Saturday, December 31, 2011

So Dark These Waters


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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coriolanus (2011): A Review (Review #313)


Bloody Shakespeare...

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.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Page One: Inside The New York Times. A Review


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.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Conan the Barbarian (2011): A Review


*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.


Monday, December 26, 2011

The Artist (2011): A Review


Enjoy The Silence...

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 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?'


2012 Best Picture Winner: Argo

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

Pariah: A Review


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.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

War Horse: A Review (Review #308)


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. 


Saturday, December 24, 2011

30 Minutes Or Less: A Review


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...


Friday, December 23, 2011

The Iron Lady: A Review


Maggie Dearest...

At first, I was led to believe The Iron Lady, the biopic on the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was going to be a hatchet job like The Reagans (the television miniseries too hot for CBS, so hot it had to be exiled to Showtime after the show caused too much of a firestorm).  See Baroness Thatcher as a stark raving mad bonkers slut!  See Sir Denis Thatcher in virtual drag!  The Iron Lady begs forgiveness to Rachel Maddow and admits she was all wrong! The Left Is Avenged!  

In truth, The Iron Lady is by no means a hagiography of Thatcher, but it's not a brutal portrayal either.  The Iron Lady is actually quite respectful (for the most part) of Thatcher as both a person and of her time as Prime Minister.  Whether this was their intent or not I can only guess, but in terms of a film The Iron Lady isn't without some missteps, but they are made up for by some amazing acting.

The film takes place primarily post-Thatcher's 10 Downing Street years, where the Iron Lady herself (Meryl Streep) has become an old, somewhat pathetic lady, wandering the house with only the ghost of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) to keep her company.  As her day (or days) go by, little things bring back memories of her life: her youth as Margaret Roberts 'the grocer's daughter', her rise in the Conservative Party, the courtship of Denis and Margaret, and her terms as Britain's first female Prime Minister (side note: how curious that Britain, along with India, Sri Lanka, Israel, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and even Pakistan have had female heads of state, while we in the U.S. can't get either one elected to the highest office...yet).  The Iron Lady goes to hit some high (and low) points of her 11-year reign, ranging from the Winter of Discontent that brought the Conservatives to power through the Falklands War, the IRA bombings, right down to the Poll Tax that so infuriated ordinary Britons that it brought about both a rebellion within her ranks and her eventual resignation as Prime Minister.

I think this is where one of the great flaws lies in The Iron Lady: Abi Morgan's script jumps around a great deal, so much so that one can't quite get a good grasp of the circumstances that got Thatcher elected or got her forced out.  Everything in Thatcher's life is covered so quickly that we really can't get at who Thatcher was or, save for a few hints about how as a 'grocer's daughter' she was looked down on by the grand old men of the Conservative Party, what motivated her.  Even the love story between a young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) and a young Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd--who oddly looks like Harold Lloyd), was done quite fast (albeit well-done).  Again and again I noted, 'quick to Education Minister, quick rise to power, romance a bit fast' (emphasis mine), which to me denotes that for how remarkably short The Iron Lady itself is (105 minutes), the actual power of Margaret Thatcher keeps getting lost.

I think it would have helped The Iron Lady tremendously if Morgan's script had kept a stricter focus on certain aspects of Thatcher's reign.  For example, I think a better movie would/could have been made if we had set The Iron Lady at the end of her term, the furor over the poll tax and the attempted coup prompting those memories of her rise to power.  By setting now, in the twilight of her days, with her slipping into dementia and seeing a husband long-dead, it runs the risk of making Thatcher look downright crazy (whether this was the intent of those involved I can't say, only guess).  The flaws in the structure of The Iron Lady force the story to go for a 'greatest hits'-style of storytelling: well, she gets elected, well, somehow she gets to lead the Conservative Party, well, she gets into a war over remote British islands near Argentina, well, she puts forth a taxation plan that no one (neither public or party) supports.  By going for this, whatever power Thatcher had for her admirers or passionate hatred she inspired among her detractors we get few hints of.  There is always the danger of getting lost in the story if one doesn't already have some knowledge of the Thatcher years or of Thatcher herself.

Of course, there are subtle moments that DO tell us something about both the casual sexism the Tories had as well as Thatcher's own tenacity to overcome these hurdles to pursue her own ideology.  The credit should go to director Phyllida Lloyd (no relation to Harry Lloyd).  There are wonderful moments of how often she was not taken seriously because she was a woman: when then-Margaret Roberts is casually dismissed to go with the other women after appealing to the Tory bigwigs of her desire to represent the party in Parliament, of how Prime Minister Edward Heath (John Sessions) would not listen to her when he and his Cabinet appeared quick to give in to Labour and their Trade Union allies.

Lloyd also brought great performances (and a more interesting and fascinating story) from both the younger and older Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher whenever we venture into their own love story.  Shall We Dance? from The King & I is almost a running theme whenever Margaret recalls how Denis thrilled her or stood by her (even post-mortem).  Harry Lloyd and Roach play their scenes beautifully, and credit should also go to Broadbent and Streep whenever they get to show genuine affection.

I digress to say the film falters whenever the very dead Sir Denis reproaches Maggie for anything, from not being as good a mother as she could have been to her attempts to ignore his presence.  These are the moments when The Iron Lady comes close to being either flat-out farce or left-wing fantasy come to life: Banquo's ghost pursuing Macbeth.  As for the whole "Denis in a pink turban" business (which has caused some consternation), it is both brief and placed within some context (although perhaps, brought up a bit too much).  The mere fact that Denis keeps popping up when we (and Maggie) know he's dead does make as I've stated Lady Thatcher look downright crazy, which serves only to distract from both a fascinating story and the performances.

Of all the performances in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep is truly remarkable.  Throughout the film, she stays away (for the most part) from making Thatcher this evil Queen Bitch the Left (which includes Streep herself) see her as.  Instead, Streep makes Thatcher a woman who constantly fights against the sexism she encounters.  Her gender will not be an obstacle to her principles, even if it means (to her surprise) that she, Margaret Roberts, grocer's daughter, could, indeed, reach not just Leader of the Conservative Party, but Prime Minister itself.  Despite Streep's politics, she makes Thatcher a heroine, a woman who forced the doors open. 

A side note: Thomas Newman's score was appropriately stirring in the quick rise to her Premiership, a sequence that will thrill conservatives and even stir liberals to be enthralled with the Rise of Woman.

Streep doesn't make Thatcher into a villanness (except perhaps when once she becomes so set in bullying her ministers that she does again, come close to being a joke in her near wild-eyed look), but instead focuses on how she worked to get the Top Job.  Streep comes as close as any actress (American or British) to not just sounding or looking like Margaret Thatcher (thanks to great make-up work) as anyone could.  In fact, though it is cliched, it is true: there were times in The Iron Lady when you would have thought it was THE Margaret Thatcher come back to vanquish the Left and their allies.  

Again, the biggest flaw in The Iron Lady is in how the story both jumps around and rushes through both Thatcher's accomplishments and failures.  The film may be unfair to focus on her now, debilitated by illness and making it appear that she is today both thoroughly senile if not insane.  It would have been better to have had a greater focus on an aspect of her illustrious, extraordinary, and controversial life: her rise to power, the Falklands War, her final days before her overthrow.  What a great scene there could have been with Thatcher going to Buckingham Palace to tender her resignation to the Queen...and even getting Dame Helen Mirren for a cameo.  The most powerful woman meeting the Monarch, also a woman.  What a scene that could have made. 

Still, those who love Thatcher should not fear that The Iron Lady paints Margaret Thatcher as an evil or crazy woman (for the most part anyway).  In fact, I figure conservatives will thrill to see her rise and hear her words that still echo to the hearts of all right-wingers.  Sorry, Morrissey...Margaret will NOT be on the guillotine in The Iron Lady.  For those who hate her, they might enjoy the old lady being a bit dotty, getting criticized by her late husband, but even they may shed a tear when Margaret Thatcher sees her beloved Denis' ghost finally leave her despite her protests.

In short, while it is possible to see The Iron Lady through the prism of one's one politics, as a movie, The Iron Lady should simply be seen. 

Born 1925

Oh, where art thou, Maggie, when we need you so?


The Adventures of Tintin: A Review


It goes without saying that Tintin, that intrepid Belgian junior reporter, doesn't exactly have Americans lined up in the theaters.  That's simply because Tintin is a European creation and a European fixation (a bit like Jerry Lewis is to the French).  It also goes with saying that The Adventures of Tintin wouldn't have anyone lined up for it save for a few details: the director at is Steven Spielberg, the film is said director's first animated/motion-capture film, and the film is said director's first foray into that world called 3-D.

Longtime readers of my column (a holdover from print days) will know what I think of 3-D (IT'S THE WORK OF THE DEVIL).  My loathing for almost all 3-D films is everflowing, but because it IS Spielberg (who ranks among the truly Great Directors), I opted to go see The Adventures of Tintin in 3-D (it IS Spielberg, after all).  So far, tragically, my views on 3-D still hold: I found nothing in the 3-D Tintin that I couldn't have enjoyed in 2-D (why people enjoy paying more to have things thrown in their face I'll never understand).  Perhaps if I had seen Tintin in 2-D, I might have enjoyed it more, but that is highly unlikely.

Tintin (Jamie Bell), our intrepid junior Belgian reporter by way of London, almost immediately comes to a new adventure.  He's bought a boat (why I hear Andy Samberg singing I don't know), a beautiful model of a lost ship, The Unicorn, and instantly two people wish to buy it from him.  One of this is Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a villain if ever there was one.  It is very soon that Tintin discovers that this model ship is one of two (then three), all which contain a set of clues to a long-lost pirate treasure.  Unfortunately, Sakharine knows this too, which is why he and his henchmen attempt to kill Tintin and later kidnap him to find the second scroll (I'd like to note at this juncture that this is being sold as a KID'S movie, what with all the murder and kidnapping and beating up going on).

Tintin is being held on a ship where the captain is being held prisoner.  The captain needs to be kept alive because said captain is Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a direct descendant of Sir Francis Haddock (and as is always the case, the last of his line) who is the only person who can interpret the clues in the scrolls hidden within the two (later three) model Unicorns.  He's a bit of a drunkard, but the captain and Tintin manage a daring escape.  The third model is in Morocco (now I've got Bob Hope and Bing Crosby singing in my head).  Off to Morocco they go, with Sakharine getting there first.  Eventually, their paths cross in an emir's palace and in a wild chase.  However, alas, Sakharine now has all three scrolls.  Never fear, though, it is Tintin after all.  They are recovered (thanks to Tintin's police friends, the duo of Thomson and Thompson played by the duo of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), the treasure discovered...and a hint of more treasure out there.

Yes, dear friends, The Adventures of Tintin ends with a suggestion that this will be merely the first part of more Tintin films.  Longtime readers should know about one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.  Damnit, why don't they ever listen? It isn't a strict surprise that The Adventures of Tintin is the beginning of a Tintin franchise (after all, for the longest time the film was called The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and any film that has a colon and subtitle all but tells you, 'we're going to make more, whether you want to see more or not').  However, given that in recent weeks the subtitle had been dropped from all adverts it IS surprising that people are being shepherded to pay more for a very long trailer.

The adaptation of Hergé's creation comes from Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, and Stephen Moffat (the latter best known as the writer and executive producer of the long-running British science-fiction program River Song, formerly known as Doctor Who).  What I found in the story to be extremely troubling were both length and pace.  We have the main story of the search for the 'secret of the unicorn', but a great deal of time was taken by the search for a pickpocket running through the streets of Brussels/London.  I suppose this was a way to have our Dunce Duo of Thomson and Thompson pop up (and in fairness, the pickpocket had stolen Tintin's wallet which contained the scroll from his Unicorn model), but it only felt like it was making 107-minute long film even longer.  For us who have never read a Tintin story (and I imagine that would be...almost all of America) there simply HAD to be a better way to get these characters into the story.

Moreover, we never really got a sense that Tintin was this intrepid Belgian reporter because we never got a sense he was either intrepid or Belgian.  He almost appears to just be wandering into the mystery without any idea of what is going on (what other 'intrepid' reporter would not be at least curious as to why all these shifty characters were after his treasure boat).  While the character of Tintin is suppose to be Belgian (that I at least know before seeing the film), he appears to be thoroughly British in his voice (given it's Billy Elliot, that can't be helped) that one would think he was not Continental at all.  Whether it was because the actors are British (Bell, Craig, Frost, Pegg, Serkis) I can only guess.

Somehow, the actual character of Tintin appeared as black as his rubbery face.  I never found anything in him that was smart or clever, more annoying and almost slightly hysterical.  Maybe it was because a lot of time was also spent on giving exposionary dialogue (especially of things we'd already seen, so it is annoying when the characters have to stop so as to fill in others in the story of what we the audience already know).  Side note: that habit of giving characters lines to explain things rather than letting us see what's going on (or at least allowing for flashbacks) is another bane of my cinematic experience.

How it is possible for moody, morose Daniel Craig to appear so flat and morose in an ANIMATED film I'll never figure out.  He was a cliched villain--all nasty sneers and thrusting his cane out at us (thus somehow using the 3-D to great effect).  While we should continue to marvel how Andy Serkis is now the go-to man for motion-capture acting, his Captain Haddock wasn't funny (as when he belches fuel into a plane) and wasn't quite as sympathetic (playing getting sober for laughs isn't exactly what I think is good for a kid's film).  Pegg and Frost I hope had fun, but even when we go to them at the capture of the pickpocket (complete with birds floating around the klepto's head), none of it is funny (and I think the joke went over the audience that I was watching it with.  I got it, but didn't laugh). 

Allow me a slight digression.  In The Adventures of Tintin (formely known as The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn), Captain Haddock is the direct descendant of Sir Francis Haddock, and the pirate who tried to take his ship, one Red Rackman, has a descendant of his own.  One guess as to who said descendant could be.  That makes me think that somewhere Red Rackman must have had a son lying around somewhere, otherwise the plot would make no sense.  It's never a good sign when your mind starts wandering away from the main story in order to fill in unnecessary details. 

Perhaps my biggest complaint against Tintin is his tin-tin ear to how he's being sold.  This is being pushed as either a film for kids or geared towards families.  However, I would be highly distressed to take my child to a film where our young hero (it never appears to truly settle on whether our junior reporter is a child or a teenage) is shot at several times (with a body in front of him in one point), abducted, beat up and beat about the head a lot.  A child wouldn't be able to handle a gun so well, but he doesn't look like a teenager.

This isn't to say there aren't good things in Tintin.  The chase sequence in Morocco was a good thrill (though again, I found little to nothing in 3-D to add to the pleasure of that set piece).  The opening John Williams music was fun, a light, jaunty motif that led me to think the film would be fun.  You don't go wrong with Williams, but you can have too much of a good thing.  I wrote, "someone stop the music" early in the film.  Tintin appears to drown in music, and it was becoming far too much of a distraction for me.  I will credit the motion-capture animation as looking better than in the past (example, A Christmas Carol), and in the Morocco sequence, from afar it almost looked lifelike.  However, it still looks animated, and one wonders whether it will ever get to the point where it will look totally human.  

Again, I could have let The Adventures of Tintin pass as mild entertainment if it weren't for the declaration that we need or want more Tintin in our lives.  That is always the point of no return for me, the part where the film is pushed down.  Alas, for me it's ta-ta to Tintin.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beastly: A Review


The Face of Love is an Ugly Thing...

If there is something good to say about Beastly, it is that is that the story made a good effort to update the fable of Beauty and the Beast.   For that, I can't fault it.  For everything else, I can. 

Since Beastly is an update of Beauty and the Beast (based on the young adult book by Alex Flinn), we pretty much know the story.  Kyle (Alex Pretty...I mean, Pettyfer) is a rich and arrogant young man, breathtakingly beautiful on the outside but a rotten person on the inside.  His narcissism and vanity irritate fellow classmate Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) while merely puzzling another classmate, Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens).   Kyle, however, doesn't have it all perfect: his father Rob (Peter Krause) is a prime-time anchor perhaps even more narcissistic than Kyle with whom he doesn't have the best of relations.  After Kyle humiliates , she puts a curse on him, turning him into a revolting-looking man.  If he does not find someone to love him for himself, beyond his appearance, he will be cursed to look like that, forever.  The shame of it forces him to hide, and his father opts to put him up in a lavish penthouse...and as far away from people (and himself) as possible.  Kyle's only companions are Jamaican housekeeper Zola (Linda Gay Hamilton) and tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris), who is conveniently blind.

Kyle soon starts stalking Lindy, since she was the only one to show him any kindness.  Plot contrivances bring them together: her father is involved with some shady business, and after Kyle's actions lead to the thug's brother's death, Lindy has to stay with Kyle for her own protection. She at first wants to stay with her father, but eventually settles in.  She gets to know Kyle (calling himself 'Hunter') and a friendship develops.  Eventually, Kyle falls in love with Lindy, but plot contrivances force her to leave.  Kyle, no longer caring about his appearance, goes to Lindy before she leaves for Machu Picchu, and they confess their love.  Right on time: not only is he restored to the gorgeous young man he was before, but Zola magically gets green cards for her children to come to America and Will gains his sight. 

I suppose Beastly could have been a bit of harmless fun, except that we get such awful performances and a weak and rushed script from writer/director Daniel Barnz.  All we have to do is look at our two leads to see where Beastly went wrong.

Pettyfer and Hudgens are so stiff and forced and unnatural throughout the film.  Again and again, every time they were on screen together they not only looked uncomfortable but they make audiences uncomfortable.  There was an effort to make Kyle slightly sympathetic through his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father, but these efforts fell flat not just because we don't see them spend much time together but because especially Pettyfer was never able to express any emotion whatsoever.  Surprisingly, Krause (whom I consider a competent actor) couldn't either.

Hudgens did herself no favors in Beastly either.  She was thoroughly expressionless throughout the film.  It was actually painful to watch Hudgens and Pettyfer not act.  Olsen (who looked like she was channeling Helena Bonham Carter through her wardrobe) was not threatening but almost comical in her witchcraft. 

In fact, the only real performance was from Harris, but he had the benefit of being a bit of the comic relief.  Will was the only character who was allowed any sense of fun, always ready with a witty remark on the situations.  I think this may be one of the reasons why Beastly just did not work: there was simply just too much effort in trying to make things romantic when the end result was really lifeless. 

And it wasn't just the performances that were lifeless and dull: the story itself, despite being one people would be familiar, was so sluggish with neither the urgency of Kyle's situation or the relationship between Lindy and Kyle being of enough interest for us to care whether either would be resolved. 

I'd also like to point out a few things that displeased me.  First, when on Halloween (when Kyle's appearance wouldn't appear odd) we're suppose to believe that his ex-girlfriend Sloan (Dakota Johnson) would recognize Kyle's voice but Lindy wouldn't?  Finally, some of the sets looked just like sets: whatever magic one could have had with the supernatural/romantic elements in Beastly were utterly lost.

The biggest failure of Beastly was to have two leads that were not compelling, not interesting, and sadly, not acting.  Hudgens may yet be an actress (I certainly thought she did a good job in the High School Musical films), while Pettyfer has yet to be good in anything (granted, I've only seen him in I Am Number Four--and in both films he was very dull, lethargic, and flat).  If anything went wrong with Beastly, the fault lies on their beautiful shoulders. 

Beastly isn't an ugly film, just a boring one.  It is so boring even the leads didn't show any interest, and in the end, no one else really will.