Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Elementary: A Landmark Story Review


Holmes Preservation...

Given that A Landmark Story is the first of interconnected Elementary stories that will revolve around Sherlock Holmes' (Jonny Lee Miller) search for Moriarty, the man responsible for his one true love Irene Adler's death, I wonder if I should judge this as the first part of either a trilogy or a quartet (since the season-finale is a two-part story).  However, let us now judge A Landmark Story on its own merits.   With some excellent performances and some nifty twists and turns, A Landmark Story is that (even if it gets a bit lost in itself).

Sebastian Moran (Vinnie Jones) is out of solitary confinement and back to his beloved Arsenal football match-watching when a news report catches his attention.  He summons Holmes to inform him that the victim, one Phillip Van Der Hoff (Byron Jennings) was an intended target for Moran by his employer, a certain Moriarty.  As such, Moran believes that Moriarty has hired another assassin to do his job.  He tells Holmes this because like the detective, our former Colonel wants revenge for being sold down the river.  With that, Holmes and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) begin investigating what was ruled a heart attack.

Now, we already know that Van Der Hoff has been murdered via manipulating his pacemaker.  An impromptu autopsy shows this, and Holmes deduces that this case is tied to the Taggart Speakeasy Museum, which has successfully remained protected by the Landmark designation.  However, Holmes finds that Landmark Board members one by one have slowly voted to deny landmark protection for the Museum (Vote to Revoke), and now they are one vote short.  The man most interested in the property, Robert Baumann (Laurence Lau) now is also conveniently dead, an air conditioner accidentally landing on him.

No accident says Holmes.  Having the sense that Hillary Taggart (Helen Coxe) is the next victim, he and Watson stakes her out.  With Watson's help he finds that she's allergic to insect stings, and deduces that the killer will use a 'convenient' bee hive to sting her to death.  A stake-out finds the killer, and Holmes now has a connection to Moriarty. 

The killer is Daniel Gottlieb (F. Murray Abraham), who uses his skills to kill people and make it look like accidents or natural deaths.  We learn that Gottlieb had once been contracted by Moriarty to kill Holmes via an 'accidental' overdose but at the last minute Moriarty cancels the order (the only time Gottlieb ever got a cancellation).  Gottlieb however has never actually met Moriarty, but his coded phone does help lead Holmes to a John Douglas (Roger Aaron Brown).  He knows something about Moriarty but is shot down before talking.

Holmes now is going to try to break the code, and tries to get Moran to help.  Moran at first appears to refuse, but too late does Holmes realize he's been played.  The code Holmes showed him was really meant for Moran, saying that either Moran die or his sister.  A Landmark Story ends with Holmes receiving a phone call, from one Moriarty...

I think we should call A Landmark Story the first part of an overarching story that will wrap up what has been on the whole a very good opening season for Elementary.   I almost feel I can't fully judge the story, however, because I feel tempted to see A.) how it fits into the overall story arc, and B.) it as part of one large story rather than an individual episode.  However, since I've been looking at these as a series of stories I will have to judge it as such.

On the whole, I found A Landmark Story to be filled with excellent performances.  F. Murray Abraham merits serious Guest Star in a Drama Emmy consideration.  His Daniel Gottlieb was wonderful and brilliant: never given to outbursts or hysterics, he was almost courtly and highly clever.  His opening scene where he tortures Van Der Hoff is almost light in how Abraham performs it: a man who takes pleasure in both the madness and the method.  One hopes that even though he has been handed over to the police Gottlieb might make a return appearance given he has proven a worthy advisory for Holmes.

We also give credit to Vinnie Jones, someone who has never been considered an actor but more of a tough guy who found himself in acting.  One wouldn't go to him to portray Macbeth but here Jones had a mixture of menace and madness as Moran.  When we learn that the code was actually a message for Moran, we can recognize that he didn't give away the fact that he was basically ordered to commit suicide.  It is an excellent performance.

I'd also say that both Miller and Liu find great moments together.  The little hint of a smile when Watson has to do the autopsy betray that he basically manipulated her into it.  He wanted her to do the autopsy but wouldn't admit it.  Later, when Holmes confesses that he won't go all psycho on Gottlieb as he did with Moran because "the thing that is different is you," we see a little smile slip past Liu, betraying her own delight at getting praise from the difficult Holmes.

Liu also brings a more menacing turn when she collaborates with Holmes in trying to squeeze information out of Gottlieb.  She certainly is turning out to be a magnificent Watson.

We still have some quips, mostly from Miller's Holmes.  When commenting on Taggart's activities, he remarks "The rest of her time seems to be devoted to running laps at the pace of a third grader with a sprained ankle."  Later, when Holmes is cracking the code (which has shades of The Dancing Men) and Watson inadvertently gives him the clue he needs, he exclaims, "Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable knack for stimulating it."

Corrine Brinkerhoff's script does seem to forget about the actual caper that brought us here (unless Moriarty has been the one involved in the shady land grab).  I confess to being a bit lost in that, and in the fact that poor Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell didn't even make an appearance (at least that I remember).  Also, we did go back slightly in having Watson have to keep up a bit with Holmes, and while it's not much one should watch for letting Miller and Liu slip to being trainer and stooge.

Still, on the whole I enjoyed A Landmark Story, particularly Abraham's turn as the methodical killer.  The plot may have been slightly forgotten, but hearing Moriarty's voice is quite chilling and effective, opening up what we hope will be a successful season finale. 

According to this, our identities have been stolen by
a Freeman and a Cumber-something...


Next Story: Risk Management              

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Host (2013): A Review (Review #538)


Lost in the Muck of Meyer...

Longtime readers know that I have nothing but contempt for Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight book series (as I call it, the erotic musings of a frumpy hausfrau).  The Host is her first post-Twilight book, this time venturing from vampires and werewolves to aliens.  I predict that The Host will be one of those movies one will watch late at night and laugh at, wondering how reasonably intelligent people could not see just how much of a disaster it actually was. 

Earth has been conquered by 'the Souls', aliens who have brought peace and love and understanding to our much-beleaguered planet.  The Souls have healed the Earth: made it clean, free from war and disease.  One would think humans would be grateful, and perhaps we would be if it weren't for that 'aliens taking over our bodies' bit.  While most of humanity has been invaded by these body snatchers (have to admire Meyer's unique ideas), there is a group of humans that won't submit to this programming.  These humans form some kind of resistance against Occupation, but they are a small group.

One of them is Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), who in the start of The Host throws herself out a window rather than have these soft-spoken white-clad figures take her body and mind (is it me, or can a case be made that the Souls, with their penchant for white ensembles and generally pleasant demeanor, be seen as a particular religious group?).  As it stands, while Melanie manages to survive she is implanted with a Soul who calls itself 'Wanderer'.  The Seeker (Diana Kruger), a Soul, wants to find the secret lair of these humans.  The Wanderer at first wants to tap into her 'host's' mind, but Melanie resists (usually by speaking sarcastically to the Wanderer's head). 

Eventually the struggle between Melanie and the Wanderer is too much, with the Wanderer literally pushed out the window (again) by Melanie.  Melanie/Wanderer goes to find her family, and eventually she finds them: her Uncle Jed (William Hurt), her brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) and her love interest Jared (Max Irons).

A side note: Jed, Jamie, Jared...what is it with writers and having three characters whose first name all start with the same first letter?

Well, Jared automatically distrusts her, Jamie is hopeful to have his sister back, and Jed protects her even if she is an alien and her aunt Magnolia (Francis Fisher) is openly hostile.  Only Ian (Jake Abel), someone who also started out suspicious of Wanderer (now nicknamed Wanda) starts to carry a torch for Wanda (over Melanie's loud...and I do mean LOUD...objections).  Well, the Seeker keeps hunting for Wanda and the Humans, while Wanda discovers a way to remove the Souls from humans without harming either. 

Eventually, Wanda asks the cave's physician (oh, yes,  the Humans have taken refuge in a series of caves, part of a dormant volcano system where one area is large enough for a wheat field) to remove her Soul.  The Seeker is captured and the Soul removed with her human restored.  As for Wanda, she is placed to her surprise in a human who was basically dead...therefore Wanda and Ian can be together and Jared and Melanie can be together.

The Host has so many things wrong with it that it soon becomes too hard to catalogue them all.  Let's start off with director Andrew Niccol's adaptation of the novel.  I can't imagine that someone as bad as Stephanie Meyer could come up with such hilarious lines as Wanda telling Jared, "No.  Kiss me like you want to get slapped."  (For clarification, Melanie will react by gibbering in Wanda's head if the former gets angry...and evidently the latter making out with anyone really sets her off).  That just had me laughing (even if it was in context), while other moments were equally amusing. 

The Host has an ongoing conversation between Wanda and Melanie as the latter attempts to keep some control over her body and emotions while basically powerless to do anything (except, of course, whenever the plot needs her to given that on one or two occasions Melanie is able to overtake Wanda and speak for herself).   Perhaps in the book this device works because we as the reader can 'see' into Wanda to 'hear' Melanie.  However, the film version always makes Melanie sound less like a brave and fiery spirit and more a whiny teenager.  "Don't you DARE smile at him!" Melanie 'says' when Wanda starts making goo-goo sparkly eyes at Ian.  It is even funnier when you hear it than when you read it.

This is a big problem with The Host.  Because we first meet Melanie as she plunges to her non-death we never got a sense of what kind of person she is/was, and the flashbacks didn't help establish anything else except that she fell for Jake, loves Jamie, and was like all Meyer females, aggressive sexually (for further example, see Swann, Bella).  Therefore, when we hear her voice, she comes across as some dippy teen who just wants to be with Jake, not fight against this Invasion.

As a side note, the actual invaders are almost comical.  They wear white clothes and have an affinity for silver vehicles.  I kept wondering why they were so terrible when they were so terribly nice, almost Mormon-esque in their behavior.  There was a vague sense that they wanted to take over humanity, but these few scenes of them (or particularly the Seeker) being aggressive even made it clear that they generally were not for killing.  If the humans wanted to get things, I figured given the world they lived in, it would have been easier to go into "Store" (that is how the location was noted), wear a white suit (with sunglasses) and just take what they needed (in this world, there was no need for money since the aliens just took what they needed and left with smiles on their faces...almost Stepford-like).   The entire 'let's rob Store at night' thing seemed almost ridiculous.

However, not as ridiculous as what was suppose to be an exciting action scene that ends in two characters' deaths.  First, we never really got to know who the dead people were, so their loss was of little value.  Second, their behavior was just plain dumb.   In order to avoid detection in this highly regulated society, people in their shiny silver vehicles usually stay within a certain speed limit.  What do our two brilliant humans do?  One would have thought they had done this before, so their actions aren't just bizarre, they are idiotic.

I felt bad for the actors, certainly for Ronan who is clearly much better than the material.  The Melanie voice (in particular whenever she says something smart to Wanda) makes her look not struggling with two beings in one body but as borderline crazy.  Melanie as I've stated as sarcastic, almost whiny, but in fairness to Ronan she did the best that anyone could with the material she was given.  As for everyone else en masse, they were directed to play everything with such somberness, such seriousness, that the tone makes everything look comic.  Somehow, the stern tone The Host takes has the opposite effect: it just highlights all its flaws to where people end up either laughing or leaving. 

I can't truly judge how good actors either Irons or Abel are because they were one-note, more looking pretty (which they are) than expressing emotions.  Boyd Holbrooke's Kyle (the main antagonist to Wanda) was similarly one-note, scowling throughout the film as he menaces her.  It's a sign of how bad the performances were that when Jared stops Kyle and someone else from killing Wanda early in her captivity, he seemed to be extremely still in what was suppose to be raging anger.  I half-wondered whether it was because they couldn't shout inside the caves, but there has hardly a hint of emotion from either pro or antagonist, as if both sides were basically behaving half-dead.

One thing I didn't care for was that Melanie could control Wanda's actions whenever the plot needed to, such as whenever someone else's life was in danger or in quickly recognizing and speaking over Wanda when she first meets Uncle Jed.  For me, that is kind of cheating.

Another matter is over whenever we hear Melanie's voice speaking over/to Wanda.  I figure again that this might work in the novel, where we don't have visuals save in our minds.  However, whenever we do hear Melanie, the effect is inadvertently hilarious.  I do wonder if it would have all worked better if Melanie's voice were sparingly or never used.  It certainly would have been less funny, but given that since everyone is trying so hard to play The Host as if it were a deep and intelligent story but instead making everything look and sound even sillier, who knows.

Finally, Antonio Pinto's score only added the coda to the laughter quotient of The Host (pun intended).  Trying to be vaguely New Age, the schmaltz factor was amped up to where it makes everything funnier because again it is trying so hard (like everything else in this fiasco) to be so serious.

The best way to describe The Host would be to call it a variation of The Change-Up: Drama Edition. It's a disaster of a film that will be seen as an unintended comedy, something akin to Plan 9 From Outer Space or Manos: The Hands of Fate for the Twilight Generation. 

In the name of all that is holy,


Monday, May 27, 2013

Elementary: Dead Man's Switch Review


The Holmes Is Lovely, Dark and Deep...

In the Elementary episode You Do It to Yourself, I had found similarities between the story and the Canon (in this case, The Abbey Grange).  Dead Man's Switch is to my mind the first time we've had an actual Canon story adapted for the series.  In this case, elements of Charles Augustus Milverton were the basis for Dead Man's Switch.  In preparation for viewing the episode I reread the Arthur Conan Doyle story and found my memory of the story intact.   A master blackmailer (which if memory serves correct was the title for the Granada Television adaptation of the story) toys with Holmes, with Holmes and Watson breaking in to retrieve important papers only to witness the murder of said master blackmailer.  While we never fully discover the murderer's identity, Holmes does in the end know via a photograph he spots, but in this case believes justice has been done and thus no need to bring the killer to trial. 

Dead Man's Switch stays close to the story but adds elements specific to Elementary: first, a stronger focus on Holmes' recovery from drug addiction and two, a resolution to the crime.  While the crime is solved with clues we don't have full access to, on the whole Dead Man's Switch shows that the Canon can be adapted and updated successfully to fit the Elementary structure. 

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is disinterested in his upcoming one-year anniversary of his sobriety.  While both his new assistant and former Sober Companion Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) and his sponsor Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) want him to take his One-Year-Sober chip, Holmes insists he doesn't go for that sentimental token business.  However, he will take something Alfredo offers him: a case.

Alfredo's sponsor, Ken Whitman (Thomas Jay Ryan) has received a note from a blackmailer, one Charles Augustus Milverton.  He wants money, otherwise he will release a videotape of his daughter being raped from a few years back.  She was one of three victims of the rapist, Brent Garvey (Tom Guiry), currently in prison himself for the rapes.  This will be emotionally devastating to the victim who has slowly come back from this traumatic occurrence.  Holmes, who holds blackmailers with great contempt, agrees to work silently to avoid the possibility of a fail-safe, something or someone who will release the information should anything happen to Milverton.

Holmes breaks into Milverton's home with Watson as a look-out.  However, much to everyone's surprise Milverton is murdered, and while Holmes is a witness the killer is masked and anonymous.  Now Holmes consults his friend Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) for advise, and convinces the NYPD to keep Milverton's death secret so as to not have the fail-safe triggered.

As Holmes, Watson, and Alfredo investigate to find A.) who murdered Milverton and B.) who is holding on to the secret information, the stories soon start meeting.  One of the blackmail victims is found attempting to dump the body in cement and he confesses to killing Milverton.  However, Holmes and Watson can't figure out why the fail-safe has not been triggered or how a man dubbed in Milverton's ledger as "Henry 8" who is the most likely candidate for the fail-safe has not struck. 

Reason being, Henry 8 aka Stuart Bloom (Randy Lewis Swiden) is himself most conveniently dead, making the money demands from "Milverton" all the more bizarre.  Holmes and Watson put it all together to apprehend the man behind these murders and blackmail, showing how greed can overcome sense.

In the major subplot, Holmes reveals the real reason he won't celebrate his 'sober-verssary': it technically won't be a full year.  The day after entering rehab, he snuck out and used.  Feeling overwhelmed with a sense of failure, he went back in and began his long march to sobriety.  He confesses this to Watson first, then to Alfredo.  In the end, while Holmes still won't take the chip, he is surprised and moved when Watson presents him a gift anyway: a framed copy of the final lines to Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Liz Friedman and Christopher Silber's screenplay (from a story by Silber...from a story by Conan Doyle) does what good Elementary episodes do: focus on the characters without short-changing the crimes.  I find that the best Elementary episodes so far have been the ones where the struggles of Holmes and Watson are if not prominent at least equal to the cases they're in.  So far, the best episode this season has been M., where we saw a Holmes completely undone, where his emotions overran him and was no longer the cold, logical thinking machine he usually is.   With the possible exception of Child Predator (where the crime was the main focus of the story), I feel more impassioned with the character-driven stories that have crimes in them.  When both the characters and crimes prove uninteresting, then the stories fail. 

Here, the subplot of Holmes' anniversary allows Miller to show a rarely-seen side of the Great Detective: a genuine vulnerability.  His monologue with Liu when talking about his relapse within a day of entering treatment is a showcase of his acting: the nervous movements of his fingers, the halting delivery, the shifts in his voice.  This is a man who does not want to admit weakness, even to himself, but is too honest intellectually to not admit it.  Even more difficult is that he opens up with someone else, someone he has taken on as a protégé but who also has studied and had experience with drug addicts. 

In fact, Dead Man's Switch shows Holmes to be not just vulnerable, but surprisingly human.  Despite all their work and a mutual respect, when Holmes tells Gregson his 'hypothetical' situation, it is again quite moving.  Holmes tells the Captain that he is there 'hypothetically' to either report a murder or, "to seek the counsel of an investigator I respect and admire".  Given Holmes' ego and his superior intellect, for him to praise a fellow detective (and not grudgingly but with sincerity) allows us to see Sherlock Holmes as someone who despite himself has come to rely on Gregson, on Watson, and even Alfredo for something he has never given (or with his father, never received): emotional support.

This of course isn't to say the crime is unimportant.  I found it had those twists and turns that detective procedurals thrive on, but on the whole I thought the story worked.  I didn't care for Bloom's revelation (a little too Seven-like for my tastes) and again I never like it when we get the green-tinted shot of major clues we were never or quickly shown.  However, to its credit it took the basic story of Charles Augustus Milverton and stuck close to it (even though I wish it were a lady who did it, but we can't always have it all can we).

I especially enjoyed the fact that the story was introduced naturally via Alfredo and that Watson was not left behind but actually knew a bit more (unlike Holmes, she focused on Alfredo's statement that the man seen at Milverton's apartment wore cowboy boots, and it seems so odd that Holmes didn't think a man wearing cowboys boots in New York City wasn't an important piece of information).  Essandoh even got to do something few people ever do to Holmes: get one up on him.  He sets him straight as to the true significance of the One-Year Chip: it's not all about him, but about those who see it as a goal to achieve themselves.

"I know it's hard, but one of these days you gotta get over yourself," Alfredo tells Sherlock.  It isn't much, but one can see Holmes process that he isn't perhaps the center of the universe he sometimes appears to be.  While not exactly on the same level, we do have moments of light comedy too: when Holmes asks Gregson what's the first thing he thinks of when he hears "Henry the Eight", his questioning reply is, "Herman's Hermits?"

A side note: I think, "Many wives...three Catherines, two Annes, and a Plain Jane."  And for the record, alas, I am not related to Catherine of Aragon (and have always wondered what would happen if I ever married a Catherine...but I digress).

One thing I might quibble with Dead Man's Switch is how Holmes believed Milverton's murder involved one of the three rape/blackmail victims and not perhaps other blackmailed people.  It also meant that Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell made what amounted to a cameo appearance.

However, on the whole I found Dead Man's Switch to be well-written and extremely well-acted by everyone, pushing it higher.  Also, I think that perhaps Elementary could be more daring and adapt other Canon stories not as well known to non-Holmesians.  The Adventure of the Six Obamas, perhaps?           

This DVD says "Written by Steven Moffat."
I know he killed Doctor Who,
but what's he got to do with Sherlock?


Next Episode: A Landmark Story

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Superman III: A Review


Consider This Your Pryor Warning...

Superman III is barely a Superman film.  Yes, the character of Superman is there.  He even goes back to Smallville.  However, Superman III is really a Richard Pryor film with Superman as a guest star.  Now, I love Richard Pryor as much as anyone: he truly was a comedic genius.  However, when one sees Superman III one thinks it should have been retitled Richard Pryor Meets Superman.  In fact, this film should have been rethought entirely. 

Gus Gorman (Pryor) just cannot find a job no matter how inept he is.  Stumbling into computer programming, Gus discovers to his shock that he's a natural with machines.  Figuring that he just isn't paid enough, he skims a little off the top to get a quick raise.  This $85,000 bonus does not go unnoticed by his boss, Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn).  Webster sees a kindred spirit in the bumbling Gorman (at least in the criminal aspects), and with a little 'friendly persuasion' (aka blackmail) he gets Gorman to perform certain criminal acts via computers (he was a hacker before the term existed).  For example, he gets Gorman to reprogram a Vulcan satellite in space to bring weather chaos to Columbia (which has rebuffed his offers to corner the coffee market).  Along with Webster's sister Vera (Annie Ross) and blond bimbo mistress Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson), Ross suspects he now can rule the world by taking over the oil industry.

Meanwhile, in another movie altogether, mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) persuades his editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) to let him go to Smallville for his high school reunion and cover it for the newspaper.  He also persuades White to have eager young photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) to go with him.  Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is off to Bermuda, so she's literally out of the picture.  On their way to Smallville, Superman stops a chemical plant fire (which costs Jimmy a broken leg and camera when he goes in to photograph it).  At the Smallville High School Class of 1965 Reunion (which would make Kent either 28 or more believable at least 38 years old), he sees Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole), the girl he once had a crush on.  Lang, now divorced with a young son, Ricky (Paul Kaethler), soon sees Clark in a new light, and a gentle romance starts to bloom.  There is only one hitch: ex-Smallville High football star Brad (Gavin O'Herlihy) who still pursues Lana and was Kent's bully.

After fits and starts the two stories finally meet.  Superman's intervention with the Columbia operation infuriates Webster, and he comes up with the idea of creating Kryptonite.  Gorman cannot figure out an unknown element in the formula, so he opts to stick tar in it.  At an event honoring Superman, Gorman and Vera presented him with the created Kryptonite.  It doesn't kill him, but it turns him into a dark, evil man.  After a literal struggle with himself Superman emerges from his dark night of the soul and is ready to confront Webster/Vera/Lorelei and Gorman, who has pushed his boss to create a super-computer. 

Richard Lester, returning for a second Superman film, figured that what Superman III needed was more comedy.  As such, we start Superman III not with the Man of Steel, but with the real main character: Gus Gorman, with a comedy bit that shows Pryor's verbal abilities.  I don't know if anyone has actually timed the screen-time between Reeves and Pryor, but I'm willing to wager that Richard Pryor has more screen-time than the title character.  Minus the battle between Superman and Clark Kent (more on that in a bit), there are few scenes that focus on Superman alone.  There are however, many scenes and comedy bits that feature Pryor's Gorman and his bumbling efforts to please his employer. 

Again, this isn't to take away from Richard Pryor and his extraordinary comedic gifts, but the emphasis on Gorman reduced Superman's role to where he was almost irrelevant to the film save for being the title character.  In fact, if one were to remove Superman from Superman III and restructure it as a solo Richard Pryor film, one could easily have made a whole film out of the Gus Gorman character with little difficulty.

I'm not saying that Gus Gorman: The Movie would be good, just that it would be possible.  In this perhaps we have one of the main reasons why Superman III is such a failure: it takes such a long time for the two stories to come together that by the time they do, it seems like they don't fully fit.   

Moving on to the actual physical comedy that at times overwhelms Superman III, one can only look at it with a certain dismay that once the Superman franchise was seen as an action series.  The title sequence is one long slapstick comedy routine that never looks convincing (it actually looks boring and forced) and makes the horrific comedy bits in what was suppose to be an epic confrontation in Superman II look like an Ingmar Bergman exercise in restraint.  It adds nothing to the plot, it isn't funny, and it is a waste of our time.

Even worse was a notorious scene in Superman III.  The villains are in the ski ramp up in the penthouse of a tall building.  For no real reason, as Webster rants and raves and hatches plans to kill Superman, Gorman slips on a pair of skis.  Already this was a bad scene when Gorman comes to tell them that Superman has interfered with their Colombian coffee caper (one didn't know Superman is in with Juan Valdez), which commits a major no-no in film: it shows AND tells what is going on.  As part of his reenactment of Supe's saving of Columbia he uses a tablecloth as a cape.  So when Gorman starts sliding down the ski ramp, we find that he doesn't know how to ski and quickly loses control, flying off the roof.  He then falls thousands of feet high, only to land first in a slanted part of the building, which causes him to land safely onto the street.

Already this was a bad scene, but to have Gorman fly off the building to land so nicely on the street is really insulting to the audience.  Gorman's knees don't buckle, he doesn't break anything.  It turns Superman into a farce, a joke we can't laugh at.  It was worse than was stupid.

In fact, so much of David and Leslie Newman's script is stupid and insulting that it shows that left to their own devices they were more than willing to make things into jokes rather than take things with a certain seriousness.  The ski incident, Gorman managing to get Brad drunk to use the Vulcan satellite (which led to 'accidental' situations like a man getting more cash from an ATM and crosswalking figures actually fighting--talk about stupid), his grandstanding at the grandstand...when Webster declares that they might not know who had bilked the company "unless he were a complete and utter moron" we know that we'll get confirmation that the culprit IS a complete and utter moron.

Even the parts that were meant to be serious, the moments when Lester and the Newmans weren't going for laughs, with one or two exceptions failed spectacularly.  When Superman, for example, finds the Webster lair, Ross attempts to shoot him down with help from a screen that not only looks like it was taken from a video game, but which also has the points and music of one as well.  In what is suppose to be a shocking moment, Vera has been overtaken by Gorman's super-computer and been turned into a Cyberman if you will (a little Doctor Who reference for you).  When she finally emerges her figure does nothing except move Lorelei and Ross out of the way.  Her stiff robotic walking coupled with Ken Thorne's score makes the thing unintentionally hilarious (as his the music being so dramatic when Supe is straightening the Tower of Pisa).

Granted, when I first saw it as a kid it was quite shocking, but now it looks and sounds funny.

The script also has points of logic that don't make any sense.  Scientists are baffled by the chaotic Colombian weather we are told, but I thought that was stupid.  Didn't ANYONE note the use of Vulcan?  We're suppose to believe Superman has gone to the Dark Side, turned evil (and I have to wonder, does tar really have that much effect on someone because I once did construction, so now because I got some tar on my hands once I'm going to go on some crime spree?).  Now, what are these evil acts?  He straightens the Tower of Pisa and blows out the Olympic flame (which in itself is really odd since the Olympic Games would have taken place in's not making any sense).  This is Superman, who can bend rivers and move mountains.  You'd think if he really did turn evil he would have done much more than blow out a candle and straighten something up. 

I know they couldn't because then it would ask a lot of questions we would never answer, but it does add to this bizarre attempt at humor when it isn't necessary.

I don't fault the cast for the parts: people like Vaughn and Ross and Stephenson played the parts correctly (slightly evil villain, mannish bossy sister, dumb blond who really was much smarter but for reasons known only to her pretended otherwise), but they as a trio never appeared to be much of a threat to anyone, let alone the Man of Steel.

There are only two good things in Superman III apart from Pryor's comedic skills.   The first was the subplot in Smallville, particularly Annette O'Toole's performance as Lana Lang.  She appeared to be the only one in the cast to be acting as if she were in a serious film, not a spoof or parody that Superman III apparently was trying to be.  Her scenes with Reeve at the reunion dance or on a picnic show a tender and romantic quality to the Lang/Kent relationship that I don't think were fully explored in the Superman mythos (even perhaps on something like Smallville where Lana WAS a major character).   It's an interesting idea: Lana Lang, the small-town girl, is falling in love with Clark Kent while big-city lady Lois Lane is head-over-heels for Superman.  The duality of the romances between Kent and Kal-El would be fascinating to explore, but of course that would mean taking time away from Gus Gorman.  O'Toole was the standout in the film, where the romance between Lana and Clark appeared real and natural and most importantly, believable.

I also grant that seeing Christopher Reeve explore potential dark roads for his character made for a deeper performance than the clean-cut hero we've seen before.  Now, I will also say that the actual confrontation between Clark Kent and Superman where he literally struggles with himself is at least for me one of the oddest moments in film history, almost Dada-esque in its bizarre nature.  Mostly silent, we have to accept that he is able to divide himself and have a physical alteration with himself.  I found the whole sequence both weird and overtly symbolic, but despite the bizarre nature of the fight itself it was nice to see Reeve work to give Superman a stronger and darker persona. 

Side note: I noticed that the Super-Computer had the words "Exterior Defence" on the mainframe.  I figure the computer was manufactured in the United Kingdom...or was that the movie?       

In the course of time, the affection I had for Superman III has dissipated.  When once as a child I loved Superman III, as an adult I almost immediately saw it for what it was: a very bad film that tried too hard to tailor things to Pryor's talents than to Superman's, and minus the Smallville plotline, Superman III is not even a shadow of the glory that was Superman the Movie

During the movie, Little Ricky (and yes, he IS referred to as such in one point, making it all the more funnier) calls out to the drunk and angry Superman, "You're in a slump.  You'll be great again."  That pretty much sums up the film.  In the end, the poster for Superman III describes the film better than I could: The Man of Steel is supporting the true star of the film, with everyone and everything else almost an afterthought, lost in a barren and empty space.

Muchas gracias, Señor Superman...


Next Superman Film: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Jack Reacher: A Review


Not having read any of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I'm in no position to argue for or against Jack Reacher the film's fidelity to the source material.  Well, apart from the fact that the character of Jack Reacher is 6'5" with blond hair while the actor playing Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) in the adaptation of Child's One Shot is at 5'7" (officially) almost a foot shorter as well as brunette.  I won't belabor the point because Tom Cruise did an excellent job as Reacher, a character I like to think of as a tough, military version of Sherlock Holmes (I'll get to that in a bit).  Jack Reacher is an entertaining film with a strong plot (though it was a little opaque at times) and with good performances from almost everyone involved.

There is a mass shooting in Pittsburgh: five random people are shot by a sniper.  Soon the police with efficient work apprehend the prime suspect, one James Barr (Joseph Sikola), former Marine sniper.  The conclusion Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and District Attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins) is that he is the killer.  Barr won't confess to the crimes, but instead writes a cryptic note with three words, "Get Jack Reacher."

Said Reacher sees the news of the shooting and Barr's arrest, and comes as quick as he can to Pennsylvania.  While Barr's defense attorney (and daughter) Helen (Rosamund Pike) at first thinks this mysterious figure might come to help her client, Reacher is not there to save him, but to make sure he is convicted.  However, he agrees to be her chief investigator, even if it means doing odd things like visiting the victim's families.

Soon Reacher reaches certain conclusions: as much as he may dislike/hate Barr, Reacher realizes he didn't do the killings and was set up (a patsy, he calls him).  Now the question is who did it and why.  Reacher also finds that the victims were not as random as is believed; one of them was the actual target and the others were mere cannon fodder for a major development rip-off.  As Helen continues to be befuddled, Reacher digs deeper, alarming the people behind this scheme, particularly a figure known only as The Zec (Werner Herzog), a master criminal who survived the gulags by among other things chewing off his frostbitten fingers.  Helen is told that someone close to her is also in on the scheme (won't tell you who) and Reacher, with the aid of Cash (Robert Duvall), a former marksman whose shooting range was used by Barr and the real killer, tracks down both The Zec and a captive Helen in a final confrontation.  While Barr is basically exonerated, Reacher drifts away...

It' not for me to say, but certain plot elements of One Shot/Jack Reacher are similar to Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders.  In that novel, there appears to be a serial killer who targets seemingly random people based on the first letter of their last name if memory serves correct.   In the end, Hercule Poirot finds that far from being a series of random crimes, the murders were actually committed to hide ONE particular murder and make it appear to be the work of some serial killer.  Similarly, Jack Reacher has a major shooting only to find that this was a way to cover up the targeting of a particular victim.  This is what I thought of while watching Jack Reacher, but I won't get hung up on this detail.  Instead, let me focus on what made Jack Reacher enjoyable to watch.

First, I congratulate Tom Cruise on his performance.  He maintained a cold, methodical manner to Reacher, a man who keeps a focus on things and rarely if ever lets his emotion get in the way.  I spoke earlier on that I thought he was a military Sherlock Holmes.  What I noted about Reacher is that he would focus on tiny detail that escaped everyone but which Reacher showed Helen (and us) how we were both wrong and missing important things.  For example, when Helen gives reports from all the victims, we are suppose to focus on the lives lost.  Reacher, however, notes the odd things.  Helen figures that one victim bought flowers for his wife after a fight, but Reacher notes that the flowers were bought in the morning.  If they were for his wife, Reacher surmises, the husband would have bought them in the evening so they would be fresh.  Another victim, we're led to believe, did not want a major purchase of a watch noted on her credit card so as to surprise her husband.  However, given that said purchase was made near the end of the billing cycle, it would not have shown up on the bill until AFTER it was given.

Therefore, these two victims who happened to be at the same place at the same time, did in fact know each other.  In fact, they were having an affair, which is why the woman moved forward when the man was shot, rather than away.  The fact that this was a false road which was irrelevant to the overall plot irritates me some, but it does show Reacher's high intelligence.  Yet I digress.

Cruise makes Reacher a cold and brilliant figure, one who is direct and uninterested in the niceties of society.  If he has to get information by just asking for it, he will.  However, he does have a semblance of a heart: Sandy (Alexia Fast), a girl who has gotten herself involved in this case, is warned to leave town for a few days by Reacher, who sees that she really is being used.  When he learns that Sandy has indeed been killed to keep silent, a brief moment of pain actually flashes through him.  It's a credit to Cruise as an actor (and sometimes we forget that he is a good one...and sometimes HE forgets he's a good one) that we can see occasional moments where a bit of humanity flashes beneath Reacher's methodical and cold manner.  This Reacher is methodical, a bit arrogant but always a step ahead of almost everyone. 

Even when he's being humorous it appears almost menacing.  "Three things cops won't do," he tells Helen.  "Cops won't vote Democrat, won't drive Cadillacs, and they never use personal vehicles."  I can't be certain that cops don't actually do any of these things, but as far as he's concerned he's almost always right.  As for his height, I found it a plus: there is something impressive about someone small taking down taller men with almost the greatest of ease.

Duvall was great in a mixture of wise elder and comic relief as the shrewd but slightly cantankerous Cash.  Werner Herzog is a genius: we've seen it in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.   As such, if he wishes to be this vague super-criminal then he gets a free pass from me.  As the major antagonist with whom Reacher has a climatic fight with (in the rain, no less) Jai Courtney was good...can't complain.  He had a cold manner that matches Reacher's except he is for evil rather than justice (Reacher was not necessarily good, just on the side of the right). 

The only person with whom I had trouble with in terms of performance was Pike's Helen.  I kept wondering why is this woman so dumb.  Time and again Reacher provides her with logic and proof that what he was thinking was correct, but time and again Helen doesn't appear to either understand or believe that Reacher's theories make sense, let alone are accurate. 

I also could not figure if a fight sequence where Reacher is for once taken by surprise didn't have a bit of intended comedy.  Two henchmen manage to surprise Reacher, but they prove so inept (for example, both of them struggle to fit through a door at the same time) that I was beginning to wonder whether this was just a bit odd if not downright silly for something as serious as Jack Reacher.   I wasn't sure whether writer/director Christopher McQuarrie intended this sequence for laughs.

Some of Reacher's escapes (such as when he evades Emerson's officers after an admittedly well-made chase) seemed far-fetched if not unbelievable.  Finally, the 'actual inside man's' motivations were unclear.  In fact, I don't think they were ever explained (apart perhaps, from money), so when he is revealed, we wonder why. 

Still, on the whole I found Jack Reacher well-made: entertaining, with an intelligent lead (performed intelligently by Cruise) and with good action scenes (even if they were a bit clichéd).  If you want entertainment with good action, then Jack Reacher will do.  It's worth One Shot...      


Friday, May 24, 2013

The Queen of Versailles: A Review (Review #535)


In a certain sense, I feel a sense of sympathy for Jacqueline and David Seigel, the subjects of The Queen of Versailles.  Here they were, happily building their dream home (which if completed would have been the largest private home in the United States, one larger than either The White House or Graceland) and which would have been modeled on the Palace of Versailles.  However, the Seigels, part of that much-derided One Percent, found themselves strapped for cash once the 2008 economic crisis brought down the heady hopes and dreams of many a wealthy couple.  In turns shell-shocked, oblivious, and resilient, the Seigels are objects of both ridicule and endearment as they, once flying high, find that fortune (in all its forms) doth not smile on them anymore.

The Queen of Versailles started as a documentary about the building of said largest private home in the States.  The Seigels owned Westgate Resorts, a timeshare company with various branches across America.  Here, the Westgate Sales Staff eagerly (I'd argue almost cult-like) offer people great chances for a mini-vacation home or hotel room in Vegas or somewhere else, all for a small fee.  As far as 76-year-old David and his 43-year-old trophy wife figure, this is the best of times.  They believe that having a larger home is necessary.  Despite having a large mansion already (one stuffed with literally stuffed animals), it's just too small now.  Therefore, a 90,000 square foot house is required: one with a baseball field, parking lot, sushi bar, and children's wing.

A small digression: growing up, I too had a children's wing.  It consisted of one room. 

In any case, the Seigels keep building their dream home and things are going well.  At least they were until four hours after they celebrate the gala opening of their acquisition of Planet Hollywood Resort (complete with a personal appearance by ex-Playboy Playmate Holly Madison, then appearing in the resort's Peep Show review...I saw it and while they might not be real, they were SPECTACULAR).   They were sued by the Planet Hollywood Towers builders for unpaid bills.  With the banks hurriedly pulling credit all over to save themselves from the imploding economy, Westgate is forced to lay of thousands of employees.

From here, The Queen of Versailles takes one odd, bizarre, but also endearing turn after another.  The Seigels are not heartless plutocrats and do not share the philosophy attributed to Marie Antoinette of "let them eat cake".  Far from it: we learn that both of them are from modest stock, having risen to success on hard work, shrewd business mergers, and a little good fortune.   They do have hearts (for example, Jackie lends her friend $5000 for her own mortgage) but they also don't appear able to accept reality.  Jackie still spends on lavish gifts and parties, while David, attempting to keep the business afloat, gets increasingly irascible as his large family continue to leave the lights on.

Eventually, even their beloved Versailles, the symbol of all they have worked for and felt was now theirs by their virtues, will have to be let go.

Just a little place for me and you...
As I said, the Seigels are not horrible people.  They do care about their friends and employees, and they do know what it is like to have nothing.  The only problem as we see in Queen of Versailles is that they just don't remember what it is like to have nothing.  So used to having material comforts and an excess of them that when they meet up with what people who would shell out $9 go through they seem genuinely puzzled.

For me the most bizarre moment in Queen of Versailles is when Jackie goes back to her hometown to see old friends in similar circumstances (though at a less hefty price) and get her bearings up.  Having just arrived at the airport (on her private plane if memory serves correct) she heads to the Hertz Rent-A-Car kiosk to get a vehicle.  She tells the employee that she is on a budget, and then asks the befuddled and startled Hertz representative, "What's my driver's name?", clearly expecting an answer.

She is not joking.  Jackie is perfectly serious and is thrown a little when informed that she will have to drive herself.  For some reason, Hertz does not offer drivers with their vehicles.

It is in her total obliviousness to how people actually live,  as to how she is genuinely unaware that millions of people are in far worse shape than the Seigels (not many of the Westgate employees recently terminated I imagine would be able to afford the $10,000 Gucci feather pants she bought pre-Recession...and I should point out that two pairs of said pants is more than my annual salary) that makes Jackie less a figure of fun and more almost a figure of pity.  Her dreams of Versailles aren't motivated by arrogance or a need to show off or look down on everyone else.  She truly believes her family deserves a larger home to fit in more things.  She truly believes it would be nice to have a massive ballroom larger than some people's entire homes (say, for example, mine, which could easily fit within the foyer...along with both my front and backyards). 

In short, it's as if the Seigels and their servants live in an alternate universe where spending thousands of dollars on one shopping spree that doesn't include such things as groceries is perfectly rational.  This cult-like groupthink extends to the Seigel's staff.  One of their nannies for example, lives in what was once the Seigel girls' dollhouse, and while it isn't the most comfortable fit she seems quite happy within it.  If memory serves correct the same nanny dons a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer costume to entertain the Seigels' guest for Christmas (and I don't think she gets paid what we would call overtime for these activities).  The nanny seems perfectly happy to be part of this strange universe where buying toys and continuing to build a massive house but not providing food and water to a pet lizard for lack of cash is considered rational. 

Lauren Greenfield's film does not paint them as monsters nor as victims.  Instead, the Siegels appear as they are: wealthy people who rose from nothing and can't figure out how they got hit with almost losing it all.  The Seigels aren't living beyond their means so much as their means are beyond their living.  They clearly don't need all the material things they have (the stuffed pets are particularly grotesque) but they don't see that (except for Jackie's niece Jonquil, who unlike her aunt and uncle still remembers the sound of the train-whistle from the wrong side of the tracks).   This teen is the only one who when interviewed sees that perhaps the excess which the Siegels live their life even after it was shaken to the core is too much and unhealthy.  However, one doubts they would even listen to her should she point out it is more sensible to stop spending or even selling to keep costs down rather than to have a nanny put on a costume for a party they could have done without.

Somehow, seeing David fume about lights being left on as almost being the cause of massive bills is both relate able and almost sad.  Trust us, the lights are not why you're losing money...though Jackie should turn them off if they're not being used.

Every little bit helps.   

Even the people around them appear not so much dim but unable to accept things as they are.  One figure I was fascinated by was the real estate agent for Versailles, one Lorraine Barrett.  Part of my fascination was on how she clearly didn't know how to pronounce 'Versailles' (she kept calling it 'Versays', complete with the 's').  Part of it was also on how she believed that at a time when so many people are now forced to live with their parents, when college graduates can barely get hired for fast-food or call-center positions, when people truly are suffering, someone would buy a 90,000 square foot unfinished mansion. 

As I said, David and Jackie Siegel are not evil or uncaring.  They at heart do think of others.  It's just that they either can't or won't accept that things will have to be different.  It is less schadenfreude and more 'sad fools'.

In many ways, The Queen of Versailles could be about an allegory about America itself: a great enterprise which spends its resources on frivolous matters, which is in turns ostentatious, vulgar, and perhaps a little insane, brought crashing down when the bills come due, only to turn around and continue living as it has, aware of something being wrong but having no idea as to how to fix it (apart from the obvious of reducing their costs and spending less until they are on more solid financial ground).  I couldn't help think about all those who bought time-shares when one would think that perhaps having a vacation home in Vegas where they could stay for one or two weeks a year might not be the best idea. 

They too were like the Siegels, buying (literally) into the idea that a good life was somehow their right.  I wondered what happened to those people who no longer could afford the time-shares or even managed to justify such ventures.  Then again, they weren't the focus of the film. 

The Queen of Versailles is not about mocking a wealthy family who now find themselves in dire straits.  Rather, it is a chronicle of a family that worked hard, got wealthy, then lost much but forgot they were no longer as wealthy as they were.  They are good people who have moved onto another world, but now that said world has crashed, they apparently can't let go of certain dreams.

In a bizarre and almost heartbreaking way, we are all the King and Queen of Versailles.

Guess who's figures are in better shape...


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rasputin and the Empress: A Review


When Barrymore Is So Much Less...

Rasputin and the Empress is unique in film history in that it is the only film where all three Barrymore siblings (John, Lionel, and Ethel) ever appeared in film together.  Given that, one would expect that all the stops be pulled to put them all together.  However, Rasputin and the Empress fails to give them much to do together despite both their collective talents and the sad tale of the Romanov's fall. 

For those who aren't familiar with history, here's a little primer.  Moscow 1913.  The Romanov (or Romanoff as it appears in the film) Dynasty celebrates their Tri-Centennial: Three Hundred Glorious Years as Czars of All The Russias.  The current Czar, Nicholas II (Ralph Morgan) and the Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore) think things are going well despite the secret they are hiding: that the Czarevitch Alexei suffers from hemophilia.  However, Prince Paul Chegodieff (John Barrymore) fears that revolution is in the air since the people's genuine grievances are being ignored.  Loyal to the Romanovs, Prince Paul is the only man of conscience in Mother Russia with noble rank.  He also is the Czarina's friend, especially when her German heritage is brought up.

As the Czarevitch runs the risk of death after a fall, in desperation at the urging of a lady-in-waiting, Princess Natasha (Diana Wynyard), the Czarina calls on Gregory Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore), a holy man who claims to have the power to heal.  Somehow, he is able to stop the heir's internal bleeding, instantly winning the trust of the Czarina.  However, Prince Paul is highly suspicious of Rasputin, in particular when he learns of his debauchery.

Rasputin soon begins to have greater influence over the Romanovs, down to making 'suggestions' of political appointees.  His own coven of attenders, made up of the elites and the lowest rung of society, along with his boorish behavior, appear to both shock and amuse the Russian nobility.  All this time though, the Romanovs are unaware of Rasputin's private activities and if someone at Court should even suggest something untoward about him, it is dismissed as the work of 'enemies'.

At one point, Rasputin appears to hold almost hypnotic power over Alexei, and when Prince Paul protests to the Czarina about this (if memory is correct, Rasputin gets the Czarevitch to bite his once good friend the Prince), Alexandra takes Rasputin's side over her friend.  However, Rasputin goes one too far when he appears to almost openly lust after one of the Grand Duchesses and is close to overpowering the once-loyal Princess Natasha.  The Czarina, shocked at what she witnesses, forces Rasputin out.

The Mad Monk still holds powerful friends, and it all comes down to a fateful dinner where Prince Paul attempts to assassinate him with poison cakes.  Despite one of them containing enough poison to kill many men, Rasputin takes many and still lives.  Paul is forced to shoot him down and somehow Rasputin is finally killed off.  However, comes sweeping in the Russian Revolution, and with that the violent end of the Romanov Dynasty.

Rasputin and the Empress is more than just bad history.  It's bad filmmaking, and that might be the bigger sin.  That is no reflection on the Three Barrymores for each of them was strong in their individual performances.  Lionel Barrymore makes the crazed Rasputin into the figure of total evil and greed.  His first appearance on screen is appropriately creepy and he maintains an almost egoistic view of himself as almost the true and legitimate ruler of all the Russias.  His brother John is the stoic and noble nobleman, one who is sympathetic to both the people and the monarchy. 

As a side note, Rasputin and the Empress never loses an opportunity for "The Great Profile" to show us his literal best side.  It might turn into a good drinking game to see how often we get to see his left side on screen or how scenes are set up to showcase his visage.

Ethel Barrymore captured the lost and haunted Czarina who turned to 'her friend' to ease her fears for her only son and heir to the Romanov throne.  Alexandra's loyalty to Rasputin is thorough, and it's only when she is witness to his vile acts that she finally sees what has been going on.

As I said when it came to the Barrymores I have nothing but praise for how they worked.  However, the film fails them and fails them spectacularly.  Rasputin and the Empress soon becomes a slow, creaking, and boring film, bogged down by a great deal of bad editing that doesn't so much confuse things as it does make everything a jumble.  It failed spectacularly to integrate newsreel footage into the film.  Worse, Richard Bolelawski's directing was boring and unimaginative.

Even worse, Charles McArthur's screenplay could not get the Barrymore Siblings to appear in the same film together.  That is ostensibly the selling point of Rasputin and the Empress but the film only managed to get all three of them for two scenes.  Granted the nature of the story would make having the Czarina, Prince Paul, and Rasputin share screentime a bit difficult, but somehow when you have the Three Barrymores together in a film (particularly Ethel, who was never as interested in being a film star as her brothers were, them having appeared together in films already in such films as Grand Hotel and Arsene Lupin) one would hope they could do more together. 

Sadly, for those who are expecting to see the Three Barrymores together in a movie, be prepared to see them share the screen in only two scenes.   There are various scenes of two of them working together (Lionel and Ethel, Ethel and John, John and Lionel) but somehow one would have hoped that we would have the opportunity to see the three members of one of the great American acting families together for much longer than we did.

McArthur's screenplay is worse when it comes to historical accuracy.  One should never expect total fidelity to history in a film, but even by the standards of filmmaking Rasputin and the Empress is shameful.  In the film, Czar Nicholas II appears to be a passionate reformer, even saying that he wished to create a Parliament, or Duma, for Russia.   In reality, the Czar was a firm believer in the divine right of kings and at one point told the people that the idea of a Duma was a 'foolish dream'.  The only reason there was a Duma was because the Czar of All the Russias was forced into it.  Nicholas II was many things: nice guy, excellent photographer, passionate about his wife and children, but reformer he was not.  In many ways, he was quite reactionary against any whiff of revolution.

The biggest scandal about Rasputin and the Empress was over the Princess Natasha character.  Based on Princess Irina Yusupov, she had been the wife of Prince Felix, one of Rasputin's killers.  So outraged was Prince Felix of the suggestion in the film that Rasputin had raped his wife (or perhaps worse, that she was a willing lover) that His Highness sued MGM and won.  This case led to the familiar "any resemble to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental" tagline that is now standard on films as a way of protecting them against slander suits. 

Rasputin and the Empress is a great story that sadly was lost to a lack of imagination.  Not having the Three Barrymores in their only film together share more screentime was a poor decision.  The heavy reliance on stock footage was a bad mistake.  Each Barrymore was excellent in their role and that might make it worth watching.  However, I found it slow and dull and a waste of an excellent opportunity, which made it all the more frustrating.



Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer: A Review


As much as I might be asked to hate Jack the Giant Slayer, I can't.  I didn't love it nor would I put it as a great film, but on the whole Jack the Giant Slayer is mildly entertaining, if nothing else.

Jack the Giant Slayer stays pretty close to the fairy tale.  We begin with little Jack and little Princess Isabelle being told how giants once swept through the land.  Good King Eric the Great defeated them by taking the heart of one and making a magic crown that would make the giants subservient to his will.  After he threw them up the beanstalk King Eric was buried with both the crown and the seeds that would bring about the beanstalks.

Move ahead ten years.  Our Boy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) goes into the village to sell the family horse and cart.  Jack, a bit of a dreamer, gets sidetracked by a puppet show reenactment of the war with the giants of long ago.  As it so happens, there is someone else in the audience, a beautiful girl who is harassed by some ruffians.  In comes Elmont (Ewan McGregor) who comes to rescue the incognito Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson).  She yearns for great adventure and freedom, especially since she will be forced to marry Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), a man who is not only old enough to be her father, but who loves her power.

Roderick has secretly taken the crown and beans from Eric's tomb, aided by his henchman Wicke (Ewen Bremner).  A monk has taken the beans and handed them to an unwitting Jack in exchange for the horse (the cart having mysteriously been stolen while at the puppet show).  Jack takes the beans and his uncle is highly disappointed.

As it so happens, Isabelle has fled her father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), and finds herself taking refuge in Jack's hut.  While there is an instant attraction she can't marry someone not of royal blood.  Fortunately, a major storm brings one of the beans to life, and up Isabelle goes to Gargantua.  The King, desperate to get his daughter back, sends his best men led by Elmont up the beanstalk.  Jack insists of going as well.  Surprisingly, Lord Roderick supports Jack's cause, and up they go.

They encounter the giants, who now want revenge for their exile.  To the horror of Elmont, Isabelle, and Jack, Roderick turns traitor, wearing the crown in order to use them to conquer the kingdom.  Then Jack turns hero: rescuing Elmont and Isabelle.  As the heroes are descending, King Brahmwell opts to tear it down lest the giants use it to go down the beanstalk.

However, it's too soon to end the film.  Despite Roderick's death at Elmont's hand, the crown finds its way to one of the giants.  With some beans falling in their hands, the giants create more beanstalks and thus begins an epic battle for the kingdom.  While Elmont and the King fight bravely, Jack and Isabelle manage to save the kingdom and he is rewarded.  Jack and Isabelle are married, and as for King Eric's crown?  Somehow it finds itself in the Tower of London, where a little schoolboy who looks suspiciously like Lord Roderick eyes the Crown Jewels...

When one watches Jack the Giant Slayer, if one does not take things too seriously, one can find enjoyment in the film.  Darren Lemke, Dan Studney, and Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay (from a story by Lemke and David Dobkin) I don't think ever found a tone and stuck to it.  Sometimes it seemed to play for laughs (Tucci in particular acted as if he were in almost a spoof, making his Roderick a more comedic villain).  Sometimes it seemed to want to play things straight and serious (this was true of McGregor, one of my favorite actors, who played Elmont as a strong and serious warrior).  Sometimes it shifted between them (the big joke in Hoult's Jack was that he was afraid of heights, but he seemed to have gotten over his fear remarkably quickly and said fear wasn't really a big part of the story). 

One bit of wit in the screenplay is when Elmont is addressing his aide Crawe (Eddie Marsan).  "I'm getting an awfully bad feeling about this, Crawe," Elmont tells him as they climb the beanstalk.  Shadows of Obi-Wan?

As a side note, it does seem odd that three men working in tandem (I figure) could not seem to agree on what kind of film they wanted Jack the Giant Slayer to be: a straightforward adventure story or more of a lark, a light picture.  It was as if they couldn't decide to go for the Mirror Mirror school (make the fairy tale light and breezy) or the Snow White and the Huntsman route (dark and gritty), so they opted to do both.  Just when you think things will get serious, we get bits of comedy (poor Elmont about to be made into a snack).  Just when you think you're going to have some comedy (the King's camp has turned into a fairground with jugglers and magicians), we get intense action (the beanstalk is collapsing).  I didn't find the shifts that bothersome but I did wonder whether if they had kept one tone throughout the film Jack and the Giant Slayer might have turned out better.

In terms of performances Bryan Singer did a good job of getting what he wanted out of his actors if he wanted Tucci and McGregor to act as if they were in a comedy and an action picture respectively.  Hoult was a good lead as the naïve country boy who is forced to become an action hero.  He wasn't given a great deal to work with but he did as well as he could.  McShane got the caring father aspect of his character.  Of all the performers, I think only Tomlinson got the short end of the stick.  We're suppose to believe she's a brave warrior princess-type but for most of Jack the Giant Slayer she was a damsel in distress, rarely if ever taking any action that would show she was indeed equal to the task of fighting.  Somehow she got lost in the shuffle, and that is a real shame.

In the end after I left the theater I can't say I walked away angry or disappointed with Jack the Giant Slayer.  I didn't have particularly high expectations and said expectations were met.   The most I can say about the film is that it was a 'could have been better but it's not horrible and soon forgettable films', one that you can use to slay an empty two hours with. 


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How To Survive A Plague: A Review


I felt a bit like a throwback to another era after watching How to Survive A Plague.  I may be the last generation who knows people who have died of AIDS.  The generation that has followed me apparently has never heard of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and if they have it apparently is something that happened 'in the past'.  As far as Millennials are concerned, safe sex means not getting pregnant.  For those of us who remember when celebrities feathered themselves with red ribbons (I remember being given red ribbons in high school...or was that for drug awareness), who was told that 'anyone can get AIDS', who remember people as varied as Rock Hudson, Ryan White, and Magic Johnson, How to Survive a Plague is not just a history lesson, it's a flashback. 

Of course, for full disclosure I was also brought up to believe that ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) was an unhinged militant group of homosexuals blaming everyone but themselves for the AIDS epidemic, people who hated with the same fervor of those who were as homophobic as they were heterophobic.  As in all things, the truth is much more complicated.  How to Survive A Plague is the story of ACT UP, of how they began, fell apart, and came back just in time to see their long fight bear fruit.

It is Year Six from when the first HIV diagnosis was made.  In New York City, Mayor Ed Koch appears to be indifferent to the disease that affects primarily (though not exclusively) gay men.  The gay community, long shunted off and ignored (except on Election Day) and which has been decimated by AIDS, has decided they've been ignored long enough.  Some, like Peter Staley, a closeted investment banker, has decided that they are tired of being ignored and that this disease is not seen as a crisis.  With that, ACT UP is formed.  With their slogan of "ACT UP, Fight Back, Fight AIDS", they take to the streets and hospitals, determined to force the issue.

The AIDS epidemic is not getting either attention or funding, from either state or federal agencies.  ACT UP holds then-President Ronald Reagan and his two successors, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, accountable for having their needs ignored, and for the slowness of treatments, medications reaching the market, and funding for research.  The gay community is forced to take matters into their own hands.   Sometimes it's in creating a black market for potential treatments.  Other times it's by taking militant steps against those who work against them. 

If it means shouting and demonstrating within St. Patrick's Cathedral while Cardinal John O'Connor is conducting Mass so be it.  If it means putting a large condom over the home of their chief nemesis, the late Senator Jesse Helms, so be it (though to their credit, they do offer to pay for any damage their stunt might have cost.  While no actual structural damage to Helms' home was done, it is certain that the senior Senator from North Carolina was not amused). 

As the AIDS epidemic continues, ACT UP soon starts splintering.  One group, TAG (the Treatment Action Group) soon started working within the system they had earlier denounced, and some within ACT UP saw them as an elite who had betrayed the cause.  Soon internal infighting began weakening the ACT UP organization to where one of its leading lights, playwright Larry Kramer, exploded a tirade at all of them.  Angrily he denounced the denouncers, calling them to remember that they were facing a plague, and if they did not stop their infighting all of them were as good as dead.

Eventually, to the shock of many of them, after years of furious work, the idea of a single AIDS drug was abandoned (despite this being the Holy Grail of ACT UP) and it was replaced by the 'cocktail' of treatments that has given many, including those who began ACT UP convinced they would die, a chance to outlive even those who had opposed them (such as Helms himself).

Some however, such as Robert Rafsky, a gay man who had fathered a child with his ex-wife, did not make it, but their fury at how so many had died while the government did little to nothing outlived them. 

Perhaps this is my imagination, but many of the people who were at the center of the storm and who did literally live to tell the tale looked in the limited present-day interviews looked to me almost shell-shocked, stunned that despite having HIV, they were still alive when a few decades earlier their diagnosis meant almost certain and immediate death. 

Most of How to Survive a Plague is culled from old video tape, giving it not only a 'you are there' immediacy but also a sense of all the events being as if they were happening now.  In many ways, the video of the meetings and protests and even the funerals filled with rage were precursors to the present-day habit of recording every event in a person's life.  However, with How to Survive a Plague we see not just the protests and meetings (including when ACT UP was eating its own) but also brilliantly intercuts Rafsky's life.

As we are reminded via a counter of the number of AIDS death worldwide, we also get scenes of Rafsky's daughter's various birthdays, and as she grows up we wonder how long he will be around.  We end his story with his funeral, his daughter crying and perhaps not fully understanding the circumstances.

Even now, the rage that ACT UP tapped into to force the issue of AIDS to the public in their take no prisoners/not take 'no' for an answer still comes across.  What makes David France's film more effective is that he does not attempt to portray the members as saints or somehow victims.  They are just as able to be petty, spiteful, and vicious to opponents and each other as the opposition is to them.  The interviewees in the archival footage even tacitly recognize that perhaps they had gotten some of it wrong, that the road they pursued of a single treatment was a mistake and that millions of dollars and hours had basically been wasted (though I would argue it wasn't a total waste).

As a film, How to Survive a Plague is an engrossing document of a movement where a major health crisis spurred a group of disenfranchised people to rise up in righteous fury (perhaps sometimes too much fury, but I leave that up to the viewer).

Curiously, while the film obviously focused more on AIDS than gay rights, one thing that did not go noticed is how AIDS played a vital role in the expansion of gay rights.  The gay community would no longer be marginalized, especially since so many of them were dying and no one appeared to give a damn.  I think that without the AIDS epidemic, there would not have been an acceptance of gays in the military or same-sex marriage.  AIDS, at least from what I surmise, was the trigger that forced homosexuality out into the open and would not be shut in again.

Granted A.) this is just a theory and B.) I'm sure they would have not wanted something like AIDS to be the force that brought about this change, but there it is.

How to Survive a Plague is an excellent film, one that doesn't attempt to dress up the flaws of the individuals who do look back in wonder at how they managed not just to survive but to thrive.