Monday, September 19, 2011

'Blackbeard' is an okay pirate yarn

Blackbeard (2006)
Starring: Angus McFadyen, Marc Umbers, Jessica Chastain, Anthony Green, Richard Chamberlain, and Rachel Ward
Director: Kevin Connor
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Lt. Robert Maynard of British Royal Naval (Umbers) is dispatched to the Caribbean on a secret mission to hunt the feared and murderous pirate Blackbeard (McFadyen). His mission and burgeoning romance with the lovely Charlotte Ormand (Chastain) is disrupted when the corrupt colonial governor and ally of Blackbeard (Chamberlain) attempts to assassinate Maynard. Through a chain of misunderstandings, the officer finds himself accepted into Blackbeard's crew and ends up helping the pirate with his obsessive search for the legendary lost treasure of Captain Kidd.

If you're looking for a fun traditional pirate adventure tale that you can watch with the whole family, "Blackbeard" is a good choice. Originally made for the Hallmark Channel as a two-part miniseries, it has a well-paced script with just the right mix of action, romance, intrigue, cannon-fire, and swashbuckling pirate antics to please just about any viewer. The cast is also excellent, with Angus McFadyen in particular excelling as the ruthless title character. The even mix of fictional events and historical facts might make it dangerous if you're trying to use it as a shortcut for a school paper, but as a piece of entertainment is pretty good.

Although a good deal of money and effort went into the sets and costuming, this is one area where the film slips a little. Everything and everyone is just a little too clean and fresh. A little more time should have been spent on "aging" costumes and sets, and the actors should have been a little grimier and sweatier than any of them are. The lower-budgeted pirate films from Hammer Studios forty years earlier and even Alfred Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" from more than sixty years earlier did a better job at creating a believable 18th century environment than the production designers, costumers, and set-dressers on "Blackbeard" managed to do.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

'The Specialist' isn't very special

The Specialist (1975)
Starring: Adam West, John Anderson, Ahna Capri, Marlene Schmidt, Howard Avedis, Harvey Jason, and Alvy Moore
Director: Hikmet Avedis
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A small-town attorney/political strongman (Anderson) sets out to discredit and crush a young attorney (West) who has not only set up practice in "his town," but has also stolen away one of his clients. His plan involves framing him for jury tampering using an out-of-town "specialist" (Capri)... whose specialty is seducing men.

This is a film that is a failure in almost every way. It's got a weak script that keeps drifting between being comedy to being courtroom drama to being suspense to half-assed attempts at soft-core porn, and failing utterly to succeed even in the slightest way at any of those genres. It's also indifferently filmed and flatly directed, with techniques that seem to emphasize the cheapness of the production rather than gloss over it.

But neither of those are really what damns this film to a low Three Rating, although they certainly play a part. No, it's the performance, as well as the character portrayed, by Ahna Capri, a buxom actress who enjoyed a long and successful career as a supporting player on television shows from age 13 in 1956 through her retirement from the profession in 1979. Simply put, while Capri is unquestionably beautiful, she doesn't have the screen presence to make one believe that a happily married, extremely intelligent, and extremely canny lawyer would be so dazzled by her charms to risk marriage and career just because she batted her eyes at him. While Capri certainly is attractive enough to be a "specialist" in the arena where "every body has a price" (to quote the film's tagline), the situation in this film is so unbelievable--or maybe just poorly and thinly written--that even the most willing suspension of disbelief can't make it work.

And then there's the fact it has one of the worst endings I've ever been subjected to. While it's kinda-sorta set up earlier in the film, it still feels completely unsatisfying and so badly motivated that one wonders if it didn't come about by Adam West saying, "Look, my contract says I'm DONE with this shoot in 20 minutes... and believe me, I am going to be DONE and all of you are going to be in my review mirror in 25 minutes!"

I guess it says something about the film's watchability that I got to the end, but the only reasons for that was a hope that it was about to get better every time it shifted genres, the fact that Adam West is almost always entertaining, and a rather nice bit of acting from former Miss Germany Marlene Schmidt as West's fiercely devoted wife. Schmidt was like a shining light in the darkness whenever she appeared on screen, giving a far better performance than this film deserved.