Monday, May 4, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I hadn't dipped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man 3, two years, four films and several TV series ago. Much as I liked earlier franchise entries, I worried that it would collapse under the volume of its sprawling, fathomless mythology. Sadly, the bloated, boring The Avengers: Age of Ultron proved me right.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) create a new artificial intelligence from captured HYDRA technology. Unfortunately, their creation becomes Ultron (James Spader), a sentient intelligence who plans to destroy the world. Helped by supervillain twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), he starts eliminating HYDRA leaders and criminals before turning on the Avengers. Ultron uses Scarlet Witch's mind-melding powers to turn the team against each other, while Ultron plans to create himself as the next stage in human evolution.

The Avengers was a miraculous thrill ride: somehow, Joss Whedon pulled off the perfect balance of action, characters and quips. It was an incredible, once-in-a-life gathering of superheroes that pleased casual viewers and comic devotees alike. Unfortunately, box office diktats demanded a sequel, and teaming up the Earth's Mightiest Heroes went from novelty to obligation. That's probably why Age of Ultron seems so lifeless.

From the introduction, with our protagonists slaughtering dozens of faceless bad guys, to the finale, where they destroy hundreds of faceless robots, Age of Ultron offers nothing but interminable, interchangeable action. The plot's nonexistent and the villains suck. Ultron wants to destroy humanity (yawn), Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch want revenge on Tony. Their scheme involves turning the Avengers against each other, hardly a daunting task. Just have them order pizza and watch the sparks fly. Since our heroes are nigh-invincible, and the villains pixelated clay pigeons, there's no stake in anything.

Ultron barely stops for breath and its character scenes clunk. For one, Black Widow and Bruce Banner inexplicably fall in love. Since they had two scenes together until now, we don't buy it. Meanwhile, we meet Hawkeye's family, which might matter if we cared about him. Then Ultron and Jarvis debate humanity's value with dialogue cribbed from Transformers. Even the banter lacks Whedon's customary spark: the only funny gag involves Thor's hammer, which is more visual anyway.

What could the cast possibly do? Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo handle their scenes with professional skill, if not conviction. Jeremy Renner relishes his expanded screentime, though it amounts to little. The others are in paycheck mode: Robert Downey Jr. drops double entendres, Chris Evans acts uptight, Chris Hemsworth poses for the ladies, Samuel L. Jackson scowls. We've seen it all before. Unlike the original Avengers, everyone seems bored.

James Spader relishes his snarky villain, and Paul Bettany's Jarvis is finally made flesh. But did we really need Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver (much less memorable than Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch? They're uninteresting clutter in an overstuffed film. Don Cheadle, Stellan Skarsgaard, Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Peggy Atwill and Cobie Smulders have mandatory walk-ons. Evidently, Tom Hiddleston's Loki was left on the cutting room floor: he might have brought some life to the show.

Has Marvel's schtick worn thin? Fear not, we have at least six more years and a dozen films to go! Maybe Ant-Man will turn the franchise around - if not him, surely Howard the Duck.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

RKO 281

There's no shortage of behind-the-scenes docudramas, chronicling the production of classic movies with cliched, predictable drama. So it is with RKO 281 (1999), another tale of brilliant artists fighting uncomprehending producers (and their powerful ally). This HBO film was well-received, earning several Emmys, but its treatment of Citizen Kane's production owes more to genre cliches than fact.

Famous for his Broadway shows and the radio broadcast War of the Worlds, Orson Welles (Liev Scheiber) arrives in Hollywood with an RKO contract. An encounter with press tycoon William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) inspires Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) conjure an idea. They collaborate on a script which becomes Citizen Kane, a thinly-veiled biopic of Hearst. As the film shoots, Hearst learns of the movie and seeks to destroy it. In the face of studio skepticism and media hostility, Welles must work behind-the-scenes to save his masterpiece.

John Logan's script cribs heavily from The Battle for Citizen Kane, a remarkable documentary detailing Welles' struggles in producing the film. Director Benjamin Ross evokes Welles' visual details: the newsreel introducing Welles, Welles haunted by animals from Hearst's menagerie, Marion Davies's (Melanie Griffith) giant jigsaw puzzles, grips staring down from the rafters. These couple with amusing bits of trivia: Welles obsessively watching Stagecoach to learn direction, or hacking a hole in the floor to get a lower camera angle.

RKO 281's heavy on invention: there's a long sequence with Welles visiting San Simeon and envisioning Kane after locking horns with Hearst. RKO fumbles with Kane's screenwriting controversy: here, the idea originates with Welles, yet Mankiewicz conveniently has a decade's worth of Hearst gossip notes in his bedroom. Other farfetched devices include Hearst personally threatening Hollywood's studio chiefs, and Welles giving same individuals a rousing speech defending Art. Welles' elevator run-in with Hearst, however, allegedly did occur.

For the most part, RKO 281 stands on firmer ground interpreting his protagonists. Welles is convincingly characterized as a charming egomaniac and obsessive artist, who channels his own personality into Kane: dialogue hints at his future has-been status. Welles balances his ignorance of cinema with his eagerness to create art, while his ego annoys his collaborators. Herman Mankiewicz is a washed-up hack who stakes everything on this unlikely comeback: he's understandably upset when Welles plans to deny him credit. Even Marion Davies gets a shaded portrayal, bemoaning her lost career but devoted to Hearst.

Too bad RKO makes Hearst a cartoon supervillain. Threatening a studio chief, he drops antisemitic fillips between evil cackles. Another scene has Hearst briefing columnist Louella Parsons (Brenda Blethyn), saying that hatred of Welles will "nourish us both." He even suggests publishing photos of FDR in a wheelchair! Logan shows Hearst's affection for Marion and troubles with debt; if these were meant to humanize Hearst, they don't really work. When he tells Marion "I could have been a great man, but I'm not," it's less tragic than ludicrous.

If RKO 281 clunks dramatically, the cast doesn't disappoint. Liev Scheiber doesn't resemble Welles, but gamely approximates his energy, charm and obsessive drive. John Malkovich makes a pitch-perfect foil. James Cromwell is appropriately ghoulish while Melanie Griffith is pitch-perfect as a vain, washed-up starlet. Roy Scheider plays George Schaeffer, Kane's producer; Liam Cunningham, cinematographer Gregg Toland. Less successful are Brenda Blethyn's shrewish, smoke-breathing gorgon and Roger Allam's ludicrous Walt Disney impression.

There's a market for shows like this, but I've yet to see one that really works. Typically such films offer just enough trivia and inside humor to seem revealing, but don't really cut to the meat of filmmaking. RKO 281 is modestly diverting, but neither accurate nor especially insightful.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Guest article: For Love of the Game

This week I received a generous offer to guest blog from correspondent Jacob Holtgraewe. Here he writes about Sam Raimi's For the Love of the Game. Thanks Jacob for your contribution. - Groggy

The movie For Love of the Game (1999), featuring Kevin Costner in yet again another baseball movie, is different from the others he appears in. This time Kevin, playing washed up pitcher Billy Chapel, is the one at a crossroads and needs help. Unlike in other Costner movies like in Bull Durham where he mentors a young and wild pitcher; or Field of Dreams, where Costner’s character helps the deceased players of the past by building them a baseball field on his Iowa farm. This time Costner’s character must not help others, but himself with a tough life decision. 

Billy Chapel is a veteran pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who are entering the last game of the season with a record of 63-98 and about to play the playoff-eligible New York Yankees. Billy has struggled in his relationship with Jane, his girlfriend, and finds out that she is moving to London the same day as his last game. Shortly before this, Billy discovers that the Tigers are going to be sold to a new owner at the end of season. The new owner will trade Billy to the San Francisco Giants, ending Billy’s 19 years with the Tigers. After a long, grueling season in which Billy struggles with performance and injury he takes the mound for the final game of the season, and potentially his career.

Throughout the movie, while Billy is pitching, and in the dugout between innings, he has flashbacks to his life. He fears he will lose his relationship with Jane due to his dedication to baseball. Caught up in his flashbacks he dominates hitters throughout the beginning innings, still with a perfect game intact. It isn’t until the bottom of the 8th inning that he realizes nobody has reached base all game.   

Another sentimental moment comes when Billy begins the 9th inning throwing three balls. He pauses on the mound and flashes back to practicing baseball with his father. He then completes the perfect game against all odds. Along with watching Billy complete his perfect game and visiting his flashbacks, the viewer sees the internal struggle Jane has at the airport. She sits at the airport watching Billy on the television while her flight is almost done boarding. She too must make a gut decision on whether to watch the game or board the plane.

After the game Billy sits in his hotel room, struggling with the fact that the thing he loved most in life, the game of baseball, is now gone. But he also weeps over the loss of his other love, Jane. The next day Billy heads to the airport to get a ticket to London, and to his surprise Jane is still at the airport. Ironically enough, she missed her flight to watch Billy throw his perfect game. They rejoice in seeing each other, and the viewer believes they'll live a happy life together.

As a fan of baseball and Kevin Costner, I really enjoy the movie For Love of the Game.  Throughout the movie you watch a grown man struggle with the fact that he has to give up the game he loves, and deal with the regret for loving the game of baseball so much that it has hurt his relationship with Jane over the years. It is a constant battle of giving up what you love for who you love. This is the first movie that I have seen in which it touches more so on the romantics of the game of baseball and how connected players are to it, rather than the action of the sport itself. Although the ratings for this movie are not the best, I am still a big fan of the movie For Love of the Game.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Madness of King George

"I am the verb, sir, not the object!"
Alan Bennett's play The Madness of George III arrived onscreen with its director (Nicholas Hytner), star (Nigel Hawthorne) and writer intact. The Madness of King George (1994) is unusually droll for a costume film, lavishly directed and bolstered by Hawthorne's splendid performance. Yet a few missteps prevent it from achieving greatness.

It's 1788 and England's ruled by King George III (Nigel Hawthorne), a gregarious but unstable monarch. His already pronounced eccentricities boil over into violently irrational behavior, including public profanity and violence. The King's condition prompts George, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) to seek power as Regent, with the backing of Whig leader Charles Fox (Jim Carter). Prime Minister William Pitt (Julian Wadham), desperate to save his government, calls upon Dr. Willis (Ian Holm) to cure the King by any means necessary.

The Madness of King George avoids ossifying its subject. Bennett's script bristles with edgy, playful dialogue, from the King's rants to the verbal gamesmanship ("I enjoy a good balance sheet"). There's the customary opulence, with Andrew Dunn's immaculate photography framing scenes like Hogarth paintings. Yet Hytner undercuts decorum with surreal touches: musicians playing Greensleeves on glass bells, a half-naked King leading prayers in a field, a pastoral farm revealed as a mad house. When the King departs from a concert, everyone immediately plops into a chair.

Hytner and Bennett undercut everyone's nobility. Fox mouths reform but uses the debauched Prince of Wales to achieve it. The Prince resents the King's ignoring him and longs to marry Maria Fitzherbert (Caroline Harker), a Catholic. As a womanizing, obese slob though, he doesn't accrue sympathy. The smartest character is Lord Thurlow (John Wood), the Chancellor who manipulates  Pitt and Fox. The women seem well-adjusted - Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren) snaps George into lucidity, while Maria urges the Prince towards sensible actions - so naturally they're marginalized.

Perhaps George's scope proves its downfall. For all the political maneuvering its importance isn't clear or especially gripping: offhand references to American independence and abolitionism are all we get. Neither Pitt nor Fox espouses actual positions, viewing the King's predicament as an opportunity to seize power. Perhaps it's intentional (how else would 1994 viewers champion monarchists over reformers?), but the film seems more flippant than cynical. Then again, George posits the King's recovery as a happy ending when he backslid into insanity two decades later. 

The most memorable scenes aren't politicking but the King's absurdity and his brutal treatment. The King's physician (Roger Hammond) refuses a physical examination while another obsesses over the shape of his turds. He's subjected to brutal blistering, bloodletting and (at Dr. Willis's instigation) ritual humiliation. At one point he's bound and gagged into a chair, cruelly mocking his coronation. "I am the King!" George protests. "You sir, are the patient!" Willis snaps. With such treatment it's a miracle George recovers.

Thankfully, Hytner retained Nigel Hawthorne (then known for Yes, Minister) from George's stage incarnation. The King must be broad yet pitiable; play it too strong and it's mere scenery-eating. Hawthorne plays the sane King as a jolly eccentric, snorting at pigs and laughing off an assassination attempt; his slip into nuttiness seems remarkably subtle. Hawthorne provides his madness a carefree exuberance, more affecting when moments of sanity stab through. He retains our sympathy throughout, a truly incredible performance.

Helen Mirren (with halting German accent) is unusually delicate yet dignified in a low-key turn. Rupert Everett's droll snottiness never served him better, while Ian Holm receives a career-best role, making Willis crude and hatefully savage. Julian Wadham and Jim Carter seem more talking cameo portraits than characters; Rupert Graves plays the King's hapless Equerry. John Wood gets a scene-stealing role as the duplicitous Lord Chancellor.

It's not unusual for period films to emphasize people over politics, and The Madness of King George is better than, say, The King's Speech, which borrows George's plot and ending, if not Bennett's wit. But that film at least made the stakes obvious; George does not. A pity, as it gets everything else right.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Last Frontier

The Last Frontier (1955) doesn't rank high among Anthony Mann's Westerns. It's a B Movie blown to outsized proportions: lacking Mann's usual complexity, it only has nice scenery to commend it.

Jed Cooper (Victor Mature) is an Indian trapper seeking refuge in remote Fort Shango. The fort's run by Captain Riordan (Guy Madison), who expects an attack by Red Cloud's Sioux. He's superseded by Colonel Marston (Robert Preston), the kill-crazy commander who plans to attack the Indians over his subordinates' objections. Jed falls for Marston's wife Corinna (Anne Bancroft) while trying to foil the Colonel's suicidal intentions.

Like most Mann Westerns, The Last Frontier comes alive in its scenery. Mann contrasts the fort's conflicts with gorgeous Oregon scenery: William Mellor's spacious photography gives Frontier beauty even in its slow moments. From the impressive opening, where Jed and his friends bluff hostile Indians by ignoring them, to the epic climactic battle in the woods, Frontier delivers some fine set pieces. Yet Mann indulges in gratuitous directorial tricks (a crane shot as Jed's party enters the fort), imputing unwarranted grandeur to the penny dreadful story.

Mann's best Westerns are Old West psychodramas, contrasting landscape with character torment. But Frontier is flaccid programmer mush. The drama proves rote, the characters too broadly delineated. None of Howard Kemp or Vic Hansboro's psychological torment: Jed's ruggedly independent, the Colonel's crazy, the Captain trapped by orders. Similarly, Phillip Yordan and Russell S. Hughes' script relentlessly verbalizes its conflicts; how many characters speculate on whether Corinna wants her husband dead? Didacticism never serves Westerns well, hurting Frontier worse even than the cliches.

Victor Mature is an adequate lead if not a convincing frontiersman. At least until an embarrassing drunk scene late in the movie. Anne Bancroft is pretty but colorless, her screentime devoted to pouty smooching. Robert Preston is a cartoon martinet, neither compelling nor scary. Guy Madison's conflicted Captain fares best among the leads, stiff but believably conflicted. James Whitmore's crusty trapper steals every scene.

There's not much to say about The Last Frontier. Sometimes a movie's relegated to DVD bargain bins and late night TCM filler for a reason. Frontier is a great director on autopilot, delivering his trademark style without bothering to craft a story around it.