Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Streetcar Named Desire (2014) National Theater Review


There's crazy, there's psychotic, and then there's Blanche DuBois crazy, and when Blanche goes bonkers, she goes BONKERS!  The National Theatre's production of the Tennessee Williams' masterwork A Streetcar Named Desire, which was broadcast in movie theaters on September 16, goes in two directions: both contemporizes the setting and keeping a more 'timeless' feel of the seamy goings-on in the Big Easy.  With four great performances this version is not without its flaws, but still makes for compelling viewing.

There may be people who genuinely don't know the plot, so here goes.  Blanche DuBois (Gillian Anderson), having lost her family's plantation, goes to visit her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby), who lives in New Orleans with her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster).  Stanley is as uncouth as Blanche is elegant, and there is thinly veiled contempt for the other.  Stanley sees Blanche as an uppity phony, Blanche sees Stanley as an abusive brute.   Certainly there is truth to both perceptions, and Stella is put in the middle of their frosty war.  Hope comes to Blanche courtesy of Mitch (Corey Johnson), Stanley's best friend who is not as harsh as Stanley.  Mitch certainly is enamored of the sophisticated lady-like Blanche, and Blanche in turn sees Mitch as perhaps her last chance at happiness, as her first marriage ended with the young man's death by suicide early in their relationship.

However, things slowly disintegrate.  Stanley learns through people at work that Blanche, far from being this respectable widow, was a virtual nymphomaniac and forced to resign when her attentions went to a seventeen-year-old boy in her school.   This news, which Stan eagerly shares with Mitch, causes a disaster at Blanche's birthday party.  Mitch doesn't show up, leaving Blanche devastated and confused.  When he does appear, she's already slipping into total insanity as her carefully constructed world of 'magic' comes ripping apart at Stanley's hand.  Despite now being a father, Stanley takes advantage of a clearly unhinged Blanche and rapes her.  Stella cannot bring herself to believe Blanche's story (though one suspects she thinks her sister is telling the truth), and the decision is made to send her to an asylum.  As she is collected, Stella is devastated, Stanley does not want to recognize anything's wrong, Mitch is torn, and Blanche, completely divorced from reality, accepting the Doctor's hand, telling him, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers". 

I think Blanche DuBois is one of the hardest roles for an actress to play.  First, no matter how many revivals and interpretations of our mad Southern belle there will be, all of them will be in the shadow of Vivien Leigh's iconic portrayal of Blanche in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (as she had originated the role on the London stage, Jessica Tandy having originated the role on Broadway).  Second, the role is so meaty that a bad actress can amp up the psycho and be so over-the-top it ends up turning Streetcar into a comedy. 

Certainly the exaggerated genteel nature of Blanche lend themselves to the possibility of an actress being excessively fluttery and a smelling salt short of getting 'the vapors'; throw in the fact that some actresses simply cannot do Southern accents and Blanche becomes too hot to handle.  I'm from Texas, so Southern accents are not too familiar (Texans having our own manner of speaking), but I have watched The Dukes of Hazzard, so I'm familiar with the dialect.

Anderson, fortunately, did not go for a broad caricature of a grande dame of the Confederacy.  Her Blanche was believable in her delusions, a woman who deep down KNEW the truth but as she put it, didn't want reality but magic, things as they SHOULD be rather than how they were.  I found Anderson's Blanche to be highly vulnerable, someone who yearned to be the belle she wanted to but found that those things were long gone.

As a side note, I never believed she truly was a nymphomaniac or a slut.  Rather, how I see Blanche is as a woman who had her dreams of love crushed by her husband Allen.  I think it wasn't overtly spoken, but Allen, this great love of Blanche's, was homosexual and killed himself over the fact that he was gay and married to a woman but having an affair with another man.  Her late husband she describes as 'the boy who 'wrote poetry'', which is as odd a euphemism for 'homosexual' as I've ever heard, and given it was created by Tennessee Williams (who was openly gay), that's saying something.

This destruction of her romantic ideals, I think, destroyed Blanche, and all those sexual encounters were not because she wasn't this refined woman or because she was being hypocritical.  I think being with so many men, down to the seventeen-year-old boy she seduced as a teacher, was a way for her to drown her sorrow (as if the booze wasn't drowning her sorrows already).  She yearned for that company, for MEN, for validation as a woman, and I've always thought her numerous affairs were a way to empty the loneliness. 

To rely on the kindness of strangers.

Anderson is sensational as Blanche, bringing a painful vulnerability when she's completely lost it, but she is also arrogant and snobbish in regards to Stanley.  In turns flirtatious and refined, Anderson controls herself even when she's cuckoo.  She's not hypocritical, but honestly critical.

In a similar vein, any actor playing Stanley has to face Marlon Brando's long shadow.  Here too one runs the risk of being excessively brutal without a hint of humanity.  Foster, with his small eyes and muscular frame to offset his short height (at 5'9", the same height as Daniel Craig I should point out), gives Stanley a great vulnerability masking his harsh behavior.  When Blanche is going on about how Stanley is something like an ape, we see a bit of genuine hurt and confusion about Blanche's summation of his character.  As he crawls towards Stella after their fight, we see that perhaps Blanche's ideas are not far from the truth: he looks and behaves like a dejected animal, surrendering to the bestial part of his nature.

Foster even manages to bring in a bit of lightness whenever he keeps declaring he has an expert 'friend' who can examine whether something is accurate and on the level of the Napoleonic Code he's going on about.   Foster is simply an actor who should act more and personally I blame the failure of X-Men: The Last Stand (where he was Warren Worthington III aka Angel) for the bad turns in his career.  It would have been his breakout role, but it didn't, and somehow he's been relegated to 'tough guys', which is a shame since his performance in Ain't Them Bodies Saints showed he could play soft effectively.  His ability to bring softness with that tough exterior is what makes his Stanley Kowalski a fine turn. 

What I really enjoyed were Kirby and Johnson as Stella and Mitch respectively, particularly Johnson.   He makes Mitch someone who is taken by Blanche and genuinely cares for her, but who is also devastated by her shocking past so at odds with his own idealization of Miss DuBois.  Still the intense conflict raging within him about his feelings towards Blanche, coupled with his ability to be both working-class and slightly above the mire of the world he lives in makes Johnson a great version of Mitch, about the only character with redeeming values.

I think director Benedict Andrews did a great job in how he helped the actors craft their roles, and in some of his musical choices.  We hear Wicked Game when Mitch and Blanche end their date, and I think it suggests that they were intimate, but the lyrics to Chris Isaak's song are fitting: Blanche was playing a 'wicked game' in how she was with Mitch. 

If I were to find some faults with the production it would also relate to the music.  Sometimes the music is too loud to where I had to cover my ears, and the balance between the traditional slow jazz of 1940-50s South and a more contemporary sound doesn't always hold up. 

I also wasn't a big fan of the spinning stage, which at times blocked the performers.

However, on the whole this production of A Streetcar Named Desire is a showcase for Anderson, Foster, and Johnson, who have found success in the U.K. despite being Americans.  They'll never be able to knock out the versions of Leigh and Brando, but Anderson and Foster give us excellent portrayals of these two iconic figures. 


Monday, September 29, 2014

Franklin & Bash: Honor Thy Mother Review


MILF Does A Buddy Good...

There are three selling points to Honor Thy Mother, the newest Franklin & Bash episode.  One: Breckin Meyer (His Royal Highness Elmo, Duke of Landingshire) co-wrote the script with Franklin & Bash co-creator Kevin Falls.  Two: Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Peter Bash) directed his co-star's script.  Three: Kumail Nanjiani (Pindar Singh) makes a return guest appearance after his character disappeared without a trace and barely an explanation (which if memory serves right, has changed from between it was mentioned in the season opener The Curse of Hor-Aha and now).

We also have sex between HRH and his best friend's mom, a silly send-off for a divisive character, and a really boring case.  Not even Reed Diamond could lift Honor Thy Mother from the Meyer of Breckin. 

After the previous night's debauchery, HRH (Meyer) wakes up to find he's slept with Colleen Bash (Jane Seymour), his best friend Peter Bash's mom.  All those jokes about how hot Peter's mom was hot have come to fruition, but poor Landingshire is crying like a little baby over all this.  Colleen, fo her part, sees their romp as therapy, a freebie for her work as a sex surrogate to help HRH get over Ellen Swatello.  Now, most of the episode HRH has to try to keep this terrible secret from his best friend, not easy given how often mothers come up in conversation, which instantly throws him into fits of panic.

However, there is some levity in Peter and HRH's life: Pindar Singh (Kumail Nanjiani) has returned.  The exact nature of why he had to leave is still a bit muddled: in Curse of Hor-Aha I was pretty sure they told their new investigator Danny Mundy (Anthony Ordonez) Pindar left to help a friend, I think in Europe.  Now, as I understand it, it was to try and track down his new love, who happens to look exactly like Carmen Electra.  Despite Peter and Landingshire's protests, nothing will dissuade our panphobic former aide that this is not some sort of scam and that 'Bridget' is using Carmen Electra's image to get money from Pindy.  Pindar and Danny instantly bond, the weird attracting the weird I guess.

Well, the case the boys have involves Tara and her brother Seth (Allison Smith and Mackenzie Astin respectively), the owners of the diner the boys frequent.  They are in danger of losing the business because of failed health inspections.  Could Eckhart Smith (Kurt Fuller), the evil fast-food king who has tangled with Franklin and HRH before and has his eyes on the diner be setting them up to failure?   Smith denies he would deliberately sabotage them.  He knew their family, and as he tells them all, "I would never screw your mom.  A friend wouldn't do that to a friend".  Wonder if there's a double meaning in that.

He certainly is chummy with the health inspector (George Wendt), but now he throws a little surprise at the boys: the diner failed the inspection fair and square, thanks to particularly nasty cockroaches.

HRH is still struggling with his actions (a rarity) and it is now affecting his work life to (two miracles in one day).  Danny, who refuses to investigate "Bridget" (he doesn't spy on friends, only family, he says), does find that these cockroaches are particular to Thailand.  When Colleen shows up at court, a rattled Landingshire drops the jar containing the evidence, causing chaos.  This time, it isn't a F&B stunt, which leaves Bash puzzled. 

A chat with Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell) doesn't help.  First saying he'll treat anything said in strictest confidence, he quickly turns around and tells HRH that he has no obligation but to tell Peter.  However, thanks to an offhand comment by Danny, Peter puts it all together.  However, he appears to be nonplussed by it all.  He tells HRH to be good to his mom.  As the day progresses, it's clear that Peter is being extremely passive-aggressive about the whole thing.  However, because Damien Karp (Diamond) overheard HRH's confession, he now has the nuclear bomb to launch at Landingshire any time he feels like it.  No matter what HRH and Peter throw at him, Karp will merely remind Franklin that he banged Bash's mom.

Colleen is displeased with the way both of them are behaving: Peter's thinly-contemptuous manner towards the one-night stand, HRH suggesting he could become Peter's stepfather.  However, they do have to work together, especially after Smith managed to get the siblings to sign away the diner.  Tara confesses that she planted the specially-ordered bugs to fail the inspection because she doesn't want to carry the burden of the restaurant anymore but doesn't want to be disloyal to the family's history. 

It is difficult for them to work together after all this, but work together they must.  They find a way to save the restaurant, and their friendship.  At the party to celebrate, poor Pindar finally produces the long-awaited Bridget Barnes (who is Belgian, I think), and guess what...she looks like Carmen Electra!  Pindar announces he will marry her, and invites them to his wedding as his best men.  "Only if he can be theirs", they tell him, to which he replied that if the NFL is ready, so is he.  With that, Pindar is finally written out of the show.

I know I said I hated Franklin & Bash after Freck, but now I find that this show is just terrible, terrible, terrible.  I just don't see why I watch this show anymore, except perhaps because I get some sort of thrill watching train wrecks.  What I say, I say out of love: Please Cancel Franklin & Bash.  This show is not what it started out to be.  The stories are bad.  The acting is terrible.  The situations patently absurd.

I see that Gosselaar, in his directorial debut, thought he was Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick.  He loved sweeping camera moves, and when Bash realizes his best friend had banged his mother, the camera goes wild with the camera circling him as the realization and shock come to him.  Yes, we get that Peter is stunned to make this discovery, but a.) I'm not a fan of camera work that draws attention to itself, and b.) the subliminal work there doesn't enhance anything, but it does distract. 

I could also point out something I generally don't point out, at that is continuity errors.  Now, I'm a pretty forgiving person on that front, realizing that it takes many takes of a scene before a director is satisfied, so we won't always get things right.  HOWEVER, this one error is glaring because it sets up a vital moment that I could not let it pass by. 

In this scene HRH is holding the jar containing the cockroaches.  Freckin Meyer clearly held the jar from the bottom when he is facing the judge.  Then, when he turns around to see Colleen sitting at court, Meyer is holding the jar from the side, which allows him to drop the jar.  It is physically impossible to go from holding the jar from the bottom to holding it from the side in one fell swoop.  Obviously it was done to allow this 'dramatic/comic' moment, but I could not shake the idea that someone should have noticed Meyer was holding the jar in a way that would have been impossible to drop.  Try as I might the whole thing fell flat (no pun intended).

It also didn't help that the script was pretty bad.  I figure Meyer and Falls thought they were being clever with all the 'mom' talk going on, but again, as Colleen was scampering away the way it was shot you'd think Bash would have seen her leave.  The passive-aggressive nature of the boys was so poorly performed and a big part of that was due to the lousy script.  The idea that the beautiful woman who looks like Carmen Electra turns out to be real is, well, unreal.  When Infeld says he's treat whatever is said in his office in the strictest of confidence, who here thought it was a 'shocking twist' that he turned around to say he would tell Peter.  The idea that Peter would take this as well as he is also clichéd (as is the scene when Peter finally has a meltdown over it; who'd guess it would be when they were at a hearing), and as for the case itself?  

First, the ham-fisted way Infeld mentioned how 'historic' the diner was, I suspected he was deliberately hinting to Peter how to solve his dilemma.  Either that or the boys poor writing and directing really showed.  Second,  I kept thinking, Tara, why'd you go through all the trouble of importing these Thai bugs?  Aren't American bugs good enough for you?  Why don't you do what the rest of us do: torch the place and collect the insurance money?  Really, you went through a lot of trouble for something that didn't need to be done.  Just tell your brother you want out and grow up.

We now turn to Nanjiani's Pindar, a character beloved and hated by the fans in equal measure.   Was it good to have him back?  Well, seeing him vomit on his first scene does have the odd effect of capturing Franklin & Bash's current condition.  However, I found myself frankly not caring one bit about his return, seeing how unimportant his character was to Honor Thy Mother.  You could have cut Pindar out altogether and it wouldn't have affected the story.  You could have had a new character face this 'Carmen Electra' situation and it wouldn't have affected the story.  I think Nanjiani's guest appearance was a way to satisfy the F&B faithful (of which I suspect is a dwindling crowd) and close that character's storyline permanently.

It is highly doubtful Dana Davis' Carmen will have a similar send-off.

I never bought that Pindar/Danny connection, and found this bit of dialogue really strange.

Peter Bash (to Danny and Pindar): How's the cast of Big Bang Theory?
Pindar: That's racist.
His Royal Highness Elmo, Duke of Landingshire: How's that racist?
Danny Mundy: How isn't it?

The Big Bang Theory has a Jewish and Indian character, but as far as I know, there are no Hispanic nerds.  Then again, in a state like California, there are relatively few Hispanics if television is to be believed. 

Truthfully, I frankly no longer care about His Royal Highness & Bash.  I don't care what happens to these Himbos with Law Degrees (given how generally stupid they are, one genuinely wonders if they slept their way through college in every way possible).  Honor Thy Mother was flat, boring, predictable, and pretty much a sad and sorry thing to see.  With all that, why then does Honor Thy Mother not get the absolutely lowest score possible?

Well, at least it was better than either The Curse of Hor-Aha or Freck...

And people STILL wonder if we're gay...


Next Episode: Falcon's Nest

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gotham: Pilot Review


Well, we now have one of the best premieres of a comic book-based television series I've seen in a while.  Gotham, which is more James Gordon-centered than Batman-centered, had a few hurdles to get through.  In some ways, the Pilot threw a lot at us within its hour that might have worked better if spaced out a bit more.  Still, on the whole the Pilot starts off the show in an excellent way.

James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is a war veteran and son of District Attorney who now is a detective at the Gotham City Police Department.  His new partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is as shady and grizzled as Gordon is upright and dutiful.  They find themselves now handling the biggest case in Gotham: the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, wealthy and respected members of the crumbling community.  Only their son, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is left to tell the tale, although unknown to everyone, there was another witness to the killing, a young street urchin, whose name isn't given on the episode if memory serves correct, but who has excellent feline and theft skills, a girl named Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova). 

It's no surprise that in a town as corrupt and morally bankrupt as Gotham, the police don't shrink from being if not in bed with the criminal underworld, at least within kissing distance.  Bullock has close ties to Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lieutenant in the Falcone Mob organization with eyes towards advancement.  She runs a club where one of her minions, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), is completely subservient to her.  He has a penchant for dressing well and has the pale skin and large nose that reminds people of a penguin, though he makes it clear he doesn't like that comparison.

Clues provided by Mooney's fence lead them to one Mario Pepper (Daniel Stewart Sherman), petty thief who may have Mrs. Wayne's necklace.  He flees and is killed by Bullock to save Gordon.  Cobblepot, who has his own eyes on the prize, turns informant to the Major Crimes Unit officers Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), and fingers Bullock and Gordon in a potential frame-up.  Montoya and Allen, convinced Bullock's dirty and perhaps Gordon too, pursue an investigation, but Gordon tells them he'll investigate this himself.

As the investigation goes on, Gordon becomes more convinced Pepper was framed, but can't put Mooney and Bullock directly into this.  Mooney isn't afraid to get dirty, coming close to killing Gordon to silence him.  Bullock steps in, informing Mooney that it wasn't Gordon that is bringing the heat, but someone on her team who is coming close to connecting her with the Wayne killings.  She instantly knows who that person could be: the only one who saw her with Mrs. Wayne's pearls, her little Penguin.  She takes Cobblepot down hard, not caring that a poor stand-up comic (Jon Beavers) is watching while auditioning for her club, obviously upset at all this.  She then orders her henchmen to take Gordon AND Bullock out, but in steps mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Doman), displeased Mooney is taking too much on herself, and begrudgingly recognizing that Gordon's father's memory still holds some sway with him.

"You can't have organized crime without law and order," Falcone tells Gordon.  With that, the word comes down via Bullock: Gordon has to exterminate Cobblepot, or Bullock will have to kill both of them.  A waddling Cobblepot pleads for his life, and Gordon is put in an impossible situation.  He takes Oswald to the dock's edge, puts a gun to his head, then whispers to him to never return to Gotham before firing.  Since Bullock is at a distance, it looks to him like Gordon went through with it, but in truth Gordon shot close to Oswald's head and let Oswald fall into the dock, where a shocked Cobblepot swims underwater for all its worth.  Gordon returns to his fiancée Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), who is keeping secrets herself from Gordon.  He also goes to visit Bruce, now cared for by family valet Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), to tell him his parent's killers are still at large, and asks for a second chance to find them. 

There just is so much pressure on Gotham. I don't think there has been this much scrutiny of a new series since perhaps Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and on the whole I think Gotham succeeded.  What a pilot has to do is get the ball rolling, and that is what this one did.  We get the traditional Batman elements (Bruce's parents killed) and a few that aren't part of the accepted Batman mythos; hearing Alfred shout when Bruce is standing on the ledge, "Oy, Master Bruce.  Get your bloody ass down off there.  Eyes forward!" is not what I think ANY version of Mr. Pennyworth, from the 1960's Batman of Alan Napier, to Burton/Schumacher's Michael Gough, and Nolan's Michael Caine would have dreamt of saying.

We also get a lot of the villains, perhaps too many in one outing.  We see a quick glimpse of the GCPD's coroner, one Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), who enjoys speaking in riddles.  We get Mario Pepper's angry young daughter, IVY Pepper (Clare Foley), who is fond of plants.  We also get this cat-like Selina, who seems drawn to young Master Bruce.

A particularly interesting case is that of our poor stand-up comic, one whose bad jokes and poor, halting delivery nonetheless amuse Mooney (about the only original creation on the show).  I don't know much about comic-book Batman, but I do know about The Killing Joke, a graphic novel in which we learn that a failed stand-up would become...The Joker!  It's far too soon to say this is for certain, or even if this was planned.  I think it's a great tease to bait the Batman fan-base, but it's fun to speculate on whether this is the future Clown Prince of Crime, or if he will yet appear and this is just a poor kid having to see a terrible, terrible crime in a city dominated by darkness.

However, in terms of performances, we have two standouts.  While his screentime is limited, Mazouz is excellent as Bruce Wayne.  The horror of his parent's murders before him, coupled with a steadiness to become a man who will conquer his fears are excellently rendered and are a highlight of Gotham.    He shows a maturity in performance of someone twice his age, and it will be a great thing to see how he takes his Young Master Wayne into becoming The Dark Knight.

The prize for the best performance, however, goes to Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin.

From the moment we first see him, serving Fish Mooney, holding an umbrella over her head, Taylor so becomes the character sometimes it's almost frightening to see how he's turning into this master criminal.  One wouldn't think he would, with his high voice and halting manner.  However, as Gotham goes on, we see him as this shifty, opportunistic fellow, in turns terrified and terrifying.  When Mooney coolly confronts him about his betrayal, we don't see his face, but his hands, the hands that had been rubbing Mooney's feet.  They halt when we hear her talk about how she knows it was him, and they begin to tremble, for he and we know he's been found out.

As he pleads for his life, I felt a certain sympathy for this figure, but also recognizing that underneath that trembling figure and beak-like nose (enhanced by excellent make-up work), this man is ruthless and dangerous.  Taylor is so powerful as the Penguin that if things go well (and I understand his rise will be one of the dominant threads in Season One), Robin Lord Taylor's interpretation of The Penguin may become the definitive version, supplanting both the camp of Burgess Meredith or the freak-show of Danny DeVito.  Taylor's Penguin is human (his waddling a result of Mooney's brutal smack-down), but he is not one to be mocked...at least for long.

In terms of others, I hope Smith gets better things to do than his quick scene as Nygma.  Though the Riddler is one of my favorite villains (behind Penguin), I wasn't too impressed with Smith.  However, since he was there for about three to five minutes, it's hard to render a fair judgment.  It was, however, nice to see Smith/Nygma's reaction to seeing that Gordon COULD solve his riddles easily.  I think Pertwee's take on Alfred Pennyworth will be interesting to see: he won't be coddling Master Bruce, that's for sure.  As for the two leads, McKenzie was all right if a bit bland as the earnest James Gordon, looking intense whenever he has to question someone and having flaring eyes to go with his righteousness.  As much as I might dislike Logue, he was also effective as the more cynical and shady Bullock.  One never knew how corrupt Bullock was, morally or professionally.  I have to give him some credit: he did a good job (but I'm still not a fan).

As for Pinkett Smith, I think she knows Mooney is suppose to be a woman who relishes being evil, so while it might appear she's vamping it up, I grant a little leeway.  Any woman who smugly tells Gordon that there's screaming out back because her 'boys' are watching a scary movie, then flat-out tells him the screams are a result of them beating someone's 'punk-ass' knows she's bad.  Maybe a bit over-the-top, but just barely inside that line to make it pleasant to watch.

A thing that Gotham really got right was the look of the city.  The cinematography makes this a dark, seedy world, one where the place is about to collapse on itself.  The squalor of the Pepper's apartment, the cavernous police precinct, the elegance of Barbara's apartment, and the seediness of Mooney's club are all rendered to perfection.  If there was justice, Gotham would be considered for an Outstanding Cinematography and/or Art Direction Emmy for next year regardless of how long it lasts. 

It's just that impressive, the world the show builds up, a very noir world of darkness and danger at every turn.

If I were to criticize some things, it might be that there were too many villains popping in, rather than spacing them out a bit more.  The story doesn't really deviate much from the 'good cop/bad cop'/'rookie cop/grizzled veteran' of a lot of programs.  McKenzie's pronunciation of "Fish Mooney" was a bit odd: it kept coming off as one word, "Faschmuny", which made the villainess sound like a little old Jewish lady.  I'm not going to criticize the dialogue or violence, saying only that it goes as far as network will allow it to (cable/satellite version of Gotham would be far darker and profanity-laden, I imagine). One thing that did displease me was the camera work when Gordon has to chase Pepper: the visuals looked bad with the camera so close to McKenzie's face it almost looked warped.

Gotham has such great promise.  It has some great performances (Taylor better prepare himself to be part of many a cosplay tribute) and is extremely intriguing in how both Gordon and Bruce will become the men they will become to fight believable characters like The Penguin or The Riddler.  Though not a perfect beginning, Gotham has me wanting to take a trip there.

Just avoid the alleys...


Next Episode: Selina Kyle

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt?: A Review (Review #665)


Galt Complex...

I am someone who has bucked the trend of trashing the film adaptations of Ayn Rand's massive tome, Atlas Shrugged.  I confess to being intrigued by some of her thinking, and also convince that I tried to read the book many years ago and pretty much gave up.  Having enjoyed both Atlas Shrugged and Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike, I went into Part III: Who is John Galt? intrigued by the prospect of wrapping this series up.

What I found was pretty much a mess of a movie, where even the people in front and behind the camera appeared desperate to just get it all over with. 

Using a series of performances and voice-over narration with stills, we first get the story of how John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), the creator of a powerful machine that could power the world with little material, refuses to go along with his fellow plant workers in forgoing salaries to share the profits equally between those who work hard and those who hardly work at all.  From there, we jump back into where we left off in Episode 2, where Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan, taking the role from Samantha Mathis, who took the role from Taylor Schilling), having crashed into a utopia of wealthy individualists, is asked to stay by Galt and those who think like him.  Among those in this Libertarian Paradise is her old lover, Francisco d'Anconia (Joaquim de Almeida, taking over from Esai Morales, who took over from Jsu Garcia).  They all are on strike against those who take more and more from them but who in turn give them nothing but abuse. 

Dagny, however, feels someone has to fight against the growing tyranny taking the country into an abyss.  She opts to leave, and return to the Taggart Train Company, where her venal brother James (Greg Germann, taking over from Patrick Fabian, who was taking over from Matthew Marsden) is in cahoots with the government that wants to starve the population, sacrifice Minnesota and its citizens for the 'betterment of the country', and basically destroy America.  Dagny is determined to literally keep the trains running.  With the government about to make its final assault, John Galt takes over our screens to make his famous speech, which in a nutshell can be capsulized by his mantra

I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Galt is finally captured and tortured, but Who is John Galt? ends with his dramatic rescue, with Dagny (who by now has become his lover) and other counter-revolutionaries, including her former lover Hank Rearden (Rob Morrow, taking over Jason Beghe, taking over Grant Bowler) sweeping in and spiriting him away to the safety of that blissful world where selfishness is a virtue.

For myself, I was simply astonished at how rushed, chaotic, and even laughable Who is John Galt? was.  As I watched, I could not help think that director James Manera, the third in this trilogy, was either in a hurry to get this into theaters or just didn't know what to do in trying to compress such a massive novel into a concluding chapter.

As a side note, I've always felt Atlas Shrugged would have worked better as a television miniseries, where the story could flow more smoothly and more importantly, we would have the same cast rather than have so many changes that it soon becomes impossible to try and think who is playing what character. 

I don't really blame the actors in WIJG?, because they were given the thankless task of trying to create characters already interpreted by two other actors and jumping in at the tail end of the story, allowing for no real flow.  Figuring best (or worst, given on one's interpretation) is Morrow, who was in a 'blink and you miss it' performance.  I'm pretty sure he didn't appear until the final fifteen minutes of WIJG?, perhaps terrified that as one of the few legitimate names in the film, any association with this flop (artistic and political) would permanently ruin him.  He and the character of Rearden didn't play any part in the film. 

As for the other actors, my goodness some of them were beyond awful.  Germann, whom I never liked in a show I never liked (Ally McBeal), behaved as though he wasn't aware what acting involved.  I suppressed laughter when in what is suppose to be a tense dramatic scene and he no longer wants to be part of the nefarious machinations of the wicked government torturing the noble Galt, he came across as a whiny child.

As the lead, Polaha did what he could to make him a compelling character, but sometimes he came across as a generic hunk with little charisma to promote this great revolution of the mind.  Regan similarly tried her best but her Dagny was not the most compelling figure either.

I blame the direction and the lousy screenplay (adapted by Manera and Harmon Kaslow and the trilogy's producer John Aglialoro, who curiously adapted the first but not second part of the trilogy).  You give people pretty silly situations to try to bring to life and they could give it their all and still come off as terrible.  However, everyone involved has to be mocked for a howler of a love scene that is less romantic than it is downright comic.  As the trains are slowly coming back to life, with the nation on the bring of collapse, Dagny and John find a quiet area in a tunnel to consummate their buried passions.  Part Harlequin Romance cover, part spoof, the scene not only appears to come out of nowhere but appears so ill-timed.  At a time of great crisis, should people so involved in rescuing the nation be engaged in passionate lovemaking?

Among the biggest bad decisions was to try to sum up so much with voice-over and still pictures.  To me, that signals they either ran out of money, time, or interest.  Regardless of why it was done, it all came across as shockingly inept and uncoordinated, as if there was no director. 

What really must gall Galt fans must be the butchering of Galt's famous "A Stands for A" speech, a blistering and massive manifesto outlining Rand's thinking.  I don't even remember hearing 'A stands for A' (meaning that there is no supernatural force but that things are as they appear as I understand it).  No interpretation could really do justice to an entire chapter's speech, and the end results don't appear to try to move you to support Objectivism. 

It's almost as it is trying to get you to vote Socialist.

One almost feel for Aglialoro, who had to rush the films into production because his film rights were about to expire.  Again, because we've had so many cast changes, three directors (or at least people with that title) and various adapters tackling the epic novel, the sum of the whole just collapses on itself.  If he had just tried harder for a television adaptation, or just let the rights go...

Even if people agreed with Rand's theology or parts of it, like former Representative Ron Paul, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity (who all make cameos as themselves, and for the record, Beck looks like Leon Trotsky), Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt? is a film that they would say is a shambles. 

Again, I cannot make great claims to know what the self-described 'radical for Capitalism' would think about the film adaptations of her magnum opus.  If I were to venture a guess, I think Ayn Rand would accuse it of being the work of the Forty-Fifth President, Madame Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a way of discrediting Rand's thinking and make it all look so foolish, even downright insane.



Franklin & Bash: Dance the Night Away Review

The Shorter The Skirt, The Thinner The Plot...

And we're back to Franklin & Bash's slide into embarrassment to all concerned save for Reed Diamond.  Dance the Night Away has some familiar F & B tropes: oddball cases, a far-fetched resolution, dimwitted leads, vague suggestions of homosexual relations between said leads, and strippers!  Excuse me, exotic dancers.
We also get a few things we weren't expecting: a real, genuine human relationship for once acted out as if characters were real adults, the more obnoxious of our two main characters receiving a royal title, and same obnoxious character making out with his best friend's mom.

The main case is brought to you by Colleen Bash (Jane Seymour), Peter's mother the sex surrogate.  She has a friend, Cindy (Diora Baird), who dances at Candy's Strip Bar.  She injured herself when the pole she was performing a particularly difficult routine broke, sending her flying into the lap of a I'm sure extremely pleased customer.  Her knee was injured and she received cuts from broken glass but now not only does the new manager, Cliff (James Remar), refuses to pay for her medical bills, but wants HER to pay for the broken pole as well!  After some discussion, consisting of Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gossellaar) telling Mommie Dearest they'll discuss taking the case, and Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) immediately saying they'll take the case, they take the case.
Oddly, the opposing counsel is none other than Damien Karp (Diamond), who appears to have taken a shine to the boy's new lawyer, Anita Haskins (Toni Trucks), a shine that appears reciprocated.  To the shock of Franklin and Bash, at one point Karp actually manages to beat them in court, pointing out that Cindy was not technically an employee of Candy's, but an 'independent contractor' and thus does not fall under Wrongful Termination protection.  As she worked as a private workout instructor, she had outside work.

Mark-Paul Goasselaar pole dances shirtless in "Franklin and  Bash"Mark-Paul Goasselaar shirtless in "Franklin and  Bash"

Things look bleak for the boys, who appear to have finally reached a dangerous point: not only have they been unable to score with strippers, but may have to do actual work!  The SR-17 Business Tax Forms they are required to fill out are not to their liking, and for once they fondly recall how Karp apparently not only loved doing the forms, but was highly efficient at it.  Could they genuinely miss their nemesis? 

One person who genuinely misses him is his uncle, Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell), whose frosty relationship with his nephew appears to be undergoing a thaw on both sides. 

In true Franklin & Bash style, they find a way to win their case the way they normally do: set up a bizarre stunt and get others to do the leg work.  While Peter and Jared come up with the idea of unionizing strippers, it is Toni who comes up with the actual union to sponsor them.  The court, in particular Karp, is astonished that even by "Bash and Franklin" standards as he puts it, the idea of having a union of puppeteers sponsor them is idiotic.  As always, they manage to pull everything off.  Not only do they win the case, they manage to get Karp back to the firm, though he comes with conditions...and Peter's mom, who scolds Jared, Peter, and Stanton for how they've treated Damien.

In what can be rightly called a last gasp of desperation to make things 'wacky', due to plot contrivances that stretch the bounds of believability (even by 'Bash and Franklin standards'),  Jared accepts a royal title in lieu of payment.  Apparently in exchange for forgiving legal fees from a Scotsman, Jared Franklin is now, and I'm not kidding, His Royal Highness The Duke of Landingshire. 
In his honor, I shall now refer to Elmo 'Jared' Franklin as HRH. 
HRH's purchase of the title infuriates Peter, who worked on the case as well and got nothing out of it.  Stanton is delighted, recalling his own youthful trysts with "Lizzie" at Buckingham Palace and offering to throw HRH a Royal Coming-Out party.  However, one person who isn't thrilled is Albert Doherty, Duke of Wetting (Kevin McKidd), who owns property back on the island next to HRH.  He wants HRH to put a stop to Landingshire's cattle getting on his property. 

I think in the end all works well between our two Scottish lairds, because at the end of Dance the Night Away my DVR informed me that the image was lost due to signal loss.
That also meant I didn't see HRH making out with Colleen, with the Bash puppet's mouth agape at what was going on, while the HRH puppet merely observing.
Honestly, if it weren't primarily for the Karp/Infeld subplot and particular for Reed Diamond, Dance the Night Away would have been almost as appallingly bad as The Curse of Hor-Aha.  Franklin & Bash co-creator Bill Chais wrote and directed Dance the Night Away, and I can't help marvel at how someone could have created an episode where a lot was predictable and even insulting to our intelligence.
Take for example when Karp objects to having a demonstration of what a strip club would look like if OSHA safety standards were strictly observed.  The 'entrance' of the girls, complete with smoke, seemed something like out a bizarre dream sequence.  Even more idiotic was HRH and Peter's 'climatic' speech about how unionizing 'exotic dancers' and join them with puppeteers was what America was all about (complete with faux-patriotic music in the background, as if to emphasize the idiocy of it all). 
"When our four fathers came to this country..." at one point Peter says, using his hand to indicate what a genuinely shocked Karp asked him: "Wait, did you just say 'FOUR fathers?'"  I know that Jared and Peter are always shown to be a bit dumb (Peter didn't know FDR was in a wheelchair, HRH unaware of how 'Deep Throat' was connected to journalism).  This, however, may be the most appalling case of the show's 'they're himbos with law degrees' storyline. One wonders what must have gone on in Peter's brain when he first heard about a 'four-skin'...
Peter's Mom/Has Got it Going On...
Speaking of 'four-skin', what possible point could there be for HRH to be getting involved with his best friend's mom (who is old enough to be HIS mom)?  Emotional Transference?  Proof that HRH is indeed heterosexual, not the 'homosexual in denial' he's shown himself to be for about three seasons?  HRH being a genuinely repulsive man who, not satisfied with being a dick of a Duke to his best friend, his lovers, and his co-workers, now decides to take his selfishness to even more depraved levels?  HRH had always been snarky about Colleen: how hot she was (even inviting her and Cindy to the hot tub the boys were planning to use for another pair of women, which leads to the odd situation of having the four of them naked and making out within touching distance of each other...really), how she was a hooker (Colleen having been arrested for not having a 'sex surrogate' license at the time).  This, however, may be the lowest thing he's ever done, so naturally Peter will resort to type and let HRH get away with it.
Somehow, this too seems to be something a show bereft of ideas would try, for nothing spices up weak shows like stunts.  Colleen should know better.  HRH should know better.  The production team should know better.  We the audience deserve better.
Now, in the shambles of a once-great show, we find that Reed Diamond is the best thing on it.  When HRH and Peter are trying to get him to come back, they go about it in a curious way.  "You're an ass****", HRH tells Karp, "and I mean that with love".  They make this big deal about how Karp needs them to keep him sharp, all I could think of was the show needs him to be their antagonist, the object they must constantly fight against.  Whether Chais and co-creator Kevin Falls planned to keep him off for a few episodes to test the waters of a show without Karp or merely to shake things up a bit the whole thing of having Karp out of the office did harm to Franklin & Bash's dynamics.
However, Diamond was excellent throughout Dance the Night Away.  Whether it was in his scenes with McDowell (the first time they are allowed to tone down the nutty and behave like a real uncle and nephew reconciling), doing battle with two people he openly and genuinely loathes, or even flirting awkwardly with Anita, Diamond excels and shows what an excellent actor he is, and that he is so far above the material.  His scene with Seymour, where for once Karp uses a Franklin & Bash-style stunt to put his hated rivals in their place, is pitch-perfect: his gleeful smile at having finally out Franklin & Bashed Peter and HRH is a delight.  He manages to both mock their penchant for idiocy while using it at the same time.
Even here, Meyer can't help spoil things...
A poor, poor decision was to give Diamond and Kevin McKidd the briefest of scenes.  Here was a golden opportunity to have some fun with having the two former Journeyman co-stars reunite.  Certainly Chais' script acknowledges this: Diamond's Karp staring at the Scottish laird and commenting he looked really familiar.  After Wetting threatens Karp, Damien just says, "Hey brother, I'm on your side".  On the time-travelling show, they played brothers.
Sadly though, McKidd (using his native Scottish accent rather than the perfect American one he had on Journeyman) and Diamond had a total of a minute together, and worse, I don't recall them actually sharing the screen.  Again, a sign of how little thought there was when we could have had better inside jokes and a great scene.
How I wish Journeyman had a.) lasted longer and b.) been released on DVD already. 
Fortunately, McKidd, like his Journeyman co-star, are simply so much better than what they're given, and McKidd at least is smart enough to play the cartoonish character he's given as just that without being all-bonkers. 
There were good lines in Dance the Night Away (on Infeld's offer to have a 'royal coming-out party', the normally quip-free Peter says, "Ah, you're finally coming out") and amusing moments (the Franklin and Bash puppets were making out at the hands of their puppet-master, yet another sly nod to the 'people think HRH and Peter are lovers' undercurrent on the show).  However, if it weren't for Reed Diamond (who in a fair world would be the star of this show, where Damien Karp has to endure two idiots who are always one step from bringing down the firm), we would have had another car overturned in this train wreck of a show.               
Next Episode: Honor Thy Mother

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gotham: Promise and Peril

Later today, Gotham, the new television show about how Batman's major law enforcement figure James Gordon rises from officer to Commissioner, premieres.  I for one am excited, though my excitement is tempered by the fact that too often, I get excited for television shows that die on me before the full season is over.

You're talking to someone who watched The Cape, Journeyman, and Golden Boy, all shows that bombed and didn't make it to Season Two (though with Journeyman, it was most unfair because it was a much better show than the one Reed Diamond is in now).  Further, I am about a handful of people who remember Due South, which did last three years but whose third year was a sorry shambles and which should not have ever been made.

As a side note, Gotham is similar to Golden Boy in that both are about the rise of a young man from rookie cop to Police Commissioner.  The major difference is that with Golden Boy, we had a flash-forward and flashbacks style that sometimes bordered on parody, while Gotham at least will stick to a chronological rise, with a season devoted to the rise of one villain from the Batman rogue's gallery (with this year apparently being Oswald Cobblepot, who would rise as The Penguin).

I thought about watching either Gotham or The Flash, and opted against the latter because since it is a bit of a spin-off of Arrow, I don't know if I could follow it since I've never seen Arrow.   I also figure The Flash will be a hit because it's riding on Arrow's coattails and it has a ready fan-base.  I think the show would have to be an absolute disaster for it to be cancelled in its initial outing.

Gotham, however, is a bit more tricky.  This show stays with Batman mythology by chronicling the early years of Commissioner Gordon, but it's clear that 'Batman' won't rise until the series' end (at least that's the show's very big ambition).  We have always known that Gordon was a detective when young Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, so it is logical to make Gordon almost old enough to be Bruce's father.

I also think it will be a fascinating journey, if successful, to see how one of the few lights of morality in the cesspool that is Gotham managed to remain an upright figure in a world overrun by darkness and despair.  We know so much about Batman/Bruce Wayne, but not as much about Gordon apart from that he is a good man in a bad world.  Gordon is Batman's greatest ally, and we now may have a unique spin of how Detective Gordon will influence the young Master Wayne. 

Will Gordon know who will rise as The Dark Knight?  Will he have a daughter that herself will take on a superhero mantle? 

That remains to be seen, and Gotham may be the place to have a whole new mythology or affirmation of current mythology come from.   

What I see though is a potential source for trouble.  Perhaps this is my own naïve nature regarding comic books, but I took it for granted that the villains were all contemporaries of Batman.  I always thought they were around the same age.  At least in regards to both Cobblepot and Edward Nygma/The Riddler, they will be Gordon's age (Ben McKenzie, who is playing Gordon, is 36, while Cory Michael Smith, who is Nygma, is 27).  There are only two future villains who will be Bruce Wayne's age: Camren Bicondova's Selina Kyle and Claire Foley's Ivy Pepper (aka Catwoman and Poison Ivy respectively). 

In regards to Kyle, there simply was no other way to go. Catwoman and Batman have the strangest relationship in comics: in turns romantic and antagonistic, Kyle is sometimes villainess, sometimes anti-heroine.  If the show continues, it will allow the cat burglar and environmental psychopath a most interesting pair of relationships with Bruce.

However, while I am looking forward to seeing the rise of figures like The Penguin, will they continue to be part of Gotham once they achieve power?  For example, if Oswald by season's end embraces his persona, will he join or battle The Riddler, who is waiting in the wings as a Gotham Police Department coroner?  How will other villains be integrated in any future seasons?  Will they stick close to tradition, or will they be shifted? 

And what of Bruce Wayne himself?  Will we go a few years into the future to allow for Wayne to grow older (and more likely to take on the mantle)?  I imagine we will see more of Bruce Wayne than ever, particularly as he continues to grow?  Wouldn't it be interesting if we saw perhaps Captain Gordon interact with Wayne as he practices martial arts?

This seems a bit unlikely, as Sean Pertwee's Alfred is now an ex-British Marines brawler and less the refined 'gentleman's gentleman' we've come to know and love.  As a side note, this does mean Pertwee's chances of coming back to Elementary as Detective Inspector Lestrade are dim. 

I confess, my favorite Batman villain has always been Penguin, ever since Burgess Meredith quacked his way through the Batman television show.  As a child, I did an awesome impersonation, right down to using my pen as a cigarette holder.  So far, the news is good on Robin Lord Taylor's interpretation, which appears to be the highlight of early reviews (even those who dislike Gotham).  Judging just from the few clips I've seen, I am highly impressed and think Taylor has a good shot of making his Penguin a far more memorable one than either the deliberately campy Meredith and the extremely dark, almost frightening Danny DeVito version.  The reviews for Gotham have been all over the place: some I've read have loved it, others question whether it SHOULD last, let alone whether it WILL.  Some appear to think it's the most promising show of the season, and others think it will fall quickly once people see that Batman isn't there and that Jim Gordon won't be enough to hold their interest.

That would be a great shame if Gotham died quickly, because I think the show has great potential.  So far the market is being saturated with comic-book based television shows: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a mild hit, Arrow more so, and both The Flash and Constantine are debuting this season as well.  There's talk of a Supergirl television series, the S.H.I.E.L.D prequel Agent Carter is coming mid-season later this year, TNT is close to making Titans, a Teen Titans series (and if true, I hope it takes the place of Franklin & Bash, which is all but dead to me now) and Netflix is bringing such characters as Daredevil and Luke Cage to their subscribers. 

I honestly don't see Gotham getting lost in this shuffle: the characters are too well-known for it to disappear quickly.  The show would have to be absolutely hideous and laughably bad for Gotham to meet an early end (even if it currently scheduled, as I understand it, for a mere thirteen episodes, which is no great problem given that many shows have this try-out period.  Elementary was also set for thirteen episodes until CBS ordered a full season and now is going on Season Three).  That fate of a quick death I think would go to Constantine, the least-known of the group; the chance to plunge into the mythos of Batman while having not The Dark Knight, but Jim Gordon, as our protagonist has great promise.

The show devolving into a crime-of-the-week procedural with secondary stories for our favorite villains (and Donal Logue) are its peril.

I for one will be watching, waiting, and hoping...

Watch, or you'll answer
to ALL of them!


Sunday, September 21, 2014

El Paso Symphony Orchestra September 2014 Review

Yesterday, I went to my first El Paso Symphony Orchestra concert in somewhere between fifteen to twenty years.  I had promised myself many times to go, but it wasn't until I put it into my planner that I finally went.

I'm so glad I did, because I got to enjoy great music and find that the EPSO is something that is really enjoyable.

One that that wasn't enjoyable was the prices.  I was taken aback at how expensive they were.  Granted, I could have sat up way high for $17, and in some ways this is logical.  Not only are the prices acceptable, but the music rises.  However, I didn't want to climb all those stairs at the Plaza Theater, so it was the 'cheap' back-row seats at $22. 

Given that many of the $42+ seats further up were sold, I guess there are more patrons of the arts in EP than I thought. 

The audience attendance was to me predominantly old and predominantly white.  While the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 14% of El Paso is white non-Hispanic, the audience at the EPSO concert was in my estimate around 60% white non-Hispanic.  This, however, may not be entirely accurate if one goes by images alone.  I suspect that there were quite a few wealthy Mexicans from Juarez, who tend to 'look' white but are Hispanic (who can be of any race).

The fact that the EPSO appears to be supported by an older, whiter audience to me bodes poorly, for classical music should be something for everyone, and this 'elitism' I think does more damage to the 84-year-old's institution than anything else.  We should remember the El Paso Symphony Orchestra is the oldest symphony orchestra in Texas...so, screw you, San Antonio!

The program, called First Impressions, consisted of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Number 2 sandwiched between two Debussy pieces: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun and La Mer.   Performing the concerto was Natasha Paremski, an up-and-coming pianist of powerful virtuosity.  I am a passionate Debussy fan.  For me, life without Claude Debussy's music is simply not worth living.   Conducting was EPSO Musical Director Bohuslav Rattay. 

We began with The Star-Spangled Banner, and after the drumroll out popped Maestro Rattay, like a kid who suddenly became aware where he was and was about to start late.  As the audience soon began singing the lyrics, I was reminded of the El Paso Baseball games, where people start singing along to the actual singer.  Normally I don't sing at baseball games since there is someone there to do it, but at the symphony I gladly and eagerly sang along.

Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun was beautifully performed, as was La Mer.  Curiously, the only real issue appeared to be the horn section: in both pieces it looked like the trumpets went slightly off-key.  I enjoyed Rattay's conducting.  He had no podium to hold a score, and it's a delight to see the enthusiasm he has.  When he conducts, it looks almost as if he's dancing, with a lightness and joy in the beautiful music.

Paremski's recital was mesmerizing and inspirational.  As she kept adjusting her seat Paremski pounded the keys in a wild yet passionately controlled performance.  Her dexterity is incredible, and I was so thrilled with her recital that I've decided to pick up playing the piano myself...after I graduate.  For an encore, she played the third part of a sonata but because she had no microphone most people could not hear what or who the sonata was/was by.  Still, it was enthusiastic and delightful, leading to the first of at least three or four curtain calls to a standing ovation.

During the intermission, I got Ms. Paremski's CD and autograph, and as I was going back to my seat I heard a voice with a faint Czech accent say, "Well, it's time to go back to work".  I found myself walking alongside Maestro Rattay!  I was quite surprised at finding the Maestro happily mingling with the audience, and in his not-so-formal attire (no bow tie but still in black, something more in line of what the 12th Doctor wears). As we walked back to our respective places I mentioned that this was the first symphony concert in twenty years (a rough estimation), and he replied,  "She can REALLY play, can't she?" 

I replied that yes, and that I was so glad I came.  I mentioned that I love Debussy.  "Me too," he said, before someone else came up to him. 

I really enjoyed the El Paso Symphony Orchestra concert and was so glad that I went.  I think I will go to every monthly concert because the music and the orchestra itself was so excellent, classy yet casual. 

It was a great evening.    

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Giver: A Review


Tis Better to Giver Than to Receive...

Despite the great praise Lois Lowry's novel has received through the years, I have never taken the time to read The Giver.  Apparently that mindset also went for the film adaptation, for The Giver all but bombed at the box office, just like another adaptation of a science-fiction classic (Ender's Game).  Just like last year's Ender's Game, I fail to understand why The Giver failed, since the film is a strong and much more intelligent film than the recent glut of dystopian teen-centered films/novels.  There is a bit of a love triangle, and some of the performances are weak (I'm looking at you, Kate and Taylor!) but the film also leaves us asking serious questions about what it means to achieve a 'perfect world' and at what cost to our own humanity. 

The world has been devastated, but from the ashes a new society has emerged, one which contains peace, uniformity, and total happiness.  In this world, there are family units, but they are not 'fathers, mothers, and children' in the traditional sense.  Children are basically bred, where if they are found to be fit they are assigned to adults.  In this utopia, there are certain important time frames, all celebrated in a special ceremony.  Here, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) appears to this community via hologram and presents the various groups that are being commemorated.  There is the Release to Elsewhere for the aged, where they would go into 'retirement'.  There is the selection of Birth Mothers, a ceremony where nine-year-olds can get bicycles (and begin their journey to adulthood) and at last, the Ceremony of the Grown.  Here, the eighteen-year-olds who now are given their jobs for life, be it gardeners, soldiers, and so forth.

We look at three youth.  There is Asher (Cameron Monaghan), a jokester who is as rebellious as they come.  There is Fiona (Odeya Rush), a pretty girl.  Then there is Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who is unsure of where he will go.  Jonas is different from everyone in his community, for he on occasion sees things in color, while the world is in eternal greys.  His gifts have been noted, and the Chief Elder announces that Jonas will be the Receiver of Memory, and will begin training with The Giver (Jeff Bridges).

His parental units Father and Mother (Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) are honored, but Jonas is still fearful.  The Receiver of Memory holds all the past of what the world was like before the Ruin, when the world was torn asunder and they had created their peaceful world.  The Giver soon presents Jonas with the memories of all that came before: things like 'snow' and 'music', cultural diversity where people were not all the same, the expressions of faith and joy and love.

However, the world before The Ruin had its dark side: violence and war, jealousy, racism, starvation, pollution, hunting to extinction.  All these things have been wiped from the world Jonas lives in, all for the betterment of the community.  Soon, however, Jonas struggles with what he sees: both the terror of the old world, and the loss of beauty from that same world in his own.  Jonas' world is one where a 'kiss' is simply not known, where the word 'love' is such an archaic term people need to have it made specific with a request for "Precision of language". 

It is also a world where a baby, if he or she does not meet a certain level of physical health, is to be 'released'.  The Giver shows what 'releasing' means, and armed with his new knowledge, is horrified: the child is basically killed.  Worse, Father is the one who releases children (and by extension, the retirees to Elsewhere), but because Father knows nothing of the world prior to the Ruin, he has no sense of whether this is an immoral act.  Jonas has grown fond of the child Father brought home in hopes he would mature, who was named Gabriel.  Jonas notices that Baby Gabriel has the same markings that he has, suggesting he too might be a Receiver.  However, the decision has been made to 'release' Gabe. 

From there, The Giver becomes a bit of a chase film, with Jonas rescuing Gabe and fleeing to beyond the Elsewhere, where if he manages to cross its boundaries all the memories will be released.  The Chief Elder is determined to not have their world destroyed by the memories of the past which have kept the communities in peace and beauty, but now the race is on.

Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide's adaptation of Lowry's book creates a plausible world, one where Gabriel can be given a toy elephant that is called by Father a 'hippo', which he says is a mythological creature that could run really fast because he had five legs.  Director Philip Noyce similarly made this world a believable one, though I imagine the fact that to emphasize the sameness of it, part of the movie is in black-and-white might either puzzle or frustrate audiences.

Curiously, the black-and-white cinematography reminded me of another film that touched on similar aspects: Pleasantville, where the innocence of its 1950s-era sitcom were undone once color (i.e. the world's dark side) entered the picture.  The world of The Giver appears to be one where peace and harmony reign, everyone knows their place (which is the same) and there is total equality.

However, the film also shows that this world is quite frightening in its own way: no music, no love, no qualm about taking life that does not appear to be 'fit'.  The Giver makes its case that life is one of great darkness but also great joy, that humanity cannot be placid because the richness and complexity of life cannot be secured within a narrow safety.

We see this particularly in Thwaites' performance, and one hopes that the failure of The Giver won't cut out his career.  Jonas is someone who senses he is different, and as he learns both the joy of dancing at a wedding or the horrors of killing animal for sport or humans for war (he is able to see and experience these things via linking to the Giver's own memories, which are the collective memories pre-Ruin), Thwaites expresses the happiness and terror they evoke in him.  We see the evolution of the character to understanding the world he lives in is not the utopia he always thought it was, but a dystopia built on a certain emptiness.

Similarly, Rush as the love interest expresses her own realization into perhaps wondering if there is more to the world than what she gladly and unquestionably accepts.  Bridges' gruff Giver masks a man deeply haunted by how the world is and was, and Streep (though hampered by a bit of a fright wig) is the cool and rational Chief Elder. Even Skasgard (who is a bit of box office poison, many of the movies he's in bombing at the box office) is effective as the more compassionate Father.

About the only ones who didn't fare well were Holmes as Mother (who was more blank than brittle) and POP star Taylor Swift (who stopped being country several boyfriends ago).  I'll say that Swift as Rosemary, the Giver's daughter and the one who would have been the Receiver if she hadn't been so horrified by the truth that she ends up killing herself, at least didn't embarrass herself in her 'blink and you'll miss it' performance, but an actress Swift ain't. 

Granted, the last act where Jonas is fleeing with Gabriel at times is far-fetched (he manages to survive plunging off a waterfall after flying off a cliff on a bike), but one kind of rolls with it.  There are also a few questions (like who is in the cabin past the borders and are they aware of the world beyond), but those aren't deal-breakers.  Another dislike is Jonas' voice-over (and I'm never a fan of them), and that was a little harder for me to get into.

On the whole, The Giver is a much deeper and more intelligent film about those questions on the cost of the human experience than we've seen from other YA adaptations (think Twilight or even The Hunger Games).   One leaves The Giver asking about whether a world of bliss is worth the cost of actually living life.  I enjoyed this movie, and find it sad that it didn't do well.  Hopefully, people will give The Giver a chance.