Monday, October 14, 2013

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

A Study in How Not to do 'Holmes' on the Big Screen

- Quite a bit of variety exists within the plethora of screen versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories since the early years of film. The 21st Century viewer in particular does not need to look too long to recognize this fact with three very different modern Sherlock Holmes screen franchises in progress. So, for this reason, it feels strange to slam one particular 30s Sherlock Holmes feature for what I consider severely lacking in anything resembling a Sherlock Holmes adventure. But slam it I will.

The 1933 film A Study in Scarlet looks on paper to be a worthwhile Sherlock Holmes film. The title derrives from the first Sherlock Holmes novel, cinematographer Arthur Edeson was a fixture in Hollywood (shooting such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and Casablanca (1942)) and major film and Broadway star Reginald Owen plays the legendary consulting detective. Unfortunately this 1933 Holmes adaptation offers little in the way of interest or entertainment value.

A Study in Scarlet  is practically a non-Holmes Sherlock Holmes film, featuring everything but anything associated with a good Holmes tale. No mystery can be found since the film almost immediately alerts the viewer to who the bad guy is (for the most part), very little visual style can be seen since director Edwin L. Martin (A Christmas Carol (1938)) and cinematographer Edeson employ mostly medium straight-on shots throughout the entire film and, as a result of both of these Sherlockian anomalies, little atmosphere can be felt at all.

The cast offers no solace from the weak atmosphere. Alan Dinehart and Ana May Wong both overact terribly and Warburton Gamble is easily one of the finalists for the most pointless screen Watson in history. As Sherlock Holmes, Reginald Owen is clearly the standout within the cast as one of the few actors with any sort of screen presence but does not create an interesting character. Outside of reaching for a violin once or twice through the film, Owen does not even let on to the fact that he is playing the iconic Sherlock Holmes with his flat and dry performance of a character that is often described as  an eccentric. The only thing that begins to designate Reginald Owen as a standout among the many actors to play Holmes is his double chin. Yes, that's right, Owen is easily the fattest actor ever to play Holmes; a flat, fat Holmes.

Plot-wise, the film uses little to no material from the notable Doyle story from which its title derives. However, to be fair, the film states upfront that the story is "suggested by the book by A. Conan Doyle" and not necessarily a purposeful adaptation (suggesting to me that the rights to the title was purchased but not the actual story). Holmes and Watson are introduced to one another in Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, offering a lot of substantial character exposition/development; however, the 1933 film sees Holmes and Watson as established sleuthing partners and does not take much time to dig into the characters, let alone focus on them at all. The novel also features a murder-mystery based around a love story, Native Americans and Mormonism while the 1933 film sees a much more conventional murder-mystery that borrows more from Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None than any other literary source. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the film is the choice to set Holmes and Watson's residence at 221A Baker Street instead of their well-known 221B address. Was this done on purpose or were the filmmakers really that clueless about the franchise they were so effortlessly attempting to profit from?

I recognize that I am slamming a Sherlock Holmes film for not being "Sherlockian" enough. Let me be clear: I enjoy the variety of Sherlock Holmes adaptations for both the big and small screens. But it is one thing to take the 100-year+-old characters in a completely different but interesting/clever direction, which many screen versions have done, and quite another to take Doyle's brilliant world and reduce it to banality. The 1933 A Study in Scarlet is an example of the latter.

I cannot recommend this film to anyone except fellow Holmes enthusiasts trying to take in all of the screen adaptations they can before the big sleep. Many more Sherlock Holmes screen stories exist as options for those looking for a worthwhile viewing experience and most of these at the very least offer something recognizably Sherlockian. Meanwhile, no mystery, no atmosphere, no style, no nods to Doyle and no focus on characters can be found in this movie. Perhaps the answer to why 1933's A Study in Scarlet has Holmes and Watson living at 221A Baker Street (instead of 221B) is simple, elementary even: clearly this is not the Holmes and Watson that Arthur Conan Doyle created.

CBC Rating:  4/10

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Not Bad but Not Super

- Moviegoers have a long list of comic book superhero films to cherish and look forward to in the coming years. Just about every bankable character from the most notable comic brands has either been made into a film series or is currently in development for one. After Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy caused a critical reevaluation of the comic book superhero genre; in the recent wake of the unparalleled ambition, variety and success of Marvel Comic's shared cinematic universe and continuing with Sony and Twentieth Century Fox's current rebooting and regenerating of the Spider-Man and X-Men characters (respectively), it was only a matter of time before DC Comics jumped into the mix. Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (the writing team behind the Dark Knight Trilogy) and directed by Zack Snyder (300 (2007), Watchmen (2009)), Man of Steel (2013) is meant to be the first of a series of films inside a connected DC cinematic universe. What better character could begin a DC film franchise than one of DC's oldest and longest-lasting heroes? Look out film buffs: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a Superman reboot!

I do not think the world was longing for another Superman origin film but DC and Zack Snyder give us one anyway - and the film does a good job translating the well-known story for a 21st Century audience. Superman is a unique superhero in that his alter-ego is a normal, seemingly unexciting front for hiding his real identity. Quite unlike other superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man, in which the main character adopts an alter-ego for fighting crime, Superman's alter-ego is the straight-laced everyman Clark Kent used to conceal his real identity as an alien being. Superman - named "Kal-El" by his birth parents - was sent to Earth because his home planet Krypton was falling apart. The Earth's sun fed Kal's body in a way that made him different from all humans: blessed and cursed with incredible strength, speed, flight, heat rays, x-ray vision and an extra-sensitive sensory perception. Believing the world was not ready for the realization that life existed outside of Earth, Kal keeps his identity a secret - to an extent. The reasons why Superman is "super" do not end with his extra-ordinary abilities but extend to his character and particular desire to help others at any cost. This of course tends to expose his super abilities.

However, these indestructible and incorruptible components of Superman make it difficult for the audience to truly relate and stay engaged with the character. Other screen heroes like James Bond, Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark are especially relatable and engaging superheroes due to the fact that they are not really super heroes but flawed people who are capable of great, heroic things. Superman is super because he can basically do anything he wants all of the time with little danger to himself - for a good cause. Man of Steel, however, manages to make the character of Superman far more interesting than ever by creating a story that shows Superman, Kal-El, as a misunderstood outcast on Earth. Kal had to learn how to adjust to life on Earth the hard way as "Clark Kent" from rural Kansas. When a group of fellow Kryptonians led by General Zod threaten Earth, Kal finds that the only way to save the world is to reveal himself to it. The film does an extraordinary job making Superman's abilities as convincing as it ever could within the parameters of a recognizably real world and the character's journey effectively embody the film's important themes.

The main themes of the film consist of self-determination and rising above the obstacles placed in one's way by others. Although the extent of the relatability of the Superman character is limited due to the limitless "super" part of this "hero," the film stresses the importance of rising above how society might define you and the limitations we put on ourselves. Man of Steel reminds us how sometimes the most valuable contributions to others are done by those considered outcasts by an establishment, something that has definite application to today. I can only guess that the effective nature of the film's themes originate from the Nolan/Goyer writing/production team because the film falters the most at the hands of director Zack Snyder.

Although clearly his best film to date, usual hang-ups associated with other Zack Snyder films are apparent in Man of Steel. The claustrophobic framing, poor color choices and manic camera movements cause one's eyes to strain in a futile attempt to follow the progress unfolding on screen. A certain synthetic quality also exists within the aesthetic content that often took me out of the film. Man of Steel is no Superman IV but, while some of the special effects create some visually spectacular scenes, much of the effects do look rather obvious and hokey. This happens a lot when Superman is in motion through the air and one scene in particular featuring a sea of skulls unexpectedly takes the film into strange Roger Corman B-movie territory. I find this rather odd considering the large number of other modern films that have been able to successfully incorporate special effects into real photography that, more often than not, completely suspends the audience's disbelief.

Zack Snyder however does incorporate something new into his visual style for Man of Steel. Unfortunately, it is not exactly original but just a re-branding of JJ Abrams' Star Trek (2009) rebooted-throw-back lens flare technique. Snyder seems to struggle with originality in general, as we have seen many of the scenes in Man of Steel before in other films. Many moments summon memories of Independence Day (1997) as well as the recent films of the Marvel Studios films (such as Jor-El putting armor on Iron Man-style and Zod agents ripping apart jets Hulk-style). Other problems with Man of Steel arise from simple blockbuster genre traps: an under-developed love story between Superman and Lois Lane, bloated action set pieces, lackluster dialogue, a lack of tension due to the fact that the audience knows nothing bad will happen with Superman on watch, a seemingly never-ending final series of fight sequences, etc. I am particularly waiting for the day when filmmakers will realize that a character screaming out one word or sound has rarely worked successfully on film except when it is done for comedic effect.

Luckily, Snyder could only go so far in ruining the film because, in addition to how certain plot points and themes are handled within the film, the cast is also simply great. Henry Cavill is a terrific Superman who brings much needed subtlety to the role of a practically indestructible alien do-gooder, Amy Adams is about as flawless as one could expect as Lois Lane, Kevin Costner gave a heartfelt effort as Pa Kent, Michael Shannon is an imposing force (even if he does begin to fray as the film goes on) as the evil General Zod and Russell Crowe steals every scene with what I thought was the best, most thoughtful and graceful performance of the film as Superman's father Jor-El. Also making a huge impact in the film is Hans Zimmer's powerful yet not overbearing score, which tends to provide the source of the film's atmosphere and momentum. Along with Goyer and Nolan, Zimmer proves to be an additional indispensable Dark Knight contributor within this expanding DC film universe.

Although Man of Steel has its noticeable flaws, it is enjoyable for the most part as a good but not great or ground-breaking superhero genre film. The failure to make an impact as the first of a series of films inside a shared DC film universe, as Iron Man (2008) did for Marvel's cinematic universe, does raise a few questions. How can this DC film universe unfold with the largely by-the-numbers superhero movie Man of Steel as a foundation? How can DC make things interesting later if their creative team failed in chapter one? All I know is that Zack Snyder should not be asked to contribute anymore if DC hopes to produce something even remotely similar to the quality, scope and success of Marvel's The Avengers cinematic universe.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Friday, May 31, 2013

Across the Pacific (1942)

Our Man Bogart

- Humphrey Bogart starred in six John Huston-directed films (and a couple of others that Huston wrote but did not direct) during his career and if he had not passed away before his time the two would have surely produced more. Many of these Huston and Bogart collaborated films, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), have been brilliant classics but the two did not strike gold every time. The wartime spy thriller Across the Pacific (1942) is easily the worst of these collaborations.

Huston reunited much of the cast of The Maltese Falcon for Across the Pacific. Bogart stars as Rick Leland, a military intelligence agent undercover as a disgraced and disgruntled ex-Coast Guard captain looking for any army that will hire him. Leland goes into the field aboard the Panama-bound Japanese freighter Genoa Maru in November of 1941. His target is Dr. Lorenz (Sydney Greenstreet), a Filipino citizen of British origin and Japanese loyalties, but he also meets and falls for Alberta Marlow (Mary Astor) whose purpose on board is mysterious.

Across the Pacific was one of the many World War II propaganda films created by or in complete cooperation with the Roosevelt Administration, Leland's individual prevention of a Japanese assault signifying the power of one during the war effort. The story never goes across the pacific; the title derives from an eerily prophetic original storyline of Rick Leland stopping a Japanese plot to attack Pearl Harbor. Of course, Japan did attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 so the story had to be changed to Leland trying to thwart a Japanese attack on the Panama Canal. Considering the circumstances, the plot change makes complete sense but one would assume that a title change would have been wise as well.

The propaganda element can be seen throughout the film but the way that the film tries to show that Japan wanted to start a war with the United States for seemingly no reason is especially overbearing. Of course, it is well known now that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not a foundationless attack but the result of the economic warfare perpetuated against Japan by the Roosevelt Administration. Propaganda films rarely stand the test of time and the shallow, incorrect and sometimes racist portrayal of an unprovoked Japanese attack on the US in Across the Pacific does no justice to the facts.

Unfortunately, Across the Pacific has worse problems than just its feeble propaganda mission. Huston very uncharacteristically weaves a generally lifeless and uneven story. Spy films that feature a slow-burning pace often work very well but the plot and pacing never seems to go anywhere hereThe fluffy comedic banter and abrupt romance between Bogart and Astor also feels absolutely out of place in this spy film even before it is revealed that Leland is a spy. 

Across the Pacific is not a complete waste of time however. A few scenes of note (including an especially thrilling few minutes in a movie theatre) pass by from time to time and the excellent cast of Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet are enough to make the film watchable. So while Across the Pacific lacks intrigue and thoughtfulness, it does work on a semi-entertaining level as a Humphrey Bogart vehicle. This however does not prevent Across the Pacific from ending up as the worst of the six of the Humphrey Bogart-starred John Huston-directed films.

CBC Rating: 6/10