Sunday, June 24, 2018

Won't You Be My Neighbor?: A Review



WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

There is a phrase used many times in film reviews, which I have avoided until now, but after seeing Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Mister Rogers' Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, I feel compelled to use it now.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a film we need at this time.

Whether it is nostalgia, a hope for see those mythical tattoos from his alleged time as a sniper, or an exploration as to this man's unique worldview, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is neither hagiography or take-down.  It is respectful, kind, gentle, compassionate but with a quiet strength and even anger at how the world has become so mean and a desire to make it a better world. 

It a reflection of the man himself.

"Love is at the root of everything, love...or the lack of it," Fred Rogers says near the beginning of the film via archival footage, and we see how Rogers came about to become an unlikely television pioneer.

Fred Rogers was studying to be a minister, eventually being ordained into the Presbyterian Church.  However, while visiting his parents he became, if not fascinated by television itself at least by the potential television could have.  He was also distressed by many aspects of children's television in the mid-to-late 1960s: the fast pace, the pie-throwing and other forms of physical violence, and most of all by how children were talked down to.

Using his education in child development along with his Christian faith to guide him, his first venture onto television was The Children's Corner, a fifteen-minute show on local Pittsburgh television.  Here, he developed the puppets, voices and model for what would become Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Image result for won't you be my neighborRogers became a passionate yet quiet advocate for public television, facing off the formidable Senator John Pastore (D-RI), who was determined to cut PBS funding.  Rogers' now-famous testimony before Pastore's committee ended up charming the curmudgeonly Senator so much that he congratulated Rogers, telling him, "Looks like you just earned the $20 million".

He thought he had done enough programming at one point, around the late 1970s, to repeat the episodes and move on to other projects such as Old Friends, New Friends, a variation on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood more for adults that was not successful.  However, when he learned that children were still being mislead, unintentionally or not, by advertisers, programmers and adults who could not or would not show children the difference between fantasy and reality, he felt compelled to return to his 'mission field'.

Of particular note was his distress when he learned children were being injured attempting to fly like Superman, the children unaware that what they were seeing was not real.

Fred Rogers, through his program, led by example in a gentle, confrontational manner.  He washed his feet in a pool with 'Officer Clemmons', a black man at a time when others threw acid into pools that had swimmers of various races.  He, through the Land of Make-Believe section of the program, tackled uncomfortable topics like assassination, fear of change and the Challenger explosion even if he himself did not appear in person but through providing the puppets' voices.

The film also touches on the workings of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and his nonchalance at the antics of some of the crew, along with his acceptance of parodies such as Saturday Night Live's Mister Robinson's Neighborhood skits with Eddie Murphy. While he told David Letterman in an interview he did not think they were all funny, he did say he also thought they came from a place of affection.

However, the film also suggests that some parodies and spoofs were hurtful, reminding him of when Rogers himself as a child had been bullied for his weight.  The parodies might have brought back uncomfortable memories of 'Fat Freddy'.  It also touches on his own childhood where he was not allowed to express anger or fear, but found an outlet through music.

Image result for won't you be my neighborAfter I left Won't You Be My Neighbor?, I found myself inspired by Fred Rogers and his worldview.  I don't know if this was director Morgan Neville's goal.  I doubt it was, but his portrait of Rogers, respectful and observant, showed that the man was as he appeared to be.

There was no subterfuge, no 'funny hats', just a man with his sweaters and sneakers, doing what he could to make children feel happy and safe in a world of uncertainty.

His worldview was one based on Christianity, but his Christian faith was a living and not doctrinal faith.  At a commencement speech, one of the things he mentions that he finds distressing, along with the destruction of the environment, is the eroding of the Sabbath.  He lived out his faith in a way not many of us do: by being a doer of The Word and not just a Hearer of The Word.

For Fred Rogers, his true model was Jesus Christ.  Both taught by parables, both had compassion and love for everyone, and both called the little children to come to them. Both also loved life and laughter.

One Mister Rogers' Neighborhood production member recounts when the crew was goofing around and took Rogers' camera to take a picture of the production member's behind before leaving the camera back for Rogers.  Mr. Rogers never said anything about that picture, but at Christmastime he quietly presented a poster-size print of that cheeky pic to that cheeky crewman.

Fred Rogers was also a firm Christian in his righteous anger.  Just as Christ was enraged when he saw the Temple defiled with moneylenders, Rogers too was quietly enraged when he saw how children's television was misused.  The fast pace, the disrespect for others, the over-stimulation all grated at him.  For Rogers, he saw that most children's television wanted to just make them laugh.  He wanted television to make them think and more importantly, make them feel.  Rogers above all else respected children and their feelings as they developed their growing worldviews.

For me, that suggests that Rogers did truly accept people as they were, even if in the case of Clemmons, he asked the aspiring singer to keep his homosexuality secret for fear of losing sponsors. Eventually Rogers came around and his widow Joanne remarks that they had many gay friends.  This, along with Rogers' somewhat eccentric fixation with the number 143 as both meaning "I Love You" and his ideal weight which never shifted, are about the only genuine criticisms Won't You Be My Neighbor? can find to the man.

What we get in Won't You Be My Neighbor? is of a man who lived out his faith, who saw the world as Christ did: with compassion for all and love for all, especially children.  We see a man who saw the potential and pitfalls of television and in his own small way to use it for good, to show that love and compassion and kindness are the true treasures.

I end with this small meditation.  It is impossible to know what Rogers would think of the world we live in now, where vitriol is spread nightly on television and various online forms and where children's programming is both faster-paced and more interested in indoctrinating than exploring. 

I can only guess, but I imagine his heart would break at the idea of children being separated from their families.  I also imagine his heart would break at the idea of adults chasing other adults out of restaurants.  Both, I think, would violate his vision that 'you are special', and that your worth is inherent in your existence.

One of Rogers' many songs was I Like You As You Are, and one can imagine Christ saying this to those He met.  Won't You Be My Neighbor? really is a film for these very troubled times, times we have troubled due to our own making.  It's not a reminder of 'gentler times' or a gentle stroll down Memory Lane. 

It's a reminder of what Christ taught were the Greatest Commandments; the First: To Love Your God With All Your Heart, With All Your Soul, With All Your Mind, and With All Your Strength. 

The Second: To Love Your Neighbor As You Love Yourself. 

I aspire now to be a Healer not a Hurter, thanks to Mr. Rogers.

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1928-2003

DECISION: A-

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Chris Hardwick: Some Thoughts


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I have never liked Chris Hardwick.

My main issue with Hardwick was his sycophancy towards those he claimed he and his organization, The Nerdist, to be reporting on.  He made himself the emblem of 'nerd culture', the cheerful, grinning face of Comic Cons everywhere, the 'fan who made good' and became a star in his own right, admired, respected, even perhaps seen as a bigger star than the ones he was perpetually kissing up to.

In reality, to me, he was a duplicitous part of the marketing machine, a poser, someone who touted himself as an expert on all things pop culture, specifically nerd culture (video games, sci-fi/fantasy shows, comic books/films), but who used his position to enrich himself by being at the beck and call of the studios to be a de facto promotional tool.

Yes, I would call Chris Hardwick a tool.

I found him odious in his gleeful cheerleading, refusing to ask tough questions and dismissing those who disagreed with him.

Now, we find that Chris Hardwick may have been more than just Marvel Studios' favorite fraudulent fan.

Chloe Dykstra, Hardwick's former girlfriend (emphasis mine, which I will get back to), posted an essay which details years of abuse and of deliberately blacklisting her in the entertainment industry.  She does not name Hardwick directly, but the details are hard to miss.

Dykstra states her abuser was someone almost 20 years her senior.  She's 29, he's 46.

The unnamed boyfriend went from "a mildly successful podcaster to a powerhouse CEO of his own company".  Hardwick was a podcaster who now wields great influence through his 'many-headed beast', The Nerdist.

Dykstra refers to him as 'a cheery-sounding famous guy'. Hardwick's public persona is that of a perpetually grinning, upbeat man.

All signals point to this unnamed person being one Chris Hardwick.

Image result for chris hardwick doctor who
The details of Hardwick's alleged actions range from the boorish to the criminal.  According to Dykstra, he told her to drop all her male friends, to not leave her hotel room at a San Diego Comic-Con while he went out and partied with various beauties, and to serve as his sexual plaything, ready to indulge his desires whether she wanted to or not.

In other words, she had to have sex with him whenever he wanted, not whenever they wanted, which veers dangerously close to if not actual sexual assault as there was little to no actual consent on her part.

A particularly ugly charge regards when she is recovering after surgery for an ectopic pregnancy.

After being told she'd come out of the surgery fine, her mother thanks God.

Hardwick's first statement is, "That's great.  When do you think I can have sex with her again?"

His reaction here isn't illegal.  It's just grotesque.

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While people get hung up on the sordid and sad details of Miss Dykstra's post, I think we need to look at another part which is getting lost in the tawdry bits.

According to her, after she left this toxic relationship after three years for another man, Hardwick "made calls to several companies (she) received regular work from to get me fired by threatening to never work with them. He succeeded. I was blacklisted".

That is criminal in a literal sense.

Hardwick, if this is true, deliberately sabotaged another person's career out of spite, using his influence to pressure others not to hire someone out of revenge.  This is something Harvey Weinstein, unintended Godfather to the #MeToo movement, would have done and may have done.

Hardwick used his connections, his name, his fame to keep someone else from finding a job and furthering her career.

There is no way of dressing this up if true.  What Chris Hardwick did to sabotage Chloe Dykstra's career, if proven true, is no different than what Weinstein did, or what any other Hollywood producer or bigwig did to make sure someone did not get work because they used personal influence against them.

How is that not immoral?  How is that not illegal?  How can that be defended?

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What makes the charges, all of them, more appalling is how Hardwick presented himself publicly: as a woke male feminist, championing gender equality.

Take for example the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who.  Hardwick stood on a stepladder to look down his nose at anyone who had objections to why a female was cast as The Doctor, calling those who objected 'a**holes' and 'not real fans'.  On his @Midnight show, he went one better, insinuating they were losers and horror of horrors, virgins who in his words 'have never screwed anything'.

Given his own sexual appetites, it's no wonder he fixated on that.

As he dismissed and ridiculed those who had an issue with the reasoning behind this change, he was allegedly simultaneously forcing his own girlfriend to have no life outside him, serve as essentially his 'call girl', openly asking when she'd be ready to service him sexually after a traumatic experience and working to derail a woman's career once the relationship ended.

Over and over, as Hardwick promoted himself as both a major player in the industry and as a progressive friend to female representation, he appears to have worked to discredit a former lover.

That smearing continues today, when he issued his response to Dykstra's post.  He denies any assault, then he carefully adds that during the relationship 'Chloe had cheated on me, and I ended the relationship'.  He goes on to say that Miss Dykstra wanted to get back together and even start a family, but that he 'did not want to be with someone who was unfaithful'.

Not since Harvey Weinstein declared he was going to take on the NRA as a result of the various allegations against him has there been such a tone-deaf response.

It's classic victim-shaming.  She cheated on MeI was the victim.

Hardwick now is essentially saying the opposite of what he has said anytime anyone else, from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Bret Ratner to Louis CK to Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer to Al Franken to Jeffrey Tambor to Joss Wheadon even such seemingly-mild men as James Levine and Garrison Keillor among too many men has faced similar charges: always believe the woman.

For Chris Hardwick, it's "always believe the woman...unless the woman is accusing me.  Then she's just a bitter ex-girlfriend/'broad' (though I figure another word would be used)".

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Perhaps because of his reputation as this woke male feminist, or perhaps because he represents to so many non-virgin nerds a cooler version of themselves, Chris Hardwick's #MeToo moment has become unique.

In all the time the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements have burst onto the scene, I cannot recall a time when someone was as vociferously and ferociously defended as Chris Hardwick.  I do not know why he, out of all those accused, has met this level of impassioned defense.

When Garrison Keillor, of all people, was accused of sexual harassment, Minnesota Public Radio wasted no time in firing him and going so far as to change the name of his former radio show A Prairie Home Companion to Live From Here to disassociate themselves from his alleged acts.

I don't remember people calling for 'due process' and insisting Keillor was 'innocent until proven guilty'.  I don't remember anyone doing the same for Tambor or Rose or Spacey or just about anyone else accused of sexual harassment/assault.

For Chris Hardwick, however, I keep seeing everything from 'we need to hear both sides' and 'he's innocent until proven guilty' to 'Chloe Dykstra is just getting back at her ex-boyfriend'.

It's puzzling to me why Chris Hardwick, of all those myriad of accused, is getting the greatest benefit of the doubt.

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Let's say that instead of Chris Hardwick, it was Chris Pratt who was accused of what Hardwick is alleged to have done.  Hardwick and his BFF Wil Wheaton would be pushing others and each other out of the way to condemn Pratt, to say what a horrible person he was, to run him out of the industry.

Instead, Wheaton asks for 'time to process' before making any statements when it comes to Hardwick.  Fine, but Wheaton and Hardwick have constantly and consistently insisted we always believe the accuser when they make sexual harassment/assault accusations against others (since in at least Kevin Spacey's case, the accusers were men).

Wheaton, Hardwick or any of Hardwick's defenders have never, to my knowledge, ever asked that we 'hear both sides' when it came to Weinstein or Spacey or Tambor or anyone else.  Wheaton, Hardwick or any of Hardwick's defenders have never, to my knowledge, said any of the accused should be given due process or that they were innocent until proven guilty.

Instead, Wheaton, Hardwick and Hardwick's defenders were almost always the ones who would call for boycotts and protests and attack anyone who dared defend the accused. They have been consistent: always believe the women/accuser.

Now, it looks like when it comes to Chris Hardwick, it's 'always believe the women...unless they accuse someone you like or even identify with.  Then she's a liar'.

I wish I knew why, of all the men caught up in this maelstrom, Chris Hardwick is the one that has to strongest and fiercest defenders.

You cannot have it both ways.  You cannot call for someone's metaphorical head and then turn around and insist we 'hear both sides' just because you're a fan of one accused.  You Must Be Consistent.

If it had been Chris Pratt and not Chris Hardwick who was accused, and if you have always said 'always believe the accuser', then you must believe Chloe Dykstra and call for Chris Hardwick to go.

You cannot have it both ways.

P.S. I don't think anyone will accuse Chris Pratt of anything excepting giving bad performances.  I may think he's just a good action star and not an actual actor, but from all I've read and heard he also is a genuinely nice guy.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A United Kingdom: A Review

A UNITED KINGDOM

The recent marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, known also as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, brought to mind another romance that involved royalty and race.  As the Duchess is the first member of the House of Windsor to be of mixed-race (perhaps the second if stories about Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, are true), it seemed a good time to look at A United Kingdom, the true story of an African king and the (white British) woman he loved.  A United Kingdom has a very respectable Masterpiece Theater-polish to it, but it never comes alive to make these interesting people either real or worth knowing about.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is the hereditary head of an African nation, Bechuanaland, currently finishing his studies in England.  It is at a dance that he meets Ruth Williams (Rosemund Pike), a typist.  They soon quickly fall in love, brought together in part by their passion for jazz.

The idea of marriage is firmly opposed by Ruth's father, but it isn't just the whites who are not happy.  As Seretse was a child when he inherited the throne, his Uncle Tkeshedi (Vusu Kunene) is also appalled at the prospect of a white Queen.  It's bad enough in his view that the British have Bechuanaland as a 'protectorate', but to have them in the Royal household is too much for him.  Tkeshedi insists Seretse put away his fiancee and get another one, an African one.

He stubbornly refuses to, causing a rift in the Royal family.  While his people are not crazy about Ruth, they do love Seretse.  However, owing to the rift the British are now slowly crouching in more into Bechuanaland, no doubt helped by the fact that the land is rich in minerals.  The British also want to appease the South African regime, one that is fiercely racist with their apartheid policies. Nevertheless, they marry and the rift breaks out into the open.

Seretse is exiled, but he wisely advises Ruth to remain, sensing that if both leave neither will be allowed to return.  Their relationship soon gets entangled in international politics, as the Labor and Conservative Parties use them for their own needs.  Eventually, Conservative Prime Minister Churchill is forced to keep his promise of allowing Seretse to return if his party won the general election, and in the end, Seretse comes up with a better plan: renounce the idea of monarchy and instead push for independence for the new nation of Botswana.

We learn that they remained married, with Seretse becoming the first Botswanian President.

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The issue with A United Kingdom is that it commits a great sin: it constantly and consistently tells but does not show.  Again and again we hear how 'this is a great crisis' or 'they are so in love' but we don't see it in the performances or the screenplay.

It's very strange that it takes fifteen minutes for us to see a marriage proposal when in those ensuing moments all Ruth and Seretse have done is talk of love but not actually show there was any affection, let alone this burning passion deep within.

In fact if memory serves correct, it isn't until half an hour that they even kiss, and that's because it's their wedding night.

Guy Hibbert's screenplay seems to want to focus on the political machinations thwarting our two lovers but keeps getting pushed back into focusing on their love affair.  I can almost sense the struggle between Hibbert and director Amma Asante as to what story they will tell.

We see this when we go to Parliament, and as a side note it's the cheapest-looking Parliament I've seen on film.

We see scenes of an agitated Prime Minister willing to sell out the Kharmas to keep South Africa in the Commonwealth, then go into scenes of Seretse crying when he hears his newly-born daughter's voice on the phone.  Back and forth, back and forth between what appear to be competing stories, both not interesting thanks to some bad decisions.

There's the decision to divide A United Kingdom between political drama and romance.  Then there's the decision to make everything so noble, so elegant.  The worst is that we again are told but don't see the evolution of the people.  Seretse's sister Naledi (Terry Pheto) on first sight openly hates Ruth.  At the end, she is her greatest friend.  How this turnaround came about we can guess.

Oyelowo and Pike are simply too good of actors to be this boring.  Asante is too good a director, having made the excellent Belle to have done such a lousy job.  It's not a good sign when you spend much time trying to figure out who a particular actor is, one who is devouring the scenery with relish as the 'evil' imperialist, only to realize it's Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy.

A United Kingdom, as I've said, is very respectable but dry as the Kalahari Desert.  This should be a most fascinating story, and the Khamas deserve better.

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Sir Seretse Khama: 1921-1980
Lady Ruth Khama: 1923-2002

DECISION: D+

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Jazz Singer (1980): A Review



THE JAZZ SINGER (1980)

Neil Diamond has nothing to be embarrassed about when it comes to The Jazz Singer, at least musically.  Diamond is a true songsmith, creating a fantastic set for the third version of this story.  Even acting-wise, I won't bash Diamond because judging from his work here, he did the best he could in his film debut.  Granted, it was not a very good performance, but somehow he managed to do better than one of the greatest actors of the Twentieth Century, who just embarrassed himself.

Yussell Rabinovitch (Diamond) is a young assistant Cantor at the temple with his father, the main Cantor (Laurence Olivier).

As a side note, I wondered at the pronunciation of the name: Rah-bin-OH-vitch, when I would have pronounced it as Rah-BIN-oh-vitch.  Oh, well...

Yussell, married to Rivka (Catlin Adams) wants to be a good son and nice Jewish boy, but he also has a secret passion for contemporary soul and rock music (oddly, not jazz, but that's beside the point).  He has been performing with a group of African-American friends in various clubs, and at the latest gig has to don blackface in a failed effort to mix with the African-American audience.

This brings his secret life into the open, much to Cantor Rabinovitch's displeasure.  Yussell works to be the man his father wants him to be, but then his friend Bubba (Franklyn Ajaye) in California working as a background singer, tells him that one of Yussell's songs, Love on the Rocks, is getting covered on an upcoming album.  Yussell is asked to go to California for two weeks, and he goes with the reluctant blessings of the Cantor and the silent acquiescence of his wife.

Yussell, who goes by the stage name Jess Robin, is unhappy by the rock version of his ballad and shows the singer how it should be done.  Even though this gets them all fired, his original version intrigues Molly Bell (Lucie Arnaz), who works at the studio.  She soon becomes Robin's manager, forcing a gig as a last-minute opening act to the curiously named Zany Grey.

Image result for the jazz singer 1980While Robin is a success, Rivka is unhappy with her husband, yearning for the old life in New York's Jewish community and not the flash of California.  Jess, however, needs to follow his muse and what he thinks is his true calling, and Rivka leaves him.

This allows him the opportunity to knock boots with Molly, and the sight of this shiksa and Yussell's abandonment of five generations of Cantors sends his father into hysterics.

From what I understand, Jess' musical career is a betrayal of Holocaust survivors, at least in Cantor Rabinovitch's mind.

Despite having a big television special booked, Jess is in too much emotional turmoil to go on.  He flees and becomes a wandering minstrel, singing in various honky-tonks.  Eventually Bubba finds him and convinces him to return, not just to his career and Molly, but their new baby, Charlie Parker Rabinovitch (the closest connection to jazz the film actually has).

Getting ready for his comeback appearance as yet again Zany Grey's opening act, Jess is asked to perform the Kol Nindre for Yom Kippur, his father unable to.  He does go and reconciles with the man who declared him dead, the joy of his grandchild breaking the ice.

Jess Robin then takes to the stage, with Cantor Rabinovitch and Molly together in the audience, as The Jazz Singer belts out his new song, America.

As I watched The Jazz Singer, I thought the filmmakers could have saved themselves a lot of time, effort and embarrassment if they had opted to make a Neil Diamond concert film rather than adapt a silent film that had already been remade back in 1952.  This is especially true given that more than once, The Jazz Singer consisted of Diamond performing before live audiences, whether it was Summerlove, America or even a countrified version of You Are My Sunshine.

Related imageAs a side note, this section where Robin wanders across Texas made me wonder whether Diamond harbored a secret desire to be a country singer and was allowed to live this dream out, given that it made little sense in terms of the film itself.

Not that his ghastly blackface made things any more logical.  Whether this was screenplay writer Herbert Baker and director Richard Fleischer's odd tribute to the original film or some wildly misguided bit of comedy we don't know, but I can imagine audiences cringing rather than laughing at this, and the passage of time has made this scene look worse.

At least the original had the benefit of being in a time when blackface was acceptable, which does not make it right, but at least within some context of reality.

Misguided is the best word for The Jazz Singer, starting with the fact that there was no actual jazz sung.  I know they kept the title for name recognition and to stay true to the original, but it sounds silly to call it 'the jazz singer' when he doesn't actually sing jazz.

That is a minor point compared to the misguided performances.  Laurence Olivier should be remembered for his brilliant turns on stage & screen of his beloved Shakespeare, but at the tail end of his career he was humiliating himself with tawdry projects.  Perhaps not as shocking as the never-released Inchon, The Jazz Singer has to be among the lowlights of Lord Olivier's résumé. Forever hamming and coming across as hysterical, unhinged or dotty, Cantor Rabinovitch is unintentionally funny.

His 'distress' at the young woman his son has taken up with is downright laughable.

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I'm not going to bash Arnaz much given she was given very odd directions.  For example, when she 'offers her body' to Jess she's directed to make this into a humorous suggestion, but then she looks as if she's genuinely upset and puzzled as to why Jess didn't take her up on her offer.  It makes Molly among the dumbest characters in film history: apparently unaware that offering her body to a married man makes her look sleazy.  Not that in the 'romantic' montage her serving ham to a Jewish Cantor doesn't already make her look downright like a yutz.

As for Diamond, I still think he did his best but he's obviously not an actor.  The script gives him little to work with: we don't know what is in him to create such ballads as Love on the Rocks.  We don't know what motivated his dreams, and as a side note, someone should have told him to cut his hair.  He said the lines, sometimes convincingly, so there's that.  He was better and more confident when singing, which is his forte. Again, a concert film would have been better, cheaper and more productive.

As lousy and ill-conceived as The Jazz Singer is in terms of acting, writing and directing, let alone as a vehicle for Diamond, the soundtrack itself is a wonderful piece of work. The songs are all pretty great except for perhaps On the Robert E. Lee, sung at what is the squarest Hollywood party in history.

There's a banjo in it for goodness' sake!

The Jazz Singer is longer than it should be (we could have cut Diamond's country troubadour bit) and disorganized (Jess' struggle with his family and heritage sometimes falls by the wayside).  Apart from the music there isn't much to recommend in it, unless you count the camp humor at its unfortunate silliness.  My recommendation is to buy the soundtrack and watch The Jazz Singer only if you want to laugh at how it all went wrong.

DECISION: C-

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Romeo and Juliet (2013) Broadway Review

ROMEO AND JULIET

I am aware that Romeo and Juliet is a tale of woe, but that does not excuse the 2013 Broadway production from being so woeful.  Apart from one performance this production is shockingly bad, appealing to tweens all thrilled with the flattest, dullest Romeo to strike the Great White Way.

The conceit of this version is that the Capulets are black and the Montagues are white.  How having a black Prince of Verona does not affect his relationship with the Capulet/Montague feud given how they opted to make race an issue we know not.

Romeo Montague (Orlando Bloom) falls passionately in love with Juliet Capulet (Condola Rashad), and she reciprocates.  The problem is that their families are in a blood feud.  Despite this, they opt to secretly marry with the help of Juliet's Nurse (Jayne Houdyshell) and Friar Laurence (Brent Carver), the latter in the hopes that their union will end the bitter feud.

However, things cannot be as such, as Juliet's cousin Tybalt (Corey Hawkins) fights with Romeo's best friend Mercutio (Christian Camargo), Romeo's efforts to stop this lead to Mercutio's death, then Romeo kills Tybalt in anger.  From there, cascades our cycle of sadness on both these noble houses.

Related imageYou know the target audience of Romeo and Juliet straight from Romeo's entrance.  Channeling a bad James Dean impersonator trying to do Shakespeare, Orlando Bloom rides atop a motorcycle in this 'contemporary' version.  When he removes his helmet to reveal the ethereal beauty that is Bloom, you could hear cheers and I think squeals of delight from teen girls, aroused at seeing Legolas so close.

It's a curious thing in a production when you see pretty quickly that this is going to be a disaster.  I saw it from the moment we heard the rumble of the bike.  I figure director David Leveaux wanted us to think of Romeo as this classically cool figure, smooth and charming, even hip.

His entrance, however, ended up making it look like Romeo and Juliet had slipped into Grease 2, with everyone about to start singing Who's That Guy.  I happen to like Grease 2, a guilty pleasure I admit, but it's sad when something as bad as Grease 2 is actually on a higher level than Romeo and Juliet.

I'm not such a purist that I cannot have a contemporary production of Shakespeare, but there has to be a reason for it.  There was no reason for it, apart from appealing to Bloom's squealing groupies.  Oddly, I have always thought that Bloom is competent only in period and fantasy films, floundering whenever he tries to play contemporary.

Note I said 'competent', not 'good', because Romeo and Juliet showcase just what a lack of acting talent he has, with nothing to recommend a career apart from his beauty.  His Romeo is an embarrassment, good only for spoofing.  Bloom has a really amusing tic in Romeo and Juliet: thrusting his right arm out in many of his line readings.

I did not keep count, but that might make for a good drinking game: a shot every time Bloom thrust his arm out to show he is ACTING.  That, however, is the least of his theatrical sins.

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Bloom's 'call to arms' is part of a larger issue: how he is not the character but the star.  He constantly performs to the audience, as if the other actors were not actually there, not even Juliet.  Bloom's performance appears to come from a mind that think they are all props for his one-man show.  In many scenes, he is speaking directly to the audience and seems to barely recognize his other actors.

Add to that his line reading is hilariously bad.  In the Balcony Scene, his declarations of love sound as if he were stoned.  As he pushes through "It is The East...", he makes this not the romanticizing of the fair Juliet, but pretty much a declarative statement, with no sense of love or passion.

His only bright spot, it appears, is in his Obligatory Shirtless Scene.

I wish I could say that his cast pushed Bloom to at least try to up his game, but it looks like they were all trying to act as badly to keep up with him.  Rashad was slightly better as Juliet, but she came across as insipid instead of love-struck.  She also seemed to be rushing through her dialogue, almost in an effort to get this over with the faster.

In my notes, the only complimentary thing I could say about Rashad as Juliet is 'she plays dead very well'.

Hawkins was overdoing things as the angry Tybalt and Camargo never got the humor of Mercutio.  Houdyshell didn't make the Nurse into the salty character I remember from Romeo and Juliet, but more of a scold to where I wondered why Juliet would think of her as a confidante.

Related imageThe only bright spot was Chuck Cooper as Lord Capulet, who brought a bit of whimsy and humor to his interpretation.

A massive surprise is finding former American Idol first first-runner up Justin Guarini as Prince Paris.  Even more astounding is that Guarini in his small role actually manages to out-act almost everyone, even if his Paris came across as an idiot.

Again, I'm not saying he did a great job.  I'm saying he did a better job than those who have or are alleged to have most experience acting on stage or screen.

I put this in part on Leveaux, who could not get his actors to make the characters real.  I cut him some slack given he had some poor material to work with in Bloom, but other aspects are inexcusable.

This Romeo and Juliet did one thing that I detest in any Shakespeare production: it rhymed.  For reasons I cannot fathom Leveaux let the actors rhyme the lines.  For example, there's this line, spoken by Lord Montague (Michael Rudko) upon discovering their children's bodies:

"That while Verona by that name is known, there shall be no figure as such rate be set, as that of true and faithful Juliet".

"Set" and "Juliet" rhyme, nothing wrong with that.  However, for nearly the whole of Romeo and Juliet, the actors emphasize that their lines rhyme.  In this case, Rudko put force on 'set' and 'Juliet' to enhance the rhyme, but he wasn't the only one doing it.  In fact, I think everyone in Romeo and Juliet did it.  It was only in terms of degrees.

I find that such a pet peeve when watching any Shakespearean production.  Shakespeare's language should sound natural, as if it comes from actual speech and not the force theatricality that many productions are plagued with.  It needs to sound real, and in this version, they seem to almost enhance and emphasize how unreal it sounds when spoken.

Truthfully, I've seen high school productions that have better acting and directing.  I've never wanted these two characters to actually die so much as I did after this monstrous rendition of Romeo and Juliet.



DECISION: F

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ocean's 8: A Review

OCEAN'S 8

I've never been interested in what is essentially an Ocean's Extended Universe.  I didn't like the original Rat-Pack Ocean's 11, and while I saw the remake I don't remember anything about it.  I don't think I watched Ocean's 12 and I know I never saw Ocean's 13.  Now we have Ocean's 8, which is where The Divas Strike Back.  The all-female version of the Ocean's de facto franchise could have been good, but somehow by the third act it started dragging to where I lost interest.  It wasn't terrible, but it lost its mojo and never quite got it back.

Deborah Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the perhaps-late Danny Ocean, is now out of prison after five years for fraud and theft.  Debbie, in those five years, has had time to plan a master heist.  Now all she needs is to round up a group to help her.

First is her old running partner Lou (Cate Blanchett), now a club owner who is quick to join up.  Together Lou and Deb get the others: hacker Nine-Ball (Rihanna), mistress of sleight of hand Constance (Awkawfina), fence Tammy (Sarah Paulson), diamond cutter Amita (Mindy Kaling) and eccentric fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter).

While all are important, Weil plays a major hand in that she is the only one with the cred to get the others connected to Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), a vain actress who is hosting that year's Met Gala.  The target is the Toussaint Necklace.  This $150 million necklace is dripping with expensive diamonds and has been secreted away in the Cartier vaults for close to fifty years.  Cartier has never loaned or even displayed the Toussaint Necklace, but due to Kluger's fame and her role as hostess of the prestigious Gala they agree to loan it out for just that one night.

The plan is simple: steal the Toussaint at the Gala, then secretly replace it with Folgers crystals, or at least fakes.  Each of our females plays an intricate role where everything must go like clockwork.  Then comes the night of the Met Gala, and the plan is executed.

Image result for ocean's 8IF Ocean's 8 had ended where I thought it would/should end (the Cartier representative shocked to find the Toussaint was just a bunch of cheap cubic zirconium), I would have loved Ocean's 8 and even seen where a sequel could be set up. 

However, it didn't end there.  Instead, we got a third act, and here is where the film went down for me.

After the heist, in comes John Frazier (James Corden), the insurance agent set on investigating this crime. He quickly zeroes in on Debbie, having interacted with the Ocean family before.  His job is made difficult by the fact that Debbie has an alibi: the Met Gala itself, where she was seen and photographed.

No mention was made in his thorough investigation of the fact that she was passing herself off as German at the Gala, down to speaking nothing but German and pretending not to speak any English, but why quibble about details.  Luckily for her, she has a ready frame-up job: her ex-lover, Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), who let her take the fall for crimes they had been committing.  Now all signs point to him.

It becomes Ocean's 8 because Kluger, far from being the dumb actress she was thought of, put everything together and wants to part of the group to, in her words, have friends. She even helps frame Becker for their crimes. There's one thing that does puzzle Kluger: how their haul is bigger than the Toussaint's total worth.  Simple: the Toussaint Necklace, rather than being the main event, was just the preliminaries to the real heist of all the Crown Jewels on display at the Met.

With that, the various women move on to great successes in their personal and professional lives, and Deborah Ocean goes to her brother's alleged crypt, has a cocktail and tells him how he'd love the heist.


Image result for ocean's 8 met gala
Bet that outfit is from
Bonham Carter's own closet.
I'm not averse to having an all-female heist film.  After all, I think the original The Women is a masterpiece. Ocean's 8 has been sold, in part, as a female empowerment film, showing that women are equal to men when it comes to committing larceny on film. Fine, I don't care one way or another.  On two occasions is the gender made relevant: once when Debbie says "A 'he' gets noticed, a 'her' gets ignored" or words to that effect when she rejects hiring a man for the crew, and in a pep talk where Debbie talks about how out there there's a little girl dreaming of becoming a thief, so they should do it for her.

No offense, but that line didn't get Hillary Clinton elected President, and it isn't going to get me to applaud Ocean's 8.

Therein lies the difficulty: I enjoyed Ocean's 8 for the longest time.  It was fluff, but entertaining fluff.  I liked how we got this harebrained scheme rolling, even if whatever difficulties they encountered were dealt with virtually by hand-waving.  I even enjoyed up to a point how we had our team concoct this wild scheme and managed to check all the multicultural boxes: all-female, two Asians (Kaling and Akwafina) and a black woman (Ri-Ri).

So what if in all this they could not find a Hispanic.  I should get used to idea that in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a Latino/Latina, unless they're the maids, janitors and kitchen crew like they are in Ocean's 8

Related imageIt wasn't until we got past the heist that Ocean's 8 fell apart for me. In a strange sense, the film starting failing when they brought a man into the picture, and a bad one at that.  James Corden is constantly pushed at me as some sort of comic but he's never been funny.  His character is superfluous to the goings-on around him, and moreover, both the character and Corden just fail at everything they try.

He is not funny.  He is not menacing.  He is not interesting. He is not bright.  He just drags everything down.  I'm supposed to believe he's had this longtime connection to the Ocean family, but why would I care?

Again, I have to wonder how thorough his investigation is if in all the interviews he had, no one ever mentioned that Deborah Ocean was speaking German and pretending not to speak English.

It does seem strange that Ocean's 8 went the route it did.  It makes 'a woman scorned' a prime motivator for the main character.  It makes said scorned woman an attachment to the overall Ocean's Universe rather than have be perhaps someone Danny mentored or even just someone who admired Danny Ocean's methods and decided to do them one better.

The characters, sadly, are mostly paper thin.  Again, it seems odd that for a film that expounds on female empowerment, we never got a real sense that these women liked each other, let alone liked working with each other.  I figure Ocean's 8 passed the Bechdel Test, but at its heart is still Debbie enacting revenge on Claude, something Lou raises the most minor of objections to before that's forgotten. 

Apart from a few moments, such as Constance guiding Amita on the fine art of 'swiping left or right', we never saw them bond.  It seems such a waste to have such a collection of talented performers, for the most part, and do little with them.

As they are the big stars, the quartet of Bullock, Blanchett, Carter and Hathaway had the lion's share of work, and they were better than the material.  Both Carter and Hathaway steal the film, the former for bringing real life to her wacky designer and the latter for essentially spoofing her public persona. 

I'm far too removed from celebrity/pop culture to know how many cameos there were or who made a cameo, but my last question regarding Ocean's 8 is this: is Katie Holmes really that big of a star to merit an invite to the Met Gala?

DECISION: C-

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War. A Review


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

And the world's longest and most expensive soap opera continues. 

I know many people who love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so much so that they were willing to forgo a day+ of their lives by staying virtually locked in theaters to watch most if not all the MCU films in a marathon.  Part of me admires their devotion, even as I remember that these same people for the most part would not dare sit through the nearly three-and-a-half hour Seven Samurai because it's "too long, black-and-white, and in Japanese". 

Avengers: Infinity War is loved by many fans, who have told me that old 'I laughed, I cried' line.

Bless them.

For me, I found it hollow, empty, boring, devoid of anything worth the adulation.  I know more than a few MCU fans would qualify Avengers: Infinity War as 'Shakespearean', whatever that means.  In their honor, I'll quote Shakespeare when it comes to Avengers: Infinity War.  "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

A short plot synopsis is "Thanos (Josh Brolin) is on an intergalactic treasure hunt to wipe out half of all living things to save on resources. Various superheroes, some affiliated with The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy accidentally meet up to fight him, he wins, some of them appear to die, the end'.

Image result for avengers infinity warI was forewarned that I should see Thor: Ragnarok before seeing Infinity War, and perhaps I should have, as we start in medias res with a defeated Thor (Chris Hemsworth) being tortured by the 'Children of Thanos' into revealing where the Tesseract is.  The Tesseract is really one of the Infinity Stones, a collection of intergalactic jewels that will grant the wearer unlimited and absolute power over all.  A few more deaths from Thanos before Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is sent back to Earth.

Now, Bruce channeling Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers goes on and on about Thanos to those he's crashed onto: Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), one of Strange's Tibetan friends.  Now Strange drags Tony Stark/Iron-Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the invasion to get to Strange's Infinity Stone by attacking New York City means Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jumps into the fray.  To wrap this part of the story, this group save Wong and Banner are taken into outer space.

Out in outer space we have the Guardians of the Galaxy: Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), his girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and a surly teenage Groot (Vin Diesel), more interested in video games than in anything.  They find Thor, and our Norse god goes back to his old pompous pronouncements/tones, dismissing the 'morons' to find a dwarf to make him a weapon with which to take on Thanos.  He takes Rocket and Groot with him to have his weapon forged while the other Guardians go Knowhere to find another stone kept by The Collector (Benicio del Toro). 

Pity Thanos is already there, as while Star-Lord comes close to granting Gamora's final wish to kill her so as to protect her secret, Thanos manages to not.  Torturing her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora reveals where another stone is at, though at a terrible price.

Image result for avengers infinity warMeanwhile, back on Earth, other Avengers are working to get yet another Infinity Stone out of Vision (Paul Bettany), once a machine now a lovelorn sentient being in a relationship with Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  That group, made up of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) save them and taken them to the newly-opened nation of Wakanda, where King T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) opens up their technology.

This also opens up for Thanos' minions to attack to get at this Stone.

To wrap this up, Infinity War then becomes a series of battles across the extended universe with various groups fighting Thanos or his minions to stop him from gathering all the stones and placing them in his gauntlet.  The plan almost came to pass, until Star-Lord went all Brad Pitt in Seven and found that his beloved was dead.  That so enraged him he forgot about his own plan and caused it to fail.  Thanos then popped down to Earth, took the last Stone and won.

With that, the following people were turned into dust in no particular order: from The Guardians of the Galaxy there was Star-Lord, Drax, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Groot, from The Avengers there is Falcon, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch with Vision killed by Thanos when he got the last stone through a little 'timey-wimey', Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who wasn't affiliated with either, also turned to dust in the wind.

Not since perhaps the Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special The Five Doctors have I seen so many figures from a series brought together and, to quote Jay Mohr's book title, "Gasping for Airtime".  Like in The Five Doctors, various people were paired together where I figure screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus thought 'hilarity would ensue'.  I know a lot of people laughed at particular points, but I don't think I laughed once.

Image result for avengers infinity war
I think it is because time and again I felt that the 'comedy' was unnecessary and dragged this film both story-wise and length-wise. It seemed that almost always, whenever we see or hear that there are high stakes with millions of not billions of people or otherworldly beings' lives at stake, we always had to throw in a quip, most of the time really bad ones.

Anthony and Joe Russo were fond of using the Guardians in particular as comedic foils, and an instructive bit of how not to use comedy in this mashup is right after Gamora asks Peter to kill her rather than let her fall into Thanos' hands.  They kiss, only to find Drax observing them by hearing him crunching some snacks. 

We could have stopped there, but instead we kept the scene going by having Drax insist he was now so stealth he could go unobserved, despite being perfectly observable.  It isn't until Mantis comes in and says, "Hi, Drax", that he finally relents. 

All that could have been cut out of this bloated nightmare, but the Russos and everyone at Marvel Studios doubled down on trying to trot out comedy bits at serious moments.  From Thor and Star-Lord having a metaphorical dick-measuring contest, down to everyone telling the latter he was getting flabby (a most dubious charge given it's Chris Pratt) to the Odd Coupling of Strange and Stark to where you almost expect The Odd Couple theme to start playing, Infinity War could not get out of it its own way.

I simply don't understand why Infinity War kept ramming comedy when the situations called for at least a modicum of seriousness.

Image result for avengers infinity war spidermanThere was no directing here.  Ruffalo did nothing but look frantic, Holland's "I'm so young I think Aliens is a really old movie' and calling him 'Mr. Stark'" shtick is now tired, and worse, makes Parker look like a total idiot and not a 'plucky' kid. 

As a side note to that, it's interesting that even Tony Stark has grown tired of this Millennial's constant 'pop culture references' as he called them.  In that case, I think he was speaking for at least me.  Not that Stark isn't above pop culture references, incurring Star-Lord's anger when Stark refers to Quill's plan as 'plucky'.  I too found Star-Lord's sincere belief that Footloose was 'the greatest movie ever made' as idiotic as Stark and Parker did, though given how Parker is, I think our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man was thinking Star-Lord was referring to the Footloose remake rather than the Kevin Bacon 1984 original, which would have been far too long ago for him to know of.  Peter Parker as written here and in Homecoming and as played by Holland probably wouldn't even know there was an original Footloose.

Bacon's name gets another unexpected drop when Rocket Raccoon, whom Thor always calls 'Rabbit', is asked if Bacon is an Avenger.  He says he might be since it's been a while since he's seen the other Avengers.  It might have been Thor, or it might have been Strange.  At this point I genuinely don't care.

Boseman's nobility as T'Challa/Black Panther now too is fast grating on my nerves. I never cared for Bucky, so I'm hoping he is not just merely dead but most sincerely dead.

Moreover, Infinity War never made me care about anything in it.  The film follows Doctor Who at least in the newest version, in this way too: 'killing' off characters we know are coming back.  As we know there's an upcoming Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy sequel and an almost for-certain Black Panther sequel, we know these characters are not really dead.  As such, why would anyone, casual viewer or die-hard Marvel Cinematic Universe devotee really get emotional when there will be no costs to these 'sacrifices'?

Even in something that should be more 'moving', like Gamora's death, I felt nothing.  Perhaps it was the loud Alan Silvestri score doing its damnedest to make me feel.  Perhaps it's because that Soul Stone was being guarded by something like Darth Maul's cousin.  Perhaps because the emotional impact just wasn't earned either from Thanos or Gamora, but I felt nothing.

As a side note, why did Gamora get so huffy about Star-Lord not killing her when he asked given she too gave Thanos what he wanted to save someone, in her case Nebula?

I also have a question of logic.  When Iron-Man and Spider-Man rescue Doctor Strange thanks to a plot point from "that really old movie, Aliens", the thing that looked like the Cryptkeeper was killed as it went into space, but neither Strange or Parker felt anything when they too were sucked out into the vastness of the universe, even if briefly?

Avengers: Infinity War left me bored and slightly irritated.  I confess to never having enough emotional investment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to bother keeping track of the nuances of all our characters, but there has to be something wrong when, while watching, your mind starts thinking of Avengers: Infinity War as a nerd version of Battle of the Network Stars.

DECISION: F