Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Arthur 2: On the Rocks (Yorkin 1988)

Time for another confession: I watched Arthur 2: On the Rocks (Yorkin 1988) years before I saw the original Arthur (Gordon 1981).

Of course, there is a good reason for that: Arthur 2 On the Rocks used to play fairly frequently as the afternoon film on weekends, along with I Come in Peace, aka Dark Angel (Baxley 1990) and the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels for reason. Thus, used to I watch it when there was nothing else on when I was a teenager. The film had a few laughs, but it was nothing great, and I certainly was not motivated to see the original film based on the sequel. More importantly, I did not hate it as so many other people did.

Watching the film now in light of my love for the original Arthur however, as well after years of maturing as a film fan, and the level of hatred directed towards Arthur 2: On the Rocks is now understandable to me. The film is a mess of bad ideas, shoddy screenwriting, and sheer desperation on the part of star and producer Dudley Moore, who clearly was trying recapture his past success after the critical and financial failures of the films he did immediately preceding Arthur 2: On the Rocks.

The film is, however, fascinatingly bad. It is the product of a rather talented group of filmmakers, with Bud Yorkin, the filmmaker behind the criminally underrated Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), directing and Andy Breckman, creator of the television series Monk on writing duties. Most of the original cast is back, including John Gielgud, whose character Hobson (SPOILER) died in the original film (More on that later). Over their respective careers, these two have produced or worked on a number of screen gems, but with Arthur 2: On the Rocks, the best that they can do is produce a few chuckles and insult the intelligence of the audience.

Set seven years after the events original film, Arthur 2: On the Rocks finds Arthur (Moore) and Linda (Liza Minnelli) happily married, with Arthur still drinking and doing nothing with his life. Linda wants to have a child, but when she discovers that she cannot biologically have one, she convinces Arthur to go along with adopting a baby. However, just as the pair are getting ready to adopt, the Bach family business merges with the empire of Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliot), whose daughter Arthur left at the alter at the end of the previous film. Still angry at Arthur, Johnson forces Arthur’s family to cut him off from the fortune until he agrees to divorce Linda and marry his daughter Susan (Cynthia Sykes), who still desperately wants Arthur. Refusing, Arthur and Linda are forced into a working class existence, which Arthur struggles to cope with as he finds himself trying to take responsibility for once in his life.

While any sequel to Arthur would have been unnecessary, the idea of Arthur giving up the booze to try and be a responsible father actually could have made for a half decent film, giving Arthur a real reason to confront the reality of his life, if we had no choice but to see him try and overcome his alcoholism. A less interesting, but still a reasonable basis for a sequel would have been to watch Arthur straighten his life out and become a functioning member of the working class after the loss of his fortune. Together, these ideas might have even complimented each other. So the question simply is this: why do none of these ideas work in the finished film?

The answer lays with the idiotic and highly artificial Johnson revenge storyline that dominates the film. The original Arthur was a villain-less piece, with Arthur caught in a tough situation that forces him to make one simple choice in his life. By contrast, this sequel gives Arthur a threat he must overcome, and in the process it undermines the fact that the real problem facing Arthur is how he chooses to live his life. When Arthur gets a job, and then is promptly fired, it is not because his drinking makes him incapable of holding a job, but because Burt Johnson buys the store and demands Arthur be fired. When Arthur and Linda cannot stay at her father’s place, it is because the "new owner" wants them out of the apartment. This transformation of the Johnsons into outright villains does a disservice to the character of Arthur by giving him an easy scapegoat for his problems. Moreover, it reduces the Johnsons to cartoons instead of real human beings in a real world.

Not that anything outside the Johnson plotline closely resembles the real either. While the adoption storyline has potential, the adoption process as presented in the film bares no resemblance to how adoptions actually work, with Kathy Bates adoption agency representative acting as an oblivious fairy godmother figure to Arthur and Linda. Bate's character ignores several problems she discovers over the course of the film relating to Arthur and Linda, problems that would make most adoption agencies take a good hard look at these pontential parents. These problems include, but are not limited to: Arthur’s alcoholism (she merely takes him at his word that he is trying to improve); the fact that Arthur and Linda have lost everything; and that the apartment Arthur and Linda have moved into is a microscopic dump (which, by the way, Bate's character shows up at mere MINUTES after Arthur and Linda agree to rent it). Even more baffling is that the adoption agent endless claims that love is one all one really seems to need to raise a child, which, as any reasonable parent will note, is a statement completely ignorant of reality. The whole subplot comes across as an underdeveloped idea, and should have been exercised from the script entirely, or made the center piece of the film.

The biggest misstep with the film however is the manner in which Arthur’s drinking problem is finally addressed. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). In the final third of the film, Arthur is actually visited by the ghost of Hobson (Gielgud), I kid you not, who acts as a Clarence-like figure to Arthur’s George Bailey, without the whole alternate timeline shtick. Here, Hobson tells Arthur he finally needs to get his act together and give up drinking, and Arthur does. Right there. No questions asked.

Just like that.

The many problems with the film I have already mentioned could be overlooked, but this no effort approach for addressing Arthur’s alcoholism, one of the key defining traits of the character, is not one of them. While having Arthur give up the bottle was a mistake in the 2011 remake of Arthur, that film at least made some attempt to show that Arthur giving up alcohol was not an easy task. Not much of an attempt mind you, but more of an attempt that “ghost tells Arthur to stop drinking, and he does.” Arthur’s battle with the bottle, while still not a good idea, at least would have provided a solid comedic and dramatic backbone for the film, and too see it tossed away frivolously here illustrates just how ill-conceived this whole venture is.

The shame of it all is that there are elements of the film I genuinely enjoy. While the film was clearly born out of Moore's need for a box office hit, he and Liza Minnelli are charming in the film, rising above the material they are working with. At points, the film does manage to get a few laughs, including a priceless scene in which Arthur is told to “just marry the bitch.” And during the all too brief time spent on Arthur looking for a job, the film manages to find a pulse that the rest of the film lacks. Fortunately or unfortunately, the filmmakers manage to sully even these good moments with an ending so schmaltzy that it makes the works of Frank Capra seem downright cynical.

Perhaps the final, lasting achievement of Arthur 2: On the Rocks is that it set the bar so low, there was nowhere for the 2011 remake to go but up. Sadly, for fans of the original film, this is likely not much of a consolation. Arthur 2: On the Rocks is now available on Blu-Ray in a double feature set with the original film, which means if you want the original Arthur, you are stuck with this sequel as well. It is best to think of Arthur 2: On the Rocks as an unwanted special feature, but if you are a die hard fan, chances are you will check it out anyway. For everyone else, stay away.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Calling Dr. Death (LeBorg 1943)

For the record, I never had any intention of turning reviews of Lon Chaney Jr./Universal Studio films into an ongoing series, much like I have never really had any specific plans for this site overall. But here I am again, this time looking at the film Calling Dr. Death (LeBorg 1943), and much like Man Made Monster (1941), Calling Dr. Death is not a particularly great film.

That said, the film is a significant departure from the Chaney Jr./Universal films previously reviewed on the site, with Calling Dr. Death being a mystery rather than a horror film. The film is based on the radio series Inner Sanctum Mysteries which ran from 1941-1952, featuring stories of murder, horror and suspense. Coincidentally enough, I listened to an episode of the series a month or two ago, and the program certainly has its charms, with a spooky-but-campy atmosphere, and some fun host banter to bookend the episode. Unfortunately, none of those charms are on display in Calling Dr. Death. The film is a straightforward mystery, directed by Reginald LeBorg in a perfunctory manner from a screenplay by Edward Dein.

The film concerns psychologist Dr. Mark Steel (Chaney Jr.), a man trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who is openly having affairs with other men while refusing Steel a divorce. Steel’s frustrations are only exacerbated by the romantic feelings shared between him and his nurse Stella (Patricia Morison), who is seemingly his only confidant. One weekend, Mark discovers his wife has taken off, and he heads out to find her. When he wakes up in his office Monday morning, he discovers that he has no memory of the weekend, and that his wife has been brutally murdered. While his wife’s lover is the prime suspect, Mark is convinced of the man’s innocence, because Steel is convinced that he himself is the murderer. With no evidence however, Steel sets about trying to solve the crime and save the man, even if it means revealing himself as the killer in the process.

There is nothing about Calling Dr. Death that is particularly interesting, including its failings, which are little more than the typical problems with most murder mysteries, from an easily deduced killer, to giant plot holes and lapses in logic. If the film has a problem that is particular to itself, it is the use of voice over to convey the “voices” in Mark’s head. Along with being overused, the voice over never successfully conveys the idea that Mark is suffering from any form of psychosis, as the bulk of it is little more than Mark moaning on about how pathetic he is. He may be slightly depressed, but there is never any indication from the voice over that Mark is truly suffering from any serious mental issues.

If there is anything fascinating in the film at all, it is mainly the work of star Lon Chaney Jr., who continues to astound me as I work my way through his films for having a star image that is completely defined by weakness. In every film I have watched Chaney Jr. in thus far, the characters he has played have been essentially powerless men, unable to take action and constantly at the mercy of others. As Mark Steel, we see Chaney Jr. playing the weakest character I have seen him take on yet, accomplishing little and being attacked from all sides. Unfortunately, this does not make for a particularly fascinating character, and since there is no doubt from the beginning as to whether or not Mark is or is not guilty, it is impossible to care about anything that happens over the course of the film.

Calling Dr. Death is only available as part of the “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” DVD collection from Universal, the remaining films of which I have yet to review. On its own, I cannot recommend the film as a worthwhile dip into the Universal catalogue, and as a start to the series, Calling Dr. Death does not hold out much promise for the rest of the films to come. Still, with five more films to go, we shall see if the “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” film series improves, and has any cinematic value as a whole.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Arthur (Winer 2011)

Coming away from the 2011 remake of the 1981 comedy classic Arthur, it has become clear to me that in Russell Brand, the filmmakers had the right star in which to accomplish this remake. The problem is that Arthur 2011 has been made at absolutely the wrong cultural moment.

The original Arthur from Steve Gordon is the story of wealthy drunk Arthur Bach who has to make a choice between maintaining his wealth by marrying a woman he does not love, or ending up in poverty by being with the woman he does love. While the overall narrative draws upon the long tradition of romantic fantasy, the strength of the film is the way in which the romantic desires of the characters are pitted against the harsh realities of their situations: Arthur (Dudley Moore) is an alcoholic pretty much lacking anything in the way of agency in his life; Linda (Liza Minnelli) is sweet and loving, but also rather naïve; Hobson (John Gielgud) is a man capable of love but also is far too entrenched in a sense of how class relations are supposed to work. The comedy, romance and drama all stem from the tension between the reality of the characters and the fantasy they desire. In turn, the audience is caught up in their own awareness of the reality of the situation and their own desire to see a fantasy play out.

In 2011 however, at least within the pandering Hollywood system, allowing the audience to merely observe the given characters of a film and make up their own mind about them is a rarity, particularly in a culture where parent groups want every film that features a cigarette to get an R rating, and every drunk be a villain. All characters must be clearly defined and morally judged, and the only way an alcoholic is allowed to be likeable is if he is gives up the bottle by the end of the film. As such, the only way Arthur (Winer 2011) is allowed to have its title character be an alcoholic for the bulk of the film is by fully embracing fantasy and do away with any sense of reality, thus safely marking a likable alcoholic as being as much a fantasy as the rest of the film.

The film boldly announces its complete shift away from reality in its opening scenes, as we witness Arthur (Russell Brand) getting decked out in a real Batman costume from 1995’s Batman Forever, loading the utility belt up with alcohol, and ending up in a police chase involving a fully functioning Batmobile. It is a fairly funny sequence, one of many in fact, but it only goes to show how much the filmmakers missed the point of the original film, or more likely how much fear over offending the potential audience guided the filmmaking process.

The flaws of the characters that were so central to the original have been greatly toned down or removed in this version of the story: Naomi (Greta Gerwig in the role equivalent to that of Linda in the original), is an idealized woman and overt role model; Hobson, played by Helen Mirren here, is less of a class snob and takes a more active role in defending Arthur as his fairy godmother with attitude; Susan, the sweet. Innocent, and minor character who just so happens to be the woman Arthur is being forced to marry in the original has been transformed into a vicious villainess played by Jennifer Garner. None of the performances given by the actors here are bad, and Helen Mirren manages to get some of the best laughs in the film with her take on Hobson. The problem is that rather than being given fully fleshed out characters, they have been given simplistic roles in a standard narrative.

The one actor to get something to play with real substance is Brand in the title role, and while the character arc Arthur undergoes is flawed, Brand’s actual performance does Dudley Moore justice while not being an imitation of Moore’s work. Brand manages to project the same level of sweet innocence that Moore did, but brings a higher level of confidence to the character that would have been out of place with Moore’s portrayal. Again, the writing never really gives Brand’s Arthur a moment to really risk alienating the audience quite Moore’s version, such as the infamous reaction to the tragic history of the prostitute he picks up at the start of the film, but there is no real reason to doubt that Brand could have pulled it off.

Of course, the lack of such a moment pretty much sums up the problems with this Arthur: it completely avoids taking risks like the original did, and that is a terrible shame. Brand is the right actor to take on this role, and he has everything it takes to be a leading man in a comedy, and potentially even drama. However, he needs the right material and direction to be able to really make that leap, and he is given neither in Arthur, unlike Dudley Moore who was at a similar turning point in his career when he stared in the original film. With any luck, Brand will not have to wait too long for that film to come.

On the plus side, Brand can at least rest well in the knowledge that his Arthur is a film better than Arthur 2: On the Rocks! (Yorkin 1988). As for the you the reader, make of that what you will.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

OK: Where Have I Been? And What Is Coming Up?

Ok, for the past little while, I have had multiple projects on my plate, and FINALLY after this upcoming weekend I will be able to spend time working on reviews for the site again! So starting next week, start expecting regular updates again.