Saturday, December 31, 2011

True Tebowtion



This is the third of brief columns on stories I didn't get around to until now.

I've earned an especially unfair reputation for being not only anti-Tim Tebow, but apparently, anti-God.  And perhaps therein lies the problem with young Timmy and his open proclamations of faith in Jesus Christ.  It seems that you can't be one without being the other.   In short, any criticism of Tebow is tantamount to a criticism of Jesus, and unless I missed something in the pages of the New Testament, one can be critical of how Tebow shows his faith (and even his football skills) without being critical of the faith itself.

Tebow has now become an Icon to many of my brethren, who see in him a great witness and witnessing tool for the cause of Christ.  Allow me to play Devil's Advocate (although I suppose some of my more devout friends would already see me as The Devil for not jumping on the Tebow-wagon, but I digress). 

Mr. Tebow has a unique position within the NFL: he can pretty much say and do anything without facing some of the penalties we would if we tried them.  Therefore, he can go to one knee in prayer without facing fines or reprimands.  Perhaps this is why so many are apt to follow his example, sometimes literally:
Thus we get the new verb, "tebowing", which is from what I understand an act of worship.  I don't begrudge Tebow for showing us 'a new way to pray', so to speak.  However, all his followers appear to be missing the point altogether.

It isn't suppose to be about Tim Tebow.  It's suppose to be about Jesus Christ. 

I go to the case of Connor and Tyler Carroll, two 17-year-olds who were suspended for 'tebowing' in their high school.  Now, I figure at first glance this is terribly unfair to the Carroll brothers and those who participated with them: they were merely showing their devotion to Christ (at least I hope it was Christ, not Tebow himself).  This is persecution for the Faith, they may argue.


However, here is where I differ from our young men.  There is a time and place for all things, and dropping to one knee in the hallway is not the time and place.  I support the free expression of all faiths, but I also know that just as it would be inappropriate for me to drop to my knee and 'tebow' in the middle of the library, it is also inappropriate for kids to do the same in the middle of their school.

As I grow older, I feel I'm getting a bit more moderate in my way of looking at the world.  I think of Tim Tebow, and I think he has inadvertently allowed himself to be the source of admiration, dare I say, worship, while Christ himself is not the main point of interest.  Despite being from the University of Florida I figure Tebow has some intelligence (that was suppose to be a joke; I'm no Gator Hater).  However, Tebow has always used his prominence on the football field to promote his faith (say, through messages on his face while playing).  Maybe it's because I'm more in the St. Francis of Assisi mindset, but somehow I think you show your faith best by doing, not by wearing. 

I'm frankly, a bit torn on this.  I don't think there is anything wrong with someone being of deep faith and having it impact every aspect of their lives.  However, there's something I can't warm up to about how Tebow is being made out to be a hero of some kind because he is so open about his Christianity.

One wonders if my fellow Christians would be so embracing of Tim Tebow if he insisted on wearing a yarmulke and refused to play on the Sabbath, or if he insisted on turning to Mecca during a game.  I get the feeling they would be irked at the idea that a Jewish or Moslem Tebow would use football to promote Judaism or Islam, so to my mind while one should respect his faith one must be wary of using him as a vehicle to bring people to Christ.  As far as I know, no one became a Christian because Kurt Warner pulled off a great Super Bowl.

I suppose this is my beef with Tim Tebow and 'tebowing' itself (apart from the fact I think he's highly overrated as a quarterback, but that's another discussion).  As much as he may protest to the contrary, it isn't about Christ.  It's about Tim Tebow.  In a strange sense, it's Tebow that's being admired, even worshipped (though not literally, and I'm sure he'd be the first to say that he shouldn't be the object of veneration, but Jesus Christ). 

To me, the true heroes aren't the Tim Tebows or Kurt Warners or Drew Breeses or Colt McCoys.  Instead, the true heroes are people like this:


Yubelina Hgato, a young Indonesian woman attacked for being a Christian.  She is disfigured, but only physically.  Internally, in her spirit, she is beyond beautiful, for she still maintains her faith in Christ despite all obstacles. 

The true heroes aren't Tim Tebow.  Instead, they are people like this:


A family of Coptic Christians in Egypt killed for their faith in Christ.  If any group deserves the title of 'martyr', it would be them.

In short, it's easy to "tebow" in the United States, but there is nothing heroic about it.  Heroic are those who literally are being beaten, tortured, even killed for following the Messiah Tim Tebow talks so much about.  These are the people I admire, not Tim Tebow.  I don't question Tebow's faith, but I worry that he is allowing himself to be the source of discussion and admiration.  Being able to throw a football and then talk about Jesus isn't a terrible thing.  However, to my mind, actions speak louder than words.

In that sense, my Coptic brothers and sisters, those Christians killed in Iraq, imprisoned in North Korea, burned in India and Indonesia, beaten up in Central America, THOSE are my heroes.  Those are the people I look up to.  I can only hope that my brothers and sisters in Christ think of them a little bit more and Tebow a little bit less.


So Dark These Waters

1938-1981

This is the second  of a brief series of columns I didn't get around to until now.

It's been thirty years since Natalie Wood's death at age 43.  In those three decades, the exact circumstances of her death still evoke controversy.  Was it murder, and if so by whom?  Was it just a terrible accident that has been built up to be something darker, more sinister?  Ever since she was found, floating on Catalina Bay, the details as to what led to her death have fueled speculation.

What makes Wood's death more tragic was that she had an intense fear of water, particularly drowning.  Her fear was so great that she was terrified of a scene in Splendor in the Grass which required her to put her head underwater in a bathtub.  Mind you, it was in a bathtub, where she would have easily and quickly pulled herself out from beneath the waters, was on land, and had a whole crew around her should her panic overwhelm her and freeze her under the water.   The fact that she did indeed die by drowning appears to make it the final, demented coda to her aquaphobia. 

Now, the investigation into her death has been reopened.  I can give my own views that in the end, the findings will remain the same: an accidental death, nothing more, nothing less.  However, I believe that in the ensuing brouhaha over Natalie Wood's final moments, we are running a risk of forgetting something more important.

Natalie Wood was a star as well as a talented actress.  Her legacy in films as varied as Miracle on 34th Street (which will always hold her as a child), Rebel Without A Cause (again, the epitome of the troubled teen) and Splendor in the Grass (who hasn't been overwhelmed by their first passionate romance) will attest to her abilities on screen.  However, she was also a wife and devoted mother, and that's what I hope people will remember whenever the investigation is brought up.

It wasn't just the death of a star, a Hollywood legend, that is being investigated.  It's the death of a woman who loved her children, and who loved her husband Robert Wagner (enough to marry him twice).  I figure her daughters and Wagner, and Christopher Walken, the unwitting player in this tragedy, have endured enough in these three decades: the rumors, the speculation, the suspicions.  Nothing has ever shown that Wagner was involved in Wood's death directly or indirectly.  By all accounts, he seems to be a good man, though he admits there was a lot of drinking in the past.  Be that as it may, there's something unseemly about the whispers of foul play against a man in his eighties when there hasn't been any solid proof against him.

In short, my views on the actual cause of Natalie Wood's death are unimportant.  I wasn't there (if I were, I would have been a toddler).  The real tragedy of Natalie Wood isn't just about what she could have done in film and television (or the stage, having been cast in a theatrical production of Anastasia, which would have been perfect for our Russian beauty).  The real tragedy is for her family, who lost a wife and mother.  This is true of all people who die under mysterious circumstances, and to focus more on the sordid "perhaps" or even the "what-ifs" diminishes the deaths. 

Whether they find anything new only time will tell (my view is that they won't).  It will always remain one of the great mysteries of Hollywood, but from my vantage point, it is not a sordid tale of murder, but a sad tale of a woman brought up to be a star, who grew into a strong actress, but who because of a series of tragic turns ended her last hours overwhelmed by the fear that had pervaded her entire life.

We have the films, small comfort but comfort nonetheless.  For myself, I hope that Natasha has found peace, and that we allow her to rest in peace.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dictator


This is the first of a brief series of columns on stories I didn't get around to until now.

Actors are not immune from doing or saying amazingly stupid things.  On the contrary, they sometimes thrive on it.  Don't believe me?  I offer the following: Kutcher, Ashton; Lohan, Lindsay; Gibson, Mel.  Well, maybe not the third, but certainly the first two.

I always give people the benefit of the doubt.  This is why I'm not going to be particularly hard on Hilary Swank for cooing sweet nothings to Razman Kadryov on his 35th birthday.  Now, who is Razman Kadryov?  Well, he just happens to be the President of Chechnya, a man who among his other accomplishments are allegedly assaulting women in saunas and having opponents killed left right and center. 

Now, granted Swank didn't really whisper words of love to Kadryov (a man beloved by ex-KGB man and current 'Prime Mininster' Vladimir Putin and his bitch, 'President' Dmitry Medvedev, a pair not exactly known for their gentle touch).  I don't even blame Swank for not knowing who Kadryov is (let's face it, I doubt Chechnya and their leadership comes up a lot in conversation).  Then again, she did say she 'did her homework'.  Well, she couldn't have gone through every little report from human rights groups (who has the time, what with reading of scripts like The Core, The Reaping, or Amelia).

What I DO hold Swank responsible for is for not doing any research (despite her protests to the contrary) and for ignoring human rights groups who advised her not to go.

I figure she didn't go because she has a passion for Grozny reconstruction.  She went for the same reason we all go to work: to get paid.  She went to this affair simply because there was cash involved.

Again, I don't hold Swank in contempt for wanting to earn a little cash (so hard being part of that 99% I imagine).  However, I'm trying to think back if there were incidents like this before Swank, pop star Seal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme popped in to celebrate a potential tyrant.  Did I miss Gloria Gaynor belting out I Will Survive to Syria's Hafez Al-Assad?  Trying to recall if Ella Fitzgerald leaped out of a cake for Pol Pot.  Maybe Rita Hayworth did a little bump and grind for Francisco Franco.  No...I didn't think so.

Actors, singers, and entertainers have to earn a living.  There is nothing wrong with that.  The very successful ones earn a great deal of money.  Again, nothing wrong with that.  However, actors, singers, and entertainers who earn a great deal of money who basically rent themselves out for more money to A.) perform for people of disreputable backgrounds/associations and B.) lecture the rest of us for not paying more in taxes is really grotesque.

Somehow, I can't imagine that people who get paid $1 million (cue Doctor Evil) to sing a few songs have any right to join the kids going on about their student loans at Occupy Wall Street or their various spin-offs.  If the Occupiers were smart, rather than have Jay-Z, Kanye West, or Russell Simmmons pop in to tell them to keep fighting the banks and have 'the rich' pay more in taxes, they'd ask Hova, "Can your wife donate the money she made from Gaddaffi's kid to me to pay off my loans?"

I think that, to me, is the most appalling thing about stars renting themselves out for some dough.  Exactly how much is too much?  If I were paid millions to perform, I'd be thrilled.  Now I know they have to have entourages, managers, lawyers, agents, nice houses sheltered away from their fans.  I don't begrudge them that or the fact that as people in the public eye, they need to have more security than a simple film reviewer/library employee.



However, the Protestant in me wonders if there has to be some limit to exactly whom I allow myself to be associated with.  We all remember Beyoncé, singing At Last to the President and Mrs. Obama at their first dance as the 44th President of the United States and First Lady.  The double meaning of the song was obvious: not only a beautiful love song (though, sorry Miss Knowles, it will always be Etta's song), but that 'at last', we got a black President.  I'm sure she is proud of her association with that (as well she should be...it is always an honor to sing for The President).  However, how does she justify this:



There she is, strutting her stuff for Mutassim Gaddaffi at a private New Year's Eve party.  I don't think it's the same thing: singing for the son of the long-time iron-fisted dictator of Libya (joyfully and most sincerely dead) and singing for the President.  Really, dear, did you need the money?  Not paying you enough to make movies like Obsessed?  Maybe I can believe, 'oh, she didn't know it was for a Gaddaffi she was "Sasha Fierce"-ing for', but then, shouldn't she have some curiosity as to who is footing the bill?  At best, it makes her look dumb.  At worst, it makes her look greedy and heartless (which I can't believe she is). 

What is really appalling in all this is exactly who people like Beyoncé will figuratively sing for their supper.  Let's imagine, if you will, that by some series of twists and turns of fate, of all people, Sarah Palin were elected President of the United States.  Now, let's say the governor asks Beyoncé to sing at a pre-Inauguration party (and let's even throw in some cash rather than for the honor). 

You really think Mrs. Z would sing for Sarah?

I think not. I'm sure she would respectfully and kindly decline the request. However, let's think on that for a moment.  In the world of music and film, being associated in any way with someone like a Sarah Palin or even a moderate like Mitt Romney is outrageous, maybe damaging to your reputation.  Being associated with a Gaddaffi or a Kadryov, merely good business (so long as no one finds out about it).

Now, Palin may be an absolute idiot unfit to be Mayor of Wasilla, let alone President of the United States.  That's for the voting public to decide.  However, despite the assertions of MSNBC and the DailyKos, Sarah Palin hasn't been involved directly or indirectly with murder, let alone rape, or torture of any kind.   How any rational, intelligent person could go and sing or wish a happy birthday to someone who is dangerous if not downright evil, while hold their nose in the air against someone they didn't vote for simply boggles the mind.

Think on this: for the Inauguration of President Clinton and President Obama, you had a galaxy of stars.  For the Inauguration of President George W. Bush, you had Ricky Martin and Jessica Simpson.  There has to be something completely bonkers in my view when someone would rather sing for a Gaddaffi than for a Bush.  If I had my choice, I'd sing for the President (even if I didn't vote for him) because A.) he is the leader of my country, B.) he is representing my country, and C.) it is an honor to do something in the name of my country.  I wouldn't be saluting the man but what he represents: the United States of America, a thriving democracy, and the land that I love. 

It wouldn't be an endorsement of his policies to sing for him.  If that were the case, then we must assume Beyoncé endorses Muammar Gaddaffi and Hilary Swank endorses Razman Kadryov.  I figure they don't, so then why would they (and many others in Hollywood) be so persnikety about performing for a President Bush, or Palin, or Romney?


Say what you will about Marilyn Monroe's intelligence, but at least SHE knew whom she was singing to.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Following The Law


Look into his eyes.  Put aside that they are beautiful.  Put aside the fact that this is what an old-style movie star would have looked like if he had been around during the height of the MGM era.

Instead, concentrate on the fact that Jude Law can actually act, something that few of his generation can actually say.  Law has excelled in certain films, but he has also made some simply abysmal choices (and no, I'm not referring to the nanny).

I recall the first Jude Law film I saw, and I think most people came to know him through Gattaca. If I remember correctly it wasn't just because he was a beautiful youth in the film that made him so memorable in the film (one which my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr.--who may or may not be dead--still sharply disagree on), but it was because behind the facade of the privileged young man there seemed to be not just anger at being in his situation, but because there was also boredom and frustration with his life before becoming paralyzed.  He created a scene-stealing performance given that he was not the name star in Gattaca (that would have been Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman).

It's a sign of how quickly he rose that a mere two years later came a role that came to burn itself in the memory of moviegoers and his first Oscar nomination: Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley.  His role was that of, curiously enough, the privileged youth, an object of desire for both Matt Damon's Tom Ripley and Gwyneth Paltrow's  Marge Sherwood.  Law created a character one both envied and felt sorry for: someone who was oblivious to anyone other than himself, who was both caring and careless with others.  He was the best of friends, but once he tired of you, he moved on.  Dickie disappears from The Talented Mr. Ripley near half-way through the film, yet we keep remembering him.  That's a sign of a great performance.

Somehow, it just seemed Jude Law would be both a big star and a respected actor.  In fact, the constant jokes from Chris Rock about Jude Law's ubiquity at the Oscars one year got under Sean Penn's skin (and in fairness to Rock, I thought they were funny and not to be taken so seriously).  However, no amount of talent (and Law has it) could save him from some curious choices, if not downright disasters.

Now, in fairness I have never seen Cold Mountain.  In fact, the only thing I can think of when I hear Cold Mountain is a parody on MAD TV where the characters from Cold Mountain faced off against the characters from The Lord of the Rings on Family Feud, and Renee Zellweger's character was the chief object of ridicule, always shouting, "You ain't ever gonna git Cold Mountain" in her wild hillbilly voice.  (For the record, even though I haven't seen Cold Mountain, I think that year's Best Supporting Actress was Shohreh Aghdashloo for House of Sand and Fog, who was clearly robbed to give Zellweger an Oscar that year for not getting it the previous two years earlier for Bridget Jones' Diary and Chicago).  He was nominated, but since then we haven't heard much from him...at least that doesn't involve his complicated private life.

It isn't that he's lost his talent.  I don't even think he's lost his way creatively (the short clips I've seen of his performance on Broadway as Hamlet show he still has great abilities).  I think it has to do with the fact that the roles he's chosen have either been in bad films or he's been bad in them.

Take Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  Fidel I hope has forgiven me for being so enthusiastic about the film...before I actually saw it with him.  (Frankly, Fidel shouldn't complain: I'M the one that paid for both our tickets, so he should stop kvetching).  I know what they were going for: a throwback to the 1940s-style serials, but everything about it was wrong: it was loud, it was overblown with a ridiculous plot, bad acting (sorry, Jude--even you) and the ending was so atrocious people in the audience were actually shouting their disapproval.  I just sat in my seat, sinking into it, embarrassed for everyone and myself for letting myself get carried away by the trailers. 

At least I learned a few things from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: one, temper your enthusiasm until after the film, two, it's a sign of a bad film when the best performance comes from someone who's been dead fifteen years (Laurence Olivier), three, all the CGI and blue/green screens can't make up for what you actually have in terms of cast and crew, and four, Giovanni Ribisi makes for one hell of a "plucky sidekick" (that's an inside joke between Fidel Gomez, Jr. and myself). 

I think part of the problem is that filmmakers try to make Law the star of their project (Alfie, Sleuth, The Holiday) when, despite his obvious talent, he hasn't gotten to be a big-time marquee name.  When he works with others, well...Let's just say that I think he's great in Sherlock Holmes, but I think the first movie is crap (as of this writing I can't bring myself to go see A Game of Shadows, but I expect I'll wander down there soon enough).  I think his take on Watson is better than Nigel Bruce (who always made Watson look like a dithering idiot, which Watson was not--he just wasn't as smart as Holmes, but then only Irene Adler ever was, yet I digress).  In short, I think, at least on film, Jude Law excels when he has someone to work with or against.  When he's asked to carry the entire project or at least a good chunk of it, then we run into problems. 

Of course, part of the blame has to lie with Law himself.  Repo Men was a failure because the plot didn't work and he didn't work either.  I've already gone over a bit about Sky Captain, but again, he was not good there either.  Granted, an actor can be better than the material (ex. Sherlock Holmes) but Law at times has failed to deliver the goods.  The best (or worst) example was the remake of All The King's Men.  The movie wasn't just a colossal disaster, but Law's American accent (in particular a Southern accent) was to be kind fleeting, forced, and so, so very wrong. 

In short, I think Jude Law is a great actor but not a great movie star.  He was part of a great ensemble in Contagion, and I've always said he and Robert Downey, Jr. are the best parts of Sherlock Holmes films (I hope A Game of Shadows is actually worth my time).  Now, at his age, he still doesn't look like he's entering middle-age, and I think he still has a great career in front of him (something I can't say for his fellow Brit Robert Pattinson or RPattz's teen wolf buddy Taylor Lautner).  Once their looks fade, so will they.  Law, on the other hand, has raw talent on his side. 

Now at the crossroads of his career and life, my humble advise is for him to keep going on Broadway and the West End, continue working with ensembles, and every now and again venture to leading roles, preferably ones that don't require great beauty (don't go for Biblical or Roman epics--somehow the togas won't do, unless you're doing Julius Caesar).  I think Jude Law is a great talent; he has so much more to give, much more than just those beautiful eyes.

With that, I wish a happy 39th birthday to Jude Law (thus making him officially as old as Jack Benny).

Bloody Shakespeare

CORIOLANUS

Adapting Shakespeare to the screen can be a tricky thing.  One can go one of two ways: keep Shakespeare within the time frame of the original story (the Elizabethan/Jacobean era) or setting the play at another time (not necessarily the 20th Century).  When one sets a Shakespearean work at any other time period, we run into another problem: keep the language or update it to something more current.  Sometimes keeping the language can work (Kenneth Branagh's version of Much Ado About Nothing) or it can be ridiculous (Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo & Juliet).  If one decides to update the story, you can have both good films (10 Things I Hate About You as the teenage Taming of the Shrew) or not-so-good films (She's The Man as the teenage Twelfth Night). 

As a passionate lover of Shakespeare, I tend to worry when a film decides to keep the language and change the setting. However, even I, a man who considers the plot of Anonymous to be blasphemy, had yet to encounter Coriolanus, which is perhaps considered a 'minor' Shakespearean drama.  Certainly this tale of blood and gore doesn't have the pull of something as deep as Hamlet or as light as A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Therefore, it's a fair guess that few people are well-versed in Coriolanus, thus allowing Ralph Fiennes' film version of the play to be both true to the language and remarkably relevant to today. 

Rome is at war, with a weak economy and riots in the streets.  The leaders in the Senate, led by Menenius (Brian Cox) work to appease the common Roman people, but General Cauis Martius (Fiennes) has nothing but contempt for the plebeians (the common people) daring to question the patricians (the high families).  Martius knows nothing but war, and Rome fights the Volscians, led by his bitter rival Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).  Martius is triumphant in war, and returns a hero, with the Senate giving him a new name: Coriolanus, in honor of his victory at Corioles. 

His mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) pushes her son to agree to be elected consul, but the two tribunes (the leaders of the plebeians) Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) have not forgotten Coriolanus' arrogance and contempt for the plebeians.  They do not want him, but at first Coriolanus manages to win the public over.  Eventually, the pushing of the tribunes unleashes Coriolanus' true contempt for the common man: he always found the idea of complimenting the public or going to them for their approval against his nature and let's them know.  The tribunes banish Coriolanus, and in his hatred Coriolanus plans vengeance.

He wanders the countryside, until coming to Antium and Aufidius.  In the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' mindset, Coriolanus joins Aufidius to march on Rome itself.  The population is in a panic, and it sends Menenius to plead he turn his wrath.  Coriolanus will not be moved, but then they send Volumnia, Coriolanus' wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), and his child to plead their case.  Again, he will not be moved.  Volumnia condemns her son for his treachery, and finally he is moved.  He makes peace with Rome, but in doing so betrays Aufidius (who I figure counts as his 'frenemy').  With this, Aufidius enacts his own revenge: a bloody one.

Again, adapting Shakespeare where one keeps the language and changes the setting can work or not work.  It depends entirely on how the transition is made: if they emphasize the language too much or make it sound grand, or forced, or unnatural, or out-of-place to the speaker and listener (ie. Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet) it will only draw attention to the discrepancy.  If it sounds natural and flows as though this is the way people actually speak (Much Ado About Nothing) then it adds to the pleasure of the viewing.  Coriolanus, under Fiennes' debut as director, is the latter.  He does this by forgoing the temptation to exaggerate the language but instead focusing on how people speak. 

The flow of the language is natural, with all the actors speaking their lines in a normal conversational tone.  Even when the language and scene call for rage (as when Volumnia rails against her son), there never is a moment when any of the actors go over the top.  In fact, everyone in the cast is in perfect control of their performances, not just speaking in natural tones (calm when the scene asks for it, anger but never out-of-control when a character is riled up) but also in how they behave.

Take when Meninius returns defeated from his plea to his old student and friend.  He tells General Cominius (John Kani) that there is no mercy within Coriolanus.  Rather than deliver his lines in a grand way, Cox speaks them in almost a whisper, a resignation that there is no hope for reconciliation between Coriolanus and the city he once fought for.

As good as Fiennes' directing of the acting was (and it was an excellent job especially since it was his first turn behind the camera), he was aided by having a galaxy of brilliant actors to work with (and Gerard Butler too).  Perhaps I'm being a bit facetious in mocking Butler, who frankly has been in his share of clunkers (Law Abiding Citizen, P.S. I Love You, and in my view 300, where it was his brawn more than his acting that was the draw).  However, he too was remarkably calm as Aufidius (especially given how easily being a warrior could have made being over-the-top).  Cox I find is an actor who is only as good as his material: when he is in good films (The Bourne Supremacy) he is good, but when he's in a bad film (Troy) he is just awful.  Here, he not only is good, but he gives one of his best performances as the compromising but ultimately crushed Meninius. 

I can't leave out the ladies.  Chastain, who has been in everything (I think she was one of the Muppets in the film too) has a small role as Virgilia, but her gentle Roman wife was a brilliant counterpoint to all the blood and thunder going on around her.  That blood and thunder belongs to Redgrave as the pushy Volumnia, seeking power for her son but not interested in how he felt about bowing to the common people.  She manages to intimidate and frighten everyone who goes against her to harm her son, and how she tells Virgilia that she would rather have a dead son filled with honor than a living one who did not fight is spoken as in conversation but is still chilling.

One of the benefits of filming Coriolanus is that it is not a well-known play.  Therefore, having a modern-day setting makes the play more relatable and contemporary, as if minus the language it could actually be happening today.  The setting may be Rome but the overall look is vaguely Yugoslavian (or the remnants of the former Yugoslavia), an Eastern European-style setting either suffering war or barely coming out of it.  Having the Volscians referred to as "Volsce" (pronounced Volski) makes it sound even more Eastern European, thus lending it more of an air of reality.

If there is something to dislike about Coriolanus is the endless shaky hand-held camera method of filmmaking.  I suppose this was done to make it more 'you are there', but at times it can be a bit too much.  A scene where we are with the Volscian army (complete with a rock-like music) veers into a bit of music-video style of movie which it doesn't need. 

On the whole, these aren't enough to bring down Coriolanus, though I imagine the language (and the fact that sometimes one can't remember who is who and the camera moves about) may not be to everyone's taste.  Ralph Fiennes has already proven himself to be a fine actor, and now he's shown he is capable of making a strong film from a relatively-little known Shakespeare play.  Coriolanus is a film that both patrician and plebeians would approve of.

DECISION: B-

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gray Lady Down But Not Out



PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Newspapers are facing what appears to be death by a thousand cuts.  You have loss of advertisers.  You have a diminishing number of readers.  You have intense competition from online sources of news.  You have entities such as FOX News and MSNBC, which have a veneer of news sources when they veer close to if not overtake the thin line of impartiality to be partisan attack machines for the right and left respectively. 

Of course, The New York Times, the newspaper of record, has been accused of being a far-left organization by various right-wing grandees, but even they site the Times when they wish to sound authoritative.   Page One: Inside the New York Times covers a year in the life of an organization that is trying to stay alive as so many other newspapers start falling due to declining revenues and readers.  Andrew Rossi's documentary, however, is more than just about the inner workings of a major news organization, but an exploration of how news itself (and more importantly, who delivers it) is vital to the survival of a thriving democracy such as ours.

Page One chronicles 2008, which proved to be a most interesting year in the Media Desk (the department that covers the media itself).  The primary story is the release by Wikileaks of confidential messages from governments to each other.  There is debate between getting the story first and getting the story right. 

This is crystallized by the release of a video showing American armed forces firing on journalists in Iraq.  At first, the edited film appears to show the group to be disarmed and the attack a blatant assault on unarmed civilians.  As the Media Desk begins to look at the longer, unedited video, it becomes evident that the situation was more chaotic than first thought, and that in the fog of war what appears self-evident may be more complex.  The question then becomes one of how to present the truth without rushing to judgment.

The Times doesn't shy from addressing some of its own embarrassments in Page One.  There is the Jason Blair scandal (where it is discovered that the rising reporter was in essence making it up as he went along), or the faulty reporting from Judith Miller in the build-up to the Iraq Intervention.  Page One also goes into the continuing downgrade at the Times: a particularly sad moment is when the Times' economic woes force it to lay off employees, including long-time staff.  Seeing them talk about how long they'd been there, and in one case cry when their surviving staff members give them a respectable send-off, is hard to watch (especially now when the nation, like the Times, is going through tough economic times). 

However, Page One thrives when the Media Desk vigorously defends itself (and the Times) against the very idea that the New York Times itself will disappear.  Media columnist David Carr (as cantankerous but insightful old-school journalist if ever there was one...despite his previous troubles with drugs which he is open about) won't stand for people suggesting that the Times is bordering on irrelevance, in particular at the various debates he participates with. 

One highlight is when he faces against DailyKos impresario Markos Moulitsas.  Moulitsas is open about the fact that he is not a journalist yet doesn't seem disturbed by the fact that DailyKos is used as a news source.  I digress to say that one can make the case that FOX and MSNBC could also be both news sources and advocacy centers (although I believe both networks have legitimate journalists who do manage to get actual news to their audiences).  Carr, as combative as ever, won't accept that the Times will ever be replaced by sources like DailyKos, but he also understands that New Media will be a vital outlet and source.  This is why he isn't too surprised to see CNN join forces with Vice Magazine.  When interviewing the staff at Vice, the older Carr at one point takes the Gen X editors to task for being quick to dismiss/ridicule more established news sources like CNN or the Times.

On a personal note, it's moments like these that endear Carr to me (and I imagine to viewers of Page One).   This is a man who loves journalism but knows that organizations like the Times must adapt to the changing world or truly face being left behind.  We see this with Brian Stelter, a man who started out writing for his own news blog but who was picked up by the Times and now is an insider at one of the most prestigious news outlets in the world.

Page One goes beyond showing the internal workings of the New York Times, but also goes to a central question: will all newspapers, including one that is seen as the newspaper of record, go by the wayside?  Page One, if it makes any arguments, is that newspapers will face hard times (a section of Page One chronicles the bankruptcy of the Tribune newspaper chain, brought about by owners more interested in making money than reporting news).  However, there will always be a need for news sources that make an effort to report 'all the news that fit to print', especially for an informed citizenry to keep the freedoms so hard-fought.

In a curious way, while Page One gives time to the importance of the Times when the Pentagon Papers were leaked to them, it doesn't make as strong a connection between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks information dump.  Wouldn't it be similar in that secret government papers were given to the public?  Well, the Pentagon Papers were released to a news source that went out across the nation, while Wikileaks was put out direct to the public.  In a curious note, however, the second dump of information was done in a joint effort between Wikileaks as well as three dominant newspapers/magazines (the New York Times, the Guardian in London, and Germany's Der Spiegel).  It is a recognition from both sides that news outlets and the New Media of online sources need each other and can work together.

Page One is a fascinating documentary about the media and in particular one major, respected organization fighting to stay alive.  What I found fascinating was that the people at the New York Times weren't these wild-eyed radicals so often portrayed by right-wingers or old out-of-touch elitist the online journalist/activists dismiss them as.  Instead, they appear to be decent, hard-working people who want to give people legitimate information so that, to coin a phrase, "they report, you decide".

Page One is more than worth the hour and a half it takes.  An excellent insider's view of a newspaper at a crossroads.  I reported, I decided.

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Tale Quite Cimmerian to One Told Before

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

*As always, this review will not compare the original with the remake.

Whatever the flaws Conan the Barbarian has, one thing I can't fault it for is for being rather idiot.  The film knows what it is, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a celebration of gore, of killing, and of vengeance.

With a little bit of sex in it.

Our titular hero is a Cimmerian, a warlike tribe vaguely Germanic or Celtic, literally born on the battlefield.  As Conan grows up, he proves himself a master warrior, under the tutelage of his father Corin (Ron Perlman).  However, it isn't long before his village is pillaged and burned by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang).  This Cimmerian village has the last piece of an ancient mask that will allow the wearer to summon the spirits of the dead and rule the world...or something like that.  Young Conan survives.

Now Conan (Jason Momoa) has grown up in a big way. With his loyal partner Artus (Nonso Anozie) Conan wanders the world, fighting and drinking and whoring (but never tortures or kills for pleasure).  He then learns that Khalar Zym is near, and now he will have his revenge.  For that, Conan goes to a monastery where Zym, aided by his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), is looking for a pureblood which can activate the mask to bring the spirit of his late wife.  The pureblood, Tamara (Rachel Nichols), manages to escape but Conan is captured.  Not knowing why Tamara is so important, only that Khalar and Marique seek her, Conan holds her prisoner. 

Eventually Conan and Tamara are overtaken by Khalar and Marique, Tamara is brought for an elaborate ceremony, and Conan (now in love with Tamara who feels the same--their love scene confirming that),  with the aid of thief Ela-Sham (Said Taghmaoui) breaks into Khalar's compound for a final confrontation.

Again, the entire Conan mythology isn't for everyone.  In many respects, Conan the Barbarian is not to be taken seriously, and if one can watch the film without thinking long and hard about anything in it, one will enjoy it as harmless, goofy fun.  Granted, this doesn't sound like a recommendation or compliment, and I use the word 'harmless' loosely given all the blood and gore in Conan the Barbarian.

However, I would argue that Conan the Barbarian (both the film and the series based on Robert E. Howard's stories) knows what it is: a celebration of brawn, brute force, and excessive masculinity.  You have witches, sorcerers, a monosyllabic hero, a beautiful heroine, so I would say that those who are tempted to see Conan the Barbarian as junk may be right, but since the film knows it isn't deep, one shouldn't look at it too deeply.

This isn't to say that Marcus Nispel's film is good.  You have characters popping in and out with nary a rhyme or reason.  Take the character of the thief Ela-Sham.  Conan frees him from a prison with no interest in him as a person, but when Conan leaves him, Ela-Sham shouts out to him something about if he should need him to find him in his city.  Foreshadowing, anyone?

Same goes for Artus, who is suppose to be Conan's loyal side-man (I can't quite call him a sidekick).  For long stretches of Conan the Barbarian he disappears from the screen, only to appear whenever Conan needs him.  It's far too convenient to have these characters serve no other purpose than to give aid to our hero, thus having no real reason to exist in and of themselves.

Similarly, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and John Hood's screenplay never sets up the romance between Conan and Tamara.  Truth be told, the entire love story can't be believed because it A.) appears to come out of almost nowhere, and B.) appears to be there because it was deemed necessary to have a sex scene.  I also didn't care for the long introduction where we get all the backstory of the mask and its power.  Wouldn't it have worked better if we just had violence for violence's sake (this is the world of Conan the Barbarian after all)?

I digress to say that Conan the Barbarian appears to be the same story as the 2010 Clash of the Titans or Immortals.  While Conan was released before Immortals, I saw it after I saw Immortals, so while watching Conan I kept thinking the similarities between the two (right down to the beautiful virgin with awesome mystical powers and the muscular hero making love) were too strong for me to think it an original or clever take on Howard's work.

Be that as it may, I suspect that Jason Momoa did the best he could with a character whose motto can be summed up thus, "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content".  Conan isn't deep, with only the goal of avenging his father's death (with a little bit of sex with Tamara) as motivation for any of his actions. Similarly, his friendship with Artus doesn't get a lot of attention, and the battle between Conan and a band of Sand-Men created by Marique's witchcraft looks almost comical.

Let's move on to some of the other characters.  Perlman does the best of trying for some sort of seriousness to what is an elaborate premise, while Lang just revels in being big.  The women don't fare well in it: if Nichols isn't being flat (although she really doesn't have much to work with) McGowan is simply over-the-top (again, although I think this is the correct take on the character).  As a side note, I kept thinking that Tyler Bates' score at the fight between Conan and the Sand-Men sounded too much like something from The Bionic Woman, but on the whole it was serviceable. 

And that, my friends, is what one can get from Conan the Barbarian: a serviceable, forgettable adventure story that serves as mindless entertainment.  It's not deep, it's not brilliant, but if one accepts the limitations of the film one sees that Conan the Barbarian set a pretty low bar and met it.  For that, one can't say the film is great, but that like the titular hero, we are content.

DECISION: C+

Monday, December 26, 2011

Enjoy The Silence: The Artist Review


THE ARTIST (2011)

How extraordinary that a silent film has become all the rage in the era of the motion-capture, Computer Generated Imagery, 3-D obsessed movie world we find ourselves in. Such is the case with The Artist, a film that dares to be innovative by being thoroughly retro.  Maybe this really is a case of 'everything old is new again', but when one watches The Artist, it's clear from the get-go that this is not a gimmick.  The Artist is a genuine, bonafide, silent feature (well, there are a few moments of sound, but I'll get back to that in a moment). 

The best way to sum up the plot of The Artist is to say it's a mix of Singin' In the Rain with A Star Is Born, while throwing in a few bits of Sunset Boulevard for good measure.  George Valentine (French star Jean Dujardin) is a big-time silent film star in the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. mode: action and daring-do.  At the premiere of his newest film, A Russian Affair, a fan literally bumps up to him with photographers watching.  This fan is Peppy Miller (Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo), an aspiring actress herself.  The photographers have a field day with the 'mystery girl', with the only one displeased being Mrs. Valentine, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller--American by the way).  In rapid succession, Peppy and George share an attraction while filming A German Affair, but he's married and she yearns to be a star.

Well, we get to 1929.  It is a bad year for Valentine: not only do we have the Wall Street crash that ruins him but even worse...sound.  Studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) will convert all his productions to sound, but George will have none of it: he's a SILENT film star, and a SILENT film star he will remain.  To prove the public still wants him (and wants him without speaking), he produces and directs his own film, Tears of Love.  It is set to premiere the same night as Peppy's new film (new SOUND film), Beauty Spot.  While Peppy rises, George falls, with only his driver Clifton (James Cromwell) loyal to him...as well as George's dog (billed simply as The Dog).

As 1929 gives way to 1931, then 1932, we see just how different our peppy Peppy and our valentine George have gone (or not gone).  Peppy's still the toast of Hollywood, while George is living some vaguely Norma Desmond-like life in his small room, watching his old films, knowing there is no future for him.  In a drunken rage, he burns the prints of his films (more lost movies, I thought), but is overcome by the smoke and flames, only to be rescued by The Dog.  Peppy, learning of his plight, rushes to him, pushes Zimmer to give John Gilbert...I mean, George Valentine, one last shot.  George, too proud to beg, nearly ends it all, but then Peppy comes up with the perfect plan to save Valentine's career, and with that, The Artist finally breaks the sound barrier to say his first lines, "With pleasure", in a lovely but light French accent.

When I say 'the artist' says his first lines, I don't want people to think these are the first spoken words in The Artist.  It's not even the first sounds that are heard in the film.  The Artist is, strictly speaking, not an all-silent film.  There are moments when we do have sound (I counted a total of three) and each of these moments used sound to the best effect.  In particular was the first time, when George is surprised to actually 'hear' the sound of a glass being put down on his dresser, followed by falling pens, laughing chorus girls, to be concluded with a feather as a bomb.  The entire scene was almost Fellini-esque in its brilliant use of sound in a silent film (wouldn't it be delicious to imagine a silent film winning Best Sound Editing, which I think it has a very strong chance of doing?).  The careful use of sound in The Artist doesn't distract from the viewing pleasure of watching the film.  Actually, it only heightens the cleverness of the story.

George Valentine, the character, won't speak, period.  His world is quite literally a silent one.  We begin the film with a scene from A Russian Affair, and the first words we read are, "I won't talk!  I won't say a word!"  When Doris reproaches him for not speaking to her, she 'says', "We have to talk, George".  Seeing him silent, she 'screams', "Why do you refuse to talk?"  Every time the subject of talking is brought up to George, he steadfastly maintains his silence.  Michel Havanavicius' screenplay manages to put George's silences both in context and make it symbolic of what is going on in his life.

Havanavicius' directing also shows a particular cleverness with metaphors.  Early in The Artist, we see George and Peppy on the staircase: Peppy is going up, George is going down.  He also has several brilliant hints from other films.  For example, we can see the influence of Citizen Kane when we see the montage of the Valentine's crumbling marriage at breakfast, and when Peppy tells her friend, "I want to be alone", we can hear the great Garbo from Grand Hotel.  The main influence in The Artist is Singin' in the Rain (at the A German Affair filming, all I could think of was the line Donald O'Connor told Gene Kelly about simply releasing the previous film under a new title--you've seen one, you've seen them all).  At another point, the premiere of A Russian Affair is almost the same as the premiere of The Royal Rascal from Singin' in the Rain, right down to the shrewish Lina Lamont-type infuriated Valentine gave more stage time to his dog than to her. 

However, as I've stated, there is also a strong element of A Star Is Born: up-and-coming ingenue rises while former matinee idol goes down to near-defeat (except the romance is not doomed).  Finally, it the "Hollywood easily dismisses and throws out all silent film stars" and in Valentine's near-reclusiveness, we can see how Sunset Boulevard is being hinted at in The Artist

One thing I will fault The Artist for is the idea that silent films were almost immediately rejected by the studios and the public as soon as sound came in.  One should remember that The Jazz Singer, which heralded the beginning of the end of silent films, was not, strictly speaking, an all-sound film.  The first Best Picture winner was a silent film (Wings), and Sunrise was also a big hit the same year as The Jazz Singer.  Garbo didn't make her sound debut until 1930 in Anna Christie, and Charlie Chaplin continued making virtually silent films until the late 1930s (in fact, I think The Great Dictator was his first all-sound film, and that was made in 1940).  While silent films were being pushed aside in the rush for "all-talking" features, I don't accept the premise that the transition from silent to sound was so fast that a star like Valentine would almost immediately fade from view.

The star that most inspired the character of George Valentine (Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.) did have both a good voice and a career post-sound, as did his wife Mary Pickford (though yes, not on the same level as their silent films).  We should remember that there were stars that made the transition quite well: as varied as Joan Crawford, William Powell, Marie Dressler, and Lillian Gish without any adverse effects.  Therefore, I can't quite accept the premise that Valentine's career would fall so fast. Yet, I digress.

What I hope The Artist will do is finally put to rest once and for all the idea that silent film acting is broad to the point of farce.  Granted, some silent film acting today can be seen as over-the-top, but A.) some acting today is also over-the-top, and B.) some silent film actors (Garbo, Pickford for example) have incredible subtlety.  With The Artist, you see that the acting is beautiful, tender, and able to register so much with just their faces (brings to mind Gloria Swanson's line, "We didn't need dialogue.  We had faces" from Sunset Boulevard, doesn't it?).  Dujardin has the looks of a Fairbanks, Sr., and in the early part of the film we see just how much fun it must have been to be George Valentine.  When called to bring drama, even pathos, to his character, Dujardin conveys it without being big on screen. 

His sadness is matched by Bejo's peppy Peppy, all jolly frivolity for the most part.  We can see the joy she has when performing (the dance numbers between them are a delight).  The ability to communicate so much with just the eyes, the face, the body moments is also shown in the smaller parts by Goodman, Cromwell, Miller (a shamefully underused actress in my view), and even Malcolm McDowall in what I took to be a cameo. 

Music is vital in a silent film, and Ludovic Bource's score for The Artist communicates so much, from the coming of jazz to the seriousness of coming to the end of one's rope.  While listening to the music, I thought I heard echoes of the score to Sunset Boulevard in the opening.  While this may be my imagination given the subject matter, there is a clear use of the Love Theme from Vertigo at the end of the film, and I'm torn as to whether this was a good thing or not. 

I'm someone who loves Vertigo, and while it did work given the desperation of the situation the characters are facing, I couldn't shake the sense that using the music was just wrong.  I was too distracted by knowing the music was from Vertigo to get it out of my mind.  It also has me fiercely debating whether one should consider The Artist's score to be original if it uses music from a masterpiece.  However, I will acknowledge the use of Pennies From Heaven (one of the few times voices are heard in The Artist) was well done within the film. 

Guillaume Schiffman's cinematography captured so beautifully the look of an early 20th century silent film that it could have been straight from a D.W. Griffith film. 

Why the use of Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo upset me so much I can't quite explain.  Why I think ending The Artist with Dujardin speaking was wrong (thus making his French accent noticeable when one would have expected him to be North American given there was no suggestion he was anything other than American or Canadian) I can't quite explain either.  Still, one can see from The Artist that silent films are just as good , if not better, than some sound films. 

Honestly, how could anyone argue that sound makes a film better?  How can Metropolis be considered worse than I Melt With You simply because the latter has audible dialogue?  How can one with a straight face argue that The Hangover Part II is funnier than Safety Last! just because we can hear the actor's voices?   Really, you think Zack Galifianakis is wittier or funnier than Harold Lloyd?  I beg to differ.

If anything, I can only hope that The Artist will make the general public at least more receptive to silent films. 

The Artist will have people at the end asking not, 'why did they make this a silent film?', but instead, 'why did they ever stop making silent films in the first place?'

DECISION: A-

2012 Best Picture Winner: Argo

In our continuing effort to review all Best Picture Oscar winners, visit here to see other reviews.

Girls Who Like Girls In The Hood

PARIAH

It might be tempting to compare Pariah with another story of a girl discovering herself while in the ghetto (Precious).  However, the stories may have a similar background, but they address different issues, with only the heartbreak of a common human condition making them similar. 

Alike (Adepero Oduye), who sometimes goes by Lee, is a bright 17-year-old girl who has a talent for writing (poetry in particular) but who is also aware that she finds females sexually pleasing.  She goes to a lesbian bar with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), an openly butch lesbian.  Alike is interested in women, but extremely hesitant to have sex with them.  While she dresses more butch with Laura, she won't in front of her family: her sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), her father Arthur (Charles Parnell) or her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans).  While all her family suspects Alike is not like the other girls and Alike senses that they suspect something, no one speaks on it.  Audrey believes the best thing for Alike is to become friends with Bina (Aasha Davis), the daughter of a co-worker/fellow churchgoer.

At first, Alike is openly hostile to Bina, but soon begins to bond with her over their similar taste in music.  Alike's growing friendship with Bina pushes Laura to the side, which bothers her but who has enough problems of her own to do much about it.  Needless to say, Bina wants Alike to be her true bosom buddy shall we say, but Lee finds that her first romance (and first sexual encounter) doesn't mean the same thing to one as it does to the other.

Lee comes into a homeworld in turmoil: Audrey not only suspects that Arthur is having an affair but that Alike is at the very least becoming a man and at worst is a lesbian (obviously corrupted by her wicked friend Laura).  Alike comes into this household already devastated by the heartbreak of first love lost, having to see her parents engaged in a brutal fight, and finally is forced to come out.  A horrified and angry Audrey smacks her out of the house.  Despite her father's entreaties, and Audrey's devastation, Lee decides to graduate early and go to Berkley for a ten-week writing course. 

If writer/director Dee Rees wanted a theme for Pariah, it would be one of the final things Alike tells her father.  "I'm not runnin', I'm choosin'", she tells Arthur.  This pretty much sums up Pariah: the story of a girl who becomes a woman, not just sexually but emotionally and mentally, who decides to follow the old Shakespearean adage of "to thine own self be true".  Throughout the film, Alike had been hiding or attempting to conform: with Laura, dressing as much as a man as she could, with Audrey, attempting to be a girl more in line with her ideas of femininity.  It isn't until she finally comes out that she does find herself free.  Moreover, it isn't just coming out to her parents, but in a sense coming out to herself.

Rees not only gives beautiful dialogue in Pariah (Alike's final poem is a beautiful meditation on how being broken can also be cracks that let light in) but also manages to create so much mood and subtext in what is not being said.  Midway in the film, Arthur and Alike are talking in the kitchen.  Arthur, as a policeman, knows about the lesbian bar and who may have been seen there, while Alike, having discovered the joys of first love, yearns to ask her father about what if the romance isn't exactly how he or Audrey would imagine it to be.  You know they each want to say or ask things that they already know the answers to but would rather not have them said aloud.  The subtext in how both Parnell and Oduye act out their inner conflict and fears is beautiful.

In fact, the performances all around are excellent.  Oduye creates in Alike a person coming to terms not just with her sexual orientation but with her own identity apart from her lesbianism.  Walker's butch Laura comes off as, yes, almost manly, only interested in sex.  However, near the end of Pariah, we see Laura go to her old home where her mother opens the door and just stares down at her.  Laura tells her she got her GED, and in her vocal inflection, her body movement, and her face you see a girl just wanting desperately to have her own mother love and accept her.  The rejection she gets is just so sad to see, and makes Laura a more rounded individual than a stereotypical butch lesbian.

Minus Laura's mother, the characters in Pariah are presented as flawed but not heartless or evil.  Chief among them is Wayans' Audrey.  You know she is hostile to Laura, but even in this could can see she believes she is doing it for what she sees as protecting her daughter from bad influences.  Throughout Pariah, Audrey does not come across as brutal or uncaring; far from it: most Audrey's actions are done with a desire to have a closer relationship with Alike, and while we can't excuse the beating Audrey gives Lee when she finally is forced out, you get a sense that a physical reaction is the only outlet this particularly besieged woman has (by having her fears about her daughter confirmed, by her fear and paranoia about Arthur possibly having a mistress).  Davis mixes a genuinely caring Bina with a coolly dismissive Bina, and Mellesse's Sharonda comes across as a typical troublesome younger sister who in the end shows that she does truly love and care for her older sibling.

Now, I will say that perhaps it is a result of my hopeless WASP upbringing and background, but at times I felt lost by all the slang used in Pariah.  I suppose this is the way people in New York (particularly Brooklyn) might speak, but at times I had to use context clues to figure out what phrases like "trippin'" meant.  While it shows Rees has a great ear for dialect, I would have had some difficulty without subtitles.  The entire subplot of Arthur's potential affair was never fully answered and appeared more as a way to have Alike come out in the middle of a very strong fight between her parents.  Finally, the relationship between Alike and Mrs. Alvarado (Zabryna Guevara) I thought was rather underused.  It might have been that Rees didn't want exact parallels between Mrs. Alvarado in Pariah and Paula Patton's Miss Rain in Precious, but why introduce this mentor if you're not going to use it?

Ultimately, these are minor points.  Pariah may share similarities with both Precious and another film of a black woman finding her own value as a person, The Color Purple; however, that would be unfair to all three films.  Pariah has an open ending, but one senses that Alike will find her way, that she will have a future.  It's on a hopeful note that we leave Pariah, and it's a film that is true and honest on the difference between running and choosing.

DECISION: A-

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Oh, Joey, If You're Hurtin' So Am I

WAR HORSE

Aside from All Quiet On the Western Front, World War I doesn't have as many memorable films as the Second World War does, such as those ranging from The Best Years of Our Lives to Mrs. Miniver to They Were Expendable to Saving Private Ryan.  Well, perhaps I am too quick to dismiss: there is Wings, and Paths of Glory, Grand Illusion, and Joyeux Noel (Lawrence of Arabia IS technically a World War I film, but it dealt with the Ottoman Turkish side which usually isn't associated with WWI); however, for whatever reason the 'war to end all wars', despite some truly horrifying carnage, gets in my view short-changed in the cinema department.  War Horse doesn't rectify our lack of a collective memory of World War I, and it comes close to being less about the war itself than a remarkably tender story about The Horse & His Boy (to coin a title).  Stephen Spielberg, no stranger to sentimental film or war movies, combines the two in a strong, though a bit too long, film.

Young Alfie (Jeremy Irvine) loves the horse his father has (perhaps foolishly) bought.  When one says 'love', one means 'total, absolute, unrequited passion' for this beast. Alfred is totally devoted to his horse, and the horse, named Joey, appears to be totally devoted him him.  Which is why his father Ted (Peter Mullan) selling him off to the Army to pay for rent and for the war effort tears at Alfie.  Alfie's mum Rose (Emily Watson) doesn't care all that for the horse, but knows what the horse means to Alfred, so she can only stand by and do the best she can.

Joey's second owner is Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who sees in Joey a noble steed and will watch over him while in the front.  However, that goes by the waste side in the waste land pretty quick, as the good Captain falls after a failed cavalry charge by Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Now Joey is in the hands of the Germans, but the boys who tend to him, Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonard Carow) see the goodness within Joey.  Gunther deserts, taking his underage brother with him...along with Joey and another horse he's bonded with while with the British.  The German brothers make a quick (and rather horrifying) exit, to make room for adorable French girl Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her Grandfather (Niels Arestrup). 

Again, little bonding time entre fille et cheval...those nasty Germans turn up again, and take our loving horse couple away to do brutal work.  Joey's horse friend finally succumbs to the brutality of war, but Joey is quietly persistent.  Good thing too...having endured four years of this, now Alfie is in the trenches, still with his beloved memories of his beloved horse (even holding on to a sketch the late Captain sent him four years earlier).  In a bit of daring-do, Joey manages to escape, rushing through No-Man's Land during a fierce night battle but getting tangled in the barbed wire.  It takes the joint efforts of an English and German soldier, working in tandem, to free him, and Joey is led back to the British lines, where 'the miraculous horse' is recognized by Alfie even though he has been temporarily blinded in a gas attack.  The Horse and His Boy are finally reunited, and despite a near-second loss when the French Grandfather comes, Alfred and Joey ride on to the lush countryside...and peace.

If War Horse is one thing, it is lush.  The opening has lush cinematography (courtesy of Janusz Kamiski), lush music (courtesy of John Williams) and even lush actors (courtesy of newcomer Irvine).  The beauty of War Horse runs through the film (the battle sequences, particularly when Joey flees into the night, are both beautiful and terrifying), and the film ends with the returning war heroes bathed in sepia.

If War Horse is another thing, it is totally sentimental and unabashedly so.  There are several moments of this with Lee Hall and Richard Curtis' screenplay (based on Michael Morpurgo's novel and the stage adaptation).   We can see this early in the first act, whenever we have the interaction between Joey and Alfie: Williams' stirring music and Irvine's wide-eyed performance of this young lad becoming totally devoted to this horse (in the film, practically since birth) heighten this dip into emotional heart-tugging.  There really is nothing wrong with that, although all these calls to become attached to any of the characters sometimes doesn't have a payoff.  If one dwelt on it, one would think Joey was a curse to anyone who isn't Alfred, even the most innocent party.  Joey appears to be some sort of harbinger of death to those he comes in contact with (the ends of the German boys, while not graphic--deliberately so--appeared to be particularly cruel and only ended up padding the two hour and forty-six minute running time).  In fact, War Horse could have really skipped over most if not all of the second act (with the German youths and the French grandfather and child) without stopping the overall flow of the film itself.

As a side note, it almost seems unfair to introduce us to people only to leave us in the dark.  It can't be a good sign when you do start to wonder what ended up happening to Major Stewart.

However, War Horse has some wonderful things beyond the sheer lush visuals.  (Another side note: while watching the film, I couldn't help thinking that there was this vague How Green Was My Valley motif to it, almost to where War Horse could easily have been made in the late 1930s).  There are some wonderful performances within it.  First, as already mentioned is Irvine, who has this wonderful, almost innocent look to him (even during the battle scenes) where with just his eyes he told you just how much he felt for Joey.

Another great (albeit brief) performance was from Hiddleston (who made such a great impression in both Thor and Midnight in Paris) as the Captain who loved Joey almost as much as Alfred.  Emily Watson should be commended for being a strong yet loving wife and mother.  Honestly, I could have done without the precious grandfather/daughter relationship (a bit too precious), and while I don't hold anything against Kross, I did spend all the time he was on screen wondering if he was the kid schtupping Kate Winslet in The Reader (indeed, he was). 

Spielberg brings some wonderful and touching, even funny moments to War Horse.  One of the best scenes is when Joey is tangled in the wire, and the British and German soldier go get him.  Here, we see these two combatants as the men they really are, and we can see the common humanity within even these two 'enemies'.  Here, we come close to the greatness of something like All Quiet on the Western Front (close, but not quite there).  Of course, there are hints not only of All Quiet and How Green, but also Lassie Come Home and even The Little Princess (whether one thinks it is very convinient that Alfie is blind just when Joey is brought to the army hospital or whether it mirrors a scene where Shirley Temple's father is unwittingly brought to live next door to the school she is at I leave up to the audience).

I'd argue War Horse is too long for the story it is telling; we could have trimmed the first act what with David Thewlis' evil landlord. Most of the second act, in particular the German and French characters we barely got to know (names included) could also have been trimmed considerably, even cut altogether.  We could have spent more time with the Captain enduring the hell of trench warfare and making his exit (quick in the film) more heartbreaking.  One should remember it is 40 minutes before we get to the war--40 minutes of Alfie and Joey and their green valley.  However, as a whole War Horse moves audiences; there were quite a few tears and sniffles at the screening I attended.  Unfortunately, there were also a few snores, and one woman I overheard said they should have gone with The Dragon Lady...I figured she meant The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

War Horse will test one's patience, but the end result, while not perfect, is a lush, sentimental film, with some wonderful performances from Watson, Hiddleston, and especially Irvine (the term 'star-making' seems apt).  In the end, his friend Joey will stir emotions, and that's what War Horse intends, so it meets it goal and races to a winner's circle. 

DECISION: B-

Saturday, December 24, 2011

That's A Mighty Cold Pizza


30 MINUTES OR LESS

I can't say for certain whether the writers of 30 Minutes or Less were aware of a true-life horror that bears a striking similarity to the plot of the film.  However, the similarity between this film and the strange tale of Brian Wells are so eerie that I thought 30 Minutes or Less was at least 'inspired' by Wells' story.  These similarities and the controversy that has erupted have been marked on by others.  However, it's a surprise to me that the plot of 30 Minutes or Less is suppose to be an original idea.

Granted, I wouldn't go to see 30 Minutes or Less for my own pleasure.  Not having seen Eastbound & Low, I cannot vouch for the comedic 'genius' of Danny McBride (and after having seen Your Highness, I still can't vouch for it).  Not having seen Parks & Recreation, I cannot vouch for the comedic 'genius' of Aziz Ansari (though I can say that in almost every picture I've seen of him, he bears the exact same facial expression.  I did see some of his stand-up on YouTube...and again, I can't vouch for the title 'genius').  Having seen  The Social Network, I am one of the few people on Earth who did not call Jesse Eisenberg the greatest actor in the 'Citizen Kane of my generation' and insisted he was doing another "Jesse Eisenberg" type (the eternally frustrated nebbish--albeit an angry, bitter one).   In short, I'm out of step with current thought that bestows greatness on this collection of twenty year olds, finding nothing 'genius' in them.

I digress to wonder how the three of them (McBride, Ansari, and Eisenberg) can have the word "genius" flung at them so casually.  Now, while I haven't seen much of them at their signature work, I can't believe that either McBride or Ansari so early in their careers are already up there with people like Richard Pryor or George Carlin or Jack Benny (my definition of comedic geniuses).  Well, let's move on.  The three of them, along with Nick Swardson (who has never had the word 'genius' slung at him) are at the core of 30 Minutes or Less, a dull, unhappy film that attempts to pass itself off as a comedy, despite a total lack of humor but a healthy dose of mean-spirited people doing unfunny things almost begging us to find humor in racial stereotypes and threats of violence.

Dwayne (McBride) and his buddy Travis (Swardson) are dim slobs who to say the least, suffer from an extreme case of arrested development.  Dwayne's father, the Major (Fred Ward) won the lottery a few years back, but he has the temerity to spend the money the way he'd like, rather than give it to his son.  At a strip joint, Dwayne tells his stripper Juicy (Bianca Kajlich) how he'd like to have his father dead.  No worries, our fair maid says, she knows someone who'll do it for $100,000.  Dwayne doesn't have $100,000 (something about not having a job, living off his father, and using whatever money he does have on strippers, pot, and guns).  What better solution is there to rob a bank to get the cash to kill the father and get the inheritance, right?

At this point, I'd like to stop and say, why not just get the $100,000 by either promising said hitman the money post-mortem (or at least a down payment, which could be financed by selling off one of the Major's many vehicles)?  Maybe in the brief time between sale and murder, the Major wouldn't notice it missing.  Just a thought.

In any case, Dwayne and Travis decide that they shouldn't rob the bank, but get someone else to do it.  Of course, it would be against their will, and the person they select is Nick (Eisenberg), a pizza delivery boy.  At least, boy in the mental sense: Nick has no real ambitions, no goals, just to get drunk, get high, and get laid.  The one girl he does really like is Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), who is going to leave their one-horse town for a training/job in Atlanta.  Kate, unfortunately, is the sister of his best friend Chet (Ansari), but because Nick had the idea of telling Chet that Nick's one-night stand at graduation where he took a girl's virginity was really Kate, they had a falling out.  Whether Nick should still hold some resentment for Chet having told other's about the affair Nick's mom had with a lifeguard that broke up their marriage I leave to you.

Well, Dwayne and Travis lure Nick with a pizza delivery and once he awakens he finds himself strapped with a bomb that will go off if he fails to complete his mission.  With time running out, Nick gets Chet to help him rob a bank, but after Nick discovers that the hit man Chango (Michael Peña) doesn't have the code to free Nick, he and Chet escape and then there is the final confrontation between all of them. 

Again, one can only guess whether 30 Minutes or Less was actually based on or at the very least inspired by the Wells case, but either way the story itself  has too much darkness to be a comedy but too many attempts at humor to be a crime drama.  Let's leave aside for the moment the similarity between the Wells case and the script by Michael Dileberti (from a story by Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan).  Instead, let's pretend that 30 Minutes or Less is completely original, no basis in truth, just judge it on its own merits.

It doesn't have any.  A lot of the 'comedy' comes from distractions to the main plot of the story, and actually come from doing violence to characters both major and minor.  Ruben Fleischer couldn't find a balance in 30 Minutes or Less: comedy that was forced and unfunny with a situation where levity would be in short supply.

Take when Nick and Chet are about to rob the bank; they spend too much time trying to figure out 'cool criminal names' for each other.  How surprising and 'clever' they came up with Hispanic names.  After all, who'd think Hispanics could be criminals, right?  This shows us that they are not taking what should be a deadly-serious situation (after all, Nick DOES have a bomb strapped to him) seriously.  When during the robbery they inadvertently cause a little girl to accidentally shoot a customer, we're led to believe this is funny rather than painful.  If it isn't bad enough the poor man is writhing in pain due to the bullet, he's offered some stolen money from the bag only to have dye splash into his eye.  Somehow, seeing someone we've never met suffer so much physical pain through no fault of his own doesn't strike me as funny, but sad.

Already, having these two loathsome men (one a complete wastrel and self-entitled adult child and his dim save for making bombs buddy) plan out a murder because the wastrel's short-tempered cliched military father has the nerve to tell him to grow up doesn't compel one to either care about the father (who is not interesting or on screen long enough to serve as anything other than the plot device) or the dunderhead criminals.  Perhaps we can accept that we're not suppose to care about them.

What 30 Minutes or Less can't do, shouldn't do (but did) was give us protagonists that we don't care about either.  I'm going to guess that Ansari comes from a worldview where seeing people get blow jobs (is that one word or two, I wonder) and having at least one swear word per sentence is somehow funny.  It isn't.  This is how Chet is introduced to us.  Worse, Nick perhaps was visualized as the total slacker, but as interpreted by Eisenberg, he is nothing other than lazy and disinterested in anything.  Therefore, why are we going to be interested in someone who doesn't seem interested in anything?

I think this is a good enough place to pause and look at the performances.  As much as my fellow critics masturbated over The Social Network, I found that Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg was exactly how Eisenberg was in all his other movies (Zombieland, Adventureland, even Rio): that rapid fire delivery of his lines, that unique Eisenberg cadence to whenever he speaks (especially when he has to speak fast), the same rather neurotic, high-strung individual he plays in almost every movie in pretty much the exact same way.  I am surprised given how rhapsodic so many were over "the greatest performance in the history of film" in the "Citizen Kane of our generation" that people piled on Eisenberg for his performance in 30 Minutes or Less since it was pretty much the same save that here it was played for laughs rather than for cruelty. 

I didn't see a difference between The Social Network Eisenberg and 30 Minutes or Less Eisenberg, therefore, I think he either should have been praised for both or condemned for both, not instead have a split decision for doing the same thing in two different films. 

Ansari's whole turn as Chet was just to raise his voice and move his hands as if he were taxiing in an airplane (perhaps that's what makes him a comedic 'genius').  Every scene between Ansari and Eisenberg appeared so forced in their attempts to be either funny (as when they are fighting) or tender (as when they apologize to each other).  Even stranger, despite what would be the urgency of the situation we don't ever get a sense that anything about the circumstances they are facing are all that serious.  You have a bomb strapped to you, and a lot of time is spent in this short film putting in a love angle between Nick and Kate? 

Perhaps McBride suffers from his reputation, but while watching 30 Minutes or Less I actually did speculate whether he was actually high in his scenes.  There was something to his eyes looked...but again, it may be because his primary schtick is high pot use.  If he were high, it would at least explain why he thought the movie was funny. 

Although most attempts by the script at some form of wit fell flat (having Nick say he isn't on Facebook is a good, or poor, example), there actually were moments that I though were slightly smart.  The stereotype known as Chango had two moments of wit (despite giving in to the 'Hispanic as thug' routine): just the name Chango (Spanish for monkey) is clever IF we remember that Dwayne and Travis dress up like monkeys to hide their identity, and Chango calling himself a "Satanic Hispanic" did make me chuckle.

30 Minutes or Less is a piece of junk: unfunny given the situation, with characters you don't care about, who appear to want to waste your time, a meandering plot, and just really, really unfunny for a comedy.  Perhaps if it had been a straight drama 30 Minutes or Less might have worked.  Perhaps if the leads were more sympathetic it might have worked.  If only 30 Minutes or Less had been the actual running time...

DECISION: F