Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Bachelors: A Review


THE BACHELORS

The Bachelors, I'd argue, is a bit of a misnomer.  Yes, technically the Palet men are 'bachelors' in that they are both unmarried.  You can even say that 'bachelors' could tie in to their educations.  However, would Widower and Son have been a better title?

Yet I digress.

The Bachelors is a good film, respectable, though not groundbreaking from a lot of formulas that people have seen before.  That is a negative.  The Bachelors does have some excellent performances and one breakout performance that elevates it.

Bill Palet (J.K. Simmons) is a widower still in deep mourning for his wife.  One day, he tells his son Wes (Josh Wiggins) that it's time to move, so across the country they go, to California where a frenemy has a school where Bill can teach math and Wes can attend.  Wes is not thrilled to learn he has to take a sport, so out of his options he takes cross-country, and isn't adept at it.

Bill, and to a lesser extent Wes, live but are not alive, the grief still hanging over them.  Into their worlds come two women.  For Bill, it is Mademoiselle Carine (Julie Delpy), a French teacher whom he helps escape the persistent coach.  For Wes, it's Lacey Westman (Odeya Rush), a troubled girl who comes to his all-boys academy along with other girls to take some classes.  As it so happens, Wes is a master at French, and Lacey needs help to get her grades up.  Mademoiselle Carine appoints Wes to be Lacey's tutor, and Lacey, who has a reputation of being a dark, oddball-like figure, makes it clear nothing will happen.

Bill continues to struggle with his grief.  The various pills his therapist prescribes don't do much for him, and Wes continues to run and feel his way around the temperamental and self-destructive Lacey, whose parents are locked in open warfare.  There are moments when both rise, but even after Carine and Bill share an intimate night, Bill's grief overwhelms him.  What was only emotional now becomes physical, as he collapses and even goes through electroshock therapy to get him to live.

Wes, who has endured much, finally explodes in a torrent of rage and hurt at his catatonic father, and this is the catalyst for Bill to force his way out of his grief.  Lacey also finds true comfort, even love, with Wes, as does Carine, with the four of them finding hope and the joy of life.


As I said, a lot of The Bachelors has plot points and tropes that one has seen in other films.  You have the 'troubled' teen (which is the polar opposite of the Magical Pixie Dream Girl).  You have the Droll Comedic Lines where people speak to each other to the point of being more rude than blunt: Bill's frenemy Paul (Kevin Dunn) tells Bill to get a therapist so that, as the school's director, he looks like he cares about his staff.  You have Annabelle (Kitana Turnbull) the pixie little sister who is wiser than her elders.  You have 'witty banter' between characters.  You have 'quirky' situations: Lacey gets Wes a new passenger side seat for his car, not realizing that it's the driver's seat and thus, he's forced to install it with the seat facing the backseat.  You have the 'wacky' friends to Wes, social misfits whom he essentially has to accept or not have any friends.

Writer/director Kurt Voelker is not stretching new scenarios.  Every beat you expect to be hit is hit, and The Bachelors runs a well-crossed course.  That does not make it bad.  It doesn't even make it predictable.  It just makes it a bit standard.

With that said, The Bachelors is still worth seeing because Voelker got a top-notch cast to work with.  Standing above them all is Josh Wiggins as Wes.  Wiggins is more than able to hold his own against veterans like Delpy and Simmons, neither of them slouches in the acting department.  His Wes is a real, natural character.  He plays Wes as a normal teenager forced into tragedy and doing his best to live with it.  Wes isn't witty, or sarcastic, or full of quips.  What he is is a good kid, navigating loss and burdens that he has no control over.

Wiggins' best scene is when as Wes he is having dinner with the zombie of a father Bill has turned into.  Finally, all the rage and hurt and even fear that he has about losing his father after having lost his mother explodes.  What is really wonderful and incredible about this scene is that it is so natural and true.  Wiggins does not make it a big, showy performance.  He builds to it, showing that Wes tries to control himself but cannot anymore.  He shows that he does love his father but cries out to him too, desperate for a parent to stay when one is gone physically and one gone mentally.


The most comparable performance to Wiggins is that of Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea, another young actor whose character has to find his way through grief, pain and loss with an adult who cannot give him the emotional support he needs.  Wiggins in The Bachelors has a strong calling card to a great career, one where his talent is barely being tapped.  He may join Hedges and the late and much-missed Anton Yelchin as a young actor who with good parts and good direction may have a long and successful film.

Josh Wiggins alone makes The Bachelors a worth watching film in a performance that should make people take notice.

Simmons is reliable as the widower Bill, one who moves through life but has stopped living in it.  Perhaps because he is consistently good it's hard to say anything bad about his performance, but it also is hard to say it is anything as strong as Wiggins' work.  Rush took a character that isn't anything new and did good work as well, overcoming the limitations of Lacey into a good performance.  Delpy, I think, was slightly underused, but she was luminous, elegant, and wise as Carine, an intelligent woman who sees so many people around her hurting and in her calm, gentle manner, helping them be better. 

The Bachelors is respectable, nothing more, nothing less.  It covers ground that has been much-traveled in other films.  However, it has a fantastic performance by Josh Wiggins, a young actor whom Hollywood would be wise to nurture into a career to showcase his talent.  The film is a bit familiar, a bit cliched, but the acting in it does it wonders. 

DECISION: C+

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gotham: The Demon's Head Review



GOTHAM: THE DEMON'S HEAD

The Demon's Head is a first for Gotham in that its writer is the star of the show, Ben McKenzie.  He's already directed an episode, and now he wants to do more in the creative side of the show.  All well and good.  The Demon's Head has a lot going for it: some fine acting, nice moments of humor, and the always brilliant cinematography.

Therefore, why do I think it the worst Gotham episode so far (or at least the most despicable and repulsive)?

Ra's al Ghoul (Alexander Siddig) is still after the dagger that Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) bought.  He will not be denied.  Al Ghoul goes after the knife that Bruce has taken to Professor Niles Winthrop (Dakin Matthews) to find out more about it.  While Professor Winthrop isn't in on the whole matter, he starts looking at it, along with his grandson Alex (Benjamin Stockham).  They come across its terrible secret and connection to Ra's al Ghoul.  Just like that, al Ghoul shows up and kills the Professor in an effort to get the knife.  Alex, however, has disappeared, as has the knife.

Detective Jim Gordon (McKenzie), along with Bruce despite Gordon's insistence otherwise, begin searching for Alex.  Ra's also begins his search, getting his 'pet' Anubis, a crazed man who behaves like a dog.  Gordon knows his former fiancee, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) knows something, but she ain't tell.

Meanwhile, poor Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) is still trying to get back to his old Riddler ways.  He's having an awful time of it, trying to come up with various riddles to taunt his nemesis, Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  Nygma is reduced to hiring a pair of rappers to give Oswald his clues, but his riddles are unintelligible.  Cobblepot eventually gets Nygma to reveal himself, mocks and taunts his former thwarted love, but decides to not let Victor Fries aka Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow) freeze him.  Penguin figures seeing Nygma in his condition is punishment enough for him, and Penguin takes great delight that his rival cannot form a coherent persona...and tells him his riddles suck.


Penguin has another issue: the return of Sofia Falcone (Crystal Reed).  He's convinced she is here to retake power for the Falcone family, but she insists her goals are all legitimate.

These protests appear genuine, as she continuously insists that the capos who have been underground since Penguin took over not address her as "Dona".  However, Penguin used her as bait to draw the capos out, and has Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan) execute them.

It's here that we see she is her father's daughter: she tells Penguin that if it had been her father, he would have shown Sofia to 'publicly' support the new regime and gotten them over to his side instead of just offing them.  Slightly perturbed, he insists new rules for a new regime.

Sofia still has designs on Gordon, and he could use the distraction.  He and Bruce had finally found Alex, but so had Ra's and his minions.  Bruce manages to hold on to the knife, but it does mean that Ra's slits Alex's throat.

Bruce feels great guilt over that, but them's the breaks, I guess.

As I said, The Demon's Head has great acting, particularly near the end with RLT and CMS.  Seeing these two bitter rivals go at each other verbally is a great delight.  We see two strong actors at the top of their game, particularly for Taylor, who not only manages to face off against Nygma but also shows a wry deadpan humor when dealing with Nygma's rappers or Sofia's apparent timidity.

Carrigan too does great work in making Zsasz into a humorous character.  He's certainly a master assassin, but he almost makes Victor almost innocent and childlike in his manner.  Whether it's in his enjoyment of the rap, bobbing his head along to the beat...before suggesting the rappers be tortured, or how he confuses himself with Victor Fries, Zsasz is actually a very funny character.

As a side note, given how much I like Mr. Freeze and Darrow in the role, it's such a shame he was so underused.


Siddig does a great job as Ra's al Ghoul, and he's even given a chance to play a more 'civilized' figure when he tries to pass himself off as a 'Minister of Antiquities'. Mazouz continues to bring a great complexity to Wayne, whether it's in his pursuit of Ra's or the guilt he suffers over the fate of the Winthrops.  He is matched by Brockham, who brought a realistic portrayal to Alex.  He tells Bruce that he is 'weirdly cool', as apt a term for Master Bruce as can be found.

Before we get to the main reason I am voting down The Demon's Head, let's talk about some things that probably would have put this episode down.  I'm not sure if McKenzie thought the sight of the man-demon dog chasing a dinosaur bone straight out a window was meant to be funny or not, but it was slightly silly.

Then again, the sight of the man-demon dog was already less frightening and more laughable.

Gordon getting it on with Sofia also seems wildly silly.  Really, what does Gordon do to bring all these crazy broads to him?

At the library, Gordon manages to stop the hunters by pushing the shelves and make them collapse.  Apart from being clich├ęd, it is highly impractical.  Perhaps it's the librarian in me, but shelves are pretty much bolted to the floor nowadays, and I think have been for decades.  I know, I can't be too technical, but something about that just didn't sit right with me.

As odd, or even silly as the whole 'mad man/dog chasing a dinosaur bone' was, or the 'domino bookshelves' bit was, it was the killing of Alex that bothered me, even disgusted and revolted me to no end.  Already the killing of Professor Winthrop by Ra's was a bit graphic (though tame by Gotham standards).  However, it is Alex's killing that turned me off, so much so that I questioned whether to keep watching both The Demon's Head and/or Gotham.


I'm surprised that they didn't show a grown man slit a teen's throat.  This show has shown a man literally blown up.  It's sometimes been almost sadistic in its violence.  Therefore, why did they opt to not show a teenager getting slit across the throat?

Maybe, just maybe, it's because such things are really over the line, even on Gotham.  It would have been far too brutal, but that's what they did: kill a child.  Again, that just so bothers me.  I know it was done for a reason (to give Bruce Wayne a greater sense of guilt and responsibility), but this is the rare moment when maybe, they could have held back and had Alex merely injured.

They've brought back Alfred, Selina Kyle, Jerome Valeska, and Fish Mooney back from the dead.  Oswald has been presumed dead...twice.  Butch Gilzean was literally shot point-blank in the head (graphically so) and is going to make a return appearance. 

Don't tell me that such things are 'logical' but not having Alex survive a throat slitting isn't. 

This is clearly on McKenzie.  It was his artistic choice to have Alex killed.  I found it all too disturbing.

That, and Anubis.

The Demon's Head has some excellent moments to it, particularly the acting of Mazouz, Siddig, Taylor and Smith. However, that whole 'killing kids' thing was a major factor in saying that I would not want to watch this episode again.

Anubis falling to his (presumed) death by plunging to his death after chasing a dinosaur bone out a museum window didn't help.

4/10

Next Episode: The Blade's Path

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Frenzy: A Review


FRENZY

As Alfred Hitchcock's career was winding down, the Master of Suspense seemed to be slipping.  Neither Topaz or Torn Curtain are held in high regard, though the merits from my perspective are yet to be seen.  We look now at Frenzy, his penultimate film.  While we have moments of Hitchcock brilliance, I found Frenzy to be rather distasteful, even vicious, and far more graphic than I've seen from Hitch.

There have been a series of murders by someone dubbed the Necktie Killer, based on the fact that the killer strangles women with a necktie before or during his attempted rape of them.  His latest victim has just washed up on the Thames, nude, with the necktie round her neck.

Enter into the picture one Richard Blainey (Jon Finch), a former RAF pilot who is down on his luck.  Just fired from his barman job by his cantankerous boss, he is searching for food, money and shelter.  He turns down an offer from his friend, Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), and hits up his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), who runs a matchmaking agency.

They spend the night together, but nothing apart from a hidden 50 pounds from Brenda comes from it.  Coincidentally, Robert goes to Brenda's agency and again pushes for a woman to fit his 'peculiar needs'.  Brenda still gently but firmly tells him no.  This time, however, Robert won't be denied, at least the pleasure of Brenda's company.  Robert attempts to rape her, but he's impotent, but not impotent enough to strangle her, with his necktie.

Through a series of bad circumstances, it's Dick who is held as the prime and only suspect in the Necktie killings.  Things aren't helped when, despite hiding out at a former RAF mate's place, the newest victim is Dick's girlfriend, Babs Milligan (Anna Massey).  Robert is forced to go after Bab's body, which he hid in a potato sack, when he realizes that in the struggle, she grabbed his necktie pin and it is now lodged in her cold dead hand.

It looks like, despite his innocence, Dick will hang for his crimes, and Robert, who helped in capturing Dick, will get away with it.  Richard screams out at his sentencing that Robert Rusk is the real murderer, and swears to get him.  Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), who up to now was firm in his belief of Dick's guilt, begins to question whether he has 'the wrong man'.  He now begins investigating Rusk, all while suffering the horrors of his wife's adventurous cooking.

Dick manages to escape before his execution date, and eventually though independently, both arrive at Rusk's place, where another victim is found, and Rusk comes in with a giant trunk.  "Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie," Oxford observes while Dick seethes.



There are moments of the old Hitchcock genius in Frenzy.  As Babs and Robert go up to his place, Babs confident that Robert will help, the camera pulls back and away from the scene in total silence for what seems agonizing minutes.  Without saying a word, without a drop of music, without anything really, we can imagine the horror of what is going to happen to poor Babs.  Another moment is at the trial, where the door blocks out the dialogue for most of it, with only little bits to let us know what the court has decided.

Those moments, however, are few and far between.  It's interesting that Hitchcock, if memory serves correct, was a champion of the don't show school, saying that what the audience can imagine is far more terrifying than what someone can put up on the screen.  It's interesting because in Frenzy, we get a surprisingly lurid and graphic set of scenes.  Brenda's murder is one of the most disturbing moments in a Hitchcock film, so awful in terms of brutality.  The sight of Robert ripping Brenda's dress and bra off to expose her breasts in closeup is already highly disturbing, but the actual strangulation and conclusion, with our victim's tongue sticking out after a particularly vicious killing, borders on the obscene and sadistic.

It's as if Hitchcock, now unbound by the Production Code, decided to wallow in 1970's grindhouse.  That, coupled with a bit of dialogue earlier, is just grotesque.  Earlier, two lawyers were discussing the crime, and a middle-aged barmaid, overhearing this, said that she heard he raped them before strangling them.  Looking her over, one of them quips, "Every cloud has a silver lining", and perhaps it's me, but I don't find jokes about raping a woman funny.


There's just a viciousness, an unpleasantness, a sadistic nature to that scene that so bothered me.  There is also another moment, when Robert has to break the hand of Babs to get at the pin.  The corpse is now nude, and as he tears at the bag, at a certain point he thrusts his head where Babs' crotch is.  Maybe Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (adapting Arthur La Bern's Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square) thought showing necrophiliac oral sex was funny.  I thought it horrible.

Again and again, seeing people murdered in such gruesome ways, particularly people who are essentially defenseless, plays at me, and I find myself highly uncomfortable.

It's also interesting that while Hitchcock continues with his 'wrong man' motif, the wrong man here was not someone one cared about.  Dick lived up to his name: boorish, drunk, and unpleasant, it's a wonder why Oxford had second thoughts on him being the Necktie Killer.  It's also a wonder why a.) the police never found more victims after Dick's arrest, b.) could connect him to the other murders when they probably couldn't, and c.) why Oxford suddenly believed Dick's ramblings.

The performances weren't altogether good in my view either for the most part.  I found the acting a bit overly-dramatic and stale, particularly by Finch as the mean and petty Dick.  I thought Foster was better as the crazed Rusk, and both Leigh-Hunt and Massey were quite good as the poor victims.

I just hated to see them killed, and in Leigh-Hunt's case, in such a particularly ghoulish and graphic fashion.

I could have done without the comedy bits of McCowen and Vivien Merchant as Mrs. Oxford, though she was amusing in her desire for Avant-garde dining.

Frenzy tries for polish and for grindhouse, and I don't think it works on either.  Again, there are sequences that I think are brilliant (the silent moments when we know Babs is biting the dust), but on the whole, I think Frenzy shows why Alfred Hitchcock films post-The Birds aren't in high demand (though in at least one case, I think it should be). 

DECISION: C-

A Silent Voice: A Review



A SILENT VOICE

I've long argued that animation can tackle subjects beyond cute animals singing and dancing.  This ability to look at serious issues through moving drawings is something that only the Japanese appear to do.  A Silent Voice, based on a manga story, tackles really heavy issues: bullying, guilt, shame, responsibility.  While at two hours it might be a bit punishing for viewers, A Silent Voice (also known as The Shape of Voice) is a timely tale, told richly, deeply and sincerely.

Former big man on campus Shoya Ishida, now a teen, reflects on his elementary school days while contemplating suicide.  Back then, he ruled the roost with a collection of followers delighted by his hijinks.  Then came a new student, Shoko Nishimiya.  She is pretty, but she has a disability: she is deaf.  Ishida begins a campaign of bullying, even though Nishimiya proves herself to be a kind and welcoming person (following Japanese custom, the characters tend to refer to themselves by their last names).  Ishida routinely pulls out her hearing aids, once so violently they cause her ears to bleed.  He leads others in ostracizing her, which they do save for Sahara, who shows her kindness but won't stand up to the others.

Finally, it reaches a crisis point when the administration finally steps in.  The hearing aids Ishida routinely tosses or damages are expensive, and the results of his bullying force his mother to not only apologize for his actions but pay monetary compensation, money they can hardly afford to spend.  After being exposed, and finding no one to stand with him, Ishida, once the campus star, is ostracized himself, with Nishimiya moving to another school.


Now as teens, Ishida carries a lot of guilt over his actions, as well as shame and hurt for the end results: financial and emotional.  He feels the ostracism of others to where he can't look up at them, seeing literal 'X's over their faces.  At last, only one person, a short, fat student named Nagatsaku becomes his overly-eager friend when Ishida steps out of himself to keep Nagatsaku's bicycle from being stolen.

Nagatsaku adopts him as his BFF, and while Ishida isn't thrilled by this, at least he has someone.  He also has rediscovered Nishimiya's old notebook, which she used early on to write questions and answers on.  Having learned sign language in the ensuing years, he seeks out Nishimiya in order to make amends.

He does, which leads to his efforts to restore what he has destroyed.  It means dealing with Yuzuru, whom he and Nagatsaku first mistook for Nishimiya's boyfriend only to find out Yuzuru was Nishimiya's younger sister (I guess in anime, all things are plausible).  It also means helping Nishimiya reconnect with Sahara, as well as finding that some of the people Ishida either hurt or abandoned him still have their own issues when it comes to Ishida and Nishimiya.

In time, Nishimiya tells Ishida that she loves him, but Ishida fails to understand her words.  Still, their relationship ebbs and flows, culminating at a fireworks festival.  After an outing previously, Ishida essentially blames everyone, including and especially himself, for all that has happened, and tries to push his new friends away.  Nishimiya got it into her head that the world would be better without her and attempts suicide by jumping off her balcony after leaving the festival.  Ishida gets there in time to save her, but ends up falling himself when he lost his balance after pulling her to safety.

At the hospital, it is now Nishimiya's mother and sister who must beg forgiveness from Ishida's mother, and while Ishida does recover (even going to the bridge where they often met after having a dream involving Nishimiya), he still carries an awful guilt about things.  Finally, at the high school festival, he begins to finally hear himself, hearing all the voices of those around him: his friends, his enemies, and his fellow classmates.  No longer just hearing his own voice, he finds all the 'X's fall, and at last he is free of his guilt and shame, and can embrace life redeemed.


A Silent Voice, as I said, might feel a bit slow at its two-hour running time, particularly when there are scenes and characters that don't appear to fit neatly into the overall plot.  The idea that Yuzuru could be mistaken for a boy seems odd, and there is a subplot involving Nishimiya's Granny that seems unimportant.  However, we find that these little bits do matter, and more importantly, do move the viewer.

In A Silent Voice, the Granny character has a very limited role, but it is an important one: helping Yuzuru begin valuing herself.  When we see the family mourning her death, the image of Granny's smiling picture at the altar with the incense and her mourning daughter and granddaughters moved me intensely.  I should confess that the fact that I am still grieving myself over a friend's sudden death might have played a part in my emotional reaction to this, but given how well director Naoko Yamada crafted the adaptation, along with screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, these little bits have an emotional impact.

Same for Ishida's young niece Maria.  She is so adorable in her innocence and enthusiasm that you can't help loving her.  She may be unnecessary to the overall plot, but you wouldn't want to remove her either.

Yamada had several brilliant moments and allusions, such as putting literal 'X's on Ishida's classmates to emphasize how he perceived them.  It also stays true to human nature.  One of Nishimiya's former bullies, a girl named Ueno, is not redeemed or has a sudden realization.  She still feels little to no regret over her actions, believing that if not for Nishimiya things would have been better.  However, it rings true, particularly at the age the characters were, because sometimes teens and adults don't acknowledge wrongdoing.

It is Ishida's story, and it rings true because these are flawed characters.  A Silent Voice is really about Ishida's redemption, about his evolution from thoughtless to bullying to guilt-stricken and finally to forgiveness.  Forgiveness from Nishimiya for starters, but also forgiving himself, which sometimes can be the most difficult thing for anyone to do.



There are some beautiful moments visually as well in A Silent Voice.  The roller coaster ride is beautifully filmed, and Nishimiya's suicide attempt is really intense.  Previously, we see other characters observing the fireworks show from various positions, visually showing where they stand.  Subtle touches like these elevate A Silent Voice tremendously.

A Silent Voice is a film about the evils of bullying, but it drives its message without beating one down with it.  It is a subtle, beautiful film, and not just about bullying itself, an important topic today in this Facebook/Twitter/Instagram world where cyberbullying is now a fast-growing epidemic.  It is a film about the importance of kindness and forgiveness.  It is a film about the need for friends, flaws and all.  "Friendship lies somewhere beyond things like words and logic," Nagatsaku tells Ishida when the latter asks the former whether his friendship has value. 

A Silent Voice is a plea for tolerance, for mercy, kindness and ultimately forgiveness.  It speaks to the importance of human connections, of decency to all regardless of their differences, and about how guilt truly is a useless emotion. 

The Bible says that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our strength...and to love your neighbor as yourself.  If we all did that, irrespective of one's individual faith or lack thereof, this would truly be a better world.  It would be a world where all these silent voices would be heard, and loved.



DECISION: A-

Monday, October 16, 2017

Gotham: They Who Hide Behind Masks Review



GOTHAM: THEY WHO HIDE 
BEHIND MASKS

Again, I go back to the idea that Gotham was not going to be a Batman origins show.  That caused, if memory serves correct, many a Batman fan to dislike the series, as if introducing villains old enough to be the Dark Knight's father wasn't bad enough.  From what I was able to see of They Who Hide Behind Masks, the latest Gotham episode, it looks like the idea that Gotham isn't going to cover the rise of our vigilante proved false.

Our young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is learning how to be a vigilante.  That means trying to pass himself off as an ordinary kid while doing reconnaissance work aboard a ship, and not doing a great job of it.  It also means earlier trying to stop a thief from stealing from another thief.  He's not doing a great job of that either, meaning his loyal manservant Alfred (Sean Pertwee) has to bail him out.  Alfred also gives him some acting advise, and now Bruce, who at heart is a good kid, is slipping into the role of a cocky, obnoxious brat.

Part of the act involves being a jerk in outbidding Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) for a particular dagger which she has been tasked to get: The Dagger of King Balahsi.  Bonkers Babs first tried to get her protege Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) to steal it, but that didn't work.  Then she goes to her frenemy Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) to get it, but no dice: he is going to auction it off.  Wayne knows what Penguin doesn't and what Bonkers Babs is unclear of: that dagger is important to Ra's al Ghoul (Alexander Siddig), who was tasked to give it to his 'heir' after he is revived in 250 A.D. Arabia.

Obviously, Ra's has been searching for some time now.

Penguin has his own problems.  Someone has gotten his enemy Ed Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) out of his ice tomb, and he's none too pleased.  That someone ends up being a Riddler super-fan, who has an obsession for Riddler, whom she considers the greatest master-criminal of all.  As part of her effort at having rescued Nygma, she insists on being his sidekick, even having created an outfit worthy of a cosplayer and naming herself 'The Riddlette' (Ilana Becker), real name, Myrtle Jenkins (who if memory serves correct went to school with Nygma). 

She, however, is puzzled and worried that perhaps being locked in ice has made him less than what he was.  Even the simplest riddles are hard for him: answering 'zebra with a hole' when asked 'what is black and white and read all over?' among his other too literal answers for the riddles.  Despite her worries, his body has recovered quite well.  His mind...well.

In all this, Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) goes to 'Miami' to get the help of Don Falcone (John Doman). 

As a side note, wherever he went, even in sepia tones, looks nothing like 'Miami'.  I don't think the name of the place is given, but its look makes me think it's San Juan or Havana.  Yet I digress.

Don Falcone, a dying man, declines to help.  However, perhaps Gordon can get aid through a woman clearly interested in him: Mob Princess Sofia (Crystal Reed).  She even shows up in Gotham, and she has plans and designs of her own.

Things come to a head as Riddler still remains missing, Wayne awaits Ra's return, and Ra and Bonkers Babs start getting it on.


Part of my difficulty with reviewing They Who Hide Behind Masks is that my recording cut off when Sofia arrived, and whatever came afterwards was lost.  However, there was a great deal of good and not-so-good in the episode.

In the not-so-good part was the Sofia-Gordon bit.  Why, oh WHY is it that almost every woman we meet is instantly attracted to Gordon?  Babs, Lee, Valerie Vale, and now Sofia.  It's almost as if Gordon has some sort of sexual charm that bewitches any woman he meets.

Perhaps it's just me, and perhaps she will develop, but part of me isn't thrilled with the idea of seeing another 'Mafia Princess' try to use her allures to take power.  It's no slam on Reed, who is starting out quite well, but hopefully this storyline won't slip into farce.

There is also the curious case of The Cat and the Bat.  The brief scene between Bicondova and Mazouz was strong, but I find it hard to believe that, given how much Selina needs to impress Bonkers Babs, she would so quickly and willingly walk away from Wayne Manor.  The Selina I know would have tried to have fought Bruce for the Knife, so seeing her take a hike was a surprise.

In the 'good' part are the performances.  I don't think Anthony Carrigan and Victor Zsasz has gotten enough credit as he should get for being quite funny.  Zsasz is very menacing and dangerous: the master assassin who is now Penguin's aide-de-camp, but he can also be camp himself.  As RLT rants and rages about seeing Nygma out of his ice prison, it takes Carrigan's perfect delivery to add a punchline.  "I don't know...it opens up the place," he says in observing the now-absent Riddler.  Something like this would surely enrage Penguin, but Carrigan makes it sound natural, almost innocent, and certainly devoid of any maliciousness.

In her brief time, Becker made Myrtle into almost a spoof of fangirls/boys, and the humor she brought to her 'Riddlette' was well-needed.  I've heard people want to cosplay as her, meaning they will make a costume of a character who in essence was created as a gentle mocking of the fans who cosplay as one-episode characters.  Would that count as meta?

It is really Mazouz who now has taken full center stage.  He pulls off the efforts to play someone so different from the real Bruce, and we can see that slowly, steadily, surely, he is slipping into his various roles.  Mazouz is turning out to be one of if not the best Bruce Wayne.  Credit too for Pertwee's Alfred, mentor to the young Master Bruce.

On the whole, They Who Hide Behind Masks is another strong episode, with a more focused Gotham charging into what looks like a major storyline: Bruce vs. Ra's al Ghoul.  Where our Mob Princess fits in remains to be seen.

7/10

Next Episode: The Demon's Head

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Haze: A Review


HAZE

In light of recent deaths resulting from hazing, the actions potential members of a group are made to partake in as part of the group's rituals, a film like Haze seems more timely than ever.  This activity is nothing new, but it seems now that as more young men die as a result of them, greater attention is being given.  Haze is a strong film, albeit at times too eager to be symbolic and artistic when a simpler manner would have done much more.

Nick Forrest (Kirk Curran) is an eager freshman wanting to join the Psi Theta Epsilon fraternity.  Like many fraternities, this one is filled with nothing but booze and broads, in this case from the Delta sorority which they are connected to.  PTE has issues though: a few years back, another pledge, Zac Green, died as a result of excessive alcohol brought on due to the fraternity's pledging ritual.

Leading the charge against PTE and all other hazings is Pete (Mike Blejer), who happens to be Nick's brother.  Pete is making a documentary about fraternities and hazing, which does not sit well with either the PTE members or Nick, who just wants to join this elite group.

The pledges, almost all of them white save for Iranian-American Anoush (Raamin Samiyi), begin their rituals under the eye of Dennis Taylor (Jeremy O'Shea).  Taylor, the pledge minister, is anything but holy: his wolf-like manner is only the tip of the iceberg.  Things at first appear generally light-hearted, dumb but not insidious.  It's when the fraternity gets the pledges in 'Lineup' that thinks take on something of a psychological torture.

And that's before we get to Hell Week, one of the most apropos names.

Meanwhile, at Delta sorority, Nick's childhood friend Mimi (Kristin Rogers) is a pledge, though she is less enthusiastic, appearing more to do it to please Nick.  Not that Nick really thinks much of Mimi, as the freshman has eyes (and loins) only for Sophie (Sophia Medley), the senior who is the female Taylor, with the bonus of being Taylor's lover (girlfriend implies genuine love).

Pete and Nick continue to be estranged, and Nick is letting his passion for PTE cloud his judgment.  A one-night stand with Mimi makes him fail to see that Mimi is in love with him (he telling her, "I had fun last night" has to be among the biggest blow-offs in history).  It also does not prevent him from continuing his lustful desire for Sophie, which does lead to a very brief tryst with her with Taylor's encouragement.



As part of the rituals, the pledges inadvertently help the frat destroy Pete's documentary, down to holding him and his crew hostage.  In between the boozing and whoring where Mimi finds herself humiliated when a drunken sexual encounter is videotaped, the frat boy delighting in it, we get Hell Week.

The most torturous sequence in Haze commences, something out of a horror film.  This brutalization of the pledges concludes with the fraternity telling them they cannot leave the room they are willingly in...until they kill the frat's dog.  Needless to say, we get a horrifying result from that.

Nick by now sees that his young life is in shambles: about to fail out of school, his relationship with Mimi and Pete all but gone, and for what?  Things are made worse for him when he hears Zac's mother speak about her son, and we learn that Pete's animosity comes from his own secret: he was a pledge when Zac died and saw how it happened.  Nick and Pete patch things up, and Nick even manages to get hold of the camera Pete had secretly placed in the holding room PTE uses for Hell Week.  It looks like Nick is going to help bring down Psi Theta Epsilon.

Haze, however, ends on an ambiguous note.  Despite having punched Taylor in the throat at the end of Hell Week, Nick walks into the house to find that all the pledges were admitted...including Nick.

Animal House this is not.

Writer/director David Burkman gives Haze a strong visual experience.  The Hell Week sequence looks like something out of a horror film: the black-and-white cinematography, quick cuts, off-kilter shots and intense acting.  There was a frenzy in a lot of Haze, with what I take to be some nods to other films.

In the last party sequence (of which there are quite a few), Pete has managed to sneak in by wearing a mask and wig (whether his toga was a nod to the humorous take on frats in Animal House is left to the viewer).  He, however, is not immune from the decadence he sees, and finds himself drugged and aroused.  As the frat guys see who it is, they manage to get him outside.  With their masks and costumes, and him surrounded in his garb, it looked like Burkman was drawing inspiration from The Wicker Man's climatic and shocking conclusion.

Frenzy is a good way to describe Haze, and part of it comes from Burkman's decision to film it almost documentary-like, particularly with quick zooms.  That works well when we get Pete's footage, and when we see the psychological torture and abuse the pledges go through (the first Lineup where you see pledges being slapped, spit on, and the Iranian Anoush being forced to say 'I do not know how the bomb got into my luggage' with a faux-accent, is brutal), but when we are not in those moments, it becomes distracting more than jarring.

Haze also didn't answer a key question for me: why was Nick so eager to join?  We get video 'interviews' of the various candidates expressing things about 'brotherhood' and 'lifelong bonds', but for his specific motivation, I never felt I got what it/they were.  I also never quite figured why Pete never told his younger brother what he knew.  Nor for that matter I never understood why there wasn't a greater repercussion when the frat takes on actual criminal activities (holding Pete and his crew hostage), or why Pete never bothered to have backups for his footage.

As a side note, why didn't any of these guys think that whole event wasn't actually criminal?  Did they get to such a degree of group-think and submission that they didn't bother questioning it?

Finally, in the parallel to the ancient Greek story of Dionysus and Pentheus, spoken openly about late in the film by a professor, was a bit too on the nose by this point.  I think it might have worked better if we had used this myth in the beginning of Haze, given its obvious parallels. 



Burkman shows himself an able director of actors with Haze.  Curran has the ability to be innocent, almost sweet, and slightly cold and menacing as Nick.  He can go from someone eager to experience all the decadent, erotic pleasures the fraternity offers, to the ostracism he endures due to his brother's actions, to a coldness and sorrow when it comes to the unfortunate Mimi.

O'Shea brings a beautiful wickedness in his Taylor, someone whose external beauty hides a hideous, ugly soul.  I hope he plays in a comedy to show range, otherwise he'll be cast as villains for the rest of his career.  Blejer's Pete is also strong though the script makes him a bit opaque at times.  Roger played Mimi as generally meek but it was a good performance. Medley, though, had the smaller role of the semi-villainous Sophie, making it a bit hard to give a full judgment.

On the whole, however, the acting, particularly by Curran and O'Shea, showcase hopefully strong careers.

If Haze has flaws, it is the fact that at times it did get a bit too artistic for its own good (the strobe lighting as Pete comes close to being consumed at the Halloween frat party a bit much for example).  The overt shout-outs to Greek myths in a Greek tale too might have been a bit much.  Of particular concern was the over-use of zooms to give it a 'documentary' look that it could have toned down.

I put that up to the overenthusiastic writer/director spreading his wings.  David Burkman shows himself a capable, even strong director and writer who should try to get out of his own way.  Haze is an excellent calling card on a timely subject.  With strong performances and an almost ripped-from-the-headlines story, Haze is both allegory on what 'brotherhood' really means as well as a cautionary tale of excess. 

The ending, open-ended as it is, leaves it up to you which brothers Nick ultimately chose, and Haze now turns to you and asks, 'which would you choose'.

DECISION: B+ 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Cancer Can Be Killed: A Review


CANCER CAN BE KILLED

Cancer, the Emperor of Maladies, has plagued mankind since time immemorial.  Constant research and treatment has saved millions of lives, but the war continues.  In that time, the treatments have evolved to be chemotherapy (or chemo), radiation, and surgery. 

That's how it's been for decades.

However, what if there was a different way, less expensive, less invasive, and with perhaps a higher success rate?  Would that not attract attention and have patients in various stages rushing to their doctors?  Well, perhaps, if their doctors either knew about it or genuinely believed it.  Cancer Can Be Killed, based on the filmmaker's own journey, offers that has always been the de facto method of treating cancer may now be wrong. 

It is a discussion worth having, even if some things are still unanswered.

Director Jeff Witzeman's wife, Kerry, was diagnosed with Stage 2 or 3 bladder cancer.  The recommendation was chemo, radiation, and radical surgery: the removal of the bladder.  She would have undergone this, if not for her sister, Dottie, who told her about treatment in Germany that involved a whole new and radical methodology.  It involved three aspects as well: hyperthermia, oxygen, and intravenous vitamins, minerals, and amino acids pumped into her.

After a 30-day treatment regimen in Frankfurt at a cost of $28,155, she returns to the U.S. to find that she is now cancer-free, just as Dottie returned cancer-free from similar treatment following her Stage 4 melanoma diagnosis.


However, what if this was a fluke, or what if the fact they were sisters played a role?  Would these treatments help others in similar circumstances, or were Dottie and Kerry more the exception rather than the rule?

With some misgivings, three people in the Witzemans circle agreed to have similar treatments, all of whom were in various stages of cancer.  One of them, Jim, marveled at how the treatments, which include Detox Foot Baths, finished by 1 p.m., leaving him free to enjoy the beautiful Bavarian countryside or even have a nip of good Teutonic tonic.

Even better, they all returned in much better health.

Witzeman now becomes more convinced, especially after talking to those in the alternative treatments movement, such as Dr. Colleen Huber of the Nature Works Best Medical Treatment in Arizona.  She believes that through making better food choices and a more holistic approach (naturopath, I think it's called), cancer need not be a death sentence.

The medical community at large is not convinced, however.  While Dr. Huber would recommend patients cut out sugar and turn to more greens and vegetables, the experts at respected institutions such as the MD Anderson Hospital in Texas insist there is nothing wrong with sugar.

In this debate, while there are many testimonials on the success many ordinary cancer patients have had, only one doctor who wasn't sold on the idea appeared willing to appear on-camera to discuss this.  Dr. W. Douglas Bunn (the W being 'Wiley', and I leave it up to you whether this name has some sort of subliminal meaning or just a curiosity), is very pleasant, but he insists that the Food & Drug Administration or FDA is not obstructive but rigorous, which explains why the FDA hasn't gone in for such things as treating cancer with hyperthermia (essentially, heating the cancer cells up).

Jeff Witzeman ends Cancer Can Be Killed like many advocacy films do: calling for action by Congress, in this case by asking the government to legalize stand-alone hyperthermia and demand insurance pay for natural treatments.



Curiously, one thing Cancer Can Be Killed doesn't advocate for is single-payer or changes to insurance itself.  This isn't that type of film.  The finances of treatment, traditional or alternative, are not what it is interested in.  Instead, the film makes its case about how these alternative treatments are not just a marvel, but a new road and literal lifesavers.

One member of Jeff's circle, a comic named Bobby Tessel diagnosed with Stage 1 bladder cancer, undergoes the German treatment.  Four weeks afterwards, he goes to get the results, and he tells us that he is cancer-free.  "It's surreally unbelievable', he gushes, mixing 'surreal' with 'really' in a fascinating way.

Cancer Can Be Killed is something that appears to be one of those 'too good to be true' stories.  You have all these testimonials from various patients who keep telling us about how these treatments saved their lives, their organs, their peace of mind.  Both Dr. Huber and Dr. Carlos Garcia at the Utopia Wellness Center in Florida, who are passionate about their alternative treatments, are strongly convincing.

HOWEVER, and this is a big HOWEVER, while Cancer Can Be Killed makes good points, at times the film seems eerily close to falling into some form of hippie-drippy New Age-type gobbledygook. A good diet having a role in preventing cancer and leading to better health is something I don't think people dispute, and while not a major feature of the film, the role of Big Pharma and the over-reliance on pills to treat everything (pills that can be patented for financial gain) is touched on.  That too is something that should be troubling when it comes to health care.

What Cancer Can Be Killed did not work on, and perhaps should have worked on, is in having a stronger, more rigorous debate or counterpoint. Even while watching it, the specter of Steve McQueen hung over my mind.  McQueen too sought out alternative treatments outside the U.S., but ultimately McQueen died due in part to his alternative treatment in Mexico.  Try as I might, I could not shake the idea that if McQueen faced similar circumstances now that he did back in 1980, he would go to Germany rather than Mexico.

Therein lies the question: would the results be the same for a McQueen if he had gone to Frankfurt versus Ciudad Juarez?  In other words, is the trifecta of hyperthermia, oxygen, and intravenous natural medication the new frontier or the old snake oil revisited?

Cancer Can Be Killed would have done well to have presented us with the medical reports of those who had gone to Germany prior and post-treatment.  Bobby Tessel, for example, tells us he's cancer-free, but we never see any records detailing it, nor the physician treating him before or after.  This would have been fascinating, to see Dr. X give his diagnosis before Tessel left for Germany and check up on him when he returned.

It is not so much that the viewer can't or doesn't believe Tessel's story so much as the absence of the records leaves one open to wondering if again, all this is too much to be true.  The fact that Huber and Garcia benefit financially from their treatments too is something that can raise eyebrows, and suspicions.

I believe the Witzemans to be honest people.  I believe every person in Cancer Can Be Killed to be honest.  The film does not state that the medical profession at large opposes or disbelieves alternative treatments out of spite or hatred or lack of genuine care.  Instead, it argues that the medical profession is so locked into a particular mindset that it can't think of literal alternatives.  The film also makes good points on the importance of healthy eating and the mind/body connection on health (though perhaps the idea that particular cancers can be caused as a result of certain psychological issues seems a bit of a stretch). 

What I think would be best is to have a literal comparison between two groups who have similar cancers and have similar backgrounds in race/gender/age in the two types of treatments.  It would allow both groups to present their cases in an unbiased manner, which in turn would allow for outside study and analysis.  Cancer Can Be Killed makes a strong case on the benefits and potentials of alternative treatments, if you accept all that's presented without a questioning eye.  It will be interesting if both sides are open to full uncensored investigation and study.  That, and not testimonials, would show whether or not alternative treatments are a boon or a bust, a realistic avenue to treatment and cure or a flim-flam show.

Rigorous examination and study is what is needed to find out if cancer can indeed by killed or not.   

DECISION: B-