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Diana: In Her Own Words (I) (2017 TV Movie)
A fascinating human interest portrait to be taken for what it is
21 November 2017
A lot of controversy raged about this documentary, which some critics dismissed offhand as "trashy." I wouldn't agree completely, though I must say that while I did thoroughly enjoy watching it I came away wondering whether I ought to be slightly ashamed of myself for having done so.

For one thing, the general unfolding of Lady Diana's tragic story is hardly news to anyone who knows anything about the royal family, and most of the "revelations" come in the form of details that aren't really surprising - indeed, one has the impression most of them were already suspected or speculated on, anyway. Overall the narrative fits pretty nicely into the large canon of work that suggests Diana was a lightning rod for the monarchy in the modern world: an older and a newer way of thinking came into a rather sudden and dramatic clash. I suppose it was bound to happen somewhere, though perhaps it needn't necessarily have happened to the British royal family. The much-vaunted "modernization of the monarchy" was probably inevitable, but having Diana's own perspective from the center of the storm makes for a fascinating piece of sociology and psychology.

It would however be important not to take this as the final objective word. The source material was produced as part of Peter Settelen's attempts to improve Diana's public speaking abilities by drawing out her "real self," and what comes out is that her time as a princess was for her a huge play in which she had been sadly miscast. To take Diana's word for it, she had felt this almost from the start. Perhaps that's true, though one should remember that at that moment she was just, just trying to come out of her own. It is clear enough that she was unhappy during much or most of her marriage to Charles, a proposition corroborated by plenty of outside evidence, and that she was still working through this unhappiness at the time of the recording. The perspectives and criticisms should thus not be taken at 100% face value, by themselves: they are one point of view which deserves to be digested and taken seriously without rushing to value judgments.

That said, one can certainly call into question whether we were actually meant to have this point of view. Given the criticisms Diana offers in private of her husband, her in-laws and her parents, she suddenly appears a lot more discreet and restrained than I had previously given her credit for. I don't think this documentary makes her look bad - rather the opposite, in fact - but I was not convinced by Settelen's explanations of his motivations for first wresting these tapes - at what appears to have been great trouble and expense - from Diana's bereaved relations and then selling them to be broadcast. Settelen clearly considers himself to have done a great service to Diana and by extension to the world that so came to appreciate her, and he wants to be recognized for it. That narrative is plausible enough, but again, it's Settelen's perspective, and he definitely has more of a tangible interest - as he himself seems to acknowledge and justify - in propagating it than Diana ever did in saying anything critical of her husband or of the Queen. If my opinion of Diana went up, my opinion of Settelen definitely went down over the course of this viewing.

I am torn, then, between gratefulness to Settelen for sharing us this great portrait and appallment that he would broadcast what was clearly understood to be a private moment without permission, permission which I doubt Diana ever would have given. She always thought about her sons, and she knew one or both of them would eventually reign, after having to see their father through his own reign. Nevertheless, the cat is out of the bag, though arguably it has been for quite some time. The British monarchy has proved itself remarkably resilient and capable of rebounding. This fascinating portrait is but a few brushstrokes in that imagination- staggering history. Cheers!
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Killing Mr. Griffin (1997 TV Movie)
For a weeknight network movie... you could do worse
30 May 2017
'Killing Mr. Griffin' isn't a remarkable film, and the production values could best be described as "B+." However, it is saved by its willingness to tread into the darker territory of high school peer pressure and cliques with reasonable verisimilitude (unlike, say 'Cruel Intentions' or 'She's All That') and strong performances on the part of the lead cast, especially Amy Jo Johnson as Susan McConnell. Despite her lovely looks and renown for her breakout role as Valley Girl Queen Bee and Pink Power Ranger, Johnson is more than convincing as a socially awkward "Plain Jane" bookworm who nonetheless won't miss a sudden chance to join the cool kids and who tragically casts aside childhood loyalties and moral scruples along the way. The frame story also works wonders to that effect, providing the character introspection that would otherwise have been lost in the screen adaptation.

Nevertheless, the writers seem to have treated the adaptation of the source material a bit hastily in some respects. Mr. Griffin is here portrayed as an anti-social jerk as opposed to the somewhat brash drill sergeant and ultra-strict grader he was in the book, and so it's somewhat more difficult to have empathy with respect to his ill fate. The script also loses texture relative to the novel by its abandonment of the very well-done psychiatric dimension to the character of Mark Kinney (probably due to the difficulty of adapting his or the other characters' backstories in a single-shot film) and its under-exploitation of the Shakespearean parallels in the original plot.

Overall it's reasonably entertaining, certainly better than your average 'Movie of the Week,' and it's definitely a treat if you're a fan of Amy Jo Johnson, but if you've got time to kill consider reading the novel.
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The X Files (1998)
The X-Files: not at its finest
31 March 2017
X-Files episodes almost always fell squarely into one of two categories: the Monster-of-the- Week standalone case file story, or the "Myth-Arc" episodes that explored the cover-up conspiracy Mulder and Scully spent their careers discovering. A feature film adaptation of a TV series, to succeed (from an artistic point of view), generally needs to scoop up and coalesce as many elements as possible to give a good snapshot of the "spirit" of the show. X-FIles: Fight the Future tries to do that but was doomed to fail from the start: the MotW and Myth-Arc episodes were of such radically divergent spirits that with other leads they almost (but not quite) could have worked in separate universes altogether.

Ultimately they went the road of the Myth-Arc type, though they tried to incorporate some MotW motifs in there as well, notably with the subplot of "Scully in danger" that became a staple of the MotWs beginning with the very first one ("Squeeze"). But it seems almost like an afterthought tacked on to the end, and given how far the overall story had come by this point novice viewers simply weren't going to make sense of this. Understandably the film had to tie into the show, but this was far from the most satisfying of the Myth-Arc installments. If only the show's earlier seasons had gotten higher ratings the seasons 2-3 trilogy of "Anasazi," "The Blessing Way" and "Paper Clip" would have made for a much more understandable feature film, despite their solid Myth-Arc qualification.

Back to this one. In general the plot is thin and in some places incoherent: the progression of events surrounding Mulder getting the blame after being the only one who made the right guess and Scully's reassignment hearings isn't logical at all. The production team and the actors are, of course, as good as ever but they really don't have a lot to work with. Setting the film across multiple locations was clearly like a last-ditch attempt to make something big out of a story that, despite spanning vast areas of the globe, ultimately feels so small.

Ultimately this film has its place - though not especially high up there - in the X-Files continuity and canon, but is scarcely "worthy" as a feature film. It doesn't stand alone and it certainly isn't "epic." It's still true to the spirit of the show but without capturing the fullness of that essence. In the end, it leaves a fan like myself just... indifferent.
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An incoherent man-kid's wet dream: unsurprisingly, a first-class ticket to nowhere.
14 November 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I can't say that watching this film was an altogether disagreeable experience. However, the plot (to the extent that it has one at least) doesn't hold up very well under critical scrutiny. On the one hand, the outlandishness, implausibility and excess of Conner's particular adventures remind me of a script I would have concocted at age 17. On the other hand, the adventure is lived with a consciousness of setting that I don't remember having until I was about 20, at which point I had almost or entirely outgrown my old naivety about how sequential events actually unfold.

Let's start with the suspension of disbelief. In the 2000s, it is exceedingly rare to marry immediately out of high school, and even rarer to be so affluent that one can simply depart on an extended gap year with no strings attached. No explanation is offered or even hinted at. Conner's family is certainly "cool," but so "cool" and "prog" that they'll open the purse strings at his beck and call, with no quid pro quo? I don't think a guy raised by parents like that would be so cool, calm and self-confident at 18. In fact, I am sure he would NOT be, and would have a difficult time being anything but a spoiled rotten brat for the rest of his life. Yet the film offers no hint of irony or self-awareness regarding this improbable setup: the authors seem to have been determined to tell a story THIS WAY and either not thought or not cared about whether the elements fit together. It's frankly just a sloppy approach to narration.

But if you can get past that initial roadblock, you'll find yourself reliving your wildest adventures and fantasies along with Conner, skipping (and sleeping) his way barefoot and fancy-free through Central America until he accepts, on a whim, a proposition to cross the Darién Gap into South America. If you know anything about this and have ever contemplated the full length of the Pan-American Highway you'll be eager for a glimpse into what such a crossing must be like. The film does not disappoint...

... until it starts to turn to philosophizing. Depending on how you read it, 18-year-old Conner's thoughts on and co-opting of selective FARC (the narco-terrorist left-wing paramilitary that's been wrecking havoc through Colombia for decades) ideas are either every bit as eye-rolling and ridiculous as the commercialized "Che" t-shirts that litter Marxist-nostalgic hipster neighborhoods such as the East End in London and Bataclan in Paris, or a clever but improbable cynical subversion: improbable both that it would occur to a newly-minted suburbanite American man just now discovering international travel do to so, and that he would actually accomplish his ulterior ends in so doing. (Guerrilla fighters are not exactly known for reasonable negotiation, and it's more than a little aggravating to see yet another attempt to inject them nonchalantly as "moral romantics" into "mainstream" popular culture.)

The ending, with the incoherent and melodramatic decision to make a sacrifice in order to pursue a dream, wasn't exactly improbable: 18-year-olds certainly can be melodramatic, but it wasn't consistent with what was suggested about the character's maturity earlier on. There was no hint anywhere in the film that the art of travel had to be read out in the way he decided to pursue it and not in the other way that was being offered as the "catch." So there we leave him to the rest of his adventure, ever so slightly annoyed at his self-imposed martyrdom and with the vague sense that, as far as he's come geographically, the film hasn't really taken us anywhere in particular. It's rather unsatisfying.

On the other hand, perhaps that's a kind of statement about this sort of libertine carefree bonanza: as "fun" as it might be it really doesn't move one or one's life forward.

Meh... nah, I think it's just sloppy writing. Although I will admit, you could do a lot worse. You could do a lot BETTER, too. But worse is more likely.
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Jason Bourne (2016)
An all-out sensory assault
13 August 2016
The fundamental problem with the "Bourne" series is that the sequels were unplanned. As I have said before, finding loose ends to tie up in a matter that is both in continuity and consistent with theme is problematic when one has largely resolved the conflicts for the planned unitary installment. Aware of this, the producers of the "Bourne" series cheat in that in the beginnings of the sequels they negate important elements of the hero's resolution, so that he'll still have some ground to trek. The problem of course is that from the viewer's point of view, we had grown accustomed to "having" these elements and so the film now has to make us care.

In this respect, "Bourne" is only a partial failure: Riz Ahmed is perfectly twerpy as an obvious (albeit more naïve and morally tortured) Mark Zuckerberg stand-in; however, Alicia Vikander is nothing less than abominable and indeed insulting in her role as rising CIA star, especially in contrast to Julia Stiles.

And the "plot" hangs together like a soggy potato chip: it is too mired in current events surrounding privacy and social media and too sledgehammer-heavy moralizing to really divert from reality in the present day. The cinematography is quite a piece of work, although you could be forgiven for forgetting that this adventure takes place across multiple Western capitals with the brevity of each and every shot, and the hustle-and-bustle of hardcore action littering every single frame. The deliberate information overload is I suppose appropriate to a film touching on the kind of themes this one does, but the constant references to the current technology and the lifestyle rhythms that follow from them does mean the film won't age particularly well as a fun little window to the political past for future generations, along the lines of say "The Manchurian Candidate."

All-in-all, "Jason Bourne" is a two-hour optical, auditory, intellectual and cultural assault. I nevertheless was well-entertained all throughout: if you can get your senses attuned to a fast oscillatory rhythm this is actually both relaxing and stimulating at the same time. Then again, I'm one of those maritime nuts who's actually more seasick on land than on a boat, so perhaps not everyone can achieve that.
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My Girl (1991)
Difficult to fault
5 June 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"My Girl" is a thorough yet unpretentious psychological coming-of-age tale, and Roger Ebert described it as a slightly-younger take of "The Man in the Moon." Certainly there are important similarities in the basic plot structure and overlap in the themes. However, such a comparison undermine somewhat the impact of the "few crucial years younger" that Ebert agrees the kids in this film are. "The Man in the Moon" tries to wander into more explicit and sophisticated philosophy and consequently is somewhat awkward at point; "My Girl," however, remains true and respectful to the insular world in which protagonist Vada Sultenfuss finds herself: at the crossroads of the simplicity of childhood just becoming picked up in the first gusts of the whirlwinds of adolescence.

Played perfectly by the too-elusive Anna Chlumsky, Vada is a sweet, adorable and highly intelligent but slightly "off" 11-year-old girl: she has a quirkiness that keeps her from quite "clicking" right with other girls her age, so not surprisingly her best friend is himself the slightly nerdy/misfit Thomas J. Sennett (Macauly Culkin, who is worlds away from "Home Alone," here, and certainly worlds away from his future coke-headed self). We aren't left to wonder why: the daughter of a widowed and kindly but distant undertaker (Dan Aykroyd) who grew up in a funeral parlor and never knew her mother, she hasn't been taught to connect or to come out of her shell as she ought.

Over the summer after fifth grade, however, a series of events begin to change this. One is the presence of Shelly DeVoto (Jamie Lee Curtis), a divorcée who takes a liking to Vada's father and slowly begins to draw him out from his guarded indifference. Shelly quickly takes a liking to Vada, as well, and inspires and encourages her to explore her nascent inner interests as well as offering a few badly-needed pointers from woman-to-woman. The mischievousness of Vada's interests and her reaction to the more mature world she's about to join are so well-written and executed I'm sure they must be documentaries of real children I knew at school!

The second, more dramatically catalytic event, is a monumentally tragic climax, which of course set against the coming-of-age is what invited the comparisons with "The Man in the Moon." But because this film is so much more poignant and the children so innocent, the tragedy hits the audience much harder in this film than it did back then. It is perhaps for that reason that a number of people simply cannot bear to watch this one: they find it excruciatingly sad, and sad indeed it is, and it only gets harder for me to watch the older I get. Still, it was important, and indeed necessary. All her life Vada had protected herself - since no one else did so - by blocking her actual soul off from something she knew so well intellectually and by which she was physically surrounded. Now suddenly she comes face-to-face with it in her own life, and she can no longer hide from herself.

The setting in early 1970s small-town Pennsylvania was perfect for drawing out the innocence of an America that seems further gone with every passing year, providing a backdrop for an innocent childhood that seems less probable with every passing year. I'm not so optimistic this new America will find its footing so well as Vada eventually did, but the conclusion here is believable enough that, by analogy, we may yet hold out some hope.
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Casper (1995)
Vastly underrated, highly enjoyable family film
27 May 2016
There's a lot to like in "Casper." Though the plot centered around early teenager Kat Harvey is fairly conventional and formulaic, the film makes up for it with fairly meaty side plots, solid dialogue and acting and special effects that are unpretentious yet perfectly executed and more than adequate for suspension of disbelief.

A lot of people disliked this film or thought it unsuitable for children. I guess nowadays people tend to view death as not a "kid" subject, a curious point of view considering its ubiquity. "Casper" works as a fantasy-spook comedy because it does not pretend to some sort of "realistic" conception of life after death: it plays off folkish notions inherited from religion, myth and popular legend and offers its own spin that can be viewed as deeply or as lightly as one wishes. Along the way the film hints at potential resolutions for so many of the philosophical and existential conflicts that have puzzled great thinkers for ages: free will vs. destiny, suffering for good vs. reward for evil, temporal vs. eternal, the pain of loss and the need to live.

To wit, it's fun and largely free of the worst sorts of vulgarities that plague so many movies of this sort. I would say it's more appropriate as a "family" centerpiece than as sleepover fare, but hardly inadequate for children whose parents have strong convictions and can answer the tough questions that may follow.
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Enjoyable if somewhat banal
18 May 2016
It is difficult for me, for personal reasons which I suppose readers will easily deduce, to give a positive review of a "Christmas" movie with no religious connotations. Nevertheless, "The Santa Clause" does manage to capture something charming if banal and fleeting of the tender deconfessionalized "holiday season" folklore of a Middle America that now seems an ever-more-distant memory.

Perhaps its passing was inevitable, and perhaps even a good thing in at least some respects, but the nostalgia for the snow, Santa Claus imagery and brightly-wrapped toys is hard to shake, and "The Santa Clause" delivers well on those points. It's an amusing take on the pop culture Santa folklore of old Grinch/Rankin-Bass-type Christmas specials, where the "magic" of the North Pole appears to be taken in stride by all the civilians who cross its path. The adults in "The Santa Clause" suppose themselves to live in a straight-laced, Newtonian world in which "magic" does not exist, and the juxtaposition of their cynicism with the "reality" of Jolly Old St. Nick and his operation is fun to watch. Tim Allen is perfect as the fun-loving but inattentive and distant father suddenly forced, ironically, to "grow up" as he is thrust into the ultimate role of responsibility within the world of the childhood imagination, and the support cast's reactions to his irresponsibility, his confusion and his frustration is impeccable.

And whatever the film lacks in conveying the ACTUAL meaning of Christmas, it does perhaps make up for in its subtle commentaries about the state of America and of the American family by the 1990s: lack of attachment, obsession with careerism and conformism, stiff-necked and anti-paternal divorce and custody policies, devaluing or discounting of creative imagination and so forth.

Nowadays it is often considered a Christmas classic. I probably won't show it to my own children, but it's a fun trip down memory lane for those of us who remember that old, simpler America in its twilight.
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Enjoyable, intelligent and even-handed
17 December 2015
"American royalty" may not be technically correct, but such a qualifier is not wholly inappropriate when it invokes not only the notoriety but also the fascination and scrutiny to which every aspect of the lives of Joe and Rose Kennedy and their descendants have been subject. The passions they arouse are also very telling: evaluations of the Kennedys tend to fall somewhere on the scale between glorifications of a latter-day Camelot, and cynical exasperation with a band of hypocritical, womanizing, calculating "Massachusetts liberals." For all their very deep flaws, however, the Kennedy's Darwinian and cultural success does command very deep respect: there must be SOME virtuous sensibilities down there.

"The Kennedys of Massachusetts" portrays this integral picture quite well, incorporating the various strains and experiences that made Joe and Rose and their family into who they were. Central to the story is their Roman Catholic identity, to which they were both fervently attached and which they determined (and managed) to pass to their children. But the tension between Catholicism as expressed through Rose's more purely ultramontanist social, psychological and cultural mindset - which she transmitted to none of her children (Eunice a possible, partial exception) - and the ambitions of Joe to rise in WASP society. The film does not condemn Rose's staunch, sometimes brittle approach to her faith nor castigate Joe for his shirking of its finer points or of his numerous betrayals of the matrimonial covenant, but simply lays out the facts for what they are.

All the way, the grace and glamor of Old vs. New World is undeniable. The major points in the marriage of Joe and Rose and the evolution of their children are chronicled very cohesively and convincingly. William Petersen and Annette O'Toole play their roles very well and have good chemistry; nevertheless, the scenes between O'Toole and Charles Durning (as John "Honey" Fitzgerald) steal the show, and his cynical recapping of Rose's religious and intellectual path early on turns out to a harbinger for the whole Kennedy political project. We are left at once admiring of the great accomplishments of Joe and the earnest if naïve and not wholly adroit quest for beauty on the part of Rose, if perhaps regretful that he could not have listened to her earlier: "You're a very successful and wealthy man at a young age; isn't that enough?" and spared his family so much of the agony that came as the price of their admission into Anglo-Protestant high society. (An uncharitable cynic might add, spare the U.S. of an incompetent president and an alcoholic road-unworthy senator. I'll let my readers judge for themselves.)

All the same, one ends the mini-series wanting to do something, wanting to beatify one's life. If entertainment can so inspire, perhaps it is not so indispensable as we sometimes suppose.
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Pretty good overall
16 December 2015
'The Good Shepherd' is at its best when it sticks to nuts-and-bolts cinematic fundamentals: good acting, good shots, engrossing characters, engaging story lines. It is at its worst when it descends into "evolutive" political moralizing: the Cold War was a crack, the Soviets were never a menace, all the U.S. wanted was to keep up its military-industrial complex, the WASP was desperate to keep the Irish Catholic and the Jew out of the rungs of power, etc. etc..

All the same, the film manages to pay tribute both to American history and sociology as well as to the greatness of American cinema. Taking care to show a good cross-section of the post-war U.S. society, the film manages a good send-up of the worst of Old Yankee Puritan society in chronicling the devastating effects of hard-line, Manichean detachment on life. Matt Damon's character is appropriately cold and dehumanized, unable to respond to his dutiful and perceptive ("Bonesmen first; God second") wife, played brilliantly by Angelina Jolie. The melodramatic music recounts to great effect the banal but lovable blockbusters of the 1990s, before giving way to the chilling silence of the rude awakening along the path to sophistication.

Overall a carefully if a bit too cynically crafted work. It does make for an excellent diversion on an evening when one is feeling nostalgic for times past long before one was in fact born. I certainly enjoyed it on a solitary holiday in NYC on 31 December 2006.
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28 March 2015
TV Guide said of this movie, "Three years in the making, it was obviously conceived during the height of this country's fascination with Australia, brought on by Paul Hogan's fabulously successful Crocodile Dundee. By 1990, the mania had long since subsided, and... the film doesn't make particularly imaginative use of the location. Take away the accents and the obligatory kangaroos and koalas, and the story could have taken place anywhere." That's about it: lack of imagination. The formulaic repeats and nods to the original film aren't too cleverly woven into the new context and setting, and the resulting product is rather jumbled and, unless you are a young child, unsatisfying.

The (few) attempts at more sophisticated gags to appeal to a cross-generational audience don't fit well in with the story or the rest of the movie, while they were pretty much seamless in the original. The writing is overall rather sloppy and it doesn't seem much thought was given to conceivability (the reviewer who pointed out the stupidity of Jake wanting to "find a way to extend the runway!" and then immediately making use of a device clearly placed to do just that was spot-on). Granted, a story involving anthropomorphic animals is not going to attempt verisimilitude, but surely it is not too much to ask that a fantastical universe, within its own world, obey certain rules of logical coherence.

There's something else: the snow take-off. This had already been done in the first movie, and with quite effective animation and beautiful drawing (with the "camp" elements such as the albatross's snow boots extremely well-placed). The only reason to re-do it here was to capitalize on the techniques that had by 1990 evolved to allow "sleeker" and "smoother," more metallic, flowing visuals and movement as was the aesthetic vogue at the time. Watching it in 2015, it is now apparent the animators made a huge mistake, and banked the differential of the new visuals largely on their technical acuity. Graphical rendering and automated animation have of course advanced considerably since that time, and consequently the updated scene has aged extremely poorly. (Also, without giving away too much, may I just say that the kind of mishap this incident leads to - and treats so cursorily and incidentally - is not funny to adults, and children should not be conditioned to think it is funny, either?)

But maybe that was to be expected for a film so obviously conceived, from the start, as a consumer product catering to the fads of its time. Like all such films, this one was doomed to become a prisoner of its time. This has become abundantly clearer as the years have rolled by, and as such, it cannot be classed with the best, "timeless" Disney classics.
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Joyeux Noel (2005)
A bittersweet, surprisingly heartwarming tragedy
5 October 2014
Christian Carion is not a prolific filmmaker, but the efforts he does make are noble and display, for the most part, a high level of technical directorial competence despite his relative inexperience. There are of course a few flaws, in this case the hamminess of Diane Kruger and especially Benno Fürmann in two of the lead roles. But although each *part* is made with loving care, on the whole his films seem to lack any sort of grandiose vision or context.

Having met and talked (briefly) with Carion my impression is that he is a very kind and very humble man with an earnest desire to see good triumph both in life and on film yet a healthy degree of skepticism as to the capacity of this world to "work things out." I also suspect, however, that he is something of a perfectionist and not perhaps wholly self-confident: there are moments in his films, such as this one, which appear artificial and overly-polished.

And I think part of this stems from the fact that Carion tries earnestly to work in a context that he does not fully understand. In the case of Joyeux Noël, Carion tries and unfortunately fails - though his is a much noble failure than that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in the deliberately commercial "A Very Long Engagement" - to capture the spirit and atmosphere of 1910s Europe. He fails - but he deserves credit for nearly succeeding. Other contemporary filmmakers would have taken the subject of the Christmas Truce and created a banal lesson about top-down bureaucratic WORLD PEACE that would make Eleanor Roosevelt proud. Carion does not succumb to the temptation to do so.

Nor does Carion - who was apparently a "seeking" nonbeliever when I met him in 2006 - neglect to amply depict - as James Cameron neglected to do in "Titanic" - the still ubiquitous presence of Christian belief, ritual and cultural referential in the Western society of that time. However, he fails to bind this Christian culture and energy to the characters, and in so doing he fails to provide an important aspect of the context in which the historical Christmas Truce took place: the common religious, ethical and cultural referentials were still strong enough to provide, if only for a moment, a solid covering of chivalry.

Not that he doesn't try. Hints are given as to the respective family and parochial lives of the major characters from respectively Scotland, France and Germany, but not nearly enough. Carion doesn't seem comfortable trying to flesh these out more: if he is trying to respect the rule that a writer should stick to writing what he knows, then the film is better off for it. Regrettably, though, the dearth of cultural context means that anyone not already deeply initiated in European history and the Christmas Truce - or even, after a few successive viewings, someone who is - will find that the film seems... small, much smaller and less significant than its subject matter. This WAS, after all, the "War to End Wars," and the truce involved hundreds of thousands of troops along the trenches. Yet Carion never expands outward from the cannon-fodder layer of wartime society - a Christmas Peace had been requested by Pope Benedict XV and rebuffed by the military commanders - and so we never get a sense of the drama or the moral significance of the events.

I would say that "Joyeux Noël" is on the whole a failure, but it is a noble failure, one that should provide hints for a jumping off point when somewhere down the road someone decides to paint a more grandiose picture of this under-appreciated happening. But if such an honest and tasteful filmmaker as Carion cannot penetrate deeply enough into the more primordial imagination of the period to portray it more fully, it is questionable whether a truly satisfying and earnest portrayal of the Peace can ever be realized in the modern world.
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996–2003)
A quirkily fun fandom work
19 July 2014
"Buffy" was the ultimate fandom show: a regular ensemble cast of mostly young and totally angst-laden bright things whose physical appearances ranged from mildly to ridiculously attractive, spanning multiple genres and creating a self-contained universe in the vein of Sci-Fi, filled with an elaborate, idiosyncratic internal metaphysics and history. Not surprisingly, it is the sort of universe that elicits fiery passions. To its fans, it is a pride and masterpiece of television; to its detractors, it is a cheesy and credibility-free sell job. Both sides are wrong - and right.

On the positive side, "Buffy"'s production values and narrative pacing are right on par with those of "The X-Files," and if all TV shows were so cinematically crafted, the epithet "Idiot Box" might never have taken off. One cannot argue that this is a show that insults it's viewers' intelligence.

But the fact that the narratives are rich and gripping does not mean that they are *good*. The show is at its best when it sticks to its fundamental genres of comedy and horror. The comedy works best when it avoids the snappy one-liners the show later unfortunately became infamous for, and sticks to ironic exaggerations of the idiosyncrasies of the corner of the real universe it emulates - i.e., Cordelia's "Queen Bee" heartless wench personality in the context of 20th-century American adolescent social hierarchies, the creepy personalities and icky reconstituted "meat" at the fast food restaurant where Buffy works.

And the horror works best when it sticks to the genre rules and acts strictly as a metaphor for the pains and frights of the real life its audience is accustomed to - i.e., 20th century American high school is hell, and Buffy's high school is literally located atop a gateway TO hell.

Sure, from the beginning, there were chinks in the fabric: Buffy in particular was always far too gorgeous and well-dressed to have fit in with the archetypal "misfits," and that she could attract a group of genuinely devoted friends was hardly congruent with her (usually) less-than-warm-and-caring personality. (She didn't have to be warm and caring for us to sympathize, but the juxtaposition lent to a real plausibility problem.) SBut what really detracted from the enjoyability of the show was that, as time went on, the creators came to depend too much on the fierce devotion of the viewers and ceased respecting the genre rules of horror or making light of real life.

The loss of the high school/hell equivocation after the third season was a serious blow. They tried, in season 4, to have the horror/fantasy parallel the shades of grey that hover over campus life. Alas, the season's general plot arc was rather disjointed, and their depiction of American college life not only was heavy, but also, for me, rang rather false. I suppose not everyone has as radical a break from the past as I did when I was twenty, but I'm under the impression most people change their core group of friends if nothing else after high school, if their core does not reach back to before high school. Of course the popularity of the core cast made such a depiction logistically impossible, but preserving the leads came at a heavy cost: the universe of "Buffy" became increasingly idiosyncratic and self-contained, and the leads in particular cut off from the rest of the world. The comedy thereupon lost its satirical edge. Likewise, the horror, detached from its connotations of the real world and increasingly preoccupied with the physics of its own quirky universe, ceased to be truly terrifying.

The hardcore fans will probably object to "comedy" and "horror" as the show's best driving forces, since they're not "serious" enough. But come on. How "seriously" are we supposed to take the idea of a petite blonde girl whooping the patooties of vampires, goblins and demons every night? How "seriously" should a TV show turning on such a premise take itself? By the last season, the creators seemed to have recognized that their greatest power lay in the metaphor, and made the whole shebang a stand-in for female power and feminism. Unfortunately it was too little, too late, and the metaphorical punch was undermined by having been immediately preceded by explicit literal-level feminist discourses from the characters. Nice try.

The biggest bellwether of the show's downfall, however, was Buffy herself. The girl is nothing more than a standard blonde bimbo pretending to higher things, and hints (like her SAT score) that she might be secretly deep and intelligent simply rang absolutely false given what we could see on the screen. With the slightest reflection it is clear that she brings almost all of her problems on herself - for example by sleeping with the demons she is supposed to be killing - and is by and large incompetent to do anything for anyone apart from what her superpowers enable. (The one time she did something worthwhile without them, it was out of blind luck, or an author's magic pen, and she did not come out at all changed.) The bimbo persona was well sufficient as a cementing lead in the first three seasons, but she couldn't hold together the more "serious" new show that evolved after that: a "serious" lead has to be substantially likable and believable; Buffy was not. In this Buffy is not unlike the actress who portrays her. The dearth of depth and texture to Sarah Michelle Gellar's acting skills could never have supported a sympathetic "serious" character, and this explains why Hollywood no longer casts her.

Ultimately, "Buffy" faltered/jumped the shark for the same reason nearly every open-ended scripted TV drama does (and that unplanned film sequels are more often than not cheesy retrofits): it lacked an overall story plan and lost its coherency of quality. Despite its merit as a TV show, it ultimately succumbed to the fundamental weakness of its own medium.
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Cinderella (1950)
It's Disney.
8 December 2013
First of all, let's discuss the positives of this film, namely the production value. The drawings and the animation are gorgeous, and the music is catchy and perfectly-crafted. It's not for nothing that people speak of "Disney magic," and what else would come to mind but a fairy godmother and a beautiful girl? Disney's Cinderella is certainly a cultural icon.

And that's really unfortunate for our culture. Because, you see, the writers of the script decided to favor the synthesis of the eye candy magic over the essence of the original story. Disney's Cinderella appears to be an unwilling captive in a situation so bad we cannot understand why she does not run away: she IS shown to be of at least moderately illustrious ascendancy and surely she could at least start out in a more worthy setting somewhere else before her masters take note that she's perhaps issue of an education not quite comparable to that of the other scullery maids?

Charles Perrault's Cinderella was rather clearer on this point. Cinderella loved her father and even though his second wife and stepdaughters were cruel to her, she stayed behind to look after them out of love for her father, knowing he wanted his two families to love each other and to meld together. This is made clear at the first ball (in the Disney version, there is only one, and the story is robbed of commensurate death): the prince takes notice of Cinderella and gives her a plateau of oranges and lemons (a rarity in 17th-century France), and she immediately finds her stepsisters and shares the dessert with them. The message is that Cinderella had it all to move up in the world, deep interior beauty as well as outer beauty, and just a little bit of divine intervention (through her fairy godmother) cleaned up and allowed people to look past an otherwise soot-laden exterior. She was noble both in birth and in character and she deserved the royal treatment she ended up getting.

But Disney's Cinderella does... nothing. Not even talk. And she gets the prince's attention. And what, did she just leave her father's second family behind once she got into the palace? Not that they didn't deserve it (they deserved much, much worse, of course!). But the whole meaning of the original is lost. Her stepmother and stepsisters are not seen at the wedding. Disney's Cinderella is just a pretty but ordinary "nice girl" who happens to be of noble birth and possesses little gray matter.

What's the point?? I mean, seriously, this stuff is porno for little girls. Yes, everyone wants to move up, everyone wants to be royal. And I'm NOT a feminist. But this kind of passive corset-stringing is not a good role model. The message is, "Bide your time and be pretty and someone will come to rescue you." What about developing the kind of loving and thoughtful character and self-esteem that will attract a decent man - and touch the lives of others while you're at it?

Overally, really not a constructive addition to the film canon, whatever its technical merits.
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Snowpiercer (2013)
This is one that stays with you
13 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Apart from a couple of bad CGI shots, there is very little to critique, technically, with this film. The premise is highly interesting; the cinematography is very good, if not particularly spectacular or eye- catching; the acting and directing are fantastic; the plot is gripping; the script is well-written and the characters surprisingly believable. Points also to the director for managing to take the thriller - a notoriously and rabidly conservative/reactionary (if banally so) genre - and succeed in turning out a thoroughly Marxist product.

Of course, as a conservative/reactionary myself, I'm not about to let this slip by without a word or two about the film's politics. The film is, as mentioned, unabashedly Marxist, though at the same time too cynical and not cynical enough. Resources are scarce and we can't provide for everyone? No problem: we'll just launch a nice Holodomor/nuclear war (which is exactly what they do at the end). Socialist fairy tales of old had all the people living happily ever after; postmodern tales of despair has everyone die off. In this one, the few survivors of the Stalinian crime get to live happily ever after.

The film is also extremely racist. On one level, this was intentional: the train carrying the survivors of humanity sports specimens of all phenotypes, but in the end, the only white survivor is a polar bear, and the only human survivors are an Asian female and a black male. Clearly, according to this film, the future 1. belongs to Asians and Africans; the West can move over, and 2. involves heavy miscegenation. (But thank God we've cleansed the world of those awful white people genes!)

At the same time, on a more subtle level, the film is white supremacist to a degree that would make a Ku Klux Klansman blush. For the Asian and African survivors were guided along the way by their white enablers, who protected them, retrieved them, and taught them everything they needed to know to survive. Even the Asian technical genius in this film could never have pulled his redemptive stunt without his white C.E.O. Do the terms "White Man's Burden" and "Little Brown Brother" ring a bell? Of course this is a reflection of the fact that the modern leftist is simply a different kind of bigot from his early twentieth-century eugenicist counterpart: rather than wanting to exterminate all the brown people, he wants to make them all Just Like Us: sexually libertine, materially prosperous, deracinated hedonists going about "our own business."

A truly fascinating piece that I can't get out of my head. A very serious work of cinema that deserves attention.
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Up (2009)
... am I supposed to care?
11 November 2013
For the most part, Pixar films seem almost totally immune to criticism. I'm not really sure what it is, but Liam Colle might have given us a hint when he said of the studio's repertoire: "These are not kids movies that parents can sit through. Pixar makes grown-up movies that parents don't feel guilty about letting their kids watch." I think people think they're SUPPOSED to like them because of the "cute" factor, and I also think that the 3-D animation ties into this.

Because, let's face it: Disney animated classics such as "Sleeping Beauty" would not have worked so well or at all with live actors. Neither would Pixar's. But Disney of old (and I insist well on this point!) could get away with the flashy, fantastical, imaginative storyboards precisely because the animation was beautiful and fluid. Pixar's is flat, sterile and robotic. The elements all look plastic. This is just part of the limitation of 3-D rendering. Sure, this worked for Toy Story, because all the characters WERE plastic toys.

But stories about actual characters fall flat, because we simply can't relate to the characters. That leaves the cuteness and threadbare humor (if you are the sort who finds this stuff funny, and I am not) to sustain the film, and I have to opine that it is a really sad state of affairs when the adults of our society consider cuteness sufficient power for sustaining a dramatic narrative.

Now for "Up" itself. The beginning part is dreadfully depressing, and might work for a live-action art house film, but I can't imagine a child (again, this is NOT a kids' film, but it is marketed as such) sitting through it without crying. The second half of the movie leaves us with a grumpy old man and an incredibly annoying kid stuck in a tangle on an extraordinary adventure, trying to extricate themselves from a problem that the kid caused. There is no meaning, no feeling: just cuteness, if you aren't sufficiently annoyed by this point.

"Up" really should have been two movies: one picturesque live-action film about the old man, with no extra-possible situations, and one plasticky CGI film about a random lonely old man and a kid. The latter would have been utterly ignorable but still would have garnered the praise of critics. And such a cleavage would have avoided the film we actually got, which was the latter with connotations of pretension toward the former, adding insult to injury.

Pixar... just go away, please?
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Working Girl (1988)
A nice little accurate ride
1 July 2013
I was pretty shocked to learn, after watching this film, that Mike Nichols was the director: a lighthearted, linearly-plotted chick comedy from the man behind the absurdist Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the character-driven The Graduate, both very heavy drama indeed, is not at all what one might expect.

However, the same quality craftsmanship from the aforementioned two permeates the entirety of this deceivingly simple movie. Though Tess McGill's achievements may seem a bit far-fetched, the story works because its depiction of the New York business and finance world in which she navigates is extremely accurate. The highly sensitive maneuvering in the cutting details is played to a T. We are also treated to the insecure porcine antics of nerdy male big-name school alumni desperate to cover up for their lack of real virility or machismo, as well-as the self-conscious vacuousness of many of their female counterparts, so beautifully incarnated in Tess's boss, Katherine Parker.

Tess's plight, as well, as a frustrated woman but especially as an aging (she's 30) Bright Young Thing frustrated in her attempts to get that seal of validation for her competence and style, ring very true. It doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman: anyone who has had to work with/for Ivy League alumni without having an Ivy League degree himself, or report to someone younger or barely older than himself, as I have, will begin rooting for Tess quite swiftly.

Harrison Ford's acting doesn't particularly stand out, but it wasn't bad. It helped that Ford was given a role with some degree of substance, though Melanie Griffith clearly outshines him. The omnipresence of Katherine's energy threatening to darken Tess's work, even when Katherine is absent, is quite remarkable, and it's almost frightening how well Sigourney Weaver, herself a Yale alumna, seemed to understand the territory in which she had to play Katherine.

All-in-all, brilliant work. Two thumbs up!
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Skyfall (2012)
If this is modernity, count me out.
25 June 2013
Part of the appeal of the original James Bond, as conceived by Ian Fleming and as depicted in all 007 films up to "Licence to Kill," is the way in which it plays to a sort of quirky imperial British nationalistic chauvinism in its twilight but kept alive and polite by the fact that the successor Great Power was a descendant of England (the United States - more on this later) embroiled in a nasty griplock with one of the most horrific superpowers ever seen (Ronald Reagan may have been a cretin, but unless you're a member of the French Communist Party, which famously reacted to news of the Gulag Archipelago by ignoring it and precipitating its own decline, you must admit his speechwriters certainly got the "evil empire" bit right on the money) - and to a sort of male chauvinism very peculiar to Britain. N.B.: Indiana Jones played on post-war American optimism and nationalist chauvinism in much the same way.

However, owing to cultural changes, "Skyfall" could never have lived up to the best ambiance of the 007 franchise, and the filmmakers' attempts to juice it up with modern meaning only serve to hasten the day of reckoning.

As the 1990s unrolled, overt sophisticated jingoism became increasingly less acceptable in the eyes of polite educated company, and the memory of the Hays Code was distant enough that directors need not fear slipping subversive undertones into their films, provided they steered clear of anything that would too overtly offend most of the inattentive box office-goers whose pockets they yearned to empty. Hence "Goldeneye" could only make it to the box office if it were to be touted the "modernization" of the James Bond movies (replete with hammer-and-sickle symbolism neatly planted into the opening credits of a film in which the protagonist is supposedly anti-communist and a feminist dressing-down of said protagonist), and the newest Indiana Jones movie couldn't depict an anti-communist protagonist without showing that a capitalist was just as bad.

And since "Goldeneye," the 007-series has been well unrecognizable. For if the quirky British and male-chauvinist bent of the old Bond films has a kind of quaint charm as an historical relic that excuses "sophisticated" folk for taking guilty pleasure in them, even a rabid reactionary, if honest, would concede that a similar ambiance could not today be captured on film, at least not in any contemporary setting. It's not just that it would be offensive (and to the professional victim class, it would be), or that it wouldn't be plausible (Bond stories have never had a problem dispensing with the limits of plausibility): it would be completely out of order and cheesily laughable.

Arguably, the wise thing to do would have been to throw in the towel and stop creating new installments for a fictional universe which can no longer proceed from the order of things in Britain or the world. But the 007 franchise was too hot to give its last gasp without cashing in, and so the producers castrated it. All of the quirky charm of Old Britain, with all of its flaws and all of its dignity, is gone. What's left is bloodshed and high-paced action. The problem is that bloodshed and high-paced action are each a dime a dozen in cinema. Accordingly, all Bond films since and including "Goldeneye" were predictably bland and boring.

The producers of "Skyfall" surely understood this, for they decided to turn the formula around and "deconstruct" the classic Bond: giving him emotion, injecting anguish over the deaths of his parents, turning the "Bond Girl" fixation into a weird and stupid and possibly Œdepian mommy-attachment, even hinting at homo-eroticism beneath that aggressive womanizing. Some have praised this turn of events for the literary and cinematic richness it breaths to the film and, by extension, to the script.

Please allow me to respectfully dissent, on the following grounds:

"Deconstructionists" are notorious for taking superficial things and turning them into objects of contemplation. In France there is a well-known psychiatrist who wrote a psychoanalysis of the child's love for a McDonald's hamburger as surrogate breast-food. The bottom line is that James Bond is silly and superficial and just a quirky, personal-fantastic guilty pleasure: while the better-crafted of the novels and classic films certainly showcase a few fun-to-contemplate aspects of culture and the world, they are pure entertainment and have absolutely no didactic value, not even incidentally, not even as libertine works. There is absolutely no fun in seeing them deconstructed, and if one is cone-headed enough to take the the deconstruction seriously, one risks having all the previous films retroactively ruined as well.

In the end, the Bond universe is such that anything that aspires to be anything other than simply entertaining is doomed to abject failure. These ridiculous subtexts are so obviously retrofitted onto the character and setting that one is tempted to see this film as a parody of deconstructionism.

But it gets worse. Because the film is so fixated on its the uninteresting and unamusing themes, it fails to advance a sympathetic or conceivable plot. Nothing makes sense; nothing is put together; no progression can be seen - and so throughout the action scenes that so ungracefully intersperse the postmodern drawl, one cannot feel that sort of breathless tension. One is simply not able to make oneself care.

See "The Hangover part 3" for another example of a recent movie that cut the guts out of a purely entertaining universe to try and tried to inject conscious meaning. This has not been a good season for big-name film franchises. Indeed, one might suspect that even the name "deconstruction" is, minus the "-con-," a harbinger for the future of a civilization which insists upon tearing all its own treasures, even the silly trinkets such as James Bond or The Hangover, to bits. Be old-fashioned. Save your money and rent the old flicks.
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Ghost (1990)
Worth a good try
10 June 2013
There are many movies which deal with death and the afterlife. The problem with most of them is that their unwillingness to respect any established boundaries of moral theology ungrounds the entire universe and leaves a product that is unhuman.

"Ghost" does not make that mistake. Although the metaphysics are clearly fantastical, we can suspend disbelief, because it is quite clear throughout that love and good works are the path to salvation, while hatred and evil deeds are the path to damnation. While there is no overt religious iconography, there are still a few satisfying if amorphous suggestive elements that a discerning eye can easily connect to formal religious doctrine.

Whoopi Goldberg's Oda Mae is often written off as just another "Magical Negro" trope. It is true that hers is a black supporting character whose role in the primary plot is to expedite, through (highly) extraordinary means, the resolution of the white protagonists' conflict. However, Oda Mae is a far more interesting character than either Sam or Molly, both in personality and in backstory, and is also, unlike Sam and Molly, dynamic: along the way to getting them out of their glut, she is forced to confront her rotten past as a charlatan and turn her life around. There is a partial inversion of the trope here, for it is the undeveloped, static and almost supernaturally angelic Sam who ends up leading the formerly banally criminal Oda Mae to salvation, and she repays him by helping to save Molly, the woman he loves.

Although, it's not entirely clear that Sam was actually meant to be so bland, and indeed, if you're watching the movie looking for personal inspiration, he and Molly might not be the best in terms of making an emotional connection. It's clear that they love each other very deeply, and for many people that may well be enough to make an emotional connection. I would have liked a little something more, but then, I've never tried to watch this as a date movie. At the least, your girlfriend won't suspect you only wanted to watch it for the incredible special effects, which do not exist. Have fun!
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A failure
9 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
About the only good thing that can be said about "The Hangover part III" is that it did not repeat the error of "The Hangover part II" in rehashing a very funny story (from the original "The Hangover") whose comedic timing depended entirely on elemental shock and could offer nothing to up the ante except more raunch and more violence. The problem is that what it had to offer in this stead was completely stupid and pointless.

Alan is the foil, the deliberate but well-intentioned anti-hero of this movie, as he is in the first two movies. The difference is that the character in the first two is static, never progressing and just being his plain old dumb dangerous lovable self, hints but never express data communicated with respect to the psychiatric malaise that makes him the oaf he is. The third film attempts to transform him into a dynamic character, one who becomes conscious of the evil he does, but this time the evil is entirely unforeseen and there is no intention.

The problem is that once we understand Alan's real problem and lose the ambiguity, the original concept is retroactively destroyed and we forget all about the humor that made us fall in love with these characters in the first place. We end up just flat-out NOT CARING in the end. The simple fact is that the universe of "The Hangover" was not set up to handle the sort of drawn-out, complex emotional melodrama that this film wants to be without killing the quirky charm that made the original hit such a crisp note with so many people the world over in the first place.

A few people have suggested that simply expanding on the cliffhanger ending, which resembles the initial rising action moment in the first two films in the midst of the hangover after a Very Bad Trip (the title of the franchise in France), would have made for a more entertaining film. There are two problems with this suggestion. First of all, there is no reason to think that doing so would have ended up producing something funny, unless you are the type who thinks that Part II was on par with the original. Second, the very premise on which the scene turns depends on the climax, falling action and dénouement of Part III as it is made, so deleting this development would make such an expansion totally incomprehensible.

But as it is, the ending is problematic as an extension of Part III, because it suggests either that Alan is at fault, in which case the preceding dynamic action on his character is entirely negated, or that this happened despite and not because of him, in which case we conclude that either he or the group is cursed and that therefore nothing he does to change will ever make a difference, thereby negating any meaning of the preceding dynamic action.

Basically, to make a long story short, as is sometimes the case with great, spontaneous fiction, the creators of the first film hadn't a clue what they created, or how to handle it without breaking it. We suspected as much with Part II, and were it not for rent-seeking Hollywood speculators who by necessity line up to cash in on popular franchises, we would wonder how they could have had the shamelessness to prove as much once and for all in Part III. But even this plan seems to have backfired when Part III took in $30 million less in its opening weekend than originally expected.

And that little piece of trivia inspires me to write this little note to Los Angeles: you no longer have a quasi-monopoly on the film business, and the experience of other brands-turned-commodities (think the broadcast trio, think Kodak, think Microsoft) strongly suggests that once your commanding lead begins to fade, your share can go downhill much faster than you anticipate. The ordinary consumers who pony up for the tickets the sales of which make movies into blockbusters might well be stupid, but they're probably not as stupid as you think. Probably a good time to stop being so dismissive toward your breadbasket, huh? For example, by not re-exploiting a tired franchise.
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A half-witted mimeograph of an immortal classic
6 June 2013
The impression I got as I saw scenes of this movie unfold before my eyes was something akin to the impression I would get if modern men had put on period dress and then removed their pants and underwear and went strolling around beautiful monuments in the Old World. Not exactly a pleasant thought, but then, this is not a particularly pleasant movie to watch. Julian Jarrold's Brideshead Revisited fails as an adaptation of the novel, fails to tell a coherent story and ultimately fails as a veritable work of cinema.

Let's begin with the adaptation. Detractors of this movie compare it unfavorably to the 1981 Granada TV serial, which was extremely faithful to the novel. Defenders plead that such a comparison is unfair, that a 2-hour movie should never be judged by the same criteria as an 11-hour epic. My response is that cinematic adaptations of novels are as a rule miserably inferior to TV-serial adaptations in terms of capturing the author's intended character development, themes and plot pacing. Moreover, on a psychological note, one might find it hard not to take the filmmakers' choice of the same Castle Howard for Brideshead as seen in the 1981 serial as evidence that they WANT us to compare this to the original.

If that be the case, they should have been more careful what they wished for. Adaptations are tricky, remakes are even trickier, and anything that calls itself "Brideshead Revisited" is holding itself up to a lofty standard, one that is almost certainly beyond the reasonable scope of standard-length cinema.

Unlike Waugh, who intended the novel as an exposition of Catholic life and the Christian struggle, Davies and Brock are both sons of Anglican vicars whose attitudes towards Christianity run from ambivalent fascination to outright hostility, and this shows through in numerous alterations to the story. But why does this vision not hold up on its own? Why can we not forget about the title, and accept Jarrold's film as its own product, merely "inspired by" Brideshead Revisited? The problem is that they preserved enough of the plot framework of the original to end on a more positive, Catholic note, and so it becomes impossible to totally forget the original. As a result, final product feels messy and incoherent: there is no plausible hint as to the real reason why religion could have both the negative and the sympathetic fallout seen in the film. This is not ambivalence: this is the authors setting up a mystery with absolutely no clues to solve it. It's the difference between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie, the latter of whom cheats in her mystery novels by giving the detective essential information that the reader does not have, so that the mystery is unsolvable. Such anticlimax is symptomatic of storytellers who do not really understand their craft or who are too lazy to bother to learn.

But Christie, at least, understood her subject matter enough to turn out fodder that was good enough to make for amusing and engaging stage ambiance. The same cannot be said for Davies and Brock: to the extent that their screenplay preserves the theme of Catholicism, they get the religion wrong, at several points. Not having the time to dwell on Charles's discovery of the meaning of the aristocratic world of the Marchmains, they reduce his deep love affair with that world to a tawdry lust ball - a lust triangle for sex and a quest for material riches. In so doing, they both overplay the snobbery of the upper classes and aristocrats as though the Marchmains belonged to nothing more than a fixed anachronistic caste, and overestimate the banal impliability of the upper-middle and bourgeois milieux. Brideshead, here, might as well be a museum, the Marchmains A-list Hollywood stars and Charles, a senior executive at Enron.

Now, let's turn to the cinematic aspects of the film, since after all movies are all about pictures and sound, right? Well, see my first paragraph for an idea. Another reason this film inevitably suffers by comparison to the 1981 serial is that that one left us with distinctive ideas about how earlier generations might have carried themselves. The pace, the mannerisms and facial expressions and the lighting in the 2008 film are all quintessentially modern. There is no subtlety of movement or of imagery, and the now explicitly homosexual relationship between Charles and Sebastian isn't the half of it. The females at Brideshead look like porcelain dolls, at best. Transitions do not exist: clashing moods and images and overlay one another in succession at a rate that makes a sugary breakfast cereal commercial on 1990s Saturday morning TV look like a leisurely stroll in the park. Lines either are murmured so halfheartedly that the actors' own frustration with the script's stupidity show through, or are belted with such melodrama as to make an American soap opera star blush.

All-in-all, the film not only lacks merit as an adaptation of Waugh's novel, but it also lacks merit, PERIOD. It is too short, too shallow, too incoherent, too facile, too ambitious and at the same time too lazy. Find 11 hours to kill and watch the TV serial, or just buy the book. Don't be lazy and rushed to get what's in it.
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Overnight Delivery (1998 Video)
The original "Road Trip" - before it was denatured for the modern teenager
1 May 2013
A college freshman who thinks his long-distance girlfriend is cheating on him sends her the most disgusting Dear Jane letter imaginable (complete with icky and salacious visual aids). But the next morning, he realizes that the truth of the matter has been distorted across the distance, and vows to retrieve the package. Problem: he sent it overnight delivery, and the package has just been picked up. Now he sets off down-river on a wild goose chase to intercept Global Express and save his relationship, with the help of a new friend...

Overnight Delivery is not a movie for everyone. Namely, it is not a movie for those who cannot:

  • get past high school;

  • accept that an updated and higher-profile version of something might not be as good as the quirky original;

  • appreciate the tenuous art of stylized-realistic suspension of plausibility for black comedic effect.

Like the denatured teenybopper ripoff it inspired in Road Trip, Overnight Delivery contains certain plot points that require suspension of disbelief, and in the grand tradition of black comedies of the road (c.f. Planes, Trains and Automobiles), concentrates an implausibly high number of setbacks and disasters into a single forty-eight-hour stretch of dramatic time.

However, with the exception of one or two, none of these scenarios is really all that unenvisionable in and of itself. The unstable (and ungrateful!) personality of Wyatt Trips would have made for a totally unsympathetic and impossible-to-follow character in the hands of anyone else, but Paul Rudd diggs in and shines with such virile passion that the viewer cannot begrudge him the beautiful women who are so enamored of him (even if we would like him to share the wealth a bit... heh, heh! - sorry, that's my immature side coming out).

On the surface, Reese Witherspoon's performance might not seem so memorable by comparison, but Ivy "von Trapp" Miller is complicated in her own, subtle way, and Witherspoon plays it to perfection. Whereas Wyatt is an obvious (but likable) neurotic and repressed post-adolescent whose pitiful attempts at playing the straight man fool no one, Ivy is actually a straight woman attempting to be a rebel - and good at fooling people into thinking she is. So good, in fact, that at the end, when she offers a HIGHLY quirky suggestion for how to solve their latest problem (by avoiding it), one must wonder just how serious she actually is.

To wit, the chemistry between Rudd and Witherspoon is incredible, and the director does an amazing job of making them bounce off one another before they gradually resign themselves to complementing one another.

I have already compared this movie to its descendant, Road Trip, but this is inevitable, since this latter is so much better known. However, the two films, despite the obvious plot similarities, are not alike. Road Trip is about psychologically high school students struggling to adjust to a new setting. They're not, mentally, out of high school, not even at the end of the film. Overnight Delivery is about two young adults who are already well out of high school but struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of that huge step.

When they do, they are free at last: Wyatt from his repression, and Ivy from her fake rebel persona. Well, mostly, anyway. In the end they stay true to themselves AND their thinly-veiled desires.
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Road Trip (2000)
A mediocre rip-off
10 April 2013
I might have enjoyed "Road Trip" a bit more had I not already seen "Overnight Delivery" - it's too blatantly obvious that the former is based on the latter. All the major plot points correspond, insofar as "Road Trip" actually HAS a plot. What plot it does have hangs together like a soggy potato chip.

Frankly, if you have seen "Overnight Delivery," "Road Trip" suffers miserably by comparison. The comedic action in the body of the film is related to the plot in only the most precarious degrees, and throughout most of the middle action the equivalent of the original's female presence is absent - rendering the conclusion far less logical.

"Overnight Delivery" was a comedy, but it was a smart comedy, and it had a very deep meaning for the out-of-state college freshman. When you finish high school, often you think you are so sure of what the world is going to be like and how your life is going to turn out - and whom you are going to spend it with. The main characters - both the nebbish faux-conservative male and the pseudo-rebellious strippeuse - end up learning that life isn't that predictable, that impulses get in the way... and that there is so much left to discover in the world outside the childish confines of an insular suburban-strip mall education.

"Road Trip," on the other hand, is nothing more than a sex-raunch comedy. I'm not necessarily allergic to those (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber remain two of my favorite guilty pleasures), but the problem is basically this. When you imitate a story that has meaning, and you reduce it to vulgar toilet-bowl humor without making an outright parody, you leave those habituated to the original product feeling... empty, cheated, even.

Story archetypes abound, sure, but "Road Trip" is both too unoriginal to bring forth anything meaningful from its source material and too self-unaware to become an overt caricature of the source. As is often the case, the original is far more palatable by any standard.
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My Girl 2 (1994)
Contrived and timid
4 January 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Roger Ebert appeared disliked this film because of its loosely-jointed subplots. That actually isn't really the problem with the movie, though, as it is more introspection and characterization, and for what it's worth, does a pretty good job with that. However, it is true that there is a lack of the kind of character evolution we saw in the first movie.

And part of that has to do with the characterization of Maggie, Vada's mother, the key albeit absent persona in this story. Since almost nothing was revealed of Vada's mother in the first movie, the writers seemed to think themselves free to do whatever they liked, but the character they created is so completely and obviously contrived and retrofitted that it destroys any credibility this film has and makes it difficult to reach the end.

Let's start with the simple, obvious continuity errors. In the original film, Harry Sultenfuss indicated, when his daughter was 11 1/2, that he had not been on a date in 20 years. Yet in this movie, he indicates to Veda that he met her mother and "proposed to her on the second date; two weeks later, we were married; almost nine months later, you were here and she was gone." So that would have made his last date at most about 13 years prior to his 20-year assertion, assuming he never had a date with his wife while they were married. Since, speaking on the order of a few decades, rounding to scores of years seems just a bit overkill, I'm going to have to call the writers' bluff on this one.

Also, Maggie, as shown in pictures here, looks more like a wannabe Marilyn Monroe than the pretty but somewhat frumpily-dressed young lady we saw beside Harry Sultenfuss in the first film.

And this little gaffe points to character problems that are not so much continuity-related as thematic. Maggie was an aspiring actress born and raised in Los Angeles who frequented hipsters, walked out in protest over Senator Joseph McCarthy and first married in New York City... and somehow she ended up in bucolic heartland Pennsylvania married to a forensic anthropologist. A conversation toward the end of this movie does suggest that she was undergoing a personal evolution and wanted a life that was a bit more grounded and down-to-Earth than what one would find in Hollywood, so perhaps that isn't so implausible.

One problem. The tone of the movie, with regard to its treatment of particular subject matters, is decidedly anti-McCarthy and even anti-Nixon. It is not that one can never be both pro-family/pro-rural/pro-heartland/pro-religion and anti-G.O.P., but when the foils happen to be lefty New Age hipster types, as they most certainly are here, that sort of juxtaposition is more than a little disjointed. (Oh, and the proud Young Republican McCarthyite cop pushing bogus charges against a discreet man for the sake of the snot-nosed kid of a non-famous chick he apparently despised anyway? That was too much.)

Unplanned sequels are tricky things. One has already largely resolved the conflicts from the first movie, and retroactively locating the points where the story and characters remain sufficiently open for further conflict and development is not easy. In this instance, the writers may or may not have done their best, but the result, notwithstanding the charm Vada and her family still exude (Nick, however, cannot hold a candle to Thomas J. in terms of personality), looks like just another artificial packaged product capitalizing on a good brand name. (On that note, conveniently, the conclusion of the previous movie left the authors with a logical narrative reason for not paying Macaulay Culkin's salary, which would doubtlessly have been astronomical by this point.)

A final slice of food for thought. It is not that older films never strained plausibility, but to the extent that they did, they usually didn't try to take themselves so seriously as to pretend to hyper-realism. I think this is one reason why one must wade through newer films so much more tediously to find good ones, and why contemporary cinema could stand to take a lesson or two from the theater.
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The Vow (2012)
I died and went to Hipster Hell. What did I do to deserve this?
13 August 2012
It's hard to conceive of a bigger waste of Rachel MacAdams, or a more revolting twist on a truly inspiring and touching story. Kim and Krickitt Carpenter are a down-to-Earth couple who loved life and whose faith helped them to navigate through the unknown and the unknowable. The movie wouldn't have had to include any explicit "faith" references to be truer to the real life story, but it would certainly have to have portrayed the protagonists as real humans.

Instead, "Paige" and "Leo" believe in nothing but their nauseating hipster subculture, what has rightly been called the dead end of Western civilization. And their marital union is as shallow as it comes. There's no sign of commitment to building a home or a family or even doing some greater work together apart from patronizing cool independent movies and quirky inner-city restaurants. What the heck kind of "vow" are they trying to uphold? These characters hold absolutely no firm convictions, and it shows in the weak-willedness with which they approach their marital vows.

Having said my piece about the concept, I'll turn to the production flaws. Tatum is dreadfully miscast - we would not expect a hukling, surly man to play such an insecure and rootless weasel as Leo -, and has absolutely no on-screen chemistry with MacAdams. The story is disjoint and completely unfocused. Paige's personal transmogrification backstory, when we learn of it, lacks believability, and what they do with that lacks even more believability. Still more aggravating is the cardboard cut-out nature of the family and friends she grew up around, (but then I suppose that's the way hipsters conceive of anyone who clings to something even slightly more perennial than their postmodern fake-cosmopolitain soup). The weak attempts to redeem and flesh out the "bad guys" (or some of them, at least) towards the end falls completely flat.

Living in South Florida in the middle of last decade and going through a phase where my friends and I devoured British, Irish and French movies with considerable regularity, I lamented at one point that "every recent European movie has to make it a point to show a man's a**." As "The Vow" makes it clear, of course, that point is no longer limited to the Europeans. But perhaps the mooning is rather appropriate... after all, the movie is one big moon in the face of an audience who (unfortunately I have to include myself in this) was dumb enough to shell out money to sit in front of this poubelle. Just as in Naples, the trash workers were on strike when this one was tossed out.
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