Saturday, December 29, 2012

White Christmas (1954)

Christmas Cheer in VistaVision

- The annals of film offer the cinephile a lot of film choices during the Christmas season. White Christmas (1954) is one of the most colorful and fun Christmas films ever assembled - and one of the most enjoyable within the lager musical genre - though perhaps not exactly a flawless, top tier film.

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a performance team that hit it big after their return from World War II. Phil saved Bob's life during the war and has never allowed Bob to live it down; forcing Bob into many paths he otherwise would not have ventured down. Phil's often-failed but never-ending mission to find Bob a wife lands the two of them tied up with the Haynes Sisters, Judy (Vera-Ellen, who had previously worked with Danny Kaye in Wonder Man (1945)) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney, the aunt of George Clooney), who are on their way to Vermont to perform at the Pine Tree Ski Lodge for the holiday season.

Arriving in Vermont, the group is disappointed to learn that no snow had fallen during the season and the lodge is subsequently being closed down. Their disappointment grows exponentially when they learn that the owner of the lodge is their very own General Waverly (Dean Jagger), whom they were especially grateful for during their time as soldiers in the war. Rather than lament the fall of an important man in their lives, Bob and Phil decide to bring their Broadway show to the General's lodge, using their celebrity to bring business his way. Of course, in the midst of all this the usually disinterested Bob immediately falls for Betty while Phil also easily falls for her sister Judy.

While not particularly envelope-pushing, interesting or brilliant in one way or another as far as characters, story or thematic quality goes; White Christmas is pure Christmas film fun. Visually however, White Christmas is brilliant. The first movie to be filmed in glorious but short-lived VistaVision (like Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and John Ford's The Searchers (1956)), White Christmas is a plush, colorful visual treat. Director Michael Curtiz (Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942)) gives great warmth and scope to White Christmas. No expense is spared in putting on this large-scale Christmas production; everything from the sets to the costumes to the dancing choreography is giant-sized. Irving Berlin's songs are likewise given a grand, merry treatment by musical director Joseph J. Lilley and the talented cast - my favorites are "Snow," the "Minstrel Number" and, of course, the title song "White Christmas" (first heard in the Bing Crosby-starred Holiday Inn (1942)).

White Christmas is great Christmas fun on a large scale but the film's glorification of the armed forces is a bit disconcerting. I can understand wanting to help out a man who stuck his neck out for you on a daily basis during possibly the most horrible war mankind has ever seen but the film goes far beyond that. The most blatant example of this is the song "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army." What? Really? You guys want to be back in the army? Were you two not present at the beginning of the film when bombs were being dropped all around you!?!?

So while White Christmas might not be the most perfect film ever created, it remains one of the most fun films to watch during the Christmas season due to its fun songs, talented leads and VistaVision splendor.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bishop's Wife (1947)

Angel With a Wandering Eye

- Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year! One of the many reasons that Christmas is a special time of the year for me is all of the many great Christmas films just waiting to be watched (again and again) that enhance the season. Based on Robert Nathan's novel (and unfortunately poorly remade in 1996), The Bishop's Wife (1947) is one of these films.

Cary Grant stars as Dudley. Of course, since he is personified on screen by Cary Grant, Dudley is a charming, good-natured fellow; but Dudley is no ordinary man. In fact, he is not a man at all: he is an angel. All in the line of divine duty, Dudley brings smiles to people's faces as well as direction and enlightenment to people's lives; though most are oblivious to his holy foundations. When Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) prays for guidance amidst a time-consuming and stressful effort to build a new cathedral in a wealthy part of town, straining his relationship with his wife Julia (Loretta Young), Dudley is assigned to help facilitate the Bishop in both his professional and personal life. But as much as Dudley helps, he also impedes when he begins to fall for Julia.

Production on The Bishop's Wife was far from heavenly. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was dissatisfied with what original director William A. Seiter (director of many classic comedies, including installments of legendary Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Shirley Temple films) had shot, replacing him with Henry Koster (Harvey (1950)). Even this change at director did not equate smooth-sailing for the film, feedback from test audiences was less than perfect so Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were hired for some final uncredited rewrites. The many personnel changes did not negatively affect the film however, The Bishop's Wife is very well assembled. Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Citizen Kane (1941)) does an incredible job photographing the film and replacement director Henry Koster received an Academy Award nomination for his work. 

Although the story generally makes me stop and pause, as the idea of an angel falling for another man's wife at the very least strays into unhallowed territory, The Bishop's Wife contains a lot of spirit and value. Dudley helps the Bishop to see that he not only needs to pay more attention to his family but he must also gain perspective on where his ministry is focused. Sometimes what is big, bold, beautiful and well-intended does not meet the spiritual needs of the many. Of course the story has plenty of room for great comedy, of which the cast and filmmakers did not waste! The many different thematic and comedic elements of the film make The Bishop's Wife a very fun and warm experience. The cast helps this too. Film legends Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young and Elsa Lanchester are absolutely excellent in their roles; Grant's strong presence but humble comedy, Niven's sniveling but sympathetic demeanor, Young's angelic grace and Lanchester's quirky energy really brings the characters and story to life in a fun, engaging way.

Christmas means more than lights, snow, presents or any other material thing but sometimes the right films go far in completing the joy of the season. The Bishop's Wife is one of the better Christmas films around; its wonderful characters, comedy and thematic value make it a seasonal must-see.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

When (Cinematic) Worlds Collide

- Aliens (1986) director James Cameron described the AVP (Alien vs. Predator) franchise perfectly. One the one hand, Cameron said Alien vs. Predator (2004) is just like "Frankenstein Meets Werewolf." Cameron is absolutely 100% right! A franchise stemming from two originally unconnected films (Alien (1979) and Predator (1987) - fully materializing after a 5th Alien sequel fell through), a comic book series and video game, Aliens vs. Predator was created superficially by Universal Studios. With dollar signs in their eyes, the studio execs hoped that AVP would rake in the dough from the young demographic with its promise of action and gore. However, Cameron continued by saying "then I saw Alien vs. Predator and it was actually pretty good!" Cameron hits it right on the mark again! Despite what one might assume (I surely did), Alien vs. Predator ends up not as bad as it is supposed to be.

The story (developed by original Alien writing team Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett) takes place in 2004 (the earliest setting for an Alien-related film) when an archeological phenomenon in Antarctica gets the attention of the Weyland Corp., Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Hendriksen) assembles a team, led by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), to investigate the discovery. What the team soon discovers however is that they are trapped in the middle of an ancient battle between two alien races.

Paul W.S. Anderson's 1997 film Event Horizon is often compared to Ridley Scott's Alien so Anderson was an ideal choice to helm a crossover between the Alien and Predator worlds. His direction, while not particularly impressive, does not exactly disappoint. AVP is not without its obvious problems. Most of the characters are pretty flat, acting out the most predictable plot points and squeezing in a stupid one-liner before either killing aliens or getting killed themselves. Although a lot of very noticeable flaws exist in the film, the photography and special effects are quite enjoyable. Perhaps a little too in-love with the slow-motion technique, Anderson generally assembles a pretty good-looking and exciting picture out of AVP. So the viewer is left with a mixed bag: the characters and script are a bit dodgy but look of the movie is kind of a hit. I would say that the special effects and look of the film alone make AVP at least not awful and at best marginally worthwhile.

The film sees both sides of the quality spectrum with its poor script but enjoyable visuals. The cast coasts in the center of this spectrum, being serviceable at best. Sanaa Lathan does a genuinely good job working around the generally poor dialogue and weak castmates she was forced to work with, creating a believable character out of the adventuring Alexa Woods. Lance Henderiksen (who co-starred in both Aliens and Alien 3 (1991)) is also fairly impressive as Weyland Corp. head Charles Bishop Weyland largely thanks to his naturally commanding screen presence. The film is full of recognizable supporting faces: Tommy Flanagan (Gladiator (2000)), Ewen Bremner (Black Hawk Down (2001)) and Colin Salmon (The World Is Not Enough (1999)). Unfortunately, Lathan and Hendriksen give the only two performances that are worth any kind of praise.

But what I found particularly enjoyable about AVP was how the film depicts the interaction with the predators, (xenomorph) aliens and humans. Perhaps an odd couple on original consideration, the predators and xenomorph aliens are a good match for one another. Both aliens were actually (at least partially) developed by special effects artist Stan Winston and there is a clear match between the phallic facial features of the alien and the vaginal features of the predator. The film attempts to give a backstory that intertwines the three races throughout history (to be slightly borrowed from by Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus (2012)) some of which works and some of which does not. Part of the story that does not work is not the fault of Anderson for the whole of AVP, it just ends up clashing with what Ridley Scott decided to develope for his Alien prequel Prometheus. I would argue that Scott's vision for the series ends up the more interesting of the two but AVP can only be faulted so much.

However, the best aspect of the film is that we see much more character out of the predators than what has been portrayed on film in the past, which makes AVP a much more important film for the Predator series. In the great original Predator, the predator was a mysterious hunter but the race was unfortunately not further explored in the mediocre sequel. However, in AVP the predators are shown to have a culture and moral code which gives depth to the series. Naturally, the exact opposite occurs for the Alien creatures. Unlike how the film appreciates the culture and honor of the predator aliens, the xenomorph aliens are presented as little more than animals. While this depiction of the alien creatures is partly accurate in the series, it also goes against a lot that is seen in the previous Alien series which hints at a clear alien intelligence.

I feared the worst as I began my journey into the back allies of the Alien series known as the Alien vs. Predator franchise but the 2004 Paul W.S. Anderson film was surprisingly entertaining. One could suggest that perhaps my expectations were so low that nothing could have been bad enough to disappoint. To that I say - OH YEAH? Well, maybe *your* standards are just too high?! Certainly not as interesting, stylish or impressive as other films in either the Alien or Predator series, AVP does manage to entertain as a bloody blow'em'up sci-fi flick.

Unfortunately, the AVP sequel could not match strides.

CBC Rating: 6/10

AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem (2007)

Mass of a Dead Franchise

- AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) should not have been a good movie. But, going against all forms of human reason, it kind of was - in a B-movie-charming way. Unfortunately its sequel, AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem (2007), could not follow in its predecessor's footsteps. The plot for AVPR follows AVP directly: the predator/alien hybrid seen at the very end of AVP attacks the predator ship, causing it to crash-land in a small Coloradan town. Naturally, a predator heads to earth to try and wipe out the growing alien infestation that preys upon the multitude of innocent townspeople.

The story does not really matter in a film of this nature (the back of the DVD case promises "MORE BLOOD... MORE GUTS... MORE GORE") but nothing redeems this terrible movie. The dialogue is atrocious and the acting is even worse; even Steven Pasquale (of "Rescue Me") cannot escape the embarrassing effects of the pathetic script.

Directed by The Brothers Strauss, who have a background in visual effects production, AVPR is a gory action effects-driven film. Considering their claim to fame, one would have assumed that the film would have been visually spectacular - or at least clever. Unfortunately, AVPR is not even a fun bad movie. AVPR looks absolutely terrible with sub-par visual effects, poor cinematography (sometimes so dark and closed in that one cannot tell what is happening in a scene) and especially bad framing. The characters are extremely poorly written and not remotely likable - the best character moment of the film occurs when one reacts to her husband being killed by saying "I'll be fine." Well, in her defense, I guess she did say "until death do us part."

But by far the most unlikable aspect of the film is its graphically violent nature. Every other alien or predator film has been violent - but AVPR takes both series to new heights in shameful, pointless gorenography. Some scenes are just downright sickening.

Although the original Alien vs. Predator works in some ways as an entertaining horror/action film, Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem is just a horrific movie. AVPR is so bad in fact that the Alien-meets-Predator franchise has virtually disappeared from entertainment culture following its release. It will not be missed.

CBC Rating: 3/10

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

"007 reporting for duty."


- Four long years in the making amidst MGM's splintering financial mess, the 23rd James Bond film arrived just in time for the 50th anniversary of the 007 film franchise. Despite the shallow claims that the series was finished, James Bond would return as he always has; but the public would not tolerate anything less than a really good film due to 007's time away from theaters and the not-overly warm reception of Quantum of Solace (2008). Well, Skyfall (2012) is a great film; easily one of the most intricate, thrilling, character-centered and visually brilliant films of the series. Most who followed Skyfall since its inception had a good feeling that the amazing group of people working on it would create something fairly decent. Director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Thomas Newman and a cast comprised of Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and an impressive list of Oscar-caliber supporters could produce nothing less than worthwhile.

The plot for Skyfall is daring, relevant and altogether Flemingesque. Beginning with an opening shot that puts the classic 007 gunbarrel sequence into the context of the film itself, the pre-titles sequence witnesses an action-packed chase scene ending with the apparent death of James Bond. Of course, Bond cannot be dead within the first 10 minutes of the film (unless it was going to turn in a Sunset Boulevard (1950) direction) but it certainly sets the plot off on an interesting footing despite fooling no one. The idea of Bond dying only to return later is reminiscent of You Only Live Twice but is realized in a much more gripping and effective way in Skyfall than that seen in the 1967 Connery-starred film. The roots to Fleming go deeper than this however. Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice provides anchoring material for the film, M writing Bond's obituary is pulled directly out of the novel, and other aspects of Skyfall echo Fleming's final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun as well.

Naturally, Bond is not dead but quietly "enjoying death" nonetheless with babes and booze in the tropics. But Bond's removed attitude changes when MI6 itself is the victim of a cyber-terrorist attack, the culprit of which continues to expose highly secret and volatile information. MI6 is not a country club and Bond therefore has to prove himself to M and the intruding bureaucratic network before he jumps back into action. As was the case with both Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace, loyalty and duty are at the forefront of Skyfall; the story sees Bond's sense of purpose on an evolutionary journey from fed-up to selfless, culminating to a more permanent attitude and worldview certain to carry on to the next films. The strong sense of character is one of the finest aspects of Skyfall. The film focuses on Bond's commitment to the job and actually goes back into Bond's past further than any film of the series. Most of the Bond actors have all given great performances but Daniel Craig seems to be the most consistent of them all, performing at the same high level in every film. Craig is just as intense and cool in Skyfall as he is in any of his other Bond films and yet there are certain circumstantial nuances that make this top-notch performance unique.

The trail to MI6's attacker leads Bond to some very interesting places, the most memorable of which is China. Macau is a stunning location and the scenes in Shanghai will be forever fixed as some of the best moments in the Bond series. One of the biggest reasons why these scenes are so great derives from the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brilliantly captures the Far East on screen. Shanghai in particular looks amazing. Looking more like a futuristic asphalt jungle along the lines of Blade Runner (1982) than any conceivable modern-day metropolis, Shanghai is painted in the film as a foreboding albeit technologically remarkable place. Bond's fight scene with the globe-trotting hitman Patrice, seen as silhouettes clashing on top of Shanghai's liquid neon lights, is an especially brilliant scene. Deakins' entire work on Skyfall is a visual marvel the likes of which the Bond series has never seen; the scenes in China are but the most memorable, the entire film looks fantastic.

Bond discovers that the mastermind behind the assault on MI6 is Raoul Silva, a former agent whose evil deeds are motivated by a personal vendetta against M. Although Javier Bardem's performance of Silva seems to have been thoroughly embraced by critics and fans alike, I find myself unable to echo similar sentiments. Effectively creepy and convincingly evil, Bardem's Silva is very blunt and subsequently not very interesting. The character is on paper not especially intriguing because he is simply out for M's head. Silva's motives begin on an ambiguous note, as his beef with M momentarily looks credible. However, he is revealed to be a certifiable bad guy with a one-track mind when M's so-called betrayal seems to hold merit on the grounds of Silva's own previous betrayal of MI6. Silva is not made any more interesting through Bardem's performance. Definitely creepy and unnerving at times, Bardem is not particularly subtle in his characterization and hardly offers a fresh or unique take on Bond villains. Bardem is an effective villain without a doubt but not to an extent in which I can agree with the existing level of praise.

I found the rest of the supporting cast to be far more enjoyable to watch than Bardem. Of course, Bardem's role was a one-shot; the rest of the cast had to be better because they will be back in the future! Naturally, Judi Dench exits the Bond series with grace after style taking the role of M to new levels throughout Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. As Dench exits, new actors move into the franchise to carve out their own legacies. Naomie Harris assumes the iconic role of Miss (Eve) Moneypenny in Skyfall with much more of a character to play than any previous actress and a fantastic chemistry with Daniel Craig that will surely be fun to watch in future films. Q is also brought back to the series and updated in Skyfall. Desmond Llewelyn portrayed the character for decades in a way that made Q all his own; one reason why John Cleese never worked in the role was because he tried in vain to recapture the magic. So, in Skyfall, the character is simply revamped. Ben Whishaw gives a great performance as the modern-day Q; a young, gifted and enthusiastic techno spy with a licence to program and a sharp wit that will also be fun to watch in later installments. The reliable Ralph Fiennes also makes a good showing in Skyfall, enough to make us all want to see more of what he will do in the role of M in the future, and the great Albert Finney is clearly having a good time playing the role of Kincade, another unique piece of Skyfall within the larger 007 franchise.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace proved that a Bond movie did not need Moneypenny, Q or anything else on the franchise checklist to be a great Bond movie but Skyfall also proved that the new Daniel Craig era could use them well in the 21st Century. The story is one comprised of elements deeply prevalent in modern times but Skyfall still manages to incorporate many classic Bond elements into its reels. The originality of the story is undeniable yet Skyfall pays homage to every Bond era in a variety of ways as the story unfolds. Gadgets, deadly animals, nasty villain teeth and other classic Bond checklist items make notable appearances after a significant time away from the series. Thomas Newman's great underplayed score goes a long way into the film's larger recognition of the 007 series, drawing from the franchise's rich history of terrific music and, specifically, once again making full use of the Bond theme throughout. Of course, paying homage is worth nothing in and of itself (case and point: the silly, pointless nods to past Bond films in Die Another Day (2002)). However, Skyfall not only finds interesting ways to honor the history of the James Bond series but it does so in a way that cements itself in a classic standing. The creative way in which the classic Aston Martin DB5 is used in the film is the best example of this point.

Skyfall is a film for the modern world and yet Mendes and company also incorporate much of how Ian Fleming and 50 years of cinema defined James Bond to make a great Bond film for the ages. Director Sam Mendes forms a character-centered, atmospheric, thrilling and stylish Bond film with the perfect mix of emotion, action and humor. A major complaint from some fans is that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace just do not feature enough humor. I always found both films to contain the right amount of thrills and humor but Skyfall finds an even better mix. The mix of tone throughout is great but Skyfall also remains, in my mind at least, undoubtedly the most dark, violent and sadistic film in the series. However, everything that comprises the dark aspects of the film grow naturally out of the plot and are not done for the sake of shock value or cheap thrills. Ian Fleming's Bond novels were quite dark and violent at times though too, so cruel and unspeakable violence is not unprecedented in the world of James Bond. 

Skyfall is a great Bond film but that does not preclude it from falling into some genre traps. For example, some of the plot points are quite predictable. Bond's failure of the tests but M's acceptance of him anyway is anticipated as soon as M speaks of the need for Bond to be tested for admittance into MI6. Also, I knew that it was only a matter of time before Silva escaped his cage as soon as Q started messing around with Silva's computer. Perhaps I have just seen too many movies.

The quality of the film's climax can be measured in two conflicted parts. On the one hand, the final act is one of complete satisfaction since it is so well-executed on screen and simply unique within the franchise. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is one of over-the-top proportions - even for a Bond film. Bond made a logical move in taking M to Skyfall because it was a secluded place that he knew like the back of his hand; an ideal spot for baiting Silva. However, the idea of Bond taking M to his parent's old estate to hold out against an inevitable attack, blowing it up and then emerging from its bowels reborn (another one of Bond's favored resurrections) is a bit too on-the-nose to be particularly effective. The metaphor is simply too obvious and in our face to be taken to heart. The Home Alone-meets-007 nature of the preparation for Silva's attack does not help the matter.

So Skyfall is not without an occasional eye-brow raise or two. But I dare you to find a Bond movie (or any movie, for that matter) that is without the inevitable blemish that results from human-created art or that does not momentarily drift away from the shackles of reality. Even if the film's climax does not fire on all cylinders, the film's epilogue ends Skyfall on a great note that holds significant implications for the future of the franchise. Bond follows Moneypenny into an office well-known to those who are familiar with the series, engaging in banter of which we are accustomed, proceeding through a back-padded door to greet M who is sitting at the focal point of the dark-wood-paneled room holding a top secret document. Ah, just like old times! The Daniel Craig era seems to have positioned itself towards more recognizably classic territory; all Bond was missing was a fedora! Considering the amount of time that the Bond series has effectively offered up films that operated outside the traditional tone of the series, this is technically unnecessary but nonetheless welcomed ground. The more things change, the more they stay the same. James Bond will return.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Dark Sense of Cinematic Beauty

- I think it is safe to say that beauty is important to the human race. While a certain number of people probably exist who do not care about beauty, I am sure they are the exception that proves the rule. People all around the world wake up hours before going to work to make sure that their appearance is in order, whether it is regarding hygiene or clothing; people choose mates based on beauty, or at least partly based on beauty; people take time off from their normal lives to enjoy the beauty that nature has to offer – and these are just a few examples. Of course, people want to experience beauty in a film as well; visual beauty of a movie is part of the magic, escapism, and fun of the movies. But what is beauty? Specifically, what is beauty in film? Because film is such a subjective art form, beauty can only be defined in terms that pertain to an individual.

If the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” applies to anything, it applies to film. Beauty certainly exists within film and, just like the many ways that a film can be analyzed; beauty is seen and understood in ways that differ from person to person. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “beauty” as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Two important things are said about beauty in this definition: one is that the amount of beauty, or general pleasure, that someone or something gives to someone else depends on the person experiencing that someone or something; the second is that beauty is more than simple aesthetics. Beauty is subjective, pure and simple. Ludwig von Mises correctly notes that, "the judgment about the merits of a work of art is entirely subjective. Some people praise what others disdain. There is no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building."

Although definitely differing from person to person, society does seem to hold some commonly held definitions as to what makes something beautiful. Clean and picturesque natural scenery, such as the South American rainforest or Yosemite National Park, come to mind right away as something that most people would find beautiful. Natural scenery complete with lush coloring, a big bright sun, a majestic mountain background, and a quiet flowing body of water would only enhance the beauty of an area. A great example of this type of conventional beauty in a film is the opening to the 1965 musical The Sound Of Music, in which Julie Andrews belts out the title song on top of a rolling sea of green Austrian hilltops.

But pretty scenery is only one example of something that most people would find to have beauty, a similar commonly held definition of beauty could simply be something that gives a person a warm feeling inside. People like it when they get to experience a warm sunny day, rather than a cold cloud-filled rainy day, for example – it is not often that you hear one say “boy oh boy, what a beautiful day it is this morning: nothing but clouds in the sky, rain everywhere, and how about that tint of grey in everything you see!”

I have come to discover however that my definition of beauty is a little bit different than what beauty means to many other people – I might even be inclined to even find a rainy day beautiful. While beauty, for me, can certainly be something that is traditionally pretty or is something that gives me a warm happy feeling but more often than not, especially in regards to film, the chilling feeling of awe, tension, or tragedy is what I find beautiful.

A great example of not only my perhaps unconventional sense of film beauty but also the different ways that beauty is perceived in film can be seen in the differences between how my wife and I reacted to a certain scene in the Martin Scorsese-directed film The Departed (2006). The later half of film features a scene in which Martin Sheen’s character, Cpt. Queenan, has been pushed out of a multistory building and is falling in semi-slow motion down to the pavement below. It lasts only for a few seconds and is book-ended by two other very violent scenes but I find the way that Queenan falls to his death has a certain visual beauty to it. Queenan’s death is still shocking and ultimately unwanted because the character is so likable but the very operatic death scene holds some real cinematic beauty for me. During my wife and my viewing of the film I said, “wow, what a cool scene” out loud during Queenan’s fall. My wife was appalled. “How can you say that?!” she exclaimed, “He’s dead! What’s wrong with you?” Here we have two very different ideas of what beauty is. I tried to explain how the way Queenan’s body falls and how the camera moves makes the scene visually pleasing to me but she was not in agreement. There exists no clear cut definition of what cinematic beauty is: my wife finds cinematic beauty to be more in line with what The Sound Of Music (1965) has to offer - my opinions on the greatest cinematic beauty are a bit different.

No better light can be shone upon my dark sense of cinematic beauty than the minimalist light that can be seen in film noir. No other genre of film offers up the same kind of beauty that film noir does for me. The greatest films noir have brilliant, beautiful photography; having a deep black-and-white picture that captures the undesirable reality of a cruel world while incorporating a surreal escapism is something that I find truly captivating. Rolling hills and Austrian castles can be beautiful indeed but I will take the dark and smoky grit of film noir over any scene in nature any day. Give me the scratchy silhouette of Robert Mitchum leaning up with his back against the wall, still as a mouse, listening in on an enlightening phone conversation in Out Of The Past (1947). Look towards the exhausting fight scene between Robert Ryan and Hal Baylor in the dirty smoke-filled snake pit of a boxing arena in The Set-Up (1949) or check out the bold textures and cascading shadows of Harry J. Wild’s cinematography in the Philip Marlowe detective story Murder, My Sweet (1944).

Simply put: there is no way to define cinematic beauty in black-and-white terms (excuse the pun). A kind of personal criteria for film beauty differs from person to person – even fans of film noir might not agree with me that the high-contract lighting on the deep shadowing in Out Of The Past is particularly beautiful, they might find it more jarring or tense than beautiful. I, on the other hand, would agree with them while still finding the film to be beautiful. But, then again, while I find the more traditional examples of cinematic beauty to be beautiful much of the time, I tend to see cinematic beauty in more unconventional forms.

Cinematography makes all the difference much of the time for me, a film can be slightly low-budget and therefore not have top-notch art direction, costumes, or set designs but still have striking picture thanks to the featured lighting, coloring, and framing – this is seen in many films noir, much of which were made on a lower budget. However, I will even go as far as saying that cinematic beauty transcends the visuals – it is the feeling and atmosphere that specific visuals give off that makes a specific film beautiful. The cinematography, art direction, and other visuals often receive help from other elements that make a scene even more beautiful.

Music contributes greatly to cinematic beauty as it heightens the viewer’s overall film experience. If the images on-screen are beautiful, beautiful music will make the film even more beautiful. Take The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003) for example: the scene in which all of the mountaintop towers are lit for the first time in centuries, marking a reuniting of the human race in the mythical Middle Earth, would not be nearly as beautiful and stirring as it is without Howard Shore’s powerful score to accompany the incredible aerial shots of the New Zealand landscape. Another example can be found in film noir, yet again, with the children’s fearful ride down the starlit river in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) – a scene in which would not be nearly as moving without the eerie lullabies.

Other factors can contribute to the beauty in film as well. Sometimes simply knowing what is at stake in the story can heighten the beauty of a particular scene. Other times the way a scene builds up and finishes, both visually and emotionally, create cinematic beauty. Good acting can even heighten the beauty of a certain scene, whether it is the way an actor moves within a frame or a well-timed and well-delivered piece of dialogue. A great example of all of these elements at working with the bare visuals to create cinematic beauty can be seen in Star Trek: Generations (1994). In a very exciting and beautiful scene, a sun explodes it creates a giant shock wave that begins to head straight for the starship Enterprise as well as a starbase with two Enterprise crewmen aboard trying to get to another crewman who is in danger. The two crewmen rescue the one in danger and are transported back aboard the Enterprise, immediately continuing with a tense and powerful Patrick Stewart jumping out of his chair and giving a golden delivery of the lines “Warp one! Engage!” as the Enterprise makes a just-in-time escape as the shock wave destroys the star base. The lives of the entire film’s cast are at stake, the film’s special effects visuals are striking, John A. Alonzo’s spot-on cinematography colors each frame, and Patrick Stewart’s acting and line delivery act almost as lyrics to Dennis McCarthy’s stirring score playing throughout the scene – this scene in Star Trek: Generations exciting and fun but it is also very beautiful in my opinion, with every detail inside the scene folding together in perfect rhythm to create a powerful sense cinematic beauty.

Everyone has their own ideas of what makes a film beautiful or not. While traditional ideas of beauty do strike an emotional chord with me, I tend to define cinematic beauty more unconventionally and in more ways than just visuals. My perhaps darker sense of cinematic beauty is my own and is one of the many things that define me and how I watch movies and every individual has their own sense of cinematic beauty that does the same thing for them. Cinematic beauty, just like every form that beauty takes in the world, certainly resides in the eye of the beholder.

A Sense of Authorship: Joel and Ethan Coen

- Although not particularly cemented in film history yet (as their careers are still unfolding before us) my favorite filmmaker is the cinematic two-headed monster of Joel and Ethan Coen. I have enjoyed literally every single film the Coen Brothers have produced (to varying degrees, naturally) and they have yet to let me down, a trend that continues through my viewing of their latest film True Grit (2010). A sense of authorship can be clearly seen in all of the Coen Brothers’ films but I will specifically address this regarding three specific films that the Brothers have created.

One of the many great things about the never disappointing Coen Brothers is that they simply leave little room for disappointment. It might sound a bit trivial, but I have had my experience of viewing other films ruined by the hype and/or my own personal expectations that surround them for a variety of reasons. This never happens with the Coen Brothers however. One never knows what a Coen Brothers film will deliver as seen through the way that audiences often laugh out loud during one of their most suspenseful thrillers or are frozen in suspense during one of their most laugh-out-loud comedies. Also, whether or not one particularly enjoys every film that Joel and Ethan Coen have produced, great credit must be granted to the Brothers for the way they continuously create very original films. Even their screen adaptations of unoriginal work have more of a Coen Brothers signature than the signature of the original author, such as their adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Despite the consistent uniqueness of every Coen Brothers film, a thread entwines throughout each Coen Brothers film that binds their filmography together. Some directors make one film after the other that differs from their past films in almost every way. Ron Howard and Sydney Pollack come to mind right away as directors whose new releases were 180 degrees different from their past work (tell me that Willow (1988), Ransom (1996), and Cinderella Man (2005) or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Yakuza (1974), and Tootsie (1982) have anything in common). The Coen Brothers, while delivering one unique film year after year, do have many similarities stylistically and content-wise that tie them all together despite many differences. This factor plays into why the Coen Brothers are so revered and popular: no one else makes films like Joel and Ethan Coen and no one else can. One could argue that other directors make better or worse films but the fact remains that Joel and Ethan Coen are one-of-a-kind pair of filmmakers.

Perhaps no better example of this Coen trend of filmmaking can be seen outside of the Coen Brothers’ works from 2007-2009. If the Coen Brothers can claim O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008) - related only by the presence of actor George Clooney - as their unofficial “Idiot Trilogy” then I will claim No Country For Old Men (2007), 
Burn After Reading and A Serious Man (2009) as their unofficial “Life Sucks Trilogy.” These films are very different from one another but they also have a lot of similarities; presenting related messages that link them together while also remaining unique stand-alone Coen Brothers films.

This unofficial Coen Brothers trilogy does have some fundamental differences between them. For starters, No Country For Old Men is an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, unlike Burn After Reading and A Serious Man which are original stories written directly for the screen. Another obvious difference rings loud and clear: the three films are a part of different genres. No Country For Old Men is a straight-up thriller with the Coen Brothers flare; a lot like the Brothers' first film, Blood Simple (1984), in that each nook and cranny of every scene is not drenched in the Coen Brothers visual and emotional atmosphere but is driven by their great talent of creating an eerie sense of suspense. Burn After Reading is a deliberate attempt to make the audience laugh, presented in a spoof-like manner (in this case, it is shot as a serious espionage thriller, except the main characters are generally clueless). Unlike No Country For Old Men, gravely serious content with a few laughs peppered throughout the film, Burn After Reading is a no-holds-barred comedy but with a few dramatic gasps peppered throughout the film.

A Serious Man is different from both films entirely and is actually very difficult to categorize. The film is neither completely dramatic nor completely comedic, some scenes are as shocking as No Country For Old Men and other scenes are as hilarious as Burn After Reading but the entire film never really takes a particular path to walk. Also, A Serious Man has more Biblical parallels in its story - not only is the story almost a direct adaptation of Book of Job, other Biblical scenes are transferred from scroll to film (such as main character Larry’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) rooftop glancing at the naked Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) being similar to King David’s rooftop noticing of the bathing Bathsheba).

However, in a typical Coen Brothers fashion, their Oscar-winning no-nonsense thriller No Country For Old Men, ensemble oddball comedy Burn After Reading and humorously tragic moral tale A Serious Man have some major similarities even though they fit into three completely different genres. Stylistically speaking, all three films are very similar. Both No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man were shot by the same director of photography, Roger Deakins (a frequent collaborator of Joel & Ethan’s), and all three of the films in question have a similar lighting scheme of high contrast within a more mellow-colored palette. Also, the Coen Brothers employ a similar wide-use of camera angles for each scene (never staying with flat-angled shots for very long) and all three films feature what I like to call the Coen Camera Creep. The Coen Camera Creep is quite simply a shot in which the camera, ever so slightly, creeps up to confront a character/object or follows a character/object from behind. Now, other filmmakers use and have used a slow-moving close up or follow-along technique in many films but the Coen Brothers add a unique touch to make a technique all their own.

The role of money in the plot as a catalyst for catastrophe is seen in No Country For Old Men (money being the reason why Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is chasing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin)), Burn After Reading (in hopes to fund her plastic surgeries, Linda (Frances McDormand) unwittingly sends two men to their death looking for information to sell to the Russians) and A Serious Man (moments after accepting a bribe and changing his student’s grade, Larry gets a bad phone call about his health and the tornado forms outside of his son’s school). This goes for much of films that are a part of the Coen Brothers filmography – the best example of which is Fargo (1996) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The old film noir adage that money can take an average person down into a dangerous situation permeates throughout the work of the Coen Brothers and is particularly evident here in the Coens’ “Life Sucks” trilogy.

Other similarities, ones that I would say are the greatest similarities between the three films, can be found in the film’s themes. The main underlying theme found in each film can be applied to either film: What is the point? My unofficial Coen Brothers “Life Sucks Trilogy” beings in 2007 with No Country For Old Men and I wonder if the Coen Brothers got to thinking long-term about the unexplainable nature and randomness of life after working on No Country For Old Men as their next two films, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, also explore such themes. The Coen Brothers address three oddities of life: violence in No Country For Old Men, chaos in Burn After Reading and uncertainty in A Serious Man. At one point or another, some or all of the characters in the films cannot understand these oddities that life offers. In No Country For Old Men, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) cannot understand the intense series of violent acts he has witnessed – and neither can Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly MacDonald), who expressively say as much, ending up victims of such violence. The CIA supervisor (J.K. Simmons) in Burn After Reading cannot fathom the bizarre chaotic events propelled by vanity, paranoia and stupidity; and, in A Serious Man, Larry Gopnick cannot come to terms with why all of these bad things are happening in his life. All of these subjects point to a randomness of life that the Coen Brothers expose – seen best in Anton Chigurh’s coin tossing in No Country For Old Men and in A Serious Man when Larry Gopnick says that the uncertainty principle means “we don’t really know what is going on.”

The main point that each film makes can be interchangeable: Ed Tom Bell could have said “what did we learn?” in No Country For Old Men when reflecting on the unexplainable violence he has witnessed, rather than the CIA Chief saying it in Burn After Reading in response to the chaotic set of events he experienced. The other CIA officer
(David Rasche) could have responded to the Chief’s question with the line spoken in A Serious Man: “accept the mystery.” Who can honestly explain the oddities that occur in life? Also, the bluntly honest line from No Country For Old Men, “you can’t stop what’s coming,” might as well have been said at the end of A Serious Man as the tornado materialized in front of Larry’s son’s eyes. There is truth to the stories that the Coen Brothers tell: inconceivable violence is nothing new to society; stupidity, paranoia, and vanity go hand in hand to a chaotic end; and sometimes bad things just happen in life for unknown reasons. The themes that are shared by No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man show a distinct sense of authorship from Joel and Ethan Coen.

Authorship: some filmmakers have it and others do not; but the Coen Brothers definitely own a unique signature style and theme. Take a look at any one of the current Coen Brothers films and you will find something to compare, Joel and Ethan present original works that always contain their own style of filmmaking. No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man carry the distinguishable Coen Brothers style with them, finding creative ways to ask life’s big question: What’s the point? 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

The Case of the Lost Film

- The character of Sherlock Holmes has been featured in so many film adaptations that he is credited as the most portrayed film character in history. Personally, I cannot get enough of Sherlock Holmes on screen and I enjoy viewing the cinematic Holmes antiques as much as I anticipate the newest screen adaptations of the character. Based on William Gillette's play "Sherlock Holmes" (assembled with significant input from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself) the 1922 silent film Sherlock Holmes holds a unique position within Holmes history but only moderately succeeds as a mildly entertaining film.

Sherlock Holmes is a unique addition to the large collection of screen versions of the world's most famous detective in that it is an adaptation of the famous play of the same name rather than one of Doyle's stories. The play itself was basically a composition of a number of Doyle's Holmes stories but it is not remembered for any kind of faithfulness to what Doyle created. Instead, "Sherlock Holmes" played a substantial role in how the character of Sherlock Holmes would be remembered for generations; most significantly introducing the character's trademark deerstalker cap and calabash pipe (which were in fact absent from Doyle's original books) and further cementing Professor Moriarty as the most recognizable villain in the world of Holmes. "Sherlock Holmes" would define the character for decades ahead of Doyle's own writings and its 1922 silent film adaptation Sherlock Holmes followed suit.

The story as presented on screen in this 1922 adaptation of the play however can only be described as.... 'huh?' The plot is convoluted, jumps around a lot and hardly makes enough sense for the viewer to keep up. I can say for certain that Holmes' arch enemy Professor Moriarty definitely has some sort of evil scheme in play and that Holmes has a thing for the damsel in distress at the center of it all.... Other than that, I am not exactly positive as to the specifics of the plot.

It is possible that Sherlock Holmes made a bit more sense to its original 1920s audience due to the fact that the only currently available version of this film is incomplete. Sherlock Holmes was considered a lost film for decades. The only reason that the film is even accessible today is because a number of the film's negatives were discovered in the 1970s. It took many decades afterward to restore Sherlock Holmes to a viewable product and a number of reels were never even found. The film subsequently exists in its present incomplete state.

The sketchy plot aside, Sherlock Holmes is not a complete write-off when it comes to screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. Silent star John Barrymore makes a convincing Sherlock Holmes in this film. His physical qualifications give him a great advantage with the character, with his lanky physique and sharp facial features screaming Sherlock Holmes, but Barrymore also carries an energy and air of thoughtfulness essential to the character. However, the character that Barrymore plays is but a shell of the literary Sherlock Holmes. Barrymore gives Holmes a refreshing visually tangible sense of vulnerability but his is a romanticized early Hollywood Holmes, a hopeless romantic lacking the definitive calculating complexity and eccentricity. Perhaps not one of the screen's best Sherlock Holmes, Barrymore does leave a notable mark in Holmes history with his undoubtedly strong screen presence.

The rest of the supporting cast fits their roles just as well as Mr. Barrymore. Gustave von Syffertitz plays a very creepy Professor Moriarty. The Moriarty depicted in this film is not a very good recreation of the character in Doyle's books, presented as an almost walking dead-type figure; but the character is effective at representing the latter side of this tale of good vs. evil. One of the proteges of silent film legend D.W. Griffith (of The Birth of a Nation (1915) fame), Carol Dempster makes for a good damsel in distress for Holmes to save but not much of an interesting individual character. Future Oscar-nominated character actor Roland Young makes his film debut with a very satisfying performance of Dr. Watson. The character of Watson had not yet fallen into the dull role of playing Laurel to Holmes' Hardy and Young portrays a strong, capable Watson. Also making a memorable film debut in Sherlock Holmes is future Hollywood legend William Powell who would go on to star in his own series of detective films.

The character of Sherlock Holmes has a relationship with silent film that I feel yielded mixed results. One major advantage of silent film in the telling of a Sherlock Holmes story is the attention to detail in the visuals and atmosphere. Workhorse silent era director Albert Parker does not create anything ground-breaking for the time but he certainly does not disappoint when it comes to the photography and tone of the film. The silent quality of Sherlock Holmes contributed greatly to the film's cold Victorian atmosphere and brought about some great moments of disturbingly quiet tension. However, what I enjoyed the most about Sherlock Holmes was its incredible look. Absolutely essential to the success of a medium that has no sound is the effectiveness of the lighting and production design of each scene and Sherlock Holmes is complete with exquisite mood-setting black-and-white lighting and rich detail-laden mise-en-scene. Although Doyle never wrote Holmes as a hopeless romantic, he did write him as untidy and 1922's Sherlock Holmes brings this aspect out of the character better than the vast majority of Holmes screen adaptations.

The characters and especially the look of Sherlock Holmes are quite entertaining; however, one major problem exists with this film that exists in other silent film Holmes adaptations. Sherlock Holmes stories simply do not translate well onto the silent screen. This is what I deduce, anyway; although I will admit that I am biased as not just a 21st Century film viewer but as a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books. The character of Holmes is very cerebral. To display Holmes' incredible abilities of observation through such flat means as dialogue on title cards simply does not do the character or story justice. Sherlock Holmes at least valiantly attempts to display Holmes' deduction skills but still commits the same errors as other silent Holmes films by failing to unravel an engaging mystery through Holmes' mindful methods. Although the likable characters, strong visuals and place within Holmes history definitely makes 1922's Sherlock Holmes worth checking out, the patched-together story and unsuccessful depiction of what makes the stories of Sherlock Holmes great equals a middling Holmes screen adventure at best.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sherlock Holmes: The Dying Detective (1921)

Deathly Silent

- Currently 125 years old, the Sherlock Holmes character holds the record as "the most-portrayed movie character" with over 200 screen appearances. Despite Basil Rathbone's reputation as the most definitive screen Holmes, Eille Norwood was in fact the most prolific of any Sherlock Holmes actor, appearing in 47 silent serial and full-length movies produced by Stoll Pictures over a three-year span. Norwood was a perfect fit for a silent era Holmes; Arthur Conan Doyle was even quoted as saying Norwood's "wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me." Convincing easily as the iconic detective, Norwood brought an imposing and mysterious presence as well as a clear passion to the role (reading all the stories, which accompanied him on set, and even learning to play the violin) on both the stage and the screen.

One of the first of the Stoll-produced and Norwood-starred Sherlock Holmes pictures, The Dying Detective (1921) is also one of the few surviving and currently accessible ones (online & on DVD). This 1921 screen version of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," in which Sherlock Holmes contracts an exotic Asian illness, is interesting because of its place in Holmes history but also an enjoyable, albeit blemished, silent Sherlock Holmes movie.

Silent film might seem pointless and avoidable to the modern film viewer who is used to vibrant, intricate sound in movies. However, I encourage everyone to give silent movies a try as silent film has a definite mood that can support a story and bring special focus on the visuals. The silence of The Dying Detective, for example, in some respects heightens the suspense and mystery of the story. On the other hand, film was not much of a writer's medium back in the silent era. Subsequently, The Dying Detective features a plot that is a bit difficult to follow at times and pitches dialogue, if one can call it that, which can come off as cheesy to most 21st Century audiences. Also, silence can significantly contribute to a film's atmosphere but it does not necessarily aid the actual look of the film. In the case of The Dying Detective, while not necessarily dull or amateur-looking, the photography is not particularly dazzling and the aged print is understandably rough.

Still, although perhaps enjoyable only to a limited group (comprised mostly of hardcore film buffs and Sherlock Holmes fanatics, like me) as a historical deep cut of the Sherlock Holmes film legacy, The Dying Detective does make for a fun, short viewing.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

For England, Holmes?

- The longevity and effectiveness of Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic Sherlock Holmes character has been proven after 100 years of different adaptations, interpretations and re-imaginings on the big and small screens. One of the most famous screen versions of the Holmes was Basil Rathbone's interpretation of the character, adapted for Hollywood's Golden Era in different Victorian and 1940s settings. Rathbone's fourth Sherlock Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), follows the World War II setting established in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) and is especially notable for being the first of eleven Holmes films directed by Roy William Neill.

In the early 1940s, every sector of society and the economy was used for the war effort - even the movie business. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was born out of the film industry's wartime propaganda machine to boost moral for the war effort; however, the propagandist tones are significantly watered down compared to the nearly overbearing nationalist beat of the previous Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.

Arthur Conan Doyle was cold in the ground before the British entrance into World War II but Sherlock Holmes feels oddly at home amidst the blitzkrieged rubble of 1940s wartime Britain. Borrowing from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," the plot is not particularly special but it makes for a good MacGuffin to set Holmes' unparalleled powers of deduction in motion for about an hour. In The Secret Weapon, Holmes must find a missing scientist with a secret weapon before his grand nemesis, Professor Moriarty, unlocks the secret first and sells it to the Axis Powers.

The film has its hiccups, including some pretty cliched elements and instances of stupid character decisions (even from our infallible Mr. Holmes!). However, director Roy William Neill begins his Holmes tenure off on a good footing, creating a swift flowing and (with cinematographer Les White) nicely shot wartime mystery thriller. A number of memorable scenes can be found in the film despite the short runtime; especially good is the daring plan in Switzerland and Holmes choosing the method of his own potential demise. Of course, the cast also does not disappoint: a fine group including Nigel Bruce's slightly bumbling but mostly helpful Dr. Watson, Lionel Atwill's cruel Professor Moriarty, Dennis Hoey's enjoyable Inspector Lestrade (pretty much accepting his inferior role as head of Scotland Yard) and Basil Rathbone's confident and intense Sherlock Holmes.

Fourteen Sherlock Holmes films were made by the time Nigel Rathbone was finished playing the legendary character on the big screen and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is unfortunately not one of the top-tier films made during this time. However, this film is certainly an entertaining caper that is sure to entertain fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal character.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dick Tracy, Detective (1945)

Fun 40s Pulp

 - Dick Tracy is one of the most memorable detective characters in the history of film and print. The yellow coat-wearing, by-the-book star of Chester Gould's famous comic strip "Dick Tracy" that ran from 1931-1977 also built a number of feature films, the first of which was Dick Tracy (1937) starring Ralph Byrd. The 1945 RKO Radio Pictures film Dick Tracy, Detective was the first of two films to feature Morgan Conway in the title role. 

Dick Tracy, Detective attempts to capture the spirit of the comics with a mixture of dark thrills and goofy comedy. Largely entertaining while getting its foot stuck in the usual 1940s B-movie hang-ups, the story sees Tracy face the unmentionable horror of the serial killer "Splitface" while also trying to balance a home and love life in this pulp RKO Radio picture. Much of the plot is ridiculous and includes a significant amount of clunky and forced humor. However, although initially appearing stenciled from the usual 40s B-movie fair, Dick Tracy, Detective gets credit for its surprising move into unexpected territory as the story unfolds. The film also gets some credit for a few nice shots within its generally run-of-the-mill visual style.

The second of only three actors to ever play the part of Dick Tracy on film (Warren Beatty would resurrect the character for his 1990 film), Morgan Conway is an unexciting but serviceable Tracy. While not necessarily unconvincing in the role, Conway is rather stiff, nasally and not as charming as he assumes. Basically, Conway feels like a functional stand-in for a better actor. He would not last long in the role either; Conway did one more Dick Tracy film before the original screen Tracy, Ralph Byrd, returned to the series.

The supporting cast fits their roles much better than headliner Conway. Anne Jeffreys is very enjoyable as Tracy's girlfriend Tess Trueheart, a then-unknown Jane Greer proves that she was sharp, strong and striking even before her knockout role in Out of the Past (1947) as suspect Jane Owens and Mike Mazurki (fresh from his great turn in Murder, My Sweet (1944)) is perfectly cast as the menacing maniac Splitface.

All things considered, RKO's 1945 film Dick Tracy, Detective is a fun 1940s pulp flick but not much more.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sweet Liberty (1986)

Sweet Misery

- Somewhere between Genesis 1:1 and the current date, Alan Alda got famous. Do not ask me how it happened - it is more of a mystery than the inner workings of the universe. Sweet Liberty (1986) was Alda's first directed film since his days on "M.A.S.H." came to an end and the "sweetness" of the film, if it has any, is defined by brand of pretension and awkwardness that only Alan Alda can deliver. It is not enough that Alda writes and directs this pretentious bore, he also plays the shallow lead role.

Michael Burgess (Alda) - a winy know-it-all author who is in love with himself more than anything else - did not write his scholarly work on the American Revolution to make a movie. But how could he pass up the opportunity to make some extra cash through selling film rights? Michael's Hollywood experience brings him more than just some mailbox money however, as he clashes with eccentric back-stabbing movie stars (Michael Caine, Michelle Pfeiffer)  and a pair of Hollywood hacks (Bob Hoskins, Saul Rubinek) who prefer to pander for box office success rather than produce an accurate historical screen account of the American Revolution. Naturally, Michael needs none of this as his mother (Lillian Gish) is slowly dying of dimentia and his relationship with girlfriend Gretchen (Lise Hilboldt) is beginning to suffocate him. Laughing yet?

Sweet Liberty has one great sweet spot: its cast. Alan Alda headlines a terrific group that completely overshadows him and could do so with one hand tied behind their backs. The film's clear highlight is Michael Caine's hilarious performance as the charming but demanding, tom-catting movie star Elliot James but Bond girl Lois Chiles, the underrated Saul Rubinek, a young Michelle Pfeiffer, the great Bob Hoskins, the legendary Lillian Gish and an impressive unknown Lise Hilboldt are all fantastic in the film as well. With a great supporting cast such as this, only the writing, direction and lead performance could possibly ruin this film.... Enter Alan Alda.

The biggest problem with "M.A.S.H" once Alan Alda gained more creative control was that the show became more pretentious, preachy, saccharine and less funny than it already was. Sweet Liberty likewise suffers from similar problems; actually getting worse as it goes on through to the strange bubbly ending. The film appears to be an attempt at a satirical jab at the Hollywood machine but the themes never really materialize and the jokes do not land much of a blow. Alda's own individual writing and acting style that defines the film feels on the one hand too reminiscent of Neil Simon and Woody Allen (Alda having experience with material from both writers throughout his career) except that it lacks the wit and engaging characters threading throughout the works of both writers. And the only thing more damaging to the film than the writing is Alda's direction. The photography and general style fail to excite and the frequency of which Alda inserts cliched 80s scene montages (set to what sounds like Mannheim Steamroller playing at a Chuck'E'Cheese) is puzzling to say the least. Not without its enjoyable moments (mostly thanks to a great supporting cast) but hyped up on its own misplaced sense of self importance, Sweet Liberty ultimately ODs on the triple dose of Alan Alda.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aliens (1986)

"This Time It's War"

- When we last left Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), she had disposed the alien that had killed her entire crew and was heading back to earth. Aliens (1986) continues the story of Ellen Ripley when, 57 years later, she is found by a deep space salvage team.... it seems as if her shuttle had flown off course. Displaced in time, distrusted by the authorities and altogether deeply disturbed from her encounter with the xenomorph alien, Ripley finds it understandably difficult to re-enter society. But Ripley's account of her dealings with an alien onboard the Nostromo begins to become more believable to the powers that be when a terraforming colony on LV-426 (the planet that the Nostromo discovered the alien) suddenly disappears into radio silence. Enlisting the services of Ripley, a team of elite marines lands on the colony to investigate.

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) was a brilliant stand-alone film that required no sequel. However, Scott created such a mysterious and fascinating world in Alien that a sequel was certainly possible. Unfortunately, Scott's world was expanded upon by the would-be master of the big and the bloated: James Cameron. Promising that "this time it's war," Aliens builds upon what Ridley Scott and team created in Alien by delivering a bigger, badder but brainless action-packed Alien film.

A good sequel should not be a carbon copy of its original. Like any good sequel, Aliens incorporates much of what audiences enjoyed about the original Alien while also forging new ground. Cameron's most obvious contribution to the Alien series is expanding the xenomorph alien race. The audience is shown more of how the aliens live and behave as a group within the context of the story and the truly fantastic special effects (lead by legendary effects wizard Stan Winston) allow the aliens to move in new ways. The best aspect of the film is how the character of Ripley is explored. The many dynamics that play into Ripley's role in Aliens is quite satisfying, especially the relationship between Ripley and the child "Newt" (played very well by Carrie Henn). Naturally, Sigourney Weaver gives a powerful Oscar-nominated performance of the tough but vulnerable heroine.

While Aliens is a generally high-quality and entertaining movie, a number of potent flaws exist; most of which flow directly from writer/director James Cameron. One can notice the large number of predictable and lame Cameronisms that populate the film's reels immediately from the trailer. The military caricatures, the badass Hispanic female character, Michael Biehn, Pill Paxton, trademark Cameron camera movements, etc. - which is great if you like Cameronisms but awful if you do not. Cameron's trademarks would naturally exist since he directed the film, one might say. I will buy that. However, Cameron's departure from the thriller direction of Ridley Scott is something I cannot embrace.

Nobody wants to watch Alien remade - however, while the direction that Aliens takes could have been great, the execution of Cameron's vision is not. While there are inventive, tense and arguably scary moments in Aliens, Cameron basically crafts an action film out of his Alien picture and the film's general visual style suffers as a result. The visuals are certainly of a professional production quality. However, Aliens focuses on capturing supposed spectacular action scenes while featuring little in the way of interesting style or photography to heighten atmosphere and suspense. The original Alien film was defined by its incredible visual and atmospheric style; its sequel, Aliens, is defined by gunfire and explosions. And what is worse? The gunfire and explosions are not presented on screen with any more excitement or style than any other number of better films.

Cameron also makes the film feel very cheesy at times. Ridley Scott was able to make the characters in Alien compelling without any unnecessary and dishonest tugging of the heart strings - even Jones the cat never descended into such a role. Aliens on the other hand includes many forced emotional moments, especially in the "director's cut" version of the film. Even the most powerful emotional element of the film, regarding the character of Newt, feels forced and inauthentic in certain parts of the film. The cliched nature of the film's dialogue is atrociously cheesy - much of it coming off worse than it was on paper by some truly bad performances. Most of the cast (save for Weaver, Henn, Lance Hendriksen as the android Bishop and Michael Biehn as Cpl. Hicks) are pretty hard to take in. The most egregious thespian offenders are William Hope, who overacts his role to hilarious levels as Lt. Gorman; Paul Reiser, who gives a weak performance as the mischievous Weyland crony; and Bill Paxton, who is infuriating to watch as the loud, irritating and painfully unfunny Pvt. Hudson.

The root of the flaws in Alien comes from its very formulaic nature. Alien was different all-around. The film begins as an ensemble piece in which Ripley slowly rises to become the character at the center of the story. The first half of Alien moves at an eerily leisure pace (Ridley Scott recounted how people would complain that "nothing happens [in Alien] for 45 minutes"); it continues to speed up, with calming moments peppered throughout, becoming electric and very exciting up until the largely quiet final act. Suffice it to say, Alien is an unusual and brilliant film all around. Aliens, by contrast, basically follows the studio-approved Hollywood blueprint for an action/adventure/thriller in story structure, character outlining and general pacing. Cameron structures Aliens well but it is much more of a traditional, familiar film than Alien - I found this aspect particularly disappointing.

James Cameron's Aliens has a strange reputation as one of the greatest sequels in film history. It seems to me that Aliens features all the usual sequel trappings which makes me wonder how the film achieved its noble but unworthy title. Taking the Alien story in a starkly different direction from what Scott created is not damning in and of itself as a different direction could have been interesting. However, while generally entertaining, Aliens features little that is compelling or interesting. Rather than creating an engaging film world through style and suspense, which made the original Alien such a great film, Cameron focuses on special effects and gunplay in a way that makes Aliens a largely forgettable action flick. Although ending up an enjoyable film overall due to the professional quality of its production value and Sigourney Weaver's strong performance of a more fleshed-out Ripley character, Aliens dramatically pales in comparison to Ridley Scott's original 1979 Alien.

CBC Rating: 7/10