Friday, July 29, 2016

Gotham: A Legion of Horribles Review



GOTHAM: A LEGION OF HORRIBLES

As we close out Gotham Season Two, I find that it is ending on a high note, managing to integrate future Batman villains large and small in an incredible and moreover, logical way.  A Legion of Horribles brings more of the crazy Gotham madness, gives us some really nerve-wracking moments, and sets up what one hopes will be a fantastic season finale.

Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) manages to escape the fires of her friend Bridgit, now known as 'Firefly' (Michelle Veintimilla), thanks to her cat-like reflexes.  She begs Bridgit to come back to her senses, but she's too much under the sway of the mad scientist Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong) to see.  As time goes on however, bits of her past start jumping at her.  Ultimately, Selina is able to save herself by convincing Firefly that since she is 'a goddess of fire', every goddess needs a servant.  Selina offers to be that servant, and Firefly agrees.

Good thing too, since Selina's on-off friend who is a boy, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) feels terrible about her being trapped inside Arkham.  He comes up with a wild scheme to get into Arkham and break Selina out: he will ask for a tour of the asylum under the cover of seeing how Wayne Foundation funds are being used.  He will take technology whiz Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) with him.  Fox will use a device that will trace particles that remain in the air required to bring back the dead.  They'll also bring Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) secretly, so that he can find the secret lab and get Selina out.

All this inadvertently plays into Strange's hands.  His employers are convinced Strange is losing control of the situation and contact him via satellite.  Strange's main contact is a woman wearing an owl-like mask who comes online in a distorted visual and voice, and he's ordered to shut down Indian Hill immediately.  He appears to agree, but he is determined to save his experiments, especially since they are turning out so well.

One of them is able to stretch his skin, almost as if it were clay.  Another one, Test 13, has been revived, but unlike the others, she has full memories of who she is.



THE FISH IS BACK!

Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) has not just been revived, but has all her memories intact, a first.  Things are finally going Strange's way, but Fish proves just as difficult to Strange as she did to everyone: pushy and arrogant, she wants out immediately.

I figure Wayne, Fox, and Gordon want the same, for despite their best-laid plans, Strange was fully aware of what they were up to.  Taking them prisoner, he puts Wayne and Fox in a gas chamber where they are taunted by their Inquisitor: none other than Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), who now is useful to Strange.  He mocks Wayne (calling him 'Turtleneck', which in fairness to the Riddler is accurate, given Wayne's penchant for them) and tells them he will gas them unless they can answer his questions.

As for Gordon, Strange holds him prisoner too, and with a new device of his, uses the patient with stretchy skin to become Gordon's doppelganger.  Mooney starts plotting her escape, as do Bridgit and Selina, and this as acting Captain Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is about to finally raid Arkham.

A Legion of Horribles is not afraid to go all-crazy, but it also manages to sneak in moments of actual comedy, a remarkable feat given the darkness of Gotham.  We see that bit of humor thanks to Logue, who is fast-becoming one of the best performers in Gotham.  At his press conference attempting to explain what happened at Wayne Manor, his clear uncomfortableness and difficulty attempting to make all this sound rational is funny without being broad or silly. 

Logue is not just a standout, but about the only character who can be used to lighten the mood.  Everyone else has to be pretty straightforward in their seriousness, so it's nice that Bullock, through Logue, has become the de facto comic relief.  He isn't there for laughs, but his somewhat sarcastic, everyman manner (he refers to himself as 'a middle-aged chubby Irishman') allows for whatever lightness in this dark world to enter.

This is so valuable given how just about everyone on Gotham is either extremely serious or downright bonkers, depending on what side of the law you're in.  Bridgit, Strange, Nygma, and Mooney are downright crazy.  Gordon, Fox, Wayne, Sean Pertwee's Alfred are very serious.  Selina Kyle, being both villain and heroine, is about the only one allowed to be sane, even a little sarcastic, more Bullock than Gordon or Bridgit.

Again, I don't think there was a bad performance throughout A Legion of Horribles, and I would put Bicondova at the top of the list.  She brought the terror and heartbreak of seeing her friend turned into this beast to life, and showed a surprising vulnerability behind her jaded exterior.  At one point, when she's gained Bridgit's confidence, she states with hope that 'her friend' will get them out.  It's nice to see that despite herself, she has faith in young Master Bruce. 

Mazouz too continues to really bring Bruce Wayne to life.  It's worth remembering that he isn't Batman.  He's still Bruce Wayne, struggling to become the future Dark Knight.  He still has some of young Bruce's naïve nature, but he is growing in his ideas about justice and taking a stand.  Veintimilla is also a standout in her guest starring role of Firefly, the way she uses her voice to bring both menace and even a touch of sadness to her role. 

The adults too were excellent.  McKenzie's Gordon still has pretty much one speed (serious), but that's what the role asks for.  CMS again delves with glee into Nygma's murderous side, and manages a strong moment of cowardice and terror when he's locked up with a cannibal as punishment for trying to escape.  Wong continues to maintain Strange's coolness under pressure and confidence in playing three people, though slight cracks appear whenever he faces the representative of the Court.

As for JPS, some fans love that Fish is back, some are appalled.  She was always a divisive character.  I personally never hated Smith's camp portrayal because Fish Mooney was always a little camp. She was also necessary for The Penguin's origin story, an original character needed to introduce the Waddler into Gotham.  I don't think it's horrible that she's back, and JPS slips easily back into her role. 

I'm of the view that so long as her role is limited (which is something I think Smith herself wants) and used sparingly, I could get along with that.  Besides, how can you resist such a welcome.

"My name's Fish Mooney...bitch!"  Bet you Hugo Strange has never been called THAT before! 

Her reappearance is certainly possible, especially since she has some sort of metaphysical power: touching someone makes them vulnerable to her commands.  Who knows whether the Queen of Gotham will make a comeback as a proper, original villainess. 

On the whole, A Legion of Horribles manages to make things Batman-crazy, always a good thing.  It has moments of humor, of heart, and of sheer total cuckoo-bonkers lunacy.  Well-acted, well-written, well-filmed, if this had been the season finale, we would have been satisfied.  One more episode to go before we conclude a very successful season.    

10/10

Next Episode: Transference

Thursday, July 28, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. A Review


 
13 HOURS:
THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BEGHAZI

The law of averages dictates that at least once, someone even as simply horrible as Michael Bay may actually stumble onto a good film.  13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, is such a film.  Taking lots of cues from other war films like Zero Dark Thirty and Black Hawk Down, 13 Hours is relentless in its pacing, its portrayal of men caught in the chaos of war, and is surprisingly nonpartisan given the still-unanswered controversy over what exactly happened that awful night. 

2012, Benghazi, Libya, one of the most dangerous cities in the world after the fall of Libya's dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.  Despite this, the U.S. maintains a diplomatic presence with a consulate.  Into this comes Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Special Operations officer who comes here to earn money for his family by working for a spell at "The Annex", a semi-secret CIA facility at Benghazi.  His friend Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) has brought him on board, and he bonds with the other SO at the Annex, but there's no love lost between them and the Annex Chief, Bob (David Costabile), who constantly puts the agency's needs over everything else and is excessively by-the-book.

Ostensibly there to protect CIA interests and Annex agents, things get more complicated when Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) arrives to improve relations between the U.S. and whatever passes for civilian government in Libya.  A true believer in diplomacy and democracy, Stevens insists on staying at the Consulate Compound with a small guard despite the growing danger and unrest.

September 11: the Arab world is enflamed by a video mocking the Prophet Mohammed.   (At this juncture I'd like to point out the Arab world was similarly enflamed when pictures of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif kissing the Jewish Barbra Streisand for their roles in Funny Girl were released, so the Arab world appears to combust pretty easily, but I digress).  At this time, the Consulate becomes visibly in danger as it is besieged.  Ambassador Stevens guard desperately attempts to save the Ambassador and more importantly begs for help from all sides.  The Annex is a few miles away, equipped, and both ready and willing to go to their aid.

It's here where Chief Bob puts his foot down: as the Annex is suppose to be a secret base, and as he is adamant about not engaging civilians so as to not 'antagonize' them, he stubbornly refuses to allow the SO to go to the Ambassador's aid, even if it means the men at the Consulate will die.  Silva, Woods, and the others watch in anger and frustration as they are told to stand down while the men at the Consulate meet a fiery end.

At a certain point, they've had it. Disobeying Chief Bob, they take off, taking their interpreter with them.  Reaching the Consulate, they find only Scott Wickland (David Giuntoli), one of the Consulate security team who attempted to save the Ambassador and another of the security detail, Sean Smith.  In the confusion and fire the attackers set, Wickland lost track of both of them.  The SO find Smith's body, but cannot find Ambassador Stevens.

Rushing back to the Annex, with a clearly disoriented Wickland going the wrong way only to reverse himself despite his mental confusion, it's only a matter of time before the Annex itself will come under siege.  Now it's Chief Bob's turn to beg for help, and it will take several hours and many delays before it gets here.  The Annex is now under siege, with men constantly making efforts to attack.  Into this long dark night, the men not only attempt to keep themselves and the others alive, but think on their families.  Silva in particular is in a contemplative mood, as the father of three daughters just found out via Skype or a Skype-like feature a few hours earlier that his much-harried wife is pregnant.  He has to get back to her.

After a long battle, help finally arrives and they are spirited off, though Tyrone has been killed during a last-minute assault.  Ambassador Stevens has been found, but the earlier reports of him being merely injured at a hospital prove untrue: he is dead.  Other members of the Annex are left in literal pieces, and the Annex desperately keeps them both alive and in somewhat working order.

In a post-script, we find that shortly after the attacks, a large group of Libyans demonstrate against the violence at the Consulate and beg forgiveness for the murders of the Ambassador and the three others.  We also learn what became of the SO group, with some of their faces altered.

13 Hours is relentless in its pacing, rarely giving us a moment to pause. We do get a few moments of calm, but for the most part we are thrown into the dangerous and chaotic world of Libya almost right from the get-go.  An early scene involves a stand-off between Libyans and Tyrone/Jack, and here is where Bay shocks us by giving us a real moment of tension in this Mexican standoff. 


What makes this scene particularly effective is that Michael Bay opts against being Michael Bay.  There's no wild cutting, no jumping about.  The scene itself is remarkably clean, clear, and lacking in the movements and bombast Bay usually gives us. 

Throughout much of 13 Hours, we get a remarkably clear film, at least for the chaos of the fog of war.  Sometimes the cinematography is downright beautiful and creepy simultaneously.  In the area behind the Annex nicknamed "Zombieland", the imagery of the attackers coming makes it look as if it a graveyard filled with ghosts or monsters, the night vision enhancing the beautiful horror of it all.  An early chase scene involving a bulldozer is equally thrilling and chilling, down to where those chasing the SO men met a gruesome (but not overtly visually ugly) end.  Bay doesn't shy away from sometimes brutal imagery, horrifying, but unlike other of his films that glorify in bombast, the violence was thoroughly in context and not gratuitous.

Everything about 13 Hours is pretty relentless, including Lorne Balfe's pulsating score.  It constantly adds to the sense of impending doom and sheer terror in the brutal fight.

In terms of the performances, you simply couldn't have gotten a far better cast than he has here. Krasinski is an absolute revelation as Silva, the former sarcastic voice from The Office not just becoming physically powerful but also one of intensity and emotion, the backstory of his wife and children away in the safety of America coming in bits without overwhelming the story.  When we see Tyrone killed and another OS member, Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini) is in literal pieces, we feel the shock, sadness, and horror of it.

Of course, herein lies one or two issues with 13 Hours.  Sometimes we didn't know the members well enough (sometimes I didn't know who was whom).  The text detailing what happened was so hard to read, making things at times confusing.  Finally, Bay couldn't resist giving us the mortar POV, bringing back memories of Pearl Harbor.     

Finally, I'd like to address issues of politics and potential bigotry.  First, 13 Hours actually went to strong lengths to not make this racist or politically charged.  The story of how an anti-Mohammed video sparked mass protests gets mention, but the film doesn't say whether it and of itself caused the attack or not.  The film also shows that Libyans en masse were appalled by the actions against the Americans.  13 Hours is as respectful of both sides as possible given the highly-charged and still sensitive story.

13 Hours is an intense, powerful, heartbreaking film, one that hits you visually and emotionally.  It has action and emotion, a rare mix that should appeal to men and women.  It's about the best film I've seen all year. 

2016 is certainly an insane year in just about every respect.  We have two lousy candidates for President.  Six remakes, 27 sequels, 3 films based on video games...and one of the best films of the year comes from the man who brought us the Transformers franchise. 

Who can explain the insanity of 2016?



DECISION: A-

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Gotham: Unleashed Review


GOTHAM: UNLEASHED

I'm back to finish up Season Two of Gotham, a series that has been more focused, more thrilling, and simply leaps and bounds above the good but sometimes confused Season One.  Unleashed gave us some really great acting from just about everyone, some really tense moments, and even bits of comedy.

Acting Captain Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and his former partner, Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) storm Arkham Asylum to get at the office of Dr. Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong).  Fortunately for Strange, he's shredded as much incriminating documents as he can lay his hands on, frustrating Bullock and Gordon.  Strange and his assistant, Mrs. Peabody (Tonya Pinkins) have greater problems than two Gotham City Police officers.  Their assassin Azrael aka former Mayor Theo Galavan (James Frain) has gone rogue and they don't know where to find him.

Azrael is out hunting for his sword, and not afraid to kill anyone who gets in the way.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) goes to his frenemy Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) for help in breaking into Arkham.  Her friend Bridgit may be inside, one of Strange's sinister experiments.  Selina agrees to go in, but on her own.  As it so happens, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) wants out after seeing the horrors of Indian Hill, the secret lab buried inside Arkham, but cannot find a way out.

Bullock and Gordon go to Galavan's sister Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) for help, and she reveals the whereabouts of the Dumas Family Sword: in her grandfather's crypt.  A little grave-robbing creeps Bullock out, but Gordon and Tabitha do so anyway.  Azrael appears and despite Tabitha helping jog his memory he still stabs her as a traitor, and brings back memories of his original desire: to kill Bruce Wayne.

Her near-fatal injuries devastate Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell), but they play perfectly into the plans of Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  He's still filled with rage and fury at what the Galavans did, and in exchange for promising not to take revenge of Tabitha, Butch agrees to join forces with Penguin to bring down Theo/Azrael.

Azrael is too busy trying to kill Bruce, though he's protected by Alfred (Sean Pertwee).  Azrael will not be denied, continuing to go after Bruce.  At first he manages to outwit the crazed ex-Mayor, down to running him down in a car.  Naturally, we're dealing with a completely looney figure, and Azrael manages one last strike: using Tabitha's whip to at first strange Bruce, then bring him to heel.  As he forces Wayne down and is about to swing the sword, Gordon shows up to shoot Galavan.  Still, like Rasputin, Galavan still will not die. 

It isn't until Butch and Penguin show up at Wayne Manor that Theo Galavan is finally, finally eliminated.  All it took was a bazooka to literally blow him up.  

Selina breaks in, inadvertently crashing into Nygma.  In exchange for helping him find a way out, he will lead her to Indian Hill.  There, she is shocked to discover the extent of Strange's experiments, and finds Bridgit.  She, however, insists that Selina is the newest experiment, and calls herself "Firefly".

What was really extraordinary about Unleashed is that there was a pretty strong sense of tension and suspense throughout.  A prime example is when Azrael battles both Alfred and Bruce.  In the former, the battle between the two is so wild that the casual viewer might actually wonder whether one or both will die (an absurd idea given the importance of Alfred in the Batman mythos).  Unleashed gives us no real breathing room as Azrael goes after Bruce, his near-strangling quite terrifying if perhaps a trifle unbelievable (both visually and storywise...you ain't gonna kill Bruce Wayne).

As if that old 'run over guy but he won't die' cliché weren't already bad, we got the 'character overhears important information by others who conveniently talk about what she needs to know' bit too.  That I seriously wonder whether such information dump could not have been more clever.

One aspect that troubled me intensely was the level of violence in Unleashed and on Gotham in general.  At the beginning we see Azrael snap a priest's neck and turn his head around.  Now, we didn't get to see the whole thing, but it was just enough to leave me rather appalled at the rather gruesome nature of it all.  It was a quick cut, but it was still pretty evident what happened.

As a digression, the violence on Gotham has become something that worries me greatly, particularly since many children will watch it due to the Batman connection.  This is the second episode where we see a character literally blown up, and while it was clear that it was a figure that was blown up, I still wonder whether the show at times goes overboard with the violence.  In short, if I were a father I would not let my tween to early teen child watch Gotham. Maybe a sixteen, seventeen year old, but no younger, and even then I'd have reservations about letting the sixteen/seventeen year old watch.

Still, for adult viewing, Unleashed has simply so much to recommend.  All the various stories are coming together fantastically.  You've got knockout performances, particularly by Logue as the now almost-heroic Bullock.  For someone whom I understand in the comics was sleazy and amoral, Gotham's Bullock is turning out to be quite heroic, even if it is against both his will and his instincts.  In what could have been another clichéd moment, Bullock gives an 'inspirational' speech to the GCPD that looks to him of all people for guidance.  Logue turns it a bit around in his performance by showing the hesitancy, the general uncomfortableness Bullock has in this, mixed with a righteous fury at what has befallen his Captain.

Logue even allows for moments of comedy when a clearly uncomfortable Bullock goes into the Galavan Family Crypt.  All the things he's done, and this is what bothers him the most? 

It's a fantastic performance, as are the ones of both Mazouz and Bicondova as Bruce and Selina, their friendship being strained and tested.  Bicondova has moments of sheer terror as she watches her friend about to fry her alive, and earlier moments of comedy when she literally runs into Nygma.  Both are startled at finding the other, and she asks, "Forensic Guy?" to which he responds "Street Trash Girl?"



Unleashed is simply a showcase for everyone: Powell showing the heartbreak of Butch, RLT in his burning fury at Galavan, Wong at his cold Dr. Strange, Frain especially in playing such a bonkers part with total seriousness.  In fact, the straight manner Frain uses makes one realize just how bonkers everything really is. 

Perhaps some of the clichéd bits knock it down, and the violence is still a bother, but Unleashed is still one more simply excellent Gotham episode.

9/10

Next Episode: A Legion of Horribles

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What's It All About, Oscar?

Walter Matthau:
Best Supporting Actor for
The Fortune Cookie

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1966

The 39th Academy Awards were poorly represented.  Represented in that three of the four acting winners failed to appear. 

Best Actor winner Paul Scofield had no interest in awards, so he didn't care about the Oscar.  Best Actress winner Elizabeth Taylor, alarmed that that her husband/costar Richard Burton, was going to lose to Scofield, making yet another loss for him, decided to skip the ceremony as well despite being almost a shoo-in to win for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  Best Supporting Actress winner Sandy Dennis didn't show up either (though I cannot find the reason).  Her Best Supporting Actress competition Wendy Hiller was present...but more than likely there not for herself, but to accept for her costar Scofield.

The only one to did show up was Best Supporting Actor winner Walter Matthau, and that was no small feat.  He had been injured in a bicycle accident shortly before the ceremony and accepted the Oscar in an arm cast and visible facial scars. 

The whole ceremony itself came close to not appearing either.  A strike by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists put the broadcast of the Academy Awards in doubt.  The situation was so tense that the show almost didn't go on, though I figure the actual presentation would have gone on, but not on television.  The strike was settled three hours before broadcast, thus saving the Academy presentation.  This would not be the last time a strike came close to killing off the ritual of the Oscars.

Some other Oscar tidbits.  The Redgrave sisters, Vanessa and Lynn, became the second pair of sisters nominated for Best Actress (I don't think brothers have had to face off, and while it's too early to speculate, I doubt Chris and Luke Hemsworth will be facing off for The Huntsman: Winter's War and Independence Day: Resurgence this year...or any year really).  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with 13 nominations (one short of the record) was nominated for every category it was eligible for, something All About Eve, Ben-Hur, Titanic, or Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King aren't able to claim.

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 1966 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG





Alfie: Alfie
A Time for Love: An American Dream
Born Free: Born Free
Georgy Girl: Georgy Girl
My Wishing Well: Hawaii 


I have no great objection to Born Free, though now I find it a trifle cheesy.   I give it credit in that it has stood the test of time.  However, my choice from this slate is another son that has stood the test of time.



From Georgy Girl, Georgy Girl, music by Tom Springfield, lyrics by Jim Dale.

I find Georgy Girl both more memorable and more in keeping with the Swinging Sixties than the square Born Free.  Again, I don't dislike Born Free, and unlike future horrors like Skyfall, Man or Muppet, and Writing's on the Wall, Born Free is actually a good song and one that people know today.  That being said, my heart still belongs to Georgy Girl.

No Substitutions

BEST DIRECTOR

Michelangelo Antonioni: Blowup
Richard Brooks: The Professionals
Claude Lelouch: A Man and a Woman
Mike Nichols: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Fred Zinnemann: A Man for All Seasons

Zinnemann was a great director, no doubt in my mind about that.  However, when it comes to actual directing, you look at Nichols' bold and daring debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this harrowing journey into the darkness of love and anger, and you think he did an absolutely brilliant job. Each of his actors was nominated (with two winning), and the film is still daring and shocking, with a simply heartbreaking ending that still haunts the viewer.

Gillo Pontecorvo: The Battle of Algiers
John Frankenheimer: Seconds
Claude Lelouch: A Man and a Woman
Mike Nichols: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Fred Zinnemann: A Man for All Seasons

The Battle of Algiers plays almost like a documentary to where you wonder whether the story is taking place in real time versus having staged scenes.  Pontecorvo used non-actors in The Battle of Algiers save for Jean Martin, but you wouldn't know it thanks to Pontecorvo's direction.  Moreover, he made the various ideas in The Battle of Algiers (liberation vs. colonialism, Islamofascism, urban terrorism, the innocent and guilty alike being killed and tortured) work without being partisan.  There are no clear-cut villains and heroes, as both sides commit heinous acts against those not involved in the conflict.  To do all that takes remarkable skill, and Pontecorvo does something with The Battle of Algiers that few films do: make the audience think.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Sandy Dennis: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Wendy Hiller: A Man for All Season
Jocelyne La Garde: Hawaii
Vivien Merchant: Alfie
Geraldine Page: You're A Big Boy Now

I wasn't particularly impressed with Dennis as Honey, though to be fair she was suppose to be a bit of a dimwit.  I was more impressed with Hiller's Lady Alice More, illiterate but wise, loving but impatient, and thoroughly loyal to her husband regardless the consequences.  Her final farewell to Sir Thomas, who is locked in the Tower of London, is so, so terribly sad.

No Substitutions

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Mako: The Sand Pebbles
James Mason: Georgy Girl
Walter Matthau: The Fortune Cookie
George Segal: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Robert Shaw: A Man for All Seasons

Again, how rare to reward a comic performance.  I've seen Shaw and Segal, and wasn't too bowled over with either.  For right now, I'm holding to Matthau's opportunistic lawyer to win out.



Jean Martin: The Battle of Algiers
James Mason: Georgy Girl
Walter Matthau: The Fortune Cookie
George Segal: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Robert Shaw: A Man for All Seasons

Martin, as stated,  was the only professional actor in The Battle of Algiers.  His Colonel Mathieu is neither villain or hero.  He is what he is suppose to be: a military man given an assignment who may have an opinion about it, but who isn't going to let his private views get in the way of his mission.  He sees things as they are and works with what he has.  It is a really excellent performance.

BEST ACTRESS



Anouk Aimee: A Man and a Woman
Ida Kaminska: The Shop on Main Street
Lynn Redgrave: Georgy Girl
Vanessa Redgrave: Morgan!
Elizabeth Taylor: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I think even Elizabeth Taylor doubted herself as an actress, having relied so much on her beauty to carry her through.  In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she put all doubters away.  It is one of the greatest performances by an actress in film.  In turns vulgar, monstrous, and ultimately tragic, Martha's rage and anger, inner and outer towards everyone and everything are shocking and heartbreaking.



Anouk Aimee: A Man and a Woman
Ida Kaminska: The Shop on Main Street
Guilietta Massima: Juliet of the Spirits
Lynn Redgrave: Georgy Girl
Elizabeth Taylor: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I truly cannot find a better performance than Taylor's.  It is certainly the best of her career, and with such passion and fury that it leaves you gasping when you first see it.

BEST ACTOR



Alan Arkin: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
Richard Burton: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Michael Caine: Alfie
Steve McQueen: The Sand Pebbles
Paul Scofield: A Man for All Seasons

Pity you can't beat a saint.

Burton's loss (yet again) is not such a horrible injustice this time as it was last year.  After all, Paul Scofield was absolutely brilliant in A Man for All Seasons as the truly noble Sir Thomas More.  Still, Burton was more than Taylor's equal as the henpecked but still wrathful George, determined to beat his wife at her own game, even if it meant all but destroying what he loved and what loved him.   



Richard Burton: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Michael Caine: Alfie
Brahim Haggiag: The Battle of Algiers
Rock Hudson: Seconds
Paul Scofield: A Man for All Seasons

At the moment, I get the sense that Seconds is probably Rock Hudson's true stab at acting.  Perhaps he was using his looks to his advantage here, but given how he was suppose to be another man entirely, Hudson, at least in my sense, wanted to prove himself.  For that, I give him credit.

BEST PICTURE




Alfie
A Man for All Seasons
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I figure A Man for All Seasons was a very safe, respectable choice for the Academy.  I certainly cannot find fault with the film itself.  It's a shame that it isn't well-remembered as it should be.  That being said, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has not aged in these nearly 50 years.  It's dark tale of the poison within love still shocks, and when we get to the end, we see the tragedy of it all.

With that, I name Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the Best Picture of 1966.



The Battle of Algiers
Juliet of the Spirits
A Man for All Seasons
Seconds
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

You talk about revolutionary?  The Battle of Algiers is a film that is still resonant today, its tale of urban warfare, the last gasps of Empire and Islamic revolution still shocking and sadly accurate as to how the world is today.  The impact of The Battle of Algiers leaves the viewer almost willing to join the Revolution, and it shows how film can be a powerful force of propaganda.  The Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will, even the repulsive The Eternal Jew...cinema can alter how we see the world and ourselves.  The Battle of Algiers is capable of pushing even the most apolitical person into helping overthrow the French.  It's an astounding work that holds up all these decades later.

As a result, I name The Battle of Algiers as the Best Picture of 1966.

Next Time, the 1967 Academy Awards

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ivanhoe (1952): A Review


IVANHOE (1952)

The 1950s are cluttered with odd choices for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Best Picture.  In 1956 when the battle was between the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments and that sprawling tale of Texas known as Giant, the winner was a film whose whole purpose was to be as big, loud, and bombastic as its producer, Mike Todd: Around the World in 80 Days.  1951 saw two searing dramas, George Stevens' A Place in the Sun and Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, go down in flames to the sweet, charming, inoffensive yet to my mind unimpressive An American in Paris, whose status as a classic still puzzles me. 

1952 was no exception.  There was the Irish-set comedy The Quiet Man and the politically charged Western High Noon fighting it out.  When Mary Pickford read the winner, there were gasps in the audience mingled with shock as the Cecil B. De Mille circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth took the prize.  Now, I liked The Greatest Show on Earth but would not have voted for it.  However, right now I'm going to focus on yet another nominee that found itself in contention for Best Picture, and that is Ivanhoe, the adaptation of the Sir Walter Scott poem.   As it stands, Ivanhoe is perhaps the nuttiest choice out of the five nominated films, and given that the much-derided Greatest Show on Earth won, that's saying a lot. 

England in the time of the Crusades.  With Richard I out of the country, England is in the grips of tyranny.  Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) remains loyal to The Lionheart, but he cannot get the wicked Prince John to pay the ransom for Richard's release.  Returning to England, he goes to his father Cedric (Finlay Currie), but Cedric, a Saxon, refuses to help a Norman.  Ivanhoe is dejected and leaves with only Wamba the Fool (Emlyn Williams), who pledges to be his squire.  This also means leaving his great love, the Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine).

Cedric isn't all bad though, since he allows Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is a Jew, to take shelter at his estate.  He also welcomes two Norman knights: Sir Brian (George Sanders) and Sir Hugh (Robert Douglas), who later try to rob the Jew.  Ivanhoe, who has no prejudices against the Children of Israel, saves him and escorts him safely to his home.

Isaac feels Ivanhoe is a man to be trusted, and agrees to help raise through his fellow Jews part of Richard's ransom in exchange for getting help from Richard in allowing greater freedom to England's Jews.  Isaac's daughter Rebekah (Elizabeth Taylor) comes in secret to thank Ivanhoe for helping her father and her people, giving him jewels to which to purchase a horse and weapons to fight a joust.



Now we come to the joust, where Ivanhoe, a Saxon in disguise, challenges five Norman knights to duel.  He defeats four of them, but is injured in the last battle.  Ivanhoe presents his colors to the Jewess Rebekah, and Sir Brian falls instantly in love with her, setting up a love parallelogram for she has fallen in love with Ivanhoe, who is still in love with Rowena, who is in love with Ivanhoe. 

Getting rather complicated, isn't it?

Sir Wilfred is almost defeated by Sir Brian, but fortunately is spirited away to take shelter with Sir Robin of Locksley (Harold Warrender).  Ivanhoe learns that his father and the Jews have been taken prisoner, and despite giving himself up Cedric is still not released.  A raid on the castle leaves many dead (including Wamba the Fool), and Sir Brian manages to flee by using Rebekah as a human shield.

Prince John will not be denied the throne.  Rebekah is now held for ransom, but the Jews of England opt to use their part of the ransom to pay for Richard's release.  She is set to be burned as a witch, but Ivanhoe comes and demands a duel to save her.  Sir Brian, who has genuinely fallen in love with Jewess, offers to essentially take a dive for her, but she declines.  In the final battle, Sir Brian is fatally injured and Rebekah realizes he did love her, and that Ivanhoe loves Rowena.  The two women dueling it out for Ivanhoe make peace, and Ivanhoe takes his group to pay the ransom and more importantly dethrone John the Usurper from power.

I could never shake the sense that everyone involved in Ivanhoe knows the silliness of the whole project and played it as such.  My first indication of this is based on the acting in Ivanhoe, which is so theatrical and over-the-top.  I cannot remember a film as badly acted by everyone as Ivanhoe.  We have several good actors in this (Fontaine, the two Taylors, Sanders), so it cannot be that they all went bad all at once.

I think it was that director Richard Thorpe (mercifully NOT nominated for Best Director) was interested in the spectacle, the costumes, the art design, than he was in the performers.  I was simply amazed at how unnatural and/or theatrical everyone was, to where one could not be blamed if they thought they were seeing mannequins come to life and still trying to figure out what to say.

Granted, some of Ivanhoe's dialogue was laughable or cringe-inducing.  You had such clunkers as "Do you infidels never show your feelings?" 

As a side note, I was disappointed that the serious, possibly positive step in addressing anti-Semitism in a period piece was rather wasted.  It served more as backdrop than a serious effort to make a commentary on the evils of bigotry. 

I wish I had noted who said what in this exchange, but I found it almost hilarious.

"Do you think I go to her aid because I love her?"
"I shall know that when I know where pity ends and love begins".

In other matters, Ivanhoe falls flat.  What is suppose to be an epic battle at the castle looks boring, to where I suspect the crew was throwing the arrows at the actors.  Miklos Rozsa's music, usually a hallmark that can lift anything, can't save the scene thanks to lousy staging and inept directing.

Ivanhoe was extremely popular when it premiered (I think the second biggest box-office hit, after The Greatest Show on Earth).  Perhaps this is why both were nominated while Singin' in the Rain was left off.  However, Ivanhoe is not remembered now, and it has not aged well.  In fact, sometimes it is almost sad to see good people trying so hard to do good and only making such a mess of it.  Ultimately, when I think that Ivanhoe received a Best Picture nomination over Singin' in the Rain, it just makes you want to slap the Academy a few times and say, "Just how drunk WERE you when you filled out your ballots?"



DECISION: D-


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Over the Top: A Review


OVER THE TOP

When you name your movie Over the Top, you are all but goading the audience to jeer.  When you add the premise (trucker builds bond with wealthy son through arm wrestling competition), you really are asking for it.  Over the Top is by no means 'good', but in fairness it's not as horrible as I was led to believe. 

Lincoln Hawk (Sylvester Stallone) is that down-on-his-luck truck driver.  He has a son whom he left ten years ago to the care of his estranged wife Christina (Susan Blakely).  She is the daughter of Jason Cutler (Robert Loggia), a very wealthy man who cannot stomach someone like Lincoln being part of the family.  Perhaps this is why Lincoln and Christina's son is not surnamed Hawk, but Cutler, Michael Cutler to be exact (David Mendenhall).  Christina is very ill and asks Lincoln to pick Mike up at his military school. 

The posh surroundings don't mix with Lincoln's very working-class manners and giant truck, but as Lincoln is Mike's father the school has no right to keep Mike from him (despite the fact that Mike has never actually met his father, if I understand the story correctly).  Sure, why not release this child to someone he has never known personally?  We'll just take his word for it.  Mike simply does not want to go, but what can he do about it?  If only Jason and his men had arrived a few minutes sooner they could have stopped this road trip, but they arrived too late to stop the Hawk from taking flight (in more ways than one).

Lincoln has been making money on the side through arm-wrestling competitions.  He dreams of winning a big prize at an international competition, along with a large truck that could set him up for business for himself.  First, there is some father-son bonding time, and to see Christina at the hospital.  Mike slowly comes to warm up to Lincoln, even seeing the good side of him and arm-wrestling.  Of course, that's before Christina dies.  Mike is angry at Hawk and leaves with Jason.  Lincoln, desperate to see Mike, ends up crashing his truck into Jason's mansion and is arrested.


Mike later discovers the lengths his grandfather has gone to keep Lincoln separated from Mike and goes to find his father in Las Vegas, where Lincoln is going to take part in the arm-wrestling championship.  The competition is double elimination, meaning one can lose once but still be able to move on if he doesn't lose again.  Jason finds Lincoln and offers him a bribe to get him to turn over legal rights to Mike, and he flatly refuses, a brave choice given Lincoln is not the biggest or strongest competitor.  Mike and Lincoln reconcile and in the end, Lincoln wins and that puts him over the top.

In a certain way, Over the Top looks as if it's aiming to be ridiculously camp, something to laugh at rather than even bother to take seriously.  Let's start out with arm-wrestling competitions.  I'm sure there are such things, but there isn't much tension or suspense or even interest if Lincoln Hawk wins.  Further, the incessant repetition that the competition is double-elimination (heard over the loudspeakers) keeps reminding us that even if Lincoln should lose one competition, we the audience won't have to worry about it since he'll get to do it again.

Every time Lincoln does take part in his arms race, director Menachem Golan made the simply daft decision to have Stallone perform a routine that perhaps on paper looked good, but in practice looked comical.  When he gets ready to take down his opponent, he turns his cap around.  You can't help but smile, chuckle, or downright burst out laughing when you see this act.  Having Mike copy this act is a bit forgivable, given the influence parents have on children, but it doesn't make it look any better.

Golan, who was a master of schlock, really has no ability to direct anyone to a good performance.  Either that, or everyone he hired cannot actually act.  The scene where Mike interacts with local youth is cringe-worthy in terms of performances: not one of the children from Mendenhall on down are terrible.  Loggia is hamming it up for all his paycheck's worth as the villain, and Stallone?

Well, I think at times Sylvester Stallone has been unfairly bashed as someone who could never act.  I don't think he isn't capable of actually acting.  I think though his career has depended too much on trying to be a big star.  Here, I think he's trying to live off the fumes of Rocky, but Golan's direction doesn't help his flat, grunting performance.

The story too at times doesn't give us much to work with.  When Mike confronts his father about why he left, Lincoln Hawk's only response is that he had his reasons, and leaves it at that.  What exactly those reasons were I don't think we ever got an answer to.  The various 'interviews' with the competitors seems almost a way to fill up screen-time, since we don't care about any of them (sometimes not even Lincoln).

By the way, is it just me, or is 'Lincoln Hawk' one of the more curious names given a truck driver?

The movie is more illogical given a major plot point is that this 13 year old is able to both drive and apparently fly to Las Vegas all by his lonesome.  The idea that there is 'tension' at the arm-wrestling competition adds a coda on the unintended silliness.

I was lead to think Over the Top was simply terrible, complete with a horrendous theme song.  That isn't entirely true: the film is chock full of songs to where it can almost be a musical.    As a curiosity, a bit of late 80s nostalgia, as a document to bad acting, bad directing, and a weak story, it is almost enjoyable.

Ultimately, Over the Top isn't terrible, merely bad.

DECISION: C-

Friday, July 22, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016): A Review



GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

The reboot/remake/reimagining of Ghostbusters has gotten much criticism, some of it quite harsh and almost vitriolic, over the fact that the leads are played by four women.  I've opted out of commenting over this because frankly it is irrelevant whether the leads are women or men (or at least to me, it should be).  If I objected to anything involving Ghostbusters, it is on the idea of remaking a beloved film, period.  What is the point of making a movie that already has stood the test of time thirty years-plus later?

Now we have the film itself to judge, which is what we should be judging.  After all the controversy, after all the denouncing and praising, we at last get to see what the people behind Ghostbusters wanted to show us.  After seeing it, what they wanted to show us is that they have made a terrible, unfunny film, wasting almost everyone's talents and deciding that they were going to make those who remember the original dislike it more, and those who don't forget it just as quickly.

On the verge of getting tenure at Columbia University, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is horrified to discover that an old book she co-authored about the paranormal, in particular the book's arguments that ghosts were not only real, but scientific, has resurfaced.  It's resurfaced thanks to her former BFF Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who needs book revenue to fund her own ghost-hunting.  Erin goes to Abby and begs her to take the book down, and she angry agrees, provided Erin take her to the Aldridge Mansion, a New York museum where the curator has turned to Erin for help in investigating a potential ghost.

Investigating it with Abby and Abby's protégé Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), they find ghosts are real...and Columbia fires Erin when video of her reawakened enthusiasm appears on YouTube. 

(About this point, my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. made a very interesting observation: he could understand denying her tenure or even demoting her, but flat-out firing her for believing in ghosts...particularly when one figures the full video had a very visible specter in it?)

Anyhoo, Erin and Abby decide to mend fences and join forces, along with Holtzmann, to open up a paranormal investigative enterprise.  Working for them is Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a very hunky man who is their new receptionist and whom Erin is openly gaga over, a little beyond to where her actions make her look both desperate and might qualify as sexual harassment.  Fortunately for her and them, Kevin is beyond stupid. 


Cause I'm a blonde,
yeah, yeah, yeah...
Examples of his stupidity are that while he wears spectacles, he took the lenses off because in his words, "they kept getting dirty", and who covers his eyes whenever he hears loud sounds, one of which isn't the telephone because despite it ringing loudly he never hears it, let alone thinks of answering it.  It has to be explained to him that the telephone in the fish-tank (which he calls "a submarine for fish") is not the actual phone, but a decorative piece.

Yes, he IS that dumb.  Then again, Hemsworth himself might be a 'decorative piece' in real life too.

Also entering into this world is walking stereotype Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), an MTA worker who knows the city inside and out.  She's also had a spectral encounter of the third kind, instigated by the actions of an overtly weird man named Rowan (Neil Casey), who is bringing out the dead as a way to get revenge for being bullied all his life.  We know this because he tells us that in rambling monologues.

Well, the four of them now use their various skills to keep investigating, and manage to capture a ghost at a death metal concert (complete with Ozzy Osbourne cameo...about the sanest thing he's done recently).  There are debunkers after them, the Mayor (Andy Garcia) and Homeland Security are giving them fits and beg them to keep doing their work (while constantly harassing them publicly NOT to), and after tracking Rowan down, he appears to kill himself. 

I say 'appears' because his death is all part of his plan to unleash the Apocalypse on humanity.  As part of this plan, it means taking over someone's body: first Abby, then that hunk of man Kevin.  Kevin/Rowan now open a portal where all the malevolent spirits go on a rampage, and only the Ghostbusters will be able to stop the insanity.  It requires one of Holzmann's newest devices to close the portal, and in the end, the Ghostbusters are victorious, and more importantly, beloved.

There is simply so much wrong with Ghostbusters, starting with the fact that it isn't funny.  I know the audience in the theater was laughing at bits I found shockingly idiotic (example, the spectacle over Kevin's spectacles), but right from the get-go Ghostbusters seems determined to show how cowriters Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig are trying too hard to make things hilarious.

At the opening, when we're taking the house tour, the tour guide comments on how the home had all the latest security systems for the times, up to "an anti-Irish security fence".  He goes on to add how in a particular room, the owner and his allies created the idea to 'enslave elephants'.  I figure Feig and Dippold thought this was witty, but the guide said it with such a straight face that it left me more puzzled than laughing.  Do they not realize that such things just sound odd?  The tourists don't react to hearing such bizarre things, which makes it even more odd.

Same goes for when the Ghostbusters are at the rock concert.  There is this gigantic, demonic-looking thing, and the concertgoers seem thrilled to have apparently summoned Lucifer himself (or as Dr. Ben Carson would say, Hillary Clinton).  The demon throws the lead singer into an on-stage display which crashed on top of him, but at the end of this scene, he's back on stage, no scratches, singing with great gusto.

Again and again Ghostbusters doesn't seem like an actual movie, just a series of bits tied together by having the same people appear in them.

It just seemed again and again that Ghostbusters wanted real bad to be funny, to dare I say, match the level of humor in the original, but trying too hard to force the humor (like a running bit involving Abby's bad delivery of Chinese takeaway where McCarthy I think, or hope, tried to make funny but was so dull).

As I watched Ghostbusters though, I wandered back to the sexism controversy.  I thought, 'would it be funnier with men?'  My answer is a simple, straightforward, "No".  The problem is not with the cast, whom I figure are good at their job as comediennes.  The clear standout was McKinnon as Holzmann, because she at least had something to do and latched onto her gonzo character all guns blazing.  Every time she was on screen, her wild and crazy girl with brains was, if not always funny, at least interesting to watch.  That's what made her one serious moment all the more touching.

Which is more than I can say about the other three ladies.  Jones was probably the one who suffered the most, coming close to being a stereotype.  Unlike the other ladies, Jones' Patty did not have advanced education, was at a lower-end job, wore large earrings, and as the trailer points out, was not body-surfed at the concert (whether it was a race thing or a lady thing we never learned).  I wondered to myself, 'why couldn't she be just as academically-inclined as the rest of them'?  Couldn't she have been a historian or at least an enthusiast of history?  In short, why was she somehow good enough only for some wisecracks and bringing the hearse?

Though to be fair, her The Shining comments did make me laugh...one of the few times I did. 



Another problem is that Ghostbusters wants to have it both ways when it comes to having the four female leads: empower them and weaken them simultaneously.  Take Wiig's Erin for example.  She's suppose to be a bit uptight but highly intelligent, though not apparently a  linguist. Erin says softly that 'Mercado', the name of the hotel at the center of the portal, is Spanish for 'table'.  It isn't: 'mercado' is Spanish for 'market', and 'mesa' is Spanish for 'table'.  I digress here to wonder what the point of that comment was.  It was spoken too softly to sound like it was a gag, and it makes Erin look almost stupid for a bright person.  I simply don't get it.

In any case, you have a character who is suppose to be brilliant at the same time so openly lust after Kevin and go out of her way to make the himbo pay her the slightest attention in a romantic or sexual way.  I keep hearing about how great it is to have four women little girls can look up to, but I also see how one of the two female lead characters seems perpetually flustered and even hesitant about her inability to get any attention from the guy who's referred to as 'a flying beefcake' when he's about to take over the world.

As a side note, if Kevin had been a woman and Erin a man, would her perpetually smitten attitude towards her be considered funny or sexist?  You be the judge.

Speaking of Hemsworth, I keep hearing how great he is in Ghostbusters, what a breakthrough it is for Thor, how hilarious he is.  Are we talking about the same person who has never been able to lose his Australian accent even when playing ostensibly American characters?  He isn't funny because a.) the material isn't funny and b.) he has never shown the talent to make things believable, let alone funny.  Sure, Kevin is dumb as a rock and weighs as much (according to McCarthy), but no one could be as dumb as Kevin and still function. 

I'd like to point out something Ghostbusters never answers (or at least I don't think it did).  Kevin wears frames but took the lenses off them 'because they kept getting dirty'.  If he does actually need lenses to see, how exactly can he see clearly without the lenses?  Maybe contacts (assuming he can figure out they go in his eyes, not his ears)?  If he can see clearly without them (which he appears he can), why does he even need the frames to begin with?

You take over the world and the only thing you, bullied figure that you are, can think of doing is having a flash mob? 



A film that has the villain (poorly defined as he was) literally tell us his plans and his reasons for is bad.  A film that does all that and never gives us any reason to care about either how he got to this state or those who team up to stop him is worse.

Oh, I haven't mentioned McCarthy.  From my vantage point, I think she's pretty much spent all the goodwill she built up with Bridesmaids with this and the more appalling The Boss.  You can only mug for the camera for so long, only deliver lines in a pretty flat way, before people wonder whether you are really funny.  I know McCarthy can be, so it's all the more frustrating to see her talent squandered.  Abby comes across as slightly unpleasant, even dumb, and while I grant she got better as the story progressed I still didn't think she was brilliant or wacky.  She was just there.

The cameos from all the surviving original Ghostbusters castmembers (save for Rick Moranis, who declined to appear) all worked well and didn't get in the way of the proceedings.  That doesn't mean Ghostbusters 2016 will ever top Ghostbusters 1984 or be as beloved and/or remembered.  It just means that Ghostbusters 2016 will be an example of the remake-mania that swept Hollywood this year, up there with The Jungle Book, The Magnificent Seven, and Ben-Hur.  Just because a film already exists doesn't mean a remake is automatically bad.  However, it does not mean that the remake is either an improvement or even necessary either.

Except for McKinnon, the cast is wasted.  The story lurches in fits and starts, with scenes dragging to have more 'humor' that falls flatter than Chris Hemsworth's abs.  The set-up for a sequel is simply a sign of the dearth of ideas in Hollywood and a desperate ploy to keep something that should not have come about going.

Remember, everyone loves Ghostbusters.  No one likes Ghostbusters II.

The problem with Ghostbusters isn't that it has four females taking the place of the four males in the original. 

The problem with Ghostbusters is that it just is forgettable, dull, and not funny. 

DECISION: D+