The Morning After: February 8, 2011

Having missed my update last week due to a heavy schedule, it’s time to get caught up with reviews of Five Easy Pieces, The Searchers, Animal Kingdom, The Green Hornet, Saw VII, Greek Season 1 and Eureka Seasons 2 & 3.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

FIVE EASY PIECES


One might say he was one of the original video music directors, one who managed to parlay his success on the small screen into one of the most important films of 1970. Bob Rafelson began his work as a director on the ’60s TV show The Monkees, a variety shows whose events were set to music weekly, each telling a story to one of the band’s many catchy songs. His first foray onto the silver screen was in the commercial flop of Head, a Beatles-influenced Monkees big screen effort that made a measly $750,000 at the box office.

It was his next film two years later that proved he had what it took to be a great director. Earning two Oscar nominations as for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces showcased his admiration for the New Wave and was one of several directors of the period who did so. Unlike films like Bonnie and Clyde, Five Easy Pieces captured the more austere aspects of the movement keeping the settings and costumes limited to its modern trappings and introduction random characters whose purpose is to educate the audience of liberal philosophies without directly drawing the concepts from his primary actors.

Jack Nicholson plays Robert Dupea, an oil field roustabout who has let his talent and potential slip away in an effort to live a peaceful and simplistic life away from his wealthy family. When his sister (Lois Smith) informs him that their father is dying, he brings his pregnant, uneducated girlfriend (Karen Black) with him to his family’s estate in order to be with him. His arrival at his birth home doesn’t come until the last half of the film as we slowly find out who Robert is and where he has come from. When we discover that he had artistic capabilities, a pianist of some skill, we wonder why he would reject such a potentially rewarding life to live meagerly in a physically-taxing working environment.

As he’s exposed to various thoughts about modernism and its pitfalls, we never see him take sides, though simple gestures and comments to quiet his girlfriend, we believe he may actually agree with all that is being thrown at him. Yet, even when he stands up to protect her from a pseudo-intellectual phony at one of his family’s small gatherings of like-minded philosophers, you uncover the reason he has chosen such a life. He may agree with some of their concepts, but he has found a place where thought and reason are eclipsed by hard work and relaxation, allowing him to be normal and not gifted.

The film says a lot about how we interact with each other both in a professional and a personal manner. We associate with those who most frequently share our thoughts and opinions, but we each have a small bit of Robert Dupea in us. A part that wants to be isolationist and pensive without feeling like you have to contribute to the greater good or perform works that further society. Dupea has a measure of duality that many should possess. The ability to think without the need to fit in. Finding what makes us happy or, in reality, the least miserable and doing it instead of feeling the need to conform. And its this concept that is the core of the New Wave movement and thus making Five Easy Pieces one of the finest examples of the American take on the artform.

THE SEARCHERS


Celebrated American director John Ford and iconoclastic actor John Wayne worked together an amazing 23 times on the big screen from 1928 when Wayne was just a bit player in films like Hangman’s House and Four Sons through 1963 and their final collaboration, Donovan’s Reef. During that 35-year history, they made some of the most acclaimed westerns in history including 1939’s Stagecoach, 1950’s Rio Grande, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West Was Won, and this film, 1956’s The Searchers.

The story involves a Civil War soldier Wayne’s Ethan Edwards returning home to Texas where he hopes to settle down. When those plans are interrupted by a Comanche ambush that kills his family and abducts his niece, Ethan begins a five-year mission to track down Chief Scar, the man who has purportedly taken her for one of his wives, and kill him in retaliation. His one-eighth indian nephew, who he refuses to accept as part of the family, decides to accompany him in hopes of finding his sister and bringing her back alive. Despite his dislike for Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), they bond on the trail as they search for Debbie, yet when they find her nearly assimilated into the Comanche tribe, Ethan wants to kill her, but Martin refuses to accept that she’s lost and competes to find her first to hopefully save her from Ethan’s gun.

It isn’t hard to see why Ford enjoyed working with Wayne so much. He was the embodiment of machismo and surreal bravura that bolstered the revenge-seeking westerns of classical Hollywood. He was assertive, forceful and never took defeat as an answer. He fought tooth-and-nail for himself and his family, yet was fed by a flawed ego and world weary superiority that was frequently tested by younger, naive upstarts in nearly every feature. Wayne personified this ideal and was celebrated for it even if it amounted to little more then typecasting and never seemed to require real acting talent. Hunter and Vera Miles as his love interest, are the film’s key talents, both giving solid, charismatic and credible performances that keep the film from falling into too many western cliches. Although they are given some rather trite situations to handle, they do so with passion and sincerity. The rest of the cast allow their stereotypes to guide their performances, though without many negative reprecussions. Although Hank Worden as the grating Mose Harper and Wayne’s son Patrick as the incompetent young soldier eager to be involved late in the film, each give the film its most irritating characters.

But the film isn’t meant to be a celebration of fine performances. Its grandeur is in its direction, production design and cinematography. Ford had a knack for highlighting natural or naturalistic environments in a way that made them leap from the screen. Every film of his I’ve seen has been more opulent visually than it has narratively. Much of what is on display in The Searchers is pure pleasure from a visual perspective. From the snow-laden landscapes exemplifying the passage of time to the wide vistas of the American West, there’s not a scene you don’t feel a part of. The use of colors, especially those during the sunset that befalls Ethan’s family home shortly before the war party arrives, is gorgeous.

And the opening and closing scenes are rightfully classified as iconic. As the film opens, Ethan’s sister opens the steps out through a blackened doorframe onto the front porch of their homestead, spying someone in the distance riding towards the house. It’s the returning hero, Ethan, intent on settling down for the rest of his life. The closing scene, as two loving couples into into the darkened house, all that remains at the end is a successful, but somewhat lonely Ethan turning away from the house and seemingly walking back towards the life he had left, realizing that he may not be meant to settle down. It’s the most heartbreaking scene in the film and were The Searchers made up entirely of these little moments, I might have been more enamored with the film as a whole.

ANIMAL KINGDOM


Every nation has attempted to tackle the nature of organized crime in its own unique way. Although American crime thrillers are often more astute, and realistic, this doesn’t stop filmakers from trying to put their own stamps on the genre. Animal Kingdom is one of Australia’s attempts at such an endeavor.

The story is about naive young Josh (James Frecheville) forced to grow up too quickly when his mother overdoses on heroin and he’s forced to live with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) whose four sons are the sunshine of her life and who also happen to be criminals. When Josh enters their lives, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), Barry (Joel Edgerton), Darren (Luke Ford) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) are trying to live quietly and avoid the implication of impropriety shortly after a major job that has left Andrew in hiding and the others trying to appear disassociated while carrying on as a family.

After the police kill Barry in a frustrated attempt to flush out Andrew, they set off a killing spree that threatens to tear apart their happy, vicious little family. After being held by police in relation to the Cody family retaliation against two young cops, Josh is suspected of having turned states’ evidence, which puts him on Andrew’s radar and sends him into hiding for real. Yet even in witness protection, they know how to get to him and he returns home to admit he’s in over his head and to play nicely with the family to save his own neck.

The film relies heavily on archetype to tell its story. Director David Michôd does a fine job in his first feature creating a sense of familial interaction, yet borrows too liberally from other crime films to be original itself. Even the shock ending in Josh’s bedroom can’t alleviate the feeling that we’ve seen this film in countless other places before. The murder of innocence. Revenge. Counter-revenge. Counter-counter-revenge. Even the obligatory explanation of the film’s title causes the film to feel like his grasping for relevance.

The star of the film isn’t Frecheville whose performance is overly monotonic, but Edgerton whose Barry feels like the perfect older brother and mentor who could guide Josh down the right path. That he’s taken out of the picture so early feels like an attempt to pull the audience into the situation and celebrate the eventual retaliation. He’s a warm, giving actor who shows what the film could have been were his character in the entirety. Weaver’s performance is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s compelling in its aggressiveness. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this kind, generous mother is also a cold-blooded matriarch far more in control of her children’s delinquencies than we at first suspect. She’s a viper in a box full of garden snakes, but it’s all so forced by the Michôd’s screenplay that it almost makes her performance seem pushy.

Even Guy Pearace, who plays the kindly police inspector trying to turn Josh states’ evidence, feels at odds with his character. We know Pearce is a gifted actor and he tries desperately to underplay his character, but the paternal figure meant to replace Barry and thereby redeem Josh from his potentially devastating future doesn’t entirely work. Though, the one aspect of the film I respect more than the others, though perhaps a bit chauvanistically, is that in Josh’s life, the women are the controllers. They define his actions and point him down the path most dangerous. His mother. His grandmother. His girlfriend. They all have the potential to push him in the wrong direction. Yet, when a masculine figure enters his life, they fail to protect him either by dying, by threatening his life or not keeping him safe. It’s almost as if Michôd is trying to claim that the maternal influence can be a dangerous thing when placed in a position of power of a person like Josh.

Most crime thrillers use the paternal influence as the negative, but ultimately benevolent force in the lives of the younger generation. Animal Kingdom attempts to set the maternal influence in such an environment and comes very close to succeeding.

THE GREEN HORNET


Comic book readers are armchair storytellers. They see what happens in their favorite stories and imagine ways to improve it and make it more exotic, exciting or entertaining. Yet, if many of these fans were given the chance to put pen to paper and enact their visions, a film like The Green Hornet emerges and fails utterly to save the day.

The story of a rich playboy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies unexpectedly forms the central story of Green Hornet. Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) has been living off his father’s vast fortune without amounting to anything. He has everything he wants, everything he needs, yet does not respect the toughness his father applies to his dealings with him. So, when James Reid (Tom Wilkinson) is found dead in his garden having been fatally stung by a bee, he inherits his father’s media empire and begins commiserating with Kato (Jay Chou), the man who makes his coffee and who ends up showing off his advanced mind for gadgets and weapons. Their unlikely friendship, a bond created over their dislike of James Reid, leads them to form a crime-fighting duo built on the premise that to fight crime, one must become bad guys.

Using his newspaper business and his new secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) to build up his team’s notoriety, Britt and Kato create The Green Hornet and his sidekick (a term which Kato objects to), and start to take on dangerous underworld figure Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). Except that Chudnofsky does not like to lose control and when he finds his grip on the city’s crime syndicates is slipping, he sets out to destroy The Green Hornet.

There aren’t many big-name directors who would take on a project of this quality, destined for release in the doldrums of the year where virtually no one seems to care if the quality of the film is crap. Yet, hiring a visionary director like Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), might have seemed a wise decision, but after seeing the film, it wasn’t a good fit at all and Gondry has managed to destroy a lot of the good will he has so far built up.

The Green Hornet is riddled with plot inconsistencies; aggressive, humorless dialogue; forced, stilted performances; and lame visual effects. The film feels like it was written by a talentless teenager trying to craft the most badass comic book hero movie ever made with only a length of fishing line, some chewing gum and duct tape. But even MacGyver could’t save this foundering mess.

Rogen’s performance is quite plainly one of the worst I’ve seen. He acts like that moronic teenager who no sense of style or perspective. That he was one of the writers of the film comes as little surprise, for he plays Britt Reid almost exactly like a spoiled teen. Throwing tantrums, getting into fist fights, ogling attractive women and spouting witless one-liners in an effort to seem cool. Yet, when he digs himself too deep, he realizes just how hard being a crimefighter or even a criminal is. And so The Green Hornet unwittingly becomes a metaphor for comic book geeks with selfish imaginations. While most comic book geeks I would have given more credit than to create something this abysmally moronic, there are still too many who will and do find this kind of film engaging and entertaining.

SAW VII


You have to go into a series like this expecting a certain measure of gore and violence that has only increased in the last quarter century. The Saw series has been labeled torture porn and while there were films in the series that I would resist such a description, this final chapter really does seem to epitomize that description.

A rambling narrative that attempts to tie up the series’ loose ends, this final feature follows Jigsaw’s widow Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) as she attempts to reveal Det. Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) as an impersonator and prevent him from using her husband’s work as a means to take revenge on Hoffman’s enemies. And while these two fight for supremacy, someone else has begun a new game trying to expose tell-all fraud Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery) who has claimed to have been one of Jigsaw’s victims but was not. Yet, his test isn’t for his own survival, but those of his closest associates, each having inflamed and encouraged his deceit.

This parallel narrative structure has been a staple of the series and remains one of its more compelling elements. Yet, when the goriness and inventiveness of the traps becomes more important than the thematic elements, this film shows how stale and imitative it has become. The gimmick had long ago worn out. Saw III was the last of the truly original concepts and each one after was a pale simulacrum. And while I appreciated the sixth film in the series, it was obvious there wasn’t much originality left in the series.

What’s worse about this seventh film is that the producers decided to make it in 3D and while I only watched it in the standard two dimensions, I could see every painful, gratuitous segment meant to rely on that invasive technology. And while I respect the series for having breathed a small measure of life into the careers of young actors whose past successes haven’t parlayed into renewable growth. The first film brought Cary Elwes some new fans (he reprises his originating role in this final film) and later films resuscitated the career of former New Kids on the Block singer Donnie Wahlberg. And while this last film tried to give Flannery a boost, the film’s dismal box office performance may not have done much to help him, which is too bad. While not a very good performance, it helped me remember what potential Flannery had in his early career and I can only hope that at least one good thing can come out of this dreadful film…and that’s a revival of Flannery’s career.

Fans of the series may feel a bit of satisfaction at finally seeing Jigsaw’s plans come to a close, but even they have become weary of the series, as evinced by its annually weakening box office receipts. Many of them will wait until DVD to watch it like I have removing any real need for the film to have been in 3D to begin with. However, the finality of it all has shown me one thing. And hopefully other filmmakers learn a bit of something as well. If you have a great idea, one you think will fly, don’t rebuild it in each sequel trying to reveal some hidden content that wasn’t in the first to make it feel like it was all a part of the whole. It’s what sank The Matrix trilogy. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t attempt to re-write your past in hopes of creating a viable future because it won’t work and you’ll just look foolish trying.

GREEK, season #1

I have found that watching television series in rapid succession instead of watching week to week, manages to create a larger bond between me and the characters. While television is great medium for telling episodic stories, and suspense is a fantastic method of creating devotion, I can’t help but enjoy things better when I can remember every detail from episode to episode without trying to stretch my memory back 20-plus weeks to find that kernel of information that helps the current episode feel more relevant. This is an especially appealing method of watching shows like Greek, an ABC Family drama.

The series is about life in the Greek system of fraternities and sororities at fictional Cypress-Rhodes University, a quiet suburban college meant to represent every American institution of higher learning in America. The show centers primarily around Casey (Spencer Grammer) and Rusty (Jacob Zachar) Cartwright, siblings who aren’t on the best of terms when they are introduced in the first episode of the season. Casey is a Junior and Rusty is a Freshman. Casey doesn’t want to deal with her obnoxious younger brother and Rusty is a whip-smart, socially-inept polymer science major. When he arrives on campus to begin his new life, he’s immediately exposed to radical and questionable new viewpoints. His roommate on the honors engineering floor of the dorms is a religious zealot who posts a confederate flag on his wall. Rusty never discusses his religion or politics, but finds this first interaction a bit alarming.

Rusty wants the ultimate collegiate experience and to do so, he feels he must do what most other freshman do and pledge a fraternity. He tours the fraternities with fellow freshman Calvin Owens (Paul James), a closeted gay athlete forced by his father to join a fraternity as part of his agreement to pay for college. Together to uncover the rich tradition and blandness of Omega Chi and the raucous rowdiness of Kappa Tau. Calvin decides to pledge Omega Chi, his father’s heritage, while Rusty is given the option to pledge both.

His decision hinges on a couple of issues. The first is that his sister’s boyfriend Evan Chambers (Jake McDorman) is a prominent member of Omega Chi and pulled strings to get Casey’s little brother invited; while Casey’s ex-boyfriend Cappie (Scott Michael Foster), a multi-year senior, is president of Kappa Tau. When he discovers Evan has been unfaithful, his decision is made and he becomes a part of Kappa Tau and sets up his personal rivalry with Evan, which handily plays into the not-so-friendly rivalry between Evan and Cappie.

Meanwhile, over at the Zeta Beta Zeta house, where Casey is pledge leader, and is surrounded by her best friend Ashleigh Howard (Amber Stevens) and chapter president Frannie Morgan (Tiffany Dupont). Her life is about to get messy when Frannie tells her that to become president of the chapter when she’s gone, landing a senator’s daughter is a necessity (among many other things). Enter Rebecca Logan (Dilshad Vadsaria) who starts things off on the right foot by unknowingly sleeping with Casey’s boyfriend Evan.

It’s a complex set of relationships that ebb and flow throughout the series. While it’s not the most insightful show on television, it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. It’s fun and energetic and doesn’t play politics with its characters…at least beyond the classic soap opera motifs it employs religiously. Matter of fact, I was quite surprised when they revealed Calvin’s character to be gay. Not just because this was the ABC Family channel, which I wouldn’t have expected to be this forward thinking, but because they have treated the character with respect and haven’t allowed him to become the limp-wristed flaming homosexuals that are thankfully becoming less common. This is the kind of show that presents a positive role-model for young people. While it’s not a deep, philosophical experience, it creates positive role-models who are flawed, but learn from their mistakes…most of the time.

EUREKA, seasons #2, #3.0 & #3.5

A show with such amazing promise has become a bit bland in its second and third season. Watching Sheriff Carter and his fellow citizens of Eureka can still be a fun experience, but many of the episodes I watched seem carved out of the same template. A scientist-citizen with good intentions is surprisingly short sighted and doesn’t foresee the consequences of his or her latest experiment that puts Jack or the city in mortal peril and for all their intelligence, it takes low-IQ Jack to come up with some off-the-cuff plan to save the day, supported in his “crazy” ideas by actual scientific principle and execution by his friends and associates.

Despite its utter predictability, there are still quite a few inventive narratives at play here and the character interaction is one of the elements that make the show so fun. And the last few episodes of season three were a bit more original in execution, even if they followed the same formula. The show seemed to be looking for new footing and may have found it. Season four may well improve on the second and third, which might put it in the Star Trek sequels’ molds: a solid first season is followed by two mediocre, but still involving seasons, then a major plot development in the fourth season pushes the show into new territory and it hits its stride. I hope that season four is better than two or three, it would definitely help out this guilty pleasure that wasn’t always a pleasure.

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