Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Carol (1984)

So Far, The Truest Film Adaptation
Of Dickens' Classic Christmas Tale

- If there is one book that is not short on screen adaptations, it is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Opinions will differ far and wide as to which film version of Dickens' tale is the best but there is little doubt in my mind that, as far as to-the-"T"-adaptations go, no other feature film version of Dickens' tale is as true to the original story than the 1984 TV movie A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott.

I would not say that film begins and ends with starring actor George C. Scott; but Scott is a crucial part of the success of the film. Scott is an excellent Ebenezer Scrooge. With a terrific mix of the sarcasm, malice and curmudgeonness that we have all come to expect in a silver screen Scrooge, Scott brings Scrooge to life with other key components not always seen with other screen Scrooges: pain and confliction. Sometimes Scrooge's outlook on life and his fellow man is not explored in the slightest on film. Too many screen adaptations ignore why Scrooge behaves the way he does and do not show a development from "humbug" to Scrooge's redemption; the audience is simply expected to go along with it all. However, this 1984 TV adaptation clearly shows why Ebenezer Scrooge lives his life the way that he does and how his redemption progresses. As portrayed by George C. Scott, every "humbug" is birthed out of the anger and pain that Scrooge has carried around for years as a result of inescapable circumstances and personal choices he has made in the past. However, once Scrooge is presented with his life's story again first hand, he becomes conflicted, with the good man and humbug battling it out inside of him. This development of the Scrooge character through Scott's performance and good writing is unparalleled by other screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol, separating Scott's Scrooge from the rest as more than just a flat bah-humbug.

The icing on the cake comes in the form of a good film for Scott to perform within. A solid supporting cast - with such reliable and familiar faces as David Warner and Roger Rees; easily my pick for the best screen incarnations of Bob Cratchit and Fred Hollywell, respectively - add acting color around Scott's vibrant performance. The film itself is expertly packaged by director Clive Donner ( director of What's New Pussycat (1965) and the editor of another A Christmas Carol adaptation: Scrooge (1951)). Packed with generally engaging scenes, many of which have yet to be bested when compared to the many other Christmas Carol films, and featuring a crisp picture, this 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol is impressive as an overall film outside of the context of Scott's brilliant, scene-making performance.

I have seen a lot of screen versions of A Christmas Carol and none of them have made a stronger impact on me through the Scrooge character and adherence to Dickens than this 1984 television movie. But 1984's A Christmas Carol is not only the best screen production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it is one of the best TV movies ever made - all the same, it makes for an excellent yearly viewing at Christmastime.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

"'Tis The Season To Be Jolly And Joyous"
....Even for puppets!

- Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" comes to cinematic life in a unique way through the Muppets and Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)! Obviously, while the overall story is the same, The Muppet Christmas Carol is not a completely faithful retelling of Dickens' original story because of the whole Muppet factor. The story is tweaked to fit a Muppet cast and some story points have been watered down or taken out to appeal more to kids (one can imagine how "Ignorance" and "Want" might terrify a child). However, while the story is not note-for-note Dickens and most of the characters are Muppets, the atmosphere, character and themes of Dickens' masterpiece have rarely been portrayed on screen to better effect. Perhaps not the most *faithful* adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol point-for-point, this film is easily one of the most enjoyable versions.

What a production! We do not even blink twice as we enter a world where human and Muppet live side-by-side in the dirty but charming streets of Victorian England: the set designing is fantastic, the special effects are very cool, the songs are fun (Paul Williams and Miles Goodman write and arrange some great numbers), the humor is wonderful and, of course, the Muppets are festive! All of the major Muppets play our favorite Christmas Carol supporting characters: Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Piggy as Emily Cratchit, Statler and Woldorf as the Marley brothers, Fozzie as Fozziwig (Fezziwig) and a whole host of Muppet cameos (I especially like Honeydew and Beaker's roles) appear throughout the film. Accompanied by Rizzo the rat, the Great Gonzo is Charles Dickens and takes us through this Christmas Carol classic.

Also cranking up the entertainment and quality levels in The Muppet Christmas Carol is Michael Caine's portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge. Caine is starring in a Muppet production but he is hardly just hamming things up. A definite front-running contender for the best screen Ebenezer Scrooge, Michael Caine incorporates plenty of effort and invests a lot of emotion in the role, creating a well-rounded character and even manages to stay subtle in the final scenes of the film (a section of the story that has killed many a Scrooge performance).

Film fans are faced with a lot of choices when looking for a fun and festive film to watch on Christmas. However, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a unique delight; a wonderful adaptation of Dickens' classic tale and an all-around fun Christmas movie.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Scrooge (1951)

Hark! The Herald Film Snobs Sing!

- Considered by many to be the be-all-end-all of the many film adaptations of Charles Dickens' brilliant and timeless novel "A Christmas Carol," 1951's Scrooge (AKA: A Christmas Carol; depending on your geographical location) did not live up to its reputation for me.

Scrooge has many good elements that, in the end, do make it a worthwhile film. The element that undoubtedly (at least in my mind) stands head-and-shoulders above every other element apart of the film is the photography. The black-and-white photography by cinematographer C.M. Pennington-Richards services the film extremely well, ending up being one of the few things that actually grants the film atmosphere and character.

Pennington-Richards' cinematography is the only unblemished plus for Scrooge, the film's other good elements have a tailing asterisk. The film's atmosphere is created by the great cinematography, creepy music, and some then-groundbreaking special effects, but the direction could have been much stronger. Scrooge feels unfinished, not feeling like a tightly crafted cohesive whole and more like a patchwork of chapters that are stitched together ever-so-weakly by a reoccurring time travel sequence. The script has some good elements, including dialogue lifted directly from the pages that Dickens penned, but is marred by the rather large liberties taken with the story throughout the film.

Alastair Sim makes a fairly good Scrooge because he simply looks like a humbug but he is also quite disappointing for three specific reasons. The first thing that makes Sim's Scrooge disappointing is a result of the script: Scrooge is not in the process of learning anything during his Christmas Eve journey with the Spirits. He says a thing or two here or there but he eventually turns around and grumbles all the same until he reads "Ebenezer Scrooge" on the front of the tombstone. The all-important evolution of Scrooge's character, which can be seen in later versions of "A Christmas Carol," is simply not here in this 1951 adaptation. Another  disappointing feature of Sim's Scrooge is that he is too theatrical. Sim was primarily a man of the British stage rather than the silver screen and his very over-the-top-expressive manner of acting does not lend itself well to the hurt, sulking, grumble-pot that is Ebenezer Scrooge.

The third and final thing that makes Sim a disappointing Scrooge is how Sim performs the film's final scenes: after Scrooge is visited by the Spirits he finds himself reformed, I get it, but the way that Sim's Scrooge carries on and on and on like a crack head on Red Bull causes one to laugh bitterly in embarrassment. George C. Scott got as giddy as a school boy at the end of his 1984 Christmas Carol film but he did not make a complete fool out of himself or the character - for crying out loud, Michael Caine underplayed the role and he was surrounded by freaking Muppets!

Still, this 1951 adaptation seems to be thought of as the definitive film adaptation to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol despite the licenses taken with the story, the lackluster direction and an over-the-top Scrooge. Why is *this* considered to be the alpha and omega of screen A Christmas Carol adaptations? Because it is old? Because it was film in black-and-white? I cannot help it, I feel that 1951's Scrooge has enough good-to-great aspects to be enjoyable but the film snobs are wrong: there are better film versions of Dickens' classic tale.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bad Santa (2003)

Not Just A Stupid Holiday Comedy

- Whether considering his horrible childhood or his current life as a sleazebag criminal, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is used to living a tough and unsatisfying life. The only aspect of his life that is satisfying is the yearly December 25th payoff. Every Christmas time, along with his compact-sized partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox), Willie dresses up as Santa at different malls to better get inside and rob the place of its seasonal earnings.

After years of success, this year becomes problematic. The problem is Willie has continually slipped deeper and deeper into his life-long depression year after year, until he is finally in the state he is in: a vulgar womanizing drunk loser. Naturally, being this way affects his work and leads to all sorts of trouble. As the Christmas season arrives right on time, our criminal duo faces an uptight manager (John Ritter) and an adept but crooked head of security (Bernie Mac) at the targeted mall; but Willie also meets a beautiful barmaid Sue (Lauren Graham) and a down-trodden kid (Brett Kelly) who affects him in a profound way. Bad Santa (2003) is known for its stupid comedy nature but it is more than that - it is an enjoyable, worthwhile film too.

Bad Santa has a good deal of clever scenes and lines, but is also a very crude film with a good portion of tasteless humor and over-the-top obscenities. However, while this Santa film is much more naughty than nice, the film is surprisingly character-oriented and strong in theme as we see Sue and the Kid's impact on Willie's life, which is certainly falling apart because of his alcoholism and an attack of conscience. Bad Santa is much more than a stupid comedy but it still manages to generate a lot of laughs, a lot of which can be credited directly to Billy Bob Thornton's performance. Thornton's performance of Willie really is the whole show. He makes this nasty perverted drunk a likable character, being very funny through both line deliveries and physical mannerisms but also bringing out Willie's troubles wonderfully.

So reviewing our list (and checking it twice)....

Is Bad Santa crude? Yep.
Is it vulgar? Uh huh.
Is it funny? You bet - plus a little bit extra in character, theme and performance.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Nativity Story (2006)

Historical And Biblical But Lacks Feeling

- The greatest story ever told is not told very well here in 2006's The Nativity Story. For a story about "the nativity," few minutes are actually spent *at the nativity*!

The story that the film tries to tell is the story of Mary and Joseph leading up to the birth of Jesus. Of course, nobody knows what Mary and Joseph's life was outside of what the Bible says so the filmmakers are forced to make stuff up. Luckily, what they make up could have very well have taken place as the film is Biblically sound and historically accurate with what life was like in Roman-controlled Israel. Actors Keisha Castle-Hughes (Oscar-nominated for The Whale Rider (2002)) and Oscar Issac play Mary and Joseph, respectively, and do an admirable job. And here is an interesting bit of trivia for you: the 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes actually got pregnant by her boyfriend during the filming - which, while absolutely hilarious and very ironic, is not particularly Christ-like.

Unfortunately, while the film does not stray far from what the Bible and history allows (and there is some nice photography featured in the film as well), The Nativity Story is a fairly lifeless film. The film progresses scene to scene with little energy or emotion, defined by the occasional pretty shot but also stiff acting across the board and a story with an end that we have all read or seen a thousand times. Some aspects do ultimately redeem the film (no pun intended) and make it a watchable Christmas story but I think that it would take the actual Holy Spirit to bring this film back to life and make it a great Christmas movie.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Vacation (1989)

"I don't know what to say, except it's
Christmas and we're all in misery."

- Clark "Sparky" Griswold (Chevy Chase) has some big plans for Christmas: take both in-law branches of the family tree into the Griswold home and have the best "old fashioned family Christmas" a white suburbanite could possibly imagine. In typical Griswold form, the planned event goes from bad to worse; however, this Griswold "Vacation" film is not so typical because it is actually really funny.

The majority of the National Lampoon's "Vacation" films have struck me as being hit-or-miss, mediocre-to-bad movies. However, in rare, Christmas miracle fashion, National Lampoon's created a real winner for the last Christmas  season of the 1980s. Christmas Vacation (1989) is the black sheep of the Griswold "Vacation" family, existing as a humorous holiday classic. Yes, there is a lot of very stupid humor in this film - the toilet humor, the slapstick, the wise-guy-cracks - I will give you that. BUT: you cannot help but laugh at it all! It does not matter how many times I have seen Clark fall off the roof trying to cover his entire house with Christmas lights, his nervous Freudian-slip filled flirtation with the department store bunny, his battle of lack-of-wits with Cousin Eddie, or his major freak out on Christmas Day - I laugh just as hard as I did the first time I saw it.

On top of Christmas Vacation being a very funny film, it has a very merry Christmassy feeling that you just cannot help but get into. It is this Christmas feel-goodness and cheer added to the laughs that keeps you coming back for more each year. It is just not Christmas without Christmas Vacation!

CBC Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

No More Henson, No More Oz....
The Muppets Get A New Voice With Jason Segel

- Jim Henson's The Muppets have sung, joked and charmed their way into the hearts and minds of people everywhere for nearly half a century. After first airing on September 5th, 1976 (although Kermit was on TV since 1955 in one form or another), The Muppets enjoyed a successful two-decade theatrical run with such classics as The Muppet Movie (1979) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) that ended in 1999 with the largely disappointing Muppets From Space. The Muppets have not made a big screen appearance since the dawn of the new century but all that would change with The Muppets in 2011. Directed by James Bobin ("Da Ali G Show") and written & co-starring Jason Segel ("How I Met Your Mother"), The Muppets exploded onto the film scene during the 2011 Thanksgiving season to critical acclaim and audience satisfaction.

Like many of you, I grew up on the Muppets. I was too young to ever watch the TV show (it went off the air before I was born) but I have fond memories of The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992, a Christmas staple in my family) and the underrated Muppet Treasure Island (1996). And being the fan of the Muppets that I am, I find myself unable to criticize The Muppets too harshly since it includes many enjoyable elements; and yet, I cannot agree with its chorus of fans that it is a great movie. While I do find it entertaining in many ways, The Muppets just does not measure up to the rest of the franchise.

The Muppets attempts to reboot the Muppets franchise while not really rebooting it at the same time. Unlike Batman Begins (2005) or Casino Royale (2006), which ignore past films and start from scratch by re-introducing Batman/Bond from his beginning, The Muppets follows the lead from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2009) by giving its characters a rebirth while keeping everything that preceded it within the context of its story. The film opens by introducing some new characters: Walter and Gary (Jason Segel). Walter and Gary are brothers and have always been close but Walter always noticed the big differences between them. While Gary continued to grow, Walter's height plateaued early. While Gary looks like a human, Walter looks like a Muppet. A psychiatrist is not required to point out that Walter has felt like an outsider for most of his life. This story, on paper, is sad in a compelling sort of way but Walter is unfortunately not nearly as endearing as the film thinks he is. Actually, he is kind of a creepy fellow. Maybe it is just the puppet design or the frequent screaming.... I don't know.

Growing up in the late-1970s and early-1980s in Smalltown, U.S.A., Walter found solace, entertainment, acceptance and brotherly bonding watching "The Muppet Show." It was hilarious, bold and spoke directly to Walter in a way that nothing ever had. Walter's fanfare never faltered but, after years on TV and decades of popular films, the Muppets faded into obscurity. In the present day, the famed Muppets Theatre became vacant, gathering dust and decaying in the maze of Hollywood; existing only for die-hard Muppets fans and desperate tourists. Of course Walter has always wanted to visit the Muppets Theatre and gets his chance when Gary invites Walter to go along on his and longtime girlfriend Mary's (Amy Adams) anniversary getaway to Hollywood. If you thought Walter was not a compelling character, Jason Segel's Gary and Amy Adams' Mary are even more uninteresting. Both act out a side story involving some bumps in their otherwise picture-perfect relationship but really seem to exist for the sole purpose of alerting everyone within earshot that The Muppets is a put-on.

After a long and awkward song-and-dance sequence involving most of the smiley residents of Smalltown, U.S.A (boy do Muppets go a long way in vindicating song-and-dance numbers!), Walter, Gary and Mary head off to the city of Angels and the old Muppet Theatre. Upon arrival at the Muppet theatre, Walter cannot restrict himself to the tour guide's droning and takes off past the caution tape and into the theatre. A flood of feelings comes over him. He was meant to be in this place. But before Walter can get too comfortable in his Muppet Mecca, Statler and Woldorf burst in with oil tycoon "Tex" Richman (Chris Cooper). Tex wants to buy the Muppets Theatre so he can demolish it and drill for the oil underneath; and he will succeed unless The Muppets come up with ten million dollars before a certain period of time. This Tex Richman character seems like Hollywood's ignorant idea of how everyone to the Right of Hillary Clinton behaves: a sort of snarling, greedy, rapping, Red Bull-chugging, maniacally laughing jerk. Tex is so shallow a character that Tweety Bird would only get his feet wet wading through him. Making things worse is a miscast Chris Cooper, who cannot overact enough to convincingly personify the over-the-top caricature of "Tex."

This is Walter's worst nightmare. Destroying the Muppet Theatre? Say it ain't so! The only solution is finding Kermit the Frog, and if you drive around Bel Air long enough you will find him, to put the old gang back together one last time and raise the cash to save the theatre. As if raising ten million dollars is not hard enough, getting the old Muppet gang back together seems impossible with:

- Fozzie working the clubs, capitalizing on the old Muppets brand.
- Gonzo living as a pluming magnate.
- Animal committed to anger management (with Jack Black as his sponsor).
- Kermit's estranged Miss Piggy a major player at Vogue Paris (the plus-sized section, naturally).

Can the Muppets get the gang back together? Can they even put on a good enough show after such a long time apart to raise ten million dollars??

One cannot doubt that The Muppets has been received with open arms. The Muppets is currently enjoying an unbelievable 97% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes which sums up the collective critical opinion of the film as "clever, charming, and heartfelt, The Muppets is a welcome big screen return for Jim Henson's lovable creations that will both win new fans and delight longtime devotees." Unfortunately, I cannot agree with the critical consensus.

The Muppets is just not that clever or delightful a film - certainly not clever or delightful enough to garner so much praise. The Muppets is generally enjoyable and frequently amusing; Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (Fun With Dick And Jane (2005), Gulliver's Travels (2010)) include a lot of fun gags in the script and many celebrities make hilarious cameos, making the film funny enough to keep the audience laughing at a consistent level. Funny to be sure, The Muppets also includes some very nice themes about accepting who you are and believing in yourself. These themes are not quite as strong throughout the whole film but they are quite affecting when they finally show up. The Walter character spearheads these themes and, although I find the character largely off-putting, makes the film mean a little bit more than just the laughs. The most unique aspect of the film is how it brings back elements from the original television show. No other Muppet film has tried to repeat or recapture the spirit of the television show and The Muppets is a unique and enjoyable piece of the Muppets franchise for doing so.

However, I left the cinema feeling that The Muppets was lacking something. The new characters Walter, Gary, Mary and Tex Richman are completely uninteresting; each having their own story lines that trip all over each other from time to time. But there is more than just this unwanted band of newcomers. The magic of the Muppets that exist in the older movies is nonexistent in this 2011 reboot. The entire film seems like forced fan fiction, an unnatural-feeling attempt to bring the Muppets back to the movies; some of which is enjoyable but much of which is also awkward and flat. Jason Segel is a self-proclaimed Muppets fan and tried very hard to bring the Muppets back to life in what ended up being a very clumsy, self-aware movie with some funny bits and our favorite Muppets thrown in (except for Rizo the Rat for some reason). As a result, The Muppets contains enough of the Jim Henson checklist to be recognizably a "Muppet Movie" but does not feel quite like part of the same family of TV and film.

The Muppets did put me in a Muppet mood of sorts - as in, the Muppets were on my mind more than they usually are. This seems to be one of the reasons that The Muppets has been praised so highly. The film did get me thinking about and returning to the old films; it seems as if the singular act of bringing the Muppets back into people's consciousness warrants a medal or something. But isn't that why we have Turner Classic Movies? Why is a new film needed to make new fans of a certain franchise? Clint Eastwood did not need to make a 21st Century Dirty Harry flick for me to find the 1971 original by myself.

Anyways, after I saw The Muppets, I did two things. The first thing I did after seeing the film was look it up on IMDb, searching for Brian Henson and Frank Oz's involvement in the film. To my surprise, their names were nowhere to be found. Further reading on the film revealed that Oz was actually originally working on a Muppets script but lost out in the end to Segel and Stoller. He turned down any involvement with their film because, as he said, "I wasn't happy with the script. I don't think they respected the characters." Being a class-act, Oz left it at that because he did not want to affect the success of the film. But I think Oz is right. Although Jim Henson's daughter Lisa sees the film as a "love letter to the Muppets," when Kermit is a neglectful big shot, Fozzie is an opportunist and Piggy is selfish and vindictive, one begins to question Segel and Stoller's respect for the characters. Add a clucking chicken performance of Cee Lo Green's classy tune, "F!ck You," ("Cluck You!" See what Segel was going for there?) and your head really starts spinning.

The second thing I did after seeing The Muppets was, this being the Holiday Season and all, revisit my personal favorite Muppet movie: The Muppet Christmas Carol. Wow. What a difference. Watching The Muppet Christmas Carol back-to-back with 2011's The Muppets in a two-day span really reinforced some of my feelings.

Look, it ain't easy being mean to a Muppet movie, so I have to reiterate that I thought The Muppets has many amusing, enjoyable aspects. However, I do not think it measures up to what the rest of the Muppet franchise has offered. The magic, the wit, the caliber of music and strength in character of the Henson and Oz era of the Muppets is officially over and we have given it over to the guys who wrote Get Him To The Greek (2010).  So yes, The Muppets are back, and not in horrible fashion mind you, but I am already pinning for the days of old. 

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Sleeping Cardinal (1931)

The Holmes Who Wasn't There

- Cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the screen's most portrayed character in history, Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic character Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed over 200 times on screen by more than 70 actors. For most audiences, the definitive Sherlock Holmes seems to be Basil Rathbone who played the iconic character on the big screen 14 times from 1939 to 1946. The lanky, witty, deerstalker cap-wearing, calabash pipe-smoking Holmes of the Rathbone mold tends to be the general image that embodies Holmes in the minds of audiences everywhere to the point that few remember that Holmes was portrayed by many different actors decades long before Rathbone. Although Rathbone seems to be the most iconic screen incarnation of Holmes (for now), the most prolific Sherlock Holmes is in fact Eille Norwood who starred in 47 Holmes silent film productions between 1920 and 1923.

However, another prolific Holmes also existed before Rathbone - Arthur Wontner, starring in five Holmes films from 1931-1937. The Sleeping Cardinal (1931; AKA: Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour - the American title that makes no sense at all) was Arthur Wontner's first Sherlock Holmes film - and one that is still very accessible. Unlike other Sherlock Holmes adaptations that set Holmes in his original late 19th Century setting, Wontner's Holmes stories were set in their present era (in this case, the 1930s) and are only lightly based on Conan Doyle's stories. While The Sleeping Cardinal could have been a stronger film, is a fairly enjoyable first vehicle for Wontner's Holmes, seeing Holmes on a case involving a rigged game of cards, bank robberies, murder and an introduction to Moriarty.

Arthur Wontner's entry into The Sleeping Cardinal is very low-key, even uneventful, almost a quarter of the way through the film. Wontner's Holmes films tend to place emphasis on the plot over the characters but The Sleeping Cardinal especially treats Holmes as almost a secondary character - basically a Holmes who wasn't there - giving just as much, if not more, screentime to its other characters. The other Sherlock Holmes film of 1931, The Speckled Band starring Raymond Massey, does this as well - however that film is so short (clocking in under an hour) that less screentime for Holmes is not as noticeable.

Arthur Wontner does not portray Sherlock Holmes in a way that can be considered a strict adherence to the character's literary roots. The violin playing, the calabash pipe, the deer stalk cap and the powers of observation are there but the eccentricity, depth and relationship with Watson (Wontner's Watsons - Ian Fleming and Ian Hunter - were largely poor, bumbling sidekicks) of Doyle's Holmes are hard to find throughout Wontner's five pictures. However, Wontner's greatest strength is his strong screen presence. Quite convincing as the benevolent detective, Wontner portrays a brilliant but tough Holmes, unafraid to dash into a room without sending Watson in first as his canary in a coalmine. So while Wontner is not the picture-perfect interpretation of Doyle's Holmes or one of the screen's greatest Holmes incarnations, I find him to be an enjoyable one nonetheless.

The film itself is only slightly more "there" than Wontner's Holmes is in the story of "The Sleeping Cardinal". Director Leslie S. Hiscott was not new to the talkies and, while he (with cinematographers Sydney Blythe and William Luff) create a nice visual picture (what I consider the finest photography of Wontner's films), the story suffers a bit. The Sleeping Cardinal starts out well but its slow-burning mystery unfortunately hardly warms up at all. Not helping matters much is the seemingly ill transvestite zombie Professor Moriarty (played by a nonexistent Norman McKinnell) who is unsuccessfully passed off as London's criminal mastermind and Holmes' intellectual equal.

One almost has to be a Holmes fanatic to like it (so what if I am?) but, despite the obvious flaws, The Sleeping Cardinal struck me as a fairly enjoyable 1930s Sherlock Holmes adventure thanks to Wontner's Holmes and the Hiscott-lead visual team. Wontner would continue on from 1931's The Sleeping Cardinal to four more Holmes adventures - some better, some worse: Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Rembrandt (1932 - officially a lost film), The Sign of Four (1932), The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) and Silver Blaze (1937).

CBC Rating: 6/10

The Speckled Band (1931)

Enjoyable Early Holmes

- Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were ripe for the B-movie picking in the early days of cinema. Not only are they well-conceived and captivating mysteries but most are short and easy to follow (making for good second-features, as many cinemas of the day played double features). The Speckled Band (1931) was one of the first Sherlock Holmes talkies and one of two Sherlock Holmes films released in 1931 - and is, I might add, quite easily accessible.

The Speckled Band does feature a couple of odd diverges away from Holmes cannon - most notably giving Holmes a bustling staff of leggy secretaries - but it is a pretty close adaptation of Conan Doyle's short story of the same name in general....

Helen Stoner is engaged to be married - and she is scared to death. Oh, her fiancé is a fine bloke - Helen's step father, Dr. Rylott (Lyn Harding), is who has Helen terrified. Helen's sister Julia died years ago under mysterious circumstances: the night that Julia became engaged to be married, she screamed out and died in Helen's arms - Julia's only words, "band.... speckled," giving no comfort, clue or closure to the specifics of her death. Now as Helen has been pledged to be married, she seeks the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to help her in what she believes to be an attempt on her life.

This Sherlock Holmes adaptation was released the same year that prolific Holmes actor Arthur Wontner began his five-film run as Sherlock Holmes with 1931's The Sleeping CardinalCast as Holmes in this adaptation was Raymond Massey (best known for portraying Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Leonard Gillespie from TV's "Dr. Kildare"), marking not only the one-and-only time he would play Sherlock Holmes but his first feature film role of his very long career (even in the title role, Massey gets second billing). Massey is a pretty good Sherlock Holmes: a confident,  capable, convincingly brilliant, eccentric and - above all - a loner. However, Massey brings a sort of odd crooner disposition to the role.... Which does not really fit Sherlock Holmes. Also, one of the most noticeable flaws in Massey's interpretation is the fact that he is not British - he is Canadian. Now, I have no problem with non-Brits playing Holmes (in fact, my favorite Sherlock Holmes is Robert Downey Jr.) - the problem is that Massey does not even attempt a British accent! The lack of a British accent really makes Massey feel very un-Holmes like - but he is still not a terrible Holmes due to the other qualities he brings to the screen.

The rest of the cast makes Massey look great by comparison: Athole Stewart is a non-entity as Dr. Watson, Angela Baddeley (also in her feature film debut) gives an over-theatrical performance as Helen and Lyn Harding (who would go on to play Professor Moriarty in later Arthur Wontner Holmes films) makes a comically generic villain as Dr. Rylott.

While the acting is not particularly excellent, one of the things that I really enjoyed about The Speckled Band is the look of the film. One of the best cinematographers in film history, Freddie Young (Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), Ryan's Daughter (1970)) shoots the film to great effect very early in his long, illustrious career in film. Although the print is damaged in some areas (with a few, short incomplete sequences), Young's cinematography is the highlight of the film. Certainly in conjunction with director Jack Raymond, Young paints a gloomy but striking picture for this Holmes adventure. Taking a page out of some of the horror films of the time (comparable to Karl Freund's work on Dracula (1931)), The Speckled Band  is heavy on high-contrast shadowing and German expressionism that sets a pretty cool mood.

Taking the memorable aspects with the less-than-admirable ones, The Speckled Band ends up a flawed but generally enjoyable classic Sherlock Holmes piece. You are probably only going to love it if you are a Conan Doyle fanatic - but I found this early Holmes film pretty entertaining.

CBC Rating: 6/10

The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932)

Third Time's the Charm for Wontner

- As the saying goes: "the third time is the charm." In the context of Arthur Wontner and his third Sherlock Holmes film, The Sign of Four (1932), the saying is correct - for the most part. The Sign of Four is my pick for the best Arthur Wontner Sherlock Holmes film; however, like most of the Wontner Holmes films, it is noticeably flawed as it sits above the mediocre line.

In The Sign of Four, young Mary Morstan (Isla Bevan) enlists the help of Holmes and Watson to protect her from an escaped killer with a tie to her father's past. While it is a watered-down adaptation, the fact that The Sign of Four is the closest of the Wontner Holmes films to its inspired Arthur Conan Doyle source material (though it is not much of a contest) and is the best Wontner Holmes film is no coincidence. Out of all of Wontner's Holmes pictures, The Sign of Four has the thickest atmosphere, sharpest wit and toughest attitude.

Director Graham Cutts had a twenty-year history in the film industry (ten of those years making silent pictures) before directing The Sign of Four but he was not suited for the talkies and his career would not last past 1940. His work on this film shows. The story is set up quite well but becomes more muddy and disjointed as the film progresses. However, the messy story structure is the least of the film's problems; the worst aspect of the film is the dead-on-arrival romance between Watson (Ian Hunter) and Mary Morstan (Isla Bevan). While an important aspect in the novel, it fails to leave an impact on this film due to Ian Hunter's embarrassing gushing act and the lack of chemistry between the two. Cutts mishandles this aspect of the story but - along with some help from later Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert De Grasse (Vivacious Lady (1939)) - does employ some nice visuals and creates a thrilling action-packed climax (suddenly the action-heavy Robert Downey Jr. Holmes films do not seem so anti-Holmes). Cutts's commanding visuals alone create a dark and edgy atmosphere but he also paces the short film well, creating an overall enjoyable Holmes screen story.

Wontner does not enter the picture for the first twenty minutes (the filmmakers still had not learned their lesson from the past Holmes films) but The Sign of Four is Wontner's third go as Holmes; a dramatic introduction is not as important or necessary. Wontner also gives what I consider to be his best performance as Sherlock Holmes here in The Sign of Four. The third time is definitely the charm for Wontner, who is able to embody much of what defines Holmes in this film: the sarcasm, the risk-taking, the contempt for the "representatives of the law," the powers of deduction as well as displaying his talent for disguises. Wontner delivers the dialogue with piercing wit and directness while also physically throwing himself into the role with a little more gusto than what is seen throughout the rest of his Holmes tenure.

The Sign of Four was the first Arthur Wontner Sherlock Holmes film I saw and it remains my favorite - it really is Sherlock Holmes' "Greatest Case" as far as Wontner's Holmes is concerned. Due to the fact that the film is a deteriorated B-movie that has little-to-no reputation, I was expecting to not enjoy this film. However, I was surprised that I actually enjoyed it. Perhaps no treasured classic, The Sign of Four is a pretty enjoyable early Holmes film adaptation with a fun story and Wontner's best turn as Sherlock Holmes.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

Retirement Is Murder

- Who would have ever guessed that Sherlock Holmes would retire - let alone retire before obtaining the  crown jewel of his career: taking down Professor Moriarty? Yet the impossible is often proved possible when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, the master sleuth is indeed planning to hang up the 'ol deerstalker cap and calabash pipe to kick it back with his violin, old books and, one can only assume from Arthur Conan Doyle, a little drug experimentation. Holmes is retiring with a chip on his shoulder, however, being quite unhappy that he was unable to catch the man who he believes is at the center of the London crime world: Professor Moriarty (Lyn Harding). Most people, even Watson, think that Holmes' obsession with Professor Moriarty leads nowhere, existing only as an elaborate conspiracy theory that Holmes has dreamed up in his own head - but Holmes knows that Moriarty is the kingpin of crime in London. Holmes' suspicions are vindicated when Moriarty pays a visit, warning Holmes to stay retired. Naturally, this makes Holmes all the more interested in taking down Moriarty - and he gets his chance when a murder is linked to the unwise but deadly Professor.

The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes (1935) is the fourth Sherlock Holmes film to star Arthur Wontner and, like the other Wontner Holmes films, could only be described as slightly above average and marginally entertaining. Arthur Wontner gives a convincing performance as usual and director Leslie S. Hiscott (director of the first Wontner Holmes picture The Sleeping Cardinal (1931)) does a good job with the film's visual presentation (one can easily tell that this film has survived to our time in the greatest condition out of all the Wontner Holmes films). However, the film has a number of problems; some of which are predictable Wontner-era woes (including a bumbling Watson and a messy second half) while others are more unique.

Another problem is the characterization of Professor Moriarty, portrayed by Lyn Harding (who played the villain in The Speckled Band (1931), a big screen Holmes adaptation starring Raymond Massey). Any fair-weather fan of Sherlock Holmes will tell you that Moriarty is supposed to as Sherlock Holmes' intellectual equal - or at the very least be on the same intellectual playing field as Holmes. Unfortunately, the Moriarty portrayed in this film by Harding is nothing more than a snarling gangster. This makes Moriarty a less interesting and less formidable opponent for Holmes to defeat - hardly a "Napoleon of Crime."

However, the worst aspect of this film is the inclusion of a rather lengthy flashback sequence that turns the film, for time, into 1930s gangster pulp. And let's get one thing straight: I love 1930s gangster pulp! Unfortunately, the gangster pulp in The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes is toothless and wobbly and, even though the plot is loosely based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story The Valley Of Fear, does not feel like it belongs in a Sherlock Holmes story. The flashback sequence is so long that it encompasses almost half of the film! That is correct: almost half of this film does not even feature Sherlock Holmes. In the end, with a solid performance from Arthur Wontner and direction from Leslie S. Hiscott, The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes could have ended up as the best Sherlock Holmes film of the Arthur Wontner era had it not turned into a Holmesless gangster film half-way through.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Silver Blaze (1937)

Vacation At The Baskervilles

Moriarty is back (never mind the events of the previous film) and Holmes is the only one that can stop him. The catch is that the two classic characters cross paths by mere happenstance while Holmes and Watson vacation at Sir Baskerville's place. Happenstance or not, no matter where he is Holmes will solve any case, anytime. The death of a man and the disappearance of Baskerville's prized racing horse, Silver Blaze, puts Holmes into action off the cuff in what turns out to be a rather stagnant story. 

Due to the success of the 1939 Basil Rathbone-starred The Hound Of The Baskervilles, this film's title was changed for its 1941 American release from the Conan Doyle short story and original UK title Silver Blaze to the more Hollywood-friendly Murder At The Baskervilles. But no matter what you call it (I'm going with the original title), Silver Blaze is easily the worst of the Arthur Wontner Holmes films.

Arthur Wontner and the laid-back brilliance he brings to the Sherlock Holmes character is in fully swing and is, as usual, nowhere near the list of negatives for Silver Blaze. Unfortunately, Wontner is not good enough as Holmes to make up for the rest of the film. The story is surprisingly not messy and (while the competition is not particularly tough) easily claims the prize as the most competently told story (as far as narrative structure goes) of the Wontner era. However, the main problem with Silver Blaze is that it is just plain boring. The film is on life-support. Visually, director Thomas Bently should have been much more creative and, atmosphere and story-wise, the film lacks any sort of energy - Silver Blaze is just a boring, boring movie.

So after nearly a decade as Arthur Conan Doyle's master sleuth, the Arthur Wontner Holmes era ends in a whimper, rather than a bang, with 1937's Silver Blaze.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Phantom Of The Opera (2004)

Not A Musical Fan - But I Enjoyed This One

- Yes, I admit it: I had a few biases coming into Joel Schumacher's 2004 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous stage musical The Phantom Of The Opera....

Firstly, I am not a musical film lover. Sure, I can and have enjoyed musicals in the past but I am not a big fan of the genre as a whole.

Secondly, Joel Schumacher is a director that I do not exactly go out of my way to see. He wowed me with his 2003 film Veronica Guerin (of which Cate Blanchett is most of the show), but he has left me wanting with every other film of his that I have seen.

Thirdly, I am not a fan of actor Gerard Butler. He bugs me. I cannot help it - it is how I am hardwired.

However, I was pleasantly surprised and am happy to report that I overcame two out of three of those biases to really enjoy The Phantom Of The Opera.

The film surprised me right away, opening with a fantastic-looking black-and-white picture and a dreary feel to wonderfully transform itself into a bright and up-tempo number. But soon after, the viewer is jolted out of his or her now comforted state of fun and song and is alerted to the mystery of the film: a phantom lurks within the opera house. This Phantom (Gerard Butler) takes a growing special interest in the young Christine (Emmy Rossum) who has recently stolen the stage and spotlight from narcissistic will-be-has-been Carlotta (Minnie Driver). The new patron of the opera house, the young Raoul (Patrick Wilson), also takes notice of the young Christine and the two fire up a bit of a romance. However, this Phantom is hardly one to take his love lumps lightly and being a bear of a character he does whatever he can to take Christine for himself.

Schumacher breaks out of the directorial doldrums he usually rolls in and attacks the film with a very classical style, choosing shot choices resembling the classic rather than the contemporary, subtly over blunt flare and, even though the story is set in France, all of the actors keep their natural accents except those who have the talent to do differently (Minnie Driver, Miranda Richardson). The film is also visually stunning - each shot is carefully set up to capture the powerful mood, detailed set designs, brilliant costumes and glowing cinematography work of each scene.

Obviously, the music in The Phantom Of The Opera is stellar. I have never seen a stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom tale but it is hard for me to believe that the music could be done any better than it is in this film. Throughout the film your heart is lifted and your skin is chilled by the swelling orchestra and powerful vocal work - even if the film was not put together well in other ways the music would be well worth the price of a rental fee.

Each actor does an excellent job in his or her role - with most members of the cast doing their own singing as well. Emmy Rossum is a great lead with great presence and a terrific voice; Patrick Wilson delivers yet another solid performance to add to his ever-growing fine credentials; Miranda Richardson is a supporting force to be reckoned with as Madame Giry; and Minnie Driver steals every scene she is in, though it is clear she was hired for her thespian talents rather than her singing (as she is dubbed by Margaret Preece).

The only real let-down for me is the presence of Gerard Butler. As hard as I tried, this was one bias I could not overcome. Is his singing bad? No, quite the contrary really - his voice is gravely and coarse but carrying, perfect for an evil phantom. Is his acting bad? Eh, not really. His performance is not exactly weak or overdone or pathetic or anything like he was in 300 (2007) - but I would not call it great either. He just bugs me the entire film. I cannot put my finger on why.

Still, Butler's annoying mug aside, The Phantom Of The Opera incorporates a wide variety of other very enjoyable aspects to end up as one of the better film musicals that I have ever seen.

CBC Rating: 8/10

The Lion In Winter (1968)

I Bet You Thought That 
Your Family Squabbles Were bad....

- It is Christmas time in 1183 and, becoming an old man, King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) is starting to think hard about who will succeed him as King. Not exactly a small, easy decision to begin with, Henry's choice brings together quite the ensemble dysfunctional family at the royal family's Christmas Court that makes the Royal Succession process at least five times more difficult....

Henry's wild cat temper is stretched to the limit and his dangerous wit is put to the test by his sharp and sly wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), his war-hardened son Richard (Anthony Hopkins), his devious son Geoffrey (John Castle), his dumb son John (Nigel Terry) and his opportunistic stepson Philip King of France (Timothy Dalton). Henry wants John to be King, Eleanor wants Richard to be King, John wants to be King, Richard wants to be King (and will stop at nothing to be so), Geoffrey wants anything that betters his situation and Philip wants whatever hurts Henry the most (on top of wanting his sister to be either married to one of the sons or have her dowry returned). Needless to say, things turn ugly around the royal Christmas punch bowl and this family holiday fight throws people into dungeons, initiates wars and affects the entire country.

And you thought your family squabbles were bad....

The Lion In Winter (1968) is a very well done not-so-historical historical drama. Nominated for seven Oscars (winning three of them), you can bet that very corner of the film is top-notch. The costumes and sets are well put together, the direction is very effective, the dialogue is bright and shocking and John Barry's score is particularly brilliant - one of his finest efforts.

Of course, while just about everything in the film is excellent, The Lion In Winter is known best for its superb cast. Every member of the cast is really just unforgettable. Katherine Hepburn is especially great, winning an Oscar for a stunning portrayal of Eleanor, but O'Toole also could not be better as King Henry. The smallest names on the marquee - Castle and Terry - do fine supporting work but Hopkins and Dalton are particularly memorable, soaring to great heights in their motion picture debuts.

An excellent film, though not holding up as well after repeat viewings (the film relies just a bit too much on the surprise found at the end of each scene - something that disappears on the second viewing), The Lion In Winter is a very well-crafted period character drama.

CBC Rating: 8/10

The Thin Man (1934)

A Dated Comedy

- Some films have comedy that transcends generations, that will be funny until Earth's final hour (such as the Merry Melodies shorts or the Marx Brothers films); some other films however feature comedy that, while certainly funny for those living in the time it was released, lack risibility in future eras - 1934's The Thin Man is one of those films.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star as retired private eye Nick Charles and wife Nora, respectively, who get mixed up in a wacky "whodunit" case when an acquaintance goes missing after a woman is found murdered. Nominated for four Oscars and spawning 5 sequels and a short-lived television show, The Thin Man is often touted as a classic and must see whodunit comedy but my viewing proved it to be an utterly boring and painfully unfunny hour and a half of film.

Certainly not without its strong points - none of which have anything to do with comedy: the beauty and presence of Myrna Loy, the set-up to the mystery, the nice cinematography (by the great James Wong Howe no less), and a particular scene in a dark laboratory are the film's finer points - The Thin Man drags on too long with comedy that is not funny. I am sorry but a film needs more than cartoon-like silly drunks, one particular fat one who wants to call his mommy on New Year's Eve, and a handful of shots of a cowardly dog to be funny. Powell has neither the screen presence, comedic wit, nor plain likability to carry the film all by himself and The Thin Man ultimately gets a poor rating in my book.

CBC Rating: 5/10