Monday, July 30, 2012

Licence Renewal

LICENCE TO KILL

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

I had been told that Licence to Kill was not just a terrible James Bond film, but it was just terrible.  It was so terrible that its failure was the reason Timothy Dalton was dumped from the role, thus making him the only Bond actor to have his farewell appearance come right after his debut appearance.   I had seen bits and pieces of Licence to Kill, but until this retrospective had I actually taken the time to sit through it.  Actually, I watched it at least twice if not three times, and after three viewings I really fail to see why its reputation appears to be so horrid.  It's not a great Bond film (I'll get into that a little later), but Licence to Kill isn't the disaster its detractors insist I believe it is.

Bond is a remarkably light mood given that his best friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) is getting married.  Leiter's wedding has, however, a slightly delay: major drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) is achingly close to being captured, so the wedding is temporarily delayed while he and Bond go after Sanchez.  He is caught and Bond gets him to the church on time.

While there is celebration in the Leiter house, Sanchez isn't about to sit idle.  He manages to bribe DEA agent Killifer (Everett McGill) to help in a daring escape.  Sanchez may not have been invited to the wedding, but he'll send some party crashers, among them his henchman Dario (Benicio Del Toro...yes, THAT Benicio Del Toro) to take care of Leiter and Della, the new Mrs. Leiter (Priscilla Barnes) personally. 

Bond learns about the Leiters and rushes back to the house to find Della dead and Leiter barely alive after being fed to the sharks.  Now Bond swears to avenge Leiter and quickly manages to kill of Killifer.  Now, he will go after both Sanchez and his partner, Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), but MI6 doesn't see this as a matter for them.  When told he must forget this or lose his licence to kill, Bond goes rogue.

He quickly gets into Sanchez's good side by a series of fortuitous events.  First, he remembers that Leiter had valuable information hidden which Sanchez's thugs didn't find.  That helps him track down Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), a pilot whose done work for Sanchez.  Second, he brings millions to the corrupt banana republic of Isthmus (which appears vaguely Panamanian), which Sanchez basically runs but is technically ruled by President Hector Lopez (Pedro Armendariz, Jr., whose father played Kerim Bey in From Russia With Love).  Bond at first attempts to kill Sanchez, with the secret help of Q (Desmond Llewellyn) but in a twist the Asian criminals there to meet with Sanchez turn out to be Hong Kong Narcotics agents.  They nearly kill Bond but Sanchez had sent his aide Colonel Heller (Don Stroud) to find who had made the attempt on his life.  In the confusion, Sanchez believed the Asians were the assassins and Bond merely another intended victim.

Sanchez had come up with a brilliant way to not only smuggle drugs but to finance them.  To bring in the cash from various networks across the U.S., he had set up a front operation: a meditation retreat run by Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton...yes, THAT Wayne Newton).  It's here where the lab is.  With the help of Bouvier and Sanchez's mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto), Bond quickly gets in with Sanchez, who could use a man like him.  Bond learns that Sanchez has bought Stinger missiles which he threatens to use against domestic airlines unless the D.A. literally gets off his case. 

Unfortunately for Bond, Dario (having returned from the Stinger purchase) recognizes Bond from a previous encounter.  It all ends in a massive explosion at the fake meditation retreat and with Leiter fully avenged.

I'll say that Licence to Kill did miss quite a few opportunities.  For example, long-time Bond viewers know that his own (and so far only) wedding met the same fate as Leiter's.  However, director John Glen (no, not THAT John Glenn) and co-writers Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maimbaum (who would pen his final Bond film, dying in the interim between Bonds) never capitalized on his conflicted and torn emotions.  I thought Bond's motives were good (to avenge his friend) but oddly that seemed a curious way to get the story going.

How to explain it?  I think it was an interesting choice to have Bond basically do something NOT for Queen and Country but for his own sense of justice.  However, by introducing the Stinger angle they could easily have made this a matter for MI6 to investigate, and THEN given Bond the motivation to avenge his friend after he was almost devoured by a shark.

Side note: this is at least about the FOURTH time sharks have come into things (I recall ThunderballLive & Let Die, and The Spy Who Loved Me had man-eating sharks, and we're not counting when the actual JAWS came in).  Seriously, can't they put him in with a lion or something?

Another point is that there are some things in Licence to Kill that don't make sense.  If Killifer's taking of the bribe is a spur of the moment matter, how is it that scuba men are ready to pick Sanchez up at that precisely location?  Bond's escape from Killifer at the warehouse comes by the clumsiest if not silliest of manners.

The thing in Licence to Kill that really hampers it is in how Bond is endlessly and idiotically dismissing help from anyone.  Again and again he tells Lupe, he tells, Pam, he even tells Q endless variations of "Thanks, I'll take it from here."  This has two effects: 1.) it makes Bond a jerk by constantly pushing people who could help him out of the way, and 2.) it forces Pam Bouvier into being a bad Bond Girl.

This I don't think is Lowell's fault.  I think if her character had been given a chance she could have been a valuable aide to Bond (I don't want to use the phrase 'sidekick', but it comes close), but it is in the script's insistence of in some cases Bond literally pushing Pam away that basically gives her nothing to do.  Paradoxically, what could have come off as a brilliant idea from Bond AND Pam using her feminine wiles on Professor Butcher to get entry into the meditation retreat ends up making it look like it was all her idea (which it either was or something she and Q came up with).

However, because she wasn't an active part of the story, Pam Bouvier was a wasted opportunity and thus relegated to Worst Bond Girl lists.  I don't think she gave a lousy performance, but I don't think she is particularly memorable. 

It might be because Licence to Kill was taken in this rather serious and straight direction.  We weren't going to have the flashy locales or provocatively-named Bond Girls (what pun can you come up with Bouvier?) but we were going to reflect reality.  Licence to Kill's story is cashing in on then-current events.  You have a vaguely Paul Escobar-type with drug lord Franz Sanchez and a Noriega-esque puppet ruler of "Isthmus" (which, would you believe, Panama is), and while I congratulate them for making the decision to be more realistic, they might have made a mistake in stripping almost all the Bond trappings.

This, I suspect, is why the film is so disliked by many (though not by me or my friend who watched all the Bond films before me, one Fidel Gomez, Jr. {who may or may not be dead}).  Licence to Kill could have had anyone in the role of the avenging agent.  In short, this is a James Bond film that didn't strictly speaking need James Bond in it.  A generic Character X could have taken this exact story and made a film out of it.  By making Bond the Avenging Angel rather than the secret agent, Licence to Kill took a lot of Bond out of a Bond film. 

Still, I refuse to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Davi had the right blend of villainy and charm, and I daresay almost innocence in how quickly he came to trust Bond, as Sanchez.  Granted, as a Hispanic I detest the idea of the drug lord cliched antagonist (or that an Italian is playing a Latin American character), but Sanchez made his case to being, if not among the best Bond villains, at least a strong adversary. 

In fact, Sanchez as a character was so cold-blooded and ruthless that he really didn't even need a henchman.  Like Max Zorin, Sanchez is another Bond villain who enjoyed the kill personally, but unlike Zorin, his henchman (or men) are irrelevant.  Del Toro had a strong screen presence as the semi-psychotic Dario but he wasn't integral to the plot, and neither was Col. Heller.  In fact, Sanchez's accountant Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke) probably had more screen time and was more integral to the plot than either Dario or Heller. 

Now, this brings me to Wayne Newton.  I opted to skip a Newton show when I went to Las Vegas, but as odd as his appearance in Licence to Kill is (or at times how his role appears to waver between being part of the plot or the film's nod to camp), I didn't think it was disastrous.  This might be why the film was poorly received by the public: Wayne Newton is seen more as kitsch than a serious musician.  For my part, I thought it was a clever and amusing business to have a semi-televangelist be the front man for a drug smuggling operation, but the story never decided whether he was a pawn or a part of the machinations.  Certainly having him say, "Bless your heart" when Pam snatches a bag of money from right under him doesn't shed any light on the matter.

On the whole, I think Licence to Kill could have done better by strengthening Professor Butcher's raison d'etre in the story, and it might have made Newton be seen in a different light. 

I don't think I've mentioned Dalton's performance yet, so I will.  His Bond was a grittier, angrier Bond, but at least he looked like he took pleasure in living.  Long before the sour, grumpy, morose Daniel Craig came along, Dalton was exploring the darker side of James Bond.  Dalton's performance was excellent: expressing sadness and anger when it came to the Leiters, intelligence in his schemes to trap Sanchez.  At times though, he came across as TOO angry, a bit short-tempered.  Even worse is how Dalton doth protest too much in always trying to get rid of everyone.  It did make him look dismissive, even condescending, towards everyone.  Still, he played the part as given, and the fact that Licence to Kill wasn't like by the general public is not Timothy Dalton's fault.

Curiously, when I think of Dalton as Bond, I'm reminded of another long-time British institution: the long-running science-fiction show River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who).  Dalton was blamed for the failure of Licence to Kill (financially and critically) in the same way Sixth Doctor Colin Baker was blamed for Doctor Who being critically drubbed and falling in ratings.  Just like Baker, Dalton was a good actor given a near-impossible situation: restore a franchise when your hands were being tied.  The difference is that Baker was essentially fired for doing the best he could under difficult circumstances, while Dalton simply couldn't wait around, but both had or have or continue to be blamed for things out of their control.

Ironically enough, Dalton would later end up on Doctor Who, and not just as a mere guest star, but as one of the most important characters in the Who mythos: Rassillon, head of all Time Lords.  OK: that's the nerd in me, but I find that curious. 

Going on in the Bond/Who connection, Licence to Kill and The Living Daylights brings to mind the transition between Fourth Doctor Tom Baker (no relation) and Fifth Doctor Peter Davison.  Longtime Who producer John Nathan-Turner felt that the last Baker stories were getting too jokey and silly, in particular with Baker's quips.  When Davison came aboard, JNT decided to strip all jokes from his early stories.  Similarly, the last few Roger Moore-era Bond films were similarly criticized for being too outlandish, so when Dalton came aboard, the decision was made to take things more seriously.  I think, like with early Davison-era Who, the Bond team may have gone a bit overboard (no pun intended) with making Bond too serious, but Dalton can't be blamed for doing what was asked of him.

MAJOR digression ended.

Moving on to some other aspects of Licence to Kill, I have listened to the title theme (at five minutes, fifteen seconds the longest Bond theme as of today) several times and I have never felt it was particularly good.  I don't think musically it's terrible, but the lyrics don't make sense


I got a licence to kill/and you know I'm going straight for your heart


What EXACTLY does that mean?  Then later on in the bridge


Say that somebody tries to make a move on you/In the blink of an eye, I'll be there too/And they better know why/I'm going to make them pay/till their dying day...


Does that mean if someone makes a pass at him, she's going to pursue them until she either kills them or they drop dead? 

Nothing against Gladys Knight, but I think she oversold the song, made it a little bombastic and that Licence to Kill is a bit overwrought in its delivery.   Truth be told, I thought the closing song If You Asked Me To by Patti LaBelle was a better song, more romantic and more importantly softer in how it was sung.   If you don't believe me, which one do YOU remember?

Certainly not the worst Bond theme song, but not in the top ranks either.

One thing I will fault Licence to Kill especially hard is in Michael Kamen's score.  Those damn guitars whenever the swarthy Sanchez came along...I can't express how ridiculous, almost cliched that was.  It's as if he was going slightly going overboard with the 'ethnic touches' in the music.

Finally, one last criticism of Licence to Kill.  I can get over how Lupe refers to a group as "Orientals", but I didn't understand why a group of CHINESE/HONG KONG criminals would be greeted in JAPANESE.  They are from Hong Kong, they have names such as Tan and Kwang, but when Truman-Lodge greets them, it's with "konbanwa", which is "good evening" in Japanese.  The closest analogy I could find would be if there were a scene with a group of Mexican drug lords and they were greeted in Portuguese. 

In the final analysis, Licence to Kill is not a bad film by any stretch.  HOWEVER, it might be considered a bad BOND film because the character was almost irrelevant to the story.  It could have been any action star and not strictly Timothy Dalton as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007.  Still, as it stands I don't understand why Licence to Kill is so hated.  I can think of worse Bond films and they get carte blanche among viewers.  I don't think this licence should be revoked at all.

Next Bond Film: GoldenEye

DECISION: B

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Deadly Pearce

LOCKOUT

If Lockout had even tried, it could have been good, goofy fun.  Instead, as one watches this hour-and-a-half film, Lockout goes from bad to inept to disaster to inexcusable with every blink of the eye.  It's almost as if directors (yes, there are TWO directors) James Mather and Stephen St. Leger (who also co-wrote the film with Luc Besson from his original idea) were aiming to make one of the worst films of the year and despite themselves actually EXCEEDED their expectations.  Lockout manages to bungle just about everything, embarrassing everyone involved and making us wonder why this film was ever let out of the keyboard.

Snow (Pearce) is suspected of murder of an undercover agent from whom he took a briefcase.  In amazingly short order our smart-aleck antihero is convicted and sentenced to 30 years statis (basically be frozen) up at M.S. One, a prison for the most ruthless and dangerous criminals up in a satellite. 

Up in M.S. One, we have Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) the First Daughter, there to investigate conditions.  She suspects that prisoners are being used as experiments for deep-space travel (I figure to see how they will survive being up there for long periods of time).  Needless to say, there is a massive breakout while she's there.  The prison may have 500 or more prisoners, but we soon focus on two prisoners (Vincent Regan and Joseph Gilgun).  The former is on the whole smart and tough, the latter is the crazy sidekick (they are connected, and while I am pained to reveal the actual connection, here's a hint: listen to their accents and wonder why they are similar).

Being the First Daughter has its privileges, primarily the need to have a rescue.  Take a guess as to who is asked to rescue Emilie?  Snow (were you shocked) at first refuses, but on learning that his partner in crime Mace (Tim Plester) is there, he decides to go because Mace is the only one who knows where the mysterious briefcase is.

In short order, Snow finds Emilie, they instantly dislike each other but need to work together, Mace is found (and found to have become virtually unintelligible), Emilie has a chance to escape (which of course she doesn't take), the criminals are defeated and we find that there is some kind of connection with the briefcase.

I don't think Lockout had an actual script.  Instead, I think Lockout had an outline and the actors really were, to slightly misquote Sunset Boulevard, making it up as they went along.  I can't believe that anyone could have rescued the film from being dreadful.

The problem with the script, therefore, is that it's a mess.  Things go by so quickly we do begin to wonder if major chunks of the story were cut to make it shorter.  I don't expect there to be a massive amount of exposition, but it would be nice to know exactly who these people (apart from Snow and Emilie) are, let alone what's really going on.

Take for example the opening.  We jump straight into a chase.  Apart from knowing that it's Snow that being pursued, we really don't know anything about what's going on.  Why is he being chased?  Why is he being so targeted?  Why does everyone assume he is guilty?  Who is Mace and why is he helping Snow (he is just a voice on the phone)?  How does Mace know what's going on (does he have some surveillance activity that we are not privy to)? 

There is really far too much going on in the first few minutes to try to figure everything out.  By the time he's caught and we see the bad cop/good cop routine (and wonder how Snow could be so stupid as to be taken in by the good cop), we jump into the First Daughter in Space story.  We know that the briefcase hunt will eventually have some role in the film (what or how exactly we can't find a logical reason for but there it is) but that all has to go by the wayside because we need to get to the action part.  By the time we get back to the briefcase business, it seems to come from another movie altogether.

As I kept watching Lockout with some degree of sadness that a good opportunity was being wasted I started wondering about the two villains.  I figure they gave their names at SOME point in the film but damned if I remember ever hearing them.  I just kept wondering why it felt like, given their accents, someone had abducted Gerard Butler's brother and cousin and forced them to appear in a movie.

Really, Lockout asks us to swallow a lot of nonsense.  Take for example when Snow and Emilie finally reach the escape pod.  When he walked away from it, turning his back on it BEFORE IT LAUNCHED I already knew the damn thing was going to be empty.  Please, at least a little creativity.

Guy Pearce in Lockout has a what I've dubbed the Bartha role.  For the uninitiated, a Bartha role is a part in a bad movie (and more than likely knows its a bad movie) for at least the money (in Justin Bartha's case, the money AND an all-expenses paid vacation to Thailand).  Pearce I think figured Lockout was absolute junk and decided not to take it seriously. 

This isn't to say he was terrible or that he didn't work hard.  In fact, he looked like he put in a lot of time at the gym and delivered the quick quips at a steady pace.  He knew what he was doing.  It's highly unlikely anyone else knew what they were doing.  In short, Pearce played the part of the wisecracking tough guy with the ready comeback as well as anyone with such lousy material could.

I will digress slightly to say that Plester's role of Mace (especially when he goes bonkers and becomes incoherent) reminded me so much of Justin Bartha's role of Brian (the kidnapped mentally handicapped brother) in Gigli.  It was in his mannerisms primarily, but I flashed back to Gigli when seeing Mace.

Now, there are things in Lockout that don't appear to make any sense.  WHY is Main Villain Number One automatically the leader of this breakout?  Why doesn't he form a real army (for all indications point out that while he has a small court, the majority of the escapees are just standing around, waiting perhaps for an apology from their agents)?  Again, the mass population comes and goes whenever the story needs them, since for the most part only Villains Numbers One and Two appear to be of any actual importance. 

The lowest point might be when Snow and Emilie do actually escape from M.S. One.  I'm really suppose to believe they jumped out of the floating satellite and fell from outer space, past the Earth's ozone layers and fall almost gently onto land almost as if jumping from an airplane? 

Please, a little credibility.

Lockout again could have been fun if it had decided to put just a little bit of intelligence or coherence in it.  You know where everything is going, you know how it's going to turn out.  If it doesn't ask anything from me, why would I give it anything in return?


DECISION: F  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Reviewer, Who Grew Irritated

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME

I cannot vouch for the genius of the Duplass Brothers, who are starting to make a name for themselves in the indie film scene are starting to segway into the mainstream.  However, judging by Jeff, Who Lives At Home, I will go out on a limb and say that the Duplasses (Duplassi?) will be an acquired taste.

Jeff (Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old slacker/pothead who lives in his mother Sharon's (Susan Sarandon) basement.  He has no job and no real prospects, but he does have one thing: a firm belief that all things are connected.  Jeff is a firm believer in signs as well as the movie Signs (which I alas, have not seen).  He receives on this ordinary day two phone calls: one from his mother giving him a very simple assignment (go buy some glue to fix something) and two, a seemingly random call for someone asking for a 'Kevin'. 

Jeff is convinced that this is not a mere wrong number.  Instead, it is a sign that he must find this Kevin and gather whatever wisdom he is meant to or accomplish whatever mission the Force has given him.  Thus he begins to travel through Baton Rouge, Louisiana to find the mysterious 'Kevin'.

Meanwhile, Jeff's older brother Pat (Ed Helms) is having problems of his own.  His wife Linda (Judy Greer) and he are having difficulties of all sorts, primarily financial.  Despite having no home and no children (and living in a dump), Pat is genuinely puzzled why Linda is upset about him buying a Porsche without so much as consulting with her, let alone telling her until after the fact.

Women.

Jeff at first thinks he's found his Kevin (Evan Ross) on a bus.  This nice young black man and he appear to have a good time, playing basketball (as all young black men apparently do) but Kevin really helps someone else mug Jeff (as all young black men apparently do).  As Jeff wanders around, slightly dazed by his encounter with the hood, he wanders past a Hooters where Pat sees him.

This is fortuitous since Sharon called Pat to get Jeff to buy what he was asked to.  Pat isn't too thrilled with having to be near his slacker/pothead/mystic brother, but he does as he's told.  Pat, convinced that the Porsche gives him some form of super-driving power, ends up crashing it.  Near the crash, Jeff spots his sister-in-law in a car with another man.  Now the chase commences.

Sharon, meanwhile, keeps getting strange messages from a secret admirer.

Pat becomes more obsessed with finding out who this guy is and what his intentions are, while Jeff (who reluctantly comes along to help), keeps finding signs to continue his Kevin hunt, this time in the form of a truck for "Kevin's Kandies". 

Curiosly enough (or is it?) said truck leads Jeff to where Pat is: a motel.  The brothers find Linda with this mystery man (although there is nothing sexual going on).  Linda, having finally reached  her breaking point, tells Pat she wants a divorce and is leaving him.

Sharon eventually finds out who her secret admirer is (suffice it to say it involves her considering the alternatives, so to speak).  A fortuitous fire alarm allows our Thelma & Louise to go to N'awleans for some good times. 

Jeff convinces Pat to fight for his wife, which means going after her...one guess where she's headed.  There is a major roadblock towards the Big Easy, but all our characters meet and we find that Pat and Jeff do love each other, and that the man Jeff rescued from a sinking car is...

Well, you'd have to be pretty stupid to not know.

This is what I can say with certainty about Jeff, Who Lives at Home: the only real fun I had while watching this remarkably predictable and somewhat insulting movie was in how I kept my notes. 
For example, I started out with "Jeff, who loves Signs."  Then it was, "Pat, who is irresponsible," "Duplass, who like to move camera a lot," "Jeff, who's obsessed with Kevin," and so on.   It was almost becoming a game as to how long I could keep up that style of note-taking, and I managed to do it until the very end with a combo: "Me, who won't be happy if Dad was Kevin" and "Me, who was right".

Jay and Mark Duplass (who co-wrote and co-directed JWLAH), I figure amused themselves thinking that either they were being clever in how they structured their story or in how people wouldn't notice how shockingly predictable it all was (WHO here didn't think there really would be a Kevin in all this?).  I think this is where we have a big problem with JWLAH.

In any film, the characters should have some sort of evolution to their personality or have undergone some change.  In Casablanca, Rick abandons his cynicism to embrace loves of woman and cause.  In Citizen Kane, we see Charles Foster Kane grow from idealist to reactionary, from bon vivant to bitter recluse. The King's Speech featured a frightened man rising above his fears to lead his nation in an epic struggle for its very survival.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home, conversely, doesn't have a real change in our title character.  Instead, he is there to impart his wisdom to his brother (a non-believer).  The fact the film ends with him actually repairing what he was asked to repair I suppose hints that, now that his views have been validated, he will finally take on some responsibility, but a case could be made that it will have the opposite effect. 



The Duplasses create a story that, if not for the mystical connection, would be laughed off the screen as far-fetched to where it's almost insulting.  Too many coincidences and things happening at just the right time...it's a tired and predictable device to get away with moving a story the way one wants it to.

I didn't buy any of it.

Sadly for Segel, this is the second 2012 film of his that I've hated, and that's a shame because I think Segel has a good career ahead of him.  He did a good job as Jeff to where he is almost believable as a man who senses things are interconnected.  If it weren't for the fact that Jeff is remarkably annoying...

Pat is a smug, self-righteous character who has a solid belief in his own superiority both morally and intellectually despite all proof to the contrary (kind of the way liberals see Sarah Palin).  In short, it's an Ed Helms-type, so who better to play an Ed Helms-type than Ed Helms?  Pat is remarkably selfish and clueless about the type of person he is and because of that one really doesn't want him succeeding (in particular in saving a marriage to a genuinely nice and intelligent girl like Linda).  Still, while Greer was the only real bright spot in JWLAH, I did wonder why she simply could not explain to her boorish brain-dead husband why buying a Porsche without her consent or consultation was a really bad idea. 

Sarandon's subplot appeared as if it came from another movie altogether, and just there to pad the relatively short 82-minute running time. 

If nothing else, the Duplasses obsession with short and quick zooms in and out with the camera went beyond annoying to distracting.  I wondered if they were still learning how to operate the camera.  Was that done to make the story more cutesy and whimsical I wonder?  Didn't work if it did.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home is a movie that appears to have been made by artsy film students working on their school project.   It's pretty predictable and rote with not much to recommend it. 

I hope no one is at home.

DECISION: D-

Friday, July 27, 2012

Yes, I'm Watching the Detectives

How soon they forget...
The American education system has a lot to answer for.  We have corrupt superintendents who, not satisfied with having their car, gas, home, and cell phone paid by the school district (i.e. taxpayers), they decide to funnel a little business to their mistress (and reap the rewards).  To top that off, said ex-superintendent (who got paid more than the teachers in the district and certainly much more more than I both now and when I endured substitute teaching), padded his extensive salary with bonuses earned by falsifying student records that showed kids were advancing in their education when in reality they were being moved up just to get them out of the way.

As a result of his greed (along with un-indicted co-conspirators), we have a large group of kids who, through no fault of their own, are being sent out into the world without the basic skills to advance their place in life.  They've been virtually condemned to a life of failure due to other people's inability to really 'think of the children'.  Hopefully, they can rise above the soft bigotry of lowered expectations, but we may never know just how much potential was lost.

Now, if that really weren't enough, my big beef with American education sans corruption is exactly in how we fail to teach actual thinking.  This rote memorization has been on the whole disastrous for Americans, which goes to explain why so many Americans are shockingly ignorant in so many fields.  Put aside for the moment that many Americans think we fought with Germany in World War II or aren't aware of where Vietnam is (or a pet peeve of mine, know how to pronounce 'Iraq', almost always pronouncing it as I-Rack rather than E-rock or E-rack---perhaps they are thinking of iPods), Americans can't seem to be able to appreciate the reasons why something is good or bad, let alone cause and effect.

As a result, people are genuinely puzzled as to why exactly Citizen Kane is so important or good (or why anyone would want to watch any black-and-white film) or what exactly led us into the Vietnam conflict (it can't technically be called a war since Congress never declared war on Vietnam). 

Americans also appear genuinely frightened of things like literature or the arts.  While people devour the Fifty Shades Trilogy, they will flee from my beloved Hamlet.  Nothing against Pitbull (I love his stuff, even if he is on the whole a lousy rapper), but Calle Ocho (I Know You Want Me) won't endure the way Hey Jude will, let alone something like On BroadwayThe Theme from 'Shaft'Heartbreak Hotel, Night Time Is The Right Time, Summertime, Puttin' On the RitzStrange Fruit or Simple Gifts among others.

Here is where I blame the education system.  People are taught to treat Shakespeare or Dickens or Debussy (all of whom I love) as these sacred things to be handled with kid gloves, something to suffer through instead of things to be enjoyed.  The newest thing, the most recent version of something, is considered better by many people merely because it is newer.        


Now, what exactly does that diatribe have to do with Sherlock Holmes?  It's very simple: Benedict Cumberbatch, star of Sherlock, the 'update' of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was voted by my readers (or ten of you) as the best Sherlock Holmes.  I did take it for granted that Jeremy Brett, who starred in the Granada Television adaptations of the Conan Doyle stories, would run away with it.  He ended up, to my shock and I daresay horror, barely tying with Basil Rathbone, the film version of Holmes.     

Here's my problem: I'm rather spoiled.  Once I got a gander at Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, I find that all actors who play the iconic detective thereafter will pale next to him.  I grew up watching Brett, and I figure this colored my view of who was the best Sherlock, in the same way people now connect Cumberbatch with Holmes to where anyone that came before or comes later will not compare.

However, Brett played the Holmes from the original stories, while Cumberbatch plays a version of Holmes that isn't the Victorian/Edwardian detective, but one from the Second Elizabethan Age.  I always feel that Cumberbatch plays a character named Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn't play Sherlock Holmes himself.    


Here is where I get my dilemma, and where I must work to reconcile my ideas to reality.  When I finally watch Sherlock Series/Seasons One & Two I must remove the idea that I'm watching THE Conan Doyle stories.  Rather, I'm watching a variation on the Conan Doyle stories.  The first one in Series/Season One, A Study In Pink, is BASED ON on A Study In Scarlet (though why the title was changed is a puzzle to me).  I won't actually be watching A Study In Scarlet

Instead, what I expect to see is a story that takes the characters from A Study In Scarlet, the general plot of A Study In Scarlet, but which spins its own ideas from those of its writers and producers (in this case, writer/producer Steven Moffat, who also writes and produces the science-fiction show River Song, formerly known as Doctor Who).  It is not an adaptation of the story (I doubt Mormons will figure in A Study In Pink), but a re-imagining created for those who probably never read the actual Conan Doyle stories (or really care to).

In short, it might be good, and I might like it, but always, ALWAYS, in the back of my mind, my suspicions and fears about tinkering with the source material alarms me. 

That is why I enter Sherlock with the greatest fear and trepidation.  I almost feel bullied into watching it.  I certainly feel great pressure to acknowledge Sherlock as the definitive adaptation of the Conan Doyle stories, and suspect many will see me as a blasphemer or an idiot if I refuse to say that Cumberbatch is the Citizen Kane of Sherlock Holmes actors, that Benny and ONLY Benny existed, exists, and/or will exist to interpret the character and that no version prior or future will ever equal Cumberbatch's 'genius'.   

I still feel I am not ready to watch any of Sherlock, but think delaying it will only be putting off the inevitable.  As with anything, I go into it with as open a mind as I can give it.  I may genuinely be surprised and find that I love Sherlock and Cumberbatch's interpretation of the character (I may even forget that Moffat has all but destroyed Doctor Who to where the title character is a supporting player to the revolting River Song, which Series/Season Six all but revolved around). 

I am a Holmesian.  I love Sherlock Holmes.  I spent many happy hours at 221 B Baker Street when I went to London two years ago.  To ignore Sherlock is madness.  I must push on.

With that, with some worry, I for better or worse am now going to watch Sherlock Series/Season One, beginning with A Study In Pink.   I hope that by the end of it, I won't have to spell "rache" on someone's wall...Stevie...  


Really? They think I'm better than Brett?!?
ARE THEY NUTS?!?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What Show Is This?


The Primetime Emmy Awards were announced, and as I looked at the list, I had but one thought:

What's that?

It isn't to say that the various dramas & comedies aren't worthy of nominations.  It's just that I have never seen almost all of them. 

I would say it has to do more with me.  I realize that I just don't watch that much television.  Even the shows I do watch (Teen Wolf, Franklin & Bash, Doctor Who) I tend to watch when they start filling up my DVR.  Almost all of those recordings are from Turner Classic Movies, so that should give you some indication of my viewing habits. 

Of course, there is another issue: cable/satellite.  I find that a good number of the nominated shows are non-network programs, and I don't mean just regular cable/satellite.  I mean PREMIUM channels.

Let's look at the six Best Comedy nominees (yes, I know they call it Outstanding, but I'm not going to get hung up on trivialities).

The Big Bang Theory
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Girls
Modern Family
30 Rock
Veep

Of those three, the highlighted ones are on HBO.  Now, if you don't pay for HBO (like me), you will simply have very little to no idea what these shows are about or why they are "Outstanding".  Truth be told, I wasn't even aware Curb Your Enthusiasm was even STILL ON.  Despite all the praise it has received, 30 Rock is not a popular show (it has remarkably low ratings for such an esteemed program).  Out of all of those, only The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family are both wildly popular and highly respected (in the case of the latter, both President Obama and Governor Romney say they are fans, thus Modern Family can bring America together). 

Speculating on this category, Girls gives me the impression that it thinks highly of its own wit (but any show that mocks Millennials' sense of entitlement would work for me) and Veep appears to be nothing more than HBO taking yet another swipe at Governor Sarah Palin.

Before I continue, I really won't make predictions on the whole.  On one or two categories perhaps, but I cannot make a fair assessment when I don't know the product.

Moving on to the Drama category...

Boardwalk Empire
Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
Mad Men

Again, the bold are HBO programs, while the indented ones are AMC (what was once called American Movie Classics.  I understand they do show movies every so often on AMC, if only to keep the name).   I think I can give a good analogy between AMC and TCM while making a connection to the only network nominee: TCM is the Lady Mary Crawley of film-based networks, while AMC used to be the Edith Crawley of film channels. 

Even if I loved Breaking Bad or Mad Men (again, haven't seen them but the possibility open via DVDs), at the moment I couldn't see them even if I wanted to.  The dispute between AMC and DISH prevents such programs to be watched by many people. Of the nominees, the only one I've seen is Downton Abbey

I do like Downton Abbey (although this season/series I thought it took some bizarre leaps), but what I find curious is that last year Downton Abbey won Best MINISERIES. 

It is now a full series, and while I have enough difficulty wrapping my head around that, the miniseries categories are to me completely mind-boggling.



In the Best Miniseries or Television Movie category (which really should be split into two separate categories), we have

American Horror Story
Game Change
Hatfields & McCoys
Hemingway and Gellhorn
Luther
Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

Note that of the six nominees, only TWO (Game Change and Hemingway and Gellhorn, both HBO) would count as television movies.  Of the others, only Hatfields & McCoys would fit into the traditional definition of a miniseries (a short-run television program). 

My beef with the nominees is that, as far as I understood, American Horror Story, Luther, and Sherlock are NOT miniseries but full-on television series running on a continuing basis.  A miniseries once meant that: a short-run television series like Eleanor & Franklin, The Jewel In the Crown, A Woman Named Jackie, Upstairs, Downstairs, John AdamsRoots or I, Claudius (the last two being neck-and-neck in being the Citizen Kane of television miniseries).  There was no Season Two to I, Claudius and Roots: The Next Generations was a sequel to Roots but not a hoped-for twelve to twenty-four television series.

Now, in this category of 'miniseries', we have not one but TWO television programs that are going on to their THIRD year (Luther and Sherlock), and another that will be going on to a second season (American Horror Story).  How is it possible that a program with various episodes such as Sherlock (which had three episodes in what its creators say is Series Two: A Scandal in Belgravia, The Hounds of Baskerville, and The Reichenbach Fall) could possibly be considered a "miniseries"? 

Yes, I understand that Stephen Moffat created Sherlock Holmes completely out of his own imagination, it is completely his creation and his creation alone, all the Sherlock Holmes stories emerged from his mind and his mind alone, just like he created the science-fiction program River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who), but it strikes me as disingenuous to call one episode of the second series of a television program a "miniseries."

Luther, Sherlock, and American Horror Story should not be considered miniseries but full-fledged regular dramas.  They were submitted in these categories because they were almost certainly not going to get nominated for Best Drama.  I remember when Rumpole of the Bailey was switched from Miniseries to Drama because it had too many episodes or ran too long (with The Bourne Identity replacing it).  Now, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has decided that a program in its second year with multiple episodes is a miniseries.

Damn nonsense.

This isn't to say that I'm not happy that Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman received nominations for playing Holmes and Watson respectively (although I haven't seen Sherlock and can't bring myself to watch it yet for various reasons).  Still, the acting nominees are even more perplexing.

Take Ashley Judd for example.  She received a Best Actress in a Miniseries nomination for Missing.  I think Judd is a good (but not great) actress, but Missing was never a miniseries.  Missing was a series, a complete season-long series..and a cancelled one at that.   How is it conceivable that Missing could be called a miniseries when it was never intended to be a miniseries in the first place?  I think Missing would have worked great as an actual miniseries, but it is and was never a miniseries no matter how generous the term. 

I could argue the same with Cumberbatch and Freeman.  They've had two years to perform their characters, so they are up against people like Clive Owen, who performed as Ernest Hemingway once.  Is this something close to cheating?

Finally, I want to touch on Game Change.  This is the only HBO program waiting for me on my DVR, recorded when I had a free preview weekend.  As with Veep, I can't shake the feeling that Game Change is one last jab at Governor Palin.  Just as Veep is about a rather stupid female Vice-President (scenario sound familiar?), Game Change focuses on one aspect of the extensive tome: that of Sarah Palin's effect on the 2008 presidential campaign.

Digression: yes, the people behind Veep may insist it's not based or inspired on Palin, but you can't blame the casual viewer from thinking this duck doth quack too much. 

Game Change might be remarkably balanced (not having seen it yet, I cannot say one way or another).  However, given that Tom Hanks (cheerleader for then-Senator, now President Obama) produced it, and the film's stars Julianne Moore (Sarah Palin), Ed Harris (John McCain) and Woody Harrelson (Ed Schmidt) are all passionately liberal, the creative forces behind Game Change are foolish if they didn't think they'd give their enemies a weapon to use against them.

Still, on the whole I see that I really don't watch much television today, but that isn't to say I don't appreciate Emmy-winning programs.  In fact, I do watch one Best Comedy Series on a regular basis...

      

Friday, July 20, 2012

Theater Nine: In Memoriam



This morning I awoke and turned on National Public Radio's Morning Edition as I always do when I learned about the shooting at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.  As of this writing, there are 12 confirmed dead, 59 wounded, among them children.

I am beyond heartbroken at this real-life horror.  Shock and disbelief are mixed with sadness and a sense of agony over what those directly affected must be enduring and endured during the crisis.

Reading, watching, and listening to the chaos and death at the screening, thinking of all the terror the audience must have experienced, picturing teens lying dead and dying while others are fearing and fleeing for their lives when all they wanted was to experience an eagerly-anticipated feature film...it takes all of me to just not break down in tears.

It is too soon to attempt to write any Personal Reflections on this tragedy.  If I do touch on this, it will be during my annual Year-End retrospective on events I did not write about at the time.

The focus should and must be with those killed and injured in Theater Nine.  All I can or wish to say at this moment is that my heart and all my prayers go out to all the victims and their families at this immensely difficult time.    

IN MEMORIAM  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Oh, Grow Up!


I am here to stand up for my fellow film critics.  As of today, I have yet to see The Dark Knight Rises, so I am in no position to state whether or not it is a good or bad film.  When I see it, I will give my own take on the film.  One thing people can count on me on is that I calls it as I sees it.  I don't care about bucking the trend or following it.  I have no interest in mirroring breathless adulation if I don't find anything to adore about a film.  If I gush over something, it comes from the heart, the mind, and even the soul of me.  If I love The Dark Knight Rises, I'll say so.  If I hate it, I'll say so.  I don't mince words.

Reviews for The Dark Knight Rises are coming in and for the most part they are quite positive, with a few exceptions. 

It is the exceptions that bring me here tonight.  Rotten Tomatoes for the first time ever has blocked comments on reviews of a film (The Dark Knight Rises) because among other things, the critics who dared to give it a "rotten" rating, who didn't declare it the Citizen Kane of all cinema or call TDKR singularly the greatest experience possible for mortal man, akin to being in the presence of Christ Jesus, got bashed.

Getting criticized for critizing a movie is nothing new.  I have been attacked for my Personal Reflections on The Hunger Games, and have had my head metaphorically chewed out because I think the Doctor Who character River Song is the worst thing ever created for that show (with the possible exception of Love & Monsters).  I have a right to speak my mind, and because you don't agree with it, it doesn't make you a bad person.  However, it doesn't make me a bad person if I don't see things your way (whether it's on film or on my refusal, for example, to support the Occupy Movement).

Granted, if one wants to debate a film or series or character with me I expect more of a reply than "you're wrong," or "you suck" because we don't see eye to eye.  One would hope the dissenting voice would make their case by saying, "The performances were subtle, the story held together well, the costumes were nice", what have you.  However, too often people mistake their passion about something for intelligent discourse over something.

I imagine having people tell me (or my fellow critics), "you suck" or a variation thereof is par for the course when it comes to film reviewing (note: I think of myself as a film reviewer, not film critic, because I don't go into things to dislike them and I would say all my fellow critics feel likewise).

Now, however, things have gone too far.  People now are leaving death threats, DEATH THREATS, mind you, simply because one didn't like a movie. 


This is Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.  He looks like a nice, affable person, and to his credit he did his best to save At The Movies when it was all but unsalvageable.  He didn't think too highly of The Dark Knight Rises.  Are we, rational people that we claim to be, really suppose to think he deserves to have a fatwa against him because the film didn't please him?

There have been many times when I haven't agreed with him, or Richard Roeper (whom I like to think of as my nemesis, although it's probably one-sided), or the Dean of Film Reviewers Roger Ebert.  I've disagreed sharply with my fellow Online Film Critics Society members on films (I detested The Tree of Life), but in the end, we each have a particular basis for praising or condeming a film.  Fanboys, however, have but one: you must agree with me, or ELSE!!

I suspect that for many fanboys, any criticism of The Dark Knight Rises or The Dark Knight or Avatar or any other film is a criticism of THEM.  To them, these films and others (I'll looking at you, Transformers) is tantamount to a religious experience, something holy, sacred.  Any criticism, any deviation from the mind-lockstep these fanboys (and yes, girls) have, therefore, is blasphemy, sacreligious, and in their delusional minds deserving of death.

One does not deserve death for disliking a film.  One does not deserve to be verbally attacked with vitriol because one didn't like a film.  Seriously, get a hold of yourself.

I can understand how people get that way: when I'm told by someone that they think Casablanca is the most boring film ever made and that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a better film, or that they think Channing Tatum and J-Lo are the Tracy & Hepburn of our generation, my blood starts boiling.  HOWEVER (and this is the important part), I do two things:

1.) Not take it personally.  Sometimes they say this knowing it will get my goat, but I've learned to accept the fact that they have their viewpoint (ill-informed, blank, and ignorant as it may be).

2.) Accept the fact that they are immature in their thinking, that they've been dumbed-down by a world that doesn't trust audiences to ask for intelligence in their films (hence how Jane Eyre or Senna could have been ignored while Green Lantern and The Hangover Part II could have people come out thinking they'd seen a good movie).    

If you noted a hint of sarcasm and snobbery in the preceeding, good.  All that is said with tongue slightly in cheek.  If people want to think all Transformers films are better than Casablanca, they are free to do so.  I'm not going to kill them or wish a bomb go off under their car because they disagree with me. 

In short, we reviewers and critics give our views based less on our emotions but on how we judge such things as performances, story, directing (though having emotion in reviewing is I think a good thing).  As such, we just give our views.  I like to think of my reviews as a public service, whether or not you should spend your hard-earned cash on a film (A), wait a few weeks or for the second-run theater (B), rent (C+), bad but it won't kill you (C-), let someone else get (D) or destroy every copy you find (F).

One must judge a film by what it's trying to do.  While I think Precious and The Hangover are brilliant, they are brilliant in their own way.  In the end, I don't expect people to say I must die because of what I write, and neither should my fellow critics, who saw something, called it as they saw it, and it should be left at that.

My last words are to you: all the fanboys and fangirls who find people don't agree with them on a movie. Really...

get a life
and stop threatening other people's lives. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

You Dance Divinely

Ginger Rogers: 1911-1995
Granted, I'm a year late to commemorate Ginger Rogers centennial (and curiously, I did the same for Akira Kurasawa), but better late than never I figure.

I find it hard that Ginger Rogers isn't remembered by a good chunk of filmviewers.  I revert to my Brother Gabe.  We were watching J. Edgar when there was a scene with Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela.  Perhaps it is my naivete, but I figured that Gabe MUST have heard of Ginger Rogers.  I wouldn't hold it against him if he had never seen any of her films, but at least the name must have rung a bell.

Nothing doing for my little brother.  He simply had no idea who Ginger Rogers was.  I think he knew of Fred Astaire, but Rogers' name didn't ring a bell.  I had to show him the American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Stars (a misnomer given that there were only 50 stars, 25 men, 25 women featured) to show him exactly who Ginger Rogers was.

And who, pray tell, was Ginger Rogers?

 

Well, let's start with the obvious: she was Fred Astaire's most recognized dance partner.  Astaire & Rogers (or Rogers & Astaire if you like) teamed up for ten films, and one could quibble about the plot (or lack thereof), but even now, all these years later, one still gets great enjoyment out of seeing these two move so elegantly and gracefully and even joyfully.

Take the Pick Yourself Up number from Swing Time.  It looks almost as if Ginger is taking Fred's lead, but in truth they worked hard to make it all look so elegant and spontaneous.  In fact, Astaire was famous for working so hard to get everything right that Rogers on occasion literally bled in her shoes for all the rehearsals they went through. 

Still, who can argue with the results?  It is always said that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.  One imagines that this is a high compliment because Astaire was a master, so be able to figuratively face off against him and be a reflection shows just how capable she was to go toe to toe (no pun intended) with someone of Astaire's caliber.

Now, while Rogers is rightly remembered for her dancing, she might not, even now, be recognized for the level of her actual acting talent.  One need look at her Oscar-winning turn in Kitty Foyle.  Here is where Rogers not only did her best work but also met one of the most important goals of a real legend.

Audience identification.

Depression-era audiences identified with the poor girl without pretension who makes good.   Kitty may have married up, but we always know that it is for love not self-interest.  Even better, she never changes who she is to fit in.  Kitty (like most Americans) may have been knocked down but never knocked out.

In this film, Rogers doesn't have to rely on her dancing shoes (although there is some dancing).  She instead has to rely on her talent as an actress.  Moreover, she has to rely on audiences seeing themselves in her, to communicate that while she may be beautiful, she is also 'one of us'. 

This I would put down as to why Ginger Rogers is still beloved (for those of us who know who she is).  There never appeared any pretention as to who she was.  She was her own woman, proud, strong, intelligent, and unafraid.

I do hope that people will not forget her.  That's not likely, given that people will always gravitate towards the elegance of her collaboration with Astaire, if nothing else in her career.  However, for those who are just discovering that movies have some level of audience participation, who aren't just into big explosions and mind-numbing bad acting, to quote Madonna,

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers dance on air...

Ultimately, she was more than a dancer.  She was a lady, a talented actress, and a legend.  The maxim about her pairing with Fred Astaire is that "he brought the class, she brought the sex".  I disagree slightly with that theory.

Ginger Rogers had class enough.

Senior Class Indeed

21 JUMP STREET

I make no secret of the fact that I have never actually seen a complete episode of 21 Jump Street.  I've seen parts of it, but somehow I managed to skip this iconic television series.  I don't know if the story of youthful-looking undercover cops would have appealed to me then, let alone now.  This does make it a bit hard to decide whether the film version of 21 Jump Street was more spoof or mere basis for a comedy.  I think it's a little bit of both.  To its credit 21 Jump Street is fully aware of itself and thus not take itself seriously.  To its detriment it doesn't have as many funny moments as I have been led to believe.

It is 2005, and high schoolers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are nowhere near friends.  Jenko the jock has fun at Schmidt the schmuck's expense.  However, because of Schmidt's low status and Jenko's failing grades neither get that rite of passage among high schoolers: the Prom.

For the record, I too did not attend Prom.  HOWEVER, at my high school we had what is called Spring Fiesta which was more popular than the Prom, and I did go to Spring Fiesta (just so you know I was somewhere between Schmidt and Jenko).

Fast-forward seven years to 2012.  Both find themselves at the Police Academy where they find that they will not graduate because Schmidt lacks what Jenko has (physical strength) and Jenko lacks what Schmidt has (intelligence).  They decide to team up: one will get into shape, one will begin to use his brain.  They quickly manage to graduate and even become partners, maybe even friends.

Despite all this, both of them are basically morons and wimps who are unsurprisingly inept at their jobs (Schmidt can't shoot, Jenko is so dim he doesn't even know what Miranda rights are, let alone how to recite them).  With that, and I quote,


We're reviving a cancelled undercover police program from the '80s and revamping it for modern times.  You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.


With that, they are off to 21 Jump Street, where youthful-looking policemen will go undercover as high school students.  Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) thinks they are inept but gives them a major case: a powerful new drug has become popular in high school (causing a student's death) and the captain wants them to find the dealers and the suppliers.  To do so, Jenko and Schmidt (men obviously in their thirties) must pass themselves as both high school students and brothers.

As soon as they hit the school, it becomes clear that they are both out of touch with how schools work now.  Even worse, Jenko is so dim he inadvertently gets their covers mixed-up: now the former jock will try to pass himself as a science genius while the wimpy Schmidt will be the sports and drama star.  To Jenko's horror and Schmidt's joy, it is now cool to work hard, and to even be intelligent.  Even more surprising, the distributor of the designer drugs is an eco-friendly vegan, Eric (Dave Franco.  Digression: is it odd that another Franco brother happens to be cinematically connected with drugs, or is it mere coincidence). 

In order to ingratiate themselves with Eric and his group, Jenko and Schmidt have to take the drug (which has them acting in bizarre manners but which doesn't kill them).  The cops, still clueless about how Millennials differ from Generation X, do some odd things, such as use a cell phone to TALK to people.  Apparently, they've never heard of Facebook either. 

Soon, Schmidt and Jenko start making things too real: the former is falling for high school drama student Molly (Brie Larson) and Jenko is starting to bond with the science geeks (even enjoying giving their secret password, "Kneel Before Zod", and their version of a secret handshake, which involves recreating lightsaber fights).  They become so engrossed in basically reliving their high school years that Schmidt begins revelling too much in his role as the new kid, doing what Jenko used to do to him: laugh at him.

Eventually, our bumbling duo manage to find who the supplier is.  Without giving too much away, it isn't strictly Breaking Bad-like but it comes close.  This discovery comes at the worst time: despite a short break in their relationship Jenko and Schmidt get now what they didn't get before--They Get To Go Prom.  We even get a cameo from two that fans of the original show will recognize and the entire operation is busted wide open.

Again, not being a fan or follower of the original 21 Jump Street, I had to guess as to who some of the cameos were (I think there were three, one being obvious to even one with the most cursory knowledge of the series).  That might have been nice for those in the know, and oddly while most of the time a cameo from someone involved in the original production of a television adaptation or film remake adds very little, one has to give 21 Jump Street the movie credit for making the cameos actually relevant to the film.

I could make a strong case that both Hill and Tatum didn't venture far from their typical fare (Hill the constantly put-upon, slightly nervous character, Tatum as the dim himbo) but again to their credit they at least knew that they weren't going for anything other than almost spoofing their screen personas.  This is particularly true of Tatum, a man who will never play Shakespeare and appears to be the type who probably couldn't spell 'Shakespeare' if he tried.  Both had a great deal of fun mocking the stereotypes of the dumb jock and the nerd (although I wonder if looking like Slim Shady in 2005 really made you a nerd.  I was Captain of the Academic Decathlon team in high school, but I never had braces.  Yet I digress). 

21 Jump Street really is less about the television show but more about two people who haven't quite grown up yet find that they are now able to experience life from the other side of their formative years.  Now with the roles reversed, the jock finds that nerds can be fun (especially when they use science to blow things up) and the clumsy nerd can see that mocking someone is not fun if it means hurting people. 

In short, the film enjoys playing with conventions: the jock who finds he can be smart, the wimp who finds his courage, even the drug dealer with a social conscious.  Dave Franco should now emerge from his brother James' shadow with a wonderful comic turn as the environmentally-aware vegan drug dealer (what IS IT about the Francos and drug dealing?), a guy who is never menacing but despite being a major drug operator still a kid at heart (he is scared out of his mind to be surrounded by guns and as he's arrested he cries out almost child-like about how he really should be going to Berkeley).

Another good performance came from Larson's Molly, who adds a genuine heart of a teenager who could fall for Schmidt's alter ego (so much that we can basically paper over the fact that there is a romance suggested between an eighteen-year-old and someone at least twenty five years old).

I won't fault Mr. Cube (IF that is his real name) for playing a stereotype because Michael Bacall's screenplay (from a story by Bacall and Hill) writes it as if Captain Dickson is fully aware that he is basically the stereotype of the loud and belligerent police captain (who also happens to be black).

However, I do note that Bacall and Hill appear to have a rather strange obsession with penises and oral sex.  The characters went beyond calling each other 'dicks' to suggest or give the impression that they gave each other blow jobs and it culminates with a penis getting shot.  For me, this was remarkably juvenile (especially from men in their thirties).

However, I do acknowledge that co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had some very funny moments in 21 Jump Street.  The car chase which starts with a driver's ed car and ends with a luxury auto was funny as was when Jenko and Schmidt finally face off about how they have taken their roles too seriously during a high school production of Peter Pan.

There were a few things I found hard to believe in 21 Jump Street (the speed at which Jenko and Schmidt become friends, how dumb both of them were, the odd fixation on penises) but given that the film at least was smart enough to play with the fact that the undercover officers were obviously far older than they were trying to pass as I can forgive them that. 

In short, 21 Jump Street has surprising continuity with the television show, some great performances (in particular for Dave Franco), and even Channing Tatum at least showed that he was in on the joke that people think he is a rather stupid person (hey Chan, count me as one of those people).  If I wanted to be really generous, I would argue that 21 Jump Street is almost a story about getting a second chance to redo your high school experience and 'improve' it.  However, I doubt they were going that far.

I will end with one thing.  While the cameos were good, I didn't think they were that good or funny.  Now, if Richard Grieco had appeared...         

DECISION: B-      

Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Affair To Fall Asleep On

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)

I remember watching one of those trashy television movies about the scandal over Woody Allen's breakup with Mia Farrow.  If I remember, it was more Farrow's story than about Farrow et Woodster.  At one point in the movie, she bemoans her fate over The Great Gatsby.  Here she is, making her comeback in an adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Robert Redford, and it turns out to be the biggest turkey of her career.

Well, Miss Farrow, just think how it was for us who had to watch it.

I should start off my review by saying two things. One: I took very few notes. Two: I fell asleep while watching. Thank heavens I read the book, otherwise I would not be able to go over the plot. 

Told through the voice-over of Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston), we soon encounter Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Farrow) and her husband Tom (Bruce Dern).  Nick also meets their friend, golf pro Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles), but Nick has a next door neighbor, the wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby throws wild parties that put the roar in Roaring Twenties, and one day, Nick finds himself invited to the very soirees he's only been hearing about (and, judging by the proximity to his rented home, forced to listen to).

There is a reason why lowly Nick has been allowed entry into this rarefied world: Jay Gatsby himself (Robert Redford) wants to make friends with him, mostly because Daisy is his cousin.  We learn that Daisy was Gatsby's first love, but that she did not wait for him because, in the film's most famous line (which oddly, is not in the Fitzgerald novel)

Rich girls don't marry poor boys.

Now, however, Gatsby is rich, though exactly how he comes about his fabulous wealth we are not certain.  Gatsby himself gives contradictory explanations but Nick sees that Gatsby's association with shady character Meyer Wolfsheim (Howard Da Silva) may be a clue.

However, Nick has his own issues: both a curious romance with Jordan and being aware that the Buchanan's are a mess.  Tom has a few girlfriends, in particular Myrtle Wilson (Karen Black), wife of gas station owner George Wilson (Tom Wilson--what are the odds they'd have the same last name?).  Myrtle and Tom are carrying on, while poor George is totally unaware.

As much as Jay may want Daisy to leave Tom, she cannot bring herself to say that she never loved Tom.  Jay, while devastated, stays loyal to Daisy (and/or the idea of Daisy), even after Myrtle is killed in a car accident.  George finds out that the car belongs to Jay Gatsby and kills him (and himself), but Nick knows the truth: it was Daisy who drove the car, but Jay, ever loving, refused to turn her over.

Nick, having grown disillusioned by the shallowness of it all, decides to depart back to the Midwest, especially after being about the only person who mourned Jay Gatsby. 

One wonders how, despite having such rich material, and despite having a solid cast, people could screw it all up so shockingly.  The Great Gatsby should have wild parties, beautiful people, and a great tragedy within its two hour-twenty-three-minute running time.  What wasn't tame in The Great Gatsby was instead dull.  It is as if the film was determined to make the most boring television adaptation of the novel, to condemn future high school students to see the book as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

One can't fault the cast: you have a film with Robert Redford (who is a good actor), Sam Waterston (ditto) and Mia Farrow (who can be as good as her material).  Yet for all the talent within The Great Gatsby, every appears to be almost bored with the proceedings.  None of them appeared to actually act.  Instead, they appeared to behave as though this was so serious and important, adapting a literary classic, that they had to give stiff and lifeless performances to show just how reverential they were to the text.

Rather than bring life to their characters, they brought death.

Take when Nick survives a harrowing party with the Buchanans where at the end he declares that he was 30 years old that very day.  As spoken by Waterston, it sounds more like something said to break the ice than a regret that this turning point is so marred by the tangled romances of the upper class.  Even more bizarre, even though Waterston was only 34 when he made The Great Gatsby, he looked far older.  I put that in to the serious tone everyone was taking.

The only one who appeared to try to do anything remotely close to acting was Farrow, but sadly for her and the film it was to overcompensate for Waterston and Redford's underplaying by overplaying her Daisy.  Rather than appearing as this beautiful, delicate but ultimately empty shadow that is not worthy of Gatsby's unrequited love, Farrow's Daisy was a trembling, whimpering, almost shrewish and twittering airhead.  Farrow was apparently directed to be excessively mannered in her trembling whenever she was on the screen.

As for Chiles, given that the only other film I have seen of her was the James Bond film Moonraker, I have very little point of reference to decided whether her Jordan was as dead and uninteresting as she is in The Great Gatsby or whether this is how Chiles is in all her films.  I'm going to say that because her Jordan was as lifeless as her Dr. Goodhead, Lois Chiles is pretty much a bland screen presence.

Finally, I think Bruce Dern was miscast as the beefy and self-assured but sleazy Tom Buchanan.  Dern seems remarkably thin to be this great threat to Gatsby, and I don't mean just by size but also because the script really gives no real motion or motivation for any of these people to do anything.

It takes a particular caliber of film to waste actors in even smaller roles.  Edward Herrmann (the epitome of the WASP world The Great Gatsby chronicles) is reduced to a mere cameo, and Da Silva's vaguely anti-Semitic character of Wolfsheim is likewise reduced to one scene that oddly doesn't add to the story even though it should be clear that his connection to Wolfsheim is how Gatsby made his fortune.

It is more incredible that Francis Ford Coppola was the screenwriter.  The dialogue appears so stilted and formal at times that again, there doesn't appear to be any life to them.  However, I have to give credit to where it's due.  Even thought it is not in the novel, the line


Rich girls don't marry poor boys, Jay Gatsby.  Haven't you heard?  Rich girls don't marry poor boys.


is now one of the most memorable lines to come from film.  As I understand it, this is what Fitzgerald was told in real life, and Coppola incorporated this devastating put-down to The Great Gatsby.  It's a great line, but about the only good part.

The script also has things that don't make any sense, at least if my memory of the book still hold.  Daisy for example immediately recognizes the name Gatsby, but wouldn't she have known him as James Gatz when they first courted?  Those who remember the book better may correct me on the matter.  This plot point about how Gatsby was really his nom de guerre wasn't addressed until the end of the movie, and this robs us of the chance to see just how tragic his life was in trying to recapture the past.    

The fault lies squarely at the feet of director Jack Clayton.  From being unable to draw performances out of any of his actors (save for Scott Wilson's character of the cuckold George, whose hurt and heartbreak over his wife's death and infidelity are signs of actual acting) to making the decadent world of Gatsby almost tame and dull (and frankly a little on the cheap side) to that damn voice-over (a bane of my existence) which not only was intrusive but that basically told you everything before it happened (when you hear a disembodied voice tell you that by September everything would be over, you don't have much suspense), Clayton made one bad choice after another that all but doomed The Great Gatsby.     

Now, having said all that, I will say that at least Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes were nice and worthy of The Great Gatsby's two Oscar wins (the other being Nelson Riddle's music score adaptation of the songs of the 1920s.  I should say that Riddle, who was Sinatra's orchestrator among his many other works, was brilliant with music, so he deserved his Oscar).  However, despite being an Academy Award-winning film that may capture what exactly is wrong with The Great Gatsby: it is a film where style is valued over substance, where the greatness of the story is drowned by the pretty clothes and pretty music enjoyed by the pretty people.

I imagine that high schoolers who have to read The Great Gatsby (which given how slim the book is lengthwise, should really take them a week or two at the most) will be forced to watch this adaptation.  I feel sorry for them.  Good thing I didn't read it in high school but later on, for my own pleasure, before seeing this dull treatment of this brilliant story. 
In short, The Great Gatsby may end up making people want to give up reading if the book is as boring as the movie. The book isn't, but tell that to all the kids who will have to suffer through it. 

If one can stay awake throught The Great Gatsby, watch it only for the costumes.  Ain't they pretty, and ain't we (not) got fun? 

DECISION: D-

Daylights Saving Time

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS

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

The Living Daylights was the first reboot of the James Bond franchise in a long time.  Roger Moore's seventh and last turn as James Bond 007 was an embarrassment to almost everyone (even to Moore), and so we now restart the series with a more angry and serious Bond in the fourth James Bond: Timothy Dalton. 

Gone are the lavish settings.  Gone are the outrageous plots.  Gone are the rather exotic names for the Bond Girls.  The Living Daylights has a new Bond, a new seriousness, and even a new Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss, which I think would make a great Bond Girl name, but I digress).  If anything it was an attempt to get the series more grounded in the world we live in rather than the world of fantasy some of Moore's Bond films gleefully indulged in (Bond In Space!  Bond as Bozo!).  As much as Dalton's era as 007 is derided or looked down on, what I found in The Living Daylights is a film that makes a good effort to make things more realistic, sometimes stumbling on the Bond trappings, but one that in retrospect isn't anywhere near a disaster as some previous, and sadly, some future Bonds would be.

A training exercise in Gibraltar for the 00s goes horribly wrong, and 007 James Bond (Dalton) disposes of the killer of some of his fellow 00s.  We then shift to Bratislava in what was once Czechoslovakia but is now the capital of Slovakia.  Here, Bond is assigned to help a top-ranking KGB general, Georgi Koskov (Jeroen KrabbĂ©), defect to the West.  When Koskov is making his escape, Bond notices a beautiful cellist attempt to kill the general.  Bond deliberately misses her before spiriting Koskov from behind the Iron Curtain to London.

General Koskov has valuable information for MI6, especially about Smiert Spionom (or Death to Spies), a secret plot to kill every agent in the Soviet Union, which Koskov believes will cause war.  This scheme is plotted by one General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), but before anything more can be learned, Koskov is quickly recaptured by the KGB and the mysterious master assassin, Necros (Andreas Wisniewski). 

Of course, there's one or two twists to the tale.  First, Bond finds the hitwoman from Bratislava: one Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo), who is surprisingly NOT an assassin but Koskov's girlfriend.  The naive cellist believes Bond to be Koskov's friend who will take her to her lover.  They make a daring escape from Czechoslovakia to Austria on her cello (that's right, they use her Stradivarius cello as part of their escape...a Stradivarius that gets shot, but let's move on).  Second and most important, Koskov wasn't taken by the KGB, but by pseudo-General Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker), an arms dealer with a mania for military campaign and garb (he even has an assistant whom he calls Sergeant and who salutes him and snaps to attention whenever Whitaker comes by).

Whitaker and Koskov are in cahoots, funneling money from the Soviets and various revolutionary groups into their own pockets.  Everything involving Koskov with MI6 was all a ruse to get them to eliminate Pushkin, who was becoming suspicious of Koskov.  Bond eventually puts all this together and pulls a few tricks of his own, with very little help from CIA agent/friend Felix Leiter (John Terry).

It is believed Pushkin has been assassinated (although we all know he hasn't been), and Kara contacts Koskov, who betrays her and takes both Milovy and Bond to Afghanistan.  Bond and Milovy manage both an escape and by helping another prisoner, getting in contact with the Mujaheddin.  Their fellow prisoner happens to be a resistance leader, Kamran Shah (Art Malik).  Kamran happens to at least have a British education (and accent), but has no interest getting Koskov.  It isn't until Bond and Milovy force his hand that they have a battle in the Russian airbase.

Koskov survives, and Bond now goes after both him and Whitaker. 

I understand that both Dalton and the two films he made as 007 (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) are not held in high regard by Bond fans.  After seeing LD twice, I fail to see why both the film and Dalton are derided.  I believe longtime producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, regular Bond director John Glen, and longtime Bond scenarist Richard Maibaum (along with producer Michael Wilson) were making a serious and sincere effort to make a Bond film that was more realistic while trying to keep as much of what made James Bond...James Bond. 

You had a plot that involved arms dealers (something in the minds of the public with the Iran-Contra scandal still making headlines), the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and the political intrigue of the Cold War in its closing days.  However, you still had the gadgets, the exotic locales (Tangier and Vienna), the chases, and the beautiful Bond Girls, or Girl I should say. 

D'Abo is a curiosity in Bond Girl history in that she is one of the few Bond Girls in a Bond film to have James Bond all to herself.  Barring the opening scene where James Bond literally drops in on a beauty 007 doesn't squire any other woman in The Living Daylights.  Even in On Her Majesty's Secret Service Bond had a few beauties literally laying around for him (and in that one, he actually marries).  Milovy (which sounds curiously like 'my lovely', don't you think?) therefore is the only actual Girl to provide any romantic subplot.  Yet I digress.

On the whole, I think The Living Daylights worked well in bringing things down after some of Moore's more exotic and grandiose stories.  The action sequences (in particular the one that takes place aboard an airplane over Afghanistan) is genuinely tense and exciting. 

This being my first experience with Timothy Dalton in the role, I think he was going for a darker, angrier version to the character.  On the plus side, it makes 007 more of a professional, someone who has very little time for charm or witty repartee and just wants to get on with the job.  As a result, Bond is now presented as someone who may actually be believable as a professional assassin with a licence to kill from Her Majesty.

The negative to that is that Dalton and Bond may not be able to carry off the few quips that Bond is given.  When he and Kara are making their escape past Czechoslovakian guards, he readies missiles in his Aston Martin and says, "I had a few optional features installed".  One can imagine Moore or Sean Connery making this come off as a witty remark.  With Dalton's delivery, it almost sounds like a threat.  Still, on the whole I think Dalton made an excellent debut as Bond.  

As I watched The Living Daylights, I can't say that it is a perfect film.  Its chief flaw is in its inability to make use of almost all the other characters.  We have Felix Leiter, but he doesn't add anything to the story to where one wonders why he is even there in the first place.  The same goes for Khan, who is basically there to get Bond and Milovy a way to get out of Afghanistan and put a dent in Koskov/Whitaker's plans.

We also face a big issue with the actual villains.  KrabbĂ©'s Koskov and Baker's Whitaker at times almost come off as cartoonish, more obstacles in The Living Daylights than instigators of the story.  The more comical aspects to this duo (a rare moment in a Bond film where we have TWO main villains, with only Octopussy's pairing of General Orlov and Kamal Khan being the only other time we had two antagonists) is Whitaker, who comes off as more a military-obsessed nut than an actual threat, more someone playing at soldier than doing anything that could be considered dangerous or menacing.

The same goes for Necros (which if nothing else, is one of the better Bond henchmen names).  He has a certain cleverness when he is able to disguise himself as a milkman and a doctor all due to his wearing of white, but he rarely manages to show off how good an assassin he can be.  Necros isn't a lousy henchman, but somehow he isn't a memorable one.

A bright spot is Rhys-Davies' General Pushkin, but John Rhys-Davies rarely turns in a bad performance.  I will argue that having us know that Pushkin really wasn't dead might not, in this case, be a good idea.  I think it would have worked better if we thought Necros had been the assassin.  However, I also think giving both Whitaker and Koskov something to do would have been better too.

I think a lot of criticism has been aimed at d'Abo for her thin characterization of Kara Milovy, a girl more interested in her cello than in almost anything else.  However, this is where I think she played the part as written: Milovy was not a character who took action most of the time.  Granted, d'Abo at times appeared almost too willing to accept whatever she was seeing without really questioning the logic or danger involved, and on that front d'Abo has to bear the blame.  However, given that her character was suppose to be a somewhat naive and trusting girl I am willing to cut her a little slack.  

It feels a bit too long despite its two hour thirteen minute running time.  Those who appear to have a special loathing for The Living Daylights have a point in that the entire escaping-via-cello looks a bit silly/strange (and having a bullet go through a Stradivarius is just a sin), but I think that's one of the few times The Living Daylights gives in to what a Bond action scene is suppose to be: a bit over-the-top. 

In regards to the Bond theme to The Living Daylights I found that my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) did not think I was fair in mocking it as much as I did (always using a staccato delivery to the chorus).  Having heard it repeatedly (both in the film and via a soundtrack) I think the dislike towards it might be due more to the fact that the song comes from Norwegian megagroup a-Ha than the actual song itself.  a-Ha is supposed to be uncool, and I can't say that they are a great musical group but the actual performers in a Bond song don't dictate whether the song itself is good or bad.  The Living Daylights is a good song (though I confess to sometimes not understand the words) and John Barry managed to work it into the score so well that it turns the melody into one of action. 

I will also say that the two songs in The Living Daylights written and performed by The Pretenders (Where Has Everyone Gone and If There Was A Man) were also quite good, with the latter possibly being a good candidate for the Bond title theme if they had opted to go for a more romantic route than the action theme they ultimately chose.

On the whole, I found The Living Daylights entertaining if at times a bit thin in characters.  It has great moments of action even if at times the story feels (if not actually is) a bit meandering.  The Living Daylights is a good effort to turn the James Bond franchise into something more realistic, to make Bond himself less a suave ladies' man with a ready comeback and more a man of action.  It is a good start, and I think it was a good film that did let daylight in upon the magic.       


Next James Bond film: Licence to Kill

DECISION: B-