Sunday, December 30, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Charlie's Angels

Ah boys and their action-adventure toys. The boys are the man so cool he only needs one name, the director McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), and the writers Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August. Their toys are fast cars, helicopters, missiles, guns, swords, cgi, kung fu fighting, wire work, stunt work, and, their biggest toy of all, Charlie's Angels, the 2000 film starring Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz as Charlie's most recent angels, Bill Murray, who alone brings some much needed silliness to the silly proceedings as Bosley, Sam Rockwell and Kelly Lynch as the bad guys and gals, and John Forsythe reprising his television role of the Charlie in Charlie's Angels.

Charlie's Angels (Columbia), yet another adaptation of a television show (Charlie's Angels, ABC, 1976-1981), is a typical paint by numbers contemporary Hollywood film. With Charlie's Angels you get the nostalgia of yet another remake of an past television series. You get action adventure with a little bit of humour thrown in. You get a driving and throbbing rock and pop film score with a bit of pop nostalgia thrown into the mix (soundtrack on Sony, of course). You get a lot of t and a. All of this is then put into a pot and blended in order to get Charlie's chosen demographic--those mostly males between the ages of 14 to 26 or so with money--into the theatres so that producers, one of whom is Barrymore herself, and the studio heads can make lots of money.

Story wise Charlie's Angels tells the tale of how our three angels, the bad ass hotheaded redhead one, Dylan Sanders (Drew Barrymore), the nerdy Asian brunette one, Alex Munday (Lucy Liu), a shout out to Robert Wagner's characters name in another ABC show It Takes A Thief (1968-1970), Alexander Munday, and the peppy blonde innocent girly one with self esteem problems, Natalie Cook (Cameron Diaz), save Charlie from a man (Rockwell) seeking revenge for his fathers death. Along the way our Angels, individually or collectively, dance on Soul Train, shake their booty, cook for their boyfriends, sing songs, date, drive fast cars, drive fast boats, climb ropes up to castles in Carmel and up to helicopters where an evil villain is about to kill Charlie, and kick ass. We are, I suppose, meant to believe that Angels can be feminist, sexy, and bad ass investigators all at the same time. Needless to say the feminism in the film version of Charlie's Angels is as faux as the feminism in the television show.

McG directs Charlie's Angels as though it were an MTV music promo, which is where he got his start. He manipulates colours and keeps the pace moving very rapidly and, this is an action-adventure film after all, throws in a lot of car crashes and blows up a lot of stuff. At other times McG gives us what looks like a Playboy shoot. He slows the action down so we can see the Angel's in model like poses with hair blowing sexily and sensuously in the wind. Not trusting that his audience can read his visual clues and cues McG underlines some things in the film twice for good measure adding subtitles telling them, at one point, that characters he introduced them to earlier are the Director 1 and Director 2 he introduced the audience to earlier and he backtracks so we can see a scene in which Angel Dylan escaped the bullet of bad man Knox (Rockwell) again but this time in slow motion rather than normal film motion. And its all done in such unrealistic ways that it makes you wonder what ever became of realism in Hollywood cinema and whether audiences now think of this stuff as "realistic" because they have become so acclimated to it.

The writing is as cliched as the direction. It is full of the rather obvious sexual innuendos that seem to pass for subtle wit in Hollywood these days as when Natalie tells her boyfriend that she is like a virgin and that it is her first or when she tells the UPS man that he can stick her packages in her slot. Witty, very witty Rowe, Solomon, and August. Not. I am sure the younger demographic the film is aimed at loves the sexual "innuendos" here as much as they do in their teeny pop and roll.

I am giving Charlie's Angels two and a half stars. Mediocre, cliche ridden, unmemorable, and fully disposable, yet, at the end of the day, somewhat watchable. Charlie's Angels thou art the brave new world of Hollywood.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Spice World

I want to begin this review by talking about something not so completely different, EMI. EMI, one of the once upon a time giants of the entertainment and music industry, is dead. It has been gobbled up by Universal, one of the worst of the entertainment giants I am aware of, and which now controls 40% of the music market. The only proviso from European and North American regulators Universal had to meet was that the megagiant had to sell EMI's music business. They sold it to one of the other giants of the entertainment industry, Sony/ATV. Universal's take over of EMI is, of course, a sign of the ever increasingly cartellistic and monopolistic times as the world returns to the 19th century of gilded neo-19th century liberalism.

EMI was, as pundits tell us, a victim of its own lack of diversity in this global neo-gilded era during which the music industry has virtually died. Eat your heart our Don McLean. In retrospect this assessment seems right. A more nuanced picture of EMI's demise, however, would note that EMI tried to diversify when it merged with Thorn Electrical Industries in 1977 and tried to expand into the defence industries, light bulbs, radio rentals, television rentals, coolers, and fridges. EMI's diversity strategies, however, didn't work and EMI divorced Thorn in 1996 leaving it, as it turns out, in a very vulnerable market position in the brave new world of corporate globalisation and synergy (horizontal integration).

So what does all of this have to do with Spice World and its stars, the Spice Girls? The Spice Girls were an EMI product. Virgin Records, the label for which Britain's Spice Girls recorded, had been purchased by EMI in 1996. The Spice Girls were Bob Herbert's, Chris Herbert's, and Lindsey Casbon's attempt to revive the girl group amidst the 1990s boy band revival. The Spice Girls were born out of an advertisement the Herbert's, Casbon, and financier Chic Murray placed in The Stage magazine for 18-23 year old women who could sing and dance. Eventually 400 women were, after some twists and turns, whittled down to five and the Spice Girls were born. They signed with Simon Fuller and his 19 Entertainment who would go on to help create other marketing strategies to find and, in the process, market, stars in a post World Wide Web disneyfornicated entertainment environment including Pop Idol, American Idol, and So You Think You Can Dance.

There was a Spice Girl for every presumed demographic in the UK whether it was class, skin colour, hair colour, or female stereotype and caricature. There was Posh Spice (Victoria Beckham) for those who liked or dreamed of the posh life. There was Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm) for those who liked or dreamed of being athletic. There was Ginger Spice (Geri Halliwell) for those who liked or dreamed of hot redheaded outrageousness. There was Baby Spice (Emma Bunton) for those who liked or dreamed of sexy lolita girly girl innocence. And there was Scary Spice (Melanie Brown) for those who liked or dreamed of being tough and aggressive. Collectively the Spice Girls were supposed, or so the marketing group that created them hoped to make us believe via their marketing strategies, to equal Girl Power but they never even came close to approaching the girl power of riot grrrl.

One of the strategies to market the Spice Girls was film. Spice World (1997, Columbia, Icon, Polygram, Director: Bob Spiers, Writer, Kim Fuller, from an idea she and the Spice Girls had), the Spice Girls first and thankfully only film, was the Spice Girls marketing machine's attempt to do for the Spice Girls what A Hard Days Night did for another EMI product, the Beatles. Spice World, a kind of Charlie's oops Bond's Angels, is a series of music promos, modelling shots, and parodies of everything from James Bond to Monty Python to Hollywood to music managers to documentaries to Agatha Christie's Poirot to self parody loosely tied together by a plot in which a Rupert Murdoch newspaper tycoon type sends his best freelance character assassin out to defame the reputation of the Spice Girls. All of this was then poured through a mold of bright hippie cum tamed and hence available for mainstream marketing clothes and female stereotypes and caricatures all of which seem to lie more on the whore side of the female stereotype and caricature spectrum than the virgin. The soundtrack of the film is largely a blitzkrieg of Spice Girls tune. The actors in the film, which inexplicably includes some of Britain's best and brightest including Bob Hoskins, Alan Cummings, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Richard Briers, do their best over the top, something very appropriate for this very over the top film. It was also presumably the marketing machines attempt to help the Spice Girls conquer the huge market of the United States, hence the presence of American actors like George Wendt in the film.

The marketing strategy apparently worked. Spice World took in $75 million dollars worldwide, $29 million of that in the US. It cost around $25 million. Though it may have raked in the dough I have to say that Spice World is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It may be the worst film I have ever seen. Even the attempt of Spice World's filmmakers to make fun of itself thanks to its parodic documentary within a film and film within a film strategies falls flat and seems more like a marketing strategy than an attempt at Brechtian verfremdungseffekt, distancing. I give Spice World one star and that is, I must say, incredibly generous.

Spice World, 2001, directed by Bob Spiers, screenplay by Kim Fuller, 93 minutes, 1:85:1

Friday, December 28, 2012

Maps of Misreading: Indian Tradiionalist Rape Culture, Arundhati Roy, and Reader Response

I have long been interested in how "audiences" read or misread things. Some of these misreadings are clearly deliberate. Others are not. Many of those "unintentional" misreadings are clearly a function of ideology and the way that ideology works by giving words meanings they were not intended to have.

As I was trolling through the Web I found yet another example of how humans deliberately or ideologically misread what others say. On 21 December 2012 Indian analyst and critic Arundhati Roy talked about the culture of rape in India on Channel 4 (UK) News after the horrific rape and torture of a 23 year old Indian female medical student by at least six men on a bus in Delhi, rape and torture that led to her death in Singapore, where she was transferred for medical reasons, on 28 December 2102. Roy made a number of points about Indian rape culture particularly on how it intersected with patriarchalism, traditionalism, and class. She, rightly, pointed out how hundreds of rapes, over 600 reported this year alone already according to one source, and particularly rapes of lower caste or class women, hasn't stimulated the media attention or the protests that have arisen over the rape of a reportedly middle class woman in India. She doesn't say that the rape of middle class women is acceptable. And she certainly doesn't excuse rape or the patriarchal culture that is so embedded in India.

I add these last two sentences because that is not how a number of people at the Outlook are "reading" Roy's interview. Some posters seem to think that she thinks it is OK to rape a middle or upper class woman but not OK to rape a poor woman. Some accuse her of insensitivity. Some, in tried and true pathetic fashion, prefer to play in character assassination and ad hominems. Some play the pathetic love it or leave it, it is worse elsewhere card. Sticks and stones breaking bones and love it or leave it mentalities are not the monopoly of many in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Of course, one might, and some have, argued that the reaction to this rape is because of its incredible brutality. The victim and her boyfriend were beaten with iron bars. The victim was raped for at least an hour on the bus, she had an iron bar inserted into her body which resulted in severe organ damage, she suffered brain damage as a result of her brutal torture, and then she was thrown from an apparently moving bus. This is how disgusting the traditional (and religion is generally tied to traditionalism) misogynistic patriarchal culture of India where women are taught to avoid rape and when they can't are blamed for it and are seen as dishonouring the family, and where men are believed to be motivated by biological instincts that result in rape, works.

I hope that the women in the streets of India's cities are able to change Indian politics, to change the Indian police system, to change the Indian legal system, to change how women are perceived and regarded in India, to change how the poor are perceived and represented, and to move India away from its traditionalist misogynistic culture with its abuse of women, its rape of women, its sexual slavery, and its female infanticide. I doubt that they will be able to change Indian patriarchal and misogynistic culture, however, because, after all, India's politicians, India's police, and India's judges are generally men and are often very much ideologically embedded in traditionalist Indian misogynistic culture. As the Guardian recently reported there was an incident just this week in which police jeered and laughed at a 17-year-old woman in Patiala, which is in the north-western state of Punjab, who attempted to report a gang rape and who, as a result, committed suicide. I really do hope I am wrong, however.

Before we in the "modern" and "advanced" West get all smug about the "progress" we have made with respect to gender, class, and race issues we should remember that like India we are too have gender, class, race, and class problems that are reflected in things like the differential media coverage of the disappearances of the the White, brunette, and pregnant Laci Peterson in California in 2002 and the White blonde Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005 versus the lack of saturation national media coverage of the disappearance of the Black, Hispanic, and pregnant LaToyia Figueroa in Philadelphia in 2005 shows. Cultures of gender, class, and race and the power differentials that underlie them are, it seems, hard to change.

Capsule Film Reviews: Wimbledon

Wimbledon (2004, Universal, Studio Canal, Working Title, director, Richard Loncraine) was the latest romantic comedy from, as the trailer for the film reminds us, some of the same people who brought us Notting Hill (1999, Universal, Working Title, writer, Richard Curtis, director, Roger Michell) and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001, Studio Canal, Working Title, Writer, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis, director, Sharon Maguire). Paul Bettany plays the Hugh Grant and Colin Firth roles while Kirsten Dunst plays the Julia Roberts and Renée Zellweger roles with, this is also a tennis movie and she plays an American tennis player after all, a bit of John McEnroe thrown in.

Bettany plays Peter Colt, an English tennis player who has seen his better days and is playing at his last Wimbledon. Dunst plays Lizzie Bradbury an up and coming American who is playing her first Wimbledon. They meet quite by accident in the hotel they are staying at during the tournament--or is it accidental--hook up, find romance, and everntually find a love that conquers not necessarily all but is able to conquer Wimbledon, Bettany not surprisingly wins, and Lizzie's father (Sam Neill), he who wants his daughter to exchange her distracting fun for practise, practise, practise. Wimbledon ends with the special relationship once again intact as Lizzie teaches her daughter how to play tennis while husband Peter and son sit watching in their asphalted Manhattan park. Shades of Notting Hill.

Unfortunately for the film Bettany is no Grant or Firth, Dunst is no Roberts or Zellweger, and writers Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin are no Curtis or Davies. Two to two and a half stars. By the way McEnroes are everywhere in Wimbledon from the American Bradbury, to the American Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), to Colt who has Mac Attack after a blown call during match point, and to McEnroe himself who plays McEnroe himself as tennis broadcaster.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Capusule Film Reviews: The Ex

In The Ex (2006, MGM, 2929 Productions, the Weinstein Company, Director, Jesse Peretz, Writers, David Guion and Michael Handelman) husband (Zach Braff) who generally speaks his mind, loses, thanks to it, yet another job and moves him, his wife (Amanda Peet), and his newborn child to Ohio where wife's ad man father (Charles Grodin) gets husband a job at the Sunburst Ad Agency. There he is taken under the wing of a man in a wheelchair (Jason Bateman) who happens to be the ex of the title and who connives to take back husband's wife. Love survives when husband once again speaks his mind, reminds wife why she fell in love with him, saves the day, and tricks the man in a wheelchair who cares more about a high flying ad man job in Barcelona than wife. There may be something important that this film wants to say about political correctness, new age lameness, and getting ahead--I don't know--because I was too distracted by anything else I could think to care while watching this omnishambles of a film to care. A terrible waste of Charles Grodin's talent. One star. Note to future self: you should know by now that any film with three alternative endings bodes ill.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: American Flyers

The only film I was ever in was as an extra in the wonderful Peter Yates and Steve Tesch film Breaking Away (20th Century Fox, 1979). It was my first year in beautiful, leafy, colourful, hilly, limestony, and gothicy Bloomington and they were filming Breaking Away on campus, still the most beautiful college campus I have ever seen, and in and around Bloomington.

The one thing that has remained in my memory about Breaking Away has to do with expectations. Many people I knew didn't expect the film to be very good. Bloomington, after all, was a town with more than ample opportunities for film viewing, particularly foreign cinema film viewing, and we were jaded about Hollywood. Even the reviewer for the student newspaper, the IDS, the Indiana Daily Student, had negative things to say about the film when it premiered at the Indiana University Auditorium in the centre of the older part of the campus. Things changed, however, when positive after positive reviews of the film came in from critics like Janet Maslin at the New York Times and Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times and the film was nominated for and won the Golden Globe for best film comedy or musical and writer Steve Tesich was nominated for and won an academy award for original screenplay.

When I saw the film for the first time I was surprised by just how good Breaking Away, this wonderful coming of age film about four young men (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quad, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern) just out of high school and floundering around for what to do with their lives, was. I liked that it was not your typical Hollywood film and that it was more like the slice of life foreign films that I adored at the time. It seemed real to me. And, of course, I enjoyed seeing places on campus and in and around my beloved beautiful Bloomington that I knew and loved. I also enjoyed the town versus gown, cutters versus college student, tension theme that structured the film, tensions which ended in our cutters taking on and defeating the gownies at the annual Little 500 bike race at the end of the school year, even though, in my experience, those tensions were exaggerated in the film.

Recently I watched another Tesich film in which bikes and a bike race again play an important role, American Flyers (Warner Brothers, John Badham, 1985). Though on the surface American Flyers is a film about bikes, American Flyers, like Tesich's earlier Breaking Away, is less about bikes and bike racing than about family, family tensions, brotherly love, literal and metaphorical, and friendship. In American Flyers Kevin Kostner and David Marshall Grant play brothers Marcus and David Sommers who are on a quest to compete in and win the Hell of the West bike race in Colorado. I don't want to say much more about American Flyers and spoil the films wonderful misdirection and emotional power except to say that the bike riding sequences are great and that it was filmed, in part, in the great city of Madison, Wisconsin. There is one downside to the film, the 1980s corporate rock that serves as the soundtrack for the American Flyers. That said, I give this wonderful slice of life film between three and three and a half stars out of four.

Tesich, by the way, is unaccountably absent from Richard Corliss's and David Kipen's screenwriter as auteur polemics, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in American Cinema and The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of Film History. One can certainly make a compelling argument that both Breaking Away and American Flyers are Tesich films. One can also compellingly hypothesise that the European quality of Breaking Away is as much if not more due to Peter Yates, an English director who cut his teeth in the British new wave realist cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, than Tesich. On the other hand Tesich was born in Jugoslavija, took degrees in Russian at Indiana University and Columbia University, and was likely familiar with foreign cinema particularly the various new waves and their attempts to bring greater realism to the screen. Tesich's European background may also explain his obsession with bicycle racing. Or did Tesich become obsessed with bike racing when he was at IU and was a teammate of Dave Blase who rode 139 of the 200 laps, including the last lap, of the Little 500 for the Phi Kappa Psi team and won? Blase was the model for Dave Stoller (Christopher) in Breaking Away. All of this makes further research necessary if we are to truly understand the question of authorship in Breaking Away.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Dick

I am almost certain that when producer Gale Ann Hurd, writer Sheryl Longin, and writer/director Andrew Fleming pitched Dick, a film about two fifteen years old airheads who are more interested in Bobby Sherman and celebrity culture than politics when the film begins and who inadvertently happen upon and help Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) uncover the secrets of the Watergate scandal, the executives at Columbia TriStar must have thought that the idea for the film was cute. And for a while Dick is cute as Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) happen upon G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer), one of the Watergate burglars, in the Watergate complex where Arlene lives after they sneak out to mail a letter to Arlene's celebrity crush of the moment Bobby Sherman, as Betsy and Arlene are given jobs as official White House dog walkers for a dog named Checkers in order to keep them quiet, as Betsy and Arlene feed the White House pot laced cookies, as Betsy and Arlene happen upon documents being shredded and money being readied in a room in the White House in order to keep people quiet about Watergate, as Betsy and Arlene are promoted to White House Youth Advisors, as Betsy and Arlene discover that Nixon (Dan Hedaya) is taping his expletive not so deleted conversations and that he hates Checkers, as Betsy and Arlene accidentally make John Dean (Jim Breuer) go straight, as Betsy and Arlene become Deep Throat--itself an in joke for Betsy and Arlene as Betsy's brother is caught watching the film of the same name at a local DC cinema--and as Betsy and Arlene are chased through the streets of DC by a van with the logo Plumbers of Washington DC across it. The problem, at least for me, was that after about half an hour the ain't we so smart and witty and very obvious Saturday Night Live like cuteness wore really thin. I am giving Dick two stars out of four. It is only slightly better than a typical episode of Saturday Night Live.

Capsule Film Reviews: The Nativity Story

It is almost Christmas, the solstice holiday during which Christians celebrate the birth of their son of god and saviour Jesus. I am not a Christian but I am a cinephile and as a lover of films I have seen a lot of movies, most of them Hollywood epics, about Jesus and the birth of Christianity including the silent King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMllle, 1927), the sound era King of Kings (MGM, Nicholas Ray, 1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (United Artists, George Stevens, 1965), Quo Vadis (MGM, Mervin LeRoy, 1951), and The Robe (20th Century Fox, Henry Koster, 1953). Today I watched director Catherine Hardwicke's and writer Mick Rich's The Nativity Story (New Line, 2006).

The Nativity Story tells a tale that is as old as the gospels of Luke and Matthew on which it draws. Unlike most of its epic predecessors The Nativity Story tells the tale of the birth of Jesus on a small and, thanks to a number of historical advisers and perhaps Hartwicke who directed the realistic teen drama Thirteen (Fox Searchlight, 2003) before The Nativity Story and Rich, who once worked as a journalist, on a realistic scale. In The Nativity Story you can see the wear and tear on poor people's--and most of the people in the film are poor--clothes and in their faces. You can see the dirt on Joseph's (Oscar Isaac) feet as he and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) journey from poor Nazareth to poor Bethlehem as the census of Caesar Augustus demands. You can hear the pain in Elizabeth's voice as she gives birth to John the Baptist. And you can see the sweat on Mary's face as she gives birth to Jesus.

It is the small scale and the supernatural realism of The Nativity Story which makes the film an interesting retelling of a very familiar story for those of us in the West even non-Christians like myself. I give the film two and a half to three stars out of four.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Cake

At one point in the 2005 Canadian romantic comedy Cake (directed by Nisha Ganatra, written by Tassie Cameron) Philippa "Pippa" McGee (Heather Graham, who was also executive producer) the bohemian world travelling almost thirtysomething travel writing daughter of a magazine magnate (Malcolm, Bruce Gray) who sees men as little more than play toys for her personal pleasure (Hemingway Jones played by Taye Diggs is one of them) wears a shirt proclaiming that women are the new men. What Pippa finds when she returns home to Toronto from her world adventures, however, is that one by one her friends, the women who, at one point in the film, she says were going to take over the world, are getting married (Jane, Sarah Chalke), falling in love (Rachel, Sabrina Grdevich), and having babies (Lulu, Sandra Oh). Women, Pippa learns, aren't the new men. They are simply updated versions of the women they have always been. By the end of the film Pippa exchanges her "men are the new women" shirt for a pink one, the same pink that bathes the offices and van of the Wedding Bells magazine she has taken over for her sick father, once she finds true love with Ian (Daniel Sutcliffe), the man who her father has asked to guide Pippa through the murky waters of magazine publishing. Fairy tales, Cake seems to tell us, really are real and they really do come true. Women who thought they were the new men can find true love, have babies, and reconcile with their once busy fathers. Cake may have its Sex and the City like sexual frankness and cynicism about romance but it eats it too. But hey, it does manage to mention Baudrillard and Derrida and reference 1930s and 1940s Hollywood screwball romantic comedies all in the same breath. Two and a half stars out of four.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Battle of the Brave

Je me souviens just might almost be the watchword for Battle of the Brave (Jean Beaudin, 2004), the English language version of the French Canadian film Nouvelle-France. What this epic film asks us to remember is less memories of those nasty and brutish British conquerors, soon to be American schemers, Roman Catholic complicity with Nouvelle France's red coated conquerors, or even the perversions of some of the French elite before Nouvelle France's British conquest though it is hard not to see Nouvelle-France and its English language version as the product in some way, shape, or form of French Canadian nationalism. What Battle of the Brave asks its viewers to remember is a daughters tale of her peasant mother's (Noemie Godin-Vigneau) love for a man she is never able to have (David La Haye) and of her devotion to the daughter who tells Battle of the Brave's tale and for whom she sacrificed her life (Juliette Gosselin).

Battle of the Brave, one of the most expensive films ever made in Canada at a cost of around $C30 million Canadian dollars, may be beautifully filmed, have exquisite sets and costumes, and may be wonderfully scored but I didn't find its tale of romance, motherly love, and the horror of popular superstitions or its earthy peasants and foppish and cynical elites all that interesting or compelling and I really didn't care about any of its characters in the end. I didn't, however, find it as bad as some of its online critics who call it the worst film they have ever seen. I have seen far worse films during my cinephilic life. On the Maltin meter I would have to give Battle of the Brave two and a half stars. But hey, it was nice to see someone attempt a traditional Hollywood adult costume epic in these days of Hollywood kiddie korn.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Me and the Soaps...

I know I am late coming to the funeral but I wanted to put in my two cents worth anyway...

One of my memories of my high school years is how much my mother loved the ABC lineup of soap operas, All My Children (1970-2012), One Life to Live (1968-2012), and General Hospital (1963) and how religiously she watched them. Like so many others, I looked down, for some reason on soap operas. Then, thanks to my mother, I discovered how much I enjoyed their unfolding tales of love, deception, betryal, revenge, family, intrigue, and the damage and joy that is living, their Erika Kane's, and the generally high quality of their acting. Little did I realise that they were simply the latest in a long line of popular melodramas that stretched back to Dickens.

I was never as devoted to watching AMC, OLtL, and GH daily as was my mum but I did watch them fairly religiously in the early 1970s and the late 1980's. I also began to watch the most famous of the British soaps, Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) and Eastenders (BBC, 1985-), in the late 1980s thanks to the local PBS station in Albany and liked them too. One of my most vivid soap memories of the late 1980s was when OLtL's Clint Buchanan time travelled back to the Old West of 1888 in 1988. I managed to catch most of the final month or so AMC and OLtL. And I have to say that I was happy that ABC's cheaper replacements for them both, The Chew and the now defunct The Revolution, were doing much worse in the ratings in their time slots than AMC and OLtL did. Nothing is as sweet as sweet revenge.

Unfortunately, you can never go home again. It is no use wishing that All My Children and One Life to Live will come back to ABC. I really miss them both. Rest in peace. You are not forgotten.

Capsule Film Reviews: Chances Are

Chances Are (Emile Ardolino, Columbia TriStar, 1989) is yet another attempt by Hollywood to recapture its glory years. In this instance the film from its classic past that Hollywood hopes to recapture is Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Columbia, 1941). This is not the first time that Hollywood has remade Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (Paramount, 1978) was a remake and updating of this classic man comes back to life in another body and wackiness ensues comedy subgenre.

In Chances Are, a film made by the same studio as Here Comes Mr. Jordan--that makes rights issues easier--Robert Downey Jr. plays Alex Finch, a recent graduate of Yale who dreams of getting a dream job at the Washington Post. Chances Are was made in the wake of the Watergate scandal which the Post played a major role in uncovering. While applying for a job at the Post Finch meets and is befriended by Phillip Train (Ryan O'Neal). Phillip takes Alex to the house of his friend and the woman he has loved for much of his life, Corrine Jeffries, played by Cybil Shepherd, and her daughter Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson). Gradually Alex, who has bonded with Miranda, begins to realise that he is Louis, Corinne's husband, who died almost twenty years previously in an accident. Louis has been, in a scene right out of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, told by heaven's bureaucrats that he is dead but that he will be recycled back into a body of a just born infant. One of heaven's bureaucrats has accidentally failed to give him the shot of forgetfulness, however, and all sorts of wackiness ensues as Alex tries to convince Corinne that he is Louis. Chances Are ends in typical Hollywood fashion as Alex cracks a case Louis had originally solved, is offered, as a result, a job at the Post, gets the girl, in this case Miranda, and watches as Corinne and Philip finally marry. Don't you just love fairy tales with happy endings?

I didn't find Chances Are a great film. I did, however, find it a creditable effort by Hollywood to recapture its golden days. If you are looking for an adult light romantic comedy that is right out of the old Hollywood I think you will enjoy Chances Are. I'll give it two and a half stars on the Maltin meter.

By the way, it is a pity that Cybil Shepherd, who was also wonderful in the screwball television show Moonlighting (Glenn Gordon Caron, ABC, 1985-1989), wasn't around during the golden age of the fantasy factory because I think that she, like Barbra Streisand who was superb in Peter Bogdanavich's latter day screwball comedy What's Up Doc (WB, 1972), would have been a great actor in the era of Hollywood's golden age.

One more thing before I go, Chances Are uses the Johnny Mathis song "Chances Are" for its opening credit sequence. That song, which is kind of a throwback to the classic age of American songwriting, is a very appropriate one for a romantic comedy like Chances Are. It is a song I have always loved.

Capsule Film Reviews: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat Island (1995, Studio Canal/Carolco/MGM/Lionsgate DVD) is a Hollywood tale of family squabbles, greed, and revenge as niece (Geena Davis) and uncle (Frank Langella) and their pirate crews fight each other across the Caribbean in order to obtain three maps which will show them way to a hidden pirates pot of gold and jewels on the unknown Cutthroat Island.

Cutthroat Island was Hollywood's latest attempt, in the 1990s, to revive and re imagine the pirate genre by adding a bit of humour to the action adventure mix that dominates contemporary Hollywood and is a favourite of its juvenile demographic. What the film really was, however, was an excuse for director Rennie Harlan and his crew to blow lots of stuff up and play with a lot of toys. And blow lots of stuff up and play with a lot of toys they do. The films sexual repartee was apparently what passed for wit in 199s Hollywood but is no match for the real wit of pirate films of the more distant past like Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, WB, 1935 and the Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz, WB, 1940). The film's attempt at a kick ass third wave show us some cleavage female hero in the form of Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) was apparently what passed for feminism in the Hollywood of the 1990s. It was not feminist and it certainly didn't atone for Hollywood's sins of commission and commission of the past.

What there is in Cutthroat Island is exactly what one would expect of a Hollywood pirate film. There's elite British military fops, a peg leg, a lost buried treasure, a treasure map, a monkey, some alien like grotesque eel like creatures, betrayals, blue seas, a storm, a ship tossed at sea, an unmapped jungle island, a secret cave, skulls and bones, a pitched sea battle, and, of course, romance as our kick ass Morgan finds true love with flim flam man William Shaw (Matthew Modine) in this paint by the genre numbers Hollywood film. What a waste of a reported $99 million dollars.

In a way, I suppose it could be argued that, Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski's earlier 1986 Pirates may have been the wrong films at the wrong time. Cutthroat only took in a "paltry", paltry by Hollywood standards that is, $19 million dollars at the box office. Pirates, which cost $40 million, took in only a paltry $8 million. It is these numbers which rule Hollywood today. A similar pirate action adventure/humour/romance mix with a little Disney supernaturalism, Johnny Depp doing his best Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone, MGM, 1962) impression, and, in all but the fourth, the queen of the contemporary costume movie, Keira Knightly, thrown in, would prove more popular at the box office when Jerry Bruckheimer brought his four Pirates of the Caribbean films to the big wide screen in 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011. Viewers apparently couldn't resist the Pirates franchise and that is why, I guess they keep pumping them out. Another one is apparently on the way as I write. I, on the other hand--I am too old for this juvenalia--did, do,and will resist any Pirates of the Caribbean film, past, present, or future. And I certainly resisted finding Cutthroat Island anything more than yet another mediocre Hollywood big budget extravaganza aimed at the kiddies and the kiddie within. Cutthroat Island, then, is a film I cannot recommend.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

America's a Mess, It's in Their Rhetoric...

Whenever a tragedy occurs you can be sure that the religious kooks come out of the woodwork. Whether it is Jerry Falwell blaming godlessness in New York for 9/11, Pat Robertson blaming Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans decadence, or now Mike Huckabee blaming the mass murder in Shady Hook, Connecticut on secularism it seems like so many Christians are absolutely bonkers these days, bonker kooks who have not only no sense of propriety but have no knowledge of statistical correlation. So many Christians, in fact, are so totally wacky these days that it is a wonder that there is anyone left who wishes to call himself or herself a Christian anymore.

Let's get real. Human violence has been around longer than prostitutes and spies have. It is new weapons technologies, of course, the gun, the machine gun, chemical weapons, the atomic bomb, handguns, assault weapons, not god or a lack of god, that have made it possible for humans to kill more of their own kind not to mention greater numbers of flora and fauna across the planet. So get real dimmed Christian bulbs, if you want to lessen human violence deal with the weapons that turn inherently flawed human beings into ever more mass killers.

Boy, it seems that Christian hucksters are even more difficult to get rid of in the US than dangerous weapons of mass destruction. By the way, isn't it funny how these self-righteous celebrity Christians who ascribe terrorist attacks in New York and secularism in the Northeast to the g.o.d. don't see to blame droughts in the "Christian" state of Texas on the g.o.d.?

An Irony for Yet Another Mass American Murder...

I just can't help reflecting on the fact that while people in Newtown and Sandy Hook Connecticut are praising teachers as heroes Michigan's and Wisconsin's Republican's are taking the right of collective bargaining and benefits from their teachers. Ebenezer Scrooge lives.

On that thought I wish you all Happy Holidays

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dissing the Donut Hole: Why I Have a Problem With Crystal Ball Textualism

My problem with a lot of what comes out of English Studies and Film and Television Studies programmes is that the crystal ball textualism that dominates those programmes and the writing that comes out of it is not grounded in little h historical analysis. It is not grounded in archival analysis. It is not grounded in interviews with those who "created" literary works, films, or television programmes. To paraphrase the title of a book by noted cultural anthropologist and historian Eric Wolf it is the product people of literature, film, and television without a sense of history.

I suppose this historical amnesia in literary, film, and television wouldn't be a problem if, contra the crystal ball textualists, historical analysis on how a text was produced, including its authorship, wasn't essential and central to the understanding of literary, film, and television texts, their sociology, their authorship, their economics, their politics, their cultural contexts, their demographics, and their geography. History, little h history, history as a method, is and has to be, I would argue, the first step toward an understanding of any text, literary, film, television, or national and a first step before textual hermeneutics and aethetics takes place.

One fundamental problem with much literary, film, and television analysis is that the ahistorical if not antihistorical analysis the crystal ball textualists are producing is actually a type or types of reader response. Unfortunately, most crystal ball don't realise this simple fact. Crystal ball textualist readings of texts, which generally stand in for real reader response analysis--surveys, ethnography, and interviews with a random group of readers of literary, film, or television texts--is not a akin to Chomsky's notion that you can learn all you need to learn about language through one language speaker. You cannot learn all you need to know about a literary, film, or television text from one academic or even a group of academics ahistorical readings of literary, film, or television texts because the practise and the knowledge of academics, and particularly crystal ball academics, is constructed in specific social and cultural contexts and bear the cultural and ideological traces of those social and cultural contexts.

The only way, I would argue, to get beyond the tautological and fetishistic tendencies of crystal ball textualism is to tie textual readings to the empirical, to textual production, to empirical analysis that necessitates archival research, ethnographic research, surveys, interviews, and so on, and which, as a result can be verified or not falsified in an empirical rather than an ideological way and which can serve as an empirical check on readings of literary, film, and television texts.

This doesn't mean that I think that cultural analysis be it Geertzian--speaking of Clifford Geertz it is worth remembering that Geertz came of intellectual age, in part, in Talcott Parsons Harvard interdisciplinary social science Social Relations programme, that he was deeply influenced by the comparative history of Max Weber, that he deeply understood the history of colonialism and how it impacted culture, that his approach, before becoming skeptical of grand theorising, bears some if not many of the hallmarks of Parsonian structural functionalism, and that he was involved in studies funded by the US government on the Soviet Union--Turnerian (Victor Turnerian), or whatever is not possible. It just has to be grounded in history and it has to be grounded in a realisation that some symbolic culture is central to national cultures--American civil religion and American football, for instance--some is central to local cultures--eternal progression in Mormon culture, for example. We need to be cognizant of the fact that not all symbols are key symbols, in other words. And we need to be aware that all symbols develop historically and in historical sociological, cultural, geographic, and biological contexts.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Dullest Games People Play: Another Day, Another Really Bad Hollywood Movie...

I am being punished for buying $3 dollar DVD's from the bargain DVD bins at Big Lots. Yesterday I had the misfortune of watching the dreadful Catwoman (2004) starring Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, and Sharon Stone which I bought in the bargain bins at Big Lots. Today, the film torture, and it is torture of the iron maiden variety, continues thanks to another bargain DVD I bought at Big Lots, the Olsen Twins 2000 magnum crapus Our Lips Are Sealed.

I really don't want to say a lot about this film because it doesn't even deserve to have more than two words wasted on it, and here they are, IT STINKS. But I have to say a bit more about it. Our Lips Are Sealed's stereotyping and caricaturing of Aussies--the film is set in a Sydney to which the twins (Mary-Kate and Ashley) have to escape after they testify in court against a murderous bunch of family thieves--borders on racism. Everything about Our Lips Are Sealed is cliched populated as it is with high school cliques, high school stereotypes, mean girls, bumbling bad guys, clueless parents, poor poor pitiful middle classers whinging about not being considered cool by the in crowd, cute pets, picture postcard touristy locales, and overly simplistic lessons learned. The camera style and scene length befits the ADD generation it appears to be aimed at. The film, which went direct to video, seems pitched to a clean family values audience that mistakes Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954-1960) for real American life and who think that an occasional breaking of the fourth wall--Our Lips Are Sealed does occasionally break the fourth wall--is cool and cute. Presumably this is who the Olsen Twins and their handlers thought their ideal demographic was.

Our Lips Are Sealed, to put it bluntly, is wretched in the strongest sense of the term. Yesterday I was convinced that Catwoman was the worst film I had ever seen. Today I am fully convinced that the worst movie I have ever seen is Our Lips Are Sealed. I cannot recommend NOT watching it highly enough. What a pity that now I be forced to recall that the name of this film is also the name of a Go-Go's song I have always liked. A pox on the Olsen Twins. Oh, and I did learn a lesson from Our Lips Are Sealed: be more discerning about your purchases from Big Lots.

One final note, the extras on the Our Lips Are Sealed DVD, particularly the Olsen Twins commentary and an extra on the the Olsen Twins fashion for the film--a fashion sense, by the way, which seems to me as derivative as the film itself--seem to be aimed at promoting the Olsen Twins and the public money making identities they and their handlers have fashioned to appeal to their demographic. In the commentary the twins sound so studied and the commentary so scripted that it suggests that the disneyfornicated Olsen's couldn't be authentic and spontaneous to save their lives. All hail the cult of happy faced we are geniuses so you should buy our product so you can see how cool we are and you can become cool by buying our products cult.

I watched the Olsen Twins New York Minute (Dennie Barnes, 2004) yesterday, 18 December 2012. I enjoyed the film and its screwball comedy of accidental mishap after mishap and accidental mishaps which lead to romance much more than I did Our Lips are Sealed. New York Minute wasn't a great film, but it was certainly, except for the horrible stereotypes and caricatures it played in during the Harlem House of Bling scenes, watchable and at times even enjoyable. I suspect the reason I found New York Minute a passable and watchable film, is because of the presence of SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin in the cast. That said, the Olsen Twins do a creditable job of playing the screwball sisters, goody two shoes overachiever Jane Ryan (Ashley) and rebel rocker underachiever Roxy Ryan (Mary-Kate), who, by the end of the film, learn the lesson that there is a little bit of Jane in Roxy and a little bit of Roxy in Jane and that sister love conquers all even the death of a mother. And hey, Mary-Kate gets to play drums on "Suffragette City".

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Death By Cat Scratch Fever...

I don't know what to say. Let me start with this. I have been watching films for some fifty years and I have seen some pretty awful movies including some bad Fassbinder films, the In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) in particular, and the awful End of the Game (1975, Maximilian Schell). But nothing, nothing prepared me for the awfulness that is 2004's Catwoman.

Catwoman, a film that reaches its height during the opening credits and goes downhill very quickly from there, has in its very cinematic DNA all of the things that make contemporary Hollywood so dreadful: obvious cgi, camera movements that seem to be done largely for camera movements sake, a style that seems more appropriate to a rock video or video games, scenes which rarely last more than a few minutes, unmemorable pop music for the kiddies (physical or mental) at whom most Hollywood films are aimed these days, a pop music, of course, that is in the film in the first place to sell corporate pop music product not to say something about the character or the cinematographic landscapes the films characters traverse, the sex that sells, cliched catch phrases masquerading as wit, and a star who is in the film not because she was born to play the role of the Catwoman but because the makers of the film thought the presence of Halle Berry would sell tickets. Blah.

One more word to the wise, it is always advisable to steer far clear of any film directed by someone who apparently fancies that he is so cool that he only needs one name. In Catwoman's case the one named bandit is Pitoff.