Thursday, February 1, 2007

Crash (2004)

With the Oscars not far away, I thought it might be good to take a look at last year's winner of Best Picture, Crash. Crash essentially explores the assumptions often made about race in the United States, against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Its structure is like that of many of Robert Altman's films, with multiple storylines which intersect at various points in the plot. Unfortunately, Paul Haggis is not Robert Altman.

While I think that in exploring assumptions about race Haggis had noble intentions, the sad fact is that noble intentions do not make a great movie, or even necessarily a good movie. Crash is in many ways a very flawed film. Indeed, it makes use of stock characters and stock situations that were old decades ago. A perfect example of this is Matt Dillon as a racist cop. Now I am sure we are all aware that racist cops do exist in real life. And I am sure that the LAPD has its share of racist cops. But where both the small and big screen are concerned, racist cops were old hat nearly twenty to thirty years ago (I don't guess Haggis has ever seen Black Caesar, Dark Blue, Heart Condition, or any of the other myriad films with racist police officers). Quite simply, it seems to me that the racist cop has become a stock character with no more weight or shock value than any other stock character. Another example is Don Cheadle as a black detective who comes from a poor family and whose brother is on the other side of the law. This is a stock situation that is even older than that of the racist cop. It dates as far back as Angels With Dirty Faces (made in 1938). Although I know that this occurs in real life (indeed, one of my best friends is a lawyer, archaeologist, and Marine whose brother is, well, in prison...), it is a situation that has been seen in movies over the years that it had long ago lost any power it has.

A far worse problem than the use of stock characters and stock plots in Crash is the fact that at times the plot seems downright contrived. The problem is that Haggis has disparate individuals who move in totally different circles (Dillon's racist cop and Christine, the wife of television director Cameron Thayer, are an example) encounter each other and the encounter each other again in ways that seem very unlikely and highly unrealistic in a city the size of Los Angeles--in some cases, these encounters and re-encounters seem to me like they would be unlikely in a city the size of Columbia, Missouri! One such coincidence in a film might be acceptable, but Crash has so many that some viewers might find it difficult to suspend their disbelief.

Another problem I have with Crash is that there are a few moments when characters (such as Matt Dillon's racist cop) pause to explain their thoughts and motivations to other characters. This simply strikes me as artificial, as it seems to me that in real life people rarely, if ever, explain why they are the way they are or why they do some of the things they do. Indeed, I can't help that wonder if Haggis felt that audiences needed these explanations in order to get a better grasp of the characters or if he thought it would give the characters more depth. Either way, I think he was wrong. It seemed to me simply to be one more contrivance.

Beyond the problems with the script itself, it seems to me that in some respects Crash, a film which seeks to explore assumptions about race, is in some respects racist itself. As of the 2000 census, 9.99% of the population of Los Angeles was Asian, which means that there only 1.25% more African Americans (who made up 11.24% of the city's population) than Asians. Despite this Asian characters only appear briefly in the film. And when they do appear, the characters are underdeveloped and, at least to me, they show characteristics of established Asian stereotypes! This is not what one expects or finds desirable in a movie that is supposed to be attacking racism.

Despite its flaws, I must say that I enjoyed Crash and it does have its good points. Most of these are to be found in the cast's various performances. I thought Sandra Bullock was convincing as a rich housewife who practically becomes agoraphobic after she and her husband are carjacked. And I thought both Ludacris as Anthony and Larenz Tate as Peter gave good performances as intellectual car thieves who are anything but stereotypical (I loved Anthony's theories on the origins of rap music...). I must also say that I liked the storyline featuring Shaun Toub as Farhad, a Persian storekeeper worried about his own safety--not the least of which is because it is one of the few storylines which is not marred by the coincidences and contrivances that afflict so many of the film's other story arcs.

I hope that no one here thinks that I feel Crash is a bad film or that I did not like the movie. That having been said, I am not sure that I can necessarily say that it was a good movie, and I certainly cannot say it was a great film (it certainly did not deserve to win Best Picture). That having been said, it is an entertaining film which has its share of good points and bad points, and it is certainly worth watching at least once.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sidney Sheldon R.I.P.

Television producer, screenwriter, playwright, and novelist Sidney Sheldon died yesterday of complications from pneumonia. He was 89 years old.

Sheldon was born Sidney Schetel on February 11, 1917 in Chicago, Illinois. He started writing while very young, making his first sale at age 10 (he received $10 for a poem). He attended Northwestern University and wrote short plays for theatre troupes. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps as a pilot in the War Training Service.

It was during the war that Sheldon broke into the movies as a screenwriter. His first screenplay was for the movie South of Panama in 1941. For the next several years he wrote stories and screenplays for various films. It was in 1943 that he made it to Broadway. In 1943 an update of The Merry Widow, for which Sheldon wrote the book, made its debut on the Broadway stage. The next several years Broadway would see several plays by Sheldon, among them Jackpot and Alice in Arms. After an absence of some years, Sheldon returned to the Broadway stage with Redhead in 1959 and Roman Candle in 1960.

In 1947 Sheldon wrote the screenplay for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, for which he won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Sheldon then entered his most prolific period as a screenwriter. Among other things, he wrote the screenplays for Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes, and Billy Rose's Jumbo.

It was in the Sixties that Sheldon entered a new career as television writer and producer. He created and produced The Patty Duke Show, which ran from 1963 to 1966. What may well be his best known creation debuted in 1965, the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Centred on astronaut Tony Nelson who winds up the master of the mischievous genie Jeannie, the show was a tribute not only to his creativity, but to his prolific writing as well. Sheldon wrote so many scripts for the sitcom that he used a pseudonym on many of them so that people would not think the show was written entirely by one man!

It was during the last season of I Dream of Jeannie that Sheldon entered yet another career. At the age of 50 he wrote his first novel, The Naked Face. This novel would be followed up by over 15 others, many of which would be adapted into mini-series. He would return to television in 1979 as the creator of the series Hart to Hart, for which he also wrote several of the scripts. It ran from 1979 to 1984. Of the TV series Sheldon created, only Nancy (1970) failed to run more than one season.

Sidney Sheldon was undoubtedly a talented man. Not only did he write the screenplays for several classic films, but he also wrote for the Broadway stage and created three classic TV series (The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart. This is not even counting the several novels he wrote. I rather suspect that ultimately Sheldon will be best remembered as the creator of I Dream of Jeannie, one of the best and most popular sitcoms of the Sixties. The show lasted five seasons and has seen success in syndication. It also saw two reunion movies and will see a feature film based on the series to be released next year. Of course, he will also be remembered as a screenwriter of such classic films as The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Easter Parade.

As to myself, I will remember Sidney Sheldon in another way. Many years ago I was working on a book (sadly, unpublished as of yet) on the science fiction and fantasy series of the Sixties. I wrote Sheldon with a few questions about I Dream of Jeannie. Not only did he answer my letter promptly and answered my questions, but he treated me with respect as a fellow writer, even though I had not yet been published. For me, then, I will always remember Sheldon not only as a talented playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, but as a true gentleman who would take the time out of his busy day to answer the questions of a beginning writer and to encourage that writer as well. I must say that I am then truly saddened by his death.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Screen Actors Guild Awards 2007

I must confess that I have always paid some attention to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. If nothing else, that can be a good indicator of how the actors in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have cast their Oscar ballots. And if this year's SAG Awards are any indication, the Oscars may hold a few surprises if the rest of the Academy votes with the actors.

To wit, Little Miss Sunshine took the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, the closest thing the Screen Actors Guild has to a "Best Picture" award. It beat out Babel, Dreamgirls, and The Departed for the award. Keep in mind that three out of the past four years, the movies which won this award have taken the Best Picture Oscar (Chicago, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Crash). Another surprise (for me at least) was Forest Whitaker's win of Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role for his role in The Last King of Scotland. He beat both Leonardo DiCaprio (for Blood Diamond) and Peter O'Toole for Venus. I don't think anyone can complain that he didn't deserve to win.

Of course, the awards for the actress categories were anything but surprising. Helen Mirren was the odds on favourite for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role for her role in The Queen, so it was not a surprise that she won. Jennifer Hudson taking the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role for her role in Dreamgirls was also not a surprise.

While the motion picture awards had some surprises and some expected wins, the television awards were a mixed bag. Somehow Grey's Anatomy beat out both Deadwood and The Sopranos for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series (their equivalent of Best Dramatic Series). I have said it before and I will say it again. Grey's Anatomy is simply a standard medical soap opera with an high sex quotient. And it is not even a well done one, at that. To add insult to injury, I must point out that while Grey's Anatomy won, neither Lost nor House were even nominated! I also have to question how Chandra Wilson of Grey's Anatomy beat out Edie Falco of The Sopranos for the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series--to me it is a case of the absolute worst beating out the best.

At least I can say I am very happy with most of the winners in the other television categories. Hugh Laurie took Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series for House. And I must say that I am happy that Alec Baldwin took the award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series (although I would not have been disappointed had Jeremy Piven taken the award for his role in Entourage--they are both fantastic). And I was more than happy to see that The Office took Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, even if it meant beating Entourage to do it.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see if this year's SAG Awards are an accurate gauge of what we can see in the Oscars. If it is, then we might well be in for a surprises come this year's Academy Awards.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Wicker Man (1973)

When it comes to cult films, The Wicker Man (the original, not the wretched 2006 movie of the same name) ranks among the most famous. Fortunately, for fans of the movie, The Wicker Man Two-Disc Special Edition DVD was released December 19, 2006. What makes this edition so special is that it not only has the shortened (some would say "butchered") 88 minute theatrical release, but the 99 minute, restored, extended version. Even though it is the 88 minute theatrical release that appears on Disc One, and even though there have been several different cuts of The Wicker Man, it is the 99 minute extended version that anyone who has never seen The Wicker Man should see first.

For those unfamiliar with The Wicker Man, the movie centres on Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward), a deeply Christian police officer who must investigate the case of a missing child on the island of Summersisle, off the coast of Scotland. Now Summersisle is unique in two ways: it is well known for its produce (especially its apples) and it also possesses its own revival of ancient paganism. Clues to the mystery of the missing girl and the conflict between Howie's Christianity and Summerisle's pagan culture are the primary thrust of the film.

While the shortened, 88 minute version is entertaining and even good, despite some gaps in continuity, it is the 99 minute version that has ultimately made the film a cult favourite. And there is good reason for this, as the long version fills in must needed background on Summersisle and fills in the gaps in continuity that plagued the edited version. What is more, the lengthened version features more of the great Christopher Lee as Lord Summersisle, whose exchanges with Sgt. Howie are priceless.

Indeed, it is largely the performances of the two leads that drive this film. Edward Woodward plays Sgt. Howie as deeply religious, even to the point of fanaticism, while at the same time remaining a sympathetic figure. Christopher Lee plays Lord Summersisle as free and easy and very open minded, but at the same time as devoted to his paganism as Howie is to his Christianity. It is the strong performances of these two playing very different, but in some ways similar (both are deeply religious men in their own fashion) characters.

Of course, the fodder for Woodward and Lee's great performances is provided by Anthony Shaffer's fine script. Prior to The Wicker Man, Shaffer had written both the play Sleuth and the screenplays to the movies Sleuth and Frenzy. Following The Wicker Man, Shaffer would write screenplays for Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. It should be no surprise, then, that while The Wicker Man is often considered a horror film, it is actually more accurately described as a thriller (albeit one with a horrifying ending). Shaffer's script is full of great dialogue and great set pieces, all the while letting the viewer watch as the game between Howie and Summerisle unfolds. Indeed, one of the great things about The Wicker Man is that it neither vilifies the inhabitants of Summerisle, nor holds the deeply religious Sgt. Howie up to ridicule. Both Howie and Lord Summersisle are allowed to express their beliefs without either being made the antagonist. The Wicker Man is ultimately a conflict between equals, and it is up to the viewer to decide who, if either, is in the wrong.

Despite its status as a classic, cult movie, The Wicker Man is not a perfect movie. It does have its flaws. One of these for me is the fact that the paganism of Summersisle seems less a revival of genuine Celtic paganism than a realisation of 19th century scholars' theories about ancient pagan religions. To wit, director Robin Hardy admits on the DVD's audio commentary to relying on The Golden Bough a great deal, a work largely discredited by today's scholars I very seriously doubt that ancient Celts, if they even had the custom of dancing around the Maypole, thought of the Maypole as a phallic symbol (sometimes a Maypole is just a Maypole....). Of course, I suppose this can be explained by the fact that the first Lord Summersisle brought his brand of paganism to the island in the 19th century, hence the seemingly archaic view of what ancient paganism actually was.

A more glaring flaw can be seen in the plot. In order for the climax to take place, Sgt. Howie must come to one conclusion about the disappearance of the missing girl and take one course of action. This leaves little room for error on the part of the inhabitants of Summersisle and it may be hard for some viewers to believe that everything that unfolds in the movie could be manipulated in such a way that Howie would come to conclusions and choose the proper course of action that would lead to the film's unforgettable climax. On the DVD's audio commentary, Robin Hardy, Edward Woodward, and Christopher Lee theorise that the inhabitants of Summersisle must have rehearsed everything in advance and anticipated every possibility. Still, I can see how some viewers might have some difficulty with accepting that Howie could be led along to the point that the inhabitants of Summersisle want him.

As to The Wicker Man Two-Disc Special Edition DVD itself, the extended version features an audio commentary from director Robin Hardy and stars Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. Disc One features trailers, TV spots, and radio spots, as well as the documentary The Wicker Man Enigma. All of this is worth viewing, even the shortened, 88 minute version of the film, although as I said, anyone who has never seen the film should watch the extended version first.

Regardless of its flaws, I have always enjoyed The Wicker Man. It has always been one of those films I can watch repeatedly, and it has always been one of those movies I have found both disturbing and fascinating. If one good thing came out of the horrible 2006 film of the same name, it is that the 99 minute extended version of the original Wicker Man is back in circulation.