Sunday, June 30, 2013

That's Some Bad Magic Act


We now begin the third season of Franklin & Bash, the story of two lifelong friends who grew up to be lawyers but in every other way just didn't grow up (and again, that wasn't a Breckin Meyer short joke).  The first season (or what I remember of it) was sharp, clever, amusing, and had some heart to it.  The second season was a nightmare of egoism, of two dimwitted man-whores bumbling their way to success while regressing even more into permanent childhood. 

The first season, I saw the characters of Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) trying to be antiestablishment while also navigating a growth to adulthood.  The second season I saw them turn into self-absorbed jerks, skipping staff meetings and going into court unprepared but still somehow becoming full-fledged partners and winning their cases (though usually someone else, either their associates Carmen and Pindar or other attorneys at Stanton Infeld stepping in to save them...and in return, Franklin & Bash hardly ever bothered to acknowledge the work others did for them).  Their selfishness and egos were so great that despite having been at Stanton Infeld all this time they never invited anyone from the firm to one of their legendary parties (unless they were hot interns) until Franklin & Bash somehow managed to save the firm...from Jared's own father!  To me, this signaled less a "we are against The Man" mindset and more"'we're in our own bubble and don't see a need to associate with people we work with" mindset.

Therefore, which version of Jared and Peter would we get in Coffee and Cream, the season premiere of Franklin & Bash?  Would we get the maturing Jared and Peter, or the men-sluts Jared and Peter?  The indicators appear to be pointing towards the latter, but being early in the season, perhaps some new blood can turn things around.

Jared and Peter have a theft case, where magician August West (Adam Goldberg) is accused of stealing a valuable bracelet when performing a magic act.  Jared, who insists he's a magician despite any real talent or presentation of such powers, is geeked out by representing someone who performed an incredible act where he would be drinking coffee in one location, then appearing somewhere else because he needed cream (hence, Coffee & Cream).  The trick is quite easy: August has a twin, Tim (Goldberg again), and it was Tim who performed in August's place and who stole the bracelet.  However, August won't reveal that he has a twin because it could hurt his career, so he'd rather take the fall.

Meanwhile, the firm of Stanton Infeld now is Stanton Infeld and King, with the addition of a new partner, Rachel King (Heather Locklear).  This doesn't sit well with Infeld's nephew/Franklin & Bash's nemesis Damien Karp (Reed Diamond) who sees he'll never take over the firm, or with our boys, who were publicly humiliated by King on Piers Morgan Live (where having lost a bet with her, they had to appear nude on television). 


King wants them to make a deal, and soon she goes over them and does it for them.  Franklin & Bash don't want to admit defeat (or do as they are told), so they decide to find Tim and get him to work out his differences with his brother and more importantly return the bracelet after their legal strategy of convincing the jury that the victim had agreed to the theft bombed.

Karp has his own problems: that videotape of his masturbating continues to haunt his desires to be a judge.  King gives him the suggestion that he ought to leak it himself (there's a pun somewhere in there) so as to have less of an impact in a future election.  Reluctantly he does so, which makes him a hero of sorts to the Southern California Serial Masturbators Society.  With a little investigative work from Carmen (Dana Davis), we find Tim, his criminal past, and a twist that both gets the case resolved and circumvents King's decree that neither Jared or Peter speak with 'her' client August.  In the end, they win their case, the brothers decide to join forces in a double-act, and the panophobic Pindar (Kumail Nanjiani) overreacts to termites by first forcing everyone to not enter the house due to his paranoid fumigation, then by accidentally burning down the house. 


Coffee and Cream is a boring episode, and at times nonsensical.  Let's go over some things that don't make sense.  It doesn't make sense that these two highly cocky guys would be so stiff and paranoid on television.  Far from it: their egos would relish the idea of being seen around the world.  However, by again showing them to be a couple of doofuses (such as when they cannot name a single case that would support their argument against a more polished attorney) we have to ask how they managed to graduate high school, let alone law school.  You can't be good lawyers if you don't know the law.

Another thing that doesn't make sense is their strategy, which can summed up as, 'blame the victim'.  I'm not a trained attorney, but I would have argued that there was an implied agreement between magician and volunteer that he would not be allowed to keep her expensive property.  The fact that they were somehow unaware of the hotel's contract which stipulated the magician would return all property only makes them wildly inept.

When Pindar unilaterally fumigates the house, Franklin & Bash are forced to sleep in their office.  I wondered why, being rather wealthy, they just didn't get a room (which given the silent homoerotic nature of their relationship, has more than poetry in the phrasing).

Infeld, who was always an oddball, now is veering towards wimp territory by letting King roll over everyone.  While it is nice to see that Franklin & Bash have to be subservient to someone, especially a woman, it does make one wonder why their boss appears so willing to bring in someone who had so publicly embarrassed the firm or not bothered to discuss this with anyone.

Finally, the entire plot collapses if one examines it.  The whole point of August not wanting Tim's identity to be exposed (no pun intended) is to protect his rep, but at the end he decides to have a brother's act (which would reveal Tim's identity)?  It does seem rather idiotic for August to say at the beginning 'I don't want people to know about my twin' (already a hackneyed idea) only to end up saying 'I'm telling the world about my twin'.

Speaking of August/Tim, Goldberg looked either bored or stoned throughout the episode.  Goldberg went the 'mumblecore' method of acting, where with a dull expression and barely-moving the mouth delivery was suppose to express so much. 

You can see how boring and unimaginative everything is just by the Twitter handles of Franklin, Bash, and King.  They are as follows: BashPeter1, FranklinJared1, and KingRachel1.  While Franklin and Bash having similarly-written handles is a possibility (given just how bizarrely, even psychotically close they are), whatever are the odds that Rachel King would have a similarly-written handle. 

I'm also finding Pindar more annoying in his phobias and general behavior.  It is as if he is regressing (which everyone is really, but that's neither here nor there).  A little part of me wished he'd burned with the house (and oddly, the boys don't appear all that bothered that someone burned down their home/whorehouse). 

There are a few good things in Coffee & Cream.  Heather Locklear is so effective as the new partner, not being overbearing but being an ocean of sanity within the nutfarm that is Stanton Infeld.  (I do wonder if bringing in Locklear is a sign of desperation...isn't the introduction of a new character a sign that people are running out of ideas?). Reed, who's got the flustered nemesis down pat, has a great line when he first sees Jared and Peter after the disastrous (and irrational) Piers Morgan appearance when they see Rachel King with Stanton Infeld.  "It's the mop who wiped the floor with your naked asses last week," he sneers.  Seeing Jared's little-boy fixation on magic (not a Meyer short joke), down to his constant efforts to summon "the flame of Zeus" is amusing, right down to Franklin's declaration that "Harry Potter was based on me" (although Harry was not a magician but a wizard).  Little technicality there.

However, on the whole I found Coffee & Cream to be a sludge.  Franklin and Bash are stupid men who haven't grown up, the twin story boring (and Goldberg looking more bored than anyone else), and while King and some good lifted it up I found the whole experience almost sad.

Jared and Peter...grow up.

Here Comes Trouble...


2/10

Next episode: Dead and Alive 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cirque DeMille: The Greatest Show on Earth Review



THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)

People are of two minds when it comes to the Best Pictures. I've heard people say, "More comedies need to win". However, when a comedy actually does win, the same people howl in protest. "How could Shakespeare in Love actually beat Saving Private Ryan?"

I hear people say, "Popular/Hit films should win". HOWEVER, when one actually does win, again the same people become apoplectic. This is the case with The Greatest Show on Earth. "How could THAT beat The Quiet Man or High Noon?" Never mind that the public LOVED it. What do THEY know?
 
Now, I'm willing to go ON RECORD and say The Greatest Show on Earth will never get THE CRITERION COLLECTION treatment. I'm even willing to admit it isn't AS GOOD as the other two Best Picture nominees mentioned. What I cannot and will not do is say that it's a terrible movie.

It Is Not a Bad Film Regardless of What You've Heard. I enjoyed it the first time, I enjoyed it the second time, and I would watch Greatest Show on Earth over other more vaulted Best Picture winners (Gentleman's Agreement for example). 

I'm sorry if I sound defensive but frankly I don't understand why all this hatred for The Greatest Show on Earth.  I'll grant you that it isn't the best Best Picture winner.  It may be among the worst selections for the Academy Awards' top prize.  However, in a case of not seeing the forest for the trees, I find a lot of entertainment in The Greatest Show on Earth, so let's look over the film itself and more fully address its win later. 

The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus runs the risk of not having a full season, playing for only ten weeks in major markets.  This appalls Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), the circus manager who is determined to keep the show going.  He manages to do this by acquiring the services of trapeze artist The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  This, however, means pushing Braden's main squeeze Holly (Betty Hutton), out from the Center Ring, which she wants desperately.   Now Holly and Sebastian will be fighting it out with more and more elaborate stunts.

Not to be outdone, elephant rider Angel (Gloria Grahame) knows that Brad is in love with Holly but also knows that Holly is a fool for allowing her desire for the Center Ring (and her wooing by shameless womanizer Sebastian) to dazzle her.  She is patiently waiting for her chance at a play for Brad, the only decent man she knows.  This, however, does not sit well with Klaus (Lyle Bettger), the elephant trainer who is in love with Angel.  Despite warnings from both Angel and singer/iron jaw artist Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour), Holly wavers between her love for Brad and fascination with Sebastian.

While Holly may be falling for Sebastian's charms, that doesn't stop either from trying to top the other in the air, as they continue performing more and more dangerous stunts to draw attention away from the other.  Brad doesn't care all that much, for his main concern is that the circus continue to stay in the black.  Observing all this is Buttons the Clown (James Stewart), friend to all who curiously never takes his make-up off, even when not performing.  Over the course of the film we get hints as to why he remains 'in character' throughout: he is a fugitive a la Richard Kimble.


Eventually, the on-air rivalry between Sebastian and Holly reaches a crisis point, when Holly mocks Sebastian for having a net when attempting a particularly dangerous stunt.  The cocky Sebastian cuts it down...and we all know what happens when someone cuts the net from under themselves.  Sebastian is not killed, but we learn when he returns that Sebastian will not fly again. 

Still, the show must go on.  Holly had decided she is in love with Sebastian, and he with her.  Seeing this as HER moment, Angel makes a play for Brad, who appears to reciprocate (well, as much as Brad can in a non-circus related situation).  Klaus is outraged, so outraged he comes close to killing Angel in front of the audience with his elephants.  Brad immediately fires Klaus, who now joins with shady midway booth runner Harry (John Kellogg), who had also been previously fired by Braden.  Together, they decide to rob the circus train.

Just before leaving for Cedar Rapids, FBI agent Gregory (Henry Wilcoxon) boards the train, asking Braden if the circus' doctor matches a photo of a doctor who killed his wife on the operating table (even though the doctor's wife was terminally ill).  Braden does not recognize the man in the photo, but Buttons' proficiency with medical matters (his mastery of bandages, his treatment of Sebastian after his fall, and how he noticed Sebastian had feeling in his hand, suggesting that his injuries were not permanent) now comes into play.  Braden tells Buttons that someone is looking for this mysterious man, and will take fingerprints.

No time for such matters, as Klaus and Harry rob the train.  However, the second part of the caravan, the one carrying the performers and animals, is heading towards the first part that is stationary.  Harry doesn't care if they collide, but Klaus does.  He beats Harry and rushes his car towards the train, desperate to stop it.  However, it cannot, and there is a massive train collision threatening both the circus crew and the circus' very survival.  Braden is badly injured, and Holly, having pieced together Buttons' true identity, begs him to save Brad, realizing that she loved him all this time.  Despite the inevitable discovery, Buttons agrees. 

It looks like the circus will not come to town, so Holly takes charge, bringing the town to the circus by having it play in the open air.  Buttons is taken into custody by a reluctant Agent Gregory, Brad acknowledges his love for Holly, and the Great Sebastian and Angel get together when he proposes to her.  Phyllis, just loving it all, is thrilled to see things come together, and everyone celebrates The Greatest Show on Earth.



Frankly, I don't understand the hatred thrown at Greatest Show on Earth.  It should not have won Best Picture, but I found it to be a big, lavish, epic spectacle in the way only Cecil B. DeMille could make big, lavish, epic spectacles.   As a film, I was surprised that despite its massive length (two and a half hours) the film moves quickly for the most part.  I think that once the Great Sebastian comes crashing down to earth the film sputters a bit (the musical number Be A Jumping Jack with a duet by Hutton and Stewart--of all people--does not help, and I wonder whether DeMille should have cut that part out altogether). 

Despite what has been written and said about The Greatest Show on Earth, it does entertain and in some ways is a good film.  DeMille and the writers (Frederic M. Frank, Barre Lyndon and Theodore St. John from a story by Frank, St. John and Frank Cavett) set up the situations well.  Early in the film, the crisis of a full season and the coming of The Great Sebastian are hinted at over and over but they are held back for a bit.  We also see early in the film Harry dealing with the shifty gangster Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney)...whether it inspired the film Harry and the Hendersons is another matter entirely.  However, in this case we see that Harry was going to play an important part in the story later on. 

DeMille holds back and back, allowing the anticipation to build to what we know is coming. 

Also, contrary to what one might have heard, there are moments of human drama in a Cecil B. DeMille picture and in The Greatest Show on Earth.  The scenes between Holly and Buttons when in her naivete she wonders how Buttons' bandages are so good, or when Buttons meets up with his mother, who is forced to talk to her son as he performs for the crowds, are actually quite tender.  There is also a brief moment of subtext between Buttons and Braden, when things are unspoken but are clear to both the characters and the audience.

The Original Fly Girl

I disagree sharply with the idea that James Stewart embarrassed himself in The Greatest Show on Earth.  He did a good job as the fugitive doctor in disguise, and his moments Stewart was excellent as the haunted man/voice of truth.  Hutton, best known as a comic musical star, did her best as a dramatic actress.  I wouldn't call it a great performance, but she made Holly into an almost endearing character, a bit naïve and sweet who could also be ruthless in her determination to get the Center Ring.

Lamour was there as a bit of comic relief, and she did a great job as the wisecracking Phyllis.  She paid homage to her roles in the Hope/Crosby Road movies, first by performing a South Seas number (Lovely Luawana Lady) and even by having a particular pair of hams make a quick cameo in the audience (guess who).   Heston, who was making only his fourth film and first with DeMille (and had a great line about Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments...if you can't make a career out of two DeMille movies, you're in the wrong business) holds his own as the no-nonsense Braden (though I personally question the wisdom of having the character's name be Brad Brad-en).  He commands the screen and we can see how Heston became a cinematic icon with his turn as the steely, determined circus manager who does his best to hide his affection for Holly.

Wilde might have been the weak link in the film, coming close to a Pepe Le Pew impersonation as the Great Sebastian.  I wondered why he needed to be this French cad...wouldn't an American one be just as easy to believe?  In any case, Wilde is probably the most forgettable of the main characters, which is odd in that he is part of the love triangle.

Where The Greatest Show on Earth excels in is in the lavish nature of the production.  We've got grand costumes, grand settings (though the rear-screen projections in some scenes are obvious, I'm willing to cut it some slack due to the technological limitations of the time), and there are within it fascinating shots of how the circus manages to put things together.  There is almost a documentary-like feel to The Greatest Show on Earth, and the respect the film has for the performers and roustabouts is clear. 

We also get great moments of seeing actual Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey performers be recorded (and if one keeps a keen eye and ear, we get to see famed clown Emmett Kelly without his make-up AND hear his voice).  In many ways, it is accurate to call The Greatest Show on Earth 'the circus movie' because so much time is devoted to showing the performers. 



I can't leave The Greatest Show on Earth without mentioning the climatic train crash.  Yes, one can quibble with the fact that they were models, and perhaps by today's standards it isn't as spectacular as it must have been in 1952.  However, the crash still holds up rather well and provides a wild finish to the spectacle we've been watching.  The effects of this moment in film history still reverberate today.  The train crash in Super 8 is clearly an homage to the train crash in The Greatest Show on Earth, and the film itself was an inspiration for Steven Spielberg, who said it was the first film he ever saw.

As a digression, both Spielberg and DeMille became masters of popular entertainment via film, directors loved and hated in equal measure by critics and film-goers.  Steve learned quite a bit from C.B., and it appears fitting that The Greatest Show on Earth influenced the maker of Close Encounters of the Third Kind

We also have a wonderful score from Victor Young (who did such good work...the John Williams of his day, one might say). 

In short, I think The Greatest Show on Earth was meant to be just another film from a master of showmanship and not intended towards the lofty heights of an Academy Award-winning Best Picture.  It isn't one of the best Best Picture winners.  I don't even think it was the best picture of the five nominees in 1952.  What The Greatest Show on Earth ends up as is a big, lavish, epic spectacle, seeing its only reason for being to entertain, to amuse...not unlike the circus it chronicled.   Haters and cinema purists may sneer at both Cecil B. DeMille and The Greatest Show on Earth, but for myself, I still continue to love the circus.


The typical Greatest Show on Earth hater...


DECISION: B-

Please visit the Best Picture Retrospective for reviews of all Academy Award Best Picture Winners.

1953 Best Picture: From Here to Eternity

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Franchise!



Superman Retrospective: The Conclusions

Since his debut in Action Comics #1, Superman, the Last Son of Krypton, has gone on to become a true American Icon beloved in all the world.  As one can see, the character has been portrayed by many actors over the course of seventy-five years.  He's been on radio, film serials, in good movies, in bad movies, in good television...well, you get the picture.

For the purposes of this retrospective we will stay with only the feature-length films based on the characters (so sorry, Dean, Tom, John & Gerard...maybe another time).  We begin with Superman & The Mole-Men, which could be considered a version of a pilot for the George Reeves Superman television series, but it was released in theaters (so it counts) and end with the latest incarnation, Henry Cavill's take on the character in Man of Steel.

Now, first my own thoughts on the character.  I, like all boys, love Superman.  He can fly, he has super-strength, and beneath all that, he is someone who fights for 'truth, justice, and the American way', so he's a patriot.  Whether one sees him as either a Moses or a Jesus-type figure I leave to A.) your own religious persuasion, and B.) whether you believe there are actual parallels between the Last Son of Krypton and either the Prophet or the Messiah.

For my part, I think whenever the parallels are heavy-handed (like in Superman Returns), it makes it all rather self-important.  I saw the Christ parallels in Returns, and as someone whose Christianity ebbs and flows (sometimes I'm passionate about Jesus, sometimes I come close to taking Morrissey's view of I Have Forgiven Jesus), I didn't care for it.  Superman, as great as he is, cannot compare with Our Lord & Savior.  He can't even match up against the Deliverer.

Now that I've seen all the Superman films, it is time to render some conclusions.




Despite all the advances in CGI, for me, the Superman films of Christopher Reeve, or at least the first two, are the Gold Standard to which all other Superman films are measured against.  In fact, I believe Superman: The Movie, is simply the Greatest Comic Book-based Film of All Time (sorry, Dark Knight).  All the elements came together: we have brilliant performances all around, a story that balances humor with seriousness, and really, John Williams' stirring score can never be duplicated or topped.  Superman Returns couldn't come up with music anywhere near as memorable, so they just opted to use the original.  Man of Steel may have louder special effects and start a whole new Superman film franchise, but will anyone remember the music?

Do they remember it now?

Even after 35 years, when people think of Superman, chances are they hear Williams' breathtaking Opening Theme, which gave Superman that grand epic feel and, I'd argue, makes the adventure one that is fun and optimistic (something its successors, even the last two Christopher Reeve films, were not). 

Now, without further ado, let us have The Rankings:

Superman Films in Order From Best to Worst: 
 
  1. Superman (1978)
  2. Superman II: The Richard Donner Version
  3. Superman & The Mole-Men
  4. Superman II
  5. Man of Steel
  6. Superman III
  7. Superman Returns
  8. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace

As I've said, Superman is the Citizen Kane of Comic Book Films.  It set the standard  for all comic book-based films, from those which are also brilliant (Batman, Spider-Man), to those that are very good (Iron-Man, The Dark Knight Rises), to those that are abysmal (Batman & Robin, Fantastic Four).  Not only was Superman the first major film based on a comic book, but it had the wisdom to know that, in the words of creative consultant (aka co-writer) Tom Mankiewicz, it could not be smarter than the material.  It had to treat the enterprise seriously without being somber, and it could have comedy without being camp.  Superman kept that balance.

If Richard Donner had been allowed to finish the second part of the two-part film series, I believe Superman II would have been as good as Superman itself.  Sadly, this was not the case, and for me, Superman II (the official release) is a slight disappointment in that comedy was slowly starting to seep in, distracting from the characters in a play for laughs (sometimes at the characters' expense).  This is why I recommend the Donner version over the Lester version to complete the two-film series.

Superman & The Mole-Men was obviously made on the cheap, but what it lacks in nifty effects it more than makes up for with a story that serves as allegory.  The film is shockingly progressive for its subtle (or not) message about tolerance and the dangers of paranoia and mob mentality.  Just as a lynch mob sets their sights on Tom Robinson with only Atticus Finch to stop them in To Kill a Mockingbird, so a wild-eyed mob led by a manipulative man set on killing unarmed creatures who have not harmed them can be stopped by the Man of Steel.  If there had been a budget, Superman & The Mole-Men might be more recognized as a minor gem in the Krypton Canon.

Man of Steel falls somewhere in the middle, though whether I shift it from Superman II remains to be seen.  If anything lifts it up, it is Michael Shannon's performance as Zod.  He never plays the character as anything other than the menace and danger Zod is suppose to be.  It almost makes it sad to see a great villain be lost at the end. 

Spoilers...

Terence Stamp's Zod is just as good (though maybe his costume is more...70s?), and he is one of Superman II's strengths.  However, as I said, the comedy bits are Superman II's weakness, which is why it got pushed slightly down. 

The last two Christopher Reeve Superman films are just sad.  Superman III at least has a couple of good things in it: Richard Pryor's comedy, the Smallville subplot and Annette O'Toole's performance as Clark Kent's long-lost love Lana Lang.  Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, however, has nothing to offer a viewer of any kind (except those who love bad films).  It was cheap, the message was far too preachy and misguided, and one could not get past a human managing to survive flying into outer space.

Superman Returns, a failed effort to reboot the franchise, certainly looks impressive, but the story was nonsensical (one word: Isra-El), the direction confused (sequel to the first two Reeve films? its own story), and the acting was flat (Routh was good when he stood there, but not believable as a substitute Jesus Christ).  Even worse, Superman Returns took itself far too seriously, too downbeat, too morose, too filled with its own heaviness to make it entertaining. 

Yes, it made money, and yes, many critics liked it, but why then didn't we have more Superman films with Routh and his little fellow?

BEST SUPERMAN



The answer is obvious.  No matter how attractive the Man of Steel may be (I'm talking to you, Henry Cavill), if the person can't act it don't mean a thing.  Christopher Reeve could act, and his Superman was a strong man, not just physically but morally.  He also had a lightness and romantic nature to his interpretation.  When he and Lois Lane are flying through the air in Superman (with Williams' score again serving its role beautifully), we can sense these two characters falling in love.

George Reeves was good as Superman, but not anywhere near as iconic as Reeve.  As for Routh and Cavill, well, neither can be called a great actor, and both were hampered by trying too hard to be somber and serious when Superman should be serious but also joyful.  Reeve balanced a bit of humor with a serious performance, and with the exception of Reeves, no other Superman actor has managed that balance.

BEST CLARK KENT



Surprised?  Well, it's by the thinnest of threads that George Reeves beats out Christopher Reeve.  When one is playing a character with dual identities, one is basically playing two roles.  Christopher Reeve was brilliant as the bumbling nebbish Clark Kent, which is what the role required.  However, what gives George Reeves the edge is that his Clark Kent is what he should be: a real, serious journalist.  He plays the character straight and is no fool.

Reeves' Kent also is not afraid to take charge.  He is the one who tries to dissuade the mob before Superman has to take over.  Reeve's Clark on the other hand, would have stumbled and bumbled across the situation, too frightened to do anything. 

Routh got the bumbling part right but he was not so much mild-mannered as he was dimwit, and Cavill was not a mild-mannered reporter at all in Man of Steel, but a journeyman wanderer, searching for his place in this world.  One wonders HOW he managed to get a job at the Daily Planet when the only things we'd seen him do were menial, manual jobs (not that there's anything wrong with that...my dad worked construction and was a mechanic).
 
BEST LOIS LANE



I simply didn't think much of Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns...but then again, I don't think much of her as an actress either.  Amy Adams can always do a good job, but she didn't have much to work with.  For me, Margot Kidder's combination of wit and cluelessness, her need to be rescued and her sharp journalist skills (in both versions of Superman II, she does put two and two together), her fascination with Superman and near-dismissal of Clark makes her a Lois Lane for the ages.

BEST JIMMY OLSEN



The only good thing in Superman Returns as far as I'm concerned was Sam Huntington's Jimmy Olsen, cub photographer (and frankly, my favorite character in the Superman mythos...wonder what would happen if Jimmy Olsen and Peter Parker entered a photography contest).  Huntington got the fact that Olsen is suppose to be a kid, eager, enthusiastic, and who worships Clark Kent (about the only person at the Daily Planet, I imagine who thinks well of the mild-mannered reporter).

I think Marc McClure was quite good as Jimmy and it's a thin edge that Huntington has.  Sadly, we have no eager young cub photogs in Man of Steel, so we'll have to wait for the sequel.

BEST SUPERMAN VILLAIN



Another by the thinnest of threads.  One of the good things in Man of Steel is Michael Shannon as General Zod.  However, for Michael Shannon to give a bad performance is close to impossible.  I thought about it and perhaps in time Shannon and his Zod will eclipse the other villains the Man of Steel has or will come up against. However, Gene Hackman's combination of genuine threat and inflated egomania make his Lex Luthor a villain equal to Superman's goodness.   Who else can come up with such a dastardly scheme that will kill millions of people but have the bumbling Otis as his primary henchman and make both believable and even rational? 

With the Superman films, it's clear we have a wild swing between masterpieces and master junk.  There is no real in-between.

I look forward to more and better takes on the Man of Steel, Son of Krypton, product of Smallville, Kansas, mild-mannered reporter for the Metropolis Daily Planet, and one of the great figures in modern popular culture.     

Sunday, June 16, 2013

This Steel Doesn't Hold Up Well


MAN OF STEEL

2013 marks Superman's 75th Anniversary.  Man of Steel, the latest attempt to reboot the Superman franchise, is a hit-and-miss affair.  Certainly the film treats the material as a grand spectacle, sometimes overwhelming one with the largeness of it all.  How one feels about Man of Steel may depend on how one feels about the film twisting the Superman mythos to where it goes against decades of established lore.  Those who love big and loud will be thrilled.  Those who aren't impressed with big and loud and ask for story and acting to carry a film as much as special effects may register slight disappointment.

We go back to Krypton, which has a lot going on at the same time.  The planet is about to explode due to its wanton and reckless use of its core for energy.  With the world literally falling apart it seems like the worst time for a coup attempt, but that doesn't dissuade General Zod (Michael Shannon) from attempting a putsch.  His friend, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) attempts to talk his old friend out of this, but nothing doing.  He will restore Krypton or at least the genetically-engineered Kryptonians (he will decide who has the pure blood, with lesser Kryptonians not faring well).

This might trouble Jor-El, because his wife Lara (Ayelet Surer) has given birth to the first naturally-conceived and born Kryptonian in many centuries.  In order to protect future Kryptonians, Jor-El steals the Codex (this skull-like thing that keeps all Kryptonian children...I think) and puts it with a ship that spirits his newborn son into outer space, destination Earth.  The coup attempt flops, and Zod with his minions, including Faora-Ul (Antje Traeu) are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone.  However, there is no joy in Krypton, with Jor-El dead at Zod's hands and Krypton about to die.

We skip the infant's early years and go straight to Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working aboard a fishing ship. Here, he saves an exploding oil rig, but as soon as his job is done, he disappears.  In fact, Clark is now a drifter, going from job to job, knowing of his powers but unwilling to reveal himself.  In flashbacks, we see how he came to be this way: his adoptive father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) constantly urges his son to keep his powers secret, while his mother Martha (Diane Lane) does her best to protect him from the troubles of being a child unsure of himself.

Up in the cold Canadian north, a strange ship is discovered.  The ship, protected by military man Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) and studied by scientist  Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff) are intrigued by it, but don't know much about it.Enter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), reporter for the Daily Planet.  Also up there is none other than Clark Kent (under yet another assumed name) who goes there and finds the truth about his past from the ghost of Jor-El.  Lois also finds this ship and Clark rescues her.


Lois writes about the ship and her rescuer, but Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) wants nothing to do with aliens.  Despite her Pulitzer, Lois is rejected, and goes to an Internet site manager she dislikes to leak the story.  The mechanism that Clark used to open the ship's memory also attracted the attention of a released General Zod, who tracks it to Earth and does go on television to tell the humans, "You Are Not Alone".  He also tells them of Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, and demands that they turn him over or face the Wrath of Zod.

By this time Lois Lane has already discovered Clark Kent's secret, and after some thought he decides to give himself up.  Zod has plans for Kal-El: he will remake Earth into Krypton's own image, which of course means wiping out the native population.  Kal-El, torn between his home world and his adopted world, decides he cannot go along with this.  With Lane's help (who in turn gets help from Jor-El), they thwart the General's first try, but Zod will not be denied.

Zod sends down machines brought from lost Krypton colonies and is beginning to destroy Earth.  Major battles in both Metropolis and Smallville go on, and in the end, the newly-dubbed "Superman" defeats Zod, falls for Lois, and decides he needs a job...one where he can keep track of things.  How 'bout a reporter at a major newspaper?  All he needs is a pair of glasses.

I am not too surprised that director Zack Snyder or screenwriter David Goyer (from a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan) wanted to tweak the Superman origins story in order to make the familiar new again.  However, there were things in Man of Steel that in retrospect, don't make any sense.

Chief among them is the relationship between Lois and Clark/Superman.  I'm not a purist who insists everything must stand according to established Canon, but I do wonder why Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder decided to restructure the origins to where Lois knows before Clark arrives in Metropolis that he and Superman are one and the same.  There is something shocking, almost galling, to hear her go up to a fully-dressed Superman and call him "Clark".

Another matter I didn't understand was why the government feared Superman at the end of the film.  He saves the world, and they still don't trust him?  It begs the question, what exactly does Superman have to do to convince them he fights for 'truth, justice, and the American way'?

Why would Zod lead a coup when the planet is about to explode?  It does seem rather a waste of his time?  It also seems an even bigger waste of Krypton's time locking him up and sending him and his crew out into space when they are all about to die.  Wouldn't it have made more sense for THEM to get on that ship and leave Zod and Company on the doomed Krypton?

One more thing that was of concern was the open-ended nature of the film.  No, I'm not surprised Man of Steel suggests there will be a sequel (that's almost a given, especially when we get a quick shot of an oil truck owned by LexCorp).  What IS surprising is that it ends with Clark Kent going to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet.  Given that Lois already knows Clark's secret identity, what fun will there be in her finding it out?

I had expressed concerns about Zack Snyder directing Man of Steel, and I have found my fears confirmed.  Snyder is a director much more interested in the visuals, in how the film zips and zooms across the screen than about the story itself.  Here, one can see his penchant for the look of the film drawing attention to itself almost from the get-go.  There were constant zooms that weren't needed when Jor-El rides some sort of flying dragon across Krypton.   Certainly, some scenes were quite impressive (the recreation of Krypton's history with Jor-El's ghost guiding Kal-El's lesson was well-made, though a bit odd in my view), but the non-linear story (jumping between the present and Clark Kent's troubled past from elementary school to Jonathan's death) made things sometimes seem flat-out weird.

For example, when Zod takes Superman to his ship Kal-El is drugged.  Here, he either slips into a bizarre dream sequence where Zod tells him his plans for New Krypton or Clark Kent is actually remembering when Zod stopped by the Kent family farm to show him all this, with this sequence ending with Superman drowning in a sea of human skulls.  Therefore, it must be a fantasy, but given that we jump a lot through time in Man of Steel, and given that sometimes it looks like The Tree of Life: DC Edition, it was a bit peculiar to say the least.            


The casting of Henry Cavill as Kal-El, Last Son of Krypton, was highly controversial.  Granted, casting such an iconic character was fraught with dangers, but somehow, the idea of an ENGLISHMAN (!) playing one of the most iconic AMERICAN heroes bordered on blasphemy to many devotees.  Now that we've seen him in action, I think that Cavill is an extremely beautiful-looking man who is perfect when he stands still.  However, his performance is perhaps the weakest of all the ones in Man of Steel.  He certainly is the weakest actor to ever play Superman.  Weak not physically perhaps (the film goes to great lengths to feature Cavill's physique) but weak in terms of actual acting.  There is hardly a hint of emotion in any of his scenes.  I found his Superman to be so passive as to be inactive.  There is no sense of wonder at finding a member of his own people, or of worry about his secret being discovered by Lois Lane.

In fact, during the climatic battle(s) that dominate the last third of Man of Steel, he didn't register anything.  He might just as well not have shown up for the flatness of Cavill's blank stares.

This is especially sad given that Clark Kent has so much angst to him.  I won't use the popular term for Man of Steel's main character (brooding), but he certainly is not a mild-mannered reporter.  Instead, this Clark is one driven by self-doubt, by a conflicted idea of having great powers but not being able to form long-lasting relationships (a bit like the Incredible Hulk, only not filled with rage).

The other performances around Cavill were much better.  Chief among them is Michael Shannon as Zod.  He played the character as a true menace throughout Man of Steel, both as he attempts to overthrow the Krypton Council and when he has his genocidal plans for humanity.  Costner and Lane work wonderfully as Clark's adoptive parents, the former quietly offering his words of wisdom and caution against using his powers for fear of being taken, the latter with the quiet nurturing and loving of a mother.

Crowe did a similarly good job as Jor-El, though having his ghost there made him more an Obi-Wan type than a true father to the last son of Krypton.  Yet the sadness of seeing his only child have to leave or his desperation to get Zod to stop his madness elevates the performance.  Good, not great.

I like Amy Adams, and think she is one of the best actresses around.  I would say she does a good job as Lois Lane, though there isn't much to her: no humor, nothing especially special about her that will make her the love of Superman's life.  Fishburne gets kind of lost in the shuffle as White, though in his defense he did start out as the tough newspaper editor and only later with all the explosions and disasters going on around him was he reduced to almost nothing.

Let me address that for a moment.  Snyder and company decided to do major destruction to the world (and apparently, the IHOP in Smallville), and in this we get two bad things.  One, the film begins to become overwhelmed with it all: making the obliteration of Metropolis and Smallville even bigger and more disastrous than perhaps it would be.  Two, the 9/11 allusions (the rubble, the rescuing of people we never get to know from the rubble, the ash-covered faces) even after ten years, is still a bit disturbing.

I think this is why, for me, Man of Steel is less than the sum of its parts.  We just never get to know the characters.  We don't get to know Clark or Superman, just this hybrid of a person.  We certainly never know Lois Lane all that well (Perry White even less so).  The woman White rescued from the rubble?  Why should we care if we don't even know her name? I'm sure they gave it but I never learned it.  

I don't think in fairness I can call Man of Steel a failure.  Perhaps not a failure but a very weak success.

A little part wishes Man of Steel
were about him...


DECISION: C+ 

Monday, June 10, 2013

We Really Wish He Hadn't


SUPERMAN RETURNS

It was thought that Superman Returns was going to restart the Superman franchise after an absence of nearly twenty years following the abysmal and in many ways, horrifying Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  Having as its director Bryan Singer (who had brought the second-tier comic book heroes X-Men to two successful films) was most assuring to comic book fans.  Well, guess again. 

Superman Returns may have done well at the box office, and may have pleased most critics, but its cold, remote manner, its heavy symbolism and seriousness, coupled with some really idiotic decisions in front and behind the camera, killed off any chance that this Superman Returns for more adventures, at least with this group.  In short, Superman Returns is a fiasco in so many ways: artistically, story-wise, and even in entertainment value. 

Superman has disappeared for five years.  According to the legend (the text that comes before the opening credits), we're told that astronomers may have located what might be Krypton, so Superman has flown off into deep space.  Apparently finding nothing, he comes back.

(As a side note, I figure it took 2 1/2 years both ways, leading to many questions about food and rest and possible adventures...as well as how Superman returned in a virtual spaceship, but now I digress).

Coincidentally (although no one else apparently noticed), Clark Kent also disappeared for five years, and now Clark (Brandon Routh) has found his way back to the Metropolis Daily Planet newspaper after some time with Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), his adoptive mother.  His return thrills junior photographer Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington), but apart from him no one seems to care.  Lois isn't there to see Clark: she's covering the launch of a new super-jet aboard said jet.  Clark learns that Lois wouldn't be happy about his alter ego returning either.  She won a Pulitzer for the editorial Why the World Doesn't Need Superman (which might have been a good name for the movie, but now I am jumping ahead).  Needless to say, she wouldn't be thrilled to meet the Kryptonian she loved and lost.

Needless to say also, she needs rescuing when her plane is in trouble.  For that, we have to back up a bit.  Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), Superman's arch-nemesis, has come into a boat-load of money (pun intended)...the film suggests he did so by "entering"... I mean, "entertaining" a wealthy widow "with the pleasures of his charms".  Put that in your mind...Lex Luthor boffing a woman old enough to be his GRANDMOTHER in exchange for cash (making the greatest criminal mind of our age just a run-of-the-mill hooker)!  In any case, as a result of his fortune, he takes his mistress Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) and henchmen to the North Pole where he either knows or doesn't know about the Fortress of Solitude.  There, he learns the power of the crystals from Jor-El (Marlon Brando via clips from Superman). 

Luthor had gone down to his Old Lady's mansion (pun unintended), where one of his henchmen (Kal Penn) cuts just a tiny sliver of a crystal to drop in the lake of the massive toy train set located in the basement.  This one little bit of crystal is enough to knock out the power all throughout Metropolis, the Eastern Seaboard, and even out into the super-plane and the Air Force jet it's riding on.  Hence, when the super-jet goes crazy, Superman comes to save the day.

Once Lois does come back to the Daily Planet, she's obviously not thrilled to find the Man of Steel has returned.  However, she does have some comforts: a fiancée, Richard White (James Marsden), who is the nephew of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella).  She also has a son. Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), who is extremely delicate (he has an inhaler and is allergic to so many foods).  Clark is not too happy about this development, but not much he can do about it, can he?

In any case, Luthor, also learning that Superman Returns, decides to kill two birds with one stone: he will steal Kryptonite from a museum while Kitty serves as a diversion for Superman to rescue.  Luthor will also create a new continent with the crystals (while said continent will apparently wipe out the eastern United States, but that's a small price).  Lois, who snuck into Luthor's massive yatch with Jason in tow, learns of this scheme.  However, Luthor becomes suspicious when little Jason has a strong reaction to the Kryptonite.  All doubts about Jason's true parentage are dispensed when he is able to throw a piano across the ballroom to save Lois from another henchman.

Superman saves Lois, Jason, and Richard (who has flown in for a failed rescue attempt...must have been directed by Jimmy Carter), then attempts to confront Luthor on his Lonely Island.  However, since the island contains Kryptonite, Superman is weak and cannot fight back.  Luthor stabs him with pure Kryptonite and throws him into the sea.  Lois however gets Richard to go back for him, pulls out the Kryptonite, and with him restored by the power of the Sun, he goes back, carries the island into space...the same island brimming with Kryptonite that makes him too weak to throw a punch but strong enough to lift it into outer space.  This forces the evil group to flee, killing the henchmen in the process.  Still, the weight of the world (figuratively and literally I imagine) weakens him so that he crashes onto Earth.

While he lays in a coma Lois, with Richard's blessing, goes to him.  In the end, her faith and love in Superman restored, Lois looks up to see her Man of Steel.  He in turn goes to the one he now finds is the Grandson of Krypton, who for me shall go by his Kryptonian name of Isra-El.



Superman Returns is a bad film through and through.  We know it even before the credits roll because it just throws us in the middle of the story without ever bothering to set up or tell the audience anything.  Throughout Superman Returns I kept thinking that screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty (who with director Bryan Singer created the story) A.) either expected the audience to know everything surrounding the Superman mythos already or B.) wanted us to basically figure it out for ourselves. 

How can I put it?  We as the audience were never formally introduced.  Instead, we just jump into the story and are never offered any reason or explanation as to who any of these people were or why they are the way they are.  What are their relations to each other?  Why is Jimmy so happy to see Clark back?  What about Lois?  While we know she isn't happy Superman is back (and really, what girl is pleased to see the guy who screwed her and then screwed her over AND left her with a kid to boot), what are her feelings for/about Clark?  I don't think the film ever addressed that.

Here is where we start running into so many problems story-wise.  WHO is Lex Luthor?  Other than that he was sent to prison because of Superman, what real grudge does he have against the Man of Steel?  I'm sure many people were imprisoned because of Superman, so what makes Luthor so important?  (As a side note, we're told he was set free because Superman didn't show up to testify against him?  SERIOUSLY...Superman was the ONLY witness or evidence the state had against Luthor?  What kind of world is Metropolis?).  Why should we believe Luthor is some sort of master-criminal when his master plan is to create a continent that makes Devil's Island look like the Bahamas? (Really, it was a stupid plan from the get-go, and no criminal mastermind...or sensible screenwriter...would have thought up anything so comically inept). Who are these henchmen (and why is Penn silent throughout the film?  Yes, he's not a good actor, but that's beside the point at this juncture)? 

WHY is there a massive toy train set in the basement of Luthor's mansion?  One can't seriously imagine Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind, playing with toy trains.  One can't imagine the Grandma Moses whom Luthor has been screwing figuratively and literally using toy trains either.  So who used it, why, and why here?  You'd think Luthor could have gone anywhere to test out his oddball crystal theories, so why in the basement holding toy trains?

Again and again Superman Returns never bothers to stop and either show or tell us who these people are, why we should care about them, or really what is going on.  Why should we care for Clark or Superman since we don't even know him?  Same goes for any of our characters.  Superman Returns in this respect feels like we've entered in the middle of the show rather than the start (or restart) of something, and given its two-and-a-half hour running time, there was more than enough opportunity to introduce the story and characters. 

Further, Superman Returns does a wild disservice to Lane's character.  Exactly HOW does one forget that she got knocked up by the Last Son of Krypton?  Further, since Richard (and apparently Lois) believe Jason to be Richard's son, does this mean she was sleeping with BOTH of them at the same time?  It just doesn't make any sense.  This 'shocking' twist was thrown in just to throw it in, to give Kal-El a way to tie him to Lois on a more permanent basis and attempt to put in Isra-El for the hoped-for sequel.

The revelation as to Jason's true identity is not a shock.  It really is a cheat.  WE are never told, let alone shown, just how far the relationship entre Lois et Superman ever went.  Whenever Lois accidentally suggests that theirs was more than a friendship, she quickly shuts that line of thought down.  Now we're being told that Jason is Superman's SON?!  Lois never suggests or apparently thinks that Kal-El has anything to do with little Isra-El (as I lovingly call him).  It would have been one thing if she weren't engaged or if Richard knew that Jason wasn't his son, but what kind of woman would pass off someone else's kid to a man as his own?  Maybe...a slut, or an incredibly stupid woman.

Then again, given nobody made the connection between Superman and Clark's simultaneous disappearance, perhaps everyone in Metropolis is an imbecile.      

The performances are almost all universally awful.  I once thought that Brandon Routh was actually not bad as the Man of Steel.  Certain things have altered by idea.  First, there was his abysmal performance in the abysmal Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (please, whatever you do, don't watch it). Second, there was my second viewing of Superman Returns.  When Routh is standing or posing as Superman, he is imposing.  Whenever he speaks as Superman however, he is stiff, unconvincing, flat, lifeless.  There is no emotion in anything he does as either Superman or Clark Kent.  It's one thing to give a bad performance.  It's quite another to see what Routh managed to do: give a bad performance in TWO roles.  He is unconvincing as the bumbling, shy Clark or the strong and sure Man of Steel.

The same goes for Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane.  She looks bored as Lane (perhaps in an effort to match Routh's disinterest in the story too).  Bosworth I confess is not one of my favorite actresses (I don't think I've ever seen a good Bosworth film) but whether expressing 'anger' or 'romantic confusion' (either with Richard or Superman) she never seems to change her expression. 

One other thing about Bosworth in Superman Returns.  She speaks too fast when there is no need to (for example, when telling Clark about her 'anger' that Superman just up and left...which would have been a good segway to ask Clark, 'By the way, where were YOU these past five years?').

About the only one who saves himself any embarrassment is Huntington as Jimmy Olsen.  He seems to get that this is not suppose to be a Werner Herzog exploration into the dark recesses of the human soul, but a fun film.  He brought the only lightness in Superman Returns and kept to the traditional portrayal of Jimmy Olsen as an eager but naive kid.  Huntington has the benefit of being the comic relief, and given how somber the whole film is any sense of fun is needed.

Here is where Singer made his biggest mistake: making Superman Returns not a joyful but a somber affair.  If you look at all the other actors (Marsden, Langella, Posey up to a point but certainly the silent Penn who just stares around for no reason), we can see that Singer thought of Superman Returns as a 'serious' film, a major epic to be treated with great solemnity.  However, in his efforts to make it 'grand' he ended up making it dull and lifeless.  Everyone (save Huntington's Olsen) treated everything in Superman Returns with such seriousness, such deep reverence, one would think they were working at a funeral home.   


A prime example is when Richard asks Lois about an article she wrote many years ago.  I Spent the Night With Superman (only time will tell if there's a double meaning...hint, hint...which Lane quickly dismisses).  Both Marsden and Bosworth act as if they were performing Long Day's Journey Into Night rather than a long-term couple discussing the state of their relationship without actually mentioning it. 

This tone of self-seriousness, this heaviness that permeates Superman Returns takes all the fun out of the film.  Almost everything in Superman Returns (the performances, the story, the cinematography) suggests this is less a dark film than a sad one.   The film is just so cold and remote and distant from us that it makes it impossible to really care about anything or anyone in it.

I had mentioned that it felt like we were walking into the middle of the story, and this is because Superman Returns turns out to be quite confused about its identity.   The film is brazen in its use of referencing Superman and Superman II to where it suggests that it is actually a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve films.  It just isn't the opening (which not only uses John Williams' brilliant Superman Theme but the same title opening sequence) that it 'borrows' from Superman.  Stretches of dialogue from Superman force their way in (in both Superman and Superman Returns the Man of Steel tells Lois, "You really shouldn't smoke, Miss Lane."  In Superman, that makes sense: he is pretending not to know Lois, but in Superman Returns that is a rather odd way to address the woman he bedded and wants to win over again).   When Kitty asks Luthor if he's been to the Fortress of Solitude before because he seems to know so much about it, Spacey (who is just as serious as everyone else in the film) just turns and doesn't answer...which makes it unclear what Superman Returns is suppose to be.

Having Marlon Brando appear seems to tie the Reeve films with Returns, but then we run into a mess that can't be fixed.  IF Returns is a sequel to Superman and Superman II, then we can point out that Superman and Lois made love AFTER he was transformed into a fully-human being in Superman II.  Therefore, he was no longer Superman (and thus, had no super-sperm).  While this would tie in to Lois eventually giving birth to the Grandson of Krypton and she could have forgotten they had been lovers (which if one didn't watch Superman/Superman II one wouldn't know all this though), it also doesn't answer how Clark Kent could impregnate Lois with a child with his powers if said powers had just been removed.

Just like Twilight never answers how a vampire can produce sperm, Superman Returns (IF it is a sequel to Superman & Superman II) never answers how a mere mortal could create a child with Kryptonian powers.     

I found Superman Returns neither sequel or reboot or re-imagining of the story of the Last Son of Krypton.  Instead, Superman Returns is this odd hybrid that never decided exactly what it was going to be.  That, more than anything Lex Luthor might have planned, killed off any hopes for a franchise with Routh as the Man of Steel, which in the end might be the only saving grace Superman Returns can grant us. 

Now, who's your daddy?


DECISION: F

Next Superman Film: Man of Steel  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Very Important Announcement



Today I will be starting a summer semester for a Master's Degree in Library Science. 

As a result I fear I will have to cut back on my blogs, so from now until August I may not be able to post as much as I would like.

However, knowing me the opposite could happen and I may be posting more.  Sometimes when I have a lot of work I do more of other things.

In any case I'm writing this to let you, the reader, know why I may appear to be inactive and silent for the next couple of months.  I will take one or two breaks to complete the Superman Retrospective, but on the whole I think I will have to put my pen down for a while.

I hope to be back here with you real soon.

All the best,

Rick

Thursday, June 6, 2013

This Sparks Blows


SAFE HAVEN

Even by the shockingly low standards a Nicholas Sparks novel has, Safe Haven is particularly abysmal.  Safe Haven has not one, but TWO stupid and illogical twists that are insulting to the audience's intelligence.  It also has a lethargy to the story and two amazingly boring leads who either can't act or can't be bothered to. 

Katie (Julianne Hough) flees Boston after a brutal attack of some kind (the opening is a little vague) and boards a bus to Atlanta.  She flees Tierney (David Lyons), a persistent police officer determined to bring her in.  She eventually finds herself in Southport, North Carolina, and deliberately misses the bus to stay in this idyllic small town.  She quickly gets a job as a waitress at a local fish shop, a home at a safe distance from people (even if a woman named Jo--Cobie Smulders--lives close enough to start a hesitant friendship), and raises the attention of local hottie/widower Alex (Josh Duhamel).  Alex, who runs the bus stop/convenience store, has two children: adorable Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and somewhat sour Josh (Noah Lomax).  For a widower he's quickly smitten with our lovely, who at first stays far away. 

Soon, however, Katie starts thawing, and she and Alex quickly fall in love.  It doesn't help that she carries this terrible secret, but so far she's bonding with the kids and Alex.  However, the obsessive detective will not give up, and he sends out an APB for an "Erin Tierney" as a person of interest for a murder charge.  We now get the first shocking twist...

...the alcoholic Tierney is really Katie's HUSBAND!  Using his powers, he keeps searching for Katie, whom she had stabbed in self-defense as she fled into the night.  Eventually he is discharged for drinking on the job (disguising vodka for water), but not before he learns she took the bus to Atlanta.  With that in mind, he drives drunk down the Eastern Seaboard until arriving at the Fourth of July festivities in Southport, North Carolina.

Katie, having been discovered, at first attempts to get away, but on threatening Lexie she pretends to want to go with him to Boston.  Still too late, as Tierney has set Alex's business on fire, where Lexie is trapped in what was "Mom's Room", where among his souvenirs Alex keeps letters written by his late wife for future events (Josh on Graduation, Lexie on her Wedding Day).  Alex, who sees the building a'blaze while shooting off fireworks, comes to the rescue and Katie shoots Tierney in the struggle.

With the 'bad man/obstacle' out of the way, Katie and Alex can now be together.  Alex then presents Katie with a letter addressed "For Her".  It was a letter written by Alex's wife to the woman who would take her place, and no we get the second shocking twist...

...Jo was really the ghost of Alex's wife!



For the life of me I cannot understand how Nicholas Sparks can be so popular when all his stories are A.) so similar to each other and B.) trash.   I have become convinced that Sparks has a template which he uses with every story, changes a few things, and then releases it to his fans and eager film producers willing to make money off sap for saps.

We have a beautiful but troubled woman (usually a woman) who meets a beautiful but lonely man (usually man).  Someone in the lonely person's life has died (death is a powerful tool in Sparks' arsenal).  There tends to be adorable children (I don't recall any teenager children save perhaps in The Last Song, but since the younger set are the troubled and beautiful people respective I cannot be certain they were teens).  There also tend to be elders of one of the lovers, who offers either advise or words of wisdom as to the obvious attraction Lover A. has to Lover B. Eventually there will be lovemaking, which will be remarkably chaste. There is usually some obstacle to our lovers, almost always in the form of a 'bad man', someone who wants the beautiful but troubled woman for himself.  Eventually the 'bad man' does something criminal and meets his own demise, which will free the lovers to be united.

Oh, yes, one more thing.  This bucolic world will always be in the South and will be a sort of Aryan fantasyland where despite being south of the Mason-Dixon Line there are no black people to be found.  There may be the occasional African-American somehow wandering around a group shot, but as far as I know Nicholas Sparks has never had black lovers, or an interracial romance, or a major character in his books who is black, or Hispanic, or Jewish, or Catholic, or biracial, or anything close to ethnic.

I confess I find this aspect of Nicholas Sparks' ouvre to be the most odious.  The fact that he always portrays the South (where his stories usually take place) as this wonder-world of model-like figures where no color is seen is grotesque and illogical.  It would be as if one were to write a book taking place in New Mexico and have no Hispanic or Native Americans anywhere to be seen.  It is disingenuous at best, downright bigoted at worst.  I don't believe Sparks himself holds racial animosity.  He just is either uninterested or unaware that black people fall in love too.


We're just pretty. 
Don't ask us to ACT!
Let us move away from the insipid nature of the plot (and one wonders whether any of Sparks' books are different one from another) and move on to other matters that damn Safe Haven to being one of if not the Worst Film of 2013.  Actually, I'm going to stay with the plot for just a moment. 

We have what is suppose to be a 'shocking' twist: that Tierney is really Katie's husband.  OK, if that is the case, then truth be told Safe Haven makes no sense.  If she didn't kill anyone (and the opening suggests as much), then why would anyone follow through on his APB if there was no murder?  Furthermore, if she can prove that she acted in self-defense (which is quite easy to do) why would she have to flee from Boston to Southport?  Why not divorce Tierney or seek shelter with the relatives who gave her money?

Why not just say "my husband is a drunken bully who beat me?"  Once in Southport, she could have just told Alex this and I'm sure the hunky widower would protect our fair maiden even if somehow (as we are told to believe) he can drive drunk without attracting attention from Boston, Massachusetts to Southport, North Caroline.  Furthermore, wouldn't he have been arrested for issuing a false police report and abusing his authority as a police officer?

We also have the second shocking twist to deal with.  Never have we been given any indication that Jo is Alex's late wife.  The idea of a ghost working and befriending Katie is already insulting to the audience, but providing no suggestion that Jo is the ghost of Alex's wife is just a cheat.  Of course, for that to work we have to assume that despite his passionate love for "Jo" he would keep no pictures of her anywhere.  Otherwise, Katie would have seen the similarity to her friend.

However, Dana Stevens and Gage Lansky's screenplay (as lousy as it is, though I can't help feel nothing could have improved the terrible book which they adapted) can't be blamed for the universally awful performances from all the cast.  Former underwear model Duhamel (who I think did a good job in Las Vegas) was so stiff and emotionalless, striking the same one-note over and over again.  However, a quick turn on the dance floor shows he is ready for Dancing With the Stars, where his co-star Hough has excelled.  However, as a dramatic actress, Hough is equal to Duhamel's non-acting (as if neither believes the situations they are being well-paid to perform).  A particularly embarrassing scene is where Alex confronts Katie about the "Person of Interest" flyer he finds at the police station (which no one else in town bothered to see).  It was never believable and they were so stiff and unconvincing with each other, almost as if they were still figuring out what the words actually meant. 

The children were horrid, Lyons was almost comical in his 'villainous' turn, and Smulders was convincing as a ghost because she acted as if she was dead.

If one is a fan of Nicholas Sparks' drivel, where beautiful (white) people in/from the South meet, fall in love, and overcome whatever obstacles a 'bad man' has for them while precious and precocious little children run around, then Safe Haven will work for you.  If however you have a functioning brain and aren't willing to suspend disbelief to where you are asked to accept idiotic nonsense as realistic or romantic, then you will find Safe Haven something to run from.  

DECISION: F          

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A New Low For LiLo

LIZ & DICK

It's for certain that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would have hated Liz & Dick, the television biopic about their tumultuous marriages.  First, both Mr. Burton and Miss Taylor HATED the moniker "Liz & Dick".   Second, while they both were smart enough to realize that their lives weren't like everyone else's, they as people at least had some depth to them.  There was scant attention paid to that department in Liz & Dick, which treated two genuine talents as shallow, drunks and narcissists.  Third and so far last, Liz & Dick had such an unwieldy structure that it opens itself up to accusations that it was rushed into production to cash in so soon after Taylor's death.  Liz & Dick could have worked, but aside from the notorious nature of the actress playing Elizabeth Taylor the film has other aspects that make it flounder.

The film takes place it seems on the last day in the life of Richard Burton (Grant Bowler), August 5, 1984.  He is writing a letter to his former second and third wife, Elizabeth Taylor (Lindsay Lohan).  We then slip into a dark room for what appears to be a joint 'interview' between Taylor and Burton, where they talk about their stormy relationship.  In between this 'interview', we go through their lives together: the boozing, the buying, Burton's lingering bitterness over losing Oscar after Oscar, his relationship with his disapproving brother Ifor (David Hunt) and eventually their first and second divorces.  Liz & Dick circles back to Burton's death, which causes Taylor to faint.  When visiting his grave some time later, she bids him farewell...


For all the hoopla and complaining people have thrown at Lindsay Lohan's performance as Elizabeth Taylor (and we'll get to that in a moment), I find the actual structure of Liz & Dick to be among its greatest flaws.  If I understand Christopher Monger's screenplay, this 'interview' is taking place inside Burton's head.  The segway from Burton's bedroom to Taylor and Burton on an empty set, conversing as they would to a reporter (or perhaps us) suggests as much.  However, would these two people whose lives were so public go out of their way to explain so much to us when they also weren't too thrilled that they were allowed no virtual breathing room?

Also, several times it seemed like Taylor and Burton were consciously putting on a show.  The ease in which they convince Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenwriter Ernest Lehman (David Eigenberg) that they can slip into vicious verbal fights almost makes it look like they weren't "the Battling Burtons" but actually quite fond of each other and willing to play up to their public image almost for kicks. 

It also reduces their extraordinary body of work (like Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew) to mere footnotes between screwing and boozing.  We don't ever get to see what made them either great actors (which they were) or fascinating to the public.   At what is suppose to be a screening for Virginia Woolf (where we see Lohan and Bowler recreate scenes from the film) Burton and Taylor are seen arguing when a fan compliments Taylor but doesn't appear to even notice Burton who is seated between them.  Since we've already seen "the Battling Burtons" pretend to fight with each other with the greatest of ease, how can we think that this argument is genuine?

Whatever love or passion Burton and Taylor had for each other, whatever consuming fascination they created just didn't come through in Liz & Dick.  There was nothing about the Burton/Taylor affair and romance in Liz & Dick that made one really care all that much about them.

If it is to be believed, Taylor was an insecure boor and Burton forever whining about losing the Oscar to the likes of Lee Marvin (in Cat Ballou over Burton's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold...admittedly an odd choice) or Paul Scofield (in A Man For All Seasons over Burton's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).


Let's look over the leads.  Grant Bowler is an actor I think well of, and he did what he could as Burton.  He was there to give a performance, and while it is difficult to copy exactly Burton's rich voice he was strong as the Welsh boy who bore insecurity that he drowned in drink. 

As for LiLo, or La Lohan, or An Embarrasment to Western Civilization, Lohan was not convincing as Taylor.  She did her best we'll grant you, but sometimes she was so stiff one couldn't believe there was a genuine attempt at acting.  "I'm bored!  I'm so bored!" Lohan as Taylor shouts, but it sounds as if Lohan is referring to herself not as Taylor.  The scenes between Lohan and Bowler on what is suppose to be the beginning of their great affair on Cleopatra show Lohan was bad at trying to play TWO characters simultaneously: as Taylor playing Cleo, the Nympho of the Nile.

Actually, every time they are called to recreate scenes from their films, Lohan looks forced, especially compared to Bowler's more natural performance.  One that sticks out is when they are recreating The V.I.P.s,  and they begin fighting.  It seems strange that the arguments don't appear natural or realistic.  It almost is cartoonish, and Lohan is the worst of the two.

That isn't to say she was all bad.  Somehow, she wasn't too dreadful when recreating Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I'll leave it to you as to any suggestion that Lohan can play a boozer.  Finally, having moments that echo other films (such as Butterfield 8, as we see above) play out in 'real life' might be clever to the production's mind, but it's actually distracting.

Liz & Dick has a rushed feel to it, and it never captures what was one of the most spectacular, passionate, shocking, brazen, and legendary love stories of the Twentieth Century.  It does sadly reduce them to silly figures, and even by made-for-television standards it does come off looking a bit cheap.  Grant Bowler comes off looking better because he went into this and gave a performance.  Lindsay Lohan might have come into it thinking that because both she and Taylor started young in show-business they had a common bond.  Only difference is that Taylor found depth in her life (her children, her AIDS work, her great performances in film), while Lohan hasn't. 

It's not good, and a disservice to an extraordinary passion story and two great actors and their legacy.     

4/10

Richard Burton: 1925-1984
Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011