picture, and here, the rich Oriental wardrobe of pre-revolutionary China are beautiful, as is Rachel Portman's gentle score. I also note Zhuobo Fang as Mrs. Liao, Sophia's stepmother.  She is in turns haughty, traditional, snobbish, and when we last see her, a bitter, broken old woman.  It was a good performance especially given that it was a very small part. 

However, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan never made a strong emotional impact about what we're suppose to believe are lifelong friends.  This I think is because the Modern story sunk the Ancient story and vice-versa:  the hopping about from one to the other only ended up sucking the life out of each other like vampires devouring each other.  If we had gotten just one story (and unlike other people, I don't run in fear from subtitles), we could have had a better film.  The film DID get me to think about my own friendships, so that's a plus (that, and Hugh Jackman breaking into Mandarin song--always a plus).  I think the frustration comes from the fact that it could have been more, it could have been better.  This film, sadly, won't win many fans.

DECISION: D+ 

Three Rights Make One Wrong

EAT PRAY LOVE

Ah, the problems rich white women must endure as they float through life: too many men wanting them, too many places to see, too much food to eat...how DO THEY cope?  What agony it must be to leave your high-paying job and travel to Italy, India, and Bali (all expenses paid) to 'find yourself'.  I imagine a woman in say, Somalia or Afghanistan does exactly what Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat Pray Love all the time--travel the world, find new lovers everywhere, and find that to have peace, they must have balance...and a man.  After all, women around the world are interested in only one thing and one thing only: men (Gloria Steinem be damned). 

Eat Pray Love (no commas, which is the antithesis of going comma crazy and incorrect) is based on the best-selling book by Miss Gilbert, so I'm figuring that it is her journey, as shallow and narcissistic as any coming from a woman of high privilege.  Elizabeth (Julia Roberts) is unhappy: her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup) is far too attached to her, worshipping the ground she walks one but with the flaw of forever floating from one dream to another.  Stephen is forever wandering through life, like a child excited about finding a new toy: he dreams of doing this, of being that, which granted would drive anyone a bit batty.  However, Elizabeth is not happy (and that, damnit, is the important thing, that she be happy).  She dumps a devastated Stephen and then goes on to have a romance with actor David (James Franco), who introduces Liz to the glories of Eastern mysticism (Hinduism, I believe).  He too dreams, of attending their guru's ashram in India.  Liz finds that, like with Stephen, she is turning into a copy of her latest lover.  With that, she virtually breaks it off with David and decides the thing to do is to go around the world to find out who she is.

Her plans are to go to three places: Eat Pray Love--also known as Italy, India, and Bali.  (If she had opted for Indonesia, she could have had Three Eyes, but since Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, the idea of a woman finding love with the perfect stranger I figure wouldn't be looked on kindly).  In Italy she learns to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food.  In India, she at last goes to the ashram, but wouldn't you know it: the guru has gone to New York.  How selfish of the Guru--didn't she know Elizabeth Gilbert was coming?  At said ashram, she meets Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins), a man who by Liz's own admission uses 'bumper sticker' phrases to describe everything, including Liz who he has nicknamed "Groceries" for her lavish eating.  Having found inner peace, she goes to Bali to reconnect to a wise old Balinese, and in Bali she meets Felipe (Javier Bardem), the hunky Brazilian who quickly falls in love with her.

Let me start off by asking, why is it that whenever people go for spiritual journeys, they always head out East?  Why do Westerners always turn to Buddhism and Hinduism for spiritual fulfillment?  It be nice to see a film or read a book where someone found peace and spiritual fulfillment in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.  Nothing against those who practice Buddhism or Hinduism or even Shintoism--they are free to practice any faith they wish.  However, the idea that the East holds the answers to our Great Questions is wearing a bit thin.

Be that as it may, Eat Pray Love suffers from this almost deranged self-absorption on the part of Gilbert.  This may not be the first film that celebrates this sense that it truly is "all about her", but it is the first one that celebrates this narcissistic discovery as being revolutionary and almost demand that we celebrate it with her. In all her journey from New York to Bali, we just see some beautfiul locations but we can never get away from the idea that this woman is so hopelessly self-centered that she is oblivious to anything outside herself.   She doesn't seem particularly interested in the lives of others, from Stephen and David to Richard from Texas or Felipe apart from how they affect her.  Each man she sleeps with is passionately devoted to her, each person she meets is passionately devoted to helping her and meeting her needs.  I did find it curious that throughout Eat Pray Love she never appears to do anything for anyone else

With that in mind, it becomes harder and harder for us to want Liz to succeed in her efforts to find herself and inner peace.  Instead, we begin to marvel at how one person could be so wrapped up in herself that she thinks her journey of self (centered)-discovery could have taken her halfway around the world only to find that the person Elizabeth Gilbert truly loves is Elizabeth Gilbert. 

Julia Roberts is still luminous (and writer/director Ryan Murphy, he of Glee fame or infamy depending on your point of view) lights her smile in simply gorgeous light.  However, she can't get beyond looking beautiful and making Liz into anything than a naving-gazing individual who is astounded that the cosmos would take the time to pull off the joke of sending the guru from India to New York when she came from New York to India to find said guru.  All her various courters (Crudup, Franco, and Bardem) did their best in filling in the required tasks of their characters: showing how every one of them was madly in love with her but were with the last one not good enough for her.  I figure Jenkins was suppose to be aggravating as Richard from Texas, who gives her a great many platitudes but no insight into how she really doesn't have it bad (as opposed to him, who does at least have something to mourn). 

I can't say everything about Eat Pray Love was lousy: the three countries look beautiful and the film does serve as an advertisement to travel the world.  Therefore, Robert Richardson deserves credit for making Italy even more beautiful, India chaotic--and beautiful, and Bali lush--and beautiful.  HOWEVER, Eat Pray Love has that damn voiceover deal that nine times out of ten ruins the movie (the tenth being such films as Sunset Boulevard or Blade Runner, where it works). 

Still, Eat Pray Love can never get away from being a journey to the center of attention.  The ending of the film undercuts the entire message it was trying to make; we see Stephen and David pretty happy in their lives post-Liz (which must have been a miracle on the level of Fatima given Elizabeth Gilbert rejected them) but neither of them made this wildly introspective journey.  They somehow managed to find peace and joy without Eating Praying Loving--or at least without going on about it.  Somehow, I think all of us would be able to do the same.  By the end of Eat Pray Love, you'd be inhuman if you didn't want to go up to Elizabeth Gilbert, shake her and say, "Get Over Yourself!"

DECISION: F

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Friends With Benefits

NO STRINGS ATTACHED

There's love, there's lust, and then there's this: two 'adults' who agree to have sex with each other without any commitment.  In the past, it used to be called prostitution, but because no money is exchanged and the two involved know each other, it just makes it sex for fun.  No Strings Attached is the first of two films in 2011 that explore whether an association built strictly on gratifying another's physical pleasure can work in the long-term.  And who says Hollywood is out of ideas?

Our story actually starts fifteen years before the main events. Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) meet at summer camp, where our shy young man, son of a famous actor, wants to get it on with her.  She coldly refuses.  Five years later, they meet again at a frat party.  This time, Emma's a little more flexible: she invites Adam to "this thing" she has to go to.  The "thing" ends up her father's funeral. 

Cut to One Year Ago, where Emma is a medical student and Adam is a production assistant at a High School Musical/Glee-type show.  They run into each other...funny how they keep running into each other every few years, isn't it. He wants to write for this show and not use his father's name or connections to move ahead. She, so jaded by the world, doesn't want any kind of relationship.  Adam is devastated to find his father Alvin (Kevin Kline) is now having an affair with his ex-girlfriend.  After drunkenly arriving at her place which she shares with her friends Patrice (Greta Gerwig) and Shira (Mindy Kaling), Emma and Adam almost spontaneously decide to be lovers without being in love.  Soon, they are going at it like rabbits; a series of booty calls later, Adam decides Emma is "the one", but there are problems.  One, he has a love rival in Sam (Ben Lawson), who is Emma's fellow med student.  Two, Emma's reluctance to give her heart to anyone.  Three: Alvin's shenanigans with Adam's ex. 

Still, after a while Emma starts getting jealous when Adam isn't with her, and with her sister about to get married, she realizes she must go, for once, with her heart.  In the end...well, you can take a guess.

To its credit, No Strings Attached didn't have the almost obligatory "going to the airport to tell the person he/she is in love with him/her" (which, oddly, was featured in another Kutcher rom-com: Valentine's Day).  Rather, Elizabeth Meriwether's script (with a story by Meriwether and Mike Samonek) went with the "father's life is in danger so we need a rush to the hospital" route.  Ivan Reitman is a good director, so I figure throughout No Strings Attached he was just slumming it and therefore, I won't go into how almost everyone here is unpleasant and how unfunny the situations are. 

As much as one is suppose to root for these two to go together, one can't because they are so unlikable.  Portman's Emma is cold, almost inhuman in her indifference to matters of the heart (one wonders what her bedside manner would be).  How else to explain being so emotionally removed that she invites a guy to her own father's funeral without telling him (him wearing his school hoodie, thus standing out in his yellow to all the black, make her look even more cruel towards someone who appears genuinely interested in her).  Adam isn't all that better either: he allows Emma to think he's got a threesome going on without telling her that the two girls are really more into each other than into him (and of course, a little lesbo humor always elevates a film, doesn't it?)

In terms of unlikable characters, let's put Alvin at the top of the list.  It's really grotesque to think a father has such disregard for his son that he's willing to sleep with his son's ex-girlfriend.  Moreover, it doesn't appear to faze Alvin in the slightest that Adam may not take kindly to the idea that the woman who broke his heart could be his new stepmother.  Alvin, judging from the movie, is famous for a television show where he would say, "Great Scott!" at least once (I figure at the closing of an episode).  Frankly, I was puzzled as to how and why "Great Scott!" could ever have become an iconic punchline.  My mind started thinking the show Great Scott would have been a pretty lousy one, and I don't think that was the intent of No Strings Attached to have me wander mentally from the story presented. 

Moreover, the bigger problem in No Strings Attached is that the film introduces certain plot points and characters just to drop them without giving any rhyme or reason to do so.  Certain characters, like Adam's juvenile friends Eli (Jake Johson) and Wallace (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), are seen at the beginning but leave pretty soon after they appear.  We have a subplot involving Eli and Patrice.   He starts as your typical Ashton Kutcher film friend (ie. an immature sex-crazed man-child).  By the end of No Strings Attached, he and Patrice are having a beautiful relationship, but we never see how that relationship flourished because we're too preoccupied with Emma and Adam's booty call marathon.  Take for another example Sam.  We're led to think that Adam, who doesn't have a good job or many prospects, will have to fight him for Emma, but pretty soon he disappears completely from the movie, only popping up in the end with Shira.  If you'll excuse the expression, throughout No Strings Attached there was simply no follow-through. 

Even more bizarre, you have Cary Elwes as Dr. Metzner, whom I figure was the Head Doctor at the teaching hospital Emma is at.  Apparently, he's some sort of semi-divine personage at the hospital, one whom residents wouldn't approach casually.  However, Elwes not only doesn't do anything in No Strings Attached and his character doesn't add anything to the film, but in his bushy beard and hair, Elwes was so completely unrecognizable I didn't even know Elwes was in the film until I saw the credits and was stunned to see he got major billing.   It's astonishing to think No Strings Attached made Cary Elwes look like Bruce Vilanch.  Same goes for Tim Matheson (except he didn't look like Bruce Vilanch).  He pops out at the very end of No Strings Attached as one of Eli's "two dads".  Here again, another plot point introduced and never explored.

It seems so strange to have some good actors in such insignificant and useless parts.  Even worse, it's bad when you have Ashton Kutcher as your lead.  Kutcher, despite his years of on-the-job training in film work, has never mastered the art of creating a genuine emotional connection either to the character or the audience.  He is Always Kelso (I offer that as a title to his autobiography), a dim individual who uses his looks to get ahead.  Again and again, his facial expression never changes: he always looks genuinely surprised and pleased at himself for making millions of dollars by taking his clothes off. 

Portman is another matter altogether.  Having come off a Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan, she appears to not know how to make Emma remotely relatable.  Instead, her Emma is neither pleasant enough to have any redeeming qualities or human enough to care about anyone, even herself.  Why, given how she has never shown any interest or inclination to be around people (a misanthrope if ever there was one), does she suddenly despair at the thought of Adam with someone else?

Now, there are efforts to make Adam and Emma a bit human.  Adam's a writer (which I guess was shorthand for 'sensitive'), but given he still is a bit of Kelso-like goofiness/horniness, it doesn't work.  Emma doesn't have attachments, so it's a bit hard to make us like her.  Therefore, I was wrong in the first part of this paragraph.

Granted, there were a few times I laughed.  There were a couple of funny lines, such as when one of Adam's friends describes his ex dumping him for his father as "trading in an iPod for an 8-track".  However, it isn't enough to save No Strings Attached from being yet another abysmal attempt at a romantic comedy.   Truth be told, I think a better film would and could have been made out of the story of Eli and Patrice: one a wildly heterosexual man with two gay parents who slowly learns to love one woman, and the other a slightly ditzy girl who falls in love with someone so unlike her.  I'd like to see a movie about them--even their own spin-off series, rather than have to endure two people interested only in sex.  No Strings Attached might in the end be a reference to the character's brains connecting to anything else in their bodies.

DECISION: D- 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

He'll Have A Guinness With His Films


1908-1991
DAVID LEAN

It is yet another curious turn of history that one of the greatest film directors was not allowed to watch films as a child.  Parents, let that be a warning that your kids will rebel in the strangest ways..  David Lean was a master of both intimacy and grandness, a man who made the story paramount and trusted the audience to keep up with him.

I first came to know David Lean through his epic films: Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai.  What I found fascinating about those films is that he was able to put a remarkably intimate story within the grandness of the camera frame. I've often said that Lawrence of Arabia is an epic film about a man's soul.  Even with T.E. Lawrence in the center of the film, the central question of just who Col. Lawrence was is never really answered.  At one point in the film, when Lawrence has reached the Suez Canal after having crossed the Sinai, a motorcycle comes from across the channel.  The rider asks, "Who are you?" repeatedly, while Lean moves in for a close-up of Peter O'Toole's face, this one question without a response. 

Bridge on the River Kwai is another small story wrapped within an epic setting.  Actually, you have at least two stories: that of Alec Guinness' Colonel Nicholson and William Holden's Commander Shears.  It's curious to me that neither of them are purely heroic.  When I first saw the film, I had great admiration for both men.  When I saw it a second time, I was horrified at especially Colonel Nicholson.  This was a man who became so wrapped up in his Britishness (duty, efficiency) that he lost sight of the fact that he gave in on his principles and did exactly what his Japanese captors had wanted from him all along.  In a curious way, Nicholson's arch rival, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is not a monster but is just as unwitting as Nicholson.  He too becomes so enamoured of building that damn bridge he forgets he is Nicholson's captor, not collaborator (although collaborator is the absolutely perfect term for what is going on). 

With Shears, he is certainly more interested in living for himself than for dying for some cause, but something about his instinct to live is now off-putting.  He has no interest in the fact that this bridge will help the enemy and that it should be destroyed.  Bridge On the River Kwai is an extremely complex film in terms of whom to side with: we would normally think Nicholson was heroic in how he stands for his principles and thinks of his men, but in the end we see the man's pretty bonkers.\

Lean just got such brilliant performances out of his casts, especially his "good-luck charm", Alec Guinness.  Guinness appears in six Lean films either as the star or as a secondary character.  I don't think the collaboration between Guinness and Lean has been given as much discussion as that of John Wayne & John Ford or James Stewart & Frank Capra or Toshiro Mifune & Akira Kurosawa.  However, they worked so well together, and I think it is because both of them loved the craft of storytelling; in short, both of them valued the power of the spoken word over the sheer visual spectacle.

Now I go into what would be a small film (certainly by the standards of Lean's later work).  I watched Lean's Oliver Twist and am amazed that such a delightful musical as Oliver! could have emerged from the same source.  There is no jolliness in Oliver Twist, but a darkness and despair (no doubt enhanced by Guy Greene's cinematography).  Still, I was conflicted by Fagin: part of me was thrilled that this villain was caught, but part of me felt sadness for this figure. 

Now, as I look back at David Lean, trying to get at the same question he asks, "Who are you?", I find that after Lawrence of Arabia, his productivity slowed to a crawl.  After his epic, there were only three films: Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, and A Passage to IndiaZhivago was to be his epic romance, this great love story, which curiously would have been a departure for him after the manly heroics of Bridge and Lawrence.  I know a lot of people think Zhivago is this brilliant, romantic epic, but to my mind I found it cold, slow, and terribly dull.  I've managed to see it only once without falling asleep at it, but no matter how often I try to get through it again I end up nodding off at least once. 

There are brilliant things within Zhivago: the music is among the best ever written for film, Tom Courtenay's evolution from the idealistic revolutionary Pasha to the cold-blooded Bolshevik Strelnikov is a mesmerizing performance, and Freddy Young's cinematography is still first-rate.  HOWEVER, I kept wondering while watching whether or not Lean actually understood the story.  It's suppose to be a love story between Zhivago and his mistress, Lara, but in a curious way the situations appeared to overwhelm them.  Somehow, the romance was swallowed up in the Russian Revolution.  For me, the film goes on forever, and Yuri is such a wimp, and worse of all, it has that damn voiceover thing I DETEST in films (courtesy of Guinness as Zhivago's half-brother, and frankly I kept wondering how having a half-brother didn't appear to faze our gentle Yuri).  In short, I found Doctor Zhivago to be pretty hollow and hopelessly long for the story it was attempting to tell.

Doctor Zhivago was not critically acclaimed in its release, and despite the public acclamation for the film Lean was devastated.  That is a pity: lesser filmmakers continue making abysmal movies without worrying about what critics say.  Maybe he felt that if critics loved his work, then it must be good.  I think that even the best director, the best writer, the best actor can have an off performance, and you're never going to bat a thousand. 

I also am puzzled as to why Lean thought he needed to make a film that attempted to combine an intimate love story between a man and his whore (which is what the character of Lara is, romantic ideas be damned) with the chaos of the Russian Revolution.  Bridge and Lawrence kept their eye on the ball: they were epic films, but they kept the balance between telling the story of their wars (both personal and global) and that of the individual.  Zhivago didn't: it just went on and on, lurching onward to having us meet the bastard child of Yuri and Lara. 

My puzzlement comes from the fact that Lean COULD make an intimate love story: Summertime.  The doomed romance between lonely American spinster Katherine Hepburn and Italian lover Rossano Brazzi has humor, sadness, and a touch of redemption and hope at the end.  Anyone who sees Summertime can see that Lean could make romantic movies, but I think here, we can see how scope (or in this case, Cinemascope) made the difference.  Summertime is a small film (relative to the story and the location), while Zhivago goes all over the place (in almost every way).  The former stays pretty grounded in the characters: they are human, believable.  The latter goes overboard in providing this grand canvas that tries to make each character iconic. 

Still, for better or worse Doctor Zhivago is beloved for its "romance" (side note: I think this is the beginning of any film where two people jump into bed be considered a 'romance'), but it also was the decline of David Lean as a filmmaker.  He could still make great films, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to put his work out there for the professional critics to look over.  I think he stopped trusting his audience (whether it was critics or a thinking public).  Maybe he just got tired of making films.  I can't say anything about Ryan's Daughter (though something about having Robert Mitchum playing an Irishman appears...just odd) but I do remember enjoying A Passage to India (especially Dame Peggy Ashcroft's performance, which won her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar).  Granted, when I saw it I was ridiculously young (I think I was about seven or eight when I saw it), so to be honest, I didn't understand it.  I liked it, just didn't understand the whole trial business.  I think it's a film worth revisiting.

I find to my surprise that David Lean made a total of 16 films, which is a remarkably small output given his reputation and status among the greats.  However, let's look at some of those films: Brief Encounter, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Hobson's Choice, Summertime, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India--truly some of the best films made (and two Best Picture winners, something that Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, at least as of this writing, never accomplished).  I don't include Doctor Zhivago because I think it's a dull, lifeless film (although with some beautiful elements in it), but it is usually put up there among the greats (I don't know why, but there it is).  In short, David Lean has made some of the most influential, important, and simply best films made by anyone.  It is sad that after being remarkably productive from the forties to the sixties, it dropped off after Zhivago.  There were many reasons: personal, financial, creative, but one does wonder what David Lean could have made of the life of the Mahatma, rather than what Sir Dickie made. 

Still, I love the David Lean films I've seen (except for Zhivago).  He made films that are both great and grand but that also had a lot of thought to them.  It wasn't just spectacle, but intellect, that pushed many of his films, and which is why David Lean still makes films interesting. 

There are more of The Great Directors, which will grow over time.



Friday, August 26, 2011

Uday So Crazy

THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE

It is an interesting time in which The Devil's Double appears on the screen.  Throughout the Arab world, the people are doing something they would never have so much as dreamt of in Hussein-era Iraq: actually overthrow their dictators by simply overwhelming them with defiance and, have taken it upon themselves to remove them "by any means necessary", to quote Brother Minister Malcolm X.  So far, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have all decided to dump their rulers of twenty, thirty, and forty years respectively, and given the long-term self-appointed rulers of the respective countries (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi) notice that their services are no longer required (or wanted).  At this writing, one of the last holdouts to power is Syria, where the Assad "monarchy" simply won't countenance leaving. 

I bring all this up because it is a curious 'what-if' game one can play after watching The Devil's Double.  What if the U.S. hadn't invaded Iraq and overthrown the Hussein dynasty?  Would Iraqis have taken to the streets and demanded the ouster of Saddam, Qusay and Uday Hussein?  Would the strongman of Baghdad, who would have been 74, been taken by surprise and fallen as quickly as Ben Ali?  I say that's doubtful.  Rather, I think it would have been like Bashir Assad's Syria (it should be remembered, both were Baath Party-run states): he would have unleashed all his firepower to crush the Arab Spring and shown the other tyrants how its done.  Granted, this is all speculation since Saddam and his two sons are dead and in Hell, but given how Uday Hussein was in The Devil's Double, the Iraqi Arab Spring would have been a bloody one.

Latif Yahia bears a striking physical appearance to Uday Hussein, son of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein (not surprisingly, both are played by Dominic Cooper).  Uday needs a double, someone who can impersonate him, and he's chosen Latif (a former classmate).  Latif, a good man, doesn't want to do it, but in the scheme of things, he doesn't have much say in the matter.  With a little plastic surgery, Latif becomes Uday, much to the latter's delight and the former's agony. 

Soon, Latif is immersed in a decadent world where women and drugs flow freely, where all of Uday's base desires and psychotic actions are witnessed by an unhappy Latif.  Uday thinks nothing of grabbing fourteen-year-old girls off the streets and raping them, of snorting cocaine right before meeting with Kuwaitis and then plotting to invade their country, of humiliating all the women in his harem.  Curiously, all except one: his favorite mistress, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier).  She appears the only one who has the power to calm his erratic behavior.  Latif wants desperately out, but cannot flee. 

Eventually, after Latif himself begins a clandestine affair with Sarrab, Uday's grotesque behavior (including a horrific rape of a bride on her wedding day) overwhelms him and he strikes Uday.  When Latif refuses to kill the father of the raped girl (who died shortly after she was raped), Latif is sent to his parent's home (who have believed he had died in the Iran/Iraq War).  Shortly afterwards, he and Sarrab flee, but Latif learns that Uday's tentacles are not far behind.  In the end, it is Latif, along with disgruntled courtiers, who take matters in their own hands in dealing with Uday.

The Devil's Double has one of the best performances of the year in Dominic Cooper.  Cooper plays both Uday and Latif, and for the most part one doesn't notice the split screen that had to be used to get both of them in the frame.  What makes Cooper's performance so brilliant is that we never think of the same actor playing two parts.  Instead, we think of it as two different people.  This is aided invaluably in Lee Tamahori's directing of Cooper: when he's Uday, his voice is higher, more maniacally gleeful and brutal, his face expressing heightened paranoia.  Latif, conversely, is more controlled, more calm, even a bit more stern.

I digress to point out that when I left the theater, I overheard two women discuss the film, commenting on how handsome Latif was.  Curious, but they didn't say the same for Uday--even though it was the same person.  It is a tremendous credit to Cooper that he did both characters so well that few if any people noticed.

The Devil's Double also benefits tremendously by accurate casting: with the exception of Cooper and Sagnier (who is French), almost all the other roles were played by Arabs or actors of Arab descent.  Sagnier showed Sarrab not as a typical tramp but as a woman who does what she can to survive.  In a smaller role, Raad Rawi as Uday's disapproving but frightened chief handler manages to show much without having to say or do much.  A glance is enough to communicate what he's really thinking one way or another.  As Saddam himself, Australian Phillip Quast makes the Iraqi dictator a calm but terrifying figure, willing to kill his own son for brutally butchering Kamel Hannah (Mem Ferda), one of Saddam's favorite courtiers and supplier of the dictator's mistress.

Michael Thomas' script, drawing from Yahia's own memoir, creates a Court of Hussein where brutality and decadence are in equal supply.  Side note: I got the sense that Uday loved the 80s, given how often we hear 80s music whenever he's at a club (which curiously, looked like the same one).  I'll put this on the budget.  Yet I digress.  We don't get graphic depictions of Uday's brutality and sadistic behavior, but the suggestions the film gives us are enough to show what a despicable monster Uday was.  We mercifully don't see the rape of the teen, but get hints of what happened, leading up to a truly sad end for our schoolgirl.  The same for a horrifying act against a bride on her wedding day--nothing is really shown, but enough is understood to make it truly barbaric.  Again, it is to Thomas' credit that The Devil's Double stays close to the true story.

The one part that was rather graphic was when Sarrab and Latif finally give in to their passions.  Not only was there quite a lot of nudity, but it happened just as Operation Desert Storm begins.  There is something a bit grand about the two of them finally having sex while Baghdad burns, a bit too cinematic I thought.  I also wondered about Latif himself.  He's the subject of The Devil's Double but by and large he's still a bit of a mystery.  We know he is appalled by Uday's twisted behavior, we know he misses his family, we know he's basically a good guy (who doesn't mind schtupping his overlord's favorite mistress).  Still, we have Latif a bit distant from us: we end The Devil's Double the way we began--not knowing Latif as a person.  Did he believe this was punishment from God?  Was he hopeful the Husseins would be overthrown or assassinated?  Was he ever in danger of being seduced to the dark side? 

That, overall, is really a minor matter in the overall quality of The Devil's Double.  We get as close to an inside view of the depravity within the Hussein's Iraq as we will ever get outside a documentary (and as a side note, I would recommend the oddly comical yet frightening documentary Uncle Saddam) or a first-hand account.  The flaws within the film are balanced with a brilliant performance by Cooper as both the amoral dictator-in-waiting and his doppelganger.  Now, aren't you glad we overthrew Saddam and his sons?

DECISION: B+

Thursday, August 25, 2011

And The Honorees Should Be...Part 5

It's been a while since I submitted names for consideration for the Kennedy Center Honors. I see no reason why I can't start up again.  Since my last submissions one (Sydney Lumet) has sadly passsed away.  However, that's not a bad track record.  How strange that I can easily think of so many while the actual Kennedy Center has to scrape to find Oprah Winfrey, whose done more to wreck America than anyone on television not on a reality show.  Well, there it is.

Now, I give out six new names for consideration.

MICHAEL CAINE

It's easy to parody Michael Caine, though like Cary Grant's "Judy, Judy, Judy", I don't think Michael Caine ever actually said in his clipped delivery, "Hello, I'm Michael Caine".   However, throughout his career Caine has given a consistent quality of performances.  From the shameless rake of Alfie through Sleuth (both the original and remake), The Man Who Would Be King, Educating Rita, Is Anyone There?, Children of Men, his two Oscar-winning roles in Hannah & Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules, and now a whole generation will know him as Alfred Pennyworth in the Christopher Nolan Batman films.  Yes, he's made more than his fair share of clunkers, but at least he admits it and laughs about it all the way to the bank.  Not a lot of people know that.




REBA McENTIRE

Few artists can be instantly recognized by just one name.  However, all one has to do is say, "Reba", and just about everyone knows whom you are talking about.  You're talking about the Queen of Country Music.  Once she found her own voice: the traditional country sound, she took music by storm. She doesn't hasn't had a series of hit songs for over thirty years (from Whoever's In New England to Fancy right on down to The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia and straight through to Turn On The Radio and If I Were A Boy), but has branched out into theater (it almost seems that the title role in Annie Get Your Gun was meant for our country girl), but has had a hit television series...titled, what else, Reba.  Despite the horrible plane accident that claimed members of her band, she's kept going.  She truly is A Survivor. 




LOREENA McKENNITT

If you wish to call her New Age, you can, but I think it's more accurate to refer to Loreena McKennitt's music as ethnic, specifically Celtic or Celtic-influenced. Her melodic voice and passion for music from around the world has created not so much a new genre but a brilliant melding of styles that show how music truly unites all cultures.  McKennitt's elegant compositions, sometimes mixed with writings from the classics, is truly some of the best music around today.  Granted, she's only had one major crossover hit (The Mummer's Dance), but she has remained true to herself and her muse. 




R. CARLOS NAKAI

The Native American has been treated shamefully and shabbily by the Europeans who've come to his continent.  Still, it's a credit to them as nations that they still have a rich culture, and R. Carlos Nakai has done the most to bring the beauty of Native American music to a wider audience.  Nakai has also, like McKennitt, not been afraid of blending traditional Native American music with that of other cultures, showing that one can be respectful of one's own culture while embracing a wider world.


MALCOLM JOHN "DR. JOHN" REBENNACK, JR.

I can't call Dr. John's music strictly jazz, or strictly rock, or Cajun, and not zydeco.  It might be best to call it pure Louisina, a gumbo of sounds that he's perfected to an art form.  In terms of his style, he is truly unique, with his showmanship and musical abilities mixing brilliantly with his voice.  When New Orleans needs a champion and a reminder of what good music the Crescent City can produce, it's time to call on the good doctor.  Thanks to The Princess and the Frog, I'm slowly discovering Dr. John, and so far, it sounds good. 



ELI WALLACH

Master of stage, screen, and television, he spands nearly a century of great performances.  Just in terms of his film work, who can forget he was one of The Magnificent Seven or the ugly in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (though ugly is the last word I'd use to describe him as an actor or person).  He was one of the few good things in The Godfather Part III (an abysmal film with only Wallach and Andy Garcia making it bearable).  Let's also remember he's probably one of the last people around who worked with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan and Marilyn Monroe.   Even now, he still works: let's remember his most recent movie was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.  It shows he doesn't rest on his laurels.  

Thus are my suggestions to the Kennedy Center.  When the announcement is made as to whom they will honor, I will finally see if I get one right. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

And The Cowboy Rides Away

How to explain Disney pulling out of the film version of the radio (yes, I said radio) and television adaptation of The Lone Ranger.  Was it because Cowboys & Aliens was a flop?  Was it because one of Johnny Depp's last movie (The Tourist) was not just a flop but a reviled flop?  Was it because Armie Hammer (as good an actor as we have nowadays) isn't exactly a box office draw?

No, now we get a strange version of the reason The Lone Ranger is no more...strange even by Hollywood standards.  No, I take it back: it's not strange, it's downright bizarre--even just plain crazy.  The thing that has killed The Lone Ranger is...werewolves.  Yes, that's something else Jacob Black has screwed up. 

At first I thought I would discuss why budgets are at last bringing some semblance of sense to filmmaking, and I probably will touch on that as well.  However, I am desperate to comment on this werewolf business.

I think this addition of werewolves and some sort of Native American mysticism is changing the tone of The Lone Ranger and shifting the attention from the Lone Ranger himself to his partner, Tonto.  First, the werewolves would make the film less a Western and more fantasy/science-fiction.  The thing about the Lone Ranger is that is was pretty straightforward: the titled hero would ride in, save the day, and then move on.  He was fighting bandits, not weird monsters.

Second, the serial/series is titled The Lone Ranger, not Tonto.  If they had gone ahead and given The Lone Ranger some otherworldly angle, it would be related to the Native American and not the Anglo counterpart. That being the case, the character of the Lone Ranger would be practically irrelevant, reduced to a mere guest star...in his own film.  In this case, I don't think it is because Depp (one of the biggest stars in the world) was going to play Tonto and Hammer (who isn't) would play the Lone Ranger.   Granted, as the bigger name Depp has every right to have the film focus on him and his character, but to my mind it would be like making a new Sherlock Holmes film and focus almost entirely on Doctor Watson. 

There has to be thought given that the Lone Ranger is the lead, regardless of what people may think of the character being over/above Tonto.  Given that, I don't see how the Lone Ranger would be necessary in fighting werewolves that were connected to Tonto or Native Americans.  However much you may want to make a film that appeals to the broadest market, you can't have an icon of the American West fighting werewolves.  It would be akin to having Paul Bunyan battling the Greek gods--totally laughable and insulting to the source material...let alone logic.

I'm going to digress to discuss the issue of Native American stereotypes regarding the character of Tonto.  I know I'm writing from the perspective of a non-Native American, so I have to bear in mind that I can never truly see things from their perspective.  However, from what I remember of the stories Tonto was never subservient to his Anglo partner.  Rather, he was virtually his equal (he was the sidekick, after all), but it was always a partnership.  Furthermore, the fact that the Lone Ranger would have a Native American as his most valued ally and best friend is surprisingly advanced for the times. 

Yes, having Tonto speak in stereotypical pidgin English (example: "Him no friend") is not the most positive view of Native Americans.  However, on the whole we have to consider the times The Lone Ranger was made.  This was acceptable back then.  Nothing would indicate that this unfortunate tradition would be carried on into the Twenty-First Century, where we have seen Native Americans in elected office (such as former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell) and a more respectful portrayal of Native Americans (like Dances With Wolves).  Again, we cannot apply today's standards on yesterday's actions, nor assume that what was done before would be done now.  In short, I think there would have been a more positive portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger than there has been in any major production of the story.

In terms of money, I am surprised that people would think it would cost over $200 million to make a Western like The Lone Ranger.  I imagine the idiotic werewolves added to it, but on the whole, it boggles the mind that so much money could go into something that was once considered relatively cheap to make.  Westerns were once some of the cheapest productions available, and there is no reason why The Lone Ranger shouldn't have been any different. 

I wonder exactly in what such a gargantuan budget would be required.  The cost of the actors?  I hope not: in this time of economic contraction, it's time some Hollywood stars take a pay cut like the rest of us.  The cost of filming?  Perhaps: a lot of things have gone up in cost.  However, you are filming in the outdoors, and states like New Mexico (a good backdrop to a Western like The Lone Ranger) would gladly give tax incentives to draw the business of a Hollywood studio. 

I imagine thousands of dollars (I'm naive...MILLIONS of dollars) have already been spent getting The Lone Ranger to where it was when the plug was pulled.  That poster wasn't cheap: someone had to be paid to design it and put it together and even come up with it.  Money had to be spent on scouting locations, preparing props and costumes (or at least designing them) and writing out the script (even that damn stupid werewolves bit).  Hiring the actors probably cost money (agents don't work out of charity) and I figure people like Hammer and Depp would be paid to agree to star in The Lone Ranger, perhaps even have had to turn down jobs so that they could be free to do the film. 

I don't know whether The Lone Ranger will see the light of day.  It would be nice, but it would be nicer if those involved in the project went back to the basics: a simple story of a masked rider and his partner riding out to right the wrongs they encounter.  However, to do so we have to drop the werewolves and think that perhaps, people don't have to be dazzled by the evil of 3-D or supernatural elements.  The story should be simple, a throwback to the serial.  That might be a better and stronger selling point. 

It would help tremendously if Hollywood started trusting its audience, started believing that people are smart and making films that appeal to people's intelligence rather than dumbing things down to make people even more dumb (examples: The Hangover Part II and Green Hornet/Lantern).  All those films could have been good, but those involved decided audiences didn't want to think, so they threw a lot of things on the screen and hoped people would think it was great.  Some people I imagine think those films are wonderful, but I would argue they are so beneath anything that can be called good, especially when they all waste talent and opportunities for good stories in exchange for vulgarity, overblown effects, poor attempts at humor (or all three). 

Again I say to Hollywood: trust your audience.  You did once, and look what came from it (Metropolis to Nosferatu, Casablanca to Citizen Kane), and even now, we still get good films (Jane Eyre).

Still, what will become of The Lone Ranger?  We shall see.  He may yet ride once more.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Vamp Camp

FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)

I go into Fright Night without having seen the original film, and I think most people in the audience are so unfamiliar with the original that they probably weren't aware that this is a remake.  That being said, the remake (at least here they don't pretend that it's anything other than that) manages to have a good balance between horror and comedy, anchored by solid performances and some surprisingly exciting action scenes.

Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his mother Jane (Toni Collette) live in a remarkably isolated neighborhood outside Las Vegas.  They have a new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), who keeps his windows covered up with the story that he needs to sleep in the day since he works nights (given Las Vegas, not an odd situation).  However, Charlie's former best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is convinced that Jerry is really a vampire, responsible for their high school friends going missing.  Charlie, who has shifted from the nerd he once was into a cool guy complete with hot girlfriend Amy (Imogene Poots), wants nothing to do with either Ed or Ed's looney/nerdy ideas.  After Ed threatens to reveal the extent of Charlie's geeky past, he agrees to help Ed.

Soon, Ed's own disappearance and some investigating of his own convinces him that Jerry truly is the undead.  For help, he turns to magician and self-proclaimed vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant, aka the Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who).  Peter doesn't want to get involved, especially after surviving an attack himself.  Jerry, now determined to wipe out the Brewsters from revealing his secret, takes Amy and plans to make her part of his army.  Charlie is perfectly willing to face off against Jerry alone, but in the end Peter opts to face his own dark shadows (pun intended) for the ultimate battle.

Fright Night knows what it is: a horror film with many comedic elements.  Marti Nixon's screenplay (based on Tom Holland's original) doesn't for the most part shortchange one for the other.  For example, both Charlie and Peter mock the idea that a vampire is named "Jerry".  In fact, most of the comedy comes from Peter, a Chriss Angel-type magician with a Las Vegas show (side note: what little we're shown of Vincent's review, called Fright Night, doesn't really look like a real or good Vegas review, certainly not as entertaining as the one I saw there: Peep Show starring Holly Madison, but I digress).   It recognizes that the situations are rather bizarre but it never takes them lightly.  What laughs come in Fright Night come through the situations rather than witty one-liners. 

However, the fight scenes in Fright Night are remarkably tense.  A good example of one is when the Brewsters and Amy are fleeing a pursuing Jerry (and this comes after he literally blasts them out of their home).  In the isolated road between their neighborhood Jerry is relentless in menacing the trio, and Craig Gillespie's directing build up the tension as to whether the three would survive (it's here that Chris Sarandon, star of the original Fright Night, pops up in a cameo.  Watch early in the film for a cameo by chanteuse Lisa Loeb.  Wonder if I was the only one who recognized her, yet again I digress).   There are also exciting fight scenes in Vincent's lavish penthouse/occult museum and the final confrontation between Jerry and Charlie.

A positive point in Fright Night is that the heroic characters are quite relatable.  Anton Yelchin creates in Charlie a teen who embraces his new status as a cool guy but who still has a bit of nerd to him.  He is likable as Charlie, who quickly sees the danger all those he loves are in.  He has a wonderful scene at the hospital where he reproaches himself for what's happened to his former best friend and his mother that plays it pretty straight and reminds us that Yelchin is one of our better up-and-coming actors.  Granted, Yelchin does look at 22 a little old to play a teen, but that is a minor detail.  Tennant steals the film as the slightly drunk and addled Peter Vincent, who has his own fears to deal with.  Farrell plays the vampire Jerry with a good mix of menace and suave self-confidence, rarely being overtly monstrous but rather seducing his victims. Mintz-Plasse hasn't quite gotten over McLoving from Superbad but to his credit his final confrontation with his former BFF is still effective in being creepy (though granted, a bit funny too).  Poots' Amy is pretty but again, credit should be given in that when she has to fight, she does it well. 

There are, however, some questions that are never answered in Fright Night.  The biggest one for me was how Ed and his friend Adam (Will Denton) realized or discovered that Jerry was a vampire.  Charlie sees the proof on Ed's computer, but I wondered how they came across to pinpoint Jerry as the undead.  We never got a reason for that, or how these high school students started disappearing without anyone really taking notice.  We also have to wonder how dumb Charlie can be when he meets Amy after Jerry has taken her: here's a hint...she isn't quite herself.  There could have been more interplay between Jerry and Charlie and allowed his suspicions to grow as to who Jerry truly was instead of everything moving so quickly. 

However, on the whole these points (except for the first one which did make me wonder how Jerry's secret came to be discovered), don't undermine what Fright Night is: a film that has elements of horror along with moments where we can laugh a bit too.  On the whole, Fright Night is not a frightening film but not one that is spoofing the scenario.  Rather, it has an equilibrium between being able to laugh at the situation and being aware the situations are dangerous. 

As always, I opted to watch in 2-D (seeing 3-D as the work of the Devil) and there were some moments when it was obvious they were trying to put in things just to justify having 3-D.  I didn't think they added to much but mercifully they weren't distracting enough to get on my nerves.  As in most films, there isn't enough to make Fright Night a 3-D movie and I think it works better without this Satanic gimmick. 

Still, Fright Night has enough entertainment and excitement within it to make it a good film to bite into. 

DECISION: B-

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tom Riddle Me This

Personal Reflections on Harry Potter

I have now come to the end of my Harry Potter retrospective: all eight films of the seven Harry Potter books.  When I began, I freely admitted not being a fan and not being overwhelmed by this saga.  Now that I have finished it, I pretty much feel the same. If you want to call me a Philistine because I do not love Harry Potter (either the series or the character), that is your priviledge, but I just never understood why the series is given such lavish praise.  I grant you I come from a unique vantage point: I have read only one Harry Potter book (The Sorcerer's Stone) and didn't like it.  Contrary to what I've been told, The Sorcerer's Stone didn't create a mad desire to read more (I did that long before Harry thank you very much), and certainly not to read more Harry Potter


I'd like to address that particular defense of the "light" arts: that the Harry Potter series has gotten kids interested in reading.  Well, off the bat I reject that belief.  I think Harry Potter has gotten kids interested in reading....but in reading more Harry Potter.  That is an entirely different kettle of fish.  Honestly, when was the last time you heard a child between seven and twelve say, 'Well, I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (all five thousand pages of it) for the sixteenth time; I'm dying to start  Pride & Prejudice or Crime & Punishment or Huckleberry Finn now'.   Can we say that Harry Potter has increased reading among the adults who are passionate about the boy wizard?  Have they gone on to tackle things like Atlas Shrugged or Brave New World

Far from having this magical (pun intended) effect on children, in truth Americans are reading LESS.  This isn't my opinion: as a sketch on The Kids In the Hall would say, "It's A Fact".  How is it a fact?  Well, according to the United States government, Americans are reading less and reading less well (emphasis mine). Granted, library attendance has been growing, but it isn't because of Harry Potter.  Rather, it is because in these times of intense recession, libraries offer free entertainment and computer access. 

I don't know if there have been any long-term studies of children who have read all seven Harry Potter books that measure what else they read or if they continue reading post-Potter.  It would be interesting to know and either validate or refute the Harry Potter gets kids interested in reading line once and for all.  At the moment, the evidence is scant.  In short, people are not reading for pleasure as much as they did, and all the praise Potter has received is therefore unrealistic.

I don't think it is wrong or immoral to question whether or not Harry Potter leads to an increase in reading by both children and/or adults.  In fact, it is vital: this line about the positives of Harry Potter and reading has been peddled so long and often that it has been accepted as truth without solid evidence, only empirical.  Yes, I am aware that my proof (minus the findings of the National Endowment for the Arts) are based on my own observations, but firmer statistics would settle this one way or the other.  I look forward to that. 

(After doing a bit more research, I have found that there HAS been an increase in reading.  That is good news indeed.  However, Harry Potter is not cited as a reason for this increase, and the upswing in reading may still be due to the rise in library use because of the recession.  As far as I know there still has not been a thorough study of the connection between Harry Potter and reading.  If anyone knows of one, please let me know). 

If you were curious about myself, the last novel I read was Stephen Lawhead's Byzantium (great read by the way--completely fantastic).  Truth be told, my personal reading tastes tends to the non-fiction, specifically biographies.  At the moment, I'm reading Indira by Katherine Frank.  That's right, Pot-Heads: I'm reading a biography of Indira Gandhi...for pleasure.  Top THAT!

I also would ask, what exactly are people reading post-Potter?  Well, I think it's things like this:



 
We go from The Boy Who Lived to The Boy Who Died.  What can one say about a society where the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA) can be lauded as literary brilliance?  Like Harry Potter, I've only gotten through the first book of the Twilight books: Twilight.  I thought it was unmitigated trash.  After attempting to read it three times, I opted for the audiobook.  When Stephanie Meyer wrote about how EDWARD CULLEN literally sparkled, I was howling with laughter for five miles.  I kept rewinding that part just so I could laugh some more.  At one point I do remember being so irritated by her breathless description on the beauty and perfection that is EDWARD CULLEN that I was thisclose to throwing the disc out the window, but since it belonged to the El Paso Public Library I wasn't about to do that.

Side note: one thing that endlessly irritated me was how she had all the characters refer to the male protagonist as EDWARD CULLEN.  He was never Ed, Eddie, Edster, or as I lovingly call him, Sullen Cullen.  

No less a writer as Stephen King agrees with me (not that I imagine he would care what MY views are).  While I don't see his point about J.K. Rowling being a great writer, he and I are in total sync on Meyer.  It's not for me to speculate as to why the erotic musings of this frumpy house frau have so many people in a tizzy, but for myself, I am highly concerned about the quality of what people are actually reading. 

My point is this: if Harry Potter DOES gets people interested in reading, the logical question from my perspective is "What exactly is Harry Potter getting people interested in reading?"  I am tying the popularity of Harry Potter to the popularity of Twilight, saying that one leads to the other: in short, second-rate books and not the 'classics'. 

I just have never accepted the idea that Harry Potter gets kids to be lifelong readers.  Once they finish the series, do they go on to other books or just see reading as a burden, something to do rather than something to enjoy?  As I've stated, I'd love to see the studies that support this contention: that Harry Potter brings youngsters to love reading in perpetuity.  I've never accepted that premise, but if I can be proven wrong on that, let's see the proof. 

Well, let's move on to this formal retrospective to the film series. 

The Harry Potter series elicites a passion among the Pot-Heads (I read that at least one person at a screening dressed up of all things...as J.K. Rowling! Some call that devotion.  I call it genuinely nutty).  There are good things within it: wizards are always cool, and I have written before on how I do not find anything Satanic within the series.  The fantasy elements are to be commended. 

Still, I was never truly enchanted by these adventures as a whole.  I always found them rather long in terms of films (I suppose this is because the source material was rather sprawling itself, hence my nickname for the authoress: J. K. SPRAWLING).  I could never understand what the big deal about Harry was. 

Part of it may be because of a nasty trend I found in the stories: Harry never appeared to solve any situation himself through his own cleverness.  Almost always had the situation solved for him, usually by a Deus Ex Machina.  Something would always turn up at the most opportune time to help him get out of whatever danger he found himself in.  More on that later.
 
Well, let's get on to the Rankings of all the Harry Potter films according to...well, me.  From Best to Worst:
  1. The Half-Blood Prince
  2. The Order of the Phoenix
  3. The Goblet of Fire
  4. The Prisoner of Azkaban
  5. The Sorcerer's Stone
  6. Deathly Hallows Part II
  7. Deathly Hallows Part I
  8. The Chamber of Secrets

I found Half-Blood Prince the most exciting: the darkness that has overwhelmed the story up to now bursts out in full force.  It to my mind has an Empire Strikes Back feel to it (especially in the revelation of who the Half-Blood Prince was--one of the few times I was genuinely taken by surprise in a film).  Order of the Phoenix also had an exciting battle and one of the most best villains of the whole series (sorry, Lord Voldemort) and one of the better heroes of the whole series (sorry, Harry).  Goblet of Fire was the first to take a truly dark turn (which did make me question its fitness as a 'children's' story).  I might have ranked Prisoner of Azkaban higher if it weren't for the time-travel business (which I thoroughly hated).

I didn't think Sorcerer's Stone was good, but I have to cut it some slack because the whole raison d'etre was to introduce the characters.  I still haven't been convinced that Deathly Hallows could not have been combined into one film (albeit one that would run three years...I mean, hours), with the first part really dull (all that romantic dancing to find only ONE horcrux--seriously) and the second one barely better.  Finally, Chamber of Secrets was to me just a remake of Sorcerer's Stone (pretty much the same story as the first film).   

Now, let's go to some odds and ends.

BEST VILLAIN:


Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge
(Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix)

There's just something delightfully evil about Miss Umbridge in her faux-sugary sweetness.  Granted, you'd have to be an idiot to think someone that cheery on the surface wouldn't be anything but pure unadulterated evil.  I always found Lord Voldemort as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes a bit hammy (if I'm ever sufficiently drunk or cheerful, ask me to do my Voldey impression).  Helena Bonham Carter is also brilliant as Bellatrix Lestrange (though given how eccentric Bonham Carter is in real life...), but for my money, I have always admired how Imelda Staunton balances the peppy demeanor with the true sadism of Umbridge. Her absence from The Last Battle (to borrow from C.S. Lewis, whom I heard is to the surprise of Pot-Heads actually a better writer than Rowling) was a loss: seeing her go up against Maggie Smith would have pushed Deathly Hallows Part II higher in my estimation. 

BEST PERFORMANCE: ADULT

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
I would gladly support an Oscar campaign for Rickman as Best Supporting Actor.  Throughout the entire Harry Potter series, he kept a brilliant balance between being menacing and being almost beneficial (but always being a bit creepy and hard to read).   You could never put him completely in the villain column (unlike Voldemort and his Mystique--Bellatrix) but you could never put him in the heroes section (like you could Sirius Black or Professor McGonagall).  He was always severe (if anything, Rowling isn't the most original in naming her characters).  Rickman knew the character was always a complicated one, operating at a different level than any of the other characters.  Snape is almost yes, Shakespearean in his journey from a source of fear to a source of...well, not fear.  Throughout the series (or at least where he was featured) he was simply brilliant.


BEST PERFORMANCE: MINOR (anyone not of legal age when series began)


Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom

Now, the three leads (Daniel Ratcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint) were all excellent as Harry, Hermione, and Ron respectively.  Out of the three, I'd say Grint was the best--his Ron Weasley shifted from an inept, almost frightened child into a more courageous individual.  I also compliment him on his performance in Goblet of Fire, when Ron's jealous streak took over what had been up to that time a sold friendship with Ron as the junior partner.   However, it is Lewis' Longbottom that had the greatest evolution of a character.  Anyone without knowledge of the Harry Potter series would NEVER imagine that the clutz who is the butt of jokes and bullying in The Sorcerer's Stone would by Deathly Hallows play an amazingly heroic role (it was he, not Harry, that destroyed Lord Voldemort's snake--which I think was the final horcrux: sorry if it's a spoiler). 

It's unfortunate that the length of the stories (versus what they could put into the films) did not allow for an expanded view of Longbottom (is it me, or does that last part just sound strange), but in Order of the Phoenix Neville truly came into his own.  I didn't know he too was an orphan with his own rage (which might explain his general insecurity and clumsiness).  It would be interesting if Rowling decided to write more stories for her to tackle stories of secondary characters, maybe even all these stories from the perspectives of other characters.  Of all of Harry's classmates, I think Neville was the one who managed to grow the most while still keeping true to his nature.  Lewis' performance throughout the series showed us that transformation: a character who was clumsy and generally inept turned into someone brave whom you could rally around.

Come to think of it, I think almost all the child/teen actors (at least the ones who had more important roles to play..sorry, Oliver Wood) were excellent.  There is Evanna Lynch's Luna Lovegood (she, along w/Neville are my favorite characters and the ones I identify with the most--so glad they got together: if only they could be my parents) and Tom Felton's conflicted Draco Malfoy.   This a credit not just to their various directors: Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates, but to the actors, who grew in their abilities to embody these beloved characters (beloved by many, not by me).

As I write this, I am beginning to gain greater respect for the acting that I saw in the Harry Potter series.  Truth be told I don't think there are bad performances in the films, and contrary to whatever impression I may be leaving I don't HATE Harry, However, there are some things that bring my enthusiam down: some bad stories and most irritating of all:

WORST DEUS EX MACHINA: 

Harry Comes Back From the DEAD! (Deathly Hallows Part II)

That isn't to say there wasn't stiff competition for this low prize.  Throughout the Harry Potter series, one thing I've constantly railed against is the Deus Ex Machina: that device that will save Harry and appear at exactly the right moment to solve whatever problem he has.  Starting from Chamber of Secrets onward (maybe even Sorcerer's Stone, given he found the actual Sorcerer's Stone in his pocket and had a little help surviving his first Quidditch match), Harry has always managed to get out of scrapes just by waiting long enough for someone to bail him out (not unlike General Motors, but I digress).  Lets' go over a few:

Chamber of Secrets: the flying car that arrives just before Harry and Ron are devoured by the dragon and the Trio of the Sword of Gryffindor, delivered by the Phoenix, and whose tears can save.

Prisoner of Azkaban: Hermione's time-travelling watch (need to fix something?  Just go back in time and you can literally help yourself) and the Marauder's Map.

Goblet of Fire: the spirits of Mr. & Mrs. Potter and recently deceased Cedric Diggory to help fight Voldey.

Order of the Phoenix: the Room of Requirement (anything you need, it will pop up for you...like a God in a Machine).

Half-Blood Prince: actually, I can't quite think of one here, so that's a plus (perhaps this is why I named it my Best Harry Potter film). 

For the longest time, I thought the Time-Turner from Prisoner of Azkaban would be the worst D.E.M in the series (I wondered to myself if Hermione ever sang, "If I could turn back time"...maybe Rowling did while writing it, I don't know).  However, when I learned in Deathly Hallows Part II that Harry would be brought back from the dead (that he would have to die...but only for a little while), I thought THAT took the cake.  Seriously?  Just kill your protagonist so you can bring him back to life?

Somehow, the big thing for me is just how I never accepted how things came so remarkably easy for Harry in his struggle against Lord Baldy.  Harry Potter's motto may be from The Goblet of Fire:
Even when (I) go wrong, it turns out all right.
Doesn't it always go Harry's way?  Isn't all the Hogwart's Staff basically working to aid him defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?  It looks that way because as I've written before, Harry never suffers the consequences of his actions in terms of disciplinary action.   Oftentimes, the problems aren't solved by Harry but by some outside source, which to me is an incessant irritant.  Still, I digress.

Suffice it to say that to literally bring back someone from the dead is the ultimate in Deus Ex Machina: something that will (with little to no logic) allow our hero to resolve his dilemma without taking any action himself.  However, the Deus Ex Machina (as much as I disliked it), to my mind wasn't the worst part of Harry Potter.  Want to know what I think is the worst part?

WORST PART OF HARRY POTTER:

THE DURSLEYS
Nothing, no, NOT ONE THING will ever shift my view that the Dursleys were not only so unnecessary to Harry Potter, but in many respects, was downright vile and incredibly stupid.  I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that while Rowling is so praised for her books, no one has apparently commented that Harry's guardians were basically child abusers. 

Let's look at the evidence: they keep an eleven-year-old in a cupboard under the stairs, put bars in his window when they grant him a room, and allow an aunt to insinuate Harry's mother is a "bitch".  I figure Rowling was trying to make a statement about how Harry's guardians (or perhaps most Muggles--non-magic folk to us) were different than those in the Wizarding World, but every time the Dursleys were on the screen (usually in the opening scenes), I was appalled at how cruel they were.  I'll put it this way: Number 4, Privet Drive made the orphanage from Oliver Twist look like Walt Disney World. 

It wasn't just that the Dursleys themselves were cartoonish in their buffonery, their cruelty, their spite, their animosity towards Harry and anything magic-related (mind you, Harry was their nephew).  The performances always matched it.  In Order of the Phoenix, when Harry learns he is to be expelled from Hogwarts for using magic outside the Wizard World, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) says, "Justice!" in SUCH A DAMN EXAGERRATED WAY that I had fits of laughter at his reading.  Even if he'd hated Harry as much as Voldemort (and really, it was a neck-and-neck race to see who wanted Harry dead more: The Dark Lord or the Dursleys) the performance was so wild I just rolled my eyes at it. 

I never understood her fixation with making the Dursleys such horrid people.  Would it truly have killed her to make them slightly human?  If they weren't so over-the-top in their cruelty (and not appeared to be leftovers from a previous draft), I think I would have liked the books more.  In fact, one of the things that left me cold about Sorcerer's Stone the book was the Dursleys.  In the films they are in (the first three, Order of the Phoenix, and Deathly Hallows Part I) they don't add anything to the plot of the films and are just there to be cruel and foolish.  Strange how the first three Harry Potter films are at the bottom of my list (and feature the Dursleys prominently).  Curious also that the best Harry Potter film doesn't, and of the Top Three, the Dursleys are in only one (mercifully very briefly).  

In short, I've always felt they were unnecessary (in the films, except for the first one--but that one was always going to be an introduction to the characters, so they would have to be tolerated).  I would offer this to the Pot-Heads: if you cut the Dursley openings in the films, would the film suffer or lose a major plot point?

Well, at long last, I have finished with Harry Potter.  I think that I will try to read the entire series, which means starting at Sorcerer's Stone.  I can offer this perspective: I don't own any Harry Potter film, I wouldn't dress up like any of the characters (though I would allow myself a Gryffindor scarf).  The world of Harry Potter simply does not appeal to me. 

Why then go through all the films?  It was an exercise on my part, to understand why this series has such a hold on so many people (even evangelical Christians, much to the horror of other evangelical Christians who think Harry is the embodiment of Satanic seduction).  As a lover of film, I was drawn to how successful a franchise would be with the same actors playing the same parts over the course of a decade (especially given that at heart, Harry Potter is basically one very long story).    It is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, and I wanted to contribute to the discussion. 

What of the future for Harry Potter now that the film series has been retired?  Will it still hold sway ten, twenty, fifty years from now?  I don't know--certainly not for my part.  I can take or leave Harry.  I suspect that in time, Harry-mania will die down (as all things must), and that the books may be peddled to children as kid-lit, and kids will probably embrace them, not because they are great literature but because wizards are cool. 

I am not convinced Harry Potter will ever equal The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of brilliance and epic scope. I reflect to my own childhood, to the books I read in elementary and middle school such as The Cay, Across Five Aprils, Johnny Tremain, Bridge to Terabithia or A Day No Pigs Would Die.  THESE books taught me the magic of literature, long before The Boy Who Lived emerged from the pen of a single mother in an Edinburgh coffee shop.  I firmly believe these books, not The Sorcerer's Stone or any of the subsequent Potter books, will be the ones being read long after their authors are memories, and that these titles will serve both as examples of books geared for kids that stand the test of time and for just good writing.   

There will be some nostalgia for the Harry Potter book and film series (there will probably be all-day screenings of all eight films and anniversary commemorations), but as to whether they will be held in as high regard within a half-century from now, only Sybill Trelawney knows for sure.  Thus, I close my Harry Potter retrospective.  This Muggle offers you, my readers, sincere thanks for joining me on this long journey.

This IS The End.