The Morning After: October 23, 2011

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post an individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

A Star Is Born

Judy Garland, like Janet Gaynor before her and Barbra Streisand after, was already a star when she took on the role of Vicki Lester in the classic musical saga of a young lounge singer thrust into success by a drunken actor taken with her ability. He launches her into the stratosphere while simultaneously crashing to the ground, threatening to pull his discovery down with him. Having a big name in the role makes the early scenes play a little anticlimactically, but to carry the later portion of the film, an established presence is desired. It would have been interesting to see a young ingenue in the role, but Garland is no slouch when it comes to the lofty vocal arrangements in the film.

With several recognizable standards on the soundtrack, she belts them out with passion and excitement, a natural fit with the bombastic excesses in Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s song score. If the film suffers, it’s that Garland and co-star James Mason allow themselves to carry that exuberance into their performances, making them seem like otherworldly characters. Part of the attraction of the film is that it’s supposed to be about a normal person becoming a success, but you never get that impression. And in several of the scenes, Garland’s face lacks any sense of emotional connection, which may be attributable to her regular use of barbiturates at the time of filming. Still, the film succeeds because in spite of itself, it doesn’t follow all of the expected paths to the end and indeed the final act of the film is antithetical to the classic musical ending that it bolsters much of the rest of the film.

On a side note, I watched the restored version of the film which featured recorded dialogue from the original theatrical release, but without a lot of the lost footage that was replaced by copious stills from the film’s production. The missing section would have been a more interesting addition to the version of the film it was no doubt cut from. Yet, it’s a challenge to watch this kind of splice without being a bit distracted. I can appreciate it without problem, but I would certainly have preferred the original footage.

Real Steel

Even after a number of critics came out in support of the film, I was a bit reticent to give it a try. I referred to the film as “Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robots” the movie. A friend decided on this film for his birthday theater outing, so with reticence, I sat down for it. Although I think my derisive moniker is entirely appropriate, there’s something infectious about the film’s passion and energy that draws you in. Like the oft-celebrated (though I still don’t understand why) boxing drama Rocky, this story of an underdog, a disgraced contender, is a crowd-pleasing experience. It’s loud and obnoxious at times, filled with trite dialogue and a predictable father/estranged son plotline, but I challenge you not to come out of it grinning. You know every step of the way what to expect and seldom is there’s an original thought; however, the way the film is constructed, edited, and scored (Danny Elfman could even be considered for an Oscar nomination alongside the film’s visual effects and editing), that it’s impossible not to have had a great time.

The Perfect Host

For roughly an hour, this film is one of the most inventive and intriguing concepts I’ve seen in several years. A career criminal, escaping a bank robbery gone injuriously wrong, finds himself a captive of a delusional man (David Hyde-Pierce) preparing to host a dinner party for his closest friends. Who his friends are and who the host is are part of the great fun in evidence as the film progresses. However, there’s a second act turn that is entirely unexpected and although it is initially an interesting concept, it’s quickly squandered in a cliché-ridden finale that ruins nearly everything that transpired before. Hyde-Pierce is obviously having a great deal of fun and that makes his character all the more enjoyable to watch. This is an actor who knows that he’s not performing Shakespeare, but gives himself 100% to the performance anyway. Had the film gone a more conventional route (at least in terms of the story that began the film), it might have been a lot more interesting. Even if it had kept along its twisting pathway, the conclusion is far too hokey to be salvageable.

Red State

Kevin Smith has a problem. After he made Dogma, he has been struggling for relevance, crafting dud after dud that highlights a waste of undeniable talent. Red State begins with promise, following a trio of three boys seeking their first sexual encounter who stumble upon a religious cult whose message against gays is clear: they are the destroyers of the world and they must cleanse the world of their evil. What Smith has created is a most interesting dynamic in the first portion of the film that even with Netflix’s lackluster video/audio sync doesn’t seem as bothersome. Yet, as John Goodman’s ATF regional director enters play, the film takes a strange twist towards the borderline sane. The first half of the film, being an anti-cult message is lost in the last two-thirds of the film as Smith almost seems to apologize for the behavior of this crackpot killers by adding in an anti-government plotline that sounds a bit like a Waco stand-off all over again.

Matter of fact, it almost seems as if Smith is trying to bash both religious fanaticism and government incompetence at the same time. What results is a horrible hodge podge of themes and apologies that eliminate any compassion or concern from the audience. And after the first two deaths, none of them seem to matter anymore, further eliminating one of the great equalizers in horror films. This is a genre that gives the audience a feeling of catharsis as we see despicable or morally bankrupt individuals punished. As a fan of the genre, it’s one of the reasons why I like it so much. It has the capacity for great social commentary mixed with social justice. What Smith has done with Red State is turn a potentially intriguing concept into a pseudo-sermonizing mess in which none of the “bad guys” really get the punishment we think they deserve.

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Season 4, episodes 1-4)

After the good, but weak third season miniseries, Torchwood‘s writers have begun crafting a compelling fourth season that stumbles in its first chapter, but begins building into something truly amazing in its second, third and fourth. The idea is that all around the world, a global event triggers human immortality. What the event is or who started it remain a mystery, but no one can die, no matter how serious they are injured. Two central figures in the conflict are miracle recipients. One, a convicted child molester/murderer, played by a villainous Bill Pullman, was on the lethal injection table with the event triggered, leaving him alive and, by court decree, a free man. The other, a egotistical CIA agent, played by ER’s Mekhi Phifer, was skewered by a piece of re-bar through the chest. The mysterious Torchwood, split after the events of season 3, are brought back together again by the CIA wanting to know the answers before a vast conspiracy emerges attempting to kill Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) who, to his own surprise, has been made mortal (he was previously immortal) by these unusual events. At his side again is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) who is forcibly separated from her by the British government as the CIA pulls Jack and Gwen off of sovereign soil for rendition.

The show’s anti-corporate themes begin early in the film, as embodied by opportunist P.R. rep Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose). She represents a pharmaceutical company whose interest in the pain treatment of the various victims of the miracle seems more financially motivated than conscience. As honorary members of Torchwood, Phifer’s Rex Matheson and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) add a bit of tension to the proceedings, keeping the audience on its toes mentally and emotionally.

The mysterious events are cleverly laid out and slowly revealed, each episode posing more questions than it answers, but never creating confusion with the audience. If this isn’t the best season of Torchwood yet, then it will be somewhere in the next six episodes that the disappointment occurs because other than the first episode which was fairly commonplace, the second, third and fourth episodes are simply outstanding.

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