Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Joyful Noise: A Review (Review #414)


Play that funky music, Church Boy...

We gotta have a little church up here, and Joyful Noise if nothing else lives up to its title.  The soundtrack is a lot of fun, mixing good gospel with some rather surprising, dare I say, shocking mixes of the pious and the profane.  If one had put more effort into making Joyful Noise into a more cohesive story, or at the very least put more focus on the musical numbers, one might have had a good film.  Right now, you have a series of short videos tied together with very little.

The Pacashau, Georgia church choir is in the midst of competition when choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristopherson) dies.  His widow, G.G. (Dolly Parton) expects to take over, but Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) decides to let Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) lead.  Vi Rose and G.G. have never seen eye-to-eye on much, and this is just another point of contention.

Vi Rose is a strict traditionalist in almost every way, in particular with church music.  She doesn't go for any contemporary styles and thinks a traditional version of Not Enough Love will be just the thing to win them the Joyful Noise National Competition.  Given that they've done this song in the same way every year for more years than the choir cares to remember and they always lose Regionals to a large choir from Detroit, one wonders why this has never been brought to Vi Rose's attention.

However, she has other things on her mind.  Her daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) is becoming a woman, and a rebellious one at that.  She actually wants to see her Army father who rejoined to provide for his family (even if it means having to be stationed far away, presumably in Georgia).  Vi Rose also has her hands full with her son Walter (Dexter Darden), a young man with Asperger's which makes things awkward at times for them.

Enter Randy Garrity (Jeremy Jordan), G.G.'s black sheep of a grandson.  He's come to his grandma's to live after running away from her daughter (who did not attend her father's funeral, I might add).  He is there among other things to restart a romance with Olivia, who does not return his affection.  However, Randy connects with Walter as no one has, and with a little pressure gets into the choir (a justified move given Randy can sing).

Well, while all the other choirmembers have their issues (romantic and financial), it's Vi Rose that faces the biggest difficulties.  Her husband is away, her son has special needs, and her daughter years to sing songs her way.  A little good fortune comes their way when the Detroit choir (headed by Kirk Franklin in a cameo) is disqualified for having professionals.  Now, it's off to Los Angeles, but with some missing choir members.  One, a certain Mr. Hsu (Frances Jue) died after a night of passion with Earla (Angela Grovey), G.G. is pushed out after her financial support is rejected by the church which doesn't want any difficulties and Randy is all but banned by Vi Rose.

Eventually, all our principals meet again and reconcile in time to do their big musical number, a medley that manages to work in Sly and the Family Stone's I Wanna Take You Higher, Chris Brown's Forever, Stevie Wonder's Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and most surprisingly (and I might say, shockingly), Usher's Yeah into a giant Song of Praise.

Let's leave aside for the moment how exactly Yeah, a song about a one night stand by someone who was already seeing someone, can be rewritten to a song about being saved by Jesus Christ (at one point, Jesus is referred to as a homeboy, theologically questionable).  The fact that we have NEVER in Joyful Noise seen the choir rehearse this big medley shows that the film really isn't interested in logic.  It is only interested in being a showcase for some good music. 

I think that at heart, Joyful Noise is suppose to be more about the music than about the plot.  If that's the case, then writer/director Todd Graff then did well when he focused on the musical performances, whether it was the traditional Not Enough Love or the Latifah solo Fix Me Jesus or Parton's From Here To the Moon.  In short, all the musical numbers were pleasant and well-made, showcasing each of our lead's singing abilities. 

In terms of everything else, Joyful Noise is a mess.  Plot points and characters are introduced only to be dropped with nary a how'do.  What is suppose to be a major threat from the Detroit choir (which begs the question, if Michigan AND Georgia are competing in the same Region, exactly how large is this district?) is resolved rather quickly.  Furthermore, given we've seen how square the choir is, exactly how did THEY end up in second place?

I digress to say that it is good to see Kirk Franklin perform.  Even though he is a relatively small man in stature, his stage presence is a powerful one.  He is an amazing performer who I can best describe as James Brown meets Michael W. Smith.  Although it is just one scene where Franklin appears, he is still someone that feels the Spirit when he performs, and it is a treat to watch him, even in this cameo.  He is an extraordinary showman, one that might even get Richard Dawkins or Ira Glass shouting "Amen" should Franklin ever ask for a witness.

Going on to how unorganized Joyful Noise is, in the National Competition we are given a choir of twelve-year-olds from Our Lady of Perpetual Tears (must be a Catholic school) as their chief competition.  Given that at one point the main singer actually broke out in tongues during his performance (something I've never seen in a Catholic service), how the medley managed to sway the judges is a mystery.  The children's choir was just there for decoration and false foil for our choir.

I can say that both Parton and Latifah acquitted themselves well in their performances.  The highlight of Joyful Noise was seeing them go at it in a restaurant (a point in the film that did make me laugh).  Besides, who doesn't want to see Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton go at it?  Both Palmer and Jordan make for great singers, but it is difficult to judge whether they are good actors given that their roles were so thinly written.  Similarly, both Vance as the Pastor and Jesse Martin as Mr. Hill had little to do. 

One thing I especially disliked was Darden's Walter.  I find that films that use illnesses such as Asperger's for 'character' are a little off-putting if not slightly sleazy.  Somehow, a disorder is not something I'm comfortable seeing in someone to give him a particular trait.  It's only after we're told he has Asperger's that things come a little more into focus, because if not for that, we'd think he was out of touch.  Somehow, Walter seems genuinely surprised no one wants to be around him.

Joyful Noise is a bad film.  Let's not pretend it's anything else.  However, given that it doesn't ask much from us and has good musical numbers and performances, we can extend a little grace to Joyful Noise.            


Monday, June 25, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. A Review


Bloody Bloody Abe Lincoln...

Abraham Lincoln is probably the greatest President the United States of America has ever or will ever have (sorry Ronnie, sorry Barry).  He saved the Union at a tremendously high cost.  He was both a defender of the Constitution and one who skirted if not violated the Constitution in his single-minded determination to hold the United States together.

He also did battle with the Undead.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is on the surface (and a little beneath the surface) a rather silly gimmick.  Still, having skipped Seth Grahame-Smith's novel (and casting a wary eye across his oeuvre of mash-ups of horror/comedy/literature/history a la Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and those who've imitated this style),  the film adaptation was on the whole remarkably entertaining, even well-acted, if not without flaws.

President Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) narrates his story.  As a child, he lost his mother when the vampire Jack Barts (Martin Csokas) takes revenge for both young Abe and Nancy Hanks Lincoln standing up to Barts when he beats up on free Negroes (to use the parlance of the times).  Abe has never forgotten the loss of his mother and his powerlessness over it. 

Many years pass, and now a young man, Abe seeks revenge.  Just as he is about to do murder (and himself be offed by Barts), enter Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).  He not only saves Young Mr. Lincoln from becoming a Nosferatu himself, but trains Abe in the ways of fighting the undead.  Henry makes it clear that Abe cannot be pursuing vengeance (in particular against Barts) but justice, to save the living from the evil of the Edward Cullens of the world.  Soon, Abe becomes a master of the ax to split those who would kill.

Despite Henry's insistence that he must remain apart, Abe soon falls for Southern belle Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who despite her engagement to Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk), also falls for the lanky lawyer.  Soon, with the encouragement of his friend Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) Lincoln not only proposes to Mary Todd but enters politics. 

Abe sees that the vampires are using the captured Africans as literal fuel, feasting on the slaves.  Chief among the undead is Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sister Vadoma (Erin Wasson), who have a tangled history with Henry himself.  We discover that Henry himself is a vampire, but one who was condemned to be so by Adam after being too successful in his own vampire hunting.  A vampire cannot kill one of his own kind, so now Henry has taken it upon himself to atone by training those among the living to kill the dead.

While Lincoln is remarkably good vampire hunter he puts away his ax to bring freedom to all.  Aided by his childhood friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), Lincoln begins his Administration with the horror of the Civil War.  At first he believes his vampire hunting days are long-past, but when the vampires strike in his very home, it is time for the President to take up his ax and save America from the Vampire Army, which has joined forces with Jefferson Davies to defeat the Union.

The climatic confrontation between Lincoln and Adam is also at the dramatic turning point of the Civil War itself: Gettysburg.  Even the First Lady gets in on the act, doing her part to arm the Union army to defeat the Confederate's unholy minions and taking revenge against those who caused misery in her life.

Sadly, history is what it is, and the President turned down Henry's offer for a form of immortality before he and the First Lady were to go to Ford's Theater.  We end Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with our modern-day setting, only now Henry reads from Lincoln's journal, and at a bar meets another young man in the same way he once met a young, tall man from Illinois...

I fail to see why so many people automatically tune out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Yes, the premise is silly.  However, in the oddest way, almost everything worked.  This film could have worked as both a straight biopic of the 16th President (if one removed the supernatural elements) and could have worked as a straight horror film (if one removed the historical elements).  Timur Bekmambetov blended them well enough to where one forgot we were watching an American icon slicing heads off or that the Battle of Gettysburg did not involve the use of silver cannon balls. 

In an odd way, I think ALVH actually humanized President Lincoln.  We get to see him on one hand as a young man, slowly rising in fame and conviction of the evil of slavery, being bumbling and hesitant in his courting of Mary Todd, and if one isn't move by the reading of the Gettysburg Address (regardless of the venue), one won't understand what is at the heart of American democracy and aspiration.

On the other hand, there is something amusing and even thrilling at seeing Lincoln as a kick-ass slayer, swinging his ax in perfect form as he takes down a cabal of evildoers.  So often we mummify our leaders to where they are no longer men or women like us but almost gods.  While it is absurd to think that the Great Emancipator was out there taking down vampires while fighting a war, there is something to be said about seeing a version of the man that is not passionately reverential.

As I've stated, ALVH could have easily been a straight biopic of Lincoln, and this is helped tremendously by the performances.  Walker was excellent as Lincoln, having to play him from his young days as a lawyer-in-training to his term as President, and we accept him as both a young man in a hurry and the wise leader we all learn about.  Windstead makes for a charming Mary Todd (before the crazy set in), a young girl in love who becomes a woman who will do all she can to protect her family.  Cooper is excellent as the conflicted (if albeit cranky) mentor, while Sewell excels as the villainous Adam.  Even smaller parts, like Tybuk's stuffy Douglas or Simpson's slightly comic-relief Speed did their parts well.

I know this will sound ridiculous, but I would argue there were historical liberties taken in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  The primary issue I have is with Mackie's character of Will Johnson.  In reality, President Lincoln did not believe that blacks were equal to whites and there is no evidence that he had any close African-Americans in his entourage (the closest would have been Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker/confidante Elizabeth Keckley).  It is true that Lincoln was horrified by what he saw of slavery when he travelled to New Orleans, but he was in most respects a product of his time and region in regards to his views on blacks: slavery was wrong but blacks were not on the same level as whites.  It was only as the war continued that his views on race began shifting to one that was more tolerant.  Therefore, one wonders why the character of Will was there (except perhaps as a motive for Barns to target Lincoln and his family which stood up for the free Johnsons). 

In terms of cinema, I had a few issues with some of the action sequences.  While the climatic train ride where Lincoln and Adam faced off was quite thrilling, the one where Barns and Lincoln confront each other among a stampede of wild horses was a bit hard to follow.  I also thought Henry Jackman's score was a bit overblown and predictable in queuing when I was suppose to be afraid.  Finally, while it is historically accurate that one of the President's sons died while he was in office, I personally get a little queasy when even hinting at the death of a child.  Just a personal issue.

However, Varvara Avdyusko and Carlo Poggioli's costumes were excellent, and Caleb Deschanel's cinematography worked well, in particular when the future President begins his training.

Abraham Lincoln, I imagine, would not have taken offense at being portrayed as a vampire hunter.  He might actually have been amused by the thought that a man in his fifties could be so agile.  He might even have seen a little symbolism: the Union fighting against a monstrous evil that would devour a nation.

I am a great admirer of President Lincoln and consider myself an amateur historian on the President.  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a silly idea and doesn't pretend to be anything deep. While not a perfect film, I found it entertaining, even thrilling at times, and also in its own way, respectful of his legacy and importance.  It is fun to see a man so mythologized take a human shape, even if it means making him a Buffy for the Nineteenth Century.       

Besides, can you really imagine making a movie like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter out of THIS wimp:


Moonrise Kingdom: A Review


I am someone who considers himself basically a WASP, and if it weren't for the fact that both my parents are of Mexican descent (one native-born, one naturalized American), I would be one.  As such, one would expect I would be the very audience Wes Anderson believes himself to be the chronicler of: that slightly aloof hyper-intellectual, alienated 1 Percent that is simply too smart for life.  Well, one would be wrong:.

I have long detested Wes Anderson and his films.  I didn't like The Royal Tenebaums (curiously about the only time Anderson has allowed anything close to ethnic diversity in his films), and detested The Darjeeling Limited.  I find them pretentious, repetitive, and his obsession of moving the camera all around a bit nauseating. 

Having said all that, I simply cannot bring myself to say that I hated Moonrise Kingdom.  In fact, despite my long-held view that he is a one-trick pony that has found greater fools to admire him (no offense, Issa Family),  I have to say that Moonrise Kingdom was the most enjoyable of all the Anderson films I've seen.

Here is the gist of the film: it is 1965.  In a summer camp, one Khaki Scout member named Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has 'resigned' from the scout troop and left, much to the shock and horror of earnest Khaki Scout Troop Leader Randall Ward (Edward Norton).  A search party is quickly organized.  Meanwhile, local islander Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), has also run off. 

We quickly learn that a year earlier, Sam and Suzy met while his troop was watching a church performance of Noah's Flood and Suzy played the raven (which, if one remembers his Genesis, was the bird that Noah released to search for land, searches, but comes back empty-handed).  After this one meeting, they begin writing to each other and in their loneliness and hyper-intelligence find kindred spirits.  When the troop is on her island, they had agreed prior that they would leave together for a hidden cove.

Now Mr. and Mrs. Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), along with Scout Master Ward and Sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) continue the mad hunt for our two escapees.  Also aiding in the search is the Khaki Scout Troop of which Sam was once attached to, a group I might add that looks more like well-dressed members of the Lord of the Flies than a group of kids.  Suzy is able to defeat the troop to continue their journey.

Well, Sam and Suzy find the cove and share their love, but are quickly found by all the adults.  Sam, an orphan, is not wanted by his foster parents, and Social Services (Tilda Swinton) contacts the adults to let them know she is on her way to collect him.  The troop now has a change of heart and decides to help our young lovers be reunited.  They collect Suzy and Sam, much to the shock of the adults, especially Scout Master Ward, who is promptly stripped of his leadership for his incompetence of losing his entire troop.

However, the massive storm that we are told was a'comin' allows Ward a moment to show he can be a leader, and Moonrise Kingdom comes full circle, with all our cast again at the St. Jack Church.  Suzy and Sam will jump from the church steeple if they cannot be together, but Captain Sharp comes just in time and agrees to take Sam on, allowing our two kids to continue their romance.

What is surprising about Moonrise Kingdom, at least to me, is that I didn't hate it.  I think it has to do with the fact that this is the first time that Wes Anderson's total commitment to the faux-whimsy of his worldview works.  As is the case with all his films, he will place his characters straight in the middle of the frame and will move the camera to show us the different characters in the same scene rather than cutting from one to another.

Seeing a Wes Anderson film can drive some people mad (I am one of them).  I have never been a fan of how he moves his camera.  Here is an example to the uninitiated: he starts with characters in a particular scene, then will move the camera either to the right or the left (almost always to the right now that I think of it), to see other characters in the same scene, then moves the camera in what I imagine is a long track to yet more characters in the same scene.  Other times if he requires movement (such as when the militaristic Khaki Scout Master inspects his troops), he will move his camera along with the characters walking in the same direction.

In both Tenenbaums and Darjeeling, this thing had me tearing out my hair.  However, in Moonrise I think it worked because this story is told primarily from the children's viewpoint.  Granted, the children in Moonrise Kingdom are miniature versions of Anderson's adults (creatures of frightening self-awareness given to speaking in monotone, clipped patterns with morose worldviews), but for once, the whimsy he always goes for actually adds to the film.

Whiny, hyper-intelligent kids are more tolerable than whiny, hyper-intelligent adults.

The script by Anderson and long-time henchman...I mean, friend and collaborator Roman Coppola is actually an intelligent film, a parody of adult ways when imitated by children.  There is something amusing, even shocking, at how when children (which is what Sam and Suzy are) behave as if they were a good twenty years older than they are, their actions appear foolish, even crazy, while in adults similar actions would not be looked on with horror.

Then again, the idea of twelve-year-olds feeling each other up and talking about erections is still rather shocking, but then again, one has to remember I am a bit of a WASP, unaccustomed to such talk.

If one looks at all the performances, they are done correctly to fit in the the emotionally stilted, verbally reticent way all of Anderson's characters speak.  Gilman and Hayward are excellent as the two thwarted lovers, making their relationship almost endearing.  Norton, despite being 42 years old still can communicate youthful innocence as the earnest but inept Scout Master.  Given how often Bruce Willis is cast as an action star (The Expendables 2, anyone), one forgets he can be a genuine actor, and his lonely-hearts Captain Sharp (who, in one of those ironic turns, is anything but) is a genuinely caring but dim man.

Alexander Desplat's score is a delight, perfectly capturing the whimsy Anderson always goes for but rarely ever captures completely.  Robert D. Yeoman's cinematography and Kasia Walicka-Maimone's costumes also fit perfectly in the motif of the world through the mind of a hyper-intelligent child (one which is grasping deep thoughts while still filtering them through a child's ideas and drawing abilities).

There are some flaws within Moonrise Kingdom.  The biggest is a subplot of Mrs. Bishop and Captain Sharp having an affair.  While this would be the motivating factor for Suzy to see the phoniness of adults (I can't help thinking Moonrise Kingdom is echoing Catcher in the Rye), the affair isn't even a big part of the story and almost appears unnecessarily attached to the film.  Furthermore, it takes away a bit of the empathy one feels for Captain Sharp (as if pouring a child alcohol didn't help things).  Granted, for me some of the actions and thoughts expressed by both adults and children didn't make me laugh as more recoil in shock and horror.

Serving alcohol to minors.  Adults 'marrying' kids.  Killing animals.  Stabbing kids with scissors.  We were not amused.

WASP, remember.

I would say that here is where I part company with the Andersonistas: I didn't laugh at Moonrise Kingdom.  That, from what I understand, was one of the points of the film.  Besides, no Wilson Brother (Owen, Luke, or even Andrew) in a Wes Anderson film?  Blasphemy, I say!   

I'll say this for Moonrise Kingdom: when Anderson commits fully to his vision, there's no holding him. 

There are certain people in film I cannot enjoy.  I'm not a fan of Quentin Tarantino, but I do agree that Inglourious Basterds was a good film.  I think James Newton Howard is one of the worst composers working today, but I found his work in Peter Pan absolutely charming, even beautiful.  The Law of Averages dictates that even the lousiest person involved in show business/the arts has to do at least one thing right (even if Channing Tatum so far has managed to defy the odds).  Following this logic, there had to be ONE, just ONE work by Wes Anderson that didn't make me want to punch him in the face.  Moonrise Kingdom is that one film.

No, I'm not a convert to his offbeat cinema style.  However, I at least found something of his that I wouldn't mind watching again.

Finally, I want to say this: I don't think I look like Jason Schwartzman.  My hair never grows that long, my nose is by no means large, and I am taller (well, maybe an inch or so, but still).  However, maybe if I had a mustache... 


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Safe House: A Review


It is good to see that South Africa is now taking its place among the nations.  Now that the transition to full democracy has taken place we can see that this long-troubled nation can finally be the setting for lousy action films just like any other.  Safe House may not be the first major film to use South Africa as a location, and while it does show off the beauty of the land, as a film, it doesn't appear to have any interest in doing either anything new or even interesting with the story it tells.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a frustrated CIA agent.  He wants to advance by being put in the field, particularly the Paris branch so as to have closer ties to his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder).  For now, he is close to her since she also works in Cape Town, S.A., but she doesn't know he's CIA.  As it stands, Weston is just waiting things out as the lone guardian of a CIA safe house, whiling away the hours waiting for anyone captured by the agency to be housed there.

As it turns out, something unexpected happens.  Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), one of the most notorious agents to ever go rogue, conveniently walks into the American consulate after escaping some assassins.  While in Washington, CIA officers Harlan Whitford (Sam Sheperd), Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), and David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), the last who happens to be Weston's mentor, are happy Frost has turned up, only Linklater seems to question why after being on the run for so many years Frost just walked into the consulate knowing he would be immediately turned over.

Weston tries to handle the capture of Frost with aplomb, knowing a successful handling of the situation could be a feather in his cap.  However, in short order a group of assassins storm the safe house.  Only Weston and Frost escape.  Frost, however, has a few tricks up his own sleeve.  See, he was the best trainer in psychological warfare, making him a master manipulator. 

What are the odds Frost will try his act on rookie Weston?

Weston now wants to keep Frost in his custody, but shockingly Frost outsmarts him.  While Whitford and Company tell him to let them take it from here, Weston decides it's better than he bring Frost in.  Eventually, he does, but by now we know there is a mole within the CIA, one who will be brought down if the information Frost has is ever exposed.

One guess as to who the mole is...

As I finished watching Safe House, I thought that it's not so much that one can't follow the plot than it is that one doesn't care to.   Everything about Daniel Guggenheim's script is so by-the-numbers one has worked everything out long before everyone else, which I don't think is a good sign. 

That is the biggest flaw within Safe House.  Everything is predictable.  You already know who the traitor is.  You already can guess that Tobin Frost is not really whom he first appears to be.  You know the rookie is going to get thrown into a situation he is hardly prepared for. You know when they get to the second safe house things are going to turn out badly.

You know everything.  Since you know everything, you don't have to even be paying attention to the film because you know everything that will happen.  A little bit of originality would have saved Safe House.  How about this: make Tobin Frost into an actually evil guy, a traitor who did sell secrets and who managed to get captured by the rookie given his first assignment in Cape Town. 

See, by just tweaking the premise, we have an entirely new movie, a cat-and-mouse chase where a more and more desperate Frost comes across the surprising intelligence of the untested Weston, a man who is burning with desire to test out his new theories.

Director Daniel Espinosa made two crucial mistakes with Safe House.  The first is the incessant trend of aping so many Bourne knockoffs by having the shaky-cam going at full blast.  The shaky-cam effect has long ago worn thin and is one of the banes of my viewing experience.  Second, it is by giving genuine talents like Shepard and Farmiga nothing to do except talk in semi-serious tones. 

As I kept watching, I kept wondering why Reynolds looked like was always on the verge of tears.  I'm one of the people who thinks he has genuine acting talent when given a chance, but here his Matt Weston was both such a wimp and a moron that you sometimes have to laugh at him.

One particularly funny scene is when Weston and Frost are escaping from the besieged safe house.  Weston has Frost in handcuffs, and as they emerge into the sunlight Weston hurriedly hails a taxi, telling a slightly amused Frost, "Wait, wait, don't move".  The idea that Frost, even in handcuffs, was going to patiently stand on the sidewalk while this kid goes looking for a cab is borderline idiotic. 

Washington to his credit does the best he can with the material, trying to make Frost into a mysterious character one is never quite sure which side he really is on.  How he escaped from the idiot Weston at the Green Point/Cape Town Stadium is a highlight (as is the following chase for Frost) both for Washington and Safe House itself.  If nothing else, it shows the intelligence in the script of having Weston speak Afrikaans (giving him a leg up to Frost's American English). 

However, those few nods to reality don't make up for the fact that Safe House is worse than a bad film.  It's a boring film, which an action film cannot afford to be.  That being said, it's best to leave Safe House abandoned.    


Saturday, June 23, 2012

A View to A Kill: A Review (Review #410)


No Wonder Few Americans Celebrate May Day...

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

I have a certain fondness for A View to A Kill.  It might be because this is the first James Bond film I can remember watching (perhaps not the first one I saw, just the first one I remember).  On a certain level, I still carry a certain positive feel for AVTAK.  However, when I saw it again with the mind and eyes of a film reviewer/adult, even I, someone who thinks well of the film, realize in so many ways, A View to A Kill is one of the lower-level Bond films, if not one of the worst films in the franchise.

From what I followed of the plot, James Bond (Roger Moore) is investigating the theft of a microchip that would make British machines impervious to a nuclear attack.  It is suspected that the leak is one Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), billionaire industrialist who apparently had fled from East Germany.  Bond begins investigating Zorin and his henchwoman May Day (MISS Grace Jones), with the help of racing expert Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee).  Zorin is suspected of using microchips to help him breed master race horses, and it's no surprise. 

Zorin, apparently, is himself the product of biological experiments during the Holocaust (seriously, this is the story).  The Doctor Mengele-like scientist, Dr. Carl Mortner (Willoughby Gray) had been injecting his special concoction into pregnant women in concentration camps, and one of the few that came out was Max Zorin.   Bond discovers that Zorin has a plan called Main Strike, and with state geologist Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), who herself has a vendetta against Zorin, discover Zorin's master plan.  He will destroy Silicon Valley by combination earthquake/drowning, and he will corner the market on microchips: a view to a kill, one might say.  Now they must stop him from killing millions (including, I imagine, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg).

Oddly, the plot I've described makes A View to A Kill sound much odder than what one sees on the screen.     

Things started going wrong in AVTAK almost straight from the beginning.  Director John Glen's decision to use a cover of the Beach Boys' California Girls in the opening (which has Bond snowboarding in Siberia) was not only distracting and illogical but turned things into farce.  What could have been a good, even great action scene to open the film turned into a joke.  After that, few things could have save AVTAK

Longtime Bond screenwriter Richard Maimbaum and Michael G. Wilson's screenplay made one bad decision after another.  A long sequence involving horse racing/breeding that was marginally related to the story of Zorin's microchip maneuvering is one.  Killing off Tibbett is another.  Having Bond use not one but TWO pseudonyms (James St. John Smythe, horseman, and James Stock, reporter for the London Financial Times) is remarkably out of character for someone who almost expects everyone to know who he is.

I personally don't mind that near the end of AVTAK, the henchwoman joins Bond (that part of the story made some sense).  I do think it is a wasted opportunity to either have her follow in the true henchman's code of fighting on to the bitter end or to at least keep her alive to the closing credits.  More on that later.

What I will fault the film for is a remarkable lack of taste when it comes to the San Francisco sequence.  As part of the plot, Zorin and May Day capture Bond and Sutton in San Francisco City Hall.  In order to get Bond and Sutton out of the way, Zorin shoots the Chief City Geologist in his office at the San Francisco City Hall then sets the place ablaze.

I cannot understand how Maimbaum, Wilson, Glen, or anyone involved in A View to A Kill could be so unaware as to set an assassination in the San Francisco City Hall.  Granted, as a primarily British production they might not have been aware that San Francisco City Hall was the location for the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978 (a mere seven years earlier).  It is surprising that city officials wouldn't have raised at least eyebrows, if not full objections, to the idea that their seat of power, already the scene of a shocking political crime, would be the setting for another murder of a government official in a feature film.  I imagine it was thoroughly unintentional, but it does make seeing a city official shot in his office a bit uncomfortable. Yet I digress.

Again and again, A View to A Kill had one wasted opportunity after another.  The worst moments are when Bond and Sutton escape from the police when they are threatened with arrest outside the burning City Hall.  The chase scene with the fire truck could, again, have been a tense and exciting one, but there were one too many gags (such as the ladder ripping open a truck that finds a couple in the act of lovemaking) that is less funny than groan-inducing.  Further, for some reason the cop chasing after them was too reminiscent of Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live & Let Die/The Man With The Golden Gun.  And he wasn't that funny to begin with.

Zorin has a group on his blimp and shows them his model of Silicon Valley and what he plans to do with it (as well as how he dispatches one person who isn't up for his scheme), we get echoes of Goldfinger.  Even the names of their plans are eerily similar (Goldfinger's Grand Slam vs. Zorin's Main Strike).

Going a bit further into the 'being a bit repetitive' business, May Day kills two important characters (both of whom, coincidentally, help Bond in his investigation), in the same way: strangling from behind while they are in the driver's seat.  Again, another wasted opportunity.  Here's what I mean.

May Day is a brilliant creation: a physically powerful and intimidating murderess who is an expert at assassination.  One would have hoped that she would have found a more elaborate method of murder (or that these guys would have noticed something in the backseat). 

Curiously, I was reminded of another film altogether while watching how Zorin attempted to kill Bond.  He cajoles 007 to ride a dangerous mount named Inferno.  I couldn't help but think of all things Auntie Mame, when someone tries the same trick with a horse called Meditation.  One does seriously begin to wonder if all these Bond villains simply find it too hard to just shoot him.

It's a curious thing about Bond girls: you never know which ones you will remember.  Ostensibly, it's Tanya Roberts' Stacey Sutton in A View to A Kill who is our Bond Girl.  While she is the one who is there to help James Bond, she isn't the one we remember from A View To A Kill.  Rather, tis' that force of nature, MISS Grace Jones as the murderous May Day that is simply unforgettable.  Though not the first black Bond Girl (that honor goes to Gloria Hendry's Rosie Carver from Live and Let Die), Jones' sheer presence overwhelms nearly everyone in A View To A Kill.  Her May Day is a fierce Amazonian warrior, one who is viciously tough to where any man would be frightened to take her on.  Even in the scene where she goes to bed with Bond, May Day has a powerful physical force that is almost intimidating.

Walken's Zorin is actually one of the better Bond villains, one who is frightening in his evil.  Unlike other Bond villains, Zorin is not afraid to get his hands dirty.  He kills, and kills with pleasure.  One also has to add that with Walken's distinctive cadence Zorin is more menacing whenever he faces off against Bond or is calmly telling the Chief Geologist that he has to die.  Also welcome is Patrick Macnee as Bond's right-hand man.  He brings, yes, a touch of class to A View to A Kill (even though his character is only important to the first storyline of horse-juicing, which doesn't quite mesh with the destroying Silicon Valley storyline that dominates the second half of AVTAK.   One actually feels bad when he's bumped off.

As good as Jones, Macnee, and especially Walken are, the two leads are all wrong.  Later in his career, Sir Roger Moore realized that he was past it to be 007.  It brings to mind a phrase my mother uses, which translated from Spanish says, "He's too old for those types of dances".  By that, she means that at a certain point, people of a certain age look silly trying to act as if they were younger.  This is the case with Moore, who just wasn't believable as the suave ladies man.  Even worse, Sutton (who actually was old enough to be his granddaughter) looked bored, or at the very least, confused in every scene.  She wasn't enthusiastic in any of her scenes, and add the fact that she spoke so softly and that she is so gullible to believe anything told to her and you end up with one of the worst Bond girls in the series.

Now, I once was one of A View To A Kill's few defenders, but even I recognize that Moore was simply too old to play the part.  Sadly, no one recognized that Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny was likewise at 58 far too old to have these endless flirtations with a 57-year-old Moore.  No one, I imagine, wants to see their grandparents throwing sexual innuendos at each other.  It is good that the franchise was loyal to Maxwell, but given she had been 34-35 when Dr. No premiered, one wondered why she was by now a middle-aged if not senior spinster forever waiting for James.

A View to A Kill therefore, was not just Moore's final turn as James Bond but Maxwell's last turn as Miss Moneypenny, and we thank her for her service, but she should have been recast by now.

Again, there were some good things in A View to A Kill.  There are the aforementioned trio of Macnee, Jones, and Walken.  There is also a remarkably thrilling chase from the Eiffel Tower (sadly losing something in its efforts for comedy).  Then there is the title song.  This is the first time a band has done the title Bond song since Live & Let Die (though one can argue that it was really Paul McCartney, not Wings, that did the song, but that's a point of debate).  Duran Duran's A View to A Kill is the first one that got away from the lush romantic ballads that had populated the James Bond franchise since  Nobody Does It Better in The Spy Who Loved Me in favor of a harder rock sound (again, up to you if you want to define Duran Duran as a rock or pop band).  Still, A View to A Kill stands up remarkably well and it even suggests A View to A Kill will be a harder, even edgier film than some of the more romantic predecessors. 

The fact that both the villain, the henchwoman, and the title song are wasted in silly, self-consciously pseudo-comic action scenes and two plot lines barely related are a strong indicator that A View to A Kill is a mess.

I can't lie and say that I didn't find A View to A Kill entertaining.  As I've said, it has some great things: the song, Walken's evil villain, a powerful aide in Grace Jones' May Day.  However, as a film, A View to A Kill leaves so much to be desired people will watch it and think the whole thing is silly, overblown, and rather a waste.  In short, A View to A Kill is no San Francisco treat.

Next James Bond Film: The Living Daylights


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Patang (The Kite): A Review


Patang (The Kite) is not to be confused with a Bollywood film in any sense.  It isn't, however, reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps the other idea of India as a place of desperate poverty and unhappiness (although Slumdog does end, like most Bollywood films, with a big musical number).   Instead, Patang is a remarkably universal story, one of the importance of home, of family, and how things within in are always in flux.

Patang takes course over three days: January 13, 14, and 15th, in Ahmedabad, India.  It is the day before, the day of, and at least the morning after Uttarayam, the Kite Festival in the city.  Janesh (Mukkund Shulka) is a succesful business man from Delhi who has returned to his hometown to show off the festival to his daughter, Priya (Sudgandha Garb).  His visit is a surprise to his mother, his sister Sudha (Seema Biswas) and his nephew Chakku (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).  Chakku in particular is not thrilled to see his wealthy Delhi uncle come, but his mother and grandmother are.

Chakku has a friendship with local urchin Hamid (Hamid Shaikh), who has a job delivering kites.  Chakku is a ne'er do well, having a touch of a job as a singer but not being successful at it, and certainly not in the way Uncle Jaresh is.  Within the course of Patang, Janesh finds that things in the old neighborhood have pretty much stayed the same (though he's not happy about it), and is not happy that his daughter is wandering around on her own.  If he knew she was beginning a very brief fling with business man Bobby (Aakash Maherya), even though it is at best an innocent flirtation with one or two kisses. 

However, the crisis is that Janesh has bought a big condo for his mother and sister in Delhi (without of course telling them).  He thinks they will be thrilled, but to his surprise, Sudha and Bo have no desire to leave:  this is their home, it has been their home, and it will continue to be their home.  Chakku, for his part, blames Janesh for his father's death from drinking.  Patang ends with Janesh leaving Ahmedabad, slightly injured physically and emotionally, with his family still there, still standing but issues still unresolved, and Hamid, slightly injured but still there.

I noticed that while writing that last part, I kept writing "still there", and I think that is true of the message of Patang: the people still are there, still make up part of the community.  This is a remarkably simple story, but it is handled by writer/director Prashant Bhargava so well because he never loses focus (no pun intended) on the fact that the story, in particular the dynamics of the family, is at the heart of Patang

What makes Patang work is that we get just enough of the family structure to allow us to understand what kind of people they are.  We know that Janesh is successful, so we can figure out that when he comes to visit it isn't to lord it over the rest of his family but to help them with his fortune.  We can see Janesh is overprotective of his daughter, and also that Priya is both quietly rebelling by being a girl and finding the joy of early but fleeting love.

Patang at heart may be set in India, but it really is a universal story because this story is so relate-able to all families.  The situation within the story is one that can be seen in America, in Brazil, in South Africa, in Japan, in any country because all families have tensions, have black (or at least grey) sheep, but that do have love in the end. 

Bhargava was wise in making Patang have an almost documentary-like feel with little in the way of music (although it does have a nice score) and by drawing performances out of all his cast (to where it was hard to tell which were the professionals and which were the 'regular' people playing themselves). 

There were a few things I didn't get.  I didn't understand what exactly the relationship between Chukka and Hamid were.  Why had Chukka, a guy more interested in drink (like his father) and gambling take on this street urchin?  A fondness for him, perhaps?  I speculated whether Hamid might be Chukka's illegitimate child (given that Chukka's mother, like all mothers, yearns for a grandchild).  A story should not allow for this kind of speculation, even in one as small as Patang.  The crisis involving Hamid at the end likewise might have been a play to get us emotionally, and I didn't think it was necessary.

However, these are minor issues.  Patang is a beautifully made film with a small story that is both intimate and universal, with quiet performances and a glimpse into a world that is foreign and exotic to our Western eyes but which is also so familiar to anyone with family. 


Monday, June 18, 2012

Never Say Never Again: A Review


Sounds of A Distant Thunderball...

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

In our James Bond retrospective, Never Say Never Again is the only one that is not officially a James Bond film.  How's that?  Well, it all has to do with Thunderball.  When Ian Fleming published the novel Thunderball, it was from an idea for a film that Fleming worked on with one Kevin McClory.  However, in all the hubbub over who exactly owned the rights to Thunderball (and who should get credit), a deal was struck.  Thunderball would be made by EON Productions, which owned the rights to all of Fleming's works.  HOWEVER, McClory maintained the rights to Thunderball with an option to make a film version out of that story at a later date.  In 1983, he exercised that option. 

Whether it was meant to come out after the official Bond film Octopussy I have no way of knowing.  However, NSNA has one advantage: after sixteen years and swearing he would "never again" play James Bond after completing Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery was shown that one should Never Say Never Again.  This can be the only time I would agree with the maxim, "You've seen one Bond film, you've seen them all", because it is bascially (though not strictly) a remake of Thunderball, so if you've seen that one you've basically getting the same story.  I didn't think Thunderball was the best Bond film, but not the worst.  However, seeing its remake, I might have to revist that idea. 

Unlike all other Bond stories, we start out straight into the title song, where 007 botches a training exercise.  M (Edward Fox) is irritated by Bond and all the 00s, thinking Bond's past it.  With that, it's literally off to a spa for a strict regiment of exercise and diet, even meditation. 

Unbeknown to MI6, SPECTRE is planning a nefarious scheme.  SPECTER head Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) is planning a major operation codenamed The Tears of Allah, where his Number One, Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) will use Jack Petachi (Gavan O'Herlihy) an American Air Force officer whom they've turned into a heroin addict, to steal nuclear warheads.  They will do this by reshaping his eye to match that of the President.   This will allow Petachi to gain access to the nuclear warheads.

Owing to the overenthusiam of Captain Petachi's handler Number 12, Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera) in teaching her subject to obey, it draws Bond's attention.  That in turns leads to an attack on Bond.  In typical bureaucratic thinking, the fact that Bond was nearly killed isn't as important as that the spa suffered heavy damage as a result, damages the government will have to pay for. 

SPECTRE's plan works beautifully, but it does cost the Captain his life.  With the weapons now in their possession, SPECTER now blackmails the world: pay up to 25% of the various countries oil purchases or the weapons are used.  Extremely reluctantly, M is forced to reactivate the 00s.  007 now hits up Algernon, aka Q (Alce McGowan), who is genuinely happy to see him, hoping 007 will be bringing that "gratuitous sex and violence" back to MI6.

Largo, while involved in the planning of this scheme, has at least one distraction: a dancer named Domino (Kim Basinger).  Largo's girlfriend (she seems too naive to be called his mistress) also happens to be Captain Petachi's sister.  Bond's investigation sends him to Largo's home in the Bahamas.  His British contact is Nigel Small-Fawcett (Rowan Atkinson) , and Fatima is also in Nassau.  A short tryst later, Bond finds out how dangerous she can be.

Moving on to Monaco, Bond meets with his old friend Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey, becoming the first black Leiter in any Bond film and beating Jeffrey Wright to that honor by a good twenty-three years).  Now they investigate Largo's ship, the Flying Saucer, and make the connection between Domino and her brother Captain Jack.  It doesn't take Bond long to get to know Domino, with Fatima in hot pursuit of both (literally and figuratively).

By this time, Fatima's pleasure at killing might have unhinged her, given how she becomes fixated on being put down as James Bond's greatest lover in his memoirs.  Bond, however, puts her down...literally.  Bond sneaks aboard the Flying Saucer, but in typical Bond film style, Largo is quite welcoming, allowing him use of his ship and free access while on board.  Bond manages to send a message both literally and metaphorically: literally to MI6 about their location, metaphorically to Largo that he can get to Domino too.

For her act of treachery against the wildly jealous Largo, Domino is auctioned by and to the Arabs (good to see no stereotypes were used), with Bond rescuing her.  The first bomb has been disarmed, but now they have only five hours to find the second bomb.  Will he?    

I think that Never Say Never Again holds up remarkably well until the final act, when it all becomes too comic to be taken seriously.  Once Fatima literally blows up, the film becomes unsalvageable.  Almost all that follows this particularly bad/silly moment brings NSNA crashing down to where the filim is more spoof than serious, as if they were going for the original Casino Royale rather than the official version from 2006. 

As I watched NSNA, I really had good hopes that a good Bond film could be made from outside EON, but we see that those who specialize in making Bond films have for the most part the leg-up on making Bond films.

Some of the characters and motivations aren't so much unclear as underdeveloped.  How exactly did Domino get to Bond at the end?  How was it that MI6 or the CIA did not make the connection between Largo's mistress and the USAF Captain? Was SPECTER and Blofeld even necessary to the story?

I think director Irvin Kueshner did a good job with what he had, but it wasn't all that good to being with, with some terrible mistakes.

One salutes him for making Carrera's Fatima into a fun character, one who delights in killing and screwing (even though after failing and failing once over one wonders why they kept going to her to try to kill 007).  Basinger is a little hesitant as Domino, but we can forgive that given that Domino as a character is a little hesitant and fearful.  It's unfortunate that the script didn't give her much motivation to love Largo or how she never appears to question why her brother never communicated with her.

Brandauer has a good performance in the role of the main villain but by the end he appears to lose interest (which curiously, so did we).  Whenever Atkinson appears (which is only twice) we see he is putting in good humor where we're suppose to have it, but again, someone who isn't really necessary.  I never bought the comic stylings of Atkinson in NSNA, and when he can't make you laugh...  Fox actually did a good job as M, giving that stiff British upper lip to all the goings-on. 

Now, as for Connery, it's clear he knows his character well.  It is good to see him back for one last turn as James Bond 007, and while we have plot points that explain why Bond is older, there really is no need for it.  He still looks fit and charming as the ultimate ladies man and professional agent.  He still can do it in NSNA, but the film couldn't keep up with him. 

I think the opening sequence in Never Say Never Again shows the wisdom of all the other Bond films in having the song play against a montage rather than be part of the actual plot.  There's something a little odd in hearing a nice ballad about loving a player against scenes of killing in a remote jungle.  While the song is nice (Alan and Marilyn Bergman are good songwriters), the song itself is a little too soft, especially when put against the harshness of the scene the song is played against.

While Michael Legrand's score is not as bad as its reputation suggests, there were moments in it that should be taken to task for.  In particular is the beginning of the chase scene where Bond pursues Fatima.  It was a strange jazz melody that doesn't work against seeing a woman floating in a waterbed.  Even worse is that the jazz score is continued during what should be an exciting motorbike chase.  It just doesn't work. 

Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s screenplay certainly has its double entendres.  Just before going scuba diving with Fatima, James tells her, "When going down, one should always be relaxed".   However, there are things that today look strange, even comic.  For example, there's this exchange:

M's aide: (relaying a message from Bond): Heading North Africa, Palmyra.
M: Palmyra?  Where is that?
M's aide: Haven't a clue, sir.

How about this...start in North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.  Logic narrows it down to Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt.  That might help.  The fact that we never actually learned where in North Africa Palmyra was just shows that we didn't get much out of Never Say Never Again.

We have more bad moments; in the charity event Largo throws there is an arcade.  Today, with the PlayStations and Wiis, seeing a group of old video games looks oddly antique.  The playing of a game called Domination by Largo and Bond seems so bizarre and distracting, but in an odd way amusing. 

Nothing more interesting than seeing two middle-aged men playing video games against each other. 

As a side note to that, the special effects effects today look quaint, but one imagines they would have looked all right in 1983. 

There are moments that should lend themselves to drama and tension but come across as comic.  I think it has to do with the good amount of dancing in NSNA.  Fatima enjoys shaking her stuff at any chance, but when James and Domino trip the light fantastic it almost look as if it were coming from a parody of a Bond movie rather than a sincere effort at one.

However, for me, what brought down Never Say Never Again in terms of being a serious effort at an actual James Bond film is when Bond and Domino escapes from the Middle Eastern palace.  That in an of itself is silly, but when they jump out of a tower and fall to the ocean whilst riding a horse, I just rolled my eyes and stopped caring, almost waiting for it to wrap up so I could go do other things, such as eat or read.

One last point.  While Bond has always been a bit of a slut, even by his standards he was shockingly horny.  The casualness of Bond's various trysts with four women, particularly with AIDS coming to public consciousness, is mind-boggling.  On one hand, that we can accept the older Connery still being able to charm women into sleeping with him.  On the other, it all is a little too fast, even for him.   

In the end, Never Say Never Again the song is like Never Say Never Again the film: pleasant, not too bad, but not memorable and not among the best Bonds even if it were official.

Next James Bond Film: A View to A Kill


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prometheus: A Review


The first two Alien films (Alien and the brilliant, and brilliantly-named Aliens) are among the greatest science-fiction films ever made, with a fierce fanbase.  The franchise suffered after Alien3, Alien Resurrection, and the two abysmal Alien Vs. Predator films.   I have seen Alien only once and Aliens twice (and mercifully both Alien Vs. Predator films once, which is enough punishment for anyone).   Therefore, I am not as wrapped up in the mythos of Aliens as other people who are amazingly hard-core about the series.  As a result, I am able to approach Prometheus with different eyes: I can watch it as the prequel it is or is not meant to be as well as a film independent of the Alien world.

As a visual spectacle, Prometheus is undeniably beautiful to look at with great production value.  However, as a film, Prometheus doesn't have much in a way to hold us interested in the characters on screen or a story that holds together.

We have two scientists/lovers, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Greene) who discover cave paintings that appear to point to extraterrestrial beings having not only visited our world, but 'seeded' life on our little planet that eventually would turn into...well, us.

Allow me a small digression at this juncture.  I'm not the most faithful Christian, and at times I wander away from the Faith.  However, I do accept the basic tenents of Christianity.  As such, I believe in a God that created all things.  If I understand things, a belief in a Creator God is illogical and stupid.  It is more logical, more intellectual, and more rational to believe aliens from another world came to Earth and planted us or a semblance of us on this lonely planet.

Again, it is more scientific to believe aliens came to Earth and put us here than it is to believe a Deity made us.  OK...

In any case, this discovery in 2089 leads us to deepest space to track down the planet from which our planters, whom Shaw calls The Engineers, came from.  It is now 2093, and the Weyland Corporation has funded this little expedition.  Among those aboard are corporate lackey Miss Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the android David (Michael Fassbender), who has been keeping the Prometheus up and running while everyone has been in suspended animation.  To while away the hours, David has learned several languages, played basketball while riding a bicycle, and become a bit obsessed with the film Lawrence of Arabia, right on down to dyeing his hair a Peter O'Toole blond.

The captain of Prometheus, Janek (Idris Alba) is not all that interested in what exactly they might find on this world.  We have a crew of little interest to us because, all things being equal, they will be killed (hopefully in particularly gruesome ways).  And die they do, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Prometheus lands near a massive mountain which is really a complex of caves, all of which harbor a terrible secret.  David has his own secret agenda...or is it his agenda?  In any case, a mysterious entity has been brought aboard the Prometheus, and now everyone is in danger.  We get a few other twists (some shocking, some laughable), and we end with Dr. Shaw fleeing this planet, taking a decapitated David with her, out to keep seeking her Engineers while a familiar creature literally bursts forward...

Now, long-time readers of my site know that I have a particular pet peeve when it comes to film, one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel.   One could have a film that is coming close to Citizen Kane in genius, but if you hint or worse, flat-out state there will be a sequel to your story, you automatically get points knocked down from me.  Why?  I detest the idea that a film can be so good that we are automatically going to demand more.  The closest I have ever come to going against this rule is with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but in that case I know it is based on a series of stories by John Le Carré.   Prometheus is partly based on other films which have had, after Aliens, diminishing returns, so it's not an automatic that I would want to know more about what's going on.

In case I haven't stated it already, I HATE FILMS THAT SUGGEST A SEQUEL.  I HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE FILMS THAT SUGGEST A SEQUEL.  Did I mention I hate films that suggest a sequel?

By doing such, Prometheus gets points knocked down, points that it could hardly afford to lose, because if it weren't from Ridley Scott,  Prometheus would probably be dismissed as a grandly visual spectacle with not much at its core.   Just because Prometheus was directed by Scott I fail to see why it should get a free pass.  Prometheus is not a good film.  It doesn't matter that its director made Alien and the equally brilliant Blade Runner or the great Black Hawk Down or the good Gladiator.  A bad/weak film is a bad/weak film no matter who made it.

Granted, Prometheus has a great visual style.  Dariusz Wolski's cinematography is beautiful to look at, and he captures not only the amazing sights of early Seeding (what we might have called Creation) as well as the vastness of space but also the dark terrors within the massive mountain and the overwhelming whites of the Prometheus itself.

However, once we get past how great PrometheusPrometheus that is interesting.  The fault lies entirely within the screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (a hero to a whole generation of nerds due to Lost, a show which I didn't care for and after watching the first season just to get a costume for a theme party, no longer cared to watch, but I digress).   Ideas, rather heady ideas at that about faith vs. science, the beginnings of man, what makes us human, are bandied about only to be dropped as soon as they get in the way of some good scare.  As a result, we're left with a frustrating series of set-ups (did aliens really plant us here? why?) are given to which Prometheus won't answer, and not because it can't (couldn't the Engineers really have taken a few minutes to record some 'we are your Makers' message).  It is because it doesn't care about those deep esoteric questions man has asked since he could first distinguish himself different than all other animals. 

Instead, once we are taken on this journey to find our Creators (for lack of a better word), Prometheus decided it had to be an action/horror film rather than an intellectual exercise.  There isn't anything wrong with that, but it is strange that a lot is asked only to never be answered.  For example, who really are all those holograms that are racing around the Prometheus' crew as they explore this cave (which by the way, is really a ship)?

Going further into the 'questions that are not answered' deal, at the end of Prometheus, the Engineers (whoever or whatever they are) appear to be getting ready to launch an attack, apparently to Earth.  Why?  We don't know.  How?  By means of what I took to be some sort of Death Star-like giant death ray.  So it's up to Dr. Shaw and the Prometheus crew that is still alive to stop them. 

Do I care?  Not really. 

The script also really fails to give us any interest in seeing any of our characters survive, given that on the whole they are a rotten lot.  David for an android is particularly malevolent (giving lie to the idea that they are an emotionless lot), but it is never made clear why he is implanting things himself.  For that matter, it is never made clear why this android decided he needed to dye his hair a bright blond, but I digress.

We get what is suppose to be a 'shocking twist' (something else I detest--so-called shocking twists that are painfully obvious) in regards to the mysterious Mr. Weyland (Guy Pearce, unrecognizable in Armie Hammer's J. Edgar make-up, but not in a good way).   Was his character necessary?  No.  Did it slow down Prometheus to where the film lost almost all momentum?  Yes.  Was his character laughable and badly acted?  Absolutely.

Michael Fassbender is one of the best actors around, and with a better script I think his David would have been an iconic character, that android who is starting to become human and may not like what it is making him into.  However, it appears at a certain point both Fassbender and Scott pretty much forget he is an android and David becomes less mechanical and more 'evil human who wants to kill our heroes'. 

Logan Marshall-Green (who looks a lot like Tom Hardy, just a thought) didn't convince me he was a brilliant scientist.  He did convince me that Dr. Holloway was a bit of a jerk, right on down to his more devout girlfriend.  Marshall-Green's character is so unlikable that when he meets a grisly end (or should I say, TWO grisly ends), one should be cheering.

I digress to say that I did a lot of laughing in Prometheus.  Almost every time someone is dispatched was a moment that I found hilarious more than horrifying: whether it was being set on fire or have their head run over or an alien go into them through their mouth or getting decapitated or having a giant spaceship fall on them, I thought it was quite funny.  I'm not a sadist by any stretch.  Instead, I think it came from the fact that we were never allowed to know anything about our characters.  As much as I'm loath to compare films, at least in Alien and Aliens we get a slow build-up to the horror, and in that interim we get to know all the people.  Prometheus doesn't allow that.  Instead, we just get little bits to know that they have no chance of leaving the planet alive.

I will give credit to Rapace for doing what she could with the script that didn't give her much to do.  However, even in what is suppose to be a horrifying sequence where she has to get the Alien seed out of her, I couldn't help chuckling.  Seeing a giant claw remove the squid from her brought to mind several other films: the claw itself, Toy Story ("I have been chosen"), the squid, Men In Black ("Congratulations.  It's a squid").  I even thought I heard Dalek sounds in the cave/Engineer ship, but as a Whovian that might have been my mind hearing things. 

Come to think of it, maybe having Daleks aboard would have livened things up in Prometheus.  Certainly would have made things more entertaining.  Yet I digress.

Oftentimes, Prometheus was so reminiscent of other films that one found the idea of a mash-up more interesting than in the film itself. 

Ultimately, while Prometheus suggests that it IS the beginning of the Alien saga (and in a manner I found more annoying than thrilling), it also suggests that it ISN'T, but that it will spin its own series apart from the previous Alien films.  For me, just having the idea that there will be more films is just one monster too many for me to tolerate. 

As everything is falling around her, Dr. Shaw tells a decapitated David (since he's an android, he's still around) that she wants to know where The Engineers came from, then leaves a voice-over message saying she's continuing the search.  If this isn't a violation of that Golden Rule Of Filmmaking (and if the voice-over isn't already another nail in the coffin--something I really dislike is voice-over), I don't know what is.

As it stands, I didn't find much of interest in Prometheus (apart from the visuals), but it is the idea telegraphed that there will be more Prometheus-related films that is something I cannot stand for.  I can only say that the best thing to do is to get away from this...


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Octopussy: A Review


A Sari Situation...

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

Maud Adams is unique in the chronicles of Bond Girls: she is the ONLY woman to be a Bond Girl twice, first in The Man With the Golden Gun, and second as the title character in Octopussy (perhaps the most provocative name since Pussy Galore).   Octopussy is not held in high regard by fans or critics, and they have several points that I should concede.  However, Octopussy is one of my favorite Bond films.  Note I said 'favorite', not 'best'. 

We begin in an unnamed Latin American country (though it's strongly suggested it is Cuba), where there's a horse show.  British MI6 Agent James Bond 007 (Roger Moore) attempts sabotage, but is able to make a daring escape with the help of a local beauty and a small plane perhaps too cleverly disguised.  This flows us into All Time High, the opening song (the only instance as of today where the title of the movie did not appear in either the title or the lyrics of the song).

Now, on to the main plot.  Another MI6 agent, 009, escapes East Berlin but is killed before he can say anything.  He does die, however, with a Fabergé egg in his hands, and in the British ambassador's home.  Oh, and did I mention he was dressed as a clown?  Who killed him, and why?  Further, why did he have that Czarist Easter Egg in his possession?  That's what 007 is meant to find out.

The egg is a forgery, but the real one is going to be auctioned.  Meanwhile, in Moscow the military is in favor of nuclear disarmament with one loud exception: General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), who is calling for an invasion of West Germany.  The bad general is, we find, behind the forgeries and smuggling of the Russian treasures.  Also involved is Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), a shady figure of questionable wealth.  

The investigation leads to India, where Khan resides in exile. We get to know a beautiful woman, Magda (Kristina Wayborn), who is also involved in this business.  Once Bond starts getting involved, it draws the ire of both Kamal Khan and his henchman Gobinda (Kabir Bedi).  There to help him is Indian contact Vijay (Vijay Amritraj).  Soon Bond learns that Magda is the right-hand woman of the mysterious Octopussy (Adams), the proprietress of an island filled with a bevy of beauties, an island restricted to women only.

Bond soon discovers Khan's connection to General Orlov.  He also finds that this Octopussy is somehow involved.  Knowing that there's sexual discrimination going on in this private island, we soon meet Octopussy herself (Adams).  She is the cult-like leader of these Amazons, the owner of Octopussy's Circus, and a woman whose past is tied to his.  She freely admits to being involved in jewelry smuggling but that's all she's involved in.

Bond discovers that apart from smuggling, Octopussy has divested into legitimate businesses, including circuses.  There is to be a performance of Octopussy's Circus in  East Berlin, and it is here that Bond makes a shocking discovery.  Using Octopussy's smuggling expertise, Orlov and Khan smuggle a nuclear bomb straight into the American Air Force base in West Germany, which they plan to explode while Octopussy's Circus is performing there.  This is Orlov's plan to kill thousands of people without getting his hands dirty and to cause greater calls for nuclear disarmament in the West (and thus making the West more vulnerable to his invading forces).  Kamal Khan shall be paid with the jewels of the Soviet treasury once the war on the West is won. Octopussy, who knows nothing of this plan, continues to believe she is merely smuggling Romanov treasures, unaware the jewels have been switched out.

Bond does, after jumping many hoops (no pun intended), does save the day, and then it is off to India for one last confrontation, but with Octopussy and her troupe now on his side after she discovers Kamal's treachery.       

I think Octopussy is poorly regarded because so much of the film is based on rather outrageous/outlandish moments and incidents that make things look too comic. Ther are sadly, too many moments where laughs are sacrificed for plot.  Most of them involve chase/action scenes.  For example, what could have been a thrilling chase across the streets of Delhi gets too many goofy touches (such as Vijay beating the thugs off with his tennis racket).  Similarly, Bond's escape from Khan's palace involves a literal man-hunt (complete with elephants), Bond ordering a tiger to 'sit', doing a Tarzan yell as he swings through the vines, and quipping once he manages to get aboard a tourist rivership that he's with "the economy tour".

In fact, it isn't until later on when the Octopussy Girls raid Kamal's palace or a chase aboard Octopussy's train that we see that action sequences could be taken seriously if director John Glen chose to.  Those moments were actually quite good, even exciting and well-paced.  It's some of the earlier, more goofy ones that push Octopussy towards the ridiculous.

This propensity towards the ridiculous reaches its nadir when James Bond 007, super-spy/ladies man, is forced to dress like a clown to enter the circus on the American base (after already having been disguised at one point as a gorilla).  Granted, the film takes great pains to set up why James Bond has to take on such a silly disguise, but it is still rather bizarre to have such a serious situation as having a nuclear device be dismantled by someone dressed as Bozo.

It brings to mind of all things, Holiday Inn.  This is a mostly delightful musical where the songs are connected to American holidays.  The most controversial number is the Abraham sequence, which involves Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in blackface (and as strange as that sounds, that description is actually tame given what is actually on the screen).  The movie went through great pains to make Croby's blackface logical, but it still is disturbing to watch in the very least.  Similarly, Octopussy makes it extremely clear as to why Bond had to don such an outlandish disguise.

However, as logical as it all is, it still runs the high risk of making Bond a figure of ridicule more than anything else.   

On a slightly different track, perhaps part of the dislike towards Octopussy might be that she comes across as almost a Batman-like villainness, one from the television series, not the film series.  Here's Octopussy with her horde of femme fatales, involved in criminal activities.  However, very few Bond films have featured a female antagonist to match wits with 007.  Bond Girls tend to be either the male villain's mistress or henchwoman, and every so often Bond's ally, but rarely is a Bond Girl ever at the center of the plot.  Octopussy is, and while she isn't the main antagonist (Kamal Khan and to a lesser degree Orlov having that role), it is I think a step in the right direction. 

However, it would be good if Bond faced off against a female criminal mastermind, one who might not be so quickly won over by his sexual prowess.

There is ONE point of comedy that does work, and that's from all of people, gadget expert Q (Desmond Llewellyn).  Q comes down on a hot-air balloon just in time to rescue Magda and the other girls in the Octopussy Cult.  They thank him by showering him with kisses.  At first he protests that there's no time for that, then quickly adds after getting a gander at Magda, "Later, perhaps". 

It may be the ONLY time Q ever got in on the action...figuratively and literally.

However, I think that those who dislike, even loath Octopussy may be missing the forest for the trees.  Within the film we have some remarkably good moments and sly winks to the audience.  We have a strong performance from Adams as the title character, one who mixes her beauty with her cleverness as a smuggler.  Now I will concede that at times she becomes lost in the mayhem, and that times when she expresses wistfulness it comes off as more lost.  However, Adams if nothing else commands the screen when she is on.

Jourdan is having a great deal of fun being the bad guy, rolling his various pronouncements with aplomb.  He is more in the Drax mode of villain from Moonraker than in the Kristatos mode from For Your Eyes Only, one who a megalomaniac who uses language with great pleasure.  One can't really dislike a villain who speaks lines such as, "Mr. Bond, you have a nasty habit of surviving".  Perhaps Berkoff is thought of as being hammy, but I disagree.  I think he was menacing as the power-mad warmonger Orlov who has no problem potentially killing thousands to strike at his enemy.

Moving on to the title theme, All Time High has the positive of having lyrics written by Tim Rice.  On the whole, All Time High is pleasant, pretty even, but I don't think one of those songs that one instantly ties to James Bond, certainly not like Goldfinger or Nobody Does It Better

We also have some beautiful cinematography of India courtesy of Alan Hume, and the visuals are quite lovely to look at, which is always a plus. 

Screenwriters George McDonald Fraser, Richard Maibaum, and Michael Wilson (adapting two Ian Fleming stories, Octopussy and Property of A Lady) might have done well in cutting down on some of the more outlandish elements in Octopussy, but on the whole the story flowed quite well.  As a digression, they might have done better to have called the film Property of A Lady, which at the very least might have led to a title song that could have used the title in the song.  It's hard to come up with lyrics that could use the word Octopussy.  If Tim Rice couldn't do it, what makes anyone else think they can do better?

Octopussy may be more on the silly side in the James Bond canon, but it does what a good Bond film does: give us beautiful women, exotic locales, a grandiose villain, and some good action scenes.  By no means perfect, Octopussy is a film that can reach out and take you in its tentacles if you allow yourself to just get into its fantasy. 

Next James Bond Film: Never Say Never Again

Next Official James Bond Film: A View To A Kill


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cabin In the Sky: A Review


In My Father's House, There Are Many Cabins...

For whatever faults the Golden Age of Film has in regards to positive portrayals of African-Americans (and they are a heaping helping), every so often a film did come out that made an effort to show African-Americans in a more positive light.  Granted, they came from a thoroughly Anglo viewpoint, since apart from pioneers such as Oscar Micheaux, blacks were not allowed to work behind the camera to tell their own stories.  Even worse, scenes that featured African-Americans were summarily cut from films once they played south of the Mason-Dixon line.  Something as innocuous as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson dancing with Shirley Temple caused Southerners fits because here was this black man holding hands with a white female (never mind that she was a child who was thoroughly oblivious to the idea that her holding hands with her friend could be scandalous).

Cabin in the Sky cannot do that because it is an all-black cast.  Like many productions of the time, Cabin in the Sky had lavish production values (black or white, it WAS MGM, and they weren't about to skimp on production value).   While it wasn't a large risk to adapt a successful Broadway musical to the screen (something that happens with more frequency today), it was a risk to adapt an all-black musical which might not be seen by a part of the country.  What then, are the end results of Cabin in the Sky?  Some wonderful music and legendary performers showing us they were more than equal to their Anglo counterparts.

God-loving Petunia (Ethel Waters) loves but worries over her husband, Little Joe (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson), a gambler and womanizer.  She thinks he's come over to the Light, and he sincerely wants to, but we find Little Joe still falls prey to temptation, or rather, is pushed into gambling by those he owes money to.  At the gambling house, Little Joe is shot.  Fighting for his life, Petunia prays to the Lord to spare him.

Her prayer is answered in the most curious way.  Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) has come to collect his newest servant, but Petunia continues her prayers, which are answered by The General (Kenneth Spencer), who brings his Soldiers of the Lord.  There is a question of who exactly owns Little Joe's soul: Lucifer or The Lord.  In short, they've come to an understanding: Little Joe has six months to change his ways, otherwise the Devil takes him.  The catch: Little Joe won't remember any of that, but will sense both the Angel and the Devil at his side.

Little Joe has got the intense love and faith of Petunia, but Lucifer Jr. is determined to win one for Pappie.  He now plays a card of his own: have gambler Little Joe come up a winner, and get him with a beautiful temptress named Georgia Brown (Lena Horne).   Little Joe is making an earnest change for the better, but a misunderstanding over Georgia has Petunia send Little Joe packing.

Now at the Paradise Club, Domino Johnson (John W. Sublett, better known as Bubbles), he who shot Little Joe, is out of prison, looking to get back with sweet old Georgia Brown.  Little Joe is now a wealthy man, squiring his newest flame around town.  It therefore comes as a surprise to see Petunia at the club, all glammed-out herself and apparently having gone over to the Dark Side herself.  However, we all know it's a ruse to win her man back, but tragedy strikes: while Little Joe is defending her, Domino shoots Petunia by mistake.  While rushing to her, Domino strikes again, this time at Little Joe.

It's time for the Reckoning.  It's at first evident that Little Joe is still a bit short in the ledger of the Lord, but Petunia won't leave Little Joe.  Her love truly redeems her man, and we end with our two lovers Taking A Chance on Love.        

While watching Cabin in the Sky, I confess that I soon gave no thought to the fact that the cast was all black.  What I saw was a sly, charming and delightful musical that was respectful of African-Americans but that is also universal in its tale of redemption through love.  It shows the truth that when you've got a great story and a host of talented performers, color is unimportant (as it should have been back then, but I digress).

It is incredible to think that Cabin in the Sky is Vincente Minnelli's first feature film.  He handles the musical numbers beautifully, be they lavish such as the dance number with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, or a tender number like in the title number.  In terms of acting when there isn't singing, Minnelli likewise balanced the story's comic and dramatic number.  More important, there wasn't a time or scene in Cabin in the Sky where the characters were demeaning or something to be ashamed of. 

The only part that might be questionable now is when Lucifer, Jr. is in his Department of Ideas, and one of his minions is a sleepy, slow-witted man.  However, on the whole, that is a minor point; we have a great movie where the songs and performances all work so well.

Of course, one would ask why Petunia would want to be with Little Joe, but then such is the nature of love.  You can't argue with her love if it inspires the beautiful standard Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe.  One really can't go wrong when the music (adapted from the stage musical) comes from Harold Arlen.  Like all good musicals, we get a chance for performers to showcase some great songs, such as Taking A Chance on Love, both of which features Ethel Waters' crystal-clear voice and great charm. 

We even get great moments such as the brilliant Louis Armstrong in a cameo as one of Lucifer, Jr.'s minions in the Ideas Department.  We also can't argue with a great musical number from the immortal genius Duke Ellington at the Paradise Club.  One can argue Ellington and His Orchestra has nothing to do with the story, but it's Duke Ellington, and I ain't about to argue against him.

There is great wit in the film.  One of my favorite lines in Cabin in the Sky is when Lucius, Jr. complains he has a poor Ideas Department.  "All the A Boys is over there in Europe", a sly nod to true Servants of Satan Hitler and Mussolini.

Although Horne has a surprisingly small part in Cabin in the Film, she is a delightfully vamping it up as the Sweet Georgia Brown.  She is having a wonderful time, expressing a wicked sense of humor as the temptress.  She has some showstopping numbers that showcase her extraordinary talent and glamour, such as Honey in the Honeycomb

Waters is the heart and soul (no pun intended) as the God and Little Joe-loving Petunia, and her performance is one of such tenderness and sincerity that you ache with her as she struggles to set her man on the narrow path.  However, while she is not really able to give Horne a run for her money in the glamour department, when she does her own rendition of Honey in the Honeycomb, she comes out just as talented a singer as Horne. 

We also give credit to Anderson as the befuddled Little Joe and also Ingram as Lucifer, Jr., bringing a comic turn in the film.

Cabin in the Sky shows that a film need not focus on race to be a sweet, charming, and well-crafted musical.  It's a story that all races will enjoy, and Cabin in the Sky will bring happiness to Joe and everyone else. 

Truth be told, if the Devil wanted to tempt any man, he couldn't make a finer choice than Lena Horne.