Saturday, November 16, 2019

Five Short Film Reviews: A Million Eyes, The Confirmation, Harbor, Brotherhood, Ida

The following reviews are for short films in the following order: A Million Eyes, The Confirmation, The Harbor, Brotherhood, and Ida.

Image result for a million eyes short film
Review One: A Million Eyes

Leroy (Elijah M. Cooper) is an aspiring photographer who yearns to chronicle his world, but knows little about both the technical aspects and the art of still images. With his mother Amber (Katie Lowes) keeping to her sobriety, Leroy has his own troubles after an arrest and 30-day sentence for vandalizing a photography book. With Fern (Joe Morton) serving as both his artistic and life mentor, Leroy begins to discover the world through his own eyes, making him strong enough to take the first steps to being an artist and a man.

A Million Eyes has an elegant manner to its story of artistic and self-discovery, with strong performances from the whole cast. Chris Hyson's score is elegant and elegiac, and Curt Zacharias, Jr.'s screenplay is simple but strong in its almost mystical take on the power of creating art. We care about Leroy's life: his doubts on finding his 'muse', the pain of his mother failing to keep her word, the desire to find an outlet to explore his world.

Director Richard Raymond keeps things flowing in an almost dreamlike manner and gets excellent performances from his cast, including Cooper in his debut role.

I'm not big on voiceovers, but A Million Eyes (the title coming from his wish to have 'a million eyes' to see all around the world) works well when it uses them. It's a short film that makes one want to explore this world more, even see a feature film version. Granted, I did so not want to see Amber fall off the wagon and almost expect that to happen, but on the whole A Million Eyes is a strong film.

DECISION: B+

Konfirmanden (2019)
Review Two: The Confirmation (Konfirmanden)

It is Mathias' (Xean Peake) confirmation day in Denmark, where Mathias will confirm Mathias' Christianity and enter adulthood. What makes this confirmation unique is that Mathias was born Katrine. Mathias is transgender and Mathias' mother Susanne (Ellen Hillings) is making sure everyone keeps to the proper pronouns and names. If it means jumping up during the confirmation ceremony to shout at the priest that the name is "Mathias" not "Katrine", so be it. If it means berating a teen guest at the confirmation party when he asks Mathias about having breasts or penises, expressing irritation when another guest says 'boys will be boys' and make a general spectacle of herself, so be it too. Mathias is horrified but in the end mother and child reconcile.

The Confirmation is curious in that removing the issue of transgenderism the story itself is routine. You have the somewhat sullen teen who doesn't seem enthusiastic on much if anything, one deeply embarrassed by the parent's well-meaning effort to be supportive regardless of what said teen actually believes. Susanne comes across less as a genuinely caring parent and more as a 'woke' individual who wants to almost parade her progressiveness at the cost of her child. "The fact is that Mathias has always been Mathias. But at birth, he was given the wrong gender", she somewhat drunkenly berates her guests.

Never mind that Mathias, already facing unique issues, wants as little attention or fuss made of the situation. Never mind the understandable questions and taunts launched by Mathias' frenemy Alexander (Justin Geertsen) or the displeasure of Mathias' grandmother, who still insists on thinking of Mathias as Katrine. I don't think there is an interest in exploring the issues a transgender teen would face. The Confirmation curiously gives Mathias little to actually say, and perhaps this is because this is more Susanne's story than Mathias', but what does writer/director Marie-Louise Damgaard want to tell us?

That Susanne is clumsy in her efforts at being supportive? Does Susanne actually support Mathias' self-vision or does she do so because she thinks that is what she should do? While it is a short film, The Confirmation offers us little about the unique situation Mathias faces both internally and externally. Irv Johnson's music does not help in that it suggests a deeper drama than what we have.

The performances were fine in The Confirmation, elevating the film. However, it does seem strange that the priest would still use "Katrine" if he knew "Katrine" now or recently opted to be "Mathias". The one aspect that surprised me was to learn that Norway allows one to change one's gender at age 6 versus Denmark's age 18.   

DECISION: C-


Find harbour for a day (2018)
Review Three: Harbor (Jeter L'Ancre Un Seul Jour) Find Harbor for a Day 

On a field trip from France to Britain, English-language teacher Adele Martin (Marie Bunel) finds that an extra child has smuggled his way onto the Jean Moulin School line. Almost on a whim, and over the objection of her co-chaperone Romain (Ali Marhyar), Madame Martin brings the stowaway with them. Only obnoxious student Eliott (Victor Bonnel) knows about "Maxime". "Maxime" is essentially mute, though for reasons unclear Adele insists on speaking to him in English first before speaking to him in French. As they journey overnight across the English Channel, Adele does her best to keep "Maxime", whom she learns is really Nassim (N'Tarila Kouka), out of sight while dealing with unruly students. The hijinks cause a delay in arrival and could put all of them at risk. Fortunately, perhaps with some help from Eliott, Nassim disappears into the world of Portsmouth as they finally disembark.

The term 'white man's burden' popped into my mind after watching Harbor, and I think director/co-writer Paul Marques Duarte (writing with Blandine Jet) has a good plot to work with. What I didn't see was exactly why Madame Martin did as she did. Was she moved by Nassim's apparent shyness? Was it because she wants to be essentially a human smuggler? Her motives are unclear, and while this might be a cliche, part of me wishes Harbor had made Adele so frazzled and frustrated at this field trip from Hell that she had accidentally miscounted her students and not realized Nassim had snuck in with her group until after they set sail.

At least in that case, she would have had a conflict over turning him over or not. As it stands, why she opted to put herself, her students, Romain and Nassim himself at risk is opaque. More opaque is why she kept speaking to him in English, as if she thought English was Nassim's first/only language. Given that Nassim's origins are unknown, we don't know if he could understand either English or French let alone speak either; given the number of African nations where French is spoken, the chances Nassim would know French are higher than those of him speaking English.

Harbor seems a lost opportunity, but also a slightly well-meaning but ineffective one. I would have loved to have seen Romain's reaction as someone who was if not an immigrant himself at least descended from them. The ending of Nassim walking out with the group, apparently managing to get through customs with relative ease, also felt off. It seemed to be almost a too-satisfactory ending, with our French characters essentially patting themselves on the back for their actions.

I though well of the performances from Bunel's frazzled teacher to especially Bonnel's Eliott. He was the standout as he was in this short film the only one to have some kind of evolution to his character. While Kouka too was good as Nassim, his silence spoke volumes about how we are meant to think of the refugee/migrant: silent, almost passive, with no real characteristics, hopes, drives or fears.

Two odd notes with Harbor. When I crossed the English Channel, the journey took a few hours versus overnight, perhaps because we sailed from Dover to Calais versus from Portsmouth. Second, as I was watching, there was a scene where Eliott and Nassim were at the back of the ferry and The Pet Shop Boys' music was  playing. I was surprised at how well their music blended in...until I realized I had accidentally left a YouTube playlist on and that PSB were not part of Harbor

DECISION: D+


Mohamed GrayaĆ¢ in Brotherhood (2018)
Review Four: Brotherhood

Mohamed (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) is a shepherd in Tunisia, living with his wife Salha (Salha Nasraoui) and two of his three sons, Chaker and Rayene (Chaker and Rayene Mechergui). He finds his life upended when his oldest son Malek (Malek Mechergui) returns from Syria, bringing a woman he says is his new wife, Reem (Jasmin Lazid). While Mohamed is a devout Muslim, he has nothing but contempt and anger towards ISIS (or Daesh as it is known in Arabic). Malek denies having killed during his time fighting with his Muslim brothers, but Mohamed snaps that he has actual brothers whom he had no problem leaving. Mohamed makes a fateful decision affecting the whole family, one that will cost all of them dearly to his regret.

Brotherhood, I figure, was acted by nonprofessionals given that with the exception of Lazid all the actors and characters share the same names, and that Malek, Chaker and Rayene are real-life brothers. That writer/director Meryam Joobeur brought moving performances out of them is a credit to her skills as a director. As a writer, Joobeur is equally excellent, as Brotherhood feels authentic, giving us a rarely-seen image of Muslims and of the aftereffects of ISIS' reign of terror.

Malek is not evil, but disaffected and struggling against his father's control. He quietly tells Chaker that he regrets having gone to Syria and asks him to not follow in his footsteps. When Mohamed and Salha learn the truth about Reem, not only is it a genuinely surprising twist but it also puts Mohamed's actions (which perhaps expect don't feel unjustified) in a new light. Brotherhood does not give us clear-cut villains and heroes, but complex people with regrets and flaws.

Brotherhood is a deeply moving and impactful film, deep in its simplicity, thoughtful and well-made. It has us think of them as individuals, not symbols.

DECISION: A-



Ida (2019)
Review Five: Ida

Ida (Kerstin Jannerup Gjesin) is a sweet little 8-year-old Danish girl living with her loving mother Leonora (Molly Egelind). Ida has a fear of 'the monster', which she keeps telling herself is not real, but this seems her own genuine hangup. Ida and Mom look happy, playing, going to school and taking bicycle rides. At school though, Ida seems a trifle agitated in spelling and correcting her mistake. After a surprise gift of a blouse, Ida seems reluctant to accept it, quietly telling Mom that the illustration 'looks like the monster'. With that, Mom takes it and goes into the kitchen, where she begins to drink. Slowly, Leonora turns from bucolic to demonic, and we see the monster is real. It is Leonora's alcoholism, giving her an increasingly frightening appearance. At the end, with 'the monster' lying next to her, Ida looks up and tells herself that one day she will not make mistakes, and thus the monster won't appear. She will become an angel because angels don't make mistakes.

The issue of alcoholism, especially its effects on children, is an important yet sadly overlooked on. Ida does an excellent job in looking at it through a child's eyes. Writer/director Parminder Singh manages to put us squarely in Ida's world, one where we see the genuine love between mother and daughter but also see how, to Ida, her mother's alcoholism makes her into a monster.

Great compliment should be given to makeup artist Thomas Foldberg. He transforms Leonora into something ugly without going overboard, keeping a semblance of humanity within this secretly troubled woman. Jorgen Lauritsen's score too works in making Ida a horror film in how even the best of people can become horrible when in the grips of this disease.

The film is also complimented by two excellent performances from Gjesing and Egelind as Ida and Leonora (though to be honest I don't think the mother's name is given in Ida). Gjesing is gentle and sweet as Ida, a victim who puts this situation she lives in through very innocent eyes. Her happiness when her mother is sober, her regret and fear when she isn't work so well it breaks your heart. Egelind too shifts from loving to frightening, but she and Singh were wise in not making Leonora a raging lunatic. Instead, she is nasty but equally heartbreaking, as we know that outside the drink she is a good and loving mother.

Ida, while short at ten minutes, is deeply moving, a strong film about how alcoholism affect the most innocent.

DECISION: B+

Conclusions: It's interesting that all five films revolve around children, Harbor being the only one not involving parents. The children all face troubled issues around their parents: A Million Eyes and Ida around their mother's alcoholism, The Confirmation on the child's gender transitioning. Brotherhood's parent and child conflict is perhaps the most unique: a former ISIS fighter returning to his family, but here again there is inter-family strife.

Each adult affects the child in their care, with life-altering consequences for the kids. I think Brotherhood moved me most because there were no clear-cut villains and heroes. Both father and son did what they thought was right even though both were wrong. I could imagine the title character in Ida growing into A Million Eyes' Leroy, the child if not accepting their parents' alcoholism at least finding an outlet to let out their sorrow on it.

The Confirmation was to my mind weak because Mathias transitioning from Katrine seemed almost incidental to the parent/child conflict. The issue could have easily been, well, anything, with pretty much the same result. Harbor never established why Adele did as she did, so you keep wondering what prompted her decision to help Nassim enter England illegally. Almost makes one support Brexit.

Each film had strong performances and good plots, but I think some of the five short films I saw really do merit Best Live-Action Short Film consideration and some, while with some positives, should be reworked.

The final rankings of the short films:

Brotherhood
Ida
A Million Eyes
The Confirmation
Harbor

Friday, November 15, 2019

Flash Gordon Episode Two: Pride Review

Karen Cliche, Eric Johnson, Jody Racicot, and Gina Holden in Flash Gordon (2007)

FLASH GORDON: PRIDE

Flash Gordon's second episode Pride does a better job in balancing things both in terms of separate stories and tone. It still has some issues when it comes to the performances, but given what the actors had to work with I feel a certain generosity towards them.

Mongo bounty hunter Baylin (Karen Cliche) is literally hiding out in a local park, able to make herself invisible. Still hunting for Flash Gordon (Alex Johnson), she in turn becomes the hunted when "The Benevolent Father" better known as Ming (the Merciless) (John Ralston) sends another bounty hunter, Tyrus (Mark Gibbon) to get Baylin.

Meanwhile on Mongo, spoiled Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft) is asked to intercede for an ice smuggler, sentenced to death. Aura, seeing that the smuggler committed his crimes to save his daughter, feels a personal impact and goes to Ming to plead his case. It almost appears as if Ming will be benevolent, but he proves himself Merciless. He offers a large ration and treatment for the smuggler's daughter...and keeps to the execution.

Back on Earth, Dale Arden (Gina Holden) is appalled that Flash has, albeit extremely reluctantly, agreed to let Baylin stay at his place. Dr. Hans Zarkov (Jody Racicot) is attempting to reopen the space rift and gets himself mixed up in the battle between Tyrus and Baylin, who are connected in more ways than one. Flash is able to outwit and save Baylin but at the cost of going through the space rift.

As for Baylin, she is still staying at Flash's place, and given her habit of 'bathing' with oil in the outdoors, he may not be as opposed as he once was.

Mark Gibbon in Flash Gordon (2007)Pride, to a certain point, is aware of its own silliness. Of particular note is the character of Tyrus, and bless Gibbon for trying to make him dangerous and menacing. As written and performed, Tyrus would easily elicit chuckles, but given Gibbon was tasked to play him as something of a wild man, he could only do so much with the part. He did well for what he had to do, even if again it seems more hilarious than dangerous.

A lot of Pride is humorous, though at times one wonders if that is what they meant to do. For example, the poor park rangers who encounter both Baylin and Tyrus are stuck with really bad dialogue and situations. When coming across this wild woodsman-like creature, the park ranger says, "Hey, don't make me get my citation book!"

You can't feel anything but sympathy for the actor who has to say that and try to make it sound serious. Same for when Flash and Dale are literally tied together. "Alien bondage makes me cranky!", Dale says, and my eyebrows raised at what I took as a curious double entendre.

Cliche is a marked improvement, where at least here showed a lightness in her Baylin when it came to working with humans. While it's a standard in having alien interactions with Earthlings played for laughs, she made it plausible. She could be strong and menacing too; however, from her tossing apple crumbs to surprised park rangers to 'bathing' au naturale oblivious to any erotic excitement that might inspire Flash, Cliche did well in her performance.

Johnson too showed a lighter manner even if he had odd lines to read. "I'm Baylin of the Verdin," our bounty hunter says when finally introduced. After a pause, he replies, "I'm Flash, of the Gordons, and you can only stay here until my Mom gets back". Johnson probably understood how odd such a statement would sound from a character who is almost 30 years old, but in his hesitancy he sells it.

The surprise is Van Hooft, who gave Princess Aura more complexity than just a spoiled princess. It intrigues the viewer that perhaps we will see Aura evolve. Ralston's Ming balances the elegance and menace of being Merciless, and Racicot is keeping to the more 'wacky' scientist, but it works for the series. 

Pride is just a way to introduce Baylin and have two simultaneous stories going on. I thought it worked well, with better performances and at least deliberate silliness versus accidental silliness.

6/10

Next Episode: Infestation

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Overcomer: A Review


OVERCOMER

I have at times been highly critical of the cinematic work of writer/director Alex Kendrick in many aspects: cinematic, social, even theological. Sometimes I, the most wavering and flawed of Christians, have been appalled at what Kendrick and his brother Stephen create in the name of the Lord. I have never questioned their faith, but their creative abilities.

Having seen many of their films, I can say that Overcomer, the Kendrick Brothers' newest film, is their most polished and dare I say, professional work. It is still flawed in some respects, but Overcomer at least shows a growth in their style that should be if not applauded at least appreciated.

Christian school teacher/basketball coach John Harrison (Alex Kendrick) thinks this will be his year until the local factory closes down. Little by little his players' families decide to leave, causing professional, financial and personal strains on both John and his wife, fellow teacher Amy (Shari Rigby). The school's director Olivia Brooks (Priscilla C. Shirer) turns over the long-distance track to him over his doubts.

Making things worse is that only one girl showed up for tryouts: Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson). Making things more worse is that Hannah is asthmatic, but she is also fast. Unbeknownst to everyone save her grandmother Barbara (Denise Armstrong), Hannah is something of a kleptomaniac. Soon John starts developing a respect for long-distance running and Hannah starts being so internal.

Image result for overcomer movieCoincidentally, this is also when John meets Thomas Hill (Cameron Arnett), a hospital patient suffering from the effects of rampant diabetes. Though he is blind, he can see, having undergone a spiritual awakening prior to his hospital stay. Thomas pushes John into questioning who he is, what his own Christianity is, how it affects his world, worldview and relationship with John's two sons. This strengthens John's own faith.

John also finds that Thomas is Hannah's biological father, who abandoned her to Barbara when he and Hannah's mother went deep into drug addiction. Barbara, blaming him for her daughter's death, had told Hannah both her parents were dead. Now John and Amy struggle in how to handle this situation. Ultimately, Hannah and Thomas begin a secret rapprochement that has consequences for all concerned. There's doubt, fear, a separate embrace of Jesus Christ, and the state championship.

It's a curious thing that the first thing I notice with regards to Overcomer is that the Kendrick Brothers have certain traits in their films that they repeat. Overcomer and Facing the Giants both have Alex as a coach in a Christian school. Overcomer and Courageous both have Alex with a wife and two children (though mercifully both sons in Overcomer live to the end). Almost all their films have the Alex Kendrick character have a spiritual awakening that makes him better all-around. War Room is an exception in that Alex Kendrick was not the main character, but the male lead character had that transformation.

Image result for overcomer movieIt may appear formulaic, and there is validity in that thought; perhaps another time I will analyze the repeated themes and beats of the Kendrick Brothers' work closer. However, Overcomer is a step forward for them in that slowly, the focus of the film shifted from John to Hannah to where he began to fade. He did not leave the film entirely, but the transition to Hannah and Thomas slipped surprisingly smoothly.

Unlike their past films, Overcomer does not focus on John's crisis of faith, helped by a 'magical Negro'. Instead, it is about the transformation of Hannah, who has all these people float into her life. Surprisingly, rather than make things unbalanced it works to the film's advantage, as we see that neither the Harrisons or the Scotts are 'saving' the other.

Overcomer is probably the Kendricks' smartest film in that these characters are human. Oftentimes the Kendricks had difficulty on two fronts: social and racial. In prior films, their characters did not actually 'sin': they never drank, smoked, had premarital sexual relationships, let alone mentioned them.

Here, there is a greater openness to human frailty. Thomas admits drugs and women brought him ruin. Hannah steals, sometimes brazenly. John actually shouts at his wife. Their two sons worry about their parents' marriage and know enough to not interrupt when they are either in argument or in prayer. It's a compliment to both brothers that this very delicate situation of introducing a girl to her hereto absent father was handled with intelligence and tact.

Overcomer also moves away from the virtually all-white world they had created in past films. If Facing the Giants was to be believed, there were no black people in the state of Georgia. Here, Kendrick not only focused on African-Americans, they went one or two better. First, they were in positions of authority and two, they were not stereotypes. They were flawed but they on the whole were a massive improvement over what they have done in the past.

Image result for overcomer movie
Acting-wise Overcomer still has some stumbling blocks. This is probably Alex Kendrick's best performance in that he didn't look like he was acting. John is not a walking sermon. He even takes some stabs at dry comedy, as when he's continuously roped into judging bad drama monologues. Shirer's Principal Brooks is more believable when leading Hannah in prayer but in her small role she did quite well. Arnett's Thomas was moving, bringing the regret of his past with the joy of his salvation.

I thought well also of Wright-Thompson given this is her debut, her Hannah being appropriately detached from much. In another debut film role, Jack Sterner had good moments as Ethan, John and Amy's older son, appropriately comic when showing he could run just as well as Hannah (here's the joke: he couldn't) and appropriately wise when assuring his younger brother that their parents would be all right after a strong argument.

As I reflect on Overcomer, I can see its flaws. Even as a Christian (weak and wavering as I am), the 'salvation' scene seemed a bit heavy-handed to preachy. However, I can also see the audience's reaction. There were sobs, cheers and even applause at the climatic racing sequence. I can't fault a film for knowing its audience and making a film for them.

Overcomer may not achieve any new converts to the message of Christ, but it is faith affirming for those who already do believe. It works well for what it is: an inspirational film that should please both Christian and Christian-friendly audiences (or at least audiences that are not overtly hostile to films revolving around faith).

DECISION: B-

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hustlers (2019): A Review

HUSTLERS

The bump-and-grind of Hustlers was not enough to lure audiences into what I'm told is a tale of female empowerment. Despite being inspired by a true story, Hustlers is as sleazy as a real strip club, if at least as honest as one.

Weaving our main story with that of an interview to recount this story, we have young Destiny (Constance Wu) starting out as a novice stripper at Moves, a major strip club that caters to a Wall Street clientele. While business is good, Destiny struggles to find her footing so to speak.

In a scene reminiscent of the starstruck Roxie Hart looking upon Velma Kelly in Chicago, Destiny finds her destiny when she sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a stripper who commands the stage and the men with equal power. Ramona, in her massive chinchilla coat, quickly takes Destiny under her wing, showing her the ropes and poles.

Soon they become fast friends among a group of strippers who share in the good economic times, where even Usher comes to enjoy the ladies. Then comes the Great Recession: business dries up, the girls struggle in the economic downturn and Destiny ends up leaving, losing contact with Ramona.

A few years later, Destiny's hand is forced back into Moves, but it's a changed world where no one is enthusiastic but it's the only way to care for her young daughter and aging grandmother. A chance encounter with Ramona inspires a new plan: robbing former and new clients by drugging them and racking up their credit cards. Roping in former Moves dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the plan works with everyone making money.

Image result for hustlers movieRamona, however, in the way of life, starts getting greedy. She opts to freelance versus using Moves as a base, then starts hiring unreliable girls to be the lures over Destiny's objections. Eventually the conspiracy unravels, dragging them all down. As recounted to journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), we see their spectacular fall though in the end their sentences were relatively light.

As much as I tried I could not get past the many sordid elements in Hustlers, but that was not the primary reason I was not won over by it. Rather, it had to do with the idea that the women were in any way justified in their schemes. They were drugging men into handing over their money, men with diminished capacity and thus in no position to give consent to anything. Moreover, try as the film might, I could not find the various marks to be horrible people.

In fact, the mark who blew the whistle on the whole enterprise was presented as essentially a decent man, one who lost his job and was left with no way to both pay his mortgage or care for his autistic son as a result of the fatal females' machinations. How could I see Hustlers as a 'female empowerment' film when the females were using their bodies to commit crimes, and worse, crimes against some men who were not the sleazy figures they had dealt with in the past?

Another issue with Hustlers, one that I don't think is talked about more, is the tone. At times, Hustlers almost plays like a comedy, at least judging from the audience reaction that had them laughing even in the stripping numbers. Of particular note is when Mercedes calls Destiny in a panic when one of her marks appears to be dead.

Image result for hustlers movie
He had apparently jumped from a balcony while in a drugged stupor trying to land in a pool and missed. Leaving apart how he managed to survive at all we had the sight of three women dragging a naked man out of his house to a hospital, whereupon arriving the women start arguing as to whether to just dump him or try to take him inside. The scene ends with Destiny 'hysterical' pretending the naked man is her husband, Mercedes running into the night in her panties, and Annabelle throwing up.

Despite writer/director Lorena Scarafia's best efforts, the entire scene played like almost a Hangover-like spoof. Same for when they are cooking up the exact concoction that will serve as their version of 'roofies'.

In retrospect I think some of the performances were good. While I'm puzzled at any potential Oscar talk for J-Lo, her Ramona is a more complicated character than I first thought. She has a dark view of the world, one where her actions are if not 'moral' at least 'right'. In her way of thinking, the men who throw money at her stole that money from innocent people, so she has the right to steal it back. By the time we get to Destiny's conflicted view on the matter, Ramona has all but lost her patience with her BFF.

As a side note, if there were any actual Oscar consideration for Lopez, it should be for Lead versus Supporting given how large and dominant her role is. It's nice to see how at age 50 Lopez still has an incredible body, but is this really the role to put her among acting greats?

Wu also gives a strong performance as Destiny, who is not really cut out for either stripping or robbery. Wai Ching Ho as Destiny's grandmother had some good moments, particularly at the Christmas party Ramona organized for her girls, though as others near me observed, her obliviousness as to how Destiny made the bushels of money makes one wonder whether she was willfully naive or just didn't care.

I wasn't convinced with Stiles' reporter, who seemed almost forced into the story. There seemed a brittle, defensive manner to her performance which I would think was at odds with her character.

Hustlers is beautifully shot film, but I found it a bit predictable in where it went. I also found the subject rather distasteful and sleazy. It is like a high-end strip club: rather cold despite the efforts at class and sophistication.

DECISION: D-

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Us (2019): A Review


US

Us is the follow-up to writer/director Jordan Peele's horror film-cum-social commentary Get Out. I was not particularly overwhelmed with Get Out, finding it a pastiche of other stories, along with a fixation on the logic of having candles in an operating room. I was less overwhelmed with Us, a film I can appreciate for its craftsmanship while still not finding it frightening.

In 1986, young Addie is left to wander a Santa Cruz carnival unsupervised. Wandering into a funhouse, she comes upon a sentient reflection of herself.

Cut to present-day, where Addie Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) is married to Russel (Winston Duke) and with two children: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Up in their summer cabin, Addie feels ill at ease, especially with Russel's suggestion to go up to nearby Santa Cruz for a day-trip to the beach.

Reluctantly, Addie goes, finding some comfort with their friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). However, once they are back in their cottage, Addie becomes alarmed to see four figures standing on their driveway. Russel is dismissive, until the family, indeed the whole world, is plunged into Night of the Living Doppelgangers.

Image result for us 2019To their collective horror, the Wilsons find that standing before them are figures who look exactly like them, but they are far from exact copies. Dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying scissors, they are here to enact world domination. Addie's doppelganger, speaking in a raspy, halting voice, introduces her family: Abraham, Umbrae and Pluto, twisted and demented forms of Abraham, Zora and Jason respectively.

They are here for what "Red" (Addie's evil twin) calls 'The Untethering'. This Night of the Ghouls is universal the Wilsons find out. Having managed to escape (Russel even managing to kill off Abraham), they find no refuge with Josh and Kitty, they having been killed by their own doppelgangers. The night continues with the Wilsons attempting to survive, but for that to happen, Addie must confront herself...and her other self, culminating in a 'twist' that for my mind is no twist at all.

Maybe the fault lies in me, but I have never been scared in a horror film. Never. I remember laughing at The Exorcist, so most if not all horror films have no actual effect on me, let alone making me jump. Granted, when Regan stabs herself with the cross, that was creepy, but I never had nightmares after seeing it. The 'added footage' and Regan scampering down the stairs in a twisted contortion to be honest had me howling with laughter, not terror.

Again, I can appreciate the craft in The Exorcist: the directing, acting, cinematography, and can see why so many lapsed Catholics started sleeping with rosaries after seeing the film, but maybe I'm just too detached as a viewer to feel the terrors. In that same vein, I acknowledge and recognize Peele's skill and understanding of the elements of a horror film: the creepy choir in The Omen manner, the juxtaposition of sunlight and terror, flickering lights and screeching banshees.

Image result for us 2019
Having said that, I didn't find Us frightening. As with The Exorcist, I found some of it actually funny. Nyong'o's "creepy" Red voice was technically a great piece of acting, and Nyong'o is a skilled actress to essentially play dual roles. She is wonderful in her performance: the haunted Addie, the demonic Red, making both feel authentic and natural. It's a very skilled performance and Nyong'o should be applauded for it.

Credit too should also be handed out to Duke, Joseph and Alex for playing dual roles of the Wilsons and their demented, twisted doubles. Peele has a strong visual style to him whether it is in danger in the bright light or the hidden underworld of the Tethered.

However, try as I might I found a lot of Us amusing versus terrifying. At one point I did ask if this was a comedy. When Kitty and Josh's doppelganger daughters start attacking Zora and Jason, I was laughing, the screeching adding more humor to my viewing. As I've said before, it may be due to my inability to find most horror films frightening while also acknowledging they are well-made to be frightening. However, Peele does invite us to laugh at times.

After Russel and Addie reference both Home Alone and Micro Machines, Zora and Jason ask them "What's Micro Machines?" and "What's Home Alone?" respectively, which I figure was meant to be funny. Russel's continuing inability to get the danger he was facing (as well as his constant hobbling), along with an argument about who would drive the getaway car should be funny, but at times I wasn't sure if there was a joke there.

The 'twist' is not a shocker, at least to me. While the film could have ended with Addie Triumphant, the 'twist' is not unexpected, so I was not surprised. I did wonder once the doppelgangers 'took over the world', what exactly would happen? It's not as if they had any ability to make this a better place, to use a little Michael Jackson reference.

Finally, if there is any allegory on Us, it mercifully flew over me.

That I did not find Us scary is not Us' fault. I rarely if ever find any horror film scary. The film is well-made with a strong Lupita Nyong'o performance (though I don't think she gives bad performances). The film worked well for those who did find it frightening, including my mother who thought based on the title that Us was a romance. She learned the hard way.

If there were to be a doppelganger of me running around, I wouldn't worry because he looks like this...

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...and he wouldn't hurt a fly (or at least I hope so).



DECISION: C-

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Red Shoes (1948): A Review (Review #1300)

Image result for the red shoes criterionTHE RED SHOES

Few fantasy films have been as admired and respected as The Red Shoes. Based on reputation alone I opted to buy the Blu-ray sight unseen. The Red Shoes simply blew me away, a visually overwhelming spectacle that is also an allegory on the struggle between the personal and professional lives. With excellent performances an a ballet sequence that leaves the viewer breathless, The Red Shoes is a true landmark in cinema (at least 'cinema' that does not involve talking trees and hunky extraterrestrial gods of war).

Aspiring composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and aspiring ballet prima donna Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), through separate means, find themselves in the heady world of the legendary Lermontov Ballet Company. Craster becomes an assistant music director and Vicky a member of the chorus.

This mad, chaotic but wonderful world is overseen by powerful impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who rules this world without question. He sees the talents of Craster and Page and selects them for a new work based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Red Shoes. The work continues, and in her debut Page and The Red Shoes is a sensation, just as Lermontov said it would be.

What Lermontov did not count on was that Craster and Page would fall in love. Lermontov sees that while they are still skilled, the essence of their work is to his mind mechanical, the true passion shifted from their craft to each other. Displeased, he puts it to them to choose, and they choose each other.

The ballet company continues and Craster does start finding success as a composer, though he does not have the rights to The Red Shoes as it belongs to Lermontov. Vicky, however, has struggled in her own career, and a 'chance' encounter with Lermontov gives him a chance to tempt her with a comeback in The Red Shoes, which he has proclaimed would be danced by no other. She agrees, but Craster has rushed to Monte Carlo to convince her not to, having given up his own debut. The struggle within Vicky culminates in a shocking turn, bringing tragedy to them all.

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The highlight in The Red Shoes is the actual ballet number, a fifteen minute sequence that slips from a traditional ballet number to a cinematic fantasia that not only is visually arresting but downright jaw-dropping. I had to pause the film after the number, overwhelmed and knocked out by the entire spectacle. You had Jack Cardiff's cinematography, which takes your breath away in the lush and vibrant uses of color.

You had director Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell pushing for this daring visual and artistic vision, going all-in on something that blends reality and fantasy, a number that is a heightened unreality that is more than visually arresting as I previously said. It is downright extraordinary. The closest I can find to compare the Red Shoes ballet sequence in any film is the finale to An American in Paris, and the latter definitely pales to the former. I wouldn't be surprised if An American in Paris' Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly didn't use the dance number as inspiration for their own ballet sequence. As good as the closing number in An American in Paris is (and to my mind, one of two parts of the film that I thought well of), The Red Shoes towers over the whole film.

You see Powell and Pressburger not only deciding they were going to create art but succeeding at it.

It is not just the visuals where The Red Shoes succeeds. You see that in other aspects too. Shearer was a dancer who could act, and given this was her acting debut you would not think she had not acted before. Her performance is exceptional, going from almost haughty to plucky to lovelorn and ultimately doomed.

Image result for the red shoes movieWalbrook too was exceptional as Lermontov, the producer who sees the visions of art and won't bend to anything else. He does not play him as evil and in his own way Lermontov is passionate, but his passion is for his art. Everything must be part of his vision, whether it is letting a composer essentially steal music from a pupil to driving lovers apart. I would say that Goring was probably the weakest of the three, but he does well enough to not think about it.

The Red Shoes gives us a surprisingly loving and almost documentary-like look into the creative process, that to create something so splendid takes great work, long hours and heartbreak too. All those who work in this dance company work to do their very best and are very skilled, and benefit from Lermantov's sharp eye and shrewd manner. However, they have a life separate from the dance, which Lermantov and Vicky do not.

The Red Shoes is a love letter to and a warning on the creative process, both on how much to give to your work and give to your own self. That struggle, so brilliantly captured in the film, along with some sensational numbers, makes The Red Shoes one of the hallmarks of cinema.



DECISION: A+

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Flash Gordon Episode One: Pilot Review

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FLASH GORDON: PILOT PARTS 1 AND 2

In 2007, a mere twelve years ago, Flash Gordon returned to television, dying a most dishonorable death in its first and only season. Now, I take a look at the series, beginning with its two part Pilot episode. Flash Gordon does try to be good, but it has simply too many factors against it that sink it fast.

Steve "Flash" Gordon (Eric Johnson) is a racing phenom but he's running nowhere fast. Still living with his mother Laura (Jill Teed) after the death of his father, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Bruce Dawson) 13 years prior, the now-26 year old feels both a frustration and emptiness about it all. Making matters worse is the return of his ex-girlfriend Dale Arden (Gina Holden), whom he still yearns for.

Dale for her part, despite being engaged to Detective Joe Wylee (Giles Panton) and having a career as a local reporter, also struggles with her feelings for Flash. Their personal issues have to wait while they solve the mystery of 'the RV Dude' who is following Flash around, asking about Flash's father as if he were still alive and showing up where reports of aliens are coming up more frequently.

It's not long before 'RV Dude' is revealed as Dr. Gordon's right-hand man, Dr. Hans Zarkov (Jody Racicot), who tells them Dr. Gordon discovered a rift in space where he disappeared into another world. The space rift has reopened, but Dr. Gordon has not returned.

Image result for flash gordon 2007 pilotInstead, that rift sends Flash and Dale to Mongo, another world ruled by Ming (John Ralston). Whether he is 'Merciless' is open to debate, but he does have erotic designs on Dale and torture plans for Flash to find 'The Imex', a mysterious item Ming wants. Using his chief scientist/torturer Rankol (Jonathan Lloyd Walker) to get the info out of Flash, Rankol finds Flash knows nothing, but keeps the torture.

Rescued by the mysterious Chanza, later revealed to be Ming's daughter Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft), Flash and Dale search for this 'Imex' while attempting to thwart both Aura and Baylin (Karen Cliche), Ming's henchwoman sent after them all.

The 'Imex' is revealed to be a 'Timex' watch that Dr. Gordon has, containing all the knowledge of the universe within it (as well as being able to take a licking and keep on ticking). The fight to control the 'Imex' continues, but while Flash decides, for now, not to go through the rift again, unbeknownst to him, Dr. Gordon is still alive and held prisoner.

I think Flash Gordon has some good ideas rattling around it, but one cannot start a series by focusing on one of the most camp aspects of the series: the evil Rankol. First is the name, which may be from the original comic series but which I kept hearing as "Rankle". Not only is "Rankle" a name I can't take serious, but Walker's very 'cold' performance came across as comical rather than serious. I figure Walker was directed to be very still and aloof, but instead it came across as hilarious.

Image result for flash gordon 2007 pilotHim all but floating about on something akin to a hovercraft hiding under his skirt only lends more hilarity to the hijinks.

For better or worse a lot of Flash Gordon came across as hilarious, intentional or not, with mixed results. A subplot about a Spanish-speaking trailer driver who encounters the aliens and ends up winning the lottery was I figure meant to be comic relief. Leaving aside the horrible cliche to almost racist nature of this, Ernesto (Alejandro Abellan) was cringe-inducing at every one of his scenes.

I don't fault Abellan per se, but the character was rather insulting to where I wanted Baylin to kill him.

Some parts that I figure were supposed to be lighter worked relatively well. At one point, Flash has to recreate his fight with a Terminator reject that looked more like something Rita Repulsa would have sent to fight the Power Rangers. Johnson did well here, bringing a light touch to what is a silly situation but not overdoing it. Oddly, the parts that were meant to be funny weren't, and the parts that were meant to be serious weren't either.

At one point, Mrs. Gordon is being held prisoner by the space assassin as Flash comes home, aware of the situation given she called him 'Flash' (something she never did). "Hello, Flash," Laura says in what is supposed to be a zombie-like state. "Would you like some pie?" How can one not laugh at that? At this fight between the alien, Flash, Dale and Zarkov, Dale grabs something to hit the alien with. "No! Not the blender! My mom will kill me!" he says, but Johnson's delivery seems if not bored at least dry.

When on Mongo, Flash and Aura rescue Dale who had already managed to escape. Dressed in elaborate garb, Flash asks about it. "I had a Ming makeover," she replies, but again Holden delivers her line as if it is not worth bothering to try and make it convincing. It could have been played for laughs, it could have been serious, but it ended up as nothing.

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The performances were also less than what they could have been. Johnson had some good moments and has a nice build to him, but sometimes he looked bored to confused, a trifle unenthusiastic as Flash. Take the "No! Not the blender!" line again. He's much better when showing the somewhat clumsy manner with Dale or even when playing detective than when he has to mourn his father.

It's a pity Holden could not match Johnson when he was good. She seems almost lost whenever she is speaking. Whether facing off against the haughty, spoiled princess or seeing Ernesto win the lottery thanks to her ticket or attempting not to be one of Ming's many concubines, Holden is pretty much the same. Cliche (a name to be played with) tries to be menacing, but does not quite pull it off. Ralston's Ming has two strikes.

First, he looks like he raided Walter Mercado's closet for his wardrobe, making him less "the Merciless" and more "the Humorous". Second, he seems a bit too controlled in his rage, as if trying to be suave but not knowing how to be. Van Hooft's Aura was a hoot as the spoiled princess, and I'll cut her some slack due to having very little to work with (and that's not a comment on her costume).

To be fair, the actors en masse had little to work with, though Racicot had the 'crazed scientist' bit down. Panou as Flash's best friend/business partner Nick too did well as more 'comic relief'.

Flash Gordon could have been better, especially given that for all the Sturm und Drang of the two-hour pilot not much actually happens. The effects are not top-line though Michael Picton's theme is good. On the whole though this is a weak pilot where with some reworking we could have built up a better universe for the savior of the universe.

4/10

Next Episode: Pride