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Star Trek (2009)
It Needed Better Writing
Having Spock chased through time by his very own revenge obsessed Khan-doppleganger and screwing up the canonic Star Trek universe in the process isn't a bad idea. In fact, it's a rather appealing conceit. It simply needed more thought than it seems to have had.
1. A magical, unexplained, and apocolyptically lethal material at the center of the threat is just lazy. Creating scientific implausibilities to fill in the need for dramatic development is standard in sf stories, but for cryin' out loud, give it some internal logical consistency. We know something about black holes these days, so fudging the science on them is a guaranteed way to throw the ohfergodssakegimeeafreakinbreak switch on a person's willingness to suspend disbelief. (Those who care about such things know what I mean. Those who don't should probably read someone else's review.) As attendees of filmic shadow plays, most are happy to be lied to. Frequently, that's why one goes to the theater in the first place. A happy lie, a sad lie, an absurd lie, etc. It's all part of the entertainment gestalt. You can tell me black is white, but there'd better be plausible exposition if you want me to believe it. Failing that, I'll believe whatever you tell me about the colors smyzgetrunleo and bristarglfloss as long as it doesn't keep adapting as needed. Deus ex machina (or diabolis ex machina in this case I suppose) really is all played out, and it seems like lazy writing to me. Get me? Well maybe I'm giving free rein to a glut of pecksniffery, but it bugs me.
2. The antagonist is out to destroy planets full of beings he's never heard of because Spock failed to save Romulus in a timely fashion? It's possible I suppose, but it seems awfully weak in believability and pathetically weak from a dramatic standpoint. There's gotta be more to it, but without knowing what it is, I don't buy it. It needed more development or a different approach. I know he'd probably rather eat a pyramid of Giza sized pile of rancid head cheese chased with a million gallons of sour milk than get attached to the Star Trek franchise again, but this is the sort of thing at which Harlan Ellison excels. I think he could have made the story a truly gut-wrenching piece of drama. As presented, it really was pretty disappointing.
Those two quibbles aside, though, I still enjoyed the film quite a bit. It played, for me, a lot like a TV pilot episode. There was a gratifying amount of character development as well as copious references to past episodes of the various Star Trek series' to keep the general fan population happy. (All right. I probably qualify for the Trekkie category, but what the hell.) It has many fine moments, dramatic and comic, and reaches an admirable thespian standard...for a television series. I feel like there's an alternate time line series somewhere in the future, in movies if not on TV or direct to DVD. If that's the case, bravo. I'll probably be back to see it. As a stand alone event, however, it really needed better writing. It's something from which all of the Star Trek offerings have suffered to a greater or lesser extent, not because good writers did not work with the series, but because they always seem to get restrained somehow and never quite break out of the TV mold. If you want more explanation of this view, the published screen play version of the original series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison delineates the problem better than anything I could say here. It might be interesting to see that made in the alternate universe cast expanded to film length. (Note to the producers: Don't do it without Harlan! I mean it.) Still...I feel I can recommend this movie to you with a clear conscience. It is better than average, and may be (I haven't quite decided yet) the best of the Star Trek films yet made. Industrial Light & Magic certainly went hog wild with it, so it looks astoundingly good. Where they go with it from here will be telling. I am hopeful.
Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)
I didn't write about this film right after seeing it because it made me so mad that I knew I'd be overly harsh with it.
It has now been many years, and I just looked over the comments already made, and I wasn't going to add anything until I saw one recommending lightening up on the film.
Why? One reason given is that of course it's not musically accurate, but it's no more inaccurate than Star Trek or Star Wars is to actual science. I can't argue with the bare facts of that statement, but...
I don't think anybody seriously believes there are Jedi running around fighting evil with light sabers or that there are hand held phasers out there. It's fantasy, and that's understood. Nearly everybody who isn't deprived of the ability to hear music knows about it, though.
My chief hatred of this movie lies in the fact that it perverts what a lot of people think music is. I have had more than one student say something like, "I thought I just had to play the sunset." Many people with such impressions will give up when that fantasy is shattered, and some under my tutelage have.
Star Trek and Star Wars never set a potential scientist on a false path like that. I even remember seeing specials on either the History Channel or A&E about scientists who were motivated by what they thought might be possible in those shows. The fantasy inspired in that case. It did not create a false expectation.
What this movie has to say about music and being a musician is trivial when it is not dead wrong. That is not simply bad, it is hateful.
A far better movie for dealing with this topic is a French one called "Tous les matins du monde", and I commented on that one at this address:
It's not a film you can show your kids, but the whole musician conundrum is handled with far more subtlety and truth.
I know that there are plenty of other examples of Hollywood inaccuracy as far as film topics go. James Bond has little to do with real espionage. Rambo is not anything close to realistic as far as being a soldier goes.
Becoming a soldier or a spy, though, probably isn't something you try to become until long after such illusions are discarded. I have had adult students come to me thinking "Mr. Holland's Opus" is completely accurate. One even asked me if I knew whatever became of Glenn Holland.
The piece of music at the end is pretty bad too, but I figured that was going to happen. There's an awful lot of music I hate that the general populace seems to love, but that does not trigger my revulsion for this film. The lack of reality also doesn't do it. "Amadeus" doesn't have a lot of factual accuracy in it either, but I still find it entertaining.
It is the trivialization of what music is and what being a musician means that gets to me. If they had just tried to make an entertaining movie, I probably would have found it OK, but this contemptible piece of twaddle trivializes something that needs more serious attention, and I can't forgive that.
Why'd we bother with a story?
Why do people keep telling me to enjoy the music and not worry about the plot as if that's some kind of saving grace for the film? I'd probably have enjoyed some filmed performances of actual bands a whole lot more. If you feel a need to add some kind of plot to the genre, you really ought to make it plausible, even if you're going to make it formulaic and predictable. Spoilers coming between the stars.
OK. This young kid gets a full ride scholarship in music to a college. Nobody could tell he can't read music?!?!!!?!??! I'm sorry, but that sort of thing just trips my ohfergodsakegimmeabreak switch, and it ruins entire movies for me even if they were otherwise pretty good.
Even getting accepted for training at a music school will require you to read a piece of music you will never have seen. The filmmakers, though, apparently want me to believe that he got a full scholarship to a music school without anybody checking that out? It might even be possible that such a scholarship could be given even with such a lack if the player is good enough, but it would certainly have been discovered prior to acceptance unless the school is being run by morons.
There's even a "sight reading" audition where he apparently was given the music beforehand. WRONG!!!!! Sight reading means it is plopped in front of you, and you get maybe 30 seconds to look it over before you have to play it. There's even a good chance that it was written shortly before auditions. Sight reading is a test to find out how quickly one can absorb an unfamiliar piece of music. Any chance to prepare it defeats the purpose of the test. The only reason to do it the way this film does it is that the story writer wanted to have this undiscovered deficiency in the character. That's just plain awful writing.
So the plot if formulaic, predictable, and badly written. Maybe it's just me, but formulaic, predictable, badly written plots ruin my ability to enjoy the music. The performances were probably better than I thought they were because of this. That's criminal.
Goodbye Mr. Williams
I write this shortly after The Order of the Phoenix came out on DVD, so I'm going to dispense with commenting too much on the film itself because chances are most people already know what they think as far as this film goes.
I put this writing here because this is the first of the Harry Potter films for which John Williams has not done the music. He has also apparently bowed out from film #5 too. I wonder if he'll ever be back.
When I first saw this film, I actually stayed a long way through the end credits. A friend I went with asked why I was sitting around. I said, "I've got to know who did the music because it couldn't possibly be Williams." I was, of course, right.
I don't know why he's not doing it anymore. Maybe he overpriced himself. Maybe he's not getting along with the producers. Maybe he's too busy. Maybe he doesn't feel like it. Maybe he retired. It's as noticeable an absence as Richard Harris' Dumbledore, though. Williams has created a great deal of memorable film music which nearly everybody knows even if they don't know who wrote it.
He has always had a superb sense of what to do with an orchestra within the framework of films. The new people doing the soundtracks are adequate I suppose, but they lack the marvelous subtlety that Williams seems to pull off so effortlessly. I wish they'd get him back.
Couldn't be better
I just recently saw the Tim Burton version of this, and I added some comments on that too. After watching the film, I came home and watched this version, and it throws the deficiencies of the Burton film into sharp relief. The Burton film looks better, but that's about it. If you really want more on what I thought about it, look under the comments in that film.
First off this is a live concert performance. That means sets, costume, props, stage machinery, etc. are minimal. The performance happens around and even among the orchestra on a concert stage. That is the only flaw, for lack of a better term, in this production. If you've got a good imagination, it's insignificant.
Second, the San Francisco Symphony is one of the best kept secrets in this country. They are great. I have several recordings of their work, and I have always been extremely happy with them. When you think of great American orchestras, the usual cities are New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. San Francisco belongs in that group. Their playing of this score, which was, of course, originally set up for a pit orchestra less than half the size of the forces used in this production, is as near perfect as anyone can reasonably hope for. It also really emphasizes the operatic feel that I always felt this musical has.
George Hearn is the best Sweeney Todd I've ever seen. That comes from an old pit orchestra hand that has been through more than a few performances. Apparently the original choice for this production was Bryn Terfel, a Welsh bass-baritone opera singer. Apparently he got ill and had to be replaced. It would have been very interesting to see that. Maybe he'd have been a new favorite, but Hearn is still great. Patti LuPone is also a fine Mrs. Lovett and is able to keep Hearn's anguished Todd from overwhelming everything. Timothy Nolen makes a disturbingly lustful Judge Turpin, and I was glad to see the scene of his self mortifying struggle with his feelings for Johanna included in this production. It is often cut, but it provides a not exactly sympathetic, but at least clearer, view of Turpin's character. Neil Patrick Harris is also an excellent Tobias Ragg. He even has a good voice. Who woulda' thought it? Pirelli, Anthony Hope, Beadle Bamford, Johanna...all are well cast, well played, and well sung.
In short, it's hard to believe how well everything was done. If you've come away from the Burton film with a less than happy feeling, please check this out before you abandon the musical entirely. It represents Sondheim's best work, and is well worth seeing.
OK...so I've spent a fair amount of time in pit orchestras, and I had to check this out. When one makes one's living in a pit orchestra, one often ends up despising any musical one plays. Night after night of endless repetition of the same story with the same music eventually inflates every flaw in the wretched sing-spiel to the level of Chinese water torture. That is, in most cases.
You see, Sweeney Todd is one of 6 musicals that I'll play anytime. (If you care, the others are Fiddler on the Roof, Into the Woods, West Side Story, Cabaret, and Street Scene...only one of which has a good movie made from it.) The almost operatic intensity of the music and story is compelling, and after having been in the pit for Sweeney Todd...well, I don't really know how many times I've done it, but it exceeds 100...I still like it a lot. If you hated this film, give the 2001 live concert performance with the San Francisco Symphony a look before you write it off. It is nothing short of great. It's short on stage effects and other theatrical devices, but the performance is, nevertheless, staggering.
This film, though. Well, I did not hate it. My previous experience with the musical may have something to do with that. It may be that I am allowing my love for the original material to color my thoughts on this film. It certainly has problems.
Most of the dark humor has been sucked out of it, particularly in the number "Try a Little Priest". I'm so used to it being played with an hysterical mood, that the Gothic nihilism with which this film executes it does nothing to break the mood of what is, let's face it, a very disturbing story.
There are also some cuts I didn't much care for, although I may not have cared for any at all to tell the truth. The musical runs a good 3 hours, and unless you're doing a Tolkien story or something, most movie studios don't want to do that. Still...the musical flows so beautifully in its uncut form. A superb musical sequence involving a gorgeous counterpoint of themes and action between one scene with Anthony & Johanna talking excitedly about eloping and another where the Judge & the Beadle discuss a barber on Fleet Street is reduced to just part of the Judge & Beadle scene. Its absence mars a later number as well. I missed it keenly and played my DVD of the above mentioned 2001 performance as soon as I got home.
OK...a few words about casting, and I'll shut up. From a musical standpoint, Depp is really wrong for this role. Throughout I kept thinking "Edward Scissorshands". His voice is simply not up to the singing part the role demands. The rant song, as I always think of it, loses a lot because of it. When I first heard he was playing the title role I remember thinking they must have gotten a stunt voice for him, but they didn't. The movie suffers for it. Carter does OK. Again I think it suffers for an abandonment of the maniacal in favor of goth sensibilities, but that could be a personal problem. The big surprise for me was Rickman, who, though not great, rose to the role of the judge very nicely. As for everyone else...adequate...I guess.
So...as I said. I didn't hate it. It could have been far better.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
A Rare Hybrid
Comedy can be described as macabre or absurd. This is a film that manages to combine the two with uncanny perfection. From two sweet old aunties that turn out to be kindly serial killers, to an uncle that thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and yells "CHAAAAARRRRGE!!!!!" as he runs up the homestead's stair case because, to him, it is San Juan Hill, to a brother that's a certifiable psychopath and has as his unhappiest life moment the fact that his aunties are 1 ahead of him in the murder department, Arsenic and Old Lace never seems to run out of ways to make things more and more ridiculous.
Yet with all the implausibility of the plot line, it never fails to hold one's attention. I found the most driving force in the film was simply that I had to know how the story could possibly untangle enough to deliver an ending that didn't feel forced. It managed it quite nicely.
Cary Grant is terrific. Everyone in the film is. Peter Lorre is magnificent in what I think is an unusual comedic role as the violently homicidal brother's flunky.
The mood of this gem of a film simply can't be described sufficiently in words. It must be experienced. So go watch it. NOW! Really. You won't regret it.
West Side Story (1961)
It's better than this
All right. I love this musical. As a long time pit rat, I have played it many times, and it is one of about ten or so that I will play any time I am asked. So why do I dislike (hate is a little too strong albeit close) this movie so much?
Well maybe it's because West Side Story isn't really a musical, but a musical is what the filmmakers produced.
The various elements involved in producing a theatrical work (music, dance, drama, etc.) are all so closely entwined in the West Side Story that I love, they really can't be separated. It's a ballet. It's a drama. It's an opera. Musical numbers appear so seamlessly that it can be hard to define exactly where they began. Musical numbers may morph into fantasy dance sequences with similar ambiguity, and it can all come back to spoken reality just as unexpectedly.
The people that made this film wanted everything clearly defined, and it has the effect of a loud belch during a dramatic soliloquy. The flow of things is constantly interrupted. The dance starts here. The next song starts here. Here's where the dramatic scene begins. It's too bad really, because a successful stage production is tricky owing to the kinds of transitions that must be made. One would think that film would be a great medium to realize the kind subtlety the material demands. Sadly, a musical (i.e. a bunch of songs in between spoken drama) is what got made.
A case in point: the song 'Somewhere'. On stage, this starts in Maria's room and goes through much before landing in a dream world where the song is sung by an offstage voice. The dream is finally consumed by the nightmare of the earlier rumble in which some important loved ones are killed. This interruption jolts them back into Maria's room where they must decide how to deal with the reality. In the movie, it is reduced to a sappy love song duet that is embarrassingly trite compared to the original ('cinematic' it always seemed to me) concept they dropped.
That's not the only example of such ham-handedness in the film, but, to me, it is the most unforgivably stupid.
This isn't to say there is nothing redeeming in the whole film. The source material is too good to lose all of its power just because a bunch of trolls laid their inept claws on it. I particularly liked Ned Glass as Doc. This movie could have been immeasurably better, though.
Big Fish (2003)
Lying as an Art Form
What do you say about this movie?
I am at a total loss to describe it. The concept itself, a son tries to come to terms with his dying father that he knows nothing about but an enormous catalog of unbelievable stories, doesn't sound very promising. It sounds like a tired old formula, and I expected such when the rental started playing
Werewolves, giants, witches, siamese twins, bank robbers, hidden cities, sirens, etc. are all present in the fantasy, but they seem unremarkably to be part of the life of an otherwise ordinary traveling salesman. Whether they really are or not is never made completely clear, but that's the rub.
I once read a review by Harlan Ellison in which the main point was how a well told lie illuminates the truth in far better clarity than a simple recitation of the facts ever can. At one point in the film, the questing son remarks to his bed-ridden father that he's heard all of his stories thousands of times, and he has know idea who his father really is. The father's reply is, `I've never been anybody but me from the day I was born. If you don't know who I am, that's your failing, not mine.' Later investigations make the point clearer. I'll bet Ellison loved this movie. It is an extraordinary lie.
Did I like the film? You bet. It's Tim Burton's best work without a doubt. Is it for everybody? Probably not. Many will find it confusing and pointless, but good fantasy is like that. All I can say is, relax and let it happen. You won't regret it.
I, Robot (2004)
It ain't Asimov
I am going to skip any plot specifics. They don't matter. This movie has almost nothing to do with anything Isaac Asimov wrote. It nods in the direction of Asimov's famed three laws of robotics. I won't go into those because I'm sure they've been included in numerous other comments. Some of Asimov's characters are present in name. The laws and the characters are all that survive of his work in this film.
When I first saw that a film called I, Robot based on Asimov was in production, I was almost giddy with excitement. I thought somebody had managed to get Harlan Ellison's script of it filmed. No such luck. I saw that it was going to be a kind of murder mystery, and I thought maybe they had adapted one of the Elijah Bayley/R. Daneel Olivaw novels. I have seen the movie, and they did not.
Although the three laws are present in the film, they are ultimately discarded in their implications. In Asimov's works, any violation of the laws leads to a complete shut-down of the robot's positronic brain or at least the robotic equivalent of catatonia. The greatness in Asimov's work is how he weaves his plots around the practical application of the laws in unpredictable human situations. Asimov started writing the robot stories because he wanted to get away from what he called the `Frankenstein Syndrome' direction most such stories took at the time. That is, thinking machines turn on their masters. The first story he wrote on the subject involved a robot nanny that ends up saving a child's life after incessant paranoia has been rained on it by the child's mother. The whole point of Asimov's laws is that they are inviolable. The twist in his stories was that the machines always behaved exactly as they were supposed to, and the problems arose out of humans failing to appreciate subtleties inherent in how the laws work in real situations. Any robot harming (even by accident) or allowing a human to be harmed through inaction would cease to function. End of story. When this becomes inconvenient, one cannot ignore this for the sake of the plot one wants to have if one is going to be true to Asimov. The only reason I can think of for having Asimov's name on the credits is to draw in people who are fans of his work. That is also the only reason to keep the title of Asimov's book on this movie, because it has absolutely nothing to do with that collection of short stories entitled I, Robot. The Ellison script I mentioned earlier would have been vastly better.
So in short, if the attraction of this movie for you is Will Smith and the action movie genre, you'll probably be OK. If you're going to this movie because you're an Asimov fan, don't.