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Agatha Christie's Poirot: Cards on the Table (2005)
Season 10, Episode 2
4/10
Disappointing rewrite
30 October 2015
I have been working my way through the Suchet Poirot series recently, and am in the middle of Series 3; but having read the eponymous novel this episode was based on, over the week-end, I jumped ahead to see what they would do with it; generally the first 3 Series have been enjoyable, and Suchet is the perfect Poirot. So my expectations were high - and my experience was correspondingly very disappointing.

Although I'm not a big Christie fan, I always enjoy a good puzzle-structured detective mystery, and Cards on the Table is one of Christie's best, in my experience. There's a fascinating puzzle within a puzzle: Four professional and amateur detectives are invited to a party with four people who seem to be unconnected to each other or to the world of crime; but host Shaitana has given Poirot the necessary hint - Each of the four non-detectives may have committed murder in the past and gotten away with it. Then, before the party ends, the host himself is murdered. To solve that murder, of course, the detectives must also solve the murders in the past the four suspects may have successfully committed without suspicion.

This doubling of the puzzle gets lost in the TV version - although we do find out that the four suspects were involved in suspicious deaths in the past, these discoveries seem revealed incidentally. Thus the investigation seems to wobble around, and interviews that are clearly connected in the novel, progress in a somewhat hap-hazard manner here.

The final third of the TV version rewrites the book in pointless and annoying ways. I am not a homophobe, and I note that the Murdoch Mysteries program has dealt with the issue of homosexuality in a sensitive manner in several important episodes. But such sensitivity is lost here, because the original story had no room for the topic, one way or other; so the lesbian/gay characters are rather forced into their roles.

Inventing familial relations between suspects not in the original book, is also a bad move; it subverts the initial set-up of having four separate suspects to investigate. It also subverts the book's sensitivity concerning how the older female suspect (much older in the book) and the younger female suspect relate to each other.

Changing an important attempted murder scene - and thus the resolution of one of the older murders - might have been successfully pulled off, if there were a reasonable rationale for doing so, but there wasn't.

All these alterations lead to an unsatisfying denouement, leaving Poirot to expound more than he needed to in the book - including exposition of facts that had not been hinted at by any clues beforehand - a dreadful detective mystery faux pas.

Finally, the TV version mishandles the ethical themes of the book. Agatha Christie always hints at sympathies for her murderers, but in classic mystery fashion, justice must be served. Three of the suspects do end up punished, however indirectly, for their original murders (the 4th is revealed as an accident). In this version, one is brought to justice, one is exonerated, and the third reconciles with a lost daughter - and drives away - Huh? I really don't know what they were thinking when they produced this. (The Brett Sherlock Holmes series also lost its way towards the end, by rewriting stories to seem arty and up-to-date.) When will these people learn that admirers of the original stories want solid dramatization of the stories as-they-are, not some clever academic's Lit. Crit. re-imaginings?
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8/10
Scooby solves the mystery of th universe? "'Rat's right, Raggy!"
14 March 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Fascinating update of an old series, with nicely stylized contemporary animation stylings, and some real comedy.

In the most recent, most innovative re-casting of the Scooby Do phenomenon, Mystery Incorporated, most of the individual stories remain in the classic mode, but with twists concerning the character development of the gang. We won't get into that, but we will note the twist that series as a whole takes.

The series is actually constructed around what is now known as a 'story arc,' a meta-narrative tying the individual stories together. And here's where things get a little strange: The meta-narrative at last reveals what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon – the Evil Entity – motivating the series as a whole. Most reviewers seem to agree that this is borrowed from the Cthulu mythos originating in the writings of fantasy cult figure, H. P. Lovecraft. To be honest, I was never able to wade through Lovecraft's dense and florid prose, so I don't know this, but I do know that Lovecraft's cult is fairly large for a writer unknown beyond the genre readership, and has always included many aspiring young fantasy writers.

It should be noted that, although I think most readers at least initially read Lovecraft as a fantasy/horror writer, and none seems to deny purely fantasy elements to his texts, there does appear to be a kind of science fiction element to the Cthulu mythos; although the Old Ones appear to us as gods, or demonic forces, they are actually rather long lived aliens, possibly from another dimension or a parallel universe.

And, as it so happens, it is revealed in the final scenes concluding the Mystery Incorporated series that the explanation of what the Scooby gang has experienced, and of its final, happy result, is to be found in the 'alternative time-lines' made possible thanks to the contemporary 'multiverse' theory! And who should reveal this, but no less a respected a figure of real-world science fiction than writer Harlan Ellison – yes, himself represented in cartoon form, with his own voice dubbed over it. (Fortunately, he remarks, he himself is such a genius that he has been able to remember all the different time-lines his alternative selves have lived through in their respective universes This willing self-parody is apparently entirely in keeping with his public personality.)

We began with a simple detective mystery, searching for empirical clues, and ended up in the realm of theoretical physics, searching for multiverses. Cartoons have indeed come a long way since 1970....
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Astroboy (1963–1966)
10/10
go go go Astro Boy!
14 March 2015
Osamu Tezuka's original Astro Boy manga was an overnight sensation, and by the mid-50s had inspired a live-action television show (very low budget, from what I can tell from the trailer for it I've seen). Then in 1962, Tezuka himself developed this animated cartoon series for television – writing, drawing, even participating in the animation with his staff of six (some of whom went on to become notable figures in the anime industry). Due to budget constraints, the series uses what is known as 'limited animation' with stock backgrounds, stock shots, very limited figure movement, etc. But I admit this actually increases the charm of the series for me; it has a quirky surrealistically mechanical aura in many of the visuals.

It should be noted that animation had been a fascination for Tezuka long before he initiated this series. His father owning a movie projector, Tezuka was, from quite an early age, fascinated with American animated films, primarily those by Walt Disney, although the main influence discernible in the Astro Boy series is that of the Fleischer Brothers. The Astro Boy series could not duplicate the slickness or gloss of the better-budgeted American animated television shows or films of the time, but it does evidence a sophisticated humor and a visual inventiveness well in advance of them. (It should be noted that Tezuka's manga were also always in advance of work being done in American comics of the same era.) Astro Boy was originally designed for Japanese males in their early teens – hence his physical appearance as a twelve-year old boy. The aesthetic psychology at work here is fairly plain. Astro looked like many of the members of his audience, but without physical blemish. However, he still represented the sense of alienation that young people often feel when entering the 'awkward years' of early puberty – he looked human, but he was 'different' – he was a robot.

Nonetheless, there were compensations for this alienation – he was extremely smart, had amazing powers, and always demonstrated a conscience superior to many of the adult humans around him. So he wasn't just different, but his difference marked him as superior. Fortunately for the world, he had no vanity, so never exhibited smug satisfaction with himself. On the contrary, he was always trying to find his way through the world, trying to be both robot and boy in a world where many could accept him as neither.

So there's the initial hook for his young audience, the process of identifying with a like, though superior (in some way) hero.

But that's not the case for adults, is it? well, certainly many of us still secretly long for our childhood after all.

But I think the appeal runs deeper. For one thing, there are those big innocent eyes of his, staring out in wonder at the brave new world of the future. He can express a number of emotions, even negative ones, but the two primary expressions we see in his face (certainly the most memorable) are a fierce determination when in action, and a winning, unambiguous smile – unambiguous because there is not the slightest hint of duplicity or of pretension in it. So Astro Boy is all of a piece – he never seems temperamental or given over to deep doubt, he never holds a grudge or engages in hidden agendas. He says what he means (and frequently takes what humans say all too literally). And of course he is always willing to help others, frequently at the risk of his own existence: he's a true hero. In many ways an ideal human being.

Except – he's a robot. And that makes all the difference.
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6/10
Almost certainly a TV pilot
29 May 2014
We think of television as beginning in the '50s, but that's simply not true.

This probably played in theaters as filler, but it is almost certainly a pilot for early television. There is no way else to explain the opening wherein the male lead introduces his supporting cast.

There are a number of pilots for unsold TV series still available, including a Sherlock Holmes pilot from the same era. There was even a brief series shot on film along similar lines (I think it was Boston Blackie). In any event, the interesting thing here is that some studios thought they could produce television shows the way they had produced theatrical B-movies. Of course, the broadcast network owners knew better (they knew that TV audiences had a lower "lowest common denominator" than film, and that less money could be spent accordingly).

AS a TV pilot, this is actually not so bad - cheap, quick with an interesting twist at the end. The actors are certainly trying their best, and - for television - it is more than competently made.
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Godzilla (2014)
10/10
Godzilla's story (now that's entertainment!)
16 May 2014
Going into this film, I only wanted an entertaining B movie that honored the Toho series I grew up with. And I am completely satisfied with what I got.

Because of the enormous amounts of money spent on genre films these days, many people are under the illusion that 'B movie' is a derogatory designation. That is nonsense. Some of my most beloved films are B movies - wonderful adventure thrillers, action fests, horror stories, westerns, mysteries. Sure there are B movies that excel and leap into 'A list' territory (e.g., "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly"). But there's nothing wrong in making a great B Movie - A lot of films by such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were put together with no greater desire than to entertain a ticket buying audience. That's all a B Movie has to do.

"Godzilla" does that grandly. It IS a B movie; so is Hawks' "El Dorado" or Hitchcock's "Psycho." So it is in good company. And (like all great B movies) it is very entertaining.

Edwards succeeds partly because he has designed the movie to look like a movie. This is not a visual roller-coaster ride. No shaky-cam or MTV editing here. The sometimes quick closure to action moments, like with Godzilla's first meeting with the MUTO, are clearly intended to bring the audience to the edge of their seats demanding more. This did not work for some critics, but it worked for me. I never felt like I was getting less than I wanted.

Also, the pacing was far stronger and more rapid than many reviews had led me to believe. The narrative drive, once one grasps the real narrative, is utterly relentless. And what I mean by that is, the real story here is not about any of the humans. This movie is called "Godzilla," not because he's on screen most of the time (he's not, although we see him far earlier than any of the critics have reported - like in the title sequence) or because he's the 'main' monster (he's not that either, although he plays a much more important role than the others do); but because it's HIS story - it's HIS conflict, and, being THE agent, HE has to resolve it. (The MUTOs are important because they are part of that story, and it is partly their story as well - and they are terrifying, BTW.) Edwards shoots this story slightly off-center, through the eyes of humans trying to cope, only because he has a human audience to play to. (If the audience were all just radioactive lizards, there wouldn't be a human on the screen. But it would still be the same story.)

BTW, all of the critics complaining about the somewhat undeveloped characters here have missed the big boat. Whether consciously or not, Gareth Edwards and his team have achieved a remarkable conceptual construction here, staggering in its simplicity and audacity. They have grafted a ('90s) "Heisei" era Godzilla story (see, e.g.,: "Godzilla and Mothra Battle for Earth") onto a 1950's era Hollywood science fiction film - think "Them!," Pal's "War of the Worlds," or the original "Thing from Another World." As I watched these characters struggle to come to grips with their monster problem and still get on getting a job done, I kept thinking of the scientists and soldiers facing similar problems in '50s American sci-fi movies, responding in similar ways with similarly compressed explanations and suppressed emotions. Edwards makes up for any lack of depth to these characters by keeping the perspective on the monster action as close to humans experiencing it as possible - much the way that the directors of the '50s did. The complaints against Aaron Taylor-Johnson, missing this point, miss the finesse of his performance - he is doing what Edwards wants him to do, standing in as 'Everyman' avatar for the audience (much like James Arness in "Them!"); any stronger performance would have been distracting.

But the main story is of course the monsters'; that also has been missed. The humans are witnessing the culmination of a conflict beginning millions of years ago. Consequently, they are merely annoyances for the monsters who are enacting their ancient struggle for natural resources. This drama is in fact a fluidly unfolding whole, which critics who try to impose a classic '3 act' structure on it fail to see. This film has a prologue, the narrative certainly has connecting episodes, but there are no 'acts' - once in the present day, it just goes.

Which is why the finale is actually quite satisfying. For the real protagonist of the film, with the big fight over, there's no need for a wrap-up - and surely no need for commentary from those pesky little hairless apes, who don't have the slightest clue as to what's really going on in the world they think they dominate.

What more need be said? Like the '50s sci-fi movies it so heartedly evokes, the dialog is sometimes silly and cliché. The photography and design are solid; the music is not at all dull, it is supportive of the visuals without drawing attention to itself (which is a classic '50s era soundtrack composition rule-of-thumb, BTW). The CGI is state of the art (I saw it in 2D and it looked great). And there are a lot of 'Holy Crap!' moments that are truly memorable.

And did it pay homage and honor to the source material, the original series produced by Toho, 28 films over 50 years? Absolutely. The story is very "Heisei" era, and as good a reboot as "Godzilla 2000." For a kaiju eiga junky, this film is seventh heaven. Highly recommended without reserve - and take the kids to see it, preferably at a drive in with lots of popcorn. (That's how I first saw Godzilla - memories are made of such as this.)
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Ironclad (2011)
1/10
The real stories are far more interesting (and Ridley Scott would do them better)
8 March 2014
Why does the terrible re-write of history - especially at the end - matter here? There are a number of wonderful stories surrounding the Siege of Rochester: the Magna Carta, the cruelty of King John (and his occasional brilliance as a general), the story of William Marshal(look him up!), the decade long running battle between John's supporters, the rebels, the French. And there is even a dramatic story involved in the Siege of Rochester.

Unfortunately that's not the story the makers of this film have decided to tell. The real story of Rochester is that those involved were doomed men in a losing cause. Anyone who has seen the Wild Bunch or the German film Stalingrad will know that such a story can make a great action film, or a powerfully dramatic (if depressing) meditation on the futility of collective violence. But the makers of this film don't care about any of that. Indeed, they relish violence - the whole point of this film seems to be to try to find new ways to depict dismemberment. The effort failed; the trouble is, there is no poetry to it, no grace, no art. It is just dismemberment, and we've seen it all before.

The occasional effort to express some comment on religion, or politics, or even just human relationships tends to fall flat. Just for instance, the historical period doesn't offer much - the 'freedom' sought by the rebellious barons meant entirely freedom for them, not 'the people.' That it eventually led to the establishment of the rule of law was virtually accidental.

Finally it has to be said that most of the characters are neither likable nor interesting - especially the defenders of the doomed castle (and that certainly shouldn't be the case!).

The filmmakers seem to be asking, 'can we make a Ridley Scott epic without Ridley Scott (or the resources he has available)?' Apparently not. Scott's best movies have strong stories to tell, strongly told. I lost real interest in this after the first half hour, zipped through to the end to see if they would tell the real story of the Siege. Also apparently not.

I bought this used, cheap, hoping for a decent action film to while away a Saturday afternoon. I had to fast-forward through an awful lot of meaningless posturing. Final judgment: Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
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Sherlock Holmes (2013– )
9/10
Highly polished, strong stories
4 March 2014
Sherlock Holmes: There is no doubt the writers and director of this show are engaged in radically redefining the character of Conan Doyle's eccentric 'consulting detective.' But I have followed this series through 4 episodes so far, and I find the effort surprisingly effective. In the general sense, this revision of Holmes is successful because of it basic premise: Watson is an aspiring writer who is working his way to becoming the author of the stories published under the name Conan Doyle that we are all familiar with. Unfortunately, the real Sherlock Holmes that he becomes involved with is unappealingly nerdy and asocial. And the adventures the two share are difficult, violent, and engage the grime of London's underworld, and the corruption of England's most trusted institutions. We can see how Watson might want to simplify, clean up, and romanticize these adventures for marketable publication.

And they are real adventures, have no doubt. The storytelling in this series has been remarkably strong. It's difficult to pull away from any episode once it hooks you at the beginning, which it does very quickly (the series has a very lively pace). Despite the revisions, the series does honor to Doyle's originals.

The design, the direction, the camera work, the acting, are all highly impressive; this is a most polished series of historical genre films. (The one quibble I have is that Holmes makes too much about his glasses, he is too frequently busy with them. A trifle, but occasionally annoying.)

Over all, I find the series fascinating and look forward with great anticipation to the next episode.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.
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1/10
Defines bad movie in the post-modern era
4 March 2014
A Game of Shadows: In an era when our most popular films are really little more than roller-coaster rides through comic book worlds, can anyone actually make a bad film, with standards so low. Well - you can make this film, I guess. "A Game of Shadows" is truly awful. I admit I even watched it twice, because the first time through I couldn't get any sense of what the story was all about. The second time around, a number of narrative threads did seems to run through the film, eventually tied together (rather arbitrarily) at the end. But I realized that the story (or stories) here merely form a kind of scarecrow on which director Ritchie could hang set-piece action sequences, camera tricks and CGI wizardry, while the actors mugged like children in a bad school play about someone or other they called "Sherlock Holmes," for no other reason than they had heard the name while running around a TV set with an old movie playing on it.

Childishly campy, visually ugly (that mind-numbing slo-mo - stop it!), badly written, and horribly over-acted; of course it made millions. That doesn't stop it from being a bad film.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.
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Elementary (2012–2019)
4/10
Typical Hollywood TV cop opera
4 March 2014
Elementary: The three episodes of this I've managed to catch have been largely unsatisfying and forgettable. The premise of the series could have worked, IF the focus had remained on Holmes, and his personality made more archetypal, an Ubermensch for the new millennium. But the stories are pretty much standard American TV cop fare, interlaced with soap-opera elements involving Holmes' socially retarded interactions with others. I like Lucy Liu, but the Holmes here is just not convincing AS "sherlock Holmes;" he's really some weird variant of Joe Friday with a British accent and a history of drug abuse. A passable time-waster, as most US TV cop shows are, but that also means it is easy to pass up.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot (or believe they cannot) give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.
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Sherlock (2010– )
6/10
Doyle's detective or Moffat's super hero?
4 March 2014
Sherlock This series is difficult to write about, because it flew so high at the beginning, re imagining Holmes as a troubled but brilliant modern detective and Watson as a haunted but loyal man of action, in episodes promising to be re-interpretations of classic stories in an era of high technology. But it has fallen so low, riddled with the writers' own personal manias, and Steven Moffat's decision to twist his narratives (no longer 'stories' in the conventional sense), to redesign Holmes as a troubled and alienated super-hero wandering aimlessly through visual gimmickry and spectacular effects. The third episode of Season 3 is especially appalling. The moment towards the end when Sherlock shouts "I am not a hero, I am a functioning sociopath!" was so painful, I still can't get it out of my head. That moment surely has nothing to do with the character of Sherlock Holmes, the all-too-human hero (which he most certainly was) created by Conan Doyle, but it defines how Moffat and his team understand *their* character, 'Sherlock,' and perhaps how they understand their audience as well. Given the popularity of this show, apparently many young people do not want exceptional humans capable of resolving difficult problems, they want sick people with friends in high places who can thrash the arrogant and get away with it.

There will certainly be a Season 4, and we can easily predict that it will be on a grand scale visually, and utterly impoverished of any good ideas or decent story telling. Moffat is no longer interested in storytelling, he wants to build a post-modern mythology much we are seeing in the Marvel Comics films.

But Conan Doyle didn't write for comic books (or myth), he assumed an audience of literate, reasoning adults; and the best of the films based on his stories have always assumed the same audience, and delivered proper variants of some of the best stories written in the English language. It's too bad Moffat has chosen a different course.

Note: There are currently four series of films attempting to revise the canon of Conan Doyle's brilliant Victorian detective for the 21st Century. One from the UK (Sherlock, for TV), one from the US (Elementary, for TV), one from Russia (Sherlock Homes, for TV), and the internationally produced films of Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey. Notably, each involves a radical re-envisioning of the character and his place in the world. We may have reached a point in history when filmmakers simply cannot give us the Great Detective as he was imagined by Doyle and played (with variations) throughout the 20th Century. Rating the 4 series: Sherlock Holmes (Russia): 9 of 10, with strong stories and a believably proletarian nerd Holmes. Sherlock (UK): 6 of 10; excellent first season has been betrayed by Steven Moffat's flashy showmanship until the stories are incoherent now (Season 3), the characters no longer likable, the focus almost completely lost. Elementary (US): 4 of 10; the redefined Holmes, a nervous, unsympathetic recovering drug addict, is not without interest, and any show with Lucy Liu in it gets the benefit of her quiet but charismatic presence and talent. But basically, this is just a routine American police procedural with a gimmick. I doubt that Hollywood can do anything else. Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie/Downey): 1 of 10. This series lacks any coherence in its stories or continuity. It's just a series of set-pieces with running around, fist fights, explosions, and campy jokes.
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2/10
Bottom of Wilder's Barrell
30 October 2013
I am an admirer of many of Billy Wilder's movies - Stalag 17, Days of Wine and Roses, Some Like it Hot - and other wonderful, trend-setting, sophisticated, stylish films. But this film just SUCKS!

It opens well; the title sequence is basically a snapshot of Dean Martin's Las Vegas act of the time, and his twisted turn playing someone who might be himself has an undeniable fascination.

Unfortunately, he is not the male lead of this film - RAY WALSTON is! Walston?! Really?! An able but second string character actor? The supporting player is the leading man? That could be interesting if Walston had been directed against type - but he isn't - he is directed to be a character actor - in a leading role? Really?!

Once Walston appears on screen, the film goes straight to hell. In fact it is hell, a weird kind of wigged-out Nevada version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry - why? To provide a small enough stage to make small characters look large, I guess; doesn't work. These characters are all profoundly unpleasant and two-dimensional; except for Martin, who's rarely on screen.

The film is apparently a remake of an Italian sex-farce, Wife for a Night; that in itself tells me that the whole project started off badly. (And continued - the Walston part was intended for Peter Sellers, who Wilder couldn't deal with, and Wilder himself suffered heart problems.) But the main problem is that Italian comedy is coming from a very different tradition than Wilder's (so clearly related to Lubitsch), so it's really impossible to guess why he tried what he was clearly unsuited for.

Not much to add except the cinematography is good, and the music sucks. (Apparently based on material the Gershwin brothers decided needed reworking... maybe they were right?).

Caused a minor scandal in its day - but it was easy to cause scandals back then. That alone is simply not enough to recommend it.
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7/10
series review (certainly applies to this first very entertaining film)
29 May 2013
Karloff's Wong compares quite favorably to the various screen interpretations of Charlie Chan. He doesn't play a stereotypical Chinese according to Hollywood formula (and neither does Keye Luke in a later film in the series). Karloff brings a wit and a quiet air of command to the character, he is always moving steadily toward a solution to the crime at hand. He presents Wong as quite the most intelligent character in every film. The mysteries themselves are about average for the period. In most of the Wong films the clues are there for the audience if they care to look for them. Also, one must remark the important part Grant Withers plays, as the earnest, tough, but slightly dimwitted police Captain Bill Street, and the occasional appearance by Marjorie Reynolds as the sassy reporter Bobbie Logan who dates Street off-hours, only to interfere when at work. They bring a pleasing air of continuing romantic interest as well as comic relief to the series.
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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (2013)
Season 7, Episode 14
1/10
Doctor's end? a 45 minute disaster (Ed Wood in the 21st century)
23 May 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This season finale should be used at film-making schools as example of how NOT to make a sci-fi film. All narratives can be plotted, but not all narratives are stories. Stories require a beginning, a middle, and an end, one leading logically to the other; a problem, a conflict, a resolution. There is no story in this episode.

THE PLOT: A problem is not introduced, it is arbitrarily generated - a Victorian serial killer pulls a reference to the Doctor out of nowhere and some smarty lizard gets her knickers in a twist over it. This brings about a set-piece séance with a data-stream from the hard-drive of a computer, as well as a young woman from the 21st century (who has all the personality of a cardboard cut-out, but after all, the Doctor fancies her). Then some bad guy who's everywhere and nowhere brings everybody to some dead planet (how?) where the Doctor is buried in the future, sort of, or his time-streams are, sort of, whatever that means. Then the Doctor finds a way into his own tomb, runs around a bit to no purpose, suddenly appears outside the tomb, then the bad guy attacks and the data stream opens the tomb, then everyone goes in and 'omg wow!' the Doctor's time streams, sort of. The bad guy commits suicide so he can cause the Doctor a lot of pain (now that makes no sense, but what has so far?). Then everybody dies. Then the Doctor's companion Clara follows the bad guy and dies and and begins chasing previous Doctors around shouting "Doctor!" for no discernible reason. Then everybody's not dead anymore. Then a brief kiss from the dead woman's data stream, effectively assuring a return visit from her or it or whatever - "spoilers!" - yeah, aren't we all just a little tired of that tease? Then the Doctor enters this own time streams because, y'know, he's god or something, and he finds Clara only god knows where and - oh, look, there's John Hurt, whatever he is, and - roll credits.

If you can tie the non-problem with the flurry of conflicts that achieve no discernible resolution, god (the Doctor?) bless you. This is an absolute mess. The writing is atrocious - a three year old with attention deficit syndrome could draw out a better story with a crayon. Big explosions, running around, waving a blinking sonic device at everything, and over-emoting like amateurs hardly make up for the deficiencies of the script. Ed Wood, widely considered the worst film maker of the 20th Century, wrote scripts that were ridiculously exploitative and silly - but at least they made sense, in their own warped way. Steven Moffat seems to be throwing scenes at us on the mere wish that they might stick together - or at least that we will ignore the fact that they don't. Moffat has achieved the impossible - he has given us a film stupider, more nonsensical, and with greater discontinuities than Wood's "Glen or Glenda." Steven Moffat does not love Doctor Who; he loves Steven Moffat. This is the sort of rubbish we get when an egomaniac is given a budget and access to the mass media. And Moffat's cultic fan base loves Moffat, and will excuse his every flaw; but they do not love Doctor Who either.

Doctor Who is a series of sci-fi adventure STORIES concerning the travels of a mysterious alien traveler through time and space. Turning him into a god, as projection of Steven Moffat's personality, makes the stories non-consequential - in this case, not even story at all. It will mean the end of Doctor Who. The "Steven Moffat Show, With Matt Smith" may continue a couple more years, but my fear is that those who love Doctor Who will mark "The Name of the Doctor" as the moment when the visionary series created by Sydney Newman 50 years ago finally came to an end.
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7/10
Entertaining family snapshot of an era
25 November 2012
This is in many ways a fascinating movie. It is certainly entertaining and moves quite well, and everybody puts their best into it. (The "making of" featurette on the DVD is a wonderful look into the making of a higher budgeted 'indie' movie by the way.) But there is one serious flaw to the film, and that is Renée Zellweger's performance. Whenever the character undergoes pressure, she gets all wobbly and quirky, like a character actor playing a supporting role - but she's not only the lead, she's what the picture is all about, so this is definitely a flaw that threatens to derail the whole project.

Fortunately, it doesn't. First, of course, everyone else in the picture submits wonderful performances. Logan Lerman is a marvelous young actor who strikes chemistry with practically everyone he interacts with. And the film is really beautiful to look at, and filled with pleasantly eccentric characters, in situations highly evocative of the era in which they occur, the 1950s.

Secondly, part of the problem with Zellweger's performance may have to do with the character herself. Although she fancies herself a Deep-South Southern Belle, deserving of the better things in life, once we meet her sister we realize that she really comes from the mid-South commercial class, and that her attitude of entitlement is a self-delusion. She is thus out of touch with her own life, and in need of review of her identity. On the other hand, her desperate search for a husband to support her has a realistic edge - the '50's America was not kind to single moms. The question thus becomes whether the inner struggles involved in her effort to survive repeated crises is well presented. I'm not sure it is, but not from want of trying on Ms. Zellweger's part. It may be that the core of the character is really hard to define.

Otherwise, I have no trouble recommending this often amusing, insightful glimpse into a complex family during an era of change. It may have no more weight than an old family snapshot of the era, but it is as telling and well-developed a snapshot as one could wish.
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6/10
Disappointment
8 January 2012
I've seen reviews of Dreamland that complain of the animation. The animation of Dreamland is clearly based on computer game CGI. Not great, but certainly of its time.

The animation of Infinite Quest is also of its time, not great either, although given over to impressive visual effects in the foreground and background. But the real difference between these two Doctor animated episodes has to do with something far more basic. Dreamland, whatever its visual weaknesses, tells a strong story with a discernible beginning - middle - end. Infinite Quest - does not.

In fact the narratology of Infinite Quest is very similar to that of The Pescatons, jumping and skipping over essential details. But Pescatons is presented as narrated by the Doctor himself, and the voice of Tom Baker covers a multitude of sins. One can listen to Pescatons with the brain on hold and still have a fine time.

Infinite Quest isn't so lucky. Events we expect disappear. Cliff-hangers end in 'deux-ex-machina' cul-de-acs. At the end everything is explained - yet nothing much has happened.

I don't blame the actors, animators, or supporting personnel. This is the problem that the writer, producer, and director must own. Either Doctor Who is a series worthy of proper storytelling, or it is a throwaway for a quick buck.

Recognizing that this episode was clearly intended for children, I'll give it a little extra credit. It is certainly watchable. But I expected more - a solid story taking advantage of the animated media. I don't feel we get that here.
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Tales of Frankenstein (1958 TV Short)
8/10
if you like Hammer horror....
27 December 2011
Yes, this pilot failed to sell a show to American TV. Nevermind; it is the first in the series of Hammer Frankenstein films that ran well into the '70s. Everything is here - the homage to universal, the darker characterization of Doctor Frankenstein, the decision to place the series in a 19th century setting.... The ending of this short film would be rewritten as the end of "The Curse of Frankenstein." Okay, it's not really much more than a neat little B-movie short; but what else would one want from a Hammer horror film? And the hiring of Universal horror films writer Curt Siodmak to write the script is a nice touch of linking with the 'grand tradition' of Frankenstein films. Besides, it must be noted that the budget here is really far beyond any American TV programming of the day; nice sets, nice photography, excellent acting.

(What probably killed off this series was the follow up - there was actually a second episode produced - I've seen it, but can't remember the title - but it was pretty typical generic suspense fair for the time - well produced but unnecessary.)

This wins high marks as a point of historical origin and thus very important. And a well done B-movie horror short in any event.
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Heckler (2007)
Genius on the fly
12 August 2011
A few years ago I wrote that the infamous Monkees' movie "Head" was an accidental masterpiece. Rereading that review recently, I realized that many people may have thought I was writing sarcastically, ironically. I was not. "Head" IS a masterpiece of cinema, even though it undoubtedly was not what the Monkees or the filmmakers intended, it is just so brilliantly put together that whatever the motivations, a real document of the '60s had been produced.

"Heckler," similarly, is a film that reaches way beyond its initial intentions. Filmed 'on the sly' (i.e., whenever they could arrange an interview) over a three year period, the film evolved from a 'behind-the-scenes' tour documentary into a study into the relationship between comics and their hecklers, into an essay on the problematic relationship between performing artists and their critics generally (especially those on the internet, such as at IMDb). This evolution marks its 'accidental' character - the filmmakers are not trying for depth, they find it because it is there, and demands attention.

Some of this movie is funny, even hilarious, some even disturbing. As it should be. The film asks why we want to voice opinions of work that is solely intended to entertain us. Some of the answer to that is not pleasant to confront. Are we jealous of the more successful? Yet even the equally successful seem to have their opinions - why7 The film leaves the question with us, preferring to resolve the problem of how artists (of various genres) should deal with it (learn from it, burn it, move on).

I learned a lot from this movie. The cinematography is - well, anyone who could hold a camera and hit the record button did so. The editing is wonderful. There's no intrusive commentary except a handful of title cards. The people are real and captured in as real a manner as the present day (post 'reality TV) allows. It's just a brilliantly put together venture, however it came about.

My favorite part? - and I think the decisive moment of the film - Andrew Dice Clay's confrontation with a worm of a CNN commentator who had not the slightest idea what he was talking about, and then moved on to a story about Art Carney! You won't learn a lot about the mysteries of the universe, but you may learn something about yourself.

(2 BTW notes - (1. The dance towards the end is fascinating. 2. The 'bonus' material on the DVD is uniformly excellent.)
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Straw Dogs (2011)
1/10
bad bad bad
23 June 2011
An embarrassing attempted 'remake' of a great piece of film making, by a cast and crew who evidently have no idea what the original was all about.

Peckinpah's original raised questions - you left the theater feeling awkward, self-conscious, asking the same question the lead character was asking himself - 'how do I find my way home now?' This pseudo-remake leaves you wondering, "Is it over yet? Why did I waste money on this? Won't this be show up on DVD soon?"

Because that's all it is, a poorly made routine B movie - part domestic melodrama, part crime shocker, aimed at the DVD market.

Wholly forgettable, with blasé cinematography, second rate photography - utterly forgetful.

See the original - a strange, uncomfortable and difficult but insightful film that holds its own after 4 decades.
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10/10
A classic for Wong and for "Poverty Row"
6 May 2011
Some B movies transcend, others lower themselves into the "so bad t's funny' category. But most fall into the general category of 'good B-movie" - entertaining but forgettable.

This film can be enjoyed as a good B-movie, If one doesn't know much of film history, there it ends - a solid B- movie from the early '40s.

But pay attention! I've watched this film several times - it's actually difficult to watch, the scene where the young boy gets wasted by Japanese machine gun fire is not fun. But the images keep pulling me along.

This is a great film, for two reasons. First, director Lewis, cinematographer Cline and editor Henkel are using the film to work out knowledge of film history that more mainstream studios would not have allowed then - Sergei Eisentein's influence is all over the film.

Secondly, Anna May Wong - a great actress relegated to small parts as the 'sultry Asian' - she is truly magnificent here, this performance would have won an Oscar for any other actress at a later time.

Yes it's still a B-movie plot and much of the dialog has to conform to that. But so much of this is rich in construction and detail that I insist it remains a classic - unrecognized but undeniable.
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10/10
Amusing, energetic, great martial arts
31 March 2011
For some reason this fine old Joseph Kuo feature disappeared for a while. But it is available on DVD, and if you enjoy old-school kung-fu flicks, I think you will find this highly entertaining. The characters are all likable, the martial arts exquisite, the endangered-princess storyline a classic. It's very fast paced, and moves well between episodes of fighting, occasional fits of comedy, and there's even a touch of drama in the relationship between one of the monks and an old friend who has since become a nasty Ching general. The final battle is a wild mêlée and the ending teeters on the tragic without falling over the cliff. This is a film to enjoy again and again.
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The Birds (1963)
10/10
what is it you most fear?
28 March 2011
Daphne Du Maurier's work largely falls into he category of 'gothic romance' - not the kind that has glutted supermarkets since the '50s, her best known books really hark back to the genre's roots in the 19th century. Her short story, "The Birds," is something of an anomaly in her work - on the surface its a sci-fi/disaster story that ends grimly (the farmer's family is pretty much doomed); but it is also clearly an expressive allegory for what it must have felt like for many British during the Battle of Britain - the description of an army of seagulls appearing on the horizon could easily be that of a fleet of German bombers. The giveaway line comes from the farmer's wife when she remarks that "surely the Americans will do something." Of course they did, and they and the British went on to defeat the Germans, which makes the post-war publication of the story a little out of date.

Hitchccock had gotten one of his most successful films from Du Maurier's work - Rebecca - as well as one of his least successful, Under Capricorn. Deciding to take one of her most popular but least typical short stories as source for The Birds may have involved some risk - especially considering what he added to the original material. Obviously there was no longer any purpose served in evoking the Battle of Britain, so the location of the film is moved to America. The birds of the film then take on an entirely different quality - they become what can be called 'an open metaphor' meaning that they can be interpreted in any number of ways. To one asking "why are they attacking humans en masse?" the proper response is "what is it you most fear? that's what they will represent to you." Hitchcock does provide us with a key to his own interpretation, by adding a clinging mother to the family unit. Hitchcock, for better or worse, is the most overtly Freudian of directors - as the birds gather in the background preparing their assault, the central players quietly dance around the problem of the lead female's sexual attraction to a man whom his mother has effectively neutered. Only the sudden onslaught of the birds allows him the moment to reclaim his status as head of the family, and by that time his would-be lover has been severely damaged. Anyone who knows Hitchcock's body of work will recognize how this resonates with themes of sexuality and fear in his other films.

But, again the birds are an open metaphor - Hitchcock is clever enough not to bind their threat too tightly to his own paranoias here. We are free to interpret them as we please, and to read the domestic drama as mere back-story to their unpredictable attacks. The film's suspense thus hinges, not on our concern for the family's problems, but on our own fears of inexplicable and sudden catastrophe. I think the effort to achieve that is entirely successful, and this is one of Hitchcock's most unsettling, and most memorable, accomplishments.
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Absolute Zero (2006 TV Movie)
1/10
silly, dumb and incompetent
27 March 2011
I'm not going to talk about the admittedly silly premise of the film, because it happens to be similar to the premise on which Val Guest built "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," a very good sci-fi/disaster anti-nuke drama from the early '60s. Guest demonstrated that the way to deal with a silly 'scientific' premise was to unravel it gradually, having no one accept it on face value, until it could no longer be denied; while concentrating your film-making abilities on the dramatic interaction between well-developed characters, supplying them with a convincing visual backdrop of the world eroding into chaos.

Well that certainly doesn't happen in this film. The reason other reviewers can complain about the silly premise is because there isn't really anything else to the film - the characters are flat, the dialog just streams of clichés, the dramatic interaction unbelievable when not completely absent - and the premise itself is handled very badly.

That leaves the question of whether the film presents a convincing visual backdrop of the imminent disaster of Miami suddenly freezing over. Question? actually, it's a joke.

Here's the tell-all moment about the budgeting of the film and the incompetence with which it is made - I think it half, but I remember the percentage higher, of the shots used to depict the effect of Miami's freezing and the response of the population there are localized on a single hotel swimming pool. That's right, a swimming pool, and a rather small one (low budget hotel for a low budget movie). The 20 or 30 people around it (popular swimming pool!) are swimming or lying around on deck chairs - then the camera shakes, and people get out of the water and people fall into the water and the camera shakes some more and people run around and scream - cut to CGI of birds eye view of Florida freezing over, cut to swimming pool cut to a small bit of beach front with obvious fake snow on it, back to the swimming pool, cut to the central characters trying to find each other through cell phones, then back to the swimming pool - it was amusing until it became patently obvious that the film-makers didn't care about their movie, didn't care to entertain their audience, only cared about getting paid for filling up a time-slot on a cable TV channel....

I admit that the first half of the film, particularly the episodes in the Antarctic are fairly well handled for a B-movie. But Once the film returns to Miami for the remainder, it sinks to a level of casual incompetence that only television allows for.

Not even a decent time-waster; I stayed just to see how dumb it could get. It gets pretty dumb, believe me.
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10/10
one of a kind
18 January 2011
The best review here so far has been Timothy Farrell's from 2007, that remarked this film as the best-paced and most consistent from director Mikels. But most of the comments, both favorable and unfavorable, have been largely on the money - which in itself tells us we have a rather strange critter here. I.e., how can we say of a film that it is a camp classic in one comment, and that it is not a camp classic in another comment, and yet both comments be right? How can we mock such a film for its cheesiness and then admit that it wallows in that cheesiness, as if cheesiness were among its redeeming values? The answer of course is that Mikels made this film with tongue firmly in cheek. It is simply a mistake to take this film seriously - Mikels is rushing this product through to the drive-in circuit targeting a teen-age audience (hence the lack of nudity or really gory effects), giving them moments allowing them to exclaim "oh, gross!" or "wow, that's weird" while they take a breather from necking in the back-seat. Any attempt at quality or substance would be pointless. So instead, Mikels treats his low-life characters like refugees from a '30s comedy short who drank their brains out and ended up in a Skid Row production of a '40s gangster film as it might have been directed in the '50s by Ed Wood trying to make a '60s kids' film - huh? All right, another way to say this is that Mikels is basically saying, "ok, we have no budget, only two more days to shoot the thing, and our audience won't be paying attention anyway - so let's have fun!" Of course, then, the only issue is, what would Mikels mean by having fun here? But the answer to that is obvious, too. Most exploitation-horror films of the time (especially those coming out of Europe) took themselves way too serious. Even looking back to Ed Wood, one reason that "Plan 9" is so amusing is because Wood clearly thinks he is saying something important with it, even if he's not sure what.

There were important exceptions, of course - Corman's "Little Shop" is overt comedy, and "The Undertaker and his Pals," while providing the necessary gore and 'suspense' also throws in large dabs of comic bits and dialog. But "Corpse Grinders" avoids the obvious - there is no overt buffoonery, no sight gags or puns here. Instead Mikels simply pushes a ridiculous plot device - cats eating human meat go crazy, because desperate racketeers can't afford the butcher's bill - as far as it can go, and allows the characters involved to be their low-life selves. Thus we end up with a weird slice of trailer-trash Americana. And that is what produces the humor of the film - small-business economics gone bad, pseudo-science for low-information viewers, and pseudo-religious overtones to provide the hint of some 'moral insight' to the whole affair (made explicit in the trailer for the film, with its blather about "the sacred dead") - which of course isn't really there.

Mikels rarely took his exploitation seriously; but in other films of his (esp. "Astro-Zombies") I get the sense he is laughing at his audience, which is unpleasant. That's evident to some extent here as well, but in this case there seems to be a secondary audience targeted - those capable of getting in on the joke. That makes sense in a film made at the end of the '60s camp fad; by the time Mikels made this film, the notion that cat-food could make monsters of little kitties could be recognized by many of the more 'hip' at the drive-in as a humorous excuse, after a few puffs on a doobie, to go back to necking in the back-seat.

Ten stars for this bad movie because it is truly one of a kind.
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True Grit (2010)
8/10
Get the comparisons out of the way, then give the film its due.
26 December 2010
Let's get the comparisons with Henry Hathaway's version of the Charles Portis novel out of the way. The Coen Brothers certainly knew that, however much they want to 'go back to the source material,' their film would play against Hathaway's version.

The Hathaway version, while tampering with details from the Portis original, remains strikingly true to its story and theme. This is most clear in the dialog - the decision not to tamper with Portis' language was decisive for the making of that film. The Coens' tampering with the novel is more subtle than Hathaway's film, but no less an interpretation.

Approaching the characters and composition of the Coens' version without reference to the Hathaway film apparently proved impossible. For instance, the shoot-out at the dug-out cabin was re-written for a night-scene, but the camera angles remain pretty much the high-elevation shots Lucien Ballard provided Hathaway, inter-cut with full body shots of people getting wounded and horses running (etc.)also similar to Ballard's.

Two performance stand out as striking examples of reference to the original film. Dakin Matthews seems to struggle mightily not to recreate Strother Martin's interpretation of the horse-trader Stonehill - and fails. Apparently Martin had the character down pat and there's nothing but to reproduce his interpretation. Far more to the point is Barry Pepper's interpretation of the desperate outlaw chief, Ned Pepper - it is pure Robert Duvall. Pepper can only match Duvall's self-aware determination - and he does - but he can't surpass it; nor can he find another interpretation to set off against Duvall's.

As for the Coens' own re-interpretation of the Portis novel, what was most noticeable to me were the minor points simply dropped out of the story telling. The most irritating to me were a pair of lapses that are interconnected and combine to make an important point about the characters. 1. We never get to see Mattie tell Rooster that Chaney has linked up with Ned Pepper (later Rooster does remark the fact, but how did he learn of it?); 2 We don't get to hear Rooster's remarking how he shot Pepper through the upper lip (because he was aiming at the lower lip). These two incidents combine to let the audience know that Cogburn's hidden agenda on the Chaney hunt is really Ned Pepper, he and Pepper have something of a feud going on - which information fills out the background detail for their final shoot-out. Except here we don't have that connection.

Finally, the whole Mattie - Rooster issue: many critics are saying that Mattie is more at the center here than in the Hathaway picture, which focused attention on John Wayne's Cogburn. Not true. When we add up screen time and lines of dialog, we discover that Mattie not only has as much time and dialog in the Hathaway film but it is in much the same proportion to Cogburn's as in this one. If most remember the Hathaway film as a 'John Wayne film,' that is due simply to Wayne's bravura performance.

Well, enough of the comparisons. Does the Coens' version measure up as film worth seeing on its own accord? Yes; we are presented here with a beautiful, frightening, amusing piece of 'Americana.' There are scenes approaching dream-like states, as in the meeting with the bear-man, and during Rooster's desperate drive to get Mattie to a doctor. Hailee Steinfeld is quite engaging, and Matt Damon develops an intriguing complexity that makes one wish he had more screen-time. Bridges' performance is the most problematic - Bridges plays Cogburn as a a kind of whimsical brute - as he rambles on with his life-story on the trail, we get the gnawing sense that, if we were not along for a dangerous manhunt and dependent on his abilities as a master man-hunter, Cogburn would be someone we would not like to know. This develops a distance between the audience and Cogburn that is actually rather on par for the Coens - there are no 'heros' in the Coen universe.

Perhaps that's a good thing here. Mattie in her experiences with the wild men of the old west has encountered something larger than her life on the farm could ever get her. These are men who make their own laws and are not bound to statutory codes or biblical decrees, and adapt their own law to the wilds of the frontier that surrounds them. Mattie is a confirmed church-goer with a good lawyer, and if she weren't so determined on her revenge, she would actually be impossibly small-minded and dull. This is a subtext to the novel that both films attempt to convey, but neither quite captures, because it's difficult for any film maker to admit that the central character of the story is the least interesting.

The age of such wild-men has passed. It is not that wild-men do not exist - wild-men show up quite frequently in Coen Brothers' films in contemporary settings - but now they are corrupted by moving outside the law and outside the commonplace, they grow sick and psychopathic. The killer in "Fargo" feeding the partner he's killed to a wood-chipper is as wild as one could get, but he is no longer larger than life, and evokes only the sickness at the heart of modernity, not any adaptation one would want to live with.

We look back at historical moments like those of the Old West because anything seemed possible to them, whereas very little is possible for us. But that might simply be a wishful delusion - and the Coens' clear suspicion that it is really determines the limits of what they accomplish here. They don't present the West as 'it really was,' nor do they present what we want from it, rather they present a disappointment with it. Rooster Cogburn is indeed 'larger than life,' but we wouldn't want to spend any more time with him than we do.
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True Grit (1969)
9/10
The strong, the weak, and the problematic.
26 December 2010
The strong points of his film: 1. John Wayne (obviously) creating an aging, burnt out rogue turned lawman. Often remarked as "John Wayne playing (or parodying) himself," but this is hardly true - in fact, Rooster Cogburn is one of the four or so moments in Wayne's career when he completely loses himself in the character he plays. He plays no false note here, none that isn't purely and clearly "Rooster Cogburn."

2. The story here is tight (sprawling only because the manhunt in the wild demands it), neatly constructed, and, with the occasional Hollywood touches, very faithful to the novel by Charles Portis - if one must criticize the dialog, one should start by criticizing Portis' book, because the dialog is almost entirely his. Portis' theme, the coming of age of a one-track prudish farm-girl in a world of outrageous and violent men of the "Old West" remains largely intact, and remains fascinating.

3. Supporting cast: strong performances throughout, especially by Strother Martin as a harried horse-trader and Robert Duvall as the wily outlaw Ned Pepper.

4. Memorable scenes: If a film should be judged by how much one remembers of it - with pleasure, "True Grit" scores high. Every other scene sticks with one for some reason or other - the horse-haggling scene, the court-room scene, Mattie's visits to Rooster in the Chinaman's shop - one just goes on and on remembering these scenes, and many others.

Weak points: 1. Glen Campbell; hoping to play the same trick Hawks did by hiring Rick Nelson and Dean Martin for "Rio Bravo" Hathaway cast a young inexperienced singer to play the role of a tough Texas Ranger, and of course it doesn't work. Fortunately, although he sings the title track, the film itself is never paused to allow him an encore. Still, although I don't really find Campbell's performance all that annoying. He's a walking piece of wood, no doubt, but an amiable one, and he gets the job done.

2. Similarly, the music on the soundtrack doesn't really fit the material; it tries hard - too hard - to be dramatic, but this film requires a quietly folksy touch, not crescendos. Not surprising, with the exception of the final shoot-out - which would survive most any musical background, the best moments of the film have little or no musical comment.

3. Editing: although competent, it is rather perfunctory, as if the editors aren't quite clear on what they're supposed to do with the material. There a a couple major editing flubs, such as in the final scene between Mattie and Chaney that are a bit irritating.

The problematic - aspects of the film that leave one undecided or even a bit queasy: 1. The cinematography: although Lucien Ballard could not fail to do beautiful landscapes, his work here is overall a bit flat in composition and definition. One needs to compare his work here with what he accomplished the same year in Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" to see what I mean. Peckinpah was, at his best, a director who knew exactly what he wanted to see on the screen, and Ballard gives it to him. Hathaway comes from an older tradition that let the cameraman shoot the scene once the director had properly set it up. This leaves Ballard trying to shoot a 'traditional Western,' but "True Grit" is not a 'traditional Western,' despite Wayne's presence.

2. Kim Darby - although remarking Darby as having a limited range as an actress is being rather generous, the fact is in this film she is quite well cast - she is out of her element, but so is Mattie Ross. She is rather plain for an actress, and she certainly looks barely out of her teens , and acts it too. She finds it rather easy to project the necessary innocence (and indolence) of her prudish, determined character, but she does have one major weakness, a tendency to excitability that appears more anxious than determined.

3. The direction: A director's chore is to find some way to turn a story into a vision, and Hathaway just isn't up to that here. The story, the theme, most of the performances, the well-photographed landscape, all fill in when Hathawy's direction lapses, but the fact remains that driving the film is the script and Hathaway as director at best stays out of its way, rather than contributing to it.

Overall, one of the best stories brought to the screen, admirably fleshed out by Wayne and supporting cast. Weaknesses and problems are easily forgiven and forgotten as the narrative pulls us along to a satisfying bravura conclusion.
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