Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Sunrise, Sunset, Sunrise, Oscar

Cloris Leachman:
Best Supporting Actress for
The Last Picture Show

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1971

The 44th Academy Awards had one highlight that is undisputed.  Charlie Chaplin closed the show with the presentation of his Honorary Oscar, unofficially closing one of the most controversial chapters in the annals of Oscar.

Chaplin had been essentially exiled by the United States in 1952 due to a mix of his political views and his scandalous private life, his reentry visa having been revoked.  He was bitter about what he perceived as American hypocrisy and refused to return, settling in Switzerland.  This now-unofficial exile ended nearly twenty years later when he returned to accept the Oscar (take THAT, George C. Scott).  The emotion of the night overwhelmed him.  It looked for a time that he might be too ill to come, with him in a wheelchair, sitting backstage looking at the highlight film of his career.  Then, once he had to go on stage, he rallied and gave a brief but heartfelt thank you to those "wonderful, sweet people" who had invited him. 

It was a reconciliation long in the making, the bitterness of nearly twenty years dissipating between both sides. 

In terms of the awards there were some interesting notes.  The Academy was acknowledging the era by awarding its highest honor to The French Connection, a tale as solidly in the 1970s as any.  It even ventured into being more adventurous when it came to the music categories as we shall see.  The Best Supporting Actor and Actress nominees were both all first-time nominees, and both had two nominees from the same film that didn't cancel each other out. 

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

1971 Academy Awards

BEST ORIGINAL SONG



The Age of Not Believing: Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Bless the Beasts and Children: Bless the Beasts and Children
Life is What You Make It: Kotch
All His Children: Sometimes a Great Notion
Theme From "Shaft": Shaft

Oh, sweet Mother of Mercy!  WHO came up with this idiotic list?!  Apart from The Age of Not Believing and Theme From "Shaft", whoever heard of ANY of these songs?   Even the fact that they've pretty much been forgotten perhaps could be forgiven if they were, well, anything other than  so hopelessly square to make milquetoast seem almost avant-garde.  I listened to all five nominees, and truth be told I'm not sure there's much difference between Bless the Beasts and Children and Life is What You Make It. If you played just the melody, could you tell the difference between four of them? For Heaven's sake, TWO of these dry ditties have "Children" in the title!  Syrupy, Syrupy, Syrupy! 

There's not a lick of a difference between the first four, so Theme From "Shaft" was not just the right choice, but a massive jolt to the staid Academy, making its win downright revolutionary.  The bridging between the urban sound with strings and some pretty daring lyrics with double entendres was if not particularly brave at least an acknowledgement of the brilliance of Isaac Hayes' song.  Even the production number from the Academy Awards presentation wasn't the embarrassment it usually is.  It would have been absolutely horrifying if any of the other songs would have won, and one of the lowest points in Oscar history.

Fortunately, sense hit the Music Branch and we were spared a disaster.

Normally, I would just put in my own choice (which isn't the Theme From "Shaft"), but instead, I think it will let you listen to those themes that the Academy could have nominated but chose to overlook for such songs as All His Children.


From Diamonds Are Forever, Diamonds Are Forever. Music by John Barry, lyrics by Don Black.


From Harold and Maude, If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.  Music and lyrics by Cat Stevens.



From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Candy Man.  Music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.



From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Pure Imagination.  Music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

Now, I ask you, which of the official nominees do YOU remember apart from Theme From "Shaft"

Think on those and then go down to see my winner.



Diamonds Are Forever: Diamonds Are Forever
If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out: Harold and Maude
Theme From "Shaft": Shaft
The Candy Man: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Pure Imagination: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Pure Imagination.  Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

I found four better and more remembered songs than such things as Life is What You Make It or Bless the Beasts and Children, all eligible as far as I know, and all blissfully ignored for perhaps one of the worst slate of nominees in this category.  Ah, if we can count on one thing when it comes to the Music Branch of the Academy, is that they will never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity (to quote the late, great Abba Eban).  Their official list of Best Original Songs of 1971 makes the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton look downright rational.

I think each of these songs could have easily have won and I'd have no objection to any of them winning.  I also think Theme From "Shaft" is one of the greatest Best Original Song Oscar winners.  However, I'm going with Pure Imagination due to the fact that it's so iconic, and if you listen carefully, the music holds a bit of a creepy, off-kilter mood to it, as if beneath the sweetness of the lyrics there is something dark and menacing lurking just beneath.

BEST DIRECTOR

Peter Bogdanovich: The Last Picture Show
William Friedkin: The French Connection
Norman Jewison: Fiddler on the Roof
Stanley Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange
John Schlesinger: Sunday Bloody Sunday

My issue with A Clockwork Orange is that not only did I find it creepy in a bad way but highly pretentious.  I remember being dragged to a screening by my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., and found it in turns horrifying and self-important.  I don't object to Friedkin winning, for The French Connection is an extremely good film.  However, I was so moved by the tale of lost youth in Texas that my heart goes to Bogdanovich's work in The Last Picture Show.

Peter Bogdanovich: The Last Picture Show
Clint Eastwood: Play Misty For Me
William Friedkin: The French Connection
Norman Jewison: Fiddler on the Roof
Don Siegel: Dirty Harry

Despite some great work by others, I see nothing to shift my view that Bogdanovich shouldn't win.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Ann-Margret: Carnal Knowledge
Ellen Burstyn: The Last Picture Show
Barbara Harris: Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
Cloris Leachman: The Last Picture Show
Margaret Leighton: The Go-Between

In a rare moment, two actresses from the same film didn't cancel each other out.  For me, Leachman's performance as the lonely, lovelorn housewife, a cougar with a heart, was a devastating one.  Her last scene where she seems to scream out to the world was simply fantastic.



Rosalind Cash: The Omega Man
Rosalind Harris: Fiddler on the Roof
Jill St. John: Diamonds Are Forever
Cloris Leachman: The Last Picture Show
Natalie Trundy: Escape From Planet of the Apes

Despite that, and despite some really strong work by others, my heart goes to the sassy, flirtatious, delightfully devious Tiffany Case from Diamonds Are Forever.  St. John knew what the part was, and played it to perfection.  Her Tiffany Case (among the more amusing Bond Girl names) was unapologetic about being a thief, and moreover made Tiffany Case something so rare in a Bond film: a funny and fun Bond Girl who was smart enough to make it funny and fun.  Part comic relief, part self-reliant woman, Jill St. John is among my favorite Bond Girls, and unlike others before or after her, St. John has never regretted either her role or in being called a "Bond Girl". 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Jeff Bridges: The Last Picture Show
Leonard Frey: Fiddler on the Roof
Richard Jaeckel: Sometimes a Great Notion
Ben Johnson: The Last Picture Show
Roy Schneider: The French Connection

In a rarer turn, we have TWO categories where TWO actors from the same film are nominated and don't cancel each other out.  Sometimes a single monologue can be so good that it's worthy of recognition.  This is how I feel about Ben Johnson's performance in The Last Picture Show.  A sense of tragedy, of loss, of that deep pain beneath that we keep within us, that one that got away...it's all there.




Jack Albertson: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Jeff Bridges: The Last Picture Show
Leonard Frey: Fiddler on the Roof
Ben Johnson: The Last Picture Show
Roy Schneider: The French Connection

No, nothing to have me change my mind. 

BEST ACTRESS



Julie Christie: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Jane Fonda: Klute
Glenda Jackson: Sunday Bloody Sunday
Vanessa Redgrave: Mary, Queen of Scots
Janet Suzman: Nicholas and Alexandra

Here is another rarity indeed: two biopics losing Best Actress, back when a biopic wasn't an automatic Oscar win (like Eddie Redmayne).  The film may have been called Klute, but it doesn't seem like his story.  It seems like Bree Daniels' story.  Bree is no Happy Hooker.  She's a survivor, someone who knows the difference between sex and love, and who is in danger.



I am no fan of Fonda's politics, but at least she was sensible enough to know that the Academy Awards were not the appropriate venue to get her views out.  A lot of people, particularly the producers, were in terror of what Hanoi Jane might say, and some Academy members weren't thrilled when they saw Tom Joad's daughter virtually dancing with men killing their sons in battle.  However, if we go by performances, I think for now I'm going with Fonda.



Julie Christy: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Jane Fonda: Klute
Kim Hunter: Escape From Planet of the Apes
Geraldine Page: The Beguiled
Ruth Gordon: Harold and Maude

Fonda was such an odds-on favorite that three of her nominees didn't bother showing up.  Only Suzman bothered to appear.   I had Page win for some time, but opted at the last minute to go with the Academy and give it to Fonda.

Geez, why would ANYONE be upset about this?


BEST ACTOR



Peter Finch: Sunday Bloody Sunday
Gene Hackman: The French Connection
Walter Matthau: Kotch
George C. Scott: The Hospital
Chaim Topol: Fiddler on the Roof

AT LAST MY GENE HACKMAN LOVE CAN BE EXPRESSED!

In case you don't know, I'm an unabashed Gene Hackman lover.  Get him a Kennedy Center Honor already!  As the obsessed detective determined to bring down a major drug ring, Hackman brings his everyman quality to the role.  It's intense, fiery, and he towers over all the other performances.



Clint Eastwood: Dirty Harry
Gene Hackman: The French Connection
Malcolm McDowell: A Clockwork Orange
Chaim Topol: Fiddler on the Roof
Gene Wilder: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

For once, I'm going to temper my Gene Hackman love for another Gene and give it to Wilder's iconic turn as the slightly mad, slightly whimsical, always fascinating Willy Wonka.  It turns crazy and gentle, Wilder will always be THE Willy Wonka, impresario of a world filled with Pure Imagination

BEST PICTURE



A Clockwork Orange
Fiddler on the Roof
The French Connection
The Last Picture Show
Nicholas and Alexandra

The nomination for A Clockwork Orange is to please the critics, Fiddler on the Roof to please audiences, Nicholas and Alexandra to please the Academy's penchant for big/epic biopics.  That leaves us with two choices: the gritty The French Connection and the tragic The Last Picture Show.  I've no objection to The French Connection winning.  It's a fine film.  However, emotionally I was overpowered by this tale of Texas, an anti-Giant.

Therefore, I name The Last Picture Show the Best Film of 1971.



Escape From Planet of the Apes
The French Connection
Harold and Maude
The Last Picture Show
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I think there were better films than Nicholas and Alexandra or even Fiddler on the Roof, a rare musical to get a nomination when the genre was well out of fashion.  And there I go, nominating a musical too.  To be fair, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory forms a part of practically everyone's childhood and I think people don't think of it strictly as a 'musical', even though it is one.  However, I see no real challenger to my original choice.

As such, I select The Last Picture Show as the Best Picture of 1971.

Next time, the 1972 Academy Awards.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Best In Show: A Review



BEST IN SHOW

The entire aura around dog shows is a complete mystery to me.  I wouldn't know one breed of toy dogs from another.  In an odd way, Best in Show was a bit illuminating on the subject of animals and the humans who love them too much.  It is by no means vicious when it comes to the characters (I can't think of a Christopher Guest mockumentary that is), despite their own lunacy.  Best in Show is not a laugh-out-loud hilarious film (though there are times when you do laugh heartily).  Its humor is more droll, more dry, and its to its credit that we can laugh at the characters while simultaneously having a soft spot for them.

It is the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia, and five disparate groups of people are coming.  From Florida, Gerry and Cookie Fleck (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a nice middle-class couple who love each other but have a hard time thanks to Cookie's very wild past (no matter where they go, she ends up finding a former lover, much to Gerry's consternation).  The fact that Gerry has literally two left feet makes him all the more self-conscious.

From the South, there's fishing store owner Harlan Pepper (Guest), who takes great pride in being able to name all sorts of nuts and in his Bloodhound.  He's the only one not married.

Well, technically speaking, flamboyant gay couple Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof (John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean) aren't married either, but they too love their little dog and camp it up for all its worth.

We've got a highly neurotic yuppie couple, Meg and Hamilton Swann (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), who are in turns excessively childish with their dog and with each other, bickering and going to therapy with their pooch.

Finally, we've got ditzy socialite Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), an Anna Nicole Smith-type who married a man old enough to be her grandfather and who sponsors her dog's handler, Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch).


Each of them makes their way to Philly, where those with money get nice rooms, and those who don't (like the unfortunate Flecks, unaware their credit card had been cut off) are forced to stay in the utility closet of the hotel.  They go through the various mixers where they meet the competition, and start getting their breeds ready.  Observing all this is Mayflower Kennel Club President Dr. Theodore W. Millbank III (Bob Balaban) and at the hotel, the manager (Ed Begley, Jr.).  We also get play-by-play commentary from dog expert Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock) and Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), with the latter sometimes wandering off into strange rabbit trails (such as asking a puzzled Beckwith to speculate how much Laughlin can bench press or whether the show could attract more people if the dogs came in costumes).

Things don't go well for the Swanns, who freak out when their dog's toy is lost, and the agitation from both of them causes their pet to bark at the judge (instant disqualification).  All the other owners find they move up from Best in Breed to competing against each other for Best in Show.  All sorts of actions go on, from Christy coming out in a big way (throwing herself into a passionate embrace with an equally willing Sherri Ann) to Cookie's last-minute injury that forces her untrained husband to walk their dog in the final round.

Who Will Win?

We end with Six Months Later, where Gerry and Cookie opt to record terrier-related songs (and guess who the record engineer is...one of Cookie's ex-lovers), Harlan pursues his dream to be a ventriloquist (and doing a mess of a job on it), Sherri Ann and Christy, now a couple, publishing their own lesbian-centric dog-breeding magazine (American Bitch), Stefan & Scott creating a calendar of dogs recreating classic scenes from movies), and Hamilton & Meg happier now with a new dog...one that doesn't mind if they have sex in front of it.

Best in Show is droll, less interested in ridiculing these curious characters and more in showing them in a warm light.  We can imagine that this group of people who really are passionate about their pets to where they don't see them as pets but as extensions of themselves.

We see that these people are not crazies (well, maybe the Swanns) but not all that different from us or our neighbors.  For them, their dogs are their passion, a hobby that didn't quite get out of hand but certainly takes up a great deal of their time.  Perhaps one doesn't end up feeling any sense of ridicule against them is because Best in Show doesn't set out to ridicule them.

Instead, like a true documentary that it mocks, Best in Show lets the characters display their curious worlds.  They themselves showcase what to outsiders might seem a bit, well, nuts, but the film never really thinks badly of them. 

The performances, all based on adlibbing, are all quite excellent.  I was particularly impressed by Guest, whose Southern accent was believable without being exaggerated or ridiculous.  Each of the couples is portrayed in broad strokes, but they all did a commendable job painting realistic people.  Granted, Willard's oddball commentator is perhaps the least realistic person in Best of Show, but his curious comments are so funny you wouldn't have it any other way.  Moreover, Willard is a comedy icon and he can do anything he wants. 

Given the film was made in 2000, it still is pretty amazing that Guest and co-scenarist Levy could get away with characters as campy and stereotypical as Stefan and Scott (the latter so outlandishly gay he wears makeup and dresses like a toreador at the finals).  One wonders if now, given that almost any mocking of homosexuality is seen as a crime, the film's gay couple seems pretty outrageous.

Still, part of me thinks gay couples will find the portrayal more amusing than insulting.

Now, Best in Show isn't a knockout in terms of comedy. A side trip to Akron for the Flecks to meet an old boyfriend, resulting in their beloved Winky being taken up to the roof, isn't that funny.  We also don't know exactly what happened to Sherri Ann's old (very old) husband.  Leaving apart that, Best in Show is a light, amusing little film about the bond between man and beast.

        

DECISION: B+

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: A Review



THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI

Let's put this out there: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not, repeat, NOT scary in the traditional sense, particularly I figure for today's audiences, who consider something like Insidious or any Paranormal Activity the height of horror.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, however, extremely atmospheric, and a touch frightening in how it creates this mad world of somnambulists and generally crazed people.

Told primarily in flashback, our narrator, Francis (Friedrich Fehere) tells of how his fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) became a virtual white zombie.  She, Francis, and their mutual friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) had a solid group, despite the fact both were in love with Jane.  At a fair, Alan and Francis go see a new act, that of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).  It is to control his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt).  Alan asks how long with he live, and Cesare's answer is chilling: he has until dawn.

True to his word, Alan is found dead the next day, stabbed to death.  Are Cesare and Caligari holders of supernatural powers, or is there something more sinister, more 'insidious' at play? Francis and Jane investigate, and the investigation takes a shocking turn when Cesare abducts Jane and races through the village, chased by a mob.  Cesare dies as a result of shock, apparently, but Dr. Caligari has run off to the safety of an insane asylum.

Going in, Francis asks to speak to the director...who turns out to be Caligari himself!  We learn the backstory to this insanity.  Apparently the good Herr Doctor has been delving into the occult practices of a previous Dr. Caligari and had become obsessed with controlling people's minds, to see if he could get those under his control to go against their own morality and do his evil bidding.  The hospital staff and Francis manage to capture the mad Dr. Caligari.  With that, Francis ends his tale of deranged wickedness.

Then...we go into the asylum, and find that Francis, far from being the hero, may in fact be bonkers himself, for he IS a patient at the asylum.  Furthermore, his fiancée Jane appears not to know him, but claims herself a queen, and Cesare is very much alive, wandering about.  Alan sees the hospital director, who is the same 'Caligari' and goes after him, thinking him the mad scientist.  Restrained in the straight-jacket, the doctor is ready to treat him...but is it the rational asylum director, or Dr. Caligari himself?


When people think 'German Expressionism', they may subconsciously be thinking about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The entire film is not meant to be 'realistic' in any way.  IF you go into the film thinking that it would be like any other silent film (or film in general), be warned of a rude awakening.  The sets in particular, with the off-kilter angles and obviously unrealistic paint make The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari like a fever dream, something that calls to the subconscious, the unreal, the hallucinatory, the surreal.  Expressionism is the perfect term, for we get the ideas that this is a fantasy and fantastical world.

The real genius though is in the script, for the film never lets us know what is real and what isn't.  For the longest time, we took for granted that Alan's tale of a mad scientist and his bewitched minion was true, but we then get that shocking twist.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so brilliantly twisted our expectations, our sense of what is true and not true.  Even when we get to the end, we still do not know what is the truth and what isn't.  Was Francis' strange tale the truth?  The ramblings of an insane man?  The ramblings of someone warning on the dangers of those in command?

Much has been made about how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may have been prescient on the rise of a totalitarian leader like Hitler, an allegory before the fact of how the leaders, those in authority, are creating a madhouse of murder and mayhem.  If people read that into the film, that works.  I don't see a direct correlation but I won't dismiss it either.



It a bit difficult to judge performances in a silent film because they require a certain level of unreality that now comes across as wildly exaggerated.  However, Krauss and the 'mad doctor' and Veidt as the possessed figure are excellent, bringing the appropriate chills to this bizarre tale.  They are both appropriately creepy.

It seems that every year at the Plaza Classic Film Festival I end up watching a silent film.  Each year, I find that said silent film is absolutely brilliant (Metropolis, Sunrise).  I'm pleased to say that with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, their record remains intact.           

DECISION: A+

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Him Whom Oscar Slaps...

Glenda Jackson:
Best Actress for
Women in Love


TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1970

The 43rd Academy Awards had a score of controversy thanks to curmudgeonly George C. Scott.  Scott had denounced the Academy Awards ever since he lost in his first nomination for Supporting Actor in Anatomy of a Murder.  Nominated the next year for The Hustler, he firmly refused the nomination but no worries: he lost.  Now, with his titanic performance in Patton, it was all but certain he'd win.  Yet, stubborn as always, he again flatly refused the nomination, deriding the whole thing as a "GD meat parade".  Despite this, Scott was voted the Best Actor by the Academy, refusal or no refusal.  If memory serves correct, the Oscar that Scott rejected still sits, uncollected, at the Academy archives.

It seems almost fitting that Scott would reject his Oscar.  He metaphorically slapped the Academy the same way General Patton slapped the shell-shocked soldier, a moment so scandalous that the U.S. was in an uproar when they heard about it, and the once-beloved war hero was forever tainted by this one act.

One person who wasn't going to slap Oscar was Helen Hayes, who became the first person to win Lead and Supporting Actress Oscars for her role in Airport

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1970 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS   

BEST ORIGINAL SONG


Whistling Awa the Dark: Darling Lili
For All We Know: Lovers and Other Strangers
Till Love Touches Your Life: Madron
Pieces of Dreams: Pieces of Dreams
Thank You Very Much: Scrooge

Are they serious?  Till Love Touches Your LifePieces of Dreams?  Why do I get the sense that while music was being radically altered in the late 1960s to early 70s, the Academy held firm in rewarding the squarest choices possible?  Not that For All We Know is some giant step forward: when The Carpenters are the ones singing, you can't say you're particularly avant-garde (and I do like The Carpenters myself).  Still, out of all the nominees For All We Know is a memorable song that people know (though they might not know that it came from a movie).  Out of all the nominees, Thank You Very Much is the only one that is actually worth anything, but I have to ultimately go for the one we can hum along to. 

Despite that, I'm selecting the more adventurous song from the wildest film few people have seen.



Ev'ryone Wants to Be A Cat: The Aristocats
Whistling Away the Dark: Darling Lili
For All We Know: Lovers and Other Strangers
Come and Get It: The Magic Christian
Thank You Very Much: Scrooge

From The Magic Christian, Come and Get It, music and lyrics by Paul McCartney.

The Magic Christian, if memory serves correct, was about how people can be bought rather quickly and easily.  It has Yul Brynner singing Mad About the Boy...in drag! to Roman Polanski!  and Laurence Harvey reciting Hamlet's To Be or Not to Be soliloquy as he strips.  For All We Know...it's a pretty insane film, and the purpose of it all escapes me.  However, while not the best song I've heard, at least it's a damn sight better known than Pieces of Dreams or Till Love Touches Your Life.

BEST DIRECTOR

Robert Altman: M*A*S*H
Federico Fellini: Satyricon
Arthur Hill: Love Story
Ken Russell: Women in Love
Franklin L. Schaffner: Patton

I have no objection to Schaffner's win for the epic Patton.  It was never boring and moved quickly as we covered one aspect of the titanic General's life.  Having said that, I am leaning toward Altman's own war film, where unlike Schaffner's take with war being this grand thing, it was actually something of a dark comedy.  M*A*S*H is now one of the best-remembered war (or anti-war) films, less about Korea than it was about Vietnam. 

Robert Altman: M*A*S*H
William Friedkin: The Boys in the Band
Bob Rafelson: Five Easy Pieces
Franklin L. Schaffner: Patton
George Seaton: Airport

I'm not going to bat for my choice of Rafelson, but I get the sense that he should have been nominated (particularly over the insipid Love Story, which has nothing to recommend it apart from its score).  Seaton gets points for keeping so many stories going together, and Friedkin for just bringing up homosexuality in a film without being opaque on the subject.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Karen Black: Five Easy Pieces
Lee Grant: The Landlord
Helen Hayes: Airport
Sally Kellerman: M*A*S*H
Maureen Stapleton: Airport

A rarity in Oscar history: two actress nominated for the same film don't end up cancelling each other out.  It was thirty-eight years between Oscars for The First Lady of the American Theater as Helen Hayes' cutesy stowaway beat out her costar Stapleton.  If memory serves right, her character was spoofed in Airplane!, but I cannot be sure.  One thing I am sure is that Kellerman's Hot Lips Houlihan is still remembered, which is one reason I'm going with Kellerman.



Karen Black: Five Easy Pieces
Lee Grant: The Landlord
Helen Hayes: Airport
Kim Hunter: Beneath Planet of the Apes
Sally Kellerman: M*A*S*H

So far, again, I see nothing to shift my original choice.    

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Richard S. Castellano: Lovers and Other Strangers
Chief Dan George: Little Big Man
Gene Hackman: I Never Sang for My Father
John Marley: Love Story
John Mills: Ryan's Daughter

It's no surprise John Mills won. "Illness always wins", and what better way to show it than by playing mute?  Ryan's Daughter isn't held in particular esteem if I understand it, a kind of weak David Lean as his career peters out.  Maybe Chief Dan George is better, and maybe my unabashed love for Gene Hackman blinds me.  This is the rare time when I'm willing to say I am playing favorites, but come on...GENE HACKMAN! 



Richard S. Castellano: Lovers and Other Strangers
Robert Duvall: M*A*S*H
Maurice Evans: Beneath Planet of the Apes
Cliff Gorman: The Boys in the Band
Gene Hackman: I Never Sang for My Father

Despite that, for the moment I'm going to lean towards Duvall's pompous and perhaps crazed Major Burns. Duvall has a way with officials who are slightly off-kilter.  He is also one of the best actors still working today.  Just like I advocate for a Kennedy Center Honor for Gene Hackman, I advocate one for Robert Duvall.  

BEST ACTRESS



Jane Alexander: The Great White Hope
Glenda Jackson: Women in Love
Ali McGraw: Love Story
Sarah Miles: Ryan's Daughter
Carrie Snodgress: Diary of a Mad Housewife

The only things I know about Glenda Jackson is that she's British and is a hardline-leftist Member of Parliament.  The fact that she's British I figure helped in her winning the Oscar, as so many in the Academy are convinced a native British accent equals great acting (Example Number 1: Eddie Redmayne).  For right now, I can dismiss McGraw's "love means never having to say you're sorry" performance (and for the record, love means ALWAYS having to say you're sorry).  I am leaning toward Snodgress' troubled woman in Diary of a Mad Housewife but again, not a final decision.



Jane Alexander: The Great White Hope
Sandy Dennis: The Out-of-Towners
Glenda Jackson: Women in Love
Sarah Miles: Ryan's Daughter
Carrie Snodgress: Diary of a Mad Housewife

Again, I'm sticking with Snodgress for now.  I get the sense that Miles must have been like Ryan's Daughter...a bit dull. Is Snodgress' housewife mad as in crazy or mad as in angry?  I think she has reason to be both.

BEST ACTOR




Melvyn Douglas: I Never Sang for My Father
James Earl Jones: The Great White Hope
Jack Nicholson: Five Easy Pieces
Ryan O'Neal: Love Story
George C. Scott: Patton

The fact we have to acknowledge that Ryan O'Neal is an Oscar-nominated actor tells us that the Academy may not be the best judge of good performances.

Douglas, Jones, and Nicholson would each I figure have won in any other year, but Scott WAS Patton in few ways actors have embodied a character.  Yes, he may have turned the Oscar down, but that doesn't take away from the committed, almost unhinged general who was devout and deranged, who loved war and made no apologies for it.



Albert Finney: Scrooge
James Earl Jones: The Great White Hope
Jack Nicholson: Five Easy Pieces
Donald Sutherland: M*A*S*H
George C. Scott: Patton

To many, when people think of George S. Patton, they are picturing George C. Scott.  Scott's performance is wrong in at least one fashion: the real General Patton's voice was more patrician, not this gruff, violent guttural sound Scott gave the slap-happy war lord.  Still, we shouldn't look to films for accurate history.  Scott's portrayal of this complex figure: brilliant, arrogant, who could quote Scripture with sincerity yet also believe in reincarnation makes it one for the ages. 

BEST PICTURE



Airport
Five Easy Pieces
Love Story
M*A*S*H
Patton

Patton is a brilliant film, yet at the same time such a product of its time.  We were in the final stages of Vietnam, a war that divided American (and still does) and which were on the verge of losing.  Yet here is Patton, madly cheering on the idea that "Americans have never lost AND WILL NEVER LOSE a war".  To some in 1970, Patton was a pro-American, pro-war film: one that reminded us of who we really were, fighters, unafraid, determined to stomp out all opposition to achieve victory.  To others in 1970, Patton was an anti-American, anti-war film: one that showed the arrogance and folly of following war-and-blood crazed old men into battle, getting us lost in antiquated ideas of what makes men "men" and the destruction unchecked war lords could unleash.

Patton works however you interpreted it: as a cheer or jeer to America.  That is one of the reasons it is such a brilliant film: it is open to interpretation.  I'm sure to the older generation who saw Patton, who lived through the Second World War, it was a reminder of what made America great: tenacity, grit, courage, determination.  I'm sure to the younger generation who saw Patton, who were living through the Vietnam War, it was a reminder of what made America terrible to them: arrogance, stubbornness, ignorance, a lack of compassion.

Despite the greatness of M*A*S*H, another Vietnam film in all but name, I name Patton the Best Film of 1969.  



Airport
Five Easy Pieces
The Great White Hope
M*A*S*H
Patton

Again, Patton can be interpreted in any way: pro-or-anti America, pro-or-anti war, pro-or-anti Vietnam.  Divorced from whatever interpretation you want to give it, Patton as a film works exceptionally well as a biopic and as an entertaining film.

As such, I name Patton the Best Picture of 1969.

Next Time, the 1971 Academy Awards. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cruel Intentions: A Review


CRUEL INTENTIONS

After watching the excellent Dangerous Liaisons, I was curious about the 'hip' version, one that exchanges those ancient regime frocks for Gucci.  Cruel Intentions is not a bad film.  It can be quite entertaining, even if it doesn't hit the same levels as its predecessor in terms of well, anything.  I figure that Cruel Intentions serves as a nice, albeit inferior, introduction to this sordid story of seduction and true love, but if it entertains, I cannot fault it for that.

Stepsiblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) are a pair of sexually ravenous beings.  It helps that their parents (for whom they have contempt for) are away on holiday.  Kathryn asks a favor of Sebastian: seduce Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair), her naïve rival whom her ex-boyfriend dumped her for.  Sebastian finds such a request boring, for he has his eyes on a bigger prize.  It is Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), the new headmaster's daughter who penned a magazine article about remaining a virgin until marriage.  to successfully seduce a woman who proclaims the virtue of chastity would be his greatest conquest.

Kathryn scoffs that even the talents of Sebastian can best the virtuous Annette and offers a wager: if he fails she gets his prized car, but if he succeeds, he gets the bed Kathryn.  The bet is on.

As it happens, Annette is staying with Sebastian's Aunt Helen Rosemond (Louise Fletcher), and he begins working on charming Annette.  Annette, however, has been warned against Sebastian, and he is eager to find out who has squealed on him.  For that, he gets his openly gay friend Blaine (Joshua Jackson) to pump the information out of the only person Annette knows prior to her move to New York City, the closeted football star Greg (Eric Mabius), whom has made booty calls on Blaine.  A little blackmail later, Greg tells Sebastian that Annette's source is none other than Mrs. Caldwell (Christine Baranski), Cecile's mother.  Enraged, he agrees to help Kathryn ruin the dimwitted Cecile's reputation.

Kathryn hadn't been wasting time waiting for Sebastian, however.  She has been working to get Cecile to hook up with Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas), her cello instructor.  It hasn't been easy given how clueless Cecile is, but soon love letters are exchanged between them.  Kathryn reveals the letters to Mrs. Caldwell, who promptly expels the black man from her house, then Kathryn and Sebastian offer to serve as intermediaries between the lovers.  Of course, this is the chance for Sebastian to deflower Cecile and for Kathryn to say it is a good way to train for Robert.

Meanwhile, a genuine friendship emerges between Sebastian and Annette, who begins to see Sebastian in a new light (no doubt helped by Greg being forced to feed her wrong information about him).  Sebastian launches a tirade against Annette, accusing her of hypocrisy: she tells people to wait for true love, then when true love comes, she denies it.  Annette then offers herself to Sebastian, but in a twist he is the one who declines sex. Sebastian has done what he has never done with anyone: he has fallen in love.

Annette leaves and Kathryn gloats about her 'victory', but by now Sebastian, too much in love to care, follows Annette, and they make love.  After this, when Kathryn offers herself as he has won the bet, something in Sebastian cannot bring himself to do so.  An enraged Kathryn threatens to ruin his reputation, and in a panic Sebastian ends his romance with a devastated Annette.

Sebastian comes calling back to Kathryn, but finds he's been duped and won't get his time in her bed.  She's also managed to seduce Ronald and fools him into thinking Sebastian raped and beat her.  Sebastian wanders about, begging to see Annette, who won't but who does accept the journal he's been keeping, one that details everything that has gone on...as well as the fact that he has indeed fallen in love and in a sense made love for the first time as opposed to just have sex.

Robert confronts Sebastian about the alleged abuse, and Annette comes across them both.  In the ensuing fight Annette is tossed into the street and nearly run down, but Sebastian pushes her out of the way and takes the full impact of the hit.  As he lays dying he confesses that Annette is the only woman he has ever truly loved and begs her forgiveness.  At his funeral, Kathryn continues her deceptions, until her classmates start handing out copies of Sebastian's secret journal...copies made by a more mature Cecile.  Kathryn's web of evil is exposed, and Annette drives off with the journal, named "Cruel Intentions", headed off to a new life somewhere.



As Cruel Intentions is geared toward teens, we had to make a few changes from the original French novel.  We had to introduce homosexuality, dry humping, and clueless parents.  You add a touch of racism among the elite world our characters live in, and what you have is good trashy fun.

I'm not going to advocate that Cruel Intentions is anywhere near the same league as Dangerous Liaisons, but in fairness the film has some good moments.  They are courtesy of the two best performances in Cruel Intentions: Selma Blair and Reese Witherspoon.  Blair made Cecile believable in her idiocy without being completely idiotic, more a naïve, unaware girl easily duped by everyone around her.  That makes her final scene, where she says nothing but gives Gellar a smirk that shows she has matured, all the more amusing.

Witherspoon is also strong  in the film, and it is possible to see how she is a sincere girl who could eventually fall for the philandering Sebastian, her virtue used against her.  She and Blair made me think that Annette and Cecile could be real (especially given since I've met people like them in real life).

I can't say the same with regards to Gellar and Phillippe.  I think Gellar relished the chance to play wicked to the core.  Whether she succeeded in mastering that 'bitch virtuosity' (to use the term Joseph L. Mankiewicz used to describe Eve Harrington in All About Eve) is a subject of debate.  I think Gellar was a little overt in her "look at me I'm being EVIL" bit, but there is something deliciously wicked in her performance, a touch camp without being wild about it.  In regards to Phillippe, I have never been convinced he's a particularly good actor, and I could never shake the idea that he was attempting to channel some of Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. 

He wasn't particularly good in Cruel Intentions, but he's generally not that good in much, so I'm not going to belabor that point.

I do have some issues with Cruel Intentions.  First, one of the actors, Eric Mabius, who as the closeted jock Greg was cruelly miscast.  At 28, he was one of the oldest of the 'teens', and he looks far too old to be believable as a teenager.  Even stranger is that he is actually one year younger than Sean Patrick Thomas and a year older than Selma Blair, yet they didn't look as old to play teens as he did.  Every time I saw Mabius, I kept thinking 'he looks like he's a college senior, not a high school one', and it was pretty distracting.

Another part that didn't quite work was Greg's story.  His boy-toy Blaine was quickly introduced (with Jackson pretty much playing fey to let us know his character was gay) and then quickly disappears, never to be heard from again.  I don't know why Blaine was there (apart from being a plot device). As for Greg's last scene, he is seen tossing some CDs in a pique of frustration, going through each one.  As he goes through them, he comes across a Judy Garland CD and says to himself, "Judy...no, keep her", and whether it was meant to be funny or not to play up a gay stereotype I don't know.

Come to think of it, do teenagers today know that old stereotype of gay men's fascination with Garland?  Maybe if it had been Cher or Britney (if the latter were popular in 1999, I have no way of knowing).

It's also a bit of a shame that veteran actresses like Fletcher, Baranski, and Kurtz (the only Dangerous Liaisons star to appear in Cruel Intentions in a cameo as Sebastian's therapist who ends up humiliated by Sebastian) had little to do.  I won't begrudge that much since this is purely a teen (or teen-ish) show, and at least Baranski had some fun with Mrs. Caldwell's posh racism ("He so...black", she says astonished when Kathryn reveals Robert and Cecile's 'dangerous liaison', making it amusing).  She was better than Kurtz, who was awful in her one scene, either oozing insincerity or not caring a bit for the film and trying to just get through it.  Maybe her character was suppose to be thoroughly insincere, so I'll cut her some slack.

One thing I think Cruel Intentions is known for is its soundtrack, particularly the closing theme, Bitter Sweet Symphony, which works in a way.  It's not a bad soundtrack, though at times the film may be a bit more interested in what song to put in than in what is in the film itself.

On the whole I can see why Cruel Intentions is a bit of a cult film.  It has entertaining performances (good and bad) and it kept my interest.   As a diversion, it worked well, and every once in a while you need to have a bit of a romp.  Cruel Intentions is nothing more than a delectable, frothy film about the wickedness of sexual games among the elite teens of America, and I'm not going to bash it for doing what it set out to do. 
 
DECISION: C+

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Ben-Hur, Done That. Ben-Hur (2016): A Review



BEN-HUR (2016)

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!

It is a dangerous thing when you remake a film that is not only beloved, but considered among the greatest films ever made.  It is no good pointing out that the 1959 version of Ben-Hur is a remake.  I know that it is, but let's point out also that the original is a silent movie (a great silent movie).  Therefore, sadly it isn't as well-known as the Charlton Heston version.  As such, when people complain about others remaking 'the original', they do not know about the silent version.  I'm not going to be all picky about the lack of knowledge of the 1925 version (or for that matter, about the 2003 animated version or 2010 television miniseries).  None of these versions have so dominated the popular imagination as the Charlton Heston version, so trying to sound clever by drawing attention to the fact that this "tale of the Christ" has been done many times is foolish. For many, the 1959 version is THE Ben-Hur, and I'm not about to be legalistic on that subject.

Yet, I digress.

Ben-Hur makes some simply disastrous choices in terms of structure, plot, action, and characters that consistently bring the film down, down, down.

It is 33 A.D. in Judea.  A chariot race is about to begin between two men who know each other and hate each other...then we go back eight years to when these two knew, even loved each other.  They are Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adopted brother, a Roman named Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala feels out of place among the wealthy and influential Hur family: while he has his eyes on his adopted sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia), mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) does not approve.  In fact, she doesn't apparently approve anything Messala does (like pray to idols for Judah's recovery...begging the question as to why the Hurs never took Messala to Hebrew school).

Messala feels out of place within the wealth and joy of the Jewish family that took him in, so he goes off to claim his birthright and join the Roman army, where he goes to fight in Germania and Persia, all for Caesar and to reclaim his family name, one tainted by his grandfather's involvement in Julius Caesar's assassination.  Judah, meanwhile, despite himself goes and marries the woman he loves: one of his slaves, the beautiful Esther (Nazanin Boniadi).  He also has to deal with the rise of the Zealots who want a free Jewish state and some verse-spouting carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro).  

Now Messala comes back to Jerusalem as a commander, the protégé of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), the new governor of Judea.  Some in Messala's company think he's too 'Jewish' for them, too willing to be gentle with these conquered people.  Judah for his part wants nothing to do with the Zealots, even after Esther helps them and he himself treats their injuries.  It all comes to a head when Messala leads Pilate through the streets.  He wants a peaceful march for everyone's safety, and it looks like he'll get his wish.  However, Gestas (Moises Arias), the Zealot that Judah had treated for his wounds and whom he tried to convince to avoid violence, decides the rooftop of the Hur palace is the perfect spot from which to assassinate Pontius Pilate.

No weak falling tiles for the Millennials' Ben-Hur!

Messala and his men storm the palace, and Judah decides to 'confess' to the assassination rather than turn Gestas in.  Esther manages to escape, and the Hur women are sent to prison...and Judah to the galleys.

We go to 5 years later (I really don't want to do the math here in these flashbacks/forwards).  Judah is a slave galley when a battle frees him and he washes upon the shore where he encounters Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman).  Ilderim is wary of this Jewish slave, but after Judah cures his horses he agrees to keep him from the Romans.  Ilderim does one better: take Judah to Jerusalem to race against the master Roman charioteer, one Messala.  Sensing his chance for revenge and to avenge his family (whom everyone believes dead), Judah takes a couple of lessons from Ilderim and is capable of taking his brother on in a race to the death. 

He's also found Esther, who is a follower of the Nazarene, and who urges Judah to not seek his revenge.  Nothing doing, for he tries to kill Messala and fails.  It's now in the race where Judah must find his own justice against Messala, and while he wins the race, Messala is still stubbornly alive.  It is only when Judah goes to the Crucifixion that he sees the need for forgiveness, and goes to a legless Messala to give and offer forgiveness.  Good thing too, for Naomi and Tirzah, imprisoned all these years, are cured of their leprosy and are out of prison just in time for everyone to be reunited, feel good about it, and go off...perhaps for more adventures.

Who here is up for Ben-Hur 2: Damascus Road?



I wish I were a good enough critic to say I can completely avoid knowing what Ben-Hur 2016 cut out or altered from all other versions of the story.  I can't: Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley's screenplay changed so much within Ben-Hur that one sometimes wonders whether in their efforts to stand out, they ended up dumbing down the story.

They for example decided to cut out two important characters found in the novel and subsequent adaptations.  They are Balthazar, one of the Magi who connected Judah with both Ilderim and Christ, and Quintus Arrius, the Roman commander who survives the sea battle thanks to Judah and ends up adopting him.  Perhaps they thought it would simplify the story.  Perhaps they couldn't do to legal reasons (I understand that while the General Lew Wallace novel is in public domain, certain aspects of the 1959 adaptation are still fiercely under copyright protection).  In any case doing this ends up making things more silly than simple.

Quintus Arrius was the entryway for Judah Ben-Hur to be the master charioteer that could challenge his former friend (friend, I repeat) in the race.  It gave him the wealth and power and protection that otherwise would not be afforded a galley slave.  Now, thanks to Clarke and Ridley, the task of preparing Judah for his epic chariot battle is left up to Ilderim.  This results in the highly implausible, if not downright ridiculous idea that in a few quick lessons, a man who had been hunched over an oar for five years and was apparently still adjusting to life in the free air could match someone who had been racing chariots for years if not decades....and best him at it.

Talk about beginner's luck!

By removing Balthazar, the subplot of how Christ interacts with Judah is also excised, and we get a couple of other problems.  First, why and how did Naomi and Tirzah (who had been locked up all these years and gotten leprosy for their troubles) end up being cured?  They did not know Christ at all.  Judah had at most two encounters with Him, so where did Judah's faith in Christ come from?  He wasn't at the Sermon on the Mount, or seen any of His miracles, so it all seems to come out of nowhere.

Judah Ben-Hur has neither asked for or sought Christ's atonement for his sins (let alone had his family or the pagan Messala), so how did God in human form grant it (along with healing of a disease that didn't have anything to do with the story)?

It isn't just in the jumbled story where Ben-Hur flops.  Ben-Hur commits one of those cinema sins that I sorely detest: the voice-over.  Longtime readers know how much I detest voice-over, finding that it rarely works (Blade Runner and Sunset Boulevard being rare examples of good voice-overs).  Ben-Hur not only has voice-over, it has THREE voice overs (Freeman's Ilderim, Huston's Judah, and Kebbell's Messala).  I simply loath whenever a film has to narrate what I'm watching, as if I wouldn't understand what's going on.  Having three of them do it is just insulting.

I consistently thought while watching Ben-Hur that it was a terrible decision on the part of Clarke, Ridley, and director Timur Bekmambetov to try and make Messala a sympathetic character.  Again and again the film seemed to think the title should have been Messala instead of Ben-Hur thanks to how he was given legitimate grievances for being so hostile towards his adoptive family.   As my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. observed to me after we left, Naomi Ben-Hur was 'kind of a bitch' to Messala: constantly belittling and berating him for everything from racing with Judah to looking at Tirzah to worshipping Roman idols.  It's as if he wasn't actually adopted or even part of the Hur household for years, but was more a pesky guest who couldn't take the hint that he was starting to grate on the mistress of the house.

There was never a believable moment when I thought Messala was in any way part of the Hur family.  One would have thought that despite being born a Roman the Hurs would have made him aware of Jewish customs, traditions, and beliefs.  Why would they simultaneously keep Messala a Roman and complain whenever he does what a Roman would do?

Another part of the plot I couldn't figure was why Judah opted to shield Gestas at the cost of his and his family's fortune and safety.  If I had been in Judah's position, I would have said, "THERE'S the man...get him!" 

If we go into the performances, Ben-Hur is a failure.  I don't remember Jack Huston from American Hustle or Hail, Caesar!, and the only film I do remember him from is Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. As such, he is a fresh face to me, and for the life of me I don't understand what Huston or his director were going for.  Huston growls every line, as if he had been asked to do a Russell Crowe impersonation, delivering every bit of dialogue in the same tone, whether he was happy or sad or angry or what have you. 

I don't know whether it's a good thing or not that Kebbell's best performance was as the villainous ape in Dawn of Planet of the Apes (though given he was in the Ian Curtis biopic Control, I'd have to see that again).  With this and Fantastic Four, Kebbell is sinking in my opinion of him as an actor.  He was absolutely dreadful whenever he had some sort of romantic scene with Tirzah, falling into the Huston trap of being weak and emotionless throughout.

Perhaps I can cut both of them some slack given how poorly directed they were and the poor script they had to perform, but a good actor can almost always lift his/her script.  Huston and Kebbell couldn't. 

When someone after the attack on Pilate shouted, "Who shot the arrow?", it took all within me to not shout at the screen, "I, said the Sparrow!"

Freeman has the 'wise elder' part down pat, but his Ilderim was more an instrument to move plot forward than a real figure.  I also add that having Christ speak and be seen is another mistake, especially given that Santoro might as well have come from The Passion of the Christ: English-Language Version.  This Christ comes across as just some nice guy who talks about love, not the Lord & Savior so many believe Jesus to be.

As a side note, while Ben-Hur has been apparently marketed towards the 'faith' market (aka evangelical Christians), I can say that AS an evangelical Christian myself, I found little in Ben-Hur to affirm my faith or in the power of such things as forgiveness.



Let us now move on to the main action pieces: the sea battle and the chariot race (which the film shamelessly teases twice if not more, as if begging us to stay just so that we could get to it in the end).  In regards to the former, the decision to keep it all within Judah's perspective (in the galley) was yet another lost opportunity.  If I am going to get a sea battle, I want to see a sea battle (even if we have to cut away from the slaves' perspective).  By keeping things at Judah's eye-level, we end up being removed from the chaos and excitement of what is going on.  It's akin to hearing a boxing match from across a room while others get to watch it live.

In regards to the latter, there are a couple of moments of good tension, but for the most part the reliance on CGI and chaotic editing (not to mention the perpetually grungy look the film has, so dominated by dark tones) makes it less exciting than it could have been. It was disjointed, confused, CGI-heavy, and worst, boring.  Belting out Marco Beltrami's score during the race was bad enough (I don't need music to telegraph to me whether something is exciting or not).  Ending the film with some sort of love song (The Only Way Out by Andra Day) puts a coda on the jumble the film is.

Sure, the song's nice, and Day is a fantastic singer, but The Only Way Out seems so at odds with both the setting and anything connected with Ben-Hur.  I think maybe The Only Way Out could be Ben-Hur's only real shot at an Oscar nomination (versus the twelve the 1959 version earned, winning a record-setting eleven Academy Awards).

2016 seems to be The Year of the Remake: Ghostbusters, The Jungle Book, Pete's Dragon, the upcoming Beauty & The BeastThe Magnificent Seven, and with remakes of Witness For the Prosecution, Splash, A Star is Born, Murder on the Orient Express, and Clue in the works.  Ben-Hur joins that list, and it's a shame that something good could have come, something original that added to the oft-told tale while not taking away from the best-known version.

Cluttered with a bad script, poor direction, weak performances and no sense of purpose, this Ben-Hur keeps going in circles and circles and circles. 

DECISION: D-

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Death of Supergirl?

 
El-All Air


 
I am neither a Supergirl super-fan or a Supergirl hater.  I enjoyed the episodes that I saw, though throughout the first season there was a constant shadow falling over Supergirl that no matter how hard CBS tried to shake, it simply couldn't.
 
That shadow is known as Superman, Supergirl's Kryptonian cousin.
 
Through most of Supergirl Season One, the Man of Steel was incessantly referenced and name-checked.  The show went out of its way to mention him without actually mentioning him.  In a certain way, it was almost comical how Superman became "He Who Shall Not Be Named".  Most of the time it was a variation of "my cousin", but sometimes it was "the Big Guy", "The Guy in Blue", or maybe even "You Know Who". 

Now, I'll grant you that I have not finished watching Supergirl Season One so I am speculating a bit, but I always understood that Supergirl was going to be her own entity, a figure apart from her more famous relative.  As far as I gathered, Superman was not going to be a part of Supergirl.  Well, perhaps in the future he could be a guest star, but Supergirl was, if memory serves right, suppose to be The Girl (or Woman) of Steel, someone who would function both as well as and distinctly apart from Superman.

Reality, however, soon sat in.



Supergirl got raves (and again, I liked the episodes I had seen), but ratings weren't the greatest.  Try as she might, Supergirl was floundering.  Part of it might have been that CBS was, as some have suggested, the wrong venue: its audience still looking for Murder She Wrote on Sunday nights.  Thus, with a guest appearance by The Flash to help it along (already a sign that the show was not building up its own strength), Supergirl was relegated from the Major Network of CBS to the minor leagues of The CW. 

Part of the problem might have been from how the story was evolving.  I was beginning to worry that the show was slipping into a 'freak-of-the-week' serial, where Supergirl would meet up with a baddie (either from the comic books or a new one) and defeat him/her by hour's end.  That in itself isn't a death knell: for most of Smallville Season One, that was an issue (and a reason I stopped watching). However, Smallville went on for a full decade (whether it should have or not I leave up to those who've seen the entire ten years...how old WAS Lex when it all ended?).

Then again, part of the problem might be that Supergirl, despite what appears to be a generally good cast (with Melissa Benoist and Jeremy Jordan being the standouts), the concept was ill-thought.  Were the people behind Supergirl making a television show that would appeal to a wide market that hungers for more comic book adaptations (in the vein of the more successful The Flash, Arrow, or the not-so-successful Legends of Tomorrow)? Or were they creating a television show to 'inspire girls that they could be the same as boys'?  In short, was Supergirl created to add to the comic book mythos, or to make some kind of point about gender equality?

If the goal of Supergirl were to show that they were boys' equals, it has decided that such lofty and admirable goals are not worth losing their jobs over.  I say this because The Shadow has now taken a discernable form.



For Season Two of The CW's Supergirl, Tyler Hoechlin, formerly of Teen Wolf, will become the newest version of Superman (as a side note, he HAS to be a damn sight better than Henry Cavill.  Roast Turkey can act better than Henry Cavill).  So far, according to IMDB, he is set to be in four episodes, starting with the season premiere, though whether Hoechlin will be in more is left unclear. 

In my view, that's simply four episodes too many. 

Why is having Superman on Supergirl a bad thing in my view?  Quite simply, what might end up happening is that Superman will end up usurping Supergirl.  Clark Kent's alter ego may very well become what River Song was to the Doctor on Doctor Who: become the de facto star of the series and make the title character a recurring, or worse, guest star on his/her eponymous show. 

Already having Superman there, lurking in the shadows, diminishes Supergirl as a character.  Going back to the third episode (!), our Girl of Steel simply wasn't strong enough to do it on her own.  She needed her younger Kryptonian cousin to bail her out.  At least in that episode, Fight or Flight, she was open about her anger and frustration at trying to match Superman and not just failing, but having to have said Kryptonian cousin come in and rescue her...like a damsel in distress.  If memory serves correct, Clark Kent via text/IM said he wouldn't do that again.

Yet, unless the concept of him coming round to rescue his (supposedly) equally strong female relative was introduced in Season One, Superman's appearance so soon into Supergirl's run is a betrayal of all that Supergirl was suppose to have stood for.

Now, I wonder, will Kara again express frustration that Clark Kent is popping up...or will she, horror of horrors, defer to him?  I'm sure that eventually you will see them working together (or would have anyway during the course of the show), but even so, wouldn't that defeat the original purpose of Supergirl (to show that a woman is just as capable as a man if they have the same abilities)?  The show is about Supergirl, her evolution into being what National City needs her to be, not about Supergirl's superhero relatives. 



I am at a loss to understand why Supergirl felt the need to instead of simply detaching itself further from Superman, it is instead bringing him on.  What good will having the one being who could outdo the main character do (apart from maybe, maybe jump-start ratings)?  To me, bringing Superman on board so soon, especially for the season premiere, is a sign of desperation and a tacit acknowledgment that few people are actually interested in Kara Zor-El, but in her famous relative Kal-El.

Bringing him back in any fashion (recurring, guest, or most disastrously of all, regular character) would be worse.  It would be distracting.  It would be diminishing.  It runs the risk of having viewers wait until HE gets back rather than have them invest time and interest in his more klutzy poor relation.  Should they opt to bring Superman in for ratings sweeps, then The Man of Steel would end up being her savior rather than a mentor.  After all, Supergirl would bring him when it needed a boost rather than rely on the title character to do that.

Again, this is total speculation.  Hoechlin may just appear in the season premiere, then (if IMDB is accurate) sporadically later on.  He may even be well-integrated to where my fears are not materialized and he doesn't diminish Supergirl or Benoist.  However, for me, I think bringing Superman to a show called Supergirl will eventually, perhaps irrevocably, take attention from the title character and make her the opposite of what she was suppose to be: independent and strong, one to be judged on her own merits as opposed to what 'the men' could supposedly outdo them in. 

I fear that no matter how good the intentions, how clever the scripts, whenever Superman (in the form of Hoechlin) is there, he will be the center of attention, not the title character (that River Song Problem again).  I cannot really imagine that Superman will defer to anyone, even his cousin.  It would be interesting, even great if he did, if he ceded control to Supergirl, if they truly were equals.  Whether they end up being is still at this point unknown. 

I can only hope that Superman will not eventually slip into a central character/role.  Should that happen, Supergirl will have failed in both her missions: to protect her cousin, and in developing as something distinct from him, serving not as a heroine to little girls, but as proof that when given the chance, girls still can't quite be as good as boys.

Above all else, that would be the worst result of any Superman preeminence on Supergirl.


A New Start, or The Beginning of the End?