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Once Upon a Time (2011)
Jumps More Sharks than Evil Kinevil Jumped Buses
I am a storyteller who's been immersed in folklore, myth and fairy tales since boyhood. The collected tales of the Brothers Grimm, Alexandr Afanas'ev and others over the last 2 centuries are the way we convey the wisdom, beliefs and ethics of the past to the present. That said, I'm not a purist. The Grimms' tales had been revised many times to make them comport with the prevailing religions and mores of the tellers' changing times. I dearly love re-imagined classic material such as Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) or Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). The only versions of such tales that I truly despise are the Disney versions. Give me Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) any day over the sickly sweet Disney version. That said, after a weak start, I tried with all my might to allow Once Upon a Time to grow on me.
I never watched Lost seriously. I found that show more pretentious and self-involved and just confused, never deep. I was always afraid this show would fall prey to similar script problems. Even so I had to give it a try.
That the first episode was weak isn't entirely a fault. The whole hour was exposition. We had to get from the story books to Storybrook before the real action could begin. The second episode actually had good transitions from past to present. I also wanted to be impressed the 3 main lead women.
And though I despise Disney-fication of fairy tales, I must say that turning Jiminy Cricket into a psychiatrist and a possibly corrupt one at that is a stroke of brilliance.
Ginnifer Goodwin's Mary Margaret Blanchard/Snow White isn't much of an actress sadly. She seems to have escaped directly from a senior class play onto the set of this show. I think it was Dorothy Parker who criticized Katherine Hepburn as having an emotional range of from A to B. Ms. Goodwin is much less gifted. Lana Parrilla's Mayor/Wicked Queen struts angrily about the set and snarls when she's not whining. She's neither wicked enough to be a wicked queen nor pathetic enough to gain sympathy. Her tragic back story is just a cliché. Ms. Parrilla needs a script and a verbal dope slap or two from her director if she doesn't give us a richer, more nuanced evil queen yet all she has is horrible, flaccid, clichéd writing. I knew that the show was in trouble when the writers' love affair with psychological; gobbledygook explained Lana Parilla's character as a poor, misunderstood victim of a more evil mother and thwarted love. I think the writers decided that she really does care for Henry and can't be all bad. But a fairy tale must have a focus of evil against whom all other must strive. Making Regina wishy-washy necessitates Barbara Hersey's Cora as the ultimate evil. Even this duplicative mess hasn't taught the scriptwriters a lesson and we're in danger of having Cora excused as an overwhelmed mom just trying to do right by her ingrate daughter.
I like Jennifer Morrison. Her Allison Cameron on House was one of a very few actors who weren't blown off the screen by Hugh Laurie. Her Emma Swan in the initial episode was one of the best things in the hour. However, she has no script worth playing and she's fallen into the trap of lazy actors who rely on standard expressions, mannerisms and deliveries if their directors aren't pushing them or they aren't pushing themselves. Unfortunately the writers haven't given her much with which to work. The crux of her problem is that there's just no chemistry between her and Jared Gilmore's Henry.
I've been a fan of Barbara Hersey's work for decades. Her best hope in this series is for Cora to find a quick death so that she escapes further embarrassment.
As for the men, what is Josh Dallas doing on camera at all? I understand that the show needed a pretty boy for Prince Charming he started the show in a coma and as far as I can see has never come out of it.
Robert Carlyle's Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold grabs the camera the moment he enters and holds it until his but too often descends into a lot of scenery chewing. Still even he can't work from the vast emptiness that passes for a script.
I've kept watching for about 2 and a half years hoping week in and week out that this show would grow into something extraordinary but I've given up. Just because these fairy tale characters are archetypes doesn't give license for them to be as flat as the pages of a story book. Rather it offers the opportunity to show us ourselves through them. The greatness of fairy tales is that they deal in absolutes. There is definite evil. There is definite good. Usually the hero or heroine of the story must make a journey of discovery from which he or she returns wiser, more mature and more powerful. Upon the main character's return he or she is equipped to overcome life's obstacles. There is precious little ambiguity. All clouds hanging over the characters clear and the couple, if there is one, can love "happily ever after" exactly because they have the experience to overcome difficulties that are far more petty than those they have already faced. Once Upon a Time founders about in a sea of ambiguity and bad writing and has just become unwatchable. It is infinitely less interesting than Grimm on NBC which also has far better writing. And it's a lot less go-for-broke exuberant and edgy fun than SyFy's Lost Girl. ABC needs to toll the bell, close the book and snuff the candle to exorcise this turkey from its roster even a second hour of the gawdawful America's Funniest Home Videos would be an improvement.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Pacing II
So now we reach the end of Harry Potter and the Tortuously Extended Franchise with the final installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Pacing. Who is at fault? Certainly not the actors young and old who give very serviceable performances despite, in most cases, being given next to nothing to do. Director David Yates can manage some serviceable pacing when he needs to. I rather think that the fault lies less with an unimaginative director than with the author and producers of whom Rowling was one. Ultimately I attribute this film's failings, as I did in Part I, to greed. Deathly Hallows, Parts I & II might make a very good 2 and a half to 3 hour movie. Instead they combine to form a deadly dull 4 hour and 36 minute snoozer. Take just 1 scene as an example. Harry, on his way to confront Voldemort, uses the Resurrection Stone, one of the Deathly Hallows that he obtained in the preceding film. The ensuing scene is utterly superfluous. It does nothing but slow the action. At a moment when we need desperately to get on to the confrontation we are stuck with a convocation that does not include all the people who have been closest to Harry and spends minutes that pass like hours in soulful looks and some babble that we and Harry all knew already. It is a waste of celluloid or disc space or whatever medium is appropriate at the moment. Even Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are given precious little to do in this film but I'm not sure that is a fault as much as I enjoy their acting. This film is, after all the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, the moment toward which we've built over the 7 previous films. It's more than time to focus on Harry and Voldemort to the exclusion of most of the rest of the cast. Still, that's not what we get. We get much tying up of loose ends with interjected back stories that only contribute to the deathly pacing. We learn things that we should have learned in Half-Blood Prince and several other movies. Though those interjections may have been part of the 7th book they simply interfere with action of this film. We also get boxcar loads of exposition to explain plot twists for which no one ever laid the prior groundwork. The movie is a mess that completes the story but becomes a disservice to to the actors and fans. At one point late in the film Maggie Smith's Prof. McGonagall casts a weary, quizzical look in medium close up that seems more to say, "What am I doing here if not for the paycheck and how fast can I get back to the set of Downton Abbey where I actually can display my talent and craft." I feel for her. I do blame the directors to some extent but the producers and J. K. Rowling even more. From the start of the series the money people made great casting decisions and then put their wonderful actors in the hands of hacks like Chris Columbus and David Yates while giving fine directors like Alfonso Cuaron the boot after a single episode. Perhaps, one day once J. K. Rowling passes on to some other worldly Enchanted Forest, someone really competent who loves the stories will hire an elderly Daniel Radcliffe to play Albus Dumbledore in a really good remake of the series. I surely hope Harry Potter gets better treatment one day. He deserves it though he didn't get it here.
Harry Potter and the Deadly Pacing
I suppose it was inevitable. As J. K. Rowling became a phenomenon her books got less and less editing though they needed it more and more. With the cynical, money-grubbing decision to make two films out of the last book a similar thing has happened. The triangular friendship and love of Ron, Hermione and Harry provides the personal, human tension of the over-all story but we all know that it can't be resolved until the last chapter/reel. The consequence is this movie bloated with empty calories to deprive us of the price of a ticket bought more to say we've seen the whole epic rather than because we've been truly entertained. We get a few loose ends tied up and a brilliant animated sequence telling the back story of the Deathly Hallows. Unfortunately more of the movie than any narrative line can stand consists of the three young people wandering the English countryside to no particular purpose except to pad out the space between opening and closing credits. At best the film is an over-long trailer for the final installment. Poor Harry and his friends haven't been this badly served since the series wisely, thankfully jettisoned director Chris Columbus and his attempts to drag the series down into the hell of Home Alone with witches. The best I can say of this film is that someday, in order to sell more copies of the series, someone may re-cut the films and combine Deathly Hallows Parts I & II into something like a watchable film. I have no confidence in that, however. The fashion is to add scenes that were left on the cutting room floor and, usually, should have made it to the cutting room incinerator. I am a father of the children of the Harry Potter generation and thus once removed from Potter-mania. Still I also have a deep affection for Daniel Radcliffe's and his Harry, Emma Watson and her Hermione and Rupert Grint and his Ron. I have watched them grow as I watched my daughters grow. Thus it's partly out of fatherly affection that I dislike this installment as a great disservice to three young actors who have worked hard and deserved better.
Wanted to Buy: Competent Writers
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has always been fluff. After all, what can one expect from movies derived from an amusement park ride? Given that genesis the first two movies were a rather entertaining ride. The over-long sequence of Jack in the bleached out desert from which he must be rescued in the third film served as an extended metaphor for the life that was visibly draining out of the series. Now we are into a "walking dead" continuation of Capt. Jack Sparrow's biography as it moves from bang to whimper to bleached skeleton.
As a filmed amusement park ride the basic premise of the Pirates films is stringing together fights and chases like (black) pearls on a slim filament of plot. Unfortunately for On Stranger Tides the filament is absent. What we get is a disjunct pile of, to be kind, faux pearls. Each action sequence is brief fun but they all seem to be rolling around independently. First Mate Gibbs is back but only as a creaky plot device. The same is true of the male half of what becomes the couple in love sub-uh-plot that vestigially fills the gap left by the absence of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Rob Marshall's direction isn't much to write home about but it sometimes serves which is far, far more than I can say for the script, that missing filament. It starts out promisingly enough with picking up the teaser from the end of At World's End about the Fountain of Youth and even manages to end on the same theme for the most part. In between though we have hackneyed cliché after hackneyed cliché and nothing near as imaginative as the "fruit kebab" or water wheel sequences of past films. In the course of this attempt to construct a coherent movie the writers senselessly rip off past literature and movies from The Odyssey to Hans Christian Andersen to Moby Dick and even Splash. I searched in vain for a writer involved in the script who had a single original idea. In fact, even the the 3-D seems tacked on and the Spaniards who open the movie seem like an accidental afterthought.
Take, for example, poor Ian McShane's Blackbeard. He appears to have some magical control over his ship through the cutlass he carries at his side. We don't get any explanation even in exposition for this power. Does this power belong to Blackbeard? To the sword? Is it imparted by the ship to is captain? We never know. There's a reference to Blackbeard having been beheaded at some point in the past. It's there in the movie but it's one more loose...ah...pearl rolling around the pitching deck without a filament to make anything coherent of it. And Ian McShane is no Bill Nighy. There's as little energy in his Blackbeard as there is in the script itself.
Though the direction is pedestrian - deadly for an amusement park ride - and the script an incoherent mess that doesn't stop the actors from trying to inject some life. Johnny Depp minces around and tries mightily to extract some wit from the not-quite dialogue with which the alleged writers have afflicted him. Geoffrey Rush is a wonderful, delightful, talented actor despite the fact that he's been shamelessly ripping off Robert Newton from the first film in this series onward. Had there been some real point to his presence in this movie I'm sure that he could have delivered the kind of performance that made us so glad he'd returned in for At World's End. Penelope Cruz, besides being beautiful, is also a wonderful actress, just watch her in her films with Pedro Almodovar to confirm my opinion. In this movie she's mostly window dressing and the main attempt to replace Keira Knightley. Ian McShane is the actor for whom I feel both the most and least sympathy. He does what he can with the script pages he's given but I couldn't help wishing that he too had more of a chance to break out of the prison to which the lack of a script condemned him. Then I think that he could have made more of an effort. Perhaps it's McShane's fault but I think he could have done much better.
On Stranger Tides is worth the price of a matinée on a rainy afternoon. Johnny Depp is fun. Geoffrey Rush is fun too though less so. Penelope Cruz is beautiful and delivers the line which will undoubtedly become the quest and McGuffin for the inevitable fifth film. Still, unless Disney can find a good writer(s) for the next script and an imaginative director, I'll wait for Pirates of the Caribbean: To No Real Purpose to show up on cable before I watch it.
Fool's Gold (2008)
Talk about disaster movies!
There are some legendary movie disasters. Some of them don't deserve their awful reputations. For example, Ishtar does have some moments worth watching and Heaven's Gate in the long, uncut version is a flawed work of great genius. Fool's Gold, however, is Ed Wood awful without any of the charm. From its imbecilic and derivative screen play to the drooling, slack-jawed direction and on to the execrable acting, from everyone including, incredibly enough, Donald Sutherland, this movie is a cold, drying turd that everyone should avoid stepping in. It is a laugh-less, humorless comedy and a plodding, somnolent adventure film. I'm sure that some recycler could make something out of the master, prints and various iterations of this movie; no one involved in its creation did.
San Pietro (1945)
The story behind San Pietro
One reviewer commented that he didn't know how this film ever got released during World War II. It almost didn't.
First, you need to know that Hollywood actors, directors and producers were heavily recruited by the War and Navy Departments (the Defense Dept. is a post war innovation). These celebrities got to know a lot of the senior military personnel through their activities in Stage Door Canteens, the USO, recruiting and bond drives. Few were closer to the military top brass than Orson Welles, a close friend of Houston's.
Welles told this story on, I believe, a Dick Cavett Show in the late 1960s or very early 1970s. I repeat it as I remember it.
According to Welles the War Department censors did not want San Pietro released. They felt that the film was too graphic and that it might have an adverse effect on support for the war. Through Welles' personal friendship with General George C. Marshall he and Houston arranged a private screening at the Pentagon for Marshall, his staff and the censors. Following the screening Gen. Marshall stood up and ordered that the film be released. He said that it was an accurate depiction and that war was horrible. He felt that the American people needed to know that horror lest they romanticize war and become fond of a monstrous act of inhumanity.
So San Pietro was released. If Welles exaggerated his role, I can't say. Certainly Houston didn't contradict him. If I have misremembered the tale in some particular, it does not change the fact that San Pietro owed its release to the intervention of Marshall.
Even today San Pietro is worth seeing. As has already been suggested, it is a good complement to Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. I would suggest that it also ranks with two other great movies whose subject is World War I. Those movies are Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. And, although it doesn't quiet rank with the three films already mentioned, Philippe de Broca's King of Hearts belongs in the insanity of war film festival we seem to be constructing here. Finally, I would point out that earlier wars are often stand ins for the more recent one as in M.A.S.H. Korea stood in for Vietnam.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
When this movie came out I listened to the hype for quite a while. I've loved horror movies most of my life though I gave up on them when they sank into special-effects gore-fests and expressions of very personal paranoia in the 1980s. I finally gave this film a try when it came to a second run house in my city that charged 99 cents per ticket. One can see anything for 99 cents. When I left, the manager asked what I'd thought of the movie. He knew that I was a regular and that I liked films generally. I told him I thought he owed me at least 98 cents.
In summary, a group of young people with video equipment wander out into the woods on the Maryland/West Virginia border. To characterize their combined I.Q.'s as "super 8" would be too generous. The area in which they get lost in the woods is rural but not the Amazonian rain forest or the wastes of Siberia. Walking for less than an hour in any direction would bring them to a road, a task that is far from impossible to accomplish. Still they get lost. Once they are lost they descend into fear and get, as if such a thing were possible, even stupider. In the end the alleged Blair Witch does us all the great service of removing these self-indulgent idiots from the gene pool. The really bad news is that the witch takes about 90 minutes to accomplish that removal. She's just too darned slow.
This movie does not have the utterly misguided and endearing incompetence that make Ed Wood's films like Plan 9 From Outer Space a guilty pleasure. It's not even worth renting for the pleasure of throwing popcorn at the screen.
The Late Show (1977)
A sweet and unsentimental masterpiece
As many who have left comments before me have observed, this film echos the detective stories of the 1930s and 1940s. I would go a little further and suggest that the premise of the movie is what would the case be like if Philip Marlowe were roped into a mystery when he was pushing 80? Howard Duff's scene early in the film and even his character's name evoke The Big Sleep while Chandler allusions continue through the film. Art Carney's superbly underplayed Ira Wells is unquestionably an avatar of Marlowe surviving into the late 1970s and into his late 70s. He's a bit deaf, a bit slow, a bit more crotchety but he's still that one moral man walking down "these mean streets" of L.A.
Benton has done some extraordinary work, but this is his elevation to the sublime, a movie that one can watch again and again. It's a minor masterpiece. If producer Altman's own The Long Goodbye had been as good a Raymond Chandler film as this is, Goodbye would have risen to the level of the other two incomparable films of Chandler novels: the Howard Hawkes, Bogart and Bacall The Big Sleep and the Robert Mitchum Farewell, My Lovely.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
Pretentious Mess Wrapped in Pretty Ribbons
It's not really the actors' fault. Ziyi Zhang is beautiful, talented and does the best performance as a blind person that I've seen in a long time. Still this may be the most pretentious bit of tripe since The English Patient. Ultimately there isn't any plot. All we have is a thin, watery broth with a few separate scene/won-tons floating in it.
The "echo game" scene is beautifully choreographed and photographed but it ultimately hasn't anything to do with the story line. The fight in the bamboo forest is similarly beautifully photographed and a bit creepy when the soldiers begin scurrying down the bamboo like armored beetles, but it is a stand alone piece that exists more for its own sake than for any sense that it makes in the plot.
As witness to my contention that the whole film is a mess, we have a scene in which Takeshi Kaneshiro's Jin tells Andy Lau's Leo that they don't need any further attacks to establish his credibility with Ziyi's Mei. So the next scene is an attack in a field. Subsequently we get a scrap of dialogue between Jin and Leo to cover for the crappy script but the real reason that attack in the field is included is that Yimou Zhang needs it to stretch out this minnow so that it looks more like the whale he has in mind.
I have no objection to using nature to poetically heighten and punctuate a scene, but the blizzard during the last battle seems, like most elements of this movie, grafted on like an extra leg on a badly designed Frankenstein monster.
If the theme is supposed to be that people and things are not at all what they seem to be and that personal and political motives complicate loyalties and motives even more than deceptions, I've seen it done better and more coherently in most James Bond movies (except the utterly unwatchable Roger Moore ones). And that's not even to bring any of the better films of John LeCarre's novels in for comparison.
No. If it weren't for the acting and cinematography this film would barely rate a 2. Pretty Ziyi and pretty photography raise it to a 4 but no higher.
The Illusionist (2006)
Light touch and great performances
The Illusionist is set in the Vienna (not Venice) of the turn of the last century and draws on the Mayerling Affair as one of the threads of inspiration for the story on which it is based. Writer-director Neil Burger shows a superbly light touch in creating the period and telling the story. Edward Norton continues to demonstrate a talent normally associated with only a few exceptionally great actors on the order of Olivier and Orson Welles. Paul Giamatti is excellent as is the entire cast. What is most striking is the evocation of the period in the cinematography. Dick Pope's camera-work gets into the rarified realm of James Wong Howe and Sven Nyquist.
This is an exceptional movie that shows a superb writer-director, with a perfect cast and crew making a movie well worth the price of admission and the 2 hours in the theatre.