The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)


cracked rear viewer

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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #110: Atonement (dir by Joe Wright)


Atonement_UK_posterWhenever I think back on the 2007 best picture nominee Atonement, my first thought is usually, “Oh my God!  Benedict Cumberbatch is in this movie!”

And, indeed, he is.  However, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know who Benedict was when I first saw this film because, if I had, I doubt I would have ever been able to look at him in quite the same way again.  (Fortunately, I had somehow forgotten that I had previously seen him in Atonement when I first saw Benedict in Sherlock.)  Benedict’s role in Atonement is not a large one but it is pivotal to the film’s plot.  He plays Paul Marshall, a man who has made a fortune as a chocolate manufacturer in pre-World War II England.  Paul is handsome, charming, and rich.  After all, he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  He’s also a rapist who, later in the film, marries one of his victims specifically to make it impossible for her to ever testify against him in court.

Atonement is one of those films where the British upper class meets the lower class and forbidden love and tragedy follow.  Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the oldest of the Tallis sisters.  Her family is rich but she’s in love with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the housekeeper.  One night, Robbie attempts to write a love note to Cecilia and, growing frustrated with his inability to come up with right words, he writes an over-the-top, sexually explicit letter as a joke.  (And the audience gaps, “Oh my God!  They used that word in the 30s!?”)  He then goes on to write a more standard love note.  However, when he asks Cicilia’s younger sister, 13 year-old Briony (Saorise Ronan) to deliver the note to Cecilia, he accidentally gives her the wrong note.  Briony reads it to her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and, already jealous of Robbie and Cecilia’s flirtation, she decides that Robbie must be a “sex maniac.”

Briony, who writes plays in her spare time, later spies on Robbie and Cecilia as they have sex for the first time.  Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, grows more and more jealous.  Later that night, while looking for Lola’s twin brothers, Briony sees a man running through the woods.  When she goes to investigate, Briony discovers that the man has raped Lola.  When asked by the police, Briony lies and says that Robbie was the man running in the woods.  She also shows everyone the “joke” letter that Robbie wrote, proving, in their eyes, that Robbie is guilty.  Robbie is sent to prison.  Of the Tallises, only Cecilia believes that Robbie is innocent.  Angered over their quickness to accuse Robbie, Cecilia cuts off all contact with her family.

As the years pass, Briony comes to realize that Paul was the rapist and she struggles to deal with her guilt.  When World War II breaks out, Robbie is released from prison on the condition that he join the army.  Meanwhile, Briony volunteers as a nurse and tries to come up with a way to bring Cecilia and Robbie back together.

I didn’t really appreciate the film the first time that I saw it but, with subsequent viewings, I came to appreciate Atonement as an intelligent and well-acted look at guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.  James McAvoy and Keira Knightley both have amazing chemistry and Saoirse Ronan is amazing in her film debut.  You can see why Atonement‘s director, Joe Wright, subsequently cast her in Hanna.  Compared to the other films nominated for best picture of 2007 — No Country For Old Men, Juno, There Will Be Blood, and Michael ClaytonAtonement is definitely a low-key film.  But it definitely more than deserved its nomination.

Film Review: Foxcatcher (dir by Bennett Miller)


What a long and strange trip it has been for Foxcatcher.

Originally, Bennett Miller’s latest film was scheduled to be released at the end of 2013 and it was expected to be a major player in the 2013 Oscar race.  And then it was suddenly announced that Sony Pictures would, instead, wait an extra year to release the film.  Usually, this is a sign of a film that’s not expected to live up to expectations.  (Case in point: The Monuments Men.) But, in this case, it was seen as being the exact opposite.  Sony had such faith in the Oscar prospects of Foxcatcher that they were willing to hold off a year so it wouldn’t get lost in all of the attention that was being given to American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, and Wolf of Wall Street.

And, in many ways, it was a smart move.  Overnight, Foxcatcher went from being that weird movie with Steve Carell to being one of the most anticipated film of 2014.

Then, during the summer, Foxcatcher premiered at Cannes and was one of the hits of the festival.  With the notable exception of the A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd, the reviewers at Cannes were rapturous in their praise of Foxcatcher.  And, though it failed to win the Palme d’Or, it did win best director for Bennett Miller and it cemented it’s status as the Oscar front-runner.

And then, something started to happen.

There was backlash against Foxcatcher.  As more and more critics saw the film, we started to hear more and more speculation that the film would fail to live up to all of the hype.  Critics generally praised the performers but many complained that the film was too cold and detached for its own good.  At first, it was easy to say that this was partially the result of unrealistically high expectations.  But, as more and more reviews came in, it became almost fashionable to speculate that Foxcatcher would be left out of the Oscar race.

Of course, most of us who were doing the speculating were doing so without actually having seen the film for ourselves.  After all, film critics and festival goers aren’t the ones who actually vote on what films will be nominated for and win Oscars.  One need only look at the nominations for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to realize that.

Well, Foxcatcher has finally been released and we’ve all finally gotten a chance to see it.  I saw it last week, while I was in Fort Worth for the Christmas holidays.  And my reaction…

Well, there’s a reason why it’s taken me nearly a week to write this review.

Ultimately, Foxcatcher is a good film.  In fact, on a purely technical level, it’s probably one of the best films of the year.  If it is nominated for best picture, the nomination will not necessarily be undeserved.  Bennett Miller comes up with some hauntingly chilly images.  Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo all give excellent performances.  It’s a film that stays with you, a powerful depiction of a true crime.

But it’s still not an easy film to enjoy.

Those critics who complained that Miller’s approach was too cold and detached have a point.  You watch the film with a sense of dread, knowing what’s going to eventually happen.  (Though I didn’t know anything about the murder of Dave Schultz before the film, I had read the reviews and I knew that eventually Mark Ruffalo’s kind-hearted family man would end up being gunned down in front of his family.)  But Miller always keeps the characters and the story at a distance.  You watch the characters and you struggle to understand them but, by the end of the film, you’re no closer to understanding why John E. du Pont (the eccentric millionaire turned murdered, played by Steve Carell) murdered Dave Schultz than you were at the beginning.

Instead, Miller is more interested as looking at John du Pont as being an example of American exceptionalism gone crazy.  Throughout the film, characters frequently comment on the fact that the du Ponts are one of the oldest and richest families in America.  (Not coincidentally, we’re also told that they initially made their fortune by producing and selling gunpowder.)  Du Pont is an outspoken and proud American.  Along with training wrestlers on the grounds of his estate (the Foxcatcher of the title), he also frequently invites the police to use the grounds for target practice.  Though Miller couldn’t have realized it when the film was originally shot in 2013, the scenes of the obviously unstable du Pont hanging out with the cops take on an extra resonance in this time of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.

John du Pont frequently talks about how his plan to open a world-class wrestling training facility is, at heart, a patriotic act.  The world wrestling championship, du Pont believes, belongs in America and he’s going to make sure that it gets there.  In order to achieve this goal, he hires Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to be his wrestling coach.  Mark, who has always lived in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), jumps at the chance to establish his own identity.  At first, du Pont is like the father that Mark has never had.  They even become friends.  (Du Pont, at one point, talks about discovering that all of his childhood friends had been paid to be his friend.)  Mark shows du Pont some wrestling moves.  Du Pont introduces Mark to cocaine.

But, ultimately, it becomes apparent that du Pont’s friendship with Mark was really just a ruse to get Mark to convince his older brother to come work for du Pont.  When Dave finally does join Mark at Foxcatcher, it causes Mark to turn self-destructive and du Pont to eventually turn into a murderer.

And, as I said, it’s a powerful film.  Channing Tatum gives the performance of his career and Steve Carell is frighteningly believable as John du Pont.  (One minor complaint: Carell is being promoted for best actor, even though his performance was clearly a supporting one.)  Mark Ruffalo, as well, does great work as Dave and somehow manages to make innate human decency compelling.

But the film itself is so cold and detached that, ultimately, this is a film that you end up respecting more than you end up enjoying.

Foxcatcher

 

 

Lisa’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For June


Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

It’s time for me to update my way too early Oscar predictions!  Every month, based on a combination of buzz, reviews, gut feelings, and random guesses, I attempt to predict which films, directors, and performers will receive nominations in 2015!  For the June edition, I look at how my predictions have been effected and changed by the results of the Cannes Film Festival.

Thanks to Cannes, I’m a bit more sure about some of my predictions (in particular, Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner, and Julianne Moore in Map To The Stars).  But at the same time, the majority of these predictions remain the result of instinct and random guessing.

Click on the links to check out my predictions for March, April, and May!

And now, here are June’s predictions!

Best Picture

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Mr. Turner

Whiplash

Wild

Based on its reception at Cannes, I’ve added Mr. Turner to the list of nominees.    I’ve also dropped Unbroken from the list, largely because of how aggressively it is currently being hyped by people who have yet to see it.    Traditionally, the more intensely an awards contender is hyped during the first half of the year, the more likely it is that the film itself is going to be end up being ignored once the actual nominations are announced.  (This is known as the Law of The Butler.)

Best Director

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Birdman

Mike Leigh for Mr. Turner

Richard Linklater for Boyhood

Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher

Jean-Marc Vallee for Wild

I’ve dropped Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and replaced them with Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher).  I’m far more confident that Cannes winner Miller will receive a nomination than Leigh.

Best Actor

Steve Carell in Foxcatcher

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner

The big addition here is Timothy Spall, who I am predicting will be nominated for his Cannes-winning performance in Mr. Turner.

Best Actress

Amy Adams in Big Eyes

Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Reese Whitherspoon in Wild

Shailene Woodley in The Fault In Our Stars

Based on the charming but slight trailer for Magic In The Moonlight, I have removed Emma Stone from this list.  I was tempted to replace her with Hillary Swank but even the positive reviews of The Homesman were curiously muted.  So, I ended up going with Jessica Chastain’s performance in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.  I also replaced Michelle Williams with Shailene Woodley who, much like Jennifer Lawrence over the past two years, is currently starring in both a commercially successful franchise film and a critically and commercially acclaimed drama.  That said, The Fault In Our Stars may have opened too early in the year to be a legitimate contender.

Best Supporting Actor

James Franco in True Story

Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher

Martin Sheen in Trash

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

I’ve moved Ralph Fiennes back up to Best Actor and I’ve replaced him with James Franco for True Story.  That might be wishful thinking on my part because everyone knows that I have a huge crush on James Franco.  However, the role — that of a real-life murderer who steals a reporter’s identity — sounds like both a chance of pace for Franco and the type of role that often leads to Oscar recognition.  (Just ask Steve Carell…)

Speaking of Steve Carell, he’s not the only actor getting awards-buzz for his performance in Foxcatcher.  Channing Tatum has been getting the best reviews of his career.  If he’s promoted for a supporting nod, Tatum is probably guaranteed a nomination (and, in all probability, that would doom the chances of Mark Ruffalo).  However, Tatum is apparently going to be promoted for best actor and his chances might be a bit more iffy in that race.

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

Julianne Moore in Map To The Stars

Vanessa Redgrave in Foxcatcher

Kristen Scott Thomas in Suite francaise

Kristen Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria

Unlike a lot of film bloggers, I am not expecting Into the Woods to be a major Oscar contender.  (See The Law of The Butler above.)  While I was originally predicting that this film would manage to get Meryl Streep her annual nomination, I am now going to go out on a limb and predict that Meryl Streep will not be nominated for anything (other than maybe a Nobel Peace Prize) in 2015.  I’m also dropping both Viola Davis and Marcia Gay Harden from my list of predicted nominees and I’m replacing them with three actresses who received a lot of acclaim at Cannes: Julianne Moore for Map To The Stars, Vanessa Redgrave for Foxcatcher, and Kristen Stewart for The Clouds of Sils Maria.

Yes, I know what you’re saying — “Kristen Stewart!?”  Personally, if she’s as good as her reviews for The Clouds of Sils Maria seem to indicate, I think she will definitely be nominated.  I think it will actually help her case that she’s not exactly an acclaimed actress.  Look at it this way — people take it for granted that Meryl Streep is going to give a great performance, so much so that they’ll even make excuses for Meryl’s shrill turn in August: Osage County.  When someone like Kristen Stewart shows that she’s capable of more than Twilight, people notice and remember.  It’s those performances that inspire people to go, “Oh yeah, she actually can act!” that often lead to Oscar momentum.

And those are my predictions for June.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments section below!

Kristen Stewart

And here’s the Cannes Teaser for Foxcatcher!


Speaking of Cannes, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has also been shown at the festival and it got a far more positive reaction than Lost River.  Below is the teaser that was released to coincide with its Cannes premiere.

I think everyone is pretty much assuming that both Foxcatcher and Steve Carell are going to be nominated for Oscars.  The big question, right now, seems to be rather Mark Ruffalo or Channing Tatum will join the list of nominees.  I’m also going to be keeping an eye on Vanessa Redgrave, who has a small role as Carell’s mother.  After all, a Redgrave nomination would be a chance for the Academy to honor a respected actress who might not be appearing in many more films.

(As well, it would be a perfect excuse to get Franco Nero to come to the ceremony!)

As for the trailer below — if nothing else, this movie looks intense.  It’s interesting to see Carell in such a dark role but I fully believe that he’s capable of pulling it off.

Film Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler (dir by Lee Daniels)


Dare I admit it?

When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I was not impressed.

Yes, the audience applauded as the end credits rolled.  And yes, I know that almost all of the mainstream critics have given it a good review.  I know that Sasha Stone has been hyping it as a surefire Oscar contender.  I know that, up until 12 Years A Slave introduced us all to an actress named Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah Winfrey was considered to be the front-runner for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But it doesn’t matter.  The Butler did little for me.

I also realize that the film ended with a title card that announced that what I had just watched was dedicated to the American civil rights movement.  In many ways, that title card felt like emotional blackmail, implying that if you criticized The Butler than that meant you were also criticizing the brave, real life men and women who risked their lives to fight for equal rights.

However, when you put emotions and good intentions to the side, the fact of the matter is that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not that good of a movie.  One need only compare The Butler to some of the other films that were released this year that dealt with the African-American experience — films like 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station — to see just how safe and uninspiring The Butler truly is.

The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the son sharecroppers (played by David Banner and Mariah Carey) in the deep south.  After Cecil’s father is murdered by plantation owner Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), Cecil is raised and educated by the wealthy Annabeth Westdall (Vanessa Redgrave).  Eventually, the teenaged Cecil leaves the plantation and ends up working in a hotel where he’s educated in how to be a master servant by the elderly Maynard (Clarence Williams III, who brings a quiet dignity to his role).  Cecil eventually gets promoted to a hotel in Washington, D.C.  It’s there that he meets and marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).

In 1957, Cecil is hired to work at the White House.  Along with befriending two others butlers (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), Cecil also gets the chance to observe history play out first hand.  Starting with Dwight Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams) and ending with Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman, giving a performance that is incredibly bad), Cecil watches as President after President deals with the civil rights movement.  Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy (James Marsden) are portrayed as being heroes while others, like Richard Nixon (John Cusack), are portrayed as being villains but all of them have the watchful eye of Cecil Gaines in common.

Meanwhile, at home, Gloria has a brief affair with Howard (played by Terrence Howard and really, you have to wonder what Cecil was thinking leaving his wife alone with anyone played by Terrence Howard) and Cecil’s oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved with the civil rights movement and grow increasingly estranged from his father.

The Butler actually starts out pretty well.  There’s a lengthy sequence where Louis and a group of students are trained on how to conduct a sit-in that’s extremely compelling to watch.  However, then John Cusack shows up wearing a big fake nose and the entire film starts to fall apart.

From a cinematic point of view, the film fails because it ultimately seems to be more dedicated to trotting out a parade of celebrity cameos to actually telling a compelling story.  As is his usual style, Lee Daniels directs with a heavy hand and, as a result, the film is full of emotionally-charged scenes that fail to resonate for longer than a handful of minutes.

My main issue with The Butler is that the film literally contains no surprises.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens and, at no point, is the audience actually challenged to consider the way they view history or race relations.  Whereas films like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave truly challenge our assumptions, The Butler encourages us to pat ourselves on the back for being so enlightened.  Every single frame of The Butler is specifically designed to fool us into thinking that we’re watching an important and challenging movie.

Because of a silly copyright lawsuit, the official title of The Butler is Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  However, that title is very appropriate because The Butler is definitely a Lee Daniels film.  Even if you didn’t know it beforehand, it would be easy to guess that the  same man who directed Precious and The Paperboy also directed The Butler.  As a director, Daniels specializes in making simplistic points in the most bombastic way possible.  The results are films, like The Butler, that are more concerned with manipulating an audience than challenging an audience.  When audiences applaud at the end of The Butler, they aren’t so much applauding the film as much as they are applauding themselves for having seen it.

Film Review: Camelot (dir by Joshua Logan)


Back when I was 18 years old, I auditioned for a community theater production of Camelot.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been intrigued with the spectacle and romance of the Arthurian legends and I just knew that I would make the perfect Guinevere.  And so, for two nights, I auditioned.  I performed “Baby One More Time” as my audition song, I showed off my dance moves, and I did countless cold readings with countless potential Arthurs and Lancelots.  At the end of the two days, the director told me that he would be in touch and I left with stars in my mismatched eyes, convinced that I had won the role of Guinevere.

Two days later, I got a call not from the director but from the assistant director.  She informed me that while my dancing was impressive, I wasn’t right for the role of Guinevere because:

1) I was too young.

2) I couldn’t sing.

3) My voice carried too much of a rural twang for me to be a believable Queen of England.

However, she did tell me that I had been selected to be a part of the “chorus.”  Well, I may have only been 18 but I still had my pride so I told her that, if I couldn’t I play Guinevere, I had no interest in being in their little production of Camelot.  I was later told that this caused a lot of people to assume that I was a diva but no matter, I stand by my decision.

When I later saw the theater’s production of Camelot, I felt thoroughly vindicated.  It wasn’t just the fact that the actress they cast as Guinevere had no stage presence, no boobs, and a horsey face.  It’s the fact that Camelot itself isn’t a very good show.  As good as the songs are, Camelot is something of a talky mess and Pellinore is one of the most annoying characters ever.

It was only after I saw that mediocre production that I discovered that there was a film version of Camelot. Released in 1967, the Warner Bros. production was one of the many big budget musicals released in the late 60s.  It has a terrible reputation (and was a box office bomb) but I recently decided to watch it for two reasons.

First off, Camelot was nominated for five Academy Awards (though not best picture) and won three (Best Art-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Best Music — Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment).  That means that Camelot won two more Oscars than The Graduate and one more than Bonnie and Clyde.

Secondly, this film version of Camelot features Franco Nero (who, in 1967, was literally the most handsome man in the world) in the role of Lancelot.

And so, I recently set aside 3 hours and I watched the film version of Camelot.

Camelot tells a familiar story.  Arthur (played here by Richard Harris) becomes king of England and he marries Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave).  At the magnificent castle of Camelot, the most noble knights of England gather at a round table and Arthur preaches equality and chivalry.  Eventually, the righteous French knight Lancelot (Franco Nero) travels to Camelot and becomes Arthur’s  greatest knight.  However, Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love and, as a result of the schemes of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred (David Hemmings), Lancelot and Arthur are soon at war with each other.

Despite my dislike of the stage production, I actually started watching the film version with high hopes.  I have a soft place in my heart for the overproduced musical spectacles of the late 60s and I figured that what was slow on stage might be more tolerable when seen on film.  Unfortunately, I was incorrect.  Camelot is a painfully old-fashioned film and, clocking in at 179 minutes, it’s also one of the most boring movies ever made.  Richard Harris was reportedly miserable while making the film and it shows in his performance.  You get the feeling that King Arthur would rather be anywhere other than Camelot.

The only time that the film comes alive is when Franco Nero is allowed to command the screen.  While the very Italian Nero is somewhat miscast as the very French Lancelot, that doesn’t change the fact that Nero plays the role with a passion that’s missing from the rest of the film.  Franco Nero’s blue eyes did more to make me believe in Camelot than any of the songs sung by Richard Harris.  One need only watch the scenes that Franco shares with Vanessa Redgrave to understand why they’ve been a couple for over 40 years.

Ultimately, Camelot is interesting mostly as an example of how the old Hollywood studio establishment attempted to deal with competition from television and European films.  Instead of attempting to adapt to the new culture of the 60s, the old studio bosses just continued to make the same movies they had always made, with the exception being that they now spent even more money than before to do so.  While it’s easy to mock them, you have to wonder if the Camelot of 1967 is all that different from the John Carter of today.