Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mirror Mirror: A Review (Review #397)


We had two competing Snow White adaptations this year.  This doesn't necessarily show that Hollywood has run out of ideas, but it does show that for some inexplicable reason filmmakers happen to hit on the same idea at the same time.  The first Snow White film out of the post is Mirror Mirror, a light comedy that does what it set out to do and while with a few missteps generally accomplished its goal of being sweet, inoffensive, and generally charming. 

The Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) begins by telling us that this is really HER story.  In an animated prologue we're told the basics: the King has a beautiful daughter but left a widower, he remarries, the King disappears, the Queen holds the Princess basically under house arrest.

This Princess is Snow White (Lilly Collins).  She is a sweet girl, but one unaware of anything going on in the Kingdom, her only friends the staff, in particular the Baker Margaret (Mare Winningham).  The kingdom is basically bankrupt thanks to the Queen's extravagant spending on parties and gowns.  She does what any good government does when it has spent more than it takes in: she raises taxes on her subjects that can barely pay the taxes now.  While marriage to a Baron (Michael Lerner) would solve her financial problems, she'd rather not marry him.

She does have her eye out for any good-looking rich young prince, and unbeknown to her, one just happens to be riding across her kingdom.  This is Prince Alcott of Valencia (Armie Hammer).  Prince Alcott, however, is waylaid by a group of forest thieves, whom he discovers are seven dwarves.  Despite the fact that they are under five feet tall (versus the 6' 5" Hammer), they best our slightly dim-witted heir.  Snow White, meanwhile, had managed to wander into the forest and village to see what had become of her kingdom.  While in the forest, she comes across our hero and his travelling companion Renbock (Robert Emms), bound.  She frees them and goes on her way, finding the village in misery where once was plenty.

The Queen, however, becomes enchanted by Alcott's wealth and figure (given not only was his gold stolen, but his clothes as well).  At yet another ball, she intends to use her charms on the Prince, but the Prince instead becomes enchanted with a young beauty, whom he immediately recognizes as the girl who rescued him.  However, the Queen is furious and orders her lackey Brighton (Nathan Lane) to kill her.  Obviously, he fails, and she flees to find shelter with our Seven Dwarves. 

The Queen uses magic to enchant the Prince, but bungles it, giving him a Puppy Love potion (which has him behaving exactly like a puppy).  Snow now gets the Dwarves to steal but only if they return the money to the village, and with their theft of Brighton they hit the mother load.  The Queen cannot be helped, not even by her magic mirror (which sends her to a haunted world).  However, when the Prince hears that Snow White is dead and that a group of dwarves have stolen the gold, he goes after them...and promptly gets stripped again.

Nonetheless, the wedding will go on.  Snow, now a bit of a warrior princess, has other ideas.  They raid the wedding (where they steal more clothes...what is it with them taking clothes?) and kidnap the Prince.  Eventually the spell is broken (by True Love's first kiss), the mysterious Beast of the Forest is not only defeated but revealed, the Queen dethroned and Alcott and Snow married (complete with a closing Bollywood-style number).

If anything, Mirror Mirror is a children's movie and should be treated as such.  One may not think that Tarsem Singh, director of such things as Immortals or The Cell would make a children's movie, but a children's movie nonetheless it is. 

Singh brings his stylized visual flair to Mirror Mirror, and the bright colors and lavish nature suits the subject well.  This is a spectacle for the eyes, and if one watches the film and admires the beauty and grand style of it, one can find much to enjoy.

Costume designer Eiko Ishioka died after Mirror Mirror, and this is a brilliant high note on which to end her career (which included an Oscar for Bram Stoker's Dracula).  Ishioka appears to stick to a few basic and bright colors (gold, blue, and red), but whenever the Queen indulges her passion for clothes, Ishioka goes all out.  Even the rabbit hat the Prince wears at the Costume Ball doesn't look too ridiculous but fits into the whimsy Mirror Mirror is seeking out.

The details in the clothing is remarkable: even with Snow White's warrior outfit, one can see great intricacy in it.  It will be shocking if Ishioka does not WIN a posthumous Best Costume Design Oscar, let alone be nominated for the category.

Likewise, Mirror Mirror's set designs continue the whimsy and storybook motif the film is seeking.  The big set of the Palace is also filled with such extensive detail it might be good to freeze the picture and zoom in to take it all in, but the scenes in the village and the Mirror's hut are also first-rate.

In terms of the story and acting, I think everyone was in on the joke.  No one made an effort to take this seriously, and everyone behaved accordingly.  I would argue that Snow's conversion from wide-eyed innocent to semi-tough warrior isn't quite believable (especially since in the end, she still got help from the Prince to defeat the Beast), but I can't fault it much for that.

On the whole, since I am asked to admire Mirror Mirror more for the look than the content (in the same way I can admire a cake), I don't ask for much in terms of story or of acting.

One can say Julia Roberts was having a hoot of a time being campy and over-the-top as the comically evil Queen, but I would argue she played the part given her correctly (as a woman more silly than dangerous).  Likewise, Hammer nailed (no pun intended I swear) the role of the over-eager Prince (though I would argue how the vaguely-Nordic looking Hammer could possibly be a prince from sunny Spain: Moorish our Hammer does not look).  He came across as enthusiastic, elegant, if not too bright, though I confess a little part of me felt bad for him having to see him do this.

Somehow, seeing anyone hop around like a puppy and licking someone's face almost made me embarrassed for him.  Here is where I wasn't convinced he was a man under a spell, just an actor trying a tad too hard to convince us he was under a spell.

Collins was generally sweet as the Princess, and I don't think she was called to do much beside look pretty and innocent.  In that case, she did her job well.

Again and again, I have to think that Jason Keller and Marc Klein's script (from Melissa Wallack's screen story) is geared towards children.  It's a generally sweet affair, one that while could have been stronger in the "women can do for themselves" or "wealth comes in friends" lessons they apparently were aiming for, the zippy way the story moves and the general fact that Singh did not ask everyone in front of the camera to take this too seriously goes far in making Mirror Mirror a little film that children (especially small ones) will like and their parents need not worry too much over.

I DID wonder why we had to have the thieves strip their victims so much or why Singh lavished a great deal of attention on Hammer's physical beauty, but that's just a mystery I won't be able to solve.

On the whole Mirror Mirror is a sweet little film, inoffensive and cute in a whimsical way.  It's not deep, its story isn't the greatest, the performances are a bit self-conscious that it is all suppose to be a lark, but we can forgive that.  It's a visual feast (in particular with the art direction and costumes), and as a result, Mirror Mirror is a lovely reflection of a cute kid's film. 

No offense son, but this isn't exactly a selling point for me.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mrs. Miniver (1942): A Review


The Lady Is A Champ...

Winston Churchill was very open about the importance of Mrs. Miniver.  The war that was engulfing Europe and its various empires, one that would signal the death knell of either the British Empire or the Nazi Germany regime, was being watched with fear in the New World.  By the time America was forced to enter the Second World War at the end of 1941, we were on the whole spared the daily struggles that the British had to endure, in particular the Blitz.  Mrs. Miniver brought the war home to us, and even today some of the images still haunt us with their power, both of the unimaginable horror the civilian population endured as their nation fought for its very life, and also in the courage and resolve of its people to, in the words of the Prime Minister, "to defend our Island, whatever the cost may be...WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER".  

The most important aspect of Mrs. Miniver is that it was a rallying point for both Britons and Americans, for the former as an image of what they were (or saw themselves as), for the latter of what our 'cousins' were made of.  If anything, Americans do admire courage.  While Mrs. Miniver has some flaws, it holds up rather well as a portrait of a determined people doing their best to, as the British would say, 'get on with it' despite all obstacles. 

It's Summer 1939.  Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) is a upper-middle-class lady, concerned with her family, her rose garden, and that lovely hat she fell in love with.  Her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) is a successful architect, and together with their children Vin (Richard Ney), the oldest, and two youngsters, Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy (Claire Sandars), they form a happy home.

Vin comes home, full of radical ideas that make him almost a Red.  He, for example, does not believe in social classes, detesting how the aristocracy rules over the village.  This makes his falling in love with Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), granddaughter of the imperious Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), a bit tricky.  Carol, however, can give as it as she gets from the pompous Vin.  Perhaps because of this, Vin finds Carol fascinating. 

However, things change quickly for all Britain.  War is declared, altering life forever for the Minivers and the Beldons.  Lady Beldon is horrified that the middle and working classes now have a chance to forget their place.  Vin joins the Royal Air Force, and like many young couples in war, he and Carol decide to marry.  While Vin takes to the air, Clem takes to the sea, becoming part of the flotilla that rescued the British from Dunkirk.  Even Mrs. Miniver takes to fighting when a downed German pilot forces his way into her home.  Lady Beldon may not like the union of her daughter with the solidly middle class Minivers, but there ain't nothing she can do about it. 

The war continues, and so do the Minivers.  They have to take shelter underground to escape the bombings.  Despite all this, they keep that stiff upper lip the British do so well.  Vin and Carol, now man and wife, come just in time for the village flower show, where Lady Beldon competes against the rose created by train station master Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers).  In a show of changing times, Lady Beldon admits that Mr. Ballard's rose, which he has named the 'Mrs. Miniver', indeed is deserving of the prize. 

The war, however, does indeed claim one or two victims, one in the family, and we end at another church service, where in our bombed-out church, the Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) gives a rousing sermon that shows the British, despite all the terrors of night and all their dead (including one off-screen that will tear at the heart), will not give in or give out under any circumstance.

Mrs. Miniver makes the powerful case that in the Second World War, in particular with regards to Britain, the line between combatants and civilians is rather blurred.   The populace witnessed war firsthand with the bombings and the dead that came from it; those in their homes did not know whether they, like the soldiers in the field, would live past the night.  In this, Mrs. Miniver is both a strong portrayal of the British wartime experience and the courage of its people. 

However, Mrs. Miniver is also a well-made if not too subtle propaganda film.  The adaptation of Jan Struther's novel by Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West (which curiously violates one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: There Should Be A Maximum of Three Screenwriters) somehow got the story to hold together rather than present it as a series of incidents.

We see this at the dramatic closing sermon of the Vicar.  It's a blatant call for resistance against tyranny and the rightness of the Allied cause, with the congregation singing Onward Christian Soldiers and the RAF in V-formation over them adding the coda to Mrs. Miniver's greater purpose: morale-boosting for the British and rallying cry for the Americans. 

William Wyler knows how to direct scenes both large and small to bring an emotional response from audiences.  When the congregation is informed that war is declared, they sing a hymn while the Minivers look on quietly while some begin to cry.  Mr. and Mrs. Miniver give each other a quick glance and take each other's hands.  Not only is it a beautiful, quiet moment, but is beautifully lit that only adds to the beauty of the moment.

However, WylerMiniver home, and as the sounds of the bombs come closer, the shelter being violently rattled, we are not allowed to leave.  WE are just as trapped as they are, and Wyler forces us to live out the terror of the air raids, the performances of Garson and Pidgeon capturing the fears of death coming closer and closer to them (and by extension, to us). 

It's a powerful scene that cannot fail to move people emotionally, a credit to both Wyler as director and the team of Garson and Pidgeon as actors that they can carry all this off without overdoing it.

In fact, Wyler gets great performances out of almost all his cast.  Garson is an elegant figure as the stalwart Mrs. Miniver, but she also allows us moments of lightness (such as in her mad dash to get a hat) and of intense drama (such as when she confronts the death of a loved one).  Pidgeon is equally strong as Clem, a man who appears at ease in almost all surroundings but who also has a quiet strength that helps him carry on and protect his family. 

Teresa Wright is simply beautiful as the innocent and intelligent Carol, bringing a lightness and charm every time she is on screen.  Likewise, Dame May does appear to make Lady Beldon the imperious grand dragon so familiar to anyone who watches portrayals of the aristocracy, but we also see that she is capable of her own strength and goodness.

Travers is a delight as the sweet Mr. Ballard, a simple man who seeks nothing but to create beauty.  About the only weak performance is from Ney.  I have speculated whether the fact that in real life he was schtupping his on-screen mother off-screen had anything to do with it.  However, he does come off as a bit stiff and dry as Vin.

Whether is is symbolism or not that the civilian Kay had to take on the German in her own home and garden (thus showing that everyone was in on the fight) I cannot say, but it is a powerful scene regardless, the German's roughness against Mrs. Miniver's fear mixed with courage.  We hear the German 'perspective' for lack of a better word, how their soldiers did not think of committing wholesale slaughter in their efforts for world domination and subjugation.  By not giving the German any chance to be sympathetic, it makes fighting them all that easier.  Here again, another subtle use of making us identify with the British.    

I have one or two problems with Mrs. Miniver. It is a bit dated and the acting at times is rather weak.  Curiously, Clem's American (or at least Canadian, given he was from Nova Scotia) accent was never explained.  However, despite the years Mrs. Miniver hasn't lost the power to move us on an emotional level.  It's easy to see why people still tear up over the story of this ordinary middle-class British family enduring the horrors of war.   

As always, please visit the Best Picture Oscar reviews

1943 Best Picture: Casablanca


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gore Vidal's Lincoln: The Television Miniseries


*Author's note: In recognition of two Abraham Lincoln films, the biopic Lincoln and the horror/comedy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I've decided to look at two television miniseries about the 16th President.  This is the second.

I make no secret my utter disdain for Gore Vidal.  Still, I suppose that every once in a while, something good could come out of him.  Such is the case with the miniseries Lincoln (or Gore Vidal's Lincoln, not to be confused with Gore Vidal's Caligula).

Lincoln covers the years the 16th President was in office: 1861-1865, beginning with his arrival in Washington City on the eve of war.  President-Elect Lincoln (Sam Waterston) soon gathers his Cabinet: as his Secretary of State, a rival, William Seward (Richard Mulligan), and as his Secretary of the Treasury, another political rival, Salmon P. Chase (John McMartin).  Both are eyeing the Presidency for themselves and believe Lincoln to be weak, though as Chase observes, "an opportunist".  Also arriving with Mr. Lincoln is Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Tyler Moore), their children Willie and Tad, and a faithful secretary, Johnny Hay (Steven Culp).  Hay is friendly with the Lincoln's eldest son, Harvard student Robert (Gregory Cooke). 

Lincoln is inaugurated, and the Civil War commences.  Lincoln is frustrated by the Union generals' inability to take the fight to the South, and in particular to General George McClennan (David Leery), who has delusions of his military genius but who continuously insists he does not have the material or the men to take the fight to Robert E. Lee (despite outnumbering the Confederate army on at least one occasion 10-1).  Mrs. Lincoln, for her part, indulges in renovating the White House (and doesn't mind dipping into the government till to finance her own wardrobe), while employing a dressmaker, free black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Ruby Dee). 

The war drags on, and Lincoln endures both the highs and lows of his public and private life.  Willie dies, Mrs. Lincoln finds herself embroiled in a scandal where she in effect sold the President's State of the Union Address to a newspaper in exchange for cash (one figures to cover her mounting debts).  Mrs. Lincoln also has bouts of mental instability, which she calls "the headache", making her behave irrationally.

The machinations of some of his Cabinet and their families are also covered in Lincoln.  Secretary Chase, who was about to swear-in the President as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, learns that his son-in-law, Senator William Sprauge (Thomas Gibson), 'The Boy Governor' (having earned the name due to him being elected as Rhode Island's head at age 29), had run the blockade and provided arms to the Confederate Army in exchange for cotton to keep his factories running.  Making things worse, Sprauge's fortune had financed a failed effort to draft Chase to replace Lincoln for the Republican Party nomination.

The Radical Republicans also thought of dumping Lincoln, who faced stiff opposition from McClennan, who would have made peace with the South as opposed to Lincoln's unconditional surrender policy.  The President, however, has loyal aides and friends, such as his secretary Hay, Congressman Washburn (Jerome Dempsey), and General Ulysses S. Grant (James Gammon), who is the general who finally fights (even if the casualties are horrific).

At last, after the five years of brutal war, the Union army triumphs, but Lincoln, who has felt that once the war ends, so does he, has one brief moment of respite before going to Ford's Theater.  Lincoln ends the way it began: with a train ride, but this time, the President's body is going to Springfield, Illinois for burial.   

Lincoln is a brilliant miniseries because it allows actors to make these lofty historical figures into flawed humans.  It does what any good historic film should do: bring history to life.  It is perhaps curious to see Johnny Hay, a future Secretary of State, being a big fan of whorehouses, going so far as to take Robert Lincoln, Governor Sprague, and the President's old law partner out to a house of ill repute.  However, this is something that brings these characters out from history books and into circumstances people could understand (if not strictly relate to).

The scheming, the sorrow, the bouts of melancholy or foolishness that we know of ourselves are presented in Lincoln as part of their own lives. 

Director Lamont Johnson won the only Emmy Award Lincoln received for the 1988 season, and we can see why he came out a winner.  The performances are all excellent, especially when we see that for some of the actors, this was a change of pace.  Mulligan, for example, is best known for comedy, particularly adept at playing bumbling, slightly befuddled characters like in SOAP or Empty Nest.  In Lincoln, he's as far from Harry Weston as can be imagined.  Mulligan plays Secretary Seward as a shrewd and calculating operator, but who is outmaneuvered by the President. 

However, it's a credit to Johnson's directing, Mulligan's acting, and Ernest Kinoy'swrit of habeas corpus to prevent the Maryland legislature from voting for secession) to appreciating Lincoln as both a politician and as yes, a friend.  He never loses respect for Lincoln's office, but Johnson allows us a few moments when we see a genuine affection from Seward to Lincoln.

Mrs. Lincoln has suffered injuries from a coach accident.  Seward is the only Cabinet official whom Lincoln trusts enough to stay with the President and First Lady in the hospital.  Seward is also the man who brings proof of Mrs. Lincoln's involvement in passing on the State of the Union to the New York press.  The regret and pain Seward expresses in having to inform the President of the First Lady's actions is never spoken, but Mulligan expresses it through his voice and face.

Likewise, there are surprising performances from those who were not as well-known then as they are today.  Culp shows he can be a great actor by making Hay an eager follower of Lincoln, a man devoted to the President and his policies, and who, despite his indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, has a moral core.  He, for example, is furious when he learns of Kate Chase's engagement to Governor Sprauge.  We see Hay react with anger at how people are plotting against his boss, understanding of what this means, and a genuine hurt given that for much of Lincoln we can see Johnny Hay is in love with the vivacious but manipulative Miss Chase. 

Gibson, who would go on to become the straight man on Dharma and Greg, is totally committed to the portrayal of the duplicitous Governor Sprague.  His voice is one that sounds a bit too educated (as if he's trying to behave as if he were better than everyone around him), and he can appear to be quite vicious (even if he does start out as a more decent individual). 

There are no bad performances in Lincoln, even in the smaller parts such as Robin Gammel's Senator Stephen Douglas, George Ede's blunt Irish butler Mr. McManus, or Dempsey's Congressman Washburn. 

The main parts, however, are remarkable.  Mulligan, as I've stated, is a revelation.  However, Moore as the tormented Mary Todd Lincoln is equally brilliant.  She goes from slightly haughty and self-indulgent to being a deeply caring wife and heartbroken mother to dead children and ultimately a widow.  The agony she expresses as she is forced from her dying husband's bedside is heartbreaking, as are whenever she slips into moments of insanity. 

Matching her is Dee's Mrs. Keckley, who comes across as a strong woman who, like Seward, grows to become about the only friend the much-tortured Mrs. Lincoln has.  It's unfortunate that her part was small, but in their scenes together, Dee and Moore make a formidable team.

Curiously, while Dee and Moore were nominated for their performances, Sam Waterston was inexplicably left out for his simply brilliant turn as President Lincoln.  He not only got the physical aspects of the 16th President right, but he also got what would have been Lincoln's western accent down to where it sounded so natural.  Add to that, Waterston also basically is a standard to which all other Lincolns are matched in how he brings the President deep humanity.  We see this whenever he endures painful loss or in the scene where the President opens up slightly to Seward to express the pain his wife causes him. 

Waterston captures the agony of the office in his voice, in his movements.  He also shows both the shrewdness of his maneuvering and the humanity of the man (as in when he gently looks over the list of soldiers to be executed and muses how many of those he can 'squeak by' with a pardon).  The burden of knowing that thousands will die in the awful conflict weighs heavily (as do the antics of his wife), and Waterston brings them all into his portrayal of this brilliant and complex but much-troubled man.

If I am to find fault in Lincoln (and I really don't find that much fault in it), it is in the images of the battles.  I do believe they were made by reenactors, and sometimes they look as if they were being staged.  However, that really is a minor, minor point that doesn't take away from some great performances and beautiful moments.

Lincoln is a brilliantly made miniseries: well-acted, expertly directed, and with great wit and wisdom in its screenplay.  The series moves effortlessly and gives us an almost close-up look at President Lincoln.  It's as good a film as its subject.

It's more remarkable that it is associate in any way with Gore Vidal, as hideous a person as ever walked the Earth.


The Spy Who Loved Me: A Review


The Jaws of Death...

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

After the good-not-great Live And Let Die and the clumsy The Man With the Golden Gun, a viewer of the James Bond film series would be right to be concerned that the franchise was beginning to lose its way.  Mercifully, The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore's third turn as 007, brought us a very good film, one that worked because things were taken a bit more seriously (and we toned down the joking) and because it took the more grandiose elements of previous Bond films down.  Stripped of the more outlandish aspects of the franchise, TSWLM made an impressive entry to the series.

We begin with the taking of a British nuclear submarine, followed in quick succession by the taking of a Soviet ship.  This crisis requires the attention of James Bond as well as Soviet agent XXX, who in the pre-title sequence we find is...a woman!  And a beautiful woman at that: Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach).  Her lover is sent to Austria to deal with a troublesome MI6 agent; alas, said troublesome MI6 agent takes care of him!

Now both XXX and 007 are working leads to find the stolen subs, the big break coming when a tracking system used against them is being sold on the black market.  These blueprints must be recovered at all costs by its owner, one Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens).  He is a wealthy industrialist/capitalist exploiter (why do I get the sense an Occupier would see him as the latter--just a digression) who has dreams of recreating the world under the sea Stromberg so loves.  Those subs are part of his nefarious scheme, as is his henchman, a giant with metal teeth named Jaws (Richard Kiel).  With Jaws as his assassin, he is close to recovering said plans.

However, 007 and XXX are on the case.  After a couple of close calls in Cairo, MI6 head M (Bernard Lee) and his Soviet counterpart General Gogol (Walter Gotell) decide that they should work together against a common enemy.  With that being the case, the former antagonists Bond and Amasova are now ordered to work together (much to their displeasure at first).

They quickly find their way to Stromberg's lair, and are coming together, until XXX discovers what we already know: Bond killed the man she loved.  She then tells him that once the mission is over, she will kill him...and she's never failed in any of her missions.

As part of the effort to track down Stromberg's unused super-tanker, the Liparus, they board an American submarine.  However, the ship is seized by Stromberg, and his wild plan is finally revealed: he will blow up New York City and Moscow not for extortion, but to create a new world (one where, one suspects, he would rule as a new Poseidon).  Bond leads a daring taking of the Liparus while an unsuspecting Stromberg escapes with XXX to his ocean headquarters.  After a lengthy battle Bond and the combined Anglo/American/Soviet crews take the Liparus, Bond goes after Stromberg, faces Jaws one last time, and rescues Anya.

However, Anya is determined to get her revenge on the man who killed her love.  In the end, 007 and XXX find they have reached detente. 

The Spy Who Loved Me has a big plus in that both the scenario and the actors take the premise seriously.  Bond still has his quips but those are kept at a minimum.  Instead, the focus on SWLM is kept on the story, moving the plot along at a steady pace from location to location: Austria to Cairo to Sardinia without going into tangents. 

In fact, SWLM is a remarkably stripped-down film (no pun intended).  We see the difference between this and previous Bond films in a variety of ways. 

First, we have only ONE Bond girl.  The story keeps Anya at its center without having Bond bed another beauty.  Going further into Anya, she is made into something we haven't seen in previous Bond films: his equal.  She isn't the equivalent of Bond (she, for example, isn't as slutty as he is, and she is a tad dimmer than he is), but Anya gives James a run for his money.  The franchise has not given James Bond a female who can match him in terms of expert kills, devotion to duty, or shrewdness of mind.  Anya is even able to make Bond uncomfortable by reminding him of the wife he lost in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the fact that we are able to reference back to a previous story shows that we are having an effort at a continuity that was all but ignored in the films between OHMSS and SWLM.

I don't think Barbara Bach is the greatest actress to have played a Bond Girl: her voice was a little soft at times.  However, she managed to make Anya both a strong woman in her own right and one who seeks to avenge her man.  This gives XXX something few Bond Girls have had (and something most of the Bond characters male or female have had): a motivation.  Whenever Bond has met a beauty, they don't start out as having a reason to go after either Bond or the villain du jour, but here, the screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood does what good screenplays do. 

They put us ahead of the characters, which keeps us in anticipation of when the inevitable conflict comes into the play.  We know from the very beginning that Bond has killed Anya's lover, but neither of them know this until well past the halfway point.  This gives both the characters and the mission an extra level of conflict.  They have already found attraction with the other; they have to complete the mission they have been given.  The tension in SWLM is to see what will happen after Stromberg is defeated.

Lewis Gilbert was not only able to get a strong performance out of Bach, but he also gave Moore the best chance to show he could create a fully-rounded character in Bond.  The expression of amusement he has when XXX is going over his accomplishments fades when she brings up the subject of his one and only marriage.  Moore in this brief moment allows the character to let down the facade of the smooth charmer devoted to Queen and Country and show us the vulnerable, hurt, pained man behind the professional.  Moore has another great moment when they have escaped Stromberg's exploding lair.  Anya announces that the mission is accomplished, and for a brief moment one can see genuine fear in Bond's eyes as she fires her gun. 

Still, for the most part Moore has the charm and smoothness 007 is now known for, but this round is perhaps Roger Moore's finest hour as the British Secret Service agent so far.

Jurgen's Stromberg is not played for laughs as the villain.  He has a cold, ruthless manner to his Old World charm.  Stromberg appears to be a man not to be trifled with.  Granted, he doesn't really appear to be the type of person who sees Anya as the Eve to his Adam in his underworld city, but as villains go he is less camp and more serious.

Kiel is a quiet menace as Jaws.  The idea of this giant of a man being a killer who can exterminate with his metal teeth could have come off as comic, but it's a credit to Gilbert and Kiel that they never played things for laughs. 

A slight digression.  The double-act of Gogol and M gives the characters a chance to show that the two 'advisaries' were actually quite respectful and admiring of each other.  We see this in how they behave towards each other, addressing each other as "Alexis" and "Miles" respectively.  This is certainly the first time M has been called by his first name, which given how long he's been in the series (having appeared in all the previous Bond films) is a bit of a shock.  The fact that the heads of the secret agencies are on a first-name basis (and appear to be almost friends) shows that they see each other as fellow businessmen and professionals, with all the rights and privileges thereof. 

Again, saying so much by saying so little.

Part of what makes that work (along with just about everything in The Spy Who Loved Me) is how Gilbert used the images and music to serve as a counterpoint to what was the subtext.  The best example is in the Pyramids sequence.  In this scene, Bond tracks down a man with information, only to find the man with a beautiful woman whom we know is Anya but whom he doesn't know.  The setting is a night show which gives us a 'sweeping view' of the history of the Pyramids.  The show itself appears something closer to a spectacular at EPCOT than a strong history lesson, but Gilbert manages to use the rather grandiose narration to match the rather sordid killing of the man both 007 and XXX are after.

The Marvin Hamlisch music is the coda (no pun intended) to how this scene is presented.  As the portentous music is played (to the audience watching the story of the Pyramids before the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World), the murder of the information peddler and Bond's fight and escape from both Jaws and Anya's 'bodyguards' serves the scenes beautifully.  Sometimes granted, the score appears a bit dated (as if predicting the rise of disco), but no one can argue with the opening song. 

Nobody Does It Better has the plus of Carly Simon singing the song in a romantic style.  However, Hamlisch's music and Carole Bayer Sager's lyrics are beautiful, clever (working the title of the film seamlessly) and Nobody Does It Better really has become one of the best Bond songs.  The fact that it came after one of the best opening scenes in a Bond film, a thrilling ski chase that culminates in an amazing jump over a cliff, only serves to make the smooth melody settle the thrills of that chase.

It also does describe James Bond very well, or at the very least, how James Bond sees himself.

The Spy Who Loves Me isn't perfect, but its flaws are generally small.  We DO expect the Lawrence of Arabia theme to play during Bond's sojourn in Egypt (and it does, though not when we expect it) and the idea that Stromberg expects Bond to show up is stretching things a bit (as is Jaws' escape, which can be seen as either comic or a way to not kill off a good henchman).  Finally, in the recap of Nobody Does It Better at the end, you get the hint that Hamlisch had another score in mind. 

Listen to how the song is sung by a male choir, and you get the sense he was channeling One from A Chorus Line. The instrumental right after they sing "Nobody does it better" is eerily similar to what comes after the line, "every little step she takes". 

Still, those really are not big matters in the overall film.

The Spy Who Loves Me takes the premise seriously.  It provides motivation for the main characters.  It gives them more emotional complexity than we've seen in a while.  It has a brilliant song.  It is a very good film, and one that might serve as a good introduction to those reluctant to enter the world of Bond.  It's easy to why we love the spy.

Chalk it up to the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Despite having the beautiful Catherine Bach as Soviet secret agent XXX (a rather suggestive name though remarkably tame for a Bond Girl), the star of The Spy Who Loved Me is...Jaws!

Next James Bond Film: Moonraker


Monday, May 28, 2012

The Big Parade: A Review


The Big Parade is a war film that isn't as well-known as perhaps it should be.   In the annals of war films, The Big Parade, released a mere seven years at the conclusion of the First World War, would have struck home with many a veteran.  What makes The Big Parade a great film is that it doesn't neglect the human cost of war, both for soldier and civilian. 

We are quickly introduced to our three main characters.  You have working-class construction worker Slim (Karl Dane), working-class barkeep Bull (Tom O'Brien) and James Apperson (John Gilbert), scion of a wealthy industrialist.  America quickly enters the Great War, and so do our three doughboys.  James is both the most reluctant and the most eager: reluctant because he isn't used to hard work and because his mother would rather him not go, but enthusiastic because it will please his girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams).  With that, he (along with Slim and Bull) go off to France.

The Big Parade then follows our three men as they go through the trials and travails of war, both the humor and the horror of the conflict.   James soon begins a romance with beautiful French girl Melisande (Renee Adoree).  He balances his love for Melisande with his fondness for Justyn (to whom he finds himself engaged to).  Despite this, he and Melisande are still in love.

After the lovers come close to ending their romance, we get to the actual war. The trumpets announce they are moving to the front, and in a beautiful scene Melisande and Jim say their hurried goodbyes.  Now our three characters experience the war: the airplane bombings, the fear of being gunned down in the forest, potential gas attacks, and the awful silences in the night.  While in a foxhole, Slim goes to take out the Germans, and the eventual agony of not knowing whether he made it or not is too much for Jim.  He goes out there himself, and is wounded after finding Slim has been killed in action, but not before going on a vengeful spree himself. 

In the hospital, Jim learns that Melisande's farmhouse has been taken and retaken at least four times in a day.  Desperate, he leaves it in a mad effort to go find his love.  She and her family are now refugees, but Jim does not find them.  The war is now over and Jim returns, unaware that Justyn and Jim's brother have fallen in love while he was away.  Jim returns, perhaps in triumph, but without a leg.  Jim tells his mother about the girl in France, and like all good mothers, encourages him to return to find her.  We end The Big Parade with the lovers reunited.          
King Vidor, one of the great but not well-known/remembered directors, brings a full range of emotions out of Harry Behn's adaptation of Laurence Stallings' story.  We have bits of comedy (as when James has a hard time cutting Justyn's rather heavy cake to share with Bull and Slim) and rather touching scenes (as when James first meets the beautiful Melisande).  He doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of war, however.  The tension of the soldiers when they march into battle for the first time is incredible and nerve-wracking.  Vidor gives us a first-person view of the soldiers marching and dying (at times moving the camera as though we were marching alongside our characters).  We also get the great tragedy the war causes in both body and soul.  When Jim returns as an amputee, the pain in his mother's face is just as heartbreaking as that of seeing Jim with part of his leg gone.

It's unfortunate for Gilbert that sound came, because in terms of silent screen acting, he was among the very best.  His face was extremely expressive.  Unlike in most Gilbert films, he did not have a mustache, which made him look younger.  This made his role as the pampered son who grows to manhood more believable.  He has a wonderful flair for comedy when he is courting Melisande, but when we see him in fury over the death of Slim or in agony in seeing his parents again, it shows a brilliant actor.

Adoree is not only a beauty to behold in The Big Parade, she also plays Melisande as a sweet but smart girl.  If the scene where the lovers part doesn't get to you, I'd wonder whether you have a romantic bone in your body.  It's a beautiful and tender moment played so well by Adoree and Gilbert that you yearn for them to have a few more moments together. 

The realism in The Big Parade extends even with the title cards.  When Melisande 'speaks', the titles are written in French (a rarity that brings the reality of James' inability to converse with her to life).  The varying accents and mispronunciations entre le francais et l'anglais is handled beautifully in The Big Parade, and more importantly, it adds to our understanding of how these two lovers attempt to express themselves in different languages (again, a rarity in silent films). 

If I were to find any fault in The Big Parade, it is that it takes quite a while for the story to move forward.  A great of time is taken up in the courting of Melisande by Jim, and after a while one begins to wonder whether there's an actual war going on.  Granted, it serves to make the separation between Jim and Melisande more heartbreaking, but I wonder if modern audiences would have the patience to sit through all that before getting to the actual fighting.  As I watched the film, both the courting and the hijinks of Bull and Slim was trying MY patience, and I love silent films. 

It's a curious thing to me when it comes to war films.  In the decade after the First World War we had a variety of films that dealt with the war that were open about how brutal the war was and how it impacted those involved on both the front lines and the home front.  Two of the first six Best Picture Oscar winners (Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front) were about World War I, and a third Best Picture winner (Cavalcade) had the war as a backdrop.  Some of them are among the greatest films ever made.

Conversely, we have, after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet to have THE war film for our generation.  Most of the war films made after the invasions of both nations are thinly-veiled propaganda films that beat us upside the head that these wars are evil and we are the aggressors.  That may be the case: I leave that to history.  However, I find that the war films made about the conflicts in the Mideast are too involved with telling us what the makers think to delve into the horrors of war.  The previously mentioned films certainly had a definite point of view (World War I was a brutal and foolish exercise) but they concentrated on the characters more than on the views of the filmmakers.

Films like Wings, All Quiet On the Western Front, and The Big Parade, don't skate past the horror of that war.  However, they kept the focus on the people both doing the fighting and the civilians.  In short, they let the story do the telling.
This lesson is one that today's filmmakers would be wise to learn if they wish to make films that have the power that these films have.  By not losing focus on the fact that war affects so many lives, films like The Big Parade still have the power to move us. 

On the whole, I think The Big Parade is a bit long, but once we get past the surface frivolity of our boys, we get a painful reminder that for some, a war does not end when the shooting stops.  Still, at least with The Big Parade, we end on a note of hope, something audiences then and now will always find great comfort in.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Gentleman And An Actor

Born 1922
Sir Christopher Lee has not received the credit for the sheer breath of his talent.  He holds the Guinness World Record for the most screen credits of any actor, yet for most of his career he has been playing villains.

However, WHAT VILLAINS he has played.  For two or three generation of filmgoers, he has been in turn Dracula, Scaramanga from the James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun, Saruman (from The Lord of the Rings), and Count Dooku (from the Star Wars prequels). What has aided him in portraying such monsters is both his imposing height of 6' 5" and that unmistakable voice.

I think that because he has played so many we forget just how strong and good an actor Christopher Lee is.  He has always talked that his favorite role was that of Pakistan's founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah in Jinnah.  He is as far from a villain as one can get (despite the failure of Pakistan to be a true and functioning democracy like its neighbor and rival India).  One at first would think a Muslem or at least a Pakistani would be best to play the part, but Lee's extraordinary range allows us to forgive the casting of the British Lee in the title role of the Father of Pakistan. 

As a side note, I would love to ask Lee what he thinks of how Pakistan appears to be falling apart and what Jinnah would have thought about all the misery the nation has endured since Partition, but I digress.

Above all else, it is Lee's distinct and deep voice that sells both villainy and warmth.  He exudes elegance as the Lord Summerisle, but with that comes a menace that makes The Wicker Man more frightening.  However, we can't forget his small but important role in Hugo.  Here, he might appear to be a scary person, but in reality he is a kind man who shares with the title character the importance of books. 

The range of his career can only be admired.  Yes, he created iconic villains in brilliant films (and yes, not-so-brilliant films), but Lee is more than vampires and wizards.  He is a man of culture, of intelligence, and of incredible range.  How does one go from Jinnah to Saruman, from Scaramanga to Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (showing he is perfectly capable of being in on the joke), and not stand back and marvel at the wide variety of roles he has played? 

Christopher Lee is not just a brilliant bogeyman (although he is that).  He is an actor to which few can stand toe-to-toe with (in many cases, literally).  He is a truly great actor, and now that he is entering his twilight, perhaps he will get the long-overdue credit he deserves, perhaps an Honorary Oscar or a Kennedy Center Honor. 

Just a thought.

With that, I wish a Happy 90th Birthday to Sir Christopher Lee.

The Vow: A Review (Review #393)


The Vow is 'inspired' by true events.  In the sense that a woman suffered a traumatic car accident that erased the memory of getting married, it stays close to the true story.  Everything else I think is fiction.  However, while The Vow is in many respects not good, I can't lie to myself or you and say it's the disaster it is being presented as. 

Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) share a passionate love, a whimsical love, a cutesy love, a love so pure, so beautiful, so precious, so endearing, that one almost WANTS something to happen to them.  In very short order, we get our wish.  A car accident leaves Paige in a medically-induced coma, and when she wakes up she has lost all memory of Leo.  In fact, the five years they've spent as boyfriend/girlfriend and as man and wife has been completely removed from her memory.  As far as she knows, the hunky Leo is a stranger.

Under normal circumstances, after the accident one would think Leo would at least contact her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) even if she is estranged from them.  After all, Paige is their daughter.  However, to do so would needless complicate The Vow and make it...well, slightly realistic.  As it stands, Bill and Rita Thornton, once they discover their youngest is recovering from her near-fatal accident, are thrilled that their daughter is a blank slate.  It's almost Jedi mind trick-like the way they take over their daughter: you DON'T need to be a scupltress, you want to finish law school; you DON'T really want to be a vegetarian, you love filet minon; you DIDN'T really vote for Obama for President (bad enough you voted for him as Senator), you want to be a total WASP; you really AREN'T married to Leo, you are still engaged to Jeremy (Scott Speedsman). 

Paige, puzzled by everything and a bit fearful of everything connected with Leo, slowly starts to see Bill and Rita as her real refuge.  However, exercising his marital rights, Leo takes her home.  This doesn't go well: Paige can't believe she is a sculptress, that she is some sort of hippie, or that she is married to this hunky/sensitive guy.  As Leo pines away for Paige, letting his recording business go by the wayside, Paige slowly falls back into her parent's circle.  Unfortunately, this means coming close to Jeremy (whom she still considers her real fiance and for whom she still has feelings, conflicted as they may be).

Leo does everything to win her over: he takes her on dates, he takes her to the places they once knew, he even tries to surround her with their hipper-than-hip hipster friends.  Nothing doing.  Things culminate at her sister's wedding, where Bill urges Leo to divorce (which he finally does).  However, he still loves her while she has literally forgotten him.  As in any good romantic drama, Paige finally discovers why she broke with her family, decides that law school really isn't for her (again), and finds herself with the real love of her life.

Yes, there are many things wildly wrong with The Vow, starting with the performances.  I tire of stating the obvious: Channing Tatum can't act.  Channing Tatum couldn't act if a nuclear device were tied to a collection of puppies, but here, I saw something I had never seen from Tatum: him making a sincere and total effort to try.  He tried to act, tried harder than I've ever seen him try before, so at least I'm willing to congratulate him for making an effort.  The fact that Channing Tatum is still remarkably incapable of expressing emotion confirms that he has no actual acting ability, but he does get an A for Effort.

McAdams does better as the confused Paige, though she had the fortune to basically play two characters: the hippie free-spirit Paige and the WASPy Paige.  It's unfortunate that the screenplay by Jason Katims, Abby Kohn, and Mark Silverstein (with story by Stuart Sender) gives our amnesia victim very little to do.  She is almost unwilling to even try to reconnect to her past life with Leo, and the speed at which she returns to her priviledged life almost makes one wonder why Leo would fight so hard to keep someone so unwilling to not just recognize him, but even unwilling to give his hunk of a man a chance.

It's also unfortunate that we had so many cliches about how overwhelming Leo & Paige's love was.  They are so hip and cute: marrying at an art institute surreptitiously, making love in her studio, constantly proclaiming their love at every turn.  Add that the screenplay went out of its way to portray her parents as these WASP demons without souls, to where the screen almost put up a flashing sign for us to jeer every time Bill and Rita appeared. 

Whatever dramatic tension The Vow could have given us in what is a very dramatic situation is lost in its mad rush to get these two crazy kids together again. 

I digress to say that I wondered why Leo never bothered to contact Bill and Rita and tell them that their daughter is in a coma.  It's one thing that Paige is estranged from her parents, but for heaven's sake she is close to dying; don't you think that her parents, whatever their differences, would want to know this rather insignificant thing?  It would not have been all that difficult to track the Thorntons down, and it might have eased things once Paige finally woke up.  It also would have forced Bill and Rita to accept (if not like) the fact that Paige had married someone they'd never met.

Of course, that couldn't happen because then the conflict within The Vow would be if not non-existent at least less dramatic.  The Vow needs to give these two seemingly insurmountable challenges which would make their ultimate reuniting (as if you didn't think THAT wouldn't happen) all the more romantic. 

As if to compensate for Tatum's lack of emotion, Lange and Neill decided to overdo it in their roles.  Neill is all growls and lack of compassion as Bill, while Lange's Rita has the snobbish element all down.  Whether it's important or not that Lange at times looks like Joan Crawford in her Night Gallery-era I leave up to you. 

Speedman is directed by Michael Suscy to be indecisive as to how his character should be.  Should he be a man who will embrace a second chance at the love of his life?  Should he be the selfish jerk who will render a love so pure asunder for his own pleasure? 

The screenplay at times almost goes out of its way to remove logic from the situation.  When she first comes around, I would have thought it might be a good idea to show Paige all those videos and photos of their magical time together to show her they did have a great love affair.  Instead, Leo appears content to just let her wander around their apartment to see if that works (always thought Tatum was a bit dim...).  Furthermore, The Vow treats Paige's amnesia as if it were almost a flu: Leo doesn't appear all too fazed to see his own business start falling apart.  The more realistic thing is to have someone (perhaps their hipster friends, none of whom we ever really get to know or even at times know by name) stay with her.  Just a thought.

The Vow doesn't hang together very well.  Fortunately for Suscy, the audience isn't asking for more logic in The Vow.  Instead, it wants a rather second-rate love story with the complication of amnesia to have them rediscover love again.  Having that in mind (no pun intended), we can forgive The Vow for being exactly what it presents itself as. 

It's strange that when I watched the trailer for The Vow, the only thing I could think of was whether it was a remake/update of Random Harvest (which dealt with similar themes of finding love after amnesia).  What I find amusing is if that were the case, that would make Channing Tatum Greer Garson.

Still, at the end of the day The Vow did get me on at least a surface level.  It was badly acted (well, any film with Channing Tatum will be badly acted: he could be in Hamlet as one of the guards and he wouldn't be able to make it believable).  Its story goes through hoops to separate the lovers when we find that the real couple managed to come together and even have children.  Maybe I'm mellowing with age, but I didn't hate The Vow.  I didn't love it or thought it one of the great love stories, but given that The Vow didn't ask much from me, I can't ask much from it either. 

The Vow is a film about a blank Paige starring a blank actor. 


Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Review


The Raj Revisited...

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an Anglophiles dream come true.  You not only have a cavalcade of some of the best British actors working today (and Dev Patel), but you also have a very odd sense that this is the India the former rulers always wanted: one where they came around, discovered how nice it all is, and decided to not only stay but help run the place.  Rule Britannia indeed! 

BEMH knows pretty much what it is: a light life-affirming film that tells one to go for your dreams crossed with 'it's never too late/you're never too old', and it doesn't stray far from that.  It is blessed, though, with a dream cast that if it were a period piece or a drama, would already be on many an Oscar shortlist.  Being a comedy, well, that's still technically possible, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

In quick succession we meet all the travellers, all in their twilight years.  Evelyn (Dame Judi Dench) is a recent widow unfamiliar with technology (like all old people) who is facing financial hardship.  Graham (Tom Wilkinson) is a judge who has grown tired of the routine.  Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) are a retired civil servant and wife who find their pension doesn't cover a good retirement in the U.K.  Muriel (Dame Maggie Smith) is a working-class woman not taking kindly to all these "foreigners" in her Britain but one in need of a new hip.  Norman (the brilliantly named Ronald Pickup) is an aging Lothario who finds rather slim pickings these days.  Madge (Celia Imrie) is a swingin' single gal in search of a wealthy suitor (think Blache Devareux's British cousin).

All except Graham find the pound doesn't go far today, but it goes very far in the land of the rupee.  All except Graham and Muriel decide to spend their retirement at a place billed as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful (if anything, Indians have a way with words).  Graham goes to India for his own private reasons which will be revealed as the film goes along.  Muriel goes there to get hip replacement surgery faster and cheaper.  Bigotry, I suppose, must give way to cost.

After a bit of difficulty they arrive at the hotel, run by (very) eager Sonny (Patel), whose enthusiasm for things cannot mask that the place is a wreck.  In typical British aplomb, they decide to make the best of it (save for Jean, who finds the whole thing odious, scoring one for the imperialists).  Muriel goes through the surgery and will have to wait out her recovery, all while having to be surrounded by Indians (which I understand, makes up a majority in India).  Evelyn, who had been sheltered all her life, finds a job as cultural advisor at a call center, where Sonny's girlfriend Sunaina (Tena Desae) works at.  Jean won't leave the premises, but her henpecked husband Douglas does, finding he can function rather well in new and exotic surroundings.  Madge begins her man hunt, while Norman finds the hunting still a bit dicey.

Graham, however, has the most to lose.  He had grown up in India, and before he left he'd had a summer romance there.  Now he seeks out his former lover...a man, named Menoj.  In short order, Evelyn not only finds a job to be a delight but finds the Internet is quite easy (even keeping a blog that provides a voiceover to BEMG).  She also finds a growing friendship with Douglas. Muriel finds that Indians (even the Untouchables) are all pretty good people, even a bit like her.  Graham does find his long-lost love (and his remarkably understanding wife) but dies right afterwards.  With Claire as a mentor (or would it be mentress), Norman begins to fine-tune his romantic skills, and finds romance with Carol (Diane Hardcastle) a Briton whose lived her whole life in India. 

Not everything goes well however: Jean becomes suspicious of Douglas' growing friendship with Evelyn (even if their behavior suggests nothing more than a deep friendship) and detests everything about this land.  In the end, the signs (or gods, however you have it) point to the obvious: Douglas and Evelyn should be together, Sonny and Sunaina should be together.  It even points to the not-so-obvious: Muriel is the best suited to actually run things.

As I took a quick look-round the audience, I felt as if I were one of the few people in the theater who wasn't alive when India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.  I think this was as it should be: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel appears targeted towards the senior set, to remind them that one never stops living or loving or laughing until one literally stops living.   Since that is the case, BEMH does not lie to us and should be appreciated for the positive messages within it.

One also has to look at the breath of talent in front of the camera and realize BEMH is a showcase for the elder statesmen of the British stage and screen.  Wilton and Smith have a reunion of sorts (both of them starring in the wildly popular Downton Abbey series).  Here, they get a chance to not only play contemporary characters, but also roles outside their usual screen personas.  It really isn't often when Smith plays anything other than either dotty or haughty but always well-born ladies, so seeing her play a working-class figure is a revelation of sorts.  She handles the bigotry behind Muriel as less actual hatred and more a fear of the unknown.  Wilton still plays a middle-class character, but here, she isn't a compassionate and intelligent woman.  Instead, she is a bigot in her own way, a deeply unhappy woman dissatisfied with where she is at. 

Still, it is a credit to both Smith and Wilton that neither of them came across as evil or horrid people, but instead as deeply flawed.  However, since we are talking about Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, we can trust that we will see great performances.

The other dame, Judi Dench, at times may come close to veering towards "old people don't understand technology", but the compassion and eagerness to learn new things comes through in Evelyn's kindness and wisdom.  As the eager woman Madge, Imrie never makes her a tart.  Instead, she is just a woman who is looking for if not love at least a wealthy suitor to keep her well. 

The best performance in BEMH is Nighy (whom oddly, I never thought of as old, but I digress).  He does so much by doing so little, his Douglas expressing either repressed hopes or joyful discoveries in a quiet demeanor.  It's in his joys of being able to fix the plumbing at the hotel, it's his self-amazement at being able to bargain (or not) at the local bazaars where Nighy excels.  Wilkinson isn't far from him as the sure but reticent judge, seeking out his long-lost love and making the discovery that how he imagined things was not the way things were.  Pickup (again, a great name for someone playing a frustrated pickup artist) added a roguish element of humor in his Norman, but one who is also more than the sum of his parts.

I can't fault Patel in his broadly comic role of the over-eager Sonny.  Whether it was a rather broad performance or not I leave to you.  However, given that this is a comedy and not to be taken too seriously, we cut him some slack.

On the whole, John Madden directed his cast smoothly, with each story balancing itself out rather well without coming at the expense of the others.  Ol Parker's adaptation of Deborah Moggach's These Foolish Things had a strong sense of humor and witty lines that both brought laughs and revealed much about the characters.  In her anger at Douglas, Jean snaps, "When I want your opinion I'll give it to you".  When Jean mentions with joy that she and Douglas are going to celebrate their 40th anniversary, she tells her group, "We haven't decided how to mark (it)".  Claire quietly replies to all of them, "Perhaps with a moment of silence". 

I can't find much fault in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, save perhaps for Sonny's excessive efforts to please and convince everyone around him that he is competent to run anything.   His "words of wisdom" at times make him look either foolish or almost insane.  For example, when Jean complains loudly about the conditions of the hotel, he tells her, "In India, we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end, so if it's not all right, it's not the end".  It sounds good, but it doesn't get Jean a good meal (a good British meal).

Finally, I digress to say one can see BEMH as an exercise in Western imperialism.  Things at the hotel and with the Indian characters aren't good until the British come along to sort everything out.  If one wants to read a sense of superiority in the film one is welcome to, but I would argue that the film is suppose to seen through the senior British characters and how India affected them, not about how they affected India or the Indian characters. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a sweet film that seeks only to please (not unlike Sonny).  It has a host of Britain's best actors, making it an actor's showcase.  It has a positive message that can be summed up thus: the only real failure is the failure to try.  I can say that while The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn't a brilliant film (one pretty much knows where it is going to go), it did have an odd effect on me.  It made me think my own life is glorious and run to hug my mother.  Make of that what you will, but as for me, it is certainly worth a visit. 


Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Man With The Golden Gun: A Review


Gunning For a Better Film...

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

My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead), and I were in sharp disagreement over The Man With the Golden Gun.  I take it from the way he kept pushing MWGG to be the James Bond film for our Essentials List that it was his favorite.  After I watched it, I didn't think too much of it.  MWGG is hardly the worst Bond film I've seen, but it does have a host of problems that keep it from being among the best Bonds.  The Man With the Golden Gun does have its pluses, but not enough to add up to a good film.

Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), the titled Man With the Golden Gun, is a master assassin who, as the title song tells us, 'charges a million a shot/an assassin that's second to none'.  Scaramanga had worked for the KGB but after being overworked and underpaid decided to go independent.  Now it seems that he has set his sights on 007 James Bond (Roger Moore), to make him, as the song again tells us, 'another poor victim/(that) has come to a glittering end'.  Unfortunately, no one knows what Scaramanga looks like: no photos or witnesses.  He has one distinguishing characteristic:  a third nipple.

Bond is encouraged to keep a low profile, but with a nod and a wink he is also encouraged to find Scaramanga before Scaramanga finds Bond.  He tracks down the bullet that killed another 00, which leads him to Macau.  Here, he hooks up (take that however you wish) with British Secret Service Agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Eckland).  Bond also finds Miss Anders (Maud Adams), Scaramanga's mistress who tells him where Scaramanga will be. 

Bond goes to the Bottoms Up Club but instead of getting Bond, Scaramanga gets Gibson (Gordon Everett), a scientist who had stolen a solex, a powerful bit of machinery that will provide virtually unlimited solar power.  The solex has now fallen into mysterious hands, the hands of Chinese businessman/criminal Hai Fat (Richard Loo), who had hired Scaramanga.  Bond tries to get to Hai Fat (a name to be played with), is captured, escapes, and somehow ends up with Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) from Live And Let Die, who just happens to be vacationing in Bangkok. 

What ARE the odds? 

Scaramanga, along with his henchman Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize) escapes in their flying car (yes, their flying car), with the inept Miss Goodnight in the trunk/boot.  Bond now goes to her rescue as well as to recover the solex.  This pleases Scaramanga since the killing of Bond will be his greatest kill (not having been satisfied with killing off Miss Anders before she got the solex for Bond).  Thus, we now must have the epic duel between 007 and The Man With The Golden Gun.

Honestly, Fidel (wherever you are), what DID you see in The Man With the Golden Gun that made you WANT to make this an Essential?  MWGG isn't the worst Bond film made, but we do have one or two issues with it that make it one of the oddest in the canon. 

Let's start with the title song (always a hallmark of the Bond films save for Dr. No and On Her Majesty's Secret Service which had none).  Instrumentally, John Barry's music (both the song and the overall score) was quite good: his ability to make the melody fit both a "Wild West" and "Prohibition gangster" motif worked.  Don Black's lyrics, however, as some of the most inane of any Bond song.

"Love is required/whenever he's hired/it comes just before the kill".  That doesn't make any sense.  WHY is "love required"?  Does that mean someone like Hai Fat has to go to bed with Scaramanga before he takes the job? It might be required when JAMES BOND is hired...he'll sleep with just about anyone.  However, since you're referring to the actual 'man with the golden gun'...

Even worse is the bridge: "His eye may be on you or me/Will he bang?/We shall see", Scottish pop singer Lulu coos almost erotically.  I do have to give credit to Lulu for adding great emphasis on the word 'bang', selling all its sexual connotations to the Nth power, but I could never shake the sense that her rendition was rather overblown and excessive, as if she were trying to do a bad Shirley Bassey imitation.  The title song is good when it comes to the music, bad when it comes to the lyrics.

Furthermore, the performances almost all around are some of the weakest and most ridiculous the franchise has seen.  Brit Eckland's Mary Goodnight has to be Bond's most inept sidekick, and one wonders WHY she exactly is there in the first place, except to look good in a bikini (which she does).  Maud Adams (I'm going to get a bit ahead of things, but she will make history as the only woman to have been a Bond Girl twice) doesn't acquit herself very well as the conflicted Miss Anders.  In her defense, she doesn't have much to do or a particularly strong character to play, so I'm willing to cut her a little slack.

I won't cut any slack to having James as Sheriff Pepper back.  It might have been amusing to have had him back as a quick cameo, but just like when Bruce Campbell received screen credit in Spider-Man 3 signaled that the film was going to be awful, having James receive screen credit signaled that screenwriters Richard Maibaum and especially Tom Mankiewicz had grown too fond of the character.  He added nothing except for hillbilly hijinks (and signaled that perhaps Pepper was a bigot--he kept referring to the native Thais as 'brown pointy-heads', which is an odd description no matter how you cut it).  His character was totally unnecessary.

Also unnecessary was a scene in the karate school where Bond basically sat there watching a couple of fights before he took to a match (which was over very quickly).  Even worse, when people come to rescue him, he doesn't actually do much: it was a couple of high school girls who literally fight the battles for him!  I did think there could have been a less elaborate way to try to kill off Bond.  I also thought that, just like in Live And Let Die was a way to cash in the blaxploitation craze, The Man With the Golden Gun might have tried to get in on the kung-fu/martial arts films then coming to the forefront. 

Villachaize has to be one of the dumbest if not silliest henchmen in the entire Bond canon.  At first it might appear that his height (3 11") might have something to do with it (having Bond defeat him by putting him in a suitcase does not help matters).  However, as I thought of it Villachaize's small frame shouldn't have stopped Nick Nack being dangerous.  I imagined if Peter Dinklage (4' 5") in the role, and I think the Game of Thrones star could be quite menacing.  Therefore, height should not have been a hindrance.  It might have been that Nick Nack had too much fun playing the slightly comic sidekick, which made it hard to take things seriously.

Going to a slightly different subject, MWGG has a problem in terms of structure.  In the pre-title song scene, we see how Scaramanga tests his assassin skills by putting his potential victims in a funhouse-type setting.  That's all well and good, but when the climatic battle between Bond and Scaramanga comes around, whatever tension there might have been by putting Bond in such a weird setting is gone because we've seen it all before.  Moreover, despite what I imagine was a rather lavish budget, the funhouse was a little on the cheap side.

Even worse, more time is wasted when Anders returns to tell Bond a few secrets, The Man With the Golden Gun goes from adventure story to bedroom farce as Bond has to hide Miss Goodnight in the closet so that he can get a bit of Anders' attention.  Maybe this was director Guy Hamilton's way of putting in some comedy, but I found it all more time-consuming than amusing.

Returning to the performances, there are two that worked much better than most.  Moore in his second turn as 007 is starting to show that he isn't all charm as the secret agent.  He can be quite brutal when he needs to be (in particular with Miss Anders, whacking her about in a way that today seems almost brutal).  However, Bond still has a slight tendency to be a bit dim when dealing with the villains (apparently unaware that the master assassin wouldn't possibly be setting up when going to the Bottoms Up Club for example).  However, Moore is starting to make a good Bond, perhaps not as great as Connery, but a wild step up from George Lazenby.

The best performance is from Christopher Lee, who never plays the situations for laughs (even when they lend themselves to them, such as when Scaramanga's car literally turns into a plane).  He always plays it straight, making Scaramanga one of the series' more chilling villains.  Unlike other Bond villains, he isn't trying to take over the world.  Instead, he is merely a hired gun, one who takes pride in his work, and one who is dangerous in his cool demeanor and lack of compassion.  It's unfortunate that MWGG doesn't really know what to do with Scaramanga; his end is actually rather anti-climatic and weak.

What positives MWGG does have is an impressive car chase scene in Bangkok, culminating in a wild jump over a broken bridge that is still quite amazing to see.  Whether it was done with models or special effects or a stunt performed on camera, it is still worth seeing (the music, sadly, does slightly diminish the effect, but is still spectacular). 

This entry in the Bond franchise is by far the weakest so far.  Too much useless comedy (the bedroom farce between Goodnight and Anders, all of Sheriff Pepper, Nick Nack, a bathing beauty named Chew Mee--a bit too much even for 007), some pretty bad acting from the cast save Moore and Lee, and a thin plot pushes the film down.  Granted, I did laugh at one line: when Mrs. Pepper tells her husband she wants to buy some cute elephant figures, Sheriff Pepper tells her, "Elephants?!  We're Democrats, Maybelle". 

The Man With the Golden Gun is riddled with too much bad to be good.

Next James Bond Film: The Spy Who Loved Me


Monday, May 21, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement: A Review


I figure that The Five-Year Engagement is a comedy, but curiously, I didn't laugh much.  I think it had to do with the fact that the situation our couple, sous chef Tom (Jason Segel) and psychology student Violet (Emily Blunt) isn't all that difficult to overcome.  They are confusing 'marriage' with 'wedding', which are not the same thing.  The fact that the film feels like it wants us to feel each of those five years doesn't help. 

The big thing I heard at the screening I went to is that The Five-Year Engagement is a long movie.  In fact, this was about the only thing people began to focus on: how long the film was.  One can sit through long films (from the brilliant Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur on down to any of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter films) and find that it is time well spent.  In The Five-Year Engagement, you don't.  This has to do with logic.  In all the other mentioned films, there was a reason for their length: their stories were so expansive that a great deal of time was needed to encompass as much as possible.  Their pacing also was such that one (mostly) didn't notice how much time had passed.  When a story so envelopes you with a great story and brilliant performances that time slips away, it is a great film.

In The Five-Year Engagement, time keeps dragging, and the people you are shacked up with for over two hours appear both boring and almost as bored as we are, not to mention almost insane and inept.

It is New Year's Eve, and exactly one year after meeting at a Superhero Costume/New Year's Party, Tom proposes marriage to Violet.  Soon, the plans for the wedding are being arranged: the cake, the location, the dress.  Violet's maid of honor will be her sister Suzie (Alison Brie).  Tom's best man will be his best friend Alex (Chris Pratt).  Suzie is a little on the uptight side, and Alex is the permanent moron.  Obviously they hook up at the engagement party.

Violet doesn't get into Berkeley for her doctorate as she had hoped for, but she does get an offer from Michigan.  This of course means having to...postpone the wedding.  Tom, deeply in love as any other fool, readily agrees to quit his job to live with Violet those two years of graduate school.  Meanwhile, Suzie finds she got knocked up, and this requires a wedding to the baby daddy.  Despite being immature and incredibly loutish, Alex does indeed go ahead and marry Suzie.

The fact that her sister is already married with children and Violet and Tom have yet to even set a date doesn't appear to faze them in the slightest.  Violet throws herself into her psychology studies alongside her classmates Vaneetha (Mindy Kaling), Ming (Randall Park), and Doug (Kevin Hart) and her professor Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans), Tom is pretty much left to his own devices.  Michigan is basically a backwater: no high-dining for the redneck/hick crowd.  He gets a job at a sandwich shop, and is miserable.  He takes to hunting, and is miserable.  Tom appears to be slipping into if not out-and-out insanity at least a very strong depression, with only his fellow "college widower", the sweater-sewing Bill (Chris Parnell) to help him out.

Violet's studies have been extended, which of course means yet another delay to the actual wedding.  Tom appears to be almost bonkers, and the ensuing pressures of their unhappy lives causes them to break up (the fact that Professor Childs kissed Violet and Tom had one depression-and-booze filled fling with someone else didn't help matters).  Tom moves back to San Francisco, wiser, sadder, and with one toe less (don't ask). 

Violet's unhappy, Tom's unhappy, but still they can't make it to the church on time.  By the time said five years roll around, Suzie has TWO children and a surprisingly happy marriage to Alex, who is still a bit of an immature moron but who at least realizes that Tom IS slipping into madness with his woodsman beard, penchant for going Ted Nugent on them by not just serving them his kills but skinning the animals for lampshades and cup covers, and by leaving his bow and arrows laying around for Alex's daughter to get hold of.

FINALLY, after the death of all their grandparents, Violet goes to San Fransisco and FINALLY organizes a quick wedding ceremony for a delighted Tom.

I had said that people in the screening focused on the length of this film.  That's not the only thing they focused on.  The logical question in this very illogical film was asked of me: if they'd been living together all these years, why didn't they just go to the courthouse and get married?

That is what I also was thinking.  The idea behind The Five-Year Engagement is that these two crazy kids had a series of hurdles they could not overcome.  In reality, their situation was remarkably easy to resolve: a quick trip to Vegas would have solved it.  A fifteen minute visit to a Justice of the Peace would have solved it.

The screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and co-star Segel refuses to acknowledge the obvious: these two people simply DIDN'T want to get married.  It was all a case of "they doth protest too much".  It is amazing how two people known for being clever with comedic situations (Stoller as director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and co-writer of what I thought was the overrated The Muppets, Segel both as writer of both films and as part of the brilliant I Love You, Man) could be so tone-deaf to anything approaching humor.

The scenes that were intended to be funny (grandparents dying, little girl shooting arrows into other people, getting your penis frozen because you are running around Michigan's perpetual winter without your pants) were actually almost gruesome and perverse.  As I think on it, The Five-Year Engagement wasn't a comedy.  It was a horror film. 

Nothing captures the stupidity and dare I say, the insanity, of The Five-Year Engagement than in Segel's Tom.  This is obviously a weak man (more on that in a moment), and he is also a man on the verge of a total mental breakdown.  We see this as the years go on, with him living this somewhat hazy existence in Violet's shadow.  While she has her work, her studies, her friends, Tom appears to have nothing to do.  He's dissatisfied at the job he clearly hates, and has gone into hunting as an outlet to his inactivity both physical and mental. 

Curiously, the only time in his forced exile in the tundra that is Michigan came when he was given the task of organizing the postponed wedding.  Tom appeared to be finally fulfilled in being able to do SOMETHING, and moreover he appeared to both be enjoying it and being good at it.  When, due to the most preposterous of reasons, the wedding was called off, we no longer care: for him, for his plight, or for the film itself.

At times, Segel looked as if he were seriously drugged out while on camera, giving a sleepy one-note performance to where he looked almost as bored as his audience.  Perhaps this was how the role was meant to be played, but one couldn't care about someone who appeared to lose all grips of reality.  It takes a lot to believe that Alex, the character presented as the dimwit who cares only about embarrassing his best friend (and appears both to not notice how his behavior is at the very least hurtful and conversely be fully aware that his presentation of Tom's ex-lovers would humiliate him) is presented as the voice of sanity.

When it comes to Violet, it's unfortunate the Blunt was given a character that was, well, a bit of a selfish bitch.  I note that not once in the five years did Violet ever discuss anything with Tom.  She never asked what Tom, her fiance, thought about either postponing their wedding or moving to Michigan.  She just basically said she got offered a great post in the Wolverine State, she was going to take it, and Tom could tag along.  It's shocking to see how selfish and self-centered Violet is, and even galling (although perhaps not as surprising) is that for a psychology student how clueless she is. 

On this point I can see how Stoller/Segel were going for irony, but it does make me question how someone who is making a careful study of delayed gratification could miss what is so painfully obvious: Tom is both unhappy and being played for a fool. 

Going on to this idea of how weak Tom is as a character, he never really makes his objections to anything Violet says/does clear to someone as dense as his intended.  Instead, he indulges in this passive aggressive behavior, which only makes him either unlikeable or certifiable, take your choice.  He takes forever to stand up to Violet, to make his unhappiness clear.  He could have resolved this whole situation by simply saying, 'why don't WE talk about this, how this will impact US?'  Instead, he meekly goes along with almost everything Violet tells him, waiting in growing fury and insanity while she pursues her own goals and dreams, leaving nothing for him.

In short, why would he WANT to be with someone who is so dismissive of him in almost every way?

Again and again, despite its best efforts, The Five-Year Engagement isn't funny because the resolution to this situation is so clear: just get married.  It's not the marriage they were endlessly postponing, it's the wedding.  Marriage is the commitment of two people to unite as one.  Wedding is the ceremony.  How two "reasonably" intelligent people failed to understand the difference is beyond me.  The reasons for postponing the wedding are weak at best (given how the resolution at the film's merciful end proved it), and the main characters oddly unlikeable.  A movie about just about any other character might have been more interesting than these two dummies who couldn't just say, "why don't we get married BEFORE going to Michigan/in Michigan and save the ceremony for later?" 

Seriously, Suzie and Alex created a very lovely wedding in one to two months.  I'm suppose to believe these two couldn't do it in five years!?!  The Five-Year Engagement may have ended in an actual wedding, but I expect that Tom and Violet's marriage will be shorter than that. 

I regretfully decline to attend.