Monday, February 27, 2012

84th Academy Awards: A Review

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It's Not Such a Wonderful Night for Oscar.

People enjoy watching train wrecks.  Perhaps this is why The Greatest Show on Earth, with its climatic crash, was the surprise Best Picture winner in 1952, beating out John Huston's Moulin Rouge, along with both High Noon and The Quiet Man.  That was the first time the Academy Awards had been broadcast on television, and since then, the Oscars have gotten some things right, some things wrong, but despite the dwindling audience, people still watch for certain reasons:  a true love of film, some good and bad outfits, and the chance for a train wreck.

There seems to be some concerted effort to label the 84th Annual Academy Award ceremony/broadcast a disaster.  I don't think this is the case, certainly when compared to last year.  Billy Crystal, returning for the ninth time, was asked to do what he's done before; in fact, the whole reason he hosted was to make it all look like James Franco and Anne Hathaway had never set foot on the Oscar stage.  When he showed up last year, amid the crumbling ruins of that debacle, it was seen as a sign of when the show was good.  He was asked to play it safe, and he did.

Now he's been criticized for playing it safe. 

That's unfair.  He did what he's done in the past and he did it as well as he could.  However, in the past the nominees were fewer and more well-known for the most part.  On the whole, Crystal shouldn't be held out as an example of what is wrong with the Oscars.  There are other reasons that should be held out as examples of what is wrong with the Oscars. 

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This isn't to say that Crystal was up to par to his glory days, let alone when he last hosted in 2004.  Early on it looked like his shtick was wearing thin.  The opening monologue jokes were a bit along the lines of "Take my wife...please".  His first crack in referencing his opening sequence of inserting himself into the nominated films was "That was Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", which was met with all but the crickets.  His second crack, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  That's how my relatives are watching", apparently did not register with the theater audience.  Maybe they were unaware that Extremely Loud &Incredibly Close was nominated for Best Picture

Certainly almost all of America was scratching their heads on how that one got in. 

Jokewise, I think he bombed.  Still, it wasn't as if he really didn't try, but as the show went on, it took on an air of desperation, almost as if he was begging "Laugh, you 1 Percenters who think you're part of the 99 Percent".  I started to wonder if those at the "Chapter 11 Theater" or those watching were able to hear some of the zingers that fell flat.

The "Chapter 11 Theater" was a joke that flew over almost everyone since it appears few people knew of either the bankruptcy proceedings of the Kodak Company or that the venue was once called the Kodak Theater.

Ultimately, the Academy wanted safe and traditional, so you can't hold Crystal at fault for doing what he did before and expect different results. 

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Now, as to the winners, there actually were a few surprises.  I don't think anyone expected The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to win Best Editing, a category that usually correlates with the Best Picture winner.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's win is more shocking when you consider it was the only Film Editing nominee not nominated for Best Picture.

There were a few gasps when Meryl Streep won her first Oscar in twenty-nine/thirty years for The Iron Lady.  Almost everyone expected Viola Davis to win for The Help, so Streep's third Oscar was a bit of a shock but not a surprise given how much praise she earned for the film.  Truth be told, it really was a neck-and-neck competition between them, and this was about the only category where the winner was not practically predetermined.

All the odds-makers were picking The Artist to win Best Picture and Director. Actor was a little too close to call but Jean Dujardin's joie de vivre movie star edged out George Clooney's wimp.  Hugo was rewarded with five technical awards, and that appears to be a trend in that Martin Scorsese's films win the technical categories but rarely win big prizes (example: out of The Aviator's five wins only one was in a major category: Best Supporting Actress). 

What few people are noting so far is that the Academy Awards were pretty evenly spread out among various films.  The Help and Midnight in Paris each won one out of their four nominations while The Descendants and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo one out of five.  Only The Iron Lady pulled out with wins in both of the categories it was up for, while Iran's A Separation went one-for-two.

Basically, it was a Hugo vs. The Artist fight, leaving all the other films as varied as the Oscar-bait War Horse and Extremely Loud &Incredibly Close to the popular hits Bridesmaids, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon empty-handed.

Now, I'd like to delve a bit into why people are drifting away from the Oscars.  The big complaint is that no one cares due to two reasons: 1.) No one's seen the nominated films, and 2.) Everyone knows who's going to win.  I think on the second charge, there is validity.  With the glut of awards before we get to the Oscars (Screen Actors Guild, Writer's Guild, Director's Guild, National Board of Review, various critics organizations, etc.) people get awards fatigue when they finally roll around to the Academy Awards.

However, in regards to the first, I would argue the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

Christopher Guest is a true comedic genius.  He is always able to mock the situations while making the clueless people in them appear almost endearing. It could be the star-filled dreams of the regional theater's Waiting For Guffmann, the dog lovers of Best In Show, or Hollywood itself in For Your Consideration.   Without going into long details, I think it's because at heart Guest doesn't appear to set out to hold the characters to ridicule.

Quite the contrary: he appears to show a genuine fondness for them.  He appears to almost sympathize with their dreams or delusions and accepts them for all their flaws.  We don't think we're better than they are, just a little more aware than they are.

The sequence of the 'Focus Group' reacting to The Wizard of Oz was brilliant and in a fair world, would have won Best Live-Action Short Subject.  As the saying goes, 'it's funny because it's true'.

The 'Wizard of Oz' Focus Group skit really reflects Hollywood today. Too often studios are willing to make films that appeal to as many people as possible without considering whether the result will be a good film.  When one of the faux-focus group members recommends that MGM cut 'the rainbow song', I laughed out loud and much more than over anything Crystal said.

It is, I hope, a well-known story that MGM indeed had cut Over the Rainbow in a previous version of The Wizard of Oz.  The thought was that the song lengthened the movie, and that it was undignified for an MGM star to sing in a barnyard.  Imagine what a loss it would have been if MGM had used a 'focus group' to dictate how The Wizard of Oz would have turned out.

Guest's short film is the perfect example of how he can show how idiotic something is, in this case Hollywood's relationship with its customers.  All the bizarre things the 'focus group' was fixated on would be things that a studio might rework to attempt to give an audience what it thinks it wants.

What we end up with are things like Green Lantern.

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The following is as close to a rant as I have done as of now, dealing more with audiences than the actual Academy Awards.  However, I think it does touch on why interest is declining.  In short, it is because there is a disconnect between Academy members and general audiences.

There is a simple reason why people don't know the nominated films.  It's two-fold: the studios think we're stupid, and audiences continue to show they're stupid. 

If we took other critics' advice and nominated big hits for Best Picture, this is what the Nominee List would look like in alphabetical order (Box Office in parenthesis):
Take a good, long look at the list of the nine biggest hits of 2011.  Every Single One Without Exception a Sequel.  With only the exceptions of Fast Five, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, all were awful.   I know many people who think this list is much better than having some "crappy silent black-and-white movie" nominated.  They've seen Transformers 3, and it was cool, and there were a lot of explosions.

There was also no plot, no acting, and no point. 

If the majority of people didn't see or know about The Artist, or Hugo, or Midnight in Paris, it is because studios think these kinds of films are for a "specific" audience and not for the general public.  You tell someone the phrase 'black-and-white silent film' and they instantly panic, assume the whole thing will be boring.  It is a highly prejudiced mind, and thus, when they reject something that is genuinely good (like The Artist) because in their mind it is boring, studios will continue to dull audiences with more Transformers and Hangovers, and audiences will lap it up.

It's what I've always said.  If you continue serving slop, people will soon acquire a taste for it.  They will end up liking it so much that they'll think slop is good, and if they are presented with some New York Strip, they'll reject it because the taste for slop is so ingrained virtually nothing will dissuade them that something so foreign will be good.

If it's good, then it must be boring is the new mantra among a strong section of film-goers.  We therefore can't complain about how bad films are getting when we continue to go to see them.

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There's a reason we're getting a Hangover III.  It isn't because The Hangover Part II was good or because we are in desperate need to see the further adventures of the Wolf Pack.  It's because a lot of people gave a lot of money to sit like zombies and not participate mentally in the stories before us. 

This is what we're facing.  I know two people who think Casablanca is boring. Their reasons: no explosions, an ending they don't like, and worst of all, it's in black-and-white.  They would rather sit through Dark Of The Moon than Casablanca.

It isn't even so much that I expect everyone to love Casablanca.  I just would like to hear reasons for disliking it beyond "it's old", "it's boring", "it's in black-and-white". 

I'm here to tell you the truth: YOU, the audience, are partially responsible for the Oscars sucking.  YOU, who fear films that don't involve she-males and drunken debauchery and/or robots that are indistinguishable from each other.

Don't misunderstand me: I LOVED Fast Five  and we all need some good unapologetically fun films now and again.  Life would be difficult if we had nothing but films by Herzog or Fellini or Bergman.  However, we can't have nothing but junk films, no matter how delightfully trashy, and similarly, we can't have nothing but Transformers: Dark of the Moon or The Vow

It's really up to you.  The Artist may not be a big hit, but that doesn't mean it didn't deserve to not win Best Picture.  Transformers: Dark of the Moon was a monster hit, but that doesn't mean it should win Best Picture.  Audiences control the studios.  WE have that power: it takes a certain strength to reject The Hangover Part III or Green Lantern 2.  By supporting good films (and not necessarily the films critics love: I found The Tree of Life insufferable), studios will rush to try to make money out of remaking the wheel (so to speak).

After The Passion of the Christ, studios rushed out to make Bible-based films with varying degrees of success in pursuit of "Passion Dollars".   They misread the audience, but at least it showed that nothing succeeds like success. 

I'm not the type that thinks they don't make good movies anymore.  Good movies are being made and will continue being made.  It's just up to us to support them and dump garbage like The Green Hornet or Sucker Punch or Abduction

We Hold The Power.  Let's Use It.

With films, if we follow the words of Christ we may have better films, and better Oscars:


Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Muppets (2011): A Review (Review #342)


A Rainbow Disconnection...

If there is something I hold dear to my heart, it's the memories of The Muppets.  There was The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies such as The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan, and Muppet Babies.  I figure that Jason Segel has similarly fond memories and given we're around the same age we appear to draw from the same well.  While Segel clearly has a great reverence and love for the Muppets, I am in the minority when I say I don't think he quite understands what exactly the Muppets are, which is not a nostalgia act.  

The Muppets, therefore, while having enchanted many people, has one too many flaws to cast a spell over me.

Gary (Segal) and his brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) live their sweet and innocent lives in Smalltown, U.S.A. (which I like to think is a suburb of Smallville, but I digress).  Gary and Walter love each other and especially love the Muppets.  This is especially true for Walter, who finds in the Muppets kindred spirits and beings who look just like him, unlike his very human brother Gary. 

Now ostensibly adults with minds of children, they venture to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Studios.  They find they are a wreck: broken down and forgotten.  While taking a tour, Walter makes a shocking discovery: evil oil magnet Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is plotting to destroy the Muppet Studios to drill for oil.  The only way to stop him is to have Kermit the Frog, who had signed the agreement with Richman, raise a million dollars to buy it back.

Image result for the muppets 2011There's a hitch: the Muppets have been forgotten by this most cynical world and are now passé.  Determined to save the Muppet Studios, Gary and Walter go in search for Kermit. 

We find our frog in his mansion, living a quasi-Sunset Boulevard life.  After making their case, Kermit as Norma Desmond decides the best thing to do is to have a Reunion Telethon to raise the money.  Thus, we get a search for the members of the Muppets. 

We find Fozzie Bear fronting The Moopets, a Muppet "tribute band". Gonzo is now the biggest plumbing magnate in the Rust Belt (yes, that's part of the funny), and quickly we gather all the Muppets save one. 

Miss Piggy, the swine Kermit left behind, has moved to head up French Vogue.  Eventually, she does come to join them.

Second hitch: nobody wants to see the Muppets, and no one cares about them.  However, they manage to finagle a two-hour special.  Richman, aware of this, is determined to stop them.  The Muppets then goes for a version of the old Muppet Show, right down to special guest host, that giant of the silver screen, that legend, that icon of stage and screen Jack Black.  Seriously: Jack Black.  Both Walter and Gary make discoveries about themselves, and we end knowing that Life's A Happy Song.

Now, I'd like you to note something in my recap of the plot.  I managed to go through the entire story without once mentioning the character of Mary (Amy Adams), Gary's perpetually waiting girlfriend.  Amy Adams once commented to Cosmopolitan Magazine that "people think I'm so innocent, but it's not true" (for the record, I didn't read the article.  That was on the cover). 

Perhaps Miss Adams might succeed in her efforts to have the public stop thinking she's so innocent by not doing her Enchanted routine that she can do in her sleep.  Her Mary is indistinguishable from Giselle, and while we know Adams can act, her Mary at times is either weak or stupid. I don't know many women who willingly wait ten years for a man to propose or keep the fact that Gary's near-pathological need for Walter so irritates her.

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I find that there is a fine, thin line between a character being innocent and a character being stupid.  Mary and Gary zigzag across that line time and again. 

At times, they appear to be thoroughly naive.  Other times, they appear mentally unstable and divorced from reality.  We see this with Gary.  He's suppose to be a sweet and loving man, but did no one else notice how insensitive he is towards Mary, regardless of how useless she is as a character?  He treats her rather badly, and if this is any indication of their ten year courtship, one wonders why any woman would wait so long for someone as dim as Gary.

A side note: I'm a firm believer that after three years tops, a couple should get engaged or end their relationship.  I don't mean they should marry in three years, but they should be engaged.  After three years, you are no longer 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend'.  You're someone's lover/mistress. 

Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller missed a great deal of opportunities to make The Muppets the tribute they so yearned to make with a nice introduction of these characters to a generation that can know them only through DVDs and merchandising. 

Chief among these missed opportunities is with Adams.  Her character isn't necessary to the plot as I've pointed out, but in regards to her dealings with the Muppets.  If I know my swine (and I think I do), Miss Piggy is at heart a highly insecure being.  She has always been insanely jealous of any woman that comes within ten feet of her beloved Kermie, especially pretty young things.  Here you have Amy Adams, a most beautiful woman, and despite Piggy's mixed feelings for her frog she doesn't appear the least bit fazed by having someone like Adams near Kermit. 

Another lost opportunity came in regards to the various cameos.  I am loath to compare films, but The Muppets is determined to recall past features such as The Muppet Movie, and since both go for cameo appearances, I figure I would give them the comparison they're dying for. 

Image result for the muppets 2011 cameosIn The Muppet Movie, you had a wide variety of cameos from big stars of the time: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Steve Martin and Orson Welles, the biggest star of them all (in the case of Orson Welles, in a literal sense; sorry, couldn't resist). 

However, unlike in The Muppets, the cameos in The Muppet Movie weren't cameos for cameo's sake: they actually had something to do with the story. 

It wasn't like Martin or Milton Berle or Bergen just popped in, looked at the camera, and then left.  By and large they actually had roles that were relevant in the film that involved the Muppets themselves; if Steve Martin appeared, it's because he's playing a waiter, not playing Steve Martin, or even playing Steve Martin as a waiter.  There was a wit in having big stars show up in these tiny roles. 

In The Muppets, Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin opted to just throw in stars of varying degrees of notoriety as themselves and leave it at that.

At the telethon scene, you have Kermit say, "Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez," then grow slightly flustered that he had no idea who the chubby little Latino kid that had come with them was.  Goldberg then tells Kermit she was told that there might be a job here, Gomez tells him flat-out she doesn't know who he is, only that her agent told her to come, and the chubby little Latino boy asked if he was one of the Ninja Turtles.

Here, in this scene, we have a neat little package of how The Muppets, in their efforts to echo the sweetness and cleverness of The Muppet Movie, failed totally and despite how much euphoria my fellow critics emit over it, made The Muppets a bit of a failure. 

First, Golberg, Gomez, or the chubby little Latino boy are irrelevant to the plot.  Second, if the Muppets are so passé and forgotten, why would Gomez's agent send her to work with has-beens?  Third, unless you watch or know about Modern Family, you would have no idea who Rico Rodriguez (the aforementioned chubby little Latino boy) is.  I know critics love Modern Family, but to be honest I've never seen an episode, and if it weren't for all the orgasmic coverage of the show I wouldn't know Rodriguez from a Ninja Turtle. 

Judging from The Muppets, Kermit hasn't seen the show either. 

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Therefore, most of the appearances of big names are there just for show.  There are a few exceptions, such as Alan Arkin as the Muppet Studios tour guide, but by and large the name performers appear as themselves, and what could have been a great series of small performances are wasted because Segel and Company opted to just have his friends pop in for a lark. 

I digress slightly to take on the choices of just who is given more featured roles in The Muppets.  I have never understood the idea that Jack Black is some sort of 'comedic genius'.  It might have bene funny if due to budget reasons, they decided he was the biggest star they could afford to host The Muppet Telethon.  However, they wasted that chance too: not only did he not make me laugh but he has to comment in a near-hysterical manner on everything.  A scene where the Muppets spoof Smells Like Teen Spirit by making it into a barbershop quartet makes Black acts like it's an act of blasphemy. 

Again and again, Segel and Company decide to throw in people sans rhyme or reason.  People may have loved it, but I thought it was all a massive waste. 

Segel knows what he's doing in making Gary this amazingly overgrown man-child with a heart of gold.  Again, his affection for the Muppets comes across, though at times his character veers dangerously into making Gary a complete imbecile rather than just a sweet person. Was Gary a man with a mind of a child or a complete nut-job?

Leaving aside the rather creepy idea that humans can give birth to Muppets, I wasn't overwhelmed with Walter.  That isn't to say there weren't moments of cleverness with the character: the idea that Jim Parsons would be the human Walter was amusing even though, again, if one didn't see or know about The Big Bang Theory you'd have no idea what made the human Walter so amusing.  However, Walter isn't on the same level as a Fozzie or Rowlf the Dog.

Image result for the muppets chris cooperIt is fun to see Chris Cooper play it up for the requisite villain.  One is startled to find how well Copper can rap! I think more moments like these and a whole lot less Jack Black would have made The Muppets a much, much better film.

Finally, allow me to touch on the songs written by Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie.  I'm told McKenzie is another 'comedic genius', but since I've never seen Conchords, I cannot vouch for that.  Again, I'm loath to compare The Muppets to The Muppet Movie, but they want me to. 

While The Muppet Movie had a string of memorable songs (Moving Right Along, Can You Picture That, I Hope Something Better Comes Along, Never Before-Never Again, I'm Going to Go Back There Someday, and of course, the haunting and beautiful Rainbow Connection), the only song I recall with any sense of pleasure was the self-consciously sweet Life's A Happy Song.

All the other songs are completely forgettable, though not all bad.  Me Party was pleasant and almost funny, and Pictures In My Head remarkably dark for a story marketed as family fare.  Other than that, the songs are ones people will not remember once The Muppets fades.  After watching The Muppet Movie, I could hum all the songs and felt joy at their memory.  Even after a span of over thirty years, I can still sing parts of all of them.  After watching The Muppets, the only song I could remember was Life's A Happy Song

Even with that song, I always got the sense that McKenzie was mocking the Muppets and their legacy of sweetness with his music.  It seemed a strange irony that while The Muppets celebrates the nostalgia for a pre-CGI world, the score appears to ridicule the same world. 

No song captures this better or worse than Man Or Muppet, a song I always felt was self-consciously stupid in its lyrics (if I'm a Muppet/then I'm a very manly Muppet--how I hate that line).  Truth be told, I though Man or Muppet was the worst song in The Muppets, but obviously, I'm in the minority on that point. 

The Muppets was a hit-and-miss deal for me, and I wavered fast and furious on what to score it.  The fact is that I found more things to dislike in it: the weak songs, the fact that Fozzie Bear didn't sound exactly like I remembered him (no surprise given he was voiced by current Fozzie Eric Jacobson and veteran Fozzie Frank Oz declined to participate in The Muppets), a collection of useless and unnecessary cameos, Jack Black. All those simply could not overcome all the positive aspects of The Muppets (the clear affection everyone has for them, Chris Cooper's rap). 

It certainly was a good try, done with the best of intentions, but for me, as a Muppets fan who has a deep love and affection for them, I was disappointed.  When it comes to The Muppets, I Hope That Something Better Comes Along


The Darkest Hour (2011): A Review


Before I had gone to see The Darkest Hour at a second-run theater, it had already earned a reputation as one of the worst films of 2011. Given it was released on Christmas Day, that makes it a remarkable feat indeed.  I went in with lowered expectations, and as I neared the end of The Darkest Hour, I had come close to concluding that it was mindless, a waste of time, but not a total disaster. 

However, when we got to the actual end of the movie, it committed an unpardonable sin that sunk an already bad movie into a point of no return.   

Sean and Ben (Emile Hirsh and Max Minghella respectively) are in Moscow to close a lucrative Internet deal.  They find they've been scammed by Scandinavian or Russian businessman Skylar (Joel Kimmerman) (the film never quite establishes what his nationality is), who takes the deal as his own. 

Sean and Ben are upset and disappointed, but not enough to not go to a hip Moscow club, where irony of ironies, Skylar is also at, as are the two beauties Natalie and Anne (Olivia Thirlby and Rachel Taylor).  Sean and Natalie hit it off, while Ben and Anne are apparently there just for support.  Moscow is hit with strange lights falling from the sky.  In very short order (if anything, The Darkest Hour doesn't waste time on much), those lights vaporize any person they come across.

Image result for the darkest hour 2011Somehow, our five youngsters manage to survive the initial attack, and after spending three days in a cellar, they emerge into a ruined Moscow.  Ben is determined to go back to the safety of the American Embassy.  The best time to travel is at night or the darkest hour, because electricity gives their presence away. 

Our kids find a message, and then come across Vika (Veronica Ozerova), a touch chick who has managed to survive the invasion.  Our four people come to where Vika is staying: an apartment that has survived the onslaught due to the genius of Mr. Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze).

Now it's a race to get to a Russian submarine which is protected from attacks, I think because it is nuclear, before it sails away.  We get the unnecessary characters killed off in the style of any disaster film, throw in some Russian resistance fighters, a complication or two, a fight with the aliens, and the survivors sailing away to fight another day. 

It is here when we get the sense that The Darkest Hour commits an unpardonable sin.  Longtime readers know I have a Golden Rule of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.  Guess what happens at the end of The Darkest Hour

If it hadn't been for that, The Darkest Hour would have remained a silly, brainless but harmless endeavour.  Hirsh, judging from this film, is one of those actors who is only as good as the material he's in.  This is the same guy who was brilliant as Cleve Jones in Milk, but here, Hirsh doesn't appear to believe the second-rate dialogue by Jon Spaihts (with story by Leslie Bohem, A.T. Ahern, and Spaihts).  Neither does Mighella, who appears at times almost bored to have to be here.  Given that both are touted as actors on the make, being part of The Darkest Hour simply cannot help their reputations. 

Side note: while watching The Darkest Hour, I could not help but marvel as to how short Hirsh appears to be.  IMDB has him listed as 5'7", and while Minghella at 5'10" is no giant, it still looks odd to see someone appear so small. 

Related imageWith all the actors of all nationalities (American, British, Australian, and Russian), one always got the sense they did the best they could without breaking out into giggles.  While Hirsh thought he could compensate by being broad with the 'wacky best friend' bit, Minghella decided to sleepwalk in the hopes people would forget he was in this and instead remember him from The Social Network

The girls were practically indistinguishable except that one was whining and crying a lot, so we know who will live to see the end of the movie.   

The Darkest Hour doesn't attempt to give us anything but the slimmest character traits to any of the people were are being asked to care about, so when they start getting vaporized, we can't actually feel any emotional impact on losing them. Director Chris Gorak had already a big problem drawing any performances from his leads, but he also had a nearly impossible task of making invisible aliens a threat.  

Somehow, the idea of invisible aliens seems good: facing off against an enemy one cannot see could have been a point of making the only thing to fear be fear itself, but somehow distant memories of The Happening came to mind.  Just as it is nearly impossible to be afraid of the wind or the leaves, how does one fear flashing lights? 

It all looked like they were doing everything possible to save money on this clunker.  To save on special effects, make the aliens invisible.  To save more money, give a great deal of shots over to the aliens point-of-view.  To save on location, film it in Russia.  To save on lights, film a lot of The Darkest Hour in the dark.  Now, while that would make some sense, it has the unfortunate result of making everything appear vaguely gray throughout the film. 

Another cost-cutting measure: have the screen fade to black on numerous occasions.   You can't imagine how old that trick quickly got.

The Darkest Hour decided that it would be the perfect anti-Christmas feature: a movie to get away from what the holidays represent either in the spiritual or secular manner.  In many ways, it is just a sorry excuse for some bad acting, bad writing, bad directing, bad effects, and worse, a bad sense of hubris thinking that people will be demanding more of The Darkest Hour.   I even understand that this film was released in 3-D.  Now if that ends up being the nadir of this idiotic craze, perhaps some good came from The Darkest Hour.

Again, if it weren't for that vague suggestion of a sequel, The Darkest Hour would have been worth a hour and a half's mindless, dull, brainless distraction.  One, however, thinks that this film will end up being as invisible on everyone's résumés as the aliens themselves.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

What's Your Number?: A Review


I've seen Bridesmaids. I've seen Made of Honor.  Somehow, someone must have thought a mix of both would be a great comedy, for how else to explain What's Your Number?, as sad and unfunny a romantic comedy can be without being either romantic or comedic.

Ally (Ana Faris) has gone from bed to bed without success.  As if that weren't bad enough, she just got fired from some vague idea of a job which she's the only one who doesn't get that she's fired at first.  What's a girl to do? 

Get drunk, of course! 

Add to this the fact that her sister Daisy (Ari Graynor) is getting married, so who gets to be maid of honor?  To Ally's horror, she reads a magazine article stating that the more men a woman sleeps with, the lower the chance of her getting married are.  At the moment, she has slept with 19 men, so she swears off sex until it's The One.  To celebrate, she gets drunk and has sex with the guy who had fired her (The Soup's Joel McHale).  Now that she's at 20 ex-sexmates, she knows it's all over.

Yet perhaps there is hope.  Her neighbor, local man-slut and 'musician' Colin (Chris Evans), just happens to know how to track down people, having come from a family of cops.  In exchange for helping her track down her exes on the chance that one of her previous lovers was The One, she will let him hide in her place to get away from his own high count. 

We go through one sorry escape to another, until Colin comes upon Jake Adams (Dave Annable).  He's sweet. He's rich. He's handsome. He works for a non-profit organization that helps children. He saved himself sexually for Ally, even though she had already had sex with one or two men before she slept with Jake, who lost his own virginity to her in high school.

Jake is perfect in every way imaginable; so obviously, she's going to go for Colin.

As if no one saw that coming. 

Thus, we get the requisite 'chase down your love' ending scene, throw in some really bizarre moments which I'll get back to and end with two people who are meant to be together even though nothing indicates they should be. 

Image result for what's your number movieAs I watched What's Your Number?, I actually began to think that Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden didn't even try to pretend to be original in their screenplay. Everything about What's Your Number? was lazy and idiotically predictable.   Not only that, some things were downright ridiculous. 

Take for example the character of "Disgusting Donald" (Chris Pratt).  He's suppose to be 'disgusting' because of his appearance long time ago.  Today, Donald is anything but disgusting.  The first time he shows up, fine.  It's just another of her long parade of exes who just happens to appear and offer a chance for Ally to be hysterical in the crazy sense of the word, not the funny sense. 

Then, for some reason known only to Allan, Crittenden, and director Mark Mylod, he shows up two more times but isn't part of any actual part of the story.  Not surprisingly, Donald becomes annoyed by Ally randomly popping into his life; it's especially irritating when she shows up at his wedding. What are the odds Donald would be getting married the same day Daisy is? 

This is where I have to seriously wonder whether anyone involved in the story actually thought having Donald pop in two more times for no reason would strike audiences as hilarious.  If they did, everyone involved in the story side should seriously question their choice of careers.

Again, What's Your Number? is a romantic comedy that is neither romantic or comedic.  Granted, I did laugh once when Ally attempted a British accent with Simon (Martin Freeman), the British boyfriend Colin tracked down for her.

This, however, was undercut by being Donald's second appearance because somehow Ally and Colin thought Donald's house was the open house Simon had.  It makes one wonder how Colin, master sleuth, could have failed to realize how close Donald and Simon lived. 

Image result for what's your number movieNormally, that would make Colin look stupid, but since he's played by Chris Evans, it doesn't bare to dwell much on a character's intelligence.  

Every character is so predictable, so standard, that you end the film thinking Ally doesn't deserve to be with anyone.  Actually, you end up thinking Ally deserves to be locked away in an insane asylum.

At heart, Ally is a complete shrew of a woman: narcissistic, thoughtless, and yes, a slut.  To a certain point, I like how looking for a job was not a priority for her in any way.  The time and money she devotes to track down all her past lovers she decided were well spent, while not giving any thought to actually finding work that would pay for her bills.  Somehow, this point was never, or perhaps barely, addressed. 

Yet this appears to be highly bizarre: we start What's Your Number? with her getting fired and end up  waking  up with her ex-boss in bed with her, so it's obvious she has no income coming in.  Yet she can fly off to Miami and Washington, D.C. in this nutty pursuit of all her ex-lovers, not in the pursuit of another job (and honestly, some self-respect). 

In this time of deep economic trials, seeing some woman flying off all over the place looking for a former one-night stand over looking to get a job is almost a slap across America.

Perhaps Farris did as good a job as she could with this ridiculous, stupid, and vapid character who has no ounce of intelligence or shame.  I doubt Meryl Streep could have made Ally into anyone we could or would care about.  To my memory, this is the first film of Farris' I've seen, and frankly, I don't want to see another Farris film if it is going to be more of the same.

As for her nineteen to twenty lovers, they all were like everything else in What's Your Number?, totally predictable.  Only Freeman attempted to take this as seriously as he could, going from "Wow, it's an old girlfriend" to "Get me away from this psycho" in short order. 

Every other man from her past was nothing short of sad or horrifying: the gynecologist who doesn't remember her until seeing her vagina, the old boyfriend whom we know almost right away is gay: all uninspired and uninspiring. 

Actors as good as Freeman and Zachary Quinto are reduced to mere cameos.  McHale is great on The Soup, but I don't want to see his ass.  Even worse, Andy Samberg, much touted in the trailer, is on screen for about a minute in a flashback scene.  Add to that in his very brief appearance he has a puppet attached to his hand, bringing flashbacks of The Beaver.

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Let's now turn our eyes to Chris Evans.  Whatever wry social commentary could have been made from the fact that he's a male version of Ally minus the neurosis would of course go unexplored.  Instead, Evans played a Chris Evans-type, the amazingly good-looking man with an easy way with easy women.  In What's Your Number?, Evans oozes self-confidence, doing here what he does in almost every film with the possible exception of Captain America: be himself, the cocky hot guy with a lackadaisical attitude towards everything (including his job of 'actor').  Here, he's back to form of a typical Evans 'performance', and back to form in more ways than one. 

I was amazed at how often we were called in to admire Evans' physical perfection.  I got the sense that Evans is a shameless exhibitionist.  His first scene shows him nearly nude, only a strategically held towel keeping him from a Julie Andrews moment.  Again and again he is either naked or at the very least with a gratuitous shirtless scenes.  It's nice to see him so fit, but how is any of that suppose to make up for the fact that Colin is a slut and a loser?

Oh, yes, I forget: he's Chris Evans.  No wonder brain-dead women like Ally would pick him over the handsome but not muscular Annable. 

What's Your Number?, despite being made by women, is misogynistic, making the case that all women are desperate to marry, and willing to forsake what in the past would have been considered a catch for the sake of a hot body.  This is no different from other lousy romantic comedies which are neither, and the fact that they keep making them only tells me the intelligence of people in love just goes down, down, and down.

I can only hope that soon and very soon, their number is up.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Peter Pan (1953): A Review

PETER PAN (1953)

Nearly thirty years after the first film version of Peter Pan, we get the animated version of the story of 'the boy who never grew up'. One would think it would be the perfect marriage: the childhood fantasy created by Sir James M. Barrie with the wonderment that Walt Disney and his namesake studio can create.  Peter Pan is a nice, entertaining film, yet it has a few issues which give one pause to adopt it as an undisputed classic. 

In London town, the Darling family lives an upper-middle class life.  Mr. Darling (Hans Conried) agitatedly is getting ready for a party, while his wife (Heather Angel) is calm and ready.  Their children: John (Paul Collins), Michael (Tommy Luske), are playing with pirates while their oldest child, daughter Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) fills in information about Peter Pan. 

George Darling, already flustered by not finding his cuff links, has had enough: both of Nana (the dog who serves as their nursemaid) and of Peter Pan stories.  He decrees that Wendy is to get her own room and move out of the nursery.  Everyone is devastated, but nothing can be done about it as Mr. and Mrs. Darling leave for the night.

As it happens, Nana had before the film started captured Peter Pan's shadow, and Wendy hopes he will come to get it.  Peter Pan (Bobby Driscoll) does come back, accompanied by his pixie, Tinker Bell (whose dialogue is all bells).  Wendy sews his shadow back on, and Peter now invites Wendy to go with him to Never Land where she can act as mother to the Lost Boys.  Tink makes it clear she is jealous of Wendy, but she can't do anything about it.  Wendy gets John, with his top hat and umbrella, and Michael with his teddy, and they're off.

Meanwhile, Captain Hook (Conried again, maintain a tradition of having the same actor play Hook and Mr. Darling) and his first mate Snee (Bill Thompson) is obsessed with capturing Peter.  Peter never takes Hook seriously, so he takes little note of Hook's machinations.  When Tinker Bell does trick the Lost Boys into nearly killing Wendy, he banishes her forever, then changing it to a week.

The Darling and Lost Boys go to capture the Indians and Peter takes Wendy to visit the mermaids.  Hook, believing the Indians are hiding Peter, kidnaps Princess Tiger Lilly.  Peter rescues her, which is good since the Indians have captured the Lost Boys.  Normally, they would have let them go to play at war again but not while Tiger Lilly is held prisoner.

Eventually, Wendy talks her brothers and the Lost Boys to go back to London.  Tink is hoodwinked by Hook to reveal Peter's secret lair.  Hook, having given his word not to lay a finger, or hook, on Peter, nonetheless plants a bomb.  The bad Captain takes the children prisoner and threatens them with the plank, but we get one last confrontation between Hook and Peter.  With Peter triumphant, they sail the ship back to London, where the Darling family is reunited.

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What I found curious while watching Peter Pan is just how comical the whole thing was. 

Most of the comedy comes from Conried's interpretation of Captain Hook.  This Hook goes from one of two emotions: bellowing out his orders or whimpering like a baby whenever he's cornered. The curious thing is that Mr. Darling is pretty much the same loud character as Hook is.  Perhaps this decision to direct Conried to be so over-the-top was made in order to remind people the same actor was playing both characters.

However, to my mind it made Captain Hook less of an adversary and more a foil, a mere annoyance to Peter.  This has the effect of making Peter Pan less a struggle between Peter and Hook and more a series of adventures tied together by the thinnest of threads.  I figure that the imagery of Hook and the pirates was intentionally suppose to be comic in order to fit into the idea that Peter Pan is a children's story.  Pirates are always figures children will gravitate to in fantasy, and thus seeing the pirates be so comic would appeal to them.

I think this is why we have to look at the portrayal of the Native American in Peter Pan with a large grain of salt.  They are appropriately cartoonish and given how children also play at cowboys and Indians we can't be called to take it seriously.  Pirates and Indians play a major role in children's games, and since Peter Pan is suppose to be a place where children, in particular boys, are in suspended play I argue that they are suppose to be highly exaggerated.

Image result for peter pan 1953However, I do wonder why Tiger Lilly is the only Native to be drawn in a respectful manner, looking no different than any other character save for the color of her skin.  All the other Indians, especially the Chief, are drawn to look like caricatures of stereotypical Indians. The fact that they speak in pidgin only makes matters worse.

I digress slightly to wonder how Disney can justify withholding Song of the South from official release because of the perceived racism in the film and specifically the character of Uncle Remus, but heavily promote Peter Pan with the imagery of Native Americans or Dumbo with the highly suspicious characters of the crows as perfectly acceptable to children. 

The Native American imagery is a bit cringe-inducing now, but one has to always keep in mind that the film was made in the early 1950s and the source material came from a British author, so while it does not hold up now I think there was no real plan to demean Native Americans.  That does not make it right, but this needs a little background.

Another curious thing in Peter Pan is that Peter and Wendy do not appear to be children.  As drawn, Peter looks like a teenager. I would guess his age between fifteen and seventeen, which makes sense given that Driscoll was sixteen when the film was released.  We know that Wendy was thirteen, so the romantic undertones between Peter and Wendy appear closer to Splendor in the Grass territory. 

This is heightened both by Tinker Bell's instant jealousy over Wendy offering Peter a kiss (which he never gets) and how Tiger Lilly also appears to flirt with Peter.  He is always oblivious to most of the female attention, but while watching I was a bit puzzled by how adult the relationship entre Peter et Wendy came close to being.

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There were a couple of problems storywise.  For example, after the bomb went off in Peter's hideout and Peter having been saved by a repentant Tinker Bell, we don't get a sense of how Tinker Bell could make such a speedy recovery to go and help Peter rescue Wendy and the Lost Boys.  We don't get the traditional appeal to save Tinker Bell, which is all right but it does make one wonder how she appeared to come out of that explosion unscathed.

Also, when the children return to London, while it's never stated we get strong indications that the whole adventure took place in one night.  I did wonder about that.  Finally, we never found out anything about the Lost Boys, in particular why they all dressed up like forest animals.

This is not to dismiss the positive aspects of Peter Pan.  In particular, we have a good number of songs, a subject where Disney almost always excels.  The opening song The Second Star to the Right is a light, positive number, while You Can Fly oddly is more talked than sung.

The best song to my mind is Your Mother and Mine, a lovely, soft number about the importance of mothers to their children.  The number Following the Leader, while a cute number that appears targeted to children, just came off as a bit of a time filler.

The What Makes the Red Man Red? number today would probably never get off the ground: political correctness would never permit the imagery and broken English of the Native Americans be targeted to children though again, I strongly advise people to remember that pirates and Indians, being part of childhood imagination, are not intended to be primers of ethnic studies and should not be taken on face value. 

Added to the music choices, the idea of having a pan flute serve as the introduction music to Peter's appearances is a bright idea.  The animation is top-notch minus the Indians, especially the portrayal of Tinker Bell.  Even though she has no audible dialogue in keeping with tradition, her expressions whether admiring herself or showing her rising jealousy over Wendy showed the character to be a great pantomime performance.  She was fully expressive without saying a word.

Finally, animation allows for a greater and oddly more believable use for Nana than when an actor dressed as a dog would appear to us.  It's as close to making Nana a realistic character as we'll ever have.

Overall, Peter Pan is a light and generally charming affair.  People may correctly criticize the Native American imagery in the film, and while I was surprised at how Indians were still seen in the 1950s I look on it as less offensive and more silly.

I learned to count and remember lining up for lunch in elementary school singing "One little/two little/three little Indians" and did not grow up prejudiced against the Native American population, so we have to not throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak.  It serves as a good, but not great, introduction to J. M. Barrie's story and at a mere 77 minutes long enough to keep children's attention.

Next Peter Pan Film: Hook 


Peter Pan Retrospective: An Introduction
Peter Pan (1924)
Peter Pan (1953)
Peter Pan (2003)
Finding Neverland
Pan (2015)


Thursday, February 16, 2012

The First Grader: A Review


I remember the biography Life Is So Good by George Dawson.  That story is of a 90 year-old-man who decides to finally learn to read, achieving his GED at age 103.  At first glance, The First Grader may appear to be a Kenyan version of Life Is So Good.  However, you throw in Kenya's tortured history and the inter-tribal strife after independence and The First Grader moves away from a potentially cute inspirational story.  Instead, it becomes a darker tale of human cruelty where a hope for redemption is mixed with the bitterness from the past.

Independence from British rule has come to Kenya.  The government has now promised 'free education for all'.  With that in mind, Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) goes to the local elementary school to register so as to learn to read and right.  The school is overwhelmed by applications and extremely overcrowded with youngsters.  Maruge, however, is determined to get his free education.

There is a small hitch. Maruge is 84 years old.

This causes difficulties for the school administrators, in particular Teacher Jane (Naomie Harris).  She admires his determination, but an 84-year-old among a group of six year olds?  The administration put all sorts of obstacles for Magure, such as the oddball requirement that he get a school uniform, all in the hopes of having him just go away.  Maruge, however, is not deterred, and finally, perhaps with a glint of a smile, Jane registers him for class.

This does not sit well with the villagers or the higher-ups in Nairobi, who think resources are being wasted on such an old man.  At one point he is pushed to go the adult education center, which is much further away and which is a borderline brothel/drug den where the adults show no interest in learning.  Eventually Jane finds a way around the situation: she has Maruge be her assistant, although everyone knows this is a rouse.

As the film goes, we learn about Maruge's past as a Mau Mau and the torture he underwent as a prisoner of the British, including the deaths of his wife and child.  His past comes to him as he continues to attempt to learn his letters and numbers despite the fierce opposition.  Eventually, the opposition to his presence gets Maruge kicked out and Jane 'transferred'.

However, the other students make their views known, and a personal appeal by Maruge to the Chairman in Nairobi to allow him to stay at the elementary school.  By this point Maruge's story has inspired others to pursue education: if this 84-year-old can do it, why can't others?

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The First Grader has a subject matter that cries for a sweet treatment, but director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock avoid overt sentimentality.  This is done first by not making Maruge into a sweet old man.  Instead, he is seen at times in an unpleasant light: he expresses bigotry against the regional administrator of education because he happens to belong to a different tribal group.  The First Grader also doesn't shy away from portraying the dark side of the Mau Mau uprising.  We get some shocking imagery of the torture Maruge endured, as well as the scars physical and emotional.

Under Chadwick's direction and with Litondo's performance, Maruge appears to be a whole person: someone who truly wants to learn.  The sadness he has when he is virtually trapped at the adult learning center is almost heartbreaking, which Litondo shows without speaking.  Rather, it is his face that registers so much. 

As the teacher caught between following instructions and her insticts, Harris maintains a balance between caring for Maruge and doing right for all her students.  She also manages to bring the conflict between herself and her husband Charles (Tony Kgoroge) over their forced separation without it being the central point.

Above all else, as portrayed by Harris, Teacher Jane is excellent as portraying as someone from the generation post-independence, who has no memory of the British rule, and most importantly, who sees herself as Kenyan, not a member of a separate tribe.  This allows her to see how wrong Maruge is to think opposition to his attending primary school is based strictly on his tribe. 

By the end of The First Grader we can't help but admire and like Maruge because of his determination to learn, even if at times he is uncomfortable at having children learn faster than he can.  There are moments when Maruge is delighting in writing out numbers and letters, going over them in his small shack, and it's hard not to smile at how happy he is to be learning.  Somehow, having such an old man, in his school uniform and cane, be part of a group of children, teaching them himself, is both inspirational and delightful.

Image result for the first grader 2010I figure The First Grader is aimed to be inspiration and heartwarming.  That being the case, the film does this very well.  When the children rise up against the new head teacher, demanding Teacher Jane's return, audiences can easily cheer them on because we know the reason she was transferred: not because of anything she did wrong but due to intense pressure from those above her and the villager's appalled at the idea of such an old man in their mind getting more attention than their children.

If there is anything to look at The First Grader that could have been done better it might have been to focus more on the villager's opposition and less on Teacher Jane's marriage troubles.  At times, going over how Maruge's presence in the school causes difficulties for her and her husband (including anonymous calls harrassing both of them) appeared to be going to another story altogether.

While we get a general idea as to why the villagers oppose Maruge's attendance, even going so far as getting some glimpses of this via villager David Chenge (Israel Makoe) who is displeased about how he thinks his son is being ignored, those moments aren't pursued as much as perhaps they might have been.

On the whole, The First Grader is a good film because we get an interesting story told well.  It is rare when we get a positive story from Africa.  The stories people are used to hearing about this tortured continent are usually ones of conflict and violence.  This story of a man who thinks it is never too late to learn is a universal one.

Inspirational, generally sweet but not afraid of tackling the darker aspects of human nature even from the protagonist, The First Grader makes clear that what Maruge tells the press once they get wind of the story is true:

The Power Is In The Pen.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Woman in Black: A Review


Going Over A Dark Radcliffe...

I couldn't help thinking of the legend of La Llorona (The Weeping or Crying Woman) while watching The Woman In Black simply because of the similarities: a woman who has lost a child starts being responsible postmortem for the deaths of other children.  The Woman In Black did its job quite well: give the audiences some good old-fashioned frights relying less on gore and more on anticipation.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widower with a young child.  He's also a not-too-successful lawyer who is facing termination.  He has one last chance for success: to get the estate papers of one Alice Drablow, so off he goes to the north of England and her rambling estate, Eel Marsh House. 

However, the villagers are not welcoming to Kipps and are terrified of the house.  In this village, the children have a nasty habit of dying in particularly gruesome ways: the film opens with triplets jumping to their deaths en masse.  Only Mr. Dailey (Ciaran Hands), who appears not to hold to superstitions, welcomes and helps Kipps.  The Daileys have their own grief: their own child died, and Mrs. Dailey (Janet McTeer) has moments of lunacy, thinking her son can communicate to her from beyond the grave.

Kipps insists on going to Eel Marsh House, a house that is isolated when high tide rolls in and becomes an island, and once there, he hears things that go bump in the night.  He learns some shocking secrets: the Drablow's child Nathaniel drowned in the marshes but his body was never recovered; moreover, the child was not their son, but their nephew, Mrs. Drablow having taken the child from her sister Jennet (Liz White).  In her grief and anger at having her child taken, she kills herself.  However, she is still around, as the titular Woman in Black.

Apparently, seeing her, even briefly, will mean that more children will die.  Kipps catches sight of her, and is now held responsible for more children dying.  In order to set things right, Kipps believes the Woman in Black will only be placated by having her child returned to her.  With Dailey's help, Kipps goes into the marshes.  He does find little Nathaniel's corpse, and presents him in his old room, and hopes for the best. 

However, we hear the Woman in Black whisper "I will never forgive, I will never forgive".  As it happens, Kipps' child is coming with his nanny to the village to join his father. 

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I think the ending is what pushes The Woman In Black down: the audience I was with didn't buy it, and frankly neither did I.  Not only is it a bit pat but it really never resolves anything: one wonders why we went through all we did if we won't get a real ending. 

It also begs the question, 'if the Woman in Black is going to kill every child in town, why not just leave town, or send their children away, or just go and follow Talking Heads' advise to go Burning Down the House'?  Having seen Frankenstein, I know how fond villagers are of burning down things. 

However, I don't think the point of The Woman In Black is to have resolution.  Rather, it's simply to be a good old-fashioned Gothic horror film, full of spooky sounds and sights.  James Watkins' film is filled with all the elements of a pre-Saw horror film: the old house, the fog overwhelming everything, the long silences punctuated with a sudden noise that makes people jump.  In that respect, The Woman In Black does the job of giving people jolts.

Related imageIn terms of acting, this is an important film for Daniel Radcliffe.  This is his first film post-Harry Potter, and he looked remarkably dour throughout. 

I know this will sound strange, but the best way to describe Radcliffe's performance in The Woman In Black is that it is a one-note performance, but he hits that same note very well.  Kipps is remarkably somber throughout the film, and we don't see how he gets interested in either solving the mystery of the Woman In Black or in just getting the hell out of there.  Radcliffe is emotionless for almost all the film, or rather, he keeps the same expression.  Whether that's a good thing or not I leave up to you.

Hands and McTeer are much better as the apparently only rational couple in the village and given McTeer has moments where she's bonkers, that's not saying much for the village.  If there had been a little more interaction between Kipps and Dailey into solving the mystery of the Woman in Black and maybe a little less on overwhelming people with atmosphere, The Woman In Black could have been a stronger Gothic film.       

However, I think The Woman In Black is a film that was just wants to give people a good scare based not on graphic depictions of violence but rather on quick moments of lights going out, toys coming alive, and banshees screaming in the night. 

There are some beautiful and brilliant moments in The Woman In Black such as when the candle lights reflect on a couple of toy monkey's eyes to where they appear to be glowing in a sinister manner, following Kipps around.  There are points of logic that I would argue against, such as why the villagers are so passive when it comes to The Woman in Black:I wanted to say just get some pitchforks and torches and tear the mansion into oblivion. I think again the weakest part is the ending that just didn't work. 

On the whole, The Woman In Black is something that appears inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe in terms of spirit (no pun intended): a scary story built on the supernatural entering our world rather than overt acts of violence save when a girl literally lights herself on fire.  It is a film that is suppose to be full of atmosphere, and on that The Woman In Black works.  It's not a great film, it has a couple of problems, but The Woman In Black is a good film if one wants just a good jolt in the dark.  Just keep an eye on the children.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

City Lights: A Review (Review #336)


The Look of Love Is In Your Eyes...

For Valentine's Day, that date set aside to remember romance, I decided to look at one of the most romantic films: City Lights.  It's unique in that it is a silent film when the genre was all but dead.  For a good part of it I could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into City Lights, but was beginning to wonder how it could be considered one of the Greatest Love Stories on Film, until we get to the end.

The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) has met a beautiful but poor Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill).  He falls instantly in love, but because she is blind, she mistakes him for a wealthy gentleman.  Through a series of fortuitous accidents, mostly involving The Tramp first saving, then re-encountering a Millionaire (Harry Myers), he allows the Flower Girl to believe that he is a rich man. 

Determined to provide for his unrequited love and her grandmother, he gets a job collecting horse manure, then after losing that job he goes into the ring to pay for both their back rent and for a revolutionary surgery to cure her blindness.

Image result for city lights 1931While the boxing match goes against him, he has the good luck of re-encountering the Millionaire, who only remembers him when he's intoxicated.  He gives the Tramp a thousand dollars, but unbeknownst to either of them, two thieves had entered the mansion.  They conk the Millionaire but while the Tramp gets the police, the Millionaire doesn't recognize him and The Tramp is sent up the river.  However, before he's finally caught, the Tramp manages to give the Flower Girl the money.

After serving time for theft, the Tramp goes back, with no money, no job prospects, and looking worse for wear.  The Flower Girl, who was able to afford surgery to restore her sight, has now a successful flower shop with her grandmother.  Every time a wealthy man comes, she hopes it's Him.  However, she knows He hasn't come in yet.  Some newspaper boys bully the Tramp in front of her store.  The Tramp recognizes her immediately, but she is amused at him and his longing gaze.  Touched by his affection, she offers him a flower and some change.  When she reaches for his hands, she instantly realizes who he is.

"You?"  the title card reads.  The next two title cards are some of the most beautiful and heartfelt lines of 'dialogue' in film.  The Tramp: "You can see now?"  The Flower Girl: "Yes, I can see now".  We close City Lights on his face, one filled with love and hope. 

It's those last five minutes which are the most beautiful.  After going through so much for the woman he loves but who has never seen him, here he is before her.  Although he's dressed in rags, we know he's a very rich man, because his unselfish love has given so much and the girl of his heart now can finally see.

Obviously the last two lines of City Lights are loaded with subtext beyond what is actually being referred to.  Chaplin, who also directed the film and wrote both the script and the score, created a beautiful moment here, one of the most touching and heartbreaking in film.  The juxtaposition of his rags and her success and elegance is beautifully filmed.

Chaplin was inventively clever with his various sight gags: everything from how the Millionaire pours champagne to his intoxicated driving and how the Tramp inadvertently interrupted a singer after swallowing a whistle.  While they were clever and well-done, I confess to not finding them as funny as perhaps 1931 audiences did because I saw most of them coming. 

This isn't to not appreciate his physical gifts or the inventiveness of the various sight gags, except I wonder in the scene where he's cleaning manure how an elephant just happened to walk by him, but for my part, I don't think I laughed much if at all whenever I saw them.

However, it is hard not to like the Tramp himself, and Chaplin's performance is wonderful.  Apart from his physicality, there is the character himself, who is so endearing.  With his bowler hat and cane, he tries so hard to appear as a respectable bourgeois gentleman when he obviously is not a man of wealth and sophistication.  We see this when the Millionaire takes him to an exclusive dance hall: he is so unaccustomed to good food he can't tell that a streamer thrown in celebration isn't part of his meal. 

Related imageCherill's performance is one of sweet innocence, beautifully lit by Chaplin.  In other films, when the Flower Girl sees the Tramp for the first time, we could have had a mean response from her.  However, her laughter appeared light, more amused that this little man would take a shine to her than a belief in her superiority.  When she realizes who he is, her expression is one not of horror, but of understanding and sadness that such a good man should be in this sorry condition. 

It matches Chaplin's expression of genuine joy to see her healthy and successful.  We can see in his face that he did all he did and went through all he did for the simple reason that he loves her, no more, no less.

If there's something that threw me off, it was in some of the sound effects Chaplin used now that sound films were the dominant force and silent films were basically out.  In particular, in the beginning when we 'hear' the Mayor and his wife giving short speeches to unveil a statue where instead they reveal the Tramp, peacefully asleep on it.  I think it would have been better not to have sound effects, but Chaplin decided to make some sounds mimicking empty speech.  However, today they sound like the adults from a Peanuts special (wa-wah wa-wa-wa-wah). 

Maybe it was his subtle comments on sound films themselves.

On the whole, City Lights has clever sight gags and Chaplin's excellent score.  The comedy bits I didn't find overwhelmingly funny, but those last few minutes are impossible to react to emotionally. It's such a beautiful and tender scene, and says so much about love: the beauty of it, the sacrifices that go into it, and how true love will be rewarded. 

City Lights is at its heart as it is billed: A Comedy Romance in Pantomime.   There's comedy, but at its heart it is a romance: a gentle, sweet love story between two people on the fringes of society.

In their silence, they've said all there is to say about love.


Monday, February 13, 2012

A Dangerous Method: A Review


The Wizards of Id And Ego...

I won't claim to have a great background about the theories of Sigmund Freud vs. Carl Jung.  From what I know, Freud believed that a great deal of a person's neuroses were based on sex, while Jung had a more mystical bent, believing that archetypes from our ancestral pasts influenced our thinking today.  A Dangerous Method is the story of how these two great thinkers eventually split, and not surprisingly, a woman came between them.   

1904: Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) is sent to a hospital for mental health issues.  Her doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), is a proponent of the 'talking cure': having the patients talk and via that dig into the source of their troubles.  Jung appears happily married to Emma (Sara Gadon) and with the hopes of a family, in particular a son.  Jung, however, also harbors a hope to meet and correspond with the famous Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who he greatly admires.

The next year, Jung and Freud do meet, and they begin to explore the depths of the mind.  However, Sabina, who has gone from patient to assistant and aspires to be a doctor herself, cannot appear to mask her fixation with sex and with Jung.  Jung also has the whispers of patient Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a libertine who never shrinks from upsetting bourgeois convention to fulfill his own sexual pursuits. 

With Otto's words in his ear and Sabina's romantic overtures, Jung takes his own version of the talking cure: he talks himself into taking her as his mistress.  Sabina has her kinky side: she likes to get whipped, and the good doctor goes along with it, though he doesn't look like he's getting any pleasure out of beating her. 

Soon, even Freud hears about this, and at first the respectable Jung denies this, but later when Sabina threatens to go very public, he confesses.  Emma won't let him go, he doesn't want to go, and while later on they do have a brief resumption of their trysts Jung keeps things for the most part professional. 

Image result for a dangerous methodThe divide between Jung and Freud continues: Freud believes nothing exists outside the material realm and thinks people cannot be 'fixed', merely 'treated'.  Jung, however, believes that there are no coincidences, that dreams literally can come true and that there is something more than beyond Freud's philosophy. 

The ultra-rational Freud and the slightly more mystical Jung formally break, and despite Sabina's efforts to reconcile them, their two ways of thinking are too great and the break is permanent. 

Ultimately, we learn that Jung has taken another mistress to which Emma turns a blind eye, and that while his life ended peacefully Sabina was eventually hunted down and murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War and Freud was chased out of Austria, dying in exile in London.

A Dangerous Method, stripped of its intellectual veneer, is at its heart the story of a fling, a middle-aged man getting his freak on with a pretty and pretty unstable young thing. 

Personally, I disagree with how I understand Freud's view that sex and/or its suppression is at the core of everything, but I digress.

When Jung begins his affair with Sabina, we're suppose to believe it is because he wants release from his socio-sexual repression to embrace the release of his desires.  For my view, I think it is selfishness, not repression, that prompted the liaisons. 

Certainly Otto was not repressed at all: on the contrary he appears to be totally liberated from any sense of right or wrong and only satisfies his own desires.  As I wrote in my notes, "Otto's not crazy, he's horny". 

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Jung took a mistress not to free himself but because he wanted to fulfill his own desires.  What Sabina offered was a vehicle to pursue those desires, not a release from them.  She invited, he accepted: it isn't all that complicated.  With Sabina, he now had an opportunity to indulge himself, free from the restraints of a married life.  There's nothing suppressed about it; he did it because he wanted to, no more, no less.

Yet I digress.

A Dangerous Method to my mind is less about the growth of psychoanalysis and the separation between the excessively rational Freud and the more ethereal Jung and more about a man who attempts to justify taking a woman who likes to be whipped as his floozy.

What one should think on while watching A Dangerous Method are on the positives.  David Cronenberg gave great attention to recreating pre-World War I Vienna, in particular with the sets.  Jung's methodology in studying the core issues that trouble people's minds are well-brought on screen. 

Christopher Hampton's screenplay based on his own play The Talking Cure, which is based on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method, does a good job of showing how Jung and Freud are growing apart in their thinking. 

The best scene is when Freud and Jung are at a conference, discussing the cause of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten's belief in monotheism.  The subtext between them as they state their views on how perhaps the Pharaoh's views on his father affected his views on God and thus supported each of their views on psychology; this scene is so well spoken and well-acted by Mortensen and Fassbender.  It's clearly understood that while they may be discussing Akhenaten, they are really lobbing critiques on their views on individual vs. collective unconscious.   

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Both Fassbender and Mortensen play their characters excellently: the former a man who is searching for something outside himself that will lead him to a breakthrough in helping those with troubled minds, and the latter as one who knows there is nothing outside of himself at all.  Neither is portrayed as wrong or as a villain to the other's search, but more as two people who start from a certain point only to end up on different roads, where at times their professional respect for the other's accomplishments are masked by their stubborn refusal to accept that the other may have a point. 

Knightley is a curious fish in A Dangerous Method: sometimes her physicality during her moments of instability veer dangerously close to parody: her jutting out of the chin, the way her body contorts to resembled a beheaded chicken.  I also worry that when Jung breaks with her sexually, she comes close to issuing the Edwardian version of "I'm not going to be ignored" a la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.   Still, one has to give her credit for not holding back on portraying the negative of Sabina if even though at times her fixation on getting whipped is almost cause for laughter.

I disagree with both Freud and Jung.  I disagree with Freud in that I don't think it all goes to sex.  I disagree with Jung in that I do believe there are times when things are merely coincidental.  I think I disagree with both of them in that I'm not sold on the idea that dreams reflect what my conscious mind pushes down or that I can dream the future (A Dangerous Method strongly suggests that Jung dreamed the beginning of World War I). 

While A Dangerous Method at times goes more into Jung's affairs and the sadomasochistic side of it than in the battle of the minds entre Jung et Freud, as a film A Dangerous Method is a well-made, well-acted period piece on a more intellectual subject than usual. 

For that, the film is worth a look.  However, I still hold that perhaps there should have been less attention paid to the spanking of Sabina for her own kicks and more into how Jung came to see a spiritual side to psychology that Freud would never accept.  After all, I do think that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 

Sigmund Freud:
Carl Jung:
Sabina Spielrein: