Sunday, April 29, 2012

Finding Neverland: A Review (Review #377)


After all the joy that the Peter Pan story has brought to the world, it seemed appropriate to bring the life story of his creator, Sir James M. Barrie, to life.  Finding Neverland is not strictly speaking either a biopic on the life of the author nor about the creation of his most famous character.  Instead, it is a mixture, well-done, well-acted, but highly fanciful in more ways than one.

James Barrie (Johnny Depp) is a playwright whose latest work has flopped.  His wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) doesn't understand him.  She would rather try to climb society than deal with his artistic frustrations.  One day whilst walking and writing in the park, he comes upon a group of boys.  It is the Llewelyn Davies children, who are in the park with their widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet).  James soon enchants them: George (Nick Raud), Michael (Luke Spill), and Jack (George Prospero).  However, one of them he cannot win over: young Peter Llewelyn Davies (Freddie Highmore), who sees things as they are, not as he would like them to be.  In short, he has no imagination, much to Barrie's sadness.

In any case, there are many who disapprove of Barrie lavishing so much attention on the Widow Davies.  There's Mrs. Barrie (who due to a mixture of this and her own evil starts an affair).  There's the Widow Davies' mother, Madame DuMarier (Julie Christie), who thinks it's idiotic that a grown man should be at play.  However, Barrie appears more interested in the Davies boys than in anything close to romance with the Widow Davies.  The boys, having endured the trauma of having lost their father, become worried when their mother begins coughing incessantly. 

However, thanks to the Davies boys, Barrie is now inspired to write the story of a boy who wouldn't grow up, much to the puzzlement of his producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) and the cast of his new play (who don't understand the idea of dogs as nannies and being who can fly and all this about Indians and pirates).  Despite his misgivings, Frohman produces this Peter Pan, and with a little help from children in an orphanage whom Barrie has brought in, the play is a hit.

Unfortunately, the Widow Davies could not attend.  She is deathly ill and on the night of the premiere has to be confined to bed (although she insists the boys go).  Madame DuMarier, having been put in her place by George (who insists "Uncle Jim" be allowed to visit), is not moved, but when Barrie brings Peter Pan to her, she does appear to melt...ever so slightly.  That is, until her daughter finally dies.  In her will, Sylvia has made James co-guardian of her boys, and while Madame DuMarier isn't happy about it, she decides to respect her daughter's wish.  Finding Neverland ends with James comforting Peter, who now knows he can believe...

Finding Neverland as I've stated, is not about J.M. Barrie.  It also isn't about the creation of Peter Pan per se.  Rather, Finding Neverland tells both stories, a mixture of both a point in Sir James' life and how his most famous work came to be--two stories running parallel but rarely if ever intersecting.  Director Marc Foster has moments where the rehearsing for Peter Pan is connected to what's going on the Davies boys' lives, and gives hints about the confusion the actors have over the material.  He also has bits of when his involvement with the Davies family is far more important than his career.  However, I never got the sense that both stories connected.

We get little hints of how his interactions would bear fruit.  A little light glowing at the tail end of a kite looked awfully like a fairy, and how Grandmama DuMarier menaces the children with a coat hanger (which looked suspiciously like a hook) would signal where Barrie's imagination was spinning.  This wasn't a bad idea, but it didn't make one think, "Oh, so THAT'S where Tinker Bell came from", more like, "Oh, we're getting hints about Peter Pan".   For a film about the magic of imagination, these little bits were a little too forced.

I also had issues with the deliberate whimsy in Finding Neverland.  In one scene, as Barrie entertains the children by dancing with his dog while pretending it is a bear, we see the world transformed into a circus where he is, indeed, dancing with a bear (or rather an obvious man in bear costume).  Near the end, when Sylvia is introduced to Neverland, we do literally walk into that fantasy world. 

I don't object to this (after all, film is allowed some creative licence), but somehow these flights of fancy do take away from the serious issues the Davies family is facing.  The fact that we don't really know what is killing Sylvia almost makes the thing come close to melodrama (I thought she had good old consumption, but since I saw she coughed no blood it might not have been).

I finally question the intelligence of Barrie and Sylvia.  How in Edwardian times both Barrie and Sylvia wouldn't think the idea that a widow going around with a married man might raise eyebrows makes them either totally innocent or totally dim.  I vote for innocent.  As portrayed by Depp and Winslet, they did not have a passionate yearning for each other.  In fact, it appeared that the Widow Davies was more a chum to Barrie than a potential lover.  He appeared to appreciate that he had new playmates more than anything else.

This isn't to say that David Magee's adaptation of Allan Knee's The Man Who Was Peter Pan didn't have some good things going for it.  Chief were the performances.  I am not a fan of accents on film, but Depp made his Scottish brogue into something so natural one would almost think Ewan McGregor had done dubbing work.  His accent was flawless, never intrusive or exaggerated, but one that sounded authentic.  He also made Barrie into a gentle soul, and it is nice to see a writer who doesn't appear to be insane. 

Winslet is someone whom at times I am not fond of as an actress.  I think she is a better actress whenever she is asked to keep her clothes on, and here she doesn't make her dying heroine into a figure of pathos and grand drama, but simply a mother who misguidedly thinks she is protecting her sons.  It's unfortunate that Christie is reduced to the role of the heavy, and this is a flaw in the script: it never makes the case as to how SHE was the one leading the applause to save Tinker Bell. 

One also congratulates the young cast for making the Davies boys come alive.  Freddie Highmore, with the plum role of Peter, conveys excessive maturity with vulnerability as the boy who grew up too fast.  He holds an audiences' attention in his stubborn refusal to be a child until he finds that despite his best efforts, he still feels pain. 

A side issue: somehow, I didn't fully take the idea that Mrs. Barrie had to be such a cold, unfeeling bitch.  I find that this convention of film usually happens to justify a spouse leaving someone for someone else (someone better, nicer, kinder).  The real Mary Barrie may have been a terrible person, but somehow Mitchell's one-note performance makes her a caricature and less a person.

On the technical matters, Finding Neverland does a fine job recreating the Edwardian theater world in the costumes and sets (all which appear real and authentic rather than excessive).  Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's score is gentle and magical, a credit to the film. 

Finding Neverland is a good film, with good performances, especially from Depp and Highmore.  However, it is fantasy in so many ways.  We can leave aside certain liberties the film takes with historical accuracy (such as the fact that Mr. Llewelyn Davies was still alive in 1903 when the film begins).  The real story of the Davies boys post-Peter Pan is far darker and depressing. 

George was killed in World War I, Michael drowned at age 20 with his best friend (and possible lover), and Peter committed suicide at age 63 in 1960, plagued by alcoholism and the notoriety/burden of being the inspiration for Peter Pan. 

Perhaps, given the sorry situation the boys had afterwards, the fantasy/fiction of Finding Neverland might be better.  It is better to see the boys sad but comforted rather than truly lost...



Friday, April 27, 2012

You Can't Take It With You (1938): A Review


Our Insanity Is A Family Inheritance...

Sad that comedies are regarded so poorly, and given that the Academy has rewarded so few with Best Picture, the ones that did win are now almost completely forgotten. This should not be.

You Can't Take It With You was the second comedy to win Best Picture (after It Happened One Night), and it has an impressive pedigree.  Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.  Directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Frank Capra.  Its stars?  Established acting legend Lionel Barrymore (of the acting dynasty), future acting legend James Stewart, future dancing star Ann Miller, and even Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. 

Oh, and it happens to be very funny too.

Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a stenographer to the son of wealthy banker/tycoon A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold).  Said son, Kirby Bank Vice President Tony Kirby (Stewart) is in love with Alice and vice-versa.  There are, however, a few slight hiccups to them getting together.  Hiccup One: his snobbish mother (Mary Forbes) doesn't approve.  Hiccup Two: her family is, well, eccentric to say the least.  Hiccup Three: unbeknown to each other, Grandpa Vanderhof (Barrymore) is the sole holdout in selling his property to A.P. (Arnold) who needs to have every bit of that twelve-block area in order to build his weapons factory.  With all these impediments, it's going to be a bumpy road to the altar for these two.

The Sycamore clan is a collection of free spirits, and they don't come any freer.  The family encourages creativity, even if there is no discernible talent to go with it.  Mother Penny (Spring Byington) writes plays and novels, only because a typewriter was sent to the house by mistake.  Alice's sister Essie Carmichael (Miller) loves to dance and will break out into a pirouette at the drop of a hat, or the sound of her husband Ed's (Dub Taylor) xylophone.  Father Paul (Samuel L. Hinds) likes to make fireworks, as does Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes).  Now, Mr. DePinna is not related to anyone: he just came one day for dinner and never left (which, curiously, is the same way Ed found his way there, after the rest of the Alabama football team somehow managed to go back).  Grandpa Vanderhof convinces meek Mr. Poppins (the appropriately named Donald Meek--his real name) to leave his job at the Kirby Bank and pursue his passion for making toys.

The whole clan, along with the help, Rheba ( Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Anderson), live in the rambling house.  They have enough to get along (via Essie's candy-making, Ed's printing, Grandpa's stamp-collection appraisals, and Dad's fireworks) and while peculiar in their own way are all extremely close and happy.   As much as Alice may love Tony Jr. and the same, both are a little trepidatious of having them meet the other.  However, Alice insists the Kirbys come and look them over.

They do...on the wrong night, where the Kirbys come across what looks like a scene out of a madhouse.  Due to A.P.'s own machinations (and the innocent actions of the extended Sycamore clan), the house is raided and everyone is arrested...and fireworks literally go off.  After they are all in the clink, the Kirbys are embarrassed, the Sycamores are bailed out by the neighbors that love them (especially because so long as Grandpa Vanderhof doesn't sell, they won't have to move), but there is a change. 

Alice, so angry at how the Kirbys look down on her family and Tony's inability to stand up to them for her, breaks their engagement and flees.  A.P., meanwhile, begins to see how unloved he is and how disconnected he is from his own son.  The whole Sycamore group is so saddened by Alice's absence that Grandpa decides to give up and sell the house.  A.P., forced to meet the rival he's vanquished (H.B. Warner), finally sees the light, and You Can't Take It With You ends with the lovers reunited, the Sycamore and Kirby patriarchs united in laughs, and all's well that ends well. 

If anything You Can't Take It With You touches on familiar Capra themes: the importance of family and community and how the 'common man' has perhaps greater value over the wealthy because they are loved.  We also have from Robert Riskin's screenplay (based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's play) the idea that individuality is important, that people are truly wealthy not due to money but due to happiness.  The Sycamore and guests are certainly not wealthy in terms of finance (though they do earn a living).  Their wealth comes from the joy they get from following their own pursuits. 

Penny Sycamore may not have any actual talent as an authoress, but she derives great joy out of writing.  Mr. Poppins quit his accountant job in part because he saw both the meaningless of it but also because he simply had no joy in his life.  Instead, he now pursues the joy he gets from making small toys, making money and having a good time in the process.

In short, You Can't Take It With You is the unofficial Sycamore motto.  If it isn't fun, why do it?  They aren't really insane (Alice points out that Grandpa makes a good amount by appraising stamp collections, for which he studied long and hard after deciding to leave his old job 'because it was no fun'); instead, they are non-conformists who see little value to money other than it provides for their needs.  They do work, but they have fun doing it. 

It's a positive message in You Can't Take It With You, one that Capra specialized in.  Capra, however, never made any character evil or heartless.  The Kirbys may come off as the antagonists, but we are allowed to see the evolution of A.P. from heartless wheeler-dealer to caring father.  Even his wife's snobbishness is played for laughs, and at the end, we get a subtle hint that maybe, in the words of Grandpa's prayer at dinner, "is finally thawing out". 

The performances Capra got are all first-rate.  Byington (who received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination) was delightful as the slightly addled but always chipper Penny, who was well-meaning, kind, but fully aware how her family's activities might look.  Her scene when she finally has to face that she will leave the house she has lived in and loved is heartbreaking.  Barrymore is also a delight as Grandpa, who has decided that life is not worth living if one can't have a good time and help others along the way.  He also doesn't see any reason to pay income tax, not because he wants to hold on to his money, but because he has the temerity to want to know exactly what the government is going to do with it.  He doesn't object to paying, he merely shall we say wants a receipt.

Arthur is not as well-remembered as she should be, because her performance is witty and funny but is also grounded with heart.  She proves hilarious but relate able when she first meets Tony's parents, completely unaware that a sign advertising to teach a new dance for ten cents is still attached to her cape.  Her Alice is clearly in love with Tony, but she also is loyal to her family and despite their outward oddity will never accept their being humiliated and put down by anyone, least of all people like the Kirbys.  Stewart also shows how well he could handle comedy, as when he tells Alice that he feels a scream coming on.  It's a credit to Capra's direction and Stewart's performance that this scene is both comedic and tense. 

One thing that I think should be mentioned is that You Can't Take It With You was remarkably progressive when it came to race relations.  Both Rheba and Donald were always treated with respect and affection by everyone in the Sycamore house, and they were full part and parcel of the wild goings-on in the household.  They were fully equal to everyone else, and while it was never an overt call for racial equality, what looks perfectly normal to us today might have been a bit surprising in the 1930s.  This is something Capra is rarely if ever credited for, and I hope to rectify that in my small way.

Unfortunately, perhaps one of the reasons You Can't Take It With You isn't as well-remembered or known today is that a later Frank Capra film, one called It's A Wonderful Life, travelled similar terrain (in fact, the neighbors racing to help the family pay off a debt in You Can't Take It With You will remind people of a similar plot point in It's A Wonderful Life).  I imagine some people might find the film a bit long (a little over two hours), but few will fail to fall for its innocent charm and insights on the human condition.

Grandpa makes the comment that once people settled things with discussion.  Now, with all the arms manufacturing, it's "think the way I do or I'll bomb the daylights out of you".  Words of wisdom that are more accurate today than ever before. 

You Can't Take It With You may not have been one of the best films to win Best Picture, but is a delight that will make one laugh and see how it's better to be rich than be wealthy. 


1939 Best Picture: Gone With the Wind

Please visit the Best Picture Catalogue for more reviews of films that have been so honored. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

You Only Live Twice: A Review (Review #375)


Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond film reviews. 

For what was billed as Sean Connery's final turn as the iconic James Bond, they pulled out all the stops.  You Only Live Twice has as its top draw the revealing of Number One himself: SPECTRE's head was going to be unmasked at last.  Furthermore, there would be all sorts of strange and shocking turns in You Only Live Twice:

James Bond will DIE!

James Bond will MARRY!

James Bond will become JAPANESE!


Truth be told, YOLT did in fact live up to all that billing.  In a purely technical sense, he did die, marry, and even become Japanese.  We even got to at last meet the notorious Number 1.  However, despite all the positives in YOLT, the film doesn't quite come up to the heights it so aspires to. 

We start with an American space capsule being stolen while in orbit.  The Americans accuse the Russians, the Ruskies deny it, and in come the sensible British, who suspect an unknown nation of doing this brazen act of war.  Their top man in Hong Kong is on top of this...and James Bond is on top of a beautiful Chinese girl.  Of course, she is duplicitous, and let's in a group of assassins who blow him away (James Bond Will Die).

Picking up after the theme song, we find Commander Bond's burial at sea, but obviously it's all a ruse.  He's been instructed to find out where that capsule is and who's taking them before the next one goes into space.  MI6 suspects the source is somewhere in Japan, and here he meets Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi), the beautiful agent for the Japanese Secret Intelligence Service.  She first takes him to Mr. Henderson (Charles Gray), an expat who gives him some information before being killed.  Eventually, Aki leads Bond to the mysterious and powerful head of the JSIS, Mr. Tanaka, better known to  his friends as Tiger (Tetsure Tanba).

Tiger gives Bond valuable information leading to a powerful Japanese corporation.  There is no time to waste: the Soviets have launched their own space capsule, which is also stolen mid-orbit.  Now they accuse the Americans, and the threat of war looms greater.  Bond works his way into the corporation, headed by Mr. Osato (Teru Shimada) and assisted by Miss Brandt (Karin Dor).  Unbeknown to Bond, Osato and Brandt are part of SPECTRE, and after failing to kill Bond the lovely Miss Brandt is offed by killer piranhas, while Osato (aka Number 11) is given one last chance.

This comes after Bond has had quick ninja training and his romance with Aki is at its peak.  The plan is simple: Bond, Tiger, and Tiger's ninjas will go to the small Japanese island they've pinpointed as the location of the capsules and where the abducting rocket originates.  Once there, they will pose as humble Japanese fishermen until they are ready to storm the mysterious base.  This plan will require Bond to look like a Japanese fisherman himself, complete with Japanese wife (James Bond Will Marry.  James Bond Will Become Japanese). 

As Bond's bride, we have the beautiful Kissy (Mie Hana), and it's a good thing too.  Aki was the one accidentally killed with poison rather than Bond, so now Kissy has to accompany him to the volcano lair.  No time to lose: the Americans have pushed their next rocket launch up, so if it taken before the mystery group is stopped, there will be war.  Here, Bond enters and finds the missing astro/cosmonauts.  However, he is captured, and brought before Ernst Stravo Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), the long-sought Number 1.  The Japanese, having been alerted by Kissy, find the lair and thus begins an epic battle.  The rocket, which has already been launched and is about to swallow another space capsule (that's an odd sentence), is stopped just in time.  Blofeld, however, manages to escape (leaving his pussy behind).  You Only Live Twice ends with Bond and Kissy in a passionate embrace.

What puts YOLT down is that despite the fact that it is a little under two hours, the film feels much, much longer.  Primarily this is due to long sequences that either don't add anything to the plot or seem rather excessive for the purpose they do serve to the plot.  Take for example the lengthy chase scene to get to Tiger.  There has to be a car chase (one of many) and then a rather elaborate trap door and slide down to his lair (unconsciously reminding people of the finale to The Lady From Shanghai).  There is also a helicopter chase that while exciting, doesn't appear to add anything to the story (one figures there could have been a better way to scope the island).  The entire opening where Bond is "killed" appears to be rather elaborate for something that we know (or should) that is just a ruse.

Again and again, there are scenes and incidents in YOLT that appear to be there just to serve as spectacle.  Even worse, there is remarkably little payoff.  We get a long scene to admire the ninja training, but very little of Bond himself taking said training.  Even worse, in the epic battle inside SPECTRE's volcano lair, Bond doesn't use any ninja training save to launch a hira shuriken (ninja star) at someone.  We also have a rather curious scene where Tiger entertains Bond in what appears to be Tiger's harem.  It may be to have a counterpoint to Bond's predilection for bedding beautiful women, but it does slow down the film. 

We also have when Bond is taken aboard a ship bound for the mysterious island.  Miss Brandt is first hostile to Bond, but quickly falls to his arms.  Granted, part of James Bond's charm is how quick he can seduce a woman, but here, suspension of disbelief can only go so far (especially the way the scene is played).  

Let me digress to say the entire "James Bond will marry/become Japanese" seems both silly and gratuitous.  The idea that the 6'2" Scotsman could plausibly pass for Japanese seems both absurd and today slightly insulting.  Granted, there is a reason to go through this 'yellowface' routine, but somehow it all seems rather too elaborate for a plan (when smuggling him onto the island seems the more logical and realistic choice).  Furthermore, why does he have to marry at all?  Again, it's nice to see a traditional Shinto ceremony, but why go through all this?  Are they going to check his papers on arrival?  Will people be convinced that Bond constantly hunching down will show he's really of Asian descent? 

Adding to that, given that Kissy was totally unimportant to the plot (I don't think her name was mentioned once in YOLT), why not just keep Aki around?  She would have made for a better Bond girl than Kissy, who did nothing but run around in a skimpy outfit.

Finally, the big reveal of Number 1 was a mixed bag.  On the one hand, Donald Pleasance is excellent as the malevolent Number 1, bringing a mix of menace and old world charm to the role.  On the other, he had a small role and very little to do.  Both the ultimate reveal of Number 1 and what he did on-screen could have been much, much better.  Add to the let-down was that, despite Pleasance's best efforts, his voice is recognizable when trying to sound like the Number 1 of previous Bond films.  Still, when you get an actor as good as Donald Pleasance to be the villain, you earn points.

I digress to point out that, despite the lavish budget, the constant use of rear-screen projections was painfully obvious and even in 1967 a bit hard to miss, and distracting to boot.

I gather that Roald Dahl (he of the Chocolate Factory and Giant Peach fame) took a few characters and plot points from the original Ian Fleming novel and basically fashioned an original screenplay in all but name for You Only Live Twice.  It's a curiousity to me why director Lewis Gilbert didn't ask him to cut some things out.  Dahl's screenplay only serves to lengthen the story, going through a lot that didn't need to be there.

In terms of the acting, Connery continues to show why he's considered THE James Bond, making 007 an easy charmer and dangerous professional killer.  I did, however, get the sense that by now he was merely going through the motions (anyone who didn't burst out laughing when told he was going to try and be passed off as a Japanese leaves something to be desired).  Tanba's Tiger was professional, if at times a bit gruff, and Wakabayshi excelled as Aki, making her end in YOLT all the more pronounced when Hana's Kissy took over.

YOLT is just a very long film for the story it wants to tell, trying a bit too hard to be a big James Bond film where a smaller one might have served better. It may be true that You Only Live Twice, but will one want to see it more than once? 

Next James Bond Film: On Her Majesty's Secret Service


The Wackness: A Review


It's A Hazy Cruel Summer...

Say what you will about Josh Peck (the "Josh" of the Nickelodeon Network's tween series Drake and Josh).  He certainly isn't afraid to break out of his television persona of the sweet, slightly bumbling cheery chubby teen.  While his partner in crime Drake Bell continues to plug away at such fare as A Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner! and the Animal House-wannabe/fiasco College,  Peck pushes himself to go for truly non-Drake and Josh material like The Wackness.  It shows Peck to have ambitions of being a serious actor, and someone not afraid to take risks.  Amazing what a little weight loss will do.

Sex and drugs are at the heart of The Wackness (things that are so un-Drake and Josh-like).  One can applaud writer/director Jonathan Devine and the cast for trying to make an artsy coming of age drama wrapped with hip-hop lingo and a feel for the streets.  However, one can hold them responsible for simply trying too hard.

It is Summer 1994.  Luke Shapiro (Peck) is living life: selling pot from his ice cream cart, enjoying the rap music coming on the scene (including a new artist named Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G.), and about to graduate high school.  However, there must be something wrong in his life (apart from his parent's constant arguments over the family finances).  Why else would he see Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), a psychiatrist?  Well, Dr. Squires isn't just his shrink, he's Luke's client...

Exchanging pot for sessions, Dr. Squires has good reason to seek the release of his life via drugs (medical or otherwise).  His marriage to his current wife (Famke Janssen) is unhappy to put it mildly, and he makes a point of pointing out that the girl with them is his step-daughter.  Said step-daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) happens to know Luke from school.  Luke, who despite his hip-hop swagger (would it be called swag today) is actually quite shy, takes a liking to Stephanie, and she to him (although she'd like to be just friends).  As the summer progresses, so does their relationship (much to the dislike of Dr. Squires). 

In this memorable summer, Luke loses his virginity to Stephanie (despite his insistence that he has had experience with women), he and Dr. Squires have a run in with the law, the bad doctor and his wife finally agree to divorce, and Luke sees that Stephanie is remarkably casual about sex.  Luke also sees that despite his thriving drug business the Shapiros are evicted from their home and now must be exiled to...horror of horrors...New Jersey.  However, Luke starts to see life for the dopeness (the positive things in it) rather than the wackness (the negative things).

There are also in The Wackness two minor stories: one involving a hippie-like girl (Mary Kate Olsen) and faded rock star Eleanor (Jane Adams), both of whom are connected to the story by being, like Dr. Squires, Luke's faithful clients. 

As I watched The Wackness, I reflected on the biography of Louis B. Meyer I had just finished.  I thought of how he would have summed up The Wackness: who wants to see a story of depressing people?  I know that The Wackness is suppose to be an artsy film about finding that somehow life is worth living despite all the bad things we do to each other, even if it causes us emotional pain.  However, my issue with The Wackness is that everything in the film indicates that it is suppose to be deliberately artsy, and this has the effect of keeping me removed from the story or characters. 

The biggest indication of the high (no pun intended) aspirations of The Wackness come via Petra Korner's cinematography.  Everything is filmed in this hazy (again, no pun intended) sepia, as if a light brown is the only color through which to filter the story.  We also see this in a quick scene where Luke is literally dancing for joy about making a connection with Stephanie.  He dances in the sidewalk where the sidewalk lights up a la Michael Jackson's Billie Jean video.  Even though The Wackness came out before (500) Days of Summer, I couldn't help think the latter did this type of dance routine better than the former, primarily because (500) Days of Summer was meant to be a comedy while The Wackness was meant to be a drama. 

Another indication of the film's artistic aspirations comes in the performances.  Everyone in The Wackness acts as if they were in a film.  There is very little life any of the characters.  Rather, they behave as if they were actors playing at being in a drama.  I note that no one really smiles or laughs in The Wackness (except when they are high or just out-of-it).   That may be part of The Wackness' bigger problem.  None of the characters appear to be real. 

Take Jannsen's character.  Perpetually with a cigarette in her hand, she added nothing to the stock character of the bored second wife.  Likewise, all the other characters appeared to be human.  No one smiled in The Wackness (unless they were high).  Everything was one-note, a bit dour.

Peck for his part did a good job at playing something a young avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling might have done, and he has to be congratulated for going for something different.  Whether it was intentional or not that Peck's Luke looked as if he were slightly stoned at all times I cannot say.  I can say that Devine never directed Peck (or anyone really) to have any range of emotions other than one, whichever appeared appropriate to a character.  Luke is to be dead (or stoned), Dr. Squires nervous (and stoned), Mrs. Squires (a woman who as far as I know had no name) bored. 

Even the minor parts like Olsen or Adams' characters seem attached to where simply cutting them out wouldn't have hurt the story one pit.  They were unnecessary, and unnecessary characters are not a good sign for a good movie. 

As a side note, while watching The Wackness I couldn't help sense that there was an undercurrent of repressed sexual desire by Dr. Squires for his step-daughter.  The doctor's continuing fixation to refer to her as his 'step-daughter' and intense dislike of Luke going out with her did not come across as fatherly concern; instead, it came across as Stephanie being his own Lolita.  Again, I can't say whether it was intentional or not, but that's the impression that I got.

By the end of The Wackness, we pretty much have gone through the steps we thought we would see: the ultimate in hip-hop aficionado (Luke) finally embraces Dylan, he goes through heartbreak with a girl who is a slut, and the good doctor finds his true a drug dealer.  Even he gets a girlfriend of sorts.

 However, the film ends up being one of those artsy affairs that is simply trying too hard to be edgy and insightful.  Rather than let the characters and situations flow naturally, it continuously draws attention to itself and to its own idea of cleverness and insight.  It has the plus of seeing Josh Peck going for something different (and being able to handle himself well enough to suggest he could get a career while his buddy Drake Bell flounders), but it never really makes the case for why we should care about Luke, let alone see him grow as a person.

As I see it, The Wackness is more whacked than anything else. 

Bully: A Review (Review #373)


I can't help going back to my own past when I think about Bully.  I don't think I lived in an alternate universe where bullying didn't happen.  However, I cannot remember any suicides in my high school or middle school or elementary school years as a result of taunting.  Perhaps another time I may offer some Personal Reflections on Bully, but for now, I will stick with the film itself.

Bully follows three kids: Alex, 12, from Sioux City, Iowa; Ja'meya, 14, from Yazoo County, Mississippi; and Kelby, 16, from Tuttle, Oklahoma.  We also get two other stories: Tyler, 17, from Murray County, Georgia; and Ty Fields-Smalley, 11, from Perkins, OK.  We see each of their stories unfold, some of which are shocking beyond belief.

Alex appears to be the central figure in Bully.  He is not just taunted by others (such as being called 'fish-face' for his physical appearance) but getting threats of violence, culminating in actual acts of violence visited upon him.  He tells us and his parents that he's been sat on, chocked, and worse, we see kids on the school bus stab him with pencils.  Even more shocking is how he takes it: he tells his father that he thinks someone strangling him is just 'messing around'.

Ja'meya's story is more shocking: tired of being ridiculed, she takes a gun on the bus and pulls it on not just her bullies but on everyone else on the bus.  Fortunately, no one was hurt but this act required Ja'meya to be locked up while awaiting her fate, facing 22 counts of kidnapping and 22 counts of aggravated assault.

Kelby's story is the one focused on least: she is an out lesbian in this small town, a girl who already has a girlfriend and could be mistaken for a man at a quick glance.

The stories of Ty and Tyler are simply the saddest.  Tyler was 17 when he took his own life, and Ty was only 11.  That's not a typo: he was 11 years old when he committed suicide over the taunting he got in school. 

As Bully goes on, we see the parents and adults become frustrated and inept at handling this situation.  When Alex's parents meet with the assistant principal over the physical assaults on their son, she appears empathetic, certainly caring, but not quite sure anything can really be done.  After all, when she has ridden the bus in question, the kids all behaved very well...

At that point, I truly wondered whether it is a common trait among people in positions in authority to be so utterly clueless, even slightly divorced from reality.  Kids will ALWAYS behave when an authority figure is present.  Even I know that, and I can base this on my own experience in school.  Did any of you misbehave in the presence of the principal or assistant principal? 

We end Bully with kids and parents and interested adults at various Stand For the Silent rallies, and a call to action. 

In this respect, Lee Hirsh's film is like so many other 'documentaries' in that it is really what I call an 'advocacy film', or a feature made for the purpose of asking me to do something.  There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it does to my mind stretch the definition of 'documentary': a film that tells us of a something and asks us to make our own mind up. 

It is, however, difficult to not react emotionally to some of the horror stories one hears and sees in Bully.  In particular, Ja'meya's story stuns a viewer in how she took a gun to settle the situation.  The horror of it all is compounded by the few minutes where we wonder whether the situation ended with actual violence, even killing.

It is also heartbreaking to see from the Longs and Smalleys talk about their dead children.  I digress to say that when we finally see a picture of Tyler, I thought he looked like a nice boy.  What is stunning is that an eleven-year-old boy decided that it was better to take his own life rather than continue living with the torment others were inflicting on him.

Again, I digress to say that growing up, the idea of killing myself at age 11 was something that would simply not been in my realm of reality.  I had never heard of anyone being bullied enough to have killed themselves while in elementary or middle school (or actually even in high school), so the fact that this child took his own life at such a young age leaves you devastated, and seeing Ty's parent's agony is even more horrifying.

Bully, however, has some problems.  Not all the subjects are given equal time: Kelby's story is almost forgotten (though when she does appear, we can admire her determination to stick it out).  A great deal of time is spent on the victims of bullying, but nothing is spoken on the why or how of the bullies themselves.  Are the kids who are causing these acts evil, or are they thoughtless, or are they trying to put up a front?  I think it would be good to put some attention on how things got so far.

Given that a great deal of attention was given to Alex, I did wonder about how he could appear to so not comprehend that the situations were not normal, nor his curious reaction to being told off after he tells someone he was his "buddy".  While the high schooler's reaction was one of anger and hostile, I wonder why Alex would engage with someone in this kind of conversation. 

I can only base this on my own reaction to someone I didn't know or barely knew saying he would be my "buddy" almost randomly.  I would be slightly puzzled, but I would respond with a simple, 'thanks but no thanks', not threaten his life.  Yet I digress.

One problem with Bully, apart from not keeping a strong focus on all the children (and sometimes not keeping a focus, literally) and on not attempting to investigate bullying from the perspective of the bully himself or herself is in how the bullying is presented.  We are shown a lot of bullying in terms of assaults on Alex, but nothing with Kelby, or getting a stronger picture of how Ja'meya was so driven to this point.  I wonder if speaking to those on the bus, to see how it all culminated into something so shocking, would have made Bully into a stronger film. 

Ultimately, Bully is a good film that makes one question, not so much why there is bullying or even whether is has grown to this epidemic that it is being presented as, but why so many kids who neither bully or are bullied can remain silent when they see this.  No one, not even the bus driver, came to Alex's defense as he is being stabbed and pushed around.  It is the passivity of the others, more than the actions of the minority or the inability of those assaulted to stand up for themselves, that is the real shock in Bully.  Actually, that and the inability of grown adults to stop acts of violence against and by their own children that is shocking. 

I'll allow a little Personal Reflection to close Bully.  I don't remember being bullied, certainly to the point of violence.  Was I called names?  Yes (something this former Captain of the Academic Team thought of as an occupational hazard).  Was I ever assaulted?  Not that I can recall.  If anything, the only thing I can offer (and I wish I could have told Ty, Tyler, or anyone else considered the desperate act of suicide) is this:

I Survived.  I Lived to Tell the Tale.  You Will Too.

We all do, perhaps slightly damaged, but in the end, we can do nothing more but survive and keep going.  All who are bullied can come out of those years. 

It's a tough subject, one that should be covered, and Bully is a good start to the conversation. 


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene: A Review


Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quiet film.  There isn't much in terms of music, and there is almost a documentary-like feel to how the story is shot.  However, this is part of what makes MMMM a brilliant and chilling study of a woman either emerging from a shocking experience or sinking into insanity. 

We get glimpses into the world of Marcy May.  It's a commune where the men are the rulers and the women the workers and virtual sex slaves (the women, for example, have to wait until the men are finished eating for them to have their meal).  She then is seen running into the woods, and there she calls her sister, who calls her Martha.  Martha and Marcy May are the same person. 

Martha/Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) now finds refuge in the home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).  However, it's clear that something's wrong with Martha: she casually swims in the nude in the clear presence of others and even climbs into bed while Lucy and Ted are having sex.  Lucy and especially Ted are perplexed, even angry at her behavior, but as MMMM goes on we get glimpses of how what appears irrational flows from her time in the cult.

Flowing back and forth between the present as Martha and the past as Marcy May (the name she was given at the commune), we see how her actions are a reaction to what has come before.  We see how she came to be in this cult, and the power the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) had over all.  Martha tries to become more 'normal' but her worldview has been so warped that she cannot help behaving bizarrely.  We see some of the horrors she has seen and endured, but Lucy continues to believe Martha's story that she had lost contact with her while living with 'a boyfriend'. 

Finally, Ted and Lucy know that they are simply unable to care for Martha.  Reluctantly, Lucy agrees to take Martha to treatment (we suspect a hospital but it's never fully established).  As the three drive on, they are interrupted by someone on the road.  We don't see who it is.  Is it members of the cult, determined to get Marcy May back (perhaps to stop her from revealing a horrifying secret)?  Was it just a random person?  Is Martha really crazy?  Martha Marcy May Marlene then cuts to black.

Normally, I'm not a fan of open endings, but it works with Martha Marcy May Marlene (the 'Marlene' by the way comes from the name the women in the cult use whenever they answer the phone).  It leaves the audience wondering whether the figure Martha encounters really is from the cult or not.  This is just one of the great steps writer/director Sean Durkin takes to make MMMM a brilliant film.

Durkin first keeps the pacing strong and steady.  As I've stated earlier, MMMM has something of a documentary feel to it, primarily in the fact that the film has a natural look to it.  As part of how the cult feeds itself, they steal from the wealthy homes nearby.  The camera work by Jody Lee Lipes is never flashy in these scenes when others might have gone for fast movements and pulsating music to emphasize the tension of breaking and entering.  Instead, there is a quiet aspect to this work. 

This emphasis of keeping things still works to great effect near the end of MMMM when we the audience are given information that a character doesn't have.  Durkin keeps the tension intense, counterbalancing the quiet stillness of the setting and the actors with the potential for violence.  When the tension is finally broken in a shocking act, it makes the scene even more stunning.

It should be mentioned that there is music in MMMM (from Saunder Jurriaans & Danny Bensi) but it is used sparingly.  There is a song in MMMM which appear as part of the scene and one in the closing credits (both written by the late Jackson C. Frank: Marcy's Song and Marlene respectively) which are blended beautifully into the film, and Marcy's Song in particular is a beautiful song that adds to how Frank could have so bewitched Martha into becoming Marcy May. 

A surprise is that John Hawkes isn't a bad singer, but I digress.

The performances from the cast are all brilliant.  Olsen delivers an absolute stunner of a turn as the conflicted and battered Martha/Marcy May.  Olsen shifts from damaged to almost hostile to paranoid to deeply frightened, a full range of emotions that shock you and break your heart.  Paulson is equally brilliant as Lucy.  While other scripts might have been tempted to make the sister unsympathetic, Durkin opted to make Lucy someone who wants to help her sister but has a hard time understanding her behavior.  The fact that Lucy is kept in the dark about Martha's time in the cult makes her confusion more understandable.  Dancy also does excellent work as the husband who also wants to be supportive but begins to become irritated by his sister-in-law's actions.

Hawkes in particular needs to be commended for turning in another brilliant performance so soon after coming off his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Winter's Bone.  His Patrick is a dangerous and evil man, but he isn't one who ever really rages and rules by intimidation.  In fact, I cannot remember Patrick ever raising his voice.  The fact that he rules his cult by being so soft-spoken makes him even more terrifying and evil.  In one scene, he asks Marcy May to kill a kitten.  Marcy May refuses, but in Patrick's soft tones and words he exudes the pressure for her to do something horrifying, which not only gives insight into what an evil man Patrick is but how he could get people to do even worse things. 

In one technical aspect, Martha Marcy May Marlene deserved special recognition (which sadly, it did not get).  Zac Stuart-Pontier's editing flowed seamlessly between the past and present without ever stopping the action.  It shifted back and forth so well one never became jarred when we would go from her time as Marcy May to her time as Martha.  On occasion the screen would fade to black, but even this signals of shifting times didn't stop or hinder how smoothly MMMM went on screen. 

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a thrilling and heartbreaking film of a woman who has been beaten up emotionally, in certain ways quite innocent and in other ways well aware of the brutality of others.  Save for Patrick none of the characters are either all good or all evil.  The performances are all so pitch-perfect, where again it almost looks as if we were watching a documentary rather than a feature film. It's a brilliant film with brilliant performances.  Each M in the title is reflective of the stars I'd give it.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thunderball: A Review


The Thunder From Down Under the Sea...

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond reviews. 

Whether the maxim "bigger is better" was the inspiration or not, Thunderball was certainly more spectacular in terms of plot and action than its predecessors in the James Bond series.   In certain ways, Thunderball has some great moments of action, and is a return to form from other Bond films.  In other ways, Thunderball is less than the sum of its parts. 

SPECTRE is back!  The nefarious criminal organization is plotting its most daring plan: it will steal two nuclear bombs and blackmail the United Kingdom and United States.  With the time ticking, MI6 must track down and recover the weapons before the governments are forced to pay off SPECTRE. 

This is such a vital mission that all 00s are brought in, including 007 James Bond (Sean Connery).  All the 00s are brief about the recovery operation, codenamed 'Thunderball'.  Bond, however, has what I can call 'inside information' about this plot.  While recovering at a spa from his previous assignment, he sees a mysterious patient all bandaged up, one Count Lippe.  He then sees this man, dead, but the face matches the pilot of the NATO plane flying the plane from which said bombs were stolen.  Due to this, 007 is sent to Nassau to investigate the pilot's sister.

Said pilot's sister, Domino (Claudine Auger), is the mistress of one Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi).  Largo is (unbeknown to anyone except the audience), Number 2 in SPECTRE, the mastermind of the nuclear bomb heist.  Domino is unaware of the connection between Largo and her brother, but Bond is.  007, aided by field agents Paula (Martine Bestwick) and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) soon begin a search for the bombs.  Hot on Bond's trail is Largo's assassin, Fiona Volpe (Lucianna Paluzzi), a dangerous markswoman.  In long order Bond gets close to Domino, Paula is killed by Largo's agents, Largo learns of Bond and his investigation, Fiona and Bond get it on, and in a daring underwater battle, the Navy (I think it's the American given the target ends up being Miami) and SPECTRE engage in an epic battle for the safety of the planet. 

All the Bond films up to now have slowly been building themselves to be big productions, and Thunderball is just that: a BIG production.  The plot is bigger (and more grandiose), the action is bigger (particularly in lengthy underwater action sequences).  Unfortunately, not everything that was made bigger worked better when it came to Thunderball.

One of the things that was bigger was the length of the film: at two hours and ten minutes, it is fifteen minutes longer than the next longest (From Russia With Love).  That in an of itself isn't a terrible thing, but somehow what is amazing is that for all its length so much of the story is put on screen that one wonders if maybe this once we could have told rather than shown.  Normally, I'm not a big fan of exposition dialogue, but after seeing the lengthy theft of the NATO plane, did we really need a briefing of all the 00s to tell us this again?  Once we get the mission (to locate the nuclear weapons), it almost seems a waste to go back to MI6 to check in on how the government is doing to get the diamonds that SPECTRE demands as payment.  Maybe once, but twice (at least)?  The very lengthy spa stay (where we get all the backstory of SPECTRE's plan to use a double) appears to almost be a movie in itself, and there's a point in that sequence that borders on camp (more on that later).

Another BIG problem for this BIG film is some of the acting in Thunderball is awful.  With Auger the series reverts to an old-Bond Girl standby (get a former beauty queen to play the part).  The former Miss France looks lost, almost confused as to what to do on screen.  There isn't a hint of emotion in Domino, just a blank expression throughout Thunderball (even when being attacked by Largo, Auger doesn't appear to understand the point of acting is to create an emotional connection between the situation and the character).  The fact that Auger was dubbed by Nikki Van Der Zyl does not help matters.

One might excuse Auger for not being an actress (since she wasn't), but how to explain Van Nutter (a name to be played with) as Leiter?  This is the third Felix we've seen in four films (the Leiter-like role in From Russia With Love being filled in by Pedro Armendariz's Bey). Van Nutter is ridiculously cool and casual about everything, almost uninterested in anything going on around him.  He was so flat as Leiter one wonders why he was there at all.

There were parts in Thunderball that perhaps could have been sacrificed without affecting the overall flow.  Take the very lengthy spa stay by Bond.  In one scene which is suppose to be nerve-wracking, Bond is tied to a spinal traction machine for therapy.  A mysterious figure then comes and speeds up the machine...and Bond might be killed by being stretched to death.  As I watched this (including Bond's point of view, or POV, as the machine goes mad), to me, it didn't look particularly menacing.  Instead, it looked almost comical.  I couldn't take that part seriously, nor when after undergoing such a 'harrowing' ordeal, he could seduce the therapist so quickly and easily.  This whole sequence appears to just stretch Thunderball (pun unavoidable). 

A big problem with Thunderball really is the takes a long time to get all the pieces of the plot together (the search for the downed NATO plane perhaps could have been wrapped up sooner or written off in one line of dialogue), but on the plus side, once we got to the actual fight for the bombs, Thunderball really picked up. 

I understand the underwater sequences (of which there were many) divide people: some think they are spectacular, some too long and convoluted.  I'm in the former category: I thought they were beautifully filmed, in particular the climatic battle (which I thought was a good way of trying something new).  For me, the underwater battle scene was quite impressive.  However, I can see the latter's argument: sometimes the number of times something took place underwater soon became a bit draining (no pun intended).  I digress to say that perhaps one of my favorite films is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea I might be a touch prejudice in favor of seeing things going on underwater. 

While Auger and Van Nutter were pretty bad in Thunderball, other actors were excellent.  Connery owns the part of the smooth yet dangerous James Bond, someone who has no problem killing people but who also feels for Domino when he has to reveal what her lover did to her beloved brother.  Paluzzi is an excellent villainness as Fiona Volpe, a woman who is both beautiful and ruthless.  I can't decide if she is really a Bond Girl in that she is filling the henchman part, but she was more interesting than the flat Auger as Domino.  It almost seemed a shame that Volpe's end was so anti-climatic.  I would have liked for her to have gone out with a bang (I just give up trying to avoid puns). 

One also has to complement Celi's Largo (even if he too was dubbed, by Robert Rietty, thus begging the question, 'why don't they just get people who can speak English without a heavy accent?').  Largo is played as intelligent, almost urbane, but highly ruthless.  He has no trouble tossing someone into his literal pool of sharks.  In short, Largo is not a man to be messed with, but he is the type to not be overt about his machinations. 

A plus in Thunderball is in the production itself.  We get Maurice Binder back for the first time since Dr. No to create the title sequence (which is a beautiful piece of art with its silhouettes of people swimming underwater).  As stated, the underwater sequences are well-shot (if perhaps a bit too much near the end), and some shots by cinematographer Ted Moore are brilliant (such as getting the POV of the unfortunate who gets thrown into the pool of sharks.  Seeing the clear water turn red is a remarkably chilling scene).  Director Terence Young kept things moving (for the most part) and created some real moments of tension (such as Bond's escape during the Nassau, Bahamas festival of Junkanoo--the equivalent of Mardis Gras).

In regards to John Barry's score, it flowed naturally without overwhelming the film.  The exception may be the title song.  Nothing against Tom Jones, but to my mind, Thunderball is a little overblown (any song that causes someone to faint because they had to hold the last note for so long that it overwhelmed them may be a bit too much).  I also liked the fact that the secondary Bond theme 007 was woven into the Junkanoo scene smoothly, as was a proposed Thunderball title song not used, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (the instrumental used in the Kiss Kiss Club scene).    

On the whole, Thunderball is a good, strong James Bond film.  However, it is a bit long, some of the acting is pretty bad, and it takes a while to build up.  Thunderball is a film that is bubbling up with possibilities that just fail to all reach the surface. 

Next James Bond Film: You Only Live Twice


Friday, April 20, 2012

The Winner, But Champion?

By One Vote...

At the 74th Annual Academy Awards, the odds-on favorite for Best Supporting Actor was Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  I think everyone expected Sir Ian to win.  I expected Sir Ian to win.  I suspect even Sir Ian expected Sir Ian was going to win. 

When they announced the winner, I don't remember if there were gasps in the audience, but the year's Best Supporting Actor was the long shot: Jim Broadbent as Iris Murdoch's much-suffering husband John Bayley in Iris.  Upon receiving the Oscar, the first thing Mr. Broadbent said was, "Stun the crows".  I heard it as "stun the crowds", which he certainly did.

I felt a similar reaction when the poll results to "Who is the best Sherlock Holmes?" were revealed.  By one vote (out of ten cast), Benedict Cumberbatch from the television series Sherlock beat out both Basil Rathbone AND Jeremy Brett (who tied at three).  Robert Downey, Jr. as the film version of Holmes, received no votes (alas).

I am stunned.  I took it for granted that Brett to run away with it.  Among the more devout Sherlockians, Brett is still revered.  Among the average television viewers, the answer is, "Jeremy Who?"  I find that he is now barely remembered, if at all, by those who are enchanted by the modern-day take on our detective. 

Cumberbatch's win is surprising to me for many reasons.  He has played Sherlock Holmes for a total of six episodes (or two seasons/series, whichever you prefer).  He's been in the role for only two years, but despite the fact the fact that Rathbone and Brett are more associated with the role of Holmes, Cumberbatch still beat them out.

Also, Cumberbatch is the least traditional take on Holmes that has gained popularity (few people remember such efforts as Young Sherlock Holmes, and even that attempt to appeal to the young market kept close to the Victorian/Edwardian source material).  This Sherlock is a very-21st Century creation (Sherlock blogs!  Sherlock texts!), and about the only thing he has in common with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation is his name.

In retrospect, perhaps his (very narrow) win should not be a surprise.  As I look on the situation, I think he won because he is the most recent and best-known Holmes at this moment.  In short, Cumberbatch is perhaps the only Holmes people know.  It's the sad course of life that the newest thing is the one that is considered the best (which does explain how Transformers: Dark of the Moon could be considered by ANYONE better than Casablanca).  It is surprising to me that despite his youth and inexperience he could be the best Sherlock Holmes ever. 

We have to remember I asked who is the best Sherlock Holmes, not the most popular.  If it were the most popular, Cumberbatch's win is almost a given: he's the one on the screen right now, the one in the public's mind, so he's the one they know.  However, I do wonder how after such a small amount of time as the character, Benedict Cumberbatch could be the considered the BEST actor to interpret the role. 

Again, however, I'm coming at this from a difficult position.  I have yet to see Sherlock.  Those reasons, likewise, are also myriad.  For starters, I am wary of anything Steven Moffat is connected to.  In my view, he is corrupting the long-running science-fiction show River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who).  I find the emphasis on the character of River Song over that of The Doctor in this season to be an endless source of irritation, and I think Doctor Who simply isn't what it used to be. 

As a result of that, I look upon Sherlock with a great suspicion: I don't warm to the idea of a younger, sexier Sherlock Holmes.   That doesnt' appeal to me: it's the exercise of the mind, the resolution of intricate mysteries that interests me.  I always get the sense that Sherlock is less about the cases and more about the trappings surrounding Holmes and Watson.  That leads me to my second trepidation over Sherlock.

I am almost pathologically resistant to 'updates'.  I found the 'update' to Romeo & Juliet from Baz Luhrmann to be a disaster.  I don't consider myself an intellectual, but I have always been perfectly capable of following Shakespeare without difficulty.  The current thinking is that one has to "update" it in order to make it understandable to today's audiences.  I think it dumbs the source material down because it doesn't ask people to either think or really appreciate the beauty of the language.  Sherlock I think runs the risk of taking the core of a certain Conan Doyle story and change it to fit today's tastes.

HOWEVER, I recognize I'm saying all this without actually having seen Sherlock.  I tried, once, and it didn't grab my interest or attention.  I will watch it and start reviewing episodes.  Perhaps Benedict Cumberbatch will change my view and I will become a fan of his Sherlock Holmes.  I'm already a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, so it may yet work out to be a beautiful marriage. 

Still, I confess, despite Benedict Cumberbatch winning the Best Sherlock Holmes Poll, I hold that Jeremy Brett is a tough act to follow. 

Hey Steven Moffat, I have an idea for a new show: Jane Marple: The Early Years, where our future spinster is instead a young, clever sex kitten solving crimes.  I even have an actress for you: River Song Companion Karen Gillan.  If Sherlock Holmes can be updated for our 21st Century tastes, why not Miss Marple?  After all, who'd want to watch an old lady solving murders when you can have a sexy, slinky vixen bringing people to justice? 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

And The Song Comes to A Close

He was dubbed 'The World's Oldest Teenager', and it was a high compliment.  Dick Clark was someone with high exuberance for popular music, who embraced the rock n' roll revolution and brought it to America's living room. 

Before Clark came around, such programs as Your Hit Parade present the popular songs of the day.  However, these programs were neither targeted or geared towards the growing baby boomer market.  It's a nice song, but people really can't dance to How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?, and such was the way of the world.  Once American Bandstand made its debut across the country, we got two big cultural shifts in one blow.

First, the teens got both validation of their music and were introduced to a wide variety of pop/rock sounds and artists.  At a time when there were only a few television stations, AB was the place to make a music debut.  You wanted the latest dance or the newest song or artist, you referred to AB.  From Chuck Berry to Madonna, Ritchie Valens to the Beach Boys, Donna Summer to John Mellencamp (then billed as Johnny Cougar), the Jackson Five to Prince: they all made if not their debut their greatest exposure on the Bandstand.  Clark never talked down to the teens, he never behaved as though he was better or smarter than either his audience or his guests.  Rather, he appeared to be totally sincere and interested in what they were interested in.   

Second, and perhaps more important, the parents saw that there really was nothing to fear from this new music.  The teens on the show weren't wild-eyed sex-crazed drugged-out monsters.  They were regular kids, just like their sons and daughters.  American Bandstand became the place where adults and their children could enjoy something together without worrying about something either would object to.  Even now, the American Bandstand theme is, if not as well-known today as it was in its heyday, still recognizable.

Something Clark said is both endless fascinating and completely accurate.  Whenever he was asked what was the most influential or important song in rock, he answered, "The Twist".   Not Like A Rolling Stone, not Let It Be, not Break On Through, not Paint It Black, not Respect, not I Will Survive, not Reflections, not London Calling.  He always said, The Twist.  Why The Twist?  As he said, it was the first song both adults and teens could admit to dance to.  The cultural divide was broken...thanks Chubby.

We can't forget his New Year's Rockin' Eve.  His New Year's Eve special became cultural landmarks, where even if you had plans (and were fortunate enough to remember them afterwards), you felt that the party wasn't complete without him counting down to a new year.  I think the optimism New Year's brings was perfect for Clark, someone who was optimistic: about music, about life. 

Even after the stroke that made him clearly impaired, he still went forward, more slowly, visibly damaged, for the first time showing him approaching his real age (if anything, his perpetual youthful appearance added to the "eternal teen" persona).  It was a bit sad to see him take a diminished role on New Year's Rockin' Eve specials (and seeing Ryan Seacrest didn't make it any better...sorry Ryan, but you're nowhere near Dick Clark), but it's a credit to his optimism and work ethic that he kept at it as long as he was able to.

I think ultimately the legacy of Dick Clark is that he was highly instrumental in bringing rock 'n roll to the general American (and world) audience.  Clark showed that this music was wonderful, not dangerous.  Clark introduced artists and dances that impacted popular culture (people still dance the Twist at weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras), and no New Year's appeared complete without Clark counting down.  Clark possessed a joie de vivre that made it almost natural that a man in his fifties, sixties, and even seventies look like he was barely out of college.  Without Dick Clark, the music scene would have been highly different. 

The soundtrack of at least two generations had Dick Clark as its DJ. 


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Life of Emile Zola (1937): A Review


La Plume Est Plus Puissante Que L'Epee...

There is nothing more Oscar-bait worthy than the good old biopic.  If we look at a quick history of Best Picture winners and nominees, we'll find that a good number of them were life stories of figures famous, infamous, and humble.  We don't even have to go that far back...remember The King's Speech?  It won Best Picture, but its competition included another biopic, The Fighter.   The first biopic to actually win was The Life of Emile Zola, which has the noted French author and activist at the center of the story, but which curiously ISN'T about Monsieur Zola.  Instead, it is about events in his life, particularly those created by his own pen, fiction and non.

The film stars with the artist as a young man.  Zola (Paul Muni) is very poor, living with his friend and fellow artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff).  Zola dreams of being a great man of letters, bringing a light to the truth about life (with no sex in it).  He does write, and despite getting good jobs his writings raise the ire of censors, who don't like his critiques of those who live on the fringes in Paris or his harsh criticism of the incompetent army general staff.  However, his true-life tale of a Parisian prostitute, Nana, becomes a runaway best seller (a bit like the Valley of the Dolls of its day: a book everyone reads but no one admits to reading).  With his wealth and fame assured, he opts not to be a provocateur after his book The Downfall gets him into hot water with the army.

Zola, having grown rich, comfortable, and fat, is now almost bourgeois in his lifestyle but keeps a strong liberal view.  He, however, has grown tired of crusades, and thus has little interest in the Dreyfus Affair engulfing France.  The Dreyfus Affair is a sad and sordid tale almost too shocking to be believed, but it did happen.  For those not in the know, this is how it went down. 

There is a spy in the French Army, passing secret information onto the Germans.  We soon find who this Scoundrel is: one Count Esterhazy (Robert Barrat).  However, the High Command, while suspicious of this foreigner, cannot believe someone as elevated as Esterhazy would stoop so low for money.  They scour for suspects, and come across the perfect candidate: Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut).  He's Jewish, which of course means he's obviously guilty.  Captain Dreyfus is summoned to Headquarters, where he's instructed to write a strange note.  Unbeknown to him, this is a communique to be made infamous as the bordereau (the list of items the agent was going to pass onto the Germans).  Dreyfus is arrested, convicted, drummed out of the Army, and condemned to Devil's Island.

The Army High Command, despite clear-cut evidence that Dreyfus is innocent, continues covering up the truth.  The honor of the Army MUST be protected at all costs, and the life of one Jew is a small price to pay to save face.  However, there are many who suspect Dreyfus is innocent and who continue the fight.  The controversy over Dreyfus soon rips the Republic in half: the pro and anti-Dreyfus parties at each other's throats.  As Captain Dreyfus lingers in the living hell of Devil's Island (his imprisonment growing more and more excessive, even paranoid (in the course of three years his hut on the isolated and desolate island is surrounded by a massive wooden barricade and six or more men on twenty-four hour watch), Madame Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) continues to fight for her husband.

Zola, believing that Dreyfus had a fair court-marshal, has no interest in the affair.  Not even a personal appeal by Madame Dreyfus can at first dissuade him to take up an unpopular cause.  However, learning from evidence that Madame Dreyfus left behind that Dreyfus was unjustly convicted, his old ideals are stirred, and he dares speak out against the Army High Command.  As the scandal grows, the High Command grows desperate, going so far as to court-marshal Esterhazy and acquitting him of all charges even as they know he is guilty in order to protect themselves from the conviction they know to be false.  This blatant sham so outrageous Zola that he finally takes the step to challenge the Army head-on with the only weapon he's ever had: his pen.  He writes J'Accuse, is promptly sued for libel, and his own court case, while forcing the issue of the Dreyfus Affair onto the public, is another patent case of a kangaroo court.  The High Command whip the public into a frenzy, Zola is convicted of libel, and is persuaded to flee France.

In exile in England, he continues to agitate, and finally the whole scandal is forced into the open by a new War Minister.  Zola returns to witness Dreyfus restored to the Army, but in a twist, dies of carbon poisoning from a faulty chimney the night before.  The Life of Emile Zola ends with his grand funeral.

The opening in The Life of Emile Zola makes it clear that the film is a fictionalized version of the author's life.  Perhaps this was done to cover any libel suits Warner Brothers might have faced (which, given the story, would be extremely ironic): after all, the Dreyfus Affair was still a source of fierce controversy when the film was released (and is still today). One can expect a film to take some licence with the truth in order to provide a more dramatic movie, though, and we can forgive the film taking some liberties with the strict facts if it does not short-change the big picture (no pun intended). 

In terms of history, The Life of Emile Zola is not the best place to get a firm placing of the facts on how the Dreyfus Affair began.  In the film, it a mysterious shadow that brings the bordereau intact to the attention of the French.  In reality, it was a charwoman working for the French that brought the torn bordereau to her employers.  The biggest whopper comes at the end. 

Zola is presented as having died the night before Captain Dreyfus is restored with honor to the French Army, complete with induction into the Legion of Honor.  HOWEVER, Captain Dreyfus was fully exonerated in 1906...a full FOUR YEARS AFTER Zola's death (which was, indeed, by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning).  Thus, Monsieur Zola could not possibly have been able to have attended Captain Dreyfus' full restoration even if he'd wanted to, on account of being dead. 

The biggest misfire in regards to The Life of Emile Zola is in how the Dreyfus Affair is presented.  The basics are correct (Esterhazy's duplicity, the determination of the French High Command to cover up the truth in order to protect themselves, the personal courage of Colonel Picquard--Henry O'Neill--the only man in the High Command to dare speak the truth), but only the most passing reference is made to the anti-Semitism that convinced the High Command of Dreyfus' guilt.  The fact that Dreyfus is pre-judged to be guilty because of his Jewish background is never spoken once in The Life of Emile Zola, and the only reference to Dreyfus being a Jew comes when we are given a view of Dreyfus' military record, on which "Religion: Jew" is helpfully pointed out by a finger of one of the characters.

Whether the film's refusal to address the anti-Semitic nature of the charges against Dreyfus is a sign of the times the film was made or because it was decided to focus more on the cover-up I cannot say.  However, it does appear to be somewhat disingenuous that The Life of Emile Zola could not or would not tackle the primary motivation for the hatred and paranoia against Dreyfus.  I can't say whether the script (by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg from a story by Herald and Herczeg) wanted to speak openly about the anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair.  Again, while the plot point of the high officers condemning Dreyfus to a living death to protect themselves is based on truth, one sometimes doesn't get that the French public was so whipped up into a frenzy merely because Dreyfus was condemned as a traitor.  The bigotry against Jews was in part if not in whole raison pour le affair Dreyfus.  Today, someone watching who is not as familiar with the scandal may gleam that most important fact but it will become lost as the story progresses.

However, the film has more benefits to its flaws.  While its timidity to fully face up to the bigotry at the heart of the case against Dreyfus, the fact that it tackled the subject at all is an indication of the fact that there were films and filmmakers who at least made an effort to take on unpleasant subjects.  The Life of Emile Zola makes its hero not a man of action, and certainly not one of violence.  Instead, the hero uses his firm convictions and his intellect to combat an entire army, even an entire nation swept up into a frenzy and paranoia, to get at the truth.  The film makes the strong case that even one voice, raised in righteous indignation at injustice, can so force the floodgates open that in a sense, an army could not stop him.

Paul Muni gives a commanding performance as Zola.  Muni certainly has strong moments of fierce and fiery passion: his closing arguments to the jury in his libel trial is a bravura performance with him holding the audience's attention for a lengthy monologue.  However, he also has moments of comedy.  When the Chief Censor of Paris brings him in to complain about Zola's fiery criticism of the French Army's bungling in the Franco-Prussian War, he is told he does nothing but criticize.  You criticize the Army, you criticize the Empire, you must stop criticizing them, he is told.  In a mixture of innocence and sarcasm, Zola asks the Chief Censor,  "You have something better to criticize?"

Muni is matched by Schildkraut as the wrongly condemned Dreyfus, a man who endures the agonies of the damned for something he did not do, a sacrificial lamb for the false sense of honor the French High Command must maintain.  His dignity at his public humiliation of being stripped of his rank is heartbreaking while his pleas of innocence to an almost uncaring world rile one up in anger.  It is when we see him brought low by his imprisonment that gets at us on an emotional level.  It is easy to see why Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. 

Director William Dieterle not only brought out great performances from his cast but also kept a steady pace, never bogging down the story save for the first moments until Zola gets Nana published.  The 'starving artist' business does slow down the film a touch, but not too much, and once we get to the Dreyfus Affair, The Life of Emile Zola goes full tilt. 

About the only performance I would qualify as being a bit mannered is Sondergaard's Madame Dreyfus.  I thought it a bit too dramatic, too overwrought.  Granted, her husband, a devout Frenchman, was being condemned as a traitor, but I never fully thought she was Madame Dreyfus, but that she was Gale Sondergaard playing at a slightly exaggerated level bordering on over-the-top. 

On the whole, The Life of Emile Zola holds up remarkably well, with great performances from Muni and Schildkraut, telling a good story that becomes interesting once we get past Zola's early years as a struggling writer and get him to take up one last cause: the defense of an innocent man whose only crime was to be Jewish, a man caught up in the bigotry and stupidity of those in command.  The Life of Emile Zola isn't a strict biopic of the French author and intellectual, and it plays with history.  However, it is a Life worth examining. 



1938 Best Picture: You Can't Take It With You

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Goldfinger: A Review (Review #369)


One Oddjob and One Pretty Pussy...

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for all the Bond film reviews.

In many ways, Goldfinger is THE definitive James Bond film.  The two previous Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia With Love, were strong films mixing danger with a touch of romance.  However, Goldfinger, the third Bond film, is the film that set the standard for how all future Bond films would have: the opening title song, the larger-than-life villain, the outrageous scheme, the gadgets and Q, the menacing henchman, and the beauty with a provocative name.  All the elements into what people think of as a "Bond film" came together in Goldfinger, so much so that any parody or spoof (even future 'homages') will echo back to this particular film.

After blowing up a drugs plant, MI6 agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) is enjoying a few days rest in Miami Beach until told that he is now to investigate one Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).  The British suspect he may be smuggling gold, and 007 is suppose to be finding evidence of that.  What Bond finds is a beautiful woman, one Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton).  After Bond finds Goldfinger cheating at cards, he takes advantage of Goldfinger's long game to enjoy the pleasure of Miss Masterson's company.  Unfortunately, Bond is assaulted, and when he awakens, he finds Jill dead, completely covered in gold paint.

Bond eventually tracks Goldfinger to Switzerland, where he finds him in league with the Chinese in something called Operation Grand Slam.  Bond is captured and nearly killed, but fearing that his death would bring greater wrath of the British, Goldfinger merely holds him prisoner, smuggling him to Kentucky.  Why Kentucky?  We'll get to that in just a bit.

Aboard Goldfinger's private plane, Bond finds his pilot, one Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), and always menacing him is Goldfinger's henchman, the mute Korean Oddjob (Harold Sakata). 

Now Bond learns what exactly Operation Grand Slam is: Goldfinger will break into Fort Knox, the depository of the United States' gold reserves.  However, he isn't going to steal the gold.  Instead, he will release a dirty bomb that will make the gold radioactive for 57 years.  The Chinese will have economic chaos (always good for the Commies) and Goldfinger's own reserves will triple in value.  Now, it's up to Bond to stop this nefarious scheme...and will he be able to get Pussy in the end?

Goldfinger shouldn't work.  It is dated in several respects.  First, the rear-screen projection is obvious in many scenes (particularly in chase scenes or when Bond is in Miami Beach).  Even worse, James makes a snide remark about the Beatles that both places it squarely in the 1960s but that now makes Bond sound incredibly ignorant, even downright stupid.  Add to that Bond is quite cavalier about the women in his life (and bed), smacking one on the behind as she parts.

There are other things that simply should not work.  The original Ian Fleming novel already had the outlandish plot of having Goldfinger steal all the gold at Fort Knox, so screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn at least had the sense to point out the rather ridiculous nature of the story.  Still, the rather daring scheme to break into Fort Knox to render the whole gold reserve useless is pretty much a big idea (note that Goldfinger does not have any connection to SPECTRE, another step to break away from the predecessors).   The idea that a bowler hat could be so deadly on the surface of it should be downright laughable. 

As a side note to compliment the screenplay, it has bits of humor.  When a mobster named Solo decides not to break into Fort Knox, Goldfinger shows him out, telling the other mobsters, "Excuse me while I take care of Mr. Solo".  Sending Solo off, Goldfinger tells Bond, "Mr. Solo has a pressing engagement".  A bit later on, we see Solo certainly had a pressing engagement.  The line, delivered without a hint of irony or winking at/to the audience, makes it both funny and chilling at the same time.

Finally, let's get a gander at Pussy.  First, what kind of name is Pussy Galore?  Second, in the novel, Pussy is a lesbian "converted" by Bond (both a sexist and homophobic fantasy), and while Pussy in the film version of Goldfinger isn't "out" (how could she in the 1960s?), there are hints that she doesn't care too much for men...Bond in particular, until he convinces her. 

Despite all of Goldfinger's issues, the film thoroughly works because director Guy Hamilton has everyone play the premise completely straight (no pun intended).  Frobe (even though he is dubbed by Michael Collins due to Frobe's strong German accent) creates a cool and dangerous menace in his performance.  Auric Goldfinger (anyone else notice his first name starts with the chemical symbol for gold?) is always a man with a plan, someone who won't be ruffled by the British secret agent.  It is his coolness, his methodical nature, and his ability to plan ahead (as in how he manages his escape when the Fort Knox break-in is foiled) that makes him both brilliant and dangerous.

Sakata's Oddjob (I've seen it as both Odd Job and Oddjob, but I'm going by how the subtitles have it as Oddjob) never speaks, but in how he stands, hovers over everyone, and in the glee he takes in menacing those with his killer hat speaks volumes as to how good he is in the role.  Here is another case of a henchman (soon to be a regular feature in future Bond films) set the standard for all those coming after him.  However, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I digress to disagree with the Dean of Film Critics.  Roger Ebert once speculated as to why Goldfinger would have a massive mock-up of Fort Knox when he revealed his plans to the Mafia he'd hired to put the various elements of Operation Grand Slam together.  He thinks it was just to show it to somebody/anybody.  I disagree most respectfully with Mr. Ebert.  Granted, we both know exactly why this big model is there (something call exposition), but I think that Goldie liked to play at fantasy.  He, I imagine, spent many leisure hours imaging how the plan was going to work so brilliantly, and that big model was there so that he could spend time picturing it all.  Besides, it would impress the Chinese to see how well it worked, wouldn't it?  As for the offing of the Mob, well, that was just gravy.

I leave it up to you whether or not Mr. Ebert or I have made sense of all that, but I digress.

I also have to make special note of Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore (yes, without doubt the best Bond Girl name...ever; perhaps not the best Bond Girl, but certainly, with a name like Pussy Galore...).  With apologies to the previous Bond Girls (Ursula Andress in Dr. No, Daniela Biachi in From Russia With Love), neither are what can be called great actresses.  Blackman is the first legitimate actress to play a Bond Girl, and her mix of intelligence and strength (physical and mental) make her a solid match against both Bond and Connery.  Blackman plays Pussy as a total professional: a woman who takes pride in her Flying Circus and the pilots under her command, and a woman who can stand up to Bond both in his advances and yet be alluring enough for him to give a literal roll in the hay a try.  It takes a strong actress to make an intelligent and strong character like Pussy Galore's eventual seduction by James Bond believable, and Blackman pulls it off beautifully.

Connery continues to dominate as 007.  From the opening we can see how well he's got a handle on the character: a thoroughly professional agent who can blow up a major drug plant without ruffling his tuxedo under his wetsuit.  He comes across as intelligent, even caring (as when Jill Masterson's sister gets in the way...a plot point that didn't quite work for me).  Connery's Bond is also able to keep up the quick quips as he faces certain death.

On the subject of the opening, special mention has to be made of Goldfinger's opening title number.  The title song, sung by now-Dame Shirley Bassey, is a brilliant number.  The lyrics are amazing and logical (try finding something to rhyme with "Goldfinger" without making it sound forced or stupid), and John Barry's music compliments the lyrics brilliantly.  Those first two notes are now iconic, instantly recognizable with Bond.  We also must compliment Bassey's brassy delivery (including the final note which she appears to hold for a long time without losing any power).  Bassey and Goldfinger the song are now the gold standard (pun slightly intended) by which all future Bond theme songs will be measured. 

I digress to say that all other Bond songs will follow one of two roads: either try to match Bassey's amazing and powerful delivery (examples: The Man With the Golden Gun, Licence to Kill) or attempt to equal the lyrical brilliance of Goldfinger (examples: Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me, Live and Let Die).   A full discussion of Bond theme songs is left for another occasion, but suffice it to say that Goldfinger, with Shirley Bassey's titanic delivery, is now so intertwined with Bond himself that again, it's another point that instantly brings up memories even from people who might not have seen Goldfinger.  One can play the first two to five notes (accentuated by the trumpets blaring them out), or at the most, the first line of the song (appropriately being "GOLD-fin-ger") and people automatically know it's THE James Bond song. 

Goldfinger became the template, give or take a few changes, for what the public thinks of as "Bond".  In retrospect, it is a bit dated (the Beatles reference...can't quite get over that groaner), and on the surface it is a wild and outrageous plot (dare I say illogical?).  However, it is fast, exciting, and a wild fantasy that delivers the goods of being highly entertaining.  Goldfinger is brilliant, with all the elements working: a fantastic hero, a dangerous villain, and one of the best Bond Girls on film.

Like the song says...HE LOVES GOLD!!!

Next James Bond Film: Thunderball