Low Man

IMDb member since December 1999
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Star Trek

It Needed Better Writing
Having Spock chased through time by his very own revenge obsessed Khan-doppleganger and screwing up the canonic Star Trek universe in the process isn't a bad idea. In fact, it's a rather appealing conceit. It simply needed more thought than it seems to have had.

To wit:

1. A magical, unexplained, and apocolyptically lethal material at the center of the threat is just lazy. Creating scientific implausibilities to fill in the need for dramatic development is standard in sf stories, but for cryin' out loud, give it some internal logical consistency. We know something about black holes these days, so fudging the science on them is a guaranteed way to throw the ohfergodssakegimeeafreakinbreak switch on a person's willingness to suspend disbelief. (Those who care about such things know what I mean. Those who don't should probably read someone else's review.) As attendees of filmic shadow plays, most are happy to be lied to. Frequently, that's why one goes to the theater in the first place. A happy lie, a sad lie, an absurd lie, etc. It's all part of the entertainment gestalt. You can tell me black is white, but there'd better be plausible exposition if you want me to believe it. Failing that, I'll believe whatever you tell me about the colors smyzgetrunleo and bristarglfloss as long as it doesn't keep adapting as needed. Deus ex machina (or diabolis ex machina in this case I suppose) really is all played out, and it seems like lazy writing to me. Get me? Well maybe I'm giving free rein to a glut of pecksniffery, but it bugs me.

2. The antagonist is out to destroy planets full of beings he's never heard of because Spock failed to save Romulus in a timely fashion? It's possible I suppose, but it seems awfully weak in believability and pathetically weak from a dramatic standpoint. There's gotta be more to it, but without knowing what it is, I don't buy it. It needed more development or a different approach. I know he'd probably rather eat a pyramid of Giza sized pile of rancid head cheese chased with a million gallons of sour milk than get attached to the Star Trek franchise again, but this is the sort of thing at which Harlan Ellison excels. I think he could have made the story a truly gut-wrenching piece of drama. As presented, it really was pretty disappointing.

Those two quibbles aside, though, I still enjoyed the film quite a bit. It played, for me, a lot like a TV pilot episode. There was a gratifying amount of character development as well as copious references to past episodes of the various Star Trek series' to keep the general fan population happy. (All right. I probably qualify for the Trekkie category, but what the hell.) It has many fine moments, dramatic and comic, and reaches an admirable thespian standard...for a television series. I feel like there's an alternate time line series somewhere in the future, in movies if not on TV or direct to DVD. If that's the case, bravo. I'll probably be back to see it. As a stand alone event, however, it really needed better writing. It's something from which all of the Star Trek offerings have suffered to a greater or lesser extent, not because good writers did not work with the series, but because they always seem to get restrained somehow and never quite break out of the TV mold. If you want more explanation of this view, the published screen play version of the original series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison delineates the problem better than anything I could say here. It might be interesting to see that made in the alternate universe cast expanded to film length. (Note to the producers: Don't do it without Harlan! I mean it.) Still...I feel I can recommend this movie to you with a clear conscience. It is better than average, and may be (I haven't quite decided yet) the best of the Star Trek films yet made. Industrial Light & Magic certainly went hog wild with it, so it looks astoundingly good. Where they go with it from here will be telling. I am hopeful.

Mr. Holland's Opus

Hatefully Trivial
I didn't write about this film right after seeing it because it made me so mad that I knew I'd be overly harsh with it.

It has now been many years, and I just looked over the comments already made, and I wasn't going to add anything until I saw one recommending lightening up on the film.

Why? One reason given is that of course it's not musically accurate, but it's no more inaccurate than Star Trek or Star Wars is to actual science. I can't argue with the bare facts of that statement, but...

I don't think anybody seriously believes there are Jedi running around fighting evil with light sabers or that there are hand held phasers out there. It's fantasy, and that's understood. Nearly everybody who isn't deprived of the ability to hear music knows about it, though.

My chief hatred of this movie lies in the fact that it perverts what a lot of people think music is. I have had more than one student say something like, "I thought I just had to play the sunset." Many people with such impressions will give up when that fantasy is shattered, and some under my tutelage have.

Star Trek and Star Wars never set a potential scientist on a false path like that. I even remember seeing specials on either the History Channel or A&E about scientists who were motivated by what they thought might be possible in those shows. The fantasy inspired in that case. It did not create a false expectation.

What this movie has to say about music and being a musician is trivial when it is not dead wrong. That is not simply bad, it is hateful.

A far better movie for dealing with this topic is a French one called "Tous les matins du monde", and I commented on that one at this address:


It's not a film you can show your kids, but the whole musician conundrum is handled with far more subtlety and truth.

I know that there are plenty of other examples of Hollywood inaccuracy as far as film topics go. James Bond has little to do with real espionage. Rambo is not anything close to realistic as far as being a soldier goes.

Becoming a soldier or a spy, though, probably isn't something you try to become until long after such illusions are discarded. I have had adult students come to me thinking "Mr. Holland's Opus" is completely accurate. One even asked me if I knew whatever became of Glenn Holland.

The piece of music at the end is pretty bad too, but I figured that was going to happen. There's an awful lot of music I hate that the general populace seems to love, but that does not trigger my revulsion for this film. The lack of reality also doesn't do it. "Amadeus" doesn't have a lot of factual accuracy in it either, but I still find it entertaining.

It is the trivialization of what music is and what being a musician means that gets to me. If they had just tried to make an entertaining movie, I probably would have found it OK, but this contemptible piece of twaddle trivializes something that needs more serious attention, and I can't forgive that.


Why'd we bother with a story?
Why do people keep telling me to enjoy the music and not worry about the plot as if that's some kind of saving grace for the film? I'd probably have enjoyed some filmed performances of actual bands a whole lot more. If you feel a need to add some kind of plot to the genre, you really ought to make it plausible, even if you're going to make it formulaic and predictable. Spoilers coming between the stars.


OK. This young kid gets a full ride scholarship in music to a college. Nobody could tell he can't read music?!?!!!?!??! I'm sorry, but that sort of thing just trips my ohfergodsakegimmeabreak switch, and it ruins entire movies for me even if they were otherwise pretty good.

Even getting accepted for training at a music school will require you to read a piece of music you will never have seen. The filmmakers, though, apparently want me to believe that he got a full scholarship to a music school without anybody checking that out? It might even be possible that such a scholarship could be given even with such a lack if the player is good enough, but it would certainly have been discovered prior to acceptance unless the school is being run by morons.

There's even a "sight reading" audition where he apparently was given the music beforehand. WRONG!!!!! Sight reading means it is plopped in front of you, and you get maybe 30 seconds to look it over before you have to play it. There's even a good chance that it was written shortly before auditions. Sight reading is a test to find out how quickly one can absorb an unfamiliar piece of music. Any chance to prepare it defeats the purpose of the test. The only reason to do it the way this film does it is that the story writer wanted to have this undiscovered deficiency in the character. That's just plain awful writing.


So the plot if formulaic, predictable, and badly written. Maybe it's just me, but formulaic, predictable, badly written plots ruin my ability to enjoy the music. The performances were probably better than I thought they were because of this. That's criminal.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Goodbye Mr. Williams
I write this shortly after The Order of the Phoenix came out on DVD, so I'm going to dispense with commenting too much on the film itself because chances are most people already know what they think as far as this film goes.

I put this writing here because this is the first of the Harry Potter films for which John Williams has not done the music. He has also apparently bowed out from film #5 too. I wonder if he'll ever be back.

When I first saw this film, I actually stayed a long way through the end credits. A friend I went with asked why I was sitting around. I said, "I've got to know who did the music because it couldn't possibly be Williams." I was, of course, right.

I don't know why he's not doing it anymore. Maybe he overpriced himself. Maybe he's not getting along with the producers. Maybe he's too busy. Maybe he doesn't feel like it. Maybe he retired. It's as noticeable an absence as Richard Harris' Dumbledore, though. Williams has created a great deal of memorable film music which nearly everybody knows even if they don't know who wrote it.

He has always had a superb sense of what to do with an orchestra within the framework of films. The new people doing the soundtracks are adequate I suppose, but they lack the marvelous subtlety that Williams seems to pull off so effortlessly. I wish they'd get him back.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert

Couldn't be better
I just recently saw the Tim Burton version of this, and I added some comments on that too. After watching the film, I came home and watched this version, and it throws the deficiencies of the Burton film into sharp relief. The Burton film looks better, but that's about it. If you really want more on what I thought about it, look under the comments in that film.

First off this is a live concert performance. That means sets, costume, props, stage machinery, etc. are minimal. The performance happens around and even among the orchestra on a concert stage. That is the only flaw, for lack of a better term, in this production. If you've got a good imagination, it's insignificant.

Second, the San Francisco Symphony is one of the best kept secrets in this country. They are great. I have several recordings of their work, and I have always been extremely happy with them. When you think of great American orchestras, the usual cities are New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. San Francisco belongs in that group. Their playing of this score, which was, of course, originally set up for a pit orchestra less than half the size of the forces used in this production, is as near perfect as anyone can reasonably hope for. It also really emphasizes the operatic feel that I always felt this musical has.

George Hearn is the best Sweeney Todd I've ever seen. That comes from an old pit orchestra hand that has been through more than a few performances. Apparently the original choice for this production was Bryn Terfel, a Welsh bass-baritone opera singer. Apparently he got ill and had to be replaced. It would have been very interesting to see that. Maybe he'd have been a new favorite, but Hearn is still great. Patti LuPone is also a fine Mrs. Lovett and is able to keep Hearn's anguished Todd from overwhelming everything. Timothy Nolen makes a disturbingly lustful Judge Turpin, and I was glad to see the scene of his self mortifying struggle with his feelings for Johanna included in this production. It is often cut, but it provides a not exactly sympathetic, but at least clearer, view of Turpin's character. Neil Patrick Harris is also an excellent Tobias Ragg. He even has a good voice. Who woulda' thought it? Pirelli, Anthony Hope, Beadle Bamford, Johanna...all are well cast, well played, and well sung.

In short, it's hard to believe how well everything was done. If you've come away from the Burton film with a less than happy feeling, please check this out before you abandon the musical entirely. It represents Sondheim's best work, and is well worth seeing.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Ummmmmmm...well OK
OK...so I've spent a fair amount of time in pit orchestras, and I had to check this out. When one makes one's living in a pit orchestra, one often ends up despising any musical one plays. Night after night of endless repetition of the same story with the same music eventually inflates every flaw in the wretched sing-spiel to the level of Chinese water torture. That is, in most cases.

You see, Sweeney Todd is one of 6 musicals that I'll play anytime. (If you care, the others are Fiddler on the Roof, Into the Woods, West Side Story, Cabaret, and Street Scene...only one of which has a good movie made from it.) The almost operatic intensity of the music and story is compelling, and after having been in the pit for Sweeney Todd...well, I don't really know how many times I've done it, but it exceeds 100...I still like it a lot. If you hated this film, give the 2001 live concert performance with the San Francisco Symphony a look before you write it off. It is nothing short of great. It's short on stage effects and other theatrical devices, but the performance is, nevertheless, staggering.

This film, though. Well, I did not hate it. My previous experience with the musical may have something to do with that. It may be that I am allowing my love for the original material to color my thoughts on this film. It certainly has problems.

Most of the dark humor has been sucked out of it, particularly in the number "Try a Little Priest". I'm so used to it being played with an hysterical mood, that the Gothic nihilism with which this film executes it does nothing to break the mood of what is, let's face it, a very disturbing story.

There are also some cuts I didn't much care for, although I may not have cared for any at all to tell the truth. The musical runs a good 3 hours, and unless you're doing a Tolkien story or something, most movie studios don't want to do that. Still...the musical flows so beautifully in its uncut form. A superb musical sequence involving a gorgeous counterpoint of themes and action between one scene with Anthony & Johanna talking excitedly about eloping and another where the Judge & the Beadle discuss a barber on Fleet Street is reduced to just part of the Judge & Beadle scene. Its absence mars a later number as well. I missed it keenly and played my DVD of the above mentioned 2001 performance as soon as I got home.

OK...a few words about casting, and I'll shut up. From a musical standpoint, Depp is really wrong for this role. Throughout I kept thinking "Edward Scissorshands". His voice is simply not up to the singing part the role demands. The rant song, as I always think of it, loses a lot because of it. When I first heard he was playing the title role I remember thinking they must have gotten a stunt voice for him, but they didn't. The movie suffers for it. Carter does OK. Again I think it suffers for an abandonment of the maniacal in favor of goth sensibilities, but that could be a personal problem. The big surprise for me was Rickman, who, though not great, rose to the role of the judge very nicely. As for everyone else...adequate...I guess.

So...as I said. I didn't hate it. It could have been far better.

Arsenic and Old Lace

A Rare Hybrid
Comedy can be described as macabre or absurd. This is a film that manages to combine the two with uncanny perfection. From two sweet old aunties that turn out to be kindly serial killers, to an uncle that thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and yells "CHAAAAARRRRGE!!!!!" as he runs up the homestead's stair case because, to him, it is San Juan Hill, to a brother that's a certifiable psychopath and has as his unhappiest life moment the fact that his aunties are 1 ahead of him in the murder department, Arsenic and Old Lace never seems to run out of ways to make things more and more ridiculous.

Yet with all the implausibility of the plot line, it never fails to hold one's attention. I found the most driving force in the film was simply that I had to know how the story could possibly untangle enough to deliver an ending that didn't feel forced. It managed it quite nicely.

Cary Grant is terrific. Everyone in the film is. Peter Lorre is magnificent in what I think is an unusual comedic role as the violently homicidal brother's flunky.

The mood of this gem of a film simply can't be described sufficiently in words. It must be experienced. So go watch it. NOW! Really. You won't regret it.

West Side Story

It's better than this
All right. I love this musical. As a long time pit rat, I have played it many times, and it is one of about ten or so that I will play any time I am asked. So why do I dislike (hate is a little too strong albeit close) this movie so much?

Well maybe it's because West Side Story isn't really a musical, but a musical is what the filmmakers produced.

The various elements involved in producing a theatrical work (music, dance, drama, etc.) are all so closely entwined in the West Side Story that I love, they really can't be separated. It's a ballet. It's a drama. It's an opera. Musical numbers appear so seamlessly that it can be hard to define exactly where they began. Musical numbers may morph into fantasy dance sequences with similar ambiguity, and it can all come back to spoken reality just as unexpectedly.

The people that made this film wanted everything clearly defined, and it has the effect of a loud belch during a dramatic soliloquy. The flow of things is constantly interrupted. The dance starts here. The next song starts here. Here's where the dramatic scene begins. It's too bad really, because a successful stage production is tricky owing to the kinds of transitions that must be made. One would think that film would be a great medium to realize the kind subtlety the material demands. Sadly, a musical (i.e. a bunch of songs in between spoken drama) is what got made.

A case in point: the song 'Somewhere'. On stage, this starts in Maria's room and goes through much before landing in a dream world where the song is sung by an offstage voice. The dream is finally consumed by the nightmare of the earlier rumble in which some important loved ones are killed. This interruption jolts them back into Maria's room where they must decide how to deal with the reality. In the movie, it is reduced to a sappy love song duet that is embarrassingly trite compared to the original ('cinematic' it always seemed to me) concept they dropped.

That's not the only example of such ham-handedness in the film, but, to me, it is the most unforgivably stupid.

This isn't to say there is nothing redeeming in the whole film. The source material is too good to lose all of its power just because a bunch of trolls laid their inept claws on it. I particularly liked Ned Glass as Doc. This movie could have been immeasurably better, though.

Big Fish

Lying as an Art Form
What do you say about this movie?

I am at a total loss to describe it. The concept itself, a son tries to come to terms with his dying father that he knows nothing about but an enormous catalog of unbelievable stories, doesn't sound very promising. It sounds like a tired old formula, and I expected such when the rental started playing

It's not.

Werewolves, giants, witches, siamese twins, bank robbers, hidden cities, sirens, etc. are all present in the fantasy, but they seem unremarkably to be part of the life of an otherwise ordinary traveling salesman. Whether they really are or not is never made completely clear, but that's the rub.

I once read a review by Harlan Ellison in which the main point was how a well told lie illuminates the truth in far better clarity than a simple recitation of the facts ever can. At one point in the film, the questing son remarks to his bed-ridden father that he's heard all of his stories thousands of times, and he has know idea who his father really is. The father's reply is, `I've never been anybody but me from the day I was born. If you don't know who I am, that's your failing, not mine.' Later investigations make the point clearer. I'll bet Ellison loved this movie. It is an extraordinary lie.

Did I like the film? You bet. It's Tim Burton's best work without a doubt. Is it for everybody? Probably not. Many will find it confusing and pointless, but good fantasy is like that. All I can say is, relax and let it happen. You won't regret it.

I, Robot

It ain't Asimov
I am going to skip any plot specifics. They don't matter. This movie has almost nothing to do with anything Isaac Asimov wrote. It nods in the direction of Asimov's famed three laws of robotics. I won't go into those because I'm sure they've been included in numerous other comments. Some of Asimov's characters are present in name. The laws and the characters are all that survive of his work in this film.

When I first saw that a film called I, Robot based on Asimov was in production, I was almost giddy with excitement. I thought somebody had managed to get Harlan Ellison's script of it filmed. No such luck. I saw that it was going to be a kind of murder mystery, and I thought maybe they had adapted one of the Elijah Bayley/R. Daneel Olivaw novels. I have seen the movie, and they did not.

Although the three laws are present in the film, they are ultimately discarded in their implications. In Asimov's works, any violation of the laws leads to a complete shut-down of the robot's positronic brain or at least the robotic equivalent of catatonia. The greatness in Asimov's work is how he weaves his plots around the practical application of the laws in unpredictable human situations. Asimov started writing the robot stories because he wanted to get away from what he called the `Frankenstein Syndrome' direction most such stories took at the time. That is, thinking machines turn on their masters. The first story he wrote on the subject involved a robot nanny that ends up saving a child's life after incessant paranoia has been rained on it by the child's mother. The whole point of Asimov's laws is that they are inviolable. The twist in his stories was that the machines always behaved exactly as they were supposed to, and the problems arose out of humans failing to appreciate subtleties inherent in how the laws work in real situations. Any robot harming (even by accident) or allowing a human to be harmed through inaction would cease to function. End of story. When this becomes inconvenient, one cannot ignore this for the sake of the plot one wants to have if one is going to be true to Asimov. The only reason I can think of for having Asimov's name on the credits is to draw in people who are fans of his work. That is also the only reason to keep the title of Asimov's book on this movie, because it has absolutely nothing to do with that collection of short stories entitled I, Robot. The Ellison script I mentioned earlier would have been vastly better.

So in short, if the attraction of this movie for you is Will Smith and the action movie genre, you'll probably be OK. If you're going to this movie because you're an Asimov fan, don't.

Back to the Future

A dissenting voice
OK...it looks like I'm the only person in civilization that hates this movie. I was at a friend's house, and it was rented for part of the evening's entertainment. I saw it way back in 1985 when it came out, and I did not then have any particularly hostile feelings toward it, but after seeing it again recently and looking through the comments on IMDb, I must conclude that it is the most overrated film ever made.

A quick browse through the comments yields such superlatives as, "Fantastically scripted sci-fi comedy!!", "The perfect movie package", "One of the most original idea ever to put on film"(sic), and "One of the best movies ever made in the history of film making." Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, I guess.

Plot-wise, this movie is as sit-com formulaic as they come. I can see how the pitch went to get this film made. "We'll make an episode of Three's Company meets Happy Days with some time travel in it!" I must also point out that this film is not science fiction. It is fantasy.

Maybe this is my own personal problem, but science fiction should make some attempt at plausibility. This movie relies on a device called the 'flux capacitor' that requires gigawatt's of power and a DeLorean moving at 88 miles an hour to function, although why this is the case and what the device does is never even vaguely delineated. The film would have been just as plausible if it involved a wizard that zapped people back in time with a medieval talisman and an incantation that required precise rhythm and pronunciation. It might even have been more plausible that way.

I suppose it's the 'science fiction' of it that really honks me off. It seems that so many people regard this film as good sf, and it is not. If you want a good example of sf, look at Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Many people find that film confusing and impenetrable, but good sf usually takes some work to appreciate because it deals with concepts that most people haven't thought about. This film just takes a formulaic stroll through a combination of well-worn clichés to be found all over situation comedies and time travel stories. Come to think of it, Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys deals with the time travel concept far better than this film does.

OK, this isn't to say the film has no redeeming qualities. It does have some amusing moments. As a sit-com, it's OK. For comedy in science fiction, though, the Fox network show Futurama is vastly better.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Waste of Effort
OK...I'm voting for GWB come November. Let's make that clear before we get started.

I wasn't going to see this film because I knew what would be in it, and I wasn't interested in contributing to Mr. Moore's box office earnings. A friend of mine (who will likely vote for JFK) offered to pay for my ticket because I `NEEDED' to see this film. So I went.

It fulfilled all my expectations. There is nothing in this film you will not expect to see whichever way your personal politics go. In this respect, the film is certainly a failure. Because of this, it also likely fails in persuading anyone toward any view they do not already hold. Its only success then, is in mudslinging.

Moore says he doesn't say anything in the film that isn't true. Maybe and maybe not. The presentation itself makes truth irrelevant in any case. The film reminds me of a political ad from the early 1900s I once saw where a candidate states, among other things, that his opponent was a practicing thespian in college and masticates in front of his family at the dinner table for God's sake. These were probably true assertions, but the way they were presented was clearly designed only to assassinate the opponent's character. If you're wondering how this applies to Moore, the media of the time never bothered to clarify the meaning of the words thespian (actor) and masticate (chew). Those who relied solely on those outlets took the statements in their implications and not their meaning, and the opponent lost badly. If you rely only on Moore's presentation, you may be getting some truth, but what it really means may be completely misrepresented or even irrelevant to the point he says he is making. We are lucky in this modern age in that there are plenty of outlets to answer Moore's film.

Moore's motivation is well known. I won't go into what is misleading and irrelevant in the film. There are scads of people doing that for those who want to find out just as there are plenty rushing to support Fahrenheit 9/11. My own opinion is that this film is remarkably boring for all its polemics. It simply doesn't give one anything one doesn't already have whether that is hatred for GWB or indignation at how Moore treats him. The film doesn't persuade at all and makes no real attempt to do so. In the end, it simply doesn't do anything. Personally, I'm not casting an IMDB vote for this film. My own views on the subject are probably sufficiently slanted that it wouldn't be objective, and I like to keep such votes in that area when I make them.

So see the film, if you like. In the end, all the ado about it will have no effect other than the publicity and increased box office that Moore was probably after anyway. The way the voting goes in November will not be changed by it.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Just one problem
I don't really want to go into too much depth on this film. By now, most people know whether they like this series or not. This film is easily up to the standards of the first two and is quite satisfying.

There are some items not covered that will almost have to be part of the extended version, so I'm going to reserve comment on those things until November 2004 when it comes out.

On the off chance that the film makers look at these things, though, I'm going to mention one thing that is, for me, the worst moment of the entire film series. A minor spoiler is coming up, but I'll enclose the paragraph with asterisks so you can skip it if you want.


Faramir's Lieutenant is ruthlessly impaled with a spear as he lies wounded and helpless on the ground at the sack of Osgiliath. The orc captain that has done this glares around defiantly and says, "The time of man is over. The time of the orc has begun."

First of all, an orc would not say such a thing. I could put on my fan geek hat and go into all the reasons why, but that isn't the point. This line is simply so bad it amazes me that anyone that wrote it could have been involved in the production of what has otherwise been an astoundingly great series of movies. This is the sort of thing a pretentious 8th grader might compose when s/he thinks s/he is being profound.

If the film makers are reading this, I would like to request that they remove this vile moment of criminal awfulness from the extended version. If something has to be there, just let the orc captain roar defiantly or something. That's pretty cheesy too, but I could live with that.


On the whole, this is an excellent end to the series. As for the missing events, I have heard that the extended version will have nearly an hour of extra material. Hopefully it will cover what those of us who care about it are certainly missing.

Much Ado About Nothing

Minor flaws, but who cares?
To start things off, this is a magnificent movie. I recently picked up a DVD of this Shakespeare adaptation because, let's face it, Shakespeare is great. On the whole, I have liked all of the Shakespeare adaptations that Kenneth Branagh made that I have seen, and when I found this one on sale, I bought it immediately even though I had not yet seen it. If Shakespeare is your bag, you need this in your collection. I am submitting this review because I think two items are worthy of comment.

Let's start with the bad news. Keanu Reeves is disappointing. Prince John is not a serious character. Reeves plays him like he's Iago. I've never managed to catch a live performance of this particular play, but I've always seen John as a caricature of an evildoer such as Snidely Whiplash or Dr. Evil. I think Shakespeare would agree insofar as Prince John's main presence in the play consists of him describing his evil schemes and then disappearing until it's time for him to be caught and punished. In my own humble opinion, he must be played as a comical villain if he is to have any entertainment value at all. When Shakespeare wanted a complex, distressing villain (such as Iago), he took the time to flesh the villainy out for us. Prince John is shallow and pointless except to cause the ado the play needs to progress. I think it would have been nice to see Reeves portray Prince John as a character from the Bill & Ted movies. Playing him seriously is a mistake.

Now for the good news. The other side of the coin is Michael Keaton playing the part of bumbling constable Dogberry. My impression of Dogberry has always been of a clueless official along the lines of Colonel Klink or the Keystone Cops. Keaton rearranged my thoughts. His portrayal has Dogberry as being at least a little insane. He no longer seems so much incompetent as existing in a slanted world that only he perceives. It is a rare occurrence indeed for me to find that my own imagination is short of the mark, but in this case, that is exactly what happened.

I do not know if the abovementioned items are the result of how the actors wanted to play their parts or Branagh directed the portrayals, so I will not attempt to affix blame or credit. In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter. The Prince John problem is insignificant because Shakespeare wisely chose not to give him too much stage time. The Dogberry magnificence more than makes up for it. Everything else is just fine. Even the musical accompaniment is beautifully done, if rather anachronistic.

Some may think that there are some casting problems such as Denzel Washington playing Don Pedro who, strictly speaking, shouldn't be black. Even linguistic accents don't entirely match up. So what? Some imagination must be brought to bear in any Shakespeare production. I am far more interested in the cumulative outcome. In short, this film easily overcomes its problems. Check it out.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

When you read the book, read all of it
All right, it deviates with the book, but it's not as bad as some people apparently think. My only problem is that the people who made this film seem to want to emphasize that men are weak and stupid, and I think Faramir and Theoden suffer unfairly in their characterizations for it. That aside, I found this adaptation just swell. Really, that's all I have to say about the film itself.

I wasn't going to review this film, but I read something saying two things that show less knowledge of the book than the writer apparently believes to be in possession of.

1. Return of the King is the longest book of the series. It has 544 pages if you count all of them. The appendices and index at the back of that volume, though, amount to about 144 pages, and the story portion of The Return of the King comes in at more like 400 pages. It's actually a lot shorter then The Fellowship of the Ring, which clocks in at 527 pages. I also don't mind leaving the business of Shelob, and Gandalf's confrontation of Saruman at Orthanc to the beginning of the next film. After thinking about it a little, perhaps keeping them in The Two Towers would have been somewhat anti-climactic. Leaving those bits until the next film, however, will not expand its length over much. It may even balance out the timing a little. We'll see.

2. The business about the love of Arwen and Aragorn is nowhere in the book. Check out appendix A from the abovementioned sections. It's all there. It's just that Tolkien places it happening before all the business of this story gets started. I suppose it could have been handled in flashback, but that might have been intrusive. That's a judgment call, and Jackson's choice didn't bother me.

In fact, there are numerous references to the appendices, as well as occasional nods at The Silmarillion, throughout both films, and I expect the third will have many more. Don't assume the filmmakers made them up unless you've read those sections. There are deviations from the book, but they are no worse in this film than the first. If they bothered you overmuch in the first film, then you probably want to avoid the second. If you think the second has a lot more departures, then you probably stopped reading when you hit the appendices, and you should read them before condemning their use.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

If only they were still doing stuff like this.
Tennesee Williams is, without a doubt, one of the best writers of the 20th century. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has always been my personal favorite. This particular version first came out as part of a project that premium cable (Showtime I think) was doing in its early years. If I'm not mistaken, the performance was taped live in an effort to create a live theatrical atmosphere. I bring this up because it will explain to those who care why it looks so much like a soap opera, only with good writing.

Aside from the somewhat cheesy production level, this is one of the best adaptations I have ever seen of a play to television. It couldn't be better cast. The performances are excellent. Even the DX-7ish sounding music score has a sultry feel to it that matches the setting beautifully.

My first experience with this play was, like many I suppose, the film version with Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Burl Ives. Even in that watered down version, the play had power, so I went to rent it to check it out more thoroughly. The video store had this version of it instead. When it first played on TV, I was much too young to really appreciate the power and raw emotion of the story in its pure form. I never would have guessed the movie was so bad. Burl Ives, after all, played Big Daddy in the original production. Unfortunately, the people who made the movie were apparently either too scared or too hampered by censorship concerns and star egos to present a workable facsimile of the original. I can understand axing the ambiguously homosexual relationship that has cast Brick into his alcoholic nose dive, I suppose, though the story loses almost all of its power because of it. I cannot, however, understand giving Big Mama's only sympathetic line in the whole play over to Elizabeth Taylor, who now strikes me as badly miscast in the role.

I should point out, however, that even this version is not exactly what Williams wrote. In this case, though, that is to its benefit. Williams' original version did not have Big Daddy in the final scenes. The original director, Elia Kazan, wanted him back, so Williams, since he liked the character anyway, obliged him. The scene as rewritten, however, never struck me as quite as good as Williams' original effort. This version has taken the best of both of those versions, a few nicely written lines that were added to the movie version and melded them into a superb synthesis whose presentation is most assuredly greater than the sum of its parts. I hate hearing this play end any way other than Maggie telling Brick she loves him, and Brick replying, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?"

All in all, this was a magnificent effort. I only regret that premium cable did not keep up the good work.

Tous les matins du monde

What is music?
As a professional musician, there are two things that happen in films that are likely to make me quite angry. One is a general concern, and the other is a more elemental notion of the nature of music. This movie deals with both quite well.

The general concern deals with seeing somebody playing an instrument in a scene. It is very rare to see somebody in a film that really looks like they are playing the instrument they are holding. I will grant that it is unrealistic to expect a leading player who has devoted his/her training to the art of acting to be fully proficient on an instrument that a role may require, but more often than not, they are simply given the instrument without any sort of coaching on how the instrument should be held or where their hands should be when the instrument is making a certain sound. When this happens in a film, my ability to suspend disbelief goes right out the window never to return. This is not limited to lead players, however. Often a band that is supposed to be playing music in the background is made up of actors that have no conception of the operation of the arcane devices they are holding. To add insult to injury, the soundtrack seldom matches up to the instrumentation of the band. This movie does an admirable job at keeping things believable in this regard. The instruments are held correctly. The hands of the actors move as they should. With only a few exceptions, the instruments you hear are the ones that are on screen. Even in terms of historical ideas of ornamentation and execution, this movie has done its homework. It seems that most moviemakers regard music as trivial, and thus, they make little effort for accuracy where it is concerned. This movie, perhaps, works harder at it because of its subject matter, which leads me to part two of this diatribe.

What is music? That is the central idea of this film. There is also a story involving a master viol player and his young student who seduces and abandons his eldest daughter, but it is simply a frame for the central question. If you attempt this sort of thing, you are on dangerous ground as far as I am concerned. It is an attempt that isn't made very often. Movies like Amadeus and Farinelli, entertainment value notwithstanding, are more about the personalities involved, and music is the frame rather than the central question. Others, like the contemptible Mr. Holland's Opus, boil the answer down into some trivial concept like "Let the music play you." The answer is not that easy. Speech may not even be capable of expressing it. That is the struggle of this film. The young student is quite talented. His technique is immaculate. The master sees and admits this quite freely. He is even unconcerned that the young student is taking some of his ideas and using them in his own music for publication. He has nothing to teach him as far as technical matters go. His struggle lies in making him a musician instead of a glorified musical acrobat. In this framework, it would be easy to degenerate into the flaccid trivialities that Mr. Holland's Opus embraces, but this film does not do that. It even lines these idiotic platitudes up in order to shoot them down. (In a scene later in the film when the young man returns to the master's villa to hear him play before he dies, the master asks him, "Have you learned that music is not for kings?" "I have learned that music is for God." he replies. The master answers, "No. God can speak for himself.") It is a tangled and complex question. All of the simple generalizations are systematically lined up and exposed for the twaddle that they are.

So what is the answer? This film knows, but if you don't have some inkling of the answer, you may come away from this film with nothing more than an interesting story set in the music world of 17th century France. I have no idea if the historical details of the story are accurate, and it doesn't matter a jot if they are or not. This movie is about a difficult and complex idea that few have even attempted to tackle, let alone delineate it so beautifully. If the question can be answered for you, this film will do it.


Nicely Solved
I'm not sure one could do better with the story. Yes there are things left out and altered, but no story ever makes it to the screen, large or small, without undergoing some metamorphosis. The complex nature of the story and the large amount of time the characters in it spend in extensive introspection make it a difficult story to translate to film. For a detailed examination of this problem, I highly recommend Harlan Ellison's essays on the original film release of Dune in his collection of film essays `Watching'. It is doubtful that any attempt at filming this novel will satisfy half the people who will see it.

I can hear, for instance, the purists out there lamenting that hardly a word of Frank Herbert's original dialogue survived intact, and to tell the truth, that also bothered me at first. The thing is, though, that Herbert simply didn't write like people talk. That was one of the things that made the first movie of Dune so spectacularly heavy-handed as to be laughable much of the time. Household servants don't go around speaking in oracular verse, and while the mode works with poetic beauty in a novel, it sounds silly in a film. Ray Bradbury's work has much the same problem.

There are some things cut that I miss. I particularly miss Hasimir Fenring, whom I found to be one of the most interesting characters in the original story, but I suppose that even in 6 hours spread over 3 nights, some things had to go. There's plenty more to go into, but on reflection over the evenings of watching, I find most of my problems to be hyper-retentive pecksniffery, and I will keep such to myself unless asked.

So, to keep this short, if you're looking for a line-by-line faithful translation of Dune onto film, look elsewhere. The spirit of the saga, however, is admirably preserved. It begins as Dune begins and ends as Dune ends. I don't think one will find one's time wasted in the experience.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Worth the price of admission.
I am, to say the least, not one of Jim Carey's fans, but he does a fine job as the Grinch in this film.

I realize that extras had to added to this film in order to make it long enough to qualify as a feature film, and for the most part, the additions are fine.

I am a professional musician, and what offends me most about this film is the stupid, sappy song that was inserted into things for no reason, apparently, other than to have a soundtrack to sell. The song is sung by Cindy Lou Who, and it is as awful a song as has ever been written, not just because the child playing the waif has a bad singing voice, but because it is one of those plastic sappy songs that the public seems to buy in bag-loads these days. Thank God that the Grinch Song (You're a mean one...Mister Grinch, etc.) from the original Chuck Jones film from the 60s was included, or I would have felt nothing but animosity towards this film.

OK...that aside, I think this film does a fine job with the story. A lot of the plotting as to how the Grinch got like he is, is predictable, but I can live with that quite easily. Everything comes out fine in the end as it should, and we're left with a swell grin on our faces. What more do you want from a shadow play?

So...go see it. If disgusting music doesn't offend you, you'll love it, and if it does, well...it's really a minor problem. Like the summary line says, it's worth the price of admission.

Fantasia 2000

Lazy, Lazy, Lazy
I went to this movie fully expecting to love it, and it certainly is not without its charms. Unfortunately, I can't give this movie a thumbs up.

They make a big deal about how they are attemting to carry on in the tradition of the original Fantasia, and then they proceed to ignore the first film's accomplishments.

There is not a single piece of music in this film that went in as it was written (with the exception of The Sorcerer's Apprentice that was taken from the original Fantasia). We only get one movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and that is presented with its entire middle section cut. Resphighi's Pines of Rome omits a movement and cuts up what is remaining. Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance wanders around from section to section depending on which musical effect is needed for the on-screen story. You get the idea.

This is the main problem here. The writers for this film seem to have been too lazy to try to write their stories to complement the music, and instead decided to chop up the music in order to fit it in with their story line. Laziness is the only explanation I can think of for doing this. While this flaw was not absent in the original film (Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was reordered extensively, Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain was altered some to fold into Schubert's Ave Maria, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker was reordered.), it was done VERY carefully and with, what I thought, respect for the composers' vision. In this Fantasia, though, the music seems quite secondary to the film's conception. Stravinsky's Firebird has a fantasy oriented story to it that would have been right up Disney's alley, but they went with some different concept that involved omitting all but 3 movements, and they were chopped and cut heavily.

This is not to say that the movie has no appeal. The animation sequences are stunningly well done, and the interludes between numbers are well done and often pleasantly amusing. This movie ultimately fails, however, because it considers the music to be window dressing for the cartoons when it should have done the opposite. Too Bad.

Bicentennial Man

I didn't go into this film expecting much, this one is based on an Asimov story.

For some reason, Issac Asimov's teriffic science fiction stories have not made it to the screen very much, and when they have, they have been less than satisfying. I am still waiting for someone to make Harlan Ellison's screenplay for I, Robot into what would be a superb film if the trolls of Hollywood don't decide to wreck it in the process...but I digress.

While I haven't had a chance to read the full length novelization by Asimov and Robert Silverberg of the original short story, it is one of my favorites. The film credits both versions of the story as source material. I mention this because, I feel that for all but the last half-hour of the film, it follows the source material quite well, and I didn't find the departures overly irritating. The change that did make me cringe is a gratuitous love affair that served no purpose other than cheap sentimentality. I also found it irritating because the robot's struggle of achieving official recognition of his humanity is omitted except for a couple of brief court room sequences in favor of this superfluous sub-plot. Perhaps this love affair is in the novelization, but it doesn't seem to me like Asimov's style.

Still...I enjoyed the film. Robin Williams turns in a fine performance, and Sam Neil is especially good as the robot's original owner. The sequences in which Neil tries to describe the concept of humor to Williams are quite good, and it seems to me that Asimov's essay on robots and humor should also have been credited, but I suppose that is a minor matter.

It isn't the greatest film I've ever seen, but it's better that a hot stick in the eyeball. Perhaps if the film becomes a hit, we'll see some more of Asimov's stories put onto film, and that's OK with me.

A Christmas Carol

Ham-handed writers should not tamper with the work of their betters
I know that books rarely make to the screen (big or small) without changes, but it always amazes me when the changes are apparently made by a writer to "improve" a story. A lot of Dickens' work has been altered for no reason I can discern (Scrooge's sister is Fran instead of Fan, a typo maybe?) or because the writer apparently thought he could do better (A large amount of Dicken's dialogue has been slashed and warped in this version)...he couldn't. Stick with the version starring George C. Scott or Alistair Sim.


Suprise, Suprise...I liked it
I went into this film fully expecting to hate it. A friend of mine begged me to go to it, but I otherwise would have avoided it. Without going into any spoilers, the whole plot will be more comprehensible if you have some familiarity with Catholic teachings, but a general knowledge of Christian lore will probably be enough to enjoy the film. It does contain some windy dime store philosophy, but I don't think it really gets in the way too much. Writer and director Smith has a real knack for writing dialogue and creating some amusing situations. Even if they are occasionally predictable, it somehow didn't bother me as such things usually do. Zealots should steer clear, but I recommend it to all others.

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