“TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) Review

“TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) Review

I have very limited past experience with the world of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I have never seen a stage production of any of their works. And I am vaguely familiar with one of the tunes featured in their most famous play, “The Mikado”, thanks to the 1978 comedy thriller, “FOUL PLAY”. Pathetic is it not?

I never saw “TOPSY-TURVY”, Mike Leigh’s dramatization of the duo’s creation of “The Mikado”, when it first hit the theaters back in 1999. Considering my penchant for costume dramas, I find it surprising that it took me so long to see this film. It spanned the 14-month period that began with the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s play, “Princess Ida” in January 1884 and ended with the premiere of the “The Mikado” in March 1885. During this period, the summer heat discouraged theatergoers from attending more shows of “Princess Ida” and ticket sales decline. Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte called on Sullivan and Gilbert to create a new musical play for the Savoy Theater. The duo encountered creative impasse after impasse, until a visit to the Japanese Village Exhibit in Knightsbridge by Gilbert and his wife Kitty, inspired the dramatist write a liberetto set in Japan – an idea that Sullivan agreed to write the music for.

The rest of “TOPSY-TURVY” focused upon Gilbert, Sullivan, the cast and the stage crew working to make “The Mikado” a success. Leigh allowed audiences glimpses into the lives of the cast and crew members that include scenes of them negotiating their salaries with Carte, costume fittings in which both Durward Lely and Jessie Bond express their concerns over C. Wilhelm‘s designs, the women’s chorus learn to walk like Japanese women, Sullivan’s rehearsals with both the orchestra and the cast, and Gilbert’s rehearsals with the cast over lines. The movie also depicts the world of late Victorian England through the characters’ private lives with scenes that include George Grossmith‘s morphine addiction, three actors’ discussion of the Charles Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum, Leonora Braham‘s alcoholism and lesbianism, and Sullivan’s visit to a French brothel, Gillbert’s family circumstances and encounter with a beggar. And throughout the movie’s second half, director Mike Leigh interjected scenes of Gilbert and Sullivan’s preparation of the operetta with actual performances from the production by the cast.

“TOPSY-TURVY” received four Academy Award nominations and won two. But none of the nominations were in the Best Picture, Best Director or any of the acting nominations. I found this a bit disappointing. Mind you, the movie was not perfect. With a running time of 160 minutes, the movie struck me as too long. Someone once complained that the movie featured too many vignettes of late Victorian life . . . scenes that had nothing to do with the creation of The Mikado. To a certain extent, I agree with this complaint. I had no problems with the film starting off with the opening night for “Princess Ida” and the conversations between Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan about the creative pair’s partnership. There was one particular vignette of Victorian life that I found entertaining – namelyRutland Barrington, Lely and Grossmith’s conversation about Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum and their upcoming appointments with Carte. But there was a great deal in the movie I could have done without. I really did not need to view an extended scene from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s earlier works, “The Sorcerer”. I did not need extended views of Sullivan’s visit to a Parisian brothel or Gilbert’s private life – especially his relationship with this father. In fact, Leigh’s portrayal of Gilbert’s wife, Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert as this meek and mild woman constantly longing for children proved to be inaccurate. The only time “TOPSY-TURVY” provided an accurate portrayal of the dramatist’s wife was the scene in which she dragged him to the Knightsbridge Japanese Village Exhibit. In fact, by the time the movie shifted to the Gilberts’ visit to the exhibit, which inspired the dramatist to write “The Mikado”, at least 50 to 60 minutes of the film had passed.

But despite these flaws, I still believe that “TOPSY-TURVY” should have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. At least. Flawed or not, it is a superb movie that not only explored late Victorian England, Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration, but more importantly, the world of creating a work of art. As a lover of movies, theater and books, watching the creation of “The Mikado” through Gilbert becoming inspired, costume fittings and various rehearsals sent a thrill through my veins. Someone with the Motion Pictures Academy must have agreed. Leigh received an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. I especially enjoyed those scenes in which both Jessie Bond and Durward Lely griped about their costumes, Gilbert and choreographer John D’Auban argued over the stage directions for the “Three Little Maids From School” number, and especially the hullabaloo over Gilbert’s initial decision to cut the A More Humane Mikado”, which was eventually performed by Richard Temple.

The film’s Victorian vision would not have been possible by the work of production designer Eve Stewart. She did such an exceptional job of recapturing London of the mid-1880s that I did not realize that the movie featured very few exterior shots until my last viewing. Helen Scott’s Oscar nominated art direction added to Stewart’s re-creation of Victorian London, along with the set decorations she created with John Bush. As for Lindy Hemming, she won a most deserved Academy Award for the brilliant costumes she had designed for the film, as shown below:

Aside from Leigh’s exploration of how “The Mikado” was created, the movie also benefited from strong performances, thanks to its talented cast. Jim Broadbent was the first cast member selected for the movie and he did a superb job as the blunt-speaking, sardonic and artistic William S. Gilbert. Allan Courduner was equally superb as the more extroverted Arthur Sullivan, who seriously considered breaking up the partnership in order to embark on a career as a “more serious” composer. There were supporting performances that left a strong impression with me. They include Lesley Manville as “Kitty” Gilbert. Her characterization may have been off, thanks to Leight, but Manville gave a brilliant performance. Ron Cook gave one of the most subtle and satisfying performances as Savoy Theater owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte. I especially enjoyed Timothy Spall, Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd and Martin Savage as Richard Temple, Leonora Braham, Durward Lely and George Grossmith, respectively.

No movie is perfect. And that includes “TOPSY-TURVY”. My main problem is that it required more editing than it actually received. It really needed a shorter running time. But the movie’s flaws were overshadowed by its virtues – an in-depth look into the world of Victorian theater and the creation of “The Mikado”, a beautiful production design that came very close to reflecting life in the late Victorian era, a first-rate cast led by Jim Broadbent and Allan Courduner, and excellent direction and writing from Mike Leigh, himself. It was not perfect, but I believe it could have received Oscar nods for both Best Picture and Best Director.

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

Several years ago, producer-director Peter Jackson had stated in an interview that one of movies that had inspired him to become a filmmaker was Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 hit adventure film, “KING KONG”. Sixteen to eighteen years after his first directorial effort, Jackson was finally able to pay tribute to his inspiration with a remake of the 1933 film. 

Anyone familiar with Cooper’s film should know the story of King Kong. Set during the early years of the Great Depression, an overly ambitious movie producer coerces his cast and the crew of a freighter ship to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who becomes immediately smitten with the producer’s financially struggling leading lady. After using his leading lady to lure Kong into a trap, the producer ships Kong back to Manhattan to be displayed to the public as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Unfortunately, Kong escapes and inflicts chaos on the city streets in search for the leading lady.

Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pretty much followed the 1933 movie. However, they made some changes. In the 1933 film, Carl Denham was a respected and successful filmmaker. He was a struggling filmmaker who resorted to stealing footage of his film from his financial backers in Jackson’s version. There is more backstory on the Ann Darrow character in the newer film and she is a vaudeville dancer/comedian, not simply a unemployed and starving woman. Ann remains frightened of Kong throughout the entire 1933 film (an emotion that actress Fay Wray did not share); whereas Naomi Watts’ Ann forms an emotional bond with him. The inhabitants of Skull Island are a lot more hostile in the 2005 film, and less human. Kong is portrayed as simply an animal and less of a monster. Jack Driscoll is a playwright hired as a screenwriter in this film, whereas in the ’33 film, he is the S.S. Venture’s first mate. And in Jackson’s film, the first mate is an African-American. The 2005 Captain Englehorn is at least fifteen to twenty years than his 1933 counterpart. Kong’s rampage across Manhattan was a lot more horrific than his rampage in the 2005 film. The character of actor Bruce Baxter was created as a homage to actor Bruce Cabot, one of the stars of the 1933 film. And it is he, along with Denham and some actress hired to impersonate Ann that ends up on the stage with Kong in Jackson’s film. In Cooper’s film, both Ann and Driscoll end up on stage with Denham and Kong.

So, what did I think of Jackson’s “KING KONG”? Technically and visually, it is a beautiful film. One of the first things that impressed me was Grant Major’s production designs for the movie. His work, along with the art direction team led by Dan Hannah, Hannah and Simon Bright’s set decorations and Andrew Lesnine’s photography did an excellent job in re-creating Manhattan of the early 1930s. And what I found even more amazing about their work is that all of the Manhattan sequences were filmed in New Zealand . . . even the opening montage that introduced the movie’s time period and its leading female character. Terry Ryan’s costume designs for the movie were attractive to look at. But if I must be honest, they did not particularly blow my mind. I really cannot explain why. It seemed as if her costumes – especially for the female characters – failed to achieve that early 1930s look, one hundred percent. I was also impressed by work of both the art department and the visual effects team. Their work on the Skull Island sequences struck me as impressive. But honestly, I was more impressed by their work on the Manhattan scenes . . . especially the sequence featuring King Kong’s confrontation with the U.S. Army planes. And here are two samples of their work:

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My only quibble about the visual work in the Manhattan sequences featured the S.S. Venture’s depature from Manhattan. Frankly, it looked like the work of an amateur, circa 1929. Why on earth did Jackson allowed the ship to leave New York Harbor at double speed? It looked so tacky.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens did a pretty good job in re-creating Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s story. In fact, I believe they had improved on some aspects of the 1933 film. One, the Ann Darrow character was given more of a background and more screen time before the S.S. Venture’s journey to Skull Island. I could say the same for the Carl Denham character, who proved to be a more ambiguous character than his 1933 counterpart. Due to the depth given to both Ann and Denham’s characters, the setup for the S.S. Venture’s departure from Manhattan seemed more detailed and far from rushed. The movie spent a good deal of time aboard the S.S. Venture, building up suspense to the ship’s arrival at Skull Island and allowing relationships and the characters to develop – especially Ann’s romance with playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll. I wonder if many moviegoers had complained about the length it took the Venture to reach Skull Island. I certainly did not. The longer the movie focused on the Venture sequences, the longer it took the movie to reach Skull Island.

Because . . . honestly? I disliked the Skull Island sequences. I was able to bear it in the 1933 film. But I cannot say the same for Jackson’s film. There were some scenes in the Skull Island sequence that I liked. I enjoyed the chase sequence featured members of the Venture crew, Denham’s film production and a Venatosaurus saevidicus pack‘s hunt of Brontosaurus baxteri. I even tolerated Kong’s rescue of Ann from three Vastatosaurus rex. And I was impressed by the scene that featured Ann and Kong’s initial bonding. I found it both touching and slightly humorous. And I could see that the screenwriters, along with Naomi Watts and Fay Wray (who portrayed the original Ann) understood Kong’s feelings for the leading lady a lot better than Cooper and Wallace did. But I still disliked the Skull Island sequence – especially the scenes featuring Denham’s film crew’s encounter with the island’s natives and the visitors’ enounter with giant insects inside a large pit. The natives seemed more like Orc rejects from Middlearth with very little humanity. Despite the coconut bras and bone jewelry, the natives featured in the 1933 film struck me as a lot more human and less like savage stereotypes. As for the giant insect pit sequence . . . I usually press the fast-forward button for that scene. I not only dislike it, I find it repulsive.

Fortunately, the movie returned to Manhattan. And I noticed that for the first minutes or so, Jackson re-created Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s introduction of Kong to the people of Manhattan. I was impressed. In fact, I found this second Manhattan sequence very impressive . . . but not as much as I did the earlier one. Granted, Bruce Baxter’s quick departure from the theater following Kong’s escape provided some laughs. And Jackson handled Kong’s rampage of Manhattan rather well. I was a little disappointed that Jackson did not re-create the elevated train sequence from the first film. I was stunned by the sight of Ann searching the streets of Manhattan for Kong wearing nothing but her costume from a stage musical in the middle of winter. Hell, I was amazed that she managed to not to get pnemonia from wandering around the city with no overcoat and no sleeves for her gown. And frankly, I found Ann and Kong’s reunion in Central Park something of a bore. I truly wish that Jackson had cut that scene. As for the Empire State Building sequence, once again, Naomi Watt’s Ann did not seemed to be affected by the cold weather, while wearing nothing but a costume gown. And I noticed that Jackson plagerized Gandalf’s death in “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” for Kong’s final death scene. I felt nothing but a little relief because the U.S. Army Air Corp’s attempt to kill Kong seemed to last forever.

The cast of “KING KONG” seemed to fare very well, despite some of the mediocre lines written by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of the pragmatic and cynical Captain Englehorn struck me as very skillful and effective. Both Evan Parke and Jamie Bell provided some well-acted pathos as First Mate Ben Hayes and a young crewman named Jimmy, for whom Hayes seemed to act as mentor. Adrien Brody provided a nice balance of romance, heroics and cynicism in his portrayal of writer Jack Driscoll. Actually, I thought he made a more interesting leading man than Bruce Cabot. And Colin Hanks’ solid portrayal of Preston, Denham’s neurotic but honest personal assistant, proved to be the movie’s emotional backbone. But there were the performances that really stood out for me.

Andy Serkis, who had impressed the world with his portrayal of Gollum in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, proved to be equally impressive in his motion capture performance as Kong. Not only was he solid as the S.S. Venture cook, Lumpy; he did an excellent job in providing Kong with a great deal of emotional nuances. Kyle Chandler nearly stole the film with his hilarious portryal of movie actor Bruce Baxter. Not only was Chandler’s Baxter egotistical and self-involved, he also proved to be a surprisingly pragmatic character with a talent for self-preservation. He also provided, in my opinion, one of the film’s best quotes:

“Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me – not in the real world. In th real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun who’s lost his motivation. Be seeing you.”

Jack Black gave a superb job as movie producer Carl Denham. In fact, I believe that Black’s Denham proved to be the film’s most ambiguous character. Even though his Denham seemed manipulative, greedy and exploitive; he also managed to bring out the character’s compassionate side and enthusiam for his profession. It seemed a pity that Black never received any acclaim for his performance. Many moviegoers and critics seemed disappointed that Naomi Watts did not receive a Golden Globes or Academy Awards nomination for her excellent portryal of out-of-luck vaudevillian Ann Darrow. Frankly, I think she deserved such nominations for her work. More than any other member of the cast, she had to develop an emotional bond and work with an animated figure and at the same time, develop her own character. And she did one hell of a job. Think Bob Hoskins in 1988’s “WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?”.

“KING KONG” has become a highly regarded film over the years. It made “Empire” magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmmm . . . no. Not really. It is a very entertaining film filled with plenty of action and adventure. It also featured some pretty damn good acting from a cast led by Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. But the movie also possesses some pretty obvious flaws and I find it difficult to enjoy the Skull Island sequence. Like I said, Jackson created a pretty good movie. But I could never regard it as one of the greatest movies of all time.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

I had nothing against the news of New Line Cinema’s attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” for the screen. But I had no idea that the studio, along with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers would end up stringing out the adaptation into three movies. Three. That seemed a lot for a 300-page novel. The first chapter in this three-page adaptation turned out to be the recent release, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”

Peter Jackson, who had directed the adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”trilogy over a decade ago, returned to direct an earlier chapter of the author’s tales about Middle Earth. He nearly did not make it to the director’s chair. Guillermo del Toro was the first choice as director. However, del Toro Del left the project in May 2010 working with Jackson and the latter’s production team, due to delays caused in part by financial problems at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He did remain with the project long enough to co-write the movie’s screenplay with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. To my utter amazement, the efforts of the four screenwriters and Jackson’s direction has produced a good number of negative backlash against the film. Ironically, most of the film’s backlash has been directed at Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s use of high frame rate for the film’s look. Others have simply complained about the movie’s length and its inability to match the quality of the “LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy released between 2001 and 2003.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began on the elderly Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday (shown in the 2001 movie), when he decides to recount the full story of an adventure he had experienced 60 years ago, for his nephew Frodo. Bilbo first reveals how the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor was taken over by a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. The Erebor Dwarves are scattered throughout Middle Earth. The Dwarf King Thrór was killed by an Orc, when he tried to settle his people in Moria. His son, Thráin II, was driven mad from one of the Rings handed over to his ancestor by Sauron before dying. Thráin II’s son, Thorin Oakenshield, became determined to not only recover Erebor from Smaug, but also recover their treasure. At Gandalf the Gray’s suggestion, Thorin and his followers traveled to the Shire to recruit Bilbo’s help in achieving their goals (they need the Hobbit to act as a burglar in order to get their Arkenstone back). At first, Bilbo was reluctant to join their quest. But he caved in at the idea of an adventure and eventually joined the Dwarves and Gandalf. Their adventures led them to an encounter with three Trolls; pursuing Orcs who want Thorin’s head for cutting off the arm of their war chief, Azog; a respite at Rivendell, due to the hospitality of Lord Elrond; and deadly encounters within the Misty Mountains with Goblins and for Bilbo, the current Ring bearer Gollum. The movie ended on the slopes of the Misty Mountains with a deadly encounter with Azog and his orcs.

How do I feel about “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Well for one thing, I still believe it was unnecessary for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. It is simply not big enough, despite the fact that this first film is shorter than the three “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I really do not see how Jackson would be able to stretch an adaptation of the novel into three movies, each with an average running time of 160-170 minutes. Judging from the movie’s first 30 minutes, I see that Jackson is going to stretch it as much as he can. Many people have commented on the new high frame rate that Jackson and Lesnie used for the film. Yes, the movie has a sharper and more colorful look. In fact, the film’s visual look reminded me of the use of Blu-Ray DVDs. Do I care? No. Hollywood critics and moviegoers have a tradition of ranting against any new film innovation – sound, color, digital cameras, CGI . . . you get the point. It has been ten years since George Lucas first used digital cameras for “STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and people are still bitching about it. Did I have a few problems with “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Sure. Although many people have problems with the movie’s first 20 to 30 minutes, claiming that the Shire sequence seemed to stretch forever. I only agree with that criticism to a certain extent. I had no problems with Bilbo’s humorous first encounter with the Dwarves. But I thought Jackson lingered unnecessarily too long on the sequence featuring the elderly Bilbo and Frodo. And although I enjoyed the mind game between the younger Bilbo and Gollum, I have yet to develop any fondness for the latter character. And if I have to be brutally honest, I found Howard Shore’s score for this movie less memorable than his work for the “LORD OF THE RING” films.

Despite the conflict over using three movies to adapt Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s use of a new high frame rate, I have to say that I enjoyed “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I did the second and third movies from the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Like 2001’s“LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”, this new movie is basically a tale about a road trip. And there is nothing more dear to my heart than a road trip. Because Tolkien’s 1937 tale was basically a children’s story, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” featured a good deal of more humor than was found in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” films. A great deal of that humor came from twelve of the thirteen Dwarves, whom Bilbo and Gandalf accompanied. Four of the funniest sequences turned out to be the Dwarves’ arrival at an increasingly irritated Bilbo’s home in the Shire, the traveling party’s encounter with three Trolls obsessed with their stomachs, the Dwarves’ reactions to Elvish food in Rivendell and Bilbo’s mental duel with Gollum. Like the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” also featured some outstanding action sequences – especially the flashbacks about the downfall of the Erebor Dwarves; the traveling party’s efforts to evade the Orc hunting party with the assistance of a wizard named Radagast the Brown; and their battles with both the Goblins, and Azog and the Orcs.

The movie featured some solid performances from the cast. It was good to see Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Lady Galadriel and her son-in-law Lord Elrond again. Although I am not a fan of the Gollum character, I must admit that Andy Serkis gave another memorable performance of the malignant changeling. However, I am a little confused by his portrayal of Gollum with a split personality, since the character’s moral compass was not challenged by any acts of kindness in this film. Ian McKellen was commanding as ever as the wizard Gandalf the Gray. And it was also nice to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the elderly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins again. I was a little taken aback by the presence of Christopher Lee reprising his role of the wizard Saruman, but merely as a supporting character and not as a villain. But I have to give kudos to Lee for revealing certain aspects of Saruman’s personality that made his eventual corruption in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. I really enjoyed Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He did an exceptional job of projecting the character’s emotional development from a self-satisfied homebody to the adventurer who wins the respect of the Dwarves with his heroic actions by the end of the movie. I first noticed Richard Armitage in the 2004 television miniseries,“NORTH AND SOUTH” and have been impressed with this actor ever since. I realized that his character Thorin Oakenshield is being compared to the Aragon character from “LORD OF THE RINGS”. I would not bother. Thorin is a more complicated character. And Jackson chose the right actor – namely Armitage – to portray this heroic, yet prickly and hot tempered Dwarf. Thanks to Armitage’s superb performance, it was not hard to understand Gandalf’s frustrations over the character. If I must be honest, my memories of the twelve other Dwarves is a bit shaky. But there were two of them that stood out for me. Ken Stott was very effective as the elderly Balin, who provided a great deal of wisdom in the story. And I really enjoyed James Nesbitt as Bofur, who injected a great deal of charm and liveliness not only in his role, but also in the story.

I realize that “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” has been receiving mixed reviews from critics. And honestly, I do not care. Mind you, it is not perfect and I see no need for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But I really enjoyed watching the movie. It reminded me of the joy I had experienced in watching the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie, “Fellowship of the Rings”. And I believe that Peter Jackson and a first-rate cast led by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage did an excellent job in adapting part of Tolkien’s novel.