Sunday, October 28, 2012

Quantum of Solace: A Review (Review #458)


Quantum Leaps and Falls...

Please visit The James Bond Film Retrospective for reviews on all Bond films. 

I know people have gone crazy for Quantum of Solace, but from my perspective, this isn't a James Bond film.  It's one thing to treat the material with a little more seriousness, but it's another to make our hero a borderline depressive. 

Quantum of Solace is, in a technical sense, the first Bond film I actually reviewed, back when I first started blogging.  I wrote a review for the Esperanza Acosta Moreno Library site, shortly after watching it in the theaters.  Now four years have passed since I left QOS, and this retrospective has given me a chance to revisit my early views.

I find that a second viewing only confirms my original view of the film.  Quantum of Solace is a fiasco of a film that seeks to disprove Billy Wilder's maxim from Sunset Boulevard: in this case, it DOES look like the actors are making it up as they go along.

At this point I usually describe the plot of a film, but I can't do that for Quantum of Solace because it simply has no plot, no story, just a series of action scenes strung together featuring the same people.  I truly was amazed at QOS's inability to say anything.  A half hour passed by and we still didn't even have a semblance of what is called 'a plot'.  However, here's what I gleamed:

Quantum of Solace starts right from where the previous film, Casino Royale, left off.  MI6 agent James Bond 007 (Daniel Craig) races to a secret facility in Siena, Italy, bringing Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) with him.  Mr. White if you remember, was the man who had Bond's great love Vesper Lynd killed.  White escapes thanks to a secret double agent he had: one we the audience could never have known existed because we didn't know White's secret organization existed and whom we'd just been introduced to less than five minutes ago.   Well, White escapes, and after that...

...well, who knows and who cares.

We jump around the world where Bond keeps bumping into people who show up in the film.  We see Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amarlic), who is involved in something and with someone.  We see Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) who is involved with Greene and with something.  We get Miss Fields (Gemma Artenton), who is involved in all this somehow.  We get the return of Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) who are involved in something involving this story.

As far as I can make out, Greene, a faux-environmentalist, is working for a mysterious criminal organization called Quantum.  Said organization now has a nefarious scheme to seize Bolivia's water and then overcharge the government (whom with CIA acquiescence they install) and people by being the exclusive distributors.  Camille and Bond are then fighting either Greene/Quantum, the Bolivian strongman who wants to be the next President, or M (Judi Dench) and MI6 which for reasons known only to them continue letting Bond go and work for them in such exotic locales as Haiti and Bolivia despite disobeying every directive.

Again, I cannot emphasize just how horrible Quantum of Solace is.  The first time I saw it I was disappointed, and my friend/fellow film enthusiast Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) despising it.  I had thought that seeing it again would allow perhaps for a re-evaluation.  Perhaps I was too hard on QOS.  It's happened before: I was turned from thinking well of A View to A Kill to seeing just how awful it is (even though I still qualify it as a guilty...very guilty...pleasure). view actually hardened to one of absolute near-blinding hatred.  The first time I saw it I thought QOS was muddled and confused.  Seeing it now, I would say QOS is an absolute mess.  Not only does nothing in it make sense, it asks you to keep up with a story that is never presented.  Instead, characters and their actions are thrown at us with the film all but screaming, 'Figure it out for yourself'.

A prime example of the lunacy and stupidity in QOS involves the character of Mathis.  When last we saw him he was being taken away as a possible suspected double agent from Casino Royale.  Now, he comes back, with nary an explanation of how it was found he wasn't working for the enemy.  Given that just earlier Bond had (FINALLY) been stripped of his credit line from MI6, exactly how he got to Italy (more on his travels later) and to Mathis we know not.

Then it gets even worse.  Mathis serves as some kind of introduction to Greene's party (he knows a general), but when next we see him, he's apparently dead in Bond's trunk.  In order to save himself and Camille, he pulls Mathis' "body" out and uses it as a shield against the corrupt cops' guns.  Only here we get a twist: Mathis was alive when he was pulled from the trunk.  Being as he has just been used as a human shield and been shot repeatedly, Mathis quickly dies...or dies again, depending on your perspective.

When we first saw this, Fidel & I were beyond confused.  We were puzzled as to how Mathis was alive when he looked very much dead, then we were disturbed by the idea that James Bond (!) would without difficulty use a person as a human shield.  It makes our hero look even more cold-blooded than the killers we're being introduced to.

I think the confusion comes from what Robert Wade, Neil Purvis, and Paul Haggis would refer to as their "screenplay" but which most of us would refer to as their "garbage".  It never stops to introduce characters or story.  Instead, it just throws things all over the place in all sorts of locations and never gives us a point of reference in regards to WHAT the story is, let alone WHERE in the story we are.

For example, just the beginning shows us how chaotic Quantum of Solace was going to be.  We get reintroduced to Mr. White (side note: Mr. White, Mr. Greene...are Wade, Purvis, and Haggis going to make the next Bond Girl Miss Scarlet?).  First he's dead, then he's not dead, then he's really dead.

Again and again QOS throws things hither and yon without rhyme or reason.  It is unfair to introduce as a traitor in MI6 someone we've met for a few seconds only in passing less than five minutes ago.  It's unfair (and lazy) to introduce characters from nowhere who are going to be integral to whatever story you're trying to tell.

Quantum of Solace I think tried to break away from how a standard Bond film works, but the formula to a Bond film (opening action scene, title song, introduction of characters and plot, a bevy of beauties, defeat of villain--hopefully in good action scene, and Bond with primary beauty) works because it takes the time to give us the information we need.  We know who the characters are, we know what the story is, we know the complications.  Quantum of Solace wanted desperately to get away from all that, but instead instead of making it work it devolves into a convoluted mess.  When we first meet Camille, we don't know who or what she is, and she is the introduction to Dominic, who again we don't know who these people are or how they relate to the two other witnesses Bond has killed (again, against MI6 directives).

The opaque plot is one of many issues QOS has.  For the life of me I can't understand what Marc Foster was thinking with his direction of the action scenes.  The opening scene where Bond is driving to Siena while being chased by gun-toting villains is confused and chaotic, made for those with short attention spans. Everything is cut so quickly it becomes difficult to follow what exactly is going on.  This is pretty much the same for the film as a whole: intercutting a fight scene with a rather elaborate production of Tosca never works (especially when we non-opera followers don't know if there is any significance to what is going on in terms of the plot).

Even in the curious story QOS cannot tell, once we get the actual reason we are all here, it is laughable: Quantum wants to control Bolivia's water?  THIS is the big scheme?!  Is there anyone else who thinks our criminal organization needs a little more work in their 'nefarious machinations' department?

We need only look at the title and how it's used to see Quantum of Solace is by far the worst Bond film ever made.  Now, granted the title came from an Ian Fleming short story and was one of the few that hadn't been used (I wonder why) but as presented to us it doesn't make sense. We learn that the organization behind Greene and White (seriously, what IS it with these stupid names) is called Quantum.  All right; now if that's the case, what's the Solace in Quantum of Solace for?  If the organization had been named Solace, then QUANTUM of Solace MIGHT have made sense.  Given that the organization's name is QUANTUM, Quantum of Solace makes no sense.

That really is asking too much of QOS: to have it make sense.  Nothing makes sense: the story, the action scenes, even some of the performances.  When we arrive in La Paz, Bolivia (and by the way, did we really need to have the various locations in QOS literally spelled out for us on the screen, down to each having a different font?) we are greeted by Agent Miss Fields.  We are never given a first name in the film, but the credits bill her as "Strawberry Fields".  Again, her name and appearance in Quantum of Solace shows just how rushed and chaotic everything about the film was.

First, if your going to give the secondary Bond girl such a name as "Strawberry Fields, then for Heaven's sake have the courage to USE it!  Second, we see her for probably less than five minutes before we next see her in bed with Bond (by the way, this is the first indication that Bond so much as likes girls, let alone could seduce someone).  I can imagine the scene:  Bond barks out to Miss Fields to take that trench coat she's been wearing in Bolivia since she's probably naked (the trench coat did make me think she spent her off-hours flashing Incans).  She then does so.

It would have been nice to have seen some foreplay between Fields and Bond, but given how Daniel Crab has remade the role into someone who is perpetually grumpy, it is hard to imagine that this 007 would enjoy sex or really anything.  I'm open about never having been a fan of Craig as Bond, not because he is short (one good line is when Mathis offers Bond a sleeping pill, commenting he has pills for everything, even one that can "make you taller", which I wonder was a nod to how the 5'10" Craig comes up short compared to all the other Bonds, but then that would give the screenplay too much credit) or blond but because he has no charm on-screen.  Yes, yes: it may be closer to how Fleming wrote the character, but I prefer my Bonds to have some charm.

In any case, wouldn't it have been nice to have had some pun about Miss Fields' name in their love scene?  Bond could have said, "Strawberries are so ripe in Bolivia" or something like that, but no they wouldn't.  That would mean both acknowledging the name and the fact that the pre-Craig Bond would like a little wordplay with his foreplay.

There is no acting because the actors weren't given anything to work with.  I do think that if they were forced to confess, the cast would have been unsure as to what exactly was going on. 

I haven't even gotten to the theme song.  Another Way to Die is the first time a Bond Song was a duet, this time between Alicia Keys and the song's writer, Jack White.  The title song to Quantum of Solace is just like the movie: ugly, confused, chaotic, nonsensical, convoluted, clueless, boring, and in short, an absolute mess.  It's fitting that the worst Bond Song is with the worst Bond Film.  There is no real melody in Another Way to Die, the lyrics are rather idiotic (the chorus is thus: A door left open/A woman walking by/A drop in the water/A look in your eye/A phone on the table/A man at your side/Or someone that you think that you can trust/It's just/Another Way to Die) and there is no sense that either White or Keys are singing the same song, let alone could make it interesting.

It's curious that Another Way to Die is the Quantum of Solace theme given that there are at least two songs that were inexplicably rejected which are much better.  QOS's composer David Arnold wrote No Good About Goodbye, even getting Dame Shirley Bassey to sing it.  It might be a bit old-fashioned, but Bassey's delivery is still top-notch and it has a beautiful and haunting quality.  The other song, Forever (I Am All Yours) not only managed to be contemporary but even managed to work in the phrase "quantum of solace" into the lyrics that made sense.  Both songs are much better than Another Way to Die just as songs in and of themselves, let alone as Bond Songs. 

Having seen Quantum of Solace twice now, I can say that both times I was terribly disappointed in it.  It's a lousy movie, period.  Fidel had seen all the Bond films prior to Quantum of Solace, and when we left he said it was the worst Bond film he'd ever seen. 

Yes Fidel my friend (wherever you are), I concur.  Let me spell it out in case you missed it.

Quantum of Solace is the Worst Bond Film Ever Made. 

Girl covered in gold...brilliant, shocking, tragic, relevant to story (he loves gold, remember), and oddly beautiful.                                    

Girl covered in oil...ugly, grotesque, sadistic, irrelevant to story (it is WATER they are after, not oil) and rushed.

Don't remind people of better films by echoing better films. 


Next Bond Film: Skyfall

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Lucky One: A Review


Thinking on The Lucky One, the latest film adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, I can see that we have the requisite Sparks details: A.) a beautiful-looking, gentle man who is wounded soul (check), B.) a woman who has shut herself off emotionally until meeting A (check), C.) a child (check), D.) the evil love rival (check), E.) the wise elder who sees through A. & B.'s attempts at NOT falling in love (check), F.) chaste sex (check), G.) a bucolic Southern setting (check), H.) the idealized South with few to no black people (check), and I.) death hanging over our lovers.  The Lucky One to its credit tries to get its leads to act.  One of them can but doesn't show it.  The other can't and shows plenty of it.

Logan (Zac Efron) is on his third tour in Iraq.  In his final days there, he spots a picture of a beautiful woman.  By moving away, he avoids an explosion that kills his fellow soldiers.  It seems to Logan that this picture has kept him safe, and now, eight months after returning, still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he needs to find the woman, and thank her.

His search leads him from Colorado to Louisiana (the South, of course), where after some determination he is able to find the lady in the picture.  She is Beth Green (Taylor Schilling), who runs a home for animals.  In one of those quirks of Sparks, Beth thinks Logan is here about an ad for a roustabout-type, and Logan chickens out: he doesn't tell her his real reason for being there but does take the job.

In short order this quiet, dependable, hunky fellow becomes indispensible to both Beth and her wise mother Ellie (Blythe Danner), not to mention Beth's son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart).  Now, Ben's father Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), scion of a powerful judge, don't take a shining to anyone getting near his ex-woman.  He thinks Ben playing the violin is not masculine enough, and constantly threatens to take Ben away from Beth if she so much as lusts after another man.

Our lovers will not be denied.  They begin their very chaste affair, and Logan soon starts getting close to Ben.  However, something has to keep our lovers apart: Beth, or rather Keith, discovers Beth's photo that she had given her brother Drake when he had gone off to Iraq.  Beth breaks from Logan, until we get a fortuitious twist: Logan recognizes Drake's picture that Ben had been using as a bookmark as a fellow Marine called "Aces", and he knows what happened to Drake (something the Greens have yet to learn).  As Logan rushes to tell Beth how her brother died, the big storm overwhelms the big storm.  As a mini-hurricane sweeps in a drunk and despondent Keith makes his threat, which causes Ben to run away, which causes Keith, Beth, and Logan to go after him, which causes Keith to risk and lose his life to rescue Ben.

Now with our lovers reconciled, Beth and Logan can start their great love affair, with Ben by their side.

No one can accuse Sparks or Will Fetters' adaptation of Sparks' novel of not keeping the saccharine levels to full capacity.  One CAN however, accuse them of rank stupidity.  The only way I could buy this last-minute twist (Aces=Drake) is if I accept that in the Green household, for all the time Logan must have spent there, did not have ANY pictures of Drake Green hanging or otherwise present.

I want people who love both the novel and film The Lucky One to focus on that (pun intended).  The entire plot hangs on a picture (Beth's) but I'm suppose to believe for all the talking and swooning she does over Logan NO ONE: not Beth, not Ben, not Ellie, EVER bothered to show Logan what Drake looked like.  IF they had done that, The Lucky One would have collapsed and ended rather quickly.  The mystery of both how Aces/Drake died and how Logan came across Beth's picture would have been solved and we wouldn't have had anything else to say. 

I simply don't buy that at the Green home there wouldn't have been some kind of memorial to Drake, which would have included his picture, which Logan could have recognized quickly.  The fact that the story asks us to take such an insane and insanely stupid leap of logic, though typical of any Sparks book, is really too much for me to accept without complaint.

If only that weren't the only thing that makes The Lucky One a tale of stupid people falling in love. Almost every stereotypical and cliched movie moment is found in The Lucky One, courtesy of director Scott Hicks.  I counted around five musical montages, where we get to see the beauty of Efron or Schilling while some song played.  The climatic moment is laughable: what ARE the odds that little Ben would happen to run away when there is a major storm coming?  I imagine if this was how the book was, it would have read as a piece of garbage.  At best, it would be lazy and cliched writing; at worst it is insulting.

Hicks should have concentrated on trying to get his leads to act.  I think Zac Efron has some abilities, but in The Lucky One he looked and behaved like a zombie.  For a story that depends on romance, he was so dead on screen, completely blank and emotionaless.  Schilling is a beautiful woman, but she appeared to match Efron's dead acting.  Few times have I seen two leads look so bored together, as if they were drugged.

The Lucky One, in its efforts to drown in romance, has moments of unintended laughter.  In one of their love scenes, Beth all but attacks Logan in passion while he's cleaning himself up.  While they were writhing around in ecstacsy one could only imagine that this was giving new meaning to the phrase "getting wet".   Ferguson's wild scenery-chewing as the villain du jour was almost as embarrasing as Schilling & Efron's sleepwalking.

I will concede that Alar Kivilo's cinematography is appropriately lush, bathing this imaginary Sparks South in appropriately romantic tones, and Mark Isham's score is equally lush (not good, but lush), but The Lucky One really in a bizarre way plays like it's a bad copy of a Nicholas Sparks novel, which are already bad in themselves.  Somehow, The Vow is a much better stab at a Sparks story without actually being connected to Nicholas Sparks.      

I can't blame The Lucky One for being a second-rate adaptation of a third-rate version of stories cranked out by a fourth-rate author.  That being the case, The Lucky One fulfills its perfunctory duty to give us stupid people falling in love.   I can only pray that Nicholas Sparks' luck will soon run out.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Battleship (2012): A Review


There are some amazing things in Battleship.  It is amazing that this film was NOT made by Michael Bay (the adapter de luxe of lousy toy-based films).  It is amazing that Taylor Kitsch (saddled with the most tempting name in movies today) could have set a course of the worst luck to have been in three failures in a row (John Carter, Battleship, and Savages) despite the push to make him a star.  It is amazing that even for a film based on a game most of us stop playing when we reach teenage years Battleship can STILL be bloated, overblown, and downright stupid.  It is amazing that pop star Rihanna, making her film debut, could manage to outact people who have been doing it for years. 

In short, Battleship is amazing indeed: amazing in its ineptness, its tediousness, its length, its overblown weight,  and most of all, it's amazing in its incompetence in just about everything and anything that is associated with the term "film-making".

We start with scientists attempting to make contact with Planet G, the so-called Goldilocks planet (one that is able to sustain human/humanoid life) via the Beacon Project.  Then we shift to Hawaii, where Alex Hopper (Kitsch) is trying to drunkenly impress a girl by breaking into a convenience store to get her a chicken burrito.  This does not sit well with Alex's older brother (Alexander Skarsgard), who forces Alex to join him in the Navy. 

Move on to a few years, where Alex is still the irreverent, irresponsible rebel who won't play by the rules, not only irritating Stone but also Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson).  Alex's antics do impress that hot burrito girl, Sam (Brooklyn Decker), who happens to be Admiral Shane's daughter.  Shane doesn't like our hot-heated rebel but it looks like dishonorable discharge will have to wait.  We have an international war games to deal with out in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the aliens from Plot A have not only made contact but are launching an invasion.  Only scientist Cal Zapata (the Hispanic via Scotland Hamish Linklater) realizes that they can't really be stopped.  An alien craft crashes into Hong Kong, but minus that the invasion fleet seems to be doing OK.  They have trapped the various ships within a bubble, separating groups of ships through a massive invisible wall; the aliens launch pegs at the various battleships, which causes them to explode.

Seriously, I don't want to go on, but I must.

There have been casualties, which have left Alex in charge.  Now he, along with his crew and Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) have to stop this invasion.  Sam, along with amputee veteran Mick Canales (Gregory D. Gadson), do their part when they find themselves near the Beacon Project satellites that Cal has been at and which will serve to help the invasion fleet.

Eventually, it takes Hopper, Nagata, and the John Paul Jones crew that has Petty Officer Raikes (Rihanna), Chief Petty Officer Walter "Beast" Lynch (John Tui), Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy "Ordy" Ord (Jesse Plemons) and veterans of the U.S.S. Missouri (both of which last saw combat in World War II...seriously) to stop the invasion.

Despite its billing, it was only near the end of the dizzingly two-hour plus film that I actually realized, 'I'm watching a film version of Battleship!'  I don't mean in the 'I didn't know I wasn't watching a film based on a game' type of non-realization.  I mean that at a certain point, the film actually looks like someone took a side of the board and blew it up so we can see Nagata call out point positions to see if they struck anything.

I rallied from the nap I was in danger of slipping into to see that I might as well have just gone to someone's home and played the game to get the same results.  That just sealed the deal with me: it was already bizarre/laughable/stupid to see that the aliens were launching large pegs that Battleship uses to strike at the opponents, but to think people paid to watch a giant-size game of Battleship, one wonders whether anyone should go up to Hollywood and say, "STOP THE INANITY"!

It's curious that of the people in Battleship, only Taylor Kitsch appears to think he's in an actual movie rather than a piece of junk.  I give credit to Skarsgard and Neeson, who decided that they were going to take these Bartha roles and not even bother to act.  Certainly Battleship is a waste of Neeson's talents and Skarsgard's beauty.  Neither of them appear to be taking any of Battleship seriously (I'm sure they'd argue against that, but the proof is on the screen) but Kitsch appears to have convinced himself he was in an actual movie.  As such, he decided to commit to his interpretation of Alex as "James Dean joins the Navy", but one wonders why Sam would want to be with someone who is all bull and no...

Speaking of, while I will grant that Decker is extremely hot (her entrance is something to admire), she really is filling in for Megan Fox in a Megan Fox-type role (hot girl who adds decoration but nothing else to story).  The other woman in Battleship, Rihanna, is the only one to come out relatively unscathed from this fiasco of a film. She looked like she was having fun as the tough and committed sailor, bringing in a realistic toughness to her role.

In regards to other roles, Linklater was miscast as a Hispanic (but since when did that stop's not like there are any actual Hispanics with enough English proficiency around to be cast in a Hispanic role) and Plemons always looked like Matt Damon's bastard brother. 

It is surprising that the man at the helm (no pun intended) was not Michael Bay but Peter Berg (who brought us Friday Night Lights).  Berg decided to just ape everything Bay does in all his films (big explosions, hot girls, big explosions, no acting, big explosions, no story, and big explosions).  The screen is overwhelmed to where everything becomes not so much a blur but a blah.

The reasons for the invasion?  We know or care not.  The actions of the government (apart from President Obama giving a speech that tries to tie into there's a stretch)?  We know or care not.  The other nations involvement apart from Japan?  We know or care not.

If that weren't bad enough, Jon and Erich Hoeber's screenplay wastes so much time with things that are really uninteresting and irrelevant.  One could have easily cut out about the first twenty minutes of Battleship involving the burrito stealing (complete with The Pink Panther theme) and the soccer match and gotten just to the story (whatever there was of it).  Finally, the resolution to the crisis: nothing against our WWII veterans, but somehow I kept thinking if I'd wandered onto the U.S.S. Cocoon

Battleship is a stupid film, a waste of time, with nothing going for it.  If someone during it had said, "You sunk my battleship!", I might have enjoyed it.  However, Battleship didn't even have the wit to be THAT self-referential.          

I'm so pretty, I can't possibly bomb.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Think Like A Man: A Review


Like this year's What To Expect When You're Expecting (which I haven't seen and thus can't say if it's good or bad), Think Like A Man is a fictional film based on a non-fiction book.  In this case, it's actor/comedian/game-show host Steve Harvey's romance advice guide Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man.  For whatever reason the folks behind Think Like A Man opted to use the second half of Harvey's book as their title (though we get constant reminders that all the hijinks revolve around both parts of Harvey's tome). 

It's already difficult enough to adapt fiction to film (just ask Bel Ami), but adapting a non-fiction book might be just damn near impossible.  I've only glanced at Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, but I can say that I found some remarkably good things within its pages.  What that says about how screwed up our society is when the newest love advice to women is, "don't have sex on the first date," I leave up to the readers at large.  What it says about modern romantic comedies that Think Like A Man can be qualified as such when in so many ways it's a rather clumsy, even hateful look at romance in general (and particularly towards its African-American target audience) I can only shake my head sadly at.

We have four couples in the approximately two hours TLAM runs.  First let's meet the men.  We have the Player, Zeke (Romany Malco), the Dreamer Dominic (Michael Ealy), the Non-Committed Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara aka Token White Guy), the Momma's Boy Michael (Terrance J), and the Happier Divorced Guy Cedric (Kevin Hart).  We do have a Happily Married Guy Bennett (Gary Owen) but how he/his character found himself in TLAM one isn't sure of.

Now for the women.  Single Mom Candace (Regina Hall) and Career-Driven Woman Lauren (Taraji P. Henson), along with Eternal Girlfriend Kristen (Gabrielle Union) and Lovelorn Mya (Meagan Good).  Candace and Lauren are best friends, and they happen to find Michael and Dominic respectively (who are also friends).  No surprise that Mya would find Zeke, and Kristen is the one blessed to be shacking up with Turtle...I mean Jeremy.  Cedric spends most of TLAM screeching about his soon-to-be ex-wife Gail (a cameo I'll mention later). 

The women at various points discover Harvey's Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man and decide to use that as their guide to get the men they deserve.  Granted, Lauren was a bit of a hold-out but once things started getting hot and heavy with the beautiful Dominic she decided via a bet that it might be a good idea to follow Harvey's words of wisdom.  The various nuggets surprisingly yield results: Kristen delights in turning the love shack she and Jeremy have been sharing into an apartment where adults live (and removing his fanboy trinkets and figures...have either of them ever heard of a Man Cave?) and the shocking, SHOCKING advise to not be basically a ho on a booty call for Zeke has Mya in the first good relationship she's had.

However, obviously there are complications.  Zeke wants a little something-something, Michael can't get away from placing Candace as his Number Two Woman (one guess who is Number One) and Jeremy still won't grow up (and no that isn't a joke about Ferrara's height).  Lauren and Dominic are a little trickier: this time it's HER ideas about being with a man worthy of HER (or her opinion of herself) that is causing the complications.

Eventually the men discover that the women in their lives have been following Brother Harvey's sermons.  Deciding that two can play at this game, they get their hands on Act Like A Lady...(seriously, any of these people ever heard of a Public Library?) and use Harvey's advise against them.  Hilarity (supposedly) ensues.  Eventually the men are found out (apparently at the same time), the girls wake up, the guys find out they were becoming better men thanks to Brother Harvey, and all our couples (even Cedric and Gail, who looks a lot like talk show hostess Wendy Williams) all end up together.

I could only think that watching Think Like A Man was like watching the world's longest sitcom pilot.  I think it's because it plays like a sitcom: the coincidences, the structure of men are pigs, women idiots, they each have to be tricked into doing things, the happy endings.

One thing about TLAM that brings it all down is that there are simply too many stories to follow.  Again, this is where the sitcom aspect of TLAM comes into play: with so many different threads to hold, each story on its own would have made for a film of various interests.  Having them all together gives us so much story that each thread is short-changed.

Steve Harvey himself pops in at odd moments to offer his words to the wise from his tome, and his appearances seem shoehorned in to remind people, "hey, I, Steve Harvey, wrote the book on romance...literally, so don't forget it".  As I kept watching, I thought somehow that the idea of taking advice from Harvey in an of itself wasn't a bad idea.  It was the execution of it that was bungled.

For example, why couldn't Keith Merryman and David A. Newman's screenplay have done this: have Harvey appear on a chat show (maybe Wendy Williams') and that serve as the link to all the other stories as Harvey profiles his successes.  Or how about this: a book club goes over ALAL, TLAM and they decide to test out his theories, with the wealthy one going to Harvey himself to challenge him or hire him as her own personal coach.  Try this one on for size: the MEN find the book, most scoff, one tries, has success, inspiring the others to try with hilarious results.

There were so many ways to approach the material one is actually saddened that they opted to go for the easiest and dumbest way.

I also found that the men were really so horrible that I wanted them to fail.  Zeke may have tried for an R&B career, but he's more suited for Rapcore given that his theme song should be I Did It All For the Nookie.  Did it not occur to any of the guys that what they were doing was rather sleazy and horrid?  Did it ever occur to the women that these guys are leaning towards loser?

Such is the ways of love.

Tim Story decided that we were going to get more broad caricatures of people than characters.  I'm told that Kevin Hart is a new Comedic Genius.  I know my sense of humor leans more towards the Are You Being Served?/Monty Python style, but why is it that I wince whenever I hear of a new Comedic Genius that I simply don't find funny (examples: Cohen, Sasha Baron; Cook, Dane; Ansari, Aziz). His constant whining (along with his high-pitched voice) was grating on me (especially since we had Hart do the voice-over narration), and I thought we could have done without his character.

Whatever Hart's flaws as a comic or actor, seeing alleged woman beater Chris Brown (as the hot guy Mya hooked up with who can't remember her name no matter how many times he runs into opposed to running his fists AT her) was simply inexcusable.  I could leave it at the fact he wasn't necessary to the plot, but I'll go a little deeper to say that a film about relationships featuring Chris Brown is downright disturbing.  Really want to take romance advise from him?

It's just a constant parade of dumb people doing dumb things to each other and themselves.  Every other person save Hall and Terrance J appeared to be going as broad as possible (even Henson, who is an Oscar nominee!).  Oddly, the Michael/Candace story appeared to be the only one to come close to playing their relationship in anything resembling a realistic one. 

As a side note: sorry Ferrara, you'll always be Turtle to us, and no matter how fictional the movie is, one can't accept anyone like Gabrille Union would be living in sin with you for nine years with all your Transformer toys and not have said something a long time ago...let alone continue sleeping with you willingly. 

Think Like A Man tries so hard to make it like a Battle of the Sexes but the guys are so unlikeable and the women so dumb we want them to fail.  I did laugh twice: once when a clearly befuddled Bennett commented that they show a lot of civil rights documentaries around February for some reason and when Ealy's Dominic dismisses watching For Colored Girls by saying that 'some crazy guy throws his kids out the window' (the humor, for those of you not keeping score, is because Ealy played that 'crazy guy').  That was funny, and more cleverness like that would have pushed Think Like A Man to being something other than what it is: a sub-par attempt at romantic comedy that never goes away from cliches of all stripes.                     

This is a case where the book is definitely better than the movie.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Elementary: Child Predator Review


Sherlock For Children...

Put it down to my naiveté, but it's only now that I get the pun of Child Predator, the third Elementary episode.  We get one and two twists that are unexpected, and a few hints (perhaps real, perhaps not) about the early years of one Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller).  We also get the growing interaction between Holmes and Dr. Watson (Lucy Liu).  I can find one or two curious flaws that are starting to be enshrined within Elementary, but more on that later. 

We start back in Brooklyn, 2005.  Adam Kemper, a child, is abducted, with the kidnapper leaving a bunch of balloons at the abduction site.  We then go to Holmes having stayed up late into the night, investigating what could be another abduction by the serial kidnapper/killer nicknamed The Balloon Man.  He is called in by his 'friend' Captain Toby Gregson (Aidan Quinn) when it's confirmed that this latest abduction, that of Marianna Castillo (Katelynn Bailey) is the Balloon Man's latest work.

Holmes, being Holmes, quickly deduces details that are unimportant to the overall case but which lead him to important details to the overall case.  The investigation moves quickly, and we find the van that was used to abduct Marianna, but there's a shocking twist: the driver of the van is none other than Adam Kemper (Johnny Simmons), now 19.

Adam has been recovered, alive but obviously not well.  We still have to find the actual Balloon Man and Marianna.  Soon Holmes and Watson find a thin clue that leads them to a major break: a connection to all the victims via an exterminator-turned-delivery man who had worked around all the victims: Samuel Abbott (Christopher Evan Welch).  Gaining Adam's confidence with telling stories of boarding school bullying he endured, Sherlock gets him to give him information: Samuel Abbott's address.  Abbott is not there, but leaves a message: exchange Adam for Marianna.

No deal: Abbott is tracked down but horrifyingly kills himself rather than be captured.  While Marianna is rescued Holmes discovers there is something nefarious in this business.  As he puts it to Adam, "You occupied the master bedroom because you were the master".  In the ensuing years, Adam had turned the tables on Abbott: becoming the brains of the operation and basically taking over the Balloon Man's evil work.  Unfortunately, Adam had gotten an immunity deal for the crimes he committed in concert with Abbott.  Adam is now untouchable.

Or so Adam thinks.  While exercising his frustration at both being outwitted and inadvertently helping a serial killer free, Watson says something that triggers a way to get Adam arrested.  One of his victims had been abducted and killed while Abbott had been in hospital for back surgery.  Since the immunity deal covered crimes committed only with Abbott, Adam finds that with the fifth victim, he can be held responsible.

I give Child Predator credit for giving a couple of unexpected twists.  The idea that Adam is still alive was something that was a surprise, but getting the second twist with Adam was downright shocking.  At least when it came to the second twist, Child Predator did something that I think is a mass improvement over some of the ways we see Sherlock discover things.  Namely, it allowed US, the audience to see the clues sans comment.  We're still getting these flashbacks that show us how Holmes puts things today, but I think that makes it hard if not impossible for the audience to put two and two together.  I don't object to a tough mystery (they are suppose to be tough), but do object when things aren't presented.  How were we suppose to determine the newspaper connection when we're never so much as shown the newspaper (or shown so fast we wouldn't have time to register it)?

This really is a quibble when it comes to Child Predator, since Peter Blake's script holds up well in terms of putting the mystery together where the twists and conclusions make sense.  Moreover, I like the idea that we are slowly starting to find details of Sherlock's past when he talks about his boarding school experiences.  Granted, it is never firmly established if Sherlock really was bullied as a child or was just saying this in order to get Adam's trust, but Elementary is slowly starting to open up about the lead character, making him a more rounded individual rather than just a machine that spouts out his solutions. 

What Blake and director Rod Holcomb did was give a pretty even balance between the mystery (and the growing danger for Marianna) and the personal interaction between the three leads.  For example, we saw that Detective Gregson was a capable and intelligent policeman since he was able to follow along Holmes' train of thought to the correct conclusion.  The aforementioned revelation of Holmes' early years is also a nice touch.

If anything was lost, however, was some supporting characters, in this case both Bell and to a lesser extent Watson.   Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell was hardly there, and somewhere past the midpoint Liu became less the capable aide and more the shadow.  This isn't to say she didn't make her presence known. "I thought I was just a cavernous expanse between two ears", she casually snipes when Holmes had earlier suggested that her talking was unimportant and that she just served to help him by being some sort of silent sounding board.  I do like the interaction between Liu and Miller, where despite all fears there has never been and I doubt there will ever be any romantic overtones between Holmes and Watson.

Curiously, while Liu and Miller's Watson and Holmes don't appear to ever run the risk of having an affair in Elementary, this apparently can't be said of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock.  Curious that...   


What pushed Child Predator in my estimation is the brilliant performance of Simmons as Adam.  Elementary has proven to be a hit in the United States, and that might garner Emmy Award recognition next year.  It's hard to say whether the series itself will earn an Outstanding Drama Series nomination (I doubt it), but I think Simmons would have a clear shot at an Outstanding Guest Actor in A Drama Series nomination for his turn as Adam, in turns victim and victimizer.  It's only at the end when Simmons turns into the cliched "I know I'm evil and I know I got away with it" character, but minus this last-minute stumble (which I think Holcomb was equally responsible for), he had me convinced as the Stockholm Syndrome afflicted victim, but when Holmes confronted him with solid evidence, his turn from victim to killer is chilling and shocking.

I also think that Miller is starting to evolve his Sherlock Holmes into someone who is carrying his own wounds and slowly realizing that Watson isn't this mute who provides white noise but who actually may need people.  He comments to her that before, he only had Angus, a portrait bust to whom he could speak to.  Now, we are seeing the relationship entre Sherlock et Joan thaw into if not mutual respect (I imagine Joan would still find him a bit difficult) one where they at least see the positives the other brings. 

I also am starting to see if not a growing friendship between Gregson and Holmes at least a move away from making Gregson a stooge or idiot. 

My only small complaints about Child Predator is that Liu was slightly short-changed, but other than that this I think was the best episode of the series so far: one that allowed for some character growth, that gave us some (though not all) of the clues to figure things out ourselves, and one to two good twists that kept our attention.  Elementary is growing on me, and if I may digress for a moment, I think this world is big enough for both Elementary and Sherlock

They really aren't in competition because they are not taking the same route: Sherlock is adapting the Canon to the 21st Century, Elementary is spinning original stories with the characters while putting particular Holmesian elements in them.  Child Predator has done well in adapting Sherlock Holmes to CBS, and I hope Elementary gives us both strong mysteries and character development over the ensuing season.  So far, it's going in the right direction.


Next Episode: The Rat Race

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Strength Of A Child

Born 1997

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

This is the famous opening line to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (one of my favorite books).  The genius of Dickens endures, as does his accurate description of how we perceive our world.

We live in a time when the world's information is available at the literal push of a button yet have a whole generation that appears to be proud of their rank stupidity.  This is a schizophrenic society: one that celebrates both Steve Jobs and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, the genius and the imbecile.  Here in the United States, for all the talk of a "War On Women" that the political world has declared, we forget that in other parts of the world, there is a literal War on Women that makes any American discussion appear foolish.

The girl above is Malala Yousafzai.  She is fifteen years old.  She was shot and nearly killed for the crime of wanting an education.

Whatever flaws Mitt Romney has, he's never called for girls to be murdered for wanting to go to school.

Yousafzai lived under the Taliban regime in Pakistan controlled by them.  This group of "devout Muslims" believe that women are so inferior to men that they not only must be fully covered and be escorted by men at all times in public, but that they should remain illiterate, uneducated, and subservient.

Talk about keeping women barefoot and pregnant!

Yousafzai did not believe that.  She wanted an education.  She wanted a life of her own while being a faithful Muslim.  She did something that would be remarkable at any age, even more so for a child: she spoke out.  She would not be intimidated into silence but instead let the world know of what life for women under the Taliban was like. The Taliban kept blowing up schools rather than let girls be educated.  One wonders why a group of uneducated men appears so determined to keep women from being uneducated themselves. 

Yousafzai did not keep silent.  She kept speaking out and more importantly going to school.  It was after one school day that the Taliban got a divine revelation that Allah wanted little girls shot in the head to please Him.  On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai, age fourteen, was shot twice: once in the neck, and once in the head.

Let's think on that for a moment. A fourteen-year-old girl was shot in the head for wanting to be educated. 

And Americans claim there's a "War On Women"? 

The positive thing in this horror is that the Islamic world finally appears to understand that savagery cannot be tolerated.  Vigils were held for her recovery, and Islamic clerics finally issued a fatwa or decree denouncing the assassination attempt and condemning the Taliban.  It seems that Muslims in Pakistan and perhaps Afghanistan (and I hope around the world) are starting to see that little girls, or children in general really, cannot be shot or killed because someone decided they shouldn't read.

The murder or attempted murder of children is barbaric.  If the Islamic world had held its tongue and not acted, it might forever lose any credibility about it being a faith-based system. 

The Muslim world MUST speak out against groups like the Taliban.  The Muslim world MUST speak out against those who killed over Innocence of Muslims.  The Muslim world MUST accept that the world at large will not acquiesce to threats regardless of whom they target.  The Muslim world MUST fight back against those who use Islam to kill in the name of Allah.  Otherwise, all of us, non-Muslim and Muslim, will be condemned to a Second Dark Age, one filled with blood, terror, and unspeakable (and avoidable) suffering.  

We must be respectful of each other's differences.  Benito Juarez, the first President of Mexico, once said that "respect for that which is different is peace".  He didn't say we had to approve of what was different, merely that we had to accept that not all of us would see things the same way.  With that respect towards that which is different, we would have true peace.  That is a philosophy that still holds true today.

Ultimately, I look upon Malala Yousafzai as a heroine, for speaking out, for taking a stand, and for literally risking her life to improve her status.  Would that more Americans, men as well as women, learn from her example.

What does it say about American society when the girl we admire or are fascinated with is not one who risks her life (and nearly loses it) to get an education, but one who revels in her vulgarity, ignorance, and narcissism? If I had a choice, I'd have Americans follow Malala Yousafzai rather than Alana Thompson, nom de horror Honey Boo Boo.

Whom would YOU want as your daughter? 

I, as a Christian, join in prayers for Malala Yousafzai. I urge all of us: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh, Hindu, and all other faiths, to pray for her and all the girls and boys who yearn for freedom and peace.  A Better World For ALL of Us.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kennedy Center Honors Vs. Hispanics: Part I

There Is No Honors Among Elitists

When I saw the newest Kennedy Center Honorees, my first reaction was disappointment: Betty White was ignored yet again.  My second reaction was frustration: somehow some comic who hasn't been funny in decades (and who is not open to having female comics on his show...but female staffers in his bed) was seen as a wise choice.  My third reaction was anger: the selection of a defunct (albeit brilliant) rock BAND was seen as more sensible than say...someone who has won an Emmy, an Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (EGOT).

Nothing against Led Zeppelin (can't wait to hear what band is going to butcher Whole Lotta Love), but the failure to honor Rita Moreno despite her long career and artistic accomplishments appears to be the final straw among a group of Hispanics who have now grown angry over the Kennedy Center Honors' inability to find any Hispanics worthy of recognition.

Felix Sanchez, chairman for the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, had approached Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to express his concern over the failure of the Kennedy Center to find Hispanic honorees.

Let's put things in context before going any further.  The Kennedy Center Honors was established in 1977.  It wasn't until 2000, a full twenty-three years, that a Hispanic received what is touted as the nation's highest artistic honor, that being tenor Placido Domingo.  Two years later, we have Broadway legend Chita Rivera.  That is 2002.

In the decade since, not one Hispanic has found him/herself among those feted with the likes of Steve Martin and Roger Daltry/Pete Townshend of The Who. 

Let's imagine that the same standards were applied to African-Americans.  Would there be any logic to an argument that said that no black artists could be found to honor in twenty-three years, and that they could only find two black artists in nearly forty years?  That kind of argument would be laughed at the very least, condemned as backward perhaps even bigoted at worst. 

However, that is the argument Kaiser and Kennedy Center Honors producers George Stevens, Jr. are presenting us.  In short, their defense can be summed up thus: there simply weren't enough talented Hispanics who had contributed to American culture for us to bother with.

Since the inception of the Honors, I could find quite a few Hispanics who were alive when the Honors were first presented and whom I figure wouldn't get arguments against: Jose Ferrer (died 1992), Gilbert Roland (died 1994), Fernando Rey (died 1994), Tito Puente (died 2000), Anthony Quinn (died 2001), Celia Cruz (died 2003), Ricardo Montalban (died 2009).  Still, we're suppose to accept meekly that somehow the above were not as important to the arts as Steve Martin or The Who.

Even now we have a good number of Hispanics, very much alive, who are worthy candidates.  There is the aforementioned Moreno, but we also have Martin Sheen, Gloria Estefan, Jose Carreras, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Jose Feliciano, Hector Elizondo.  STILL, the Kennedy Center appears to live in an alternate universe where Hispanics appear to barely be learning English...otherwise perhaps there would be more Hispanic honorees.

Now, when Sanchez brought up his concerns to Kaiser, the latter took umbrage at having their near-total lack of Hispanic representation at the KCH.  The conversation ended thus: Kaiser to Sanchez, "Go f--- yourself".

Truth be told, the entire brouhaha over the near-total absence of Hispanic honorees lies with the Center itself.  An entity that doth protest too much about celebrating diversity and going out of its way to have a balance of honorees cannot then complain when its called on its lack of said diversity.

Let's be honest: the Kennedy Center Honors has ignored Hispanic contributions to the arts, and when Hispanics have the temerity to complain, their answer is to get defensive and tell us to go F**K ourselves.  In other words, Kaiser, Stevens, et. al. are telling Hispanics to sit down, shut up, and take it.  Well, here's one Hispanic who won't take it. It is good to see that Sanchez and other Hispanics are similarly calling out the Center's tone-deaf response to valid concerns.

I hope that this will be the catalyst not to just have a more inclusive representation at the Kennedy Center Honors, but on television as a whole.  I've already covered how while Hispanics are nearly 17% of the U.S. population they make up only 4% of television characters.  This lack of Hispanic Kennedy Center Honorees (only 2 out of 180 honorees) is just the icing on this poisonous cake we're being asked to eat.

Hispanics are being nearly erased from television.  Hispanics cannot play Hispanics on film (case in point: Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez in Argo), and now Hispanics who have won all four competitive artistic awards are considered less worthy than a band that technically no longer exists. How long can Hollywood, the Kennedy Center, or the arts in general, continue to deny the existence of 17% of the population before said group finally says, "Hey, we're here"?

I oppose a quota system.  I don't think we need to have a Hispanic at every year's ceremony.  However, I don't buy the idea that in nearly forty years, the Kennedy Center could only find TWO Hispanics that contributed to the American arts.   

The Kennedy Center Honors had no problem finding a Native American to honor (prima ballerina Maria Tallchief in 1996, and I'm the first to say she is extremely worthy of recognition).  I cannot fathom how then the largest minority group in the U.S. can be so casually ignored by the Kennedy Center.  The Native American population is 1.7% of the overall population, yet they have only one less honoree than the 17% of the overall American population.

"The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; the selection process, over the years, has produced balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines."  Thus says the official Kennedy Center Honors website. 

What argument can be made that the late Ferrer, Quinn, Cruz, or Puente failed to meet this standard, or that the very much alive Moreno, Santana, or Sheen don't fit into said 'criterion of excellence'?

I await a response.     

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bernie: A Review (Review #454)


Tales From the Texas Woods...

Writer/director Richard Linklater knows Texas as well as any of us (and as an actual Texan, I can vouch for the accuracy of down-home Texas style).  In that sense, Bernie plays almost like the documentary it sometimes looks like (the interviews mixed in to the film lend it the air of a docudrama).  However, for all the efforts it made to convince me that Bernie Tiede, the subject whose strange tale brought us here, was this nice, sweet, charming man, I got the sense that he was really a nutter at best, grotesque at worst.

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) arrives in the small East Texas town of Carthage.  He is the assistant mortician, one with a gentle touch.  He is the church choir director, he is loved by all the little old ladies, and no one in town has anything bad to say about him.  They DO have a lot of bad things to say about Mrs. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the wealthy widow and a real...witch.  Her family hates her (and vice versa), everyone in town hates her (and vice versa).  However, sweet little Bernie manages to whittle his way into the Widow Nugent's good graces.

The exact nature of their relationship is never settled.  It might have been a sugar mommy-type for services rendered, but also their are questions as to whether this effeminate, thin-voiced, musical theater-loving man who apparently never showed any romantic interests to any women was gay.  Either that, or he had some sort of Granny Complex.  

In any case, Bernie and Marjorie started spending a great deal of time together, going on lavish trips, and spending a great deal of Marjorie's money, all the while Bernie taking over her finances and making many decisions.  One day, however, Bernie shoots her in the back four times.  Bernie looks very upset, but what to do.  Well, for nine months Bernie fools everyone into thinking Marjorie is just not there, recovering from a series of small strokes, while he continues to shower the town with generous gifts.  It is the persistence of her stockbroker Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux) that forces the police to go into her house where poor Marjorie is found in the freezer, under some meat and corn.

Promptly arrested, only District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) appears to think Bernie did anything wrong.  The whole town so loves Bernie they don't think he should go to prison.  It gets so bad in Carthage Davidson has to ask for a change of venue, not because the town is so prejudiced against him, but because it's so prejudiced FOR him.  In another town (which the Carthaginians look down on as rather 'country'), Bernie is shockingly convicted of murder.

Bernie tries to play all these acts up for laughs, but for a comedy I think I might have chuckled only twice.  It might have been because A.) I thought it was trying to hard to be funny, and B.) minus the oddball Texas twist, I've seen and heard this story before (and I'm not referring to the Texas Monthly article Bernie is based on).  Rich widow who falls under the spell of younger man of dubious character?  Might as well have made a movie about Doris Duke.

That was one issue I had with Bernie: minus the setting this story is a familiar one.  I grant that Linklater (who adapted the article with its writer, Skip Hollandsworth) had a lot of local color (primarily from the interviews with real Carthaginians who appeared unaware that they were being made objects of ridicule).  However, I kept wondering whether Bernie was being disingenuous by portraying the relationship entre Bernie et Marjorie as one where he 'adopted' this little old lady rather than perhaps one of cold-blooded calculation where Tiede's slow control over Nugent's finances was driven more by insidious manipulation than just something that occurred. 

Another issue is that Bernie was trying too hard to be whimsical and eccentric to match the subject matter.  The interviews punctuate all the bizarre goings on, but the overall look of Bernie (including Black's full-on stage rendition of Seventy-Six Trombones) only serves to call attention to itself.

Despite all protests to the contrary, Jack Black's performance as Bernie Tiede never struck me as of a sweet-tempered, loving man who just got in too deep.  If I had met Black's version of Bernie, my judgment would have been that the guy is a phony, a bit creepy, and a fake.  I also would have thought something else but I'll use the euphemism 'a little light in the loafers' that my East Texan brethren use.  In short, Black's Bernie was someone destined to be a hanger-on, and a remarkably false and reprehensible one.  The fact that I would have run away from this Bernie says as much about my instincts as it does about Carthage's willful blindness.

It's good to see McConaughey stretch to play a Texan, something we've never seen seen from him.  Having said that, he did a good job as the only person apparently concerned that someone was shot in the back.  It's when he's doing his 'interviews' that he reverts to making Danny Buck just another East Texas oddball.

One delight in Bernie is MacLaine's crusty widow.  It's a bit similar to her role in Steel Magnolias (minus the shooting) but in her scenes she shows the imperious yet curiously insecure woman.

After watching Bernie, I saw there was a story here, albeit a familiar one.  Minus MacLaine, I thought everything was too broad and pushing things into farce.  Now, I figure that's what was being aimed at, but I think the story didn't need all the superfluous lunacy to enhance what could be a strange-but-true story.                 


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Safe: A Review


A Girl, A Guy, A Gun.

Anyone going into a Jason Statham film expecting a deep artistic experience obviously wandered into the wrong theater.  Safe, the newest Statham film, by no means reinvents the wheel.  You have some action scenes, you have a by-the-numbers plot, and if you are willing to forgo some cliches Safe is not a bad way to waste some time.

Luke Wright (Statham) has seen better days. A former elite New York City cop (his accent notwithstanding), he now is homeless, after having his wife and unborn child killed by the Russian Mafia when he didn't take a dive at a cage match (seriously, I'm not making this up).  Meanwhile, in China the Chinese Mafia has gotten hold of little Mei (Catherine Chan), a math prodigy who can remember all types of numbers and combinations.  She makes the perfect filing system: no paper trail.  She is taken to New York to work for the international interests of villainous Uncle Han (James Hong).  Mei is given a code that she memorizes but doesn't understand. 

However, it seems that the Russian Mafia is interested in this code too, leading to her abduction.  However, complicating things are the corrupt cops who are working both sides and now want their take.  In the chaos and confusion, Mei manages to escape.  Now the police, the Ruskies, and the Commies are after Mei.  Into this mix enters Luke, who sees the vulnerable girl and decides to silence his demons by becoming her rescuer.  Eventually, we learn what this code is (the combination to a safe I think) and Luke & Mei manage an escape from everyone, with most of the money (they send it to Han save for some to start a new life, and a promise that if they are left alone Luke & Mei won't reveal all Mei knows).

Let's be honest: Safe isn't made to do anything other than to give Statham fans what they like: some
violence, taking down some bad guys, and get some action.  In that regard, Safe fulfills its duties and can be enjoyed, even if writer/director Boaz Yakin has a plot that is predictable and a bit convoluted (everyone is after the little girl, and only the lone damaged wolf can come to her rescue).

What is curious is that Safe has Jason Statham attempting something that he rarely does: actually act.  With the possible exception of London (where he did something else I've not seen him do: wear a toupee!) Statham does one thing in all his films: kick ass and take down names.  Most of the time it's an enjoyable romp because Statham has accepted he's an action star (does anyone think he'll be playing Prospero or Professor Higgins anytime soon?).  However, Safe is a departure for Jason Statham because here he starts out as basically a broken man.  In fact, given how passive he is in the first part of the film, he's showing a vulnerability one doesn't associate with him.

Horror of horrors: at one point in Safe, he actually lets out a tear! Certainly Statham is attempting to push himself in directions he rarely ventures.  Most of the time Statham is the tough, silent type, not one to let emotion get in his way.  However, Safe makes a different Jason Statham: one who comes into the film as the wounded, emotionally vulnerable, almost broken man.

Once he finds his mojo, he goes back to being the Jason Statham we all know and love.

The nice surprise is Chan as little Mei.  She's being asked to carry a lot of Safe, and she does a good job as the little girl caught up in all the murder and mayhem.  One does wonder if Mei has merely accepted all this as part of her life, but Chan sells Safe's "we need to save the child" storyline.  As the driving force of the story, we like Mei.

Now, I'll say the plot is a bit ridiculous at times (the whole cage fighter looking to heal business reminded me of the fourth and final season opening of The O.C., a show that started off well and just sunk beyond repair once Ryan Atwood decided to become a cage fighter and lived in a closet to heal from his true love's death) and Safe is really nothing we haven't seen before.  Some plot threads (such as the uber-corrupt Mayor being involved) are given then dropped when no longer necessary, while others (how exactly does someone survive hours in a trunk) aren't answered.

Still, I'm not about to judge Safe as a failure merely because it does what it set out to do: give me some action scenes, some attempts at witty one-liners ("I've been in restaurants all night.  All I've been served is lead."), and the requisite "Damaged tough guy finds girl he can save" story.  That being said, while Safe certainly lives up to its title, it also is a good way to spend a couple of free hours.  


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Watson Before Us

Born 1972
The Element of No Surprise

In my last poll I had asked who was the best Sherlock Holmes.  Of the ten votes tallied, Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch squeaked out a narrow one-vote victory over Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett who tied with three votes each and Robert Downey, Jr. receiving no votes. 

Now I turned my attention to his Number Two, one Doctor John Watson.  In this case, we have another tie, but this time it was for First Place.  Here were the nominees:

Nigel Bruce (from the Basil Rathbone film series)
David Burke
Edward Hardwicke (both from the Jeremy Brett Granada Television adaptation)
Martin Freeman (from Cumberbatch's Sherlock)
Lucy Liu (the new kid on the block, from CBS' Elementary)
Jude Law (from the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films)

and out of the kindness of my heart

All Equally Good.

The tally of the nine votes were in ascending order:

1 vote each for Bruce, Liu, and All of the Above,
3 votes each for Law and Hardwicke.

So good to be remembered...

I didn't find Law's dominance in the Watson Poll surprising.  For one, he's a genuinely good actor and Law's version is someone who isn't there to look befuddled at the crimes.  In fact, Law makes Watson more an action hero than a dimwit, which I think is an innovation to how Watson is generally seen by the non-Sherlock reading public. 

Law's Watson is a bit of a brawler who at times is more muscle than brains (although this Watson is by no means stupid).  Also, one gets the sense that Law's Watson is genuinely Holmes' friend as well as his partner in (solving) crimes.

What WAS surprising is two-fold.  One, that while Law's Watson is proving extremely popular, Downey, Jr.'s Holmes isn't.  Remember that Downey, Jr. got ZERO votes.  Granted it was a small survey, but given the breath of brilliant performances in the title role, one is rather spoiled for choice when it comes to Sherlock Holmes.  Cumberbatch's version I think won because he is the most popular (which might account for Law's victory as well) but given that it was extremely close between Cumberbatch and the most iconic Holmes on film and television, it shows to me at least that Cumberbatch still hasn't dominated previous versions and that the film and Granada Television fans still are passionate.

The second surprise is how Hardwicke, despite not only the passage of time but also being the replacement to the original Granada Television Watson (David Burke) has burned itself into the memory of Holmesians more than Burke has (who got no votes).  Is it because Hardwicke was a better actor?  Partly, but again, I think that what has made Hardwick so endearing and beloved in the Holmesian community is exactly what Law has done in his film.

If one sees Hardwicke in the Sherlock Holmes series, you note that like Law's version, Watson is not an idiot.  In fact, he is able to work out solutions to cases (though not as quickly as Holmes).  Second, he is also a man of action: in The Empty House, it is Watson who saves Holmes' life as Colonel Moran is strangling him, and Watson is not afraid to carry a gun (which, curiously, one really couldn't see Burke doing).  Finally, the interaction between Hardwicke and Brett (like that of Law and Downey, Jr.) shows a genuine friendship between the men.

One sees this clearly in The Devil's Foot, when Watson is there to get Holmes out of his cocaine addiction and the dangerous poison Holmes used to test his theory as to how the murders were committed.  When Holmes comes out of his hysteria, the first words out of his mouth are, "JOHN!", and a relieved Holmes embraces his much-tried friend.

Born 1968
Sisters are doin' it for themselves...
A big surprise to me was that Lucy Liu has managed to earn any votes at all despite having been Joan Watson on a mere TWO episodes. Elementary is still starting out on its first season (and I suspect it will be a hit on American television, thus there will probably be more seasons).  Her co-star, Jonny Lee Miller, isn't getting kudos from the Holmesians I know for his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.  Now I'm not about to throw Miller under the bus and say he's lousy.  I'm waiting until the end of the season to see if we get more distinctly Sherlockian elements in Elementary, and to its credit we have seen some nods to the Canon.  There's been the bee keeping and now the violin.

However, there's been near-universal acclaim for Liu as Dr. Watson.  I haven't heard a negative thing said about her performance (with the possible exception that she's not given enough to do).  It almost seems like Liu is becoming the more dominant person on Elementary, and that this will be more Watson's show than Holmes' show.  No one has said that it is wrong to have a female Watson, let alone an Asian-American female Watson.  She has managed to overcome two hurdles that some Holmesians might have trouble with (a female and a minority one at that) but Liu has silenced the naysayers and made Joan Watson her own woman. 

What I've enjoyed about her interpretation of Dr. Watson is that she is the dominant one.  She is Holmes' minder so to speak, making sure he stays on the straight and narrow.  I am slightly concerned that she will not be given a chance to show that she is a bright person compared to Holmes but what I see is that Liu's Watson is more than capable of matching wits with her troublesome subject.  She is also able to stand up to him in a way that we haven't seen much of.  It's not a strict partnership but it's not a dominant/subservient one either.  Again, Elementary is starting to feel its way around and I hope my fellow Holmesians give it a chance.         

Born 1971
I can't believe they picked that fat guy
and a woman over me!

What did really astonish me is that Freeman got ZERO votes.  Even Nigel Bruce (whom I personally detest) was more popular.  This is highly bizarre to me because his partner (interpret that any way you wish) Benny Cumberbatch WON his poll.  How is it then that Cumberbatch is seen as the most popular of all Holmeses, while Freeman can't even register as a Watson?

It's impossible for me to say because I still haven't got around to watching Sherlock, but I have a few theories.  One: Cumberbatch so dominates Sherlock that almost everyone around him works in his shadow (including Freeman).  Two: Bruce, Hardwicke, and Law have built up a large fan base as Watson (Liu having an independent fan base of her own) while Freeman hasn't as either John Watson or as a star on his own right (perhaps The Hobbit will fix that).  Three: maybe people just don't think he's as memorable as Bruce, Hardwicke, or Law...and/or maybe even Liu. 

Once I see the two seasons of Sherlock I can be better able to offer reasons why Martin Freeman wasn't seen as the best Watson (versus his co-star who was seen as the best Sherlock Holmes).

I have found that there are certain qualities to be ranked highly as John Watson, M.D.  The best indicator of success is on whether Watson is seen as Holmes' friend as opposed to his stooge.  Bruce did play Watson as a blithering idiot, but he also showed him to be Holmes' true-blue friend.  Hardwicke and Law similarly managed to do that, while Liu isn't quite there yet her Watson does show she doesn't think Holmes is either evil or intimidating.  One hopes that in future Elementary episodes genuine friendship can be shown. 

As it stands, I'm with the "all equally good' group, except for Nigel Bruce (whom I could never warm up to).  I certainly love Law's interpretation (which is much better than the horrid material), and Hardwicke to my mind is a model John Watson.  I even think Liu is the more interesting character in Elementary even if she is the sidekick than the focus.  I reserve opinion on Freeman until after I've had a gander at Sherlock but don't think he'll be horrible. 

Still, I hope to find John (or Joan) Watson to be a part of my life and look forward to seeing more of the Holmes/Watson partnership.  He (and she) is indeed The Good Doctor. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Atlas Shrugged Part II: A Review


You Rand?

I am on of the few critics who did not hate Atlas Shrugged.  I was acquainted with Ayn Rand's massive novel about the industrialists and thinkers who opt out of a society they think is taking from them to give to those who contribute little or nothing to their own betterment.  I tried to read it but couldn't get through it.  While the first film did have a low budget (which was evident in the final product) I thought it was on the whole, not a bad film.  Now that we have Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike (I figure that there will be a Part III), I find that despite a new cast and a higher budget, the final product is STILL hated.  Again, having seen the film, just like the last time, I fail to understand why I'm suppose to think ASP2 is suppose to be one of the worst films of all time when again, on the whole the film is not that bad.  It made a few mistakes but ASP2 is not a disaster.

We pick up more or less where we left off in Atlas Shrugged Part I. Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis, replacing Taylor Schilling--there will be plenty of replacements from Part I) is struggling to keep the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad going despite impediments both external and internal.  The government's Fair Share Law is squeezing the economy (gas at $40 a gallon, unemployment well over 10%) and the industrialists keep disappearing, with the refrain, "Who is John Galt?" floating in the air.  Dagny dislikes the line, despite having named her defiantly successful rail line The John Galt Line.

Her lover/business partner Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe, replacing Grant Bowler), maker of the miracle Rearden Steel, is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the Fair Share Law as relevant to his life or business.  He juggles his affair with Dagny while trying to keep his business running despite government intervention.  His wife Lillian (Kim Rhodes, replacing Rebecca Wisocky) and Dagny's brother James (Patrick Fabian, replacing Matthew Marsden) want to bring them down for separate reasons. 

Rearden and Taggart, however, are more involved trying to find who invented a motor that could provide virtually unlimited electrical power that could revitalize the economy.  To that end, Dagny gets scientist Quentin Daniels (Diedrich Bader) to work on it.  Quentin is one of the shrinking number of scientists, industrialists, and artists who have yet to disappear without a trace, destroying all their work before vanishing.

James has taken a wife, Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), who is determined to bring the 'genius' James the credit he deserves.  Well, the government continues to encroach on Taggart and especially Rearden, while Taggart's childhood friend/former lover Francisco d'Anconia (Esai Morales, replacing Jsu Garcia) is slowly starting to sabotage his own business rather than continue letting his business be slowly destroyed.  The government official Wesley Mouch (Paul McCrane) will have Rearden Steel no matter what, while Rearden will not give it up without a fight. 

Eventually James makes a secret deal with Mouch to get the steel (even by using blackmail) and while Daniels has found how to make the motor run, the ever-mysterious John Galt (D.B. Sweeney) has convinced him to 'go on strike'.  Dagny comes to Colorado to repair damage done by James' incompetence caused a train collision but first swings to Utah when Daniels leaves a cryptic message, alarming her that he will become another of the disappeared.  She sees him board a plane and flies desperately after it.  In a strange twist, she finds herself having entered a strange invisible barrier where Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike ends with Dagny Taggart, having survived the plane crash, finally meeting (albeit in shadow) with the mysterious John Galt. 

Barring what I think is a bizarre science-fiction twist (that invisible barrier) I found Atlas Shrugged Part II held my interest in the 'what happens next' type.  Now, I digress to say that Atlas Shrugged is such a massive novel that it might have worked better as a miniseries, but that is really beyond anyone's control.  Producer John Aglialoro had to make Atlas Shrugged as three films, and we have to judge the final product.

Aglialoro had to recast all the parts, and most were for the good.  No one I know would say that Mathis is a bad actress (as opposed to Schilling from Part I), and I think she managed to overcome a somewhat thinly-written character like Dagny.  I would have pushed director John Putch to have pushed Mathis to express more frustration, almost despair as she finds herself being overwhelmed on all fronts.  The fact that Mathis at times appeared more irritated than desperate I think is more Putch's fault than hers.

A couple of big surprises come from new characters.  Bader has made a career out of playing dimwits in such things as The Drew Carey Show, The Beverly Hillbillies and Whose Line Is It Anyway? that it's shocking to see him not only play a scientific genius, but actually be convincing as a scientific genius.  I think Bader is a wildly underrated and underused actor and perhaps ASP2 might allow him to start entering into more dramas.  Atlas Shrugged Part II should also go down in history as perhaps one of the rare times (perhaps only time) that Teller of Penn & Teller fame actually SPEAKS!  In a cameo as Laughlin, an employee of the Taggarts, he appears so quickly it takes a few seconds to realize, 'that's Teller, and he talks!'

One small part, that of Taggart Transcontinental employee Dave Mitchum (played by Kevin M. Horton) provided some comic relief when Mitchum finds himself the COO of the line after Dagny leaves the company (despite the Directive issued by the government forbidding any employee from quitting or being fired).  However, Mitchum was able to also bring the drama as he finds himself powerless to stop the train collision that he sees coming via satellite.

Another small part, that of government inspector Leonard Small (Bug Hall of  The Little Rascals fame--yes, he grew up), made me curious as to his presence.  I kept thinking that he might have a larger role in Atlas Shrugged Part III, though again never having finished the book I cannot say for sure.  However, given the fact that at times ASP2 would show him, it does leave that question open.

The actual train crash would have been done better by Cecil B. DeMille, but here to his credit Putch managed to build up the tension as the Army train and the passenger train (which was stopped in the middle of a tunnel by a woman who panicked when smoke started entering the train due to it having to be pulled by an old locomotive) were on a collision course.

In terms of the performances again, I think it was the men who suffered.  Morales is a good actor, but in Atlas Shrugged Part 2 he could never shake the notion that he was making speech after speech (which I fault more with Putch's direction and the screenplay adaptation by Duke Sanderfur, Brian Patrick O'Toole, and Duncan Scott).  The confrontation at James' wedding is an example of how NOT to stage a confrontation.

I said that the casting changes between ASP1 & ASP2 were on the whole good, with perhaps one exception.  Nothing against Beghe, who was appropriately tough as the powerful Hank Rearden, but his voice sounded like an out-of-tune foghorn.  Personally, I thought Grant Bowler from Part 1 was better, but I'm not about to tear my hair out over such things.

In the technical matters, I would argue that the script at times bungled the efforts to make speeches into normal speech.  I also found Chris Bacon's score at times overwhelming the film, drawing some attention to itself rather than serving the story.  I also wish they had cut the Sean Hannity/Juan Williams/Bob Beckel cameo (and am astonished that liberals like Williams and Beckel agreed to be in a film that all but trashes their ideology, though I suspect that Rand would have found Hannity equally detestable). 

On the whole, Atlas Shrugged Part II is a better film that Part I.  I didn't hate Part I and frankly am at a loss to understand why the final product is seen as so abysmal.  Is it a great film?  No.  Is it a horrible film? No.  Atlas Shrugged Part II (and Part I) is an acceptable film based on a massive novel that again, would have been better served as a miniseries.  I don't judge a film based on whether I agree with it or not: some films go with my thinking but think are terrible, some are antithetical to everything I believe but are well-made.  Atlas Shrugged Part II I found more enjoyable than some other films highly praised by others (say...The Master). 

No, I don't care if I agree with Ayn Rand's ideology or not.  I'm not judging a film on whether or not I am an Objectivist or even a Libertarian.   Did the film entertain me?  Yes.  Did it take a few wrong turns?  Yes.  Atlas Shrugged in the end is not a great film but not a terrible film.