Film Review

Passengers, a classic love story disguised as science fiction

Usually when I write about science fiction movies on this site, it is to complain about how bad they are. Today will be different. Today I am going to rave about Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. While this film is categorized as science fiction, it is really a classic love story. The futuristic setting is a utility to put the two main characters in the situation that leads to the decisions they make. Which is good, because the science isn’t great — though not bad enough that I found myself interrupting my enjoyment of the film to shout, “Hey, that could never happen,” though, in fact, much of it couldn’t. But that’s beside the point.

I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. Let me just say that the situation Pratt’s character finds himself in is heartbreaking and though he makes an awful decision, I could sympathize with him. And Lawrence is a marvel. She is easily one of the top actors on screen today — maybe ever. The range of emotions her character navigates is breathtaking and she is never anything but completely honest and real. Pratt is very good too, and very likable. For most of the film, it is just the two of them, along with Michael Sheen as a sort of Wilson the volleyball from Castaway.

I watched the film on DVD on Saturday, while Amy was at work. I liked it so much that I knew Amy would like it too, so we watched it together Sunday. I enjoyed it even more the second time through.

So, don’t rent Passengers because you want to see a sci fi classic. Rent to to watch two fine and likable actors in a terrific love story filled with lots of marvels and a few tense thrills.

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Star Trek Beyond leaves the Enterprise in smoldering ruins

The Enterprise is left a smoldering ruin in the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Beyond... and so is the Star Trek franchise.

The Enterprise is left a smoldering ruin in the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Beyond… and so is the Star Trek franchise.

Amy and I watched the latest Star Trek film tonight on disk from Netflix. I can say that this is easily the worst Star Trek film ever. It may be one of the worst big budget films ever. That the Enterprise is completely destroyed in the first 20 minutes serves as the perfect metaphor for what J.J. Abrams is doing to this franchise: turning it into smoking ruins. Abrams directed and wrote (I think) the first two of the reboot films, and executive produced this one. The first film was good. The actors really pulled off the difficult task of stepping into the roles of such iconic characters. Abrams appeared to understand that Star Trek is first and foremost about those characters and their relationships. The second film continued to honor the characters, but it lost its footing with an implausible story and a really, really bad grasp of physics. But it is Citizen Kane compared with this new film, which fails in every area: Ridiculous plot. Absurd “science.” Plot written to serve the special effects. Special effects that aren’t very special (how can they be when the film is wall to wall effects?). And, worst of all, the actors begin to look like frauds pretending to be Spock, Kirk, Bones, Scotty, because the writers just don’t care about them as characters any more.

Here are some random gripes about this travesty:

  • The filmmakers rush from one outlandish and impossible stunt to another, conjuring up whatever pseudo-science they need to explain why they can do this, usually with a quick one-sentence explanation from Scotty. “He’s using the gravity slip stream…”
  • How the villain and his crew end up doing what they are doing makes no sense whatsoever. How they get the amazing technology to destroy star ships when they are stranded on a planet is gasp inducing, and not in a good way. That they even know about a super weapon that comes into possession of the Enterprise is unlikely at best. Why the villain keeps the crew of the Enterprise alive, when he’s intended to destroy millions of people is inexplicable, except to the extent that the writers needed them alive so Kirk, et. al. can rescue them.
  • How is it that the Enterprise is on a five-year mission to explore unknown space, but there is a giant Federation space station with millions of people on it at what they describe as the edge of the frontier?
  • It takes the crew longer to fly from one edge of this space station to the center than it did to fly from a distant planet within a nebula.
  • Seeing that nostalgic music worked for Guardians of the Galaxy, the filmmakers boldly incorporate that idea into this story. But the music sucks.
  • The writers dutifully make Scotty and Bones say things that Scotty and Bones are known for saying… i.e. “I’m a doctor not a…” and “Captain, I’m giving her all she’s got…” (or something close). But that’s no substitute for actually making these living, breathing characters.
  • Why there is a vintage motorcycle onboard a deep space, early star ship that has crash landed on the planet on which Kirk and crew are stranded is a head scratcher, but you know immediately that Kirk is going to ride it at some point. And when he did, I just felt another round of “lets create the stunts first, then we can shove a plot in there to fill in the cracks.”

I love Star Trek and these characters, but someone has got to rescue them from J. J. Abrams. Steven Spielberg, where are you when we need you?

The Revenant – my reactions

DiCaprio in The Revenant

[Revised version.]

I finally got to see The Revenant this weekend on a DVD disk from Netflix. There is much to admire about this movie. Great performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Breathtaking imagery. And the scene in which DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear is stunning filmmaking.

SPOILERS AHEAD

All and all I found The Revenant compelling. But in the end I was disappointed. The problem is my familiarity with the true story of Hugh Glass, epic without the embellishments layered on by the film.  (For a reasonable recounting of the differences between the historical record and the film version of Hugh Glass’s story, see here.)

The film adds elements that I found distracting and even annoying. The emotional center of the film, the murder of Glass’s Pawnee wife by American soldiers and the subsequent murder of his son by one of his companions, is totally fabricated (there is no evidence he had a wife or that, if he did, she was killed in a raid; there is no record of his having a son, and even if he did have one, there is no way he would have been old enough to join in a trapping excursion). Knowing this as I watched the movie made me feel manipulated by the filmmakers. The real Hugh Glass crawled 200 miles, not to mete out noble justice for the death of his son, but simply to survive. Perhaps wanting vengeance for being abandoned by his companions fueled his desire to live, but in the end he never did kill anyone over his abandonment. He just returned to trapping until he was killed by Indians ten years later, in 1833.

There are two story threads involving a party of villainous French-Canadian trappers, and a noble band of Arikara Indians trying to rescue the kidnapped daughter of one of its own. These two strands are improbably woven into Glass’s story — making the vast wilderness of the American west seem a very crowded place.

I also found it gratuitous that the leader of the Arikaras makes a short speech about how the white man has stolen everything from them. Remember, this story takes place in 1823, before there has been much incursion by whites into far west. I doubt very much that the Arikaras or any other western tribes felt that everything had been stolen from them by the white man, yet. They surely did justifiably come to feel that way but that would not be for another 40 years or more.

Had this story been set later in the 19th century and not involved real-life, historical people, I would have appreciated it more. It is a good movie, but falls far short of the best mountain man film of all time, Jeremiah Johnson. That’s another movie based on a book, which is inspired by a true story. But both the novelist (Vardis Fisher) and the filmmaker (the great Sydney Pollack) use fictional characters, only taking the true story of Liver-Eating Johnson as a starting point.

Embellishments are necessary in telling Glass’s story, I suppose. Watching a man crawl 200 miles, no matter how heroic, would be a bore. But this film does not honor Hugh Glass, because it does not trust that his real story is worth telling. Instead it wraps Glass in a bearskin of supernaturalism, as visions of his fictional wife keep appearing to him until the ultimate villain in the story is dead. Then Hugh Glass stops fighting death and embraces it. The film ends in blackness as we hear Hugh Glass take his final breath.

The real Hugh Glass would have fought to the bitter end.

And a final thought: The wild west of the mountain man was violent and dangerous. But it was also a time and place of fabulous adventures. Mountain men, even those who made some money from their efforts, kept returning to the trade, drawn by the freedom of living among the fabulous beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The Revenant fails to acknowledge this, painting instead a bleak and miserable portrait of these men.

The sun never shines throughout the entire film.

 

 

The Martian Rocks

The Martian image

[Updated – see second paragraph]

Amy and I joined my good friend Lou this weekend to see The Martian. This isn’t a review. Let me just say it is a wonderful movie, which I enjoyed greatly.

What this post is about is a quick comparison between The Martian and last year’s science fiction film Interstellar. I’ve already written about my disappointment with that film. If anything, seeing The Martian made my contempt for Interstellar even deeper. Let’s just start with the fact that The Martian was lightyears ahead of Interstellar in scientific plausibility. [Update: Even rocket scientists agree — see here.] I’m not a physicist, so my opinion on this matter may not hold as much water as some others, but I rarely had one of those “yeah, right” moments viewing The Martian, whereas I had a large box of Milk Duds worth of scoffs at the so-called science in Interstellar.

Both movies are ultimately about the same thing: Measuring the size of the human heart on the instrument of the universe. Interstellar warped logic and reason, generating absurd paranormal babble in order to convince us of the power of our will to love and live and thrive. In that process it actually undermined its own message: The filmmakers weren’t even smart enough or ambitious enough to tell this story and stick to something that might actually happen. That’s okay in a fantasy film. It isn’t in a movie that claims to be grounded in science. The resolution to Interstellar was cloaked in some kind of quantum physics mysticism that was, frankly, laughable.

Interstellar also gave us a dead Earth, ruined by humans (apparently, though what has caused the planet to die is never really discussed). The plot is sterile and cynical: Mankind’s fate rests in the hands of one man.

In contrast, The Martian is the story of the world pulling together to save the life of just one man stranded on a distant planet. The heroes are scientists and astronauts and even political bureaucrats desperately trying to do something remarkable. They are smart, resourceful people, people who actually understand science and how the universe really works. Their success is inspiring exactly because it isn’t fabulous or fantastical. It is simply possible (only, of course, if we stop eschewing science in favor of bullshit mysticism) and that’s what makes it inspiring.

The short of it is this: The Martian is the anti-Interstellar.

Interesting side note: Both films feature Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, though The Martian uses the two of them much more satisfactorily.

Top 10 Holiday Movies

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in March of the Wooden Soldiers.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in March of the Wooden Soldiers.

I stumbled upon this feature at boston.com listing the 50 best holiday movies. As you’ll see if you peruse the films on their list, picking the top 50 holiday movies of all time is like selecting the top dozen three stooges. Expanding some lists beyond a certain point just doesn’t make sense. Home Alone 2? Die Hard 2? Anything with a 2 at the end?

But reading that list made me wonder what my all-time favorite holiday movies are, and if I could even come up with ten good films. Here’s what I came up with:

10. It’s a Wonderful Life. Well, because you have to.

9. White Christmas. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. And it’s one of my wife’s favorites. (Do they even sing “White Christmas” in this one?)

8. Bridget Jones Diary. A slightly tubby Renee Zellweger matched with Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. Snow.

7. Elf. Bob Newhart as one of Santa’s elves. What more do you want?

6. The Family Stone. Funny, touching at times, Claire Danes and Sarah Jessica Parker as a real loony.

5. Love Actually. I’m a sucker for the sentimentality.

4. Nobody’s Fool. I don’t know if anyone realizes it, but this Paul Newman film is a 1990s rephrasing of It’s A Wonderful Life, just without the angels or the sappy sentiment. Also, Melanie Griffith flashes her boobs… talk about Christmas ornaments. Seriously, this is one of Newman’s best performances.

3. A Christmas Carol (1984 George C. Scott version). I could just as easily have listed the 1951 Alistair Sim version, but I like this one slightly better. Both are classics.

2. Miracle on 34th Street (B&W 1947 version). Even after 57 years of viewing this great movie, I still am not sure if Kris Kringle is the real Santa or not, but I love the message, and young Natalie Wood steals the show.

1. March of the Wooden Soldiers. Yes, I know it is supposed to be called Babes in Toyland, but I’ll always know it as March of the Wooden Soldiers, which is a much more appropriate title, and Babes in Toyland is a Disney movie starring Annette Funicello. This film has Laurel and Hardy vs. the sinister Barnaby and his boogie man army.  We always watched it Thanksgiving Day when it was a holiday staple on WPIX from New York. (Trivia: the actor who plays Barnaby, Henry Brandon, was just 22 when the film was made. He later played a number of different Indian characters in the American western TV series Wagon Train.)

Happy Holidays!

Screen view: the latest Star Trek

Star-Trek-Into-DarknessWith my afternoon free yesterday, I decided to attend the early matinee showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second installment of J.J. Abrams re-boot of the science fiction classic. The last film I saw at the theater was Prometheus about a year ago. I guess I like to see big-budget science fiction films on the big screen.

These two films share some similar flaws. Both play fast and loose with the laws of physics, and both rely way too heavily on characters behaving in irrational ways only to serve the convenience of the plot. Where these are fatal flaws in Prometheus, Into Darkness survives them due to the raw power of the characters.

In his first Star Trek film, Abrams wisely gave himself permission to wander outside the lines of the traditional Trek storyline through a time-traveling incident that changes the course of history. This gives him latitude to add and subtract — as he did by having the Vulcan home world destroyed and introducing young Mr. Spock to old Mr. Spock. I applaud this decision, but it should not let the filmmaker off the hook for at least attempting to make his physics look plausible.

To me, two things distinguish Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of the original Star Trek: Intriguing, interesting characters and a fascination with the wonder and beauty of the universe. For the most part, the TV series that have followed in Roddenberry’s footsteps have maintained both these attributes if not always to the same standard. J. J. Abrams, however, has eschewed the latter attribute in favor of dynamic, pulse-racing action. Whether this is his own preference or just the nature of Hollywood today, I don’t know. But one of the side effects is a complete disregard for the physics of the universe we live in and the nature of his characters’ motivations.

Let’s start with the opening scene, where we find the Enterprise lurking on the bottom of an alien ocean. The Enterprise is a  craft built to travel in the vacuum of space. It would not be able to bear flying through an atmosphere let alone handling the pressures from thousands of tons of water! But even if it could withstand such forces, the Enterprise is certainly not built to be able to “take off” from under the water. This is merely preposterous. The Enterprise does not have a means of upward propulsion against the forces of gravity. For that matter, the entire opening action set makes no sense, but I won’t go into all that.

Alice Eve as new character Carol Marcus is not one of the physics problems that plague the film.

Alice Eve as new character Carol Marcus is not one of the physics problems that plague the film.

Then there is the question of just how fast these ships travel. It appears that aboard the Enterprise you can make it from our solar system to the home planet of the Klingons faster than I can commute to my office 12 miles from my home. Yes, they have warp drive, but so do the Klingons. If we’re that nearby, why didn’t the Klingons conquer Earth centuries ago? In all the other Star Trek versions, the immensity of the galaxy is one of the key elements, but apparently the galaxy has shrunk in the new universe J. J. Abrams has created.

There are temporal problems, too, where the action taking place off camera should require days to occur, but happens during what seems just a few hours of the time in the main scene. The biggest of these issues is when Kirk calls from nearby the Klingon home world to Scotty who is in a bar back on Earth. Somehow, Scotty has the time to commandeer a space craft, fly it out to Jupiter, stow away on the super space ship he finds in dry dock there and is on board when that ship shows up in Kirk’s neighborhood within what seems like just a few hours from when Kirk makes the original call.

Another of my peeves with the movie is the tiring gimmick of the transporter being only effective enough at various times to be able to solve the next crisis with the maximum amount of suspense and tension. It would be much too easy to overcome obstacles if the damn thing worked properly all the time!

Oh, and did I mention the endless maze that engineering on the Enterprise has become. They would have to be able to warp space inside the ship in order to fit that goliath mish mash of phony technology onboard.

And finally, the motivation of the evildoers remains sketchy, at best. I simply could not believe that these characters would make the choices they do. They are not sociopaths, though they behave as if they are. Those who are capable of loving their families generally do not make random decisions to slaughter hundreds or thousands of innocent people. Yet, they do just that in this movie, because it is necessary to have characters who would. (While Kirk is trying desperately to save lives, thousands must be killed near the end of the movie when a space ship smashes into San Francisco, yet no one seems too perturbed by that.)

So, yes, there are lots of problems with this film. But what redeems the entire movie are the great characters and their relationships with one another. The creation of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty et. al. was the true act of genius by Gene Roddenberry. To his credit, J. J. Abrams honors this legacy, even building on it. And the cast pulls it off almost flawlessly. As in the first film of this reboot, I totally bought into these actors as those familiar and iconic figures created for TV almost 50 years ago.

Into Darkness is really just a vehicle for these characters to live and interact with one another, for their relationships to grow and develop. It helps that we know them so well, a factor Abrams uses to good effect. He doesn’t need to provide much back story, as we are already familiar with it. So when Kirk gives a look at one of Spock’s emotionless comments, we laugh, knowing all about the tension between Kirk’s fiery personality and Spock’s logical approach to every situation. Abrams leans heavily on this familiarity. He also takes things further, providing a sexual relationship between Spock and Uhura, who is a much more important and interesting character in these films. She joins the boys in a lot of the action sequences.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Imagine Sherlock Holmes crossed with Jason Bourne.

Benedict Cumberbatch: Imagine Sherlock Holmes crossed with Jason Bourne.

Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a good performance as the villain — or is he? — a kind of hybrid of his hyper-brilliant Sherlock Holmes character and a fighting machine like Jason Bourne. A new character, Carol Marcus, is introduced into the franchise, played by the lovely British actress Alice Eve. Marcus is a science officer and weapons specialist, and possible love interest for one of the other characters.

By the end of the film, order has been restored as the bad guys have been vanquished and we learn that these first two J.J. Abrams movies are just the prologue to where the TV series began, and the Enterprise and her crew are now ready to start a five-year voyage to seek out new life and new civilizations. I just hope that Abrams boldly chooses to obey the physical laws of the universe a little more closely in the future.

We’ll see you at the movies! Rest in peace Roger Ebert.

siskel and ebert

Just yesterday I read the most recent posting by Roger Ebert on his web site. He titled this post “A leave of presence.” In it he listed all the things that he was planning to do in the coming months. Oh, and by the way, he disclosed that his cancer had returned, so he was going to have to write fewer movie reviews. Roger Ebert died today.

thumb up and downSiskel and Ebert in whatever incarnation of that show, was a major influence on my life. I began watching the thumbs up critics over three decades ago, when my movie watching tastes were simple and very unrefined.Their show was just fun to watch, never more than when the two disagreed about a film. They would each defend their view, thumb up or down, with such passion, you just knew these guys truly cared about what was up on the screen.

I certainly haven’t become Frank Rich or anything, but Gene and Roger helped me to appreciate movies in ways I could never have imagined. Mostly, they made me realize that filmmakers had a responsibility to make good movies. That as fans we didn’t have to settle for crap. For that I will always be grateful.

I will imagine Gene and Roger reunited in the balcony in the sky. Still arguing about the latest films of course.

Screen view: Prometheus

I took a day off from work yesterday to attend to some other business. But I had the afternoon to myself, so I decided to go to our local theater to see Prometheus, the new film by Ridley Scott and kinda prequel to his classic work, Alien. I went in with high expectations due to some glowing reviews I’d read, but while the film is very entertaining, I left the theater slightly disappointed.

First the good stuff. All the performances are top notch, but two stand out. Noomi Rapace from the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is quite appealing as the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw, the Ellen Ripley-lite character. Michael Fassbender is utterly convincing as a robot named David with a Peter O’Toole fetish. He endows his character with unnaturally precise movements and facial expressions that are just a bit unsettling.

This film looks and feels great. The genuine live actors look as if they are a part of every scene, even among the most computer-generated special effects. You will have no doubt that these people are on an alien world, among alien artifacts.

But the story does not make a lot of sense. There are holes in the plot and inconsistencies with the science that reduce the film from brilliant to merely entertaining. For example, the alien world they travel too is supposedly very far from Earth, yet it takes just a two-year space voyage to get there. Even our closest neighboring solar system is four light years away. There is no mention of faster-than-light technology (which would be hard to believe, since the film takes place just 80 years from now). If Scott were trying to make a great science fiction film, he would need to deal with this — that he doesn’t tells me his aim is much lower.

The space ship, the Prometheus, looks like a souped up version of Serenity from the Firefly television series, bigger and glossier, but otherwise quite familiar. It not only can travel faster than the speed of light apparently, it can land on an atmosphere-rich planet, which everyone should realize is unlikely. The specifications for a space ship to travel between the stars would be vastly different from the specifications for landing on a planet with atmosphere and quite probably incompatible. Scott shrugs this off merely for the sake of expediency.

Immediately after the Prometheus lands on the planet, the crew rush out to explore what looks to be an artificial dome. If you had robot technology like they do, you would of course send the robot (and why do they have just one?) out to do the initial exploration of an alien world where the possible dangers are almost infinite. But these dopes just barge right ahead and, oops, it turns out to be a big mistake!

And why do they even need human scientists when they could have five or six specialist robots? I’ll tell you why. Robots are less fun to see reduced to goo by the various menacing forces found on this planet than are humans.

SPOILER ALERT!

From here on I’m going to be peppering this review with spoilers, so don’t read any further if you have yet to see the film and don’t want the surprises revealed. And while there a lot of surprises, you will likely anticipate most of them, especially if you’ve seen Alien.

I could excuse some of the science and logic problems with Prometheus, but it is hard to excuse one glaring issue. The whole premise of this film does not make any sense. That is that alien beings (which are called the Engineers) traveled to Earth in the past and deposited their DNA like cosmic Johnny Appleseeds. The scientists “prove” this when the Engineers’ DNA recovered on the alien world perfectly matches our DNA. But wait a minute. This doesn’t explain why chimpanzee DNA is a 98% match for ours. It also doesn’t explain why the Engineers are bigger and stronger, hairless and white (I mean like pearl white). Apparently the filmmakers do not actually understand genetics, or hope their audience is clueless, becase it is clear humans and Engineers are NOT a perfect DNA match. You can’t get this wrong in a film that wants to be taken seriously as science fiction, or as some sort of meta-physical exploration of the meaning and origin of life.

Beyond this, it turns out that the alien world is actually a military installation, not the home world of the Engineers, so why did they provide primitive man with sky charts to direct us to this alien planet? (Finding these sky charts as ancient cave paintings around the globe is what initiates the expedition in the first place.) Carbon dating reveals that the Engineers’ base has been dead for 2000 years; the cave paintings were made 35,000 years ago. What’s with the 33,000 year gap?

When David awakens one of the sleeping Engineers, the first thing it does is go on a killing rampage like Frankenstein (remember, I’m not talking about the alien from the Alien films, but about our alien progenitors, the Engineers). How does this make any sense? The Engineers have really remarkable technology. They have been around for millenia. Presumably they are somewhat enlightened or at least curious. Now one of them comes face-to-face with the “children” of their endeavor and his reaction is to stomp the life out of them without any attempt to communicate! Does this seem even remotely plausible?

The plot gets pretty complicated at this point, but if I understood it correctly, the Earthlings figure out that the Engineers’ military base was set up to create a biological weapon — i.e. the creepy aliens from Aliens. But the work goes horribly wrong and most of the Engineers are killed by the Alien aliens; hence the fact that the base seems dead when the Earthlings arrive. So how is it that beings that have so much knowledge don’t know what they are growing in their bio labs? And why do they need to create such a weapon anyway? Elizabeth Shaw figures out — and I still don’t know how — that the Engineers have decided to exterminate Earthlings. Even if we accept this silly premise, why would they need to create a dangerous killing species to do this? Why wouldn’t they just invent an incurable virus? Seems like that should be within their technological expertise, as it is probably in our expertise now.

Anyway, it turns out the artificial dome is like a hangar for one of the Engineers’ space ships. Once awakened, and after killing all the humans within reach, he immediately powers up the space ship with the intention of flying to Earth to destroy human beings. What is the sense of this? To our knowledge, the Engineers have created two life forms: us and the Alien aliens. The Alien aliens have wiped out most of the Engineers and are clearly a threat, but instead of dealing with them, the first thing the awakened Engineer wants to do is fly to Earth to kill Earthlings! What? Huh!

There’s also a silly sub-plot regarding David’s hidden agenda. He intentionally infects one of the scientists with some of the bio-genetic alien material, resulting in Elizabeth Shaw becoming impregnated with an Alien alien offspring. David’s motive for doing this is never explored, though it is possible to assume that he wants to smuggle an alien life form back to Earth. Why he would want to remains unanswered. Shaw forces her way into a super-duper medical machine — kind of like the cone of silence from Get Smart, but with sutures and scalpels. The alien is extracted just before it bursts out. She’s got an incision that runs from one side of her belly to the other. It shouldn’t surprise you in this film that she’s running, leaping and fighting within about two minutes of this operation.

What made Alien such a great movie was that it was utterly believable. Prometheus fails that test and in the end it is two hours of raw entertainment with no substance. Has Ridley Scott gotten lazy, or does he think today’s audiences just aren’t that bright?

Screen view: Camelot

Camelot

Over the course of the past two nights I watched the ten episodes of Camelot, the Starz Network’s version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I guess I’m like most people, having a fondness for this epic story, which is one of the foundation myths of western civilization. Nevertheless I’m open to different interpretations, such as the terrific books by Mary Stewart, which start with The Crystal Cave. But this version… hum…

Camelot stars Joseph Fiennes as Merlin and the sultry Eva Green as Morgan. That’s a pretty good start. But then the casting falls apart, mostly because of the young actor who plays Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower. Seriously. Imagine a young Ethan Hawk, but even more weaselly looking. And don’t be fooled by the promotional image above. That’s a highly stylized image of the young Mr. Bower. Here’s a still from the actual show:

Arthur & Guenivere

And even that photo is flattering. The kid looks like a wimpy version of Milla Jovovich. Come to think of it, Jovovich would have made a more credible king.

Bower was in a recent Harry Potter movie, and he has a recurring part in the latest Twilight films. Perhaps the producers think he is an up-and-comer, but I can’t see it. Then again, I’m old and crotchety.

Arthur is a man who is supposed to be able to inspire his country’s best, but in this telling and with this actor, it is difficult to imagine anyone following this king into battle. Then again, the United States did elect George W. Bush twice, so who knows?

This series looks great, with a lot of attention (and CGI wizardry) given to creating Camelot, a decaying Roman fortress atop a cliff overlooking the sea. But the writers have leeched away the magic from most of the seminal Arthurian moments. The delivery of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake is laughable, while drawing the sword from the stone is presented as a gimmick created by Merlin. The storytellers here do not know if they want this version to be magical or not. They want to explain some of these events in realistic (i.e. non-paranormal) terms, but do not make them plausible. Merlin has eschewed his magical powers, except for sometimes. So magic exists in the Arthurian world, the filmmakers just don’t want to show it to us.

Other aspects of the traditional story are over-turned. Most glaring is the love triangle among Arthur, Guenivere and Lancelot (here called Leontes). The traditional story has Guenivere, Arthur’s queen, falling in love with Lancelot. In this version, Guenivere is betrothed to Leontes, but Arthur nevertheless seduces her on the morning of her wedding day. You see, this Arthur not only looks like a weasel, he acts like one. What in the original tale is presented as noble restraint by two lovers, is here just a sordid affair.

Despite these problems, Camelot can be viewed as a soap opera with swords. There really isn’t much swashbuckling on screen, however. More often the action is confined to daggers at throats and thrust into bellies. The real action in Camelot is the political manipulation of the citizenry by Morgan and her evil nun advisor. While Arthur is engaged in his sexual exploits (and the sulking when he doesn’t get his way), Morgan builds her political capital by preying on the fear of the citizens. In fact, the whole thing seems to be an allegory of our current politics — sex scandals and Republican fear-mongering.

But I wonder what demographic this series is supposed to appeal to. The casting of Arthur would make me believe they are going for teenage girls, but there is a lot of sex and nudity (Eva Green, thankfully, providing much of the latter). If this was a film in the theater, it would surely have garnered an R rating.

Given the effort and the amount of airtime devoted to it, Camelot is a big disappointment, even though it could provide a few hours of mild, guilty-pleasure entertainment. The ending sets the stage for a continuation of the story, but I understand that Starz has decided not to produce more installments. Praise be to Merlin.

Screen View: True Grit

Jeff Bridges

I was finally able to see the remake of True Grit via a Netflix DVD. I am glad that two of our more popular and well-regarded filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, turned their attention to the western. This has been a sadly overlooked movie genre of the last 30 years. It is strange, however, that they chose to remake a western that was already a classic, and deservedly so. Their version of True Grit does not greatly diverge from the John Wayne film of the late ’60s. In fact, much of the dialog is exactly the same — probably because it was plucked from the original source, Charles Portis’ book of the same name. There is a difference in tone, of course. The Wayne film is exuberant, where the Coen film is more solemn. But it does have its light moments, again because the book had these same touches of humor: the hard-bargaining 14-year-old girl, Maddie Ross, getting the better of all the grizzled men she comes across on her quest to find justice for her murdered father. And the quips of the half-soused Rooster Cogburn, the weathered U.S. Marshall Maddie hires to track the coward Dick…er, I mean, Tom Chenney.

The DukeJeff Bridges does nice work filling in for the Duke. He’s not the larger-than-life presence Wayne was on-screen, but he makes us forget, at least for the run of the film, that he’s filling the boots of a legendary Hollywood star. Matt Damon takes on the Glen Campbell role of LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who is also on the trail of Tom Chenney. Campbell gave the character a little pop glamour, where Damon plays him pretty straight.

That leaves us with the young actress, Hailee Steinfeld, who takes on the role of Maddie. She’s far more believable as a 14-year-old than Kim Darby was (probably because that is, in fact, how old she was when making the film), though I’m not sure we were ever supposed to believe that Darby’s Maddie was that young. But Darby was a little more believable as a young-un who could get the better of all those frontier men. Both actresses are likeable and both convince you that hard men like Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf could come to respect and care about her welfare.

The ending of the Coen’s True Grit pretty much follows exactly the events of the book, whereas the Wayne version changes a few details to provide a little more satisfying conclusion. It essentially gives us John Wayne jumping his horse over a fence or a wall or something and riding off into the sunset. It ends with the possibility, even the promise, that Maddie’s life will be one of happiness. The new version, as with the book, shows us the middle-aged spinster Maddie, successful in business, but never to have had love or the excitement in her life of the days she spent hunting Tom Chenney.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed the film, even though I didn’t see much point in doing this remake. The western that, in my mind, begs to be remade is Shane. It’s a great story, but Alan Ladd just doesn’t pull off the title character. Now, Matt Damon as Shane might work just fine.