Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything: A Review (Review #676)


My mother has a wonderful expression regarding those who have great intellectual prowess but who generally have no understanding of life.  "You're so smart that you appear dumb".  Dare I use that term to describe Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the great minds of our time?  I am in no way intellectually capable of matching wits with the good professor.  I CAN, however, say that about The Theory of Everything, the new biopic about his relationship to his first wife, Jane.

They meet in Cambridge in 1963.  Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is the brilliant, somewhat socially awkward and atheist graduate student.  Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) is studying literature and is a strong member of the Church of England.  Despite this, they fall in love. 

There is trouble afoot, however.  Steven is slowly finding the effects of motor-neuron disease, similar if not ALS, which slowly robs him of his mobility.  Told he has two years at the most, he tries to push Jane away but she will not be denied.  They marry, have children, he continues his work and struggles against his disease, she continues to be supportive in every way and finds it harder and harder to cope alone.  She goes back to the Church and soon begins a friendship with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), the choir director.  The friendship is one fraught with suggestions, and her third pregnancy leaves suggestion that their relationship travelled in new areas.

The marriage is strained when Stephen comes down with pneumonia.  The tracheotomy to save his life robbed him of his already limited speech.  He gets a voice-machine that makes him sound American, but the end of his marriage comes in a shockingly cold manner.  It's clear right from her first scene that Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) either has designs on Professor Hawking or was so domineering she could manipulate and control him.  Through his machine Stephen tells Jane that he is going to take Elaine to America, and that he had received the invitation for two some time back.  Hawking had decided to bring his nurse and not his wife as his companion.  Jane is to the surprise of the film, upset about all this.  The Theory of Everything ends with Stephen inviting Jane to a ceremony in which Her Majesty presented him with the Companion of Honor.  They marvel at what they had created (three children) as Jane achieved a measure of happiness with her new husband, Jonathan.

During the film, what I thought was that either the directing was weak, the script hollow or that simply The Theory of Everything, like much scientific thinking, simply has no heart and no soul.  The film is a dry, dull endeavor, made worse by the fact that it demands that I care, that I find all this inspirational when I found it so cold and distant.  I'm told to feel great emotion simply because the movie hits the emotional beats in a methodical manner.

What I saw was that there were no real people on the screen, just types.  The awkward intellectual.  The intellectually snobbish family (the Hawkings cannot believe anyone, for example, still believes in that ridiculous and antiquated premise of 'a Celestial Dictator', choosing to see Jane's faith as a mere eccentricity to please the first girl Stephen's brought about).  The pretty but eternally loyal and long-suffering wife who grows frustrated being 'the woman behind the wheelchair'.

It's surprising that for a movie as long as The Theory of Everything, the first human I encountered was Cox's choir director.  I think it has to do with a few factors.  First, Cox was playing someone who was allowed to be human, not a figure burdened with unnecessary symbolism (Hawking as 'head', Jane as 'heart', forever in conflict and reconciliation).  Second, Cox was playing someone who was familiar with how humans behaved, at least those who are not aware they are 'important figures'.   In short, Cox was the only real person in a biopic that is in turns too stuffy and reverential to its subject matter to allow them to become real.  Instead, almost every scene prior to Cox between Jones and Redmayne is played out as if it were a grand performance rather than the natural acts of their characters.

Take for example the entire 'Stephen is going to drop Jane for her own good' sequence.  From the time he hangs up on her and hides when she comes to see him down to where she challenges him to a croquet match or will never see him again, the whole time I 'saw' them act.  I was conscious of the fact that they were performing for us, playing scenes rather than living them.   That to me is deadly, especially in a biographical film.  You shouldn't see Philip Seymour Hoffmann on the screen, but Truman Capote.  You shouldn't see Joaquin Phoenix, but Johnny Cash.  You shouldn't see Helen Mirren, but Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  You shouldn't see Daniel Day-Lewis, you should be seeing Abraham Lincoln or Christy Brown (the subject of Day-Lewis' first Oscar win for My Left Foot, whom Redmayne is so nakedly aspiring to emulate in terms of performance and Oscar glory). 

That's not my dissertation they're reading.
That's my Oscar acceptance speech.
 Eddie Redmayne has an extremely strong shot of gaining an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything.  It has all the requirements the Academy looks for.  Redmayne plays a real-life figure (just like Daniel Day-Lewis).  Redmayne plays a physically disabled person (just like Daniel Day-Lewis).  Redmayne is also British, and in America a British accent is confused with being a great talent (just like Daniel Day-Lewis).   However, I found Redmayne's performance to be remarkably mechanical, cold, and calculated.  Some real-life figures 'become' the character to where you don't see them or see them 'acting'.  Others, however, are so nakedly declarative of their intentions (I want the Oscar!) that they become showy and serve only to draw total attention to themselves.  THAT is Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking.  It was one of those performances where you can 'see' not just the actor in the midst of his work, but it's one of the most naked pleas for awards in recent memory.  It's a showy performance, screaming at us "LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!  I'M ACTING!"

It's not entirely a curious thing that Redmayne has gone this route.  I liked him in My Week With Marilyn.  I liked him in Les Miserables, where he proved a shockingly good singer.  Now with The Theory of Everything, Redmayne is showing how diverse and how technically capable he is.  That's all well and good, but therein lies my if not dislike at least my lack of enthusiasm for Redmayne as Hawking.  It was technically capable, but that was all it was.  I never found the man behind the myth.  I never saw Stephen Hawking.  I just saw Eddie Redmayne showing us his best Stephen Hawking impersonation.  It was a good impersonation, but unlike Redmayne and apparently other viewers, I am not confusing impersonation with realism. 

Same goes for Jones, though her performance was not as desperate a bid for an Oscar as Redmayne's.  Again I never found her to be compelling enough to follow, and Anthony McCarten's adaptation of Jane Hawking's memoir Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen was jumbled.  Some aspects were ambiguous to the point of insanity.  I tend to be rather moralistic when it comes to adultery, but Jane's situation is a rare moment when I could genuinely forgive an affair.  When Jane becomes pregnant, the identity of the father is left so maddeningly vague that one never is sure of whether Jane and Jonathan had consummated their relationship or she and Stephen had reunited.  I don't understand why director James Marsh opted to play with details that could easily have been cleared up. 

Other times what should have been important character elements are skipped over.  We're told that Jane's devotion to Christianity was both a source of comfort and tension, but we don't ever see her pray, and she spends much time away from church to where when she does return, it seems almost like a social/support group rather than a desire to reach the Divine. 

Worse of The Theory of Everything's sins is that the complex ideas of the universe Hawking has either get skimmed over or don't appear all that interesting to bother with in the film.  At one point, a Soviet scientist stands up for Hawking when British scientist dismiss his ideas of the universe.  Frankly, why should we care that some Commie thought Hawking was a genius?  Furthermore, why should we think this particularly Commie was worth caring about? 

It isn't so much that The Theory of Everything expects you to understand Hawking's theories or him as a person as it expects you to care with a capital C.  I couldn't, no matter how often the film insisted that I do.  The film demands I care when we get Hawking's diagnosis, but given Hawking is a somewhat remote and distant figure prior to his diagnosis whom we don't know all that much about, it had as much emotional impact as when Hawking explains how Tide made the white shirts glow in the dark.

Nothing shows how demanding The Theory of Everything is as the ending, a loony an ending as I've seen.  In it, Stephen Hawking somehow fantasizes about picking a pen up and tells us that "While there's life, there's hope".  This isn't as deep an insight as either Hawking or the film thinks.  The Third Doctor said as much at the end of Planet of the Spiders, and no one gave Jon Pertwee a standing ovation for that.

Sadly, The Theory of Everything has too many parallels to another film of a brilliant but challenged genius with an incredibly patient and supportive wife.  One could not be blamed in thinking that The Theory of Everything is Britain's answer to A Beautiful Mind...and I wasn't too keen on that film.  Eddie Redmayne's performance, while technically skillful, was hollow and soulless.  He probably has a good shot for a nomination (which is what he is aiming for), but his ultimate goal of being the eighth actor in eleven years to win Best Actor for a biographical film I think will fade.  Redmayne's performance was as determined and demanding a plea for Oscar gold as I've seen, and while watching all I could imagine is his naked desire to be among the youngest to win should he at 33 (although seven actors were younger when they won, including Daniel Day-Lewis the first time he won). 

Stephen Hawking is one of the great minds of all time, and his status will remain unabated for perhaps centuries.  The Theory of Everything, ironically enough, has nothing to say on the subject.

Born 1942


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ivory Tower: A Review (Review #675)


Education is expensive.  That is a given.  Ivory Tower, a new documentary, asks two pertinent questions.  1.) WHY is it so expensive to where graduates face decades of debt to pay off their education when there's no guarantee that they will have good jobs post-graduation, and 2.) is it worth the cost?  In its brief running time Ivory Tower covers a lot of territory, and while the results might be a bit rushed the film itself is a fascinating investigation on how a university education may not be worth the price of admission.

Ivory Tower explores various aspects of higher education.  There's how universities have begun to compete with each other to provide the most amenities to prospective students, creating a mad rush to build bigger facilities that in turn drive up costs for attending.  Things are not helped that in these universities, the idea of education goes out the window due to the whirl of social activities.  The idea of evaluations, the film argues, goes further into thinking of universities as businesses rather than centers of learning.

As is the case in these things, Ronald Reagan is responsible for a lot of the problems.  Public funding of education has undergone a radical decrease since the Reagan Revolution, leading to an increase of both federal student loans and private loan companies charging extremely high rates for the money, leading to graduates unable to pay back the debt even if they wanted to because they simply cannot find jobs after graduation.

All sorts of plans and ideas float about, from the Thiel Fellowship and the Uncollege Movement (where people are paid to drop in exchange for starting a start-up) to MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), which are free to all.  Ultimately, whatever solutions are out there, they pale next to the gargantuan figure of student debt, which will crush everyone and is making negative changes at Cooper Union, which until last year was the only higher education center that did not charge tuition and had guaranteed free education.

I look on Ivory Tower as more of a primer on the complex and difficult issue of student debt.  It covers a great deal of ground, which perhaps in its 90+ minute running time may not be enough time to hit everything.  Still, the information and student stories that we do get are fascinating.  There is the story of Deep Springs College in Death Valley, an all-male college that is a mixture of commune, farm, and college.  Here, the students are a small number, they work around the farm, and engage in learning, antithetical to the party schools like Arizona State University.

Ivory Tower does not raise objection to the idea of an all-male college, no surprise given that it also covers historically black colleges such as Spelman College (which was created for African-American women), it is interesting to see that the film does present alternatives to the traditional state university.  The film also looks at the issue of not just the cost of education but also on whether the cost students are left with is worth it given how bleak the future for many graduates is. 

If Ivory Tower's solution is to put MORE money into higher education, then I think the film loses a great opportunity to show that lack of money isn't the problem.   Near the end we see that at San Jose State, a private company was brought in to help with remedial math students at SJS.  The film never questions why college-level students require remedial math.

However, Ivory Tower does touch on interesting elements about the state of higher education.  The mad race to outdo other universities to attract students with fancy buildings is worth exploring.  The rise of administration at the cost of actual professors is also something that could be delved further into.  The high cost of education with the diminishing results from four (or more) years of spending is something that I think requires much study.

Ivory Tower doesn't so much offer solutions (though like a lot of these 'advocacy' films, we are directed to a website to learn more), and the problems are bigger than blaming one group (what did Milton Friedman ever do to them?).  Still, I thought Ivory Tower was a strong investigation about how a bad mixture of high cost and low results may be more than anyone can afford in more ways than one.       


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gotham: Harvey Dent Review


It's a curious thing that Harvey Dent isn't a big part of Harvey Dent.  The same thing happened with Selina Kyle in Selina Kyle.  I don't know if this is a quirk of Gotham or just a way of saying, "Look, here's ANOTHER Batman character popping up".   Like Selina Kyle, Harvey Dent is one of Gotham's weaker episodes.  HOWEVER, like with Selina Kyle, the performances push the episode higher.

Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) has been put into protective custody by Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  Where else to place her but at Wayne Manor?  Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is puzzled and intrigued by this street urchin, but the Wayne family manservant Alfred (Sean Pertwee) suspects she's nothing but trouble.  Meanwhile, Gordon believes he has found a new ally to find the people responsible for Thomas and Martha Wayne's murders.  It's Assistant District Attorney Harvey Dent (Nicholas D'Agosto), a seemingly nice guy with a penchant for flipping a coin.  He suspects a major businessman, Dick Lovecraft (Al Sapienza) is behind it, and we get to see Dent's dark side when he explodes after Lovecraft threatens to make a fool out of him.

Speaking of explosion, Ian Hargrove (Leslie Odom, Jr.),a not-so-mad bomber, has been sprung out of jail by Russian working for Fish Mooney (JPS).  She has a scheme to hit her boss Falcone where it will hurt him the most: at his money.  However, the bombing campaign leads to deaths, which the troubled Hargrove doesn't want to participate in but is forced to against his will.  Thanks to investigative work by Gordon, his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and forensics Edward Nygma (CMS), the police track down Hargrove and the Russians, where we find that Mooney has one more trick up her sleeve.

Back at Wayne Manor, the relationship between Bruce and Cat (Selina's preferred name) continues to evolve.  She asks if he's ever kissed a girl, to which a stunned and embarrassed Bruce says no and wonders why she would ask such questions.  Cat mocks his training, insisting he's a nice kid who would be devoured by Gotham.  However, by the end we see that they are at the end of the day, just kids, who find laughter and stress release in a friendly food fight.  Alfred, seeing Master Bruce finally smile and laugh and behave like a kid after everything he's been through, finds that Cat may not be so bad.

Again, it's curious that the title character in Harvey Dent made exactly three appearances, and add to that that the visual cues as to Dent's future fate as Two-Face were so nakedly shown.  When we get to a critical moment between Dent and Gordon, half of D'Agosto's admittedly beautiful face is bathed in light, while the other half is obscured in near darkness.  It's obvious what Gotham is saying, and I'm not big on things being nakedly obvious and/or overt as they are here. 

However, the casting of D'Agosto was a great move.  I'll state the obvious: Nicholas D'Agosto is an extremely handsome man.  As such, he would fit into the idea of an attractive young man on the rise whom we know will eventually become into a deformed figure physically and emotionally.  However, in that crucial scene with Lovecraft this intense anger bursts out from him that made D'Agosto extremely frightening, as if Dent carries intense darkness and chaos beneath the veneer of charm.  It was a small performance (though not in height since the 6'1" D'Agosto towers over the 5'8" McKenzie) but D'Agosto did quite well.

The BEST part of Harvey Dent wasn't Harvey Dent himself.  Instead, it was the interaction of Mazouz and Bicondova as Bruce and Selina.  Mazouz's hesitation and genuine confusion as Bruce towards Selina's life and actions are so real and natural.  Mazouz made Bruce into that 'nice kid' from a wealthy background who is direct but hesitant, a child still struggling to relate to people his own age.  His naivete is counteracted by Bicondova's street-smart Selina, who when relating the 'truth' of her mother appears to not believe her own story.  While the meeting of the future Batman and the future Catwoman at this point might (please/displease) fans, I thought it worked so well thanks to Mazouz and Bicondova.  Their last scene where we see that despite both their characters attempting to be adult (tough on Kyle's part, intellectual on Wayne's part), they are also kids.

Interestingly, we saw more of CMS' Nygma (who is slipping back into the more frenetic take on Nygma than the more functional Nygma we'd seen prior) than we have of Gotham's breakout star, Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin.  He is in the episode, formally to get him connected to Fish's mole Liza (Mackenzie Leigh) for future stories, and he's still good.  However, I liked the fact we got a brief break from Oswald's machinations.  Anyway, back to CMS' Nygma.  It was both amusing and I think accurate to have him try so hard to fit it and fail so often.  We can see the dynamic between Nygma, Bullock, and Gordon when Nygma puts his hands on both Bullock and Gordon's shoulders, which neither Bullock or Gordon were not pleased about.

The case involving Hargrove worked well, though nothing spectacular.  At least it was more grounded than The Balloonman (no pun intended). 

On the whole Harvey Dent worked well thanks to Mazouz and Bicondova, who made things a delight in their brilliant portrayals of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  Some of the twists didn't work (Barbara's departure) and some of the twists were flat-out stunning (Barbara's new old love...WOW!).  I hope D'Agosto's version of Dent gets more screentime and a deeper exploration of Dent's divided soul without being so obvious (maybe he doesn't have to be flipping his coin so often).  Still, so far I haven't seen a bad Gotham episode yet, so Harvey Dent shows promise. 

Half in light, half in shadow...


Next Episode: LoveCraft 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Interstellar: A Review


There is a great risk when it comes to looking over any Christopher Nolan film, especially one with such naked ambitions towards greatness as Interstellar.  Nolan is held in such a lofty position among a core group of cineastes that to suggest that he is somehow anything less than a combination Stanley Kubrick/Alfred Hitchcock/John Ford/Orson Welles/Steven Spielberg/Cecil B. DeMille/Akira Kurosawa/Federico Fellini/D.W. Griffith/Satyajit Ray/Martin Scorsese/David Lynch/F.W. Murnau/Werner Herzog is akin to saying Jesus was not the Son of God.  As a result, any film that Nolan is involved with, be it something as avant-garde as Memento or as commercial as The Dark Knight is treated as if it were the Second Coming, and anyone who disagrees or suggests that Nolan is anything less than the personification of living, breathing genius is seen as an idiot at best, an infidel worthy of beheading ISIS-style at worst. 

At this point, the hype and hyperventilation that has greeter Interstellar, a three-hour time/space travel film, has been deafening and in my view, may have caused more harm than good.  The Nolanites had built up Interstellar to be this defining, history-altering picture, something somewhere between 8 1/2 and Citizen Kane.  Interstellar openly quotes from other classic films, most obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I also saw hints of the original Planet of the Apes and last year's Gravity.  None of this should be interpreted to suggest that I thought Interstellar was bad.  Far from it: Interstellar is a good movie.  However, that is what it is: a GOOD movie, not a GREAT movie.

I understand there is something about spoilers, and while spoilers don't generally bother me (here's one: Rosebud is a sled) I think I give a summary of the plot without giving too much away.  The world has turned into one giant dust bowl.  Former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is now a widower and farmer attempting to eke out a living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and his two children Tom and Murphy, generally known as Murph.   For plot reasons that might be spoilers, he comes across a secret government project to fly people through a wormhole and seek out new planets that humanity might move to.  It's a secret government project because schools now teach the Moon landing (or Egg landing, if you believe Doctor Who) was all a fraud to bankrupt the Soviet Union. 

Side note: am I the only person who heard in their mind Homer Simpson say, "Oh my god, Lyndon LaRouche was RIGHT!" when the teacher kept repeating that the Moon landing was a fraud?

In any case, the Lazarus Project, headed up by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) prevail upon Cooper to pilot the spacecraft.  Going with him are Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi).  Off they go, and to kind of sum up, two planets are visited, though in the timey-wimey ways of the universe, an hour on one planet is equal to seven years on Earth.  That means while Cooper is out there, his children live their lives: Tom a farmer, Murph (still bitter about her father leaving to save humanity all these decades later) working alongside Professor Brand (who must be well over a hundred by now).  As it stands, we get one final twist on another planet and another twist on Earth where we are led to believe all things are connected.

Somehow, no matter how often I'm told otherwise, I can see where Nolan is going with his movies.  It might sound like bragging but EVERY 'twist' in The Prestige I called before they were revealed onscreen.  They were perfectly logical.  I can't quite climb to that claim with Interstellar only because when we get what might be a logical reveal as to Cooper's place in Murph's life, I thought, "WE are THEY"?  The resolution seems a little too pat, too convenient in regards to what Christopher and his brother Jonathan are giving us in terms of story.

There were also plot points that were either skimmed through (Cooper went into the program rather quickly, and it seems odd that someone who almost just wandered in and hadn't flown in years now had The Right Stuff) or went on far too long for what they were trying for and not achieving (Doyle's fate, Amelia's motivations to go to another planet that seemed to spring out of nowhere).  There were audible gasps when we saw Michael Caine again.  If we are to believe the timeline Interstellar gave us, Brand would (using Caine's real age of 81) would have to have been at least 104 when the story goes back to him and Cooper's still-pissed off daughter.   You'd think she'd gotten over it by now.

Going further into story, Interstellar packs in so much that could have been cut.  The entire "big reveal" about the second planet and what Cooper/Amelia did/didn't know was basically repeated, and I don't understand why Nolan felt the need to tell US the audience and then tell the characters when it meant telling US the audience again what we already knew.  The entire storyline of the second planet seemed to be from another movie altogether (and not a particular clever one too). 

Among Interstellar's greatest sins is Hans Zimmer's score.  His obsessive use of the organ to echo the Opening from Also Sprach Zarathustra (or perhaps Camille Saint-Saens' conclusion from his Organ Symphony) was bordering on the ridiculous.  WE GET IT...INTERSTELLAR IS THE NEW 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY!  You don't have to keep beating us with your music to keep telling us so!  Of course, this isn't when Zimmer doesn't slip into Music From the Hearts of Space territory to make it all so New Age-like.

In terms of story, Interstellar flies all over and never fully lands anywhere.  In terms of both visuals and performances, Interstellar lives up to its lofty pretentions.   This is a film that demands to be seen in IMAX or the largest screen you can find, for the sheer visual splendor of deep space really overwhelms you and takes you as close as one is able to get.  Interstellar is visually stunning as we go from one world to another, and also within the worlds it takes us to, creating a fantastic universe.

Interstellar also has some brilliant performances by Matthew McConaughey (his scene where he sees his children's lives go while reacting in silence shows that he has left the himbo persona behind...mostly).  Equally strong was (spoiler here) Casey Affleck.  Hathaway and Chastain were equally strong as the explorer and lost daughter.  I did wonder what Topher Grace was doing here, and at least he wasn't in the film long enough to ruin it.

Interstellar is ambitious if nothing else, and at times it cannot carry the weight it so desperately wants to.  It may be because it throws too much all over the screen (at times one wouldn't be blamed if they thought they'd wandered into a Ken Burns documentary by mistake).  It may be because most of the characters are a bit thin.  It may be that the curious message we get from the Nolan Brothers (something akin to "Love is All You Need") could be a bit silly.  It could be that the film is simply unnecessarily long and it could have been restructured and other parts cut or trimmed. Still, Interstellar is breathtaking visually and has some strong performances.

However, it is no 2001 or Planet of the Apes. No matter how it tries whenever it echoes those two films, it would have worked better if Interstellar tried to be its own vision.  If it had, perhaps it would have found itself where it aimed to be: among the greatest science-fiction films of all time.  It isn't, but you can't blame Christopher Nolan for trying...     



As a Bonus Feature, I give you the Finale to Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony Number 3, also known as The Organ Symphony.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dracula Untold: A Review


I have nothing against Dracula Untold.  I say this because in many ways, Dracula Untold is not a particularly good film. Like this year's Maleficent, this film wants us to root for a figure usually portrayed as the embodiment of evil.   Maybe even feel a touch of sympathy for said 'villain'. 

Vlad (Luke Evans) is a Transylvanian prince forced to be a soldier in the Turkish sultan's army, where he kills in such a spectacular way by impaling the enemy that he soon earns the nickname Vlad the Impaler.  He soon finds that killing is torture for his soul, so he manages to leave the Sultan's service and returns to take his place on the Transylvanian throne.  Things are going rather well: he has a wife that he loves, Princess Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and a young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson).  However, this Era of Good Feelings is short-lived.  The Turks are back, and after getting their annual tribute they have more bad news for Vlad.  They're going to revive that old "we're taking the children to serve in our army" bit, and we're going to need Ingeras too.

Vlad is torn.  To refuse is to start war against a more powerful adversary.  To accept is a betrayal to his people.  In desperation, he seeks his former metaphorical brother, the Sultan Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, playing his second Middle Eastern character and thus, the British idea of 'ethnic').   Vlad offers himself for the children, but Mehmed refuses.  Vlad, unwilling to give his son up, kills the emissaries about to take Ingeras, triggering a war.  Vlad then goes to the mountains where he had encountered a creature he later had learned was a vampire (Charles Dance).  The Vampire gives him blood to drink, and if Vlad can resist taking human blood in the next three days, he will return to being fully human.  For now, Vlad has superhuman power, which he can use to defeat the Turks.

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan.   The war does go on, but there a few hiccups.  For one, his people, thanks to a meddling monk (no, not THE Meddling Monk from Doctor Who) discover his secret, terrifying them all.  Second, the Turks do nab Ingeras and have a hand in killing Mirena.  As it stands, Vlad did attempt to save her as he has the power of flight, but is too late.  She urges him to drink of her blood, and well, you can pretty much fill in the rest (including a final battle with Mehmet, made more difficult as the wily Turk has surrounded himself with silver, with affects vampires...take THAT, Stephanie Meyer!).  Oh yes, Vlad doesn't sparkle in the sunlight...he all but melts.

You think that after the battle things will be good, but now Vlad's army of vampires wants Ingeras' blood.  Fortunately, that same meddling monk arrives with a cross to save Ingeras, and Vlad wipes out the vampires (including himself) by lifting the clouds and letting the sun shine.  However, an eager devotee of Vlad comes in the nick of time to save his master, and Vlad has now lived all these years, where he finds a woman who looks just like his late wife in present-day London.

Now, I should point out that I did fall asleep for a bit in Dracula Untold, but not because I wasn't entertained.  Rather, schoolwork has been particularly brutal these past two weeks with Infernal Statistics, and the lull of a dark theater, with the constant blacks and greys of the film, were simply too much for me. 

In any case, I found Dracula Untold to be mildly entertaining in that silly 'we're taking this oh so seriously but we still know it's all a bit of nonsense' style.  It's an action horror film, one where we figure out early where everything is going and to everyone's credit they knew it as well.  Luke Evans makes the most of his time as Vlad, the man who wants peace but goes to extreme lengths to protect his people and family.  He makes it plausible to believe Vlad really wasn't that bad a fellow: someone who really loved his wife and child and would do anything to protect them.

My Mom, who dragged me to Dracula Untold, kept going on about how handsome Luke Evans is.  I didn't have the heart to tell her the real story, and to be frank that is rather irrelevant.  Evans is a real action star, and Dracula Untold shows he can play the human elements of the titled character.  That is more than can be said for Cooper, who loved being all evil as Mehmet, and it looks like he was having a ball being this monstrous.  As far as he was concerned, he was cashing a check, and there are worse ways of making a living.  Bless least he was trying.

Similarly, I thought well of Gadon (who is really above the material but did her best to play it straight) and Parkinson (who really had little to do apart from looking terrified all the time).  Dance, in a brief role as "The Master Vampire" balanced being dignified and being aware of the lunacy of it all. 

Matt Samaza and Burk Sharpless' screenplay does leave the door open for a sequel, and while I oppose those tricks I'm not going to raise large objections over this.  Their script did its best to make Vlad a human being, more flawed and tragic hero than blood-sucking monster.  Again, credit to Evans for playing it so well.

Like many of these horror/action films, Gary Shore indulges in constant grays and darkness, which is now becoming shorthand for 'we're in a dark film'.  I can't say I'm impressed by that, but again, I'm not going to go to war over these trifles in a trifle of a film.

At the end of the day, I think people know that Dracula Untold is nothing more mindless good times.  I enjoyed it for what it was: a mild distraction that was aiming at being just that and nothing more.  If it was aiming to be something deeper, an exploration into the recesses of a tortured soul, it didn't do itself any favors.  For me, Dracula Untold won't replace either the Bela Lugosi or even Gary Oldman versions of the Dracula story, but if nothing else, Dracula Untold will soon find itself in constant rotation on FX or some other pay network programming.

I can live with that.     


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cantinflas: A Review


If Americans audiences know of Cantiflas, it is due exclusively to his appearance in Michael Todd's opulently lavish adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, which remains one of the most shocking Best Picture winners in history (beating out both Giant and The Ten Commandments).  Around the World in 80 Days is generally derided as one of the worst Best Picture winners, and that conversation is for another day (and for the record, I think Giant should have won).  Around the World in 80 Days was Cantinflas' first English-language film, and one of only two he made in the language (the forgettable and embarrassing Pepe being the other, and the less said about this unfortunate stumble in Cantinflas' career the better). 

Despite the language barrier, Mario Moreno, the person who created the Cantinflas character, is recognized by cineastes as a true comic genius.  No less a talent as Charlie Chaplin complimented Cantinflas when the Little Tramp called him 'the world's greatest comic'.  The language barrier may be a difficulty in watching both Cantinflas AND Cantinflas, the biopic of his life pre-Around the World in 80 Days, but it is worth checking out if only to see both the rise of a great comic and two standards of Hollywood filmmaking: the "we GOTTA sign this star by a certain day" and "the tears of the clown" story.

Cantinflas is anchored by the mad rush Broadway impresario Michael Todd (Michael Imperioli) to sign this Mexican comic, Cantinflas (Oscar Jaenada) to a small part in his epic cameo-drive spectacle.  Todd pictures Cantinflas, the biggest Latin American star in the world, to play the part of a Native American chief.  To Todd's surprise, Cantinflas is perfectly happy to turn Todd down, as he has turned down so many other American offers.  The language barrier isn't the main stumbling block (as Moreno tells Todd, he can speak English when he needs to).  Cantinflas a.) simply has no interest in American productions, b.) is someone who has total control over his films and sees no reason to exchange his hard-fought creative control for Hollywood fame, and c.) really thinks the role IS too small for him.

Todd is highly anxious about signing Cantinflas, for without him the studio is threatening to pull funding.  To Todd's surprise, he finds an unlikely ally, none other than Charlie Chaplin (Julian Sedgwick), who tells Todd he has been going about this wrong.  Don't appeal to Mario Moreno, the British comedy icon advises.  Appeal to Cantinflas.

This serves as the narrative hook as we go through Cantinflas' life, from his early days working the tents (where he more or less fell into his comic persona) through his marriage to Valentina Ivanova (Ilse Salas), the Russian émigré making a career in Mexico, the strains on their marriage due to his constant work, their failure to have biological children together, and Cantinflas' growing alienation from his roots.  While he rises in popularity among the Mexican and Spanish-speaking people (particularly the working-class he embodies in his Cantinflas character), Valentina thinks he is growing too close to the artistic and wealthy elite.

Eventually, Cantinflas reaches both a personal and professional crisis, as his in-laws begin to snipe at him for his failures as a man and husband, the troubles he endures as head of Mexico's actors union, and the strains with Valentina.  A personal note from Chaplin and the script for Around the World in 80 Days, this time with Cantinflas as co-lead, appear to win both Todd and Cantinflas far more than either expected.

Cantinflas has the benefit of Jaenada's casting.  This originally proved controversial as Jaenada is a Spaniard and not Mexican.  The concerns were that Jaenada would not be able to accurately portray the Mexican icon: from his accent to the lack of physical similarity made him a dubious choice.  However, just like Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez excelled as the Mexican-American Selena and the Texan Renee Zellweger captured the very British Bridget Jones, the Catalonian Jaenada really did excellent as Cantinflas.  His voice and mannerisms were spot on, sometimes shockingly so, in particular when he played Mario Moreno at home, where he looked radically different than 'Cantinflas'.

He doesn't go for mimicry but for as close to a genuine portrayal as possible.  It is more than looking like Cantinflas.  It is going into the complex and even contradictory persona of both Moreno and Cantinflas where Jaenada does really strong work.

It's almost a shame that some time is lost with Imperioli's Todd.  It isn't that Imperioli is bad as Todd (though there doesn't seem to be much of a physical resemblance between the two).  It just seems that Todd is there merely to tie the story together when a more straightforward biopic on Cantinflas would have worked just fine.  This is especially true given how little we see of the making of Around the World in 80 Days or what Cantinflas thought of it all.   The movie attempts to end on a triumphant note when we see Cantinflas winning a Golden Globe as Best Actor (beating out Yul Brenner and Marlon Brando), but the film also papers over more negative aspects of Cantinflas' life.

While we get the idea that he had an affair with Czech actress Miroslava (who came to Mexico as a child and became a Mexican film star), the film flat-out never mentions her suicide, or that it might have been the a result of that affair.  It also fails to mention Cantinflas' natural son, whom he and Valentina legally adopted.  Cantinflas is in some way a sanitized version of Cantinflas' life.

Still, on the whole Cantinflas is an entertaining film and an interesting look at an icon of cinema.  It has a strong performance by Jaenada and while it doesn't dwell much into Around the World in 80 Days, it might serve as a good intro to someone wanting to know a bit about the figure who rivals Charlie Chaplin as perhaps the greatest film comic of all time. 


The Man is Gone.  The Legend Remains...     


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dawn of Planet of the Apes: A Review


The Planet of the Apes Retrospective

So Dark The Dawn...

I have been a fan of the Planet of the Apes series but had purposefully avoided the newest film in the franchise, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, because the previous film was I think not as good as it could or should have been.  I have always felt that science-fiction films work best when they can be seen as or are allegory to issues of the day, and Dawn of Planet of the Apes I think can be seen as that.  I also think that it is among the best of the POTA films because it is not afraid to be dark, to tackle the sense of fear, paranoia, and violence it deals with.  That isn't to say it's perfect, but Dawn is I think, like the original and Escape From Planet of the Apes, a simply fantastic film that works on both the story we see and what it is subtly telling. 

Picking up from the events of Rise of Planet of the Apes, humanity has been devastated by the simian flu, which has killed millions.  The apes at the center of this flu have moved to the forests of northern California and both sides deliberately avoid the other.  The ape leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis) does not want humans near his fellow apes, but he does not want to go to war with them.  This is more than can be said for Koba (Toby Kebbell), who is still bitter about the experiments the humans performed on him and thirsts for revenge. 

Things remain at an uneasy peace until 'man enters the forest'.  The humans, armed, have entered the ape realm in order to attempt to use the defunct dam in the apes' territory to provide power to the dying survivors' community in San Francisco.  The leader of the expedition, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his wife, nurse Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are both terrified of the apes and in awe of them.  They believe that rapport can be reached where both sides can coexist peacefully.  Caesar is not hostile but not welcoming either.  There are efforts on both sides to try to bridge the divide, but there are those on the other side who still fear the other.

On the ape side, there is Koba, and on the other, there is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who is still haunted by all that he has seen and lost (including his family due to the simian flu).  Eventually, both sides reach an agreement: a small party can come to repair the dam, but they must be unarmed.  Things appear to go well despite one of the humans having snuck in a weapon (the relationship being repaired when Ellie saves Caesar's wife with medication), but Koba, distrustful and itching for a fight, goes into human territory and takes weapons, killing two men he disarmed in the process. 

Koba has decided to lead a silent coup by torching the ape village, attempting to assassinate Caesar (despite the cardinal law of the apes "Ape No Kill Ape", and blame the humans.  The few sympathetic apes help Malcolm and the others flee, but now Koba has taken full charge and takes the ape army to San Francisco in an effort at total extermination.  Dreyfus and the humans attempt to defend the city, but the apes' strength and their overwhelming firepower overwhelms the city and San Francisco falls.  What follows is a bloodletting orgy that would put the fall of Troy to shame.  When one young ape refuses to kill unarmed humans, Koba's response is to drag the young ape to the top floor of San Francisco City Hall and hurl him to his death, horrifying his fellow apes.

Malcolm and Ellie discover that Caesar is not dead but wounded, and the ape leader is heartbroken that his fellow simians are as capable of cruelty as the humans.  He also sees that humans are capable of good and have turned out to be better friends than the apes he trusted.  The humans manage to bring his son Blue-Eyes (Nick Thurston) to his father, where Caesar learns that both humans and apes loyal to him have been imprisoned.  Caesar advises on how to retake power from Koba, and despite his injuries Caesar and Koba have a final battle on Coit Tower for power.  Malcolm, meanwhile, has to stop Dreyfus from blowing up the tower to allow Caesar a chance.  In the end, there is no real resolution, with war now all but inevitable, and both Malcolm and Caesar mourn the lost chance for peace.

What people forget is that the original Planet of the Apes, apart from being great science-fiction, was also sharp political allegory, specifically about race relations as the civil rights movement was turning from passive resistance to more militant actions.  While Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver's screenplay might not have had this plan in mind, while watching Dawn of Planet of the Apes I could not help think of ISIS and their barbarism on the lands they have captured.  The hatred the apes have towards all those who are not like them I see reflected in ISIS' destruction of fellow Muslims mosques (let alone the destruction of Christian churches), which is perhaps the least monstrous thing they have done.

Just like ISIS has publicly beheaded and crucified Christians, Koba's shocking act of murder of a young ape who refused to kill unarmed humans to me reflects the madness that overtakes beings who have decided who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

What elevates Dawn of Planet of the Apes is the intelligence behind it.  This Apes film doesn't just seek to entertain with a fantastic adventure story (which it does) but it also treats the story seriously.  It understands that the premise has to be played straight, with no winking to the audience.  The world of Dawn is one that is believable because the idea that total war can be triggered by the smallest of actors/acts is realistic, and that the fear and paranoia of a few can overwhelm everyone in a tidal wave of terror.

Dawn also benefits from great performances.  Not once did we ever question that Caesar or Koba were real.  Andy Serkis is truly the master of motion-capture performances, having honed his craft as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.  Here, he brings pathos to Caesar, a wise leader who comes to trust humans.  Clarke and Russell also were excellent as the humans who attempt to live in harmony with the apes, being perfectly serious.  Oldman's Dreyfus was not a villain but someone who believed he was doing what was right to save humanity from the onslaught determined to exterminate him and his kind.

This is where Matt Reeves did a fantastic job: balancing the action (the siege and fall of San Francisco being especially thrilling) with the more quiet moments (such as when Caesar sees that apes are as monstrous as the humans he had so feared all these years). 

Dawn of Planet of the Apes is a thrilling, intelligent picture.  To me, it is among the best Planet of the Apes films, and here's hoping that the inevitable sequel does as well. 


Next Planet of the Apes Film: War for Planet of the Apes

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gotham: The Mask Review


In terms of crimes, The Mask is rather weak.  Once Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) figure out WHERE the victim came from, the crime is shockingly easy to solve.  However, what The Mask has in its favor is the character development, in particular of David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne, whom we can genuinely now see slowly coming into his own as the future Dark Knight.   We don't short-change the war brewing between Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin and Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney, where we get some really shocking moments.

That just gives The Mask an extra point because in my world, there can never be too much Carol Kane.  There can also never really be enough of Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, so while the crime wasn't all that spectacular (although it was creepy), The Mask is elevated by a deeper exploration of characters.

Gordon and Bullock are investigating a body found by the waterfront, and at first it looks like a run-of-the-mill murder...until GCPD forensics officer Nygma finds a thumb inside the victim's mouth.  The crime is quickly connected to billionaire Richard Sionis (Todd Stashwick), who has a fixation for masks and swords.  Sionis believes himself a warrior, which doesn't sit well with veteran Gordon.  While speaking to Sionis, Gordon flat-out accuses him of the crime.  Soon it becomes clear that Sionis has a fight club going on at his investment firm, where he has the top three candidates for a position fight it out to see who gets the job.

Kind of makes the interview process more deadly, don't you think?

In any case, Sionis quickly takes Gordon and now has HIM as the object of the death match, telling the potential employees that whoever kills him will not only get the job, but a million dollars.  Gordon by now has given up on the idea that his fellow GCPD officers will have his back, but he has a surprise waiting for him as he fights for his life.

In the major subplot, Bruce Wayne returns to school, where he comes across Tommy Elliot (Cole Vallis), who quickly mocks him for becoming an orphan.  Bruce doesn't take kindly to that taunting, but the larger Tommy makes quick work of Master Bruce.  With a little help from Alfred (Sean Pertwee), Bruce literally takes down the larger Tommy, and now Bruce wants to learn to channel his perpetual anger into something, and asks Alfred if he'll teach him to fight.

In the minor subplot, the cold war between Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) continues unabated.  Oswald brings Fish two things: terms of peace (no blood will be spilt under orders from both dons) and a gift of a beautiful brooch.  Bad move, as Fish uses the pin to stab Penguin's hand, her rage growing to take down her former minion.  Oswald later gives the brooch to Mother Gertrude (Kane) who gives him an interesting insight into humans: they all have secrets.  Who better to know Fish's secrets than her new minion Timothy (Robbie Tann).  Timothy is roughed up and he breaks, telling Penguin Mooney has someone close to Falcone.  That's all he really needs, and he tells his boys to make sure Timothy's body can't be found.  They are at peace, you know.

As I stated, The Mask  in terms of crime isn't the best hour of television.  We know rather quickly who the criminal is and what it involves.  The Mask, however, is not about the crime.  Instead, it is background to the growing complexity of the characters.

In particular, The Mask is about Bruce Wayne.  We now get him out of Wayne Manor and have him interact with boys his age.  Again, not being incredibly versed in Batman lore, the future role Tommy Elliot has in the Batman mythos (which I will keep Hush-hush) escaped me.  However, even if Tommy played no part in the large mythology it would still be great because we could see the evolution of Bruce Wayne.  This appears to be the trigger that brings Bruce closer to embracing his destiny.  Mazouz is astonishing as Bruce (which he has been since the Pilot): he brings the vulnerability of the orphan Bruce with the growing rage within him to make a difference in the crumbling city he lives in and will soon be part of its leadership. 

We also see that Bullock is also again more complicated than people might have first thought.  He makes it clear he isn't Gordon's biggest fan either when he confronts the entire department over their lack of enthusiasm to help him find Jim, but he is going to stand by his partner. 

There are a few moments for CMS* as Nygma spread through The Mask, which is clever and better than having him come in for just one scene.  We see he is brilliant (he came to the discovery that the victim is connected to previous crimes through his own work).  We see also that he clearly enjoys the more gruesome aspects of the crimes (he has too much fun at the autopsy). However, if someone beats him to the punch he is displeased.   CMS has a great grin when he brings what he's discovered to Bullock and Captain Essen (Zabryna Guevara), but when Bullock tells him they already know what he discovered, his frown conceals his own barely controlled irritation at being outwitted. 

Interestingly, it was RLT who had a smaller role in The Mask, as it was more focused on the camp villainy of Sionis, but he still does excellent work throughout.  When he tells Mooney that her stabbing his hand was uncalled for, we can see that Penguin himself is coming close to exploding.  His scenes with JPS were coldly ruthless, and his scenes with Carol Kane (I just love her slightly bonkers Gertrude) are also excellent.  I'd love to see Gertrude take a greater role just to see how far Carole Kane is allowed to go. 

It's interesting that JPS, who has found detractors for being camp, has a great moment when she tells her mole Liza about how she swore never to be powerless after one of Falcone's men murdered her mother for lousy sex service.  It downplayed a bit the camp version of Fish and allowed some genuine emotion to seep through.  Whether this story is true is subject of debate: an old blues singer (Teodorina Bello), who has overheard their conversation, wonders why Fish tells such stories.  It's suggested but never overtly stated that this blues singer, Maggie, is really Fish's mother, very much alive and well.  Still, it was a great scene.

It's interesting that both Fish Mooney and Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot are their mothers' children.  Their backgrounds and how their mothers were/are is what made them what they became, and how they will fight each other through the rest of Gotham Season One. 

We even get a tiny bit with Camren Bicondova's Selina Kyle, where we can see a little comedy as she attempts to steal furs.  "Girl's gotta shop," she tells the officers who find her.  Sometimes a little levity goes a long way.

If things were fair, The Mask might have gotten fewer points because the overall crime wasn't particularly complex to solve, almost as if that were besides the point.  However, thanks to really great work by Mazouz in particular, along with Logue, Taylor, Kane, McKenzie, and both Smiths, we see that The Mask is better because of them. 


Next Episode: Harvey Dent

*As we have two actors named Smith (Cory Michael and Jada Pinkett), I think it will be better to use initials so as to not get the two Smiths confused.

Gotham: Penguin's Umbrella Review


I'm at a disadvantage in that Victor Zsasz from the Batman mythos is completely unknown to me.  Therefore, his appearance on Penguin's Umbrella is something I can't jump with glee over.  However, Penguin's Umbrella didn't make him the focus of the episode.  The actual story where both the repercussions of Oswald Cobblepot's sudden reemergence as well as his intricate master-plan were the main matters on this Gotham episode.   

Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is very much alive.  This news sends shockwaves through Gotham City.  EVERYONE, it appears, in enraged at Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  His partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is furious that he was deceived about Gordon pulling the trigger and fears that now mob boss Falcone (John Doman) will go after both of them.  Falcone's underling, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) is equally enraged: not only did Gordon NOT do as he was told, but Cobblepot, whom Fish especially despises, is still out there, a loose cannon that could blow up in her face.  She wants someone to bring Gordon to her...still breathing.  Her aide Butch (Drew Powell) is waiting at Gordon's place, holding Jim's fiancée Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) hostage.  Gordon makes quick end to that threat and pushes Barbara to flee.

Gordon is persona non grata at the police station, so when Falcone has Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan) come to the station to collect Gordon, all the cops leave him unprotected.  Though Captain Essen (Zabryna Guevara) offers to stand by Gordon's side, Gordon tells her to leave.  A shootout injures Gordon, and before Zsasz takes Gordon, Jim is rescued by his former nemesis Officers Montoya and Allen (Victoria Cartagena and Andrew Stewart-Jones).  He is taken to a vet friend of Allen's, who patches him up but Gordon, stubborn as ever, is determined to get Zsasz.

Mooney for her part, wants Penguin taken out.  Falcone doesn't seem too perturbed that Cobblepot is still alive, and is actually eerily calm about the whole thing.  Mooney and her lover Nikolai (Jeremy Davidson) argue about whether this is the time to overthrow Falcone, with Mooney urging caution.  For his part, Falcone's rival Sal Maroni (David Zayas) won't give Penguin up.  He's grown fond of his "golden goose", though Maroni sees that a war will not be good.  Maroni's right-hand man Frankie (Danny Mastrogiorgio) dislikes Cobblepot and wants him out of the way, but so long as Don Maroni has Penguin's back he can't do anything.

Penguin gets the OK to send a message to Falcone.  Cobblepot uses his knowledge of Mooney's operation to strike at a warehouse, where Nikolai is conveniently killed off.  Also bumped off?  Frankie, who finds that there is no honor among thieves, and that he simply is too cheap with his own minions, giving Penguin the perfect opportunity to wipe out his own rival. 

The dons make a deal: there will be no war.  In exchange for allowing Maroni to keep Penguin (and having him and Fish play nice) Maroni will give Falcone control over Indian Hill, a piece of land in the Arkham development site Mooney insists is worthless but whom Falcone says there is no such thing as 'worthless land'. 

Meanwhile, Gordon has decided to use the law to take down both Falcone and Mayor James (Richard Kind).  It's an insane scheme, but in comes Bullock to his help, deciding that since his life is basically over, he might as well join 'the good guys'...once he crashes at Jim's place, drunk, hooker in tow.  Once at Falcone's mansion, where they take a very unwilling Mayor with them, Falcone coolly informs them that he will let them both live.  However, Falcone also tells Gordon that he has Barbara and will not hesitate from slitting her throat.  Does he really have Barbara, or is this a con? Bullock urges Gordon to call Falcone's bluff, but Gordon won't take the risk.  Good thing too, since Barbara, dumb as ever, had returned to Gotham to plead for Gordon's life and is being held hostage...AGAIN! 

At the end, we see Penguin waddling up to Falcone, but it's all good.  They have been working together, going all the way back to the beginning.  As Falcone was ready to have Cobblepot killed, Oswald makes a deal with Falcone: if Cobblepot is allowed to live, he will be Falcone's inside man in the Maroni organization.  To secure this, Cobblepot asks that Gordon be the one to execute Oswald.  Penguin figures Gordon is too honest a person to go through with it, and Falcone accedes to his request.  In exchange, Cobblepot gives Falcone the inside tip that Mooney and Nikolai are lovers and are planning a coup, information Falcone is pleased to hear about.  Falcone compliments Penguin for how well his predictions have come to pass, but thinks it's a bad idea to keep Gordon alive.  For his part, Penguin tells the don that one way or another, Gordon will see the light.

Penguin's Umbrella has a lot to compliment.  In particular, we see what Gordon can do when he becomes if not unhinged at least devoid of fear.  He is going to take down people without any sense of fear except when it involves Barbara (and more on that in a bit).  He is going to try and single-handedly take down all the corruption around him, and if he dies, he dies. 

It's that loss of anxiety that allows McKenzie and David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne (in basically a cameo appearance) a wonderful moment (more on Mazouz's part than on McKenzie's).  Gordon goes to Bruce to tell him that he might not live to solve his parent's murders.  Bruce insists to not be talked to like a little boy, but he IS a little boy, right down to the impromptu hug Bruce gives his quasi-father figure.  It might be unnecessary, but it's a beautiful moment.

Penguin's Umbrella really has top-notch performances from nearly the entire cast (both regular and guest stars).  At the top, like always, is Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot.  He is simply brilliant in how he has Penguin be the master manipulator and the slightly sniveling henchman.  After Maroni calls Penguin his 'golden goose', Penguin responds by saying "Honk Honk", whose meaning is temporarily lost on Maroni and Frankie.  It's almost a comedy moment, but RLT plays it so well.  Penguin is ruthless and dangerous, however, when he confronts Frankie about how his love for money has basically cost Frankie his life.  There's a coldness and calculating nature to Penguin, and RLT again shows how dangerous it is to underestimate him.

Dorman is equally excellent as Falcone, who like Penguin is playing a long game.  Rather than  having it as a struggle between Penguin and Mooney, it's shaping up to be a struggle between the wise don and the wiseguy Cobblepot for control.  Logue is also giving better and better performances as Bullock, who is shifting from a mere crooked cop into a more complex and conflicted person.  Even Pinkett Smith's Mooney, who veers into camp from time to time, has her moments where that camp is toned down to be genuinely menacing. Carrigan's Zsasz is menacing enough and I figure close to what the comics have established, and what's good is that the door is left open for him to make a return appearance.

However, poor Richards as Barbara.  We have to wonder about her intelligence if she gets held prisoner TWICE!  Perhaps this is because Barbara is Gordon's weak point, but geez...why have her as a hostage on TWO occasions?  Having Zsasz's phone ring Funkytown is a curious choice, but in other respects Penguin's Umbrella does music quite well.  The double meaning of listening to Misty play when Barbara is confronted THE FIRST TIME is brilliant (we hear the opening lines to the song..."Look at me/I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree" which is a sharp way of describing her situation and oddly fits into her WASP world).  The music for Oswald Cobblepot is also so well done.

If anything, I think the whole "Barbara is perpetually a hostage" business pushes Penguin's Umbrella down, but apart from that I think the episode continues to be a strong showcase for the actors and Gotham as a series. 


Next Episode: The Mask

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Skeleton Twins: A Review (Review #670)


Brothers and Sisters and Other Odd Pairings...

I never thought much of Kristen Wiig (being one of the few people who genuinely disliked Bridesmaids and thinking it a step back for women in film, not a step forward).  I do think better of Bill Hader, who not only does a great job as host of Turner Classic Movies' Essentials, Jr. but whom I thought was one of the best cast members of recent Saturday Night Live.  However, I don't think I gave full credit to either of them for the depths of their talents.  The Skeleton Twins proves their is more to Wiig and Hader than their sketch comedy.  I don't want to say that just because they played 'drama' they are now 'better'.  It's more of an awakening, a chance to see how deep they can dig into characters and reach a higher level than most would have immediately given them credit for.

Milo and Maggie (Hader and Wiig) have had a tumultuous relationship, and it has been ten years since they have spoken to each other.  If it weren't for Milo's attempted suicide they wouldn't be speaking still.  It isn't because they had a major falling out.  Rather, it is because they have drifted apart and grown too concerned with their own lives.  Maggie, for example, was about to down an overdose of pills when she gets the call about Milo.  In order to help Milo recover and perhaps to bond, Maggie has Milo come live with her and her chipper husband Lance (Luke Wilson).  Lance is a guys guy, but he's perfectly cool with Milo's homosexuality.

Milo, for his part, now back in his hometown, wants to reconnect with Rich (Ty Burrell), his former English teacher who was his first love affair despite being 15 when he and Rich had their brief but passionate romance.  Rich, who has a child and fiancée, doesn't really want to start up again but still succumbs to temptation.  Rich is not above peddling his rom-com script to Milo, who has told him he has an acting career when he really doesn't.  Lance, for his part, is enthusiastic about the possibility of being a father, unaware that Maggie has secretly been using birth control and has had affairs with all her continuing education instructors, the latest being Billy (Boyd Holbrook) the hot Australian scuba instructor.

Things appear to be going well for both of them.  They are slowly bonding.  Maggie feels conflicted about both the possibility of getting pregnant and her affairs, which she hasn't before.  Milo is putting himself together with a job that Lance gets him (though he isn't enthusiastic about it).  He and Lance are even bonding.  However, all things start coming apart.  Maggie is furious that Milo is seeing Rich, whom she calls a child molester for taking Milo's virginity.  Milo in turn suggests to Lance that he isn't impotent, but that there's perhaps another reason Maggie hasn't gotten preggers.  Eventually they break apart when Lance discovers from Maggie both of her birth control and infidelities.  She now is about to kill herself by drowning in the pool where she's been taking the scuba lessons, but Milo comes in time to save her when she can't break the ties to the weights she put down.  At the end, Maggie and Milo put their differences aside to attempt to live together, realizing they need each other more than the other is willing to admit.

Perhaps I'm getting soft in my old age, but rather than finding Milo and Maggie narcissistic and faux-hipster, I found them to be inflicting pain on themselves.  The Skeleton Twins attempts to tie their own rather confused lives with their father, who committed suicide himself when they were young, and a brief visit by their hippie mother Judy (Joanna Gleason).  Judy comes at Milo's request, though this clearly upsets Maggie.  It makes things worse when we find that Judy came merely because she was nearby at some meditation-type retreat rather than to see her dysfunctional children.

As perhaps as Mark Heyman and director Craig Johnson's screenplay plays with what would be certain clichéd plot points (the 'I'm screwed up because my parents were' bit and the overt symbolism of the dead goldfish for the siblings tortured relationship for example), The Skeleton Twin's great saving grace is in the performances.  At the top of the list of fantastic performances is Bill Hader's Milo.

In other hands, the gayness of Milo might have come off as stereotypical, but Hader made Milo into someone who straddled caricature with heart.    Yes, Milo is gay, and at times he can come across as flamboyant, but Milo is also someone who has great wounds that are removed from his sexuality.  Hader has a fantastic monologue where he talks about Justin, a high school bully.  He tells Maggie that their father attempted to make Milo feel better by telling him that Justin would have only high school as his crowning achievement but that once he left school his life would be miserable, while Milo would rise.  Milo goes on to tell his sister that he looked up Justin online and found that he had a relatively happy life post-school, and Milo now holds that it was MILO, not Justin, for whom high school was the highlight of his life. 

It's a beautiful moment, and really shows that with good material, Bill Hader can be more than a funny impressionist, but a strong actor.

Hader really balances being silly and sincere, between gay stereotype and fully-formed human, and it is one of the best performances I've seen this year.

The same goes for Wiig, who makes Maggie into a vulnerable figure, one who believes she is unworthy of Lance's genuine love.  Again, I'm not a fan of Wiig, but here she kept things believable and genuine.  Luke Wilson's forte is the 'average-Joe', a good guy who is not always the brightest person.  The Skeleton Twins was another in these roles, but Wilson is just so good in it that you do genuinely feel when he finds out that the woman he genuinely loves is betraying him in so many ways. 

The relationship between Milo and Maggie is perhaps an exaggeration of most brothers and sisters, but it doesn't seem unbelievable.  We see that these two have wounded each other and themselves, sometimes by their own actions, sometimes not.  However, at the end of the day they are family, and they see that they do need each other.   They have things only they share (such as their unofficial theme song, Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now), and that no matter how they might not want to acknowledge it, they are bonded.

I found myself moved by the story and performances.  It was as real as I've seen this year, and with three great performances I think The Skeleton Twins is a film for those who have felt the cords of family sometimes strangle, sometimes strengthen. 


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Franklin & Bash: Reaction To Cancellation

Age, and the audiences' intelligence,
finally caught up with them...

For Jared and Peter, The Party's Over...

Well, in what can only be called a shock to absolutely no one, Franklin & Bash was cancelled.   America, it seemed, had tired of two himbos with law degrees getting more and more stupid and insulting our intelligence; frankly no one cared anymore about either Peter Bash or his lifelong partner, His Royal Highness Elmo, Duke of Landingshire.

Maybe the fact that Jared Franklin, aka Elmo Franklin, aka HRH the Duke of Landingshire BECAME an HRH was one of the contributing factors to Franklin & Bash's demise.  I think the fact that we had a character find himself with a royal title was flat-out insulting to the audience, but Franklin & Bash had been sliding for, well, at least three of its four years.

Is it a coincidence that Season One of Franklin & Bash is the ONLY season to be released on DVD?  Could it be that its creators, Kevin Falls and Bill Chais, pretty much knew that everything after that fantastic first season was pretty much garbage?  My feeling is that they indeed knew it, and either didn't care or thought that its fanbase would go along with whatever silliness they threw at us because was Franklin & Bash.

As I have not completed my full retrospective on Franklin & Bash, I feel I'm giving away a bit here.  However, a quick look at Seasons Two to Four showed that the show was sliding further and further down. 

Season Two Average: 4.6.
Season Three Average: 4.0.
Season Four: 3.2.

For three seasons the show wasn't even average.  The show was getting stupider and stupider, the cases becoming sillier and siller, and the characters regressing.  Again and again I hollered that rather than have Peter and HRH grow up a little, they were actually growing more juvenile and more dim-witted to where you genuinely wondered whether they were functioning humans, let alone brilliant attorneys. 

She couldn't save the show,
but she helped sink it.

These lawyers, who were suppose to be so clever and bright, didn't know the military doesn't need search warrants to look at the troops' property, didn't know FDR was in a wheelchair, thought Galileo discovered gravity and that Louis Pasteur invented milk. 

Seriously, one of them thought Louis Pasteur invented milk. 

How'd Peter Bash graduate elementary school? 

It didn't help that Bash was always the one who was made to undergo humiliating practices for silly laughs.  Given that Mark-Paul Gosselaar appears to be the more likeable of the two, and Breckin Meyer never shook off his jerk-like persona, sometimes you just wanted to pelt both Meyer and His Royal Highness Elmo, Duke of Landingshire. 

There really were so many bad moments in Season Four that I'm shocked that anyone thought Franklin & Bash would have survived past that season.  The Curse of Hor-Aha was just a total mess.  Kershaw vs. Lincecum reduced the vaguely homoerotic subtext the show had played with (particularly with Jared, who had made some really curious comments and seemed oddly possessive towards Peter) to a stunt by having them kiss each other as part of a dare.

Two forty-year-old men still play Truth or Dare?

Many fans point to Heather Locklear's Season Three arc as their new boss Rachel King as the moment the show jumped the shark.  I think the show began to die at the Season Two premiere of Strange Brew.   Rather than let them accept adult responsibilities, the show and episode allowed them to have their cake and eat it too.  For myself, that was the moment the magic was gone, and while Franklin & Bash pulled itself from its own inanity from time to time (the Season Three finale Gone in a Flash was a welcome return to form), most of the stories were really dumb...even for Franklin & Bash.

Nothing more infuriated me than the episode Freck, which to me was just one of the worst hours of television I have ever seen.  The story was stupid, the people on it were stupid, and I felt such anger and disgust that for me, the show was dead.  I kept watching as one watched a freak show: appalled but fascinated how it kept limping along. 

This isn't to say Heather Locklear's turn (which didn't go over well with fans) made things easier.  It to me, however, captured the slide of F&B in its full spectacular disarray. 

The final death knell rang with The Curse of Hor-Aha.  Apart from it being a Freck-like episode in terms of stupidity, it did a disservice to the Franklin & Bash fans who had hung on.  It threw out two characters with nary a reason.  Worse, they were two good characters (or at least fan favorites): Dana Davis' Carmen and Kumail Nanjiani's Pindar.  Pindar was very divisive (loved and loathed in equal measure), Carmen was universally liked.  To not only write these characters out but write them off, to not give an explanation as to why they left, was an unfair cheat.

So Davis and Nanjiani are no longer on the show.  Fine.  The actors might have other jobs, but that doesn't mean you just say to the fans, "Well, they USED to be here, but now they're not, we don't have to tell you why two integral parts of the show aren't here anymore, just focus on the new guys". 

That's what we did, and that's where more problems became apparent.  I don't blame Toni Trucks and especially Anthony Ordonez, who were asked to perform a thankless job: be replacements for two characters (and in Ordonez's case, be a mix of two of them).  Ordonez's Danny Mundy, the boys' new investigator, was a disaster from the get-go.  Falls and Chais were determined to make him 'quirky' but he came off looking like a certifiable psycho (or at least, either mentally unstable or a wild-eyed stalker).  Later episodes tried to tone down the weird factor Ordonez had been asked to do, but by then simply too much damage had been done.

That's not counting the decision to take Reed Diamond's Damien Karp (Jared and Peter's favorite foil and the only really good thing on the show) out to have him pop in every so often.  Too many changes in too short a time with no explanations as to why certain characters left and with poor replacements were simply too much for those who kept the faith to hold on.  Ratings, and more importantly respect for the show, had fallen to where nothing, not even the lip-lock between the homosexual-in-denial Jared Franklin and the overt man-whore Peter Bash could revive something that had died.

I'm sad to say that I'm thrilled Franklin & Bash was cancelled.  I loved the first season's mix of heart and irreverence.  I grew to hate its stupid himbos with law degrees, its nonsensical cases, the leads' smug self-assuredness, sense of entitlement and juvenile thinking.  Pity, because if Falls and Chais had kept things a bit more grounded and realized it was the bromance, not the idiocy of the bromantic partners, that we watched, Franklin & Bash could have continued to be breezy fun.  Instead, it became sad to watch. 
I read the best comment about Franklin & Bash's demise, mocking the Season Four cliffhanger ending (which to my knowledge, was a Franklin & Bash first since it had never attempted a cliffhanger ending).   

We'll never know which one was Franklin and which one was Bash.

Franklin & Bash: The Final Thoughts