Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Worst of 2016: So Far

As the late Alan Thicke wrote, "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have The Facts of Life".

Having created my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far, now I turn to my Ten Worst Films to 2016. I fielded this list the same way I did my Ten Best: giving them a grade, then 'which would I rather'. 

Rules Don't Apply simply doesn't know what it is or wants to be.  Is it a love story between two people inadvertently brought together by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes?  It is a Howard Hughes biopic that Warren Beatty has dreamt of making?  Is it both?  Is it somewhere in between?  Sadly, the movie, despite good performances from Alden Enrenreich and Lily Collins, is a mess and bore, a hodgepodge of ideas thrown in with no sense of where to go.

Many people were touting I Saw the Light as Tom Hiddleston's chance for a Best Actor Oscar, but the end result was so bad it was shunted off to 2016 to die a quick death. Now, I think that a.) Hiddleston was pretty good as Hank Williams, Sr. and b.) this was a bid for him to get an Oscar nomination (a biopic being the best and easiest route for a man to get an Academy Award).  However, Loki couldn't overcome a bad script and some awful direction that made I Saw the Light a jumble, with one never sure where one was in relation to the story. Slow and dull are two things one can never say about Williams' life, yet somehow I Saw the Light turned his life story into a confused snooze-fest.

Twenty years too late, the sequel to Independence Day may symbolize all that is wrong with Hollywood today.  It's a textbook example of what not to do.  First, it wants to create a franchise on something that was not created to be one, taking all the goodwill Independence Day built and squandering it.  Second, it caters to the foreign market, particularly the Chinese market, by giving major parts to Chinese actors and making the Chinese as a people highly important to the story.  Third, it demolishes logic by bringing back a character from the original, even though the original strongly hinted that said character was dead. Fourth, it uses the same 'not-dead-anymore' character (obviously borrowing from the Steven Moffat School of Scriptwriting) to throw in a little political correctness by making said character gay.  There's nothing wrong with having a gay character, but Resurgence spun this out of thin air and worse, didn't even have the courage to go all in with it.  Fifth and finally, it has a naked call for a sequel that I doubt will come, making it look even sillier.  It's just a dreadful, dreadful film.

07.) Ben-Hur

In the future, people will wonder what possessed two studios (Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) to remake (or reimagine) the movie that has won more Academy Awards than any in film history (tied with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).  Even that, perhaps could be forgiven if Ben-Hur were any good.  It isn't: a shambles of a movie, with motivation, character development, and acting all thrown away in favor of, well, I'm not sure in favor of what.  All the performances were low-level (making Morgan Freeman's decision to appear in it all the more puzzling).  The first remake is considered the apex of epic filmmaking, with even those who hate it acknowledging the brilliance of the chariot race.  This version, however, going up against a legendary production, doubled down on hinting at it, with their version a weak, rushed, CGI-overdone version that lacked the thrill of the Charlton Heston version.  Both the 1959 version and the original silent version will be remembered.  The Millennial version won't, not even by the faith-based audience the film so nakedly called out to.  I can't speak for my other Brothers and Sisters in Christ, but as an evangelical Christian myself, I can say this Ben-Hur sucked.

A better title for this one would be Yawn of Justice, as this effort to create the DC Extended Universe to match the Marvel Cinematic Universe went from bad to worse.  Featuring some awful performances (Henry Cavill alone is enough to sink any film) with the exception of Gad Gadot as Wonder Woman (who to be fair, has a fantastic theme), the film is a slow moving, dour, excessively long slog that takes itself too seriously.  Oh, and did I mention how awful the performances were? Cavill is gorgeous, but a plank on screen, Jesse Eisenberg makes a fool out of himself (and gives the same performance he gives in every film he's in), and I still don't think Ben Affleck is a good Batman.  The cameos for future Extended Universe figures were shoehorned in, and if we keep getting more films like Yawn of Justice, that Universe is going to implode.

A film many critics loved, you couldn't pay audiences to sit through The Lonely Island's spoof of Justin Bieber.  Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a Saturday Night Live skit expanded to feature length, and therein lies one of its problems.  Too smug for its own good, it asks audiences to be fully aware of pop culture as these guys are.  I barely recognized the TMZ spoofing, but to this day I still don't know who DJ Khaled actually is or what he actually does (apart from appearing in commercials as himself, which doesn't help). Popstar was rejected en masse by the public, getting pulled within two weeks from first-run theaters and one week in second-run theaters.  Popstar thinks its funny (and there are a few humorous moments in it, particularly the songs) but too much time is spent on juvenile thinking to make it really funny.  Andy Samberg is around my age, and he's far too old to keep acting like he's around Justin Bieber's age (physical or mental, which I suspect is actually younger). 

04.) Deadpool

Yes, I know many people loved Deadpool: its irreverence, its vulgarity, its self-awareness.  I speak only for myself, but those were all the things I disliked about Deadpool, and there were more.  I was appalled at the glee the film took in its graphic violence and cannot comprehend why so many parents took their children (some as young as Pre-K) to see it.  They, in my view, have no discernment or discretion.  I found it all too smug, too sleazy, too self-aware.  I know I'm firmly in the minority on this, but a film that I had as the Most Overrated for the longest time appalled me rather than appealed to me. 

Again, we have a film that wants to start a franchise that no one wanted. The Huntsman: Winter's War is a strange fit: part prequel to Snow White & The Huntsman, part sequel to the same film.  Chris Hemsworth has yet to convince me he's an actor (and in a side note, his brother Liam pops up in another of my Worst Films of 2016: Independence Day: Resurgence.  Coincidence?).  That is bad enough, but to drag Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain into this fiasco is even worse. There wasn't any need to make this film, save for a desperate effort to make money out of something and create a series so that studios wouldn't have to bother to make original films.

A film with a background like Free State of Jones should be an exciting tale of a little-known bit of history, one that should be relevant to today's America.  Instead, Free State of Jones is a slow, dull film, one that makes things worse by jumping back and forth between the 1860s and 1950s, so one never really sure which story is the actual story the film is trying to tell.  Serious to a fault, Free State of Jones fails on all levels, taking a fascinating bit of American history and drowning it with dullness.

And my Worst Film of 2016 So Far is...

It's one thing to make a sequel to a bad film.  It's another thing to learn nothing about what made the original bad and find new ways to be worse than the original. Johnny Depp's 'kooky' shtick has grown old and stale, and making The Mad Hatter the focus of the story is among the worst decisions Alice Through the Looking Glass made.  Why should we care about his journey, and why make The Red Queen a somewhat sympathetic figure (and the White Queen a bit of a villainess)?  Indulgent in its CGI, rushing through chaos in an effort to hide its shallowness, putting in a bit of timey-wimey (another lesson from the Moffat School of Scriptwriting), it has no charm, no joy, and no sense.

Next Time, a Few Odds and Ends.

The Best of 2016: So Far

It is now time to rank my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far.  I always say 'so far' because when I write out my list, there is almost always some highly acclaimed film I didn't get around to seeing when I post this. 

I make no claim that these are the absolute Best Films of 2016.  They are only the Ten Best Films that I have seen.  Every year, I give a film a rating from A+ to F (sometimes even an F-, showing just how awful it is), and then list them to other films with similar ratings.  I then use the 'which would I rather watch' method to select which goes higher. 

Without further ado, my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far.

10.) Race

Pretty much forgotten now, Race is a bit by-the-book when it comes to biopics that are also inspirational stories.  However, this biopic of Jesse Owens with focus on his triumph in the 1936 Berlin Games was a crowd-pleasing film.  It also had strong performances by Stephan James in the role of Owens (and I hope to see more of him in the future) and Carice van Houten, who managed to somewhat rehabilitate Leni Riefenstahl as a heroine versus the Nazi propagandist she is seen in some circles.

09.) Fences

While brought down a bit by the fact that it doesn't expand on the stage origins, Fences is help up again by really great performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.  If the film turned out to be the filmed version of the play, I'm not going to quibble when we have these performances on film forever to enjoy.

A better title for Manchester By the Sea might have been A Grief Observed, as this portrait of a man's emotional agony over a terrible and tragic loss manages to be truthful and honest.  It is a haunting film, one anchored by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges in standout performances.

It's been a long time since a Star Wars film managed to be good.  The prequels were a collection of horrors, and The Force Awakens was nothing more than a remake of the original trilogy in all but name (Star Wars: The Remix, as I called it).  Rogue One is different: it manages to create its own story but keep it within the larger Star Wars universe. It has diversity in casting (a female lead, Hispanic and Asian actors all about), which is a plus, and moreover, it doesn't have many if any shout-outs to the Star Wars mythos.  No fan service here, which interestingly enough makes it a true love letter to those fans.

06.) Moonlight

A review of Moonlight is upcoming, but in brief, it is a hypnotic, dreamlike tale of a young black man's evolution to self-awareness and self-acceptance.  It is sometimes ugly, sometimes sad, sometimes tender, and sometimes all three at the same time.  A haunting tale of love, loss, regret and a form of redemption, Moonlight stays with you after you finish it.

Inevitably, there is a documentary in my Top Ten List, and this year, so far only one has cracked the list.  I Am Not Your Negro is relevant to today's very complex race issues: the dichotomy of Barack Obama's elevation to the Presidency versus Black Lives Matter.  With intellectual 'Negro' writer James Baldwin serving as our guide (with narration by an uncharacteristically soft-voiced Samuel L. Jackson), I Am Not Your Negro tells us that things still are askew, and they need to be rectified before things slip further out of control.

04.) Jackie

Another case of A Grief Observed, Jackie covers the days immediately following President John F. Kennedy's assassination, where his widow, Jacqueline aka Jackie, struggles between her immense private grief and the duties of a widowed First Lady.  Natalie Portman gives a simply astonishing performance, getting not just the voice and mannerism of Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis), but also that of a woman eaten up by guilt, anger, rage, agony, and in the end, a semblance of peace.

As a general rule, I'm not big on remakes, but The Jungle Book is a case of a remake done right. Neither slavishly connected to the Disney film or rebelling against it, The Jungle Book uses CGI to enhance the story versus distract from it.  It's such an astonishing work that one takes on faith that they are real animals and a jungle and not computer creations.  It can be enjoyed with or without having seen the Disney version, and a welcome presence in any family viewing.

It is doubtful that the events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 had an effect of ending Hillary Clinton's sixteen-year campaign to return to power in her own right as the first female President of the United States (and the first former First Lady to be elected President herself).  However, I don't think 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi would have been playing at the Javits Center the night she lost the election.  Derided by some as right-wing propaganda, beloved by others as a tribute to courage under fire, for me 13 Hours is open to all types of interpretation.  It's a surprise that Michael Bay toned down his overblown manner (though not eliminate it completely).  Tense, moving, and more nuanced than either detractor or supporter may think, it is a movie that left me impressed long after its release.

And my Number One Movie of 2016...

Yes, I can see where criticism of Hidden Figures is sensible.  A bit too on the nose with some dialogue, an unapologetic call to be 'inspirational'.  However, I simply loved the film.  I cheered these extraordinary women, got mad when they were put down, and saw a wonderful story acted so well.  Major props to Taraji P. Henson for showing her great range (who would believe this meek mathematical genius could be the same fierce, Lady Macbeth-type Cookie Lyons on Empire?).  Any film that chronicles an unknown story, that gives credit to people who long deserved it, and which celebrates both intellect and what makes America great is almost always going to win my heart.

It hit me emotionally, and with great performances and a fascinating story told well, Hidden Figures is my Best Film of 2016 So Far.

Next Time, my Ten Worst Films of 2016 So Far.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fences: A Review


Fences is one part of a ten-part epic series of the late August Wilson's 'Pittsburgh Cycle' of plays chronicling the African-American experience through the century.  This is the film version of the play that is in the 1950s era in the Cycle, and 'filmed play' is the best description for Fences.  It isn't a bad thing to have a filmed version of a successful, acclaimed play, performed by two great actors who won Tony Awards for their versions of said play.

Still, filmed version of the play nonetheless it is, and that is what hinders Fences from being as good a film as it could be.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directed) was a major star in the Negro Leagues who had the potential to be a fantastic Major League player.  Unfortunately for him, 'coloreds' were not being drafted at his peak, and by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Maxson was 'too old' to be there.  As such, he eventually found himself working as a garbage man in Pittsburgh.  He managed to also go to prison for a spell prior to his baseball career, where he met his lifelong friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).  He also has an adult son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a jazz musician who comes around asking for money.

The rigid Troy is reluctant to do so, insisting Lyons make his own way.  It's only the involvement of Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) that smooth's things out.  Troy and Rose's son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) has great football skills and is in line for a scholarship, but Troy insists Cory will not get far because of his race.  Rose pushes the idea that times are changing for African-Americans, but he won't hear it.

What he will hear is Cory working with him on the fence Troy wants to put up, something that has taken a great deal of time.  Troy is angered that Cory wants to play football and thinks it will get him a better life.  Troy is also a bit conflicted over his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson).  Gabe suffered a head wound in the war, and the money he got for his injuries allowed Troy to buy the family house.  Gabe, who carries a horn around with him (Gabriel's Horn, I suppose), has moved out but is still troubled.

Over the course of Fences, Troy ruins Cory's chances for football and reveals to Rose that he is going to be a father.  The relationships between Troy and his wife and sons is strained to breaking point, and when Troy's baby-mama dies in childbirth, Rose reluctantly takes her husband's child in.  Lyons has found some success in music, Troy himself has even moved up from garbage collector to driver (the first black sanitation driver in the city), and Cory, bitter and angry, joins the Marines.

At the end, Cory returns for Troy's funeral, and Rose reprimands him for not wanting to join the family in mourning their very flawed but all-too-human man.  Raynell (Saniya Sidney), the daughter who knows nothing of all the chaos and believes Rose to be her actual mother, joins her essentially unknown brother on the porch, and the family (including Gabe who was temporarily released from the hospital Troy put him in much earlier), have an informal farewell to this sad and complex figure.

Again, the good and bad thing about Fences is that it is a filmed play.  There isn't much if any effort to get away from the trappings of a theatrical production, I'd argue down to the acting.  No, it isn't broad: Washington and Davis are far too professional for that, and they have a long experience with the characters.

Instead, Fences rarely if every goes out from a few locations: the Maxsom house is the primary setting for the film.  There is one scene at the hospital where Gabe is (which if memory serves was just Troy feeding his brother) and one at a bar (which I suspect might have been in the play).  Oh yes, there is also one in an alley where Rose confronts Troy, but apart from that, Fences never takes an opportunity to open up the production.

I think a major part of this is the fact that while August Wilson wrote the screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, he died in 2005.  In the ensuing decade-plus, no one could either readapt it without taking credit or go to Wilson to rework it.  There was no chance of expanding the scope of Fences, and we have a very limited presentation.

Now, I am not complaining about the locked-in manner of Fences.  On the whole, the film works.  It's just that it keeps things very confined and lends an air of theatricality to what should be a film.

Still, again, while this limits Fences the virtues of the film push it forward.  There isn't a bad performance in Fences save perhaps Williamson as the mentally disabled Gabe.  This is a part that should be handled delicately, and I imagine a difficult one to play without going overboard.  Williams doesn't quite manage it, and it looks like he's just recreating Bubba from Forrest Gump (a film I thoroughly detest).

Washington has had the benefit of having played Troy on stage before transferring to film, and his Troy is a fascinating creation (even though my sense is that James Earl Jones' original version was probably better).  Troy is a man you end up respecting and loathing in equal measure, one eaten up by anger and bitterness over how his baseball talents were kept down.  It makes his thinking rational, but it also makes him rigid, even hypocritical: preaching responsibility while fooling around on a good woman like Rose.

Davis is the real knockout in Fences: her Rose a long-suffering but loving woman, who cares about people and deserved much better.  Her scene when Troy tells her about his impending fatherhood is handled so well.  She brings the mix of disbelief, shock, anger, and pain in her face, her voice, her body.  Again, she has known this character for some time, and that I'm sure helped, but given Davis' talent I figure she would have done just as well if she came into it with no background to it.

Adepo and Hornsby also excelled as Troy's sons, with the former having a fantastic moment as he challenges the old man.  You think it's going to go one way, but it turns out another, and shows how good one actor can be when he's trying to keep up with the other.  Henderson brought a lot of joy and laughter to his Bono, but when he needs to be serious, he too matches Washington and Davis in terms of performance.

Again, it's a terrible shame August Wilson isn't here for a variety of reasons.  It might have been good to have let him have a chance to open up the film more (perhaps a scene at the school where Troy goes to destroy his son's chance at a future with football, or one where Rose goes to God to help the devout woman deal through all this).  Fences, as a filmed play is excellent.  Fences, as a film itself, is flawed, but well worth the visit.   With strong performances almost all around, Fences is a credit to Wilson and the actors (maybe not so much with Washington as director, not terrible but not truly sensational either).

Hopefully, we'll get more adaptations of Wilson's work to add to this strong though flawed film.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Librarians: And the Curse of Cindy Review


And the Curse of Cindy is very topical and has a strong message about the importance of finding worth within yourself versus in how many 'followers' you have.   It might even have been a subtle dig at cults and groups accused of being cults (perhaps some with Hollywood celebrities following them). That being said, why then did I find it one of the weakest episodes?  I think it has to do with the fact that the first part played awfully predictable, almost to where you don't even have to guess where things are going.

The Librarians, this time accompanied by Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) are sent to investigate what appears to be a cult that is using some kind of magic over the worshippers.  The center of this cult is a mysterious figure known as Cyndi. Who is she, and why does she have so many under her spell?  When they see Cyndi (Rachael Perrell Fosket), her geeky demeanor and appearance puzzles them even more, how someone like that could inspire such passionate adoration (literal adoration, as those not allowed within her compound make due with worshipping a massive statue of Cyndi).

One of the Librarians, Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) knows her from somewhere, but has a hard time placing the face.  The other Librarians, however, have no idea who they are.  It isn't soon before both Carsen and Jacob Stone (Christian Kane) have, despite themselves, fallen under Cyndi's spell and are love-struck.  Jones, who is with Stone when her equally besotted DOSA Agent Adamski (Julian Acosta) brings them, does not fall under her spell, much to the confusion of all save Stone, who is now totally in love.

For their part, Guardian Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) and Librarian Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) are still trying to figure out what is the artifact, how Cyndi controls people, and where everyone else is.  With more investigating (and having to essentially kidnap, even tie up Flynn and Stone), they find that Cyndi has put people under a love spell.

Technically, it is not a love potion, but an obsession potion, tells them Jenkins (John Larroquette). It's based on a recipe from Aphrodite herself, now being brewed by Agnes (Jayne Taini), who might not be whom she appears to be.

Cyndi plans to use a DOSA missile to have a massive explosion of the obsession potion spread across the country, which should make people fall in love with her (Operation Aphrodite).  However, the potion needs a secret ingredient: Cyndi's tears.  These tears come when she watches herself on Life Show, a Big Brother-type show where she was coldly evicted.

Jones now realizes that Life Show is where he knows her from, but he knows her as Cindy.  He also finds that, contrary to what Jenkins asserts, the reason he didn't fall under Cindy's spell wasn't because Jones is totally self-absorbed (even though he is).  It's because he's already a fan and thus, doesn't need a potion.  Jones works furiously to show Cindy that what she has mistaken for love is obsession, one that can become dangerous.  An overdoes of the potion makes her 'followers' rabid to where they could literally tear her apart.  Realizing her error, she joins Jones to stop the launch, but now it's Agnes who wants to keep things going.

In the end, Jenkins comes through with the antidote, and Apep flees from Agnes.  Stone, highly displeased that Jones has videotaped his and Flynn's confessions of love, tells him the real reason Jones didn't fall under Cindy's spell. 

Jones wasn't just a fan.  He was genuinely in love with her.

As I said, And the Curse of Cindy has some really clever things within it. At the top of that list is Kim, who at times has had a difficulty fitting in with the other Librarians.  Unlike Cassandra, Stone, or Flynn, Jones isn't adept at a particular field and appears gleefully lackadaisical towards things.  His expertise (if they can be called that) is in larceny. 

However, And the Curse of Cindy gives Kim a chance to show a more dramatic, vulnerable side to Jones.  His scenes with Fosket show that beneath the braggadocio of Ezekiel Jones (who does have a tendency to refer to himself in the third person), he actually has a very good heart.  He is a deeper man than he lets on, and Kim has a wonderful monologue where he talks about his own past, how poor and demeaned he was as a child, and how he rose up for himself by finding the greatest love of all (loving himself).

Later on, Kim manages to steal the show yet again when giving essentially the message of And the Curse of Cindy: it's not about who or how many people love you, it's about who you love.  He even suggests that he might have found people worthy of his love (though he'd never say out loud that he loves the other Librarians). 

This episode certainly was Kim's best hour, and I think should put to rest any of his or Jones haters who insist he has no reason to be there.

As a side note, I really like Agent Adamski and would so like to see him do another guest appearance, Acosta's mix of seriousness and dry humor quite amusing.

Another positive in And the Curse of Cindy is how it can be read as a wry commentary on fan-bases that are a bit fanatical in their devotion.  It brings to mind people like Tyler Oakley, whose fame is a complete mystery to me (putting videos of yourself squealing like a tween girl over an inconsequential boy band is no reason to have millions of followers).  There are many people who derive their self-worth from gaining attention (like all those 'reality TV' stars, almost none whom I would recognize or genuinely care about...I still don't know who Gigi Hadid exactly is or what merits anyone paying attention to what she does).   And the Curse of Cindy may serve as an antidote of sorts, with its strong plea that true worth doesn't come from the number of 'likes' or 'retweets' or followers on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or Facebook.

With all that, why then wasn't I crazy over And the Curse of Cindy?  Again, I think it goes back to how a lot of it was pretty predictable.  Of particular note is when Stone keeps insisting that they must remain vigilant against Cyndi's spells, only to, you guessed it, fall immediately under them himself.  I also wondered whether Flynn (who was equally besotted) could not have been put to better use.  It's almost a shame that given how quickly Flynn pops in and out of things, he was relegated to the side for most of the episode.

Finally, the final effort to stop Project Aphrodite seemed a bit rushed and not particularly thrilling.

Still, while perhaps my lack of enthusiasm might be due to how I am immune from following 'reality TV' and all the trappings that come with it (therefore finding I can't relate much to things), And the Curse of Cindy is lifted by a strong performance from John Kim and a strong positive message of the importance of finding self worth within yourself, not from fickle 'fans'.

That is something I'd gladly follow.



Next Episode: And the Eternal Question

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review


It's curious that once Disney took over the Star Wars universe, they managed to do what Star Wars creator George Lucas couldn't: give us a sensible, real prequel to his Magnus Opus.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story wasn't the spin-off I remember being promised, a film set in the Star Wars universe that wasn't connected to the overall Star Wars story.  Far from it: it is directly connected to said universe.  That, however, isn't a negative.  Far from it: Rogue One manages to create an exciting, original world where it comes close to equaling what made the original series so unique and beloved.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the daughter of scientific/engineering genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen).  Galen has been forced to help the Galactic Empire create a new and powerful weapon: what is known as the Death Star.  Before he was taken, Galen helped Jyn escape, where she was helped and raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), leader of a splinter group of the Rebellion who became too radical for the Rebellion and broke off from them.

Many years have passed, and the Rebellion has heard whispers of the new and powerful weapon. An Empire defector, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) tells them of the Death Star, but he defected Gerrera's forces.  The Rebellion and Gerrera are not allies, but the former hopes that with Jyn acting as intermediary, they can win his confidence and get Galen's message regarding the Death Star that Bodhi has with him.  To this endeavor, they send Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who brings the reprogrammed Imperial droid K2SO (Alan Tudyk).  Eventually, Jyn and Gerrera reunite, but as she hears Galen's message the Empire decides on a small test of the Death Star, on the city where they are at.  Both Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing, returning from the dead with help from computer generated imagery and Guy Henry doing the physical and vocal work) are delighted with it, but a power struggle begins between Krennic and Tarkin for control.

Now Jyn, Cassian, Bodhi, and two others must warn the Rebellion on the awesome power of the Death Star.  Galen's message tells his daughter that he deliberately created a flaw in the Death Star that if triggered would destroy the monstrous creation.  He entrusts her with finding the plans, which are on the heavily guarded Imperial planet Scarif.  The Rebellion does not want to go and try for a raid, but Jyn and her friends will not be denied.  They go rogue, and a major battle ensues, with Krennic fighting furiously to stop them.  Eventually the Rebellion joins in the fight, and while Jyn and Cassian manage to send the plans to them, the Death Star opts to destroy their own base in a failed effort to stop them.  The plans are smuggled aboard a Rebel ship, where they are received by Princess Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, also digitized to her Star Wars: A New Hope phase) as Darth Vader himself storms the ship, desperate to get said plans back.

I know many people, particularly the Star Wars fanbase that thinks cinema started with the first Star Wars film, are thrilled.  Part of me can see how they got excited.  Rogue One is the first new Star Wars film to be worth our time.  This adulation Rogue One has received is up to a point warranted.  The final act, the assault on Scarfin, is a particularly thrilling sequence, full of action and excitement that puts you squarely within the battle.  It has all the elements: gigantic machines fighting it out, Chirrut Imwe, a Force-loving blind samurai swordsman (Donnie Yen), quiet but tense moments as Jyn and Cassian search the massive archives to find the Death Star plans, the sneering Krennic after them, and even some comedy with both Bodhi and K2SO.

I also see that the Star Wars universe now is going all-out with creating diversity within it.  We have, like in Star Wars: The Remix, a strong female protagonist.  We have Hispanic, Asian, and Islamic actors in major roles. We even see dead people making a comeback.   It makes it a bit interesting in some respects (one, for example, wasn't aware the galaxy far, far, away had people with Spanish accents). 

I'm Hispanic myself, so I can get away with that.

On the issue of Peter Cushing, it worked on the whole.  Cushing did look a bit waxwork, even a little creepy, but it wasn't so obviously a fake.  It does seem a bit unfair in that it isn't the Peter Cushing and thus we can't say this would have been the performance Cushing would have given.

Everyone else, with perhaps one exception, did solid work.  Jones' Jyn wasn't the greatest, but she was smart, competent, and courageous, qualities that are admirable in anyone.  Luna was a little funny to me, but that probably comes more from the fact that I know more about his background than most, so picturing him, accent and all, as this heroic figure struck me as a little amusing.  Then again, as I said, that's just me.  He too did a strong job.  Ahmed balanced being serious when captured and a little more amusing as he attempts to help link up the universe to help send the message.

Tudyk is creating another 'cutesy' robot with his sensible K2SO, and I wasn't overwhelmed or underwhelmed by it.  I was just whelmed.

The only performance I had issue with was Whitaker, who appeared to be channeling Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet for the soft-voiced Sol, down to sucking a version of an oxygen mask in his brief role as the slightly crazed anti-Imperial rebel leader.  His sotto voce performance was already a curiosity, but his sucking up air was slightly hilarious.  I half-expected him to call for his Mommy.

Other things I had issues with, things that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy came up with.  First, we had bits of dialogue that are, I think, geared for more Millennials than meant to be timeless.  As Vader releases a choke-hold on Krennic, he tells him, "Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director".  Not a big fan of deliberate puns.  Another time, as Sol's men take the small rebel group hostage, they put a bag over Imwe, who callous out, "Are you kidding me?! I'M BLIND!"

As a side note, I was so unsure of his name I kept referring to him as 'Samurai Jack', my only point of reference.

Other times, we had rather clichéd situations.  In one laser fight, we had to have a little girl caught in the middle of it, with Jyn forced to rescue her.  In another, when Galen is facing death, we had to have it in the rain.

A part of me thinks that the whole journey to find Sol wasn't a payoff, almost a diversion to make Rouge One longer (two hours and thirteen minutes).  Certainly, a message from Galen to Jyn (his 'Stardust') could have found its way to her and the Rebellion without having to go through a character who doesn't make it to even the half of the film.  I figure all this could have been trimmed. 

We also had a bizarre moment early on when Krennic and his Storm Troopers were searching for Jyn, who had escaped when Galen was taken.  In their search, they found her plush toy, which was of a Storm Trooper.

Color me odd, but why would a child have a Storm Trooper plush toy in this galaxy far, far away? 

Still, Rogue One does in one film what The Phantom Menace/Attack of the Clones/Revenge of the Sith couldn't do in three: tell a Star Wars story that actually leads somewhere and compliments the original trilogy.  It might not be the Star Wars spinoff I thought it was going to be, but it is a fine film on its own.

Yes, at last we have A New Hope.    


Monday, January 9, 2017

Some Thoughts on Golden Globes 2017

I don't watch the Golden Globes.  Many people, however, hold them as the unofficial arbiter of who has a leg up on winning the ultimate film prize: an Academy Award. 

As such, I thought I'd offer some brief thoughts on winners, losers, and yes, our dear Meryl.

First, the winners.  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association hands out the Golden Globes, and sometimes their choices are a bit, well, peculiar.  This is the same august organization that awarded Pia Zadora "New Star of the Year" (under allegations of outright bribery by Zadora's then-husband) and that nominated The Tourist for Best Musical or Comedy (currently at 20% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes).  Another quirk is that some categories are split between Musical/Comedy and Drama, while the Academy has rarely distinguished between them.  Oddly, the HFPA has separate Musical/Comedy and Drama categories only in the Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress categories.  Supporting Actor/Actress and Director are lumped into one.

Go figure.


La La Land

Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea)

Ryan Gosling (La La Land)

Isabelle Huppert (Elle)

Emma Stone (La La Land)

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals)

Viola Davis (Fences)

Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

City of Stars (La La Land)

La La Land, an ode to Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, swept all seven of its nominations.  This appears to have people think it will do likewise at the Academy Awards.  I still maintain that it will not. 

The last musical to win Best Picture was Chicago, fifteen years ago.  Prior to that, there was a forty-four year gap when Oliver! won the Academy Awards' biggest prize.  In short, musicals are a tough sell to win, and I still don't see La La Land being bestowed what is considered a 'serious' award, its frothiness not as enticing to more staid Academy members. 

Of course, same said members may not rush to Moonlight, with its African-American cast and elements of drugs and homosexuality.  Will they then opt for an alternative choice: perhaps the more conventional Manchester By the Sea or even some that weren't up for Best Picture, like the biopics Jackie or Hidden Figures

I still maintain that La La Land is not set to win the Best Picture Oscar; in the past seven years, the Best Picture Oscar winner and Best Picture-Drama Golden Globe winner have matched only twice, with the Best Picture-Comedy and Academy Award matching only once (The Artist).  You have to go back fifteen years to find the one previous to that (you guessed it...Chicago).  For being a prognosticator of how the Oscars will go, the Golden Globes have an astoundingly lousy record.

Likewise, when it comes to Actor, Actress, and Director, I see only Stone benefitting.  In the Musical/Comedy Actor category, they've batted 1-for-7 (The Artist) versus 4-for-7 in Drama.  A better record, but still poor for Avant-garde actor Gosling's chances.  In Director, a lousy 2-for-7 (one of their winners, Ben Affleck for Argo, wasn't even nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and both times they've matched, they've been foreign directors better known to the foreign press).

Why then would Stone benefit while everyone else involved in La La Land would not?  It's not because she won, but because who lost.  Until last night, Natalie Portman was considered a shoe-in for Jackie, but when Isabelle Huppert won for Elle, it knocked the wind out of Portman's sails.

As a side note, the idea that a First Lady was once considered unstoppable and now is in danger of losing sounds awfully familiar...

What was once a given now finds itself fighting to be remembered.  I am not sold on Huppert being nominated January 24th, but what if another person not in the mix was (say, Taraji P. Henson for Hidden Figures)?  Should THAT happen, I predict Portman, whom I thought had it in the bag, may just collapse at the finish line.  Potential vote-splitting between Portman and Henson (or worse, Portman, Henson, and Huppert) could be enough to propel Stone.  Moreover, I sense the Academy favors younger women in this category (see Lawrence, Jennifer, and Larson, Brie).  Stone would be the youngest in that group.

It also does mean poor Amy Adams might just as well not bother to show up should she get nominated.  It's over for her, at least this year.

In other categories, Taylor-Johnson hasn't been mentioned in any conversation for Supporting Actor.  A nomination for him would be genuinely shocking (particularly when placed over his Nocturnal Animals costar Michael Shannon).  In the bad news for Taylor-Johnson, Mahershala Ali still has wide support.  In the good news for Taylor-Johnson, in the past seven years, the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe/Academy Award pairing up has failed only once (and that was last year, when Sylvester Stallone won the former, Mark Rylance won the latter).  They even picked Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained over Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln when everyone figured Jones was all but guaranteed to win that year.  Many saw Waltz's win as an anomaly.  It turned out to be prophecy.

I do believe that City of Stars will win.  Moana's songbook doesn't have a belting Let It Go behind it, a ubiquitous number played all over, all the time; with regards to other potential nominees, while I See A Victory or Runnin' from Hidden Figures (neither nominated by the HFPA) could challenge it, I See A Victory's singer Kim Burrell's statements on gays I think have sunk its chances.

I think Hacksaw Ridge is dead, but should Mel Gibson get a Best Director nomination, it would be the height of hypocrisy for the Academy to nominate a virulent anti-Semite and openly homophobic figure like Gibson but bar Burrell for her statements.

Finally, some thoughts on Meryl Streep's speech.  Short and simple: I don't care what her politics are, and frankly, neither should you or anyone else. 

And there's the gist of it: I Don't Care.  She's free to believe anything she wants to, and she can say anything she wants anywhere she wants.  She's among the greatest actresses of all time.  However, why should we care about her political views or vote the way she wants us to, or care about any film/television performer's views on détente or climate change or anything non-performance-related for that matter?  How and when did she or any other actor/actress become so imbued with such wisdom that we, the simple hoi polloi, should turn to them to run anyone else's life, let alone ours?

I'm firmly #NeverTrump and have never disavowed my views on the President-elect. I didn't vote for him or support him, but I also, unlike people who make far more than I do (and who won't share any of their fortunes with me) have moved on.  I personally am not interested or offended by what Miss Streep said save for one line.

"And if we kick them (foreigners) all out, you'll have nothing to watch but football and Mixed Martial Arts, which are not the arts".  

I find this line particularly snobbish, elitist, arrogant, and condescending. 

Miss Streep, allow me to introduce myself.  I have a Master's Degree in Library Science, which I figure makes me slightly smarter than the average bear (though prone to make mistakes).  I read books for pleasure, and speak at least two languages (working on my third, French).

I also, horror of horrors, watch football.  I even enjoy watching football (though in the interest of full disclosure, prefer baseball). 

I know, appreciate, and enjoy both Rachmaninoff and The Rock. 
I know the difference between Yo-Yo Ma and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.

One can respect, even appreciate the genius of both Richard Rodgers and Aaron Rodgers.  The two are not mutually exclusive, and I fail to understand why you think they are or should be.

In the end, I am positive more people would rather watch Conor McGregor beating someone in an octagon ring than Meryl Streep beating out a Danish accent in Out of Africa.  At least the Super Bowl or UFC match would a damn sight more exciting than her going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about how she had a farm in Africa.

Seriously, apart from John Barry's score, Out of Africa is really boring. Shouldn't have won Best Picture.  The Color Purple should have, but now I digress, and that is for a different time.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Great Expectations (2013): A Review


My curiosity with Great Expectations began when posters for the 2013 version began showing up at my local theater in El Paso, Texas.  I was intrigued by what looked like an elaborate, sumptuous feature.  Yet, despite mass promotion, Great Expectations never actually played here.  I was puzzled by that, and as I waited, I began my exploration of this story.  Now, we've come full circle. 

After the original, Oscar-winning adaptation of Great Expectations, and the 'updated' version that set our oft-told tale of a young man's total education to current times, we go back to the source for our third adaptation of the Dickens masterwork.  Great Expectations is steady, respectable, beautifully filmed.  Why then is it yet another bungled adaptation?

This version sticks very close to the original novel (or at least the parts I remember, seeing as I have never been able to get through it despite three times trying).  Pip (Toby Irvine as a child, his older brother Jeremy as the adult) is caught by an escaped convict who terrifies the child into bringing him food and a file from his uncle, the local blacksmith.  Said criminal is caught and sent up the river, but he doesn't forget Pip's kindness.

A few years later, Pip is summoned to Satis House, the home of recluse Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter).  She has locked herself away since she was jilted on her wedding day, still wearing her wedding gown and leaving everything untouched since that fateful day, her wedding feast rotting away.  She has Pip be a playmate to her adopted daughter, the beautiful but haughty and cold-hearted Estella.

Some time later, after Pip decides he would be happier as apprentice to his kindly but dimwitted Uncle Joe (Jason Flemyng), the lawyer Mr. Jaggers (Robbie Coltrane) arrives to tell Pip that he has a strange inheritance from a mysterious benefactor.  It's off to London for young Pip, who indulges in being a gentleman and all that entails: membership in a club for spoiled men, racking up debts, dressing well, and sharing rooms with Herbert Pocket (Olly Alexander), whom he met years before at Satis House and with whom he becomes friends with.

Over the rest of Great Expectations, Pip's story is intertwined with others, particularly Estella (Holliday Grainger), who has grown beautiful but cold.  She toys with him, rebuffing him and yet dangling him.  Pip learns that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham, as he believes, but that same criminal from long ago, Abel Magwitch (Ralph Fiennes).  Despite the dangers of his returning to England, where he will be returned to prison, he wants to see if his unofficial wards 'great expectations' were met.

In those coincidences that Dickens so loves, in short order we find that Magwitch was part of the conspiracy to defraud Miss Havisham (and which involved leaving her at the altar), that Estella was the daughter Magwitch thought dead and whose adoption was arranged by Jaggers, that Estella's mother was Jaggers' maid, and that the man whom Magwitch wants to kill was the same one who destroyed both his and Havisham's lives.

Eventually, Pip finds that life at the top isn't what it's cracked up to be, and Joe, kindly as ever, has paid off all his debts.  With what little he has, Pip gives it to Herbert in secret, who then employs him as a clerk.  At the end, Pip and Estella reunite after she becomes a widow, sad at how her life is.  Poor Miss Havisham died years earlier when she accidentally set herself on fire after realizing what she'd done to Pip.  Whether Pip and Estella can truly be together, we know not...

As I said, this version of  Great Expectations is a straightforward version, sticking very close, if not slavishly close, to the original text.  That, I think, is the main problem.  David Nicholls' adaptation is very proper, but very dry.  The characters, for all their eccentricity, their tragedy, their education, never come across as actual people.  It is all very dry, very proper, but like Estella herself, very remote.

It's almost as if director Mike Newell and screenwriter Nicholls decided that Great Expectations should combined the ossified world of Miss Havisham with the coldness and aloof nature of Estella.  As such, the film suffers from a variety of ailments.  It is very slow, it is very mannered, and in some cases, it is very forced.

There are three good performances in this version.  Fiennes is better than the material as Magwitch, his strange nature hiding a great tragedy, the mixture of revenge and desire to do good being interesting to watch.  The best performance is that of Coltrane, whose shifty lawyer is the master puppeteer, forever pulling strings and knowing more than he lets on.  Not far behind is Alexander's Herbert, who is the only one who has any sense of joy and doesn't behave on screen if THIS IS ALL SERIOUS.

Curiously, I thought Bonham Carter would have been better as Miss Havisham, one of the most legendary of characters.  I found her a bit mannered and theatrical as this sad, bitter recluse, forever tortured by her heartbreak. 

It's the leads that are leaden and dull.  Granted, Jeremy Irvine is particularly beautiful to look at, as is Grainger, but Irvine is never able to bring any emotion to Pip, and it was curious that when Pip is supposed to show snobbery towards Joe's more country manners, he looked as if he were trying too hard to make him snobbish.  It was very forced, and Grainger was very mannered in her performance (showing she really was adopted by Bonham Carter).

It's one thing to portray a woman with a cold heart.  It's another to show virtually no emotion.

I can't complain about the sets and costumes and cinematography, all beautiful and elegant and posh.  I also give credit to Nicholls in making the various twists of Dickens (which I have found a bit too convenient whenever I think of the novel) more plausible and making things a bit more clear for me.  That is good.

There's nothing horrible in it, but there's nothing in it that makes it anything more than a good companion piece to the end of a reading assignment to Dickens' novel. I think on the whole though, this version of Great Expectations is a bit empty and hollow, nice looking but mummified...like Miss Havisham's wedding feast.