Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Feud: Abandoned! Review



FEUD: ABANDONED!

Last week, I thought Feud was very much pro-Bette Davis.  Now, with Abandoned!, I think it's swung completely the other way and is pro-Joan Crawford.  Abandoned! displayed in all its naked, ugly 'glory' why the reteaming of Crawford and Davis for Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte ultimately collapsed, but also portrayed Davis in particular as the really vindictive, bitter bitch in this war; though Crawford could be petty and spiteful, Abandoned! makes her out to be almost a victim, partially of a Davis-Aldrich axis, partially out of her own decisions.

Production on the now-titled Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte appears to be going relatively smoothly.  Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) is giving a good performance, earning the production team's respect and admiration.  Crawford is doing her best, even giving up drinking while on the job (a remarkable decision given she's a virtual alcoholic). Crawford, however, is worried that her costar, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) is undercutting her, particularly given how close and chummy Davis is with their director, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). 

Crawford isn't completely off the mark: Davis and Aldrich appear to be having some form of liaison, and she spots Davis in her hotel room apparently mocking Crawford's performance, weakening her fragile ego.  In reality, Davis is actually marveling how Crawford is able to do things in one take, but she is too mean to give her hated rival a compliment.  She is able to make her life insufferable by openly criticizing her, by cutting the script to take lines away from her, and worse, by pushing Aldrich to make Davis associate producer, giving her more power. 

All this pushes Crawford back to the bottle.

Davis has become an absolute control freak: not only calling the shots on Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (essentially emasculating Aldrich) but on her daughter, B.D. (Kiernan Shipka).  B.D. at sixteen wants to marry twenty-nine year old Jeremy Hyman (David Foy Bauer), whom Davis dismissively calls B.D.'s "elderly playmate Jerome", but Davis will have none of it. Eventually she consents with the proviso that Davis run the show.

Power gets to Davis' head: dictating Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, controlling B.D.'s wedding plans, and undercutting Crawford, with the nadir being when Crawford's trailer on set is left abandoned while she took a nap.  Crawford is astonished, heartbroken, and furious to find the whole crew left her and Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) stranded in the Louisiana bayou.

Back in Los Angeles, Crawford thinks she'll get a better deal, but soon she sees the rewrites to the script and how Davis again is exercising her powers on set.  Crawford has had enough and relies on an old Hollywood trick: she becomes 'ill'.  Davis is infuriated that Crawford is holding up production, but there's little she can do.  Aldrich for his part is firmly in Davis' camp, telling Crawford she can essentially take her ideas and stick them up her ass.  The war continues until the 'illness' so weakens the production that Crawford is fired, enraging Crawford enough to throw a vase in Mamacita's direction.  True to her word, Mamacita walks out.

Davis is shocked when B.D. tells her that her 'first marriage' has already occurred, having married the moment she signed the consent forms.  To replace Crawford, Davis vetoes Vivien Leigh (saying there's no way anyone would believe Leigh as a Southern belle, Gone With the Wind notwithstanding and A Streetcar Named Desire not even mentioned).  Davis has someone else in mind, her old friend Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  At first, de Havilland declines (though she suggests that if they need someone to play a bitch, they should get her sister Joan Fontaine).  However, de Havilland eventually agrees, and everyone celebrates by opening up bottles of Coke.

Davis, spiteful, vindictive and bitchy to the end.

Abandoned! is a shift for Feud in that it is as close to portraying Joan Crawford as a victim and Bette Davis as a villain.  There is no way anyone could watch Abandoned! and not be pushed to Crawford's side in this awful battle to the death between these two old divas.

Crawford's sympathetic portrayal starts right off the bat, when we see her making a conscious and determined decision not to drink.  We see how Davis constantly undermines her on-set, how she pushes to cut down scenes favorable to Crawford, how she uses her small power as 'associate producer' to bully her rival, and even in bringing in Coke to mock the unofficial Queen of Pepsi.  Even the most sad scene, when a despondent Crawford awakes from her nap to find the crew has left her, gives Crawford a terrible sense of tragedy, of a woman so whittled down that it just about breaks your heart.

Davis' villainy is further showcased when we see how she was towards B.D., her need to make a production out of her daughter's wedding to please Davis, and how she genuinely didn't care about B.D.'s happiness (misguided as she might have thought to someone thirteen years her senior).

Abandoned! was wise in showing that Davis' friend and costar Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) warns Davis to control herself, and even lets Crawford gets words of wisdom from her old friend George Cukor (John Rubenstein).  Sadly, by this point nothing can heal their vicious war.  Abandoned! also shows that deep down, Davis and Crawford resented each other because one had something the other thought she lacked.

For Crawford, Davis was 'the legitimate actress', and this fed into her sense of inferiority.  Davis came from the theater, while Crawford came up as a dancer in clubs before breaking into silent films.  For Davis, Crawford was 'the great beauty', a woman admired for her physical attributes while she wasn't (Davis telling Aldrich that she had overheard Jack Warner after her screen-test, 'Who'd want to f*** her?', a comment that demoralized the then-virgin.  Warner's comment that he wished Davis looked like Crawford put the final nail on that coffin). 

The best moment in Abandoned! I think is when Crawford confronts Davis.  Joan at the end asks Bette what was it like to be the most talented, and she says it was wonderful...but it was never enough.  Davis asks what was it like to be the most beautiful, and she says it was wonderful...but it was never enough.

Helen Hunt (yes, THAT Helen Hunt), directing this episode, makes great use of her actresses, both Lange and Sarandon giving great performances.  I'm still not with Zeta-Jones as de Havilland: Zeta-Jones being almost too glamorous to play the more elegant but still approachable de Havilland.

As a side note, if Ryan Murphy won't make a Feud: Season Three (should there be one) about Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, he is either missing the boat or far too reverential to de Havilland. 

Not everything was perfect, of course.  Hunt's recreation of a bad de Havilland film, Lady in a Cage (which if memory serves correct has been mentioned earlier in Feud) was comically bad (at least I hope it was intentionally bad, for de Havilland couldn't be THAT campy and broad and deliberately awful).  The intercutting between the events chronicled in Feud with the faux-interviews of de Havilland and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) still jar.  The latter is not Hunt's fault.  The former is.

However, Abandoned! was a more sympathetic portrayal of Joan Crawford, even if, as Mamacita observed when leaving the hysterical actress, she did this to herself. Bette Davis may have won that round, and had a hit film, but she wins no one over to her side.




8/10

Next Episode: You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bates Motel: The Body Review



BATES MOTEL: THE BODY

We now have to come to the conclusion of all things Bates MotelThe Body spends much time making us wonder whether our psychopathic Norman Bates will really get charged with murder or not.  A long tease to that conclusion, along with an almost superfluous appearance by our favorite shady Sheriff pushes The Body down.

However, Alex Romero did do one thing for which I will be forever grateful to him for.

Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), fresh off attacking/defending his half-brother/uncle Dylan (Max Thieriot) has just confessed to murdering Sam Loomis.  Sheriff Jane Greene (Brooke Smith) is not really buying this story, convinced that Norman is spitting out wild charges as a way to get attention and break his loneliness.  However, she keeps him at the jail while things get sorted out.

"Mother" (Vera Farmiga) attempts to take control of things by coming up with a somewhat convincing story about Norman's issues.  However, the mention of dumping a body raising Greene's eyebrows (especially after finding two bodies in the lake).  Dylan goes to Julia Ramos (Natalia Cordova-Buckley), a lawyer from his past drug connections, for help.  Ramos does her best, but even she can't help Norman's contradictory stories and statements.

Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) for his part is unaware of all this and goes to the Bates Motel to enact his revenge.  One person who is aware of all that's been going on (after a while) is Chick Hogan (Ryan Hurst), whom an astonished Romero finds in the Bates' basement, dressed almost like a wolf, happily typing away. 

It's Chick who informs Romero of all that's gone on, as well as clueing him on his plans to write a book about the wild goings-on (probably a fictionalized version).  Romero points a gun and tells him that if Chick knows anything about murders, he's an accessory after the fact.  Chick mocks him, pointing out that he's getting lessons in law from a disgraced cop on the lam.  After some more mocking by Chick, Romero finally shoots and kills the bastard...with Chick's head hitting the typewriter to end his life on a 'ding'.


As for Dylan, he's having a hard time with all this, especially when Sheriff Greene comes to tell him they've identified the other body in the lake as that of Emma's mother Audrey.  Greene attempts to gauge his reaction, but he won't give her anything.  He now has to let Emma (Olivia Cooke) know what's going on.  Norman, despite his efforts to bring 'Norma' into this, finds that his earlier talk of a well have ill-served him, as Sam's body has been found. 

Sheriff Greene now charges Norman Bates with three counts of murder: Jim Blackwell, Audrey Ellis, and Sam Loomis.

A minor digression: according to Bates Motel writer/producer Kerry Ehrin, the famous shower scene that Marion altered to have Sam Loomis, rather than Marion Crane, killed off by Norman not dressed as Norma was motivated in part by fears of 'transphobia'.  This seems irrational to me in that Norman didn't think he was born a woman but in a man's body.  He thought he was a specific woman: his mother. 

There is a difference between someone born male who thinks he's a female (a Caitlyn Jenner) and a man who thinks he is a particular woman (Norman Bates).  Someone like a Caitlyn Jenner (born Bruce) thinks that she was born into the wrong gender.  Norman Bates has never, either in any Psycho film or even Bates Motel, ever thought he wasn't a male when he wasn't in a blackout mode.  His issue is that he sometimes (note, sometimes) thought he was a specific female (his mother).  His alternate persona of 'Norma' wasn't really a response to a desire to be or think himself a female, but a desire to keep a specific woman he knew (in a way) to be dead alive. 

In short, if Bates Motel had kept to tradition and had 'Norma' kill Marion or Sam in the shower, it would not have been 'transphobic'.  They are free to alter it if for a story reason, but altering because of appearing transphobic is a very curious decision, to me at least.

As I said, there is one great thing in The Body, and that is that Chick is finally dead.  I never liked his character and am so glad to see him not just killed, but to see Romero do it.  What DID bother me about this scene (and it bothered me endlessly) was the 'ding' bit.  It's cliché, it's unfunny, it's almost insulting to the audience. 

The Body is a great showcase for Smith as Sheriff Greene, and she gives a standout performance.  In turns disbelieving, suspicious, curious, and downright hostile, Smith's performance is far above everyone else's.  More a credit to her than to the director: Freddie Highmore.  The Body did look beautiful, but sometimes it was genuinely hard for me to hear what Farmiga was saying, and at times the colors were too overwhelming.

And that damn 'ding'...

6/10

Next Episode: Visiting Hours

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: A Review



THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

The big question surrounding The Fate of the Furious, the eighth (!) film in this most unexpected and unintended franchise, is whether you can keep it going without the late Paul Walker, who died during the production of the last film, Furious Seven

By this time, the Fast and Furious franchise is really bigger than one man, and minus a mention in Fate of the Furious, his absence wasn't noted. 

The Fate of the Furious gives us everything a fan can want: lots of action, some humor, beautiful locales, even more beautiful women, and more action.  In some ways predictable, in some ways almost cartoonish, it may not be the best in this series, but it knows what its audience wants and gives it to them.

I'll try to keep any spoilers to a minimum, but I will start out by saying there are no bonus scenes, so feel free to leave as soon as the credits roll.

Now in happy retirement in Cuba, Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), they contemplate forming a family when a mysterious woman approaches Dom.  She pressures him into working for her, holding something over his head.

It isn't long before Dom must make a choice when Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) asks him to reform his crew for a job in Berlin.  It's here where Dom appears to go rogue, apparently betraying his 'family' to go with this woman.  With a little help from the always mysterious Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), now joined by his eager novice protégé, dismissively nicknamed by the others "Little Nobody" (Scott Eastwood), we learn that the woman is Cipher (Charlize Theron), a master hacker with nefarious schemes.

She's the type of villain that would be considered too broad for the dour Daniel Craig-James Bond series (though welcome in the Roger Moore-era), but I digress.  She has a master plan that will be revealed later.

In any case, it's all hands on deck as Hobbs, Letty, and the Nobodies bring back Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) back, but with a surprising new face to join them against Cipher: Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who has his own reasons for revenge against Cipher.

They track Dom and Cipher to New York City, where Dom attacks the Russian Defense Minister (aided with Cipher's hacker skills) and the Family attempts to stop him.  When that fails, they all go to Russia, where Cipher's ultimate scheme is discovered, involving nuclear weapons and a Soviet sub.

I can say that all's well that ends well, with everyone back and with the possibility of yet another sequel open.

I've tried to be as spoiler-free as possible, but while watching Fate of the Furious you pretty much know where things are going.  We're told pretty early that there is a very logical reason why Dom 'betrayed' his Family (a reason that should be obvious long before we see what it is).  I kept thinking that the film would have been better to hold back on the reason until later in the film, to make it more surprising (even though it would be pretty obvious).  Even when the reason is literally revealed to everyone at the cookout scene (which I think pretty much ends every Fast and Furious film), you know what we're going to get.

However, that's one of the great pluses, dare I say, charms of the franchise: it doesn't pretend to be original or innovative, but it knows it is a lot of fun.

The film is almost a mass reunion where just about everyone who has been involved in a Fast and Furious film makes an appearance: some in cameo roles, some in more substantial ones.  It's not a spoiler to say there's a Shaw Brothers reunion since Luke Evans (the nemesis in Fast and Furious 6) is listed in the credits.  About the only significant member of a Fast and Furious film not in Fate of the Furious is poor Lucas Black, forever condemned from the much-maligned Tokyo Drift (a film I still am unapologetic about enjoying). We have another cameo from Dame Helen Mirren's and in her two brief scenes she brings a humor to her role as Mama Shaw.

One positive thing about Fate of the Furious is that there is a strong amount of humor, starting from Johnson's first scene (even if we know where it's going, predictability being one of the franchise's signatures).  The interplay between Tyrese and Ludacris still brings laughs (where one wouldn't mind seeing them in their own spin-off movie).

Bless Diesel for doing his best to turn in a performance, the script giving him a chance to try for something other than growling (though one sometimes thinks he would do well to have subtitles when he speaks).  Pretty much everyone from the main crew breaks no new ground, their characters pretty much established.

As a side note, while I don't care about on-set beefs between stars, I can believe the rumors of strife between Diesel and Johnson given that they share no screen time together, let alone appear in the same shot together.  Even when everyone reunites at the end, Torreto and Hobbs don't actually appear together, but are edited in such a way as to show them in the same place, but not side by side.

As the new figure, Theron obviously loves being the slinky, conniving villainess.  She remains calm and cold throughout Fate of the Furious, a woman confident she holds all the cards.  It isn't until the end when her perfectly laid-out plan starts completely unraveling that she even raises her voice. 

Eastwood, perhaps filling in for the late Walker, has an unexpected ability with comedy as the more straight-laced, by-the-book "Little Nobody", someone who finds the rules don't apply to the family.

As I watched Fate of the Furious, there is something in it that veers into both cartoon and/or comic-book adaptations.  The escape from the prison where Deckard is holed up, the attack on the Russian Defense Minister, and the Battle of the Ice (which I figure draws from Alexander Nevsky, and yes, I threw in an Eisenstein reference to a Fast and Furious film review), they are all big and even ludicrous.  When Dom appears at the end of the New York attack, he comes like some sort of comic-book villain, with the attempt to capture him coming like an auto club version of the Justice League. When we get the massive Battle on the Ice, the Rock shows himself to be almost Thor-like in his physical powers.   

However, that's all part of the fun in a Fast and Furious film: things are meant to be big, overblown, and sometimes so wildly over-the-top they would be laughable anywhere else.

If I find fault with Fate of the Furious, it might be the predictable nature of some of the twists.  I also think the film is long (over two hours) and I wonder if some things could have been trimmed (Johnson's first appearance, the 'Riot in Cell Block F'). 

The Fate of the Furious shows that there hasn't been a bad Fast and Furious film (even Tokyo Drift, which I stubbornly stand by).   We see beautiful images of Havana, New York, and Iceland (filling in for Russia), we have loads of action, some car porn, beautiful people, almost balletic action, and that PG-13 friendly level of violence that draws teens and those that think like them into the theaters. 

It might not be logical, it might not be realistic, it might all be loud and overblown and bombastic, but at its heart, any Fast and Furious film is about loyalty, love, and yes, family.  It asks that you suspend disbelief, indulge in a lot of action, some humor, fast cars and cool people. 

The Fate of the Furious holds up its end of the bargain, and I cannot fault it for giving me what it promised: a good time.

DECISION: B-

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Feud: Hagsploitation Review



FEUD: HAGSPLOITATION

After watching Hagsploitation, the newest Feud: Bette and Joan episode, part of me thinks that in this war, the people behind it are pro-Bette.  Part of me finds that my difficulty comes from certain aspects involving Joan Crawford that I wasn't sold on.  However, as we come close to the end of Season One, we find that perhaps there's a sliver of sympathy for our Devil.

Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) has found work, but not the kind of elevated material she would like.  Instead, she's shilling out for a low-rent B-movie, Strait-Jacket, created by schlock director William Castle (John Waters in perhaps the worst bit of stunt casting I've seen).  She hates having to tour the country by wielding an ax (let alone having popcorn thrown at her), or doing some two-bit shtick where she 'chops off' Castle's head.

She is also displeased that rumors of a stag film she allegedly made very early in her Hollywood time, Velvet Lips, is making the rounds...again.  Her frenemy, Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) lets Joan know oh so delicately that the stories are running around.  Crawford knows exactly where to find the source of this blue film: her own brother, Hal (Raymond J. Barry), who lives to hold it over Joan's head (and as a ready source of blackmail cash).  Things are not pleasant between them, but in the end all things worked out for her: Hal dies on the operating table, and when told this by Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), Crawford calmly calls her banker to cancel the check.

Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), director of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is having problems of his own.  His career is in the doldrums, and his wife has finally called it quits on their marriage.  He might have found a lifeline with Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci), who wants to cash in on the 'hagsploitation' craze sweeping the industry (taking former glamorous stars and seeing them degraded).  As it so happens, Aldrich has a script called What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?, but Warner wants Crawford and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) to reunite.


Aldrich knows that this will be a disaster as the two of them are beyond despising the other, but Warner insists.  Aldrich for his part, pulls a few fast ones (after begging both of them to reteam).  First, he appears to give them whatever they ask for: Crawford wants her name above Davis, Davis wants creative control.  Second, What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? will be made, not by Warners, but by Twentieth-Century Fox's Darryl Zanuck (who gave Aldrich a sweeter deal, and more importantly, respect).


The gang's all back (even Baby Jane costar Victor Buono), but the two rivals simply can't let go of things.  They make a genuine effort to have a united front to gain the upper hand, but nothing seems to work: Davis gets angry at Crawford's glamorous outfit for a script reading, her 'unintentional' posing for photographers, and at Aldrich's script.  Crawford tries to put in her two cents but gets cut off by Davis, who storms out.

Davis, however, will get her own once the crew goes to Louisiana for location shooting.  Crawford and Mamacita have no one to greet them at the airport.  They have no rooms for them until Davis 'graciously' finds them the smallest room possible.  Worse for Crawford however is finding out that Davis has buddied up with Aldrich, who earlier had explained his woes to Davis.  Perhaps Davis was genuinely trying to be kind to Aldrich as his twenty-four year marriage finally crumbled.  To Joan Crawford, however, it was Bette Davis using every trick in the book to get the upper hand.


Hagsplotation is probably the weakest Feud: Bette and Joan so far for me because of certain elements.  Once we have finished with their vicious brawl over Oscars, it made sense to see why What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (eventually retitled Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) was made and the end result.  However, part of me rejected part of the premise from the get-go.

In Hagsploitation, Crawford is made to be incensed by doing such gimmicky bits for Castle, but from my understanding, Crawford was perfectly willing to go along with the theatrics.  Perhaps it's because I happen to like Strait-Jacket and think Crawford gave a very good performance in the film that I find these protests of her 'failing' dubious.  I think a greater dislike is the idea that Waters could possible be William Castle.  Apart from their fondness for gimmicks and schlock Castle and Waters don't appear to be in the same universe. 

Waters looks nothing like Castle, and for me, the casting of Waters is just a stunt, a deranged cameo to please certain people, not to serve the story.

Another aspect was playing Twilight Time when Warner talks about how it's twilight for him and the other moguls.  A bit TOO on-the-nose, as if they were trying too hard when a touch of subtlety would have worked.

Still, there were good parts.  The story of Crawford's difficult family gave Lange good material, and seeing Molina's Aldrich finally stick it to the tyrannical Warner was fun.

As the series winds down, Hagsploitation was to me less than the sum of its parts.

6/10

Next Episode: Abandoned!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Collateral Beauty: A Review


COLLATERAL BEAUTY

Any person who might consider spending even the paltry 90-odd minutes on Collateral Beauty should know this:

DON'T DO IT!  DON'T DO IT! IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS PURE & GOOD, DON'T DO IT! 

Collateral Beauty is perhaps the worst film of 2016 (and I say this as someone who endured such horrors as Batman vs. Superman: Yawn of Justice, Ben-Hur and Independence Day: Resurgence).

On second thought, Collateral Beauty IS the Worst Film of 2016, bringing Will Smith yet another lousy film to add to an already dreadful run of this once-unassailable star (Seven Pounds, Focus, After Earth, and other Smith film of 2016: Suicide Squad, which would have joined Collateral Beauty in the Worst of 2016 if not for his Focus costar Margot Robbie's great performance as Harley Quinn).

Collateral Beauty started out with an interesting concept, then tied itself up in knots trying to be too clever with its ideas, becomes more and more frustrating until it gets to a final 'twist' both predictable and flat-out insulting to those who haven't already walked out that I wouldn't be surprised if people threw popcorn at the screen for such an appalling piece of pseudo-philosophical trash as Collateral Beauty.

Howard Inlet (Smith), once an advertising wunderkind, is now a shell of a man, building large domino sets that after finishing, he knocks down (oh, the symbolism).  He's still grieving the death of his daughter, and while it's been two years in the past six months he's turned into an even bigger zombie.  His three partners/friends Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet), Whit Yardshaw (Edward Norton) and Simon Scott (Michael Pena) are concerned, and not just for him, but for their company which is sinking thanks in large part to Howard's moribund world.

They all want to sell the company, but Howard has controlling interest and can't be approached on anything.  Whit then spots an actress auditioning for a commercial at the ad firm, and an idea sparks into his head.  Earlier, the three had discovered through a detective (described as looking like a Mormon grandmother) that Howard had written and posted three letters to Death, Time and Love.  Using this info, the three other partners decide to hire actors to impersonate Death, Time and Love.  These actors will talk to Howard and later their conversations will be videotaped (with the actors edited out) to make people think he's gone mad and is mentally unfit to make financial decisions.

I guess because mailing letters to Death, Time and Love isn't already a bit kooky in and of itself.


The three actors hired are Brigitte (Helen Mirren), who will play Death, Raffi (Jacob Latimore), who will play Time, and Amy (Keira Knightley) who will play Love.  Amy is the only one who isn't keen on this idea, but they need to fund their experimental play, so there it is.

Each of them visit Howard, who doesn't believe they are who they say they are.  He also wanders in and out of grief support group headed by Madeleine (Naomie Harris).  She lost her daughter Olivia to a rare disease when her daughter was six years old.  Madeleine (who lost her daughter) and Howard (who lost his daughter) both divorced their individual spouses, but the fact that both are divorced and lost a daughter...

Start doing the math.

As it so happens, this group of thespians and advertising executives do a form of tag-teaming.  Coincidentally, Death is paired with Simon (who happens to be secretly dying).  Time is paired with Claire (who is running out of time to get pregnant).  Love is paired with Whit, who is attempting to reach out to his rich (and dare I say, bitchy) daughter after his affair broke up his marriage (the fact that his ex married wealthy while he has been forced to move in his with his dementia-slipping mother I'm sure doesn't help).

Let me mark out, 'coincidentally'.  Keep adding.

Eventually, the doctored videotapes are shown and Howard agrees to go.  Each of our other three ad executives deals with his/her own issues, and Howard also finally admits who his daughter is...and who his ex-wife is.

I won't spell it out for you, but here's a hint: Howard and Madeleine both lost their daughter at the same age from the same disease.

And adding a coda to the fiasco, Brigitte, Raffi, and Amy aren't really actors.



I freely confess being angry, just angry when Collateral Beauty ended.  It took all of me to not throw at the very least my pen at the television screen. It is cheap in that it relies on simply too many coincidences, too many implausibles, and by going beyond deliberately misleading the audience into downright lying to them.  The trailer suggests one type of film, the actual movie we get is almost totally removed from the story audiences are led to believe.

For the longest time I hanged on to Collateral Beauty, even as I saw the wheels coming off.  The film was determined to get to its destination point, even if that destination was nowhere.  You could see where the film was going when 'Death' works with a dying man and 'Love' works with a man having love problems.

It's all so predictable, so obvious that you keep thinking, 'no, we'll get a real twist that will rectify this'.  You don't. 

Then we get the actual ending of Collateral Beauty, with something that had been building up but that you think, 'no, you won't go there.  Not only is it too obvious but it would be laughable, and even insulting to mislead your audience even more'.  Yet, that's what Allan Loeb's script does: go for something obvious and idiotic. 

MASSIVE SPOILER HERE. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ IT.

I kept saying as the film wrapped up, "Please don't make Madeleine Howard's ex...please don't make Madeleine Howard's ex..." And then they did, and I officially gave up on Collateral Beauty.  Already having Brigitte, Raffi and Amy LITERALLY be Death, Time and Love was just about intolerable, but that last twist...no, that's unforgivable.

END OF SPOILER

Poor Will Smith.  He's floundering in these self-serious, self-important Oscar-bait films searching to find both audiences and awards.  His performance here is so like that in Seven Pounds: yearning to pull at our heart but giving us little to nothing to make us feel.  Unlike Seven Pounds (or at least my memory of Smith's other effort at 'deep philosophical meditations on Death, Time and Love), his scenes didn't elicit drama.  They were at times almost comical in how hard he and director David Frankel tried to show deep grief.

There's a scene between Whit and Howard where Whit is trying to talk to Howard about the danger their company faces.  Howard has essentially become a mute (for at least the first twenty to thirty minutes in Collateral Beauty Smith doesn't speak).  As Whit continues to talk about the seriousness of their situation, Smith just nods his head, moves his throat to 'say' 'mm-hum', and stares at him, as if Whit had suddenly slipped into speaking Urdu to him and he's just trying to be polite.  The whole thing is unintentionally hilarious, but a pretty accurate image of how self-serious Collateral Beauty is.

The fact that everyone is trying so hard to be serious in a film ripe for parody (one that in better hands might actually be parody) makes everything more unintentionally hilarious. 

And it isn't as if the performances are bad.  Mirren, Harris, and especially Pena are taking this whole thing seriously (though Mirren as the batty actress at least has a chance to show some humor).  Pena in particular should be applauded for showing a wider range (and the film should get kudos for letting a Hispanic play a non-Hispanic role, though how he wouldn't understand the Spanish-language commercial and Whit would is a bit curious).

Norton, Winslet and Knightley are a little more rote, but better than Smith, who should fire his whole agency and look for roles that challenge him but don't cash in on what's bee done before (Bad Boys franchise anyone).

Collateral Beauty tries to be too clever by half and only ends up looking more idiotic than one would have thought.   The twists are at times too silly to be believed, and despite good work by most of the cast the thing is such a misfire.  There's no Beauty, but a lot of Collateral.

DECISION: F

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hands of Stone: A Review


HANDS OF STONE

It's very curious that 2016 had two boxing films that featured the same person.  In Bleed For This, the main story wasn't about Ruben Duran, but he was the main antagonist against the film's subject, Vinny Paziena.  Now, in Hands of Stone, Duran is the main event.  Both films bombed at the box office.  Bleed For This being a flop isn't a great loss. 

After seeing Hands of Stone, I think it being a flop isn't a great loss either.

Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) is a Panamanian boxer with great skills and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Panama Canal.  He cannot handle the slightest criticism or advise: if you tell him a hair is out of place, he'll verbally harangue you for seven hours on gringo imperialism and what a monster you are.

He's perfect for Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro), a legendary trainer who has been forced into retirement by the Mafia after Arcel suggested that boxing be televised.  The Mob thought that was idiotic, and tried to have him rubbed out.  A gentleman's agreement was struck: Arcel would live if he never made money off boxing.  Arcel, now in Panama, gets around this deal by pointing out that he's training Duran for free.

Duran ties himself up with Panama in body and soul: illegitimate and illiterate child of an American soldier stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, all his memories are of poverty and arrogance as to his own greatness.  His powers seduce young Felicidad (Ana De Armas), who produces many children for him, with Duran insisting that all his boys be named Roberto (no mention if he named any of his daughters Roberta though).

Duran sets his eyes on two things: getting the Panama Canal from the imperialist gringos and defeating Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV), for to Duran is another gringo (and as a side note, this is the first time I've heard the term 'gringo' applied to an African-American, I always believing it was reserved for Caucasians).  Duran has no problem drinking and sleeping his way through training, showboating at every opportunity to an eager press and sinking to the lowest level possible: when Duran unexpectedly shows up where Leonard and his entourage are, Duran insults Mrs. Leonard, publically calling her a whore and telling them that after the fight, he'd screw her (I had to change it up a bit).



Duran wins the fight and the continued love of the Panamanian people, but he becomes more arrogant and intolerable.  He grows lazy and fat, treating his former friends in the worst way.  He doesn't even seem to care too much when Chaflan (Oscar Jaenada), the Fagin to Duran's Artful Dodger,  is gruesomely killed in an accident.  Leonard, for his part, is convinced Duran's boorish behavior was all staged to get him off his game and pushes for a rematch.  Duran's manager, Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades) agrees over Arcel's objections.

Duran, too caught up with his Panama fixation, isn't eager but does it, and in a controversial move, quits during the fight, allegedly saying "No Mas" (No More), but more out of frustration at Leonard's fast feet than actual exhaustion.  Duran returns to an angry Panama, enraged by his act. 

Eventually, he makes a comeback and wins.

Perhaps it is because I don't follow boxing as much as I do, say, baseball, or because I'm old-school when it comes to biopics, but to me, Hands of Stone went out of its way to make its subject so repulsive and unlikable that I ended up rooting for Sugar Ray Leonard.  Duran, as written by director Justin Jakubowicz, was so arrogant, obnoxious, unpleasant, mean/mean-spirited, and annoying (especially whenever he went on and on and on about Panama) that I found him someone I didn't care about.

I figure that you should care about the main character in a biographical film (even one as warts-and-all as Hands of Stone), but what the film ends up doing is making a case against the subject.  You do get the sense of why he was so hostile to Americans in particular (as a child, he was abandoned by his American father and saw a fellow countryman shot down when he tried to pull down an American flag and put a Panamanian one), but his constant arguing about anything, how he was always on the defensive, just kept you at a terrible distance.

Some scenes don't work the way they were intended.  Before the Duran-Leonard fight, Duran meets his father (who turns out isn't a Paul Newman-lookalike, but a Mexican-American).  There is no sense of release or set up or emotion at what should be a major moment in his life.  Duran discussing this exact moment with Arcel makes things worse, showing that the whole scene could have been cut without affecting the film.

Even worse, Hands of Stone sometimes loses focus as to whose story is the one being told.  We go from Duran's story to Arcel's with the introduction of a hereto unknown 'secret daughter' (one so secret not even what I presume to be his second wife, played by Ellen Barkin and who deserves better, didn't know about).  Apart from perhaps one scene of her rejecting Arcel's help she was a silent figure, adding nothing to even Arcel's story. 

Exactly whose story is it anyway?

It's a shame since Hands of Stone is filled with some pretty great actors doing great or at least good work.  DeNiro didn't resort to his late-season mugging but showed he did care for Duran.  Usher, best known as a music star, showed he can be compelling onscreen (but shows he has yet to find a script that will really break him out in film).  Ramirez is one of our better actors around (who would have been great in Argo, if Ben Affleck had opted to hire an actual Hispanic to play a Hispanic as opposed to say, casting himself).  He brings that physicality to Duran, but the script fails him with making Duran such a raging egomaniac with a hair-trigger temper.

The best performance I think was Duran's fellow Panamanian Blades, about the only other person to challenge Duran for popularity in Panama (and who also contributed to the soundtrack).  Blades, who like Ramirez has command of and is commanding in both English and Spanish, plays Eleta as both shrewd agent and somewhat caring individual.  It was also good to hear some of his songs playing in the background, reminding us of Blades' far-ranging talents.

There's a story rumbling in Hands of Stone somewhere.   Pity it got lost along the way into being a somewhat dull, meandering story.

Born 1951


DECISION: C-

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Case For Christ: A Review


THE CASE FOR CHRIST

I should start off my review for The Case For Christ by admitting a few things.  First, I am an evangelical Christian (one who at times needs A LOT of work on that).  Second, I've read the book The Case for Christ, the exploration of various objections to the truth of Christianity and answers to them.  Third, I've met the subject of the film, Lee Strobel, though that meeting was inauspicious: he just smiled, signed my book, and didn't converse with me as he did with others. Fourth and last, I saw The Case for Christ at a special screening arranged by the church I attend.

I mention all this because I want to be clear that while I am a Christian (though extremely flawed and sometimes lacking in many respects), I am and have always been an 'art before theology' critic.  A film with a Christian bent will not get an automatic pass from me.  I've been highly critical of other Christian films when I felt they were clumsy efforts that would not work for either a secular or faith-based audience. 

With all that being said, The Case for Christ is another step forward for Christian-themed films, one that balances evidence for the truth of Christianity with one man's internal and external struggles with life in general.

Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel) and his wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) are pretty happy in their lives: she a housewife and Lee an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  With a daughter and another child on the way, they seem happy, until their daughter nearly chokes to death at a pizza joint.  Fortunately, a nurse, Alfie Davis (L. Scott Caldwell), is there to save her.  Lee and Leslie are grateful, but they get a strange response from Alfie.  She tells them not to thank her, but thank Jesus.  Alfie and her husband had planned to go to another restaurant, but she sensed that God wanted her to go to the one they were at instead.

For the Strobels, who are atheists, this news is surprising.  Lee dismisses it as mere coincidence, happy as it may have been.  Leslie, though, is shaken up by this experience and begins to question her atheism.  She reaches out to Alfie and soon starts attending her church (a converted theater of all things), to seek out her answers.

Over time, Leslie embraces Christianity as the truth, which appalls Lee.  He figures she's about to join a cult of some kind and deals with his wife's growing faith with sarcasm, cynicism, and alcohol.  Thank goodness Lee has his career to ground him, in particular a police shooting he's investigating.  He also has a mentor who is a fellow atheist, but a coworker who is a Christian.  Lee, now conflicted about how to deal with his wife's faith, decides the best thing to do is simply disprove the reality of Christianity, in particular the Resurrection.

No Resurrection, No Christianity.

Sure, easy as that for an investigative reporter in 1980 to bring down the whole of Christianity which has stood for a mere 2000 years.  Easy as pie.

Strobel now does a dual investigation: that of the police shooting and the Case Against Christ.  Leslie eventually is baptized, but the strain in their marriage continues.  There'd be more if Leslie knew what Lee was up to, as he travels the country, seeking out historians, psychologists, and medical experts to question the various aspects of Christianity, especially the central doctrine of The Resurrection.

He speaks to historians who show him that while, for example, the Gospels mention different women at the Tomb on Easter morning, each Gospel mentions that it was women who found the Tomb was empty.  For a Judaic society that did not value the testimony of women, the fact they all mention women as being the first witnesses is completely at odds with the idea of 'reliable witnesses'.  Strobel is also reminded that often in court cases, witnesses to a particular event will not always have the exact same story and that when they do all agree on every detail, there is the suspicion of conspiracy.

One of those Strobel seeks is Dr. Roberta Waters (Faye Dunaway in essentially a cameo, but a welcome presence nonetheless).  Unlike the others he interviews, she is agnostic, but being a fellow traveler is no help for Strobel.  Waters dismisses the idea of mass hallucination among the 500 people who saw Christ post-Resurrection, saying that the idea that such a large group could be mesmerized to hold the same dream would be a greater miracle than the Resurrection itself.  She also hits a nerve with Strobel, pointing out that many of the great skeptics and atheists (Freud, Sartre), suffered from what she calls a "Father Wound": a distant relationship with their fathers.

Lee Strobel has his own 'father wound', being openly hostile when his father, Walter (Robert Forster in another cameo) visits his new grandson.  That wound might never heal, as Walter dies while Lee is in California learning that the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion not only are sound but make the idea that Christ survived the Resurrection (that He merely fainted and was revived or the Swoon Theory) is at odds with how Roman crucifixions worked.

Lee, struggling with his own father issues, breaks down when he sees that the remote, distant father he's come to hate carried a clipping announcing Lee's hiring at the Tribune in his wallet, and kept a detailed scrapbook of all of Lee's articles, starting from when he was a child.

After two years of investigating, of attempting to find holes in Christianity, he not only finds a dead end, but finds that the evidence has convinced him of the truth of Gospel.  Just like C.S. Lewis (the 20th Century's greatest apologist in my view), Lee Strobel ends as a convert to the faith of Jesus Christ (though perhaps not as dejected as Lewis). 



Among the highpoints of The Case for Christ is that it does not bog itself down to being a sermon or dismissive of either a pro/anti-Christianity worldview.  Screenwriter Brian Bird had a hard task in that the actual book The Case for Christ is not a biography but the results of Strobel's investigation.  As such, he had to mix what Strobel found with the Strobels' story, and he did this well.  If you take away the end result (a book that has influenced people to become Christians in the same vein as Lewis' Mere Christianity), you have both a domestic drama of a marriage facing a curious crisis as well as a subplot of Strobel's investigation into the cop shooting, an investigation that takes an unexpected turn when he reexamines the evidence.

The two investigations come together when he finds that his original conclusion was wrong. When going to the wrongfully imprisoned man at the hospital to tell him he was wrong, he tells Strobel that it wasn't that he couldn't see the evidence, it that he didn't want to see it. 

The duality of this statement hits Strobel hard.

Bird and director Joe Gunn were also wise in how they portrayed the Strobels pre-conversion.  Unlike other Christian-based films where atheists are downright monstrous, these atheists are actually very nice people, loving towards each other, caring parents and partners, not perfect, but regular people.  The Christians in the film are also not perfect, and in that respect The Case for Christ does wonders in showing people of faith and non-faith as human.

As a digression, Hollywood would be wise to follow this film's lead and not portray Christians, particularly evangelicals, as uneducated, bigoted, or psychotic.

Mike Vogel gave an extremely rich and moving performance as Lee Strobel (even if he was saddled with a fright wig and mustache that were almost comical in their 'it's still the 1970s' look: a scene of him using hairspray caused laughter).  I remember Vogel from Bates Motel as the hot-but-sleazy Deputy, and it's good to see that he has really moved beyond into giving a performance that shows a flawed but loving man, curious about the world but still with deep hurt.  His scene at seeing how proud his father was of him is extremely heartbreaking.

Christensen, an actress we don't see often on film, also does well as Leslie.  In her sincerity, in her questioning, and in her love for Lee, Christensen is strong, and she makes Leslie strong too (for example, she isn't a demure little wife: when he shows up drunk, she lets him know she'll have none of it).

It is a shame though to not have Dunaway or Forster work together, or have them have one scene in the film.  Still, they do make the most of their small screen time.

The Case for Christ is not a dry recitation of Strobel's tome (though we do hit on certain points).  It's about one family's journey, and not necessarily a journey into faith.  It's about their journey to finding each other again when one changes and one doesn't.  More about two lives than a lecture, The Case for Christ is about love...in many forms.  



DECISION: B+