Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bates Up In Smoke


BATES MOTEL: UNDERWATER

Underwater is Bates Motel's weakest episode.  While there are some good turns into terror which the show excels in, too much time is taken up with what essentially amounts to a stoner comedy where even the more sensible characters go a bit off.  However, we do get some strong moments in terms of overall plot, even if a lot of Underwater (which in one of the better aspects, has multiple meanings) tends to get lost in a haze.

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is furious.  She is about to go underwater financially now that the highway will bypass the Bates Motel.  She is convinced her real estate agent knew about this and now is determined to dump the business, take what she can (which is everything she put into it) and skip out of town once again, toting her youngest son Norman (Freddie Highmore) with her.  In a rare display of courage, Norman tells her he will NOT leave White Pine Bay. 

Why would he?  His brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has constantly offered to take him in.  His English teacher, the extremely hot Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) thinks he has incredible talent...in his writing (get your mind out of the gutter!).  He has made a female friend in Emma (Olivia Cooke) and has even managed to get laid with the most popular girl in town, Bradley (Nicola Peltz), even if she saw it as something other than how Norman saw their encounter.  So what if Norman dreams of drowning Bradley underwater in the bathtub?

Who wouldn't be hot for teacher?
In fairness to Norma and Norman, both have been having a hard time of it, what with her finding the corpse of her late lover Deputy Shelby in her bed and Norman having potentially murdered his own father and all. 

Making things worse for both is the issue of Dylan.  Norman senses that Dylan and Bradley find each other sexually attracted, inspiring his jealousy.  Bradley sweet-talks her way to get Dylan to go into her late father's old office, which is where some drug empire is headquartered (though Bradley knows nothing of this).  Meanwhile, Abernathy (Jere Burns) continues to torment Norma surreptitiously.

In order for her to get some rest, Norma does the most natural thing in the world...she crawls into bed with her seventeen year old son.  Again, what can possibly be so odd in all that?

Things however, seem to only keep getting worse for the Bateses.  First, Norma discovers that people use marijuana!  She is genuinely shocked, SHOCKED to find Dylan's guests are using pot all over the place.  One of them offers Emma some pot, oblivious to her oxygen tank.  Well, in such situations, a cupcake will do, and to both Emma and Norma's surprise, Emma ends up both high and completely disoriented.  Finally, Abernathy makes his move.  Surprising Norma in the back of her car, the mystery man (since it's discovered Abernathy is one of many aliases) tells Norma that her late lover owes him $150,000 for a batch of sex slaves he had not paid for, and he's come to collect.

Despite having nothing close to that, or not having been aware prior to his death that Shelby was involved in something as sordid as white slavery, or being on the verge of financial ruin herself, Abernathy demands that she come up with the money by tomorrow, midnight, or Abernathy will kill some people...named Dylan Massett, Norman Bates, and then one Norma Louise Bates.  She says she will pay him, though exactly how this is to be done no one knows.

As I said, what pushed Underwater down (no pun intended) was that for most of the episode, there is an odd focus on the comical aspects of getting high.  There is Norma's apparent unfamiliarity with cannabis, down to her almost shockingly prudish view on the subject.  "Just tell them not to smoke pot," she tells Emma, adding that to emphasis this Emma should use an authoritative voice.  I for one took that as almost something inspired from Reefer Madness.  Then there was Emma's taking of the marijuana-laced cupcake.  Although she knew perfectly well what the cupcake was made of, she somehow appears genuinely surprised that eating a whole cupcake containing marijuana would make her a little bit loopy.

Even the road crew working on the marijuana that Dylan brought in look more like deleted scenes from Pineapple Express than anything more realistic (which is what Bates Motel is going for).  I can't say that the show lost its way, but I do wonder if perhaps they were trying in Underwater to give the viewer a bit of breathing room after so much chaos and horror in the preceding episodes. 

We've had corpses in beds.  We've had rapes.  We've had sex slaves.  We've had murders galore.
Why not lighten things up (pun intended)?

Still, we do have some strong indicators buried within Underwater.  Thieriot and Highmore continue to work well together, particularly when Dylan becomes alarmed that Norman truly does not remember ever threatening him (which he has).  Farmiga now owns the part of Norma Bates in the same way Robert Downey, Jr. owns the role of Tony Stark/Iron-Man.  She manages to make lines like, "Why do crazy people keep gravitating towards me?" sound perfectly logical and rational.  Her getting into bed with her son is an example of great subtext, where things are suggested without being overtly spoken.  From her point of view, there really is nothing weird or creepy about the whole thing: Norman has a bed, she'd like to sleep on a bed, and it's the son she's extremely close to. 

What's so wrong with that?  Whether NORMAN thinks it's odd or uncomfortable is irrelevant to Norma, a woman so unaware that her actions might be wrong she never thinks her acts through.  When she is attacked by Abernathy, this again is another great last-minute surprise that pushes the episode high (no pun intended).  The fear she has both for her own safety and that of her sons is played so well.  Farmiga is so good that even when something appears comical (such as when she starts whacking the real estate agent with her purse because he will probably not be able to get her money back) Farmiga makes it more the act of a woman thoroughly enraged at her powerlessness than of a crazy woman.

Burns makes Abernathy into now the cold, calculating killer, one who might finally be Norma's match. 

Again, the focus on the lighter side of pot makes Underwater and Bates Motel come close to farce.  Fortunately, Farmiga and Burns' performances and the underlying tones of danger, especially one not of either Norma or Norman's making (a rare moment for either) lifts it up a bit.  Still, a little less pot highjinks would have lifted the story higher.    



6/10

Next Episode: Midnight

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Stuffing That Bates Are Made Of


BATES MOTEL: A BOY AND HIS DOG

We are slowly introducing familiar elements in the Psycho mythology in this episode of Bates Motel.  We get Norman Bates' (Freddie Highmore) fixation with taxidermy.  We get a more open revelation of his slow mental crumbling.  We also get other elements that both slow down both the episode and series and are almost distractions from what appears to be a new storyline, now that the Deputy Shelby storyline has ended (though not necessarily the end of the bad Deputy himself).

Norman is devastated when his dog is run over.  Unbeknown to Norma (Vera Farmiga), he turns to his friend Emma's father, Will Decody (Ian Hart), a taxidermist, for help.  "Dishonorable to put her in the ground," Norman tells him.  If other problems were as easy to resolve.  Despite his objections Emma (Olivia Cooke), in a moment of defending him, has revealed Norman's one-night stand with Bradley (Nicola Peltz).  The difficulties Norman is having make him run out of school, despite the concerns of the administration and his favorite teacher, the thoroughly hot Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), who inspires all sorts of wicked thoughts within our protagonist.

Mother Norma has her own problems.  The mysterious Man in Room Number 9, one Jake Abernathy (Jere Burns) believes she knows something about the previous owner, especially since she was involved with Shelby.  Despite her obvious cluelessness about what he is talking about Abernathy insists she knows 'what he is looking for'.  She gets more bad news when she learns that a major highway bypass will do just that: bypass the Bates Motel.  With her business so out of the way from the highway, it basically means the end of ever turning a profit.  There is some respite in that her other son, Dylan (Max Thieriot) is bringing in some customers. "12 rooms, 12 vacancies," she says.  Unbeknown to her, Dylan is bringing the crew that will process the marijuana growing out of town.


With Norman, the school finally cajoles Norma to send him to a therapist, but in typical Norma way she insists on being in on the session.  As far as she's concerned, there's nothing wrong with her son (despite him having murdered his father, kept a souvenir of another murder, witnessed a violent killing of a deputy, covering up the murder of his mother's assailant...nothing odd at all).  On the Norma front, she is oblivious to what Dylan's group is up to, though she does her best to reach out to her other son, and when she learns Norman's new hobby, she is appalled.  However, just as things are slowly starting to settle down somewhat, Norma gets a bedmate that is one of the most shocking endings to a non-cliffhanger episode I've ever seen.

In some ways, A Boy and His Dog has a drawback in that this episode appears to have slowed down the series a bit.  This is primarily due to getting more on Dylan's road crew than on the Norman/Norma story or even the Norman story.  The plot about his tryst being uncovered looks like something closer to Gossip Girl than a horror story like Bates Motel.  There is also something almost comical about how unaware Norma is about this new group of guests.  At most, she might guess they are using marijuana, but how she cannot quite put this all together runs the risk of making her look almost stupid.

Farmiga still continues to excel in this series, as her Norma appears to be a woman perpetually bullied by men.  There was Summers, then Shelby, and now Abernathy.  She is close to being a victim of men, but Farmiga makes her less a victim than a woman attempting to survive.  This is the key to understanding Farmiga's take on Norma Bates: she is not evil, she is not monstrous, but a deeply flawed woman who is unaware of how her actions bully her weak son.  No other mother would possibly think that her presence would inhibit her son's therapy session when she is apparently unaware that she is the problem. 

Cooke is also an excellent actress, giving another great performance as the lovelorn Emma, who wants to solve the mystery of Norman but finds that despite being the best thing for him, Norman won't realize how good she is.  Highmore is also excellent at presenting a young man, confused, conflicted, given to kindness but being pushed to dangerous degrees.

Burns does what is best: never make the villain over-the-top.  Instead, his take is calm, which makes him even more dangerous.  Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Romero has an equally excellent scene where he tells Norma what's what: that she is not his boss or that they are in any way partners, thus he is under no obligation to her.  It's nice to see that there is at least ONE man who is neither her bully or her fool, a man who is able to stand up to her and get away with it.

However, one thing I noticed is that the idea of him joining the track team has disappeared altogether.  Story threads disappearing without rhyme or reason does not bode well for any series.  Who knows...it may return.

Actually, A Boy and His Dog is not the best Bates Motel episode, but when we get that last moment, it not only shows the true danger the Bates face, or the danger Abernathy poses, but that Bates Motel has a few more horrifying twists and turns up its sleeve, and that this show can still give us a few surprises.

How'd you like to find THAT in your bed?

7/10

Next Episode: Underwater

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ay Chihuahua? Oy Vey!




I have never been more embarrassed for my hometown of El Paso, Texas. 

El Paso, already known as the town ranked as one of the least educated, sweatiest, least athletic, highest soda-consuming, fattest cities in America, now has yet another black eye.

El Paso, which once had two news vans drag race caught on videotape, and which had fights at McDonald's similarly caught on camera, had a chance to pull itself into the ranks of the Top Twenty-Five Cities when it got its own AAA baseball team.  I was terribly excited to have a baseball team in the Sun City, even though I knew many who were upset that in order to have it, we had to blow up City Hall to build the stadium Downtown.  I went and got a season ticket.

Then I heard of the five finalists for the new team name, submitted by the public, vetted by the owners, and then presented to the citizens for which to vote on online.  The nominees were:

Aardvarks
Buckaroos
Chihuahuas
Desert Gators
Sun Dogs

Of these names, not one is actually good.  Who sent them, kindergarteners?  Who picked them as the BEST names, professional idiots?  These were dreadful names and given that there were over 5,000 submissions I shudder to think if THESE were the best, what were the worst?

Now we got the official name for the El Paso AAA baseball team...the El Paso Chihuahuas.

Again, I've never been more embarrassed.

Would have been less embarrassing...

The person who submitted this name (Shae Vierra) and the entity that owns the team (MountainStar Sports Group) have tin ears and no sense.  No thought apparently was given to how picking an animal already used for promotion in a highly-controversial ad campaign (the Taco Bell Chihuahua) might in any way offend Hispanics, who already endured an accented mini-dog pushing Mexican food.  Given that El Paso is around 75-80% Hispanic (and the majority of them of Mexican descent), the selection of Chihuahua is simply ghastly.  Too many, myself included, see the selection of Chihuahua as insulting to the majority of Hispanics.  I see it as perpetuating stereotypes: the little, yappy dog to symbolize the 'foreign' community.

Even the non-Hispanics who've heard the news are aghast.  What is so threatening or intimidating about a Chihuahua?  The selection is seen as a joke, a way to look like idiots, and there is a simple reason for that...it IS a selection made by an idiot (Vierra) and chosen by idiots.  One of the reasons Vierra submitted the name was because his wife has a Chihuahua.  You don't name a baseball team after your wife's pet!

I'm asked to support this small, rodent-like creature to represent a semi-professional baseball team.  I do not think I can do that.  I am seriously considering cancelling my season ticket over what I see as a total fiasco.

The MSSG has already made itself unpopular by not asking voter support for a Downtown baseball stadium.  Too many El Pasoans feel it was rammed down their throats in backroom deals.  They further alienated citizens when the Group asked for an increase in the Hotel Occupancy Tax (or HOT) to fund the project, then when the Group approached City Hall (or wherever the actual City Hall is now located, having been spread out over many buildings after the actual City Hall came a'tumblin' down to have the field) for more cash.  The City balked at giving more, so MSSG was, in a rare move, denied. 

Now the selection of a name that the majority of El Pasoans detest (with the notable exception of the Vierra Family and the WASPy owners) may push even supporters of AAA baseball (like myself) to openly revolt.   I suspect MSSG will do what they've grown adept at: ignore the people they are attempting to woo and stick with the name a vast majority detest.

Then again, in a city as apathetic as El Paso...

I don't know what the end result of this debacle will be.  I keep reading people's comments who say they won't go to a game because of this.  I for one won't buy any merchandise with such a horrifying mascot...no cap, no jacket, not even a cup.  I was proud to sign a petition on Change.org asking that the group change the name.

For myself, I am undecided as to whether to go or not on Opening Day.  I've already spent the money, but this is really embarrassing, another slap in the face of a community that has a poor enough reputation without handing people yet another example of just how dumb El Pasoans can be.

I think I may go, but I might just wear a mask or paper bag in shame.

http://www.change.org/petitions/mountain-star-sports-group-llc-change-the-name-of-el-paso-s-upcoming-triple-a-baseball-team-the-chihuahuas   

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Judah: Blood and Sand


BEN-HUR (2010)

It is so hard to make a new version of an established classic.  You deal with people's memories and emotions upon seeing a new film version of something that was made by craftsmen in front and behind the camera in an earlier time.  There is a reason why such films as Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia have not been remade (apart from a prohibitive cost...and the television sequel to the former, Scarlett, does not count).  The films were so good: the acting, the directing, the story, that to do them again seems to make a mockery of both original and remake.

Ben-Hur, apparently, is another story. 

If one is picky about things, we can point out that the 1959 version of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is technically a remake of the 1925 original.  I think both the Ramon Novarro and Charlton Heston versions of Ben-Hur are absolute masterpieces: thrilling, intelligent, respectful of the author's Judeo-Christian worldview (and both have astonishing chariot races, among the most spectacular and intense sequences in all film).  For many, the Heston version of Ben-Hur is THE version, never to be equaled again.  Certainly it is the better-known version of the Tale of the Christ, and the idea of there being another remake is almost blasphemous.

That having been said, we now find that there indeed HAS BEEN yet another version of General Wallace's massive epic novel of a Jewish prince-turned-slave-turned-Roman-turned-charioteer-turned-Christian and his fierce rivalry with Rome and his once-friend, the Roman Messala.  However, the 2010 television miniseries adaptation of Ben-Hur, as far as I know, never aired in the United States.  It was a product of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) and only now is available on DVD.  Given the popularity and acclaim of both the 1925 and especially the 1959 version (it was the first and one of only three films to win a record-setting 11 Academy Awards, a record tied only by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), tackling a new version of Ben-Hur is daunting to say the least.  Even with the added advantages of both a longer playing time as well as the popularity of historic epics ranging from contemporary television series like Rome and Spartacus to The Borgias and Da Vinci's Demons down to Downton Abbey, we are talking about Ben-Hur, one of the most iconic movies in history.  The television version of Ben-Hur, while entertaining on its own, will never challenge either film version as THE Ben-Hur.


Judah Ben-Hur (Joseph Morgan) and Messala (Stephen Campbell Moore) have been lifelong friends.  The son of a Jewish merchant and the bastard son of a high Roman general love to race chariots in Jerusalem, ever since they were children (Eugene Simon and Toby Marlow as Judah & Messala respectively).  Messala is recalled to Rome to learn the ways of the conquerors, upsetting Judah and his family, mother Ruth (Alex Kingston) and sister Tirzah (Kristin Kreuk). 

Many years pass, and Messala, now a major Roman officer, returns to his old haunts with Pontius Pilate (Hugh Bonneville).  Judah in the interim has grown wealthier, but because he deals with Rome he is seen as a collaborator at best, traitor at worst.  Judah is merely trying to keep a delicate balance.  Messala wants Judah to serve as informer, but Judah won't.  A fortuitous accident with Judah knocking some tile down on Pontius is excuse enough for Messala to send the Hur family to prison, with Judah sent off to the galleys.  Here, he meets Quintus Arrius (Ray Winstone), a powerful military leader.  In a sea battle Arrius and Judah survive thanks to the Jewish slave, and the grateful Arrius takes Judah under his wing: if memory serves correct adopting him after training him to be a gladiator.

That's right: Judah trains in gladiatorial sport.

Judah, now Sextus Arrius, grows in strength and beauty.  His skills as Gladiator attract much attention: from Marcellus (James Faulkner), a friend of Quintus and confidant to Emperor Tiberius (Ben Cross), from the Emperor himself, and from Athene (Lucia Jimenez), Marcellus' mistress/ prostitute.  It helps that Marcellus just happens to be Messala's father, who only now is beginning to recognize his son in every way.  The Greek whore is powerfully attracted to the Jewish kid, and they begin an affair.  Tiberius wishes to be entertained, and Sextus fights to the death, but when his opponent refuses to kill Judah and instead attacks Tiberius, the Emperor, filled with rage, demands Quintus make amends.  With that, Quintus takes 'the pink bath', and with his father figure gone, Sextus now goes to Jerusalem to settle old scores.   



Neither Marcellus or Pontius are aware of Judah's true identity, though I'm not sure on Athene.  Judah now has a chance for revenge, thanks to Sheik Ilderim (Art Malik), who needs a driver for his chariots in a race.  Esther, who now has taken refuge with the zealot David Ben-Levi (Marc Warren), an old business associate of Judah's, sees the folly of revenge, but Judah will not be dissuaded.  With the Sheik's patronage, the Jew will race the Roman to a battle to the death. 

In case you were curious, Ben-Hur wins the race, managing to run over his once-friend in the process.  A crumpled and defeated Messala waits for Judah, while Pontius Pilate has the matter of an obnoxious Jewish carpenter to deal with.  As Jesus (Julian Casey) is led to Calvary, He tells Judah to 'forgive them, for they know not what they do.'  Judah and Messala reconcile at the end as the Roman's life slips away as result of his wounds.  Marcellus, still upset at his bastard son and having to pay a fortune to Sheik Ilderim, can only look upon his illegitimate child with disgust, but Athene, mistress of poisons, has one last gift for her Roman master.  Judah and Esther are united at last and all is well. 



One particularly shocking aspect of Ben-Hur (out of many) is summed up by the advertisement: Rome made him a slave.  Revenge set him free (emphasis mine).  Those behind Ben-Hur appeared to miss the entire point of the novel: forgiveness of oneself and of those who did evil to them through Christ, is what 'set him free'.  The story hinges on the idea that at the end, Judah accepts that vengeance will not bring peace but the ideas of Jesus (loving your enemy, forgiving those who do you harm) and Christ Himself will.  Ben-Hur, on the other hand, holds that Judah is liberated by seeing his rival vanquished (as well as getting a lot of action on the side).  Granted, that at the end Christ's words are the trigger to having Judah go to a dying Messala, but it's curious that Messala asks for forgiveness rather than Judah offering it.

I think it has to do with the fact that Ben-Hur is more interested in copying such programs like Starz's Spartacus than in staying within the source material.  Spartacus in many ways is almost gloriously over-the-top in its sex and violence, where that was a selling point.  Ben-Hur has plenty of sex and violence, but somehow they seem to be a bit out of place.  I still don't know whether the line, "I didn't expect virginity along with virility, but I am honored to receive it," was meant to be cheesy or just came off as unintentionally hilarious.  However, with Athene's breasts popping out all over and the show's every effort to showcase Ben Morgan's beautiful form we get a lot of nudity.

Here is another element where Ben-Hur looks more like a pilot for a pay network than something for general audiences.  There is a great deal of sex and violence in Ben-Hur.  That in an of itself isn't particularly shocking.  What does shock is how much we get of both that sex and violence.  In regards to sex we get some strange turns.  While there has been a homosexual suggestion in the 1959 version (thanks to uncredited screenwriter Gore Vidal, who insists he put a gay subtext between Charlton Heston's Judah and Stephen Boyd's Messala), here we get the two of them in a bath as well as talk of a "Greek affliction" (whatever that meant).

In regards to the violence we get a spectacular number when Judah is in a gladiatorial fight for Tiberius pleasure.  While we don't get a lot of blood and gore (minus the fact that we do think this is a lost scene from something out of Spartacus the television show) the comparisons to the Kirk Douglas Spartacus is impossible to miss.  ANYONE who has seen the Stanley Kubrick epic will recognize the scene, right down to how it ends.  It was almost embarrassing to watch. 

In short, there is simply too much focus on the physical beauty of Ben Morgan and the violent clashes between Morgan and Messala's Stephen Campbell Moore than there is in the actual story (which has been wildly altered from anything anyone who saw either version remembers). 



Of all things that Ben-Hur either ditches or alters, it is the figure of Christ that is the most scandalous.  In every adaptation of Ben-Hur, the Christ character is there, but always a bit hidden.  The stage play had Christ appear as a shaft of pure white light.  In both film adaptations, we never see or hear Christ: He is shown as only a pair of hands in the 1925 version, or we see His back or shadow or in long shot where His face was obscured.  In the television version of Ben-Hur, we not only SEE Him but HEAR Him too!  In a total break with all tradition, the Christ character appears before us, and the fact that in truth Jesus had NO role in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ makes His appearance even more bizarre.  Putting the topper on this ghastly decision in Alan Sharp's adaption is to give Christ as virtually His only line of dialogue, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," on both occasions when they meet. 

Talk about taking the Lord's words out of context!

Hello, Sweetie!
If you weren't my son...

Turning to the performances I can't say that Joseph Morgan is a good actor.  He has a fine form (which Ben-Hur does its best to feature), but this Judah seems to be all glum and grouchy (even when things are going well for him).  Scowling his way through the film, about the only time Morgan shows even a hint of human emotion is when he sees the Sheik's horses (and that's near the end of Episode Two of the two-episode film).  Moore was much better as the bitter bastard son and Judah's rival, for at least he had a motivation in his actions.

Allow me now to be generous.  Longtime readers know how I feel about both Alex Kingston and the character she plays on Doctor Who: River Song (a vile piece of ...).  However, in Ben-Hur she did a good job as Ruth, Judah's mother, caring for both her 'boys' (even if she, like Kristin Kreuk's Tirzah was underused in the story).  However, allow me also to point out a few things.

Alex Kingston: born March 11, 1963 (Age: 50)
Joseph Morgan: born May 16, 1981 (Age: 32)
Matt Smith: born October 28, 1982 (Age: 30)

In Ben-Hur, Kingston plays the MOTHER to a man 18 years her junior.
On Doctor Who, Kingston plays the LOVER to a man 20 years her junior.

I'd like all the Riveristas, those who insist the River/Doctor story is this great love story, to remember that in real life, River is old enough to be the Doctor's MOTHER.  There's an odd, even grotesque incestuous feel whenever I watch Kingston and Smith together or when I'm asked to believe this 'The Doctor's One True Love' nonsense (as if believing the Doctor would be passionately in love with such a murderous narcissist like River Song when he could have had Romana, Leela, Jo Grant, or Sarah Jane Smith among others wasn't already nonsense in and of itself). 

Sorry, but any chance I get to trash River Song, you bet I'll take it.  Yet I digress.


I thought well of Ben Cross' Tiberius, though here Ben-Hur seemed to have lost its way and slipped into Gladiator territory.  Perhaps this was part of the overall problem with Ben-Hur: too much focus on the sword and sand spectacle to give much thought to the actions and motivations of the characters. 

Moving on to other aspects, if anyone expects the chariot race between Judah and Messala to be 'epic', be in for a disappointment.  I'll cut it some slack in that this is made-for-television, but it was not the chariot race we're used to (going around in circles), but a literal race from Point A to Point B.  The sea battle was well-made, though the CGI was pretty obvious too.  We also have the issue of taking too much time away to feature lots of skin, some blood, and situations that seem to come from another story altogether (Arrius' suicide, Athene's forced and not-so-forced bed hopping, for she also sleeps with Messala as well as his father and Judah) and hardly any focus on other things.

It may be the familiarity to other stories (Spartacus the film and television series primarily) that damns Ben-Hur from achieving greatness, let alone equal pairing with its more famous predecessors.  It wasn't terrible, and if one likes to see lots of sex and violence (with a little bit of Jesus in there), Ben-Hur might be worth the time.  However,  perhaps the fact that it could have been more is what disappointed me in the long run.

Sorry, Joe. I'll take Chuck anytime, no matter how pretty you are (except for your face, which seems to have this perpetual scowl)...

 
The General would not approve.


4/10

She's 50.
He's 30...
and younger than her TV son.
Just a thought.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sherlock Anonymous


ELEMENTARY: WE ARE EVERYONE

As much as I've enjoyed Elementary, with occasional stumbles, I have never seen an episode that stumbled as much as We Are Everyone, where Elementary found itself turning into Law & Order.  It isn't until the end where the episode picked up a bit, but that really wasn't enough to lift it from the ditch it dug itself into. The character developments Elementary excels in were in supply, and they were still good, even clever.  It's the case, the resolution, and even plot elements that fell flat.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) has been brought in to consult on the case of Ezra Klienfelter (Christian Campbell), an Edward Snowden/Julian Assange mix.  Ezra has released secret information, much to the concern of a Mr. Mueller, a powerful and mysterious figure who has contracted Holmes to find Klienfelter.  They track down Klienfelter's journalist contact Cecilia Carroll (Laura Osnes) who truly doesn't know where he is (but she loves the limelight).  However, she does have a contact who contacts Klienfelter: a security guard who is found to be part of Everyone, an Anonymous-type group.

Everyone has been hiding Klienfelter as they attempt to smuggle him out of the country.  Holmes has been engaging Everyone in online fights, partly to draw information out of them, partly because he has contempt for them.  Holmes and Watson do track down Klienfelter, who has been harbored by Vanessa; only one problem: Vanessa is dead.

Everyone, however, starts turning the tables on Holmes and Watson: they hack everything they have, phone, computers, even the TrueRomantix online dating profile set up for Watson by her friend.  They are relentless, refusing to believe their hero is a murderer.  They even manage to get the FBI to think Holmes and Watson are threatening the President, wasting valuable time.


Holmes and Watson know Klienfelter killed Vanessa, and now begin tracking him down with the clues they get from the material found in Vanessa's apartment: a copy of The Fountainhead and an old bomb shelter box.  They do find Klienfelter, but before he's formally arrested he tells them if they move against him, he will release the name of deep cover agents.  With their hands seemingly tied, they are forced to release him and he begins his flight to Venezuela.

It all looks rather hopeless except for a few things.  One: Watson has managed to take Klienfelter's watch, thus tying his DNA to Vanessa's killing.  Two: Holmes goes to Mueller, who is really Elliott Honeycutt (Ronald Guttman) knows more about government malfeasance than he's letting on.  He gently tells Honeycutt that he must help him not let Klienfelter get away with something like murder.  In exchange for getting immunity for espionage Klienfelter surrenders when his plane is forced down in Miami, the spies are spirited away, and with Klienfelter found by Everyone to be a murderer, their support for him collapses.

On the personal front, Holmes reads a letter from Jamie Moriarty, and Watson gets a visit from Jeff Heinz (Steve Kazee), a guy she corresponded with on TrueRomantix who tells her that her address has been posted all over the website.  They do go out and while there's nothing overtly romantic she at least begins to start having a life outside of Holmes. 

The elements of We Are Everyone in terms of character development are really excellent, particularly at the end when we see that both Holmes and Watson have been rather hermetically sealed from the world.  Holmes in particular has renounced love after Adler/Moriarty brought that part of his life crashing down.  Watson, however, now starts to slowly see that perhaps she has let a lot of other things in her life go by the wayside in her new life with Sherlock. 

I was very pleased by this turn of events, and I hope that the Jeff Heinz subplot is not dropped like so many other stories.  We have yet to see the return of Miss Hudson and Sherlock's sponsor Alfredo has similarly disappeared.  Granted, we're only in the third episode of the second season, but Elementary has been having difficulty in keeping subplots going.  They are brought in for one episode, then almost forgotten by the next.  In the oddest turn of events, the most recurring guest star has been Clyde, Sherlock's pet turtle.  It is so interesting and tempting to think that Joan Watson will get a normal relationship with a normal guy (or given how stories go, a twist into making him a master criminal).  Still, no suggestion that Jeff is anything other than a nice guy who likes Joan. 

Again, it would be nice to see at least one subplot going, and given that eventually Watson does marry it would be a nice storyline to see a relationship for Joan.  It also will remove the idea that Joan and Sherlock will sleep together (which would be the death knell for the series). 

Craig Sweeny's screenplay also had some clever quips.  Holmes' continues use of the word 'nefarious' is a source of humor.  Sherlock also knows that Mueller is not who he says he is.  "No Belgian is that bad at backgammon," he remarks.  Another good line is when Joan wonders whether the whole thing might be government-sponsored.  "Governments are capable of evil, yes, but they're more capable of incompetence".  Truer words were never spoken.

However, Sweeny's dig at Ayn Rand and her enthusiasts (read, the Tea Party Movement) we could have done without.  Not because I support the Tea Party Movement but because I bristle at ANY attacks on people's political views save for Nazis and Communists.  When Watson reads Klienfelter's blog and finds many Ayn Rand quotes, Holmes dismisses it all.  "Philosopher-in-chief to the intellectually bankrupt," he declares the Objectivist leader.   While libertarians do applaud the whistleblowers Assange and Snowden, there really is not much to connect them as far as I know to the non-theology of Rand. 

Now, we do have some good performances from both Miller and Liu.  The final moments when in voiceover Holmes and Moriarty read her letter is so well acted and filmed, and seeing Liu as Watson show that she does think of Sherlock as a friend makes it worth the time.  Campbell, though gone from much of the episode, still gives a strong performance going from almost frightened whistleblower to cold-blooded killer.  Apparently, Christian Campbell is not related to Billy Campbell, but they look so much alike I thought it was the Rocketeer in a guest starring role.

The subplots and moments of humor (such as when Holmes gets a request from Everyone to get Watson to send nude pictures of herself, which she quickly dismisses) and in showing Watson can be bright in putting a lot of the mystery together (though Holmes still is the Great Detective) gave points to the story; the human interaction work well also.  In fact, We Are Everyone can take a double meaning: not just in the hacktivist organization but also in that in their own way, Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson are like 'everyone'.  For me, the thing that pushed We Are Everyone down was that 'ripped from the headlines' nature of the story.

Due to that, We Are Everyone rises to a barely above average Elementary episode.  Still, on the whole the few minutes of human emotion give it a good push forward, so things do appear to be looking up for the series.

  

6/10

Next Episode: Poison Pen

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to Sell A Revolution


NO

No is a very simple word used in at least two languages (English and Spanish) and a variation in another (the French 'non') to mean the same thing: a negative, a rejection, a word I hear a lot.  No, the somewhat factual, somewhat fiction story of the most daring ad campaign in history (one that toppled a dictator), has an authentic feel to it thanks to its cinematography.  While the story is good, even interesting, I found it all a bit dull.

Chile, 1988.  International pressure has come upon Chilean General Augusto Pinochet to have democracy return to the South American nation after his coup in 1973 (September 11th, curiously enough) brought him to power.  Pinochet finally gives in, announcing a plebiscite with a simple question: should he remain in power for another seven years?  There are only two answers: Si (Yes) or No (No).   The No Campaign is convinced it is nothing more than window dressing to a brutal dictatorship and doesn't want to participate, but it does.  Their campaign is based on the brutality of the Pinochet years, with footage of the oppression Chile has endured.

Enter Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal).  An advertising man, he is asked by the No Campaign for unofficial advise.  He looks at their campaign and dismisses it, calling it too downbeat.  Instead, he suggests instead an upbeat, almost happy series of ads during their brief running time (both the Si and No sides are given fifteen minutes of airtime).  Chile: Viene La Alegria (Chile: Happiness Is Coming) is what he offers the No side, right down to a rainbow that makes up the NO.  Some of the No Campaign is horrified by this, believing it is rather dismissive of 'their' suffering.  However, Saavedra sees what they don't: if they make it all fear and trembling, they run the risk of alienating the two groups they need: housewives and the young. 

The Si Vote is pretty dismissive of the No, including Rene's boss, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro).  He attempts to get Rene out of working with the No by offering him full partnership, but he refuses.  Lucho goes to the Si Vote to consult for them, and it seems they need all the help they can get.  Confident of their victory, the Si Campaign is heavy-handed and boring.  In the time frame between the beginning and end of the campaign, No's flippant and optimistic campaign, even down to mocking Si's stumbled efforts to discredit the opposition, leads to the improbable victory of the No side.



What makes No fascinating is that while the results should be known, we are kept guessing to the end whether they will make it to the finish line.  Credit should be given to Pablo Larrain, who keeps building the story to great effect.  In his recreation we get a great feel to how the campaign look interesting, even amusing.

Perhaps this is where No stumbles for me.  The decision to film everything in low definition (matching the video tape stock of the late 1980s) washes out the imagery, and soon it grows boring to actually watch (when was the last time YOU watched a VHS copy of a family vacation?).  Further, the subplot of Rene's wife (a political activist) and their son could be completely removed from the story without impeding the flow.  Note that in my synopsis, I never mentioned any of that storyline. 

I can't fault the performances, particularly that of Garcia Bernal.  I've been told I bear a resemblance to him (and not just because I'm short), so I'm prone to like him, though not particularly his performances; I have yet to see a film of his that I've actually loved, not Amores Perros, not The Motorcycle Diaries, not Y Tu Mama Tambien, not Letters to Juliet, not Babel, not The King, not The Crime of Padre Amaro.  No does not make me think that streak has been broken.  On the whole though, Bernal gave a performance of that of a man who is more interested in proving he can sell a product (that being, 'democracy') than any firm anti-Pinochet convictions.

The film does have a documentary-like feel (thanks to its lack of score and washed-out look) and on the whole, No is an interesting, if a bit slow, almost dull, document on how with some clever campaigning brought a dictator out of power and ushered in a transition to democracy. 

Would that all revolutions be that smooth... 

Almost like looking in a mirror.
At least I can literally look
HIM in the eye.


DECISION: C+

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Before Heston Rode Into History, Another Raced to Victory


BEN-HUR:
A TALE OF THE CHRIST
 (1925)

*As per tradition this review will not compare the original and the remake.  In another post there shall be comparisons.

Ben-Hur had already been a wildly successful book and a long-running play when it made its feature-film debut.  It was a no-brainer as to why Ben-Hur held the public's attention.  How can one fail when you mix two things Americans love and are fascinated with: God and Sex (sometimes in that order).  The blending of topless dancing girls with the redemption Christ offers is a tantalizing combination to the American psyche.  Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, is not as well-remembered as its spectacular 1959 remake that saved MGM (temporarily) from bankruptcy, so much so that I suspect many people are not aware that the Charlton Heston version is a remake at all.  Ben-Hur is in many ways as equal to the William Wyler epic, in some ways better, in some ways weaker.  On the whole, it is still grand entertainment that especially silent film lovers will enjoy.

I'm going to figure people know the general story of Ben-Hur (though again, never having read General Lew Wallace's novel I cannot vouch for how any version keeps to it): Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) is a Jewish prince at the time Jesus of Nazareth is born.  Judah was friends with Messala (Francis X. Bushman), a high Roman officer, since childhood.  However, Messala believes that Rome has the divine right to conquer all the Earth, which does not sit well with the Jewish patriot Judah, who wishes his country free from Roman rule.  An accident involving the new Roman governor of Judea is the incident that Messala uses to arrest his former friend as well as Judah's mother and sister Miriam and Tirzah (Claire McDowell and Kathleen Key).  Only the loyal Hur slave Simonides (Nigel de Brulier) and his daughter Esther (May McAvoy) escape arrest.

Judah is condemned to the galleys, where again fortune takes a turn: an attack of pirates brings him and Roman General Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier) together.  Arrius at first wants to kill himself, but Judah saves him, and once they are rescued Arrius is so grateful he adopts Judah and makes him his heir.  Judah has earned fame and glory as a charioteer, but still he yearns for two things: to learn the fate of Miriam and Tirzah and revenge against Messala.  He returns to Judea, where Sheik Ilderim (Mitchell Lewis) convinces him to race his chariot against those of Messala.  Judah, while in Antioch, meets the mysterious Miser of Antioch, who is really Simonides and recognizes Judah.  The Miser, however, keeps silent, for if he acknowledges Judah he knows he and Esther will legally return to slavery for they belong to the House of Hur.  However, beautiful, sweet Esther, who has loved and been loved by Judah, convinces Simonides to reveal himself.

Judah's true identity (known in Antioch racing circles as The Unknown Jew) is learned by Iras the Egyptian (Carmel Myers), Messala's mistress, who attempts to seduce Judah but who fails due to his all-consuming obsession with Messala.  Once they meet on the chariot field, we know who won, but still Judah's heart is empty.  Miriam and Tirzah have now finally been released from prison, but they are lepers and thus cast-off from society.  In all this, the figure of Jesus the Christ comes in every so often, and Judah is convinced He is the Warrior King who will lead the Jews to victory.  He spends a fortune raising an army, but at Christ's crucifixion Judah at last realizes that victory will not be won by blood but by The Blood.  Now, with the Hur family reunited and healed, come to see the Christ will live in their hearts forever.

I cannot say that Ben-Hur is terrible.  Far from it: the film has much going for it.  First off, the story is quite Christ-centered.  We never see Christ (hearing Christ would be impossible in a silent film).  Instead, we only see his hands at the most, and the film opens with Christ's birth in a stable (though if one is to be historically accurate, the title cards reading 'It was the twenty-fourth day in December' is wrong since more than likely Christ was not born on Christmas).  In fact, we can see in Ben-Hur the parallel stories between these two nice Jewish boys.  We see Christ delivering The Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper (plainly echoing Da Vinci's painting) and while both are beautifully filmed it is almost bizarre to see how director Fred Niblo went to hide His face, even at birth.  In this regard, we see that the subtitle of A Tale of the Christ is quite accurate. 

The cinematography is one of the glories of Ben-Hur.  The film has some beautiful early color sequences (all but one involving Christ) that render the scenes as beautiful as paintings.  The one color sequence that doesn't involve Jesus is when Judah rides in triumph after another chariot victory (and one sees quick glimpses of topless girls leading the parade).  Here, we're allowed to see how beautiful everything (and everyone) is.  The two big pieces in the film (the sea battle and the chariot race) are also beautifully filmed, and more importantly very exciting.  The editing is fast-paced in both sequences, and with regards with the chariot race itself it thrills in its rapid movement (in particular with two POV shots where we are underneath the chariots, an amazing feat for any period, let alone the 1920s).

The story is also quite rich.  The various subplots (Simonides, the Hur women) give the film a greater feel.  When Judah's mother and daughter come across a sleeping Judah, their tender goodbye is quite moving.  Similarly, when Judah and Esther meet it is also quite pretty, even cute.  Even the story of Iras adds something to the story: the temptress who fails to tempt, and Judah's desire to serve as the Lord's Army general also lends Ben-Hur a more fascinating secondary story.

One also marvels at some of the special effects, such as how Christ heals the Hur women from leprosy or the Announcement of Christ's birth.  When we think when the film was made, it makes it all even more extraordinary.

What Ben-Hur has as a flaw is that is has what most silent films have: acting that today is seen as rather broad.  Novarro is rather overenthusiastic as the title character, and while he started well by the end he almost seemed to be whooping it up to his full abilities.  It is a bit hammy but in his defense his performance isn't unexpected in the realm of silent films.  Few actors of the silent era could be called subtle: Garbo comes quickly to mind, but few others.  McAvoy's Esther is all so prim and pretty, but Bushman did the best of the main cast as the brutish Roman.  I also thought well of de Brulier's Simonides, having to struggle between being loyal to the Hur family and his desire to keep Esther free.

Myer's Iras is a bit of a mixed bag: on one level she lends a great deal of sex to the film, but on the other when her lover is killed, one isn't sure if she is crying or laughing given her performance.  Then again, perhaps we are not meant to know for sure.  I could also add that some of the title sequences were equally overwrought ("If you are as slow tomorrow as you are in lovemaking tonight, Messala could race snails and win").

For this film, Carl Davis' score is beautiful, lending the film greater power.  However, in what seems strange is that while Ben-Hur is almost two-and-a-half hours, to me it felt longer and in some moments dragged. 

On the whole, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a great film.  It does feel a bit long and some of the performances now look rather silly, almost comical.  However, the film holds up extremely well with some thrilling sequences.  It has meaning and power...but with a little sex in it. 

DECISION: A-  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Shakespeare By Twilight



ROMEO & JULIET

Longtime readers know I love Shakespeare, the Citizen Kane of writers.  I don't understand why people insist Shakespeare is difficult to understand.  I'll grant that the language is a little arcane to our ears, but I've never had difficulties following the plots or words spoken from a Shakespeare play or adaption.  I am a man of average intelligence, and I consider the language on the whole pretty straightforward.  What is difficult is seeing people perform Shakespeare because there is this dreadful tendency to treat it all as something quasi-divine.  Shakespeare is the Secular Holy Writ, held in such lofty regard as something so above us rather than the tender, tense, or even raunchy entertainment for the masses it started out as.  Due to this, Shakespearean performances today tend to make things so grand, to be taken so seriously.  It's a great disservice to audiences because Shakespeare is a lot of fun, but one wouldn't know it given how stern everyone is with it (sometimes even with the comedies).  The biggest flaw is that many actors (and those who laughingly use the term) are more obsessed with reciting Shakespeare's iambic pentameter than in giving life to the words within said rhyme scheme. 

Yet I digress.

There are two ways to go about tackling a film version of Shakespeare: you can go for a straight adaptation and keep the setting, or you can contemporize it in some way (such as West Side Story).  This has both good and bad results.  In regards to Romeo & Juliet, I've seen only two of the three versions made prior to the 2013 version; the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli is the pinnacle of the former, while Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet went all-in in the latter*.  I didn't like the 1996 version (too frenetic for the material), but at least it kept the language and attempted to make it more accessible to its target audience.  The 2013 version tries to straddle the fence: keeping the setting but altering the language somewhat. Romeo & Juliet is by no means dreadful.  It has very pretty people in pretty costumes, walking in pretty sets.  It tries to stand on its own, but it stumbles along the way.


In fair Verona, the Capulets and Montagues are in bitter rivalry.  Lord Capulet (Damien Lewis) wants his daughter to marry Count Paris (Tom Wisdom).  However, after a tournament that the Prince of Verona (Stellan Skarsgard) organized to settle matters which didn't, hotheaded Capulet nephew Tybalt (Ed Westwick) begins a fight with Romeo's friend Mercutio (Christian Cooke) and Montague Benvolio (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  Benvolio reports all this to Romeo (Douglas Booth), who is too involved in his passion for Capulet relation Rosaline to care of feuds.

Benvolio, Mercutio, and Romeo sneak into a Capulet ball, where our fickle Montague abandons Rosaline and falls madly in love with Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld).  She too falls in love with Romeo and in their passion wish to marry despite their family's bitter feud.  In all this, Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti) sees a way to bring the warring families together, and agrees to marry them.  With the help of Juliet's Nurse (Leslie Manville) Romeo & Juliet are secretly united in holy matrimony.

Unknown to all, the war between Montague and Capulet continues.  Tybalt, still in a rage at the sight of Montagues within his presence, challenges Romeo to fight.  While Romeo will not fight, Mercutio is more than willing.  In the ensuing fight Tybalt kills Mercutio, and in his 'rage' Romeo kills Tybalt.  This causes Romeo to be banished from Verona, but with Laurence and the Nurse's help he goes to a grief-struck Juliet and they spend the night together.

Capulet informs Juliet she is to marry Paris, horrifying the already married teen.  She will not marry and her father rages.  Laurence concocts a plan to save all: he will give Juliet a potion that will cause her to appear dead but only be sleeping.  Once she awakes, she and Romeo (who will be informed of all this) will run off together and live out their lives in peace.  The plan starts going well, but alas two things go wrong: Benvolio, witnessing Juliet's funeral, beats Laurence's messenger to Romeo to tell his cousin of his wife's death, and thus, Romeo procures poison, goes to her tomb, kills Paris (still mourning the death of his intended), and swallows it before she awakens.  Laurence, seeing the lover's reunited too late, can only mourn as Juliet takes Romeo's dagger to join her beloved. 

Romeo & Juliet is the type of film that people will say, 'well, the costumes were pretty'.  Actually, they may say 'the cast is pretty' too, since both leads are extremely attractive physically.  We get this immediately, when we first see Booth's Romeo, all heaving chest and pursed lips, bringing to mind Verona's version of EDWARD CULLEN.  I can't blame Booth for being so unbearably beautiful, given the former model is barely starting out his career (and I understand his Pip in the television adaption of Great Expectations is pretty good).  At one point, even the Nurse waxes rhapsodic on his body.  However, in terms of performance I can't say that Booth is particularly good, all soft and whimpering.  When he begins with, "I dreamed a dream last night," for a moment I though Booth was going to break out in song.   However, whatever rage burned within Romeo at Mercutio's death, whatever passion he had for Juliet, is not communicated via Booth.  He isn't all at fault (more on that later).

Booth's Romeo, however, is above Steinfeld's Juliet, who is shocking in her weakness.  The girl who astounded all in True Grit makes Juliet a non-entity.  Steinfeld is blank, boring, and at times almost amateurish.  It's like watching high school students try so hard to get a passing grade in their assigned production.  The balcony scene is shocking but in the wrong way.  Juliet's soliloquy (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?) is delivered in a rushed manner, as if Steinfeld wanted to get through it all as fast as possible.  Both Booth and Steinfeld never communicated the passion that these two felt.

In terms of others, Ed Westwick came off the worst.  His Tybalt was hilarious in his one-note sneering and fuming, with the same expression throughout (his long hair/wig did not help matters).  I have never been convinced that Westwick is an actual actor based on his work on Gossip Girl (he too has a stiff manner and one facial expression there).  Romeo & Juliet may earn him a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie: it's that inadvertently comic performance.  Oddly, the more comic Mercutio came off a bit stiff (pun intended) but I put this on the direction than on Cooke, who could have made his final scene more moving if it had been treated with some sense of pathos rather than just recitation.  Smit-McPhee had little to do as Benvolio, but he acquitted himself well.

It was the adults that showed up the children.  Paul Giamatti's Friar Laurence at least seemed to understand what Romeo & Juliet was about (even if the spectacles he wears in the opening did make him a bit more comic).  His performance in a better version of Romeo & Juliet is a highlight of the film, as is Manville's Nurse, who was less comic than previous incarnations but had a warmth within it.  Same goes for Lewis' Lord Capulet: he is a strong actor and it is nice to hear him in his native accent, and from this we can see that Lewis can lift a poor screenplay.



Here is where we have one of Romeo & Juliet's primary flaw.  Julian Fellowes has earned praise, rightly, for Downton Abbey, but here he decided to 'simplify' Shakespeare's text.  He kept certain passages (the balcony scene, Mercutio's last moments), but others he either reshaped or just flat-out cut.  My favorite passage (Friar Laurence's rebuke of Romeo, the 'there are thou happy' monologue) was reduced to a mere 'There, you are happy'.  Juliet's soliloquy about Romeo's beauty (And when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish sun) is reduced to a voice-over.  Fellowes either does not trust the text or trust his audience to follow, which is a poor choice either way.  Even worse, he has Romeo and Juliet briefly reunite in the end rather than have Juliet come upon Romeo's corpse as she awakens.  Given she's seen him alive (albeit for a minute or two), why then does she wonder why his lips are still warm when she kisses him before she stabs herself? 

Director Carlo Carlei didn't give his actors much to work with.  It seems his main task was to tell them to look pretty (which they did) and to show off the beauty of the Italian countryside.  The rushed delivery of the dialogue (in particular for Steinfeld) and the dreamy, soft delivery of the dialogue (in particular for Booth) were I imagine Carlei's handiwork, so it seems a terrible waste.  Even in something as rushed as Romeo & Juliet (they fall in love and marry the next day, remember), this version speeds along so quickly one never fully appreciates how dangerous this was to everyone. 

It is all really pretty, and there are a couple of good performances in it (though not the shockingly bad Steinfeld and the gorgeous but blank Booth).  I think everyone gave it a good go, and I can't blame them for trying, but somehow the magic, the power of Romeo & Juliet escaped us.  Again, I didn't hate this version, but given that A.) I've seen better on stage and screen, and B.) it had one too many alterations for anyone to appreciate, it is undone by its own ambitions.

It is too easy to say that never was a tale of more woe than this adaption of Juliet and her Romeo.  Let us just say it was a good try, but like Juliet, it came all a bit too late to revive.

What doth thou meaneth,
HE'S prettier than I?

DECISION: C-





* I have not been able to bring myself to watch the 1936 version.  The idea of watching 34-year-old Norma Shearer and 43-year-old Leslie Howard as the doomed teenage lovers, despite their genuine acting talent, is still too much for me take seriously.  It's hard enough imagining 36-year-old Orlando Bloom as Romeo in the Broadway production (and that's considering that A.) he is not a particularly good actor in general, B.) he's good only in period pieces, and C.) he's in a theatrical production where such things as age can be forgiven).  People old enough to be my parents should not play people old enough to be my children.   

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Holmes Schooled In Mathematics


ELEMENTARY: SOLVE FOR X

Math was never my strong suit (just glance at my checking account).  On the Academic Decathlon team I was in, my teammates/friends would be working on the math problems, while I would be doodling and hope people thought I knew what I was doing.  As a result, all the technical jargon of Solve for X, Episode 2 of Season 2 of Elementary, is a bit beyond me.  I'm trusting that the question at the heart of the murders, P vs. NP, is something others will comprehend.  In terms of the actual case, Solve For X took good turns that kept circling back to one.  Solve For X also had a major plus: a stellar performance by Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, giving Elementary fans a chance to rejoice in seeing this series delve into the characters' lives that other shows rarely touch on.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) foists himself on a curious murder/attempted murder case.  Felix Soto has been shot, as has Benny (Khalil Kain) a mugger who happened to stumble onto the fleeing murderer.  Benny survived but is unconscious, so for now he is of no help.  Holmes and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) at first don't comprehend why Soto has been killed, until Holmes smells something fishy on the victim's walls as well as the fact that the room is curiously empty compared to the rest of the house.  A black light reveals a mass of calculations written all around.  With the help of Harlan Emple (Rich Sommer), someone like A Beautiful Mind, we find that Soto was close to solving this P versus NP mathematical problem.  Holmes and Dr. Watson suspect Soto was killed to stop him from coming to the right answer, and that a fellow mathlete is the killer.

With the assistance of Tanya Barrett (Lynn Collins), a mathematician/journalist who profiled Soto and another mathematician, Cyril, who were working on the problem.  Cyril becomes the prime suspect, until he too turns up dead.  Cyril appeared paranoid, but Holmes finds that he had been actually spied on by Linus Roe (Glenn Fitzgerald), whose company would benefit from the P vs. NP solution.  Who brought Cyril to Roe's attention?  Tanya Barrett.

However, she may have been framed by her ex, Jason (Rick Holmes...so far the only actual Holmes to be on any Holmes adaptation).  E-mails suggest he knew the victims, and Barrett has an alibi at the time of Soto's murder.  We get one more twist when Benny wakes up: he identifies Barrett as his shooter!  How to resolve this conundrum of a witness who places a suspect at the crime when said suspect has an airtight alibi?

The price of beer solves this issue.

In the subplot, we discover the identity of the patient whose death caused Watson to leave the profession.  She visits the grave of Mr. Castoro, and 'happens' to run into his son, Joey (Jeremy Jordan).  Joey has dropped out of college and now says he wants to open a bar...and asks Joan for a loan.  Watson asks Holmes for an advance, but Holmes disapproves of this fortuitous encounter.  Eventually he relents and gives Joan $20,000 instead of the $5,000 she asked, convinced this will be enough to get Joey out of her life and assuage her guilt.  Instead of offering money for a bar, Joan says Joey can have the money only if he uses it to finish his degree (I should be so lucky).  Joey, however, turns her down.

The solution to the subplot is actually better than the solution to the crime, and the solution to the crime is actually quite strong.  Every time we circle a suspect, something comes up to bail her out.  The twists in Jeffery Paul King's screenplay are strong and logical, fitting for a math-centered crime.  Where Solve for X really excels is in the character development, particularly that of Liu's Watson.  She has a monologue where she talks at length about Mr. Castoro's death and its aftermath (no pun intended).  It is a quiet moment, but in the quiet, calm manner Liu delivers her speech, it makes it all the more moving.  Her story with Joey shows Watson to be a caring individual, one who may not see completely beyond Joey's manipulativeness but who also does the right thing by him by offering to fund his future, not his needs.

Miller's Holmes is also allowed moments of gentleness with Liu's Watson when he warns her of his concerns that Joey is playing her for a fool.  Miller allows a bit of humanity to slip through his sometimes smug and stiff exterior, and in these moments both Elementary and Solve For X push the story higher.

Credit should also be given to Jeremy Jordan's guest turn as Joey.  We get that he's a young man who has big dreams, but who also is not above using the leverage he thinks he has on Watson to his own advantage.  We always get he wants the money but not for what he says he wants, yet appears so nice that we think we might be wrong.  It was a strong performance by Jordan: part innocent, part greedy bastard. 

That isn't to say we aren't allowed moments of humor.  In his few moments Sommer's Emple was a comic delight as the oddball math genius (I hope he makes a return appearance) and Collins' Barrett was both a fine villain (and dispels the notion that mathematicians are unattractive).  Collins played Barrett as both victim and villain with equal ability to where you thought she could and could not have done it.  We also have good lines in Solve For X.  When observing videotape of Barrett's alibi Holmes states, "I see two underage drinkers, an affair in progress, and a bartender who's been stealing from the till.  I don't see a college professor."  Later, when Watson comes into a room to see Holmes studying a group of potential suspects, she quips, "What's up with the Nerd Brigade?"

I found Solve For X had a good balance of crime, character development, and even comedy, with strong performances from both the regular cast and guest stars (some of whom I hope return).  The problem is easy to solve, and it's good to see that in terms of episodes, Solve For X adds up.

How do you solve a problem like Sherlock Holmes?
        

9/10

Next Episode: We Are Everybody

Monday, October 7, 2013

Good Night, But Not Good Bye

I have made a very painful decision.

This may be the last post I make at least until late November/early December.

School has just overwhelmed me.  I could complain about it all (the professor, the course) but it won't do me any good except to get my frustrations out.  All I can do is do the work to the best of my abilities and ask for all your prayers.

I won't be retiring from posting.  No matter how school goes I shall return once it is over.  If there is free time I may come and put up a few reviews or thoughts.  However, I have to turn my attention to this particular course.  One of the two is very easy: I'm racing through it and enjoying it tremendously.  It's the other that is such a nightmare.

I figure I will already bomb the first part of it.  I can only hope to crawl out of it with a B, because anything lower and I have to retake it.  I've never heard of having to retake a course if you pass it with a C.

Well, to my readers, I wish you well.  I know I'll live past all this.  I also know I have to turn my full attention to school.  I can't believe I was able to pass in the summer with a heavier workload but am struggling here.  Who knows: the Lord may yet surprise me by letting me pass.

Anyway, that's all I have for now.  I will be back, that is certain.  I may even post between now and Thanksgiving.  However, I'll be very quiet for a few months.

Hope to see you all very soon, and God Bless to All.

Your friend,

Rick

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Piano Man's Mad About the Boy



BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

Liberace in his life was as gay as it was possible to be without actually being officially 'out of the closet'.   His thin voice, predilection for lavish costumes, effeminate mannerisms, a curious lack of female companionship (apart from his mother) and a retinue of pretty boys would have made people at least wonder whether this talented pianist was homosexual.  Liberace WAS a walking gay stereotype, yet Lee stubbornly refused to even entertain the notion that people would think he was anything other than straight.  Early in Behind the Candelabra, the television film of Lee's romance with Scott Thorson, the young and naïve boy is taken to a Liberace concert by Thorson's latest lover.  When a gay joke is cracked, a little old lady gives them a dirty look.  This group of fans, the blue-haired ladies, equally refused to believe Lee was gay (despite the overwhelming evidence).  I read it somewhere that these women, Liberace's hardcore fans, loved him because to them, he WAS the gay son they had, or had but didn't want to admit they had, or the gay son they subconsciously wanted, the one who would never leave them.  Behind the Candelabra gives us this affair (romance is too fine a word for it, though not because of the gay aspect) in all its gaudy trappings, all its grand spectacle, but it also finds the heart to these two men, in love, in lust, in hatred, and in the end, in terrible regret of all that had come between them. 

Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young kid without an official family, loves animals and works caring for stunt dogs in films.  While his foster parents suspect he may be gay, Scott won't admit or deny anything.  He is picked up by Bob Black (Scott Bakula), who happens to know the FABULOUS Liberace (Michael Douglas).   Lee, to his friends, is instantly attracted to the very pretty Thorson, and despite their age differences, Liberace is able to seduce Thomson both physically and emotionally.  Scott tells Lee he is bisexual, but that doesn't stop Lee from making him his newest companion.  Scott soon finds himself part of Lee's entourage, up to being part of the show.


However, Lee's lifestyle turns Scott from his partner to his prisoner.  Liberace soon takes over Scott's life: the younger man is astonished by Lee's voracious sex drive, appalled by his obsession with porn, and in perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping moments of ego, gets Scott to undergo plastic to become a version of Liberace himself.  Scott soon drowns his sorrows and fears in alcohol and drugs, while Lee soon starts getting the wandering eye (and an occasional tryst with even younger boys).  The death of his mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds) seems to free Liberace, while the death of Scott's foster mother seems to seal his doom in Lee's affections.  Despite showing him some kindness, it seems that for Lee, the idea that anyone could take Lee's place is too much.

Liberace turns his attention to what he thinks of as one of the great moments of his life: performing the Best Original Score nominees at the Academy Awards, but by this time Scott is out as Lee's partner.  A furious and scorned Scott does what no other boy-toy has done: sues him.  Lee survives the lawsuit but by now Scott has been reduced to a drug addict who had sold all the jewels given to keep the drugs flowing.

Finally, as Liberace succumbs to AIDS, he and Scott have one last meeting.  Lee tells his once-lover he does not want to be remembered as 'an old queen who died of AIDS'.  Yet, despite his best efforts, an autopsy forced by officials over the family and entourage's objections confirms that this deeply closeted (to himself if no one else) had died of 'the gay disease' as it was thought of then.  Behind the Candelabra ends with Scott at Liberace's funeral, where he imagines how the Catholic pianist might have had it done: as a big, lavish, Las Vegas production, in keeping in tune (no pun intended) with the flamboyant performer's whole life.

Really?  You thought
HE was straight?

For me, the curious thing about Liberace is that I've always felt he deliberately made himself the joke.  He loved camp and delighted in dressing outrageously to an embarrassing degree.  Gaudy, unapologetically over-the-top, he looked foolish but at least he 'cried all the way to the bank', knowing that for all the vulgarity of his shows, it's what afforded him an excessively lavish lifestyle.  The capes, the feathers, the furs, the sparkles: all those things a straight (and I imagine, many bisexual) man would reject, but Lee didn't mind being the Court Jester of Classical Music so long as he could get what he wanted.  Behind the Candelabra could satisfy itself by focusing on the lavish spectacle that Lee indulged in both on stage and behind the scenes, but at its core the film goes into the strange but sad world the pianist and the plaything found themselves in.

Steven Soderbergh is far too good a director to get drowned in the grandiose trappings Mr. Showmanship regularly presented.  Instead, while we get the lavish world of Liberace, we also get these intimate moments between an older man who finds himself famous but somewhat alone and a lonely young man looking for something and someone to love and be loved by.  At its heart, Behind the Candelabra is a sad love story done in by all those things that love stories are doomed by: a lover ignored who starts turning to other stimulants to fill his emptiness, another partner who soon starts tiring of both his younger boyfriend's prudishness and soon turns to someone else to satisfy his cravings, and who finally realize that they've thrown away so much in equal terms.

We do get some shocking, even comical moments.  Liberace kept so much hidden, from his toupees to his passion for sex.  One laughs at how Lee sees nothing bizarre at the thought of Scott getting plastic surgery to look more like Liberace, or how Liberace's own plastic surgery to look younger now leaves him incapable of completely closing his eyes (even when sleeping).  One also marvels at Scott's naivete at being in this world.  Behind the Candelabra also shows some touching, even beautiful moments.  Lee describes how he could be both a practicing Catholic and practicing homosexual.  At one point Liberace had been close to death when he says he was visited by a nun dressed in white.  When he did recover, he discovers that there was no nun in white.  Soderbergh films this in beautiful black-and-white, giving it a haunting (and haunted) style, while Scott's drugged-addled moments are shot in a haphazard, confused manner reflecting his mental stage.

In terms of performance we get two wonderful ones with Douglas and Damon.  Turning to the latter, despite being twenty years too old to play Thorson Damon makes Scott a naïve, clueless boy who gets caught up in a weird and wacky world.  We soon forget that a middle-aged man is playing young, getting instead a person who slips into drugs due to his insecurity about being at the heart of his older lover's affection.  Douglas manages to sound as close as anyone can to the actual Liberace, but he also gives a splendid performance as the flamboyant entertainer, almost clueless in his narcissism, his obsessions, his vanity, and his mad desire to keep private what the world basically knew: Liberace's homosexuality.  Still, at the heart of Douglas' performance we do feel at the end for him, seeing him hairless, fearing that he would not be remembered for what he wanted to be remembered for (his piano playing and joy he brought to millions) but for one aspect of his life.

I do wonder why Behind the Candelabra ended with an imaginary funeral and Liberace telling us one of his famous quips, "Too much of a good thing...is wonderful," rather than giving us his signature closing song, I'll Be Seeing You.  Perhaps that would have been too sad while the lavish faux-funeral tries to end things on a high note (no pun intended). 

I still would have liked for Lee to get his proper send-off the way he did, but then again like Lee, we don't get to end things the way we wish to. 

Behind the Candelabra shows two men who find themselves in a beautiful, stormy, and doomed relationship.  It has moments of shocking humor and tenderness and compassion.  Perhaps Liberace is now thought of as high camp, gaudy costumes, and death.  However, we see that there was something to his flamboyant manner, and since Lee was in on the joke he was able to get away with so much...except the truth of himself and the consequences of his reckless actions. 

1919-1987
Mr. Showmanship
8/10