Monday, November 27, 2023

Napoleon (2023): A Review



For all the short jokes that inevitably come when people mention Napoleon Bonaparte, he has had a large, dare I say, gigantic, role in world history. This latest biopic of the French Emperor may not be the final word on Bonaparte, but it does have more positives than negatives. 

Covering the time period from the fall of the Ancien Regime and Queen Marie Antoinette's beheading to his second exile on St. Helena, Napoleon chronicles the rise and fall of our Corsican soldier turned Emperor. Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) witnesses the former Queen's execution, but is neither a fanatical Reign of Terror supporter or a monarchist. He serves the Republic admirably, defeating the British attempt to conquer his beloved France.

He has another beloved, the beautiful aristocrat Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby). He woos the widow and Reign of Terror survivor, eventually winning her hand in marriage. Napoleon's lusts, however, go beyond Josephine's boudoir. He "liberates" Egypt but rushes back when he hears that Josephine has taken a lover. Despite her indiscretion, he still stands by her, and his quick return to crush the liaison comes in handy when he overthrows the Directorate and installs himself as First Consul.

It is not long before, like the Romans who shifted from Consul to Emperor, France finds itself with a new monarch. That is Napoleon himself, with Josephine beside him. The Imperial throne needs an heir, which Madame l'Imperatrice cannot give him. With a broken heart, he agrees to a divorce for the sake of the nation. Josephine is equally displeased with this decision, but she too sees the impossibility staying as the Emperor's consort. 

They are still friends, with Napoleon writing her many letters detailing his plans for such things as the battle of Austerlitz and his Russian campaign. The failure in Russia forces an abdication and exile, albeit with a generous pension and continued support for the former Empress. However, he found that able was he when he saw Elba. Escaping his exile, he returns to France, but too late to reunite with Josephine, who died shortly before he arrived at her chateau. Despite this, there is still a throne to regain. The ultimate battle between the Emperor and various other empires is at Waterloo, and now defeated, he goes into second exile. He dies there, unrepentant of the millions of death he caused but, according to the on-screen text, whispering his final words, "France, the Army, Josephine". 

It is said that all's fair in love and war. Napoleon proves, or at least tries, to prove that when it goes between the major campaigns of war and the major campaigns of love. It has some trouble balancing the two, especially the romance. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa could have focused on one or the other. They opted for a bit of a mishmash of both.

It is not that such as mishmash does not work. It is more that it forgets where it finds itself at times. When it focuses on the battle sequences, you get almost thrilling moments. The Battle of Austerlitz is a major highlight, where the drowning soldiers is a mixture of visual awe and terrible tragedy. Napoleon's score and cinematography here, at Waterloo and Toulon early in the film are also strong and effective.

It is also not that the romance angle is not without some positives. The scene where the divorce is publicly formalized is quite sad, and Napoleon slapping Josephine is both shocking and sad. 

However, at times Napoleon played almost like comedy. There were some lines that caused the audience to burst out in laughter. One of the funniest moments comes when he sneers at a British official. "You think you are so great because you have boats!" he declares, half-petulantly half-seriously. 

When, for another example, Josephine chides Napoleon for being overweight, he retorts, "Destiny has brought me here. Destiny has brought me this lambchop". It's hard not to laugh at such lines, especially as delivered by Phoenix, who says this almost casually. This curious moment comes right after he has told Josephine that she is to get pregnant that night or he'll divorce her.

Again, as said by Phoenix, he is perfectly serious. However, given their curious lovemaking habits, I do not know if the Emperor is aware exactly how one gets pregnant. He does when his mother of all people procures a mistress for him to impregnate to verify that he's not the problem. 

One is also left wondering if Napoleon was working at being a bit more contemporary than the historical record. I grant that my knowledge of French history is limited, so I won't bother trying to find if Napoleon is historically accurate. However, when Josephine returns from a tryst with her lover to find all her clothing boxed up in the front courtyard, I did wonder if this was the Napoleonic version of "to the left, to the left".

It is interesting that out of the cast, it was Rupert Everett in the small role of the Duke of Wellington who came out the best. It makes one wonder why there hasn't been a Wellington biopic. Is there a Wellington biopic? If there isn't, I'd love to see Everett reprise the role. Phoenix makes Napoleon into a sometimes stoic, sometimes weepy figure. It depends on whom he is talking to or what he is talking about. For the most part, the Emperor is stoic regardless of whether he is taking down the Directory or attacking the Pyramids. 

When he deals with the Empress, however, more often than not he is ready with handkerchief, wiping tears. 

Kirby, I think, did as well as she could with what she was given. I neither loved or hated the performance. I think she could have done better, but I do not think she was horrible either. I think she had some good moments, such as in the previously mentioned divorce scene. 

I found Napoleon to be good, not great. It is an antiwar film in that it ends by listing the number of casualties in his various war campaigns, a reminder of the human cost of his rise and fall. I have one major disappointment with Napoleon. Despite the probably unintentionally funny lines, not once did Napoleon ever say, "Not tonight, Josephine".  


Thursday, November 23, 2023

Saltburn: A Review



Here's a story: a poor young man finds himself, through a mix of luck and scheming, mixing among the rich, pretty young things in an exotic world. There are homoerotic undertones in that curious mixing.  When that world starts fading, our antihero resorts to dangerous and evil methods to get his way. No, I am not talking about Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. I am talking about Saltburn. A curious blending of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Call Me by Your Name, there is beautiful cinematography and beautiful people running around Saltburn. It is also far too long and not as clever as it thinks it is.

Seemingly meek Oxford scholarship student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) finds himself admiring Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Felix is a golden boy: endlessly wealthy, physically beautiful, the object of desire for everyone who meets him. Oliver longs for Felix's world. Whether Oliver longs for Felix himself is an open question. An act of kindness from Oliver to Felix begins a friendship between the two. Oliver soon finds himself in Felix's heady world, even if eyed suspiciously and with contempt by Felix's American cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). While Felix does eventually think Oliver is growing too obsessive with him, the death of Oliver's dad brings him back into his circle.

With the school term over, Felix invites Oliver to stay with him at the Catton family estate, Saltburn. Oliver appears uneasy amidst the lavishness and decadence of Saltburn. Felix's parents, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) oversee a world of wealth and privilege, if a bit oblivious to things outside their world. Soon, Oliver becomes corrupted by Saltburn's decadence. Felix's sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) gets some erotic satisfaction from Oliver. Oliver observes Felix in an autoerotic exercise at the shared bathtub and he finds ecstasy by drinking Felix's draining bathwater (and one presumes, the leftover cum). 

Soon, the darkness appears to take over Oliver. He does not shrink from taking advantage of poor relation Farleigh in various ways, but the family has an unexpected surprise for Oliver. The Cattons have decided to throw Oliver a lavish birthday party, but just prior to the big bash, Felix opts to surprise Oliver by driving him to his widowed mother's home. Oliver's house of cards begins to crumble when Felix finds the truth about Oliver Quick and the Quick family. Too late to cancel the party, Felix nevertheless breaks with Oliver once and for all. However, Oliver finds that death is his friend. The Cattons find themselves no match for a clever young man who ends up triumphantly dancing nude at his new estate, Saltburn.

Within a half hour into the two-hour-plus film, my mind floated to Tom Ripley, the character who always gets away with his crimes no matter what he does or how close he comes to capture. Saltburn brings us a central character who is driven by envy and lust both material and physical, one seemingly charming but who duplicitous, amoral but ultimately successful. I do not know if writer/director Emerald Fennell was deliberately trying to echo Highsmith in Saltburn. I do know that for me, once I pegged Oliver Quick as Tom Ripley's unofficial British protege, Saltburn became a very slow burn, waiting for the reveal. 

It might have been a greater twist had Oliver appeared to become corrupted by the Catton's decadence and frivolity versus his open lust for them. As it was not a shock to me, I was not invested in Oliver's story. When, for example, Oliver finally arrives at Saltburn, he appears more bitter about the lavish world than awed by it. As such, I figured it would be only a matter of time before we saw Oliver take over this world. It took much longer than I think it should have, but we did get what I was expecting.

Granted, I was not expecting Oliver to dance fully and visibly naked at the end. Bless Keoghan for showing off an impressive body, one that rivals Elordi's own impressive physique despite a nine-inch height difference. Saltburn is somewhat obsessed with the physical beauty of its cast, at times needlessly having at least one scene where the virile young cast is au naturel al fresco. I also was not expecting Oliver to drink in Felix's bathwater, essentially have sex with the ground at Felix's grave or his shadowy Farleigh fondling. 

As a side note, Oliver simultaneously stimulating and threating Farleigh reminded me of when The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Dr. Frank-N-Furter seduced Brad. Again, I do not know if that was Fennell's intention. It is for me, the result. 

One issue that Saltburn has is its length. Running close to two hours and fifteen minutes, I was bored by Hour One. I cannot shake the feeling that the first half hour, where the Oliver/Felix relationship grows, falters and returns, could not have been cut down by fifteen minutes if not more. Same goes for the character of Palema (Carey Mulligan), Lady Elspeth's BFF who seemed to be there to give Mulligan a reason for being there. 

Saltburn is at times also obsessed with its symbolism which ended up being heavy-handed, even slightly laughable. The chief valet Duncan (Paul Rhys) informs Oliver, "Lost of people get lost in Saltburn", which is obvious in its double meaning. Oliver seeing multiple versions of himself as his lies are exposed, his wearing of horns at his birthday party, or Felix wearing wings while having sex under a statue of a bull also seemed to push the symbolism to almost cartoonish levels.

As Felix's body is being carried off, Duncan asks for permission to draw the curtains. Doing so drowns the dining room in blood red. I think I rolled my eyes at Fennell's overt manner. 

The performances themselves are hit-and-miss. I think Barry Keoghan did quite well as Oliver, even if his villainy was obvious. Perhaps that is what makes it a good performance: that he starts as seemingly meek and ends with a nude celebration of wealth. Madekwe's Farleigh was close to Keoghan for the most part as the arrogant but financially dependent American cousin. It wasn't until Farleigh was essentially framed for crimes he did not commit that his performance seemed more on the comic side.

Granted, Saltburn is, I'm told, a black comedy. I did not find it so but saying that it isn't is not a hill I'm going to die on. The comic manner may be from Pike and Grant's performances, which seemed far too broad and exaggerated to be thought of as real. 

Elordi is pretty but also slight as Felix, a slightly more principled Dickie Greenleaf. I never believed that Elordi was either wholly decadent or wholly decent. He was just there. Yes, very pretty, but pretty empty. 

If there is one quality that Saltburn has, it is in Linus Sandgren's cinematography. The film is visually arresting, at times almost breathtaking. The use of light and shadow, the various colors and lavishness of its look do work well in the film.

It is unfortunate that both Keoghan's performance and the cinematography are simply not enough for me to recommend Saltburn. Had the film been shorter and less heavy-handed with its symbolism, I would have thought better of it. 


Monday, November 20, 2023

The Nice Guys: A Review



For the longest time, I deliberately avoided The Nice Guys. So many people were praising this film that it had the opposite effect on me and kept me away. It has built up this cult among certain circles as this delightful romp with 1970s trappings. At long last, I opted to give it a chance.

Now that I have seen The Nice Guys, I report that I will not be joining this cult.

Los Angeles, 1977. An adult film star who goes by the name of "Misty Mountains" dies in an apparent car accident. Was it a mere accident? Was it suicide? What about murder? Things become more confused when Misty's aunt, Lily Glenn (Lois Smith) insists that she saw Misty alive after the accident. She hires private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to get to the bottom of this case.

Holland, however, was not counting on a fellow P.I., Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe). He is not above using brass knuckles and other dubious methods to get the job done. Right now, the job is to keep Holland away from Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), whom has become involved in Holland's investigation.

However, both their cases lead back to Amelia, who faces danger due to her involvement in shady deals with the auto industry. Even her mother, Judith (Kim Basinger), who is with the Department of Justice, may be in cahoots with Detroit. What does this have to do with Misty Mountains and How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy? the newest Misty erotic film? More murder and mayhem envelop March, Holland and March's daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), the wisecracking and shrewd Nancy Drew. The case is finally solved, and to March's surprise he finds himself now partners with Healey, who has opened up a new detective agency under the banner "The Nice Guys".

I find it a very curious aspect of Ryan Gosling's career that, no matter how often he tries, I never believe him in a comedic role. Be it in films like Crazy, Stupid, Love or La La Land or Barbie or in this case, The Nice Guys, Gosling always comes across to me as someone who is trying too hard to be funny. It is as if he is too self-conscious that he is supposed to be funny rather than just be funny. It is, to my mind, a suggestion that Gosling does not trust the material or thinks the material is so funny that it will lift him up. 

I think there is a calculated manner to Gosling's comedic performances, and The Nice Guys is no exception. With a deliberately blank face and spouting off the allegedly funny lines in a staccato manner, Gosling is determined to make us laugh. The section where he is cornered in the bathroom stall is meant to be funny. He and Crowe do their best to make it so. I watched, not in puzzlement, but in almost boredom, aware that everyone is playing it funny without actually being funny.

"You know who else was following orders? Hitler.", March says at one point. It just did not work for me. Over and over, I could not shake the notion that Gosling felt he was smarter than the material and the character. As such, his job apparently was not to create Holland March, but to be Ryan Gosling attempting to play a character named Holland March.

Gosling, however, was not the only one who was deliberately mannered in his performance. Crowe too worked hard to make his brawler into a comic figure. Like with Gosling, however, I never believed it.

Truth be told, a lot of Shane Black's writing (with Anthony Bagarozzi) and direction pointed to the idea that everyone thought The Nice Guys was funny. We have stock characters (the dumb father, the gruff enforcer, the wisecracking teen). Worse, we have situations that force the humor. When Jackson, Holland and Holly face off against Tally (Yaya DaCosta), Judith's assistant and henchwoman, the physical comedy of Holly splashing coffee on her only to find that it is cold left me cold. The "witty banter" about the coffee being cold did not help.

Black and Bagarozzi's screenplay really works at being quick and quippy. I again felt it forced and obvious.  

I do give credit to how The Nice Guys captured the 1970's aesthetic. On that, the film did well, looking as if it came from the era of disco and bell bottoms. 

However, I did not laugh at The Nice Guys. I think it is because I figured that it was simply trying too hard and was too obvious for me. It is certainly a cult film, adored by many people. I do not know exactly why it has this passionate fanbase but bless them for their passion. I just cannot share it.


Friday, November 17, 2023

Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Television Miniseries



Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, later dubbed Jackie O after her marriage to Greek shipping billionaire Aristotle Onassis, is more an American Sphinx than America's Rani. Visible yet opaque, Mrs. Onassis forever remained out of reach. She has been the subject of fascination, not just for the public, but for film and television producers even before her death in 1994. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, based on the Donald Spoto biography, manages a surprising feat. It takes a well-respected, well-researched biography and turns it into a snoozefest. 

Paying respects at the grave of her first husband, former President John F. Kennedy, his widow Jacqueline (Joanne Whalley) remembers her extraordinary life. Daughter of wealth and privilege, she soon finds herself romanced and won over by Congressman John Kennedy (Tim Matheson). His father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (Tom Skerritt) is won over by the elegant Miss Bouvier. Not won over is Jackie's mother, Janet Auchincloss (Frances Fisher). She thinks the Kennedy men are all like her first husband, John "Black Jack" Bouvier (Fred Ward).

The fact that Jackie adores her flawed father might have been a clue to why she found Jack Kennedy someone worth loving. Once in the White House, they both plot schemes: he political, her fashion. Their rocky relationship is sorely tested but perhaps healed by the death of their newborn, Patrick, before President Kennedy's own death. After the assassination of her beloved brother-in-law Robert "Bobby" Kennedy (Andrew McCarthy), Jackie essentially flees America. She finds refuge with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis (Philip Baker Hall), eventually having her own big fat Greek wedding. While never fitting in with Onassis' children, particularly Christina (Melanie Sara), Jackie found true love in beau Maurice Tempelsman (Jerry Adler) before her own death.

I did read Donald Spoto's biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and thought it was up to his excellent standards. As such, I am amazed that Eric Overmyer and Tina Andrews' adaptation could be so bland. There was no sense of drama, very little conflict, and a very rapid pace to what should be interesting, even fascinating lives. 

I think a good part of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' failure is in the casting. Almost everyone in the film is miscast. Whalley barely looks like Mrs. Onassis, but that is not the worst of it. She does have the soft speaking style that Mrs. Kennedy was known, at times parodied, for. However, it was surprisingly nasal. Moreover, Whalley never made a case as to what made Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis such a figure of fascination and interest. She came across as rather dull for the most part. There was one good scene, where she has to tell her children Caroline and John, Jr. that their father won't be coming back. It was a well-acted, even moving, moment.

That, however, was about the only time that Whalley came close to being Jackie. Most of the time, she was not interesting. 

Almost everyone else is equally bad. Probably the worst is Hall as Aristotle Onassis. Looking nothing like Onassis or even a plausible Greek, Hall did not bother trying to sound Greek either. He clearly was slumming through a third-rate television biopic. Matheson, to his credit, gave former President Kennedy's distinctive Massachusetts accent as good a go as he could. However, there was no sense of his being charming or the shameless lothario that he was. McCarthy's Robert Kennedy was bordering on laughable. He did not look like Bobby, he did not sound like Bobby, and the mixing of gunshots as Bobby fell while playing football was both too overt in its symbolism and a surprisingly dumb way to move past the assassination.

Skerritt's Joe was equally unconvincing, as if he thought the whole thing was a lark versus a calculated way to get his son into the White House. Diane Baker's Rose Kennedy and Fisher as the snobbish but shrewd Janet were the sole bright spots acting-wise. Baker's side-eye glance at Joe when he appears to flirt with Jacqueline is perfect. 

Well, maybe Sara's psycho-bitch Christina Onassis was effective if perhaps more operatic than her father's longtime mistress Maria Callas.

It may be that Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis was almost too reverential to be interesting. Joseph Conlan's opening "stirring" score was so overdone as to be slightly comical. 

The curious thing about Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is how devoid of drama it is. The miniseries rushes through both the death of her son Patrick and two assassinations and treats the Onassis marriage like a blip. The offer of a million dollars to stay in the Kennedy marriage has surprisingly somber music with it, which is a strange dichotomy.

In the end, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is charming but with no drama, having little conflict and no insight into the former First Lady who enchanted the world. 



Thursday, November 16, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: A Review (Review #1655)


At a time when people can call Joy Ride the best comedy of 2023 and Across the Spider-Verse "one of the greatest films ever made in the history of cinema" (both said by the same person I might add), I am despairing about both film reviewing and cinema itself. Killers of the Flower Moon is the first film in a long time that had me think there is still hope, even if its creator is entering the twilight of his career. 

The Osage Native American people are both blessed and cursed. Having been pushed off their original land for Oklahoma reservations, the discovery of oil has made them among the wealthiest people in America. Their traditional ways have them share in the profits, but as the saying goes, "mo' money, mo' problems". Soon, the Osage are given "guardians" to watch over their fortune. The guardians, however shady as they are, pale in comparison to the vultures waiting to take over.

Into this comes Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran come to live with his uncle, William "King" Hale (Robert DeNiro). Hale appears to be the friend to the Osage, a benevolent white figure that sides with them. In reality, he is a greedy man who lusts after the Osage people's mineral rights. Hale pushes Ernest to court and marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage whose family has vast holdings. Mollie is pretty and pretty shrewd, fully aware that the "coyotes want money". Nevertheless, Ernest is very handsome, and they marry.

Hale knows that the fewer members of Mollie's family are around, the greater the share of Ernest's inheritance will be. Slowly, Mollie's other sisters and mother start succumbing to death. While matriarch Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal) dies of natural causes (at least I think she did), the other sisters are not so lucky. Drunk troublemaker Anna (Cara Jade Myers) is brutally shot. Mollie's other sister Reta (JaNae Collins) is literally blown up. All the while Mollie is slowly growing weaker physically and morally. Her illness is diabetes, but Hale is not above pushing Ernest into putting a little something in her insulin (a new product for the time) to help get Mollie out of the way.

Despite her illness, Mollie has enough strength to join a group of Osage and plead their case with President Calvin Coolidge. This gets the then-Bureau of Investigation to look into the Reign of Terror that the Osage have been living through. Agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) comes looking around to investigate the various killings. It is not long before Ernest is caught in his involvement with the targeting of Mollie's family but that of Mollie's first husband, the depressed Henry Roan (William Belleau), who mistakenly trusted Hale, unaware that Hale benefited from his death. A trial against Hale gets temporary justice, but as the radio show that has chronicled the Osage murders tells us, things did not end well.

At its heart, Killers of the Flower Moon is a tragedy, chronicling the evil that men do out of greed. Scorsese shocks the viewer with the randomness of some of the killings. Early on, an Osage mother meets a shocking and ghastly end. The coldness of that act, coupled with Gladstone's voiceover that it was ruled "a suicide" makes it all the crueler. The refrain of "no investigation" to clear acts of murder makes it more chilling. 

The film does not shrink from being graphic, but it also brilliantly builds up suspense. We the audience, for example, know that Rita and her family are in grave danger. Scorsese, however, keeps us waiting by pulling the camera in Mollie and Ernest's bedroom, the windows prominent on the screen. Even though we know something is coming, we are still jolted by the ferocity and horror of Rita's brutal end.

Visually, Killers of the Flower Moon is arresting. A sequence where Ernest sees Hale burning down his fields to Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground looks like a vision of Hell, with Hale as Satan himself. 

Killers of the Flower Moon also has truly exceptional performances. I think Leonardo DiCaprio has done some of his best work here as the gullible, corrupt and weak Ernest Burkhart. DiCaprio makes him dumb, weak, sometimes sleazy, sometimes remorseful but also unwilling to face the truth of his actions. Ultimately, Ernest comes across as thoroughly pathetic in every meaning of the word. Near the end of the film, with his life and family in tatters, he remarks, "I ain't got nothing but regret". It is an admission both painful and slightly dishonest. 

Lily Gladstone is the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon as Mollie. She brings a quiet dignity and grace to a woman caught up in terrible circumstances. Gladstone makes Mollie an intelligent woman, one aware that she is a target for gold-diggers but also susceptible to false promises of love. There is also a quiet resignation to the indignities she must endure, such as when she has to call herself "incompetent" when asking her guardian for her own money. Gladstone captures you every time she is on screen. I keep thinking the word "quiet" when it comes to her performance. That, however, does not suggest a passivity or weakness. Far from it: Gladstone brings great strength to Mollie.

DeNiro has come out of the fog of his mugging and Bad Grandpa stage to deliver the goods. The evil face behind the mask of benevolence, DeNiro's William Hale is a thoroughly evil man. What makes DeNiro more effective is that he rarely if ever rages. There are maybe one or two scenes when Hale is out of control. There is when he is whacking his nephew for botching a job. Another is when he screams out, "GIVE ME MY HENRY ROAN MONEY!" when he is attempting to collect on the life insurance policy he took out on an unwitting Roan. Even then, his moments of overwhelming anger fit into Hale's character, that of a man used to getting his way. 

Martin Scorsese masterfully directs all his cast to fine performances, except for recent Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser as Hale's defense attorney W.S. Hamilton. Hammy and fat, Fraser devoured the screen whole in his brief role. That might have been what Scorsese wanted, but it comes across as wildly over-the-top. 

Killers of the Flower Moon also has exceptional production work. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is at times spellbinding (the closing scene is beautiful), and the late Robbie Robertson's score mixes Native American elements with almost a bit of rock, building menace when needed. Longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker rarely lets the pacing lag, even at almost three and a half hours.

There are aspects that people have criticized. The length is one. Could it have been shorter or with an intermission? I think it could have and might have benefitted from one. The closing scene of the FBI Stories radio show with Scorsese has also, I think, been called into question. I thought it was a clever and period-appropriate way to sum up what happened after the events of the film versus having online text tell us. I also think Scorsese's appearance is fine. It is almost his way of summarizing both the film and the real-life horror & tragedy we have seen. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is the best film I have seen so far this year. Intelligent, gripping, with excellent performances, this is a strong film of a story that needs to be better known and remembered. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Life With Lucy: The Complete Series



It is said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I have now examined Life with Lucy, and it is definitely a life not worth watching. Misguided, almost doomed from the beginning, Life with Lucy veered far from its intended course. Yet did it have to be this way? 

First, a quick summary of the show's premise. Recent widow and health food nut Lucy Barker (Lucille Ball) has decided to move in with her daughter Margo's (Ann Dusenberry) family. That would mean moving in with Margo, her husband Ted (Larry Anderson) and their children Becky (Jenny Lewis) and Kevin (Philip J. Amelio, II). She is also the co-owner of a hardware store, along with Ted's father Curtis (Gale Gordon). Along with their employee Leonard (Donovan Scott), Lucy inevitably gets into one set of hijinks after another. 

Now, a ranking of the Life with Lucy episodes from Best to Worst, including the five unaired episodes finally released on DVD (marked with an asterisk).

That two of the best and worst Life with Lucy episodes were unaired says something about the wildly fluctuating quality of the show.

As I think on the premise, I think Life with Lucy might have worked as a series of specials or a stage play. That way, we could get a series of comedy bits, put in some drama, and then get out. Instead, turning this into a weekly television series creates two problems. First is trying to come up with one premise after another for twenty-plus episodes. The second is trying to come up with one premise after another that the cast can participate in.

If we look at past Lucille Ball sitcoms, you will see that the cast for each was relatively small. I Love Lucy had four principle cast members, five if you count Keith Thibodeux (then billed as Richard Keith) as Little Ricky. The Lucy Show eventually whittled down to primarily two (Ball and Gale Gordon), after Vivian Vance opted to leave and the children of the Ball and Vance characters were written out. Here's Lucy had mostly four cast members (along with Ball and Gordon were Ball's real-life children Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucie Arnaz).

Life with Lucy had an astonishing seven characters. There were simply too many characters for such a small amount of time. With such a large group of people, it was all but impossible to fit everyone in. You could not cut out Ball or Gordon, so you were left with the family. I would have pushed vociferously to cut the character of Leonard out altogether. Yes, the hardware store needed employees, but there were issues with Leonard. He was the sole employee, or at least the sole employee ever seen working at the store. It made no sense to have one employee. He could never fit into the family dynamic. A couple of times Life with Lucy shoehorned him into family matters, but it ended up making less sense.

Moreover, Leonard was just annoying. The pratfalls, the exaggerated announcer voice and overall useless of the character took away from everything and everyone.

Not that the rest of the cast was any better, at least acting-wise. While Lewis as Becky had some good moments and was probably the best of the cast (the Becky-centric episode Lucy is a Sax Symbol being a standout for Lewis), the rest were in one word, horrendous. Once can cut Lewis and Amelio some slack given they were kids. 

Some slack. 

Dusenberry and Anderson, however, get no such reprieve. 

There is just no getting around it: both were simply awful as Margo and Ted. Their acting rarely if ever rose above community theater level. At times, there was almost a sense of desperation to their performances, as if both knew Life with Lucy was terrible and they wanted out. To be fair, Dusenberry had one good moment, a dramatic scene in Love Among the Two-By-Fours that worked well. Other moments, like Lucy, Legal Beagle and the pilot episode One Good Grandparent Deserves Another were simply ghastly. 

Anderson was just there.

As I think on the large cast, I'm reminded of how the early years of The Facts of Life also had an unwieldly large cast, forcing the producers to whittle the cast down to five. That could be done there, but on Life with Lucy? How to pare down a scenario like Life with Lucy? You going to kill off the family?

At least you could kill off Leonard. He was absent in one episode (Lucy and Curtis Are Up a Tree) and sometimes is in just one scene (Lucy is a Sax Symbol, Mother of the Bride). The show should either have been set at home or at work. Trying for both never worked. You might not have placed Lucy and Curtis in a retirement home (though that would be logical), but you could have opted to drop the hardware store. Why not make them employees of the hardware store, or have them volunteer at some senior center or other facility? That would provide an alternative setting that could cut out the family or the center when needed. 

No doubt the hardware store was created to allow for physical comedy. However, not only was the physical comedy obvious but also less funny and more frightening. In One Good Grandparent Deserves Another, there is a simply horrifying scene where, albeit accidentally, Lucy comes close to strangling Curtis. I was not laughing. I was fearing for his life.

That physical comedy leads to another issue with the show. One of Life with Lucy's greatest issues is how the show simply refused to adapt to the times. The writers, especially Ball's longtime writing team of Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davies, were writing for a character that no longer existed. Many of the antics that Life with Lucy's Lucy Barker got into were for someone in her 30's to 40's. Lucille Ball, sad to say, was simply too old for what they had the character do.

I want to make clear that Lucille Ball was still quite agile and could handle the dialogue and physical comedy quite well. I do not want to come across as ageist in my ideas about Ball. However, a lot of physical comedy on Life with Lucy came across as more dangerous than endearing. One scene in Lucy Gets Her Wires Crossed involves her failed efforts to fix a reclining chair. Inevitably, the results are disastrous, with the chair thrashing about and flinging the occupant hither and yon. With a younger person, say someone in his/her 40s, that might be funny. When a 77-year-old does it, it looks deadly. 

It is hard to laugh at physical comedy when you fear for the comedian/comedienne's life. 

Curiously, the age issue pops up again in an unexpected way. Near the end of the series, Lucy either forgets something (like the formula for a health drink that ends up being a temporarily successful fertilizer) or makes a ghastly mistake (such as ordering too many lawnmowers due to her inability to use a computer). Both unintentionally reinforce the stereotype of seniors as having poor memory or being inept with technology. 

It was safe, and easy, and ultimately cheap, to make Lucy into this senior klutz. Intended as wacky, her Lucy Barker came across as combination senile and nut job. Naivete and cluelessness are fine, even amusing and endearing. When it comes from someone who is in her seventies, her total unawareness of how organizing a store in alphabetical order makes her look either insane or thoroughly stupid. 

As a side note, the "Lucy is obsessed with health" bit was pointless. It was a way to get some awful reactions from horrified family forced to drink her latest grotesque concoction. Apart from that, it added nothing to the show or the character. 

Life with Lucy did not have to crash and burn. Some major work could have saved it from being the fiasco it turned out to be. Not film it in front of a studio audience (the wild cheers for her entrance just set Ball up for failure, giving her a false sense of success). Dump the hardware store. Dump Leonard. Ditch some of the family (make Margo a single girl or even Lucy's granddaughter). Set up a foil or partner in crime in the Vivian Vance style. 

Lucy, Legal Beagle had a great character in Dena Dietrich's Hilda Loomis. She was a sharp antagonist to Lucy Barker to where it might have been nice to see her face off against Lucy. Maybe an antagonistic neighbor or senior citizens center rival? Audrey Meadows' guest spot in Mother of the Bride allowed for an equally strong antagonist. I know there was talk of asking her to join the cast in a second season. That would not have worked for two reasons.

First is that the heavy cast would increase more. Inevitably the family would have to go by the wayside, a tough act with the family premise set up already. Second, in an interview to promote the show, Ball was asked about having a female foil, with the late Vance's name brought up. With tears coming close to falling, Ball replied she could not consider having a female partner in crime without Vance. It is a touching and sad admission. 

Maybe at that point, Ball should have realized there should be no Life with Lucy

It is a terrible shame for Ball to have Life with Lucy on her résumé. It won't eclipse her great and groundbreaking work on I Love Lucy. It will be an embarrassment to be sure. However, time softens all things. In due course, Life with Lucy will be hopefully seen as a curious blip, a strange interlude to an extraordinary legacy.

So long as you do not watch Lucy and the Guard Goose.

Well, at least the Life with Lucy theme song was good.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter. The Television Movie



Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz formed not only one of the great television duos but also a formidable television production company that brought us such programs as The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. As such, it seems almost a shame to reduce their complex relationship and partnership to a mix of "unhappy wife" and "philandering husband". Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter has one positive and one negative which keeps it from being either total excellence or total farce.

September 8, 1951. At the Desilu Studios, various cast and crew are preparing to film the premiere episode of the new television situation comedy, I Love Lucy. As the production gets closer and closer to start filming, its two stars have a series of flashbacks recalling their lives up to this point. Some flashbacks are from Lucille Ball (Frances Fisher), a former film star. Other flashbacks are from Desi Arnaz (Maurice Benard), a Cuban exile who has found fame, fortune and females in America.

Lucille, a hardscrabble actress who struggles to get her big breakout, is both attracted and slightly leery of Arnaz. Arnaz, for his part, sees Ball as something of a film jinx and at first does not want to work with her. It isn't until she becomes somewhat unobtainable that Arnaz's loins are piqued. 

The on-off relationship is causing them great joys but also great pains. There's great sex, though Lucille is not the exclusive recipient of such pleasures. Not even marriage can tame Desi's wandering member, though he does try not to stray. It is only when he gets dismissed as "Mr. Ball" that he crumbles. As they go through their marital merry-go-round, with threats of divorce and miscarriages, Lucille and Desi still love each other deeply, though not well. Ultimately, they hit on the idea for a television series that will bring them together. Now, at long last, they can be a team as I Love Lucy finally gets into production.  

Before the Laughter goes in a repetitive manner where something will trigger a flashback, some surprisingly long, then come back to present-day. Anything from a word to a song can send Arnaz and Ball's walk down memory lane. It can grow a bit tiresome, almost little bit of parody, to see exactly what or who will send Lucy or Desi taking a journey to the past. William Luce and Cynthia A. Cherbak's teleplay opts to keep this structure, more than likely to give equal time to Arnaz and Ball's side of things.

I do not know if it ultimately works. It is a positive that Before the Laughter opted to try and be balanced. However, memory is a curious thing. How one person remembers something may not be how the other person remembers. It may not even be what actually happened. What ends up happening is that Lucy and Desi end up a bit shortchanged. For something that is "their story", we end up getting pieces of two separate stories.

To be fair, there are good parts in the script. The recreation of both the Arnaz-Ball stage shows and rehearsals for the I Love Lucy pilot work well. There is a good montage of Ball's series of B-films via a series of publicity shots that also does well.

Mostly though, Before the Laughter is elevated and denigrated through our two leads. Frances Fisher does a fine job as Lucille Ball. She blends the zany persona with the authentic woman. Fisher's Ball can be flirtatious or furious, clueless and heartbroken. She handles the recreations of Lucy Ricardo quite well to where it is not mimicry. She also has strong dramatic moments. Late in the film, she gets notice that Desi's tour bus was in a major accident. Distraught and terrified, she makes a hurried trip to where he was touring. She unexpectedly runs into Desi, who is delighted and surprised to see her but unaware of the accident (he had either stayed behind or flown ahead). The terror and relief Fisher brought to the role is excellent.

And then there's Desi. 

Maurice Benard did not give a performance. I am not even sure that he gave a parody of Desi Arnaz. Instead, it was some oddball blend of desperate and unintentionally hilarious. Benard is comically bad as Desi Arnaz. There is simply so much wrong with Benard as Arnaz that it is an embarrassment of riches to find where to begin. 

Benard's voice was high and nasal, sounding more like a caricature than anything close to Arnaz's Cuban accent. Benard apparently thought that Arnaz did nothing but mug for a living, for there was a lot of big-eyed expressiveness in Benard's performance. He made Arnaz look like a perpetually horny but lost puppy. It was to where he came across as funny even when he tried to be serious. 

Early in their relationship, Arnaz recounts his flight from Cuba. Once the spoiled, wealthy son of a mayor, a revolution costs him and his parents everything. As he tells Ball what is meant as a sad story, Benard says it in a comical manner, as if he is almost kidding about seeing his home burned down and having to flee for his life. 

Throughout Before the Laughter, Benard's Arnaz is so silly as to not come across as human. The most unintentionally funny moment came after what I think was the Academy Awards presentation. Fisher as Ball remarks, "What a night for Crawford. Bette Davis must be spitting nails", so I figure this is 1946 when Crawford won Best Actress for Mildred Pierce. As the radio announcer presents the various celebrities leaving the event, he says, "Here's Lucille Ball's car!", which enrages Arnaz.

Seething with rage, Arnaz finally pulls over to insist he is not "Mr. Ball". Everything in his performance becomes laughable. If Maurice Benard widened his eyes more, they'd literally would have popped out of his head. His voice grew into almost a screech. His efforts to express anger expressed almost humor. The entire scene should be studied by acting students under a "Don't Let This Happen to You" section.

Some sections, to be fair, could not have been handled better. Stationed near Ball during World War II to entertain the troops, Desi once again gets dismissed as "Mr. Ball". It just happens to be their anniversary when Ball shows up unexpectedly with a cake. You already know what will happen, to where I said, "That anniversary cake ain't gonna make it". 

Somehow, Before the Laughter could not overcome some hurdles. Maurice Benard was the biggest one, his performance a disaster. It should be noted that the screenplay did not go into great depth about Arnaz or Ball: his business acumen and her steely determination to succeed. Frances Fisher brought a strong performance as Lucille Ball. She was the saving grace, but it is Lucy AND Desi. As such, it went only halfway.

Desi Arnaz: 1917-1986
Lucille Ball: 1911-1989