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Oddly Conceived Letdown
As a fan of Billy Wilder, old movies and this trio of stars, I was looking forward to this. But I feel it's a bit of a letdown.
Audrey Hepburn, as usual, is luminous (and she is, as usual, paired off with a suitor far too old for her). But part of the problem is what the story does with her character. She pines away for Holden, and then goes away to cooking school in Paris. Why does she go? Did she want to go? Unknown. While away, she writes her father a letter saying she is over Holden. But then, when she returns, she (in a rather absurd coincidence) runs into him at the train station. The two connect. So she wasn't over him after all? Or was she over him, but then fell back in love when she saw him? What was her plan if she hadn't coincidentally run into him? Who knows? Later, Bogart and Holden sort out which of them gets to "have" her, which is rather sexist and also robs her of her agency. (Surely a charming girl like that must have other options besides a buffoon and an old man.)
Holden hasn't been given much of a character to play. He's all charm and nothing else. The script never rounds him out with grace notes that might have helped us to understand why he lives such a vacuous life. As an actor, Holden has consistently shown an ability to locate the darkness buried inside his characters, but he never seems to tap into that quality here.
(It might have been interesting if Hepburn, during the course of dating Holden finally realized what a shallow loser he is and dumped him. And then maybe Holden, in turn is forced to reexamine his life. But the story never explores that darker, more interesting possibility. Instead, Hepburn is a pawn in the men's games.)
As for Bogart, he was, of course, one of our great stars and did amazing work in dramas and crime stories. But in a light romantic comedy like this, he's very much out of his element, like Holden is. (Bogart took the role after Cary Grant turned it down.) Bogart manages to capture the cold sourness of his character just fine, but he never locates the man's gradual transformation into a guy in love. He never seems interested in Hepburn at all, which is oddly something of an accomplishment, given how beautiful Hepburn is.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Bogart is too old, unattractive and emotionally cold for Hepburn to ever give him the time of day. When these two would-be lovers are reunited at the very end of the film, they hug rather than kiss. It's as if the filmmakers are acknowledging the absurdity of that these two might actually be right for each other. Or perhaps they know that there's something rather gross about the fifty-ish Bogart kissing the twenty-ish Hepburn.
A True Hollywood Oddity
So what happens in "Giant"? Or rather, what doesn't?
PLOT POINT: Handsome, successful, suit wearing Rock brings Liz back to his ranch, to live forever. Immediately upon her arrival, she meets James Dean, a troubled, boyishly handsome ranch hand closer to her age.
QUESTION: Will Liz find herself in a torrid love triangle, forced to choose between these two very different (but fascinating) men?
ANSWER: Nope. She has little, if any interest in Dean, and only shares a few minutes of screen time with him. He does appear to be interested in her. But whatever is going on psychologically inside the Dean character isn't well dramatized on screen. He's mostly a mystery, a withdrawn, silent character. He does little if anything to actually try to win Liz's heart. At the end of the film, he seems to suggest that his unrequited love for Liz drove all his actions and ruined his life. But given how little interest Liz took in him, Dean ultimately comes off more like an emotionally immature, lovesick teenager than some tragic figure. And the film doesn't even bother to give us a Liz/Dean scene at the end, to provide closure to this part of the story.
PLOT POINT: Upon her arrival, Liz also meets Rock's strong willed sister. She's been the queen of the ranch up until now.
QUESTION: Will Liz and the sister fight over who is in charge of the ranch, and Rock?
ANSWER: Nope. The sister dies shortly after Liz's arrival, in a completely arbitrary, random horse accident.
PLOT POINT: Dean inherits a small patch of land adjacent to Rock's ranch.
QUESTION: Will the two rivals, now living side by side wage war with each other in an epic battle for control?
ANSWER: Nope. They mostly get along with only minor problems. When Dean's wealth reaches new heights, Rock simply sells out.
PLOT POINT: Sal Mineo is introduced as a young man who is interested in ranch life, unlike Rock's own kids.
QUESTION: Will Mineo, in time, become Rock's surrogate son, and new ranch head?
ANSWER: Nope. Mineo is killed (off screen) during the war. The audience is subjected to a dull, unnecessary five minute funeral scene for his character. (While he was alive, all of Mineo's scenes combined represented about two minutes of screen time. The film inexplicably spends more time on his funeral than it did on him!)
PLOT POINT: Once grown, Rock's and Liz's kids want to do things with their lives that are different from what their parents want for them.
QUESTION: Will these disagreements create conflict in the family?
ANSWER: Nope. Rock lets the kids follow their hearts.
PLOT POINT: Rock's Latino daughter in law is refused service in the salon in Dean's huge hotel. Rock takes this as a very personal insult to his family by Dean. The two men fight.
QUESTION: Does this represent a satisfying climax to the film?
ANSWER: Nope. Technically, Rock is right. As the owner of the hotel/salon, Dean is ultimately responsible for what goes on there. But Dean doesn't seem like a racist. He's never said or done anything racist during the film. Also, Dean seems like an indifferent businessman, more lucky than smart. It's unlikely that he was even aware that these racist policies were even in place. Dean's culpability here is weak at best, and it seems like a tenuous foundation to build the climax of a three hour film on.
PLOT POINT: At the end of the film, Rock and his family visit a diner. While there, they notice that the owner refuses service to a Latino family, one that Rock has never met and has no connection to whatsoever.
QUESTION: Rock fights the manager, to express his outrage at the manager's racism, and to convince him to change this policy. The music score swells. Does Rock win? Does the final scene offer any kind of satisfactory conclusion to this would-be epic story?
ANSWER: Nope. Rock loses and the diner will continue its racist policy. The film attempts to end on a happy note, showing that Rock now cares about people of color. But Rock never expressed any racist views in any prior scene, so this doesn't represent substantive character growth. (His affection for Sal Mineo seemed to suggest a man with no race or class prejudices.) Even if Rock had won, it's just a conflict between two men at a diner. For a three hour film called "Giant," it feels like an oddly inconsequential ending.
Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940)
What were the most memorable parts of the film?
1. The title, which could probably benefit from a "the."
2. The goofy scene where the judge gives a small child to a strange man, who will keep the boy for the day and have fun with him. OK...
3. The fact that when the Hardys visit New York City, there's a story about it in the local newspaper. And it's the lead story on the front page. (Man, that must be a small town, if people going away constitutes news.) I hope nobody broke into their house while they were away.
4. The final image of the film, which seems to hint at Mickey Rooney's future marital life. (He was married a lot.)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
BOLDLY GOING backwards, not forwards.
It was understandable that the first film of the new "Trek" franchise would evoke, to some degree, the originals. That film was a transitional film, a bridge from old to new. And having accomplished that, I was hoping that "Star Trek Into Darkness" would carve out its own ideas, stake its own claim and justify itself as a fresh take on the "Trek" conventions (no, not those conventions).
Instead, if anything, this film is even more reliant on past story ideas than the first film was. And in the final analysis, "Star Trek: Into Darkness" can best be characterized as a remake of the classic 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." And why do that? For over thirty years, that film has been available to anyone who wanted it. "Star Trek 2" is the best Trek film ever. It has a wonderful blend of action, character and original science fiction ideas. It also has enormous heart and interesting themes about aging, death and the costs of maturity. This film evokes the basic outline but none of what made that film great.
In interviews, the filmmakers refused to say the identity of the character played (very well) by Benedict Cumberbach, but said it was a famous Trek villain. It's a short list: Harry Mudd (who gets a shout out here), Q and Khan. At first, I thought it might be Q. Cumberbach more closely evokes John DeLancie than Ricardo Montalban. And that would be a neat surprise, since everyone in the audience would be assuming Khan. (And the fact that Q is not part of the Kirk "Trek" universe would be a neat surprise too.) It couldn't be Khan, I thought to myself. That was just be too obvious. Surely, the filmmakers have something far more interesting up their sleeve.
Alas, just as smoke is indicative of fire, the revelation that the villain is Khan falls entirely flat. It's about a surprising as the revelation in "Indy 4" of who Mutt's father was.
Cumberbatch is fun in his way, but I wished the writers had given him more to do, other than arch his eyebrows and speak the usual bad guy rantings in his melodious British voice. Montalban's Khan was a Shakespearian figure. He was angry, funny, sexy, soulful and, in the end, totally crazy and sadly tragic. (Nicholas Meyer, the film's director and co-writer was a Shakespearian scholar.) Cumberbatch is a cool actor but his villain is too one note, in the end, to register much.
As the film goes on, the references to "Star Trek II" pile on and on, until it becomes clear that this film is pretty much a straight up remake. There are some vague attempts to inject some fresh variations. (It's Kirk, not Spock who risks his life, etc.) But disappointment sets in as time goes on and the film fails to evoke any fresh ideas. The pile up of references and shout outs made me feel like I was watching a "Simpsons" Halloween episode parody. Spock's pained "Khaaaan!!" lament was the jump the shark moment, and it drew huge laughs at the screening I attended.
I enjoyed the film's action sequences, but I'm hoping that future "Trek" films will dial down the homage to the originals, and dial up the new and original ideas. The time has come to stop recycling and start creating. For a franchise that boldly boasts of "new frontiers," this chapter is sadly derivative.
Món petit (2012)
Moving and insightful
"Little World" is all about Albert, and audiences will naturally take to him. His friendly, easygoing confidence and likability make him good company. It's not surprising that people are drawn to him, and invite him to stay in their home for free as their guest. (Some invite him to stay forever, but the road beacons him.) Albert longs for four things in life: Happiness, freedom, love and good luck. He has all of these in abundance, and when he gets his "happiness tattoo" at the end of the film, it makes for a satisfying coda.
Albert is like a real-life Elwood P. Dowd, forever optimistic in the face of life's adversities. At one point, we watch this disabled boy merrily crawling, one by one, up the many (!) steps of the Great Wall of China. His joy at reaching the top is sweetly moving without being mawkish.
Even when lying in a hospital bed, having narrowly avoided death, his unrelenting optimism and joie de vivre are undiminished. (One can't help but wonder if Albert's persistent good cheer might actually represent some sort of mild autism or mental illness.)
Like Dowd, Albert seems to enjoy an almost otherworldly insulation from disaster. His plan to travel around the world on no money seems like a disaster waiting to happen, but things move along with apparent expediency. Albert and Anna bring no money on their journey. They get along by hitchhiking, and by the generosity of others. These negotiations are generally not depicted on camera. The impression one gets is that people are drawn to Albert and take pleasure in helping him. (Albert does use deceit to gain passage on a ship, but this appears to be a rare and forgivable exception.) Albert is so likable and friendly that it's unlikely audiences will see his behavior in a negative light.
Albert and Anna's journey, as depicted in the documentary is almost absurdly easy. Their approach is adventurous and spontaneous but also thoroughly inefficient. One suspects that their trip likely had moments of downtime, boredom, delays and obstacles, none of which are generally depicted in the film. Albert's loving relationship with his girlfriend Anna helps anchor the film, although one wishes we knew more about what motivates her. (We're also curious about Albert's decision to continue travelling alone during her illness. Didn't he want to be by her side?)
The film poses compelling questions about who is truly "handicapped" and what makes for a meaningful existence. Albert's life is very unusual, but he ably defends his choices, explaining that this is the life he wants. For him, staying home or working in an office would be death.
The conclusion of the film, where Albert and Anna arrive in New Zealand is very moving. It's here, at the "beginning of the world" that the film explores the cosmic, philosophical questions posed by Albert's journey. It's a fitting and satisfying end, and the fact that the final exchanges take place in English will only add to American audience's enjoyment of these moments.
Hollywood films have their clichés, but so do Sundance indies as well. We've all sat through underwritten sensitive stories about loners where so much of what is going on is "left unsaid." It's a fine line between poetically subtle and just plain underwritten, and this film falls in the latter category. Who is Terri? Why is he the way he is? Who are any of these people? And none of the relationships here are at all interesting. Nor is there any attempt to provide any kind of psychological insight. Several times characters are confronted about their behavior (Terri in gym class, the girl regarding a sexual encounter, the principal in his office), only to shrug and fail to offer any insight. There's no "there" here. It's an empty bag, a "Sundance favorite" that has nothing to offer. This is something anyone could have written over a weekend. It's been 6 decades since Holden Caufield, and yet people still try to do the sensitive teen thing. Rent Rushmore instead.
The Big Gay Musical (2009)
Weak, well intentioned effort
Although ultimately well intentioned, the film depicts a rather depressing image of what it means to be gay. If the film is to be believed, being gay means a life filled with religious-based bigotry, disease, a de-humanizing dating scene, low self-esteem, rejection from family and obsession with the body.
As a gay man living in a big city and working in the theatre, I can tell you that there's more to gay life than that. There are gay people in happy long-term monogamous relationships. Most gay people I know are involved with community activism and have rich, rewarding lives.
I belong to a gay Christian church, and I know that God loves everyone and that anti-gay bigotry is not consistent with Christ's ministry.
As a film, "The Big Gay Musical" is passable entertainment. The acting, writing, directing and music are average.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Godot with toys
Anyone wondering what Schindler's List might have looked like if performed by toys need look no further than "Toy Story 3." An ugly, dark, joyless movie, "Toy Story 3" will frighten children and send adults into therapy.
The first "Toy Story" was a delight, capped off with a fun and exciting chase sequence, in which Buzz and Woody attempted to catch up to the moving van that held all of their friends. Sure, if they hadn't made it, it would have been sad. But the chase and the movie as a whole was a lot of fun, capped off by some fun Randy Newman songs.
"Toy Story 2" was an even better movie, because it added an interesting ingredient to the soup: An acknowledgment of death. The sequence where Jessie laments how her life lost its meaning when her owner grew up is truly heart breaking. And the final spoken lines of dialogue, referencing Buzz's catch phrase "To infinity and beyond," but placing the phrase in the context of death itself was a masterstroke. Adding these dark elements in select moments elevated the movie into something special.
"Toy Story 3" makes the mistake of taking those select moments and turning them into the WHOLE MOVIE. The stink of death, loss and alienation is as prevalent here as a Beckett play. The story of Lotso's grim rejection by his owner and his subsequent change to a dark, Nazi-like dictator poisons the fun. (What, no up tempo Randy Newman song about that?) And the depiction of Ken as a gay stereotype was offensive, and future generations will squirm at those moments, like they do today over the racist depiction of Asians in "Breakfast at Tiffanies." (The Pixar films would never take a black or Jewish toy and make them act in a stereotypical fashion, but I guess gays are fair game.) As with most sequels, character growth is mostly zero. The characters have done all their growing in the earlier segments, and so they spend the movie mostly running around, learning nothing, never growing. Woody comes off as absurdly delusional in his belief that the best thing for him and the others is to sit in a plastic bag in an attic for decades until such time as maybe Andy wants his children to play with them.
But life at the daycare center is another form of hell. The film strives to depict the toy's plight as a parody of a prison film, but ends up evoking the holocaust and Nazi concentration camps. The tyranny, torture (yes, torture) and betrayals the toys face in the day care center are dark and awful, but still pale in comparison to the act three climax. Here, we have the pleasure of watching our heroes in a trash compactor, facing an almost certain death in an oven, to be burned alive. Again, one can't help but think of the holocaust and how the victims there were burned in ovens.
But it all ends happily. The characters are saved and live happily ever after.
Or do they? For a film that shows such craft in its writing and such subtlety in its characterizations, the final fifteen minutes of the film are mind boggling inconsistent with what has come before. It begins with the claw, that rescues its characters, God-like, from their peril. Up until now, God-like interventions had been non-existent. These characters always had the ingenuity to get themselves out of jams, but suddenly not here.
In the scenes that follow, Andy suddenly loves his toys. And life at the daycare is a toy utopia. (Remember that the only change is that Lotso is gone. I guess he took all the evil with him when he left.) The final image of the film is the sky, with a series of similar looking clouds. Seem familiar? It's the same clouds as the wallpaper in Andy's room. The characters have found themselves, post-fire, in a happy but manufactured world. Conclusion: They died in the fire and this is heaven. I'm happy for them, because sitting through this movie, I felt like I was in hell.
Bart Got a Room (2008)
Much ado about nothing
When the people behind "Bart Got A Room" call it a film about a guy looking for a date for the prom, they mean just that. There's no emotional subtext whatsoever to this search. Why is it so important to him, and why should we care? Danny is such a blank slate, and the writing doesn't offer many insights into who he is as a person. Compare Danny in your mind with more interesting movie teenagers, like Max from "Rushmore" or Harold from "Harold and Maude," and you'll see what I mean. And the actor playing Danny does little to illuminate that he has any kind of inner life at all.
Danny's parents are equally bland and uninteresting. The only truly insightful moment occurs when one of Danny's friends discussing going to the zoo with his mother. (The mother, a divorced woman, hates going to the zoo but is desperately trying to please her new boyfriend.) What is the film even about? Is it about the close friendship between Danny and Camille? But even after the hot girl turns him down, he decides to keep shopping around, rather than turn to Camille, which she herself acknowledges. The film doesn't provide any real scenes to establish the bond they share. (Sorry. Showing old photos of them as children and having narration isn't enough.) I thought the film might be about a boy choosing not to cross over the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Children like to have fun, play with their friends and bond with their parents. Young adults want to carve our their own identities, be independent, distance themselves from their parents and explore their sexuality. So which side does Danny ultimately fall down on youth or maturity? The film (SPOILERS!) explains at the end that he chose to spend his prom night not with his peers but with his parents and his platonic friend. It further explains that the hotel room, that presumed symbol of sexual maturity, was used instead to play Boggle, a children's game, with his parents and platonic childhood friend.
But then, that youth vs. maturity interpretation doesn't really work either. So many different directions the film could have gone in, and yet, in the end, the filmmakers never really chose a path.
As someone with a deep affection for "Freaks and Geeks," I was looking forward to seeing this show on DVD. Although perhaps unfair to compare the two, I do feel that comparing and contrasting (in true college essay question style) highlights the shortcomings of "Undeclared."
CHARACTER SPECIFICITY. The freaks and geeks of "Freaks and Geeks" had sharply defined personalities. By contrast, these people are very general types. The main character is a standard issue nerd. Seth Rogen seems to wander into scenes without a character to play.
CHARACTER SYMPATHY. The kids on F&G formed little family units, and bonded and took care of each other. The "Undeclared" kids are basically all strangers to each other, and are as likely to compete or argue as to connect.
EMOTIONAL PULL. F&G took place during high school, and the emotional vulnerability of the characters and their growing pains gave the show a warm emotional poignancy. Think of the episode where one boy discovered that his father was cheating on his mother, and how this, in turn, caused Sam to worry about his own family's stability. The college kids in "Undeclared" are a selfish, immature bunch interested in sex and beer, and they're far more difficult to connect with as a viewer.
COMPLEX STORIES. Because it was a half hour longer, F&G had far richer stories and ideas. But even accounting for this, "Undeclared" still comes off pretty anemic in the story department. A typical "Undeclared" episode takes a small idea and does very little with it.
HUMOR. F&G was hilarious. The episode where Sam wore the disco suit to school is a classic. Nothing in "Undeclared" can rival that level of humor.