Monday, December 11, 2017

I Am Another You: A Review


Dylan Olsen, the subject of I Am Another You, remains a curious enigma after the documentary ends.  Part of it may be because director Nanfu Wang, who lived with him briefly while chronicling their tramping about the United States, is not sure who he really is.  Is he the nonconformist who lives free and easy?  Is the the narcissist who thinks the world owes him a living?  Is he the mentally ill ex-Mormon who is in need of serious help?

Maybe he's a little of it all.  Wang, as a foreigner, has a unique vantage point into the issues of apparent freedom versus mental illness that Olsen displays, and I Am Another You opens up this curious tale of someone who may not be who even he thinks he is.

Wang has come down to Florida with her camera and wants to document people, but it is Dylan who intrigues her the most.  He seems a free spirit, homeless by choice, living on his wits and the kindness of strangers.  He also has a touch of the philosopher, if his ideas like "being lost is where I'm found" sound like a bunch of hippie-drippy nonsense to me.

Bit by bit we learn about Dylan: a 22-year-old college dropout, he's from Utah and was a Mormon "for about five seconds".  We see how he is able to find rapport with all kinds of people as he travels the States, and how remarkably kind people are.  One New York family vacationing in Florida gives him money and their phone number, and various people freely give him aid.

However, as Dylan and Nanfu continue their sojourn, she sees shifts in him, a bit of arrogance and selfishness.  A local shop has given him free bagels, but rather than be grateful for it, he starts trying to sell them and ultimately throws them away.  He says that if people see him with food (bagels in this case), he won't get money to get what he'd really like: beer.  Disgusted, Nanfu and Dylan part ways.

Two years later, in 2015, Nanfu finds herself in Utah, continuing work on another documentary she's been doing on Chinese labor practices.  Remembering Dylan, she seeks out his family.  To her surprise, she finds that the Olsens are a remarkably respectable middle-class Mormon family.  Dylan's father John is a police officer who specializes in child sex crimes, and his brother Ashton is the polar opposite of Dylan: a deeply religious young man with a passion for the piano.

Dylan's father and mother, whose divorce may have impacted Dylan's rebelliousness and drugs-taking, struggled with him.  Ultimately, Mr. Olsen knew he could not bound Dylan and gave him $400 and a bus ticket to San Diego (making sure he got on the bus, fearing Dylan would lose the money or sell the ticket for drugs).  In a particularly sad moment, John said that the day Dylan left was one of the three saddest days of his life: the day he buried his first-born son and the day of his divorce being the other two.

It was a while before Dylan contacted him, and both Dylan and Nanfu were there for John Olsen's second wedding.

Things appear to be turning a corner, when yet again Dylan's nature gets in the way.  Seeing footage of their time together, Dylan delights in his antics and saying, his cursing and behavior troubling Ashton.  It's not long before Dylan sets out once again, only this time he does admit to having an actual mental disorder.

I Am Another You leaves Dylan to his own devices, someone who floats between nonconformity and insanity.

The film is all over the map, metaphorically and literally, but in this case, that is a good thing. Just when you think the film is going one way, life takes it another.  At first, Dylan's worldview of 'eating, happiness, community' sounds almost wonderful, someone who is just going with the flow and not worrying about holding down a job.  I began to wonder if the film was romanticizing homelessness.

Then it shifts and we see that Dylan is not this ethereal flower-child.  He is instead someone who is selfish, self-centered, and thoughtless, one who abuses the kindness of others for his own ends.

When we go to Utah, it shifts again to where we see Dylan is the product of a basically good home, but someone who has mental health issues coupled with addictions (Dylan would sell his medication for harder drugs).  His family loves him, but they also despair as to what he did and does to them.  Ashton in particular, who if memory serves right is not interviewed, is distressed at how his older brother is: no respect for his home, his faith, or him.  Dylan's father too finds that Dylan cannot be contained, and as a cop he knows both the dangers his son faces and the dimming prospects for his future.

Far from being the tough cop, we see Mr. Olsen as an ordinary man who knows there are no solutions to this situation if his beloved son does not want them.  He loves Dylan, and is even proud of him, but he also recognizes there is nothing he can do for him.

I Am Another You has you look at the issue of homelessness, which more often than not is mixed with various forms of mental illness from mild to severe.  The issue of addiction also plays a role in both homelessness and Dylan Olsen's life: he admits to essentially medicating his mind with alcohol.

I'm reminded of how a very special episode of The Golden Girls covered homelessness.   There, the reasons for it were economical: the fifty-year-old black hotel porter who couldn't find a job despite looking, the senior citizen who no longer had any money to pay for the nursing home.  The closest to how it displayed the homeless in the way Dylan Olsen was homeless was the young man who had a doctorate who admits he's an alcoholic.  There was no mention of mental health.

Unlike the message The Golden Girls' episode Brother, Can You Spare That Jacket? had (no one wants to be homeless and is only such due to circumstances), I Am Another You shows someone who of his own free will is wandering the streets, living day-to-day.  Then again, given his mix of mental health issues and his own ideas (particularly those rejecting medication or 'conformity' in his family and community), how much of Dylan Olsen's homelessness is truly voluntary?

Dylan Olsen begins as a lovable vagabond, then into a selfish prick, then as a troubled young man.  I think he can be all those things.  The simplistic reactions to the homeless, be it either 'they wouldn't be there if they had another choice' or 'they are there because of their own bad decisions' really don't fit, at least with him.  I Am Another You looks at this from a foreigner's eye: part travelogue, part character study.

We ask not just about Dylan, but about all those we see on the streets, not just who they are or how they got there, but whether this is what they want or what factors internal or external brought them to. Maybe they themselves truly do not know.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Coco: A Review


I went into Coco slightly concerned for many reasons.  First, the movie deals with death, a subject that might be difficult for children to understand.  Second, it has a Mexican background, and far too often I, as an American of Mexican descent, have seen even well-meaning attempts at cultural respect turn into embarrassments.  Third and finally, the title, which I think is not particularly good.

Well, my fears are mostly for naught, as Coco is a charming and delightful film, respectful of Mexican culture (even if it isn't exactly how I remember it); while not without its flaws, Coco moves one and opens up the wonders of Mexican culture to a wider audience without losing the larger audience (though again, since I'm familiar with this world, I may be a poor judge of how it translates). 

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) comes from a long line of shoemakers, the Rivera family adopting this ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to pursue a music career.  As such, his great-great-grandmother Imelda banned all music, something that was carried on by his great-grandmother, Coco, and fiercely carried on by his formidable Abuelita (Renee Victor) ('Abuelita' translating to 'Little Grandmother', as 'Abuela' is 'Grandmother').  As a side note, I can vouch for the formidable nature of older Mexican women, though I always called my Grandmother 'Abue', but I digress.

There's just one hitch: Miguel loves music and secretly plays the guitar.  Moreover, he is devoted to the memory of Mexico's greatest singer/songwriter, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who is vaguely like Mexican superstar Pedro Infante.  Abuelita is infuriated when Miguel's secret is discovered, and the whole family is upset when he will not join them for the traditional Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemoration, involving the living members going to the cemetery to honor their deceased ancestors.

The stray dog Miguel has informally adopted has caused damage to the family altar, where photographs of the dead Riveras are.  When Miguel finds the photo of Coco's parents damaged, he finds that the folded piece is that of De La Cruz's guitar.  The face was ripped off, so could Miguel be related to the Idol of Mexico?  With that, Miguel breaks into De La Cruz's mausoleum to take the guitar, but a single strum finds him in the Land of the Dead.

There, he meets all his ancestors save for Imelda, because her photo is not on the altar and thus she cannot cross.  This leaves this other formidable Mexican female specter cross, and while his ancestors are willing to help Miguel return to the Land of the Living, Imelda's condition that he give up music is too much.  Needing the blessing of a relative, he decides to seek out De La Cruz.  Into his journey comes Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who strikes a bargain with Miguel: he will get him to De La Cruz's big show in exchange for Miguel putting Hector's picture on the family altar before he is forgotten and disappears forever.

The rest of Coco involves their adventures, the dead Riveras trying to track Miguel down, and revealing the mystery of Ernesto de la Cruz and his connections to the Riveras...and to Hector.  In the end, when it is a year later, the Rivera family (living and dead) not only reconciles but also has a new appreciation for each other and the music they make.  Coco, who has finally passed on, is now with her parents in the Land of the Dead, and both sides ready themselves to reunite once more.

Coco has a most universal theme: that of family and tradition and the importance of it.  These themes transcend culture, which is why the film has been so successful across the United States among people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.  You don't have to be of Mexican descent to appreciate the love of family (though I think it helps).

In terms of animation, Coco is breathtakingly beautiful, the full vibrancy of the colors so overwhelms you: the lush brightness so indicative of again, Mexican culture (a side note: I've yet to be in a Mexican-American home that didn't have a brightly colored kitchen...and mine's yellow, in case you wondered).  The physical appearance of the living is so well-crafted that the figures look almost like figures rather than even computer-generated models.   Coco is a rich film visually, one that overwhelms you in a good way in the detail and looks.

There are various nods to famous figures of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema that may fly over non-Mexican audiences (Hispanics, being such a disparate group, won't all uniformly know all the figures).  Ernesto de la Cruz seems an amalgamation of Mexican film stars Pedro Infante with a touch of another (still-living) actor/musician: Vicente Fernandez.  At De La Cruz's shindig, he introduces Miguel to the real Infante and his contemporary, Jorge Negrete.  Other Mexican film stars like Cantinflas and the formidable Maria Felix (better known by her sobriquet La Dona or 'The Lady') along with the equally formidable Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) also pop up.

You even get a skeleton version of EDM DJ Skrillex at the Land of the Dead concert, which unsurprisingly leaves the dead extremely confused and not overwhelmed. 

Interesting that I keep using the phrase 'formidable Mexican woman'.  Must be because of my Mexican mother, who is loving...but formidable.  Yet again I digress.

It was a wise decision to cast a Hispanic cast to fill the voices save for John Ratzenberger, but a Pixar film without him is unthinkable, so I use my Mexicanism to make him a son of the Aztecs.

Because we all are charmed by the bright colors and wonderful message about the importance of family, of tradition, and of remembering those who have passed on, I think we forget the flaws in Coco, and there are some.  The 'twist' in Matthew Aldrich and co-director Adrian Molina's screenplay (with a story by them, Lee Unkrich and Jason Katz) is so obvious that I wrote in my notes early on, "I hope X isn't (Miguel's) great-great grandpa".  I'm genuinely surprised that people could not figure that twist because it was so obvious (the audience I saw it with laughed out loud when the 'twist' was revealed). 

You also forget Coco has a major part of the plot a murder, which I'm surprised hasn't shocked more people dazzled by the pretty colors. Add to that what appears to be something of a standard scenario in Pixar films: the seemingly benevolent figure that turns out to be anything but (shades of Lots O' Huggin' Bear and Prince Hans here), the inevitable rush to stop the villain, the apparent lack of resolution only to find a variation of a Deus Ex Machina. 

Coco has great music, but I do not think is has a standout song in the way You've Got a Friend in Me or When She Loved Me were. There were only two songs that I remember: Remember Me, the one I think being pushed for recognition, and Un Poco Loco, which Miguel and Hector perform to win a chance to go to De La Cruz's big shindig before his main annual concert.  Remember Me is nice, Un Poco Loco upbeat, but I'm hard-pressed to really recall them, let alone sing them long after I left.

Despite the obvious 'twists' in Coco, I was charmed by it and yes, I did shed a tear or two at the end.

I leave with some personal observations as an American of Mexican descent with regards to Coco.

I think the Riveras are more rural than urban, with the traditional offerings to the dead on Dia de los Muertos not as extensive in the city than in the country.  I've never built an altar myself, though on Dia de los Muertos (or thereabouts) I do place flowers on the graves of those whom I knew when they were living, mostly relatives but some friends.  I may not have an altar, but in my study, on top of my old record player, are photos of my ancestors, most of them gone but not forgotten and still loved.

Coco is respectful of Mexican culture while also multicultural.  Bright, shiny and beautiful, but with a plot that isn't as clever as it thinks it is, the film charmed me and moved me.  It's a simply wonderful film.

And one more thing...never try to challenge a Mexican woman, unless you want to go to the Land of the Dead quickly.



Friday, December 8, 2017

Olaf's Frozen Adventure: A Review


Olaf's Frozen Adventure is the animated short film that played before Coco, having been removed from future Coco screenings on December 8.  The Disney Company reportedly always had Olaf's Frozen Adventure as being on a 'limited' run.  It was just mere coincidence that so many people complained about Olaf's Frozen Adventure before it was pulled.

Many stories emerged that Coco audiences were confused, thinking they had gone into the wrong theater showing a feature-length film called Olaf's Frozen Adventure rather than Coco.  Many complaints involved the length of Olaf's Frozen Adventure.  For better or worse, Olaf's Frozen Adventure has become one of the most hated animated short films in recent memory: people thinking either that they were had into watching a nearly half-hour Frozen 2 trailer or suffering through nearly forty minutes of trailers, commercials and Olaf's Frozen Adventure before Coco even started.

It is interesting that Olaf's Frozen Adventure, at 21 minutes long, is pretty long for an animated short.  Looking back at many short films I have seen: animated, live-action, and documentary, I'd like to draw up a list of films that were shorter than Olaf's Frozen Adventure (red are animated shorts).

Death of a Shadow (20 Minutes)
Curfew (19 Minutes) (Best Live-Action Short Film Oscar Winner)
Asad (18 Minutes)
Adam & Dog (16 Minutes)
Butter Lamp (16 Minutes)
Boogaloo & Graham (14 Minutes)
The Rabbit Hunt (13 Minutes)
Head Over Heels (11 Minutes)
Paperman (7 Minutes) (Best Animated Short Film Oscar Winner)
The Longest Daycare (5 Minutes)
Fresh Guacamole (2 Minutes)

Two short films, Henry and The Phone Call, were also 21 minutes long.  The Phone Call, along with Paperman and Curfew, all won Best Live-Action/Animated Short Films.

It got to where theaters put up notices announcing that Olaf's Frozen Adventure would precede Coco, a most unusual step given most audiences know an animated short is always before a Pixar feature film. 

I can only respond with both my feelings for Olaf's Frozen Adventure and the small audience's reaction.  My impression was that the audience survived this ordeal with tolerance (I didn't see or hear anyone complain).  I also thought that Olaf's Frozen Adventure was perhaps longer than it should have been here, but not a horrible nightmare to suffer through.

It is the Yule Tide ('Christmas' was rarely if ever mentioned, presumably to not offend people or remind them of the religious origins of the season, which will become important later on).  Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristin Bell) have invited the kingdom to join them as they Ring in the Season.  As soon as Christmas is declared open...the entire Kingdom of Arendell leaves, heading off for their various 'traditions'.

At this point, I did ask, 'where's Tevye when you need him?'

The sisters are disheartened to find they have no traditions to call their own.  This also makes Olaf (Josh Gad), their lovable snowman, sad.  If there's one thing that Olaf isn't, it's sad.  As such, with the reindeer Sven, he sets out to find other families' traditions to bring to the palace.

As he goes out to find out what others do on That Time of Year, he finds such things as candy canes, Santa Claus (breaking and entering OK once a year, Olaf cheerfully notes), gifts and fruitcake.  He also takes a few moments to find out about the menorah and dancing with a dreidel, presumably from a Jewish family (or ones who are Jews for Jesus).  Olaf excitedly rushes to bring all these traditions to Elsa and Anna, but he manages to set them on fire (and no, not from mishandling the menorah).

Sven manages to communicate to Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) that Olaf is in danger, though being the himbo that he is, he doesn't get it.  Anna and Elsa do, and they rush with the villagers to the dark forest to save Olaf and to reveal to him that he hasn't failed.  In fact, Anna and Elsa do have a tradition.

That tradition is Olaf himself: Anna sending cards of Olaf when Elsa was in her exile.

Part of the problem with Olaf's Frozen Adventure is that it averages a song every five minutes.  Out of those four, Kristoff's number The Ballad of Flemmingrad simply has no reason to be there.  Ring in the Season introduces the plot, That Time of Year chronicles Olaf's journey, and When We're Together closes the film.  As such, The Ballad of Flemmingrad really is the outlier, the musical moment that stretches the film.

I understand Olaf's Frozen Adventure was originally going to be a TV special (and with commercials, it would run 30 minutes), but if Disney then decided to release it with Coco, not only should they have cut The Ballad of Flemmingrad, but they would have been wise to cut part of Olaf's bungled efforts to bring the various 'traditions' too.  You might have, with cuts and snips, made this featurette into a more manageable length.

The story is cute enough, though it's going to take some explaining as to why Olaf would feature Hanukkah as a Yuletide tradition when the Festival of Lights sometimes does not even fall in December, let alone close to Christmas (though in 2016, the first night of Hanukkah fell on Christmas Eve, which must have made Jewish-Christian homes especially festive).  It's a positive step to feature a Jewish holiday in Olaf's Frozen Adventure, though one wonders whether the religious origins of Hanukkah (the celebration of the Jewish victory over the Greeks) are being ignored in the same way the Arendell Christmas is made to be a secular holiday. 

It should be noted that throughout the kingdom, in various homes, not one as far as I remember features a crèche (Nativity scene), Midnight Mass, or anything that marks the Birth of Christ as being part of a Christmas tradition.  I'm not a believer in the 'war on Christmas' news cycle, but I also think too many ignore the religious aspect of Christmas in an effort to not offend the non-religious or those not of a Christian faith or background.  Just as I'm not offended by a menorah at a public park, I think a Nativity scene is perfectly reasonable at a Christmas event.

Yet I digress.

Olaf's Frozen Adventure has nice songs, though not ones that ring in your mind and heart, no Let It Go or Do You Want to Build a Snowman? (though bits of it are heard) or even In Summer.  The story, while cute, is slight. 

I think the hate towards Olaf's Frozen Adventure is exaggerated, but not without some cause. As for the film, it's cute and harmless but should have been shortened. 

I did not hate Olaf's Frozen Adventure, but I doubt it will be part of any future Christmas/Hanukkah tradition...


Allegiance: A Review


Allegiance, a musical about Japanese-Americans interned in camps during World War II, was rebroadcast to theaters on December 7, the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the catalyst for the upheaval that many Americans of Japanese descent endured.   This is an important topic, one that one might not lend itself naturally to a Broadway musical.  Allegiance is a noble work, one that has great intentions and strong performances.  However, I got the sense that it could have been better, richer, more developed.

Isamu 'Sam' Kimura (played as an old man by George Takei, a young man by Tommy Leung), is getting ready for an annual Pearl Harbor Day commemoration in what I presume is the present day when he receives news.  His sister Keiku 'Kay' (Lea Salonga) has died.  Allegiance then goes into the past to show how these siblings eventually broke apart.

Things were idyllic when Sam and Kay were growing up with their father Tatsuo (Christopheren Nomura) and their Grandfather or Ojii-chan (Takei in a dual role) in California.  Then came December 7, 1941, and that Day of Infamy shook the family.  Tatsuo remembers how back in the first World War, mobs burned down a German shopkeeper's home.  Sam wants desperately to enlist but being of Japanese descent, the Army wants nothing to do with him or 'his kind'.  It isn't long before all Americans of Japanese descent are rounded up and herded to various camps.  The Kimura family is sent to Heart Mountain in Wyoming, forced to sell their valuable farm in a hurry for a ridiculously low price.

At Heart Mountain, the Kimuras are doing their best in this strange and miserable world.  Sam tries to be proactive in getting better conditions for his community with petitions and showing his American pride.  Tatsuo is disheartened by his treatment and displeased by Sam's 'rebellious nature'.  Kay, who has been Sam's mother-figure since their mother died in childbirth, tries to be the mediators between these two.  Ojii-chan tries to keep everyone's spirits up with card tricks and a more upbeat personality and encouraging all to keep a spirit of Gaman (to carry on).

We see Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), a self-appointed spokesman for the Japanese-American community, float in and out of Allegiance, trying to balance between accommodating the government and pushing to improve Japanese-American internees lives, with the ultimate goal of getting them out of the camps and back home and in the service.  We also see Sam and Kay finding romance: Sam with Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke), an Anglo nurse, and Kay with Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who unlike Sam has nothing but contempt for the situation and is not willing to fight for a country that has locked him up and had his parents arrested (Mr. and Mrs. Suzuki ran a Japanese-language school in Los Angeles).

Eventually, the divide between Sam and Kay becomes too great; Sam sees joining the Army once the ban against Japanese-Americans is lifted as a way to both show his real patriotism and get the Americans to see his community as loyal Americans.  Kay sides more with the draft resisters within the community, particularly their leader Frankie, who is the father of her unborn child.  Frankie's attempted escape caused Hannah's death, which Sam, fighting in Italy, knows nothing about.  Neither does he know that Ojii-chan too has died, though his death at least was a happy one: working in his beloved garden where a flower (which in Japanese sounds like 'Hannah') miraculously sprouted.  Tatsuo's refusal to say 'Yes' on two questions on a loyalty questionnaire gets him locked up, with any privileges coming from his connection to the hero Sam.

Finally, the war ends, the internees are released and Sam comes home.  He comes home to find his grandfather dead, his sister with a daughter and worse, married to Frankie, whom he considers a coward and a traitor.  Worse is when he finds out that Hannah is dead and who had an accidental hand in it.  Sam finally believes Tatsuo favors Frankie over Sam, the son he always wanted versus the one he had.  With that, Sam joins Masaoka in Washington and breaks with his family forever.

Now, back to the present, Sam goes to Kay's funeral, where the 'executrix' of Kay's will gives him an envelope.  Inside is the Life Magazine that featured Sam on the cover, with the words 'My Hero' written in Japanese by Sam's father, and the Purple Heart he lost when Kay ripped it off him in their final fight.  We then learn that the 'executrix' is really Kay's daughter.  Her name: Hanako, named for Nurse Hannah. 

Allegiance has surprisingly upbeat moments for a musical built on a shameful part of American history.  The opening number, Wishes on the Wind, is as lovely an opening as one can find from a show where we know there will be great tragedy.  I would argue though, that here is where we have a problem with Allegiance: the actual musical numbers and how they are structured.

Wishes on the Wind, for example, gives us an almost bucolic world, where there is not only peace and harmony but true absence of bigotry, more Imagine than You've Got to Be Careful Taught.  As such, once we're thrown into the war and the hysteria mixed with racism, why and how the Anglo farmer who was so pleasant and happy to join in at the traditional Japanese festival turned into the greedy land-grabber making a killing off his former friends.

Perhaps the oddest moment in Allegiance is with Frankie's big number, the intentionally ironic Paradise.  As Frankie lists the injustice and miserable conditions of their 'paradise', much to Sam's displeasure, the dialogue tells us this was specifically created for the Heart Mountain dance they had organized.  Paradise is a good song, but I was not convinced that it fit in the way Allegiance placed it.  This number of mockery of their subservience and resentment I think would have worked better if it were structured as a response to Sam in conversation at the dance versus a 'special surprise performance'.

It might have even served as a counterpoint to Sam's earlier big number, Get in the Game, where Sam rallies the Heart Mountain internees to organize baseball games as a way to show their true Americanism.  Sadly, we never saw them actually play a game, but the contrast between Get in the Game and Paradise could have worked well for Allegiance, even though I can see that maybe having two peppy numbers back-to-back might not have worked.

Oddly, I never believed in either the Sam/Hannah or Kay/Frankie romances despite the show's best efforts.  Perhaps it was because one knew they were coming.  When Sam and Hannah have their love ballad, With You, it sounded like a typical showtune ballad versus a 1940-style torch song in the style of a Vera Lynn or Doris Day.  The music and lyrics by Jay Kuo had several numbers that had that World War II-era feel (especially the 442 Victory Swing, where part of it is almost deliberately dismissing the misery the U.S. put their citizens through as the internees were finally released during the number).  Why therefore, at this crucial moment, Kuo did not try to find something closer to Sentimental Journey or We'll Meet Again instead of something closer to some Taylor Swift or Katy Perry ballad I don't know.

Kuo's book, written with Marc Acito and director Lorenzo Thione, I think rushed through things a bit.  The rush from the lovely pre-war world of Wishes on the Wind to the camps enduring Gaman.  The romances especially seemed rushed, and not helped by some of the performances (I thought Clarke was the weakest, showing no real change from what was meant to be disinterest to deep passion for Sammy).

There were good lines in Allegiance that underscored the hypocrisy of the internees' plight.  "We're at war with Italy but they're not locking Joe DiMaggio up," one of the men angrily remarks. As Sam struggles between his sense of duty to his father and his country, Ojii-chan gives his take on things: "A boy always obeys his father, but a man does not". 

However, one line stuck out to me that if for a word change, could have made Allegiance much better.  As Sam talks about joining once he can, he tells his father "I'm an American citizen with a chance to prove our loyalty," or something to that effect and emphasis mine.  I could not help being displeased by the use of 'citizen': to me, it still suggests 'foreignness' and 'separateness'.  I wish he had said, "I'm an AMERICAN," to make his true nature clear.

While I though Clarke was the weakest, I have nothing but love for Salonga, Leung, and Takei, who were wonderful in their roles.   Higher is a showcase for Salonga, and she is spot-on both in the delivery of all her songs and as Kay, who finds that love does tear them apart. Leung is commanding and pleasant as the more America-loving Sam save for the Hannah romance, which I felt was the weakest part.

We can go beyond the fact that Salonga and Leung are not actually of Japanese descent.  Their performances are integral to Allegiance's success.

Takei takes on double duty, most of it as Ojii-chan, and he brings a nice touch of humor.  When asking in a soft Japanese accent, 'Where are we?', Kay answers, "Wyoming".  "I didn't ask 'why?'", he gently scolds.  "I ask 'where'?"  Ojii-chan's efforts to find 'the right card' and getting it wrong twice was also amusing. He also delivers as the older Sam, a man filled with anger but who in the end is able to find peace with all that he has endured as both a prisoner and soldier of the United States.

Allegiance has good intentions and draws important attention to an important story.  It might find new life with some changes in structure, but for now, without a 'big number' and with a somewhat melodramatic story (what are the odds that Nurse Hannah would be killed as an indirect result of Frankie), Allegiance is a show that is good but could have been better.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Gold Star: A Review


There are things about Gold Star that I think could have worked better, starting with the title.  Gold Star sounds like a war-related film, and it isn't until the end that 'gold star' is even involved, and obliquely at that.  To be fair, I figured that 'gold star' was related to those stickers children get for good work.  Gold Star is a movie that sneaks up on you, grows on you over its running time.  At first it looks a bit slow and amateurish, probably due to the fact that writer/director/star  Victoria Negri is making her feature-length writing/directing debut.  However, Gold Star starts growing into the ambitious project Negri envisions and ends up holding your interest and touching the viewer.

Vicki (Negri) is a bit lost in her personal life.  She has a hot musician boyfriend in Trevor (Max Rhyser) but apart from that, her life is in the doldrums: working late hours at the 24-hour Anytime Fitness and enduring the inane comments of an older patron who shows up at 4 in the morning and is specific about treadmills even though the place is empty.  In all of this she gets bad news from her mother Deanne (Catherine Curtin): Vicki's 90-year-old father Carmine (Robert Vaughn in his final performance before his death) has had a stroke.

Vicki, reluctantly and somewhat disinterested, goes to them.  She loves her parents but is also distant from them, sensing herself as a bit of a disappointment in that she did not pursue music despite both her parents being music teachers and Carmine a master pianist.  Vicki also struggles with her half-sister Maria (Anna Garduno), who openly asks for her mother's piano in front of the mute Carmine.  Maria, a selfish person with a disorganized life, is a source of tension for Vicki.

Vicki finds herself having to be a caretaker to Carmine whenever she can spare the time and sometimes the interest.  At the hospital, she meets Chris (Jacob Heimer), whose grandfather also had a stroke.  They slowly strike up a friendship, though the awkward and self-conscious Chris is as openly attracted to Vicki as one can be without actually saying anything.

Vicki finds her situation frustrating, finding no release anywhere: at home feeling isolated, even angry, at work feeling dead, with struggling between pursuing a romance with Chris and pushing him away.  After a bizarre sex turn with Trevor, she appears to end the relationship and rely more on the steady, caring Chris, though that relationship has its ups and down.  After the cantankerous gym member suddenly dies at the gym, Vicki begins her journey to finding peace with all those around her: her father, her mother, her sister, and Chris.

At first, I was a little disconcerted by how things seem to be moving slowly, down to when Chris and Vicki have their first full conversation.  There seemed to be a lack of energy, as if Negri and Heimer were waiting for the other to say their line before the other spoke.  It does seem surprising that Chris failed to get a Silence of the Lambs reference, or that Negri appeared to not be enthusiastic about it all.

In retrospect though, while I think Negri could have pushed herself and the other actors to be a little more natural in how they spoke to each other, I put this to Negri being a first-time director and being perhaps a bit overly cautious to not have people overact.

That was not a problem for Vaughn, an actor who I think never got as much credit for his abilities or the showcase for them.  It's unfortunate that my only clear memories of Vaughn are in Superman III and commercials for a local law firm where he was forced to speak in Spanish ("Yo soy Robert Vaughn" is still a source of humor among some in my circle).  True, while he had a few classics in his résumé (The Magnificent Seven), Vaughn deserved a better career.  With Gold Star, he had to silence his magnificent voice and rely solely on his eyes and face to express himself: the frustration of trying to communicate, the wry acceptance of Vicki's temperament, the love for his daughter.  It was a beautiful, tender performance, a showcase for a talented and underused actor.  Gold Star is a fitting and elegant swan song to his career.

A nice surprise is Negri's supporting cast, particularly Heimer as Chris. Heimer makes Chris into a caring, awkward, flawed and most importantly realistic person.  He is a bit of a pushover (though barely knowing Vicki, he is eager to drive her around, even picking her up late at work and seems curiously untroubled by the fact she looked him up online to get his phone number).  However, Heimer shows Chris' genuine kindness and insecurity, even shyness around Vicki.  I hope Heimer can use Gold Star as a calling card for bigger roles and that he won't be typecast as 'the nice guy'.

Curtin too does a wonderful job as Deanne, a woman who like her daughter, loves her family but can also be short-tempered and well-meaning but thoughtless (insisting her daughter use dressing on her salad for example, to show caring on her side, controlling nature to her daughter's point of view).  I had some qualms about Garduno as Maria, particularly when she tried to show 'anger' when searching for her father and mother's wedding picture where I thought she was a bit over-the-top.  However, like most of Gold Star, her final scene when Vicki goes to her house and gives her the picture that Vicki found and invites her to see Carmine, Garduno's quiet and calm response was, to me, more realistic.

As for Negri, Gold Star makes a strong case for her growing abilities as a writer and director.  There are flaws: again, I got the sense that some of the actors were holding a bit back, and sometimes the script veered into strange territory (the kinky sex scene where Trevor puts duct tape on Vicki's mouth and wrists as some form of weird foreplay seemed to come out of nowhere, and we never saw the actual breakup).  These, however, I imagine are rookie errors, and I think Gold Star makes a good case for Negri to develop her craft behind the camera.

I confess that for maybe the first third of Gold Star, I was feeling a bit distant from it.  However, like the Chris and Vicki relationship, the film grew on me, moving me emotionally as this Millennial navigates her way into finding peace with herself and those around her.  At the end, Gold Star hits the marks it aims for, where you see Vicki, this flawed, imperfect figure, become a better person who has hope.  It's by no means a perfect movie, but with steady directing from Negri, strong performances by the cast, especially Catherine Curtin and Jacob Heimer, a moving story, and Robert Vaughn in his farewell performance to hold our interest, Gold Star is a good debut for all concerned.   


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Dark Tower: A Review


When my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. died suddenly this year at the relatively young age of 45, he left a terrible hole in my heart that, four months later, has barely begun to heal.  He also left before we had any chance to argue the merits or lack thereof to The Dark Tower.

Fidel was passionate about the Stephen King series and was thoroughly against everything connected to The Dark Tower: the casting, the length, everything.  Try as I might I could not convince him to go see it. He didn't even want to see it in the second-run theaters, but unfortunately he died before it came out on DVD, where being a fan of Redbox, he might have finally have broken down to see it.  When I lost Fidel, I not only lost one of my closest friends, but I lost someone who could explain all the intricacies of the epic Gunslinger mythos and what had been kept, what had been kept out, and what went wrong.  I was wandering this world alone, and since he, this massive Dark Tower fan, is dead, I am more alone.

The Dark Tower fails to do a lot of things.  It fails to make those who haven't read this sprawling epic want to pick it up (almost to where they might want to avoid it).  It fails, I figure, to make those who have read it (like my late friend Fidel) have their beloved epic come to life.  So many things went wrong before the cameras started rolling that it's a wonder there's still talk of a television series or sequel given both how bad the film is and how poorly it was received.

Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has been having dreams about another world.  This world has a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), at war with each other.  Jake also sees people with false skin to mask their otherworldly roots.  His mother Laurie (Kathryn Winnick) and especially his stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling) don't see eye-to-eye on Jake.  Laurie keeps pushing for him to get more therapy, convinced his dreams and visions are the result of dealing with Jake's father's death a year ago.  Lon just wants to get rid of Jake.

It's now that two people from a 'psychiatric hospital' have come to take Jake away for a weekend visit.  In reality, Jake sees that they are skin-crawlers (or something like that: I forgot the exact name) and promptly flees.  Fortunately, he's been altered to where a house he's seen in his dreams is at, goes there, and is transported into Mid-World, where he finally meets The Gunslinger.

It's here that the Gunslinger reluctantly works with Jake against The Man in Black, who is after Jake because he believes Jake has to power to bring down The Dark Tower.  The Dark Tower holds the various universes together, and if it is destroyed, The Man in Black can rule.

It sounds more threatening than it is, especially after you learn that The Gunslinger's name is 'Roland' and The Man in Black's name is 'Walter'.  Roland and Walter don't appear to be threatening names compared to The Gunslinger and The Man in Black, but I digress.

Now, it is up to Jake and Roland to stop Walter while avoiding Walter's mad pursuit of them from Mid-World to 'Keystone Earth', where Jake is from.  It's too late for Laurie and Lon, who were cut down by Walter, leaving Jake an orphan.  No matter, I'm sure the Gunslinger could be an excellent father-figure, but it does require him to rescue Jake when Walter manages to track them down in New York City.  Walter attempts to harness Jake's 'pure Shining' to bring down the Tower, but instead he makes contact with Roland, who manages to have one last confrontation with The Man in Black.

Above all else when it comes to The Dark Tower, perhaps the most amazing element is that it took four people (Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Academy Award winner Akiva Goldman and director Nikolaj Arcel) to hammer out a film that runs around 90 minutes.  For something as epic and sprawling as The Dark Tower series (eight books, I understand), to compress a lot into so little is an astonishing decision.

The four credited screenwriters (and I suspect there were more hands on this project) threw a lot at us, giving hints of things that due to the running time simply could not be explored.  There was Jake and The Gunslinger's visit to a village of seers, where Jake meets a pretty girl.  He save her when Walter's minions attack, and I figure any potential romance would have been tackled in any sequel, but that aspect had to zip past us.

As a side note, how was it that in a village full of seers who can see past and future, not one of them could see that Walter was coming?  For a village of seers, they proved pretty inept. Just a thought. 

We learn through dialogue that Roland's gun is made from steel of the sword of Arthur Eld himself, a sword known on Keystone Earth as 'Excalibur'.  I figure people with little to know knowledge of The Dark Tower would even imagine such a wild connection, and those who did know had to have a nod to it.  That was pretty clunky to begin with, but the exposition dialogue informing us that Jake's father died in a fire was worse, as was the endless number of cliches The Dark Tower seemed determined to fall into.

There's the 'special one' story.  There's the 'accidentally overhearing important information' part.

There are other parts that can't be explored due to time constraints, whole characters that don't appear important even if they are in the story.  There's the aforementioned 'love interest', there's Jake's best friend Timmy (Michael Barbieri) who is there early on and never to be seen or heard from unless he has to give important information.  There's a homeless man who warns Jake about how they are coming from other worlds, but when he's confronted later on by Jake and Roland, he seems to have no idea what they are going on about.  There's Lon's perpetually hostile reaction towards his stepson, which is not only cliche but without any real explanation. There's Roland's 'fish-out-of-water' comedy bits that aren't funny.

As a side note, that aspect reminds me of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.  It's a poor reflection on The Dark Tower when a Stephen King book reminds you of Rick Riordan. Whatever was good, whatever was special about The Dark Tower series got lost in what looks like a strange effort to make this into a young-adult franchise.

It's all a shame because Idris Elba showed himself to be perfect for the conflicted, weary Gunslinger.  The failure of the film is nowhere near his fault.  In fact, he's about the only aspect of worth in The Dark Tower, a film that does him a terrible injustice by popping his wonderful performance in such lousy material.  McConaughey appears to be having a ball camping it up for all his paycheck's worth.  Taylor, I think, did his best but it is surprising that The Dark Tower opted to make him the central character when Elba and The Gunslinger would have made for more interesting viewing.  This is especially true when it takes nearly a half hour for them to meet.  If you are going to make a relatively short film, using a third of your time for a domestic drama with barely hints of the epic multiverse battles going on might not be the best decision.

Some things in The Dark Tower are almost beyond belief.  When Jake is making his escape, he looks like a parkour master.  The Gunslinger and Jake are attacked twice in one night by some kind of monsters that can tap into their psyches and form images of their late fathers, but who they are or whether they are in league with Walter is left up in the air.  I figure that both The Gunslinger and Jake having lost their fathers is or will be connected in some way, but I guess we'll never explore that parallel.

Just about everything in The Dark Tower is a misfire: the music that tries to do the heavy lifting, McConaughey's performance, a boring final battle, a story that cannot ground itself (and having four people write this seems too hard to believe).  Idris Elba should be proud of his work, because he put real effort into it.  It also cries out for someone to put him in a legitimate Western or just to have him work more.

I do wish my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. were alive for a myriad of reasons.  I'm sure he, a big Dark Tower fan, would have disliked The Dark Tower intensely, but it would have been so much fun laughing about it all.


Monday, December 4, 2017

I Called Him Morgan: A Review


For those of us not well-versed in jazz history, the story of Lee and Helen Morgan chronicled in I Called Him Morgan may come as a shock: a talented young artist brought down by the very woman who saved him from personal demons.  In one strange twist of fate after another, I Called Him Morgan reads like a fantastical work of fiction.  The fact that it is a true story, and one that leaves the viewer with hauntingly unanswered questions, makes for fascinating viewing.

On February 20, 1972, Lee Morgan, a jazz trumpeter and composer, was performing when his common-law wife, Helen, comes and shoots him dead, shocking the jazz world.  Helen apparently disappears after her arrest; over twenty years later, a Wilmington, North Carolina adult educator named Larry Reni Thomas introduces himself to his students.  One of the things he mentions is he is a jazz fan, and after class one of his students comes up to him and mentions that her husband played jazz.

Her husband, she tells Professor Thomas, was Lee Morgan.  Helen Morgan has not only resurfaced, but she agrees to an interview with Thomas in 1996.  The interview takes place in February of that year, with a follow-up scheduled for later.

Helen Morgan died in March 1996, and her cassette recording of her story is the basis for I Called Him Morgan.

We then learn, through a variety of interviews with the Morgans' friends and colleagues as well as Mrs. Morgan's own interview, on Lee and Helen's own stories prior to finding their way to each other, that fateful night, and a bit of what happened to Helen Morgan.

Helen had her first child at 13, followed by another child a year later.  At 17 she married a man who was 39 but was left a widow.  Desperate to escape the poverty she knew in her native North Carolina, she moved to New York City, where her legendary cooking and open-door attracted many up-and-coming jazz artists.

Lee Morgan was a prodigy, playing with Dizzy Gillespie while still in his teens.  An extraordinary talent, he soon became the lynch-pin for drummer Art Blakey's ensemble before breaking out on his own.  With his talent, he also brought trouble upon himself in the form of a deep heroin addiction, reaching its low point when he was so strung out he hit his head on a radiator and burned part of it off.  Morgan was forced to hide the injury with a radical new hairstyle.

It was at his low point when Helen came into his life.  The den mother aspect of her nature took to him, providing food and shelter and getting him into treatment.  It looked like they had saved each other, and Morgan (she called him 'Morgan', she said, because she didn't like 'Lee') even wrote a song for her, Helen's Ritual

Though never legally married she was known as 'Mrs. Morgan' despite Lee being the same age as her son. Mrs. Morgan eventually became convinced Mr. Morgan was fooling around with a pretty young thing named Judith Johnson.  Ms. Johnson, who was interviewed for I Called Him Morgan, insists there was never any liaison between them, but in 1972, Helen was not convinced.

It was during a blizzard when Helen goes to the eerily-named Slug's Saloon to confront her husband.  Helen admitted that she was shocked at herself for what she did, and how a friend visiting before she left begged her not to go.  The blizzard made the arrival of the ambulance take over an hour, where Lee Morgan bled to death.

The charge that Helen Morgan pleaded guilty to was second-degree manslaughter, which after a reduced prison term carried 2 to 5 years probation.  After that, she 'disappeared', having returned to North Carolina, where she probably would have died in obscurity, a strange footnote to jazz history, if not for that encounter with Professor Thomas.  The interview was coming close to digging deeper, when her grandson arrived and the interview had to abruptly end.  Mrs. Morgan agreed to a follow-up interview, but died a month later, the mystery as to her mindset and rationale still left unanswered.

I Called Him Morgan is a fascinating portrait of the strange power of love and forgiveness that drives people.  Mrs. Morgan does not come across as a cold-hearted, vindictive woman, a 'wronged woman' or some kind of femme fatale.  Quite the contrary: she comes across until the actual murder as a strong, caring individual who helped everyone she met.  After she disappeared, her son reports she became more active in her church, not more religious but more active, he points out.  It might be she sought her own atonement.

Lee Morgan, to those who know little or nothing about jazz, shows himself to be a fantastic, creative talent.  I Called Him Morgan is worth seeing just to hear Morgan's fantastic music.  Scriptwriter/director/producer Kasper Collin not only has great affection for Morgan's music, but created a well-crafted work that serves as both biography and meditation on love: the light and dark side.  He culled the archives for some wonderful images and concert appearances by Morgan, sometimes contrasting Lee's fine craftsmanship musically with the pops of Helen's cassette interview.

It isn't just Helen that forgave herself, it was Lee's colleagues.  One tells that he carried a lot of anger towards Helen for the longest time, but when she asks for forgiveness, he finds all that anger is lost.

I think even those who don't particularly care for jazz will find I Called Him Morgan quite fascinating: two people who helped and harmed each other and themselves, their love proving fatal.  With Lee Morgan's brilliant music to accompany it, I Called Him Morgan paints a portrait worthy of a Blue Note melody.