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