Saturday, March 31, 2012

Line And Stinker

HOOK

In between the animated and live-action version of Peter Pan, we got Hook, which can be called a semblance of a sequel to the J.M. Barrie story.  It was fully authorized by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which owns the rights to the characters bequeathed by Sir James on his death.  One would think that Peter Pan would be right up Steven Spielberg's street, given that no man has captured the wonder and confusion of childhood better.  Well, you'd be wrong...by a long light-year mile.

We begin with a children's production of Peter Pan, and get the characters: there's sweet little Maggie (Amber Scott), on stage playing Wendy, there's Jack (Charlie Korsmo), the baseball-loving older brother, mother Moira (Caroline Goodall), and then there's Peter (think on that for a moment).  Peter Banning (Robin Williams) (emphasis mine), the father and husband, is all business (even taking a phone call during precious little Maggie's show.  Of course, as a powerful corporate lawyer, he will be apt to do things like miss little Jack's baseball game, going so far as to send someone from the office to videotape the game so he can go over it with Jack later.

That's innovative.

In any case, it's off to London to visit Grammy Wendy (Dame Maggie Smith).  It's here we learn that the Peter Pan stories are true--up to a point.  Grammy Wendy is the same Wendy Darling who was the inspiration for Wendy Darling in Peter Pan.  As Grammy explains, her neighbor Mr. Barrie took the stories she would tell her brothers and put them down on paper.  Now, Grammy Wendy is going to be honored for all her work for children, in particular her aid in finding homes for orphans, such as one Peter Banning...

Peter is all business, no time for his children, his wife, or even Grammy Wendy, until both Jack and Maggie disappear.  It's then that Grammy Wendy tells Peter something he's completely forgotten: he is really Peter Pan.  Peter has grown up, fallen in love with Wendy's granddaughter Moira, and become a father.  We quickly see that none other than Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) has taken the children to enact revenge on Peter and have their final duel.  Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts) flies in from Never Land and takes a horrified and confused Peter back.

Quickly Peter comes across Hook aboard his ship, but because he's forgotten how to fly (and because Peter stubbornly refuses to believe any of what he sees or is told), Hook is almost displeased by this worthless adversary (not to mention Peter's inability to rescue his children).  Tink gets the bad Captain to give her three days to get Peter up to speed and thus give Hook his long-desired war.  It's off to the camp of the Lost Boys, where again Peter will not admit to himself he's in Never Land, that there are fairies, and that he is indeed Peter Pan.  The Lost Boys, now all punk and street urchin (and apparently American) are led by Rufio (Dante Basco), with punk hair and a bad attitude against this "adult". 

Eventually, Peter Banning learns to use his imagination, understand how absent he's been from his children's lives, and most importantly, learns to fly again (even if Tinker Bell unrequited love for Petey will never be reciprocated).  Peter also remembers how he ended up fleeing from his mother in his pram (or baby carriage), found himself in Kensington Gardens and became the boy he once was.

However, Hook has decided to use the Charm Offensive on Jack, attempting to seduce him to think of him as a real father, even organizing a literal Pirates baseball game (Maggie, after singing a cute little song, isn't heard from until the end).  Peter organizes the Lost Boys, with Rufio ceding power to the real Peter Pan, and has one last battle with his nemesis.  In this epic battle, Rufio is killed, turning Jack against Hook and returning to his father.  Peter leaves, leaving Lost Boy Thud Butt (Raushand Hammond) as the new Leader of the Lost Boys.

Somewhere in Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo's screenplay (with story by Hart and Nick Castle) there's a good idea battering around.  Unfortunately, they couldn't get it out because so much of Hook is remarkably cliched and predictable.   There's the father who cares more about business than family.  There's the baseball-loving son whose games are constantly missed by said father.  There's the cute little girl who soon falls by the wayside when there's nothing for her to do or add to the plot.  There's the stubborn refusal to believe what is right in front of you.

That last one is the one plot device I simply don't understand.  It's one thing to be surprised, amazed, shocked at what you are seeing: if I were taken to Never Land I certainly would be amazed and would not believe it...at first.  However, once I'd been there for a few hours, having seen fairies, the Lost Boys, and Captain Hook, I think I'd pretty much accept the premise rather than continue fighting it with fury as Peter Banning does.

Yet I digress. 

Hook desperately wants us to think of it as whimsical but it never inspires us to think of it as whimsical or magical.  The primary reason is because everything about it looks fake.  Despite the Oscar nominations for Norman Garwood and Garrett Lewis for Art Direction, the sets looks exactly like what they were: sets, built and constructed to look amazingly unrealistic.  In particular, the Never Land scenes were so obviously film on massive sound stages that I never accepted this was a real place.  Even when Peter is rescued by mermaids, I thought they were in a large water tank in some studio. 

There was no real sense of magic because everything in Hook was drowned by its own excess and naked calls for us to be caught up in a fantasy world that simply didn't look fantastical in the first place.

Even worse in the aspect of the story, I am shocked that Spielberg thought it was a good idea for Tinker Bell to speak!  A blasphemy, I say, and a big break from tradition.  Barring the silent version (where no one speaks), Tink has always maintained a strict silence, and so hearing Tinker Bell speak (and worse, speak with a distinctly American voice) only made matters worse.

Before anyone gets after me for commenting on how odd hearing Tinker Bell speak as if she were from Tacoma, Washington, pointing out that fairies don't have nationalities, I should point out that as such, their voices shouldn't sound so particularly American, or British.  If hearing a fairy speak like an American doesn't give you that much consternation, then why not hire Dame Edna to voice Tinker Bell in another production?  If Roberts can do it, why can't Australian Dame Edna?

The technicality of Tink's nationality could (with some difficulty) be overlooked.  What I can't get my head around is that the Lost Boys are both American and in some cases, teenagers.  It's clear that in Hook, Spielberg went for a large Yankee cast to portray the kids, which makes no sense if the Lost Boys do come from boys having fallen out of their prams while their nannies weren't looking.  How did these California boys end up in Kensington Gardens, I wonder.

Even if we suspended disbelief to make the Lost Boys clearly American, how do you explain that these boys are almost men when we see them?  In particular, Basco's Rufio (which kept bringing to mind Martin Landau in Cleopatra) appeared far too old to believable play a 'boy' no matter how generous the term.  On top of all that, you had this late-80s early-90s vibe of making Rufio in particular but the Lost Boys in general almost punk rockers-like.  One imagines that if Hook had been made in the mid-to-late 90s, the Lost Boys would have been emo kids.  This sadly has the effect of dating the film, rather than give it that timeless quality other Peter Pan adaptations have. 

The performances have a lot to answer for.  Williams in particular appears unbalanced, for when he finally discovers he IS Peter Pan (and acquires a new outfit from apparently the clouds he was flying over), he appears to have turned idiot, reverting to an almost child-like delivery of his lines and totally forgetting he has any children to speak of.  Most of the movie he refuses to even believe he is in Never Land, let alone that he is Peter Pan, but almost just as quickly, he knows he is.  It's extraordinary that despite the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, Hook is so rushed to get from Point A to Point B that we don't ever take the time to do any real training or to show how Hook is seducing Jack to the dark side.  ma

The other actors don't do any better.  Well, in fairness Hoffman appears to be delighting in making Captain Hook a more comic creation, closer to the animated version than to something like Jason Isaacs' turn in the future live-action Peter Pan.  Roberts was amazingly blank and uninspiring as Tinker Bell.  As one looks at the performances: from Korsmo's Jack to Goddall's Moira to all the Lost Boys (virtually indistinguishable from each other), it boggles the mind that Steven Spielberg, one of the great directors, simply could not get good performances out of a range of good actors. 

In fact, it appeared that nothing in Hook was going well.  It is amazing just how often things in Hook misfired; the sets looked fake, the acting was weak, even more horrifying, somehow John Williams' score was hit-and-miss.  The music pre-London sounded like something from a 1970s B-Picture (if forced to compare, the music from Theater of Blood comes to mind, sir), and I wouldn't say that perhaps that was the intention.  However, nothing in Hook was magical, or exciting, or even logical.  I wondered why, if Grammy Wendy was THE Wendy Darling, she never married (given she kept the Darling last name) or how her younger brothers John and Michael had not lived.  When your mind starts wandering to imagine the lives of characters not in the film, said film has problems. 

I will throw in that the various cameos (of which there were many but I only found two: Phil Collins as a detective and David Crosby as a pirate...and the second one I was never sure of until reading the credits) were a bit of a distraction.  Add to that, in the climatic sword-fight between Hook and Pan, it's obvious Hoffman was not doing the fighting (although I was impressed at how whoever his double was cleverly hiding that by putting the hook across his face so as to hide it). 

So many things wrong with Hook.  The story failed Spielberg.  Spielberg failed the story.  Perhaps this is a case where the director most like Peter Pan was simply too close to the subject to tell a Peter Pan story. 

Glad I'm not the only one who saw the similarity...

DECISION: D-

Friday, March 30, 2012

Watching With Dismay The Children At Play


PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON THE HUNGER GAMES

Every year, there appears to be a movie that my fellow critics appear to masturbate to.  In 2010 it was The Social Network, touted as the Citizen Kane of our generation.  In 2011, it was The Tree of Life, one of those films that believes itself to be deep.  In 2012, I find that one of the contenders to the title "Best Film of the Year" is The Hunger Games

I find it curious that because I have taken a different position from the majority of people, I'm condemned.  The Occupy Wall Street devotees among my friends delight in calling me an idiot for not going down to the nearest park and banging out "This is what democracy looks like" on a tin drum while demanding free driver's licences/IDs and school loan forgiveness.  The Tea Partiers I know are askance at my making even the most innocuous joke about Representative Ron Paul. Given that I have little interest in politics, I look upon both groups with a wry amusement mixed with puzzlement.

In the realm of film, I am more like the Paulistas and Occupiers: I brook no opposition.  I jest of course: people can disagree with me if they so like.  However, I make an effort to have some intellectual case for or against something, not just think something "sucked" because it "sucked" or something being "awesome" because it was "awesome".  

That being the case, I am displeased at the criticism I am getting from friends and even frenemies over my refusal to praise the film version of The Hunger Games.  Both said they were "not surprised".  One asked for a "show of hands" for those who were shocked at my voting down the film.

I replied I couldn't show him hands...but maybe I could show him fingers. 

It isn't the fact that they disagree with me that bothers me.  It's the fact that they think I disliked The Hunger Games MERELY to dislike The Hunger Games.  I don't set out to be contrarian, but I cannot say something was good when I didn't think so.  If I thought something didn't work, I say so: them's the gig. 

Well, I've already stated why I thought The Hunger Games as a film didn't work for me: the shaky camera work that is a bane of current cinematic experiences, a large story that is short-shifted to get to the next action piece (which allows for little character exploration) and a major cop-out that allows a character to live when we were led to believe he would probably die.  Now, I want to delve a little into the non-cinematic issues I had with The Hunger Games.

I should make it clear: this is not a criticism of Suzanne Collins' book because I haven't read it (silly me for wasting my time on such obvious junk as The Great Gatsby).  Whenever I review a film version of a novel that I have read, I try not to compare one with the other because one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking is: The Movie Will Always Be Different From the Book.  For there to be a true adaptation of any book, it would probably require a television series/miniseries (and the chance of something being completely faithful to the source material is highly unlikely).  Therefore, I cannot judge the success or failure of The Hunger Games on the book, and anyone who says "the book is better than the movie" is simply wasting time: I haven't read the book so I can't say whether it's good or bad.  That's not what I'm interested in; it's in the film that I concentrate on. 

The first point of contention with me is the idea that The Hunger Games is a thoroughly 'original' story.  I don't know anything about Battle Royale and care less.  Instead, I turn to an older source.



In all the commentaries about The Hunger Games, I have not noticed that any credit has been given to Ovid.   I got out my handy-dandy copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology (the Citizen Kane of books on the Greek/Roman/Scandinavian gods and heroes) and went back to the story of Theseus.  Here, we see that the Athenians, as punishment for the death of a prince of Crete (and after Crete had defeated Athens in battle), must every nine years send seven boys and seven girls as tribute, where they would go into the Labyrinth to face the Minotaur (not, sadly, David Bowie's Goblin King), where, until Theseus came along, they met a grisly fate. 

Collins has given credit to this part of the Theseus legend as inspiration to the first part of her trilogy, but I haven't heard anyone else comment on the similarity between Theseus and Katniss.  I don't know why, but while I was watching, my mind couldn't help think of how The Hunger Games is a modern retelling and reshaping of the Theseus story. 

Oddly, another thing that came to mind was, of all things, the film Spartacus with Kirk Douglas as the title character.  It came from the training sequences in The Hunger Games (which are similar on the training to kill a fellow prisoner).  What crystallized this for me was when Katniss has her bow and arrow and must show her skills before the Game Master Seneca and a group of "sponsors" in their balcony with a lavish meal. 

In Spartacus, a group of Romans comes to see a gladiator match at the training academy.  They select two of the gladiators to fight to the death: Draba (Woody Strode) and Spartacus.  They fight, and Spartacus is about to be killed.  The Romans demand Draba kill him.  Rather than do this, Draba throws his lance at the Romans and lunges towards them. 


Patrician Roman Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) does not flinch, but takes command, killing Draba. 


For me, Spartacus came to mind when Katniss shoots an arrow straight into the "sponsor's box" and directly into the apple inside the pig's mouth.  All that Katniss needed to do was jump up and kill everyone there.  Granted, we'd have a whole other movie if she did, but my mind could only think, "why didn't anyone else try this little deal in the 74 years the Hunger Games have been going on?"

Still, I can hear people say, "that's no reason to dislike The Hunger Games".  True (even if such things had my mind wandering).  What I had a hard time in regards to The Hunger Games are two things that I find so irritating in films and books: another Greek invention, the Deus Ex Machina. 

For those who don't know what a Deus Ex Machina (or DEM as I call it) is, a DEM is whenever something will suddenly appear that will get the character out of whatever jam he or she is in.  This was one of my chief criticisms of the Harry Potter series.  Harry rarely had to do anything himself because something would come along to get him out of his predicament.  One DEM I recall particularly well was in Chamber of Secrets, where in the climatic battle between Harry and You-Know-Who, we got THREE: 1). the Phoenix, 2.) the Sword of Gryffindor inside the Sorting Hat brought by 1.), and 3.) the tears of 1.). 

Likewise, Katniss has a few good DEMs popping her way.  The biggest (and lousiest) DEM is the rule change in the middle of the actual Games, where the tributes are told that this year, there can be TWO winners rather than one if both come from the same district (I asked my brother Gabe, who went with me to The Hunger Games, to confirm if that was what he heard, which he did). 

I simply cannot emphasize just what a lousy decision this was in terms of story.  Knowing that there can be only two (sorry Highlander), we no longer fear for Peeta and are faced with a near total-absolution of Katniss for being part of a game that has kids killing kids.

Therefore, we not only lose any actual tension to the ramifications of Katniss having to kill this sweet baker's son (who once showed her kindness and may be in love with her), but we also know that Peeta will live to see another book.  I can't fear for someone I know will survive and can't feel for someone who will no longer have to face the terrible prospect of having to kill at least one person to survive. 

I call it a major cop-out and a cheat, and yes, a Deus Ex Machina.

There are other versions of DEM.  If she's injured, a little balloon will be sent to her with balming solution to heal her.  I know the Hunger Games fans (should I call them Mockers for Mockingjay I wonder) will say that these are care packages sent by the sponsors to keep their tributes alive for as long as possible.  However, my argument would be as far as we know there is no financial incentive to keep someone like Katniss alive (no one on screen is seen making bets on who will live and die) and oddly enough, despite all the talk about getting 'sponsorship', we never actually see Katniss, Peeta, or any of the other tributes actively seeking "sponsorship".  This thread (no pun intended) is introduced, talked a lot about, but never followed through: a terrible disservice in my view.

Moreover, we are told that Districts 1 and 2 are wealthier and that their tributes have received much training before the three days the tributes as a whole are given.  I kept wondering if Districts 1 and 2 are better off than Districts 11 and 12 (the homes of Rue and Katniss/Peeta respectively), why not simply bribe the Capital to either let their kids go or rig the Games to their advantage?  Are Districts 1 and 2 places where the warped Hunger Games are embraced, even perhaps enjoyed?  I would have liked to have seen how The Reaping (the selection of the tributes, which is an annual event in Panem) was done in the other districts.  Given that Districts 1 and 2 could afford to give their tributes massive amounts of training, I imagine they volunteered, or at the most there was an air of celebration rather than terror. 

Naturally, we weren't going to get that in The Hunger Games, because frankly all the other kids were going do die.  Therefore, they weren't important. 

Here is where I'm going to do something The Hunger Games cannot or will not do: go for the jugular.  The Hunger Games wants to have it both ways: make us think on how horrible it is to see children kill other children but covering up the violence at the same time.  It's a strange thing: on the one hand, we're suppose to believe the Hunger Games are almost 'must-see tv' in Panem (even though from what I saw of the film, watching isn't compulsory and few people in the Capital appear interested...perhaps after 74 years, the population wants new programs) and that the population is deeply riveted by the slaughter of the innocents.  On the other, the film cannot show just how gruesome it all is without getting at the least an R rating (cutting into profitability).  Somehow, the killing of children by children (even if it is teens) isn't what I call a good-time viewing experience. 



Here is where I'M calling "hypocrisy".  Didn't so many of you, who say "you can't show teenagers, even those loathsome District 1 and 2 types, break a minor's neck", delight in the adventures of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass?  You thought it was fine that a then-eleven/twelve-year-old Grace Moretz was killing, literally killing, men larger and older than herself on screen.  Therefore, why not allow us to see the full horror of the Hunger Games by showing us the kids stab, behead, spear, or blow up other kids?  You thought it was fine for Kick-Ass (which was rated R), so why not for the celebrated The Hunger Games (maybe the PG-13 rating so as to capture the larger teen market, rather than moral scruples, had something to do with it). 

What exactly is the difference between Hit-Girl's antics and the actions of the Hunger Game participants?  The ones who survive the opening slaughter (minus Rue, Katniss, and Peeta) are all suppose to be "evil" because they are good at what they've been trained to do (and because they want to kill the "good guys").  However, no one in the story (and I imagine the audience) ever stopped to wonder if THEY wanted to do the killing or whether they were so worn down emotionally that they felt they had no choice.  The Hunger Games paradoxically plays to the emotion of seeing teens kill tweens and pulls its punches.  Therefore, rather than show things through Katniss' eyes (so we react to her reactions and can imagine the horror--always more effective in my view), we get quick glimpses of this wholesale slaughter without having to get our hands and eyes dirty. 

Let me make this clear: I DON'T WANT TO SEE KIDS KILLING KIDS, ESPECIALLY IN THE GRUESOME MANNER THE HUNGER GAMES PORTRAYS.  If, however, you're going to make that a central part of the story, to focus on the horror of this spectacle, why give little hints?  Why not go all the way? 

I think it is because at heart, no one wants to see such things, not even those in the Districts or the Capital.  No one, as I've said before and as far as I know, HAS to watch the Games, and the viewers sure aren't getting any enjoyment (District 11 in fact, has the first hints of an uprising, what I call the District 11 Spring). 

To my mind, there is something perverse in seeing an eleven-year-old getting speared (as well as an eleven-year-old killing grown men).  Now, the Mockers will defend this, saying that I'm suppose to be revolted by it all.  By that kind of thinking, shouldn't I also be revolted by seeing those from Districts 1 and 2 die by poisoned fruit, wasp stings, and ravenous dogs?  Shouldn't I feel that their deaths are equally grotesque, or is somehow OK that they died (rather barbarically I might add) because they were keeping Peeta and Katniss apart or wanted them dead? 

Aren't their lives equally worthy? 

The Mockers want to have it both ways: they want us to be horrified by the killing in the Hunger Games but don't want to show us the full horror of the Hunger Games so that we won't feel so bad about praising something that has remarkably little regard for life.  This, I suspect, is why we don't need to know the twenty-some-odd other tributes from Districts 3-10: they are perfectly disposable.  Somehow it's all right that they die because they aren't real, they aren't important. 

In short, The Hunger Games is totally hypocritical.  It celebrates the violence it claims to be condemning.  It does this because it asks us to root for Katniss, which means that she more than likely has to kill others ranging from 12 to 18. Their lives aren't important, especially since we never bothered to get to know them. Somehow then, it might even be all right if Katniss kills: she did it to survive, but woe to whomever manages to kill or injure Katniss.  If anyone did that, they aren't worthy of sympathy or celebration. 

The story goes out of its way to absolve Katniss of actually having to do any kind of killing: most of the unimportant kids from the other districts are dispatched within five minutes of the opening of the Games with nary a thought, and someone or something (those lovely DEMs) will come along to take care of the rest. 

There are only two kills that Katniss has (one of which is debatable): when she drops the Tracker Jackers on the "bad kids", and when she shoots her bow at the one who just speared Rue.  Fortunately for Katniss, when she comes across the girl who died from the Tracker Jacker stings, Katniss herself is affected by their hallucinatory stings, so we don't get the full visual impact of that girl's death.  Soon enough, we forget about this girl from that district.

Other people that have to die are conveniently killed off screen or by others.  Even Peeta, whom we would think must die so that she can live, we already know will be spared (not speared). 

I think that because I'm able to stay emotionally removed from what is on the screen (most of the time), I didn't get so involved in The Hunger Games to where I waited to hear the cannon signal the death of another tribute.  Whether my lack of emotion is a blessing or a curse I leave to you, but I think it has helped me be a better film reviewer in that I can observe a film coolly and dispassionately (most of the time).  Sometimes I do get caught up in a story, which to me is a hallmark of a great film. This was not the case with The Hunger Games, one that I felt was making things easier for the main character, rather than harder (physically and emotionally), one that took a long time to set up and have very little payoff in the end (Good News: Both Katniss and Peeta LIVE). 

Curiously enough, if I had made The Hunger Games, I would have changed a few things: I would have taken the time to build up Katniss' world, the tension of The Reaping, the training, and gotten to know the tributes far more (thus making their deaths more painful emotionally for the audience).  I also would have shown the citizens participate more in the Games: either in their delight or disgust.  Finally, I would have dumped Gale, focused more on Peeta/Katniss, and kept the games moving (nothing slows down a chase more than spending a night up a tree). 

I don't think we need to see the violence involved in the Hunger Games.  I find that what one can imagine is far worse than what one is shown.  A good off-screen scream as the girl is stung to death (along with horrified reactions) would have had a greater impact than seeing her disfigured face (even if camera tricks kept the full horror of it to a minimum).  Therefore, as gruesome as the idea of killing kids is, I think the middle road The Hunger Games took (show a little but just enough to sanitize it for the teen rating) was wrong, almost immoral. 

In conclusion (I hear cheers from the audience) I know The Hunger Games is being praised high and low by critics of both films and books.  However, I found how the film wanted me to be appalled at the violence-for-pleasure theme but refused to show us the extent, emotionally and physically, of said violence totally hypocritical. 

Something Gabe said stuck with me: it was, he said, like watching Halo.  Perhaps this is why I am in the minority about being disturbed by all this.  I don't play Halo.

Perhaps you'll be tempted to say I take all this too seriously.  To that, I offer this retort:


Or this...


or this...


These are real kids, really killed.  Look upon that horror and tell me if you find it entertaining. 

These are real Hunger Games, brought to you by Syria and their esteemed "reformer" Bashar Assad and his wife Asma.  It's not kids killing kids, it's adults killing kids.  The Hunger Games are very much alive, so forgive me if I don't celebrate the idea of children being killed or a film that won't acknowledge just how ugly that can be. 

May The Odds of A Better Film Be Ever In Our Favor

THE HUNGER GAMES

I wish I could go with the crowd, not be an accidental iconoclast.  I just to seem to have a powerful resistance to almost everything to which people go gaga for.  I was not impressed with the Harry Potter series (I read only the first book and thought it was not good).  I did listen to the audiobook of the first Twilight book and KNOW it's awful.  It just seems I have a powerful resistance to whatever the latest craze is.

Now I find myself doing the same thing with The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins' trilogy of young adult books about a world where children are rounded up to fight each other to the death.  Given the fanaticism of the readership and the hyper-venting of other critics who think The Hunger Games is the Citizen Kane of YA adaptations, I fear I may get trashed for not liking it.

Not like it, however, I most certainly did. 

I think in another post I will get as to why I found The Hunger Games both repellent and a cheat, but here, I shall stick to the movie, and as to why I found it a disappointment given how others are going on about its 'genius'.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12, a very poor district in Panem, a dystopian version of North America.  Every year, two children ages 12-18 are selected from the twelve districts to participate in The Hunger Games, where these 24 kids will kill each other until only one is left, the winner living a life of luxury.  This is done as punishment for a failed rebellion (I hope Bashar Assad doesn't get any ideas), and are broadcast throughout Panem for the public's viewing pleasure.

At this, the 74th Annual, Katniss volunteers to spare her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) this fate.  The male from District 12 is Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son.  Soon, they are whisked off to The Capital, a center of wealth and decadence.  Under the tutalage of minder Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and stylist Cenna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss and Peeta are trained to get the public to love them, which will give them sponsorships (and thus a better chance for one of them to win the Hunger Games).

We see them trained in the arts of death (although Katniss is already handy with her bow and arrow, which she uses to hunt for food), and then it's off to the killing fields.  With Game Master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) in charge (and being able to manipulate the circumstances in the field), the kids start going off after each other.  The Games even have a host: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), a sleazy type who oozes insincerity as he introduces and interviews the "tributes" and serves commentary to the games, along with co-host Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones).  Now it's a struggle to survive.

Oh yes, we have Katniss showing affection for a tribute from another district, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), and we also have Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), a boy who is a friend of Katniss and thinks the Games are evil.  We end with Katniss AND Peeta returning in triumph to District 12, much to the distress of Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland). 

Now, you may have noted that the Hunger Games have ONE winner (bringing to mind Highlander: There Can Be Only One), but we end with BOTH Katniss and Peeta coming back alive. I figure this stays true to the source material (given that Collins co-wrote the screenplay with Billy Ray and director Gary Ross) but once we get to this point in the two-and-a-half hour running time of The Hunger Games, even non-readers of the trilogy like me know that whatever tension in the story the plot has is (or should be) thoroughly gone. 

One has to be really intellectually weak to NOT figure that Peeta will live to be part of Catching Fire and/or Mockingjay.  With that, we don't really fear for either of our protagonists: we KNOW Katniss will live (it's extremely rare that the main character is killed off) and now we know that Peeta will live. 

I think it was at this point that my view of The Hunger Games just went down to where nothing short of a personal appearance by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh would have lifted it.  For most of the movie, I wavered tremendously over what I would argue are a myriad of problems that are being ignored in a mad, lemming-like rush to praise what The Hunger Games was going for. 

Chief among my issues with The Hunger Games is the shaky camera work that is a plague on modern filmmaking.  It is in the opening of the film that we get the camera moving wildly to where you can't see clearly what's going on.  This may be effective when we come to the actual Hunger Games because that way the film could get away with telling a remarkably violent story and keep a PG-13 rating.   However, even when it clearly isn't necessary (ie. no running being done) the cameraman appears incapable of keeping things in focus.  Two or more characters could be having a conversation and Ross appears determined to make a simple talk look chaotic and confused.

In terms of the story, I imagine The Hunger Games suffers from the same problem most Harry Potter adaptations faced: the stories in the books are so expansive that I imagine a great deal was cut to fit into one film; paradoxically, a great deal of information had to be put for the non-reader so as to give an idea of how things came to be (which makes The Hunger Games feel even longer than it is). 

It isn't impossible to have a faithful film adaptation of a very lengthy novel (Gone With the Wind is a good example).  However, there are two differences.  One, a great deal of the novel had to be cut, and in particular characters had to be sacrificed. Two, Gone With the Wind HAD to be long to get the thrust of the story and audiences (of which the majority had read the novel) understood that. 

The Hunger Games doesn't have that luxury.  It has to tell its quite lengthy story in a compressed time, but rather than sacrifice characters (such as Gale, who has nothing to add to this story but one imagines is relevant to Catching Fire and Mockingjay), Ross and Company opted to sacrifice time (the training goes by so fast one wonders why even bother) and character development (how long or whether Peeta actually carried a torch for our prickly Katniss are questions left unanswered by the time they roll into District 12).

With the story being so lengthy, we get very few hints about the characters or their plights.  For example, The Reaping (the selecting of the sacrifices), is over so quickly that just how grueling this is goes by with barely a note.  I digress to wonder whether the Reaping in Districts 1-11 is this downbeat or is it a perverse moment of celebration.  Katniss' dramatic decision to take her sister's place (Katniss' Choice?), a moment filled with drama, even sadness, just pops in without the tension, the fear, the horror that one imagines the book would have covered.  This is the first time (at least in a long time of the 74 years this has been going on) that District 12 has had a volunteer, yet, despite this dramatic turn, it's almost as if it ISN'T a big moment.  As for the selection of Peeta, it has even less dramatic tension because we don't know who this guy is. 

This inability to know our characters, both good and evil, hampers us in an even greater way with the character of Gale.  He is at the beginning of The Hunger Games, pops in very briefly in the middle, then pops in at the end.  Given we don't truly establish the extent of Gale's relationship with Katniss, one wonders why he is in the story at all (apart from just establishing his need for the film versions of Catching Fire and Mockingjay Parts I & II respectively).  One shouldn't have a character in a film because he'll play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels.  Why not just introduce Gale in the film version of Catching Fire, rather than waste time introducing him in The Hunger Games but giving us virtually no idea as to who Peeta is (who is more important to the story)?

The same goes for the other tributes: we get faint hints of who they are (the tributes from the wealthier District 1 & 2 are bad because they appear to enjoy killing) but the others are of no importance (especially since they are dispatched within the first five minutes of the actual Hunger Games).  Their casual extermination was a concern to me, given that I imagine they had lives outside the Hunger Games, not just props for Katniss to overcome.

Even the connection between Rue and Katniss is a puzzle: why does Rue take a special shining to our heroine given they don't have any interactions in the training? 

All these questions, which I figure are answered in the book, go unanswered in the film adaptation.  Again, I suspect it's because there really is so much ground to cover (no pun intended) that those things called character development are of little to no importance.  We had to get on to the gruesome killing spree of children and teens.

I digress to say that though The Hunger Games' fans would argue the story is painting a horrific picture of this wholesale slaughter for the enjoyment of The Capital, I think The Hunger Games is shockingly dismissive of the truly monstrous  nature of the spectacle.  Given that from what I saw watching the Hunger Games isn't compulsory in the twelve districts, one would agree with Gale when he said if no one watches they won't have the Games. 

From what I saw in The Hunger Games, people don't watch because they enjoy it (except perhaps in the Capital), more because they are fearful for their children.  When Rue is killed off, it appears to spark a District 11 Spring (to which I would say, fine time after 74 years of putting up with this nonsense).  Even what appears to be the first stirrings of an uprising against the Capital is pretty much forgotten because we had to go find out who lived and died (which frankly wasn't going to be a big surprise).

Finally, in terms of the script, if there's one thing I detest is the Deus Ex Machina (or DEM as I call it), that person or thing that will appear, almost like magic, to resolve the character's dilemma.  The Hunger Games has quite a few (in particular at the actual Hunger Games), with the biggest being the "we'll let TWO of you live this time" bit.

There are good things within The Hunger Games.  You have a strong performance from Lawrence (who is one of the best of the young & upcoming actors and actresses around) as the strong, almost fearless Katniss.  It's unfortunate that the screenplay kept Katniss at arm's length, making her perhaps more aloof  and remote than she should have been.  However, I figure this is part of Katniss' persona, so I'm not going to be harsh.  Tucci kept a strong balance between being sinister and merely sleazy as the insincere faux-fawning host.  A surprise was Kravitz, who while having virtually next to nothing to do as the stylist managed to make Cenna someone who took an interest in Katniss.

However, everyone else appears to have made their characters one-note.  You had Harrelson as the perpetually drunk Haymitch and Banks as the birdbrained and insensitive Effie.  Sutherland looked like he had escaped from making The Walt Whitman Story, unable to make President Snow menacing. Bentley as Seneca only served to be a Christoph from The Truman Show substitute (except instead of being bald, Seneca had one of the funkiest beards in film history).

In regards to the Hutcherson and Hemsworth, it was a Battle of the Blands.  Peeta's main shift was between pining for Katniss and not pining for Katniss.  What fears he had about the Hunger Games go unanswered (because let's face, he's not as important as Katniss).  Oddly, whenever we do get into a potential Katniss/Peeta romance (the veracity of it always questionable), The Hunger Games slows down considerably.  Gale was on screen so briefly that again, I wonder why he was in the first place.

I wish I could have been as enthusiastic about The Hunger Games as both my professional colleagues and my friends are.  I've already had two people tell me they aren't surprised I didn't like it, as if I deliberately go against the grain just to go against the grain, to be the naysayer, the one who just likes being contrary.  That would be hurtful, but in truth, I think it says more about their narrow-mindedness than it does about my alleged narrow-mindedness.  I take pride in being forthright about why I like or don't like something, and I found much in The Hunger Games to put me off.   I thought most of the acting was one-note, the story disingenuous, even hypocritical, about what it claims it wants to say about the contemporary world, and filled with too many easy outs for our protagonist.

I know I should declare The Hunger Games to be this epoch-changing cinematic experience to rival the introduction of sound or color, but while financially this film is a giant success, to me, The Hunger Game's a flop. 

DECISION: C-

Thursday, March 29, 2012

In Steed, A Film Without A Peel


THE AVENGERS (1998)

The Avengers, the film adaption of the British television series, earned a reputation, I think either fifteen minutes INTO the premiere or AFTER the closing credits, of being an absolute disaster.  For myself, I think it came right after the now-infamous Teddy Bear Conference (but more on that later).  The Avengers isn't just a misfire, or even a fiasco.  It's one of those films that you hear about, that you are told just how awful everything about it is, only to see the actual product is far worse on a technical level. 

Either that, or The Avengers was meant to be a spoof, a parody, a mocking of both the television series and spy films in general; in short, The Avengers was MEANT to be a comedy.  If that's the case, then it did its job beautifully, because it is one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud films made.  However, given that it was made with a perfectly straight face, I think all the laughs that come from The Avengers were totally unintended.  That being the case, The Avengers is a disaster, perhaps The Mother of All Disasters. 

John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) works for The Ministry, a British intelligence agency of some kind.  He is given a new assignment/partner: one Emma Peel (Uma Thurman).  The Ministry, in particular its head, "Mother" (Jim Broadbent) suspects Mrs. Peel may be involved in nefarious plots, and may be in league with Sir August De Wynter (Sir Sean Connery)...no relation to Maxim De Winter from Rebecca, but I digress. 

Soon Steed and Mrs. Peel find that Sir August is plotting to take over the world (don't they always do) by controlling the weather.  He has also created a Mrs. Peel doppelganger and worse, is in cahoots with The Ministry's second-in-command, "Father" (Fiona Shaw).  Now, Steed and Mrs. Peel, who appear to be attracted to each other, must stop Sir August from destroying the world with his weather-manipulating machine: Steed with his trusty umbrella and bowler hat, Mrs. Peel in her slinky, body-hugging outfits.

I think that's about the gist of The Avengers, but the film really has so much more...more nonsense than even its brisk 90 minutes can pack.    Cataloguing everywhere The Avengers went wrong is an exhausting prospect because so much goes wrong, but let's hit on a few points. 

Director Jeremiah Chechik, one suspects, may either never have actually seen the television Avengers or decided to parody what he thought were the program's selling points, namely a very wry take on strange goings-on.  This is evident throughout The Avengers, because all the acting is very stylized to the point of being farcical, even robotic.  It's one thing to play a role that indicates you are in on the joke, it's another where you make the joke the entire performance.

Allow me to explain.  Everyone in The Avengers, in particular the leads, are one-note.  That is bad enough, but compounding the situation is the fact that Chechik (as well as Fiennes and Thurman) mistake being unflappable (always a good British quality) with being idiots.  There is a scene right after The Infamous Teddy Conference (much more on that later) where Steed and Peel come across two large teddy bears at a conference table.  They take the teddy bear heads off to reveal two characters we've never seen or heard of until now.  "Oh look, it's so-and-so".  "Yes, and this is someone else", at which point they leave to continue hunting down anyone else still around.

Neither Steed or Peel are fazed to come across two corpses which are inside giant teddy bear costumes.  Nothing at all odd about that is how they appear to behave.  Neither are they fazed when they are being chased by a giant swarm of robotic Killer Bees (they may have been wasps, but I can't help reflecting on the Saturday Night Live sketch about "Killer Bees").  Nothing fazes them...and THAT'S the problem.    Even in the worst James Bond film 007 showed he was up to the task of dispatching the villain and he expressed moments of fear or trepidation that he may end up getting killed.  Here, Steed and Peel are TOO unflappable, and this only makes them come off as cartoonish, ridiculous, almost non-human. 

One would think Bond would simply burst out laughing if he came across a couple of bodies in teddy bear outfits.  If not him, certainly the audience.  I get what Chechik was going for: everyone was going to play it as if the silly world The Avengers was creating made sense, but even in what are suppose to be the most dangerous situations (such as when Mrs. Peel and her double are fighting in a balloon over Trafalgar Square), neither Peel or Steed appear particularly concerned or worried or afraid.

In short, if they don't appear bothered by destroying the statue of Horatio Nelson at his Column, why should we?

This decision to play everything as though the characters are too cool to be fearful or amused or any emotion really sucks the life out of the characters.  Fiennes is so stiff as Mr. Steed, making him part-moron and part-witless (as in without wit despite his various efforts to sound clever). 

Thurman likewise decided Mrs. Peel was going to be all style and slinky outfits and poses rather than a questionable potential double agent.  When presented with evidence that she might be a cold-blooded assassin (videotape of her killing and blowing up a building), Thurman doesn't register any reaction whatsoever.  She is too cool and nonchalant about the whole thing, and doesn't even appear concerned in the least that either she committed a major crime or that someone who looks exactly like her committed a major crime.  It defies logic to have the leads behave in this nonchalant, almost dismissive manner. 

When it comes to Fiennes and Thurman, their delivery of every line (be it a poor attempt at witticism or serious) is so fake, forced, one-note, unnatural, affected and exaggerated to believe they are real people (let alone people falling for each other).

I digress to wonder if Mrs. Peel is the potential assassin she is thought of by The Ministry, why on Earth would they hire her to be Steed's partner?

We can never know the characters because they are so wrapped up in thinking they are being clever and stiff upper-lipped that they never become human, and their travails are of no interest to us.

Connery appeared to go to other way, to be so over-the-top that even Drax from Moonraker would tell him, 'tone it down'.  I can't imagine he wanted people, or at least me, to burst out laughing when he delivers lines such as, "One should never fear...being wet", but laugh I did.  In fact, when he spoke that line, with his strong Scottish brogue only enhancing the reading, I was howling with laughter, so much so that I kept rewinding the scene so as to enjoy his lavish rendition of a Scottish villain (including emphasizing the word "wet", which became funnier and funnier with every hearing).

Let's move on to the actual script, penned by Don MacPherson (adapted from the series created by Sydney Newman, who also created the long-running science-fiction show River Song, which used to be called Doctor Who).   Somehow, I have to believe The Avengers was either suppose to be a spoof of James Bond films or what a Bond film on acid would look like. 

I note the River Song (formerly Doctor Who) connection because in one scene, it soon becomes apparent that Mrs. Peel is running down the same hallway.  At least in what was called Doctor Who, we were suppose to pretend it was a different hallway.  Here, we are told it's the same one. 

How else to explain a scene that will go down as one of the flat-out weirdest, most ridiculous and illogical in film history: the Infamous Teddy Bear Conference.  Allow me to set up said scene: we come across a meeting of a group of large teddy bears at a conference table.  At the head of the table, we find a large black teddy, and the head is removed to reveal Sir August De Wynter (as if we didn't already know that).  He helpfully tells us in exposition dialogue that the identities of those at this conference cannot be known, even by each other, so they must be disguised.

I ask, 'disguised as teddy bears? Seriously?'

Wouldn't simple masks work?  And why do they have to keep their identities secret from each other if they had been working with Sir August on his plans?

No one, not Chechik, not MacPherson, and not Warner Brothers said, "you're going to have a group of people dressed as giant teddy bears, and that doesn't STRIKE you as slightly idiotic?"  I never thought I had to tell people who are paid to make films, of whom one expects some level of ability, that dressing people up like big teddy bears won't create menace but piles of laughter.  Yet, it appears they didn't understand that.

MacPherson's story doesn't make any sense; perhaps it's because the film in its 90 minutes is so rushed to where it becomes either incoherent.  I imagine it is because what passes for a story is really an excuse to have Fiennes and Thurman literally strike a pose and say words given to them.  How did Sir August get a doppelganger of Mrs. Peel (or why for that matter)?  How or why did "Father" join this plot (the fact that we're given this piece of information somewhere before the mid-point is another disastrous decision)?  What does the invisible Colonel Jones (Patrick Macnee in a cameo) have to do with anything? At least Macnee was invisible, so he was spared having to literally be seen in this disaster (and Dame Diana Rigg had the good sense to not be part of this fiasco...maybe that's why she's a Dame). 

Joel McNeely's score only underscored (pun intended, why not given how awful some of the "witty banter" was) how silly the entire film was.  Animal House went for the same thing: Elmer Bernstein's score making the silliness of everything try to be serious, but at least Bernstein was in on the joke and it was SUPPOSE to be silly.  The Avengers doesn't have that cover.  Even the closing song, Storm, sung by MISS Grace Jones, ends up sounding like a bad Bond song knockoff.

Time after time, The Avengers was trying so hard to be taken seriously, but time after time, it kept doing things that made it look all the more ridiculous and laughable.   However, I can't say I didn't enjoy it: I laughed quite a lot at it, and marvelled at how two Oscar nominees (Fiennes and Thurman), an Oscar winner (Connery) and a future Oscar winner (Broadbent) could act so badly.  Have they ever apologized for The Avengers I wonder. 

The Avengers is, in its way, a marvel: of how inept a group of professionals can be when they mistake style for substance.  In terms of an actual film, The Avengers is just a sorry excuse for a film.  It's an unintended comedy, the closest we may come to seeing an Ed Wood film post-mortem.

And that's the way the teddy bears end their meeting...




The general question at the end of The Avengers is usually, "What the HELL?"

DECISION: F

Can you imagine, Mr. Steed? 
The children think they can do better.
Balderdash, Mrs. Peel. 
NOBODY Does It Better. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ain't That Like Shame


I never understood the concept of a sex tape.  I consider it a step down from pornography.  The idea of people watching others have sex is already an odd one to me.  The idea of people watching themselves having sex is just narcissistic, if not idiotic.  I don't consider myself repulsive, but somehow watching myself doing a little bump and grind does not turn me on.

I also never bought the idea that sex tapes are "accidentally" uncovered (so to speak).  I may not be the shrewdest man on the block, but if for some strange reason I decided to videotape myself having sex, having a recording of my naked body thrusting left right and center, I would not leave it just lying around.  I would lock that thing up in the best vault I could find.  Therefore, all these people who find themselves on these "sex tapes" for all the world to see meant for the world to see them.

That being the case, how is Kim Kardashian different from all those Traci Lords wannabes?  Both built their entire fame and career out of letting other people watch them get screwed by someone not their husband.  I would probably say the popularity of Miss Kardashian, built on her ass and her vagina, is a Sign of The End of Western Civilization, but you already know that, don't you?

I think watching people have actual sex is counterproductive to the pleasure principle.  Allow me to explain.

When I had Cinemax, they would show soft-core porn films late at night (hence the nickname Skin-emax).  I would catch a couple of these flicks and frankly, be puzzled.  My mind is trained such that when I watch the various sexual encounters, I do ask myself, "how is this relevant to the plot"?  I would watch one of their Cinemax After Dark features and be amazed that in fifteen minutes I would see three sex acts. 

It isn't so much the sex itself that bothers me.  I know this is how I was created.  I deviate from some of my Christian brethren in that I don't think sex is wrong, "doing the nasty" being a sad turn of phrase.  I think sex is wonderful, and that God wants us to derive pleasure from this most intimate act.  Otherwise, He would have found another way to have us come up with more humans.

However, when I see the people having sex, I am saddened.  We're suppose to imagine that they are getting a great deal of pleasure from the act of sex, but I don't see it.  I guess my mind is such that I can focus on their faces.  Everything about graphic/explicit sex on film appears to be so mechanical, so unenthusiastic, that it doesn't appeal to me.  The people on screen don't appear to be having any fun, let alone actual pleasure, in their sex.  It's all so hollow, a shadow of what true intimacy in sex is suppose to be. 

When I see the couple (or at least it's usually two people) having sex on camera, I notice that the person may be making her/his face appear to be in the throes of ecstasy, but I can tell when they are faking.  I see two people who look almost bored by what they are doing.  It is for a simple reason: the sex isn't there for their own pleasure, but for the "pleasure" of others, people whom they will probably never meet.

True sex, true good sex, is an unselfish act.  The best sex isn't the one where you are GETTING pleasure, it's the one where you are GIVING pleasure (or at least doing your best to give the other person pleasure).  As I've long argued, there is nothing wrong with getting physical thrills from the act of sex.  However, I believe that it is when you are not concentrating on yourself but on your partner, on the person with whom your body and soul yearns for, who fulfills both a physical and emotional (perhaps even spiritual) role in your life, that is the one with whom you will have mind-blowing sex.

I think this is why prostitution isn't big for me.  I've never been to a prostitute and never will be with one (minus the fact that I'm frankly too cheap).  Yes, one can get sex from it, and you may have some satisfaction from it, but the high will be temporary because it does not fulfill what I consider one of the important aspects of sex: a physical and emotional connection from which comes a mutual sense of pleasure and joy.


Which brings us to Shame.  Much was made of Michael Fassbender's penis being thrust at us.  I'm sure Fassbender is very proud of it (his performance I mean...whatever were YOU thinking).  The big thing about Shame (I keep thinking I won't be able to avoid puns) is the fact that it was a man that bared his penis before the camera.  We've long gotten used to women going topless or fully nude for film (just ask Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia).   The sight of Fassbender's member, to me, wasn't shocking. 

Truth be told, I was more shocked by seeing Anne "Princess Diaries" Hathaway rip her top off just before all but raping Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain.  I was saying out loud while watching, "Oh my God, Oh my God...Princess Diaries...".  I found her Julie Andrews moment more shocking than the gay scenes between Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. 

My shock has nothing to do with Cinemax After Dark.  In those films, we never see a man's penis.  I suppose this is because men don't like seeing other men's penises and what women watch porn films aren't as visually stimulated as men (the primary consumers of porn) are.  Shame was quite different: it was ART.  It wasn't meant to be erotically stimulating.  In the same way Dunst lying luxuriously nude near the water in Melancholia was meant to be 'artistic', Fassbender walking about with his pendulum going all around was also 'relevant to the plot'. 

I never bought that line.  I never accepted the premise that in order to play a sex addict Fassbender HAD to show us his private parts (I guess that term is out of date, isn't it).  I saw the film, thought it was well-made, but still think the nude scenes with Fassbender (though not a large part of the film...sorry, couldn't be helped), were gratuitous.  I could have gotten the same message of Shame (how the addiction to sex is no different than the high someone gets off of drugs or alcohol) without seeing all of Michael Fassbender. 

However, I think it is a disservice to say that Shame is like a porn film.  The sex in Shame is suppose to be depressing.  There is no uplift (sorry) from Fassbender's sexual encounters.  Instead, we see a thoroughly broken man, almost soulless, one for whom women are disposable because the act of sex has taken the place of the act of love.  On the whole, I find the sex scenes (even the nudity) in Shame to be less graphic than something on Cinemax.  The only real difference is that in Shame we see the male nude as well as the female.

On the whole, the depressing aspects of sex in Shame were closer to the reality of sex sans love than the fantasy of sex being the same as pleasure in those films one sees after dark.  In short, pornography, whether be on film, in magazines, or the Internet, may give the viewer a momentary satisfaction in a release of a desire, but the pleasure one gets from it is remarkably short and empty (which is why people keep going back to it).  Sex without love is hollow.  I think this is what makes Shame an anti-pornographic film (I believe, unintentionally so): it is clear that there is no pleasure in the sex if it without love. 

It's mechanical and devoid of joy...not unlike pornographic films or those 'sex tapes' people keep coming across.  In that way, despite the nudity in it (in particular that of Michael Fassbender), porn films and 'sex tapes' are not like Shame

I still, however, could have gone through life without seeing Michael Fassbender's penis, and I hope never to encounter it again.  No offense, Mike.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Eastern Boys and Western Girls

BROKEN BLOSSOMS

After he was pilloried (with justification) for portraying African-Americans as simpletons whose only wish is to ravish beautiful Aryan girls in The Birth of A Nation, I imagine D.W. Griffith wanted to prove that he was not a bigot.  Griffith, we should remember, was also a Victorian gentleman, given to sentimentality.  How better to mix both things with Broken Blossoms (or The Yellow Man and The Girl), a film where the Asian is portrayed positively (which even today is a rare event) and is filled with those tender moments that appeal to readers of Dickens?  

We begin in the mysterious East (presumably China), where the Yellow Man* (Richard Barthelmess) embarks on a missionary journey to the West.  He is a gentle soul, one who will bring the teachings of the Buddha to the Barbarian West (as Michael Wood likes to call us).  Soon, however, it is the Barbarian West that teaches the Yellow Man a thing or two, in particular how ugly the Western world and mind can be.  He grows disillusioned with his mission, and now is a simple shopkeep in the Limehouse district of London, where the Asian population has congregated.

Here also lives Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), a professional boxer who is also a brute of a man.  He is ruthless towards his daughter, Lucy (Lillian Gish).  She is a gentle soul who endures so much brutality by her father.  She flees, and crashes upon the Yellow Man's shop.  He has taken her into his heart, and now, moved by her state, takes her in.  He gives Lucy shelter and shows her the first kindness she has ever known, even giving her something she's never had: a doll. 

Battling Burrows hears about how his daughter is with the Chinaman (as he would see him as), and is enraged.  After defeating his latest challenger, he heads to the shop.  The Yellow Man had left to buy flowers for his 'White Blossom', so Burrows is free to drag Lucy back to their house.  The Yellow Man arrives too late, and goes after them, but not without taking a gun.  As befits a good Victorian story, the innocent die (as do the guilty).

At a crisp (no pun intended) 90 minutes, Broken Blossoms flows quickly, perhaps too quickly.  It would have been nice to see the Yellow Man attempt to bring his faith to the Barbarian West and seeing him rejected, to see how his faith was so shaken that he grew disillusioned with the world.  In terms of plot, this is probably the film's only real weakness. 

Griffith had not lost his ability to craft films and draw great performances out of the actors.  There were the now-typical (but then-innovative) flashbacks he used so well.  The best is when the Yellow Man reflects on how the only joy he has in Limehouse is when he is in the opium den (I suppose this might appear to be a cliche with Chinese characters, but we see more signs of the times in Broken Blossoms).  As he reflects on where his life is now, we get a quick (and beautifully shot) scene of the Temple Bells ringing in far-off China.  The psychological connection drawn in a short sequence that ties in emotionally to the character is one of the things that elevates Griffith to being the first cinematic genius and revolutionary filmmaker. 

In terms of performances, Gish is simply beautiful as the much-abused Lucy.  At one point, her father demands that she smile.  The way she forces a little smile on her face will simply break your heart.  Gish is perfect in Broken Blossoms, never overacting, which makes the scenes where she is brutalized and beaten by her father all the more wrenching to see.  Crisp (who would go on to have a long career in sound films, giving lie to the idea that silent film actors had no voices) is also perfect as the brute.  He is always short-tempered, with a menacing face, and how he carries himself physically allows you to believe he is a heartless bully.  Barthelmess brings a weariness yet hopeful performance as the Yellow Man.  Granted, he is not convincing as a Chinese man, but minus that fact Bathelmess is extremely gentle and loving.  At one point, where he comes upon Lucy's hair, you can see how her scent enraptures him.  It's not overblown, but we can still see these great touches in the film.

We can see how Broken Blossoms is reflective of the bigotry of the early Twentieth Century.  The word "chink" is used more than once; even Lucy says in one intertitle, "What makes you so good to me, Chinky?", which may be jarring to our Twenty-First Century eyes (although we can excuse this as Lucy's innocence and ignorance speaking rather than racial animosity on her part).  However, Broken Blossoms, in its way and for its time, is remarkably tolerant, even progressive, in its portrayal of Asians in film.  Unlike other films that portrayed a "Yellow Menace", Broken Blossoms has a sympathetic Asian character.  The Yellow Man is the hero of the film, and its the white character who is the evil one.  The most overt reflection of tolerance is when we learn just how ugly Battling Burrows is.  "Above all, Battling hates those not born in the same great country as himself".  In the silent era, I doubt a more direct attack on xenophobia was ever presented, condemning this narrow view. 

I would argue the flaws in Broken Blossoms are the melodramatic aspects of the story where the characters tend to be one-note (the gentle Chinese, the brutal boxer, the innocent waif), and in the version I saw, the score.  The composer for this version, Al Kryszak, wrote music that felt out of place.  It's one thing not to have a Far East-influenced score (David Lean's A Passage to India had no sitars in the music, although when you have Maurice Jarre you don't need much else), but the use of a guitar was to my mind rather bizarre.  Having Spanish-sounding music for a story about an Asian is a bit like having a mariachi score for a film about Shaka Zulu: it doesn't sound right.  Moreover, there are moments of actual silence during Broken Blossoms, which again doesn't look or sound right.

Broken Blossoms is bathed in sentimentality and has an Anglo as a Chinese character (again, this was the way things were in 1919, so we mustn't be too harsh on that aspect).  However, there are beautiful moments both in terms of acting and imagery that lift Broken Blossoms into a film that still can be enjoyed and can move audiences today.     

DECISION: B-

*Don't get mad at me.  That is how he is billed, though more than likely his character's name would be Cheng Huan, given the name of the Limehouse shop he owns probably bears his name.  If the Chinese tradition of placing the family name first is maintained, then he would be Huan Cheng.  Again, sign of the times. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Boy Flies At Last


PETER PAN (2003)

Now, it has taken a half-century to get a new version of Peter Pan, and this one is historic if only for one thing: it is the first time that a boy has played the part of Peter Pan in a live-action adaptation.  This shouldn't be a shock given that viewers today are probably not as familiar with the tradition of having women play Peter and thus, would reject a film version that had a girl playing a boy as ridiculous.  The film itself is a much darker version of the Peter Pan myth, not just visually but story-wise.  However, there is enough charm and sweetness within Peter Pan that it soars high, enchanting the viewer while adding curiously adult elements in the story.

Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) regales her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) with stories of pirates, and of how Cinderella fights them.  They especially love the tale of Captain Hook and his war against Peter Pan.  Unbeknown to the Darling children, there's been an eavesdropper to these stories: one Peter Pan himself (Jeremy Sumpter).  Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Jason Isaacs and Olivia Williams) have no problem with the tales or with having a dog as a nanny.  In fact, they appear to be a happy family.  However, Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) thinks this is all wrong for them: Wendy should be training to be a woman, and Mr. Darling has to get out of his shell to rise socially.

After Wendy (and Nana) inadvertently humiliate Mr. Darling at the bank he works at as a clerk, he banishes Nana to the garden and decides to hand Wendy over to Aunt Millicent.  Peter is horrified by the idea that Wendy would be made to grow up (and he would lose stories to tell the Lost Boys).  After revealing himself to Wendy (who helps sew his shadow back), he invites her to go with him to Neverland.  His fairy Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier) does not like this idea at all, but Wendy is thrilled to follow Peter.  Wendy gives Peter a kiss (actually, a thimble given she turns shy), but is about to give Peter a thimble (just reverse the previous parenthesis), Tink forces her way in.

Wendy, John, and Michael fly off to Never Land, their parents missing their departure but Mrs. Darling keeping vigil at the open door.  While there, we meet the villainous Captain Hook (Isaacs again), and his first mate, Smee (Richard Briers).  Hook still yearns for revenge against Pan for cutting off his hand and feeding it to the crocodiles.  After Tink attempts to have the Lost Boys shoot Wendy down, Peter dismisses her.  There is a rescue of John and Michael who've been taken by Hook, as has Native American Princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray), who has taken a shine to John. 

Both Peter and Wendy have unspoken feelings for each other, the first stirrings of love, but Peter will have nothing to do with them.  Wendy, realizing she is forgetting her mother, convinces her brothers and the Lost Boys to return.  However, a deceived Tinker Bell reveals Peter's hideout to Hook, who puts poison in his "medicine".  Tink escapes to stop him drinking it, but at a high cost.

The Darling children and the Lost Boys are threatened with death by Hook, and Peter comes to the rescue with a revived Tink.  They battle, Peter is triumphant, and he leads the ship back to London, and the Darling home.  Mr. and Mrs. Darling adopt the Lost Boys, and Aunt Millicent also takes one of the Lost Boys who had gotten lost.   Wendy, now accepting that she MUST grow up, bids a farewell to Peter, who WOULD NOT grow up, but with a hint that he will return...to hear more stories.

Given the source material, it really is difficult to screw up Peter Pan (both the silent and the animated versions of the story are well done).  Director P. J. Hogan (who wrote the screenplay with Michael Goldenberg), likewise stayed close to the J. M. Barrie story, and the few big alterations (such as the addition of Aunt Millicent) didn't detract from the story.  Instead, having Lynn Redgrave in the film adds a delightful comedic touch to where we don't mind the inclusion. 

Peter Pan is curious in that it is both a fantasy film where children can get lost in the marvel of Never Land (the journey from London to Never Land in particular is beautifully rendered), but which also touches on the burgeoning of romantic, even sexual stirrings among the leads.  It isn't overt, but given that both Peter and Wendy look like they are about to enter their teenage years (Sumpter was fourteen, Hurd-Wood thirteen when Peter Pan was made), it isn't beyond the imagination that Peter Pan, in a restrained and non-sensational manner, touches on something that has either been oblique or not addressed: the idea of a romance between Peter and Wendy.

We can see this when Wendy offers a confused, almost frightened Peter a "thimble" (the fact that we see Peter puckering up before Tink literally drags Wendy away suggests Peter had some idea of where the thimble was going).  We also see it in the dialogue.  When Peter sees that Wendy is alive, just stunned, from being shot down, we see that the acorn he had given her in exchange for her "kiss" (thimble), he says, "My kiss saved her", and one of the Lost Boys comments that a kiss is a powerful thing.  The scene where Peter and Wendy are literally dancing on air is shot very romantically, with the music being quite lush as well.  We even see it in how the Lost Boys address them: as Father and Mother. 

The most direct reflection of the the joys and pains of love come at the final battle between Peter and Hook.  Peter can fly by thinking happy thoughts, but we see how Hook can, again, literally, bring him down by pointing to a world where Wendy has forgotten Peter, replaced by something called "husband".  As he is about to be killed, Wendy stops Hook, asking as a last request to give Peter her "thimble".  Obviously, he thinks it's a literal thimble, but WE know better. 

We even get the addressing the theme of how love, even desire (unexplained and confusing as it may be to children) can be a powerful force when Princess Tiger Lily gives John a long kiss full on the lips.  John begins to blush (exaggeratedly, granted), and gets the physical strength to raise the gate and make their escape. 

Again, I'm at pains to explain that there is nothing salacious in how these themes are introduced in Peter Pan, and it may all pass over children's heads.  However, the suggestion that Peter and Wendy are falling in love, or at least understanding that their connection is more than mere friendship, is observable.

"It's only make-believe that you and I are..." Peter tells her in the middle of their dance.  At first, this unfinished statement is open to all sorts of interpretation, but it slowly becomes clear he means that they are father and mother to the Lost Boys, which in itself is loaded with subtle undertones of marriage and all the things that can come with it. 

In Peter Pan, everything works and comes together beautifully.  Sumpter gives a tender performance, one that shifts from the cockiness one expects from Peter Pan to being a fearful boy, fearful of growing up, of what that entails, and of losing Wendy.  From the innocence he expresses when he puts out his hand when Wendy tells him she wants to 'give' Peter a kiss to the sadness he has at the thought of losing her to adulthood shows an extraordinary range.  When he says he DOES believe in fairies, we believe he believes, and even we get caught up in seeing Tinker Bell come back. 

Likewise, the wide-eyed innocence of Hurd-Wood to her fear of being made a woman and her desire to be an action heroine are so well performed.  Seeing her reaction change from sneering at the idea that her father is brave to understanding that in his way, he is brave, is a heartfelt and beautiful performance.

The best performance in Peter Pan, however, is clearly Isaacs'.  People should see this film before they see him as Lucius Malfoy in any of the Harry Potter films.  He has to play two roles: Mr. Darling and Captain Hook.  This sticks close to the theatrical tradition of Pan, but the transformation is so remarkable that the failure to have given Isaacs a Best Supporting Actor nomination surprises me (I think a case of a children's film, moderately successful, played against him).   As Mr. Darling, he is all delightfully bumbling and insecure, terrified of trying to make "small talk".  Once he switches to Captain Hook, we see a frightful, menacing, dangerous arch-enemy.  This Captain Hook is no one's fool or buffoon.  Instead, he is a dangerous person, one who does not shrink from killing anyone who gets in his way.  The film stays mostly in one place (London or Never Land) but on one occasion we jump from Point A to Point B.  Here, we see the full range of Isaacs, and cannot believe that it is the same person.

Even the smaller parts, from Williams' loving portrayal of the wise, gentle, caring mother, to Redgrave's comic moments as the fussy Aunt Millicent, down to Briers' light Mr. Smee, and all the Lost Boys, are a sheer delight, each performance pitch-perfect.  I would be remiss to leave out Sagnier's Tinker Bell: in her expressive face we see the jealousy, the hurt, the anger, the joy, and the regrets the fairy has.  It is pantomime, and may come off as slightly exaggerated, but Tink is suppose to be a highly emotional creature. 

It's as if everyone brought their A-Game to Peter Pan.  The sword fights between Sumpter and Isaacs are so well done we fully accept that Peter can fly (credit not only goes to the actors and the fencing trainers but to the special effects that were never showy but still filled with wonderment).  The art direction, from the Darling home to the various parts of Never Land (ranging from Peter's tree hideout to Captain Hook's ship) are both beautiful to look at and appear so real and naturalistic.  Donald McAlpine's cinematography is also filled with gentle beauty.  The moonlight bathes everything in gentle blue, the final fight scene with a menacing red sunset, and the rescue at the Black Castle appropriately dark. 

The biggest surprise in the music.  Peter Pan has a beautiful score, romantic, comedic, and menacing.  What's so astounding about it is that the composer is James Newton Howard (someone who by and large makes some of the most hideous music around: cases in point--The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Water for Elephants, Defiance, The Village, and the simply horrid The Last Airbender).  I am someone who gives credit where credit is due, and the score to Peter Pan is a beautifully rendered one.  I still think Howard is a lousy composer, but I figure the law of averages dictated that he had to get at least ONE right.

Peter Pan is a delightful film on so many levels.  It can be seen as a simple children's adventure story.  It can be seen as an allegory about the promise and perils of growing up.  It is a film for children, and one for adults; there are enchanting and tender moments in it, moments of comedy, danger, and even romance.  In short, Peter Pan is both whimsical and melancholy, a celebration of the spirit of adventure and a lament for the loss of childhood we all must partake in. 

It is true: both Peter Pan and Peter Pan will never grow up or grow old. 

Oh the cleverness of him.

DECISION: A-

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Going Holmes Again

MORE PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON
SHERLOCK HOLMES

Having seen Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I was inspired to once again visit thoughts on that iconic literary figure. I cannot tell you just how important Sherlock Holmes was to me as a tween;  while all my friends were reading Stephen King, I was devouring Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I played the violin because of him, I attempted to be less emotional because of him (not to successful on either front, though I did earn a medal for my fiddle playing).  Luckily, I never got the cocaine thing (even I had my limits), but for me, Sherlock Holmes was a hero. 

In fact, when I went to London for the very first time, two years ago this month, I cleared so many other sights just to visit 221 B Baker Street, and spent many happy hours, searching for Irene Adler's photograph, or the bust Holmes used as a decoy, marvelling at the consulting room.  All right, I know everything was a front, but I was willing to play along.  I do plan to go back to London (perhaps for the 50th Anniversary of River Song, formerly known as Doctor Who, although the idea of going in November is none too appealing, but I digress), and I do plan to visit the fabled home once again. 

When last I wrote on the subject, there were three actors who were known to be Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Robert Downey, Jr.  Now, they are joined by a fourth: Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, written and produced by Stephen Moffat, who also produces and writes for the longtime science-fiction program River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who). 

1892-1967

For me, Basil Rathbone is the Sherlock Holmes that most people have in mind when they think on the detective.  His interpretation was very good to my mind: Rathbone always played Holmes as being far smarter than everyone else.  He could be curt, more often than not he was (at least in my memory), but he was determined to find the culprit.

There are two reasons, though, why I was never fond of Rathbone.  First, I wasn't too keen on how the Sherlock Holmes films went from Victorian/Edwardian times to present-day (something I was to encounter in the future).  To my mind, this was getting away from the stories and inventing new stories for him, something that came from a particular screenwriter and not from Conan Doyle himself.  They might have been clever, and even good, but they were imitations to me.  No offense, but what the hell was Sherlock Holmes doing fighting Nazis?

Second, I DETEST Nigel Bruce (I understand those who similarly despise his take on the good Doctor Watson refer to him as Boobus Britannicus).  I never understood why Dr. Watson was always portrayed as a bumbling idiot, and this is the common idea about Watson: that he's a moron.  No one would ever be as smart as Holmes, but this idea that Watson was some dim-witted twit is too much for me to ever embrace the Rathbone/Bruce films.

1933-1995

Jeremy Brett will always be THE Sherlock Holmes to me.  All others following his Granada television series are only shadows to Brett.  His interpretation was of a manic, almost unhinged man, dismissive at times, but fully aware of the dangers involved.  I point to the adaptation of The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles and think they would make great theatrical releases.  For me, the former is one of the most thrilling adaptations of a Holmes story.  Even the lengthy flashback to how the story all began never felt forced, but flowed naturally.

Brett's performance as Holmes was all-consuming, and it was also offered a wide range.  For example, in The Devil's Foot, we see him tackle his drug addiction in a way that had not been acknowledged.  We saw a vulnerable, even haunted man, one who finally managed to overcome this terrible vice and even see that his John Watson (David Burke and Edward Hardwicke) was less a stooge and more a friend. 

His attention to detail, his voice, his manners, all to me (and I think to millions) WERE Sherlock Holmes.  Of course, I have always wondered whether the intensity of his portrayal took a mental and physical toll on Brett himself.  I think, in a sense, Holmes killed Brett, the total commitment and passion to which Jeremy Brett threw himself into the role overwhelming his health and perhaps his sanity.

Born 1965

I don't dislike Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes.  I just have never warmed to him as such.  One has to give him credit: for an American to play such a quintessential British character, Downey, Jr. speaks so well one soon forgets he's from California. 

For me, this is a case of a good actor in a bad series.  Both Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are junk.   Director Guy Ritchie sacrifices narrative for action, making Holmes less a cold, logical thinking machine and more an action star, something like a Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.  A lot of people love that, but it doesn't give people the truth about just how clever the plots were, how intricate the stories are.  Instead, we get these stories that don't make any sense, that are hopelessly convoluted, and that bastardize the Conan Doyle canon into a parody of itself.  I know they will make a third one, and I know they'll continue ruining the character (although Downey, Jr. is a good Holmes and Jude Law the best Watson going).

Somehow, if only Ritchie would trust the stories rather than seeing the characters as a jumping-off point for more rock 'em sock 'em action, he'd have great films.  Imagine if he tried to adapt The Hound of the Baskervilles...then again, maybe not. 


Born 1976

Now we have Benedict Cumberbatch as a very 21st Century Sherlock Holmes.  I think Cumberbatch is a great actor.  He's proven it again and again, from Amazing Grace (which I liked) right through to the recent one-two punch of War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  As much as I like Cumberbatch, I have been highly reluctant to touch Sherlock.  A small part of it comes from the fact that I find 'updates' a bit disconcerting.  Oftentimes I find whenever someone "updates" something, they think they are improving on perfection by changing the setting or location or time.  Sometimes updates work (I think 10 Things I Hate About You works as a revamped The Taming of the Shrew) but my experience has been that most of the time it ends up sucking the life out of what made the original so good. 

However, a large part of my hesitation is due to the man in the middle:


That would be Stephen Moffat.   You see the "modern" Sherlock, Mr. Cumberbatch, on his left (where I figure they all are, but I digress).  The man on the right is Matt Smith, who plays a character on the long-time British science-fiction show River Song.  He plays the supporting part of The Doctor, the assistant and future husband of the lead character (that would be River Song).  His role on River Song is to provide comic relief as our intrepid River travels through time and space, taunting everyone with her sensuality and higher intelligence.

Yes, once the show WAS called Doctor Who, and Smith's character WAS the title character, but Moffat has put an end to all that.  Who needs a character that's been on television, in comics, and novels for nearly fifty years when you've got RIVER SONG, the single greatest creation in television history (up yours, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington)!  I know he created the character of River Song, and I know as such he has a fixation on his own Galatea.  However, not all of us Whovians are as besotted with River Song as Moffat is.  To my mind, I find the creative direction he's taken River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who) in have been disastrous.  I know things can't be as they were in the 'classic' Who era, and previous longtime producer John Nathan-Turner did a great deal of damage to the show as well.  However, under the new Who producers Russell T Davies and Moffat, they have 'updated' Doctor Who to where the various episodes turn out to be one long story (and some of them thoroughly awful).  Under Moffat, River has taken on a life of her own to where she eclipses the main character. 

Unlike others, I dont see Moffat as a genius.

Similarly, when I hear that Sherlock is an 'update' to the Conan Doyle stories, I wince.  My mind keeps thinking that like the Ritchie films, Moffat will dilute the stories to where they have the characters of Holmes and Watson, but not the intelligence the Conan Doyle stories have.  It will be a shadow of Holmes, not the real thing, and not something I can embrace.

Of course, these are my FEARS, not my reality.  I have bought the first series/season of Sherlock, and it's waiting for me to watch.  I imagine I'll get around to it, and hope my trepadations are all for naught.  I might even fall in love with Cumberbatch's take on Holmes (though I doubt he will ever make me move from Brett), and John Freeman is a very capable actor (perhaps giving Law a good run for his money).  That, however, is for the future. 

I will always love Holmes, and at times he's been beaten up, abused, even mocked.  For me, the Arthur Conan Doyle stories will be a brilliant escape and an adventure to enjoy...a series of curious incidents.