Monday, September 30, 2013

EPCON 2013: A Review

EPCON 2012

Well, this is a reflection of EPCON 2013.  The El Paso Comic Convention was moved from its previous location of the El Paso Civic Center (formal name, El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center) to the El Paso County Coliseum.  I like to call EPCON 2013 Walking Dead CON because it was excessively heavy on its focus on The Walking Dead.  Sadly, both Michael Rooker and IronE Singleton, who were billed to appear, were unable to do so.  With Rooker, I know he has Guardians of the Galaxy to shoot so his absence is understandable (though I did want to ask how he would fight alongside a raccoon).   In a rare move, I attended all three days: the Preview Night, the Main Day (Saturday) and the Closing Day (Sunday).  Work and school prevented me from going the whole day on both occasions but on the whole EPCON 2013 was not all bad.

My one great disappointment was that there were no real DVD sellers.  I had a wish-list of DVDs but alas, nothing to purchase.  Nothing in terms of comics because I didn't read comics as a kid and the only series I came close to following was The Blue Beetle (and that was only because it took place in my hometown of El Paso). 

The only thing I did buy was an artist's rendering of four Sherlock Holmeses (from left to right): Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, and Jeremy Brett.  Alas, no Robert Downey, Jr.).  The fact she knew who they were and could speak so easily about them made the sale. 

Now, let me look over my Personal Impressions on EPCON 2013. 

Things I Learned At EPCON 2013



1.) Elementary is More Liked Than Sherlock

I took an informal poll while walking the floor.  At the booth where Holmes x Four was she mentioned that she liked Elementary and didn't understand why people disliked it.  Rathbone and Brett were more Canonical in that they stuck to the time period (in the case of the former, not always) while Cumberbatch and Miller were more contemporary and thus, putting a different spin on the stories. 

What did surprise me was that in said informal poll, it was Miller, not Cumberbatch, who was getting ahead in terms of popularity.  The people I talked to seemed to prefer Elementary's Holmes than Sherlock's Holmes.  I think it has to do in part with Miller's take being more likable, relatable, than Cumberbatch's take.  Miller's Holmes may be an egotist, but he is also a recovering addict and a deeply flawed individual who lets the vulnerability slip through.  Cumberbatch, on the other, does not confront any afflictions as far as I know (having seen only one Sherlock episode).  I truly can't say whether Cumberbatch or Miller is the better 21st Century Holmes because I do not know enough of the former (and the fact that my heart belongs completely to Brett).  However, I think part of Miller's rise and Cumberbatch's fall may be due to the fans. 

Another artist (whom I'll talk about later) commented that for Sherlockians, they behaved as though there were no other Holmes prior or post-Sherlock, so their hatred for Elementary, this shameless impersonation, is borderline pathological.  They may have a case, but why Sherlockians insist people like Brett and Rathbone are lesser than Cumberbatch in every way is a reaction against ANYONE playing The Great Detective. "For them," Artist Two told me, "this (pointing to a drawing she made of Cumberbatch as Holmes) is the Bible."    

One thing that is certain is that even those who dislike Elementary have had nothing but praise for Lucy Liu's Dr. Joan Watson.  Everyone I talked to has praised the fact that Dr. Watson is strong and intelligent, not willing to defer to Holmes all the time.  Any doubts about a woman, especially an Asian-American woman, playing Watson have been dispelled, and in my informal survey she is favored more than Martin Freeman's Dr. Watson, who is leaning too much on the Nigel Bruce Model of Watson: the slightly bumbling, dim, almost deferential sidekick. 



2.) SuperWhoLockians Are Just Plain Crazy

While conversing with another artist, I came upon this strange phenomenon.  Looking over her art I commented they were very good, but she had an abundance of Matt Smith.  My coworker Fabian asked if she had any David Tennant.  She did...but forgot to bring any.  I noticed she had a lot of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, and said that if she had any Jonny Lee Miller and/or Lucy Liu I'd snap them up.  She sheepishly said she liked Elementary and its take on Holmes & Watson and REALLY needed to do drawings of them. 

As we looked over her work the artwork for Supernatural was shown.  Again, she did a wonderful job, but I didn't know who they were since I've seen only one episode of the show.  As we talked about the intense fervor of Sherlock fans I mentioned that those who call for the TARDIS to land in front of 221 B Baker Street were bonkers.  I knew of these Wholockians, but now I was introduced to SuperWhoLockians: those who wanted a blending of Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock

This is really whacked-out.  Why would these two American brothers who hunt demons go to London, get to work with a sociopath detective who hunts murderers, and then find a time-travel machine landing in front of them?  I don't find fanfiction silly: it's all in good fun.  Television, however, is another matter.  You are establishing Canon, and as much fun as blending things together may be, a supernatural-based series, a fantasy series, and a reality-based detective series will not work together.  Too many genres crashing into another.

Crossover episodes have to be able to exist in both series' worlds and have a reason to do so.  Law & Order crossing over with Homicide makes sense: both are reality-based cop shows.  The Facts of Life meeting Diff'rent Strokes is logical: both are comedies that take place in a similar time period and whose settings are within travelling distances.  Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Supernatural...what reason do they have for meeting?

Some fans need to really grow up. 



3.) Neville Longbottom is Beloved

At the second artist's booth, I said that if she had a Neville Longbottom picture, I would have bought it right away.  Maybe if there were a picture of Neville and Luna Lovegood (or as I call them, Dad and Mom), but alas nothing of the sort.  A lot of Harrys though. 

In any case, what I found was that Neville is a character whom I heard nothing bad about.  He didn't start out as heroic.  Far from it: bumbling, heavy, and more into plants than Quidditch, Neville was constantly sidelined until, as the story grew, his virtues of courage, moral strength, and honor started becoming valuable.  Neville is not only one of my favorite Harry Potter characters, but in terms of performances I think Matthew Lewis grew from a secondary thought to a magnetic presence.

In short, no one I have ever talked to about Harry Potter at large has ever said anything bad about Neville Longbottom, and I don't think I ever will. 



4.) A Knit Beanie is Enough for a Cosplay Outfit.

As Fabian and I were wandering around, someone swung Fabian around and complimented him on his costume.  He looked confused, and asked him "What costume?"  This other fellow then asked, "Aren't you dressed as Jesse Pinkman?"  Fabian looked more confused because he didn't know WHO Jesse Pinkman was.  I started laughing and told him, "You know.  The little sidekick on Breaking Bad (and that is not an Aaron Paul short joke since Paul and I are probably the same height)."  It took a few seconds for Fabian to put it together, and he was still a bit confused.  He looks nothing like Aaron Paul.  It was then mentioned that Jesse wears a lot of beanies on the show, and since Fabian was wearing one...

Truth be told, that's Fabian's regular casual wear.  We both had good laughs about this.  I told him since Breaking Bad takes place in Albuquerque, maybe Fabian could be Jesse's Mexican cousin.  Cosplay is fun I imagine (I am far too old-fashioned to dress up as anything).  However, I'm of the type that believes costumes should be a little more elaborate than a beanie.  Still, so long as everyone is having harmless fun I support it.   



5.) The Vatos Are Really Nice Guys

I had nicknamed EPCON 2013 Walking Dead CON given the high number of Walking Dead cast members who were there.  We had primarily the Vatos, the Hispanic gang members who survived the initial plague.  Now, having known some vatos personally (though I am far too bourgeois to be anywhere near a 'vato' myself) their screen appearance looks convincing.  However, Anthony Guajardo (Miguel) and Noel G. (Felipe) are in real life nothing like the Vatos. 

In fact, when I went to their panel, both had a great sense of humor, particularly Noel G. (even if WASPy me kept calling him Nol versus his pronunciation of No-El).  In fact, I can't believe no one has cast Noel G. in a comedy, almost spoofing his hard-care image.  He is quick-witted and amusing, able to laugh at his screen persona and the odd moments in his career (such as when monkeys flew out of his behind in Bruce Almighty).  Given this and that in Vatos Daryl shoots Felipe in the posterior, he wisecracked,  "Producers have an obsession with my butt".

As for Guajardo, he is a very down-to-earth, pleasant fellow who is appreciative of his fans.  I'm not one of them only in that I have never seen The Walking Dead (though I didn't mention that to them).  However, I was so impressed with both of them that I opted to have my picture with him.  The fact that he didn't charge for pictures, unlike last year's guests, where everyone charged me ten dollars for posing with them (except for Erin Grey, who donates her photo fees to a battered women's shelter she's on the board of, and Eric Roberts, who gave me a five dollar discount for bringing my own camera...I didn't bother asking) impressed me more.

I won't put that picture up for a few reasons.  I never photograph well (I always think my face sticks out from the rest of my head) and worse, I look fat (which I'm not).  I also want a close-up than the full-body picture I got.  Then again, there's always next year.

EPCON 2013 was on the whole not bad.  I just hope that EPIC in March, where Deep Roy* (the Oompa-Loompa in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, Mr. Sin in the Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang) is scheduled to appear, has DVDs. I also found the panels a bit of a wash (apart from Noel G/Guajardo).  The Nerds With Issues panel, where a group of dressed up kids mocked anime, television shows, their fans, and video games in some effort of comedy, was not funny. Also, by having the costume contest above the floor the walkway was often blocked to where I had to fight to get across often. 

Apart from that, I think EPCON 2013 was a good time for the family.

*Standing next to Guajardo, who is listed as 5'9", I found myself about a half to full inch shorter, which verifies my height of 5'8".  If the 4'4" Roy turns out to be taller than me, it will just devastate me.   

Friday, September 27, 2013

Did You Know I Am A Genius?


DA VINCI'S DEMONS: PILOT
(THE HANGED MAN)

I do not subscribe to premium satellite channels, on account of being poor; therefore I would not be able to see Da Vinci's Demons airing on Starz until it I opt to get the DVD of the first season (a second season is already in production).  I was however, given a 'free preview' of The Hanged Man, the pilot episode of Da Vinci's Demons.  Despite a remarkably busy schedule, what with school and all, I managed to finish some work early and found time to squeeze in the long-unwatched DVR episode.  After watching The Hanged Man, I see great potential in the show.  It has a charismatic lead and a great setting.  However, some oddball elements within the first episode make me wonder whether Da Vinci's Demons is blending The Borgias and The Da Vinci Code, with a hint of Spartacus thrown in to make a strange hybrid of historic fiction, lots of sex of all stripes, and fantasy.

Leonardo Da Vinci (Tom Riley) is a brash, self-assured genius, and what's worse, he knows it.  Da Vinci is an artist, inventor, and force of nature.  He has managed to avoid getting caught up in the intrigues of Florence's political scene, even though his father Piero (David Schofield), who's never accepted his bastard son, is notary to the powerful Medici family.  Accompanied by his manservant Nico (Eros Vlahos) and his personal gravedigger/friend Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin...which I think is a great name) Leo goes through life convinced of his genius and his desire to explore all aspects of the world (in this episode, the idea of flight).


Playing it straight...
Politics, though, dominates the medieval world.  The Duke of Milan (an uncredited Hugh Bonneville) is assassinated in the cathedral, on not-so-secret orders of Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner).  Despite that both His Grace and His Holiness liked boys, they were rivals in power: Milan protecting an army-less Florence, Rome their fiercest rivals.  To stop a potential panic and to curry favor with the Florentines, Lorenzo (Elliot Cowan) and Giulino De Medici (Tom Bateman) will sponsor a lavish Carnival to celebrate Easter and the end of Lent.  The typically arrogant Leo gets them to pay more than they have any artisan for a mechanical bird that will begin the celebration by flying on its own and setting off the fireworks.
Leo decides to join the military/industrial complex by offering his services to build war machines.  He gains their favor by sketching a beautiful portrait of Lucrezia (Laura Haddock), Lorenzo's mistress.  However, others have their sights on Leo.  A mysterious figure, known as The Turk (Alexander Siddig), whom Leo saves from police harassment, informs him of secret societies and a mysterious Book of Leaves, containing forbidden knowledge from the pre-Christian world.  Also searching for this book is the Vatican, repository of the occult within its Secret Archives (not to be confused with my review catalog site).  Within the Medici Court is a Vatican spy, and in the end we learn that Leonardo, now seen as a potential threat to the Holy See, literally slept with the enemy.

There are a few things within The Hanged Man that I am not fond of.  First, Da Vinci's Demons' creator David S. Goyer (who also wrote and directed The Hanged Man) is a bit fond of expositionary dialogue, where the characters give us information through what they say to each other.  This reaches a curious level when Leonardo is telling the Medici court the reasons they employ artisans for Carnival.  "Why do you insist on repeating things that a three-year-old already knows?" he is asked.  The obvious answer is that the audience needs to be told somehow, and this seems to be the best way to do it.  For myself, it is always a dicey way of bringing information to us.


Holy Father!
Second, while I'm not bothered with historical inaccuracies in Da Vinci's Demons (this is suppose to be a fanciful take on history, after all), I am not fond of all these quasi-supernatural elements being at the forefront of the series.  Secret societies, esoteric books, the Vatican as the repository of the occult (which at least to me, a non-Catholic, is close to portraying the Catholic Church as somewhat sinister and pushing conspiracy theories about the Church): all these things may be fanciful, but one would think the cloak-and-dagger reality of Renaissance politics would be material enough for a series (example, The Borgias).  I don't know if the real Leo would have recognized this occult world and this idea that he is destined to have a role in this world of forbidden books and mysticism.

Finally, I can understand why so much was blurred in the episode I saw.  Since it was not technically broadcast on Starz, the vast nudity (male and female) presented in The Hanged Man (and I imagine Da Vinci's Demons in general) had to be covered up so to speak.  I can't say I'm surprised by the nudity within the series (this is the same network that lavished blood and boobs on Spartacus) but I am not one that rushes to see naked people.  Given the wild sexual shenanigans going on (particularly with the higher-ups indulging in young boys, while Leo schtupps the lovely, and forbidden, mistress), I do wonder if Leo's own sexual proclivities will eventually get some attention.

However, what I did enjoy in The Hanged Man was the performances, particularly the lead.  Tom Riley is magnetic as the brash, arrogant, self-assured Da Vinci.  His enthusiasm for finding the truth of the world, along with the swagger he has, is great fun to watch.  Riley's Da Vinci carries a great self-confidence, one who never doubts himself, with the way he dominates the screen whenever he is there.  Riley is smooth whenever he is wooing or pursuing Lucrezia, and on the whole he gave a strong performance to where you do want to see more of the show just to see where he takes the role.

Other cast members also give strong performances.  Chillin makes Zoroaster a generally fun-loving partner to Leo's actions, while Vlahos' Nico is Leo's somewhat hesitant servant/friend.  Haddock is appropriately alluring and seductive and mysterious as Lorenzo's mistress Lucrezia.  I thought Cowan was a bit too serious as Lorenzo, but perhaps he was generally humorless, so I won't quibble with that.

Goyer has some wonderful dialogue in The Hanged Man that is clever and amusing.  A 'male model' goes up to Leo at a tavern, asking if he'd like to paint him again, saying no one notes his 'form' the way Leo did.  "No one does forms like I do," Leo snaps back.  "Go peddle your form to Boticelli.  He's an easy mark."  One can argue that the effeminate manner of the 'model' being stereotype, but again I won't belabor the point.  When Da Vinci decides to make weapons, he tells Nico and Zoroaster "War has always been the handmaiden of progress."  True enough. 

The visuals in Da Vinci's Demons are splendid (though at times the CGI is obvious).  The sequence when Leo is studying birds in flight is excellent: the birds turning into his sketches, the real and artistic blending so well.  In terms of sets and costumes the show is similarly excellent.

I can see why it was decided to move away from strict historic fiction in Da Vinci's Demons.  It might have been seen as a bit dry and there is already another series that takes place at the same time that takes its story more straight (no pun intended).  Whether it will work to add all these somewhat supernatural elements to the Renaissance series I cannot say for sure.  I wasn't too thrilled with the idea that this mysterious figure (perhaps from the future) can predict that "Centuries from now, your own history will also be suppressed".  A little Da Vinci Code reference?  However, the charismatic lead and a curiosity as to what happens next (The Hanged Man does end with a good cliffhanger) makes at least the first episode of Da Vinci's Demons something to raise our interest.       

Next Episode: The Serpent

  

5/10       

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

You Find Some, You Lose Some.



In the "THIS IS GREAT NEWS FOR FILM LOVERS" department, a previously-lost Mary Pickford film has been rediscoveredTheir First Misunderstanding, the first film to put Pickford's name in the advertising (rather than just being "The Girl With the Golden Curls" or "The Biograph Girl") was discovered in a New Hampshire barn and is being restored.

I for one am very excited about this, as I am whenever any previously-lost film or television episode is found.  Such was the case for Metropolis, the silent epic that set the standard for almost all futuristic dystopian films (if you ever see Blade Runner, it is clear Ridley Scott owes so much to Fritz Lang's visionary feature).  My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead) and I were almost giddy with glee that a 99% complete copy had been rediscovered in Argentina (sadly, a few minutes of this print were beyond repair, but we now have the film as close as possible to how it premiered, and Metropolis, already a masterpiece in its truncated version, now really overwhelms you with the newly-restored footage).   

Similarly, I was wildly excited when two previously-lost Doctor Who episodes were rediscovered.  As a result, the First Doctor story Galaxy 4 now has one complete episode of the four-episode story, and the Second Doctor stories The Moonbase (which I really didn't care for all that much) is now half-complete (and will be released on DVD).  Another Second Doctor story, The Underwater Menace (hated by many, loved by me) is similarly now half-complete, which is better than when we started.  How Whovians still hope that perhaps more episodes (in particular Second Doctor Patrick Troughton's debut story, The Power of the Daleks) may yet be found...

Still, back to Mary.  Their First Misunderstanding is a mere ten minutes long, but we have to remember that pre-Lord of the Rings or even Gone With the Wind the powers that be didn't think people would sit for long periods watching a movie.  It should be noted that the same people didn't think people would want to watch a television show or movie more than once (let alone see it at home), or would want to see sound films, or films in color, or feature-length animated films.  Not exactly the most forward-thinking people, were they?

In any case, the rediscovery of any previously-lost film should be celebrated.  For me, it means that a little bit of history has been recovered and will be available to my sons, and their sons, and their sons...and daughters.  So much of the past is lost, particularly the early years of cinema.  What great treasures are now denied to us because of decay or disinterest?  I would love to at least examine these films, be able to see what these creative figures tried to do with the technology of the time.

What a Vamp!

Of particular interest would be if Theda Bara's Cleopatra were rediscovered.  Of the entire film, only 40 seconds is known to have survived (the footage available on YouTube).  The loss of these films and television shows is a great loss for culture/entertainment. We have the loss of Cleopatra and many other important films and television shows apart from Doctor Who; for example, the first decade of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson is lost. Similarly missing is the odd game show Queen for a Day (where the most wretched sob stories put women of various dire straits in competition for whose story was the saddest, hence when they won they were "Queen for a Day").  There is also the infamous episodes of the daytime soap opera The Secret Storm where a sixty-year-old Joan Crawford filled in for her daughter Christina (whose character was twenty-eight years old).  Who WOULDN'T want to watch that? 

Maybe Crawford wasn't as disastrous in the soap as Mommie Dearest portrayed her to be.  Maybe Theda Bara overacted, even for silent films.  Or maybe Bara was electric and erotic on screen, making her Queen of the Nile a tempestuous creature more desirable than either Elizabeth Taylor or (soon, we understand) Angelina Jolie.  We may never know, and that to me is a terrible shame.

Still, why should the rediscovery of Their First Misunderstanding or The Underwater Menace or the potential discovery of Cleopatra or The Secret Storm matter now?  Simply put, we are nothing without a knowledge and understanding of our past.  Mary Pickford was one of the first true 'stars' in the way we understand the term.  Her face, her name, her image were enough to sell tickets and promote products.  "Star power", the idea that the public wanted to see a certain performer, sprang from her and her contemporary Charlie Chaplin.  These were craftsmen and women, working to create what we know now as 'the film industry'.  There would be no Hollywood today, no blockbusters, without people like Pickford (sadly all but forgotten today).  The loss of these films, to me, is a loss of art, of creativity.  People put a lot of work into making something good (sometimes failing, most spectacularly in the lost films of Ed Wood, but at least he tried), and just as the loss of great literature (like the plays of the ancient Greeks or the writings of the Aztecs) is a loss for human culture, so is the loss of these films/television shows. 

This is why I am happy whenever I hear that a long-lost film or episode has been recovered.  We now have a little sliver of the past brought back to life.

I am a firm believer that it is important to treasure and learn from history.  History is a passion of mine, and to have even a little bit of history returned is great news indeed.  As someone who loves all types of movies (silent, foreign-language, documentaries, action, comedy, you name it), I hope to soon see Their First Misunderstanding, and who knows, maybe one day Theda Bara may "vamp it up" once more... 

Forever Mary...

Monday, September 23, 2013

How Can A Great Book Bring Such Lousy Adaptations?


I have read The Great Gatsby and seen three adaptations of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: the 1974 film version, the 2000 television adaptation, and the 2013 film version.  There was a 1926 version which is a lost film, and a 1949 version currently unavailable on DVD.  Now, one would think that something as well-read (though perhaps, not well-enjoyed given its assigned reading versus when I read it for pleasure) and well-known as The Great Gatsby could inspire a whole series of great adaptions.  Sadly, despite their best efforts the quintessential version of Fitzgerald's opus remains as elusive as that green light across the bay. 

The three versions of The Great Gatsby I have seen have been pretty flawed affairs, some more than others.  That being said, when I say something or someone is 'the best', that should be taken with a grain of salt.  More often than not, it just means that the actual 'winner' is there by default (i.e. the others were worse).  Very rarely could I say there is a brilliant version in any of the three adaptations, but when I do find one, I'll let you know.

Now, without further ado...

BEST JAY GATSBY



Robert Redford
Toby Stephens
Leonardo DiCaprio

This is clearly a 'default' winner.  Is DiCaprio at 37 too old to play the young, romantic, doomed dreamer?  Perhaps, though I forgave it pretty quickly.  In terms of actual acting DiCaprio did bring a greater sense of both his foolish idealism and romanticism of the past than the other Gatsbys.  The affectation he used whenever he called someone 'old sport' I think was correct.  After all, Gatsby was 'playing a role', and the "old sport" was all part of that performance of his idea of what a successful, wealthy, powerful man was suppose to be. 

I would have said that overall, Redford is the best actual actor of the three, and while one would have thought he would have been idea as Gatsby he looked almost bored throughout his version, sleepwalking through his performance.  I should also point out that Redford was...37 when he played Gatsby.  Just a thought.

Finally, Stephens just can't act.  At 31 he is the youngest person to play the lead, but he actually looked older in the TV movie, and did I mention he can't act?  However, in one of those 'even a stopped clock' scenarios, Stephens didn't embarrass himself and managed to do better than Redford.  That is sad, but Stephens can't compete with DiCaprio.

BEST DAISY BUCHANAN



Mia Farrow
Mira Sorvino
Carey Mulligan

Talk about rather spoiled for choice.  If one looks at each of them, we learn two things.  One, they are all competent to great actresses.  Two, Daisy Buchanan must be the hardest character to play in all literature, because all of them were on the bad side.  It's only the degree of bad that they can be judged, and Mulligan is the least bad.  At least when she played Daisy, I got the sense that she knew the character was ethereal, unreal, a fantasy floating through life carelessly.

Farrow, who actually gives Mulligan a run for her money, would have won if not for the fact that her Daisy came across as a whiny airhead, one who screeches and whimpers her way through life (and that's after the points she earned by giving the most memorable line of all three versions, "Rich girls don't marry poor boys", which is not from the novel).  Sorvino also could have done wonders, but she sounded too much like she was auditioning for a Marilyn Monroe impersonator to give much life to Daisy.

I just wish that the next version of The Great Gatsby (and trust me, there will be another version) makes Daisy into something Farrow, Sorvino, and Mulligan could not make her: human.

BEST NICK CARRAWAY



Sam Waterston
Paul Rudd
Tobey Maguire

Here we have an all-out winner, and that is Rudd.  Nick is the moral center of the story, and of all the three actors I think Rudd is the one that came closest to making Nick both relateable and a nice guy caught up in the decadence of the Roaring Twenties.  It's sad that Paul Rudd is now known mostly for comedies, because the guy is a pretty good to great dramatic actor.  I hope someone gives him a chance to show that he can handle drama just as well as he can comedy.

The other two actors are pretty good in other films, but Waterston was drowned by a bad script to where he came off looking as bored/boring as everyone else, playing things a bit far too seriously.  Maguire on the other hand, got that 'gee-whiz' manner to him where he is more clueless than decent.  He did a good job, but there is a thin line between being good and being dim.  Just a thought.

BEST TOM BUCHANAN


Bruce Dern
Martin Donovan
Joel Edgerton

When I think of Tom Buchanan, I think of a brute, one who is big, beefy, and powerful.  When I saw Joel Edgerton as Tom, he fit the idea of what I thought the character should be as well as what he should look like.  Thank Heavens Bradley Cooper couldn't do it, otherwise we would have been stuck with THREE versions of a wimpy Buchanan.  Yes, Cooper's pretty, but he doesn't scream, 'bully'.  Edgerton does.

I always felt Dern was miscast as Tom Buchanan.  He's far too thin and unimposing physically (especially compared to Redford).  It does not help that the 1974 version gave Buchanan so little to do.  At least with Edgerton, he was more central to the story.  Finally, who remembers Martin Donovan?

BEST JORDAN BAKER



Lois Chiles
Francie Swift
Elizabeth Debicki

As with Rudd, another actor who just ran away with it and is by far the best version of the character we've had.  Debicki is the highlight of The Great Gatsby 2013 and a remarkable find.  She brought the energy and vitality to Jordan, and it is a terrible shame that the character's affair with Nick was not shown.  I suspect this was to make the perpetually innocent version of Nick just that, but what a waste.  If she had more screentime, I would have pushed for her as a possible Best Supporting Actress, because you just wanted to see more of Debicki and Debicki as Jordan.  Personally, if I were Gatsby, I would have forgotten about Dull Daisy and crossed into the Jordan Valley.

Debicki got that she was larger-than-life, and her Jordan embraced the decadence.  I hope Elizabeth Debicki gets more parts, because if there were any justice on this Earth, she should be a true star.

Chiles was like everyone else, bored and boring as Jordan.  She was the same in Moonraker (a film I am apparently one of two people who enjoyed it, the other being my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., who may or may not be dead).  It was a pretty bad performance, and as with Martin Donovan, can anyone remember Swift?   

BEST COSTUMES



1974
2000
2013

If anything, The Great Gatsby always has us picturing the wild flapper styles of the Roaring Twenties.  The ideas of fast cars and faster women, speakeasies, gangsters, and hot jazz and always intrigues people.  Therefore, the costumes in any Great Gatsby adaptation are important.

When looking at the wardrobe for all three adaptations, the ones to the 1974 version had the perfect blend of originality and believability in its Academy Award-winning Costumes.  Those frocks and those hats and headpieces Farrow wore are beautiful, but they also look like clothes the characters would wear in real life.  The ones from 2000 were all right but not memorable, and while 2013 had big, lavish, and beautiful costumes, they also were a bit too theatrical to believe the clothes would belong to real people.  Catherine Martin may receive another Oscar nomination for her frocks, but for me, the 1974 version had better, more beautiful frocks all around.   

BEST ADAPTATION



1974
2000
2013

Again, this is damning with faint praise.  I know many critics didn't like the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby, and while I recognize the problems within it I found it entertaining and enjoyable.  I think the fact that it had some of the best performances of all three versions (Edgerton and Debicki in particular) pushed it forward.   

Then again, we have in the 1974 and 2000 versions slow clunkers, making the romance between Jay and Daisy a moribund affair.  That being the case, here is where we get a winner by default.  I will say that because I generally ignore 3-D adaptations I didn't suffer the effects of having things thrown at us.  If one looks at all three versions, the 2013 version at least has a semblance of life within it. 

WORST ADAPTATION



1974
2000
2013

Again, despite their own efforts none of the Great Gatsby adaptations are worthy of the book.  Therefore, we have to look at which one is the worst.  The 2013 version at least moves and entertains.  2000 is a respectable version, although it is not a good adaptation that brings shame to TV movies.  However, the 1974 version is just a disaster.

It is slow.  It is boring.  It is badly-filmed.  There is no energy.  It makes the Roaring Twenties squeak.  It has generally lousy performances.  It is infamous in its ineptitude, and it is just something that is worth your time only if you are having trouble sleeping.

Well, we have completed The Great Gatsby retrospective.  Personally, I liked the 2013 version, would watch the 2000 version if there was nothing on, and would have to be paid to watch the 1974 version.

Still, read the book.  It is very, very good.    

Bob, I just read the script!
Mia, I'm sure it'll be all right.  We're too beautiful to fail.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Those Who Serve Those Who Serve


LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER

I am going to defy a studio by calling this film The Butler rather than Lee Daniels' The Butler, though for legal reasons it appears we have to at least in the beginning start calling it Lee Daniels' The Butler.  Something to do with Warner Brothers holding the rights to the title "The Butler" dating from a 1916 short film.  Now, while I enjoy silent films AND am generally pleased that a film almost a hundred years is still in existence, I very much doubt there will be some kind of confusion in the general audiences mind between THAT The Butler and THIS The Butler.  It does seem rather petty to hold the title hostage, but there it is.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is a respectable effort to chronicle the Twentieth Century African-American experience from Emmitt Till's brutal murder to Barack Obama's ascendency to the White House.  I don't fault the noble intentions, but what I saw was a film that was telling two stories and could never quite find a way to get both of them together. 

Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) is at the White House, waiting to be received.  As he sits patiently, he has time to reflect on his epic journey.  Gaines starts in Georgia on the 'plantation' he came from, where the owner of said 'plantation' Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) rapes Gaines' mother (MARIAH!) and shoots his father in cold blood for objecting.  The Widow Westfall (Hamas' grande dame Vanessa Redgrave) as a way to make up for all this takes Cecil and trains him to be a house...well, a euphemism is used which I won't use under any circumstances.  
 
Eventually, Cecil leaves and works his way to Washington, D.C., having been further trained in a hotel by Maynard (Clarence Williams III), who is something of a mentor to Cecil in the art of serving.  His most important lesson?  Never make yourself known, basically keep quiet and be at the ready, keep your views to yourself.  Cecil's excellent manners, especially in the art of diplomatic treatment of the whites whose casual racism he must endure, catch the attention of a scout for the White House, and Cecil soon finds himself as a butler in the Executive Mansion.  Among the new co-workers he soon joins with are fellow butlers Carter (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz).  By this time Cecil is also married to Gloria (OPRAH!) and has two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly). 


Louis is the most rebellious of his two sons.  He is a passionate civil rights advocate, his time at Fisk University causing a great awakening as to the injustice of segregation.  Louis takes part in sit-ins, in Freedom Rides, and eventually both is with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) when he is assassinated and joins the Black Panthers.  This does not sit well with his father, who fears causing agitation of any kind, in particular since he works for the President of the United States.  However, Cecil is there to observe how various Presidents deal with the growing civil rights movement, starting from President Eisenhower (Robin Williams), to Presidents John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schrieber), Richard Nixon (John Cusask) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman).  Ford and Carter were not portrayed, probably because in the words of Old Mr. Grace from Are You Being Served? "I expect (they) were too boring!" 

Cecil has many problems at home.  Gloria is an alcoholic who at one point has an affair with Howard (Terrence Howard), their numbers-running smooth neighbor.  Whether Cecil ever learned of the affair I cannot remember.  Louis is constantly agitating for more social justice, while Charlie is drafted to Vietnam (although he seems eager to go).  Charlie is promptly killed off, so now the family strains continue within the Gaines family.  Eventually, Cecil retires from the White House during the Reagan Administration for a variety of reasons: he is getting on in years, he has succeeded in creating pay parity with the white staff under Ronnie's watch (begging the question why the pay discrepancy between black and white employees was not addressed earlier) and Reagan threatens to veto any legislation that punishes South Africa for apartheid.

Cecil and Louis eventually reconcile, during those heady days when Barack Obama is swept into power.  Cecil, like First Lady Michelle Obama, for the first time in his life is proud of his country.   Although he is now a widower, Cecil now has his son back and The Butler ends with the newly elected first African-American President waiting in the Oval Office to receive him.  He may be very old, barely able to walk, but he brushes away the Usher, coolly informing him he knows EXACTLY where The President's office is.  

 
There have been comparisons between The Butler and Forrest Gump in that both leads were at the center of history, observing things around them that few of us were/are privy to.  There is a major difference between Gaines and Gump though, in that the latter at least DID things that affected history, while the latter did little to nothing despite being at the center of it all.  In part I can't blame The Butler for making it so, since the staff are discouraged from being politically active.  "The White House has no place for politics", the Chief Usher tells Gaines.  However, my problem with The Butler (and it's a biggie) is that it is really two films uncomfortably put together.  You have the domestic drama of the Gaines', a family living out the tumultuous times they are in: from Little Rock to Selma to Memphis to Black Power to Reaganomics to Obama-Wan Kenobi (Our Only Hope) with some infidelity, some neglect, and some father-son dynamic.  Then you have the Backstairs at the White House story, where our lead observes the most powerful men in the world grapple with civil rights (because in the years between 1957 and 1986, nothing of note really happened in the world apart from civil rights).  No, I can't blame screenwriter Danny Strong from making civil rights the focus of The Butler, but I can blame it for putting in so much history in it to where the various Administrations are almost blips, getting little hints of major events with no context.   

Take Nixon's fall from power.  The President, who had known the staff for years as Eisenhower's Vice President as well as in his term as Commander-in-Chief, is crumbling due to Watergate.  Since we've never seen this tortured, suspicious, almost paranoid figure do much, when he calls Cecil over to stay with him for a minute or two, neither man appears altogether human or real.  I imagine Cecil had a barely concealed contempt for Nixon, this disheveled man days from having to resign in disgrace.  Reagan's veto threat on imposing sanctions on South Africa are not given a reason: his overwhelming fear that South Africa would turn Red, or at least Pink.  His top priority were to stop and bring down Communism and its sympathizers, so his actions had a reason.  The Butler subtly suggests Reagan is a bigot, which is far from the truth.

I found that The Butler had an uneven nature where the contrasts between Cecil and Louis were almost parody: the father more willing to go along to get along, the son passionately fighting for rights.  In particular Louis existed just to hit the historic points the screenplay wanted noted (I just wondered how ANYONE who had been with Dr. King when he was killed could possibly LOSE a local election.  Haven't they heard of Representative John Lewis?)  The screenplay did not have actual people, but stock characters: the drunk wife, the silent father, the rebellious son, the son who exists only to get killed off.  Would it have really been terrible if Charlie had lived? 

In short, what The Butler had was characters, not real people.  Given that the film was based on the true-life story of White House maitre'd Eugene Allen, it seems bizarre, almost unfair, to be so blatant in its imagery (the film opens with a lynching and the American flag prominently displayed in the background, a non-too-subtle reminder that at heart, America is racist) and overt partisanship (in the final part of the film, I thought director Lee Daniels had slipped in an Obama commercial into the movie given how wildly passionate The Butler and the ex-butler were at his candidacy.  I don't know anyone who went to the polling place every day to see where they would cast their ballot for then-Senator Obama, but there it is).

The heavy-handedness of it all was most horrifying in the opening.  I wondered whether the film took place in 1926 or 1826, given how openly Westfall dragged a meek Hattie to the shack to rape her in front of all those picking cotton, or how easily Westfall could shoot a man down and not answer for it.  In terms of the murder that is not beyond believability, but the scene seemed to come more from Roots than from a more contemporary setting.   (This is why I refer to this as a 'plantation' rather than a sharecropping farm because it seems so over-the-top it is another moment where subtlety would have worked best).  

In fairness, sometimes the duality The Butler shows works.  A particularly effective scene is contrasting the sit-in with a state dinner in the Eisenhower years.  As the formal, lavish affair is going on, the violence visited on the brave men and women who are being brutalized at the whites-only counter is a great counterpoint.   The sequence where the Freedom Riders are attacked by a KKK mob is equally effective in its terror.  However, these moments are few and far between, as the film hammers its story without concern whether it makes sense (given that Louis appears so single-minded in achieving equality, when he has a romantic moment I was confused: hadn't they been dating ALREADY?) 

In terms of acting I can't find much at fault with the leads.  The Butler is really Whitaker's show, and he does a marvelous job as the silent Cecil, whose long journey has brought him from the cotton fields to the White House and the election of a black President within his lifetime.  Whitaker has a great calm in his Cecil, but one who is also troubled more by his family issues than with the major events he is witnessing.  I don't understand the praise OPRAH is getting for her Gloria; her character was a bit underwritten (the drunk wife constantly angry at her husband until he actually manages to be a guest at a White House dinner) but while it wasn't a bad performance I don't think it Oscar-worthy.  Oyelowo was all fire-and-brimstone as the angry agitator Louis, but his character strikes me as perpetually unhappy.  He is so serious that I don't think Louis ever had a light moment, a laugh or a smile.  Brings to mind a line from Morrissey's Sheila Take A Bow: "How can someone so young sing words so sad?"

Sadly, because The Butler never quite decided to be a behind-the-scenes film or a family drama, when Cecil's coworkers turn out to also be his friends, I was genuinely surprised they associated after hours. 

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan
Let's now rank the Presidents and First Ladies (always a fun activity, though truth be told only Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan appeared in The Butler, played by Minka Kelly and Jane Fonda respectively).

Dwight Eisenhower: 3/10

Robin Williams neither looks nor sounds like Ike.  His make-up makes him look like his predecessor, President Harry S. Truman.  In fact, either during or right after the Eisenhower Administration we get a quick shot of President Truman's official White House portrait, and I commented to my date (yes, I actually HAD a date, something more historic and/or shocking than anything in The Butler) that he looked too much like Truman and nothing like Eisenhower.   Williams appeared only twice in the film, and while I learned that Ike painted to relax (a bit like former President George W. Bush), he didn't seem one way or another in regards to civil rights.  It was almost as if he said, "Well, might as well send troops to enforce the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in Little Rock".  Given his lifelong military experience (which gave him first-hand knowledge of desegregation) and his belief in the enforcement of the law the detachment The Butler gives Eisenhower when it came to enforcing the Court's ruling seems curious at best.

John F. Kennedy: 5/10

James Marsden is officially 5'10", but I suspect he's much shorter (maybe 5'7" or 5'8"), but even if he is 5'10" he is still a tad short to play the 6' Kennedy.  To his credit Marsden took a good stab at Kennedy's distinctive Massachusetts accent, and played him like most people imagine him to have been: youthful, handsome and idealistic (though curiously, no mention of any dalliances).  However, there is no effort to show that Kennedy took very cautious steps in civil rights in order to not alienate Southern Democrats whose support he needed in Congress.  It also does not give any credit to his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was much more forceful in civil rights than the President was.  

Jacqueline Kennedy: 2/10

Kelly, like Williams, was barely a blip in the film, so she was again, nothing more than a pretty figure.  While Gloria was obsessed with knowing how many shoes Jackie had, we never saw anything of the First Lady as a person, apart from when a devastated widow returned to the White House in her pink outfit, having refused to change so that the world could see the horror of what had been done to her husband.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson: 7/10

Schreiber at least made a better effort to sound and look like the boorish Texan, raging and ranting with aplomb.  Johnson provided some comic relief in the overly-serious film when he's barking out orders from the toilet, and a clearly flustered Cecil has to hand the President a towel while the Commander-in-Chief is using the facilities.  However, we don't get that Johnson's commitment to civil rights was genuine (which I believe it was). 

Richard Nixon: 2/10

Cusack was wildly miscast.  He bears no resemblance to the 37th President whatsoever.  Worse, while The Butler takes pains to show him almost always in shadow or emerging from such, and Cusack does show how uncomfortable Nixon was with people, when we seen him crumble we feel nothing.

Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter: 4/10 and 1/10 respectively (not in terms of actors, since we skipped them, but in terms of actual Presidencies.  Neither was particularly good, but Carter really is one of the worst Presidents we've had).

Ronald Reagan: 8/10

Out of all the President, Rickman's Reagan fared best.  His make-up was better than the rest, and while the voice is still that of Severus Snape at least Rickman took a stab at sounding like Ronnie.  One could argue that Reagan was the most fair and kind to Gaines.  After having remained quiet all these years, Gaines informs the Chief Usher that again, the black staff is paid less than the white staff, and when again he's rebuffed Gaines casually mentions to him that he's mentioned the pay difference to the President, who told him to tell the Chief Usher he'd like a word with him.

I wondered why, after working for so many Presidents, Gaines didn't bring this up with any of them or use any influence with his boss.
 
There is one disingenuous note to Rickman's portrayal.   As Gaines informs the President that he is leaving, Reagan tells him that he wonders whether he's 'on the wrong side of history' with this civil rights thing.  Say what you will of Ronnie, but it is highly unlikely that someone like Reagan would second-guess himself , or do as such so openly.  

Nancy Reagan: 7/10

In her few scenes, Jane Fonda portrayed the First Lady as someone who did care, somewhat, about the staff, though she also is a bit imperious with them.  In fairness, Nancy Reagan appeared imperious with everyone, so there was nothing unfair about her in that respect (if that makes any sense).  She actually appears pleasant in that she is thrilled to hear Cecil got the staff equal pay, and she did something no other First Lady did: invite him and his wife to an official state dinner.   I don't know why conservatives are up in arms over Fonda.  Yes, she went to pay a visit to the Viet Cong who were killing her fellow Americans, and yes, it was an amazingly stupid thing to do, but she's apologized for it and publicly regretted it and I think it's time to move on about it.  In terms of her performance, I thought it was pretty good.

On the whole The Butler is very respectable and proper.  My difficulty with the film is that it throws in so much history (family and Presidential) at us we don't get much about any of the characters save for Cecil Gaines.  IF the film had focused on the Gaines family overall, or selected one or two Administrations rather than compress seven of them, or even focused on the workings at the Executive Mansion with the family issues in the background, The Butler would have been a stronger, better film.  Still, it is well-acted and filled with good intentions (if not execution). 

To Those About To Dine, We Salute You...

DECISION: C+