The Morning After #12: September 13, 2010

With the holiday this week and a rather busy viewing schedule, I managed to put away a fair number of films this week. Here are my takes on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Lion in Winter, The Year of Living Dangerously, Ghost, Serenity, The V.I.P.s, the final episodes of Firefly and the first few episodes of season two of Torchwood.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD


Defining Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is nearly impossible for those who did not grow up with video games as a part of their daily lives. I’m not talking arcade games, but console games played on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Atari and the like. If you aren’t familiar with them, then understanding Scott Pilgrim becomes infinitely more difficult. Yet, for those who have that knowledge, there are so many fond memories on display, both as tributes and as punchlines, that it’s impossible not to enjoy significant portions of the film. And that, perhaps, is its most deceptive quality. At the heart of the film is the somewhat lovable loser Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), an out-of-work 22-year-old who plays bass in a garage band with big aspirations. After getting flack from his gay roommate, bandmates, sister and old high school chums over dating a 17-year-old student with whom he seems to jive, he finds himself attracted to a mysterious new girl in town and begins a transformation of his own life from loser to hero.

All of this is accomplished by defeating her seven evil exes in Street Fighter-style combats with video game motifs and flashy visual effects. As he’s working his way through the eclectic assortment of combatants, he and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) move through the semi-typical stages of a growing relationship: the doubts, the recriminations, the dealings with the past. There are ups, downs and sideways complicating their relationship all while Scott’s very life is in danger. The skill with which the film is edited is one of its most admirable qualities: it’s twistingly comprehensible, but swiftly complex.

This may also be one of the rare films that’s reception hinges entirely on a cultural divide. This could explain why the film fared so poorly with audiences. The marketing campaign made it feel like any number of other video game movies and, since many of them have been fairly disappointing, audiences stayed away in droves. On top of that, anyone other than the intended audience, the video game generation, wasn’t about to sit down and understand what was going on. But those who manage to get where the film is coming from, intuitively untangle the myriad references, and appreciate the loser-gets-the-girl ending as an embodiment of their own adolescent frustrations, will find a charismatic, peppy and entertaining flick.

THE LION IN WINTER


From video games to English political intrigue, The Lion in Winter may be the most diametrically opposed feature to Scott Pilgrim you could imagine. However, loving one does not preclude loving the other. Cataloging the vicious wrangling for inheritance one Christmas holiday, a talented group of thespians bring to the screen a fascinating period in history where King Henry II (an astonishingly good Peter O’Toole) schemes against the mother of his children, Eleanor of Aquitaine (an equally impressive Katharine Hepburn), to try to get his favorite son, John (Nigel Terry), appointed as his successor while Eleanor hopes to position her favorite, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), as the heir apparent. Meanwhile, middle child Geoffrey (John Castle) hopes to play them all against one another and come out victorious as the future king.

Even though Terry, Castle and especially Hopkins are all at the top of their craft, this film is all about the thorny and tempestuous relationship between Henry and Eleanor, whom he’s had imprisoned for a number of years and would for many more (sixteen in total). O’Toole and Hepburn play their scenes with great passion, vigor and expertise. Anyone hoping to become an actor would be well rewarded by studying these two performances. That O’Toole couldn’t pick up an Oscar for this role was one of his many Oscar injustices, especially when Hepburn took her third trophy with this film (in a shocking tie with up-and-comer Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl).

The film itself, despite feeling a bit stage-bound (James Goldman adapted his own play to the screen), is every bit as engrossing and watchable. It’s a nuanced, gorgeous film that keeps you riveted to the screen. Director Anthony Harvey may have had a more successful film as an editor, but his knowledge of that craft more than aided him in keeping tension high and never letting the audience settle for long on an outcome in the constant feud, with twists, turns and plenty of incredible backstabbing.

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY


The story of a young reporter attempting to bring home a powerful story in politically tumultuous Indonesia is one that we’ve seen a few times before, but which still feels fresh and involving. The film stars Mel Gibson as the reporter who is aided in his search by the diminutive photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt). But it’s his involvement with the beautiful attache Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) that threatens to derail his plans.

It’s really hard to watch such a young Mel Gibson. My early experience with him was in the Lethal Weapon films and Bird on a Wire where he’d perfected his macho actor cred to such a degree as to almost be uninteresting. But here, perhaps because of his age and lack of excessive testosterone, he’s actually engaging. It isn’t one of Weaver’s best performances, but Hunt is the real force of the picture. She plays the male role so convincingly that at times its hard to remember her actual gender. Yet it’s not her ability to blend into the masculine that gives her performance such resonance. It’s the way she looks into the poverty, the disease and the people with whom she interacts that gives her performance depth.

The movie itself feels at times like it’s part of a larger movie, one which deserved to be further told. When Gibson’s Guy Hamilton is fleeing to the airport to escape the impending civil war, you feel like we should be staying behind to find out what happens in the country. But by restraining himself to Guy’s entrance and exit from the country, director Peter Weir shows the audience he knows exactly when to leave them guessing and when to show them the rest. Perhaps its why I liked his two more recent efforts, 2003’s Master and Commander and especially 1998’s masterwork The Truman Show. He doesn’t let the moment escape him and doesn’t let us forget the human elements of the picture. We aren’t just watching events unfold, we’re watching the human reaction to those events, which makes for more compelling viewing than just a series of random or tortuous events. Perhaps Gibson would have done better as a director had he taken a few lessons from Weir along the way.

GHOST


I originally saw this film in the theater 20 years ago. I came out with very fond memories, but at the age of 15, my palate as a film enthusiast was perhaps not as developed as it is today. Yet, despite having forgotten a number of scenes in the film, much of the movie still remained locked away in the back of my mind, flooding forward as the film progressed. Hot off his huge success with Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze parlayed his popularity into several roles, few of which would be as touching as Sam Wheat in Ghost.

The film revolves around a young couple on the verge of engagement. Sam is a capable businessman and Molly (Demi Moore) is an artist who works in sculptures. Their best friend, one of Sam’s co-workers, Carl (Tony Goldwyn), is there to help them tear down walls and eventually move into their new apartment. One evening when Sam and Molly are taking a brisk walk, he is killed by a seemingly-random thief. Separated from his body, Sam must find a way to comfort his mourning girlfriend while uncover the truth about that fateful night when more than just randomness was involved in his death.

In one of her best performances, Whoopi Goldberg plays a sham psychic and grifter who discovers she actually does have the gift her mother and grandmother once possessed: the ability to speak with the dead. She helps Sam as best she can despite the grave danger in which she eventually finds herself. It’s not Swayze’s best (I’ll give him that credit for his wonderful turn in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar), but he does quite well. Moore still feels a bit undeveloped as an actresses, but has a number of scenes that show she would have the potential to excel at her craft. And, unfortunately, Goldwyn parlayed this performance into a career of similar roles, despite being quite good in the film (or perhaps because of it). The film itself shows a touch of age in its effective use of technology, but the story has lost little of its charm or passion. It’s a film which doesn’t hit its full emotional stride until the very end, but which shows just how deep our attachments to the characters are when we reach those final, bittersweet moments.

SERENITY


Another film which I have not seen since its original theatrical run. At the time, I had very little knowledge about the show upon which the film was based, but was entertained heavily by it. Adapted from the short-lived, but cult Joss Whedon series Firefly, Serenity takes place a few years after the end of the show with two of the original cast spread to the wind, but little else having changed. The film’s plot centers around the government’s attempts to apprehend the escaped military human experiment River (Summer Glau) who currently lives aboard the Serenity, Captain Malcolm Reynolds’ (Nathan Fillion) ship. The assassin they send after her is a humorless Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose unwavering devotion to the government makes him a dangerous foe.

When Mal receives a call from the Companion (Morena Baccarin), something similar to a Japanese geisha or a French courtesan, who once rented the shuttle on their ship, he immediately suspects an ambush and is proven right, which sets him on a quest to get himself, his crew and River as far away from the Operative as possible while trying to figure out what kind of experiments have been performed on River.

Now that I have watched the entire series on which the movie was based, my opinion of the film has changed somewhat. I’m not as much in awe of the truncated story being presented. What could have been expounded over the course of multiple seasons is crammed into one two-hour film. In and of itself, that isn’t a very big issue, but when random new characters are inserted and others unceremoniously killed, it makes for a difficult comparison. Were it only that they were trying to draw in an audience unfamiliar with the source, it still makes little sense how they handle characters like Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) whose sudden life of stationary prophet doesn’t fit well with the original and makes for a seemingly unnecessary element. His inclusion seems important only to placate fans of the series by including all of the original, no matter how superfluous those scenes are. And without giving the characters much development over the course of the film, a lot of the events seem like inside jokes to the uninitiated.

Yet, the revelation on Miranda and the subsequent scenes make up for a lot of the more frustrating elements. The quiet and shocking scenes on Miranda are some of the most poignant in the film and the last stand brawls on Mr. Universe’s (David Krumholtz) planet are all effectively cut. However, I still feel like I’m seeing only a fraction of what I should have been shown on the small screen, but I have more to say about that in my review of the final episodes of Firefly below.

THE V.I.P.s


Eight individuals find their lives in turmoil as they await the departure of their fog-bound flight from London. The film’s central story revolves around the Androses, Frances (Elizabeth Taylor) and Paul (Richard Burton) a wealthy couple on the verge of a marital collapse as Frances decides to move on with her French lover Marc (Louis Jourdan). Meanwhile, Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor) is forced to write a check that will bounce when it hits his bank in order to save his successful tractor manufacturing corporation from a hostile takeover by a major corporation. His trusted assistant Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) takes care of all the details while pining away for her boss. Then there’s Max Buda (Orson Welles) a prominent filmmaker living in Switzerland to avoid paying taxes and preparing to shoot a new movie, but whether it’s with his current lover Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli) depends heavily on a number of events in the film. Then all by her lonesome, on holiday before she must return home to the prospect of losing her estate, is The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford).

The film is horribly segmented, bouncing back and forth between stories seemingly at random. It’s a type of Grand Hotel in an airport V.I.P. lounge setting. And like that early Best Picture winner, the film only has tangential connections between its four distinct stories. However, the differences are staggering. Whereas with Grand Hotel, you found yourself rooting for a number of the characters in the film while being entertained by them, The V.I.P.s are a rather uninteresting group of people with only Mangrum and Mead of any real interest. The performances may have something to do with those problems. Taylor is completely wrong for her part. Despite her familiarity with wealthy roles, she makes Frances feel like a disinterested paramour, not a woman torn between a now-loveless marriage and a frisky French fling that she has decided to make serious. I have a love/hate relationship with her as an actress. More often than not, I’ve found I dislike her terribly, but every once in awhile, I find a performance I absolutely love (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

Maggie Smith and Rod Taylor have inarguable chemistry together and it’s one of the reasons their story is so interesting. Taylor presents Mangrum as a jovial, yet gruff man not accustomed to the royal treatment of a airline V.I.P. but perfectly willing to accept the custom. And when his life and world seem to start crumbling around him, you can’t help but hope for his eventual success. Smith’s longing glances and efficient devotion help her character develop some manner of credibility even though it isn’t effectively written and begins far too thinly. However, theirs is only a small portion of the film and the rest of it just feels so pointless at times, revealing virtually nothing about human nature we hadn’t been keenly aware of before. It’s mostly a melodrama lacking in emotion, which is hardly any fun. And the less said about the inappropriate and ever-present music, the better. As for the rather superfluous character of the Duchess, Margaret Rutherford is certainly fun, but it seems like her role is only to keep the film from feeling overbearing with dramatics.

FIREFLY

And as with all series coming to the middle of their first season, Firefly had just started getting good. The characters had been mostly developed and the stories were getting more involved. From the impressive “Heart of Gold” to the clever “Trash” to the poignant “The Message”, the show proved it could be every bit the sci-fi social study and wild western at the same time. The dialog had become more clever, but more tight and the episodes had become significantly less disjointed, managing to blend from beginning to end rather effectively. It would have been nice to see where the show went in later seasons and perhaps it would have been more interesting to slowly discover the origin of the Reavers, come to understand more about the prowess of River and see where the love affair between Mal and Inara went. But, for a brief 15-episode run, it was pretty entertaining achievement.

TOCHWOOD (SEASON 2)

There aren’t a lot of television series left in my Netflix queue that I can watch online, so I’ve begun season 2 of Torchwood. Only two episodes in and the improvement is palpable. The show doesn’t revert to hollow re-characterizations, trying to get the audience back into the swing of things, it goes full force into a new story arc. The first two episodes pulled together a lot of the best elements of the first season. The first episode gave the audience new information about Jack’s history and focused heavily on the camaraderie and teamwork of the Torchwood team. The second focused on human elements, exploring the nature of love and commitment and the power of self-sacrifice. The second episode, on the whole was better than the first of the second season, but a strong start is good for a show that has already begun to grow on me.

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