Sunday, October 14, 2012

You Rand?. Atlas Shrugged Part II: A Review

ATLAS SHRUGGED PART II

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.                        

DECISION: B-    

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