Monday, October 14, 2013

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CBC Rating:  4/10

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Not Bad but Not Super

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CBC Rating: 6/10

Friday, May 31, 2013

Across the Pacific (1942)

Our Man Bogart

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

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

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

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

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

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

CBC Rating: 6/10

Thursday, May 30, 2013

In the Bleak Midwinter (1995)

Branagh's Band of Misfits do the Bard

- Although a general financial success, Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic book Frankenstein was largely panned. The film's reputation has grown since its original release but Branagh's Frankenstein was at the time labeled "uneven," "manic" and supposedly residing in "dullsville." Once hailed as the next Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles after Henry V (1989), Branagh was being torn apart over Frankenstein only five years later. Obviously, it would be nice for Branagh if his next project was more affectionately received by critics. Branagh's sixth feature-length film In the Bleak Midwinter (1995 - AKA: A Midwinter's Tale, depending on what side of the Atlantic Ocean one lives on) achieved just that.

Written and directed by Branagh (who chose not to act but to write parts specifically for his buddies), In the Bleak Midwinter follows seemingly cursed actor Joe Harper (Michael Maloney) who puts on an off-beat Christmastime production of Hamlet in an attempt to save his sister's church. The play is seemingly doomed from the word "go" as Joe's agent (Joan Collins) does not approve of the idea and the best he can even recruit on such short notice during the holidays is a rag-tag bunch of misfit actors. To make matters worse, everyone brings their own variety of baggage to the set (brought out by the play's content) and the landlord is even more impatient (or greedy) than everyone originally thought. But as the production goes on, this band of misfits begin to grow close and their Hamlet takes on an identity and atmosphere of its own.

This is a surprisingly fun and impressive film - "surprising" only because I did not expect this largely (and unfortunately) forgotten little independent flick to be so enjoyable and impacting. In the Bleak Midwinter is very well written with an extraordinary sense of humor and heart at the center of the story. Branagh did a superb job composing the lightning-fast dialogue and creating some very enjoyable characters, memorable not just for the humor they bring to the film (John Sessions as a gay man cast as Queen Gertrude, for example) but for the chemistry they share and warmth they bring to the story.

The fact that the film is well cast helps make Branagh's characters very enjoyable. Every actor is terrific in their roles; the fact that Branagh wrote each character specifically for certain actors no doubt accounts for this. Michael Maloney is a great lead as Joe Harper, Joan Collins is fantastic as Joe's enabling manager Margaretta, Julia Sawalha is a cast highlight as the cute but troubled Nina and my favorite performance of the film is Richard Briers the seemingly pretentious and cantankerous thespian elder Henry Wakefield.

When viewing Branagh's entire filmography, In the Bleak Midwinter perhaps stands out most notably for restoring Branagh's professional profile after Frankenstein. It was cheap to make (its under-the-radar success yielding a sizable profit as a result) and was a hit with critics, prepping them to also anticipate and hail his next film Hamlet (1996). Branagh is justifiably known best for his brilliant and faithful cinematic productions of Shakespeare such as Henry V and Hamlet. However, a film like In the Bleak Midwinter not only proves that Branagh can also play loose with Shakespeare but displays his genuinely diverse talents as a screenwriter and director.

Unfortunately, this gem has largely been relegated to resting in cinematic obscurity. In the Bleak Midwinter is really witty, fun, warm and, if one can find it, should not be missed. 

CBC Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Moonraker (1979)

"Take me around the world one more time?"

- Space... The final frontier. These are the voyages of James Bond 007 licensed to kill. His continuing mission: to explore strange new girls. To stop Drax from destroying Earth's life and start his own new civilization. To boldly go where no Bond has gone before.....

Wait a second! Hold the freaking phone! Bond in outer space saving the world? This can't be a James Bond film can it?! Well, yeah it is, and despite its goofy aspects and completely ridiculous space-based climax, Moonraker is one of the better films of the James Bond series.

Outside of its title and name of the main villain, very little connects this movie to Ian Fleming's original novel of the same name. Moonraker was not even supposed to happen when it did, the planned James Bond adventure for 1979 was actually For Your Eyes Only (which finally happened in 1981). 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me even promised at the end credits that “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only” but the phenomenon that was 1977’s Star Wars changed the minds of Cubby Broccoli and those at EON. The box office had spoken (it worked too, Moonraker remains one of the highest-grossing Bond films): Bond would venture out into space.

Moonraker has a reputation of being way too silly and completely out there with the outer space component. A few too many Merry Melodies-type sequences are certainly sprinkled here and there throughout the film and, although they do not overwhelm the film for me, they certainly do not allow the viewer to take things 100% seriously. A few times throughout the film, there will be a great scene that features Bond doing something amazing and avoiding certain death that ends with something absurdly wacky. Also, because of extreme popularity among Bond fans, Jaws returns as one of Bond's enemies. But the problem with his return is that the filmmakers turned him into a cartoon character, nowhere near as threatening as he was in The Spy Who Loved Me (though he still does have his share of creepy moments in Moonraker). All that is missing from Jaws' scenes are some spinning wheels and "ah-oo-ga!" noises.

But where there are flashy gadgets, silly quips, and wacky sequences there is also violence, beauty and Bond lurking in the dark trying to unravel the mystery of a missing "Moonraker" shuttle-craft. The best example of the hidden darkness of Moonraker is the scene where Drax's the dogs chase the double-crossing henchwoman through the woods. The way that scene is lit, shot and set to music easily makes it quite dark and powerful; it is easily the best scene in the film for me. I believe people focus too much on the cheesy sequences and outer space aspects of the film and do not notice the other atmospheric elements that make up the entire film, the brilliant Ken Adam sets, luscious Jean Tournier cinematography, beautiful John Barry score, awesome Roger Moore 007 showing, and the overall clever film craftsmanship by director Lewis Gilbert.

The director of The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice, Lewis Gilbert returns to direct yet another huge Bond epic and, with cinematographer Jean Tournier, creates an absolutely terrific looking and fun action-filled Bond flick. The way that the film is colored is the film's biggest highlight: the bright colors of South America, the mellow nighttime tones and the darkness of space - Moonraker is a gorgeous film. Also returning to the Bond series is composer John Barry who writes a gorgeous Bond score that really enhances every scene. Barry also brought back Bond theme veteran Shirley Bassey (who also sang "Goldfinger" and "Diamonds Are Forever") to the series as well, returning for a third and final time to sing the very underrated "Moonraker" song.

Although perhaps the most criticized piece of the film, I find that the outer space aspect of the film is actually handled very well. Outside of the dated way that the laser guns are portrayed, Moonraker sees Bond in space in a plausible fantasy sort of way. Also, the film was rightfully nominated for the Best Special Effects Oscar and the outer space section of the film is the best place to look for these effects: the space station, the outer space battle, and the shuttle crafts - all very impressive for late-1970s special effects. As one might expect with a James Bond film, Moonraker features many terrific action scenes. The very exciting pre-credits sequence is definitely a plus for the film and the fast-paced  chases through the waters of Venice and the jungles of South America would set the new standard for scenes with Bond in a boat (and there are many of those!).

The film's exciting action scenes, the amazing score and the lush photography certainly make Moonraker a worthwhile Bond film but at the center of it all is Roger Moore's Bond. After really finding his niche with the character in the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore gives a very strong performance as James Bond in Moonraker. Unfortunately the film's larger cast is hit-or-miss. Michael Lonsdale has a brilliant screen presence and is given many wonderful things to say throughout the film ("Mr. Bond, you persist in defying my efforts to provide an amusing death for you....") but Bond Girl Lois Chiles is incredibly wooden in her role as the cheekily-named Dr. Holly Goodhead. No matter who Moore is playing off of, he is a splendid James Bond from beginning to end. Moore employs his own interpretation of the Bond character in the film with humor and charm but he is still not above brutally taking out bad guys and seducing women to get information. The entire film is underrated but Roger Moore's performance especially seems to not get enough credit.

Despite its overly silly components, Moonraker does not exactly live up to its apparent reputation as a poor Bond outing. Moonraker is not one of the great down-to-earth Bond thrillers but it certainly is one of the great fun and epic Bond adventures - looking great and being a very fun two hours.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Despicable Me (2010)

Merry Maniacal Melodies

- The list of heroes on film is not a short one, especially in this day and age with the many superhero blockbuster franchises that populate the summer film season. While many films take the time to explore the nature and adventures of the super*hero*, few have looked exclusively at what gives every superhero his or her purpose: the super villain. Well, the 2010 animated film Despicable Me takes a look at the life of the super villain for a change.

Super villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) was once at the top of the evil pecking order only to be recently shown up by the latest villainous up-and-comer. With a plan to steal a device necessary to steal the moon, Gru will once again be the best villain in the world! But the love of three little orphan girls Margo, Edith and Agnes may change all of that – and Gru himself – for the better.

In this Golden Age of animated films dominated by brilliant big studio blockbusters and clever independent projects, Despicable Me fills a unique spot in the animated genre’s modern standing. Epic films from Pixar (Up (2009)) or DreamWorks (How to Train Your Dragon (2010)) beautifully seize our imagination while dark independent films like 9 (2009) force us to reevaluate the possibilities of the entire animated genre. However, Despicable Me sets on a fresh path for a feature length animated film by reimagining the classic cartoon for a 21st Century audience.

Despicable Me features some of the most famous (though not necessarily best) comedic actors of our time (Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Will Arnett and Kristen Wiig) but it is hardly a completely modern movie. In my opinion, this is its greatest strength. In striving to be classic inside a genre that often goes for ultra-timely elements for quick box office bucks or a specific niche audience, Despicable Me manages to be one of the most entertaining and warm animated films of the past few years.

Although certainly up to modern standards as far as the quality of its animation goes, Despicable Me chooses a classic direction and timeless themes. Rather than follow in the footsteps of many of its contemporaries that offer a very timely style of humor which tumbles out of style by the next year, the witty humor and outrageous slapstick (where a character will not only survive a mushroom cloud explosion or shark attack but walk away with only a sooty face) of Despicable Me is more akin to classic cartoons like “Merry Melodies” and “Tom and Jerry.” The film’s many memorable minion characters especially embody this aspect of the film.

Also following this timeless direction is the film’s central themes of familial love. Sure, Gru begins as a mean, albeit instantly likeable, super villain but his father-like relationship with the three orphan girls touches him to the core. This relationship between the main characters gives the film a big heart and ends up making Despicable Me more than just a fun cartoon.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Switch (2010)

Luckily Forgettable

- I will generally watch any film starring Jason Bateman. This rule comes with certain risks however because although Jason Bateman is a talented and hilarious actor whose work I enjoy, his career has been less than perfect. Bateman’s duds are unfortunately not limited to Teen Wolf Too (1987) and I easily count the 2010 romantic(ish) comedy The Switch as an avoidable Jason Bateman flick.

Bateman stars as the neurotic New Yorker Wally Mars who is in love with his best friend Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston). Wally’s introversion has prevented him from ever working up the nerve to tell Kassie how he feels and his time finally runs out when Kassie reveals that she is going to have a baby via insemination with the help of the hunky sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson). She also wants to have the baby back home in Minnesota – too far for a relationship. This news is so devastating for Wally that he has only booze and anonymous pills to turn to - at Kassie’s own “Insemination Party” of all places. Here, while pretending to celebrate Kassie’s decision, he unwittingly destroys the donor’s sperm sample. Out of desperation, he refills the sample with his own - of course, he is too smashed to remember ever doing any of this. Seven years later, Kassie returns to New York with her son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson). Wally is excited for the chance to start again with Kassie but his own neurosis complicates things. To make everything worse, Roland comes back into the picture, trying to romance Kassie and kindle a relationship with Sebastian. But amidst all of this, Wally cannot help but notice that the odd Sebastian acts a lot like him and he is forced with dealing with the possibility that Sebastian might actually be his child.

Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (Blades of Glory (2007)), The Switch is a pretty bad movie despite boasting an impressive cast. Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis and Patrick Wilson are all talented actors but their best work cannot be found here. Neither one gives a bad performance per se (Bateman in particular shows just how good an actor he can be in one especially emotional scene); the main problem with The Switch is its script, written by Hollywood hack Allen Loeb from Jeffrey Eugenides' original short story. The script is so bad that no actor could have possibly saved the movie by themselves. The script lacks stability in its general narrative, is not very funny (any comedy that does accidentally happen in the film can be traced directly to the quirky ticks of Jeff Goldblum) and does not feature any kind of sympathetic character. It is just terrible – a blue print for how not to write a comedic screen story.

Luckily, any lasting effects from this awful film are short-lived because The Switch is anything but a memorable film. Not too much time has passed since viewing the film and I have already nearly forgotten it in its entirety. As I write this, I am losing every scene, line- any fragment of memory regarding The Switch whatsoever. Thank heavens! If The Switch stuck around in my brain even for a moderate period time, I think I would go nuts.

CBC Rating: 4/10

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Haywire (2011)

Visually Stunning - Ass Kicking - Star Making

- Have you ever felt, looking back, that a film was practically tailor-made for your tastes? I felt this way about Steven Soderbergh’s little-recognized 2011 action/espionage film Haywire.

Mix Martial Arts (MMA) icon Gina Carano stars as Mallory, a world-class professional thief, killer, spy, liberator; whatever the job calls for, she will do. She kicks ass and takes names, if she needs to bother taking them at all. After much time aiming her talents at the targets designated by her employer and former lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), Mallory suddenly becomes a target herself when a line of seemingly unrelated assignments thread into one big strange event. On the run from nearly every criminal, private and governmental organization within reach, Mallory turns her talents inward for this struggle for survival and vendetta against those responsible.

Action films can be great – but not just any action film will do. One can employ the finest physical performers and stunt people on the planet but a film requires more than convincing action scenes to be worthwhile. With notable exception, I have had it with the massed-produced bloated action-packed blockbuster. I enjoy a well-done big, sweeping action film like The Avengers (2012) and The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars Trilogies as much as anybody but when it comes to more conventional ideas of an "action film" give me something slick and stylish like Taken (2008) and most of the James Bond series; or, if you really want to thrill me, throw in a strong sense of character into the story as well like in Blood Diamond (2006) or The Yakuza (1974).

By this criteria, Haywire is simply my kind of action film. Slick and cool from the action to the cinematography to the way the film flows; Haywire is a fun, action-packed but also thoughtful ride. The action is extremely well done, realistic but also fresh and expressive with its inclusion of MMA moves and great visual flare. Of course, a film rarely disappoints in the style department with director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven (2001)) at the helm. Choosing a strong but subtle sub-contextual presentation, where what is unsaid is more important in creating a thick atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, Soderbergh forms a stand-out action film. Although producing an unquestionably modern feel, Haywire includes a tangible throwback sense that channels the espionage atmosphere of the 60s and 70s with its focus on visual style over explosions or other sensationalist action film clichés. As an admitted fan of Mr. Soderbergh, I found the intricate but refined style of Haywire quite thrilling. From the sharp camera angling, swinging soundtrack and deep color palette, Haywire is classic Soderbergh.

One of the most notable aspects of Haywire is its star, who is new to Hollywood: Gina Carano. Haywire actually owes its very existence to Gina Carano. Director Steven Soderbergh caught some of Carano’s MMA fighting on TV and was so impressed by her that he wanted to craft a film around her – hence Haywire was born from talented screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City (1998)). Creating a film from scratch completely around one person hardly even happens with actors, let alone athletes! Soderbergh obviously saw something real in Carano because, for someone who is not an actor by trade, she is extraordinary here in Haywire. Carano is undoubtedly well suited for the film’s unique action pieces as a world-class MMA fighter but as she thrills audiences with her raw athleticism, she also captivates with her incredible beauty. Whether this is a natural talent or the working of Soderbergh himself, Carano has a very strong and expressive and screen presence; she is quite convincing and compelling on screen, effortlessly selling her character and the story as a whole. Despite the fact that Carano is surrounded by an amazing cast (with the exception of a mumbling, vacant Channing Tatum) – Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton – all of whom give fantastic performances, she absolutely holds her own as the focal point of the film. 

With its stunning style, compelling story, unique action scenes and fantastic cast, Haywire has a lot to offer the often deficient action genre. I look forward to what is next for Gina Carano, as I think she has a lot to offer movies in general as well.

 CBC Rating: 8/10

Friday, February 22, 2013

Quantum of Solace (2008)

"I never left...."

- After 20 Bond films and the franchise's low point with the decade of 007 disappointment known as the Pierce Brosnan-starred James Bond films, it would not have been unjustifiable to doubt the likelihood of the Bond films ever returning to the danger and plausible fantasy of the films seen in the 1960s and late-1980s. However, the twenty-first Bond film, Casino Royale (2006), did just that and more - being one of the best Bond films ever made as well as breathing new life into the Bond franchise. The twenty-second film of the 007 series, Quantum of Solace (2008), continues what Casino Royale started and, although perhaps not eclipsing its predecessor, is a very fine follow-up for the 007 series. Picking up where Casino Royale left off (seriously, the story beings somewhere around a half-an-hour where we last left Casino Royale), Quantum of Solace sees Bond dealing with events from Casino Royale as well as investigating a newly discovered evil organization.

Quantum of Solace is a brilliant 007 entry: an energetically stylish and magnificently unusual addition to the James Bond film series. Not bogged down by any particular franchise cliché or formula, Quantum of Solace is a unique film within the Bond franchise. If you are looking for over-the-top gadgetry, pointless banter with Moneypenny or Q, catchphrases, bimbos, or megalomaniacal villains in your Bond films, Quantum of Solace may disappoint. In this Bond film, the story is dark and grounded with Bond lost on his own in a dark place and mad as hell. Unlike some films within the Bond series, James Bond is not an action-hero caricature, he is a human being who does great things. In his second James Bond outing, Daniel Craig somehow manages to equal his previous amazing performance in Casino Royale. Here in Quantum of Solace, Craig is at the top of his game with a cool but subtle performance of his very human James Bond: tormented, dangerous, and serious about what needs to be done.

Craig is supported very well - with many of the supporting actors reprising their roles from Casino Royale. Judi Dench makes a great showing as M, her character having a very entertaining role to play; Giancarlo Giannini returns as Bond's ally Mathis, giving one of the most emotional performances of the film; and Jeffrey Wright comes back to the Bond franchise as Bond's CIA friend Felix Leiter, developing the character further and just being as cool as can be. Bond Girls Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton go beyond the stereotypical Bond Girl eye candy role and give impressive acting efforts - Kurlenko especially. Also, Mathieu Amalric plays the film's main villain: Dominic Green. Perhaps one of the least quirk-filled Bond villains, Amalric's Dominic Greene character is nonetheless one of the best villains of the series: he is sublimely entertaining as the weasel-like evil and completely insane villain.

The shortest Bond film ever to date (clocking in at 106 minutes); Quantum of Solace is also one of the most stylish, action-packed and character-oriented. 
Having never done an action film before, director Marc Forster proves that he was the right man to sit in the director's chair. Forster creates a stylish, taut, thrilling, moving, adrenaline rush of a Bond film. Luckily for us viewers, along with Forster putting his directing talents to great use, he also brings along his long-time collaborated cinematographer Roberto Schaefer to light the film. What a fantastic looking film Quantum of Solace is! It has a grainy and gritty yet bright and classic look to it - and Schaefer must have had fun bouncing light off of the fantastic art direction.

Casino Royale writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with a little help from Paul Haggis) produced another wonderful script. Even though the film's title is based on the Ian Fleming short story of the same name and the script borrows a chapter from Ian Fleming's Casino Royale novel, Quantum of Solace is a mostly original story that piggy-backs onto the story seen in the previous 2006 Casino Royale film. Despite being created during a writers strike, burdening the remaining filmmakers who were left to finish what was written for the film, Quantum of Solace is easily one of the best written Bond films with an array of intelligent, character-centered, funny and thrilling elements. 

No better example of the quality in the writing, direction and acting within Quantum of Solace exists than the film's beautiful finale. Giving a powerful end to the story that began in Casino Royale, it also gives a taste of what is to come with the franchise. Bond is now a more seasoned agent with valuable experience; he has grown as a person and has put his armor back on: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Friday, January 18, 2013

My Fair Lady (1964)

Hardly the Fairest of Them All

****This review contains spoilers****

- Reputations often precede themselves, especially when it comes to film. I often watch a film because I heard from multiple sources that it is a good movie or because this-or-that award ceremony brought it to my attention. Directed by Golden-Age legend George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (1954)), the eight-time Oscar-winning film (including Best Picture, Director and Actor), My Fair Lady (1964) is considered a true classic. With a reputation as one of the best musicals in the history of film, getting around to My Fair Lady was somewhat of a priority for me. However, finally viewing the film proved once again that reputations can be deceiving. Although I enjoyed certain aspects of this highly regarded musical, My Fair Lady ultimately left me rather disappointed.

Director George Cukor presents a stunning visual motion picture. My Fair Lady is a dazzling film; wonderfully framed and colored with some very clever choreography. The scenery is over-decorated and the characters are overdressed - but beautifully so. Just about every major player associated with the look of the film was honored by the Academy: Cukor, cinematographer Harry Stradling (who had actually shot the 1938 version of the story Pygmalion) and costume designer Cecil Beaton (Gigi (1958)) each took home a gold statue for their work on My Fair Lady.

Naturally, this being a musical, Frederick Loewe's songs are the primary feature of the film. My Fair Lady features a number of classic songs including "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and my personal favorite "On The Street Where You Live" (though I prefer Bobby Darin's arrangement). Of course, for every one good song in the film two or three other songs can be found that die on impact. Despite offering a few unforgettable tunes, most of the songs in My Fair Lady failed to move me; some were down-right boring. Unfortunately, a lackluster music selection is the least of the film's problems.

Based off of the 1956 Broadway musical starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews (which is itself a musical take on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion), My Fair Lady follows Cockney "gutter snipe" Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) who is taken under the tutelage of phonics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). Henry has accepted a bet that he can transform Eliza into a proper English lady in only six months' time. In the end, all it took was the promise of shiny new clothes and all the chocolate she could eat to keep Eliza cooped up in Henry's house for half-a-year learning "proper" English. It was a tough road but Eliza defies all odds (all in one night, believe it or not) and gives an unshakable performance at the Ambassador's Ball as a "proper" English lady. However, when Henry fails to rest even a sliver of the credit for the achievement upon her, Eliza runs away out of Henry's care and back to the streets. Henry tracks her down and, despite a long valid list of grievances against Henry and even after a devastating and seemingly decisive fight, Eliza returns to Henry indefinitely. The story contains a number of aspects that holds one's attention throughout but also holds some peculiar elements that, in the end, fail to satisfy.

The first thing that fails where story is concerned is any part of the film that involves the overbearing performance from Stanley Halloway as Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred. The filmmakers' first choice for the role, James Cagney, would certainly have improved the character immensely. Unfortunately, Cagney was determined to remain retired in the 1960s; he would not return to the screen until 1981. However, the problem with the character of Alfred P. Doolittle is that he is absolutely pointless inside the film in the first place. One could literally cut out every scene featuring the character of Alfred and it would not impact the story of Henry and Eliza one bit. Taking Holloway's Alfred out of My Fair Lady would have affected the film in a very positive way as it would have made the story more focused, shortened the very long runtime and saved the audience a lot of annoyance.

The other negative aspect of the story that jumped out at me is the general relationship between Henry Higgens and Eliza Doolittle. Henry is no charming misogynist who learns the error of his ways after falling in love with a good woman - or something like that. No sir, Henry Higgins is a dyed-in-the-wool verbal abuser. Henry wastes no time in calling Eliza names from their very first meeting but the relationship evolves from simple name-calling to general belittling and dismissing. Henry is eventually very happy with his work transforming Eliza into a completely different person - into the person he decided she should be - and by the end of the film is kicking back, demanding that she fetch his slippers. Some cheeky soul will no doubt come at me with some kind of flimsy retort along the likes of, "it's a snapshot of the times!" To that I say: can you picture Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis fetching some old jerk's shoes? I think not - not without that guy coming to a pathetic and particularly grisly end.

Rex Harrison's performance of the verbally abusive Henry Higgens won an Oscar. I am flabbergasted as to how this was achieved (especially considering the great list of names he nudged out for Oscar gold, including the legendary performance from Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964) which saw him play three different characters). Although occasionally amusing, Harrison's work on My Fair Lady is extremely overblown in general due to the absence of anything resembling depth in his portrayal.

On the other hand, Audrey Hepburn's performance of Eliza Doolittle is fantastic (despite her singing being overdubbed during post-production) and makes the film worth a look all by herself. Hepburn flawlessly convinces in the part, running the gamut as this doppelganger character: absolutely hilarious as the "gutter snipe" version of Eliza, delicately elegant as Eliza's lady counterpart and genuinely engaging and sympathetic in both halves of the role. When people think of Audrey Hepburn, some of the images that immediately spring to mind originate from My Fair Lady: Hepburn gazing from under that great white hat and her graceful figure standing at the top of the staircase. Naturally, Hepburn's classic performance in My Fair Lady was overlooked by the Academy as they were falling all over themselves to honor the lesser members of the cast.

Audrey Hepburn's strong performance goes a long way in redeeming much of the film; however, the abusive relationship between Henry and Eliza still poisons the overall story. My Fair Lady is nearly three hours long and yet the relationship between Henry and Eliza is incredibly underdeveloped. The fact that Audrey Hepburn has even less chemistry with Rex Harrison than she did with the also much older and miscast Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina (1954) does not help create a relationship between their characters but the problem runs even deeper. The film spends plenty of time watching Henry verbally beat down on Eliza but features nothing that bears a resemblance to a flowering relationship. Yet Eliza is seen at the end of the film - after finally standing up for herself against Henry, ready to marry the young Freddie (played by the great Jeremy Brett) - trotting back to Henry's home, preferring to stay with him. The conclusion makes no sense and is completely frustrating due to Henry's abusive nature. The fact that the film failed to define much of a relationship at all leaves the audience irritated and asking the question: is it love or simply the desire for empty but soothing familiarity that brings these characters together at the end?

So.... Mirror, mirror on the wall - which is the fairest musical of them all? Unlike many critics and film buffs, my pick is certainly not My Fair Lady. Audrey Hepburn and George Cukor's visual team put on an enjoyable show; however, plenty of negative aspects exist within the film to take me out of the picture and leave me generally disappointed.  

CBC Rating: 6/10

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Holiday Inn (1942)

This Inn Ain't Big Enough For The Two Of Us

- Some holiday films center around one holiday but the 1942 Irving Berlin-composed musical Holiday Inn manages to sing, dance and romance through most of the major American holidays inside 100 minutes.

After a butting heads over loving the same woman, song-and-dance team Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) go their separate ways. Hurt but generally content with their new paths, Ted hits the road with his new fiance and Jim retires to his farm in Connecticut to kick it back and be lazy. Deciding that the life of a farmer was not all it was cracked up to be, Jim's entrepreneurial spirit moves him to transform his farm into a seasonal entertainment hot spot called Holiday Inn, offering dining, dancing and performances only on major holidays. Jim's Holiday Inn fails to tempt his former partner Ted into coming aboard, as the revenue generated by regularly working all year did not seem worth giving up for working only 15 days a year, but Jim does secure the undiscovered but promising talent of Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds). Linda's beauty, talent and allure prove too much for the love-starved Jim, who almost immediately falls for her. However, when Ted's fiance leaves for greener (as in wealthier) pastures, he heads to Jim's Holiday Inn for a job and sympathetic ear. Things soon come full circle between Ted and Jim when Ted tries to employ and engage the lovely Linda; but Jim is not planning to walk away this time.

Holiday Inn is a very enjoyable film full of laughs, song, dance and romance - but it is not without its staggeringly noticeable flaws. While Jim's Holiday Inn offers holiday-themed shows on all of the more obvious holidays (Christmas, Valentine's Day, Independence Day, New Years, etc.), a couple of bizarre holidays make the line-up. The birthdays of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are honored in the film (now we "celebrate" one Presidents' Day with all the presidents in mind). The film's worship of George Washington is really just annoying, perpetuating the seemingly indestructible myth that George Washington could never tell a lie. However, the film's undying adoration for Abraham Lincoln jumps headfirst off the balcony of mere irritation and into the stands of complete offensiveness. The film used celebrating Lincoln's birthday as an opportunity to feature a musical number in blackface. Yikes. I do not understand how blackface ever became a popular genre and it is utterly painful to watch. The lyrics to Berlin's song "Abraham" add insult to injury:
When black folks lived in slavery
Who was it set the darkie free?
Abraham, Abraham

When trouble came down from the shelf
Who's heart was bigger than himself?
Abraham, Abraham
The idea that Abraham Lincoln cared at all about the slaves or black people in general is an unfortunately all-too common misconception; Lincoln's black resettlement program goes nearly without mention these days. As if a blackface number was not unbearable enough to watch, this big-hearted, selfless and altogether false heroic caricature of Lincoln firmly finishes the job of insulting the viewer. Luckily, these scenes are not long enough to condemn the rest of the film which is by and large an enjoyable and well-made musical.

Since both are Irving Berlin-penned song and dance films, both star Bing Crosby and both take place during the holiday season, Holiday Inn and White Christmas (1954) are inevitably compared. The matchup is tight; I definitely prefer some aspects of Holiday Inn more than White Christmas. The dance numbers are far more enjoyable in Holiday Inn, thanks in large part to the incredible talents of Fred Astaire, than they are in White Christmas. The characters are also more engaging in Holiday Inn; Fred Astaire is a charming sleazebag, much more fun to watch than the sweet-natured nervousness of Danny Kaye. Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney give fine performances in White Christmas but Marjorie Reynolds is absolutely enchanting in every frame in Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby is even better in Holiday Inn than he is in White Christmas as the care-free and successful Bob Wallace; Crosby portrays much more dimension, most notably a sympathetic shade of uncertainly and vulnerability, in his performance of Jim Hardy.

However, although Holiday Inn does a few things better than White Christmas, I will take White Christmas over Holiday Inn in the end. If Holiday Inn had not gone completely out of its way to deify two American presidents, going blackface in the process, it might have been an even closer match. However, the songs heard in White Christmas are even better than that in Holiday Inn (although the Academy Award-winning song "White Christmas" was actually first heard in Holiday Inn) and, as much as I enjoy David Abel's atmospheric black-and-white cinematography in Holiday Inn, the wonderful VistaVision visuals and grand scope of White Christmas are hard to beat.

CBC Rating: 7/10