Sunday, September 30, 2012

It Couldn't Die Soon Enough


DIE ANOTHER DAY

The Complete James Bond Review Catalogue

That damn invisible car. 

My friend and fellow film enthusiast Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) always went on about "that damn invisible car."  Whenever we'd talk about James Bond, he'd always bring up "that damn invisible car" and have disdain in his voice and face whenever it or Die Another Day was brought up.   I had managed to skip the previous two Pierce Brosnan Bond films, but I did see Die Another Day in the theaters.  I didn't HATE "that damn invisible car" with the fervor Gomez did, but I remember thinking that it was far too convoluted and at times embarrassing for everyone involved.

We start in North Korea, where 007 James Bond (Brosnan) is impersonating a diamond smuggler who will pay for weapons.  The seller: corrupt Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee), son of General Moon, who is surprisingly open towards teh West for a North Korean military man.  Aiding the bad Colonel in his business is Zao (Rick Yune), who quickly finds that Bond is really a British assassin.  Bond makes his getaway (injuring Zao in the process when the diamond briefcase explodes and diamonds fly into his face), and even though Moon is seen falling into a waterfall Bond himself is captured.

Thus our suave secret agent is tortured with a Madonna song.  This is not hyperbole: we see his torturing while Madonna's Die Another Day plays. 

We are told that is in now 14 months since Bond's capture.  General Moon insists that his dead son had an ally in the West and demands Bond tell him who this ally is.  Bond still won't talk, but instead of being executed, he finds he has been traded for Zao.  MI6 head M (Judi Dench) is unhappy that she had to make this exchange, especially since she suspects Bond might have talked: her top North Korean agent has been killed, and Zao attempted to blow up a summit between South Korea and China.  Bond manages to escape his more benign imprisonment and thanks to the Chinese Secret Service (which now run Hong Kong...how we mourn the loss of Empire), he gets a little help to go to Cuba.

Here, he is led to a secret clinic run by Doctor Alvarez who specializes in DNA-replacement therapy: quite literally a whole new you.  He also encounters Giacinta Johnson, better known as Jinx (Halle Berry).  After a romp we go to the secret clinic, Bond finds Zao but he manages to escape before he manages to complete his transformation to a Caucasian-looking man.

Seriously, this IS the plot.

We also find that Jinx, far from being a bystander, is deeply involved: SHE kills the bad doctor AND blows up the clinic.  Bond however, finds diamonds engraved with the stamp of one Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), diamonds which are suspiciously like 'blood diamonds' despite the claims that Graves found them in Iceland.

I said the same thing: DIAMONDS?  IN ICELAND?

Now we switch to London, where Graves skydives to Buckingham Palace to receive a knighthood. There his loyal aide Miranda Frost (Rosemund Pike) awaits him.  Among their shared passions is fencing, and Bond challenges him to a duel which he does win.  Graves invites him to his Ice Palace in Iceland to see his newest scientific creation: Icarus, which can harness the sun for unlimited power.

Let's wrap this up: we find out that Graves is really Moon transformed, Jinx is also a secret agent, Frost is a double agent, we melt the Ice Palace (thanks to the invisible car), Bond stops Graves from using North Korea to start an invasion with Icarus blowing up the De-Militarized Zone, and sleeps with Jinx again.

I used to think that Bond villains now simply don't put the effort into their nefarious schemes as they used to.  Now I think Bond villains try too hard to put everything into their nefarious schemes...everything except a semblance of coherence.   I think DAD (last time we had The World Is Not Enough turn to TWINE, now DAD) tries to throw so much in order to build up suspense or "big shocking twists" that it only becomes lost in its own lack of logic.

M near the end reprimands her American counterpart Damian Falco (Michael Madsen...no, I can't explain it either: like watching Mr. Blonde as the head of espionage) for not informing MI6 that the mole (Miranda Frost) was on the Harvard fencing team with Moon.  Far be it for me to criticize the application process of those who work for Her Majesty's Secret Service, but couldn't YOU have found that out yourself?

Furthermore, DAD plays these remarkably idiotic twists games on an inconsistent level.  We are shown that Graves is really Moon (which must be the most successful plastic surgery in recorded history...turning a North Korean into an Englishman, complete with accent) but are never given any indication that Frost is the traitor.  It's as if she has to be the ally because there simply is no one left to do the dishonors.

Again, why couldn't co-writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade make things more simple?  This entire "Jinx is really mysterious" thread was idiotic.  Taking a page from both The Spy Who Loved Me and Tomorrow Never Dies (in one of the few good things from that movie), why couldn't we (and Bond) know she was working for the Americans?  It certainly would have been simpler than trying to ratch up the mystery quotient as to why this woman is starting to kill people in cold blood and blowing up buildings and suddenly appearing in the Ice Palace.

Now, going deeper into the script, I think both the writers and director Lee Tamahori failed to understand one thing: what makes a great pun is that the characters don't know or don't force the puns.  With DAD, what passes for witty repartee is so forced and obvious that it becomes groan-inducing.  There is something to be said for subtlety, and when our characters KNOW they are making suggestive banter, it just comes off as silly.  It also makes them come off as stupid.

DAD also suffers from a heavy reliance on CGI that is painfully obvious literally (as Joe Biden is prone to say) from the beginning.  You can tell that the fight between Moon and Bond is taking place in front of a green screen, which has the effect of making things look cheap.  Again and again Bond's escapes or encounters look fake that they only end up drawing attention to themselves.

Even that, perhaps, might be forgiven, but some of his escapes are downright imbecilic.  We get not one, but TWO surfing scenes, and while I found surfing into North Korea a bit odd, Bond's second escapade, where he windsurfs to safety, is just stupid.

As if turning an Asian man into a Caucasian didn't already spread the stupid all around.

Tamahori simply couldn't get the actors to make their dialogue sound real (we can forgive Madonna because even she senses that Madonna can't actually act so she didn't bother).  So many times when they're trying to sound clever, they only end up sounding as if they know they are trying to sound clever but can't get the hang of it.   

There was talk of giving Jinx her own spin-off film, to which I answer, 'why?'.  Berry is a beautiful woman, but despite her Oscar one has never put her among the Great Actresses of Our Time.  Again, she's very beautiful, but watching DAD again I marvelled at how bad she was.  She was forced and unnatural as this clever, strong, intrepid agent (and seriously, why did it not occur to either Jinx or Bond to investigate if the other worked for another agency).

In short, Berry was horrible in Die Another Day, and while I doubt a stronger actress could have made Jinx a better character, Berry didn't do herself any favors by being so robotic in her delivery.

Speaking of robotic, let me move into the title song.  Poor Madge.  Poor sweet delusional Madge.  She thought she was going to WIN the Best Original Song Oscar for her robotic, auto-tuned rendition of the title theme.  Die Another Day is one of the worst Bond Songs, and while I imagine its popularity is due to her fanbase (and a growing inability to appreciate good music) the lyrics are moronic (I'm going to wake up/Yes & No/I'm going to kiss/some part of {not finishing what she exactly was going to kiss part of}/I'm going to shut my body down). 

It's also contradictory: in the first verse she coos, "Sigmund Freud/Analyze this" but two verses later she declares, "I'm going to avoid the cliches".

Sorry Your Ladyship from London via Detroit...telling Sigmund Freud to "analyze this" IS a cliche. 

Besides, the lyrics go on to say, "I'm going to destroy/my ego".  I bet even Madonna doesn't believe that.

Moving on to the other performances, I didn't dislike Stephens as Jay Gatsby in the A & E version of The Great Gatsby, but I didn't say he was great either.  In Die Another Day, Stephens decided that A.) he didn't need a director, and B.) he was going to play the parody of a Bond villain by being so wildly over the top that no one could take an already unhinged story seriously.  After all, Stephens probably thought, who'd be stupid enough to think I used to be Asian a mere year-and-two-months ago?

Pike could have made a better villain than henchwoman, but truth be told DAD never settled on WHO was the villain and who was the henchman. Just like in TWINE, Frost could easily be the villain AND/OR the henchman, which makes Yune's Zao all the more puzzling.  It's clear he works for Graves/Moon, but it's never clear if he works FOR or WITH Frost. 

As a side note, I wonder if Representative Todd Akin got his idea that women can avoid getting pregnant from "legitimate rape" from Die Another Day: after all, Madonna does say she's going to shut her body down.   Yet I digress.

Another mistake in DAD is that it gives us information only to repeat said information in order to explain to someone else what we already know.  Why couldn't they have just explained whatever it was they wanted to explain either earlier or later rather than twice?  It does seem far too convoluted for its own good. 

I can appreciate that Die Another Day was both the 20th official Bond film and Bond's 40th anniversary, but we could have skipped so many trappings from other Bond films.  Apart from the jet-pack in Q's lab (which appeared to be the same one from Thunderball) and the shoe-knife taken from From Russia With Love, the crashing airplane was too similar to Goldfinger to be just a mere nod.

Curiously, it also has a shout-out to another successful franchise: at the climatic battle between Bond & Graves, it looks like our ex-Korean now-British villain harnesses "the Power of the Dark Side".  I'll leave it at that.  

In Die Another Day, you had bad acting, bad story, bad special effects, bad song, bad music, a ridiculous plot...in short, a mess.  However, there at least was an acknowledgement of all that.  Halle Berry did say she was a Jinx to everyone she came across, so at least that was true.


Oh yes, and That Damn Invisible Car...

DECISION: D-

Next Bond Film: Casino Royale

Saturday, September 29, 2012

So Far From God, So Close to the United States



FOR GREATER GLORY

It's a curious thing about Mexico.  The world sees it as a devoutly Catholic country (so much so that Protestant missionaries are chased away if they dare say anything against La Virgen de Guadalupe). However, the federal government has been extremely hostile to the Church, so much so that the Constitution forbids open-air Masses (which I figure is conveniently ignored whenever the Pope wanders in, though I do wonder if certain people in the U.S. wouldn't mind a country that enshrines--no pun intended--in their Constitution the right to arrest people for praying in public.  Just a thought).  So much pride is taken by the government, in particular the President of the Republic, in their secularism that when then-President Vicente Fox and First Lady Marta Sahagun kissed Pope John Paul II's ring as a sign of devotion, it made headlines across the nation.

The story of the Cristeros, an army of Mexicans who fought against the government for their right to practice Catholicism freely and openly, is a story that is little-known, even within Mexico.  For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada, is the first feature to tell this story about a literal war for religious freedom.  It stumbles at times, but on the whole it does what it sets out to do: be inspiring, sweeping, and move the viewer emotionally. 

We begin with a brief explanation of Mexico in 1926. President Plutarco Calles (Ruben Blades) has pushed for legislation placing tighter restrictions on the Catholic Church.  Among them: forbidding priests to wear clerical robes in public, deporting non-native born priests (so much for all that talk of immigration reform) and a five-year prison sentence for priests who criticize the government.  This doesn't sit well with the Church General, which strikes back by basically closing down shop and/or ignoring these laws.

Said laws will be enforced, even (and especially) at the tip of a bayonet.  Calles cracks down hard on the Church, going so far as to storm churches (sometimes on horseback) and shoot parishioners as they stand.  Calles' ire is particularly reserved for parish priest, whom he orders shot on sight (again, forgetting that whole 'sactuary' deal).   Among those killed is kindly Father Christopher (Peter O'Toole), who had come to Mexico at age seven and was thought of well in his community.  However, because he was foreign-born and a Catholic priest, he had to go.

Father Christopher's killing inspires the altar boy Jose (Mauricio Kuri), who had grown close to our deceased priest, to join the Cristeros, a ragtag group of revolutionaries who for various reasons oppose Calles' actions. Some, like Father Vega (Santiago Cabrera) are zealous in their pursuit of defending The Faith.  Others, like Victoriano Ramirez "El Catorce" (Oscar Isaac), who earned the nickname "The Fourteen" after having killed fourteen soldiers who had come onto his land, appear just spoiling for a fight.  The opposition, knowing it needs organization and someone with military skills, asks retired general Enrique Gorostieta (Andy Garcia) to lead the Cristeros.  Even though Gorostieta is an agnostic, Calles' push for total statism and forced secularism offends him, and he agrees to lead them.

For Greater Glory then chronicles the struggle between Calles and the Cristeros, and eventually the Americans, fearing for their oil concessions, begin to act as intermediaries.  A peace accord between the Church and a bitter Calles is eventually reached in 1929, but not before Jose is captured, tortured, and killed for refusing to denounce Christ and hail The State, and not before others such as lay Catholic supporter Anacieto Gonzalez Flores (Eduardo Verastegui) and Gorostieta himself are also killed.  We learn that Flores and Jose, along with 11 other Cristeros, are beatified in 2005, putting them one step away from being declared official Saints of the Catholic Church.

As I watched For Greater Glory, I could not help think that this was a tragedy that did not need to be.  This was clearly an unnecessary war brought on by Calles' stubborn, dare I say fascist, determination to stamp out Catholicism or any faith out of Mexicans and remake them into worshippers of The State.  However, I think For Greater Glory went the easy route by making Calles the heavy (and I can see the temptation: with a name that roughly translates to 'Plutarch Streets', one can see that the name lends itself to villainy).  I do however, would have like the film to have put things in greater context.

The Mexican Revolution was still a fresh memory during the events of For Greater Glory.  In THAT conflict, the Church was seen as being on the side of longtime dictator Porfidio Diaz.  The enmity between the Church General and the thoroughly secular government had not been wholly resolved or healed, with the end result of the hierarchies on both sides still being suspicious of each other.  One can only guess whether the bad blood extended on the local level, but the struggle between Church and State had not been resolved by 1926.  Calles' actions, while a wild overreaction to his goals of a secular all-powerful State, might have been explained not as the acts of a thorough fascist but as one that feared Church domination of the population.  It doesn't justify killing people for not bowing down to the state, but it does go a long way to explain his borderline paranoia about Catholicism.

One of my beefs with For Greater Glory is its length: at close to two-and-a-half hours it is far too sprawling to focus on the stories it encompasses.  Such characters as Anacieto Gonzalez Flores pop in quickly only to be forgotten until their literal martyrdom.  It's a disservice to both the character and to Verastegui, who did a good job in the small role of the devout but violent-averse layman. 

Again and again with the exception of Jose, we really don't know much of what motivates the characters.  We see this with Cabrera's Father Vega: how was he able to reconcile being a man of faith but one who also leads men to kill others?  Same with Isaac's Catorce: did he just want to go killing for the fun of it or was there at least a modicum of faith that stirred him to action? 

Garcia is one of our best and sadly underused actors, and he did a strong job with the limits Michael Love's screenplay gave him.  He commands the screen as the general more interested in matters of war than of faith but who eventually grows to care for Jose and see him as a surrogate son.  Love's screenplay did not give either Garcia or Kuri much in terms of interactions to show how they grew to care for each other, but it's a credit to both that they managed to show the evolving relationship despite the script's limitation.

I would put the stiff direction of Dean Wright at where For Greater Glory stumbles.  It was highly focused on being sweeping (with James Horner's overwrought score pushing the emotional buttons badly), a film that made almost everyone behave as if every moment is "An Important Event" rather than trust our characters to be people with conflicting emotions, let alone human.  This style of acting, where actors sometimes almost literally 'strike a pose' and give their 'important words' can be a bit grating over time (and again, the music only serves to show how "grand" at times the people behave).  I would have suggested to Wright that he tone down the nobility of the Cristeros or the almost imperial behavior of the President and allowed the characters to live and breathe.

Still, on the whole those flaws, while difficult to overcome, don't hold down For Greater Glory enough to make it a bad film.  It is an interesting story that should be more well-known, it has some good performances (and we see that actors like Garcia, Isaac, and Cabrera could do more with stronger scripts and directors and who should be working more), and I can't fault a film for aiming to be inspirational if its goal was precisely to be inspirational. 

I found it a bit too long and at times a bit sprawling (and I think those two things go hand in hand), but on the whole For Greater Glory is the best film made about the Cristeros (which, sadly, isn't a big catalogue).             


 If Plutarco Calles had seen this, he would have probably shot them both right then and there.

DECISION: C+

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Perfect Film As Time Goes By: Casablanca Review


 
CASABLANCA (1943)

I remember very well the first time I came across Casablanca.  I had heard much about Casablanca and knew it by reputation.  I decided to rent the VHS copy to see for myself what the big deal was about (I told you it was a long time ago).  As I watched Casablanca, I fell in love with it, completed my conversion to making film and/or film discussion a major part of my life, knew my life had been improved, and that I had seen perhaps the greatest film ever made. 

Casablanca has achieved such a legendary status as this Icon of Film one sometimes is afraid to approach it as just good entertainment.   However, one can easily forget "The Legend" of Casablanca and enjoy a film that has romance, drama, some action, and even a bit of comedy.

Let's go over the plot.  Two German couriers, carrying letters of transit, have been murdered.  Those letters will allow anyone in the French Moroccan city of Casablanca to leave the refugee-swarmed city, no questions asked.  Now, who HAS those letters?

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is the owner of Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca (Rick's Cafe...I like the sound of that).   He's a cynical man (his motto being "I stick my neck out for no one").  Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a shady forger and criminal, informs Rick that he has those letters of transit and asks Rick to hold them for a few hours.  Rick agrees, but Ugarte is arrested immediately after by orders of Nazi Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and the Prefect of Police of unoccupied France, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). 

Renault and Rick, who have a cordial relationship, strike a bet that one of the Third Reich's greatest enemies will be able to escape Strasser and go on to America.  It is Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid).  Rick thinks he will, Renault says he simply can't.  Complicating things for Lazlo is that he is travelling with a lady.

That lady is Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).  We quickly discover that Ilsa and Rick had once been in love in Paris, but that she left him when the Nazis entered Paris, forcing a despondent, dejected Rick to flee.  Embittered by his abandonment, Rick now faces the return of The One.  Rick's friend and cafe bandleader Sam (Dooley Wilson) urges Rick to leave, but he won't.

Soon we learn Ilsa's secret: she is really Lazlo's wife.

Everyone is searching for those letters but no one knows where they are or who has them, or as Rick points out to his friendly business rival Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), "practically no one".  Lazlo asks, and even Ilsa returns demanding Rick hand them over.  Eventually she crumbles into his arms and tells him the whole story: she and Lazlo were secretly married but she thought Lazlo was dead when she and Rick began their romance only to discover he was alive right before Paris fell.  She tells Rick to do the thinking for all of them to decide what best to do.

Rick eventually makes his decision, leading to Strasser's death, Lazlo escaping and Rick and Ilsa realizing that 'we'll always have Paris', but never Casablanca.  Casablanca ends with the renewed freedom fighter Rick and the newly principled Renault walking away with Rick observing, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Casablanca on many levels shouldn't work, primarily in that the story as told doesn't make sense.  Constant viewing (yes, I've lost track of the number of times I have seen it) allows for observation as to the things that are illogical or out of place.  The biggest flaw involves the letters of transit.  What we hear is that they are signed by General DeGaulle.  If that is the case, why would the Nazi officials respect letters of transit signed by the enemy?  Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that an anti-Nazi like Lazlo would be able to walk openly in front of Major Strasser while the collaborating Vichy regime simply did nothing.  We even can observe continuity issues: for example, it's obvious that Wilson is NOT playing the piano (Wilson in real life didn't) and that the rain at the Paris train station suddenly stops when Sam and Rick get on the train.

These things one becomes aware of over time, but on first viewing one simply doesn't notice any of that.  The credit goes all around, starting with director Michael Curtiz.  He moves the story quickly, and one sees that the film flows so smoothly one quickly gets a great deal of information without stopping.  Minus the newsreel-like opening that tells us about the plight of refugees and how they end up in Casablanca once the story starts it never loses momentum.

There are simply so many things that makes Casablanca such a brilliant film.  Curtiz set the mood so brilliantly with quick snippets.  For example, when we first enter Rick's Cafe Americain the camera flows to hit various tables.  We get quick bits showing the shady dealings and desperate plight of refugees without lingering long on them, but just enough to give us the atmosphere of the place.

An argument could be made that Casablanca was pre-film noir, with the lighting in particular.  Casablanca isn't a noir film, but we see touches of it. 

Again and again Curtiz creates the atmosphere and mood without going into long exposition.  He directs the scenes to tell us just what we need to know and nothing more.

When it comes to the performances, you simply have a brilliant cast that knew HOW to act.  Let's start with Humphrey Bogart as the cynical Rick.  Casablanca was a complete change of pace for Bogart, for this is the first time he played a romantic lead.  Known before this film as a tough guy, Casablanca gave Bogart the chance to show he could play a man who used a cynical mask to hide a deeply vulnerable and hurt heart.

Bogart has a brilliant way with dialogue.  Take a look early in the film when he puts down Yvonne (Madeliene LeBeau), a casual girlfriend:

Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That's so long ago I don't remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead. 

Again and again Bogart's delivery of his lines tell so much about Rick's cynicism and dark view of life.  However, we also see the broken and hurt man behind the tough exterior.  When Rick gives his "Of all the gin joints in all the town in all the world, she walks into mine," monologue, you see in his performance the agony of seeing the woman he loved but who left him come back into his life again.  His voice quivers when he tells Sam, "If she can stand it I can!  Play it," betraying his emotions are finally overwhelming him and that he can't lie to himself about the pain he tries to deny.

Rick is hurt and angry and broken at being forced to deal with his love for Ilsa and her betrayal (from his perspective).  Casablanca hangs on what Rick does since he has the letters of transit everyone is after.  We need to believe he doesn't care about anything or anyone, then we need to believe he loves Ilsa and then finally we need to believe he would sacrifice for her. 

Bogart's performance goes through this evolution from cynic to, as Renault tells him, "not only are you a sentimentalist but you've also become a patriot", all while maintaining a touch of his cynical and sarcastic tone.  When Renault basically congratulates him by saying he's a patriot, Rick's glib answer is, "Seemed like a good time to start."  Bogart is simply brilliant as the man who loved, lost, and in the end won a moral victory by sacrificing himself for the greater good.     


Then again, who wouldn't sacrifice everything for her?  Ingrid Bergman to her dying day claimed to not understand what all the fuss over Casablanca was about.  She never thought it was one of her best films or her best performances.  Even while making it Bergman felt that Casablanca was holding her up from a more prestigious project: the film version of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bells Toll.  In fact, she couldn't wait to finish Casablanca to move on to FWTBT, so much so that as soon as filming wrapped she cut her hair for her new part.  This made retakes impossible, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise in that Casablanca was now locked with not just her performance but also, curiously enough, with the music (more on that later).

Let's take Bergman at her word and assume she was basically sleepwalking through Casablanca.  If that's the case, then we see that Bergman even in her off days was simply more talented than most actresses are when they're on all cylinders.  Ilsa's own hurt when Rick all but calls her a whore is agonizing, but she also projects warmth and strength when dealing with Rick or Lazlo or even Strasser. 

Paul Henreid was not happy with the part of Lazlo and with good reason.  His Lazlo is a man of high principles, so much so that he becomes such a stiff one wonders why exactly Ilsa would ever think her choice would be hard.  However, even Henreid has his moment: when he leads the club band to play La Marseillaise to drown out the Germans singing Watch on the Rhine it becomes such an inspiring moment that only a leader like Victor Lazlo could get away with it and make it believable.  That is a particularly powerful moment, so powerful that one imagines even devout Francophobes like Sean Hannity would cheer the French national anthem as a song of defiance against tyranny.


I confess to being biased when it comes to picking my favorite character and favorite performance in Casablanca.  I'm a hopeless Claude Rains fan, and Captain Renault is the perfect blend of comedy and sophistication.  Throughout Casablanca, Rains' Renault manages to play all sides, and one really never knows where he stands in regards to whom he favors: the Allies or the Axis.  Even though he wasn't billed as one of the stars, it's obvious that Rains ran away with the film.  That guessing game, along with his great rapport with Bogart's Rick, makes Captain Renault one of the most delightful characters in film: witty, devious, insincere to the Nth degree, but always with a bit of humor to the proceedings.

It also helps in my Renault-love that he has the best line in Casablanca.  For those who've never seen it, his reaction to being "shocked, SHOCKED" is both instantly recognizable (that line being one of many that has entered the popular lexicon) and just deliberately funny.

Here is where I'd like to segway a little into one of the best things about Casablanca: the screenplay by twins Julius J. & Phillip G. Epstein and Howard Koch.  Again and again there is so much subtext in the dialogue: while the characters may be saying one thing it's clear they mean something else.  There are a wide variety of examples: when Rick mentions to Ugarte that he'd heard the two murdered couriers were carrying letters of transit, he doesn't flat-out say Ugarte killed them, but we figure that's what he meant.  Before Ugarte is arrested, he asks the police, "May I first please cash my chips?" Subtle, don't you think?

It isn't just in the dialogue (even though it is brilliant) but also in what is implied.  Major Strasser and his aide Colonel Heinz (Richard Ryen) are asking Rick about what he thinks of German invasions.  Asked if he can imagine the Germans in London, Rick replies, "When you get there, ask me."  When asked about New York, Rick tells Strasser that there are certain parts of New York he'd advise against invading.   Later on, a drunk Rick asks Sam, "If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?"  Sam's noncommital answer is that his watch's stopped.  "I bet they're asleep in New York.  I bet they're asleep all over America."

This can be read many ways.  It may be referring to the peace of sleep Rick can't have because the woman he loved has suddenly appeared in his life again.  It also plainly could be a reference to how America was 'asleep' to the Nazi/Axis threat.  The genius of Casablanca is that so much is being said without overtly being spoken. 

Throughout the movie there are moments of wit, of humor, of romance lost, found, and redeemed without taking away from the overall story of people trying to get away. 

So many lines from Casablanca are now part of our everyday jargon...

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
We'll always have Paris.
Here's looking at you, kid.
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

that we don't even think about the source.  And this isn't even touching on both the most MISQUOTED line from Casablanca (Play it again, Sam, which is not in the film), and Bogart's farewell to Bergman at the airport.  His entire speech is perfection, the words, the delivery, the performance, the music.

Damn it, I'm not ashamed to admit it: I cry at this point no matter how often I see or even hear it.  And yes, I can mouth the lines, even Bergman's. 

Again and again, Casablanca is just perfect.  Just Perfect. 

Lest I forget two more great things about Casablanca.  We have Dooley Wilson as Rick's piano player/friend Sam.  Today we don't even think about the fact that Sam is black, but I imagine in 1942-43 it is out of the ordinary to see a prominent role for an African-American, more so in that Sam is basically an equal to everyone else. 

I also need to mention Max Steiner's score, which like most of his work is top-notch.  As I mentioned before, Bergman's decision to rush off to For Whom The Bells Toll forced Steiner to keep As Time Goes By, the love song between Rick and Ilsa, in the film, rather than have an original song.  Steiner integrates As Time Goes By into the score so seemlessly one can't believe that the song wasn't written for Casablanca.  Wilson's delivery of As Time Goes By is so tender and beautiful it becomes a definitive love song.  However, the rest of Steiner's score, in particular the music for the montage of Rick & Ilsa's romance in Paris, is equally romantic.  The fact that the music serves to underscore an almost all-silent montage and sets the mood so beautifully is a credit to everyone: Steiner's music, Curtiz's direction, and Bogart & Bergman's acting.

There are a few things I will criticize Casablanca for.  Bergman at one point refers to Sam by asking about "the boy playing the piano", a cringe-worthy moment today (however, as I've mentioned having a sympathetic African-American character where race is unimportant was almost avant-garde by the standards of the time).  There are also a couple of lines that are typical of over-stylized 1940s writing.  When Rick and Ilsa hear the cannons approaching Paris, she asks, "Is that cannon fire, or the sound of my heart pounding?"  There is also strange leaps of logic in terms of geography regarding the airport: it shifts from being out in the desert to being right in front of Rick's Cafe, which in hindsight is laughable and illogical.

Despite all these flaws, Casablanca is still a film that is simply brilliant and whose errors can be both forgiven and forgotten.  Why?  Because the acting (from Rains' delightfully duplicitous official to Bogart and Bergman's ill-fated lovers) is too good.  Because the core story (being better to have loved and lost than not loved at all) is too good.  Because it flows so quickly that one almost doesn't notice the story takes place over a mere three nights (!) with one flashback.  Because As Time Goes By fits so beautifully and because it is a beautiful love song that sets the mood so well.  Because its themes of standing for what is right, even if one must sacrifice personal happiness, still evokes that emotional reaction.



Rick and Ilsa Will Always Have Paris.
 
We Will Always Have Casablanca. 

Please Visit the Best Picture Retrospective for reviews of all films that won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science's highest award.

1944 Best Picture Winner: Going My Way

DECISION: A+

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Still I Look To Find A Reason To Believe

THE MASTER

Let me start off my review for The Master by saying that alas, this isn't the film version of the 1984 television show of the same name which starred Lee Van Cleef as a ninja master. 

I can't help suppressing a chuckle every time I think of Lee Van Cleef as a ninja master, but hey, I LIKED the show.  Then again the shows I tend to like no one watches: Due South, The Cape, Journeyman, Live Shot, Street Hawk.  I'm genuinely surprised Teen Wolf and/or Franklin & Bash haven't been cancelled given that I'm a fan of both.  Yet I digress. 

Sadly, The Master is also not a film about of one of the best villains from the longtime science-fiction show River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who).

The Master is the newest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, and I'll be honest: I'm not an Anderson acolyte.  I found things to admire in his last film, There Will Be Blood, but on the whole I found watching that film a hideous experience.   When it comes to The Master, I get the same feeling: there are brilliant things within it, but the film is a bit too pretentious for my tastes (and I say this as a self-described bourgeois snob). 

Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix) is a highly troubled World War II veteran: drunk, sex-obsessed, he drifts from photography at a high-end store to migrant farm worker.  After running from the death of another migrant farm worker who took too much of his homemade moonshine, he stows away on a ship holding a celebration. 

It is the wedding party for the daughter of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who we discover has a group of followers.  He is the mastermind behind "The Cause" a vaguely-Scientology like theology that involves sessions where you regress to memories of your past lives.  Dodd takes a liking to Freddie (and to his moonshine) and soon brings him into his inner circle. 

Said inner circle includes his much-younger and pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), his newly-married daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), her new husband Clark (Rami Malek), and somewhat in the shadows, his son Val (Jessie Plemons).  Lancaster 'processes' (read Audits) Freddie, uncovering deep and disturbing secrets.

Freddie, the id to Lancaster's ego, physically fights for him and his Cause, even though Dodd constantly tries to alter Freddie's violent tendencies.  Peggy continuously mistrusts Freddie, thinking that perhaps he is beyond saving and might be insane.  Elizabeth hits on Freddie sometimes, and Clark is more devoted to Lancaster and The Cause than Val, who knows his father is 'making it up as he goes along' but still doesn't mind apparently living off the fortune he amasses.

Lancaster thinks of Freddie as something of a test case, trying to manipulate him into being someone better.  Freddie for his part goes back and forth (in one long sequence, quite literally), eventually leaving the Dodds to look up his long-lost love.  She, we find, married and moved on, so Freddie goes back to doing what he does best: screwing and drinking, but now with certain new techniques learned from his time with The Master...

It isn't so much that I don't get where Anderson wants to go with The Master as it is I find no interest in going there.  Although I'm loath to compare one's previous work with what I've seen, I can't help think that Anderson is trying to do in The Master what he did with There Will Be Blood.

In particular, I wonder if he directs his leading star to be very showy; just as I found Daniel Day-Lewis to be wildly over-the-top in TWBB, I found Phoenix's mannerisms (the way he moved and held his body) to be similarly actor-ish, drawing attention to itself.  This isn't to say he didn't have moments of excellence (his meltdown at the jail was marvelous to watch) but I couldn't help thinking it was all a bit exaggerated.

This isn't the case with either Hoffman or Adams, who are top-notch as the Dodds.  One never knows whether Lancaster knows he's a charlatan, whether he genuinely believes his ideas, or whether he's just insane.  Indications are that it's the second, and for the most part Hoffman plays Lancaster as a sincere, controlled man.  It's when he breaks and erupts, whether it's at the jail with Freddie or a quick outburst with one of his disciples (Laura Dern in a too-small role) that we see the thin cracks beneath the veneer of the all-knowing Master.

Similarly, Adam's Peggy is someone who appears so devoted to The Cause but who by the end appears more interested in keeping what power she has amassed behind the throne.  One actually wonders whether SHE is the brains in the operation.

There are other things within The Master that I found brilliant.  I imagine that like his score for There Will Be Blood,  Jonny Greenwood's score for The Master will divide people.  The music for the film reflected accurately the rather twisted and dissonant world of Freddie and the controlling world of Dodd.  In Greenwood's score I thought I heard the influence of Stravinsky and Debussy which I think worked to bring in the disintegrated minds of the characters.  It also had the benefit of not overwhelming the film itself.

Likewise, Mihai Malaimare, Jr.'s cinematography worked to explore the false light of The Master, and his piercing camera work on such small matters as when we have the photography montage or any close-ups brings that eeriness Anderson was aiming for.

However, the big failure of The Master is in the actual script.  We never see why Freddie stays so loyal to Dodd, or why Val thinks that his father is a fraud, or the reason for the naked dancing.  We never understand why so many people would follow Dodd or explore the relationship between Dodd and Freddie.  Moreover, the drifting between past and present (courtesy of Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty's editing) sometimes makes one wonder where exactly one is in the story.

What drew Freddie to The Cause?  We don't know.  What drew Dodd to Freddie (other than a sense that he knew Freddie in a past life)?  We don't know.  Why is Dodd singing to Freddie?  We don't know.  Why is Elizabeth hitting on Freddie (a plot point that is suggested but never followed up, which is even stranger considering what a horndog Freddie is)? We don't know.  Why did Freddie decide to just get on the motorbike and ride off to find his long-lost love (another storyline that goes nowhere)? We don't know.

The ending does not help.  Is it flashback?  Is it dream?  It certainly is pointless.

One thing I do note is that Anderson certainly knows his films and can draw from other works to inform his film.  For example, the scenes of Freddie at the V.A. hospital could have come straight from the John Huston documentary Let There Be Light.  Having recently seen that film, it is clear that Anderson drew inspiration from Huston's work to how he directed and filmed that particular sequence.

The Master is at its core quite hollow despite good performances.  If it were not for Adams, Hoffman, Dern (again, wildly underused to where the film from HER perspective would have been more interesting than the story involving Freddie) and Phoenix, The Master would be derided as so much pseudo-artistic pretentiousness.  Ultimately, for all the work Freddie does, we don't end up caring about him or Dodd or their relationship or how Dodd managed to get all these followers or anyone's eventual dissilutionment or anything about them.                

THIS would have been a more entertaining movie...


DECISION: C-

Monday, September 24, 2012

Greek Default

Born 1962

The nation of Greece has had problems recently: a towering debt, an inability to provide for its citizens, the British refusal to hand over the Elgin Marble to Athens.  Despite this, it has given us great drama, philosophy, architecture.  The list of Greek artistic contributions is incomparable.

And then there's Nia Vardalos...

For a civilization that has given us truly titanic performers such as Maria Callas and...and...well, I don't have anything against Nia Vardalos, but I am beginning to wonder whether she has cashed in all the goodwill she got from milking (or perhaps mocking) her ancestry and all their delightful eccentricities.

I am in a minority in that I was neither charmed or impressed with Nia Vardalos' breakthrough film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  In that movie, she makes a big deal about being Greek and the quirks that come with it.  I've seen it a few times, and frankly, I fail to see why so many people were so enthralled with it.

I suppose the humor comes from what is suppose to be a delightful culture clash between the WASP Millers (of which the ever-hunky Ian {John Corbett} belonged to) and the Greek Portokalos clan (the Nia Vardalos character).  I however, was quite irritated, almost angered, at how Vardalos appeared to treat her Greek family.

What I saw were two parents who fled violence in their homeland to earn success in America (well, technically Canada, but why split hairs?), made a comfortable life for their children, and generally become entrepreneurs (her father with his restaurant, her aunt with a travel agency).  Yes, they were exaggerated in their passion of all things Greek, but while the Greek flag painted on the garage door was a touch too much I fail to see why it was a source of such horror. 

Perhaps because I am Mexican-American, I am numb to seeing others with the Aztec eagles on their car windows and the Mexican flag flying over El Paso.  In fact, most people of Mexican descent in El Paso, even those of third or fourth generation, think of themselves as "Mexican" and will almost always root for Mexico over the U.S. in soccer or boxing.

Who says Hispanics aren't integrating into the mainstream?

In any case, when Toula told us she had I think 18 first cousins, I wasn't impressed.  I have 18 first cousins too, and that's just on my mom's side.  Being Mexican, my dear Nia,  I am well-acquainted with large families. 

What really angered me is that for a film that is suppose to be a celebration of family and of our various ancestries, MBFGW appeared to go out of its way to mock them.  Toula was constantly horrified and embarrassed that her Greek relations couldn't measure up to her WASP-ish aspirations.  Everything they did to show how honoring their ancestry and customs only served to have Toula hang her head in shame: the Greek Orthodox baptism and Easter celebrations, the large family get-togethers, the Portokalos' unfamiliarity with bunt cakes and heaping helpings to ouzo. 

My impression of Toula was a negative one: this spoiled woman embarrassed by the family that does genuinely love her (even if at times it's a smothering love) and who wants desperately to be anything other than what she is, who wants independence but doesn't want to stand up for herself against a very old-world father.  Why she couldn't tell her Windex-loving father that she is 30 years old and doesn't need to have her newest boyfriend (who apparently, might have been her FIRST boyfriend) come in to ask permission to date her is beyond me.

Honey, I've been there.  Many things about my family embarrass me (their love for the Cowboys, their feuds going on for generations), but I have also learned to embrace certain things.  If I ever have a daughter, I will insist on a quinceaƱera.  I didn't fine much to shout "Opah" about MBFGW, but didn't hate it either. 

As a side note, I think Ian was remarkably compliant to the wishes of her very peculiar brood.  He went along with everything they wanted no matter how trivial or insulting it might have been to him or his own with no complaints whatsoever.  She should count herself lucky that she found her Ian (if it was half Puerto Rican-Ian GOMEZ, and to be frank when I think of WASPs, Boriquas are not the first to come to mind, yet I digress). 

Ultimately, fine: you get your relatively harmless little 'let's make fun of the Greeks romantic comedy.  How then to parlay such success? 

How's this for an 'original' idea?  Two second-rate performers witness a mob murder, so they go on the lamb as women pretending to be men pretending to be women?

Well, no I wasn't describing Some Like It Hot Meets Victor/Victoria.  I was describing Connie & Carla, her follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding.   To her credit, she didn't try to get gold by mining the same material...at least not immediately.

Instead, she came up with a screenplay that appears all but ripped off from two better films.  I don't think for one nanosecond that Vardalos was trying to pull a fast one here, despite some surprising parallels in story.  However, once one is given carte-blanche to do just about anything (a rarity in Hollywood), why did she opt to make a movie about women pretending to both be drag queens AND running from the mob?

It all seems like Vardalos was trying to throw in too much into one film.  I would have advised her to drop the Mafia storyline and go straight for the drag (no pun intended).  The story could have focused on how these two women, desperate for a job, tried (apparently with success) to pass themselves off as men.  However, I do wonder whether Connie & Carla relies on stereotypes. 

Are gay men all really that obsessed with musicals and drag queens?  I know a few gay people, and they enjoy football (not necessarily football players--they can give you statistics and plays), and I know straight people who hate sports but love opera.  Go Figure.

OK, so you had a bomb right after the Big Hit.  No worries: let's get back to formula.  People love laughing at Greeks?  All right, let's give them more Greek humor. 


Enter My Life In Ruins (what IS it with Vardalos and bad puns). I joked at the time that it should have been re-titled My Career In Ruins, and even those who loved laughing (with/at) over the shenanigans among her relatives couldn't muster doing the same over the same schtick with the natives.  One need only look at the name given to the romantic lead (Poupi Kakas) to realize this is going to be terrible. 

Seriously, Nia?  Poupi Kakas?  Isn't it enough that you've ridiculed your relatives that you have to reduce yourself to making fun of their names?!

Poupi Kakas?  That's something a four-year-old would find hilarious.  Here, it's just embarrassing. 

Now we'll cut Vardalos a bit of slack in that she didn't write My Life In Ruins, but she went along with it.  Whether she thought 'Poupi Kakas' was funny or not I have no way of knowing, but it was a mistake all around to try for something like this.  Given that Toula Miller worked at a travel agency, it might have gone better if this HAD been a sequel.  Heck, it might have been about the Ian-Toula honeymoon: what better place than the motherland?

The poster certainly indicates it is.  Note that like in MBFGW, the characters are off on the side, observing her.  It references a 'going to Greece' by the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.


After My Life/Career In Ruins bombed (her second bomb), maybe it wasn't the Greek angle that needed revisiting.  Maybe it was the John Corbett angle.  After all, a little Aidan goes a long way.  Hence, I Hate Valentine's Day, which not only brings Corbett and Vardalos together again (giving such romantic teams as Day & Hudson, Powell & Loy, Astaire & Rogers and Tracy & Hepburn a run for their money) but which Vardalos both wrote AND directed. 

Yet again we have another bomb.  Not a disappointment, but a bomb.   I venture to say the leads weren't the only ones who hated THIS Valentine's Day.  For this, Vardalos has herself and herself only to blame.  She's the star, the writer, and the director.  If it failed on those three fronts, then it is her fault and her fault alone.

So far we have ONE hit, THREE flops.  So now what?  Well, let's write a screenplay with her longtime mentor Tom Hanks where the Everyman plays an Everyman going cheerfully through the Great Recession.

I've said enough about Larry Crowne, a film I disliked intensely and that shows that it doesn't matter what your politics, the 1% (of which Hanks is) will not understand the 99%.  When they attempt to (as Hanks & his co-writer Vardalos did with Larry Crowne), the results are almost insulting to those who use their hard-earned money to pay these elitists who think World War II was a racist war against the sweet Japanese who did us no harm.      

On this her birthday, I offer advise to Nia Vardalos.  First, STOP WRITING.  You wrote ONE thing that was popular, but after that every screenplay you've offered has been rejected by the American public.  If it weren't for your patron Tom Hanks, I imagine your other stories wouldn't see the light of day.

Two, character parts are what you should do.  I don't think you aren't without some abilities, but you are not a leading lady.  Even in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, people didn't come to see you.

Three, don't expect to go to the well and continue drawing water.  You went down the Greek route to disastrous results.  You went down the John Corbett route with even more disastrous results.  I suggest you try finding things where you don't have to carry a picture and where you don't milk your heritage to the Nth degree.  Zorba was less chatty about his heritage than you.

I should also point out that for someone who makes an almost annoying deal about being of Greek descent, you chose to Anglicize your name: Bar-Dallas rather than the more Greek-sounding Varr-Dah-Lows. Just a thought. 

With that, I wish a Happy 50th Birthday to Nia Vardalos. 

       

   

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Making A Killing In the Circus

BERSERK!

Allow me, if you will, to indulge in a little nostalgia.  Many moons ago, Turner Network Television (TNT), had late-night programming called 100% Weird.  It aired all sorts of odd films.  Thanks to 100% Weird, I saw two films that captivated me.  One was Theater of Blood (still a great title).  The other?  Berserk!  Both were, well...weird, but strangely compelling in their lunacy and unapologetic in their bizarreness. 

 I can't say anything bad about Berserk! even though it isn't exactly M-G-M material, despite its star, once the Queen of M-G-M Studios, Joan Crawford.  Berserk! was her penultimate film, and while by no means can it qualify as good, it is entertaining enough if one doesn't think long on it. 

Monica Rivers (Crawford) owns The Great Rivers Circus, but it doesn't live up to its billing.  It looks like it's fallen on hard times, but then a bit of luck turns up Monica's way.  One of her leading acts, high-wire acrobat Gaspar the Great (Thomas Cimarro) gets killed when his wire not only snaps but wraps itself around his neck, strangling him in front of the audience.  While Monica is horrified, she also sees a golden opportunity: people will start coming to the circus to hopefully see a repeat of death.

Her business partner Dorando (Michael Gough) is displeased and wants out, but for the moment they are stuck together.  Enter Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin), billed as The Magnificent Hawkins, who can do Gaspar better: he can walk on a tightrope both blindfolded AND over a row of exposed bayonets.

Why do I keep thinking that CAN'T be good?

In any case, The Great Rivers Circus manages to keep touring, despite Gaspar's grisly death.  However, there are more murders haunting the joint.  Dorando gets a spike in his head, and soon the crew suspects Monica herself of killing people for nefarious reasons, including publicity.  Circus talent/tart Matilda (Diana Dors) is open about accusing Monica, while Monica's loyal midget Bruno (George Claydon) defends her.  Of course, Matilda has her own reasons to hate Monica: she has taken a shining to Frank, while Frank has eyes (and his body) only for Monica (despite a visible age gap of twenty-six years between the acrobat and the Ringmistress). 

Sent from Scotland Yard to investigate is Detective Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) a bit of a dandy who observes all the chicanery going on.  

Now we get a new arrival: Monica's daughter Angela (Judy Geeson), recently expelled from school who now becomes part of a new act: knife-throwing. 

Good thing too, now that Matilda has been 'accidentally' sawed in half.  How many murders will there be?  Who done it?  Is it Monica?  Her faithful midget? (Never expected to write THAT line).  What about Frank himself?

Well, you're wrong...after one last murder the serial killer is unmasked at last, and Berserk! ends with our (highly-implausible) assassin getting the shock of their death!

When one watches Berserk! one certainly doesn't watch it for its plot (Aben Kandel and producer Herman Cohen doing the screenplay and story honors).  This is because the story is idiotic.  Right from the get-go it doesn't make sense.  In order to believe Berserk!, we have to believe that the unseen killer not only managed to slip around the circus unseen to tamper with Gaspar's equipment, but also managed to get the tightrope to go around his neck as he fell.  Even worse, when the actual killer is discovered, the killer's identity is ridiculous because we've NEVER been given any indication that said person could POSSIBLY have done it.

In a curious twist of fate and without giving too much away, Berserk! appears to be similar to an earlier Crawford film: Strait-Jacket.  You have a series of murders, Joan Crawford's character as a chief suspect, and the final discovery of the killer who happens to be the same one as in both films.  If you've seen Strait-Jacket, you should know who the killer in Berserk! is.

The odd thing is that in Strait-Jacket, it did have a bit of intelligence (the screenplay was by Psycho author Robert Bloch) without losing a slightly camp feel (the director was William Castle).  In Berserk!, all one has is the camp feel (the obvious limits on the budget being evident).  The story is illogical and some of the acting is weak.

Before he became the loyal manservant Alfred Pennyworth to a whole generation, Michael Gough was known as a villain par excellence in British cinema, and in Berserk! he isn't strictly evil but a bit of a weak man.  In a curious twist, two characters dressed like Batman and Robin from the campy 60s television show appear in the Circus Parade. 

Also as a side note, keep an eye for Geoffrey Keen in a small role as Brooks' superior.  Bond film aficionados will recognize him from his appearances as the Minister of Defence in some of the Roger Moore-era 007 pictures. 

Hardin is the requisite hunk, and while Crawford's lighting makes it obvious that she is being presented in the best light possible (no pun intended), one wonders how producer Cohen or director Jim O'Connolly didn't think that a 61-year-old woman having romantic relations with a 35-year-old man wouldn't look a bit peculiar (especially in 1967).   Hawkins' motives are suspect: is he playing Monica for a fool, romancing her to get his hands on shares of the circus?  While that would appear to be the logical conclusion, as directed Hardin appears genuinely fascinated and passionate about Monica.

Talk about Granny Complexes!

Here is where Joan Crawford deserves high praise.  Crawford never cheats in a performance.  In Berserk!, she plays it totally straight, giving her usual strong performance as the sober and realistic Monica.  One can't fault her for giving even B-Picture material like Berserk! her total commitment.  Despite her flaws (and from what one has read, she had spades of them), she always played everything straight and never veered into winking at the audience or being as camp as the material;  there were ample opportunities, with loyal midgets and a man young enough to be her son madly in love with her, but for all intents and purposes Crawford acted as if everything were completely realistic.


One has to admire how Joan Crawford, even in her 60s, still had gams of which to be proud of.  They are accentuated by her ringmistress costume,  one created by an uncredited Edith Head as a favor to Crawford.  All her other outfits were her own, and if one watches Berserk! with that in mind one can appreciate that she had a certain sartorial style.

Berserk! in many ways is a B-Picture: illogical, a bit obvious in its artiface (seeing "Hawkins" plunge to his death is laughable), but Crawford gave it her all and was totally committed to the role.  It isn't a good film, but if one is willing to dispense with reality and not be too hung up (pardon the pun) on both the killer's identity (which is totally ridiculous and a cheat) and said killer's end (a howler that might have you singing, "and the lighting strikes"), Berserk! is a good way of wasting time and marveling at how a once-great star could be reduced to low-rent material but who was still a consummate pro that she gave even something as bad as Berserk! her all.

Perhaps Berserk! is the best way to sum up the final roles of Joan Crawford's career.      

DECISION: C+

Friday, September 21, 2012

Neither Fairest Nor Foulest Of Them All

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

It wasn't that long ago that we had a Snow White-based film.  That one, Mirror Mirror, was a decidedly light affair: cute, whimsical, colorful.  Now we have Snow White & The Huntsman, which we might consider its mirror opposite (pun definitely intended).  Here, it's a darker, grittier feature.  SW&TH isn't as terrible as one might have feared, but it is not as good as one might have hoped.

Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) has ruled with a malevolent grip ever since she killed her husband the King on their wedding night.  She has, however, kept her stepdaughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) prisoner in the castle.  Now Snow has come of age, and with that comes a threat to her power.  As it stands, the Mirror gives Ravenna good news: if she eats Snow's heart, then she can be eternally beautiful.  Sure beats stealing the beauty and youth of the young girls of the kingdom.  If she doesn't, then Snow White is destined to destroy Ravenna.  UNFORTUNATELY, thanks to Ravenna's incompetent brother/potential lover Finn (Sam Spruell), Snow manages to escape.

Now she gets The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a drunk and recent widower.  He's cajoled into hunting down Snow with a vague promise from Ravenna to have his wife resurrected.  However, once the Huntsman catches up to Snow, he learns that not only will Ravenna NOT be able to fulfill her side of the bargain, but she was responsible for his wife's death.  With that, The Huntsman turns on Finn & Company and he and Snow go off into the Dark Forest.

Among their adventures are an encounter with the troll from The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a village of defaced women (who mutilate themselves so as to avoid Ravenna's wrath), a magical elk, and a group of dwarves, who recognize in Snow this Earth Mother-like being, one who might bring balance to The Force...I mean, nature.  As Snow, the Hunstman, and the dwarves all continue to the home of her uncle, a Duke, and her childhood friend William (Sam Claflin).  Clafin has already infiltrated Ravenna's search party as an archer but as soon as he and Snow are reunited he joins her.

Ravenna tricks Snow into eating the poisoned apple, but alas...William's kiss cannot restore her to life.  One guess as to WHOSE kiss can...

With Snow revived, she turns from waifish to Warrior Princess as she leads her new Army, joined with William's sword and the Huntsman's ax, to a climatic battle with Ravenna.
  


I understand that Kristen Stewart worked closely with director Rupert Sanders, but one wouldn't have gotten that impression from the final product.  It isn't so much that SW&TH is terrible as it is slow, dull, and a bit chaotic.

Part of the blame for this falls on Hossein Amini, John Lee Hancock, and Evan Doughtery for a very jumbled screenplay (with Doughtery credited for screen story) that threw in so much that wouldn't hold.  I GET that the business of walking on a bridge guarded by a monster was a way to communicate that Snow White had some quasi-mystical power over the forces of nature, but it both seemed unnecessary AND looked like we were getting another fairy story.  Same goes for the business of meeting this magical, mystical white elk that would allow Snow to touch him.  All this appeared to try to make SW&TH some sort of second-rate Lord of the Rings/Star Wars knock-off when if it had just put its focus on what the story wanted to tell we could have had a more streamlined story. 

Part of the blame also falls on the performers.  K-Stew is still a poor actress.  She's great whenever she is asked to stand still, but when she is required to express emotions she can't get past her one facial expression, which appears to be one of confusion.  Hemsworth still hasn't convinced me he is a great actor because he might as well have been playing Thor: Medieval Times.   I give him (and the screenplay) credit for trying to make the Huntsman a more rounded character, what with his wife dying and all.  However, there really is nothing for Hemsworth to work with.  The Huntsman doesn't appear to have any opinion on Snow White (neither falling for her or disdaining her), so when we get the predictable matter of The Kiss, I wondered why he would want to be around her.

As for Claflin, one feels for him because he seems to be an afterthought, as if SW&TH needed both a Prince and a romatic rival to a love story that simply isn't there. 

In perhaps the strangest twist, while the film is called Snow White & The Huntsman, it's amazing how superfluous both are to the story.  If there were truth in advertising, it should have been called The Evil Queen, for it's Theron's show almost from the get-go.  She seems to be having fun being so evil (right down to the chuckles I heard when she bathes in milk to preserve her beauty...right down to keeping her crown on). 

Again, here is where the script fails.  It tries to give Ravenna this motivation about how oppressed women are in the world, and how she uses her beauty to gain power (political and physical) over men, especially those who would try to abuse her.  One shouldn't give sympathetic motives to evil.  Ravenna needed to be evil because she WAS evil, not because she was vulnerable.  It was a mistake to try to justify her actions in any way.

It's all right to have the trappings of the Brothers Grimm story (the apple, the dwarves--even if they really weren't there for any purpose), but SW&TH never had anywhere to go in terms of plot.

The BIG puzzle to me is WHY they would want to make a sequel to Snow White & The Huntsman (apart from the fact that it made a lot of money). Even more bizarre to me is the idea that it would be a sequel for THE HUNTSMAN!  As played by a dull Hemsworth, the Huntsman is a bit of a bore: never drunk enough to be funny, never sober enough to be menacing, never interesting enough to be roguishly charming.  He's a big lug of nothing, offering nothing in terms of wit or interest (but a little bit of muscle).  Still, taking down people with an ax isn't a great start to build an entire film around the Huntsman. 

He wasn't interesting in Snow White & The Huntsman, so why would we want to see MORE adventures with someone as dull as him?

I can give credit where credit is due: Greig Fraser's cinematography did get the gritty look Sanders was going for.  Most everything else: from the sets that look like sets to James Newton Howard's typically bombastic and overblown score, just makes SW&TH a bore and needlessly long and self-important.         

Snow White & The Huntsman are a couple of boring people who make for dull viewing.  Ravenna is another matter.  A film about HER might, MIGHT be worth watching.  A sequel with these two sleep-inducing characters performed by these two limited actors?  They won't be the apple of my eyes. 

DECISION: D+ 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Christmas Has Officially Ruined Our Bonding Experience



THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH

The Bond Film Retrospective

The World Is Not Enough has been trashed for among many things having Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist, a muddled and excessively complicated script, Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist, some dull action sequences, Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist, an overwrought theme song, and Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist.

Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist is, shockingly enough, the LEAST of The World Is Not Enough's problems. 

We've had outlandish plots, villains, Bond Girls, and songs before, but have we ever had them all in ONE FILM and worse, that it bungles just about everything that could make said flaws at least entertaining in a fun and goofy way?

We start with basically two opening sequences rolled into one: 007 James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) has recovered the money taken from Sir Robert King (David Calder) which an MI6 agent has been killed over.  At MI6 headquarters, Sir Robert's cash bombs...literally.  A chase through the River Thames to catch the killer (Maria Grazia Cucinotta, billed as the Cigar Girl) ends with her blowing herself up above the Millennium Dome.

With MI6 attacked and Sir Robert dead, we go to their Scottish headquarters.  Sir Robert's fortune, especially his vast oil company, now goes to his daughter, Elektra (Sophie Marceau).  Elektra has a tragic past: she had been kidnapped and held for ransom but had managed to escape.

If this reminds one of the Patty Hearst case, believe me, you are at least five steps ahead of the story of The World Is Not Enough.

In any case, M (Judi Dench), a friend to the King family, had earlier advised Sir Robert NOT to pay the ransom but now thinks that Elektra might make a good way to smoke out her abductor, the infamous terrorist Victor Zokas, aka Renard "The Anarchist" (Robert Carlyle).  An MI6 agent (I presume the one mentioned earlier as being killed, but TWINE--seriously, the initials spell out 'twine'?) had shot him in the head, but not managed to kill him.  It did, however, make Renard impervious to pain. 

With that, Bond flies to the exotic locale of...Azerbaijan, a place filled with rather ugly oil fields.  Elektra, who apparently is part Azerbaijani on her mother's side (despite the British father, French accent, and total lack of swarthy Azerbaijani features) is now the next target of Renard, her former kidnapper who has killed the other people involved as revenge for her escape.

Yep, it's getting that convoluted, but wait...there's more.

Elektra and Bond share a night of passion, but no time for romance, for he suspects her security detail is part of the plot.  Of course, we already know that after the attack on Elektra and Bond in the Caucasus because King security chief Davidov (Ulrich Thompson) MEETS with Renard.  Renard kills Dr. Arkov (Jeff Nuttal), the man whom Davidov is now instructed to impersonate to help with something at a nuclear disarmament site.

Bond now manages to pretend to be Davidov who is suppose to be Dr. Arkov and is taken to the site, where we meet Dr. Christmas Jones (the aforementioned Richards).  She is helping disarm spent nuclear weapons, but Renard and his crew are there to steal weapon materials.  Bond can't kill Renard but Dr. Jones (does anyone else have Short Round shouting in his/her head) almost instantly knows that Bond ISN'T Dr. Arkov.  No matter: Renard manages to steal the plutonium and nearly kills off Bond and Dr. Jones.

Something Renard says makes Bond realize that Renard is in cahoots with Elektra King.  She apparently is now a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, but no one believes Bond (not M, who comes to Azerbaijan at Elektra's request) and apparently not Elektra herself.  However, we soon discover that Elektra is blowing up her own pipelines on order of Renard. 

Bond and Dr. Jones manage to diffuse the bomb hurling down the pipeline, but alas, Elektra takes M hostage herself as revenge for leaving her imprisoned and advising Sir Robert to not pay the ransom.  Now it's off to Istanbul, where King and Renard plan to blow up the city.

The reasons are a bit murky: it's either to help profit Elektra's pipeline or as orders of a mad Renard.  Bond, with a little help from Dr. Jones and Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) from GoldenEye, they find the villains.  Bond offs Elektra, rescues M, and with the help of Dr. Jones, defeats Renard.  We end TWINE with Bond enjoying a Merry Christmas.

Hey, if Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Bruce Feirstein's screenplay (from a story by Purvis and Wade) can have frightful puns, why can't I?


There are so many things wrong with TWINE that to put the blame all on Roberts is unfair (though she is a big part of the problem as well).  The chief problem with the story is that it doesn't make sense.  It never decided on WHO was the villain and WHO was the henchman, let alone what their motivations were.

Elektra sometimes appeared to be totally in Renard's power (sleeping with your former abductor would qualify as Stockholm Syndrome).  HOWEVER, sometimes she appeared totally in control of her own actions (such as when she lashes out at M for advising her father to withhold the ransom money).  This, along with a perfectly rational plan to destroy Istanbul to enrich herself, makes it appear that she is in full command of the situation and her senses.

So you have a story where sometimes Renard is working for Elektra, and where sometimes Elektra is working for Renard (whose own motives about blowing up Istanbul are opaque to say the least).  You never really sense that they are working in tandem because if that were the case, what would be the point of Davidov working with Renard to get at Elektra?

It just doesn't make any sense on any level.  TWINE should have settled on King being victim or perpetrator, one or the other.  Instead, it jumps between the two, never deciding what King or Renard was in terms of the story.  Who was working for whom?  Who was villain, who was henchman? 

Not that Marceau's performance helped settle matters.  She did the job she was asked: sometimes victim, sometimes villain, but once we know her evil intentions (which frankly should have been easy to figure out once we got the 'young girl kidnapped but escaped' story....at least I figured it out quickly) she should have committed to that.  This I think is more director Michael Apted's fault and less Marceau, but even when she was suppose to be the victim she wasn't convincing.

I think that on the whole she isn't a memorable Bond Girl or Bond Villain because of the direction and script she was given, and the chance to have the first female Bond Villain was wasted.

Not that Denise Richards did anyone any favors as Dr. Christmas Jones.   She has been derided as being one of the worst Bond Girls and that she was completely unbelievable as a nuclear scientist.  I was not immediately convinced that she couldn't do the job of playing a brilliant scientist.

It took me a couple of minutes to accept that she was a disastrous choice. 

I accepted that fact when she is caught in the firefight between Renard/his men and Bond.  This is suppose to be a brilliant scientist, but apparently she is so brilliant SHE DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH SENSE TO MOVE ONCE THE BULLETS STARTED FIRING.  Bond literally had to pull her out of the line of fire, while Richards (with a blank wide-eyed stare) just stood there as bullets started zipping all around her.  I started laughing at how stupid Christmas Jones was.  She was just standing there as Renard starts shooting, not moving (or screaming) until Bond pulls her out of the way.

Now, let me tackle the name of our Bond Girl.  Christmas Jones.  In the way of the world this isn't the silliest or most provocative Bond Girl name.  We've had Xenia Onatopp, Plenty O'Toole, Tiffany Case, Octopussy, Dr. Goodhead, and the Citizen Kane of Bond Girl names, Miss Pussy Galore.   TWINE made two terrible mistakes with the name Christmas Jones.   

The first in in Jones' defensiveness when it came to it.  All the other Bond Girls with silly names just went along with it.  As far as they were concerned there was nothing odd or silly or provocative to being called Goodhead or Pussy or Onatopp.  By drawing attention to the silliness of being named Christmas (I've heard all the jokes, Dr. Jones comments at first introducing herself to Bond),  we are all but told we're going to hear bad jokes at her expense.  All she had to do was say that she was born on December 24 or 25 and leave it at that. 

Even in such lousy Bond films as Moonraker (which I confess to enjoying) no one ever made any overt comments about the female being named "Goodhead".  The suggestion was there, but it was never touched. 

The second bad decision with being Christmas Jones is that we DO touch on it, with some absolutely groan-inducing.  Granted, at least they were saved until the end, but if they are going to be used, it should be done naturally, not forced the way they are in The World Is Not Enough.

These are the last few lines of the film:

Bond: I always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey.

Groan.

Jones: So isn't it time you unwrapped your present?

GROAN.

Bond (while in a love scene with Jones): I thought Christmas comes once a year.

GROAN.

I can only imagine the audiences who paid to see it hooting and hollering at these abysmal lines.  I actually felt embarrassed for Brosnan and even Richards having to speak such horrible dialogue, even if in Richards' case, it was delivered badly.

Moving on, the worst of the lot has to be Carlyle.  That he is a good actor I don't doubt.  That he was laughable as Renard I don't doubt either.  This is a Bartha role if ever there was one.  There was nothing for Carlyle to work with.  We're told over and over that Renard is now impervious to pain, but we never actually see anyone trying to disprove it.  Apparently, he also is eventually going to die because of that bullet to the head, but it never is part of the story.  It's irrelevant in how TWINE goes.  He doesn't even die because of said bullet...he dies when Bond launches something at him. 

Therefore, why introduce a plot point when it never comes up? 

I'd like to move on to the title theme of The World Is Not Enough.  Garbage.  That's the name of the band that performed The World Is Not Enough.  We've had bad puns with Christmas, let's have some with Garbage. 

The song lives up to that name.  In terms of the David Arnold and Don Lewis song, the melody isn't that bad.  It hearkens to the more lush Shirley Bassey-style numbers that became the Gold Standard for Bond Themes.  However, the lyrics become rather inane right from the get-go (I know how to hurt/I know how to heal/I know what to show and what to conceal).  About the only good part of Shirley Manson's delivery is when she belts out "THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH", but everything else is rather weak in its attempt to be big, brassy, and bombastic. 

It's as if Manson wanted to be Bassey but ended up channelling Lulu trying to be Bassey. 

Lest I forget, I can't leave out Coltrane's return as the ex-KGB agent now running a casino in Baku among his other capitalist investments.  A few bad decisions on the part of TWINE.  First, he goes from helping to hurting to helping Bond--make up your mind.  Second, his character is like most things, irrelevant to the story.  His part could easily have been taken by another character.  Third, he has his own henchman: Bullion, or Bull (played by graffiti artist Goldie in what must have been a joke) who appears to be working for Elektra/Renard.  It is all becoming quite convoluted, needlessly so.  Finally, the decision to kill him off was a bad decision. 

Other things wrong were the various action scenes, all which were quite dull save for the opening Thames chase (the fact that Cucinotta was killed off rather quickly robbed us of a potentially good Bond henchwoman) as well as the introduction of John Cleese as Q's (Desmond Llewellyn) new assistant. 

Cleese is a true comedic genius (sorry, Dane Cook and Aziz Ansari), but here he's a distraction, as if John Fawlty found he'd wandered into MI6.  I didn't find it funny or clever but out of character (even for something as trivial as a Bond Film).



I cant remember if I've ever mentioned Llewellyn's Q in a Bond film review, but here he merits it.  The World Is Not Enough was his last Bond film before his death at 85.  He was at times a comic foil to his 007s (Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan) and Llewelyn's role, while always small, was welcomed because of his charm and seemingly brilliant-yet-clueless manner about things.  Q could build all sorts of outlandish gadgets but completely unaware of puns he made or that not everyone was as interested in the construction of gadgets as he was.

I wonder if the introduction of Cleese (billed as R) was a way to bring in a new gadget-master, and this should have been addressed years earlier as Llewellyn is all but tottering around the stage.  Still, knowing that he died in a car accident after TWINE makes his scene all the more poignant, as if he is seeding control of his iconic role.   

The World Is Not Enough is confused, disjointed, and both predictable and nonsensical.  Worse, it's just no fun.  What I thought of when watching Elektra and/or Renard's hare-brained scheme was that they just don't put the effort into maniacal schemes as they used to do.  The World Is Not Enough, and one can truly say this was the worst Christmas ever.

1914-1999
Next James Bond Film: Die Another Day

DECISION: D-