Friday, January 31, 2014

The Blitz Revisited


THE MINIVER STORY

Following the success of Mrs. Miniver, MGM opted to do something that was rarely done back in the 'Golden Age of Hollywood': create a sequel.  The Miniver Story, coming eight years after the 1942 Best Picture winner, has some positives.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon show they still have excellent chemistry together.  Apart from that The Miniver Story is a total drag, dull and I'm tempted to say given the plot, shockingly lifeless, dampening all that was good about Mrs. Miniver in order to trade on the name.

Clem Miniver (Pidgeon) relates 'Kay's story' through most of The Miniver Story through voice-over.  It is London, VE Day. Kay Miniver (Garson) learns of the news along with other Britons at a coffee shop after having stopped at a doctor's office.  She is naturally happy but maintains that natural British restraint.  Returning to her suburban home, she encounters Tom Foley (Richard Gale), who has known the Minivers since he was a child.  Tom Foley (not to be confused with the former Speaker of the House) tells Kay about her daughter Judy.  He squired her around Cairo, where she was during the war (her brother Toby having been sent to America).  Judy may have gone out with Tom, but she was really madly in love with Brigadier Steve Brunswick, who was also in Cairo.  At the celebratory party in the village, the ever-proper, ever-classy Mrs. Miniver must say farewell to Spike (John Hodiak), the American soldier whom she has been seeing while her husband was at the front.  Spike tells her that he loves her, but knows that it's one-sided (and the fact he has a wife in America makes things a little dicey too).

In short time the Minivers are finally all reunited, Clem finally having returned from Hamburg.  Toby (William Fox, better known as James Fox today) has brought jazz and, horror of horrors, BASEBALL, to Britain, while Judy (Cathy O'Donnell) has brought her father great news: she's in love with an older and married man!  There are still more issues the Minivers face: an ignorant Clem is unaware that Kay is fighting for her life.  We soon learn that she has six months to a year to live, and she keeps this a secret.  Clem dreams of going to Brazil for a new start and Judy dreams of marrying Brunswick.  It's up to the cool Mrs. Miniver to sort them all out.  With Brunswick, Kay, in her genteel way, shows him that they are simply too different to make a good pair.  The artistic and sophisticated Brunswick could never elevate the conventionally middle-class Judy to his level.  Her heart broken, Judy is at first angry with her mother, until Kay uses the letter she received from Spike to show how love affairs started in war may eventually die out.  With that, the road is clear for Judy to marry Tom Foley, whom she made love with while in Cairo.  Kay lives long enough to see her daughter married, and has enough time to tell Clem of her impending death.  Now, four years have passed since Kay left (placing the story in 1949), and he ends 'Kay's story'.


Nobody will watch this,
so our reputations will survive.
 
The Miniver Story's first mistake was in being made.  All other mistakes stem from that.  Despite protests to the contrary by Clem Miniver in voice-over narration, The Miniver Story isn't Kay Miniver's story at all, not by a long shot.  So often in The Miniver Story we wander away from Kay to the Judy/Tom/Brunswick subplot, which given the times was quite brazen.  Judy was seeing a married man and Tom says they used to make love in Cairo, which to me goes beyond mere 'dating'.  Furthermore, we have a story where a young girl is basically serving as a mistress, and while my disapproval may be marked as prudishness, it is surprising that her solidly British parents aren't horrified by all this.  Instead, they seemed rather unmoved by it all.  I never once believed that Clem or Kay would not have something to say about their daughter running around with a married man.  Add to that the idea that while this is "Kay's story", Clem has unusual access to information he probably wouldn't have had.  How would he know about Spike when Kay I don't think mentioned him at all?  How would he know about Judy 'making love' to Tom in Cairo or Kay's conversation with either her doctor or Brigadier Brunswick? 

Again, how is any of that KAY'S story?

The question about Mrs. Miniver's own private affairs are also left unanswered.  Yes, her going around with Spike may have been totally above-board, but it does make one wonder if, perhaps even just once, the elegant epitome of British wartime resolve didn't give in to the pleasures of the invading American.  The fact that Hodiak appears for probably less than ten to fifteen minutes in The Miniver Story also makes one wonder how he got third billing.  That plot element is introduced, but never explored and if it weren't for Judy's scandalous love life, never mentioned again.

I also think another mistake is in how The Miniver Story romanticizes the immediate post-war period.  The world of the Minivers in 1945 doesn't squire with how it was.  There doesn't seem to be any shortages of anything.  Yes, coupons and rations are mentioned, but from what we see in the film, there was always food on the table, the homes were in almost impeccable condition (almost like they were in the Hamptons) and there is very little suggestion that there was anything like a war around them. 

In terms of performances they were all pretty awful save for Garson.  Pidgeon, who on the whole was a good actor, was terribly one-note as Clem.  When he sees Kay in physical pain, he has very little reaction.  He tells her that with regards to worrying about her condition, "I'm scared stiff", but he might have well been asking if the mail had come in the way he delivered it.  O'Donnell just came off as whiny as Judy the Tramp, and Hodiak wasn't convincing as Mrs. Miniver's potential lover.  George Froeschel and Ronald Miller's screenplay also had some very bizarre turns (at one point in Pidgeon's overdone voice-over, he appears to wax rhapsodic about both the Labour government voted in right after the war and even the nuclear bomb).  H.C. Potter also could never direct the actors to make them other than yes, one-note (gruff, elegant, affable), and his attempts at comedy (Clem trying for a homerun inside the house for example), felt forced.

The worst and most idiotic decision in The Miniver Story was to ignore the source material in one large respect.  In Mrs. Miniver Clem and Kay had THREE children, and a major subplot was that of their oldest, a son named Vin.  Richard Ney portrayed Vin in Mrs. Miniver, and while I thought he gave a bad performance the character was established in the film.  The Miniver Story makes absolutely no mention of Vin whatsoever, as if he never existed.  The reason is obvious: Greer Garson had started an affair with her on-screen son, eleven years her junior, during the making of Mrs. Miniver and had married him afterwards.  In the interim between Mrs. Miniver and The Miniver Story they had divorced, so it was understandable that she didn't want to see him again.  However, there was no logical reason to basically excise him altogether.  They might have mentioned that he had been killed in the war, which would have added a touch of more tragedy into the story.  It would also have allowed Garson a delicious scene where she visits her 'son's' grave. 

I'd say only pettiness on the part of the elegant former Mrs. Ney removed an important character from the first film from appearing in the second.  There's no logic to it, and frankly putting Vin into The Miniver Story wouldn't have made it any better, but it certainly couldn't have made it any worse than it ended up being. 

It's only in the last ten to fifteen minutes that The Miniver Story becomes watchable, and actually quite beautiful.  The sequence where Kay finally tells Clem of her impending death has voice-over, but it is also complimented by a beautiful backward tracking shot where they are reflected on the water, the camera keeps pulling back to show more beauty and making this moment extremely tender and sad.  When the Minivers dance together one last time, and then later on when Kay walks upstairs to her 'death', it is visually beautiful and actually moving.  However, by this time it is just too late to save The Miniver Story from being dull, stiff, and generally uninteresting to anyone other than a die-hard Greer Garson or Walter Pidgeon fan.  Everyone else will wonder why we should care.

In the end The Miniver Story proves that 'The Golden Age of Hollywood' suffered from the same errors of judgment that films of today have.  They don't know when NOT to make a sequel and leave well enough alone.

Whatever happened to Vin?


DECISION: D+

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me, Joanna: Kramer vs. Kramer Review


KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)

I think Kramer vs. Kramer must have been daring in its time, one that delved into a growing situation rarely discussed openly in American society.  Divorce now, sadly, is not the hot-button issue it once was, which means Kramer vs. Kramer now looks a little dated, its earnestness out of place.

Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) is going through some sort of existential crisis.  She needs to 'find herself', so she makes the decision to leave her marriage.  She walks out on her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and her son Billy (Justin Henry).  Ted, who has devoted his life to moving up in the advertising agency, learns that Joanna is leaving him the very day his boss Jim (George Coe) tells him he's going to get a major promotion and account.  As Joanna wryly notes, she has 'just ruined one of the five best days of his life'.

Now that Joanna is gone, Ted has to balance his work and home life.  That means doing the things Joanna did, like make breakfast, take Billy to school, and raise his son, while continuing at a furious pace up the ladder of success.  Obviously, being a man, he doesn't start out well.  He makes a mess of French toast, has trouble handling Billy, and misses meetings much to Jim's frustration.  However, over time Billy and Ted start getting into a rhythm and things are if not perfect at least less turbulent.

Ted also bonds with Margaret (Jane Alexander), the Kramers next-door neighbor and a friend to both.  Like Ted, Margaret has gone through a divorce, and Ted's initial resentment of Margaret (he first thinks she put Joanna up to the divorce due to 'women's lib') grows into a mutual appreciation for the struggles they have as single parents.  Ted even manages a brief fling with Phyllis (JoBeth Williams), who inadvertently appears nude before a nonplussed Billy.  However, fifteen months after walking out on her family, with lots of therapy under her belt, Joanna returns, and decides that she wants Billy back in her life, but under her roof.

What ensues is Kramer vs. Kramer, a custody fight where both Ted and Joanna endure a lot of intense questioning to see who should raise Billy.  It might be a man's world, but a woman has advantages as well.  Joanna wins the case, and Ted, who has been forced to take a lower-paying job as a result of his caring for Billy, is in no financial shape to keep the fight.  On their last day together, Ted now masterfully prepares Billy his French toast.  Joanna comes, but now sees that Billy would be better off (with) Ted, so she opts to let him stay. 


Kramer vs. Kramer isn't as powerful today as it was in 1979 I imagine, primarily because people almost expect divorce to be a regular change of life as getting another job or another car.  Oddly, among my social group, the majority of my friends are all still on their first marriage.  Perhaps this is a counter-revolution against my parents' generation where divorce was so prevalent that it was almost irrational to see a two-parent home.   The story runs the risk of becoming syrupy with Ted discovering that money isn't everything, but it's a credit to Hoffman that as an actor he can make the transition from workaholic to devoted father.

The film is also a pure showcase for Meryl Streep.  In just the opening, in the silence of just Streep, we can see so much of the internal conflict within Joanna without Streep saying a word.  Anyone who knew nothing of Kramer vs. Kramer would instantly know, just by her opening scene, that something was weighing deeply upon her.   What is fascinating about writer/director Robert Benton's adaptation of Avery Corman's novel is that Joanna is nowhere being a 'villain'.  She did leave her husband and child without explanation apart from that she doesn't love Ted anymore, but we also see in Streep and the screenplay that this was not an easy decision for her.  Far from it, Joanna was a woman in conflict with herself, and despite her flaws she truly wants what's best for all concerned, even if she doesn't know what exactly 'the best is'. 

Alexander, always an underused actress, has a smaller role but is also strong and sympathetic as the woman who goes from Ted's antagonist to friend.  Her scene as she is forced to testify in the Kramer case shows the conflict within both herself and between her two friends.  She obviously hates being put in this situation and tries desperately to get Joanna to see Ted is a truly changed man.


Of all the people in Kramer vs. Kramer whom I didn't like, it is Henry.  I never shook off the idea that he was indeed a spoiled brat.  Yes, I know Henry was suppose to show how being left by his mother was extremely hurtful, but given how irritating I found him (to where I was almost cheering him falling off the jungle gym) the pathos with Billy never worked for me.  Well, at least up to a point: when Ted goes back to Billy's room after their epic fight I was slightly moved. 

However, looking back at this I don't understand how eight months after she walks out on him Ted still can't get things organized.  I kept wondering, 'why doesn't he hire a part-time nanny?'  Given how the Kramers weren't poor and he was highly successful, plus how Joanna apparently didn't ask for any money, he could afford a part-time person to help in the domestic side.  Having a nanny would not have taken away from the 'message' of Better Parenting Through Divorce Kramer vs. Kramer was I think making.  Perhaps, however, this is me using my own thinking if I had come upon this situation, when the movie was trying to make me decide that a father should have his son as his top priority. 

Kramer vs. Kramer is not a bad film, far from it.  However, I don't think it is as powerful or insightful as it might have been perceived back then.  While I admire the craftsmanship behind Kramer vs. Kramer, all I could think of after watching it was that if there were such a thing as a Lifetime Men's Movie Channel, this and Brian's Song would be on constant rotation. 

DECISION: B-

1980 Best Picture: Ordinary People

Monday, January 27, 2014

Ice Station Cybermen


STORY 029: THE TENTH PLANET

The Tenth Planet is both a debut and farewell.  It is the first Cyberman story, a monster that has become one of the most iconic of Doctor Who monsters (who have also undergone many alterations in design throughout the series).  It is also the last First Doctor story, where we are left with the very first regeneration.  While the actual look of the Cybermen themselves may disappoint (and actually, I figure it didn't look all that good the first go-round), the actual concept of the Cybermen is in itself a splendid one.  The Tenth Planet also moves well and on the whole works, albeit not without a few hiccups.

It is the South Pole, 1986 (i.e. twenty years into the future).  On Station Snowcap General Cutler (Robert Beatty) is overseeing the routine flight of a spaceship, Zeus IV.  General Cutler (Robert Beatty) is running the International Space Command station while chief scientist Dr. Barclay (David Dodimead) handles the technical aspects.  Two groups arrive at Station Snowcap.  The first group is The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his Companions, Able Seaman Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills).  The arrival of three humans in the middle of the South Pole startles the crew.  They are taken but found to be harmless.

Into this we find that Zeus IV is having technical issues.  The instruments on Snowcap are also experiencing strange readings.  The Doctor knows what it is, and soon his warnings are confirmed: a whole new planet is suddenly appearing.  The Doctor knows what this planet it.  It is Mondas, the Earth's twin planet, lost ages ago but now returning.  With Mondas' arrival we also get new beings: metallic beings who call themselves Cybermen.  They were once like Earthlings, but over time their body parts were replaced with robotic parts, keeping their brains but removing all things called 'emotions'.  The fate of Zeus IV is irrelevant to them.  Mondas is absorbing the Earth's energy and will soon destroy our world.  With that, the Cybermen say they will take humans and turn them into Cybermen.


Cutler and Ben are able to defeat this Cyber-party, but it looks like Earth is doomed due to Mondas absorbing Earth's energy and bringing Earth to an inevitable explosion. Zeus IV is destroyed when it was dragged to Mondas and exploded due to the absorption of energy. Cutler decides that he will use the Z-Bomb, a Doomsday Device, to destroy Mondas.  This of course could bring destruction to Earth, the nuclear force being so great it could wipe out the side of Earth that is facing Mondas.  Just when he is needed the most, the Doctor has become violently ill and is out of commission.  Cutler is also motivated by the fact that his son Terry (Callen Angelo) has been sent on a rescue mission to Zeus IV which was too late to save the ship and runs the risk of a similar fate.  Ben, echoing the Doctor's previous warnings, begs Cutler not to take this act, saying that Mondas is absorbing so much energy that it will destroy itself.  Barclay similarly insists on the dangers, but Cutler will not be dissuaded.

Ben and Barclay manage to sabotage the rocket that was to carry the Z-Bomb, and Cutler orders them killed.  However, a new Cyber-party arrives in time to kill Cutler, inadvertently saving everyone else.  The Cybermen, however, will now use the Z-Bomb against Earth to save Mondas, taking Polly as a hostage.  The Doctor, Ben, and Barclay manage to delay long enough to see Mondas explode, and with that the Cybermen disintegrate.  Ben and the Doctor rescue Polly, but now the Doctor tells them that it's far from being all over.  Having complained earlier that 'this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin', he has them rush him back to the TARDIS, where he locks them out.  Once they finally get inside, they find the Doctor collapsed on the floor.  As the TARDIS starts dematerializing, the Doctor's face begins to change into someone else's...



It is the most tantalizing loss in the Doctor Who archive: the very first regeneration.  The actual regeneration sequence does survive, thanks to a clip used on the children's program Blue Peter, but apart from that and a few off-screen recordings Episode Four of The Tenth Planet is lost.  Both the surviving sequence and the animated reconstruction are quite effective and chilling.  In fact, the animation for Episode Four gives indication that The Tenth Planet would have worked brilliantly as an anime-type story.  The destruction of Mondas and the disintegration of the Cybermen in their animated form is brilliant, and I think looks better than the actual footage would have looked like.

The animation is the same as that from the missing episodes of The Reign of Terror, not as fluid as that of the animation for The Invasion, but this time I didn't find it as much of a hindrance as I did for Reign of Terror.  I think it is probably because The Tenth Planet is science-fiction, so that kind of story lends itself better to animation than a historic-based story like Reign of Terror.  Seeing the Cybermen animated also makes them more menacing, even if the initial Cyber-design was not the best.  Fortunately, their design was worked on to where the Cybermen would become one of the great Doctor Who monsters rivaling the iconic Daleks. 


In terms of performances Hartnell, though slowly slipping into illness that forced him (in part) to retire from the role, seems oddly invigorated as the Doctor.  He still commands authority and mixes that with a genuine caring aspect for his Companions.  The fact that Hartnell became ill during the making of Episode Three (thus basically writing him off that episode) works because we can imagine that in retrospect it is the beginning of his regeneration taking effect.  His final moments as the Doctor were brilliant: a sense of fear and terror coming across as he is about to enter a new phase.  Craze takes command as Ben Jackson, being less a man of action and more a man who needs to do things to save others, like a good Royal Navy crewman would.  Wills, sadly, had the run of screaming and looking almost helpless, but that is a reflection of the times.  However, she and Craze have a great rapport, especially when their Swinging London sensibilities come against the ancient Time Lord's more Edwardian outlook, particularly in clothes.

The design for the Cybermen, as I stated, were a bit odd-looking now.  The costume, with that lantern on their head and the mask (whose mouth sometimes did not open when they first starting speaking) runs the risk of looking a bit comical now.  However, they were quite effective whenever they killed, and the sing-song voice they used indicated correctly that they had something vaguely human about them but that they were not entirely machine or human.  I have long wondered whether the Cybermen were the metaphorical ancestors of Star Trek's Borg, and hearing them say in Episode Four that "Resistance is useless" does heighten the suspicions.

I do have some questions in Kit Pedler's screenplay (with Gerry Davis co-writing Episodes Three and Four).  The Doctor has knowledge of Mondas' existence and who the inhabitants of said planet are, but we never learn how he came to this information.  Having the Cybermen have two landing parties does seem a bit peculiar, as does their fortuitous arrival to save them from Cutler.  In particular, the aspect of the Doctor knowing about Mondas but never learning how or why looks like it was thrown in just to have someone understand how this all came about.  The subplot of the Cybermen going to Geneva in their plot to either destroy or take over the Earth also was a bit short-shifted.

Still, apart from those aspects The Tenth Planet holds up extremely well and gives the First Doctor a proper send-off, leaving open so many possibilities that are now part of established Doctor Who Canon (regeneration, Cybermen).  It's a very good story, acted well, which moves steadily and who uses the Doctor's absence effectively. 

Sadly, the next two stories,  the Second Doctor debut story The Power of the Daleks, and the historical adventure The Highlanders (which was the debut of Companion Jamie McCrimmon, the first Scottish Companion...sorry, Amy Pond), are lost, with no surviving episodes apart from short clips.  The third story, The Underwater Menace, is the first semi-complete Second Doctor story, and in perhaps the strangest irony, the first completely intact Second Doctor story is Story 037...The Tomb of the CybermenThe Tenth Planet moves well, has an interesting story, and despite the now-weak Cybermen look we can see how things will work out in the future.

We will not be deleted...


8/10

Next Story: The Power of the Daleks

Next Available Story: The Underwater Menace

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Education Gets in the Way of More Important Things


Well, here we are again.  School is starting to creep up on me.  Please, it's overtaken me.

Last semester was perhaps, no, it WAS the most traumatic one in my lifetime.  There were times when I cried and when I thought I was having a heart attack, panic attack, stroke...you know, the average results from the Organization of Information course I survived (and passed, with a 79.5.  That was my actual grade, and it still burns me up to think he couldn't have put 80, but 79.5).

I'll reserve my views on said class and professor for another time, but because of school I will have to curtail my online activities.   Like always this does not mean I will be quitting my reviews.  Far from it.  I'm sure there will always be a time to squeeze them in.  However, school has to come first. 

My plan is simple.  I hope to write reviews, more than likely on Sundays, then schedule them for publication during the week.  That may mean only two to three per week, depending on how fast I write.

However, I like to look at this in a positive light.  It might make me focus less on the most recent releases and more on the retrospectives I keep pushing aside (Best Picture, X-Men, The Essentials).  Also, it might help remove the backlog of DVR films/programs I have by having me watch them instead of what came out that week.  I will, hopefully, be able to write about a 2014 film, but between now and May there won't be many.

There is one real positive in all this.  It allows me to talk up a new series that I'm looking forward to which may end up being the only thing I work on if school becomes too heavy.  It is my reviews of the Academy Awards for every year from 1928 to 2014. 

It's a new series I call Tuesdays With Oscar.

As the name implies, every Tuesday after this year's Academy Awards I will post my views on a particular year's Oscar nominees and winners, concluding with what would have been MY choices if I had had the power to make the selections based on the nominees.  I probably will also throw in a "Shadow Winner", a film or person whom I think should have at least been nominated, but I can't make them the actual winner.  Those I will draw only from the actual nominees.

Tuesdays With Oscar should start, God willing, March 11, the second Tuesday after this year's Oscars.  I figure I will be writing about the winners that week, so the following week I hope to have my intro to Tuesdays With Oscar, then proceed from 1928 on downward.

With any luck, Spring 2014 will not be as burdensome or traumatic as Fall 2013.  Only three more semesters to go...   

Friday, January 24, 2014

A True American Horror Story: 12 Years A Slave Review


12 YEARS A SLAVE

There's something to be said about people's refusal to accept things as they are.  The Italian posters for 12 Years a Slave (12 Anni Schiavo) barely hints at the idea that the film has anything to do with the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the North who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, where for those 12 years he endured horrors upon horrors until through a fortuitous twist of fate he was able to make contact with friends in the North who got him released.  Instead, it focuses on the beauty of both Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, hovering over some anonymous black figure almost lost in the cotton fields.  Yes, both Fassbender and Pitt are very pretty, but the sight of Brad Pitt looking down on us Christ-like is bizarre to say the least (perhaps ego-boosting and reflective of how Pitt may see himself, but that's neither here nor there).  Even more bizarre, Pitt (one of the film's producers) has a very small part in 12 Years a Slave which does not justify his prominence in the poster, and Fassbender is the primary villain in 12 Years a Slave.  I won't venture to guess why the actual subject of 12 Years a Slave was downplayed, though I am too kind-hearted to place nefarious motives on people.  However, the film itself doesn't let up on the brutality of 'the peculiar institution', even if the only major difference between 12 Years a Slave and something like Roots is the degree to which the violence is displayed.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a successful fiddler in New York State, with a wife, two children, and the general respect of the community.  He comes upon two figures, a Mr. Hamilton and a Mr. Brown, who offer him a job playing with a circus.  Needless to say, once they arrive in Washington, D.C., where he is plied with wine, there is no job waiting for him.  Instead, he is taken by slave sellers and literally sold down the river.  He protests his free status, but nothing doing: as far as the whites are concerned, he is a recaptured runaway slave named Platt.  He is now sold, and his first owner is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who on the whole has a sense of right and wrong.  Ford, for example, attempts to buy Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her two children, but the slave seller Freeman (Paul Giamatti) won't have it.  The children are sold off, with a hysterical Eliza and distraught Solomon/Pratt going to Ford.

Sherlock Learns to Share

Ford reads The Word to his small group of family and slaves, and unlike others does not go to the slave quarters to enjoy the pleasures of their company.  However, his carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) has no problem being brutal.  He is furious that Pratt has Ford's ear and respect, and at a certain point is so enraged by Pratt daring to insist that Tibeats is wrong that he attempts to strike Pratt.  Solomon, however, defends himself, and it is only because the overseer gets there in time AND that technically Pratt is Ford's property that Solomon is saved from lynching (even if Solomon is left to hang until Ford cuts him down near sunset).  As for Eliza, her constant crying over her lost children disturbs Mrs. Ford so much she cajoles her husband to get rid of her, and she is never to be seen or heard from again.

With things too hot for Pratt, Ford sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Epps is the ultimate in derangement.  He has the slaves who don't meet his cotton picking quota beaten.  He gets his slaves to 'dance' in the European style in the middle of the night.  Most telling, he subjects his best cotton picker, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) to torture, in turns going to her bed and brutalizing her.  Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) is fully aware of her husband's twisted and conflicted feelings for Patsey.  She constantly pushes Epps to get rid of her, and she at one point throws a bottle at Patsey's face (making her denial of cookies to Patsey at one of the 'Negro dances' shocking in its tameness and pettiness, let alone gentleness, or as gentle as a woman who coolly assaults someone with a full bottle of liquor can be).  Epps' insanity grows, going so far as to force Pratt to whip Patsey.  Despite her pleas, Solomon cannot kill her to free her from this horror. 

Into his captivity, Solomon meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian who like all Canadians is gentle, kind, noble, and prescient.  He knows that slavery is evil and will eventually devour America.  Solomon takes a desperate chance and tells Bass his true identity.  True to his word, Bass has made contact with people and Solomon is rescued from Epps' plantation.  Epps is infuriated but there is nothing he can do, and with regards to Patsey, there is nothing Solomon can do.  Solomon returns to his family, his children now grown, and with Solomon as a grandfather. 

We are told in closing text that he sued his abductors, but being a black man he could not testify against whites in Washington, and the case in New York being dismissed.  We also learn that what happened to Solomon Northup (his later life after he became active in the abolitionist movement and his death) is a mystery.


Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the late actor) does not water down the horrors Northup endured.  Sometimes the accusation that he lingers too long on them (the attempted lynching lasting a while) appears justified, but it should be remembered that this is as close as we will be able to see just how insidious American slavery was without actually experiencing it itself.  I say 'American slavery' because only in America is slavery, already a barbaric act, is tinged with racial attributes.  Slavery in the past (and sadly, present) was more economically-based than race/ethnicity-centered (let us remember that 'slave' comes from 'Slav', i.e. Eastern Europeans).  We are not allowed to remove ourselves from Solomon's plight, which must have affected uncounted hundreds, if not thousands. 

How many other Solomon Northups must there have been?  How many other free men and women were abducted and forced into slavery?  How many families were callously broken up due to the idea that blacks were automatically property, no different than animals?  The horror of American slavery has rarely been depicted to the extent it has been in 12 Years a Slave.  It is a horrible thing to imagine, that there was a time when a piece of paper was the only thing that kept one from being a slave.

However, that isn't to say it hasn't been depicted.  In many ways, someone who has seen Roots has seen a version of 12 Years a Slave.  There is the kidnapping, there is the idea of an uprising aboard the ship, the separation of families, the rape of women and creation of mixed-race children, the sympathetic and unsympathetic white characters.  It may be that 12 Years a Slave is based on a personal narrative that lends it more impact than Alex Haley's novel, which may have been drawn from the Haley family oral tradition.

The acting is almost all excellent.  Ejiofor brings dignity and inner strength and courage to Solomon, knowing he has to hold his head down to survive but also on occasion reaching a breaking point where he will not allow himself to endure without taking a stand.  Solomon struggles, endures shocking acts, but he never loses his moral core.  He cannot kill Patsey, even if by doing so he frees her from the hell of her existence.  Fassbender is also fascinating as Epps, who I would argue is not evil but insane.  Holding midnight dances for his slave is perhaps his irrational behavior at its most tame, but in his paranoia, his brutality/obsession with Patsey, Epps appears to be a man driven or pushed into insanity by the evil he allows to grow.  Cumberbatch as Ford appears to be kind, and perhaps in real life he was more considerate of his slaves than others.

However, as Eliza points out, he is still a slaver.  Ford still owns people, he still does not appear to see the contradiction between being a good Christian man and being a slave owner (or using that deplorable word to describe African-Americans, sadly used by African-Americans themselves to describe each other).  12 Years a Slave doesn't answer that.  Instead, we are asked only to see how slavery was, and I imagine the portrayal of it is sadly an accurate portrayal of how dreadful it all was.


Nyong'o is so heartbreaking as Patsey, someone who is trying to survive as Epps brutalizes her body, mind, and soul.  Her performance is raw and honest and tormenting, when we see how she is fiercely beaten for getting soap or how Mistress Epps so torments her for things not of her own doing.

Here is one aspect of 12 Years a Slave that I did have trouble with.  Both Sarah Paulson's Mistress Epps and Liza Bennett's Mistress Ford behave and act so alike that one would not be blamed for thinking Epps married Ford's wife.

Another aspect is the use of flashbacks, which momentarily disorient the viewer and which do what a lot of films with flashbacks do: start us somewhere, take us back and then go chronologically until we get to the starting point, only to not have that serve as the end but as just a particular point where we pick up the story and continue. 

One good decision in John Ridley's adaptation of Northup's memoirs is to not have the slaves speak in clichéd broken English.  Instead, they speak with mostly proper English, which lends the characters more dignity than their owners would ever grant them.

12 Years a Slave is a hard film to see in many ways.  However, it is a film that is as close to what the actual experiences of a slave would have been that we are likely to see.  As I said the African-American pre-Civil War experience has been seen before, and it is a strong historic film which will serve as instruction of how things were.  I don't know if 12 Years a Slave is a film that will be seen regularly.  It is certainly not a film to be 'enjoyed' in the traditional sense of the word as in 'deriving pleasure' from it.  However, 12 Years a Slave is a film that cannot be denied its power, its horror, and its ability to display the dark and evil of man to his fellow man.             

1808-circa 1857


DECISION: B+

2014 Best Picture Winner: Birdman

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Carry On Fielding: Tom Jones Review


TOM JONES (1963)

Tom Jones is a comedy, a romp that mixes ever-so-proper British class sense with Swingin' London sensibility.  It never takes itself seriously.  That may be why I didn't exactly dislike Tom Jones but I never could get into its self-consciously zany spirit.  Tom Jones I figure was wildly outrageous when it premiered, and I think it has aged a bit since then.  While it isn't a terrible film, I could never work up the enthusiasm for it either.

Tom Jones (Albert Finney) is a founding, a child of unknown parentage.  All that is really known is that this child, found in Squire Allworthy's bed, is the son of Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), house servant of said Squire Allworthy (George Devine) and the barber Mr. Partridge (Jack MacGowaran).  Mr. Partridge denies he is the father, but no matter: he is disgraced nonetheless.  Squire Allworthy decides he will raise this Tom Jones as his own, and he grows in strength and beauty.  Although he is a very randy fellow (falling into the arms of almost any available woman, who willing fall into Tom's arms), he is at heart a very good man.  Not so the Squire's nephew Blifil (David Warner), who outwardly is very moral and devout but who has a heart of stone and has secret lecherous desires.  Making things more complicated is that despite Tom's many romps his heart belongs to only one: the beautiful, pure Sophie Western (Susannah York), daughter of another squire, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith).  Being a bastard, Tom cannot marry a woman of quality.  What's a boy to do?

Well, if you're Tom Jones, that means enjoy the pleasures of the company of ye olde town wench Molly (Diane Cilento), who ends up knocked up (fortunately, we discover it isn't Tom's...she is the local trollop after all).  Still, there is no chance of Tom marrying the beautiful Sophie, and after Squire Allworthy's sister dies, only Blifil knows a secret via a letter that he has been instructed to give to his uncle but which he keeps secret. 


Squire Allworthy comes close to death, and he opts to give Tom some money and a chance to make his own life.  Tom has many adventures and romps, mostly involving getting into and/or out of a woman's bed.  Among them is the luscious Mrs. Waters, with whom he shares a highly erotic meal.  Sophie, horrified at the prospect of having to marry Blifil, flees, aided by her cousin Mrs. Fitzpatrick (Rosalind Knight), who is also running from her violent husband.  It's a wild chase of Tom being chased by Squire Western, Sophie being chased by her aunt Miss Western (Edith Evans), all these groups missing each other by the narrowest of margins.

Tom and Sophie separately get to London, where Tom (who still loves Sophie) nevertheless becomes a virtual gigolo to the Notorious Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood).  Tom is framed for attempted robbery and sentenced to hang, but we get a good final twist: the contents of the letter are at last revealed. Tom is not Jenny Jones' child.  Instead, he is the child of Squire Allworthy's sister! 

Thank Heavens for that, since Tom had very little problem going to bed with Jenny Jones, who is also the luscious Mrs. Waters!  That's right: thanks to this twist, we avoided the comedic aspects of incest!

Now discovering that Tom is his true heir, Allworthy gets a pardon and rushes to the prison, disinheriting Blifil in the process.  Unfortunately, Tom is already literally 'hanging about' until at the last possible moment, it is Squire Western who charges in to rescue Tom.  Now that Tom is heir to a squire, all marriages are possible, including to the beautiful and pure Sophie.

I have a resistance to films that are conscious of how 'clever' they think they are, and Tom Jones is such a film.  Everything about it to me tries so hard to be 'funny' that I found it more trying than amusing.  It starts with the famous opening, done in the style of a slapstick silent film punctuated with John Addison's score (and the voice-over narration by Micheal Mac Liammoir adds to its own 'zaniness').  We get more indications that Tom Jones is suppose to be funny with its sped-up camera work at various points (the opening, a chase where Squire Western comes close to catching Tom with his pants literally down and his daughter--though not together), and at other times when the characters are fully aware that they are in a movie (Tom at one point covers the camera with his hat, and at other times they speak directly to us, Mrs. Waters summing up the goings-on before people attempt to rescue Tom from the gallows). 

New meaning to 'eating out'...

All these details I figure must have been daring if not outrageous in 1963, but I think they look dated now.  Tom Jones is stuck between being a period costume film and being a farce, and as I watched I figured it played more as parody of stuffy old period films with a rollicking bawdy story than a film whose characters and situations I actually cared about.

In terms of performances I think they were excellent.  Albert Finney is a great Tom, dashing, daring, lusty and unapologetic about it.  However, I never believed he could be such a slut and still have this 'pure love' for Sophie.  He is a man who loves sex regardless of who it is: an older woman, an easy woman, a woman whom people think is his own mother.  "I am used, Madam, to submit", Tom tells Lady Bellaston.  "If you take my heart by surprise the rest of my body has the right to follow." 

York is also excellent as the pure Sophie, who mercifully is not as dim as her character might have become.  I wasn't too impressed with Griffith's broad manner as Squire Western.

The performances are good and I can't fault them for knowingly playing things for laughs.  However, for me I think Tom Jones plays and thinks it's funny but I don't remember laughing (the idea that Tom may have slept with his mother doesn't make things better, I should add.  Granted, we know she isn't, but still...).

Perhaps the big surprise is in that John Osborne, who originated the 'angry young man' with his plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, adapted this wild romp.  Who figured he would have ANY sense of humor, let alone one so knowing of its own lunacy?  It does have lines that even today are quite daring and I daresay wittily subversive.  After one romp, Tom begins looking for a cat.  One of the characters asks, "Where's Tom's pussy?"  Read into that what you will.

I have never been a fan of voice-overs, and Tom Jones did hand over too much time to them.  The deliberate sped-up chases got more on my nerves than make me laugh.   For me, Tom Jones is a curious little film (except for length, for it is a little over two hours), something that in its time must have seemed zany and even avant-garde but now looks a bit dusty, even old-fashioned.  Granted, seeing a fight break out to Our God Our Help in Ages Past is amusing, but on the whole I don't think I'd like to have another romp with Tom Jones.

Tom Jones:
Sex Bomb


DECISION: C-  

1964 Best Picture Winner: My Fair Lady

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Cons Are Pros, The Pros Conned


AMERICAN HUSTLE

It's hard to empathize with people as morally corrupt as those in American Hustle.  Even the 'good' guys are slightly disreputable, and the 'bad' guys are perhaps fooling themselves more than their marks.  This concept of people constantly putting themselves up as something other than what they are could serve as the theme of American Hustle, where those who are trying to get ahead by scamming the other guy end up getting scammed themselves, or do they.

Contrary to what people may have heard, the story is not as complicated as advertised.  Based on the ABSCAM FBI investigation of government officials, American Hustle starts with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who has a good confidence scheme bilking people out of small amounts in exchange with the promise (though not guarantee) of more.  Soon, Irving meets and begins an affair with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), upping the ante by adding a touch of class to the scheme by having her pose as 'Lady Edith Greensley', a British titled woman.  The scam soon attracts the attention of one Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), FBI agent with burning ambition.  He puts the squeeze on both Irving and Lady Edith (he has no idea she is actually American) to help him in his own investigation of corrupt government officials.  His main target?  His Honor, Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whom he believes is corrupt and apt for bribery. 

Polito, however, is actually a very nice guy, who genuinely cares for his constituency.  Irving starts to become fond of Carmine, and the relationships between Irving, Sydney/Edith, and Richie soon start getting complicated.  Sydney/Edith appears to be playing Richie, or could it be that because Irving won't/can't leave his adopted child and his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon if ever there was one.  In turns jealous, emotional, and insecure, Rosalyn and Sydney are engaged in a war over their man. 

Richie, who has both fallen hard for 'Edith' and become more filled with dreams of a major bust to boost his FBI career, keeps growing the investigation larger and larger, much to Irving's objections.  He insists that it is better to make this a small operation to keep it under control.  Richie's ego, however, keeps getting in the way.  Moreover, the continued love triangle keeps making things more complicated.  Then there is the issue of the Mob getting involved in all this shady business.

Eventually, Richie bites off more than he can chew, and despite himself he gets too caught up in all the planning, the scheming, and is himself conned by the experts.  Sydney and Irving get together, Carmine does get caught up in the ABSCAM fallout but in exchange for getting the money back to the FBI he gets a reduced sentence, and Rosalyn gives Irving the divorce and marries a man she had met at a crucial party where all our characters meet and agendas collide.

See, it wasn't all that complicated, was it?

American Hustle borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese's cinematic style, particularly Goodfellas.  We have the rapid camera movement.  We have the voice-over from the various characters explaining motivations.  We have a fierce devotion to the time period.  Interestingly, both Goodfellas and American Hustle take place in the 1970s, and the attention to detail in both music and clothing is one of the highlights of both films.  Regarding American Hustle, director David O. Russell (who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Warner Singer) does as close as anyone has come to making a Scorsese film that wasn't actually a Scorsese film itself.

The film has solid performances all around.  Christian Bale makes Irving both a figure of ridicule (that comb-over! that belly!) and perhaps the smartest, even the most transformed character.  He is a charlatan, makes no apologies for it, but doesn't want to take down Carmine because he sees that the Mayor really has his heart in the right place (if not the way of getting there).  Amy Adams gives just one of the best performances of the year that I've seen as Sydney.  Her faux-British accent never falters, and in many ways she is playing two characters: Sydney herself, and Sydney-as-Edith.  We never really figure out what her true motivations regarding Richie are.  Does she really fall for him?  Is she using him?  If she is using him, is it to save her own skin or because she loves Irving?


Bradley Cooper is continuing his march to being an actual actor and not just a pretty man with beautiful eyes.  Richie is the classic hero who falls due to his hubris.  Outwardly confident, he lives at home and never thinks things through.  Even when Sydney dares to unmask herself he still doesn't quite get it.  Moreover, Richie's inability to measure himself and realize that things are becoming too big for him make him in many ways.  If we go for any actual showcase in terms of performances, it has to be Lawrence's wild, unhinged, uninhibited Rosalyn, who infuriates and actually endears herself as the complicated figure who nearly brings the whole enterprise down due to her own inability to control herself (yes, there is something funny when Rosalyn describes to the unwitting Mob guy she likes her husband's work with 'that curly-haired IRS guy, tipping the Mob off about how something's amiss in all this).

I think it would be unfair to leave out Renner, who doesn't get as much attention as the four main characters, but whose Mayor is by all measures a nice fellow who does the wrong things for the right reasons.  There is also an appearance by Robert DeNiro which reminds us of how good DeNiro can be when he isn't making money by parodying himself. 

Russell also goes out of his way to make American Hustle a fantastic-looking film.  The big piece where all the characters get together for a party is filmed so overtly cinematically (smoke and flashing lights), but at least within the confines of the story, it doesn't look like they are out of place.  It makes the appearance of the Wife and the Mistress at the same event one filled with tension.  American Hustle is so entrenched in the era that we are totally taken in to seeing the film as a document of the curious decade of disco, stagflation, and one can see that perhaps it isn't so far removed from the setting of something like Argo.     

If I were to fault American Hustle for something, it is that the Scorsese-like voice-overs (by Bale, Adams, and to a lesser degree Cooper) are introduced, then basically forgotten.  Same goes for the non-linear story, where we start at Point A, then go back in time to get to Point A in the middle of the film, and then continue chronologically.  I made a note that the voice-overs also do a show-and-tell, where we are told something, then shown what we were told.  I'm not a fan of that kind of working.

Still, we do laugh at these characters (Richie and Irving's vanity, Rosalyn's wildness, Sydney's cleavage...well, maybe not laugh at that but thought it deserved a mention), and the situations can be funny and clever at the same time.  It is a long picture, but excellently crafted and performed. 

Who is the master: the artist or the forger?  Irving asks Richie this when he reveals that the painting he's admiring in a museum (a sideline for Irving) is a fake, one of his own too.  There is no deception here: American Hustle is simply an excellent film all around, not just about how 'some of the things in the film actually happened' as the opening title tells us, but about the unique ability to deceive ourselves and others is perhaps one of humanity's greatest characteristics.

One more thing.  American Hustle is so true to its 1970s style that for the life of me whenever I think of the film, all I can see is Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper going to a disco, getting their groove on to Donna Summer's I Feel Love.  I don't know if it will become an iconic scene, but is it a highlight in a film full of them.

DECISION: A-

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cops Have No Holmes


ELEMENTARY: ON THE LINE

Sherlock Holmes, in his various guises, has rarely had much regard for police officers.  Plodders and half-wits who bumble and stumble to success, coppers are not the heroes in the Canon.  Those Sherlock does think somewhat well of (Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson) are 'the best of a bad lot'.  Low praise indeed from the world's greatest consulting detective.  Elementary continues that proud tradition of Sherlock Holmes regarding most police officers with contempt.  We've seen this in An Unnatural Arrangement, where a genuinely puzzled Holmes wonders who Detective Baskin, who has asked Joan Watson for help in his own case, is.  "What's a Baskin?" he asks his protégé, adding that when it comes to the rest of the precinct, all other officers fall under the moniker "Not Bell" (a reference to Detective Marcus Bell, with whom Sherlock and Joan work with).  In On the Line, that conflict between Captain Gregson's reliance on Holmes and the precinct's dislike for him comes to fruition, and we also get a fascinating case with an exceptionally strong guest star performance.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) has been working as a consultant for the NYPD for some time, and while Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) has total faith in his work, the other officers do not.  This comes to a head with the apparent murder of Samantha Wabash.  She was found dead by a bridge, shot in the head.  Holmes quickly puts it together that it was not murder but suicide (which isn't a surprise since we saw it all happen), but we then discover that this whole situation emerged due to a cold case.  Samantha's sister Allie was murdered years ago, and Samantha knows who did it.  It was Lucas Bundsch (Troy Garity), but she has never been able to prove it.  With a mixture of desperation and turmoil, Samantha's attempts to frame Bundsch for her own 'murder' flopped, but now Holmes suspects that there is more to the Wabash murder than first thought.

He decides this cold case deserves to be opened, and Detective Coventry (Chris Bauer) is extremely unhappy about this.  In reality, Coventry reflects the views of most of the precinct, who think Holmes is an interloper and an arrogant prick to boot (their views on Watson, though not specifically addressed, I figure are a mix of general indifference, slight annoyance that she's with Holmes, and an object of desire).  Holmes really has no time to hold the precinct's collective hands, nor to go into a charm offensive with them.  He has work to do, and do it he will, his way.



Bundsch however, has taken things to a new level.  He now begins to taunt Holmes, who suspects that he is a serial killer.  Again, there is no solid proof, but Holmes is on to him.  Holmes and Watson now come upon the link between Allie and other victims: it isn't similarity but geography that places him as a suspect in more crimes.  One of them is that of the disappearance of Kathy Spaulding.  Her husband Tim (Eric Sheffer Stevens) has joined an online support group, and there he has made contact with another potential victim's mother, Cynthia Tilden.  Making contact, Holmes and Watson go to Syracuse, but soon discover that this was all a rouse, for the woman they find is not the actual victim's mother.

An enraged Sherlock knows he's been hoodwinked, and in his anger finds Bundsch and strikes him, despite being taken off this case.  The anger Holmes has makes him contemplate framing Bundsch (which is what Samantha tried to do in the beginning), and it takes all of Watson's persuading to stop him from following on this.  However, Bundsch actually made one mistake (apart from taunting Holmes with news of a new potential victim), one involving the size of his recording studio, and this is the key to not only save newest abductee but also Mrs. Spaulding, traumatized but still alive.

Holmes tells Watson he is not a nice man and knows it, so Joan is going to have to live with it.  Captain Gregson tells his men that while he knows they are all good officers, Holmes is here to stay, so anyone who has a problem with it, well, the door's that'away.


This is an interesting case in that Holmes finds that getting at the solutions is easy, getting to the motives is hard.  Behind the cold exterior that finds the death on the bridge amazingly easy to solve, Holmes discovers that it is not just a case of getting to the truth, but to "the truth".  It is also wonderful to see Holmes come across an adversary who, while not as brilliant as him, still manages to push his buttons.  I wondered whether Sherlock Holmes was losing focus on solving the case, letting his ego get in the way.  It might have been that in another time he would have framed Bundsch (and successfully so), but now he has something he probably wouldn't admit he needs but has come to rely on: a support system of I daresay 'friends' who are just as valuable at getting to the conclusion as his own intellectual prowess.

Despite himself Sherlock Holmes has evolved this season of Elementary, and that is a credit to both Jonny Lee Miller's performance, the writing (in this case, Jason Tracey), and series showrunner/creator Robert Doherty.  With Miller, he allows those little cracks of humanity, compassion, and even vulnerability to creep through: his rage at Bundsch's manipulation, his reluctant admission that Watson has a tempering effect on him, while maintaining that somewhat high regard for himself (and low regard for officers not named Gregson or Bell). 

Elementary is turning into a strong show that is slipping out of other Sherlock Holmes adaptations' shadows, Miller as the head and Watson as the heart.   In many ways, this is the way it has always been in the Canon, but I digress.

Garity does a good turn as the manipulative Bundsch.  Did it veer a bit towards the 'I'm evil and I know it' school of villainy?  Perhaps, but now after seeing Jim Moriarty from Sherlock, I'd say Garity was an exercise in restraint.   I also thought well of Tracey's screenplay addressing something that had not been covered: how the precinct itself thinks of Holmes.  Most of these brash New York cops aren't happy (and I imagine most in Scotland Yard weren't thrilled either), but at least they were not painted as all villains or just jealous.  They were seen more as aggravated at this man who has 'bewitched' their Captain than just hateful for hate's sake.  On the Line also gives Quinn a chance to show that Gregson is both loyal and appreciative of Holmes' skills.

I thought the twists worked well and was highly impressed by them, and felt it was positive that we were allowed to have Mrs. Spaulding live to be reunited with her husband.  So often in police procedurals we get there too late, so to see a happy reunion is a nice touch. 

I was impressed with the case, with the twists and turns to get to the resolution, and with the continuing exploration of Sherlock Holmes as a person, not just as a cold, logical thinking machine.  I was highly impressed with On the Line, and think Elementary has done some of its best work in this episodes, with hopefully more like it in the future. 

9/10

Next Episode: Tremors

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Mycroft Management

 
ELEMENTARY: BLOOD IS THICKER

Blood Is Thicker keeps a pretty strong balance between the mystery and the interpersonal entanglements of the characters.  We also get a wonderful ending that leaves us wondering where Elementary Season Two will end up.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and his brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) appear to be building rapport with each other after years of estrangement.  Things are going so well for the Holmes Brothers that Mycroft suggests that Sherlock might want to return to London, permanently.  Sherlock is momentarily flummoxed by all this.  In another part of town, a delivery man is driving around with a corpse on top of his truck, unaware that a dead woman is literally being taken for a ride.  Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) and Sherlock now come to investigate this bizarre crime.

We find that the victim is Hailey Tyler (Kersti Bryan), the illegitimate daughter of Ian Gale (William Sadler), an inventor and high-tech tycoon.  This Steve Jobs-like figure has more in common with the late Apple founder than just that: Ian also happens to be dying.  While this information is top-secret (knowledge would plunge company stock) that instantly removes him from a suspect.  We then move on to two other suspects, Ian's wife Natalie (Margaret Colin) whose prior medical knowledge gives her a leg-up in how Hailey was killed, and Hailey's violent boyfriend Ray (Kieran Campion). 

In the end we discover that Hailey was in no condition to help her biological father in his health issues.  Far from it: she was ill to two weeks prior to her murder, so with some fake lab work we find that maybe it isn't Hailey's murder they should be investigating.  Maybe it's Gale's.  Once we find who the actual victim is, we find the killer of father AND daughter.  We also find that Sherlock and Joan decline Mycroft's request to return to London.  At Mycroft's Diogenes Restaurant, he calls a mysterious number, telling the person on the other end that he couldn't persuade Sherlock to return, and that they will have to find another way to get him to come back.


Oh, there it is: that big tease, that little nugget of future stories where we are left to wonder what is going to happen and how it will all play out.  Blood is Thicker ends with a big tease, and what a tease it is.  We are left with so many questions about what Mycroft is up to, whether this 'let's be friends' business was a shameless rouse, or again, is there something more, something deeper.  Ifans plays it all so beautifully: the sincerity of Mycroft's motives to rebuild a relationship with Sherlock, the mysterious nature of his motives to bring his little bro back to London.  I don't think Mycroft's motives can be thoroughly guessed at now.  We can guess that there is something nefarious behind this duplicitous act of Mycroft.  However, can we say that for certain? 

This is the great thing about Ifans' performance: so much can be read within it without giving anything away.  It truly allows us to take guesses, to figure where this tantalizing story is going but Ifans and Mycroft won't tell us anything.  In many ways, it is Ifans who is the showcase in Blood is Thicker.  He is proving to be an excellent Mycroft, shadowy figure in the Holmes Family. 

I liked the fact that Liu's Joan Watson is showing her skills in detecting.  She is the one who thinks that maybe the crime in question is not the crime presented.  It is also good to see that it is her medical knowledge that leads her to put things together.  So often in Canon adaptations Watson's medical background and experience is either underused or not used at all, for Watson is too often made the bumbling nitwit/stooge (NO thank you, Nigel Bruce).  Here, I'm glad that her expertise is what lead to solving the crime(s).  Miller still does well as the difficult Holmes, but to his credit he does allow moments of humanity to creep in.  Would he really go back to London?  The fact that he appears to have some détente with Mycroft shows that despite himself, there is a beating heart within Sherlock.  Whether he wants to admit it or not is another thing entirely.

In terms of the crime, there were good twists and turns, though the parallel between Gale and Jobs is a bit too much to imagine that Bob Goodman's screenplay didn't draw inspiration from Jobs' life (a dying tech genius with an illegitimate child unknown to the world).  We do, however, get good ways of getting clues, along with some clever quips.  The way Sherlock finds where Ray may be is due to the DVR programming.  "Televisions are idiot boxes.  DVRs are idiot helpers.  We are the idiots," he states.  After Ray is arrested, he remarks at the station that his horse finally, literally, comes in, and they arrest him. 

I found that on the whole Blood is Thicker has some great moments of humor and a truly fascinating cliffhanger that HAS to pay off big-time or it will be disastrous.  So far I have high hopes for this plot thread: it worked well with Moriarty.  With a great performance from Rhys Ifans, I think Blood is Thicker keeps us wondering about when the other shoe will drop...and thus, makes us want to watch to see what happens in the future. 

For full disclosure, I have Elementary set on my DVR.  Read into that what you will.


8/10

Next Episode: On the Line

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Snakes In the River


MUD

Mud made me think that certain elements of Great Expectations in that the youth help a fugitive and how adults use children for their own selfish ends.  What I found at the end of Mud was that it was a strong tale of human frailty and corruption, if one that was a.) a bit too long and b.) a little overt in its symbolism and parallel between adults and children.

Two boys in semi-rural Arkansas, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live by the river, Ellis making a living from the fish he sells with and for his father Senior (Ray McKinnon).  There is family tension: Senior and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), Ellis' mother, are in the middle of a struggle over the family's future.  This is going on under the radar for Ellis.  Neckbone, who lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), a sex addict, gets Ellis to see a strange sight.  Going downriver, they encounter a boat caught up in the trees.  They decide they will make this their own, until they realize someone is actually living there.

They find this strange character, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey).  He says he comes from their hometown, and that he is waiting on a woman (to quote a song).  In exchange for food, Mud will give them rights to the boat (and his gun, at Neckbone's insistence).  Mud soon gives up more information: the woman he is waiting for is one he killed for, defending her against a man who knocked her up and was abusing her.  That woman, the boys find, is indeed nearby.  She is Juniper (Reese Witherspoon),  However, she too is being followed, by the vengeful King Carver (Joe Don Baker), the father of the murdered man, who brings his other son and bounty hunters to find Mud.  Ellis has fallen in love with an older high school student, but this is short-lived, with his temper flaring at the rejection.

Eventually, the boys find that Juniper may not be the best woman for Mud, and even Mud's mentor, Tom (Sam Shepard), who lives across the river from Ellis' family, can persuade Mud from trying to get back to her.  Ellis and Neckbone steal parts to help Mud put the boat back together, but Senior discovers his son's thievery.  A hurt Ellis accuses Mud of manipulating them both to get away, and in his anger falls into a pit with poisonous snakes.  Mud risks everything to save Ellis, but this alerts King.  Mud wants to see Ellis is all right, so he gets Neckbone to guide him to Ellis' riverboat home.  King and his mercenaries are waiting for him, and a battle ensues.  Tom uses his talents as a sharpshooter to help Mud, and while Ellis, who now no longer lives by the river, does not know if Mud survived, we find that he did, Tom helping him escape down the Mississippi.

Homage to Herzog?


I think the problem I had with Mud, if I can call it a problem, is how writer/director Jeff Nichols is a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism and parallels he is trying to showcase.  There is a lot of 'snake' within Mud, but figurative and literal. There are snake tattoos, snakes in the river, people being 'snakes' to others.  There is also how Ellis' love life is mirroring Mud's, with the woman who does not share his enthusiasm for the man. 

Still, like I said, these are not impediments to me seeing Mud as a strong film, where we see good performances from the cast all around.  Of particular note are the boys.  Sheridan in particular as Ellis shows that with good parts and steady direction he has a strong future in film.  He makes the admiration and disillusionment of Ellis believable and natural.  Lofland and Neckbone also shines, though he is a supporting character to Ellis.  Mud, despite the title, is really Ellis' story from boy to man, understanding the duplicitous and dark nature of the adults.

Speaking of adults, it is incredible to find that somewhere buried in the bare chest and drawl there is an actual actor in McConaughey.  For too long he's been letting his lackadaisical manner and swagger get in the way, and here he makes it possible to believe that someone like Mud could charm the kids into taking his side, while keeping something of a child's belief in the purity of the love for Juniper true.  Witherspoon also does some of her best work as Juniper, who is a good girl gone bad or maybe a bad girl who keeps hoodwinking Mud to be her protector because she knows he always will (even when it is not warranted).  I was also impressed by McKinnon, an actor who really should work more.

Mud has a lot of stories to tell, particularly with Ellis: his family, his girl, Mud, but while the story buckles at times by all that it does not break.  As I said, sometimes the symbolism and parallel lives of Mud and Ellis are laid on a little thick, but on the whole Mud does a fine job of detailing how sometimes the ones we love and/or admire are not worthy of such things, and that it takes more than a gun to be a man. 

DECISION: B- 

Friday, January 17, 2014

This Is A Work of Mycroft

ELEMENTARY: THE MARCHIONESS

There is a lot to be said about Rhys Ifans' return as Sherlock Holmes' older brother Mycroft.  It shows Ifans to be a.) a strong actor (though I might never forgive him for that 'Shakespeare was a fake' movie), and b.) he brings more levity to the proceedings.  This Mycroft also appears to be determined to mend fences with his little brother Sherlock, but again, appearances are deceiving.  The Marchioness, the first of two stories with Ifans' guest character, does a good job on the character-building Elementary is strong at, but stumbles in terms of the actual case, and the fact that it draws from Canon shows that The Marchioness was in some respects, a wasted opportunity. 

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is at a sobriety meeting and shares rather intimate feelings, so having his brother Mycroft pop up infuriates him.  Apparently Sherlock's maid (how I hope it was Ms. Hudson, who sadly doesn't appear) told Mycroft where his brother was.  Mycroft has come to New York to ask Sherlock's help in a case.  This case involves Nigella Mason, Marchioness of Suffolk (Olivia D'Abo).  This is the same Nigella Mason who had been engaged to Mycroft until Sherlock slept with her to prove she was a golddigger.  Sherlock is convinced the Marchioness (who held on to her noble title after divorcing the Marquis), is up to no good.

The Marchioness had a retired racing horse, Silver Blaze, who she puts out to stud.  At the stables where Silver Blaze is housed, her boyfriend Dalton has been murdered.  At the crime scene Sherlock finds fingerprints on a tree and deduces that they belong to the killer, and that he is missing a finger on his left hand.  The fingerprints have been traced to unsolved crimes believed to be committed by a notorious hitman named El Mecanico (The Mechanic), who works for a drug cartel.  El Mecanico now has targeted the Marchioness for extermination.


The investigation turns its sights on Aguilar, a racing enthusiast who recently had a colt sired by Silver Blaze.  Watson and the Holmes Brothers go see Nutmeg, the new colt birthed by Twice for No, but despite having a colt bred from a champion Aguilar sold Nutmeg rather quickly.  Sherlock now puts the final piece together and confronts the marchioness.  He exposes her as a fraud, she had sold the breeding services not of Silver Blaze himself (who had died) but of Silver Blaze's brother, holding on to Silver Blaze's hair and blood samples to provide DNA proof. 

That still doesn't give us the killer El Mecanico.  Reviewing video tapes of one of El Mecanico's crimes, among the witnesses is a man with a missing finger.  The witness, Keith Newell (Andrew Samonsky) looks good, but the fingerprints don't match.  Sherlock, however, won't give up on the witness/killer.  As it stood, Sherlock finds a case where fingerprints were lifted that do match.  It involves a missing homeless man and a park built up thanks to stimulus money.  The case and El Mecanico are caught.  While Nigella, Marchioness of Suffolk's role in all this is kept out of the newspapers, the Holmes Brothers let her know she has to leave the horse-breeding business.  With that, Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes are left together, attempting to start a working relationship.

Oh yes, there is that little matter of Joan and Mycroft's tryst when they were in London. 


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

The mention of Silver Blaze is a good nod to the original Canon, and on the whole I thought it worked.  It isn't to say it couldn't have been better, for the actual story Silver Blaze is better, but then again Elementary has a habit of taking elements from Canon and using them as springboards for its one stories.  Christopher Hollier and Craig Sweeny's screenplay also does well in showing the parallel stories of brothers (Silver Blaze and the Holmes Brothers).  When Nigella says that Silver Blaze's brother 'didn't amount to much', she might just as well have been speaking in regards of how Sherlock and Mycroft see each other.  It might not have been as well explored as perhaps it could have been, but at least it is there, so it is a sign of how good Elementary has become. 

In regards to the actual mystery, I think that it was a bit too convoluted with all this fingerprint business.  However, in this case I really think the actual mystery was not as important as the interplay between Joan, Sherlock, Mycroft, and Nigella.  Each performance is top-notch.  Seeing Sherlock in a vulnerable position when he talks about how perhaps he should have been born in another time (technically, he was) was so well-done.  Ifans' Mycroft has that wonderful British understatement (he describes his illness, of which Sherlock knew nothing about until that point) as having 'a spot of leukemia'.  D'Abo makes Marchioness Suffolk both a terrible snob (Best line: Of course I don't know anyone in the Robles Cartel.  I'm in the peerage) and a rather dim-witted woman.  Liu does equally well in keeping Watson as a sensible person, with perhaps one curious decision.

It is revealed that Joan and Mycroft did indeed have sex in the events of Step Nine.  At first, I thought this was all in Sherlock's imagination but find that indeed it is true.  Is this a good thing?  Well, I know some people who are highly angered by this, others who think its a great thing.  I think it is out-of-character for Joan to just leap into bed with someone like Mycroft, so I think this really is just a way to give Joan some kind of action.  We are however, left to wonder what Mycroft's motivation is for sleeping with Joan.  Joan is too smart a woman to be so easily misled, so my thinking is that she was just a woman who succumbed to loneliness.  Still, the actual performances in all three of the characters in the tense dinner scene worked well.

On the whole the actual case brings down The Marchioness, but the performances from Miller, Liu, D'Abo and Ifans lift the story and make it worth watching.  It could have been better, but the acting and the exploration of the characters' lives do it justice.

 

6/10

Next Episode: Blood Is Thicker