Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Two Arabian Knights: A Review (Review #716)


Two Arabian Knights has the distinction of being the only Best Comedy Director Oscar winner.  At the first Academy Awards, the Directing category was split between Drama and Comedy, but the following year Comedy Directing was retired and there was just one Best Director.  Curiously, the Comedy Directing winner, Lewis Milestone, would go on to win another Best Director Oscar for another World War I film, one as far from the hijinks of Two Arabian Knights as imaginable (the searing drama All Quiet on the Western Front).   Whether it is good or bad to separate comedy and drama at the Oscars I cannot say, given the Academy's penchant for thinking it takes greater talent to make a drama than it does comedy.  Two Arabians Knights isn't that funny, though it does set a comedic template: the mismatched pair who find themselves in all sorts of scrapes but who end up as loyal friends.  There are funny moments, and I personally think it might be good to do a sound remake, for the film has strong possibilities.

France, 1918.  As the First World War is drawing to a close two American soldiers find themselves trapped behind enemy lines.  Sergeant Peter O'Gaffney (Louis Wolheim) aka "Taxicab Pete", and upper-crust Private W. Daingerfield Phelps III (William Boyd) decide to fight it out when Private Phelps has had it with O'Gaffney's bullying.  They get so into it that they don't notice the Germans have them surrounded.  Taken prisoners, they form a friendship when Phelps stops a German from attacking the Sergeant for a caricature Phelps had drawn and when the criminal O'Gaffney returns a bracelet of Phelps' the Germans had taken.  They hatch an escape plan, and use white robes to mask their uniforms in the snow.  However, they end up getting recaptured, but the robes cause the Germans to mistake them for Arabs, and they are repatriated to Turkey.

On the train to Constantinople, the two make another daring escape (with O'Gaffney always reluctantly following Phelps' lead).  They find themselves as stowaways aboard a Turkish ship, but Phelps has secret cash in his shoes to bribe the captain.  Aboard the ship, the two Americans attempt to one-up each other in pranks, until they spot a sinking vessel.  Phelps attempts to rescue a veiled lady, but does such a cock-up of it that O'Gaffney has to rescue BOTH of them.  They find the woman is the Princess Mirza (Mary Astor).  She is romanced by both of them, but the patrician (and better-looking) Phelps manages to be more successful in his wooing, especially since he's the more educated of the two.  To their surprise, Mirza speaks English (having been educated in Constantinople), but she is betrothed to Shevket Ben Ali (Ian Keith), an arranged marriage, and she is taken back to Constantinople aboard his ship.  The two soldiers are forced to hightail it when the captain discovers that Mirza has not really paid for her passage, but that the soldiers robbed the ship's purser (Boris Karloff...yes, THAT Boris Karloff) and passed that off as payment.

Mirza has promised that her father would pay them back their kindness, but a servant informs both the Emir and Ben Ali that Mirza has removed her veil to one of the Americans.  Outraged, Ben Ali swears both must die.  Unbeknown to them, Phelps and O'Gaffney first try the American consulate, but find the ship's captain is waiting there.  Then they try the Emir's palace, but find Mirza's warning too late.  It looks like it's curtains for our leads, but they make yet another daring escape.  Phelps, now in love with the beautiful princess, tells O'Gaffney he can go if he wants, but Sarge won't abandon his friend and says he'll help him in the rescue.  They, despite being outmanned and outgunned, manage to eventually defeat Ben Ali and spirit Mirza off into the night, our Two Arabian Knights having triumphed over the Ottomans.

As I said, I think Two Arabian Knights could be remade into a sound film.  There are certainly elements within it that are highly amusing.  Of particular note is the interplay of Wolheim and Boyd as the mismatched criminal and WASP private.  From the beginning, when Phelps decides that since his life is over, he's going to knock the Sarge down, we see that this is not going to be a searing drama about war.  Instead, Two Arabian Knights is indeed a comedy where the humor comes from a genuine fondness that grows between the two men.   Not that their fondness won't allow them to try underhanded jokes and tricks on the other.  For example, O'Gaffney decides to get Phelps' clothes wet (again) to stop him from seeing the beautiful Princess while O'Gaffney's are all but dried.  Phelps, not to be outdone, tries to stop O'Gaffney from leaving his room by making his trousers disappear (something he forgets about when he sneaks to see the Princess).  How does Phelps manage this trick?  Simple: he left wearing BOTH pairs of pants.

Sometimes though, the comedy comes less from hijinks than from necessity.  At one point in their escape, O'Gaffney is about to sneeze and reveal they are hiding in a stream they fell into.  To stop him from sneezing, Phelps punches him unconscious.  To revive him, Phelps dunks O'Gaffney's head into the water.  O'Gaffney is genuinely puzzled as to why Phelps belted him.  Later on, O'Gaffney punches Phelps when he rescued both Phelps and Mirza from the water.  When Phelps asks him why, O'Gaffney coolly replies he thought Phelps was about to sneeze.

Boyd and Wolheim make an excellent double-act.  The former uses his admittedly good looks to be the dashing, lovestruck patrician, the latter uses his face to convey O'Gaffney's less intelligent but street-savvy figure.  Sometimes things have to be explained to O'Gaffney (like what a eunuch is), and his reactions are priceless.  It's interesting that Louis Wolheim isn't as remembered as he should be given what range he had.  Just as he was light as the dim-witted but shrewd and loyal O'Gaffney in Two Arabian Knights, he was also equally effective as the tough gangster in another once-thought lost film, The Racket, and he was excellent as the cynical but tragic officer in All Quiet on the Western Front (a film that I admit to openly weeping at). 

Mary Astor was also excellent in her role as the demure Princess Mirza, who speaks English perfectly and who has great interplay with both the comedic turn of Wolheim and the romanticism of Boyd.

I can see why Milestone won Best Comedy Director, for some scenes within Two Arabian Knights are simply beautifully rendered.  The scene where Mirza finally removes the veil is almost erotic, and he has great camera work for example when we have overhead shots of the two soldiers crashing into the hay being loaded onto the ship.  The opening shot of the battle ending with the two Americans staring in disbelief at the group of Germans surrounding them is also both beautiful and comic.  We even get some quite risqué moments, as when O'Gaffney attempts to milk a goat only to sadly declare it was the wrong kind of goat.

Did he just masturbate a goat?! 

It's almost all subtle and understated, allowing the viewer to suspect something without having to give too much information.

Credit should also be given to Robert Israel's new score, which seamlessly includes such WWI standards as My Buddy (which was about male friendship) into the score.

As wonderful it is to have Two Arabian Knights with us, despite the very best restoration work possible, we can see in the only surviving print the ravages of time.  Once listed as a lost film, it was discovered along with both The Racket and The Mating Call in the vaults of its producer, legendary eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (the subject of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator).  Sometimes the print becomes almost impossible to see, the images almost all but lost to the viewer.  It's sad the print has some real extensive damage to the ravages of time, making it almost impossible to see. 

The condition of Two Arabian Knights should serve as notice that we need to really work to preserve our film heritage.  It was only by the slimmest of chances that Two Arabian Knights survived at all, and the restoration work was the best possible.  However, the few times the image because almost non-existent should serve as a warning of what could have been.

I think Two Arabian Knights was probably funnier back then than it is now.  It's not without its charms, and in particular Wolheim make it a delight and much more fun that it should be.  There were clever moments, and though sometimes the film dragged a bit I think people who enjoy silent films and those who wish to see actors go for something different (and succeed) will enjoy some time with Two Arabian Knights.

I really hope someone gets around to remaking it...

Despite It All, We Survived...


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey: A Review


Perhaps it's just me, but when I celebrate Valentine's Day, tying up and whipping a woman doth not romance make.  However, I clearly was in the minority, as the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey (commonly referred to as 'Mommie Porn') debuted to a strong Valentine's Day weekend opening. 

I genuinely feel sorry for every man dragged to see this film by his girlfriend/wife/mistress, women who were enthralled with the physically perfect Christian Grey, seducer of virginal Anastasia Steele and the man who introduced said virgin to not just the pleasures of the flesh, but the pleasures of sadomasochism.  Now, I freely admit to having read Fifty Shades of Grey because I was highly curious as to what drew women to this.  I can report the book itself is garbage, the clear origins of it as bad Twilight fan-fic coming through clearly.  The film version of Fifty Shades of Grey is no better, and what's worse, does what no film about carnal knowledge should ever do: it makes sex boring.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has to, thanks to plot contrivances, interview the mysterious and enigmatic Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the 27-year-old wunderkind of finance (or something, I don't think either book or film really cared for what exactly Grey Holdings was, only that it gave him millions upon millions of dollars).   There's an immediate attraction between them, so immediate that she, despite being a college graduate in English literature or something like that (good luck finding a job with THAT) basically doesn't mind that this billionaire is essentially stalking her.

He shows up at her job site, he manages to trace her cell phone to the one night where she drinks too much and rebuffs her male friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), and takes her to bed (well, to sleep it off).  He is extremely attracted to her, because she bites her lip, and that drives him crazy.  She is attracted to him too (for obvious reasons, he's SUPERHOT and is RICH, RICH, RICH, and sensitive...he plays the piano).  It's at this point they confess the truth to each other...

he shows her his 'Red Room of Pain', where he indulges in his taste for S&M,
she tells him she is a virgin. 

Both things have to get taken care of immediately, so he deflowers her and she read the contract, standard issue, that he has given all those who agreed to be his Submissive.

They go through endless negotiations, then he freaks out when she leaves to see her mother.  What's a sadomasochistic billionaire to do?  Why, naturally drop everything and fly to Savannah to have 'vanilla sex' with someone he will fleetingly call his 'girlfriend' (despite not doing the 'girlfriend thing') and all but plead for her to return to Seattle.  Well, they do have some kind of bondage sex but ultimately, he goes one too far and she flees in horror at the brutality of it all.

Now, just imagine if she HAD gotten around to signing that damn contract!

I have a sad confession to make (sadder than admitting I read Fifty Shades of Grey, and for the record I won't read the other two after enduring that junk).  I was fighting furiously to stay awake during the screening, so much so that the final sex scene, the one where he went too far in beating her is really a blur.   I really can't remember much of it, or why this particular session was so horrifying that it drove Ana from the most perfect man to come into existence (apart from his little S&M thing). 

How often do I have to remind people, she never signed the contract!  As a result, they weren't really in a Dominant/Submissive relationship.

In fact, as I argued in my Fifty Shades of Grey book review, I think it is Christian, not Anastasia, who is the one getting whipped.  For all the protests Anastasia makes about willing to go over terms (which I will touch on in a bit), Christian gives in to her far too often.  He agrees to have regular sex with her, he follows her around like a love-struck puppy, he calls her his girlfriend publicly, he presents her to his family, including his mother (Marcia Gay Harden, who has fallen low after her surprise Oscar win for Pollack, one of the last times we had a genuine shock at the Academy Awards), he even keeps giving her the full treatment when she is basically an at-will Submissive. 

You can't watch this film without really laughing or groaning over both the dialogue and performances.  Johnson looks dazed and highly bored as Anastasia.  When she is presented with the Red Room of Pain, she isn't shocked by all the gear surrounding her.  Her reaction is more like she is looking at bad paintings and is trying to find something complimentary to say.  She never comes across as intelligent (though to be fair Anastasia never came across as intelligent either), but worse, at least the book Anastasia appeared genuinely shocked to learn about "Mrs. Robinson", the older woman who seduced Christian as her Submissive from age 15 to 21.

Let me digress for a few moments.  Christian lost his virginity to "Mrs. Robinson" at age 15 and said he was her Submissive for six years.  He is now 27, so he's been doing his own S&M for six years himself.  In that time, he tells Anastasia that 15 women have been his Submissives (begging the question, how stupid can women be?).  That works out to an average of 3 women per year, so he's had on average a new Submissive every four months.    That's an awful lot of women, even for Christian Grey.  Moreover, even with non-disclosure agreements, it's amazing that at least whispers aren't being heard about Mr. Grey's curious tastes.

Now, Jamie Dornan does do himself any honors with his creepy, monotone Christian Grey.  I guess he's handsome enough (though I think miscast if we go by looks alone) but he is so humorless, dry, and yes, grey (meaning, bland).  Maybe no one could make such dialogue as "I want to f*** you into the middle of next week" anything other than hilarious, but Dornan's delivery makes it all the more funny because he wants to come across as intense, perhaps brooding, but fails spectacularly. 

After some anal sex (ass-f*** as it was described), one of them comments "That was really nice."  I don't know which one of them said it, but this should give you some idea of the type of dialogue everyone had to do.   Nothing takes away from the fact Christian Grey is basically a stalker and Anastasia Steele is a willing moron (again, she never signed the contract).

"I'd like to bite your lip," Christian tells her with no emotion.  "I think I'd like that," was the equally emotionalless response.

Sam Taylor-Johnson (the wife of actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson), made some deliberate choices, almost all universally bad.  The Red Room of Pain wasn't as 'red' as it could have been, and perhaps this was because she was obsessed with making everything grey (quite literally).  Even the staff of Grey Holdings wore grey, and it amazes me how Taylor-Johnson could have put more focus on the color scheme than on anything else.   Perhaps the Fifty Shades author E.L. James was too tied into the production to give Taylor-Johnson much leeway (same goes for screenwriter Kelly Marcel).  I cannot confirm that James hovered over Taylor-Johnson, imagining this was this generation's Gone With the Wind, but let's say she probably didn't help.

Even Danny Elfman, one of the better film music composers (not in the same league as John Williams but much better than James Newton Howard), made things more hilarious with his score.  About the only good thing was Seamus McGarvey's cinematography, bringing out all those greys and lush Seattle skyline.

Finally, on the big thing: the sex.  It's pretty tame given the subject matter, a little boring, and above all, terribly unromantic.  I figure Cinemax After Dark is more graphic than a film version that brought sadomasochism into the mainstream.

Given that a big draw of Fifty Shades of Grey is the sex, it isn't worth what we get: the bad acting, bad dialogue, and just general badness of it all, unless you really want to either laugh at it or search for a camp film lurking inside the Red Room of Pain. 

As I said: how can one make sex boring?


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rosemary's Baby: A Review


Being a mother is not easy.  I should know: my own mother tells me so every day.  Imagine now being the mother of the Son of the Devil!  Wonder what kind of gift the literal Spawn of Satan gives for Mother's Day?   Rosemary's Baby, for me, is a bit like the original Dracula.  It isn't 'scary' in that I was frightened.  However, it was highly atmospheric, creepy, and more suspense than pure gore. 

Newlyweds Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) have recently moved into the Bradford Apartments in New York City.  Guy is a struggling actor best known for making automotive commercials, while Rosemary is content to stay at home.  They try to find their place as a couple in their new apartment, with the idea of children in the future. 

Into their lives come their elderly neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castavet (Sydney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon respectively).  They appear doting to the new couple, especially as they have taken in Terry (Angela Dorian), about the only person close to Rosemary's age and the closest thing to a friend she has at the Bradford.  Terry had a trouble life which ended in what appears to be a suicide, shocking everyone.  Perhaps out of a need to be motherly, Minnie in particular informally adopts Rosemary as her own, giving her a charm for good luck and offering constant advise about how to have a child.  Guy, to Rosemary's surprise, seems taken by the Castavets despite being old enough to be their grandson, and Rosemary can't figure out why he would want to spend time with both them and their odd circle of seniors rather than people closer to their own age.

After taking some, but not all, of some special ice cream the Castavets whipped up (Rosemary finding them now overbearing) she is in a half-dream half-real state, one where she is unsure of what she is actually seeing:  the group of elderly people and guy surrounding her, with everyone (Rosemary included) naked while Guy meekly watches on.  At one point, one of the neighbors, Laura-Louise (Patsy Kelly, in one of her final film roles), tells Minnie that Rosemary is conscious, an idea Minnie dismisses.  However, it appears to be true, as Rosemary screams out, "This is really happening", but not much to do as a strange red-eyed horned creature appears to be thrusting himself in her. 

Guy's career appears to be taking off, especially after a rather fortuitous accident blinded another actor in a freak accident.  However, Rosemary doesn't give much thought to this apart from it being a tragedy for the other actor, as her desire to be a mother comes true.  However, instead of gaining weight she appears to be losing it, and the Woodhouse's old friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) suspects something is wrong, especially with her OB/GYN Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy), a legendary doctor who happens to be an old friend of the Castavets.  Her age-appropriate friends insist something is wrong, and after a struggle Rosemary begins to suspect something is wildly wrong.

Apart from not gaining weight, the daily drink Minnie makes appears to be making things worse, Dr. Saperstein is constantly dismissive of any kind of modern treatments, and Hutch's bizarre death all rattle her.  Eventually though, she gets wise to things: there is a conspiracy against her, with just about everyone she meets involved in occult activities.  Virtually held hostage at the birth, she is being drugged to keep her from seeing her child.  Eventually, she fakes taking her medication and goes to see her baby, to see a horrifying sight.  WE don't see Rosemary's Baby, but she does, and she is horrified at its eyes. 

The baby the group named "Adrian" has his father's eyes.  His father is Satan.

HAIL SATAN! the coven shouts.  Guy has literally sold his soul to the Devil for success, and Rosemary is beyond horrified.  However, Ronnie gently guides her over to her child, whispering that she should be a mother to Adrian.  Rosemary accepts her fate as the Devil's Mother.

Again, it isn't that Rosemary's Baby is graphic.  In fact, it's  quite restrained.  This is the genius of child rapist/fugitive Roman Polanski's double duty as writer/director.  The horror comes not from what we see, but what we imagine.  Polanski allows the situation to build up slowly, and it isn't until the end we get full confirmation that Rosemary has indeed been drugged by a Satanic cult and raped by Satan.  Before all that, especially in the psychedelic rape scene, we could plausibly say that this was all in Rosemary's head, that she was indeed imagining things.

However, when she looks upon her child in a black-laced cradle, we know that her insane ideas were all true.  That is the true horror within Rosemary's Baby: not so much that the Child of Lucifer is with us (a perverse take on Christ's birth by a virgin), but that this unfortunate soul, with no spiritual recourse, now has this conflict within her.  She is a mother, but she is also the mother of the most evil thing in the universe.

Farrow does one of her best performances.  We see her evolution as someone who lives almost vicariously through Guy (she never fails to tout his many acting accomplishments, almost as if they were her own) to someone who struggles to get under the thumb of the old people to the sad acceptance of her fate.

Perhaps this is why my mom, when I mentioned that I was going to watch Rosemary's Baby, told me she thought it was a sad movie.  She didn't say 'scary', she didn't say 'horror', but she said 'sad'. 

Cassavetes, who would go on to be a successful and respected director, showed that he was also a very skilled actor.  His role is more difficult I think than that of Farrow, because he has to show Guy's eventual weakening to where he partakes (but as far as I know, doesn't actually join) in this Satanic coven.  He has to do with without us seeing the corruption of Guy, and he does it so well, a credit to both him and child rapist/fugitive Polanski.

Ruth Gordon, at age 72, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Minnie, the seemingly nice old lady who was really anything but.  What is great about Gordon is that she never really intrudes or pushes herself on screen.  Instead, we see again, slowly, how Minnie in particular wormed her way into the Woodhouse family.

One aspect that should have been nominated and wasn't was Christopher Komeda's eerie and off-kilter score.  The music, like much of Rosemary's Baby, was used sparingly, but highly effectively throughout the movie.  In fact, there isn't a great deal of music in Rosemary's Baby, giving it an almost documentary-type feel.  However, all the elements come together to make a truly effective psychological thriller.

If you notice, you'll see producer William Castle, known for his B-pictures, has a cameo as the guy at the phone booth, a cigar prominently featured.  While Castle would probably had directed a different kind of film than Polanski, he at least was shrewd enough to know a good property when he saw it.

Rosemary's Baby is not a film that will make you jump.  It isn't really scary in terms of what you see.  The real scary aspect of it comes from what you don't see.   In terms of pure horror, of what you think you see, Rosemary's Baby is an effective, efficient film. 

However, I do agree with Mom in this case is a sad movie.    


Friday, May 15, 2015

Bates Motel: Norma Louise Review


Every Bates Crazy About A Sharp Dressed Man...

It's a long night at the Bates Motel (the time appearing on screen signals this to good/bad effect).   Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), enraged that her son Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot) has allowed her brother/his father Caleb (Kenny Johnson) to stay with him, runs off in a fury.  This devastates her other son and namesake, Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore).  Out of this wild hour we get perhaps some of the most shocking, emotionally wrecking, and flat-out nutty moments we've seen from this season. 

And given that this is Bates Motel, a show not known for its rational take on anything, that is saying a lot. 

As I stated, Norma has run off to Portland, where unbeknown to her she is being followed.  She gets a new wardrobe (which to my mind, makes her look like a hooker) and checks in to a hotel.  She then goes to a bar and is picked up by a stranger who thinks she has just ended her most recent relationship.  This is a thwarted one-night stand, as she ultimately rebuffs the offer.  She then flees in her new car to James Finnegan (Joshua Leonard), trained psychologist and her teacher/friend, and after some reluctance from James, her new lover.  James begs her to not rush back to the motel, insisting she needs time to herself.  She refuses, telling him, "I hear ya, but I can't take care of myself.  I'm a mother."  Eventually, she does go back to the motel, where she does go see her brother, who tearfully begs her forgiveness for the crime of incest (which brought about Dylan). 

During all this long dark night, Norma's younger son Norman does not take this well at all, and I mean AT ALL.  Dylan and Emma (Olivia Cooke) attempt to take care of Norman, but he really is beyond help at this point.  Norman totally freaks out, demanding his mother come back.  He completely breaks from reality and checks out.  "I want my mother," he keeps mumbling.  Finally, Norman takes matters into his own hands.  Dylan walks into the kitchen to see a horrifying sight:

There is his younger brother, dressed in their mother's bathrobe, making breakfast.  He looks at Dylan, and begins speaking in a higher voice.  With an effeminate manner, this figure tells Dylan to wake up Norman for breakfast.  Norman has become Norma, definitely in his mind and now in body.

That's it.  Game over.  Norman Bates is nuts!

When Norma and Caleb reunite, Dylan is moved, but Norman clearly is angry.  This is not going to end well.

In a subplot, Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is shot, and is visited in the hospital by his Sheriff race rival, Marcus Young (Tomiwa Edun), who tells Romero the race is over but he could always use a right-hand man behind the scenes.  Romero doesn't agree, and as Marcus gets in his car, Romero managed to get out of his hospital bed and shoots Marcus dead, then drives off.

Norma Louise is again another strong Bates Motel episode, with another brilliant performance by Vera Farmiga.  As she goes through this dark night of the soul we see her going through all these emotions that overwhelm her (and you the viewer).  We see her vulnerability, her arrogance, her rage, her heartbreak.  Really, Farmiga is just simply too sensational to be contained.  She is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant: the mixture of vulnerability and ego colliding to something extraordinary.

This episode is also a highlight for the other actors.  Highmore's total break from reality is frightening, but we also see what kind of person Norman is just by his face.  When it darkens as Caleb and Norma see each other reveals he does not take this hopeful turn for his mother well.  Thieriot has grown so much as Dylan, both as a character and an actor.  He too matches Highmore and Farmiga at this final scene, where the tears he's barely holding in breaks you: the twisted way he was conceived finding a sense of closure.   Cooke as Emma is still the unsung heroine of Bates Motel, and we get the sense that the now-established #Dylemma shipping may be reasonable. 

Carbonell's role is smaller, but he still commands his scenes.  When he literally blows the competition away, it's astonishing.  Leonard too as the moral James, a man who genuinely cares for Norma but who also struggles with his sexual desires, does excellent work.

If something brought Norma Louise down, just a little, it's the 'ticking clock' thing.  The time appears at least twice, but either I didn't notice it or it didn't come up again until the end of the episode.  I also think Chick (Ryan Hurst), who still looks like a strung-out Mac Powell from Third Day, is there to provide a story thread for Johnson's Caleb but one that I am not too crazy for.   

Still, minus that, Norma Louise is a brilliant episode in a brilliant series.   We can only marvel at how much better Bates Motel gets.


Next Episode: The Last Supper

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Jupiter Ascending: A Review

I don't care.
I won an Oscar.
I'm a legend in my own mind...
I mean, time.
I'm BETTER than Cary Grant!
I'M this generation's Peter O'Toole!


Why Do I Keep Saying Jupiter Descending?

Few films have gone into theaters with such negative buzz, with infamy already riding on them, than the Wachoski's Jupiter Ascending, their massive stab at a massive science-fiction epic to rival their own undisputed masterpiece, The Matrix (all other Matrix films not as universally beloved, and everything since pretty much detested).   Once the film actually rolled out (and rolled on, and on, and on), we saw that for all the bad publicity it was getting, the final product was much, much worse.  Jupiter Ascending would kill most other careers, but those involved have insurance; the Washoskis have an innate ability to defy logic,  Channing Tatum can go back to stripping (as taking his clothes off is his only discernable talent), and Crappie Redmayne can go hide in more period fluff and biopics to keep his fantasy alive that he's this great actor equal to a Richard Burton when he's nothing more than a shrewd Oscar campaigner. 

I have not shifted my view that his Oscar win for The Theory of Nothing was more a reward for his technique than for his actual performance. 

Jupiter Ascending was never going to be his Norbit, and this "Norbit Effect" has been exaggerated. It was a collection of circumstances that derailed Eddie Murphy's Oscar chances, lessons which were learned by this other Eddie and applied correctly.   In short, Redmayne was going to win the Oscar regardless of how lousy he is as an actor and in Jupiter Ascending because as an Academy voter observed to his main rival Michael Keaton, "Illness always wins".   However, I digress.

At this point I would describe the plot, but I'm not sure that the Wachoskis have one, but I'll do my best.  Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an illegal alien (read double entendre): daughter of a British diplomat and Russian woman, her astronomy-loving father is killed by thugs before Jupiter is born.  They flee and Jupe is born aboard a ship smuggling them to America.  Now, with her loutish Russian relations, she is a cleaning woman in Chicago.  Her cousin convinces her to sell her eggs to be able to pay for a telescope (seriously, this IS the plot), but wouldn't you know it: real aliens are out to get her for reasons unknown and try to kill her at the egg-donation center. Fortunately, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a creature who is something like a half-man/half-wolf, along with his gravity-defying boots, rescues her.

Let's see if I've got this straight.  Due to some weird intergalactic regulations Jupiter Jones is the rightful heir to Earth.  She is the reincarnation of the original owner, who is the mother of three powerful aliens, siblings in the Royal Family Abrasax.  There's Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton, no relation to HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, also incorrectly known as 'Princess Kate', incorrect because her name isn't Kate and she isn't a "Princess" but a Duchess), there's the middle brother Titus (Douglas Booth), and the oldest, Balem (Redmayne).  Balem claims the Earth as his own, and he will 'harvest' (in other words, kill) humans to create some sort of bathing fluid that will allow him to remain young and hot.  However, because of Jupiter being the reincarnation of their mother, Balem has to kill Jupiter first before he can claim full legal rights since she, not Balem, own the Earth. 

It's now up to Caine, along with fellow disgraced soldier Stinger Apini (Sean Bean), to save Jupiter and have her claim her right (and perhaps throw in a restoration to Caine and Stinger to their military rank).  From this point, Jupiter Ascending goes from one rescue to another for poor Jupiter, who's bounced around more times than Tom Brady's deflated balls.  She gets to see all three Abrasax siblings, including almost getting married to Titus (which led me to wonder whether this qualifies as incest).  His plan was to marry the reincarnation of his mother (who apparently looked like Jupiter) and then promptly kill her to inherit Earth.  Balem has a different approach: inside his factory in the Big Red Dot on Jupiter, he plans to have her transfer legal ownership to Earth or he will kill her Russian family (like the cousin who got her to sell her eggs and her dismissive uncle, but hey, they're family).  Eventually, around the eight-hour mark, Balem is defeated permanently, everyone returned to Earth, Caine gets his wings (without any bells being rung) and Jupiter gets her telescope.

Where, oh where to chronicle where Jupiter Ascending goes wrong.  You're rather spoiled for choice.  Let's start with the story.  There isn't one.  Instead, you as a viewer get the sense that the story makes sense to the Wachoskis but they never bothered to think that everyone else may not know what's going on.  Whether the film expects you to know things or not is ambiguous at best.  No, having the Abrasax siblings dump information when speaking to each other is not 'plot exposition'. 

Speaking of 'speaking', Jupiter Ascending really is playing all over the place with how it should sound.  We have voice-over by Kunis (a bane of my cinematic experience), and then we have Eddie Redmayne, who thanks to his Oscar imagines himself one of the Legends of Cinema at age 33.  Much has been made of his whispery, Don Corleone-type speaking in Jupiter Ascending, breaking from his sotto voce style twice to let out some all-out ear-shattering screaming.  Let me join in that chorus of bashing.  It isn't so much that he's hard to understand.  It's that it makes it all look more hilarious.

You really can't take a villain seriously when he makes Andrew Scott's take on Moriarty in Sherlock look like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.  Redmayne was so effete one wonders how he could have gotten away as dictator of the universe.  He (and the Wachowskis) might have thought this came across as menacing, but in only came across as way beyond camp.

Eddie Redmayne isn't stupid.  He may be a smug, entitled upper-class twit who has convinced himself that he's more than an actor but a 'serious thespian' to rival Olivier or his My Week With Marilyn costar Sir Kenneth Branagh (and I figure imagines himself greater than Branagh and his idol Olivier), but he's not stupid.  One thing about Redmayne: he's not a great actor.  He's fine in other films (My Week With Marilyn, Les Miserables), but someone to rank among the greats?  No.  I imagine he knew what he was doing when he played Balem Abrasax, Emperor of the Universe as the long-lost son of Ming the Merciless.  He knew what he was doing when he played Balem as camp to the Nth Degree: a whispering, effeminate, wimpy, willowy figure, pouting, preening, and prancing through his scenery-chewing avarice.  At one point, when examining video of Jupiter's first attempted abduction (the poor girl gets grabbed left right and center), Redmayne looks like a frog.

I personally think Jupiter Ascending is a better reflection of the kind of performer Redmayne is than that shameful Oscar-bait The Theory of Nothing, where his physicality trumped any real acting (and for which he was richly rewarded).   One of two things: either he was entirely aware that this was nonsense from the get-go and decided the best thing to do was play it camp and not bother to pretend this was serious, or he truly was unaware of how nonsensical and laughable his performance was and he really thought he was menacing as the fey Mumbles.  Either way, it reflects badly on "Our Generation's Richard Burton".

Not that anyone else did any better.  I want so desperately to give Mila Kunis a bit of a break here because part of me is convinced that Jupiter Jones was drugged at some point.  I say this because Kunis looked permanently drugged through the entire sordid spectacle that is Jupiter Ascending.  She looked like she was in a permanent stupor, unaware of anything, looking perpetually perplexed and desperate to figure out what happened in the previous scene in order to have any idea of where she was going. 

Granted, Tatum looks like that all the time.  We do get a lot of what Tatum does best (appear shirtless) but even I, longtime Tatum detractor, think he deserved better than to have to submit to having a Tampon put on him to stop the bleeding.  If only that were the worst of it for Chan.  Tatum is not an actor.  He never has been.  It's always been about that meathead appeal he has, where he comes across as a moron, but a sweet-natured one.  Even in 21 Jump Street (about the only film of his I genuinely like) he at least was spoofing himself and was in on the joke.  In this, however, even the most talented (or in Redmayne's case, the person who deludes himself into thinking he's the most talented) couldn't make this work.  Tatum looks confused throughout the film, and even thought he's saddled with such a silly character as a half-man/half-dog type to play, he tries.

In fairness, that's what I like about Tatum: no matter how awful he is, he always tries. 

I feel for Sean Bean, who simply deserves so much better.  He too tries, and it's interesting to see how he tries when I figure no one save the Wachoskis know what's going on.

As a side note, you can tell how clever/original Jupiter Ascending is by the names: Jupiter Jones (which brings to mind one of the title characters from the juvenile mystery book series The Three Investigators).  There's the half-man/half-dog or wolf Caine and the former bee-like Stinger.  That's the level of the film's creativity.

It's almost so sad, the cluelessness of nearly everyone involved.  That includes the Wachoskis, who threw us (and the characters) into things that were if not incomprehensible, at least a little on the nutty side.  You have the problem of thinking that you're coming into a sequel of something that has come before, this complex universe with its archaic rules and generations of crazy people.  That isn't the worst of it.  Whole characters and sequences could have been eliminated without any problem.  Her entire bureaucratic frolic to claim her right was pretty much useless (as was the nod to Brazil, complete with Terry Gilliam's cameo).  Early in the film, Jupiter's friend is temporarily stunned by aliens, thinking that she is Jupiter.  Once they know she isn't, we never hear from said friend again.

As a side note, Jupiter Ascending cribs from a lot of films: Brazil, Dune, and I think I saw a little of Princess Bride there too.   It's almost a drinking game: See what other movie Jupiter Ascending is stealing from!

Of particular note is Middleton's Kalique, who served the purpose of 'Information Dumper' never to be seen again.  She didn't need to be there.  Same goes for Booth's Titus (and yes, he is pretty but also pretty bad as an actor, not having grown since last I saw him in the bad Romeo & Juliet).  Why couldn't Balem have gone and married the reincarnation of the mother he apparently murdered?  Well, there was the reason that Balem may not be 'the marrying kind' (given Crappie Redmayne's performance), but that's just a guess. 

At one point, Caine tells Jupiter that the bees won't attack her because they recognize royalty.  I've never been attacked or stung by bees.  Therefore, I too am Royal.  Good to know.

The film is rife with laughable dialogue.  Jupiter telling Caine "I love dogs," when he tells her he's more like a dog than a man is pretty much infamous now, but there are more.  "Up is hard.  Down is easy," Caine tells Jupiter in one point about flying.  "We should tell Lord Balem.  That is what we should do," two lackeys of the female impersonator Balem tell each other.  "Not the bees", Stinger says (there's another movie Jupiter Ascending stole from: the remake of The Wicker Man). 

My favorite though is a question Caine asks Jupiter or vice versa (can't remember because I was too astonished by the dialogue, "Is there any part of you that wants to bite me?"  "Bite me", I think, was the Wachoski's mantra during the making of the film.

I'm a sexy Oscar winner and I know it!

Again and again so much went wrong that one wonders why they didn't just shelve the film.  I think we were suppose to be impressed by the bigness of it all, but admittedly pretty costumes (for those who wore them) and big sets don't a good movie make.  Michael Giacchino's score makes a horrendous decision to announce how 'important' everything is by having loud choirs harmonize (another bane of my existence, since I hate it when choirs indicate a BIG moment in a film).  The battle in Chicago may be impressive-looking (though the print we saw was pretty bad), but it is astonishing that no one in Chicago noticed whole buildings collapsing in a heap of destruction.

The film explains all this away by telling us that humans simply don't notice all this, and that magically everything is restored before morning.  Am I really suppose to believe that Chicago is so quiet at night that no one is around to see or hear large explosions and mass destruction?!

One thing the film doesn't explain is why if Jupiter Jones is I figure a dual British-Russian citizen (her father being British), she couldn't just apply to live in the U.K. legally (which I figure she had the right to) instead of her mother having to illegally come to America.  What, Mr. Jones didn't have any relatives thrilled to have the only child of their late relative come and stay with them?

Oh, well, logic is not Jupiter Ascending's strong suit. 

I've spent a lot of time telling you a simple truth: Jupiter Ascending is horrible (though who knows: I imagine that maybe Cody Decker thinks it's better than Gone With the Wind).   It's something you should watch if you want to see once highly-touted wunderkinds squander their good fortune.  It's something you should watch if you want to see an Oscar-winner show his contempt for everyone else by hamming it up unapologetically, knowing the Academy Award was in the bag from the get-go.  It's something you should watch if you enjoy bad films (though it isn't a 'so bad it's good' movie).  It's just bad. 

If you like seeing terrible films done terribly, with camp performances by self-proclaimed artistic geniuses, then go to Jupiter Ascending.  If there were any justice, it would be the last chance to see a Wachowski Siblings film.  However, in an industry that imagines Eddie Redmayne to be the Best Actor...

Not even Stephen Hawking could make sense of this.


Sparrows: A Review


I've been harsh on Mary Pickford, when it comes to sound films.  It isn't that I think she had a bad voice.  Far from it: as a theater actress, she had a very strong and good voice.  It's just that her sound debut, Coquette, was simply wrong for her.  The flirtatious, fluttery nature of her part, coupled with the creaking nature of early talkies, made the whole thing a bore and a wreck to watch. 

It also robbed us of what really made Pickford a genuine star to match her extraordinary gift as an actress: her face, a luminous, beautiful face that express anything (joy, sadness, desperation, innocence) with equal ease.   There was just an extraordinary beauty to Pickford, and a fine example of that is Sparrows, a story that mixes both horror and hope, that has really exciting moments and which stands the test of time.  I don't know if Sparrows is as well-known as her other films, but it should be.

Molly (Pickford) is the oldest of a group of orphans in a 'baby farm', a place where the urchins are forced to work long and hard for little reward.  The farm is in 'a certain Southern swampland' (I presume either Louisiana or Florida, though I don't think it was stated), so people don't know what's going on.  The wicked Mr. Grimes (Gustave Von Seyferrtitz) is essentially holding them hostage: he orders them to hide whenever people come, and he punishes them all when Molly takes some potatoes to feed them by denying all of them supper.  He even denies food and medical attention to a very sick baby, who dies in Molly's sleeping arms.  Still, Molly urges the children to keep the faith, reminding them that God's eyes are on the sparrows (hence the title), and He will come through for them (even if her quotations of Scripture are sometimes a bit off). 

Things go from bad to worse when Splutters (Monty O'Grady), one of the children, is found by a hog buyer and Mr. Grimes sells him the boy.  Grimes is part of a plan to kidnap a baby from a wealthy family for the ransom, despite the misgivings of Mrs. Grimes (Charlotte Mineau).  The baby, a little girl surnamed Wayne is taken to the swamp to hide for a few days and put in Molly's care.  Molly grows attached to the baby, so when the ransom plan starts falling apart Mr. Grimes decides the best to do is chuck the baby into the swamp (something which is intimated he's done before).  Molly, overhearing this, is determined to save the children by making a desperate escape.

Grimes is first thrilled the children ran off (despite him trying to keep Molly prisoner).  He figures they'll all drown in the swamp.  When the kidnappers rush to get the baby after Wayne agrees to the ransom, they all attempt to get the kids back (Baby Wayne being taken by Molly).  Escaping the swamp and alligators, they reach a boat, unaware this is the kidnappers.  The nappers try to escape, but their lifeboat is crushed when they try to escape.  Mr. Grimes drowns in the swamp, and the children are rescued.  Baby Wayne has grown attached to Molly, asking for "Mama Molly" to feed her.  Mr. Wayne brings her and asks her to stay, and she agrees on condition that the other children stay with her.  A little reluctantly, he agrees.

Mary Pickford has such a luminosity to her face that conveys so much.  Her performance is so gentle and pure and tender, one that really moves you.  A particularly beautiful moment is when she is cradling the baby who is clearly dying.  In a dream, we see Christ as the Good Shepherd, who comes to take the baby in His arms.  When she awakens, she can clearly see the child has indeed been taken to the Lord.  We don't see the baby's corpse, but we get all we need from Pickford, who makes this all the more heartbreaking.

Her performance is so subtle in its brilliance, and it's a pity that Sparrows would be her final role as a child (a Pickford specialty) and her next-to-last silent film.  We can see just how good a silent film actress Pickford was.  Yes, there were moments when people might think it was a little exaggerated, but mostly her performance was pretty quiet compared to the stereotype of silent film acting as broad and over-the-top.  Pickford was a master (mistress?) of the craft of silent film acting, and Sparrows is an excellent example of her work.    

She is still the spunky Mary of reputation, willing to fight it out with Ambrose (Spec O'Donnell), Grimes' son who is just as wicked as his father.  Pickford gives Sparrows some good moments of comedy (to hide the children, they rush up to the barn's upper level, and Molly has to push one up with her head) which lightens the mood of this Southern Gothic horror story.  The idea of throwing children to the swamp where the mud will suck anything in is quite horrifying now, let alone in the late 1920s.  I'd doubt even now, with all the graphic nature of modern films, would we even get a movie that suggested someone had thrown children into drowning mud.

Von Seyffertitz was excellently evil as Grimes, who appears to either have channeled Richard III or suffered a stroke due to his inability to move his left arm.  We know what kind of man he is not just by how he looks, but what kind of man would crush a doll's head and toss it into the mud without letting the child intended to get the doll know? 

The sets were wildly convincing, and the pacing (particularly the chase with them facing down alligators was excellent.  Sparrows is a film I think that will be found to be tense, moving, funny, sad, and ultimately uplifting.

Credit should also be given to Jeffrey Silverman's score, which enhances the story.

Given that Sparrows was made in 1926, we can see some of the limitations in filmmaking.  The chase scene of the boats were clearly model ships for example.  However, a little leeway should be given to the film.  In all other respects, Sparrows holds up extremely well.

Sparrows is a beautiful film.  It showcases Pickford in the types of roles that made her famous (the spunky child who triumphed over obstacles) but also gives us a richer, deeper side to The Girl With the Golden Curls, one who sees the ugliness of humanity and still believes God will see them through.  It's a beautiful farewell to Mary Pickford, Silent Film Star, and a good way to close out this chapter of her life.

Pity her sound career could never match anything like in Sparrows.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Gotham: All Happy Families Are Alike Review


We close out the first season of Gotham, the Batman prequel detailing the exploits of the future Commissioner James Gordon, with All Happy Families Are Alike.  What I saw was reminiscent more of a Dickens quote than a Tolstoy quote: It was the Best of Series, It was the Worst of Series.  All Happy Families Are Alike has many, many positives.  It also has what I consider one of Gotham's greatest flaws: its inability to keep a cohesive whole.  There seemed to be a wild rush with the season finale, as if the production realized, 'oh, we have to close out this year, which we wasted on a lot of filler stories when we could have done more to lead up to this'. 

Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), being Fish Mooney, can't help herself by making a grand entrance on the shores of Gotham City Harbor.  She makes such a big entrance that even Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) appears enthralled (more on that later).  We're told two weeks have passed, and in that time things are in near-total chaos.  Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is still hunting down whatever secret his dad had in the study of Wayne Manor (which is about the only room Master Bruce is ever in), much to the chagrin of Alfred (Sean Pertwee).  The mob war between Don Falcone (John Dorman) and Don Maroni (David Zayas) is taking up all of the Gotham City Police Department's time. 

In this war, not even Don Falcone is immune: he is nearly killed and taken to a hospital.  There to visit him, is his protégé, Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  Penguin is not there to rescue his old mentor: he's there to kill him.  He tells Falcone he started the war, and will not get rid of Falcone to take control.  Only one thing: Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) gets there before Penguin can off the Don, placing Penguin and Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) under arrest.

This might not have been the best move, since now Maroni's men, aided by Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) are also on their way to the hospital.  A shoot out ensues, with Gordon taking down Maroni's men.  A reluctant Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) comes to aid his upright friend, but Penguin reminds Gordon that as someone under arrest, they are in Gordon's care (oh, and that Gordon owes Penguin a favor).  A wild breakout from the hospital ensues, and Falcone leads them to a safe house where he can start regrouping and retake control.

Into this safe house steps in Fish, now aided by Selina/Cat, who is delighted to find so many of her troublemakers in one blow.  She has promised Falcone's head to Maroni, and has designs to kill Penguin slowly.  Gordon can die a quick death, and Bullock, well, in her words, "We're cool," so he gets to live.  Gordon knows that Falcone is the only person to restore a semblance of order, but Selina won't help.  Enter Maroni, who has the temerity to tell Fish she isn't going to be the Boss.  HE is going to be the Boss.

"We will whip this town like a rented mule," he tells the assembled crowd.  He also keeps calling Fish 'Babes', to her irritation.  Maroni seems to be mocking her a bit, so much so that she steps up and puts a bullet in Maroni's head.

Well, with that even more chaos ensues, as Maroni's men and Mooney's men start going after each other.  The prisoners flee, and Falcone has decided to officially retire.  Those plans get thwarted by Selina, who has recaptured them.  Still, no rest for the wicked, as Penguin comes guns a blazing to have his final confrontation with Fish.  He follows her up to the rooftop, where an epic battle ensues.  Butch, torn between his loyalties, shoots them both in the leg, then immediately repents and begs Mooney's forgiveness.  For once, Fish knows that Butch isn't to blame, seeing the effects of his brainwashing.  No respite, as Penguin takes advantage and pushes Fish off the roof and into the waters, then rising to the edge to declare, "I'm the King of Gotham!" 

With all the craziness going on outside, you'd think two women would find some quiet.  No, sir.  Barbara Kean (Erin Andrews), insisting on taking therapy from Dr. Leslie 'Lee' Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) tells the doctor that she, Barbara, killed her parents, not the Ogre.  She also makes it clear her murdering days are not over.  Thompkins flees to the restroom for her life, with a knife-wielding Barbara after her.  Despite this misstep, for once a woman is sensible enough to defend herself: breaking a mirror to get a weapon of her own, they battle it out, with Thompkins winning. 

As it so happens, Gordon, Bullock, and Falcone arrive at Barbara's place just in time to see the end of the fight, a knocked out Barbara spread on the floor.

SOMEONE'S going to Arkham Asylum....

Finally, Bruce gets a clue when Alfred quotes Marcus Aurelius, and he finds a button in the book.  Bruce pushes the button, and as The Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet plays, the chimney starts to move, and we see the beginnings of a cave...

All Happy Families Are Alike has much to recommend.  The action is really intense at times, with the battle at the hospital a highlight.  It also has moments of comedy, both good (Alfred tells Bruce not to press the button by saying, "It could be a bomb", to which Master Bruce replies, "Alfred, that seems highly improbable") and bad (the three battered men riding up the elevator with an old woman nonchalantly riding with them is terribly cliché, though I don't remember if there was any Muzak to add to this). 

We also had some excellent acting all around.  Mazouz was in the beginning, middle, and end of the episode, but he did standout work as the young man who is now just on the cusp of making an amazing discovery that will change his life forever.  For the record, we don't know if Thomas Wayne was already building the Batcave we all know and love or if Bruce in the future will add what is needed, but it does answer the question of how it all got started.

McKenzie, who oddly isn't talked much about on a show where his character is the lead, was all square-jawed and intense as Gordon, which I think was the correct way of doing it.  Logue continues to lend his cynical, jaded Bullock a layer of heart. 

Of course, the standout (like he always is) is Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin.  The machine gun-toting mamma's boy has come full circle, from the weak lackey to Mooney to literally overthrowing her.  He is cold and ruthless when confronting Falcone, whimpering when facing off against Mooney (but still plotting to try and escape) and confident when he declares himself "King of Gotham".  Penguin is a fighter and survivor, plotter, schemer, and with RLT's performance, someone who will become iconic in the role.

Sorry Burgess, sorry Danny.

Regarding JPS' Mooney, I know many people actively disliked her and I can see why.  However, I think part of Mooney's appeal was that she was so overtly camp.  She reveled in being evil, and I found that part of her charm: her inability to not chew the scenery.  She was giving an impression of playing with the big boys, and despite her campiness I will miss her over-the-top take on things.  However, here, at least we got to see a little glimmer of real humanity, as she gently tells Butch she too loves him and knows it isn't his fault.

That doesn't take away from the crazy as she blows Maroni's brains out (which was one of at least two moments I wasn't expecting).  "The man vexed me," she says to explain why she just offed the main opposition and her former patron. 

Oh, yes, the whole Barbara/Leslie thing.  We all pretty much figured Barbara was nuts, but not THIS nuts! And THIS is the future Batgirl's mother?!  If Gordon had any sense, he'd marry Thompkins (which I know would wreck Canon, but who'd want Bonkers Babs around when you can get a rational doctor).  Andrews' Barbara has also been pretty much hated (and I include myself in this group) but give Andrews credit: she played that crazy American WASP Psycho well (though I wonder if it is cheating that we were led to think The Ogre killed Mr. and Mrs. Kean).

It also leaves us wondering what will happen, which is a good thing for a season finale.

Of course, this is where both All Happy Families Are Alike and Gotham go wrong, very wrong.  We rush through so much when with a little forethought and planning this could have been an epic finale. If memory serves correct we get one scene (ONE) where GCPD Forensics Officer Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and his secret love Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack) are involved.  Kringle has figured out Nygma's clue, and while both are excellent (Nygma begins to say, "How clever" before stopping to correct himself to say, "How odd") the whole thing seemed almost an afterthought.  We have a great moment where Nygma is finally breaking down mentally to where he's almost beyond repair, the Riddler coming in close, yet despite all of CMS' good work, we get very little for it.

Same goes for the mob war.  Last time we saw Mooney, she'd taken a bullet to her belly, and now she seems none the worse for wear.  How did Selina hook up with Mooney?  Couldn't Bruce's investigation into his father's Stoic legacy have taken longer?  All these are valid questions, yet All Happy Families Are Alike has to speed right past them because despite twenty-odd episodes there wasn't enough time to give all these story threads their due. 

I also didn't like that Leslie, rather than try to run out of the apartment, runs to the bathroom (another cliché).  Still, at least she was able to fight. 

I think my biggest beef with All Happy Families Are Alike is that it was extremely rushed for the stories it was telling.  That did damage it, especially after we'd come from a really strong storyline just a few weeks previous.   It isn't a bad episode: it has a lot of action (and a return to the mob war that had kind of slipped off to the side), some solid acting from the cast, and great teases for Season Two.

If it weren't for that rush to get things done, we would have had a grand slam.  As it stands, All Happy Families Are Alike hit a double, which is still pretty good but not as good as it could have done.  It's a strong but less-than-spectacular end to Gotham's first season.   


Season One Overview

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Goddess: A Review (Review #711)


Sometimes you hear about a particular book or film with such reverence that it becomes almost too much to really get you enthused about it.  It's too legendary, too above us, for us to really embrace it.  For some time, the Chinese silent film The Goddess was such a film.  I had heard that its star, Lingyu Ruan, had given one of the greatest performances of silent film, and perhaps one of the greatest performances of all time. 

I am here to report that it's all true.  The Goddess is an extremely beautiful, emotional film, and Ruan's performance is one of the most moving I've seen in a film, silent or sound.  It might be odd to have a silent film dating from 1934, when sound was pretty much the norm throughout the world.  China, however, still did not have sound due to various factors (particularly war).  However, it's not a hindrance to The Goddess.  We are allowed one last chance to see that silent film performances can be as powerful as sound ones, and there are beautiful visual touches and a determination to push boundaries as much as the technology allowed.

The Goddess (Ruan), a euphemism for prostitute in China, has a young son.  She has no other recourse but to sell her body to make money.  One night, while fleeing a police sweep when she is plying her trade, the Goddess takes shelter in the home of The Boss (Zhizhi Zhang), whom I nicknamed "Fat Jim".  The Boss asks that she repay his 'kindness' with some free company, and reluctantly she does.  However, "Fat Jim" decides that he is going to make the Goddess his personal woman as well as her pimp.  He makes her a whore twice over: once for himself, and once more on the streets.  She attempts to escape, but he quickly finds her and holds her son for ransom, claiming to have sold him for $200.  She's horrified and heartbroken, but he soon tells her that in exchange for being his woman/whore, both will remain safe.  Reluctantly, she agrees.

Soon, her son starts growing up, and she wants a better life for him.  Saving up money from her trade (she tells Fat Jim that she had bad nights), she decides to enroll him in school.  Her son thrives at school, though like on the street, he is taunted due to her mother's profession.  At a recital where he is a hit, the Goddess' joy is short-lived: the other mothers soon begin gossiping about her.  They soon call for her son to be expelled.  The kindly Principal visits them, sees how much the Goddess loves her son, and decides to fight for him to stay.  The other teachers will not budge, and the Principal resigns in protest.  Fat Jim has also found her secret stash of cash and gambled it away.  This double blow is too much for the Goddess, who in a fit of rage kills Fat Jim. 

Arrested, tried, and sentenced to 12 years prison, it looks bleak.  However, there is still hope.  The Principal, having read about the case, visits her in prison, telling her that he will adopt her son and see to his education.  She begs him to tell him she is dead, so that he won't bear the shame of her act.  The Goddess ends with her seeing her son in a vision, imagining a hopeful future as she begins her term.

The Goddess is an extremely moving film about both the struggles of a good woman in a bad business and the depth of a mother's love.  The emotional impact comes almost exclusively from Ruan's performance.  Ruan, a deeply troubled woman who would tragically commit suicide a year after The Goddess, makes you feel so sorrowful and protective towards her character.  Ruan gives the Goddess a sad world-weariness, a woman aware that life will never be better for her yet hopeful that it will be for her son.

When she first meets The Boss, he makes an indecent proposal.  Ruan looks at him, not in anger, not in shock, but with quiet resignation that this man will be like all the other men she has sex with: uncaring, uninterested in her as a person, and one who will use her.  Whenever she plies her trade, we see a terrible sadness within her.  The Goddess knows she will never truly escape.  No Happy Hooker is she.

However, the only bright spot is her son.  Everything involving him causes her to light up: the way he is learning, the happiness to which she sees him at the recital.  If the Goddess has anything good in her life, it is her child, and she is determined to provide for him, even if it means continuing to sell her body and deal with The Boss (Fat Jim).  Her pride in the little things (him showing her the newest exercise, his recital, are the joys of any proud mother.  However, we also see the shame she carries as a prostitute.  The happiness she has at the recital gets busted when she hears the other mothers gossip about this 'unworthy' woman.  The fact that we know she is a good woman regardless of her profession, and how both Fat Jim and the 'moral' woman are ganging up on her, makes us very protective of her.  Ruan really creates a most moving performance that makes us totally understand what she is going to do.

Her whole journey: the crumbling of her hopes save for her son, the abuse she endures all around, the eventual killing of Fat Jim (which at first I wanted, then thought was a desperate decision that doomed her), is one that we have genuinely involvement with. 

The Goddess also has some wonderful technical aspects.  You can see director/writer Yonggang Wu going for visuals that perhaps the technology was not up to there.  From time to time we see the bright lights of Shanghai shimmering as we get this sordid story.  Wu also likes process shots and uses them effectively: Fat Jim sees the beautiful Goddess  in that same shimmering Shanghai night, and The Goddess ends with her "seeing" her son, happy and laughing.  At one point, we see how dominant Fat Jim is when we see her and her child, crouching between his legs as he towers over her.  You can see Wu pushing the visuals to be as impactful as the story.

Donald Sosin's new piano score for the film enhances the emotional impact of the film.

Speaking of the story, perhaps the only minor flaw is the somewhat happy ending.  We have the principal coming in to save the boy from a gruesome fate, with the promise of a good home and education.  It isn't strictly a deus ex machina because we have seen him before and we saw that he understood she was a good woman forced to doing bad things.  However, it is a bit convenient that he could help.  Maybe it was a bit of a Hollywood ending, but I didn't find fault with it.  It wasn't a sudden turn of a good fortune, and given the tragedies she's endured, seeing that she is happy gives one a good feeling.

The Goddess lives up to its reputation: a beautifully rendered film, with a heartbreaking performance by Ruan Lyngyu that will not fail to move the viewer.  She left us far too soon, but we do have this picture to which to remember her by. 


Friday, May 8, 2015

Gotham: The Anvil or the Hammer Review


The first time I watched The Anvil or the Hammer, I was completely blown away by the sheer amount of crazy on Gotham.  Serial killers!  Sex clubs!  Industrial shenanigans!  Mob wars!  Beheadings! Lucius Fox!  Sex acts so shocking even jaded, cynical Detective Harvey Bullock (no virgin himself) was horrified!  It looked like Gotham was throwing everything and a kettle of fish at the stories.  I was thrilled and declared it the best episode of the season, with one more to go.  At the second viewing, a bit more rational, I still think it is a great episode, and maybe the best of the season.

Jason Lennon aka The Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia) has completed his seduction/abduction of Barbara Kean (Erin Andrews), Jim Gordon's ex.  Holding her hostage in his "grey room of pain", he is now completely convinced that they are the perfect couple.  He tells her to choose the next victim, and she chooses her WASP parents.  Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) eventually do find them, though it requires some bizarre investigative turns.

Those turns involve getting Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) to get them an invite to the Foxglove Club, an exclusive brothel in the Eyes Wide Shut style.  A witness placed the Ogre there, and it's hoped someone knows something about his whereabouts.   This invite comes at the promise of a favor for Penguin to be determined later. Both detectives decide that Bullock should go (as Gordon is much too square to pass as a client of a whorehouse).  Bullock isn't fazed by the goings-on, until we get to the stage show.  Whatever went on there is so shocking even the usually blasé Bullock is shocked, arresting everyone on sight, "especially you two" (referring to Ingrid and Garrett, the two performers of the unspeakable act).  One of the prostitutes who works there gives them a clue to track Lennon down, but while it's too late for Mr. and Mrs. Kean, they do manage to rescue Barbara and kill Lennon.

In the other subplots, Ed Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) disposes of Officer Dougherty's body, repeating to himself, "No body, no crime".  He however, can't resist giving Dougherty's sweetheart Miss Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack) a clue about what really happened.  Nygma secretly sends Kringle a note from "Dougherty", a Dear Jane-type letter.  Nygma tells her to 'read between the lines', and we learn that the first letter in each line spells out his name. 

Penguin, for his part, has his own master-plan.   He hires Falcone assassin O'Connor (Clark Carmichael) to kill Don Maroni (David Zayas), but O'Connor and his henchmen find their guns jam.  An enraged Maroni, thinking Falcone was behind this, kills O'Connor (and sends his head to an unsuspecting Falcone), unleashing a full-scale mob war Mexican-style. 

Finally, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) attempts to find the incriminating information about Wayne Enterprises criminal activity, but is thwarted by Sid Bunderslaw (Michael Potts), who was aware that Bruce was coming.  He tells Bruce that his father and grandfather knew of what was going on but kept quiet.  He also directs a new junior executive, Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) to escort Master Bruce out.  Fox gives Bruce a cryptic message about how Thomas Wayne was a 'true Stoic', and advises caution.

The Anvil or the Hammer again manages to keep a steady balance between each story, though primary emphasis is giving to wrapping up the Ogre storyline.  This surprised me a bit in that I expected it to be part of the series finale but we still got some wild twists and turns with this story.  This is helped tremendously by all the performances, particularly McKenzie and Logue, who make the desperate search for Barbara and the Ogre real and intense.

Logue in particular is a standout (as he really has been, the perfect counterbalance to the square-jawed rectitude of McKenzie).  There is an element of comedy, subtle as it was, when Bullock witnesses a sex act so obscene, so shocking, that even he is appalled.  Not only is this particular sex act so horrifying that shadiest (but apparently clean) cop in Gotham City reacts with disbelief, but actually causes him to behave like a policeman and order everyone's arrest.

It's interesting to speculate as to what so shocked Bullock.  Putting that on repeat I heard chainsaws and squealing pigs, so my guess is that there might have been bestiality involved, with some torture thrown in for good measure.

Ventimiglia played the part correctly: cool without being full-on American Psycho with a little Fifty Shades of Grey thrown in, which I think worked well.  Even Andrews, almost universally despised for her Barbara, got a few moments in (though whether she was drugged or just behaved as if she were out of it remains to be seen).

Much more impressive was the Bruce Wayne storyline (and not because Bruce met Lucius Fox for the first time).  I can't say much about Chalk in this because he was on-screen for less than five minutes and it's impossible to make a judgment on that.  However, we at least get the introductions out of the way, leaving open the possibility that Fox will have a more expanded role in Season Two and beyond.  Mazouz, however, continues to shine as Bruce, his heartbreak about learning that his dad wasn't the man he thought he was mixed in with his honesty to Alfred (Sean Pertwee) about what happened to Reggie.

Mazouz, despite not being the main character in Gotham or The Anvil or the Hammer, I think pretty much stole this episode and has done a fantastic job with bringing Young Master Bruce to life.

Even though their parts were smaller, both RLT and CMS did their usual excellent work.  We get great twists with Penguin's storyline, and the fact that Penguin still is courtly, almost polite, but ruthless just shows how well RLT has done with this role.  CMS too did well in making Nygma both sympathetic and almost arrogant (signaling to Kringle almost as a taunt about the clue he left behind).  His recreation of Hamlet with Dougherty's skull is both fascinating and wildly creepy, a man unhinged beyond repair and no one knowing it. 

Alas, poor Dougherty...

As a side note, I would love to go to Oswald's, because they seem to have really good bands perform there.

What is interesting is that The Anvil or the Hammer now gives us exactly one episode to wrap some things up before we go into Season Two, and it does make me wonder whether the show kind of had one too many fillers between when we could have had a better pace towards the mob war now unleashed.  Just how things will end are still a bit up in the air, but if Gotham had had more episodes like The Anvil or the Hammer, it would have been a stronger season.

Still, on the whole it's nice to see Gotham finding its way, putting things together with various stories that don't overwhelm each other, that keep things rolling, and that keep the show dark but still accessible.


Next Episode: All Happy Families Are Alike