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The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979)
Where it all started, and ought to have stopped
In this series one sees Degrassi in its original form: classroom videos for little kids; and this was the form and the audience it should have stuck to. The more popular follow-up show remained the same, except for ever-growing pretensions to a significance in excess of its powers, and an ever-growing tendency toward salaciousness, which culminated at last--in the one chance the show received to sit up late amongst the grown-ups--in the series' house princess (along with her opposite number, a butter-wouldn't-melt little minx) losing her cherry. And who knows but what that had been the writers' covert object all along, even as far back as Degrassi Street? I'm reminded of a comment by one of the women in John Huston's life about another, whom he had raised from a child: something about the appeal to a man of seeing a girl grow to ****able age before his eyes. Such matters aside, the Junior High/High/School's Out episodes never graduated from the Degrassi Street level: they featured the same diagrammatic plots, the same tendentious conversations, the same cardboard performances (and the same cheap-looking production). In this initial series those things were only to be expected, since after all, that's what educational TV is like. But at 18 the cast remained as blank and flat as at 8, and still inhabited the same classroom toy-town universe; as if someone had carried on the Dick and Jane readers and pinned a Big Issue to each character: Dick gets AIDS, Jane gets anorexia, Baby Sally gets pregnant--but they're no more real for it. Degrassi Street was the first expression of what Degrassi had to say, and the last honest one; in those days the enterprise still had its head about it and knew its limits. Afterwards, all was overreach.
The Prisoner (2009)
Hardly worth a pennyfarthing
This series' continual allusions to the 60s original make it look like a remake, but it gradually reveals itself not to be. Rather, it's a new story based on the same idea and starting more or less the same, but leading to a different resolution (if one can call the ending of the first series a resolution). The writer seems to have been attracted by the original's artiness and over-elaboration, both of which he emulates, while failing to achieve the same measure of style or wit. That makes his script less entertaining and more tedious. But its largest fault is that the beginning and the end don't match up. If the villain's aim were as stated, it wouldn't lead him to come up with anything like the Village, and his own behavior there, assuming it to be deliberate, seems fatuous. The second largest fault is that the denouement is of the all-encompassing kind that is invoked retroactively to excuse anything the writer felt like tossing in (cf. Life on Mars and Vanilla Sky) but that fails to explain anything in particular, that is, the things the viewer wants explained. It doesn't even manage to explain itself, e.g. how are the villagers kept in the Village, and where are they really, since it's made clear that they aren't all in the same place? The story hasn't been thought through enough. And the production doesn't transform it: the settings are drab, Ian McKellen's 2 is too much of a very moderately good thing, and Jim Caviezel as 6 appears to be channeling Steve Railsback in The Stunt Man, another overlong desert allegory, which the director may have had in mind while shooting this. It's not a bad show; it's just something to watch, in lieu of watching nothing--or, in other words, TV.
The A-Team (2010)
Off the jazz
This movie starts, reasonably enough, with introductions. It presents one and then another of the team facing some dire predicament from which he narrowly and improbably extricates himself or is extricated by the others. These situations are depicted more or less in the key of the original show, which was hyperbolic and self-kidding. So far, so good.
But no farther. From thereon out the movie devolves into a straight commando story with occasional comic asides: your typical action movie, in other words. And who wants to see a SERIOUS version of The A Team? The movie does remember to remember one of the show's catch phrases, "I love it when a plan comes together," although not when or how to use it, and disremembers the most significant one: "He's on the jazz," said of Hannibal in his manic phase. In fact, the whole team was on the jazz, most of the time, and that's what made them entertaining. They were written and played as COMIC mercenaries, behaving outrageously to outsiders and indulging in zany byplay among themselves. George Peppard's Hannibal, in his cheerfully smug obnoxiousness, could have been the model for Dr. House; he was funny, and so were his teammates.
Their movie equivalents are not. In place of Peppard the movie offers Liam Neeson, one of the dourest actors around. Bradley Cooper, taking over for Dirk Benedict, comes the closest of the bunch; he has the right brand of cockiness but is hamstrung by poor material. And in any event, what humor comes through sits uneasily with a plot hinging on official corruption and betrayal. As the movie rolls on (and on and on), it tries increasingly to elicit our concern for the heroes' plight--but who wants to CARE about The A Team? Furthermore, the movie abandons the formula of the show--The Magnificent Seven, starring the Marx Brothers--for a routine Dirty Dozen-style story which ends where the show began. And even the action scenes are so cut up that we seldom get to see anybody do anything; we're deprived even of the simple pleasure of seeing people run, climb, and fight. As if by design, the movie blocks nearly every source of enjoyment, except the most primitive cinema can provide: that of watching objects move. But for that you can look at passing traffic.
As a movie, a miss; as a version of the book, a mess
A day after seeing Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with ten years separating it from my last reading of the book, I wrote this about it:
This third episode in the Narnia series is obviously striving to avoid the mistakes (both artistic and commercial) of the second: it keeps things moving briskly, makes its dramatic points clearly, and remembers that it was intended for a child audience. It will probably entertain those of that audience who are not readers of C. S. Lewis, but those who are--although they may enjoy it to a degree, as I did--I believe will agree, regretfully, that it still misses the mark.
First of all and most of all, it fails to take us back to the world of the first movie, or even of the second: Narnia is a completely different country in each. This robs us of the most fundamental pleasure of a series, that of revisiting a beloved place--and a magical one, which the Narnia of this movie is not, in spite of the appearance of a magician's spell book and a few mythical beasts. Lucy and Edmund, the two returning children, say they love it, but we don't see any evidence they do or any particular reason why they should: it isn't so very wonderful.
In spite of smiles and hearty cheers all around, this movie lacks any real joy or lightness of spirit. Even the first movie was heavier than it needed to be, and this one is more so (though less dour than its immediate predecessor). It concentrates on action and peril or the threat of peril, on keeping us anxious most of the time: too anxious, I think, for a children's movie. It has too much of alarm and too little of relief.
More important, the stress on the physical slights the moment-to-moment narrative and drama. The movie's script leaves out any number of little moments from the book (as well as whole sections of the plot) and substitutes big ones of its own, which are not out of keeping with the whole but are simply distractions from what we really need to see. For example, we didn't need a little girl to be stowing away on the ship just so we could later witness a teary reunion with her missing mother. But we did need and don't see the moral error and reformation of the one new child protagonist, Eustace. At the beginning he is certainly an odious nuisance, but that's all he is, and his repentance is not shown. Of course at that point he's a dragon, but one with an inexpressive face and without the power of speech (or even the interior monologues he is given at other points in the movie). His redemption by Aslan, we hear him tell about in a brief long shot, a throwaway.
The other two protagonists, Lucy and Edmund, hardly communicate with each other, or with their buddy Caspian. The Dawn Treader itself is a gorgeous creation, imaginatively photographed, but we don't get to see how they feel (and therefore we don't feel) what it's like to be in it or to be at sea, and on a Narnian sea. Their adventures at their various ports of call are rushed, not given their full due, so that the myth-like elements--the invisible attackers, the golden pool, the enchanted sleepers--carry little resonance (in contrast to, say, the lamppost or the courtyard of stone figures in the original movie). I'm sorry to say that halfway through the movie my heart sank a little on realizing that the characters still had five of the seven objects of their quest left to work through.
According to report, the scheduling of each next Narnian movie will depend on the success of the last Narnian movie. I should judge that the prognosis for The Silver Chair is doubtful. It would carry over none of the original protagonists, only Eustace, and the actor playing that part unfortunately is not very appealing, even reformed (or, if he can be, did not have a chance to show it in this movie). The series has accumulated no momentum because of its intermittency; its failure to carry through the best elements from the first installment; the unavoidable over-aging of its actors; and the separateness of the stories (since unlike Harry Potter and LOTR it is not a continuing serial). It has not even an audience to count on: a child who was 8 when it began will probably have attained to his or her majority before the end, if the producers manage to get through all seven of the books. The unlikeliness of this prospect seems a pity, since the last two have the most movie-suitable stories of all (the Creation and the Revelation, in Narnian terms).
And here is my addendum after re-reading the original:
I don't know how they did it, but the movie makers managed to mess up all the episodes in the book: every one: changed them, chopped them up, left out the best lines and scenes, sailed right by most of the feelings evoked and most of the messages conveyed. Lewis deserved more appreciative translators.
Dorian Gray (2009)
Dull and ill-judged
The Picture of Dorian Gray can probably never be dramatized satisfactorily. The BBC once did it faithfully, but without the narrative passages the story seemed even more incomplete than it had on the page. The novel reads like a partial reconstruction of a damaged original; Wilde tells the story with a curious reticence, so that many pivotal scenes go unwritten and the deterioration of Dorian's character is shown in suggestive vignettes rather than in its entirety. Part of this indirection was no doubt deliberate, to leave the supreme horror for the climax; and in that regard the author succeeds. However, he also introduces confusions: he states in his preface that there are no immoral books but proceeds to make a book the instrument of Dorian's corruption; and not only the painter Basil but Wilde himself seems to treat youth, beauty, and innocence as identical. Yet despite these and other weaknesses the novel evokes genuine distress--alarm mingled with sadness--in the scenes it does depict, such as Lord Henry's casually malicious temptation of Dorian and Dorian's equally casual and malicious casting aside of Sybil Vane. Some at least of this distress has come through in every film telling of the tale.
...until this one. When I first read the novel I found it vague in some respects, but when I turned back to it after seeing the film it seemed crystal clear. The motives for Dorian's descent into decadence were insufficiently described, perhaps insufficiently understood, by Wilde, but in the film, as portrayed by a particularly dull and lifeless Dorian, they don't exist at all, and despite the plethora of orgiastic detail one can't even tell what's supposed to be going on with him. His evil angel Lord Henry is all wrong: not Wilde's jaded amoralist but a stock Victorian villain, until he is made to have a change of conscience after Dorian takes up with his daughter (daughter?). This Lord Henry belongs in Dickens or Wilkie Collins rather than in Wilde. And then the film has Sybil Vane's brother meeting the young Dorian in person, making nonsense of their later encounter. Finally, in an especially poor stroke of judgment, the painted Dorian turns three-dimensional, pops out of the canvas, and tries to wring Dorian's neck. The filmmakers seem not to have understood that the ominous power of the painting lies in its painting-ness, its inanimate quality; bringing it to life renders it innocuous, as if a haunted house were to get up on its legs and dance. In all, this production tends to take on the air of a cartoon (and parts of it, like the computer-drawn buildings, are almost cartoons). It is certainly ambitious; but as a well-known wit once remarked, ambition is the last refuge of the failure.
Criminal Minds (2005)
"Are you okay?" This is a question which the members of this show's FBI profiling team ask one another whenever one of them, after having undergone a particularly grueling ordeal, is looking glum and pensive. The glum one then responds with a slice of psychiatrist's-couch confession, or an "I just wish..." speech, to be answered with an apposite piece of wisdom on the order of "You did your job, nobody can ask more of you than that." The function of these brief interludes is to demonstrate that the characters have human feelings, which are not otherwise very apparent. With a single exception--the obligatory kooky tech girl--they're characters out of Dick Tracy, or a Dick Tracy anime, and not for a second confusable with real people. The Dick Traciest of all, who is more or less the central character, also reminds one of Norman Bates in a suit, and for a while I believed he was the continuing unsub (the show's word for "suspect"), only none of his colleagues suspected it. After watching several more episodes I realized at last he was the show's idea of an arch-good guy.
When I used to hit on this show while flipping channels, I couldn't quite make it out. The protagonists seemed to be some kind of covert police force or enemy spy cell, and they seemed to be always sitting around tables or inside planes discussing criminal psychology. Only after I got to watching the series in re-runs did I gradually tumble to what it was about. An off network had begun recycling it in perpetuity, back to back with two shows I did understand, Ghost Whisperer and Without a Trace, and like them, Criminal Minds wears well in re-runs: the episodes can be watched repeatedly and still retain much of their effect. So the show is enjoyable to an extent. However, it also generally unimaginative, with stiff, slightly florid playing after the Canadian TV manner; and compared to its British counterpart Touching Evil, or to the Hannibal Lecter movies that spawned this dubious genre, it is dramatically crippled by a structure that almost never allows the villain of the week a big scene in which he confronts his trackers and expresses himself. Typically the heroes race to save the latest victim, burst in in the nick of time, and shoot the villain dead; we don't even get to see him suffer a lingering, painful end; our desire for revenge and our curiosity about him remain alike unsatisfied.
Since I don't like stories of kidnappings, stalkings, home invasions, or random shootings, which comprise almost the whole catalog of serial killers' methods, it may be I'm not the best judge of this show. But I don't think it's just my personal taste that finds the best episodes to be those in which serial killings figure only incidentally. Four episodes in particular have impressed me, two suspense and two pure horror. The horror shows--one about a homeless woman locked in an abandoned meat-packing plant and forced through a horror maze that leads to the slaughterhouse, and the other about young women abducted, frozen with paralytic drugs, painted like dolls, having doll hair sewn into their scalps, and seated around a tea table to join a lunatic's collection of life-sized dolls--were two of the creepiest things I've seen on TV, and if I'd seen them as a child would probably have haunted me for life. The two suspense shows were sharply conceived and staged: one was confined to a shopping mall where a little girl was hidden somewhere but the team didn't know where, why, or by whom, and the other, the best of all, in which a killer had targeted the kooky tech girl for an intriguing reason, rose to a taut, superbly staged climax that brought the killer into the team's office and laid it on a hacker, subbing for the kooky tech girl, to alert her via PC without also alerting the killer. This sequence raised the show far above the level of the everyday, or every-week, torture-murders, and made me wish it could have dispensed with the serial killer business altogether.
P.S. I didn't know where to put this note, and so I saved it for last: In one episode one of the regulars says "theirselfs" for "themselves." Why would the show's makers not have overdubbed this? Are they okay?
Best Worst Movie (2009)
Uninformative and somewhat unpleasant
Best Worst Movie isn't what I expected it to be. In publicizing it, its maker and its subject gave interviews in which they recounted their experiences as actors in the movie Troll 2 15 years ago, and I expected BWM to be an expansion on those accounts: a thorough history of T2's making. But BWM includes very little information on that, less than what was in the interviews, even though it had the director, the writer, and the entire cast to draw from. It doesn't, for example, tell how T2 came into being, how it was financed, its director--an Italian--came to shoot in Utah, how he assembled the cast, and so on. A viewer who didn't know T2 wouldn't be able to piece together the story from the evidence here. Instead BWM concentrates on one of the T2 actors--a one-shot actor--traveling around the country to make personal appearances in what appears to be a touring revival of T2, primarily for the benefit of the cult it has gained since its making. But apart from one fan's account of how his cell came into being, BWM is short on facts even about the cult.
So what does it show? It shows the one-shot actor telling people he once was in a bad movie and recapitulating his dialogue from it for the audiences at the revival showings. It also shows fans doing the kinds of things fans do: quoting lines from the movie, wearing homemade replicas of the costumes, and so on. A very little of this is entertaining--about enough for a five-minute feature on a TV magazine. But Best Worst Movie goes on for 18 times that length (30 times, if one counts the extras on the DVD). It's overkill. Worse yet, amidst all the repetition a somewhat unpleasant outlook comes to make itself felt.
BWM likes to stare and point at people. It doesn't have the sympathy to look beyond the obvious and perceive anything more in them, or the curiosity to find out. It's satisfied to stare. And it seems to divide the objects of its attention into two categories: Geeks and Freaks. The Geeks--the members of the fan cult--are Okay. The Freaks--those who don't like T2, or like it in the wrong way, or belong to some different cult--are Not Okay. Thus one of the actresses from T2, who gave the nearest thing to a successful performance in it but has now become, or perhaps always was, a jittery recluse, isn't given leisure to explain herself, and her invalid mother, who is in no way unusual for a person at her time of life in her state of health (and has nothing to do with anything except that she happened to be on scene), is treated as a freak, whereas the movie validates people who put on goblin get-ups, gobble down green-dyed cakes, and re-enact scenes from a 15-year-old bad movie. I submit that the life of that invalid mother, her reclusive daughter, or any of the other people the film shows as marginal--if someone had the interest and sensitivity to bring them out--could be shown to have more value than the adolescent nonsense BWM chooses to celebrate.
Consider the case: The moviemaker called on his hermitlike former castmate with no warning, she welcomed him into her house--and then he crapped on her. He lured the director of T2 to this country with a promise that he would see his movie appreciated at last--and then not only his appreciators but his former cast crapped on him. He's shown becoming quite testy about it, and no wonder; that kind of treatment is a betrayal. Hence, in the end the taste Best Worst Movie left in my mouth was more worst than best.
You can't always get what you haunt
A travelogue of spook houses was a foolish project to undertake. A spook house is a simulation of a movie, and who wants to see a movie simulate the simulation? In any case, it can't be done, there's no there there. A spook house is a fake: it uses darkness, suggestion, and sudden jumps to make you think you're getting what it lacks the resources to provide. Trying to photograph it is like trying to photograph your uncle pretending to be the boogey man.
The cameraman for this film must have recognized the impossibility of his task, or fallen before it, because he doesn't try to give even a hint of what the experience is like: the camera is constantly bobbing and weaving, zooming in on costume and make-up that wasn't meant to be seen up close. And as if that weren't enough, the spook house scenes aren't enough to fill the running time, so they're interlarded with little lectures on Halloween, horror movies, etc., telling things that anyone who would have an interest in this movie would already know. Most tedious of all is the fans' celebration of themselves, as in an impersonation of a 50s TV horror host, which is much less enjoyable than the worst of the originals.
To my mind the spook house is a great unrecognized and untapped art form. And it will probably remain forever untapped because its audience doesn't want it to be more than it is. However, as it happens, a European artist did once create a high-culture version, sans zombies and chainsaws: an installation simulating an abandoned, partly ruined house where some rooms contained vaguely disturbing evidences of the former occupants, if one looked. Had actual ghosts been added--after the Japanese fashion, say--this would have been the first flowering of the spook house form. But that will have to wait for another day.
Robin Hood (2010)
A distant dream
Last night I had a dream of the Middle Ages: I dreamed I was seeing Sharpe's Rifles in The Return of Martin Guerre. Only Sharpe appeared to be on a drunk, his Rifles couldn't be told apart, and sometimes the story changed to The Lion in Winter (and once to Peter Pan). Some of it was quite violent, but it was all rather beautiful.
I wasn't asleep, of course; the dream was this film. It's like a medieval tapestry brought to life, but as in a tapestry, or a dream, the characters, so near and so huge, remain unknown, and although they go about their business with seeming urgency, yet their actions seem formal and ritualized, as if they were doing a May Day pantomime (one almost expects to see The Wicker Man).
Contributing to the enigmatic effect is the leading actor, who gives the barest outline of a performance, in the barest outline of a part. So here again, as with Kevin Costner, you have a Robin Hood story without a Robin Hood. But his absence makes surprisingly little difference; Robin Hood is more of an idea than a character anyhow. And although the film ends where one would expect a Robin Hood story to start, at the point where Robin is declared an outlaw, it has enough of the requisite elements to be doing with, especially the forest of Barnsdale, with its green, misty depths: it has true storybook allure.
Answer: I'd mind my own business
One time when I was living in Indiana and engaging in a dispute with a dry cleaner who had failed to clean a shirt as promised, another customer stepped in and informed me I didn't need the shirt cleaned, anyway. Probably everyone has dealt with a presumptuous idiot who considers it her right to meddle in other people's business. Remember Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park? Remember Maude?
Well, those are the people this show is aimed at, and probably the kind of people who made it. It's a glorification of hubris. Underneath that, of course, it's a trouble-making exercise: it starts fights and then sits back and watches. Here's the set-up: Someone is rude to someone else in a public place--rude, that's all; not violent or threatening. The show rewards the bystander who interferes, knowing nothing of the circumstances, and thereby risks endangering both himself and the person he's supposedly defending; risks escalating a mere discourtesy into a physical confrontation. At the same time the show punishes the people who do the wise thing: sit and mind their own business, rather than make a situation worse by ignorant intervention. The punishment they receive is nagging by the announcer: "AND SHE JUST SITS THERE AND PRETENDS NOT TO NOTICE!!!!!!" Damn right.
A show like this could only have been imagined and carried through by protected idiots: people with the security--i.e. money, job, house--to feel smug and superior and entitled to boss other people; eternally protected from recognizing either their own stupidity or the possible consequences of it. So let me point out the simplest of the facts this show doesn't grasp: A person so far out of control or so oblivious to ordinary standards of conduct as to lash out in a public setting will only be provoked further by a stranger butting in: the meddler could in fact be starting a fight. Police and other professionals who deal with such situations know this. If everyday folks are going to take it on themselves to police their neighbors' conduct they had better learn the same. In the meantime, this show should be kicked off the air. It's a public menace.