Monday, February 27, 2012

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 then-spectacular and today-still not bad 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.  Now, 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 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. 

This isn't to say that Crystal was up to par to his glory days or the last time he hosted (2004).  Early on it looked like his schtick was wearing thin.  The opening monologue jokes were a bit along the lines of "Take my wife...please".  His first crack, "That was Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (in referring to his opening sequence of inserting himself into nominated films) 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 EL&IC 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 (a joke that flew over almost everyone...who knew people don't follow the bankruptcy proceedings of the Kodak Company or that the venue was once called the Kodak Theater) or those watching were able to hear some of the zingers that fell flat.

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. 

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 (since I cannot bring myself to see it, I cannot say if it is deserving).  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 both a shock and not a surprise given how much praise it earned (rightly in my view).  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 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 EL&IC 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 (Screen Actors Guild, Writer's Guild, Director's Guild, National Board of Review, 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...


Christopher Guest is a true comedic genius (screw you Sacha Baron Cohen, Russell Brand, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride or Dane Cook).  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'.  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 them says that the studio should cut 'the rainbow song', I laughed out loud and much more than anything Crystal said.  It is (I hope) a well-known story that MGM indeed HAD cut Over the Rainbow in a previous cut of the film.  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 what they should put in a movie.

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 (although Fred Willard can make anything funny...another authentic comedic genius there) 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.

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 (you can quibble about HP&DH, but it IS a Part II).  With only the exceptions of Fast Five, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, and Mission Impossible 4, 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...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 (i.e. those who think) and not for the general public (i.e. those who don't think).  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.

There's a reason we're getting a Hangover III and Green Lantern 2.  It isn't because they were good or because we are in desperate need to see the further adventures of the Wolf Pack or Hal Jordan.  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 now know TWO people who think Casablanca is boring.  No explosions.  An ending they don't like.  Did I mention it's black-and-white?  While one can argue the merits of Titanic (a film I still loath years later), I cannot believe people genuinely think DOTM is a BETTER film than Casablanca

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, robots that are indistinguishable from each other, and those that have ideas to them.  Now, I am not a snob: I LOVED Fast Five (it was on my Top Sixteen List of 2011), and we all need some good junk food every 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 food, and similarly, we can't have nothing but Transformers: Dark of the Moon or The Vow

Again and again, I keep saying that people hold the power in their hands.  It's strange to bring Syria into this, but just as the Syrians continue fighting against the monster Ass-ad because they've lost their fear, film audiences have to lose their fear of "art" films, "independent" films, and be willing to explore new things (like subtitles--perish the thought) to force the studios to make better films.

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 (fool me once...).  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.

Free Your Mind, and The Rest Will Follow.  With films, if we follow the words of Christ we may have better films, and better Oscars:


Sunday, February 26, 2012

And My Winners Are...

Perhaps you might think that my selections for the Best of 2011 were already set.  Well, perhaps, but I looked over my list and wanted to be fair about it.  Today, as the Academy presents their own choices (which I suspect may not correspond to mine), I give you from my own list my Selections for the Best of 2011.


In all the time I've endured 3-D I have never seen a film that actually used it effectively...until Hugo came along.  The fact that Hugo uses 3-D and it never becomes showy or gratuitous is a credit to the film's creativity. 


I see no irony in a silent film winning Best Sound Editing.  The reason is quite clear: The Artist edited what little sound it had so brilliantly.  Sound Editing should be about how sound is integrated into the movie, not about how loud a movie is.  If that is the criteria for this category, then The Artist does it so seamlessly. 


Again, The Artist mixes the sound elements so well that when the do appear, they don't interfere with the silence.  I am puzzled as to why people forget that The Artist is not an all-silent film...then again, no silent film was truly all-silent either. 


Ask any actor and he/she will tell you that to fully immerse one's self into character, make-up is so vitally important.  Here, the make-up not only made Meryl Streep look like Margaret Thatcher, but it also looked natural (as compared to J. Edgar's ridiculous work). 


I am still haunted and deeply moved by the life story of Ayrton Senna, Formula One racing legend, humble man, proud Brazilian, and gone far too soon.  Of all the documentaries I saw in 2011, Senna is the one that stayed with me long after I left the theater.  There are few films I can say I'm thankful to have seen: Senna is one of them. 


Culled from nothing but archival footage, Senna weaved a story so well one quickly forgot that everything in it was not made specifically for the film.  In short, all the footage, shot by different people in different times for different purposes (ranging from home movies to sports interviews and a children's variety show...we're looking at you, Xuxa) was put together so brilliantly in Senna that I still marvel at how good it all came together. 


Star Spangled Man (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by David Zippel

Despite my best efforts, I couldn't get Star-Spangled Man out of my head...but that's good.  I loved the fact that this song worked within the story and moreover, that the style it adopted fit into the spirit of a 1940s-style film (which is what it was going for).  It was unapologetically patriotic and chipper, and I think it will be remembered long after the official winner is announced.


Music by Harry Escott

All the scores were good.  However, when I consider which one will be the Best Original Score, my criterion is whether I remember it after I leave the theater.  On that front, I found only two that stayed with me: Cliff Martinez' Drive and Harry Escott's Shame.  I went back and forth between Martinez and Escott, but what sold me to select Shame as the Best Score is that it was sparingly used and that the music for Drive and Contagion (both scored by Martinez) were too similar in style to tell apart.  Shame, on the other hand, was mournful, fitting in perfectly to the dark subject matter. 


This is as close to 1920s Paris one is likely to get outside of a TARDIS.  The loving re-creation of Melies' studio and films and the glories of Paris in the inter-war period is lovingly rendered.


Adriano Goldman: Cinematography

All the films were beautifully shot, but Jane Eyre was so brilliant in capturing the eerie, moody, Gothic nature of the story that one was enveloped almost literally in the fog of the moors.  I was never overwhelmed with the visuals but the cinematography in Jane Eyre did what few films do: bring the story to life in an almost literal sense. 


I think Thor is highly overrated as a film: the actual script was pretty weak and minus Tom Hiddleton and Chris Hemsworth the performances weren't all that good.  However, the world of Thor, in particular the outrageous yet believeable costumes for Asgard, are so well-done I could not get past how well the actors worked within such grand garb. 


Screenplay by Moira Buffini
based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte

Taking an established literary classic and breathing life into it to where it becomes a sweeping romance is a difficult task.  Jane Eyre did so: breathing life into a story which is called a classic (shorthand for 'people know of it but don't read it').  In truth, Jane Eyre tempts me to pick up the Bronte book, and a film that keeps the language of the novel while sounding natural has achieved a great thing.  Any film with the line, "You transfix me quite" that doesn't end up sounding bizarre or antiquated deserves recognition. 


Screenplay by Dee Rees

The final poem Alike (pronounced Ah-Lee-Kay) recites is a beautiful and haunting piece of work.  However, the whole story of Pariah is brilliant: this isn't a story of a lesbian coming out, or even of an African-American lesbian.  Rather, it is the story of a young woman coming into her own, of finding who she is not just as a lesbian, but as a woman, a woman of color, and an individual, as her own woman. 


Alan Rickman
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part II

This isn't some de facto 'lifetime achievement' award, or even an award for brilliantly playing Severus Snape through all eight Harry Potter stories.  His last scene is a haunting one, filled with both regret and pain.  Moreover, we at last are allowed a backstory to Snape and his relationship with the Potter family.  Rickman, as far as I know, has yet to receive an Oscar we have to ask, "WHY NOT?" 


Kim Wayans

It is so difficult to play what is suppose to be 'the heavy' and feel for him/her.  It is harder when you have the handicap of being seen as a purely comic performer.  Kim Wayans manages to give her character a full personality.  She isn't evil but she isn't all good either.  Instead, she's a fully-rounded person, one with virtues and flaws: who loves her family but hates the homosexuality and masculinity she sees in her daughter.  We may not like her, but we understand her.


Mia Wasikowska
Jane Eyre
There was simply no way I could let Mia Wasikowska's brilliant turn as the totured and tormented Jane Eyre go without recognition.  Wasikowska WILL WIN an Oscar because she is a star on the rise, one who has the talent to back it up.  What she needs is a breakout role.  For now, Jane Eyre makes a perfect calling card, for few actresses at such a young age can go the full range of emotions from love to horror to acceptance and make it look as if they are merely living life, not giving a performance. 


Dominic Cooper
The Devil's Double
Evil can be so easy to play, but keeping it to where it doesn't become camp isn't.  It's even harder when you are playing two characters: one thoroughly irredeemably Satanic, the other almost thoroughly with a soul.  Cooper manages to so embody both the good Latif and the Satanic Uday that audiences completely forget they are being played by the same person.  THAT, I think, is the hallmark of a simply great performance. 


Martin Scorsese
Scorsese, I suspect, won Best Director for The Departed as a way to finally reward someone who truly is among the best directors of all time.  However, Scorsese did something with Hugo that was almost impossible up till now: he made 3-D work FOR the film.  Moreover, he not only made a great children's film (with the flaw of Sasha Baron Cohen being the only thing that brought it down) but he also made a message film: how important it is to preserve and remember those who came before us to capture their dreams on celluloid. 


Jane Eyre, how I love thee.  In the words of Mr. Rochester, "You transfix me quite".   I have never been so passionate about a movie after seeing it than I was after seeing Jane Eyre.  I was simply overwhelmed with it, and it remains not only my favorite film of 2011, but I think the Best Film of 2011. 

Out of 11 nominations, Jane Eyre picked up only four awards.  Hugo picked up 3 out of six (which is not bad), and Pariah two of 5.  Oddly, The Artist at 7 nominations only earned two, and both in the SOUND categories...highly strange given it's a silent film.  Thor won one out of three, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part II one out of two as did both The Devil's Double and The Iron Lady. Captain America did the worst of the ones that won: only one out of five.   Shame and Senna were the clear winners: Shame winning on its only nomination and Senna sweeping both of its nominations.

Of course, that meant some bad news: The Help and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were 0-8, with Battle: Los Angeles, Contagion, Drive, and Win Win losing all three of their nominations.  As Senna won both of its categories, Midnight in Paris lost on both of its nominations.

Well, it wasn't easy.  I was spoiled for choice, as the saying goes.  I think it is an honor just to be nominated.  As you can see, my picks don't correspond with the Academy, but I stand by them all.

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 (what I call "The Trilogy": 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 the Muppets.  This is especially true for Walter, who finds in the Muppets kindred spirits and being who look just like him (this is an important plot point).  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 (who had signed the agreement) raise a million dollars.

There'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.  Now, Kermit Des-Frog as I called him 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 a "tribute band" (The Moopets), Gonzo as 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, Gary's perpetually waiting girlfriend.  Amy Adams, who plays Mary, 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). 

Leaving aside I didn't think that of her once you had a child out of wedlock, 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 (three Oscar nominations in a relatively short film career--all for dramas), her Mary at times is either weak (I don't know many women who willingly wait ten years for a man to propose) or stupid (as how easily she keeps the fact that Gary's near-pathological need for Walter so irritates her to herself).

I find that there is a fine, thin line between a character being innocent and a character being stupid.  Mary and Gary are ON that line.  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. 

Again, 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 them 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 (and I mean that literally) jealous of any woman that comes within ten feet of her beloved Kermie.  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.  In The Muppet Movie, you had a wide variety of cameos from big stars (in the case of Orson Welles, in a literal sense...sorry, couldn't resist).  However, unlike The Muppets, they weren't cameos for cameo's sake: they actually HAD something to do with the story. 

It wasn't like Steve Martin or Milton Berle or Edgar 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 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 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. 

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 et. al. 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'.  I find him hopelessly annoying, giving his whole schtick is to make faces and use his girth for yucks.  When he FIRST shows up at a meditation garden who is Animal's sponsor, I didn't find it funny (the idea of Animal trying meditation to control himself...yes, that's clever).  HOWEVER, they decide he's a big-enough "star" to unwillingly host The Muppet Telethon.  Throughout his time on screen, not only did he not make me laugh (which I gather was the point of him showing up) 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...kid?  Man with a mind of a child? Nut-job?

Leaving aside the rather creepy idea that humans can give birth to Muppets (were they unconsciously drawing inspiration from the Mud-Blood concepts of J.K. Rowling, I wonder), 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 clever (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). 

It is fun to see Chris Cooper play it up for the requisite villain.  One is startled to find how well Copper can rap (yes, I said RAP), and I think more moments like these (and a whole lot less Jack Black) would have made The Muppets a much, much better film.

I have another digression when it comes to the story.  FOX News or FOX Business went on some rampage against The Muppets, saying it was some sort of leftist propaganda against big business or oil or something like that.  I suppose if I gave it any thought Segel is probably a lefty like nearly everyone in Hollywood, but I think the FOX people should look at all this with a large grain of salt.  The name itself (Tex Richman) is suppose to be punny, and we're not suppose to take this as seriously as they do.  I wonder if they would be as much in arms over Charles Durning's turn as the fast-food tycoon in The Muppet Movie

I can say that I saw no overt or even covert Marxist messages coming from The Muppets.  Rest easy, FOX. 

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 to my mind, 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 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 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, and the far-too extensive appearance of Jack Black) simply was too much to negate all the positive aspects of The Muppets (the clear affection everyone has for them, Chris Cooper's rap, a, a RETURN for the Muppets themselves). 

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 (and given it was released for Christmas, a remarkable feat indeed).  Given that, I went in with lowered expectations.  As we 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) are in Moscow to close a lucrative Internet deal.  In very short order, they find they've been scammed by Scandinavian (or is he Russian: the film never quite establishes what he is) Skylar (Joel Kimmerman), who takes the deal as his own.  Sean and Ben, upset and disappointed, aren't disappointed 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).  In short order, Sean and Natalie hit it off, while Ben and Anne are apparently there just for support.  In very short order, 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 (which are the only times these Things From Another World can be seen) vaporize any person they come across.

Somehow, our five youngsters manage to survive the initial attack, and after spending three days in a cellar (we get titles on screen denoting Saturday followed by Tuesday), they emerge into a ruined Moscow.  Ben is determined to go back to the safety of Tara...I mean, the American Embassy.  Surprise: it's not occupied, but these invisible aliens continue to menace our heroes.  The best time to travel is at night (the darkest hour, so to speak) 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 (one guess who has fallen) come to where Vika is staying: an apartment that has survived the onslaught due to the genius of Mr. Sergei (Dato Bakhtadze, whom I suspected was "Peggy" from those Discover Card commercials, or at the very least is a remarkable simulation thereof.  I have learned Bakhtadze is not "Peggy": 'she' is Romanian actor Tudor Petrut.  All apologies, Mr. Petrut).

Now it's a race to get to a Russian submarine which is protected from attack (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 (would that they be as tough on Vladimir Putin and his bitch Dmitri Medvedev as they are with invisible aliens), a complication or two, a fight with the aliens, and the survivors sailing fight another day. 

It is HERE, when we get the sense that the survivors (three guesses) that The Darkest Hour commits an unpardonable sin.  Longtime readers here at Rick's 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.  Granted, these were Bartha roles, but 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.  However, in a case of Glass Houses, your humble host will not dwell much on that.  Still, it looked curious to say the least. 

With all the actors (American, British, Australian, and Russian), one always got the sense they did the best they could without breaking out into giggles.  However, 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 the alleged Citizen Kane of our time.  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. 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, fear itself (to coin a phrase), 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, 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.

A side note: I was irritated that at this second-run theater, I was subjected to six commercials for products as varied as cars and shampoo but only ONE trailer for a film.  There's something wrong when you have to sit through commercials for shampoo but only get ONE film trailer.  Yet I digress.

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 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 and viewing as the aliens themselves.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

What's Your Number?: A Review


I've seen Bridesmaids (a movie my fellow critics hold as the Citizen Kane of female comedies but that I found rarely funny).  I've seen Made of Honor (which is pretty low and pathetic and worse, unfunny.  How some of my friends could prefer Made of Honor over Casablanca must be another Sign of The End of Western Civilization).  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 (even though she's the only one who doesn't get it 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 is at 19, 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, 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, and he actually saved himself for Ally (even though she had already had sex with someone...or two...before he lost his virginity to her in high school).

Jake is perfect in every way 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. 

As 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 side 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 (Ally attempting a British accent with Simon, the British boyfriend Colin tracked down for her was funny, although this marked Donald's second appearance because somehow they thought Donald's house was the open house Simon had.  It makes one wonder how Colin could have failed to realize how close Donald and Simon lived.  Normally, 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).   However, 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 obviously 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 even get to see her wake 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 Martin Freeman as Simon appeared to be attempting 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: 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 played uninspiringly.  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.

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 shirtless, thus making almost every appearance smack of gratuitous.  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.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Two New Cinema Terms

This is Dame Julie Andrews.  She's an icon, a legend, Kennedy Center Honoree, Academy Award winner.  She always projected a wholesome sweetness, and it's no surprise given her roles: the original Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, Cinderella in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (their first ever for television), and her film debut, Mary Poppins.  Her role as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music only solidified this image of Julie Andrews as this sweet, almost virginal, creature.

As time went on, her films weren't returning the big bucks they once were.  Tastes change, and people weren't gravitating to her movies as much as they were.  The culmination was in the critical and box office failures Star! (complete with the exclamation point) and Darling Lili.   The best thing, she and her husband Blake Edwards decided, was to change her image. 

Therefore, we got a moment where quite literally she decided to make a boob out of herself.

She decided the best thing to do to revive her career was to show us how her hills were very much alive in S.O.B.  To quote from Seinfeld, they were spectacular (though I cannot vouch whether they are real).  In fact, a friend of mine who saw the copy of S.O.B. that I had rented confessed that the sight so excited him that he performed an auto-erotic exercise to Maria von Tramp. 

I confess that the first time I saw Julie Andrews' breasts (now there's a sentence I never expected to write) was on all things 60 Minutes.  There they were, doing a lovely profile of Andrews when all of a sudden I'm faced with Julie Andrews busting out all over my screen.  What made this moment particularly shocking for me was that they didn't pixilate the screen, they didn't put a black bar over Mary Poppins popping out.  They were out there, literally, in all their glory.  I was quite stunned because that was the last thing I expected Mike Wallace to zero in on (although perhaps I should have, but I digress). 

I have to say that I thought S.O.B. captured Blake Edwards at his worst: his penchants for forced humor and frenetic, broad and over-the-top directing was on full display (along with other things).  I didn't think the movie was remotely funny.  I also think Andrews did a better job reshaping her 'goody-goody' image her next film, the much better Victor/Victoria

I imagine that Andrews and Edwards expected her to get better roles after S.O.B. and to be taken more seriously as an actual actress, not this sugary-sweet being.  I think it had the opposite effect: people took her LESS seriously.  (How odd that when she received the Kennedy Center Honor, they didn't show a clip from S.O.B. as part of her tribute.  Wonder why...).  We only need to look at her career post-S.O.B. to see that in the end, she reverted back to form.  Can anyone imagine her keeping a-breast of things in The Princess Diaries

As a result of this one moment, I have a new term: any time a woman bares her breast is referred to by me as a "Julie Andrews moment".  Perhaps it is unfair to judge an entire career and life from one keep peek at her boobies, but I'm not the one who told Andrews that by baring all she would revive her career.  She revived a lot of things, but her film career wasn't one of them.

For me, I always thought that her appearance in this lorno (light porno) film was an act of desperation, primarily desperation to break out of a rut.  However, I was not least with the movie.  I think that Andrews' topless scene was a cultural landmark, only in that women now have no problem appearing topless in 'prestige' films, so long as it is relevant to the plot.  As my film critic colleague (and occasional nemesis) Richard Roeper pointed out in his book 10 Sure Signs A Movie Character is Doomed & Other Surprising Lists, it is curious how Elizabeth Taylor to Audrey Hepburn to Grace Kelly managed to become sex icons while keeping their clothes on (I would add Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner to that list).   

In short, Andrews didn't need to "show her boobies", and I think this is why I refer to these gratuitous topless moments as a "Julie Andrews moment".  Her Princess Diaries co-star Anne Hathaway did so in Love and Other Drugs AND Brokeback Mountain (and I imagine in other films both past and present).  Maria Bello did them one better.  In A History of Violence, she has a brief moment where she is wearing a bathrobe, but it is fully open and we can see her totally nude.  To top it off, she in a full-body shot looks at the camera and gives a "What?" shrug, obstensively to her husband, but it might as well be us.  I also recall Kirsten Dunst had a Julie Andrews moment plus in Melancholia.  I am perplexed as to why we as an audience need to see Julie Andrews moments.

For the record, men can have Julie Andrews moments.  This isn't when a man bares his breasts (otherwise Matthew McConaughey would have built an entire career on Julie Andrews moments).  In men's cases, it's the showing of the penis.  Ewan McGregor is the go-to man for Julie Andrews moments in such films as Young Adam and The Pillow Book.  There was a lot of heavy talk (and I imagine a lot of heavy other things) with Michael Fassbender's turn in Shame

A Julie Andrews Moment: a scene where an actress bares her breasts (or when an actor shows his penis). 

This is Justin Bartha.  He seems like a nice guy who gained fame for his role in The Hangover.  It was not a surprise then that he would appear in The Hangover Part II.  I suppose in retrospect we should not have been surprised that we got more of the same.  What I was surprised by was just how it followed the exact same story, with nary a deviation. 

This is especially true with Bartha's character of Doug.  In his character, I think we get the best example of not only why The Hangover Part II was such a disaster but also why it failed so spectacularly.  In The Hangover, there was a clear reason why Bartha was not on screen for much of the movie: in short, it WAS the reason for the movie.  Doug was central to The Hangover in that it was the search for Doug that was the driving force of the story.  Everything the characters went through was in order to find Doug.  Despite their flaws, it was the fact that they genuinely loved this one character, and that finding him alive and well was the motivation to continue the search and find out what exactly had happened to him and them.

As I watched The Hangover Part II, I realized just how unnecessary he was in the film.  If Bartha was on screen for twenty minutes, it would be a surprise.  That made sense in the first Hangover, but in the second, it was ridiculous.  This is because the writers and directors decided to be slavishly devoted to repeating everything in The Hangover, and this includes Doug not being part of the main hijinks.  This decision is made more bizarre by the fact that Mason Lee's character of Teddy was essentially Doug Redux (curiously, about the ONLY change The Hangover Part II made to their take on The Hangover).  This has the effect of making Doug (and by extension, Bartha) totally redundant. 

While I would still fault The Hangover Part II for being repetitive, I had a hope that something would have changed.  If they had taken the mere premise of The Hangover and decided to throw Doug into the mix and have Stu disappear (a little Ed Helms goes a long way), we would have at least had a different dynamic to The Hangover Part II (and a slightly different story).  Teddy takes the place of Doug, so one wonders, 'What's Justin Bartha doing in this film?'

I'll tell you what Justin Bartha is doing in this film: he's getting a sweet all-expenses paid vacation...and even getting paid to lie around a pool in Thailand!  That's the 1 Percent for you. 

Somehow, I can imagine him reading the script and saying, "I'm not in this very much, and while my actor side is unhappy about a nothing role in a sure-fire hit at least I get to go to Thailand, stay at a lavish resort, maybe see the sights, and have an expense account where I'm actually getting money to do nothing".  After all, Bartha is the only castmember of Gigli to survive that fiasco barely scathed by the whole endeavour.  (I've seen the movie.  If you haven't, get on your knees and that God however you perceive Him and thank Him for that mercy).  Perhaps, he thought, lightning would strike twice and no one would note nor long remember he was part of one of the worst movies ever made...or actually, TWO of the worst movies ever made. 

Seriously, you couldn't even write a scene or two where Doug is bluffing his way out of having the wives take over the situation the men clearly cannot handle?

I was inspired thanks to him to coin a new term: a Bartha role. 

A Bartha role is when an actor takes a part in a bad movie for the chance for an all-paid vacation, or at least for the money regardless of how it will affect their reputation.

Although he has inspired the terminology, Bartha isn't the first one to have a Bartha role.  Michael Caine confessed years after the fact that he took the role in Jaws: The Revenge merely because he wanted to go to the Caribbean and money for a new house.  Thanks to Jaws: The Revenge, Caine lost a great deal of his reputation.  It also cost him the chance to pick up his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters.  (When he was nominated for The Cider House Rules, he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice and was on hand to collect his Oscar in person).

I'm sure there are other actors who have taken Bartha roles.  The entire cast of Couples Retreat comes to mind.  When I come across them (and I will) at least you will know what I mean by a Bartha role. 

A Bartha role could also be Laurence Olivier's infamous turn in Inchon or Ben Kingsley in The Love Guru.  These two master actors should have, or MUST HAVE, read the script, known it was awful, and decided they could bear the shame of being in something so awful if they benefitted financially from it.  That second definition of a Bartha role is tricky, because an argument could be made that they THOUGHT it was going to be a good film.  Therefore, the second definition to a Bartha role will be reserved only when said actor admits he/she took a role in a bad movie ONLY for the money.

In short, a Bartha role, though primarily taken for a chance to go on holiday, CAN but not necessary indicate someone took a part strictly and solely for the money. 

Again, I don't want people to think I'm slamming Justin Bartha (someone I do think has talent) or Julie Andrews (a legend).  It's just they just happened to have done things or been part of things common sense should have told them not to be for the weakest of reasons. 

A Julie Andrews moment: whenever a woman goes topless (can also be used whenever a man shows his penis in a non-pornographic film).

A Bartha role: whenever an actor/actress appears in a bad movie for a chance at a free vacation.  Only applicable to taking a role for the pay alone when actor admits this was the reason for their appearance in said bad film.

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'.  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 to be done.  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.  As it happens, 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 (making him Hook's version of Moby-Dick).  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 now 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.

What I found curious while watching Peter Pan is just how comic the whole thing was.  I think that Disney films, more than any other animated studio, has done the most to shape people's views that animation is purely a kid's genre.  It's unfathomable that Disney would have ever made something like Akira or Grave of the Fireflies, let alone market them as 'children's movies'.  Most of the comedy comes from Conried's interpretation of Captain Hook.  Hook here goes from one of two emotions: bellowing out his orders or whimpering like a baby whenever he's cornered (his hysterical fears of the crocodile who took his hand...which makes one wonder whether he had or earned the name 'Hook').  The curious thing is that Mr. Darling is pretty much the same loud character as Hook is.  Perhaps this decision was made to direct Conried to be so over-the-top 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 game, 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.  However, 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 stereotypical Indians (and 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. 

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.  Given that Driscoll was sixteen when the film was released, it makes some sense to see Peter as a bit older than normally portrayed).  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.

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 whethere admiring herself or showing her rising jealousy over Wendy showed the character to be a great pantomine performance.  She was fully expressive without saying a word (just with tinkling bells serving as her 'voice').  Finally, animation allows for a greater (and oddly more believeable) 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. 

On the whole, there is no problem allowing your children, or yourself, to join Peter Pan and fly on to the second star to the right and straight on till morning.