Tuesday, March 02, 2010



A Film Review
by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro

When a motion picture is based on a literary work of art, film critics invariably separate themselves into two opposing camps. One insists that the film must be a rigorous adaptation of the book, a near-slavish adherence to the words on the page. The other camp allows the film to be a film, with all the cinematic flair that makes the movie attractive to audiences of the time.

Kevin Reynolds' The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) belongs in the second category. Based on the renowned classic by Alexandre Dumas, it tells an epic tale of love, betrayal and retribution. Purists may deride the modern liberties taken in the name of entertainment, but they cannot deny that the basic outline of the book remains intact... and yes, a modern film viewer who hasn't taken the time to slog through the more than 1,500 pages of the original work, can still enjoy this story of sweet revenge, exacted in a most colorful fashion.

Dumas' classic has been adapted for the screen no fewer than a dozen times, beginning with a one-reel silent version in 1908. Before the Reynolds film, perhaps the 1934 version starring Robert Donat was considered the best adaptation, especially in the last half, where Edmond Dantes' fearsome vengeance is being carried out. (The worst adaptation, hands down, is the sappy 1975 TV version starring Richard Chamberlain.)

Edmond Dantes (played by James Caviezel in the 2002 version) was a lovable but simple and perhaps naive French sailor in Napoleonic times. He and his friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) sail out to the island of Elba, and there Dantes meets the famous exile Napoleon, who gives him a letter to deliver to a friend back in France. The guileless Edmond meekly accepts the letter and promises to tell no one about it.

But back in France, the letter falls into the hands of Villefort, the local magistrate, who immediately charges Dantes with treason. He has the gullible sailor arrested and shipped off to the infamous prison island, the Chateau d'If, there to spend the rest of his life in lonely captivity.

Edmond spends the next 13 years in his dungeon cell, but fortunately meets a fellow prisoner, an old priest named Faria (Richard Harris, in his final role). Faria is no ordinary priest. Apparently he is skilled in the martial arts, in philosophy, in literature. Over a period of several years, Faria teaches Edmond the art of swordplay, teaches him to read, and tells him of an uncharted island on which is hidden a limitless fortune, more money than one could spend in 20 lifetimes. Even better, Faria has a map showing the location of the treasure.

But the Abbe Faria is growing old, and his long confinement has taken its toll on his lungs. He dies in his cell, leaving Edmond the treasure map. Edmond knows the prison guards will take away the body, so he substitutes himself in its place. The guards obligingly carry the shroud out to the cliffs and toss it into the ocean. Once underwater, Edmond cuts his way to freedom.

After acquiring an assistant, Jacopo (Luiz Guzman), in a knife fight with some pirates, Edmond sets sail for the tiny island of Monte Cristo, uncovers the hidden treasure, and becomes wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. But the desire for revenge against his betrayers festers in his heart. Dantes harbors resentment not only against Villefort, but also Danglars, a former ship captain who sold him out, and especially against his former "best friend," Fernand Mondego, who not only aided in the villainy to get Dantes imprisoned... but who has also married Dantes' former love, the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk).

Edmond hatches a devious plan. Renaming himself the Count of Monte Cristo and buying the grandest estate in Paris, he hosts an elegant "coming out" party, inviting all the nobles and their ladies, including two men he has particular interest in seeing again: Mondego and Villefort.

Make no mistake, Caviezel earns his acting stripes here. In the first act, Dantes had been a humble, soft-spoken working sailor. Now, more than 13 years later and enriched with not only a fortune but also with a grand new sense of confidence, the formidable "Count" dazzles his party guests, impressing one and all. No one from his past recognizes him, partly because of the passing years but also because he now sports a handsome, neatly trimmed mustache and beard. He is sophisticated and bold, as unlike the old Dantes as night is from day. Caviezel makes us believe it.

With the help of Jacopo and his pirate friends, Dantes sets up Danglars and gets him arrested by the French military. Next, he takes his vengeance on Villefort, in the unlikely setting of a steam room where Villefort is basking. Dantes, though fully clad, turns up the heat to an unbearable degree, and Villefort is cooked until done.

But the juiciest revenge is saved for the final act, when Dantes confronts his former "friend," Fernand Mondego. After letting Mondego learn his true identity, Dantes engages him in a rousing, prolonged sword fight. Years earlier, Mondego had easily bested Dantes in swordplay; but now, Edmond uses all the moves and cunning taught to him by the Abbe Faria during his long imprisonment. Furiously, the two men buckle their swashes in a grandly choreographed and lengthy duel that begins indoors, then moves outside... where Edmond gets his final revenge at last.

There is one other surprise at the ending, but it's best for you to discover it for yourselves. I've written that Jim Caviezel comes of age as an actor in this film; but Guy Pearce also shines, serving up what is, in context, the best line in the movie. It's only one word, but Pearce's delivery will make you shiver. The word is: "Premature."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SWITCH (1991)

SWITCH (1991)

A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro

Have you ever wished for a modern movie that could deliver a strong, uplifting spiritual message without being boring? Once upon a time, Hollywood could accomplish that feat with ease. But in today's sex-and-sensationalism market, films with spiritual themes are mocked, patronized, or even worse, ignored. That's why Blake Edwards' 1991 comedy Switch (Warners-HBO Films) is such a serendipitous find: A bawdy rib-tickler with ribald humor aplenty, yet one that delivers the spiritual goods too.

To be sure, the fabled Edwards raunch is intact in Switch. The film is sexy, funny, and cheerfully vulgar. But there is a sweetness here also, a frank admission that some things are more important than animal appetites, for example the salvation of one's soul. Against all odds, Switch not only delivers that message, but does it in a positive, exhilarating way that rivals the best work of Preston Struges and Frank Capra.

In Switch's opening reel, a smug chauvinist named Steve (Perry King) is murdered by three women who once loved him. Steve's soul descends into purgatory, where he is informed by God that he cannot gain admission to Heaven until he atones for his many offenses against womankind. So Steve is returned to Earth for his second chance, with the admonition that he cannot enter Heaven until he finds one female who likes him. To make things tougher, the womanizing Steve is reincarnated as Amanda (Ellen Barkin), a gorgeous blonde with the sort of dynamite body that has been Steve's lifelong playground.

What ensues is a comedic tour-de-force by Barkin, who is splendidly funny as a man trying to cope inside a woman's body. She wobbles shakily on stiletto heels, struggles to sit demurely in short skirts, and suffers a storm of sexual confusions when confronted with Steve's former girlfriends. Even when Amanda is with a genuinely nice guy (Jimmy Smits), she cannot warm up to him, because inside she still thinks like a man.

But the comedy is being played out against a deadly serious bass motif, the struggle for Steve/Amanda's immortal soul. Satan wants it too, and he appears to Amanda with an offer to release her from her tortured existence, if she will consent to join him forever in Hell. Horrified, she refuses. But she knows, and we know too, that her time is growing short; for after weeks of searching, she has failed to find one female who likes her in either incarnation.

Edwards, who wrote and directed Switch, was a prolific filmmaker who often turned out edgy comedies (The Pink Panther, S.O.B., Victor/Victoria), but with Switch he seems to be going for something new: mixing farce and spirituality. Even the way he treats the Devil is witty. Satan, played by Bruce Martyn Payne, seems to show up everywhere Steve/Amanda goes, sometimes in disguise, sometimes not. Audaciously, Satan even shows up in drag, playing the piano at a lesbian party.

In the early 1940s, Preston Sturges' seriocomedy Sullivan's Travels told the story of a man who is thrust into a world completely alien to his own, but a world in which he learns truths that would enrich his life forever. Frank Capra's superb It's a Wonderful Life (1946) used the same idea in a different way, making that movie a perennial favorite, one of the most loved films of all time.

Unlike the Sturges and Capra heroes, Switch's protagonist is no innocent, but an unrepentant heel suddenly challenged by fate to amend his miserable life. But this is precisely what makes the message even stronger. All souls are equally precious to God, are they not? Because Switch is a comedy, it does not seem unfair to disclose that in the end, the redeemed sinner does, indeed, gain admission to Paradise. But the twist that leads to this happy ending is wondrous, a plot element strikingly outside the standard routine of modern sex comedies. It is nothing less than an example of what is meant when people speak of the all-conquering love of God.

Edwards' deus ex machina is no heavenly puppetmaster pulling strings, but a benevolent God who helps those who help themselves. Seek and you shall find. To find that point driven home so forcefully in a '90s sex farce like Switch is more than surprising, it is miraculous. Sturges and Capra would have approved.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2010 Dan Navarro

It’s unsettling to read modern reviews of the Doris Day film Calamity Jane (1953) and find that critics use terms like “sexist,” “racist,” and “Sapphic” applied to this innocent musical entertainment.
None of those terms were used then, and the public found favor in Calamity Jane, making it one of the year’s biggest grossing films.
Doris Day stars as the eponymous heroine, but at first she is just barely recognizable under the grimy buckskin clothes she wears. She’s the rootin’ tootin’ facsimile of a Billy the Kid, but with a winning smile. She can outshoot any man in the Dakota territory – all except one, that is. Her friendly rival Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) is number one in that department, but he allows Calamity Jane (she goes by the name Calam) to continue struttin’ and spittin’ and riding shotgun on the Deadwood stagecoach, from which she regularly shoots down dozens of Sioux warriors. (She calls them "redskin naked heathens.")
She’s brash too, at one point bragging to the local saloon owner that she can travel to Chicago, Illinois, and snag the biggest musical star around, one Adelaid Adams, and bring her back to perform in the Deadwood saloon, known as the Golden Garter.
Calam does get to Chicago, and visits Adelaid's (Gale Robbins) dressing room. Unfortunately, Miss Adams has left for Europe, and the girl Calam finds in that room is Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), Adelaid's maid and assistant.
Now there is a double deception, and it's delicious. Calamity thinks Katie is Adelaid, and Katie looks at this dusty person in buckskin and thinks it's a man. Calam laughs heartily at Katie's confusion, then suddenly realizes that maybe it ain't so funny, bein' took fer a feller. That's the beginning of Calamity's sexual awakening. For the rest of the movie, she becomes more feminine by the reel.
Katie goes with Calam to Deadwood, and appears on the Golden Garter stage in front of an SRO crowd of rowdy cowpokes, eager for a look at the pretty chanteuse from the big city. At first, Katie sings off-key and is just awful; but after she tearfully tells the audience that she isn't Adelaid Adams, the star they had expected, she lets them know that she's just Katie Brown, a working girl hoping for a break in show business. The cowpokes' bitterness and disappointment is almost palpable. Calam jumps on stage and encourages Katie to sing the way she wants to -- as just Katie Brown instead of an ersatz Adelaid -- and Katie pulls out the stops, sings and dances in her own style, and scores a major hit.
A hit in more ways than one. Katie is now an artiste, but she's also charmed the hearts of the two best-looking guys in Deadwood: Bill Hickok and Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey), an officer stationed at the fort nearby. Both begin wooing her, and once again Calam has to step in... because she's been secretly in love with Lt. Danny all along.
The score of Calamity Jane is filled with hummable tunes, all sung by Doris Day, Keel, and Miss McLerie. Miss Day proves herself an able hoofer, too, in her soft-shoe solo to "Windy City," danced partly on a bar room floor covered in salt.
The four principals -- Calamity, Wild Bill, Katie, and Lt. Danny -- go to a fancy-dress ball, and for the first time ever, Wild Bill gets a look at his friend Calamity Jane wearing a (gulp!) dress! She's still pining for her shiny lieutenant, though, and hopes to snare him before the ball is over. But then she spies him kissing Katie Brown, and Katie enthusiastically kissing him back. Furious over this "double cross," Calamity challenges Katie to a gunfight... until Wild Bill talks some sense to her, saying "Who are you to tell people who they can love?"
It's good advice, but at the same time Bill's heart is breaking, for he craved Katie's love for himself. To console each other in their grief, Bill and Calamity kiss. We surmise it's their first kiss ever.
Here is where Doris Day, singer and popular recording star, earns her acting laurels. As Bill and Calam break after the kiss, we see her lovely face as we have not seen it before. Her expression is one of wonderment, of ecstatic realization. Can it be? Can this man who has always been like a brother to her actually be the man she will love for life?
This, of course, leads to Miss Day's most enduring hit song, "Secret Love." If you hear it on a record or on the radio, it sounds like a nice tune. But hearing it here, in the film where she discovers the man of her dreams was right next to her all along, gives it a charm we never suspected. Her secret love's no secret any more.