Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Asphalt Jungle: A Review (Review #548)


The Noir Dreams That Destroy...

The Asphalt Jungle has one element missing in it that keeps it from being pure film noir.  There is no femme fatale, no alluring and dangerous woman leading our hero into ultimate destruction.  Having said that, The Asphalt Jungle is still noir in its dark imagery and themes of desperation, the criminal underworld, and the world-weary antihero who, like almost everyone in the film, years for the light but cannot escape the dark. 

The Asphalt Jungle is also highly influential in modern-day crime drama in its 'heist-gone-wrong' story.  Almost all films with this scenario, down to Reservoir Dogs and Heat, owe a great deal to John Huston's gritty tale of the city. 

Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is a hooligan, getting through life in the big city via petty crimes.  He yearns for the cleanness of his Kentucky farm, one that was lost in the Depression.  His ultimate goal is to leave the city and go back to his farm, but for that he must dirty himself through crime to get the money.

As it turns out, an opportunity comes his way through an unexpected source.  Dr. Erwin Riedenschnieder (Sam Jaffe), a criminal mastermind, has just been released from prison.  As all brilliant criminals, he has spent his 'forced retirement' cooking up a brilliant heist: a jewelry robbery that he has thought through and planned to perfection.  He needs, however, backers and a crew, and for that he turns to Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) a 'respectable' attorney who is involved in criminal activity.  Emmerich and The Professor are brought together by Cobby (Marc Lawrence) a simple-minded bookie.  Cobby also helps the Professor come up with a crew: a driver, Gus (James Whitmore), a safecracker, Louis (Anthony Caruso), and a hood.  That is Dix's gig.

This heist will allow Dix to go back to the purity of Kentucky, and it might also allow Dix's friend Doll (Jean Hagen) to accompany him, even though Dix has not given any indication that he has any feelings for Doll (despite her obvious feelings for him).  With Emmerich's funding, the crew commences.  However, the wily and desperate Emmerich has a few tricks up his sleeve.  For one, despite his wealth he has no money to fund the project, so he borrows some from the weak Cobby and decides to double-cross the Professor and crew, keep the jewels, and fence them himself.

Things, however, don't go as planned.  In the actual heist Louis is fatally injured and a security guard is killed.  With people hunting everyone down, Emmerich attempts to keep the jewels but his ineptness (along with Dix's intervention), force him to try to keep his side of the bargain.  Dix however is injured in the struggle.

With the police hunting down the criminals and zeroing in on the Professor, the lives of all of them quickly collapse.  Emmerich tries to establish an alibi via his mistress Angela (Marilyn Monroe) but he is discovered, escaping justice through his own hands.  Despite the Professor's suggestion that he keep some jewels to make money off, Dix decides to leave, with Doll forcing him to take her with him.  The Professor himself almost makes a getaway, but his obsession with young girls brings about his own downfall.  Family man Louis meets his own end, and Dix does make it to Kentucky, but does not make it (if you get my meaning).

The Asphalt Jungle is a brilliant film in its understanding of all the character's motivations: their greed, their cynicism, their faults, but also their sad and tragic hopes to escape the world they live in.  Huston and his co-writer Ben Maddow (from a novel by W.R. Burnett) do not make any judgment on the type of people the characters are.  In a brilliant counterpoint, near the end of the film the Police Commissioner (John McIntire) tells the press that these people are the dregs of society, and especially the hooligan involved in the caper. 

Of course, The Asphalt Jungle shows that far from being a cold, amoral being, the hooligan Dix is actually a good man forced into doing bad things in order to survive.  We see that he hates the city, hates the dirtiness of both his surroundings and the criminal work he has been involved in.  Dix's fixation on his boyhood home, the dreams of his youth, the longing for his family and the cleanliness of Kentucky (the symbolism he places on the innocence of the past and its distance from the corrupt city, especially corrupt to the human soul) show that if not for some bad turns of fate, Dix could have been an upright citizen.

His total inability to see anything beyond the darkness extends to Doll.  She clearly loves him, is willing to do anything for him, even risk her own future in order to stay with him.  He cannot see it, which makes this aspect of The Asphalt Jungle all the more tragic.

The Asphalt Jungle has some of the best performances of a noir film that I've ever seen.  Sterling Hayden may be best remembered for his turn as the insane General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or his small role as the corrupt Captain McClusky in The Godfather, but in The Asphalt Jungle he brings a pathos and sense of inevitable tragedy to Dix.  Hayden brings a world-weariness to Dix, someone who dreams to escape but who perhaps in his heart knows he never will.

Equally excellent is Hagen, who is actually not on screen much.  We see the love she has for this fallen man, who perhaps similarly could redeem him with her love, but who in the end cannot save him.

All the other performances are so well-crafted.  Jaffe is brilliant as the methodical, slightly unemotional Professor, a man who thinks his ways out of trouble.  The screenplay allows the Professor to have some of the wittiest and cutting lines.  When Cobby tells him that a certain police detective is all right, the Professor replies, "Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman.  Just when you think he's all right, they turn legit."  The fact that Jaffe's Professor remains cool under all circumstances (except when he falls for a teenage girl who delays his escape with his fixation on her dancing) makes one admire his demeanor.

One also feels for Lawrence's Cobby, whom we know is getting played but who doesn't recognize that himself.  Calhern as the shifty lawyer is also excellent, and his end is similarly almost tragic (although less so given what a duplicitous fool he was). 

The Asphalt Jungle was not Marilyn Monroe's first film, but it was her first important film.  Her part is small but it shows that Monroe was a legitimate actress.  Long before The Legend of Monroe took hold, long before she became a Sex Goddess, she was someone who could deliver a good performance as a minor character.  The Asphalt Jungle set off her career, for in later years advertising for the film would make sure to feature Monroe despite the fact that she wasn't in the film that much (the original advertising, if I understand correctly, doesn't mention her appearance in name).

We get not just excellent dialogue and plot in The Asphalt Jungle, but non-visual cues as to the corruption of the city courtesy of Harold Rosson's Oscar-nominated cinematography (one of four nominations, along with Jaffe's performance, the Huston & Maddow screenplay and Huston's directing).  The world of The Asphalt Jungle is a world in decay, crumbling, murky, on the verge of total collapse and despair, echoing the desperate lives of the characters. 

The Asphalt Jungle almost plays like a documentary.  There is very little music in the film (despite having a score by Miklos Rozsa, one of the great composers of the Golden Age of Film).  There is  opening and closing music, but apart from music from the radio or records, there is no music.  It was a brilliant decision, giving it a 'you are there' feel.

The Asphalt Jungle knows the darkness of this world.  It doesn't make it look glamorous or pleasant.  However, it also presents these hoods as people: with families, with dreams, with hopes.  The fact that these dreams and hopes are done in by their own hands lends a greater tragedy to this noir picture. 

"One way or another, we all work for our vices."  So speaks the Professor, and truer words were never spoken.  It doesn't matter whether the vices were evil (Emmerich's greed, the Professor's lusts) or good (Dix's dreams of his old home, Dolls' dreams of Dix), they all worked for them...and were done in by them.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Bridge: Pilot Review


Murder Knows No Boundaries...

The Bridge is the American remake of a Scandinavian television series.  Not being Danish or Swedish, I cannot vouch for how this version compares to the original.  However, being a native El Pasoan, I do feel I do have a unique vantage point on The Bridge.  That is for another time.

Today, we will be going over the pilot, which is an excellent piece of work.  The Bridge sets off its tale of crime between borders brilliantly, showing how much is going on within both the crime being investigated and the investigators themselves. 

On the Bridge of the Americas joining El Paso, Texas (my hometown) and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, a body is dumped.  As the victim appears to be an American judge, it would fall under the jurisdiction of the El Paso Police Department.  The investigator is Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), one who is a brilliant detective but has no tact whatsoever (the pilot strongly suggests she has Asperger's Syndrome but doesn't flat-out state it).  On the other side of the border, Detective Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) is perfectly content to let the 'gabacha' take over.  As he points out to Cross, he has his own crimes to solve (a group of heads found at the City Hall parking lot being among them). 

However, we get a twist in the tale.  As the body is about to be lifted, we find that there are TWO bodies cut together to make it one.  The American side has the Texas judge, the Mexican side has the body of a young girl, one of the thousands of girls who have disappeared in Juarez.  With the discovery that we now have two crimes, a cross Cross has to contact Ruiz to find who the other half belongs to. 

In a subplot, Charlotte Millwright (Annabeth Gish) has recently been made a widow.  Her husband suffered a major heart attack while in Mexico when both were looking at horses and, over Cross' loud objections, were allowed to cross the bridge to get to the American side by Ruiz.  The Widow Charlotte was highly fortunate, as her husband Karl (Bobby Ray Shaffer) told her he wanted a divorce right before he croaked.  However, as the episode continues and she goes to their ranch, she finds that a mysterious woman knows his private phone number and that a key holds a secret that she has not fully discovered. 

Meanwhile, Steve Linder (Thomas M. Wright) smuggles Eva Guerra (Sandra Echevarria) across the border, promptly locking her up in a remote trailer.  How will she tie in to this strange murder?  Will Cross and Ruiz be able to work well together?  Will Cross' mentor Hank Wade (Ted Levine) be able to guide her as he announces to her that he will retire soon? 

The Bridge ends with smarmy and arrogant El Paso Times reporter Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard) becoming the chief suspect after the video cameras find his license plates are on the car that dumped the bodies during a pre-programmed blackout.  However, Frye himself is in danger: a bomb apparently has been placed in his car, but it was a fake.  Instead, the cell phone timer has a message for Cross (and Ruiz): this crime is 'only the beginning'.  Why should the death of one white female judge in Texas be more important than the thousands of anonymous girls murdered a few miles away.

"How long will El Paso look away?" this voice asks.

How long indeed.

As I stated, in another post I will offer my own views as to how The Bridge captures or not my hometown.  For the moment, let us look upon how well the pilot worked or not.

The Bridge worked brilliantly: tense, taut, and terrifying.  The pilot starts building its mystery, then throws in one twist after another that keep the audience both guessing and riveted.

A great deal of credit goes to the performances all around.  Chief among them is that of Bichir as one of the few honest lawmen on the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexican border.  We know much about him through not just his way with words (his somewhat sarcastic, somewhat humorous reply of "Howdy, partner", complete with faux-Texan accent, when an EPPD officer greets him with an "Buenos diaz" tells you as much about Ruiz as anything), but we also see the kind of person he is in his interactions with his wife and son (another in the handful of Hispanic Oscar nominees, Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Carlos Pratts respectively).  Bichir has an excellent scene when he follows procedure and goes to his captain for permission to work this case.  It is evident that the Captain is corrupt, gambling in the mansion of a major drug lord, but Ruiz here shows he is fully aware of what kind of world he lives in, but still holds to the principles of law enforcement.  If anything, in this episode Bichir steals the show as the lighter of the mismatched pair.

I have never been convinced that Diane Kruger is a particularly good actress, but I think she gives the best performance of her career as Detective Cross.  In her inability to empathize with people, her directness, her cluelessness as to how to provide a 'personal touch' when questioning people or dealing with others, it is clear that she has a form of Asperger's.  Whether it is diagnosed or not, or even if she is aware of it, is something that I suspect will be another mystery The Bridge will address. 

In what is being billed as a 'guest appearance', Lillard shows he's capable of being more than Shaggy (or a variation thereof) as the arrogant but also frightened reporter who is caught up in this web of murder and mayhem.  Levine, best remembered for his role in The Silence of the Lambs, shows he can be on the good side of the law.  His scenes with Kruger where he offers his wisdom and counsel show an almost father/daughter type relationship between the two. 

One of the best things about Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid's screenplay is that the mystery is allowed to build and even throw in a few other stories that (one hopes) will tie in to the overall story of who killed these two women and why. 

As a pilot, The Bridge creates a great atmosphere of a mystery, bringing in great characters, strong performances, and a fascinating series of stories that starts the show off brilliantly.



Next Episode: Calaca

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sleuth (2007): A Review

SLEUTH (2007)

The 2007 remake of Sleuth is one of the most unique moments in cinema.  Remakes are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but it isn't often that the star of the original is allowed to play the rival to the character he played in the remake.  However, this was the situation with Sleuth, where Michael Caine becomes one of the few actors to play both characters of a two character piece in two film versions of the same story. 

It's unfortunate that despite being a great actor, and despite having an equal in Jude Law, a brilliant director in Kenneth Branagh, and a brilliant writer in Harold Pinter, the end result could be so dull, idiotic, and a sheer waste of everyone's time and talents. 

Sometimes, too much breeding is a bad thing.

Wealthy author Andrew Wyke (Caine) has invited Milo Tindle (Law) to his home.  Both know that Milo is Andrew's wife's lover.  Andrew tells Milo he has no real problem with Milo taking Maggie, but Maggie will eventually leave her chauffer/actor lover and return to Andrew.  This is something Andrew does not want.  Convincing Milo to steal insured jewels and then sell them to a fence, which would keep both of them to the life Maggie has grown accustomed to.  However, this is all part of an elaborate ruse to torment, perhaps kill Milo.

Next, an Inspector Black comes to investigate Milo's disappearance.  Soon, it becomes clear that Black is Milo (painfully so, I might add), and Sleuth ends with one dead and one about to be discovered as a murderer.

We both are better than this.
Not a lot of people know that.

I saw the original Sleuth and I don't compare the original to the remake per policy, opting to offer my views on another posting.  However, one can only hope that people don't get discouraged to check out the original if they make the mistake of encountering the remake. 

Sleuth is despite the short running time (about less than an hour and a half) shockingly slow, boring, and even weird.  So many bizarre decisions in terms of story and direction make Sleuth at times incomprehensive, confused, and self-indulgent.

The first is Branagh's decision to focus so much on the high-tech visuals.  The film is dominated by shots of the surveillance cameras that become far too distracting.  At one point, we hear Law and Caine carrying on dialogue but their heads are cut off.  Another odd choice was to constantly cut shots within the same scene.  There are scenes that jump all over the place, and given that Sleuth is a two-man piece there should be no reason why they can't share the screen.

Second, Pinter's screenplay does one or two things.  First, it seems to take a few cracks at the fact that Caine and Law both played the title character in Alfie.  Law's Milo talks about how to make ends meet between acting gigs, "I drive cars now and then, chauffeuring."  At another point one of them (I think Caine) asks, "What's it all about?"  If the song doesn't pop into your head...

The screenplay similarly takes odd turns that plot-wise don't make any sense.  Near the end of the film, there is a strong suggestion of homoeroticism that was nowhere to be found up till then.  There was no reason to introduce this element into the story, and it smacks of desperation.

The art direction and cinematography only served to emphasized the unreality of the situation.  Everything highlights the odd circumstances of Sleuth, and unfortunately draw attention only to themselves, a fatal decision in a mystery.

Finally, both Law and Caine looked like they were trying too hard to make the material work.  The former acted as if he were hysterical, the latter as if he were cashing a check.

Sleuth is a waste of four talents in a boring, weird, and idiotic film.  Oddly, no one: Caine, Law, Branagh, and Pinter, has a clue...

It's THAT Bad.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine: A Review


Memoirs of a Mutant...

Save for a cameo in X-Men: First Class (a movie I was slightly disappointed with), the character of Wolverine has not been seen since X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a clear embarrassment to all concerned and a rare misstep for our morose mutant (Hugh Jackman).  Jackman now has earned the distinction of having played the same comic-book character in more films than any other actor (six times in all).  The Wolverine does at least one bad thing: it establishes both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men 3: The Last Stand as Canon.

Almost everything else, it was hit-and-miss.

Wolverine/Logan is still mourning the death of his love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).  As a result, he lives in the wilderness, where he's something of an avenging angel to woodland creatures.  He soon is found by Yukio (Rila Fukushima).  She works for Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a former guard at the POW camp Logan was in during World War II.  Yashida wants to thank Logan for saving him at the Nagasaki atomic bombing and say goodbye to him before he dies. 

Once in Japan, Logan finds that Yashida has an offer for him: he can give Logan what he wants: an end to his immortality.  Such powers can be transferred, but Logan won't accept such things.  However, this really is all out of his hands, as a powerful toxin slipped to him makes him if not strictly mortal at least suppresses his healing abilities.  He now requires medical attention.  He now bleeds.

At Yashida's funeral his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is abducted by the Yakuza.  Logan now protects her while she has a secret army of ninjas also on her side (so secret she doesn't quite seem aware of it).  With the assistance of Yukio (who has psychic powers), Logan now must rescue Mariko (with whom he has fallen in love with) against her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), ninja archer/Mariko's former fiancée Harada (Will Yun Lee) and Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mutant with venomous powers.

I think it bears remembering that I did not read comic books as a child.  In fact, it wasn't until my twenties that I even glanced at a comic book, and it was only because the Blue Beetle series was set in my hometown of El Paso, TX.   Therefore, I come into all comic book-based films unaware of the mythology the films draw on.  I understand The Wolverine's story is based on a graphic novel, which is all well and good.  However, as a non-comic book reader/follower I found much to object in The Wolverine, both story-wise and acting-wise, that push the film down.

On the second part I can find no fault in Jackman.  He OWNS the part of Logan/Wolverine fully and completely.  Despite the fact that technically he is far too tall to play this character, Jackman gets the rage, the hurt, and even the dark humor of the solitary mutant.  His performance is so good that one forgets he really doesn't fit the description of Logan/Wolverine from the comics (in the same way Peter O'Toole is far too tall to play the diminutive T.E. Lawrence...and yes, I just compared Hugh Jackman's Wolverine to Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia).  It was just about everyone else in The Wolverine that fell flat.

Particularly bad was Okamoto, a former model beginning a screen career.  Due to this being her first role, one should not be too harsh with her, but if one is going to give someone a central part, it should be given to someone who has had some training.  I can think of only two models who have gone on to respectable acting careers (Lauren Bacall and Lauren Hutton, and if one can provide more examples I'd be grateful), and sadly Okamoto's flat performance as the perpetual damsel in distress (down to literally being trapped in a tower) made her role uninteresting.  Even worse, despite Jackman and Okamoto's best efforts, the 'romance' between Logan and Mariko seem to come from almost nowhere and I never believed it.

Fukushima's Yukio was much better to where I wish the story had taken more interest in her than in the dull, almost lifeless Mariko.  I also have read where Khodchenkova has been trashed for her Viper, but I think she did her best as well.  This Viper is a camp-vamp creature, one who struts and poisons men at whim, so I wasn't too bothered with her performance.

Where for me The Wolverine fails is in Frank Bomback and Scott Frank's screenplay.  Poor Logan gets himself caught up in all this interfamily power struggle where he really has no stake in it.  We've got Yakuza fighting a secret ninja army, an archer from Mariko's past (do I detect hints of The Avenger's Hawkeye crossed with elements of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?) and for a final wild and wrong turn, a giant robot samurai made from adamantium (and throw in a completely laughable and predictable turn, have a 'dead' character inside the Silver Samurai). 

At that point for me The Wolverine turned into a bit of a farce. I actually started laughing at this, not only at what I was watching but at the fact that the movie was taking this all so seriously. 

One thing that I fault The Wolverine for is that it took far too long to get where it wanted to go.  I think the entire ten to fifteen minutes of Wolverine turning into Grizzly Logan: Defender of the Forest could have been dispensed.  Secondly, the constant dream appearances by Jean Gray (a total of five times) was simply idiotic.  One, two, maybe three dream sequences perhaps, but FIVE?  Even worse, the first time she appears it is as part of a dream within a dream.

What is this: Wolverine's Inception?

However, there are some things that are quite good in The Wolverine.  The action scenes, particularly an extended battle starting from Yashida's funeral that after a pause continues on a train is very tense and well-done, exciting and even with some humor.  An attack of ninjas at the Yashida palace is also quite good, filmed quite beautifully (reminiscent, though not as good, as the Shanghai sequence in Skyfall). 

It is unfortunate on the whole that director James Mangold focused (no pun intended) on that rather than on both the story and some of the performances. 


The teaser at the end though, with both Ian McKellen's Magneto AND Patrick Stewarts Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) being X-Men United (pun intended) hinting of a major threat to mutants suggests that X-Men: Days of Future Past will be (or attempt to be) a massive epic, bringing in the cast of First Class (the always brilliant Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as the younger Magneto and Xavier respectively) along with those who have lived through The Last Stand, with Jackman's Wolverine being part of it all.  That to me makes Days of Future Past something to anticipate. 


The Wolverine is not a terrible film (certainly it's far and above the last two tries where our crabby mutant was a lead) but it took one too many odd turns and had some weak performances that don't put it anywhere near the level of the first two X-Men films (among the greatest comic book adaptations).  It's a case of seeing something that could have been better.  It's enough to make one unleash their claws in mild frustration.

I think the best way to sum up The Wolverine is to point out that at the screening I attended, at the end ONE person let out wild applause, but no one else joined his wild cheering. 

Finally, for those female/gay readers of mine, Hugh Jackman appears a total of nine times shirtless.  Yes, he's 44, and every man hates him for it...


Saturday, July 27, 2013

After Earth: A Review (Review #545)


This is no Triumph of the Will...

After Earth may be the most bizarre and expensive allegory in film history: a young man of limited talents trying to match his more successful father and not just failing, but dragging both of them down with him.  It may not be Jaden Smith's fault.  It may not be his father Will Smith's fault.  It may not even be perhaps director/co-writer M. Night Shyamalan's fault. 

After Earth, however, is a collective effort, where together they created a vanity project in a desperate effort to promote a star's child to 'star' status, someone who would probably not have a film career save for his family tree.  I don't know Jaden Smith, and he may be a nice kid.  However, he has been awful in all his movies post-Pursuit of Happyness (The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, The Karate Kid remake), so what made anyone think he'd be better in 'original' material.  This mad fixation of making Jaden Smith a STAR, an ICON, a LEGEND despite his limited (or almost totally absent) acting abilities is either Mr. & Mrs. Smith's way of easing their progeny into careers they might not want and are showing themselves unsuited for, or the oddest form of child (and public) abuse ever recorded. 

Cypher Raige (Smith pere) is a Ranger General, one who has no fear.  As such, he is able to fight the Ursas, powerful monsters who strike their victims by sensing fear.  These Ursas are on Nova Prime, the planet that humanity now lives on after having left Earth due to their own destruction of it. 

Cypher has a son, Kitai (Smith fils).  He is in Ranger Corps, but while his intellectual skills are high, he has too much fear within to recommend him to the Corps.  His fear stems from when his sister Senshi (Zoe Kravitz) was killed in front of him by an Ursa.  Needless to say (in what I can only call a cliché) Kitai fails to live up to Cypher's reputation and also needless to say Cypher, the stiff, impersonal father, does not think too highly of his son.

Would it be needless to say what happens next?  Mrs. Raige (Sophie Okonedo) urges Cypher to take Kitai on a training mission with a captured Ursa before his retirement.  Any guesses as to what could possibly go wrong?  Ship meets meteor storm, which forces it to crash, and everyone save Cypher & Kitai are killed (needless to say, one can't worry about the 'little people').  Cypher is badly injured in the crash (both legs), and the beacon that will send a distress message is broken.  There is another beacon, at the tail end of the ship, some thousand yards/miles/kilometers (I don't remember, just that it's many days journey) away.  Therefore, it's up to Kitai to go release the beacon, with Cypher watching him.

The rest of After Earth is spent between Kitai making a near mess of things and Cypher signaling his displeasure.

That might have been what was occurring between pere et fils during the making of After Earth, but I can only speculate.

No surprise, Kitai has to survive many things before finding the beacon, ending with struggling with that Ursa roaming about.  Pity Cypher is by now unconscious and cannot communicate with his son to show pride in him somehow overcoming his fear...

Yes, Daddy Dearest...
After Earth should signal two things: the end of both Jaden Smith and director/co-writer M. Night Shyamalan's careers as actor and director respectively, and as clear a message to Will Smith that people just don't care about his son and don't think he's anywhere as good as the father.  Unfortunately, none of them will get the message: despite a series of flops Shyamalan will still get hired, despite a series of flops Jaden will still get hired, and despite a series of flops (and damage to his reputation) Will will still foist his youngest son on us, determined to make him as big a star as he used to be.  There is something to be said about those with quixotic obsessions: the hunt for the White Whale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the determination to make Jaden Smith a star (not an actor, but a STAR!).

It's difficult to not concentrate on the fact that Jaden Smith is Will Smith's son because if he were, say, Jaden Pinkett people would wonder why he was cast.  Jaden Smith, to his credit, gave it as good a go as he could, but he just could not act.  He could never make people care about his plight, and some of those things were beyond his control.  The flashback scenes which were suppose to establish his fear of Ursas were jumbled (as was a flat-out bizarre sequence where his dead sister appears as he floats along the river, culminating in her not-so-scarred face jolting him into waking) and there was nothing in the script (co-written with Gary Whitta) for our 'hero' to which to latch onto.

We never saw how good a Ranger he was (save for him jogging ahead of everyone).  We did get evidence of how inept he was as a Ranger (him going blind and nearly dying due to a poisonous leech will become a special source of mockery in showcasing Smith fils' 'acting').  One wonders what would have happened to young Kitai if Daddy wasn't around to guide him.  How was he ever declared a candidate for Ranger when he didn't appear to be able to survive a wilderness experience?

How was it that he managed to overcome fear when through all of After Earth he never showed any development in his character?  He hardly took any actions of his own free will until he 'confronts' Cypher about how he wasn't there to protect his sister.  Rather than showing anger and hurt, Jaden made it sound like a child complaining about not being taken to the Ice Capades ('You PROMISED!' one could almost hear Kitai say).

Ears?  Yes.

This is where some things were Jaden Smith's fault.  Kitai came across as whiny, dim, and almost bored.  I have now seen every Jaden Smith picture, and everything post-Pursuit of Happyness has him 'act' the same way: a near-permanent scowl, as if saying 'I don't want to be here'.  Jaden Smith is simply not experienced enough to carry the weight he was asked to, let alone the actual acting abilities.

A scene between Cypher and Kitai where Cypher is coldly giving his son instructions before leaving on his mission and Kitai reciting them is an especially painful moment to watch.  We see one person who can't act show he can't, and we see on person who can show that he decided not to.

In an even more bizarre decision, Shyamalan and Smith pere decided to make Cypher this stereotypical 'tough and disapproving father'.  As if to compensate for Jaden's stabs at expressing emotion (which he couldn't), Will decided to give Cypher not one drop of human emotion.  Hal 900 showed more emotion than Will Smith.  I KNOW Will Smith CAN act, so one could blame Shyamalan.  However, given that Will Smith is too experienced when it comes to his own performances to know what he is doing, I must conclude that Will Smith made the decision to make Cypher into a character who would never show anything close to any type of feeling.

This was his son, his only child, who was risking his life, and sometimes stumbling, sometimes succeeding.  Does Cypher EVER change his reaction?  No.  Throughout After Earth Smith pere growls at every opportunity.

Neither Smith showed a character that we could care about.  In the theater, there was more emotion shown over a group of dead baby birds than there was over either Cypher or Kitai.  That can't be a good sign.

After Earth also has some flat-out bizarre plot points and near-comical situations.  Earth now has wild weather changes, where a mass freeze can take place within a day.  I kept wondering how far the Earth had moved away from the sun for one location to undergo such massive climate shifts within a specific geographic area.  Kitai's voice-over was annoying (and having this Caribbean-like accent the Raige boys had didn't help, especially since Kravitz's Senshi didn't have an accent).  Wasting Sophie Okonedo as Cypher's wife in a few scenes where she added nothing to the plot was another misstep. 

Finally, there was a moment after the crash where a plastic curtain kept folding and unfolding before us was at the most generous a trifle odd.  Was it meant to be artistic?  Was it even important (as were the allusions to Moby-Dick which were never actually used)?  The rhythmic opening and closing of the curtains made no sense, but then very little in After Earth did.  It just put the coda on the nonsense. 

Will Smith had great plans for After EarthHe envisioned a trilogy, perhaps spin-offs and certainly a vehicle for his son to become an action star.  I imagine that such lofty schemes now must be put aside, because After Earth is just awful: awful in acting (a surprise from Will, typical from Jaden, both giving not 'one-note' performances, but 'no-note' performances), awful in story (clichéd, dull, and incapable of telling an interesting story, let alone three), awful in special effects (at least for a hoped-for franchise starter), and just mind-numbingly dull.

After Earth has earned its reputation as the Battlefield Earth of This Generation.  Read that any way you want, but I read it as meaning that both are absolute disasters that will go a long way in damaging the reputations of those involved.  At one point, Cypher tells his whiny kid, "Do exactly what I tell you, and we'll survive."  I wonder if this is the Smith Family Motto...



Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finn Comes At The End

Last year, I speculated about Cory Monteith.  I wondered what kind of career a 30-year-old man playing an 18-year-old high school student could or would have.

I did not expect to be writing a remembrance about him the following year. 

Yes, it is a tragedy whenever someone so young dies, and the fact that he could not overcome his demons makes it sadder still.

However, a part of me finds it difficult to sympathize or mourn Monteith.  He died by his own hand.  There is no nice way of dressing up Monteith's death: in a way, he chose to die because despite the efforts of his family, friends, and co-workers, he would or could not give up the drugs that killed him.

Addiction is a terrible thing; of that there is no doubt.  Monteith had been an addict for more than half his life, starting at age 13.  I don't know if Glee had anything to do with his death.  Should he have remained anonymous in Canada, should he have remained as a working-class stiff, I think the end result would have been pretty much the same.  Monteith was an addict, and it is highly likely that he would have remained one.

Still, I am of two minds on Cory Monteith.  I never wish anyone ill, and no matter the circumstances to see someone so young die of something so preventable is sad.  However, as I said I can't muster much if any sympathy for him. 

He knew what he was doing.  He knew that these drugs were stronger than he was, and no amount of rehab would work if one keeps hanging around in the same places and with the same people who get you into drugs.  You can't go to a whorehouse and not expect to find venereal diseases.

He made approximately $40 to $45 thousand per episode.  In one week he earned more than I do in approximately three YEARS.   He had a girlfriend, fans, notoriety.  He had a career that could have been building.

Not be look down on myself, but for someone who does struggle to make ends meet, who has been exhausting himself staying up into the wee hours of the morning to do graduate school work WHILE maintaining a 40 hour workweek, feeling sad for someone like Cory Monteith, addiction or no addiction, is rather difficult.

At the time of his death, we can accept one of two ideas.  Idea One is that despite his wealth, career, and girl, the drugs were simply too powerful for him to resist.  Idea Two is that despite his wealth, career, and girl, he just didn't care and sought self-indulgence.

There is a third possibility: that none of what he had (or what he got via the heroin and alcohol) was enough to fill whatever emptiness within him.  Any personal issues from his life are no excuse for entering drugs to deal with them. 

I feel some sadness for Cory Monteith.  He didn't have to die.  Neither do all those nameless people who die due to various drugs, people who didn't earn what Monteith did, or had the abilities that Monteith did, or the name recognition (however small) that Monteith did. 

Fame and fortune truly aren't everything.  The New International Version of the Bible says is Proverbs 15:16, "Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil."  Cory Monteith had great wealth (especially compared to others, including other addicts).  He also had great turmoil, turmoil that led him to escape through drugs, to which he became dependent/addicted, and turmoil which ultimately asked for his life in exchange for that final fix.  A price, sadly, that he was willing to pay.

I claim neither great wisdom or humility.  I only offer my own reflections: that Cory Monteith did not have to die.  I imagine that eventually he will be perhaps a footnote, another sad case of a star with an addiction that took him out long before 'his time'.  Fans will remember, but move on.  Those who have never heard or cared about Finn Hudson, Glee, or Cory Monteith will not care one bit about some druggie in Hollywood who made thousands of dollars to sing and dance and then dropped dead. 

For myself, I feel it all such a waste, such a sad waste.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Franklin & Bash: By the Numbers Review


Actuary, It Stinks and Stings...

By The Numbers I think might have made for a good episode, but somewhere along the way it got sidetracked by how fun and cute and clever it was all suppose to be, and instead we got what has become typical Franklin & Bash fare.  We get to humiliate a character who has no need to be humiliated,  we see that our two leads are basically incompetent but can stumble into success and be rewarded for it, and we get people who are remarkably shallow, even horrid.

Perhaps all that could be forgiven, but not the fact that By The Numbers turns out to be, well, almost boring.

Wendell Singletary (Martin Starr) is an actuary (a person qualified to calculate commercial risks and probabilities involving uncertain future events, especially in such contexts as life assurance...yes, I had to look it up).  He is being sued by Noelle Gardener (Meg Cionni) because he refuses to pay her for not dying.  Noelle had a terminal illness and Wendell bought her life insurance, with which she could live out her remaining days with some income and at her death he is the beneficiary (or something like that: I confess to finding the whole thing rather morbid & perplexing).  As can be expected in these types of odd cases, Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are for Noelle.

Funny thing happens on the way to the jury: Noelle drops dead.  And guess who is the main suspect?  And further guess who has been appointed by Stanton Infeld King head Rachel King (Heather Locklear) to defend our numbers man?  Wendell (who has this strange hold over women that he is almost always oblivious about) has mounting evidence against him, and not even his trusted assistant Jill (Heather Tuck) can help him. 

Meanwhile, Damien Karp (Reed Diamond) is asked by Rachel to defend Summer (Kim Shaw), a beekeeper for reasons only Rachel understands.  Summer lives in Venice, as hippie-dippy a town as can be found in California (and this is the same state that has San Francisco to contend with).  This of course means that Venice is the perfect fit for the buttoned-up Karp.  After failing to settle the matter quickly (who knew there was video of the birthday party where the children might have gotten stings from Summer's bees?) Karp's uncle Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell) jumps in.

Well, we do learn that Noelle was murdered, but who could have known that she had an allergy to bananas?  Her sister Rayanne perhaps, certainly her ex-lover Wendell, but there just might be someone else.  We also learn that King, desperate to win the bee case because Summer is a member of a private school board where her goddaughter wants to go, has to turn to Franklin & Bash for help.  Could they help show Karp the Franklin & Bash?  A chance to embarrass their nemesis?  What to you think?

Despite themselves, both pairs win their cases.  In a subplot, Peter's new squeeze Charlie (Nicky Whelan) starts falling for Bash (no surprise there).  However, she comes with a bit of baggage: a 9-year-old daughter named Tess.  This does disrupt Peter's rampant sexual thinking (a child? you mean sex can result in people?) but fortunately for us and them, we never have to deal with Tess (she, like Kumail Nanjiani's Pindar, is mercifully off-screen for the duration of By the Numbers). 

I know Karp is set up to be made the fall guy to embarrassing situations, but even by the standards of Franklin & Bash, having him surrounded by bees is wrong on two levels.   First, it seems in Jamie Pachino's screenplay almost cruel to put someone through this scenario.  Second, I just don't understand why King would give such a simple and bizarre case to Karp (who by all impressions is the most sensible and efficient of the lawyers at the firm) but give the murder case to Franklin & Bash (whose antics I'm surprised have never alienated a jury).  Karp himself expresses very subtle anger at how those he detests have a murder case while he's being sent to a nutty town to defend a beekeeper.  My admiration for Reed just grows and grows, primarily because for good or bad I am starting to identify more with Karp than with either Jared or Peter.

Also, as a side note, again we see how all these lawyers really are above and beyond dumb.  The issue of the videotape of the child's birthday party where the bees are alleged to have wandered into was unknown to any of them, so in fairness to Karp he could not have resolved something of which he knew nothing of.  It's become a F&B routine to keep Karp in the Dark, but in this case it was to put him in the middle of a bee swarm.  Something about all that just strikes me as unfair and unfunny, almost cruel.

In regards to the murder case, the mystery isn't much of a mystery.  It frankly is too easy to solve, and for someone who works with numbers the fact that Wendell couldn't figure this out makes him not as sharp as we're led to believe.  Further, there are things that aren't answered.  Wendell is suppose to have this powerful effect on women, but we never learn exactly what it is.  It is clear from the story who the killer is.  In fact it's so painfully obvious we wonder why no one else thought that the most obvious suspect was indeed the killer.  Add to that the idea that killing Noelle off wouldn't have brought Jill any closer to the man she loved (and was ignored by). 

I once worked with Kubrick, you know...
One thing in By the Numbers that I found particularly galling was this exchange between Peter and Jared over whether they could show Karp and Infeld their methods to win the bee case (or what King called 'the Franklin & Bash').

Peter Bash: Can you teach a one-armed man how to drum?
Jared Franklin (looking a bit puzzled): Def Leppard.
Peter: I said one-armed.

Not only does it make Peter sound shocking ignorant (again), and comes off horrifyingly insensitive towards those who have lost limbs, it is a sad repeat of Captain Johnny, where in a similar bit Peter was not only unaware of basic facts (such as that Jesus Christ was a carpenter, not a fisherman like he thought He was), it was Jared who set him straight (which as a side note, is something we don't know Jared is).  How many times can we have the same bit without it coming off as almost parody?  I am no expert in rock, but even I know who Rick Allen is and how despite his disability he's kept rocking (I may not be a Def Leppard fan, but Allen has all my respect).  How Peter is this ignorant (Jesus was a carpenter?  There IS such as thing as a one-armed drummer?) and yet be this brilliant attorney is now flat-out beyond me.

Another thing that I found personally appalling is the Charlie-Peter relationship.  As is the case with any woman who comes across Gosselaar, Charlie pretty much gives in to Peter.  It is nice to see that Charlie mentions a daughter, but what I could not fathom was the idea that when she gets Tess for a weekend she finds it easier to leave her with a nanny so as to make out with Bash rather than tell Petey, "Maybe next week we can have dinner.  I want to spend time with the little person I gave birth to and don't see that often".   Here is a great conflict: the eternal man-boy confronted with a real dilemma: the threat of fatherhood and its responsibilities.  It is one thing for Charlie not to introduce her daughter to her latest potential baby-daddy, but it does seem a bit much to accept that she would be almost casual about leaving the child she doesn't see that often with someone else while she goes schtupping her next-door neighbor.

Granted, here is where I would differ from Charlie.  If I were in her situation, I would want to spend as much time as possible with my daughter, not with the girl (or guy in this case) next door.

At least one good thing came from this boring and dumb Franklin & Bash episode: the wall between them has come down.  King has rewarded the dimwitted duo by granting their lifelong wish to be together again.  Personally, I think she coddles them too much.  They aren't bright, they aren't responsible, they go out of their way to alienate as many coworkers as possible, they live only for their own gratification and have no real redeeming values.  However, they get the really big office.

Finally, let me address a continuity error I noted while watching By the Numbers.  In the climatic examination of Jill, I noticed that Breckin Meyer's Jared (who tends to be the more vocal of the two) moved his hands a great deal.   In the close-up of Meyer, Jared places his right hand on his chest, but in the very next shot (a wider shot between Meyer and Tuck), it's his left hand that coming down.  How he switched hands from one second to the next remains unexplained.     

I would call that lazy editing and/or directing.  Maybe there's a rush in production and not everything can be noticed or caught in time.  I will concede that.  However, the fact that the jump between right and left hand was more fascinating than the testimony or the story says volumes about By the Numbers as an episode.

No, for a show about lawyers, there is no justice in Franklin & Bash...

Born 1963
Even I, the most bourgeois individual who doesn't follow rock music too much, know that there is such a thing as a one-armed drummer.  Peter Bash isn't just stupid...he's a rich, dumb, ignorant, slutty jerk.


Next Episode: Freck

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Franklin & Bash: Captain Johnny Review


A Parroty of Lawyers...

At least with Captain Johnny, we didn't get a repeat of Franklin & Bash's last season where a great episode was followed by a lousy one.  No, Captain Johnny was not a great episode (the actions of Jared and Peter still makes one wonder how anyone could consider them competent lawyers, let alone the brilliant and clever attorneys everyone insists they are) and there are still questions of logic.  However, Captain Johnny at least didn't completely embarrass the cast and crew of F&B, so that's a plus. 

There's a competition between the team of Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and their boss/nemesis, Rachel King (Heather Locklear) and Damien Karp (Reed Diamond).  Both of them have high-profile cases that will draw attention to the firm, but only one will be able to use their case to draw positive press for Infeld, Daniels, and King.

Franklin & Bash's case involves Captain Johnny (Matt Battaglia).  His case involves a rescue at sea that cost the county a great deal of money.  The Captain, however, insists he didn't need rescuing and that the distress call was made in an effort to drive him out of business by having him lose his ship, which combined with the reimbursement costs would break him.  Fortunately, the Captain has his nephew Gino (Eric Balfour), a surfer/Fish & Wildlife Inspector, who brought the case to our boys as part of a deal after he beat Bash out for a good wave..

The King & Karp case (one K short of bigotry), involves Juliette Morano (Fernanda Andrade), recently fired from her job due to what was dubbed her 'erratic behavior'.  Morano insists the real reason she was fired was because she is psychic, and sensed a disturbance in The Force from Bryan (Roy Abramsohn), her boss who now has taken over her clients.

As a side note, I'm surprised Damien made no comments about "the disturbance in The Force"...even he has to be a fan of Star Wars.   Yet I digress.

In the F&B case, they up the ante by making the case into one of piracy, the first such case in the U.S. in a couple of centuries.  Their case if bolstered by the fact that the High-Line Company, long a thorn in Captain Johnny's side, has acquired his boat after years of wrangling with this solitary fisherman.  The boys suspect that a curious sound within the distress call (and the lack of sounds as well) may mean the call was not made by a passing ship, but on dry land.

A parrot comes into the picture, leading to the ultimate conclusion.

In the K&K case, Juliette does herself no favor by assaulting a former co-worker with pepper spray because she sensed he was going to assault her.  Karp is dismissive of Juliette's psychic powers but King, not as closed-minded, finds with the help of F&B's investigator Carmen (Dana Davis) is able to win the case (and that perhaps in the strangest teasers, Juliette finds that she sees Karp in jail, Rachel wearing some kind of crown, and something with Bash but that is unrevealed.

So who won the bet?  Who do you think?

Maybe by now we should not expect logic to enter in a Franklin & Bash episode.  Certainly Captain Johnny is no exception, filled with flat-out bizarre situations that would never be accepted in the real world.  Let's make a list of things in the episode that would never happen in the world you and I live in,

Two supposedly brilliant lawyers would never put their client on a revolving chair that simulates a storm-tossed ship when said client is clearly hung over.

A judge would not merely shrug when said defendant showed up late and clearly hung over.

The boss would never agree to allow her employees to arrive late merely to catch waves (might that not upset the other employees to see these two dimwits get special breaks).

A Fish & Wildlife employee would never risk his job to let a couple of lawyers come into an inspection to steal a parrot.

The boss would never have ruled against herself on a bet (which I think only coddles our attorneys).

In a bet where one of the participants is also the judge of the winner, the other party would have objected and asked for an independent ruling.

A co-counsel would never be told he was going to begin opening arguments mere seconds before going to trial (which makes Rachel King look just as nutty as everyone else in Stanton, Infeld, & King). 

Still, since when has logic ever stopped Franklin & Bash or Franklin & Bash?

Captain Johnny also shows Jared and Peter to be remarkably short-sighted, even stupid.  They are making a bet with their boss that they might win, so what do they ask for should they come out on top?  Do they, say for example, ask to have the wall between their offices that they hate so much taken down?  NO...instead, they ask to come in at 10 a.m. so as to catch some good waves (odd, especially since we have never actually SEEN Franklin or Bash actually surf).  Worse, the fact that King allowed them to win is just bad precedent.

A rational person would have said, "It's your job to show up on time, you can't just shirk your responsibilities to the firm because you feel like it, and you're coming in on time because otherwise, I'll fire you."  How could we root for two guys who are this selfish, self-centered, and irresponsible?

In another bit that makes these two look like imbeciles, while discussing the merits of taking on the fishing case, Bash points out the importance of fisherman.  "Jesus was a fisherman," he proudly points out.  "Carpenter," Franklin whispers (in a rare moment when Franklin is the smarter of the two). 

What saves Captain Johnny are some bits that show that Rachel King is actually a rational person.  She is the only one to use Investigator Carmen in a clever way.  Davis, though her part was small, at least showed that of all the characters on the show, she is the most intelligent because her character is called on to be intelligent.  One can question in Nicki Renna and Matt McGuinness' script how a bit of in-house gossip can lead to a major revelation, but at least Carmen is seen doing something.

We also get good bits of comedy (and that's what Franklin & Bash really is).  When Carmen first comes in to see Rachel, Karp has a dry introduction for her.  "She's with the Franklin and the Bash," he says.  John Ratzenberger's turn as a judge has a droll humor.  When being advised that the boys want to make this a piracy case, Judge Reid says, "Pirates.  Like Errol Flynn."  Even Rachel gets in on the act.  When Juliette sees a crown on her head, a disbelieving Karp asks if she's some sort of secret royalty.  "I'm Princess Calisia of House Tarkerian," she snaps. 

Was that a little Dune reference, perhaps?

Where Captain Johnny failed was in certain aspects of the main story.  If the parrot is a major clue, how was it that the parrot either never bothered the witness or no one at High-Line ever noticed that the parrot bothered the witness?  Another thing I can think of is, if the wager was that should Franklin & Bash lose, they would have to show up at 8 a.m., does that mean their lateness has been excused or overlooked all this time? 

Couch Potato Head...

Further, the subplot involving Pindar (Kumail Nanjiani) and Rob Lowe's couch is just hideous.  He has an irrational fear of the coach, and then he appears desperate to hold on to it.  The fact that Pindar has been reduced to being the annoying lunatic in a house full of lunatics does not help his case.

I understand Nanjiani is a Doctor Who fan (or perhaps, NuWho).  I wish he would watch Terror of the Autons, and that we find out the couch is made of plastic...

There are moments of good comedy in Captain Johnny, but having Jared and Peter get their way again despite the consequences (attention IDK staff, our two himbo lawyers will be coming in at 10 due to a bet I had against them that I judged, and no bonuses this year too) and we're getting teasers about poor Karp from a psychic, which shows that fortune tellers has something on the lawyers. 

Despite the show's best efforts, it is beginning to look like Franklin & Bash's ship has sailed...


Next Episode: By the Numbers

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Elementary: The Complete First Season Overview


Taking A Holmes Tour...

I come at Elementary from a unique perspective: as someone who watched this Sherlock Holmes adaptation before seeing a single episode of Sherlock and who is not as fanatical about either the CBS show, the BBC series or its star Benedict Cumberbatch as some of Sherlock's more ardent viewers (some of whom, I understand, believe Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss created the detective, hence their fury at CBS for 'ripping off' THEIR character...'their' meaning either Moffat/Gatiss or the Sherlock fans themselves).  

I do have one disadvantage on the Elementary/Sherlock debate: I Hate Steven Moffat. 

He has in my view destroyed Doctor Who to where that show (once my favorite) is a pathetic, illogical, and recurring-character centered show: the Silurian Madame Vastra and her human lesbian lover Jenny and the sexually ravenous and self-absorbed (probably psychotic) River Song are the focus of many Doctor Who stories, while the actual Time Lord is reduced to a bumbling idiot who defers to them, not the other way round.

Therefore, I might be predisposed to dismiss Sherlock and its hard-core fans, but in fairness I can't dismiss a program I haven't seen (and actually, I dismiss hard-core fans of ANY series...never understood the fanaticism for Lost or The Walking Dead, or even NuWho).   With that being said, I hope that Sherlock fans will similarly not be predisposed to hate Elementary without A.) watching it in its entirety, and B.) accepting that they are horses of different colors.  Elementary and Sherlock, I believe, can peacefully co-exist because they are different breeds of shows.  I can't say Elementary is better than Sherlock or vice-versa.  There may individual moments in one or the other that are better, there may be individual performances in one or the other that are better, but on the whole I think Elementary is a splendid series, an opinion shared by the American people.

Elementary is the only debut series this season to be in the Top Twenty Shows of 2012-2013.  Some other more touted shows (Vegas, The New Normal, Last Resort, Zero Hour, Golden Boy) flat-out bombed or failed to pull enough of an audience to give it a second season.  Granted, some lousy shows managed to survive (Rules of Engagement managed to hold on for a shocking seven years, still a mystery to the world), but on the whole, I think Elementary did well with audiences because you've got an established figure they've heard of who was contemporized well, some remarkable pieces of acting, great interplay between the leads, and some brilliant stories (OK, not all Elementary episodes were brilliant, but I defy anyone to find a television series that bat .1000 every time, not even I imagine Sherlock).


Still, I digress.  First things first, the Official Ranking of Elementary Episodes: Best to Worst.

1.) M.
2.) The Rat Race
3.) Child Predator
4.) The Woman/Heroine (Two-Part Story)
5.) A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs
6.) The Deductionist
7.) Snow Angels
8.) Dead Man's Switch
9.) Deja Vu All Over Again
10.) A Landmark Story
11.) You Do It To Yourself
12.) Lesser Evils
13.) The Red Team
14.) Elementary Pilot
15.) Dirty Laundry
16.) While You Were Sleeping
17.) The Leviathan
18.) Flight Risk
19.) Risk Management
20.) The Long Fuse
21.) Details
22.) One Way to Get Off
23.) Possibility Two

Of all the Elementary episodes, M. is simply the most thrilling.  If Elementary had flopped (sorry, Sherlock fans, it didn't), this would have been the finale, and what an amazing end to a series it would have been.  It had an intense story of a Holmes rarely seen: a man totally driven by rage and revenge, not the cold, logical thinking machine, with Holmes' archenemy Moriarty at the center of the web, one that consumed his great love Irene Adler.

The performances were all brilliant.  Jonny Lee Miller was frightening in his fury, heartbreaking in his loss.  Lucy Liu, who might have been seen as stunt casting as Dr. Joan Watson, was something most (not all, but most) Watsons are not allowed to be: someone of high intelligence but who is not as offbeat as Holmes.  We see she is a person who is highly concerned for Holmes' safety (and perhaps, sanity), but also one who is able to figure out where Holmes might be by using his own methods.  Aidan Quinn's Captain Gregson (how's that for somewhat obscure Canon references...if I hadn't reread A Study in Scarlet for both Elementary and A Study in Pink I would have missed it altogether) was both honest cop and genuine friend to Holmes. 

M. is the episode that Miller should submit for Emmy consideration, and I think highly of The Rat Race as well.  It's nice to see Sherlock knocked down a peg by his own ego and Watson put things together.  Child Predator gave one a real twist that was completely unexpected (along with a great performance by guest star Johnny Simmons). 

Watson Vs. Watson
One Guess as to WHICH One Could Be Holmes' Lover...
The average Elementary score was 7.65, which means that most episodes were good to great.  Some got extra points thanks to great performances (such as guest stars Natalie Dormer, F. Murray Abraham, and Candis Kayne).  Some, however, are pretty forgettable.  Such is the case with Possibility Two.  I'm hard-pressed to recall a thing about it.  One Way To Get Off is one I do remember, but for the wrong reasons: I was able to solve the case before the half-hour mark.  However, I think Elementary had more hits and misses, and that is because the show was not as focused on the cases (though some, like Child Predator, were brilliant), but on the characters themselves.

Sherlock Holmes is eccentric, sometimes maddening, sometimes egocentric and incapable of 'normal' human behavior, but he is also a recovering drug addict (personally I figured it should have been cocaine to stay with Canon, but I can't have it all).  In some of the better episodes, his struggle for sobriety is a driving force.  Also, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is a growing one, built on respect, admiration, and budding friendship.  Despite what some people feared, there isn't a suggestion of romance between Joan and Sherlock (and if there ever is, I'll quit watching).  It isn't a relationship of equals (Sherlock will always be the sharpest man in the room) but Joan is able to hold her own against him, even on occasion coming to correct conclusions.  She's far from the Nigel Bruce version of Dr. Watson: she's nobody's stooge or mere sounding board.

Now we come to those pesky comparisons, which frankly I'm going to skim over real quick.  Again, given that I've seen only one Sherlock episode, I am in no position to say which version of the Sherlock Holmes series, or which Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson actor is better.  However, I think highly of Miller's Holmes: bright, focused on the investigation but having bits of humor (his new pet turtle is a delight) and am slowly building up a resistance to Cumberbatch only because the hard-core fanbase thinks he's unassailable. Also, frankly I am leaning more towards Liu's Watson than Freeman's version.  While there's comedy in Elementary (and I figure there must be some in Sherlock), I get the sense that Freeman is more in the Bruce mold (a bit of a bumbler...he certainly looked at times flummoxed and perplexed as to what was going on in A Study in Pink) while Liu appeared to make Watson a bright ex-physician who could put things together.

Why can't we be friends?

As for the inevitable Elephant in the Room: Elementary Vs. Sherlock, I really don't see why there has to be a competition.  They are two different things: the former an American series that has to stretch a season's worth of stories over many episodes, the latter more of a series of specials that has to be compressed over a shorter period of time.  However, I refuse to say that one can't enjoy both.  I certainly look forward to plunging more into Sherlock and Season Two of Elementary.  Both I believe work IN THEIR OWN WAY.  Therefore, let us put aside this petty rivalry and enjoy the Great Detective come again to the English-speaking world's attention.

I believe true Sherlockians, Holmesians, or what have you, can find great enjoyment in seeing The Master Detective rule the airwaves on two successful and critically acclaimed television series on both sides of the Atlantic.  Why do we have to fight at all?  I think only those passionately devoted to either Sherlock or Elementary will every see this as some sort of battle royale.  For those of us who grew up idolizing Sherlock Holmes (say, for example, taking up the violin with limited results...though even now I'm sure I can play it better than Benny or Jonny...if I was talking about me, of course), I think Sherlock and Elementary can be appreciated and enjoyed on their own merits. 

Both can be winners in my book, and I think there can never be too much Sherlock Holmes.

Finally on this topic, if I have contributed to the rivalry, I officially recant.

Besides, for myself the Battle for Best Sherlock Holmes has already been won; sorry Benny, sorry Jonny.

Similarly, the Title of Best Dr. Watson has found a winner.

No offense Lucy or Marty. 

With that, here are my final judgments on Elementary: Season One.

  1. Most episodes were good to great.
  2. A few were lousy.
  3. The cases did sometimes take a backseat to character development, but when it fired on all cylinders Elementary gave us brilliant episodes.
  4. Jonny Lee Miller is a good to great Sherlock Holmes.
  5. Lucy Liu makes for one of the better to best Dr. Watsons and sometimes steals the show from Miller.
  6. The guest stars were in some cases brilliant (the aforementioned as well as Vinnie Jones' Colonel Sebastian Moran) and were the real draws to certain episodes.

As for Season Two:
Sherlock Holmes needs to play the violin more, or at least pluck the strings.
Ms. Hudson needs to return or be a semi-recurring character.
Ato Essandoho's Alfredo (Sherlock's sponsor) also needs to make more appearances.
Captain Gregson and Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell are great additions who should not be discarded anytime soon.
More Canonical references please (The Hound of the Vasquezes, anyone?). 

Here's to another Great Elementary Year....

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sleuth (1972): A Review (Review #544)

SLEUTH (1972)

Murder is the Name of the Game...

Sleuth shows its theatrical roots in that there are only two characters (more or less) in the entire film.  Given the film is over two hours, would they be able to pull it off?  While Sleuth starts a bit slowly, by the end the wild twists and turns in it make it highly compelling viewing.  One soon is drawn into this double-act by two extraordinary actors, holding us at full attention with only a brilliant adaptation and their individual talent at their disposal.

Mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) invites Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) to his country estate.  Andrew and Milo are connected: Milo is Andrew's wife's lover.  A hairdresser by profession, this half-Italian son of a working-class watch repairman has, in the aristocratic Wyke's view, moved above his station.  Wyke has nothing but contempt for Milo, but he appears willing to let his wife go to him (the fact that Wyke has a mistress helps ease the pain).  However, Wyke warns Milo that the wife has grown accustomed to the good life, so a man of Milo's means may not hold her for long.  He makes Milo an offer he can't refuse: fake a robbery of the jewels, hock them to a friendly fence of Wyke's, and keep the money (while Wyke keeps the insurance money).  After some hesitation, Milo eagerly agrees, going so far as to don a clown outfit as part of an elaborate disguise.

However, at this point we get the first of many twists that leave the audience constantly wondering about what happened and what will happen?  WAS there a murder?  WHO was murdered (if there WAS a murder)?  Inspector Doppler (Alec Cawthorne) and Wyke match wits, with still more twists and turns leading to a super-surprise conclusion.

Already in my summation of Sleuth I too have played a trick on the reader.  To give an actual and accurate description would be to give away far too much.  Normally, on the issue of 'spoilers', I try to either observe the silence or give warning, but with Sleuth there is simply too much within it to reveal more of the story.

What can be said is that the film is dominated by two brilliant performances by two brilliant actors.  Olivier was the haughty upper-class Wyke, a man thoroughly convinced by his own brilliance and superiority over everyone, especially over the 'dago wop' Milo.  In turns enthusiastic, prickly, and frightened, Olivier astounds the viewer with his mastery of his performance.

Caine is more than a match for Olivier as the younger man.  He goes through all the emotions: casual flippancy, anger, fear.  His confrontation with Wyke when it looks like the older man has the upper hand makes you sympathize and fear for him, but Milo is also able to turn the tables on Wyke, showing he is just as capable of playing Wyke's game.

Anthony Shaffer, adapting his play, makes the twists and turns in Sleuth logical (always a high point for me).  He keeps us guessing as to who is who, what is what.  The story matches the opening scene where Milo is wandering a labyrinth garden while we hear Wyke reciting the plot of his latest mystery novel starring his aristocratic detective. 

Sleuth is also filled with witty dialogue between Milo and Wyke.  Commenting on how far the half-Italian Milo has risen, up to living in a Georgian-era house, Wyke quips, "From Genoa to Georgian in a single generation."  At a critical point in Sleuth, when it looks like murder is the actual objective, we hear this line, "Property's always been more highly regarded than people."  When Inspector Doppler asks Wyke about how a divorce would cost much, Wyke responds, "Sex is the game.  Marriage is the penalty."

As a side note, either Wyke or Doppler make a comment about a "jumped up pantry boy who doesn't know his place."  It might just be me, but this line is also heard in The Smiths' song This Charming Man.  I do wonder whether Morrissey or Johnny Marr saw Sleuth and opted to take this line for their song, but it did strike me curious. 

Sleuth is not just a detective film, but a sharp social satire on the arrogance of the aristocracy and the ascendancy of the working class to middle class respectability.  Throughout the film the old-school snob Wyke has to match wits with those whom he would look down on. 

This was Joseph L. Mankiewicz's final film, and he couldn't have ended his career with a better project.  He kept things going in a firm, thrilling manner (even though I found the beginning a trifle slow).  Mankiewicz brought a sense of tension whenever one or the other character faces some kind of threat and keeps our attention until the last moment, when we get one last twist that appears just and right.

Sleuth has wit, humor, extraordinary acting, and a riveting story.  There is a great joy in seeing two great actors play against each other, using words and their wits as weapons against each other.  Sleuth, after a bit of a slow start, throws so much at you one marvels at how a movie with a very small cast can keep one in rapt attention. 

Two Sirs, With Love...