Friday, August 31, 2012

Mr. Eastwood Yields To The Chair

Let's put some things into perspective.  Clint Eastwood is an icon, a legend, a Kennedy Center Honoree.  His films have been praised, both his work in front of and behind the camera (especially when they show a left-of-center viewpoint...Million Dollar Baby, anyone?).  Now, however, his appearance at the Republican National Convention has been judged as bizarre, embarrassing, and just nutty.

However, I think a little education is in order.

Eastwood is not someone who was ever comfortable making speeches.  Once, he was pulled from the Academy Awards audience to fill in for Charlton Heston due to Heston's late arrival (a flat tire).  He was clearly embarrassed at having to talk about parting the Red Sea (a reference to The Ten Commandments) and swore never to return until he was an actual nominee.  He kept his word, not coming until Unforgiven was in the running.  Eastwood is not a trained comedian, so perhaps the routine of him fake interviewing the President wasn't the greatest, but I think everyone is blowing this out of proportion.

You'd have to be an idiot to think Clint Eastwood ACTUALLY thought he was REALLY talking to a chair!

Wait a minute, wait a minute Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt.  We'll get to you in a bit.

I think people have become so dull that they appear to not understand that the chair is what is called in theater circles, "a prop".  The Chair (to quote George Strait) is what in English is called "a metaphor".  A metaphor, for those who think 'text' and 'friend' are verbs, is when you use one thing to mean another.  The Chair was suppose to be President Obama.  It appears to have escaped everyone watching on television.  If it didn't, then to understand what all the mockery of Clint Eastwood speaking to a chair is something that escapes me.

Now, I opted to watch the final night on MSNBC because they are on the left and make no secret of it.  All their evening programming: The Rachel Maddow Show, The Ed Show, The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, are nothing more than one liberal telling us how he/she thinks after another with nary a bit of news.  It's three hours of leftist commentary; nothing  wrong with that in and of itself.  However, I knew that no matter what happened, MSNBC would be sure to portray it as a failure or a disaster or almost Satanic.  I was not disappointed.  

Rachel Maddow afterwards declared that it was the most bizarre thing she would ever see at any convention, even if she lived to be a hundred.  That's highly possible, given lesbians live longer than straight women.  All of them, Maddow, O'Donnell, Al Sharpton, Chris Hayes, Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt, and Chris Matthews were all aghast at Eastwood's appearance.  Now, some of them did appear to cut Eastwood a thin bit of slack (he IS 82 years old) but the consensus was that it was the act of a crazy man.

Granted, MSNBC knows crazy when they see it...(Keith Olbermann).

Again, having heard Eastwood's speech, did he ramble a bit?  Yes.  Did it sound disjointed?  At times.  However, apart from a clumsy bit of improv comedy (and a slightly distasteful bit about the 'chair' telling him to tell Romney to 'do something to himself') on the whole it wasn't a bizarre rant of an old man talking to a chair.  It was at times quite clever.  After he fumbled that "can't tell him to do something to himself" bit he had some good zingers about Vice President Biden ("kind of a grin with a body behind it").  Another good line was, "Politicians are employees of ours," which was remarkably coherent and insightful and not the delusional ramblings of a senile old man. The best line was, "When somebody does not do the job, we got to let 'em go."

Yes, Eastwood stumbled and looked a bit ill at ease, but really nothing ridiculous.  Audio-wise, it isn't horrible.  Visually, it does look weak.  He should not have ab-libbed but read off the teleprompter.  Actors need lines.

Ultimately, when it comes to Clint Eastwood's appearance at the RNC, it will soon be forgotten.  National Public Radio (of which I am a regular listener) didn't mention the Eastwood speech, and FOX News (a voice for the Right as ever there was) replayed it in its entirety.

What I want to focus now on the coverage of MSNBC and some of their coverage, which I found as nutty as anything Eastwood did.

After Mitt Romney spoke, Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt decided he had sent some secret sign to the Birthers (those who think President Obama wasn't born in the United States and thus not a legitimate President) by this comments about the Moon landing:

God Bless Neil Armstrong.  Tonight that American flag is still there on the Moon, and I don't doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong's spirit is still with us, that unique blend of optimism, humility, and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.

By these comments praising the late Neil Armstrong, Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt drew the conclusion that Mitt Romney hinted or suggested that he too, doesn't believe Barack Obama was born in the United States.  Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt truly believes that.  He was deeply offended that Romney would send a 'dog whistle' to the Birthers that Romney was on their side, that the Governor was all but saying President Obama wasn't a 'real American'.

Now I admit I don't have a television or radio show or that I had to leave both because I called a woman a "right-wing slut" like he did to Laura Ingraham, but is it me or is Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt reading simply far too much into this tribute to Neil Armstrong?  I'm sorry Mr. Schmitt, but I don't get the connection.  the fact that you see one when I don't think anyone else did (except perhaps you and your co-hosts) is more a reflection of how you see things than on how things really are.

That Mitt Romney somehow is in cahoots with a group of crazies because he thinks well of American achievement (and yes, the Moon landing is a great American achievement)  is just as nutty as suggesting that Mitt Romney is somehow responsible for a woman's death from cancer, or that if Mitt Romney is elected, people will die, or calling Sarah Palin a 'cunt' or calling Laura Ingraham a "right-wing slut".

Perish the thought, Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt.  Not that things like that would EVER happen in a campaign or on your show.

This "Mitt Romney is a Birther" business Ed "Right-Wing Slut" Schmitt believes is to my mind nuttier and crazier and more bizarre than anything Clint Eastwood said or did.  Yet no one at the MSNBC desk, not Sharpton, not Maddow, not O'Donnell, not Matthews, not Up With Chris Hayes' titular host, NONE OF THEM, said to him, "Don't you think you're reading a bit too much into a Neil Armstrong tribute?"

I don't want to believe that people as intelligent as all of the above really think Mitt Romney is a Birther.  Yet it is a sad case of an echo chamber, where people hear what they want to hear and will insert their own views whether they fit or not.

Of course, you can say the same about FOX News (which is why I will take a gander at it during the Democratic Convention, though watching Chris Matthews and Company when President Obama finishes might be too tempting to resist).  Are they conservative?  Yes, and with few exceptions (Sheppard Smith, Chris Wallace, maybe Bret Baier) their news is slanted to the right. 

Unlike others, I'm not bothered by there being bias in news reporting.  FOX can be right, MSNBC can be left.  I watch both and learn a lot from seeing both sides of the issue.  I just wonder whether people are so wrapped up in their partisan views that they see things that aren't there...such as Mitt Romney being a Birther.

Of course, Rachel Maddow wasn't far behind in conspiratorial thinking.  Former Governor Mike Huckabee said during his RNC speech about whether he, a former pastor and evangelical Christian, would only vote for another evangelical Christian (Romney being a LDS or Mormon, Congressman Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden being Catholics)...

Of the four people on the two tickets, the only self-professed evangelical (emphasis his) is Barack Obama, and he supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb even beyond the womb (emphasis mine), and he tells people of faith that they have to bow their knees to the god of government and violate their faith and conscience in order to comply with what he calls 'health care'. 

One can disagree with Governor Huckabee's assertions that the President's views disqualify him from being an evangelical Christian.  Like Queen Elizabeth I, I do not wish to make windows into men's souls.  However, from that bit, Miss Maddow said that Huckabee was accusing President Obama of infanticide, then looked genuinely puzzled at such a ridiculous assertion. 

Only one thing Rach.  I think, and this is just my own reading into things, that Huckabee was making a thinly-veiled reference to partial-birth abortion.  Huckabee is opposed to abortion, which is his right.  I believe Miss Maddow supports women being able to have abortions.  Again, her right.  However, I wonder if Maddow has ever heard of partial-birth abortions.  If she has, then maybe she might have put two and two together, not gotten 979 out of his comments, metaphorically speaking. 

I never thought Mike Huckabee was saying or suggesting that Barack Obama was killing babies (whether you want to apply this to the drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan I leave up to you the reader...and Miss Maddow).    Here again, a commentator sees/hears what she wants to see and hear.  Rachel Maddow is not a journalist and I doubt pretends to be objective, and anyone who turns to her or her on-air nemesis/rival Sean Hannity for actual news has to be a fool unto himself/herself. 

I can't speak for Mike Huckabee, but I don't think he was saying that President Obama was committing infanticide.  I leave for another time whether partial-birth abortions ARE infanticide, a debate that one should have.  However, to jump from being opposed to abortion to saying one is accusing the President of infanticide (which I imagine Maddow sees as the President committing another Slaughter of the Innocents a la Pharaoh or Herod) is a bit too much.

Now that I've rambled like Clint Eastwood, allow me some final thoughts.  Clint Eastwood can do whatever he wants.  He's still Clint Eastwood and his film legacy is secure.  This whole brouhaha will be a minor blip, just like no one remembers Frank Sinatra's rambling speech on receiving a special Grammy.  The work endures, their legacies secure.

I can only hope that the Democratic Party doesn't get it into its head to do some sort of rebuttal with a George Clooney, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks, or Will Ferrell speaking before the President.  It will look only like they are beating up on Eastwood, and if there is something unseemly about a rambling 82-year-old man, isn't there something more unseemly about beating up on an 82-year-old man?  I'm sure there will be jokes, maybe the President will answer Eastwood or even make comments about a chair (perhaps Mr. Obama will ask if anyone's seen his chair).  I'm sure Eastwood is strong enough to take it...he's Clint Eastwood for Heaven's sake!  There might be a risk, however, in going overboard with "Eastwood is nuts/senile" or just Eastwood jokes. 

Love his politics or hate them, Americans by and large respect and love Clint Eastwood.  He's an American Icon, someone whose image and legacy cross party lines (and it should be pointed out, is not socially conservative, putting him closer to Rachel Maddow than Laura Ingraham on some issues).  Eastwood's standing among the great stars, great actors, and great directors won't be diminished by this one offbeat moment. 

Dems, as someone who always comes close to joining you only to see you do something foolish and get pushed back to center-right, don't fall into the temptation to go overboard with Eastwood-bashing.  Americans might not be swayed to vote for Romney because Dirty Harry likes him, but they won't win swing states by beating up someone whom they think more highly of than President Obama. 

Seriously, you want to mess with HIM?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Review #434)


I am not much for modern art, finding a lot of it pretentious and a bit silly (cows in formaldehyde?).  Therefore, I might be expected to take a wary eye towards the works of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, but I found two things after watching Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  One: if people bother to explain what appears to be rather opaque works, one can get a richer and more enjoyable experience through the arts.  The idea that modern art in particular should not be explained because if it isn't obvious to a viewer then said viewer is 'stupid' is a bit insulting.  Education is vital for art appreciation.

Two: courage to face down bullies and thugs does not necessarily require guns.  One can easily use mockery and detailed records against those who would suppress and silence unpleasant truths.  Ai Weiwei is a man who provokes the Chinese Communist authorities, but does it with a smile, his wit, his Twitter, and his art.

Writer/director Alyson Klayman follows Ai as he mounts exhibitions in London and Munich as well as his travels in China.  Ai has worked outside the official Chinese art scene with provocative pieces, such as a series of photographs of him dropping an ancient vase or painting the Coca-Cola sign on another.  He also is one that has had his worldview shaped by events in his life that have shown him how the Chinese government has been systematically abusive and deceptive.

The Ai family (as is tradition in China, the family surname goes first) endured the Cultural Revolution where Weiwei's father was denounced by the Red Guards as a 'counterrevolutionary'.  Once the family was allowed back from their forced 're-education', he was one of the first to go to the West to study and create.  In New York City,  Ai thrived and saw how democracy worked.  The Iran-Contra hearings were a revelation: the idea that the government would broadcast an investigation of itself was something that would never happen in China.

Once he returned to China, he continued to work, sometimes in the underground art movement where he and his fellow artists had freer expression.  He also was gently nudging the nation towards the idea of more freedom, thumbing his nose (and using other fingers) to make his views known.

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake infuriated Ai.  The government wanted to keep the exact number of children killed because of poor construction secret, especially with the Beijing Summer Olympics being the same year.  The Chinese Communists wanted to present the best face to the world, but they didn't count on Ai Weiwei.

Ai wouldn't let this go.  He started his own investigation, collecting the names of the children the government didn't want to admit died because of corruption and ineptness.  Ai used his blog and Twitter accounts to publize his work, keeping the pressure on officials while never being overtly anti-government.  Ai would be provocative, but not confrontational or violent.  Instead, he would turn their own rules and actions against them.  For example, after the Shanghai studio they had asked him to design was shortly afterwards torn down because of his actions, he opted to throw a demolition party. 

Ai's actions inspired subtle protests from others.  Once while continuing his investigation of the shoddy buildings that killed thousands of schoolchildren, he took to Twitter to announce merely where he was dining.  At the open-air restaurant, people would just 'happen' to be passing by and wish Ai well.  When the Chinese government presented Ai with a million-dollar plus tax bill, ordinary citizens would send in contributions, a quiet protest against blatant injustice.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry covers his life, some of his works (and as an art novice it was nice to hear others explain things that might look a bit puzzling, like how the destruction of the ancient vases was his way of expressing discontent with how people's home were being destroyed for no reason), and his courage in prodding the Chinese Communists to show just how hypocritical and ridiculous they were.  During his investigation of the Sichuan earthquake victims, the police broke through his hotel room door in the middle of the night, injuring him.  Ai would continue to lobby protests after protests in the police offices, even if he would get nowhere and the police were obviously lying. 

What we see in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a provocateur who is almost giddy with the idea of mocking those in power, a revolutionary with a sense of humor.  He admits to being fearful, but he realizes something most people don't: courage is not the absence of fear, but the acknowledgement of it and still continuing the work.

Ai Weiwei is someone who knows that transparancy and freedom are vital, not just for art but for living.  He sees that the Chinese government is unfair by its actions: imprisoning dissenents (including during the course of the film, Ai himself), keeping things it considers embarrasing secret (such as the exact number of children needlessly killed through their own actions), and he knows this to be wrong.  Yet his actions don't call for violent overthrows or taking up arms.  Instead, Ai uses his art and his voice to speak out against the actions of the government.

In truth, Ai Weiwei has shown what has always been true: there is nothing so irritating to a dicatorship than a troublesome man.  He delights in his actions, treading as carefully as he can while still being provocative, afraid but unwilling to submit.

I had heard the name Ai Weiwei but knew little of the man or his works.  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a revelation of both a creative man and a man of conviction when so many are quiet or speak softly.  He lets his voice be heard, damn the consequences.

As a film, Ai Weiwei flows easily between his past and present, between an exploration and understanding of his art and of his political activism.  While it does give us some insight into his private life, it doesn't take on how his wife feels about his child born to another woman.  This isn't a flaw in Never Sorry but one gets the sense that the curiosity about the how of his child's birth or how Mrs. Ai feels about all this is a subject they'd like to explore but don't want to touch.

A minor detail, as Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is both profile of an artist and a profile in courage.

An extraordinary film for an extraordinary man.       

Born 1957
The Artist As Citizen. 
The Clown Prince of Protest. 
The Provocateur of The Middle Kingdom.
A Man of Courage.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Act of Valor: A Review


The acts of the Navy SEALs (SEa, Air, and Land) are without question worthy of honor, respect, admiration, and eternal gratitude. Act of Valor features actual Navy SEALs in leading roles, using real SEAL techniques used in the field.  All well and good.  If one looks at Act of Valor as a celebration of their courage, then it is a good film.  If one looks at Act of Valor as an actual film, it has a lot to answer for. 

This story is told in flashback, as the narrator talks to an unborn or recently-born child about the risks the boy's father faced.  The main plot of Act of Valor involves Agent Morales (Rosalyn Sanchez), a CIA agent investigating the possible connection between drug lord Christo (Alex Veadov) and Islamic terrorist Shabal (Jason Cottle).  Morales is captured and tortured, and the SEALs come to the rescue.

The SEALs unearth an even more insidious plot of which Morales barely scratched the surface.  Shabal now is plotting a massive series of terrorist attacks by using suicide bombers smuggled across the Mexican border.  This leads to two missions: one in international waters and one in Mexico, which causes those to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I know that the big selling point in Act of Valor is the fact that the film has actual Navy SEALs on-screen.  That however might be one of the film's biggest problems.  Whenever they are required to do the action scenes, we see the SEALs in their element.  It's whenever we are asked to get a glimmer of their private lives that the film falls flat.

Curiously, I remembered when I was in high school.  For Health class, Coach showed us a film called Navy SEALs starring Charlie Sheen in his pre-insanity days.   What this had to do with good sexual decisions I never did learn, but I thought it was entertaining.  One should remember I WAS in high school when I saw it.  The fact that these were actors playing Navy SEALs didn't bother me in the slightest.  I didn't give it a second thought.

Act of Valor forces me to give it a second thought.  It's clear these guys are not actors.  They are pretty lousy at it, and it begs the question of whether Act of Valor would have been a better film IF they had opted for actual actors rather than trusting that the SEALs would be able to play themselves.

When we are given little bits of their private lives (as if the cliche-ridden story wasn't already wasn't bad enough: the 'pregnant wife' subplot), the SEALs were stiff and even uninteresting.  I remember a scene when two SEALs are told about their colleague who was injured in Morales' rescue.  They were told that this SEAL was going to lose his eye.  I wrote that the guys weren't exactly broken up about Mickey's fate.  They seemed to be almost uninterested in the fact that their friend was going to lose his eye.  I think it's because they knew it was all fake, but while actors (and any other script) would have given some emotion, Act of Valor can't be bothered with such things. 

Here is where we have perhaps the biggest problem Act of Valor: the film runs the risk of making it all look like a video game.  This comes across often in Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh's film: often the camera shots (especially whenever we get a SEAL POV), it looks like we're watching people playing Gears of War or Call of Duty than a feature film.  It seems so obvious that I suspect this style of video game-like imagery was deliberate.

Here, we run a dangerous risk that Act of Valor is making the real acts of war appear like fiction, like a game, rather than a very serious matter where life and death can come at a moment's notice with no rhyme or reason as to why some men live and others die. 

One can congratulate Kurt Johnstad's screenplay in allowing for the SEALs to sound authentic when they speak.  It is natural to have people in a particular profession speak their own sub-language, company-speak so to speak (no pun intended).  However, sometimes we civilians become lost as to what exactly is being said.  Near the end when one of the SEALs asks, "What the hell are you talking about?", that pretty much summed up my reaction to some of the dialogue.

The overall plot of Act of Valor is rather grand to where it plays almost as farce.  The best example I can give is when Christo is captured on the high seas.  The efforts in the dialogue at humor are so forced and unnatural that it becomes embarrasing to watch.  The people on screen (even the actual professionals) are fake and it's all so over-the-top that I just marvelled at how inept it all was.

Still, if one forgets that we won't watch any actual acting in Act of Valor and that the story sometimes veers into unintended humor (why did I keep thinking the smuggling of these Phillipine jihadists via Mexico looked like something out of a right-wing fantasia), the actual action scenes were well-made and brought that intensity and realism which makes Act of Valor worth watching. 

I think that having real Navy SEALs in Act of Valor does lend the film a realism that might have been lost with real actors playing the SEALs.  I also think having real Navy SEALs in Act of Valor gives the film a video game/recruitment video feel lost without real actors NOT playing the SEALs.

The best thing about Act of Valor (apart from the action sequences) is the closing poem spoken in voice-over which was written by the great American Indian leader Tecumseh.  It is a moving statement in a film that sadly doesn't have moving performances.  So impressed was I with the "Act of Valor" poem that I've included it in its entirety:

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.

Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”                 

Wise words from a wise leader. 

When it comes to killing the enemy, leave that to the professionals (Navy SEALs). 
When it comes to giving a good performance, leave that to the professionals (actual actors). 


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bel Ami (2012): A Review (Review #432)


Our Beautiful Friend The Slut...

The novel Bel Ami is one that I've curiously skipped in my life.  Therefore, I cannot vouch for how close the film version stays to the Guy de Maupassant novel, which I'm led to believe is a classic.  As always, I only judge the film version of any book, musical, or play based on what I see, not on its source material.  Having said all that, Bel Ami is a film that is pretty to look at (bringing a line from Cabaret to mind: even the orchestra is beautiful) but there is nothing within Bel Ami that would make what we see truly believable.

Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is a poor ex-soldier who has washed upon the Belle Epoque era Paris.  A fortuitous encounter with an old Army buddy leads him to the salon of Monsieur et Madame Forestier (Philip Glenister and Uma Thurman), wealthy and influential patrons of a political newspaper.  At said salon we meet the owners/publishers, Monsieur Rousset (Colm Meanie) and his wife, Virginie (Kristen Scott Thomas), as well as the Rousset and Forestier's mutual friend, Madame Clotilde (Christina Ricci).  Being Robert Pattinson, all the women become infatuated with Georges.  Clotilde is the first to fall into his bed, even purchasing a little 'love nest' for their trysts.  Georges is infatuated with Madeleine Forestier, but she tells him she won't be his mistress.  She will, however, be his mentor in helping him rise up the ladder of the newspaper as well as in the various beds of Parisian society.

Soon enough, Georges does rise, and in another good turn, Monsieur Forestier dies.  Madeleine marries Georges, and together, they rise higher, but Monsieur Rousset won't help him and dismisses Georges' pretensions.  Angry at being snubbed, he quickly seduces the virginal Virginie, who quickly becomes needy and obsessive, all the while keeping Clotilde as his secondary mistress and being insanely jealous of the attentions Madeleine keeps with a mysterious Comte.  Through manipulations Georges quickly discovers he's being used to both enrich others and lead France to war, but he turns the tables by bringing the police to catch Madeleine in an act of adultery.  With him free to marry again, he gets the Rousset's willful daughter to elope, and while they don't actually get married or do anything the appearance of impropriety is enough to get them to agree to a marriage between Georges and their daughter, with a distraught Virginie in hysterics (such as wearing black and a veil to the ceremony).  Bel Ami (the women's common nickname for Georges) ends with him at the church taking in all the women he's used to get to the top. 

Bel Ami is the type of film people say, "well, at least the costumes were pretty," and  Odile Dicks-Mireaux's work is impressive, as is the music from Lakshman Joseph De Saram and Rachel Portman (the latter who excels in lush, romantic scores for period films).  Everything else about Bel Ami, though, falters badly.

Let's start out with the acting.  I have tried over the course of Robert Pattinson's career to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Bel Ami should be proof positive that he simply cannot act.  The former model is adept at standing still and striking a pose, and when he does so he does it well.  However, when it comes to creating a character Pattinson fails again and again.  Apart from his physical beauty there is nothing in his Georges that would compel all these women to fall over themselves to get into his bed and continue to be so obsessed or willing to be part of his harem.

Georges isn't witty, isn't charming, doesn't seduce women with words or even bother to court them.  They just come to him because he's Robert Pattinson, nothing more. 

If that weren't bad and unbelievable enough, Georges doesn't actually do anything to keep them interested or himself interesting (apart from being Robert Pattinson, beautiful person who can purse his lips and nothing more).  Given that Madeleine for example, is the brains behind the Diary of a Cavalry Officer series of articles, why would or should she bother with a lunkhead like Georges?  There are efforts to suggest his ambitions are to try to get away from his poverty-stricken past, but since we see him almost always as this wealthy young man, we can't believe that his malevolence (however weak it is onscreen) is motivated by a fierce determination to get away from his poor past.

In fact, Georges as portrayed by Pattinson never seems motivated by anything.  I'll say this much about Robert Pattinson: he DOES try.  If anything, Pattinson as a model always TRIES to act.  It just seems he can't get the hang of it. 

At one point in Bel Ami, he has to chase Virginie out of the love nest because Clotilde is coming.  Somewhere along the line, Rachel Bennette's screenplay manages to turn de Maupassant's novel into a bedroom farce, but no one appeared to clue in the actors.  Co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod weren't trying to play this scene for laughs, but it does leave one chuckling as to how he has to get one woman out to get another woman in.

Even stranger, Thurman's Madeleine appears almost orgasmic when discussing politics even while Pattinson stands before her.  The fact that she appears more interested in people's minds than in R-Pattz's body makes her unique among his co-stars, but it doesn't save her performance from being almost comical at times.  Come to think of it, Scott Thomas' obsessive Virginie is almost equally funny in how she becomes whiny towards Georges.

I'll say that Ricci is an underused actress in general and in Bel Ami in particular, but I think she gave as good a performance as the script allowed her.  She didn't have much to work with, but her Clotilde appeared to genuinely love Georges through think and thin without being obsessed, something like a balance between Virginie and Matilde.

We don't really know what motivates Georges, and Pattinson is too shallow a presence to allow us to either sympathize with Georges' determination to sleep his way to the top or be repulsed by his behavior.  None of the women have any real reason (logical that is) to help him move upwards in Parisian society.  Even if the characters and motivations weren't so shallow, the speed in which Bel Ami flows, like hitting all plot points without stopping to see the why of the story, leaves us no time or interest to see how Georges turns up: whether he succeeds or gets his comeuppance.

Still, the costumes were nice.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Paul Bearers

Personal Reflections on Viewing 2016: Obama's America with Ron Paul Supporters

I dislike reviewing political documentaries because people insist on bringing their politics into the film.  I know that sounds odd, but I find that the viewer almost always goes into a film prejudiced for or against the subject to where they almost always can't see the forest for the trees.  Those who despised George W. Bush cheered and applauded Fahrenheit 9/11, the truth be damned. It didn't matter if the narrative wasn't objective: if it portrayed the President as almost Satanic, Bush-bashers took is as gospel and Bush-supporters viewed it as shameless propaganda. In short, they could love or hate it in equal measure.

The sad thing is, if someone praises a political documentary they are seen as being in agreement with it.  If they don't praise it, they are seen as partisan.  That isn't the case all the time, and it isn't with me (or at least I've made an effort to be objective when judging the film itself, not so much my feelings on the content).

When I go see films that I don't agree with, I know I will see things and hear things that go against my worldview.  However, I also go into these films with as open a mind as I can give, hoping that by hearing from the other side I might actually learn something.  It might even persuade me that the other side (either right or left) may be correct (which is what I figure these types of documentaries are all about, less on information and more on indoctrination). 

As such, I figure that Loose Change (which details what the makers say is the mass conspiracy over the World Trade Center attacks) was made in part to tell the 'truth' about September 11th and in part to convince me that its worldview is correct.  I don't agree with the thinking of Loose Change (I don't believe there was a 'conspiracy' except among those who use Islam as an excuse for totalitarianism) but I HAVE to go into it with an open mind in order to both review it and attempt to understand both the film and its contentions.  Same goes for Fahrenheit 9/11 and 2016: Obama's America.  I may not agree with it, but it is my job to judge its effectiveness and production quality, not on whether I think Michael Moore or Dinesh D'Souza is right or wrong.

Just as people either loved or hated Fahrenheit 9/11 based on whether they loved or hated President Bush, likewise, 2016: Obama's America has similar issues of people either elated or disappointed in what it has to say (or not say).  I saw this first-hand because I had agreed to go see 2016 with a group of Ron Paul supporters, or as I lovingly call them, Paulistas or Paul-Bots.  Even such gentle teasing can send some of them into fits of fury, but more on that later.

Once the movie was over, I heard from the Paulistas.  The general consensus among the devotees was that it wasn't good.  Now, I didn't hear much about the production value of 2016 (although one of them, perhaps sarcastically, referred to it as 'pretty').  They didn't discuss much about the content of 2016 either save to say it didn't go deep enough into Obama's past Communist affiliations.

What they did discuss and what I did hear both after the screening and over dinner post-screening was that in their case, because it failed to meet their expectations, the film is a failure.  I don't think 2016 is a failure either in content or production value (a rarity for a conservative-based documentary), but to the Paulistas, in the words of one of them, 'I was expecting blood'. 

As I continued talking to them and listening to them, all I could think was the Ron Paul supporters had all the hallmarks of a cult.  How did I, a modest little bourgeois fellow, come to such a conclusion?  Well, I looked up some of the signs of a cult, and Paulistas fit quite a few.

There is something worshipful about how they hold Representative Paul in awe.  There is something fierce and fanatical about Paulistas.  To them, Ron Paul is the fount of all wisdom.  One question that I wish I had asked was whether any of them disagree with Paul on ANYTHING.  I keep getting the sense that they don't.  Whether it is economic issues or social issues, Ron Paul is never wrong. 


That to me is a sign of a cult.  Ayn Rand to her Collective was never wrong.  Jim Jones and David Koresh were never wrong.  Likewise, Ron Paul is never wrong.  Granted, one could say the same about President Obama or Congressman Ryan, but I don't know many of their supporters who agree with Obama or Ryan on EVERYTHING.  It may be possible that Paulistas may disagree with the good Doctor, but I doubt it.

Ironically, the way Paulistas revere Dr. Paul is exactly how so many people held then-Senator Obama.  I was not ashamed to tell them that to their face: the Paulistas all but worshipped the Representative they same way Obama supporters did. 

I remember vividly a person who came to the library in 2008 who was a passionate Obama supporter.  The nadir of his devotion was when he came in wearing a t-shirt reading, "The Only Truth Is Obama".  I was aghast that a mere mortal was being held up to Messianic levels.  So many people saw in Barack Obama this figure who was almost divine.  Hillary Clinton mocked this idea during the primary.  Sean Hannity still mocks it (referring to the President as The Anointed One). 

Paulistas would quote from the good Doctor in a similar vein. 

This leads me straight to another cult-like issue with the Paulistas.

People who disagree with Paul are not just wrong.  They are almost evil, working against the Leader or the Movement.  I heard from a Paulista that he knew Mitt Romney had not won a single primary/caucus save for Utah (wonder why Romney won that heavily-Mormon state).  One guess as to who did.  There was election fraud to keep the true winner (their candidate) from receiving the prize he so rightfully deserved and earned. 

Here is another sign of a cult: the group has exclusive knowledge and the world is against them.  I should point out that some of the Paulistas are so-called "9/11 Truthers" (a group that I find odious).  If you present them with anything that contradicts their worldview, they reject it out of hand, insisting that they and only they have the truth and those that disagree with them are either ignorant or active participants in the conspiracy (I think I fall in the former, so at least that's good).

Paul supporters, I overheard them say, were being targeted by the CIA and TSA for investigation and harassment.  I heard things about there being drones waiting for them at the Convention.  Their signs were going to be taken from them should they dare present them at Tampa.  Even the RNC was frightened of them, fearing a floor demonstration at the convention by the Paulistas.   

It's this "Us Vs. Them" mindview that I find highly troubling.  I didn't like it when it came from Obama supporters, I don't like it from Paul-Bots.  This idea that 'they are after us' is almost slightly paranoid.  Given how they like to quote Paul like he were Saint Paul, I was a little wary about the group in general (it might have been me, but to see their eyes light up when speaking of Ron Paul is a little frightening to me).

The Leader Cannot Be Questioned or even Mocked.  I remember when I made some silly, innocuous joke about Ron Paul (maybe about his height), and I was verbally attacked by two of his devotees, who insisted that my joke about Paul equalled my supporting the nation falling apart.  There is no dissent possible for a Paul-Bot, and certainly no mocking of the Leader. 

I think Scientologists have a greater sense of humor about L. Ron Hubbard than those who support Ron Paul.   

Now, in fairness the Paulistas I met were on the whole very nice and pleasant people.  It wasn't even that I could disagree with them.  It was in how they saw Ron Paul as this Icon that Was Always Right, that by being his supporters the World was against them, that Paul could not be mocked even in a frivolous way that I see cult-like mannerisms to his supporters. 

Finally, I note that they derive great identity from association with Ron Paul.  I took a glance at a Paulista's Facebook friends list, and was not surprised how many of them featured their profile pictures photos of either themselves with Ron Paul or of Ron Paul himself.  Some of them had Ron Paul signs, and one even had a Profile Photo of Mr. and MRS. Paul!  These people, I should point out, have met Ron Paul, but they aren't in his inner circle.  They aren't his literal friends.  He's never had any of them over for dinner, gone to the movies with them, or know him on a personal level.

Yet they have full identification with other Paulistas.  The photo that is suppose to represent them either features Ron Paul or is of Ron Paul himself, as if saying, "see me, see Ron Paul."  We are one and the same. I actually think if you asked them, they would say, "see me, see Ron Paul."

They've built this family-like mood that is another sign of a cult: we are a family, we are one.  We are an inclusive group in that we really only associate with those who agree with us.  I wonder if any of them would continue speaking to someone in their group who ended up voting for Romney or decided to switch from Paul to Santorum.  I figure they would do one of two things: either attempt to re-convert them or cut them off for their heresy.

Sorry, but that thing about putting pictures of Ron Paul, or of Ron and Mrs. Paul, or Ron Paul signs, or adoring images of Ron Paul, or even Ron Paul signs as THEIR profile pictures really freaks me out. 

A group that insists on virtual adoration of an all-wise, all knowing leader, that thinks the world is conspiring against them, that believes it has exclusive knowledge, that talks about the Illuminati and the New World Order, that won't tolerate any jokes about The Leader, that would virtually submerge an individual's identity to meld with that of The Leader (to where their profile picture is not one of themselves, but of The Leader of the Leader's family):

that is a Cult. 

Ayn Rand, the Mother of the Libertarians, once ridiculed the idea that she was the leader of a cult.  She taught Individualism, she said, so she was suppose to have a cult of individuals?  Well, Rand had a group of people who saw in her the Truth, who would not question her ideas and if they did, face the idea they were no longer part of the Collective.  There were elements of Cultish behavior about the Objectivists, as there are among an offshoot of them: the Paulistas.

I, frankly, am much an Individual to be a Paulista. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2016: Obama's America. A Review


If it's an election year, it's another onslaught of political documentaries.  In 2004 you had Fahrenheit 9/11, an anti-George W. Bush ad all but in name. It didn't help defeat President Bush, but a good try nonetheless.

In 2010 I saw I Want Your Money (a virtual celebration of the Tea Party Movement).  I was probably one of a handful who DID see it, and while it's a safe bet it didn't move many minds in fairness the Republicans did win back the House of Representatives a mere two years after the Democratic sweep into power.

Now, in the 'what's sauce for the goose' mindset, we have 2016: Obama's America, an anti-Barack Obama ad all but in name.  Based on author Dinesh D'Souza's The Roots of Obama's Rage, 2016 states its case that President Obama's past, in particular his near-idolization of his father Barack, Sr., along with his family and mentor's worldview of hostility towards America in both concept and actions has led the President to adopt his policies at home and abroad.  These policies, D'Souza argues, will make and have made America weaker.  It isn't because Obama hates America, but because Obama has been brought up to believe America has been an imperialist force.  Thus, it behooves him to level the playing field so to speak, and thus the second Obama Administration would lead to a diminishing American influence and power because it is, in the President's mind, the only fair thing to do.

Most of 2016 deals with Obama's life and how, in D'Souza's thinking, the President became the man and political figure he became.  Those expecting a devastating hit job won't find it here.  Those who find the President to be near-divine will bristle at the idea that the President sees America as a negative force in the world.  However, as a film it is an interesting exploration of how one son of an immigrant sees another son of an immigrant.

 In a slow and methodical manner, D'Souza states his case.  He contrasts his own immigrant journey from India to the United States to that of Barack Obama, Sr.  In D'Souza's telling, both he and Obama, Sr. came to America, but saw different things.  D'Souza saw the promise of America: the ability to advance far beyond anything he could have achieved in an independent India, while Obama, Sr. saw the effects of Western domination on his independent Kenya.

The contrast is most strikingly brought up on the issue of the Winston Churchill bust.  President George W. Bush proudly displayed it in the Oval Office and was very partial to the 'special relationship' between the United Kingdom and the United States.  President Obama, on the other hand, promptly returned the Churchill bust to the British Embassy and appeared to wish closer ties to the Argentines, going so far as to take their side in the almost never-ending struggle between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands. 

This, D'Souza argues, is contrary to long-term policy to side with our long-time ally or keep out of this.  Obama, D'Souza further contends, also favors the Arab Palestinians over the bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed for all of its existence.  Obama opposes drilling for America, both offshore and through the Keystone Pipeline, but funds oil exploration in Brazil and Mexico.

Why, D'Souza asks, would the President of the United States support policies and positions that appear almost contrary to the benefit of the nation he was elected to lead?

The answer, he argues, is that since birth (which, to his credit, D'Souza clearly states was in Hawaii), Barack Obama II has been bred to see colonialism in everything he sees. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, for example, grew disenchanted with her second husband, Indonesian Lolo Soetero, when he appeared to abandon an anti-Western, anti-capitalist mindview and start having economic success Western-style.  In short, Soetero was selling out, and Dunham in turn began to find her second husband failed to keep to her ideals.  Morevoer, Dunham continuously kept the idea of a near-saintly image of Barack Obama, Sr. to her son.

In the island state of Hawaii, we find that the idea of oppressive Western colonialism is far from dead.  D'Souza contends that elements of the Hawaiian population are not only still bitter about the removal of the Hawaiian royal house and forced annexation but still believe this illegal action by then-President McKinley should be overturned.

Over and over, from Miss Dunham's ideas of the evils of the West, through the idolization of the anti-colonialist Barack, Sr., the resentment of the native Hawaiians over annexation and statehood, the mentoring of Barack Obama II from a Frank Marshall Davies: a devout Communist and close friend of his equally radical Grandfather Stanley Dunham, it was drilled into young Barry how the West was a source of misery throughout the world.  As such, Barry would do what his sainted father could not do: he would rearrange the world so as to give the oppressed peoples a fair shake.

D'Souza's main argument is that the anti-colonialism of Barack, Sr. was one that became anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, and anti-American.  As such, President Obama's push for government takeover of the health care system, his overtures to the Muslim world (from his famous Cairo speech to, in what I consider a bizarre turn, using NASA for Islamic outreach), and his favoring of the Arab Palestinians over the Jewish Palestinians/Israelis (a strange turn given that American Jews tend to support Democrats in large numbers). 

America is an unfair place because it has too much and there are too many One PercentersD'Souza argues, the President doesn't see American exceptionalism.  D'Souza further argues that while the nations that have turned away from the socialist models Obama wishes America to adopt (D'Souza's own India, South Korea, China, Obama's own stepfather's Indonesia) are thriving because they have adopted the American model. 

After laying out his case, D'Souza now turns briefly to the election, where he says the American public saw what it wanted to see: a quiet black man who would unite the nation.  They did not see America as Barry did, and minus Reverend Wright's delightful thoughts on America, the public was basically sold a bill of goods about the President, with a willing press unwilling to attack a man because of his biracial status. 

Finally, we move on to what D'Souza sees as what can happen to the United States should President Obama win a second term.  He sees debt growing to almost-Greek levels, which would put us in parity with the long-suffering Third World which we have been exploiting.  It would lead to an America where our 5,000 nuclear missiles would shrink to a-now 1,500, then to a mere 300 before being reduced to zero.  Iran and North Korea and Pakistan, however, would go unchecked to grow more bombs, in keeping with the President's ideas of fairness.  Finally, the President, he argues, would not move against a nuclear Iran and wouldn't intervene should the various Arab states join in a United States of Islam, with Israel caught in the middle. 

Will we then, choose to re-elect Barack Hussein Obama II?  It is now in our hands.

2016 is a strong case not particularly for why people should vote against President Obama but as to how our family history and influences, in particular by the President's father, who was already married when he and Miss Dunham were married and whom Barry met only once, shaped the views of how he governs.  D'Souza never says that the President believes America to be evil or that he's some sort of Manchurian Candidate who will bring down the nation.  Rather, D'Souza makes his case that the President was shaped by how Obama, Sr. saw the world and how in a way, Barry would pick up the mantle for his almost-sacred father.

I can boil down 2016 thus: we are all products of our past and experiences, and Barack Hussein Obama's past and experiences is filled with a sense that the West has been so exploitative that his policies would reflect a desire to correct the mistakes of the past.  Obama, D'Souza argues, is haunted by the dreams of his father, a man who had that anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, and anti-American worldview. 

In terms of production value, 2016 disproves my long-held belief that conservatives cannot make documentaries.  Almost all the previous non-fiction films that tauted a right-wing view were abysmal to look at, poorly constructed and almost laughable.  2016, however, breaks with tradition: the narrative is one where D'Souza takes his time to build his case, going over how the President's past (even before his birth) shaped his worldview.  Thus, is it not logical that the President would pursue policies that would fit that worldview (even if, D'Souza argues, it goes against American interests)? 

The evils of colonialism as Obama was taught to see it: from the stories Dunham told her son about her Kenyan ex-husband, from his experiences in Indonesia and even Hawaii, so shaped the President's ideology that now that he's in a position of power he will follow through to correct the errors of the past.  Barack Hussein Obama, father and son, have the same worldview in D'Souza's argument, and thus what the father could not do the son will do.

I'm not here to discuss whether D'Souza is right or wrong or whether President Obama deserves a second term.  That is ultimately up to the viewer and/or voter.  What I can say is that 2016 is more about how the President became the President he is (for good or bad) than it is about how America would be at the end of a second Obama term.  That is speculation on D'Souza's part.

As it stands, 2016 is a well-made film that makes its case about how the President came to be, less about why Obama should be retired or what America would look like at the end of an eight-year term of office.  I can't condemn a film for being well-crafted, even if I were to disagree with it.  We shall see whether 2016 is either prophesy or fantasy.

DECISION: C+               

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tomorrow Never Dies: A Review


Tomorrow is a Tale Told By an Idiot...

The Bond Film Retrospective

I start with a confession: I skipped Tomorrow Never Dies (as well as The World Is Not Enough) when both came out in theaters.  As such, this is my first foray into the Pierce Brosan canon post-GoldenEye.  Having said that, what I found in Tomorrow Never Dies is that this film veers dangerously close to being the first official Bond parody. 

007 James Bond (Brosnan) has broken up a large gathering of weapons buyers (a terrorist's arms bazaar).  Among those at the bazaar (and I presume a survivor), is one Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay), who has managed to get his hands on an encoder that will manipulate satellites...something about a GPS or Global Positioning System...whatever that is.  Shortly afterwards, there is an incident at sea: the HMS Devonshire is sunk off what it thinks are international waters and the Chinese think are theirs (it's neither, but more on that in a moment).  World War III looms, and waiting in the wings is media baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), who intends to make a killing (no pun intended) by getting the scoop for his empire.

Of course, the deal is that Carver CAUSED the Devonshire sinking and all this is his plan.  It's not for world domination in terms of politics, but something else: broadcast rights.  M (Judi Dench) suspects Carver or someone in his organization is behind this incident and sends Bond to investigate, but he only has 48 hours before the British Navy goes to China.  As it turns out, Bond has a history with Carver's wife, Paris (Teri Hatcher), and if he needs to pump her for information, Bond must do it for Queen and Country...

Well, after spending One Night In Paris (pun definitely intended), Bond goes to Carver's Munich headquarters.  He re-encounters a mysterious Asian beauty, Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), but no time for foreplay: the minions, especially Carver's henchman Stamper (Gotz Otto) are on to him.  Carver had already planned to frame Bond for Paris' murder and make it look like murder-suicide with the aid of Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schievelli), but Bond manages to escape, thanks in part to Q's self-driving car. 

Bond manages to get his hands on the encoder and with the help of Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) finds that Carver's satellites had deceived both the British and Chinese: the Devonshire wasn't in either international or Chinese waters.  It was in Vietnamese waters.  On the sunken vessel, he re-encounters Wai Lin, whom we discover is a Chinese agent.  Now both must avoid Carver's men and stop his plans to bring the British and Chinese into armed conflict.

It culminates with Bond and Lin going to Carver's stealth ship.  We discover that Carver has now a secret deal with some Chinese general: in exchange for helping him take over China, Carver gets exclusive broadcast rights in China for a hundred years. 

Curiously, I found that TND had faint echoes of The Spy Who Loved Me.  If screenwriter Bruce Feirstein had dug deeper into both situations and characters (rather than veering off at times into odd moments of humor) he could have crafted a similarly successful film.  Instead, he decided to go for a 'best-of' in terms of Bond films.

Outrageous Villain: Check

Harebrained Scheme: Check

One or Two Beauties: Check

On the third part, neither worked well but for different reasons.  Yeoh was great as Wai Lin (she's Michelle Yeoh, so she rarely can do wrong) but she was given very little to do in TND, apart from some great action sequences (more on that later).  She didn't really investigate so much as just appear at the same time/place Bond was.  Unlike Triple X in SWLM, there was no chance for Lin and Bond to really work together to investigate the who/what/why of the plot. 

Instead, Yeoh was there I suspect to get at the large following Yeoh has.  As I think of it, there is a reason TND doesn't bother having an investigation because we are told everything up front.  Rather than let the mystery build up, the culprit and motives of our villain are firmly established.

Even worse, the motives are by far some of the silliest.  Here is Elliot Carver (who is an Australian accent short of being Rupert Murdoch), a character with great potential, going through these machinations for exclusive broadcast rights in China.  I kept wondering, 'wouldn't a bribe be easier and cheaper?'  It would have been one thing if Carver, like Charles Foster Kane, sought to use his press to control the world politically, but instead, he goes through creating a stealth ship (and apparently working with some renegade Chinese general of which we're told almost in passing) just to be able to show his shows in Beijing?

If that weren't already bad enough, Pryce decided that his Bond villain was going to be more Drax from Moonraker and less Max Zorin from A View to A Kill.  Pryce is a good actor, but here, he opts to go camp.  When he mocks Lin's karate skills, it had me laughing, and I thought how could anyone take HIM seriously.  And finally, look at the guy!  Nothing says 'evil' than some guy wearing a black Nehru jacket all the time.

Yet, I've digressed from the Bond Girls.  Hatcher, like Yeoh, had little to do in TND, but unlike Yeoh, Hatcher appeared blank in her few minutes of screentime, almost trying too hard to vamp it up as a spurned lover of Bond's from the past.  How much better TND would have been if we HADN'T been told ahead of time that she was one of Bond's ex-lover.  Even better, we could have started with Bond and Paris together in the opening, and thus when she showed up at Carver's party, it could have come off as a genuine surprise and already established her character and motives to her actions.

Sadly, the script didn't give her much to do except strike a pose, so her quick exit doesn't have the punch it could have had.  Even when we see her body, the entire sequence with Schievelli's Dr. Kaufman almost appears to come out of a spoof of Bond.  The entire scene was veering towards parody, which takes away from what is suppose to be a sad moment.

However, this isn't to say that Tomorrow Never Dies is all bad.  Roger Spottiswoode directs some truly great action sequences (such as when Bond and Lin are being pursued by Carver's thugs and they are forced to ride together on a bike while being handcuffed together).  The HALO jump from an American plane is also well-filmed (though sadly, Baker's Wade has little to do except call Bond 'Jimbo' and try to add a touch of comic relief to the proceedings).  The piece de resistance is when Bond has to manipulate a self-steering car to get away from Stamper's thugs.

One can wonder WHY Q would have created a self-driving car for Bond, and while the scene itself is action-filled and actually entertaining, it does seem to be a bit odd even for James Bond.  However, when it comes to Brosnan's Bond and autos, we've yet to reach the nadir, but that's for another Tomorrow, so to speak.

Another unexpected surprise is having a bit of a Downton Abbey reunion.  You have writer/creator Julian Fellowes as the Minister of Defense, and both Lord Grantham AND his valet/batman Bates (Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle) have brief appearances aboard the British destroyer that will bring down Carver's stealth ship.  It almost makes one wonder if Fellowes thought of both the characters and storyline to his Emmy Award-winning series while working on Tomorrow Never Dies.

Curiously, the title is barely hinted at in the film.  The Carver newspaper is called the Tomorrow, so one thinks that Tomorrow Never Dies is tied in to the newspaper/news manipulation angle the plot has.   However, Tomorrow never actually serves the plot (apart from when Bond goes into the printing press).     

Going on to the Bond Song, I start out by saying I like Sheryl Crow, but somehow Tomorrow Never Dies doesn't fit her voice.  Tomorrow Never Dies is a torch song, while Crow is a rock singer.  The song and singer never mesh (which is even stranger given that Crow WROTE the song with Mitchell Froom).  One might have thought Dame Shirley Bassey could have done well with Tomorrow Never Dies, but by having Crow sing it, it sounds like she's trying too hard to be bombastic and lush when it comes across as forced.  Oddly, the closing song, Surrender, by David Arnold, David McAlmont and Don Black and performed by k.d. lang, was far better and more in tune to what a traditional Bond theme song sounds like.  Lang's delivery of the lyrics (which do include the phrase 'tomorrow never dies') makes for a better song than Tomorrow Never Dies, and it was one of the worst decisions co-producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson (taking over the late Albert Broccoli who had produced all the Bond films before) made in regards to Tomorrow Never Dies.

Apart from a few good action sequences Tomorrow Never Dies offers little to those in front of the camera or to the audience to do or care about.  It isn't the worst Bond film I've seen, but it's not one that I'll remember either tomorrow or any other day with undiluted pleasure. 

Next James Bond Film: The World Is Not Enough


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ruby Sparks: A Review


She's Just His Type...

Ruby Sparks is a delightful and clever update of the Greek Pygmalion myth (that of a creator falling in love with his own creation).  Granted, while it's not a perfect film, Ruby Sparks shows a greater wit and understanding of the foibles of lovers than most rom-coms today.

Although he loathes the word, Calvin Wier-Fields (Paul Dano) is considered a genius.  He struck literary gold at 19 with his debut novel, Heart Broken Old Times.  It is now ten years later, but despite a collection of short stories and a novella, Calvin has a monstrous case of writer's block. 

Side note: that would make him our generation's Truman Capote, but I digress.

Still, after a decade, everyone from his publisher to his agent (Aasif Madvi) to his literary champion/rival (which would make him Calvin's frenemy) Langdon Tharp (Steve Coogan) are all waiting his newest creation.  Try as he might, Calvin just can't get the words out.

Welcome to my world, kid.

As it stands, Calvin tries but cannot get anything written.  Worse, he still is recovering from a bad breakup and has no love life.  With the encouragement of his therapist (Elliot Gould), he writes about the girl from his dreams.  He creates this girl, all her traits, all her past, and names her Ruby Sparks.  One day, to his total shock, Ruby (writer Zoe Kazan) is right there at his apartment.

At first he thinks he's going insane, but it soon becomes clear everyone else can see Ruby.  She is very real, and he now has found the girl of his dreams.  A great romance grows, but Calvin won't make her his love slave, much to the chagrin of his brother Harry (Chris Messina).  However, Ruby starts growing bored with her life and starts seeking a world of her own.  This comes to a head when she and Calvin go to see his mother Gertrude (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend Mort (Antonio Banderas).

Calvin won't let Ruby go, so he writes that she stay with him.  Since he can control her life, she now becomes too clingy (at one point not moving from the street corner because he actually let go of her hand).  Eventually, after a run-in with his ex and catching Ruby about to take a dip in the pool with Thornton, he reveals that he controls her.  A horrified Ruby hides, then leaves.

Out of all this, Calvin is able to write again, and his new novel, The Girlfriend, reestablishes his reputation and he accepts the label of genius.  At the end, he finds a girl with his book, a girl who looks just like Ruby, with whom he starts a nice conversation...

Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, in their follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, picked the right material for their next film.  It has the right amount of whimsy mixed with acceptance of the premise.  Dayton and Faris direct everyone to where we accept that all the characters, even Ruby, are all real, and the situations don't shy away from being dark.

For example, when Calvin reveals to Ruby that she is the product of his imagination, the film doesn't shy away from making the scene particularly painful for all concerned.  However, it's a credit to both the directors and Dano as an actor that Calvin doesn't come across as creepy or evil, but actually tormented.

This scene is brilliantly done with Dano showing the desperation of not letting Ruby go versus his manipulation of this girl.  Dano, who is growing in stature as one of the best younger actors around, keeps a strong balance between Calvin's creative paralysis and his yearning for love.  He didn't create Ruby in order to get a girlfriend, but now that he has, he starts out enjoying Ruby for herself.  It's only when she begins to exert her own independence that he becomes manipulative, but once he finds that Ruby is no longer falling for him as much as taking orders from him, he makes Calvin's evolution one we care about.

Kazan, who wrote the story, doesn't make Ruby into a dumb girl who merely takes orders but a woman in her own right, who also is unwittingly controlled by the man she thinks she loves.  As a side note, one wonders because Kazan is a woman, she opted not to go the route of what would be a typical male fantasy: have Ruby serve as a sex slave.  Instead, Kazan decided to make an actual movie that appealed to adults by taking the scenario and making it as realistic as possible.  She also decided that Calvin wanted love more than he wanted sex.  Now, I'll say that this idea is more from a woman's perspective than it is a man's (who would almost always think on sex more than love) but the benefit of both Ruby Sparks and the teaming of Kazan and Dano is that the situations are played straight and the leads don't come off as either stupid or manipulative (although sometimes they come close).

Messina adds the moments of comedy as the brother who thinks Calvin has lucked into a brilliant set-up but who also is allowed moments of seriousness. 

I also take the time to compliment Nick Urata's score, which also kept the balance between whimsy and darkness without overpowering or drawing attention to itself.

There are a few things that do veer into silliness.  When Calvin is with his psychiatrist, he asks for a toy bear to cuddle (making one wonder if he's in an odd state of arrested development).  While his trip to Big Sur to see his mother and boyfriend is interesting, it doesn't add a lot to the overall story save to show how Calvin became so buttoned-up.  His father is supposed to be a large shadow over his life, but we learn very little about him or how Calvin was affected by his life or death.

That's about it for anything that I found to criticize about Ruby Sparks.  The story held up very well, the acting was strong (particularly by the leads) and it takes its premise seriously and handles the story accordingly.  Ruby Sparks doesn't attempt to be too witty or clever but it is smart and entertaining.  Ruby Sparks is a good film...long story short.       


Friday, August 17, 2012

GoldenEye: A Review


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

With GoldenEye, we have a whole new team to the James Bond franchise (except for the producers): new Bond, new M, new Moneypenny, new title sequence.  It's almost a reboot before the phrase became popular.  We can't say that in GoldenEye we're suppose to forget everything that comes before: there are little hints of there being a history in the continuing story of 007 (even within the story), but for all intents and purposes we're starting fresh.  To its benefit, GoldenEye moves Bond forward while still keeping some of the trappings of what a Bond film should be, and on the whole GoldenEye acknowledges the past, present, and future to make it a good Bond film.

We start in the then Soviet Union, where 007 James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his friend/co-spy 006 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) break into a Soviet base.  The mission, however, goes wrong: they are discovered by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John), and while Bond escapes Trevelyan isn't so lucky.  006 is shot by Ourumov, and to make matters worse, Bond blows up the station three minutes early.

We move now nine years.  The Soviet Union has collapsed, and Bond is seen as an anachronism in so many ways.  None other than Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond, who I think is the only Bond to be in a Bond film) openly talks about sexual harassment, and the new M (Dame Judi Dench) calls him a sexist, misogynist dinosaur and relic of the Cold War.  Still, there is a mission to be handled.

Earlier, Bond had made the acquaintance of one Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a beauty who has stolen a new super-helicopter.  She is an operative for the mysterious Janus, and soon we see she is not only in cahoots with now Russian General Ourumov, but both have stolen the GoldenEye, a powerful mechanism that operates a satellite capable of disabling all electronics and bringing their destruction.

Bond then goes back to the ex-USSR, where CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) gets him connected to an old nemesis,  Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), who in turn gets him connected to Janus.  The mysterious Janus is none other than 006! 

Now all this is connected to GoldenEye, and the beautiful programmer Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco).  She was the only survivor of GoldenEye's first attack who has been betrayed by fellow programmer Boris Grushenko (Alan Cumming), in league with Janus.  Eventually, Bond and Natalya track down the dish that will unleash the destruction to Cuba.  Janus, who has a personal vendetta against the British, now plans to destroy London: both the city and its financial records, bringing about economic chaos.  Only Bond can stop him.

On a second look there are a few issues I have with GoldenEye.  In particular, I think the middle section is a bit padded.  Try as I might, I could never shake the idea that both Wade and Zukovsky were introduced to be continuing characters in future Bond films.  Now Baker (who, curiously, makes a return engagement to the world of 007 after being the villain in The Living Daylights)  and Coltrane are good as the wisecracking American and shady ex-KGB Russian respectively, but still, one wonders if GoldenEye could have done without them.  Don't get me wrong: there's something oddly hilarious is Baker's American casualness (who else has called Bond either 'Jimmy' or 'Jimbo'?) and Coltrane has a solid Russian accent, but GoldenEye appears to have them just for both plot exposition or to introduce them for more stories. 

Side note: both Wade and Zukovsky would, like James Bond himself, return, so that theory does pan out, but that's for another time.

One thing I wasn't sure about was the actual story by Michael France with screenplay by Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein.  If we are to believe the story, not only did 006 manage to survive getting shot in the head but also the massive explosion with only some facial scarring.  Add to that the idea that 006, now Janus, somehow joined forces with General Ourumov in the interim.  Somehow, I keep thinking this is all rather too complicated.  I still think it might have been better to have had 006 simply disappear into the dark Soviet night while keeping Trevelyan's family past as part of the story.  With that, both Bond and Trevelyan have motives to go after each other. 

However, when I look at GoldenEye I think the story holds up rather well.  This is due to some strong performances.  Janssen isn't the first Bond henchwoman who takes delight in killing, but she takes the erotic pleasure in murder to new levels.  The moaning that accompanies whenever she uses a machine gun mixes the sadistic with the erotic, and it's a credit to her that it doesn't dissolve into camp.  Cumming is great with the Russian accent but I'd say his character is a little underdeveloped: it's never established exactly how or why he joined Janus (greed, revenge, desire to show off his skills: we know not). 

I figure having M as a woman is suppose to make one wonder whether Bond, the ultimate ladies man, could figurative be under a woman's authority.  Dench doesn't have a large role, but she does command the screen and makes it clear she means business.

As for the main Bond girl, Scorupco starts out well as the innocent victim of Janus' nefarious scheme, and has good scenes where she tells Bond that he's basically crazy to be involved in all this killing for no purpose, but like most Bond Girls, she quickly falls into bed with him.  Well, some things never change, but I think Scorupco's Natalya acquited herself well and is a pretty good Bond Girl.

As a digression, given that Onatopp didn't technically sleep with Bond, I'm reluctant to call her a Bond Girl since that IS one of my requirements.  However, with a name like Onatopp...

The best performances are both from Brosnan and Bean.  In the case of the latter, he has the right amount of menace and murderous intent without going for a camp villain.  The fact that Bean plays it straight shows GoldenEye is trying to take things more seriously (even if the situation is on the bizarre side).  Brosnan easily slips into 007, a man who still enjoys the company of ladies but who also doesn't shrink from killing.  Brosnan plays the part well: a man who does indeed to it 'for England', as Janus taunts, but can also do it for himself.

In regards to other matters, the title theme, written by U2's Bono and The Edge, fits the idea of a Bond song: grand, lush.  Tina Turner, an icon herself, is the closest singer to come to matching Dame Shirley Bassey's powerful vocals in her three turns doing a Bond song.  However, I do question the logic of some of the lyrics to GoldenEye:

You'll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child/you'll never know how it feels to get so close and be denied...

I don't know if this is referring to perhaps how Mr. Hewson and Mr. Evans would watch Bond films as kids (like all of us would), but when Turner sings that line in the bridge, it makes me wonder is there is a little bit of Lolita in the narrator.  One suspects the lyrics are about Bond, but it's a bit confusing if she's singing about him or about herself and her fixation with him.

Still, as far as Bond songs, one can't really argue with Tina Turner's full-powered rendition of GoldenEye.

Daniel Kleinman, taking over the late Maurice Binder for GoldenEye's title opening, does better than some of Binder's later efforts, and I suppose I'm slightly prejudiced in enjoying the figures of Lenin and Stalin being smashed by a bevy of beauties.  Still, the opening to GoldenEye reflects the lush nature of the song and acknowledges the reality the fall of Eastern Bloc communism has on the franchise.

That, and seeing the hammer and sickle getting smashed thrills me to no end.

What I didn't care for was Eric Serra's score, which was a bit silly at times (in particular when Xenia first appears).  The score was a little too electronic to fit the mood, and at times listening to the music was a bit distracting and irritating. 

GoldenEye answers the question of whether James Bond, the Ultimate Cold Warrior, could still be relevant in a world where the Soviets, long his nemesis, no longer pose a threat.  The answer is, most definitely the world still needs Bond.   And that, my friends, is a good thing.

Next James Bond Film: Tomorrow Never Dies


Wrath of the Titans: A Review (Review #427)


Hellenic On Earth...

Now, I confess to thinking the remake of Clash of the Titans to have been junk.  I also think Sam Worthington is among the worst people working in films under the guise of the term 'actor'.  I've wondered what would happen if Worthington ever teamed up with the equally untalented Channing Tatum (my bete noir of screen personalities).  It would be a great contest to see which one of them was more wooden, stiff, and expresionless on screen.  Such a union could possibly lead to war, with Australia and America fighting to see whether Aussie Worthington or Johnny Reb Tatum are doing the greater damage to cinema.  Yet I digress.

Since Clash of the Titans made millions of dollars (mostly due to people being fooled into paying extra for rushed 3-D effects that added nothing to the film), there naturally had to be a sequel. Actually, Clash of the Titans hinted there might be a sequel, but I thought after how awful it was even the money-sucking studios would have some sense.  Alas, no, and thus we have Wrath of the Titans, which is a film that, for all the sturm und drang it pommels us with still leaves one feeling empty.

In any case, we now have the second part to the story of Perseus and his Olympian father, Zeus.  Perseus (Worthington), having decided to be an atheist (despite being half-god) is living the humble life of a fisherman with his son Helius (John Bell).  However, the widowed Percy (thus getting rid of a need to bring back the character of Io) is soon visited by his father, Zeus (Liam Neeson), King of the Gods.  Humans have started abandoning the gods, and with their lack of faith the gods are now becoming...mortal.  Not only that, but the power of the Titans grows, in particular that of Kronos, the father of Zeus and his brothers Poseidon (Danny Huston), Lord of the Sea, and Hades (Ralph Fiennes), dread Lord of the Underworld.

Prayers can bring the gods to the humans, but people don't pray anymore.  This will be important to the plot, so bear with me.

I digress to say that this line of thinking (the Greek gods can now be mortal) appears more Norse than Hellenic theology.  After all, the Scandinavian gods are the ones that will be destroyed by their enemies at Gotterdammarung, right?  In any case, I again digress.

Well, while Perseus refuses to help we find that our Greek God brothers are finding it difficult to hold things together.  Hades, however, wants it that way: he now gets vengeance for having been sent to the Underworld by Zeus and there is a coup led by him and Zeus' son Ares (Edgar Ramirez). 

Now the hope for both gods and men lies with Percy, his cousin Agenor (Toby Kebbel), the thieving, untrustworthy half-human son of Poseidon, and Queen Andromeda (Rosemund Pike), who is now a Warrior Queen rather than a damsel in distress.  In order to defeat Kronos and his allies (who have screwed their brothers and fathers to gain true immortality), they have to restore the Spear of Trium.

What, pray tell is the Spear of Trium?  Well, it's Poseidon's trident, Hades' pitchfork, and Zeus' thunderbolt all put together.  Okay...

From there, Wrath of the Titans has them enter the Labyrinth with a little help from Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) which takes them to Tartarus to fight Hades and Ares (the latter always resentful of how Zeus favored his half-human child rather than the God of War), and then comes to confrontation with Kronos.  Not everyone makes it out alive...

If that is only to assure us there won't be a third Titans movie, I'll praise Wrath of the Titans to the highest heights of Mt. Olympus itself.  Wrath of the Titans is almost obsessed with some very peculiar themes for an action film.

Primarily, there is a fixation with characters almost whining about how their father issues.  Perseus doesn't want anything to do with his father.  Zeus wants to keep his father locked up.  Both Hades and Ares want their daddy to love them more than their siblings.  I was beginning to wonder whether people were trying to work out their daddy issues within the story.

On the story itself, it is amazing that three people came up with an almost non-existent story (Greg Berlanti, Dan Mazeau, and David Leslie Johnson, with only the last two actually writing the script).  I say amazing because the story simply doesn't move.  There's no sense that anything is really connected.

Take for example Andromeda.  If one looks at the story we're watching, she really doesn't do anything.  She has an army, but that's dispatched rather quickly to just meet up with them two days later.  She never leads the army anywhere, she never actually does much fighting (apart from lobbing a few arrows Katniss-style at a couple of Cyclops), and while we're given the idea that Andromeda and Perseus are going for a big romance at the end (a kiss tells us that), we've never gotten any sense that these two people even KNOW each other, let alone fall or are or are still madly in love.

Even worse, the story constantly pounds us into thinking Kronos is this major threat, but when he finally emerges from his Tartarus tomb, he ends up looking like Parallax from Green Lantern.  He was never presented as a growing threat, let alone any kind of threat at all, especially given how quickly he was dispatched with the Spear of Trium.

Going on about how Wrath never did anything with its characters, we're suppose to have a climatic battle between Perseus and Ares, with the latter holding a major threat against the former (one guess as to what).  I had hoped that Perseus' lifelong struggle to keep Helius out of fighting would feature a part of this scene (given that was a constant: how Perseus didn't want his son to follow in his footsteps).  Instead, Helius is almost reduced to just being there, with nothing to do and nothing to add to the scene.

Bell, sadly, reminded me of the little boy from Superman Returns (whom I lovingly refer to as Isra-El), a character that is suppose to be important but only ends up wasting our time. 

Of course, in terms of acting it is difficult to say what even the most talented thespian could have done with such a lousy script.  If people with genuine talent as Neeson and Fiennes (who took on their Bartha roles with a sense of, 'we know it's junk but Daddy needs a new pair of shoes), what to make of people with virtually no talent like Worthington?

Worthington's Perseus looked less reluctant warrior than disinterested warrior.  Throughout Wrath he had one expression on his face regardless of the situation (which, not surprisingly, was the same expression he had in Avatar, Terminator: Salvation, or Man on A Ledge).  By this point in his career Worthington can't be bothered to even try to hide his Australian accent (which makes for about the only amusement in Wrath: trying to figure out how an Aussie got to Greece).   I figure that in an American production, there is at least an effort to try to sound like an American.  Worthington doesn't either bother or simply cannot, which makes his appearance (since I can't call it a performance) all the more perplexing.

Even his accent could be forgiven if he were able to express any emotion whatsoever.  Worthington just cannot act.  He might be nice to look at, but in all his films he's never been able to show any range.  Actually, Sam Worthington has never been able to show anything, period.

Kebbell either has a poorly written character (how else to explain how he went from Agenor the Inept to Agenor the Warrior in a beat) or...well, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt only because the story gave him little to work with.   If only the script had tried to go into the relationship between all the characters more, or at least shown an evolution to them, we might have something to work with.  Instead, the script and director Jonathan Liebesman just went for the easy action scene, the quick-moving camera, and left us with a weird and remarkably boring film.

Wrath of the Titans might have been fun, but the decision to bring back one of the most stilted people working in front of the camera today, along with a menace that isn't very menacing, and moving things really fast (even at times, making things anti-climatic, such as when Hephaestus manages to hold the secret door longer which sucks the tension of the fight between the warriors and Ares) kills the movie.  Here is a fine example: Ares found them because one of their company prayed to him, letting him know where they were (a divine GPS, I imagine).  We didn't know who she was, or why she was, but no matter: Ares quickly dispatches her, so we need not worry about such things as character or plot in this film.

At least the failure of the 3-D effects in COTT led to a cynicism towards and decline of more 3-D spectacles, so perhaps something good DID come out of Clash.  What little 3-D there is in Wrath didn't help given that it was fine in 2-D and thus not worth spending more on it.

This is Sam Worthington's usual expression.
If Hollywood insists on casting him in adaptations of Greek myths, I have the perfect part for him...

After all, both are incredible pieces of wood.