Saturday, February 28, 2015

Sherlock All Poison Pellets


ELEMENTARY: THE FIVE ORANGE PIPZ

While The Five Orange Pipz doesn't stay within Canon of the original Five Orange Pips (and let's be honest, Elementary isn't trying to stay within Canon but instead uses Canon as a starting point), it does go into the characters a little more.  However, while The Five Orange Pipz has a case in it, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed with it, thinking things got solved a bit fast.

Two men are killed in separate locations but there are ties between them.  Victim One: Theodore Fordham was the lawyer for Victim Two: Elias Openshaw.  Openshaw had owned a toy company that produced Pipz, toy beads that contained GHB, a bit like a drug that caused overdoses in nine children with four dead.  Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) wants to keep the two investigations separate, her hostility to her former partner still raw.  One of the victim's parents, Gabe Coleman (Zak Orth), at first denies then confesses to the crimes.  Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), however, will not believe his confession.  On the contrary, he says.  Holmes knows Gabe didn't do it.

To find out more about this case, Holmes and his protégé Kitty (Olivia Lovibond) go see Assistant District Attorney Angela White (Sonya Walger) (and as a side note, last I saw her was in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear...thought her name sounded familiar).  She is an ambitious ADA aiming for a Congressional run, and with Openshaw's death her biggest case can be closed.  Openshaw you see had disappeared before being brought to trial, and while White didn't get Openshaw she did keep the case going.  Kitty, seeing the rapport between Holmes and Watson, soon begins sabotaging the interview with White, leading her to abruptly end the interview. 

Holmes can't figure this out, and neither can Watson.  Watson has issues with how hostile Kitty is, and Kitty doesn't win fans with Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).  However, as the case progresses, we get some twists.


First, we get a witness putting White and Openshaw together.  This can't be the case since White maintained she could never find Openshaw.  However, the witness, Mr. Azim (Shayan Shojaee) is proven correct.  The lawyer Fordham had been blackmailing White to keep the ADA's political ambitions alive but without endangering his client. 

However, she didn't kill him.  Who did?  Well, an Agent Bowden (Chris McGarry) specifically asked to be part of the Openshaw case, and as it turns out, he has a sideline...selling GHB.  The poisoned Pipz, which could be sold to users and suppliers, had been locked away, and after Openshaw's death, with the investigation moot, they would have been discarded.

I can't say that this case was particularly overwhelming.  Maybe I missed Agent Bowden but I wasn't sure where he came from.  As the episode is deleted I can't go back to rewatch it. 

However, we do have a better insight into Kitty, and I think that was one of the positives of The Five Orange Pipz.  She was very jealous of the easy rapport between Holmes and Watson, and how well they played against each other.    As Holmes makes clear, Kitty is not his partner, but his protégé. He thinks this of everyone I think, so it isn't too strange.

Miller had great moments in the episode.  "I never guess.  It's a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty.  We observe and then we deduce".  All versions of Holmes couldn't have put it better I think. 

The Five Orange Pipz also had good editing between the White interrogation and Kitty's observing from behind the glass, part of the investigation but also apart from it.  We got a stronger sense of who she is (a crime victim herself, but one who wants to move beyond that).  Lovibond also has great moments when she basically tells Holmes she's bored. 

I wasn't overwhelmed with this Elementary episode, but I didn't think it awful either. 

6/10

Next Episode: Just a Regular Irregular

Friday, February 27, 2015

You CAN Go Holmes Again



ELEMENTARY: ENOUGH NEMESIS TO GO AROUND

It's been a while since I've been to Elementary, the CBS Sherlock Holmes television show.  It's not that I haven't wanted to, but school and the Academy Awards got in the way.  Now, however, I think it is time go back a bit and see if I can get through the third season. 

When last we left Elementary, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Joan Watson had broken up, sort of.   Watson wanted a room of her own so to speak, and Holmes, finding both his partner in crime-solving and his brother Mycroft moving away, agrees to work for MI6.  Now, it's been six months since those events.

Watson (Lucy Liu) has done quite well for herself.  An investigator in her own right of some renown, she is instrumental in taking down Elana Marsh (Gina Gershon), a drug queenpin whom she and the NYPD have been investigating all this time.  Elana is not one to forget or forgive.  It just so happens that as Karen (Kate Lutz) the star witness against Elana is about to go testify, she and her bodyguard gets killed...inside a moving elevator...which had no stops.

Two months after this murder Watson is still stubbornly frustrated by both the murder investigation and Elana's escape from justice.  In fact, Elana now has a beef against Joan, accusing her of stalking (and to a point she is correct).  Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) suggests caution, and Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) helps however he can.  About the only bright spot in Joan's life is Andrew Natal (Raza Jaffrey), her neighbor's brother whom she has started a relationship with.


An odd tip from a 'Montcliffe Ekuban' triggers Joan's memory, and she goes to the brownstone, where she discovers Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller).  He's back, trying to apologize in his own way, but she wants nothing to do with him.  Neither does Captain Gregson, but he agrees to let Sherlock return as a consultant...with the proviso that Joan sign off on this.  Holmes, however, is not alone.

He has a new protégé, Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond), a girl who has a chip on her shoulder and who so far isn't as shrewd or patient as Watson was.  Kitty has a barely concealed hostility to Joan, but while Sherlock isn't pleased by some of her mistakes, he believes Kitty can be molded well.  He sees himself as a mentor, a teacher, and this is what led him to panic when Joan left.

Now, back to the crime.  Despite her protests Sherlock gets himself involved in solving the crime, and he is able to do so, by observing some of the details that Joan missed. Even Kitty helps out by pointing out things that don't hold up to her.  We now have the hitman and said hitman is the tie that brings Elana to justice.  As for why Holmes is back, he tells Joan, "Isn't it obvious?  I belong here, as you do?"

Enough Nemesis to Go Around has Elementary's signature balance of odd crime and character development.  What I really thought the episode did well was show in brief bits both how far Joan has grown as a detective and woman but also show that despite her own brilliance, she is not on the same level as Sherlock Holmes yet.  We saw this in how in her own bits of investigating, she put things together really quickly.  Liu also had a great scene when she finally meets Kitty (whom she at first thinks is working for Elana).  Both break out the single-sticks, and their fight is both strong and amusing. 

It's here though, that Joan realizes that Kitty isn't working for Elana but for Sherlock.

We also see how Joan's relationship with Andrew has come along, skipping straight from the first meeting to a solid romance.  For full disclosure, at this moment I've seen only three episodes, so I don't know how far the relationship will go (though I got indications of where it will ultimately end), but I'm interested to see how it comes along and how things are handled.


I thought that Holmes' return was handled extremely well.  We get a bit of wacky comedy (he's in an oxygen mask!) but we see that those around him aren't welcoming him with open arms and big smiles.  Far from it, Joan is quite clear where she stands.  "I didn't need you anymore," she tells him, quoting from the five-sentence long farewell note he left her.  Gregson for his part tells Holmes he isn't his friend, stating it was always a working relationship (though I suspect the good captain is lying, either to him or himself).  "It was a difficult time.  I was thinking of no one but myself," Holmes tells Captain Gregson. "Must have been a day that ended in 'Y'," Gregson retorts. 

Miller for his part brings something we don't see in many interpretations of Holmes: a genuine sense of vulnerability and regret.  He is fully aware that his actions have angered and upset people, and in his own clumsy but still somewhat narcissistic way he is trying to make amends and get into their good graces.  The best way of course is to show he still has great skills, and here Miller shows the intelligence of Holmes by working out a solution to the problem.  Like a lot of Elementary, the actual solution is a little grandiose, but we forgive that because these kinds of 'locked room' murders can be tricky.

We also get two good guest stars.  Gershon revels in being evil and controlling, almost always one step ahead of everyone.  Lovibond (as a side note, both the actress and character's name make me think of a Bond Girl) is appropriately standoffish as Kitty.  She is barely starting out, so I think she will grow in importance as a wedge between Holmes and Watson.  Her scenes with JLM are some of my favorites.

Holmes is incensed that Kitty pursued unauthorized surveillance of his former partner.  When Kitty says she wants to know what Watson has that she doesn't, he replies "What she has is two years of training, two years of doing exactly what I said."  When she apologizes, he tells her, "Don't be sorry.  Be better." 

Words to live by I think.

Enough Nemesis to Go Around I think is a pretty strong start to the season.  We got a strange case, a wicked villain, and strong interplay between three characters who will be colliding throughout the season.   

Best Served Cold...



8/10

Next Episode: The Five Orange Pipz

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Oscar Goes to the Birds

Julianne Moore:
Best Actress for Still Alice
 
TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR
LATE EDITION 
PART 1: 2015

The 87th Academy Awards went pretty much like they were expected to.  Most of the winners were predestined after the lengthy award season, with only three being a two-horse competition.  We had our share of predictable politicizing of the event (seriously, can we ever get away from rich white women lecturing the rest of us about how they aren't paid enough), and some remarkably moving moments.

Unlike other years I won't submit an alternate list merely because I haven't completed it (hence the Part 1), but I'll get around to it...eventually.  This year we had all four acting winners be first-time winners and only one was not a first-time nominee.  We also had no acting winners for the Best Picture and all four acting winners came from four different films.  We also had two films 'dominate' with four Oscars each (Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and only one other scoring more than one Oscar (Whiplash's three).  Every other film snagged only one Oscar, despite having multiple nominations. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

We Want A Raise!


Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Poor Meryl.  She can't make it on $10 million dollars. 

According to Forbes Magazine, this is her estimated earnings as of June 2014.  If IMDB is to be believed, her work in Into the Woods earned her a mere $1,500,000.  I will have a Master's (God-willing) by the end of the year, and I'm a man.  However, I don't think I will make $1,500,000 for five month's work (from rehearsals to completion).  Yet there she and J. Lo (she of the numerous financial/critical bombs and the $17,500,000 salary for the sinking American Idol) were, cheering Arquette on as the winner went all Vanessa Redgrave on us to tell us there needs to be wage equality. 

I should remind Jenny From the Block that she made $12,000,000 for Gigli.

If she were fair, she'd give that money to everyone who paid to watch her turd of a film.  NO ONE DESERVES $12,000,000 for something like Gigli...except the audience. 

The obvious question is, 'are these people crazy or merely stupid?'  ALL the top nominees get a gift bag valued at $168,000.  Again, let me remind the underpaid Streep, Lopez, and Arquette, those gift bags are more than my ANNUAL salary (currently at $19,000...and that's considering I got a raise this year).  You get some astrology sessions, Italian vacations, and a choo-choo ride through the mountains. 

I take Greyhound and Southwest when I can afford the luxury.

The little swag bag you all took home is the equivalent of about NINE BLOODY YEARS SALARY FOR ME!!!  And you still think you don't get paid ENOUGH?!

Now, in fairness to Arquette, the more I think on it the more I think she has a point.  Women are underpaid...in Hollywood.  It was revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams made less money than their male costars in American Hustle (no irony there).  I would argue that Arquette should take the plank from Hollywood's eye before dealing with the speck in America's.  I tweeted to her saying that "Physicians, heal thyself", to which I don't expect a reply (and realize it is grammatically incorrect, but there it is).  However, while Arquette I think is on the right track (wage disparity in the entertainment industry) she went about it the wrong way by suggesting it is a nationwide problem.

No, Patty, it's a Hollywood problem.  And don't get me started on how Hollywood is really a very racist industry.   #OscarsSoWhite...

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


Let It Go, Let It Go...


Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

No surprise here, and a well-deserved Oscar for Simmons' titanic performance as the sadistic music instructor.   Here though, we saw why Neal Patrick Harris, host du jour, has been getting mixed reviews for what many people thought would be a slam-dunk. 

As part of a boring running gag about his 'predictions bag', he asked Oscar winner Octavia Spenser to watch the bag.  Spenser was game, but then came an odd moment when NPH asked Robert Duvall, who was sitting next to her, to watch her or the bag should she not be able to.  Duvall looked uninterested in going along with the gag.  At this point, NPH turned to Eddie Redmayne and asked HIM to wake Duvall up in case he dozed off...because of course, that's what all old people do.

Duvall looked like he was close to recreating a scene from Whiplash and beat the crap out of our jolly fellow.  It would have perked up the show to say the least. 

BEST ACTRESS

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Again, another sign that our beloved NPH is not infallible (unlike the Pope). 

When he made that "with her own spoon" joke, the audiences (in the theater and at home) were left scratching their heads.  "What?"  It was a frightful pun that crashed almost as bad as when he got David Oyelowo to try a joke that Oyelowo on-air made clear wasn't funny.  Oyelowo showed that he is a.) a better actor than Harris, b.) smarter than Harris, c.) a better judge of material than Harris, d.) not as eager to please as Harris, and e.) I think a better host than Harris. 

Really that whole bit with Oyelowo was bad, just flat-out bad.  Yes, the material was bad, but maybe a little rehearsing would help. 

Oh right, Best Actress.  Again, two previous winners,  two first-time nominees and Moore, the perennial bridesmaid.  Not any-Moore.  She won, she deserved to win, and I for one am so happy that an extremely talented actress finally got the recognition she deserved.

OK Academy...here's a name for you: Amy Adams.    



BEST ACTOR

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

The wrong guy won. 

The actual winner reminded me of a little boy who just heard they brought ice cream home.  The winner I think gave the fourth best (impersonation) of the nominees.  Only Michael Scott's turn as Oswald Cobblepot, Sr. I think was worse.

The winner won because he hit the Trifecta of Best Actor Oscar winners. 

He is British.
He played a real-life person.
He played a disabled person.

That is how a man wins Oscars.  I've written extensively about Oscar's fixation with biopics, and the winner I think knew this. 

The winner's name will not be spoke here.  The wounds are still too raw to see that two of the three Cs and one K were robbed by that chirping little boy.

Well, the Academy is entitled to a few mistakes.  Call this year's Best Actor winner one of their bigger ones.

Really Steve, you thought YOU'D win?


BEST DIRECTOR

Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

I sometimes wonder whether the Academy members watch what they nominate.  I thought The Imitation Game was badly structured, and its Best Adapted Screenplay win puzzling.  For all the hoopla about Turing's homosexuality his sex life was practically irrelevant to the film.  So why go on about 'staying weird'?  However, here we saw two things.

Wes Anderson's style of quirk finally getting some love, as his film wins four Oscars (though I think he should have won Original Screenplay over the actual winner) and Linklater being rejected.  Boyhood had six nominations but could get only one win (which was completely expected).  I guess twelve years in the making didn't quite make it to the Academy. 

BEST PICTURE

American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

It certainly was one for the record books.  Whiplash stunned with a Best Film Editing Oscar for two reasons.  One: Boyhood was the odds-on favorite, and two: the Best Film Editing Oscar and Best Picture usually align.   Of course, no one thought Whiplash had a snowball's chance of winning Best Picture, but this should have been a signal that the Academy had grown tired of Boyhood.  I guess after Hour 15 when the main character was learning to tie his shoe the viewer thought the critical praise was enough.

Then again, Birdman didn't get a Best Film Editing nomination, and now it becomes the first Best Picture winner to not be nominated for Film Editing since Ordinary People, thirty four years ago.  That's how often Film Editing and Picture went together. 

It really was a fight between two films: Boyhood and Birdman, which is a bit of a shame because Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, and American Sniper I think were all better.  The Imitation Game was not bad but nothing I was crazy about, and I detested The Theory of Everything.   Why these two films were the frontrunners I don't know.  I can't bring myself to watch Boyhood.  Maybe it's as good as everyone says, but seeing three hours of a boy's life seems like torture.  Birdman was well-crafted, but I thought rather weird.  It's too soon to say whether either will be up there with Casablanca or Lawrence of Arabia or will be more Around the World in 80 Days and Cavalcade, but I can't imagine people flocking to see either the way they do the first two. 

NPH shows us why #OscarsSoWhite...

As for the host himself, bless Doogie Howser.  He tried his best, but he wasn't as perky and gleefully impish as he usually is with either the Emmys or Tonys.  I think it has to do with the fact that he is a television and Broadway star, but not a major film draw.  This isn't like Ellen DeGeneres, whom people see every day.  This isn't though, as bad as Seth MacFarlane, whom we never see on television and who lived out his fantasy of doing a live-action Family Guy

I'm not going to pile on NPH for making a dress joke after Dana Perry, Best Documentary Short winner for Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, mentions her son who committed suicide.  He just wasn't listening to the winners of these "second-tier" categories.  Instead, I figure he was backstage trying to come up with some quip with his scribes and totally ignore what was going on onstage.  As such, as she was honoring her dead child, he was focusing on mocking her wardrobe.  Here was someone discussing the very serious issue of suicide, both of veterans and her own son, and the only thing he thinks of is her rather questionable dress?

Really, Barney...

I imagine this does suggest NPH wasn't really involved in the proceedings.  He wasn't fully engaged, and this is why I think he was a bit off his game.  He tried to tell bad jokes and terrible puns which would have embarrassed a Borscht Belt comic, and he left the theater at times silent (and I figure in Robert Duvall's case, groaning). 

Apart from the Moving Pictures number (which was the way Oscar opening numbers should be: short and well-crafted) and Lady Gaga's amazing Sound of Music medley (which I figure must have shocked millions into remembering she can actually sing), can anyone really remember anything good about Harris' hosting? 

Again it wasn't disastrous like James Franco/Anne Hathaway, but if he wants to come back, he might want to up his improvisation skills.   I for one believe in redemption, so I wouldn't object if NPH wanted to give it another crack.

Can't be as bad as his Predictions Gag.    

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear Review


THE LIBRARIAN: QUEST FOR THE SPEAR

Now that The Librarians television series has ended for the season (and in my view, gone rather fast), I think it would be nice to go back to the very beginning of our franchise.  The Librarian: Quest for the Spear is the first of three television movies that spawned a new franchise.   I think that when it first aired, no one really thought Quest for the Spear was anything other than a goofy TV movie, a lighthearted romp.  I don't think anyone either in front or behind the scenes thought it would spawn a franchise, let alone a successful television series (one that will have a Season Two, to my great delight). Otherwise, we wouldn't have had the rush and quick disposal of characters we got here.  Still, while Quest for the Spear is by no means great television, its own self-awareness, coupled with a delightfully comedic turn from Noah Wyle, sells Quest for the Spear to being much better than perhaps it should have been.

Normally, this is where I give a plot summary (which is always rather long).  However, in this case I decided to write down verbatim the back cover since I think it is a far better capsule than my own.  Don't worry though...I'll add my own thoughts too.

To be a librarian, you must master the Dewey Decimal System, ace internet research and, if you're new librarian Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle), save the world! (Emphasis theirs). Wyle (ER) heads a sterling cast in a fun, fantastical, special effects-laden adventure that soars around the world from the Metropolitan Library to the Amazon jungle to the Himalayas.  Geeky Carsen lands a job as the Librarian, keeper of such top-secret Met treasures as Excalibur and Pandora's Box.  Then the Serpent Brotherhood, seeking world domination, steals one of three parts of the magical Spear of Destiny from the library.  Only Flynn, aided by a gorgeous bodyguard, (emphasis mine) has the knowhow to thwart their plan.  But does he know how to be a hero?  He will--even if he has to gouge, kick, punch, brave Mayan death traps and plunge off icy precipices every inch of the way! 


Young Flynn Carsen (Wyle) has been at school for many, many years.  With 22 degrees overall it looks like Flynn is a professional student, unwilling or unable to face the outside world.  His Egyptology professor (the fourth one I think), has decided to pass him and let Flynn experience 'the outside world'.  Despite being around 34 he still lives at home and his mother Margie (Olympia Dukakis) worries he'll never marry or find a job. 


Needing a job, he accepts a mysterious invitation to interview at the Metropolitan Public Library.  There are many applicants, but Flynn's Sherlock Holmes-type deductions about interviewer Charlene (Jane Curtin) impress her enough to hire him.  Flynn is obviously happy, but confused as to why something like a library requires so much security.  His mentor, Judson (Bob Newhart) informs him that this library holds a very special collection...things like the actual Ark of the Covenant and the Golden Goose.

Barely a day on the job, and Flynn is thrust into a most unlikely adventure: having to recover one of the pieces of the Spear of Destiny, the fabled lance that pierced the side of Christ and which united with the other two pieces, would leave the world vulnerable to worldwide domination.  With that, he is sent to the Amazon to find the second piece, hidden deep within a Mayan temple (which is odd since as far as I know, the Maya weren't in the deepest, darkest Peru, but I digress).  Unbeknown to him, the Serpent Brotherhood, a splinter group of scholars who want to rule rather than merely collect mythical artifacts, is pursuing the new Librarian.  Flynn, however, has a secret Guardian, Nicole Noone (Sonya Walger), who protects him from the Brotherhood...and his own ineptness.

They do get the second piece, but the Brotherhood has tracked them down.  Their head is Edward Wilde (Kyle MacLachlan), the former Librarian who faked his death and joined the Brotherhood.  Edward and his henchwoman Lana (Kelly Hu) cannot kill Flynn, for he is the only person who can speak the Language of the Birds, the common tongue to all men prior to the Tower of Babel which will lead them to the third and final piece of the Spear.  Flynn, however, won't do anything unless Nicole's life is spared, so with that done, it's off to the Himalayas and Shangri-La.

There, the third piece is found, and it looks like after a night of seduction, Nicole has turned traitor.  However, we find that she has been abducted and taken to the museum where Flynn last studied, where an evil ceremony uniting the three pieces of the Spear of Destiny will take place.  With only Judson to help him, Flynn Carsen, Librarian, must save the world.


My thinking is that when The Librarian: Quest for the Spear was made, no one thought anything of it.  As such, we could have a really broad manner and a rushed story zipping right by.  I don't hold that against Quest for the Spear though, for I think pretty much everyone was in on the joke.  Flynn has a flair for comedy that is unexpected.  With a youthful open face and great physical dexterity, Wyle is believable as both a bookish man and a reluctant action star.

Certainly Wyle was, and it's nice to see him play goofy and play it so well.  Flynn is openly clueless about everything except knowledge, someone who knows a lot but knows very little as well. He isn't dumb: he figured out a great deal about people by mere observation and his knowledge of minutiae.  However, he also has a generally sweet and clueless manner that makes his all the more lovable.

As he goes around the world we see that in some ways Flynn is thoroughly clueless.  "I've been cahooted," he tells Judson when he finds Nicole has disappeared along with the third piece of the Spear.  When he's asked how he knows his professor is evil, Flynn replies "He gave me an A-". Managing to say that with a straight face makes it all the more endearing.  In his discovery of the Library as the repository of mythical artifacts and in his dealings with the women his mother sets him up with.

There is no shame in saying that The Librarian was meant to be a comic adventure.  The scene in the Mayan temple where to avoid the various booby-traps, Flynn and Nicole have to waltz across the danger is highly amusing. I'd argue that the whole point of the film is to not take it seriously, to have a lighthearted romp where the lead is goofy, the villain camp, the supporting class a bit clueless.

Of particular note is Hu's Lana, who mistakes Flynn's various survivals as a sign of his great stealth and cunning, rather than mere accidents and good luck. In how she seems enamored of Flynn's 'skills' she brings more comedy, something I think Hu isn't known for.  MacLachlan has fun vamping it up to the Nth degree, but we forgive how he's over-the-top because a.) villains are suppose to be over-the-top, and b.) he isn't given much time to develop the character.

That perhaps is Quest for the Spear's greatest flaw: its rushed manner.  Everything was speeding at us that we rarely had time to pause and wonder about the Serpent Brotherhood, how Edward faked his death, how the Librarians didn't know he had faked his death, how the Brotherhood caught up to Flynn and Nicole.  They didn't have much time, granted, so it's not a killer.

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, has a great self-awareness.  When he's told the fate of the world is in his hands, Flynn wipes a tear and says, "How...sad."  A mixture of comedy and action, where goofy and adventure balance pretty well make things light and amusing.  Being bookish has never been this much gleefully silly...




6/10

Next Librarian Movie: The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Down With Big Hollywood



I'm just going to rant a bit. 

I used to have a link to Big Hollywood, a website that covered entertainment with an admittedly rightist slant.

I have as of today disassociated myself from Big Hollywood because the site itself caused major headaches to my laptop.

They are a very ad-heavy site, and most recently selecting the link led me to be asked to download I think Adobe.  Well, like a fool I did so, and from that sprang adware taking over and making it impossible to do anything on my machine.

Once again I was forced to set the laptop to factory default, and once again I lost my Microsoft Office.

This is the second time this particular site has caused me problems on my machine, and now I had it. 

It's bad enough not being able to read anything there because some frightful ad pops up, but now I've had this hoopla connected with it AGAIN!

I won't have it.

As a result, Big Hollywood is permanently off this site.  I also fired off a tweet to @bighollywood to let them know I don't appreciate this.

Well, there's my rant.  I managed to get my machine working again, and as for my Microsoft Office, well, I'm not sure.  Maybe when I restart...for the tenth time.

I can say that Big Hollywood led me to "the proxy server is not responding", and nothing I did could get that working again.  I had to go to extreme measures, which I didn't want to take, but there it is.

I'll never go back there again and urge everyone to ignore it altogether.

Thank you. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mame: A Review


MAME

When it was released in 1974, Mame, the film version of the hit Broadway musical, met with intense venom.  Lucille Ball, who starred as the title character, was compared by one reviewer to a drag queen.  The reception and financial failure of Mame was so great Lucille Ball never made another film, an inglorious finale to a legendary career (though in retrospect, the reviews/reception for Mame were kinder than those for her final television series, the fiasco known as Life With Lucy). 

After having seen the film, I think some of the comments about/against Miss Ball were really over-the-top.  No, Mame is not a good adaptation, which would have required Angela Lansbury to recreate her Tony Award-winning performance.  However, while derision and a certain sadness certainly go well with Mame, it isn't all Lucy's fault.  She bore some responsibility for the shambles that was Mame, but she was also the scapegoat to one lousy decision after another that doomed the film before cameras rolled. 

Patrick Dennis has recently been orphaned, and his only living relative is his wildly eccentric aunt, Mame (Ball).  She is a bon vivant extraordinare, living it up at 3 Beekman Place where she has lavish parties because It's Today.  To the horror of Patrick's nanny, Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell) Mame soon starts opening new worlds for Patrick, ones filled with speakeasies and progressive education (one that involve children and adults running stark naked through their school).  This horrifies Patrick's financial trustee, Mr. Babcock (John McGiver), who gets Patrick sent off to boarding school (though as Patrick's only living relative, he cannot remove Mame from all rights).  The Depression hits, wiping Mame out.  While her best friend, actress Vera Charles (Bea Arthur) tries to help, Mame's disastrous run on a preview stage kills Mame's 'comeback'.

However, a fortunate encounter with wealthy Southern beau Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Robert Preston) reverses her fortunes.  She and Beau fall in love and marry, but alas Mame soon becomes The Widow Burnside.  Patrick (Bruce Davison) by now has grown up and become very WASP-like in his worldview, far from Auntie Mame's free-spirited nature.  He has fallen in love with Gloria Upson (Gloria Cook) as narrow-minded and bigoted a woman as they come.  Eventually, Patrick sees the wisdom of his eccentric aunt, and marries her secretary, Pegeen (Bobbi Jordan), which gives Mame a chance to Open a New Window to her great-nephew.


Bless Lucy for trying, but she was I think a bad choice for Mame from the word 'go'.  First, she isn't a singer.  Ball has a rather low voice to carry a lot of the numbers, and her foghorn voice sounds rather bad for what are suppose to be light-hearted numbers.  Second, yes, she was too old for the part.  She was 63 when she took the part, and no amount of make-up or soft-focus photography can hide that you have a woman in her sixties trying to pass herself off as a woman in at least her forties.

Director Gene Saks, however, made things far worse with some of his other decisions.  Take Arthur, who unlike Lansbury was allowed to recreate her Tony-winning performance for the film version (which is a little odd, given that Arthur was known primarily for television and Lansbury for film yet was considered a bigger film draw).  Maybe the way Arthur played the part on stage the same way that she did in the film, but Arthur and Saks apparently failed to understand what can be acceptable on stage doesn't always translate well to film.  Arthur (who in my view looks more like a drag queen than Ball ever did in Mame) is so wildly exaggerated that it soon takes on almost an air of desperation, as if she were trying to save something that was simply too far gone by being too over-the-top.  Their big duet, Bosom Buddies, was not a lighthearted set of put-downs that I imagine they were meant to be.  Instead, it came across as if the two in real life couldn't stand each other and were just going through the motions to get out of this thing. 

Saks had a fixation with trying to make an old-school Hollywood musical, but the end result was a rather stodgy and lifeless.  Again and again every time Saks had an opportunity to breathe life into the numbers, he was determined to make it as stuffy as possible.  The title musical number was choreographed to the film, but it looked too staged, too forced.   Even something like We Need a Little Christmas, where everyone is suppose to be genuinely having a good time despite their hardships, comes across as the opposite.  The number was actually down and slow and even boring, oddly expressing no joy. 

About the only one who came across well was Preston, who was a Broadway veteran.  The one number Mame composer Jerry Herman wrote specifically for the film, Loving You, was well-carried, but sadly ruined by Saks' pacing, hopping from one place to another and having no sense of joy.



Another point that ruins Mame is pacing.  When Patrick is taken away from Mame, we're suppose to feel great sadness about it.  However, they seemed to be together so briefly that the pathos wasn't there.  Same goes for the number My Best Girl, a duet with young Patrick and Mame after her disastrous stage appearance.  We're suppose to feel great sadness and joy that they have each other.  Yet, I felt nothing.

About the only real part where I laughed was at that disastrous appearance after Arthur sang The Man in the Moon (Is a Lady).  The song simply could have been better (especially if Saks had told Arthur to tone it down), but when we get Ball's physical schtick we do get a sense of what could have been if Ball, not Arthur, had been the one to play it more broad. 

The characters proved uninteresting, the story terribly, terribly rushed, and the musical numbers pretty much stodgy and boring (and one of them, If He Walked Into My Life, shockingly unimaginative by being in voice-over). 

Mame isn't a terrible, terrible film.  Lucille Ball did her best and if nothing else is on it could be an interesting diversion.  However, the tone (in turns broad and serious), the staging, the performances, the pacing, all conspired to turn what should have been a lighthearted romp into almost a funereal spectacle.  Lucy, Mame, and the audience all deserve better.

DECISION: D+

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gotham: The Blind Fortune Teller Review


 
GOTHAM: THE BLIND FORTUNE TELLER

I've pretty much stood up for Gotham when a lot of people I know dislike many aspects of it.  Most of the criticisms on Gotham I find really petty: a thin Penguin, Bruce Wayne having no purpose on the show, too many villains.  Even among the weaker stories, I found something to love. 

The Blind Fortune Teller though, is one where I'm having to search deep, deep, deep to find some positives.  There were, and some from unexpected sources.  For me however, it felt like a hodgepodge of stories, where things didn't go anywhere or went by so fast that it almost didn't matter who was there.  Given that this is suppose to be the much-touted debut of the most legendary of Batman's foes, The Blind Fortune Teller is as close to a flop as I've seen all season.

Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his newest girlfriend, Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) take in Haly's Circus, where they are entertained by among other things, The Flying Graysons acrobats.  Pretty soon though, chaos breaks out when a fight breaks out among the circus folks.  It revolves around the murder of Lyla, a snake dancer.  Lyla's son Jerome (Cameron Monaghan) isn't too down about the killing of his wildly promiscuous mother, who apparently was seeing both a Grayson and a Lloyd, members of a feuding family.  Paul Cicero (Mark Margolis), the title character, brings a message from beyond the grave: "The Servant of the Devil lies in the Garden of the Iron Sisters".  Pretty vague in terms of revelation, but Thompkins, who welcomes the supernatural, quickly figures it out.  Together, they find a major clue and pieces the mystery together.  Paul isn't just a family friend to Jerome, he's family.  Jerome appears to breaking down mentally, and ends by laughing maniacally.

Meanwhile, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) has taken over the prison and realizes they are being harvested for their organs.  She tells them that if they stand together, they can defeat them, but makes it clear that 'some' of them will escape.  To do that, she gets the members of 'the family' to kill the one their captors want.  With that, she gets her way and meets the boss of the organization. 

Her rival, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is making a right mess out of Oswald's, the new club he is running.  He even gets Mama Gertrude Kapelput (Carol Kane) to entertain, and when a patron boos Mamma, Penguin gets up and smashes his head in with a bottle.  To fix this chaotic situation, Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), Don Falcone's right-hand henchman, brings someone to help Penguin out: Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell), Fish's former loyal henchman.  Penguin is terrified, but Victor has been 'working' with Butch to make him the delightfully subservient person, right down to literally dancing when Penguin tells him to.

Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is back, and isn't too surprised to find both Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) and Ivy Pepper (Claire Foley) crashing at her pad.  In fact, Barbara, slightly bombed, actually takes their advise on how to get Jim back, and she comes close, but she walks in on him and Leslie making out and walks out in disgust without either of them noticing her.

Finally, young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) decides to address the board of Wayne Enterprises about two matters he's concerned about: the company working with criminal underworld and development of weapons of mass destruction.  The board is shockingly and openly condescending towards Bruce, but he will not be dissuaded.

For myself, I felt The Blind Fortune Teller went nowhere.  My biggest disappointment revolves around Jerome, who is suppose to be the future Joker.  At least it makes sense to make him close to Bruce's age, and we get certain trappings to the Clown Prince of Crime.  However, I pretty much reject Jerome as THE Joker, only because again, he didn't (or hasn't) escaped, and from what I understand is just a one-time guest star.  What is the point of introducing the most legendary of Batman foes if you're going to throw him out like that? 

Seeing the case resolved practically in minutes is similarly a disappointment.  Would it really have killed Gotham to keep Jerome on a continuing story?  The idea of Paul being Jerome's father was a bit too easy for me.  I can't shake the feeling that Gotham blew a good chance to make the alleged Joker's introduction and backstory more interesting and longer instead of making him the criminal-of-the-week.

Misusing Donal Logue, who serves as more of a bemused observer than either a serious detective or a sharp but sarcastic figure, is even worse.  It's almost as if Logue was bored throughout the episode and was there because he needed to be there.  The same I can say for Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, who at least makes the most of his one scene where he shows he isn't too thrilled with Thompkins' ability to solve things as well as he thinks he should.

It's unfortunate that The Blind Fortune Teller's big draw is what kills the episode, because there was a lot of good in it.  We got a logic to the Fish Mooney storyline.  Granted, a pretty wild one, but at least one where we saw JPS' bombastic take on Fish work for her.  The story was also a great showcase for Mazouz, who tends to be underused on Gotham even if the show focuses on Jim Gordon than on Bruce Wayne.   He knows the board is practically ignoring him, patronizing this child.  However, Mazouz has a commanding presence throughout the scene, not rattled at all.  He calmly and coolly addresses the board, stating that his age is irrelevant.

Another standout is Baccarin, who is a joy as Thompkins.  She has a personality: bright but fun, enthusiastic about things and aware of what is going on.  She also makes her views perfectly clear to Gordon, showing her a better girlfriend than the patrician and completely screwed-up Barbara.  McKenzie and Baccarin work well together, and he even manages to lighten up a bit, showing a humor that rarely comes out in his super-serious moment.  When Thompkins tells Gordon that there are many things that can't be explained by rational science, he remarks, "People who enjoy folk dancing can't be explained by rational science".  It's so rare to hear Gordon make a quip, and it was nice to see him do so. 

The scenes with RLT are still good (who knew Penguin tickled the ivories so well) and his Mother-love would put Norman Bates to shame.  RLT still manages to do well with even his small scenes.  Even Andrews, who has gotten a lot of hate for her Barbara, manages to strike a good balance because she isn't full-on bonkers.  I do wonder why she doesn't really question why two girls are crashing at her joint and doesn't really think much of it.  However, given how crazy Barbara has been, I'm willing to cut her some slack.

A real treat was in thinking that James Gordon brought the future Dick Grayson's parents together.  Robert Gorrie as John Grayson and Abbie Snee as Mary Lloyd had a natural rapport in their mutual hostility and defense of their respective family members who are really hiding that they are in love with each other.   I enjoyed their performances and hope that they do make a return appearance.  It would have been interesting and I think better if, however, we could have seen more of the circus and to have made this story at least a two-part story.  Gorrie, Snee, and Monaghan (who did a pretty good job as Jerome) deserved much better than what they got.

I haven't mentioned Monaghan, and I think he did a great job (minus when they find the body, where he looked as if he was trying too hard to be shocked and devastated).  However, when he confesses, Monaghan is downright creepy, which is what he should be.  Pity he got pretty short-changed by the script.

The Joker, if that is what Jerome is, should have had a much better debut.  Even Harvey Dent had a stronger appearance in his first story.  Again, there were a lot of good things within The Blind Fortune Teller: standout performances by David Mazouz and Morena Baccarin along with guest stars Robert Gorrie and Abbie Snee.  However, a lot was off.  A weak debut for what is suppose to be an iconic figure, so weak I still don't accept it.  A crime solved far too quickly.  An episode that seemed to be a placeholder while we get to a longer and better story. 

I found with this story that Gotham hit a patch of very bad fortune.    

     
You CAN'T be serious!

5/10

Next Episode: Red Hood

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Journey Into Sound: Whiplash Review


WHIPLASH

Whiplash's Best Picture nomination I think was perhaps the most shocking of all the titles announced.  It was an extremely small film, so small that the screenplay went from Original to Adapted in circumstances that can be best described as a bit nutty.  It got five Academy Award nominations, the same number as the behemoth Interstellar and the (in my view) overrated The Theory of Everything.  However, in many ways, Whiplash is simply better, achieving what the other two films attempted to do.  It presented a stunning portrait of a (fictional) genius that delved within his own mind and soul, and it was an intense thrill-ride that kept you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a talented jazz drummer whose passion for music comes from within as his family has no musical background or particular interest.  He is a first year student at a prestigious music academy where he has to sit and wait and watch.  When we open, Andrew's practice catches the attention and ear of Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).  He's openly feared by everyone at the school, even by other teachers, but they all recognize Fletcher's extraordinary musical gifts.  To the surprise of everyone, Fletcher asks Andrew to join Fletcher's advanced class, which performs for major competitions.

From this point, Whiplash becomes a battle between the determined Andrew and the uber-tyrannical Fletcher.  The music maestro is a monster: bullying, terrifying, Fletcher at one point throws a chair at his musicians and makes another cry when he torments him into making him wonder if that student was out of tune.  As it turns out in this intense moment, the student wasn't out of tune, but no matter to Fletcher: the student couldn't tell the difference, so he should be out anyway.

Fletcher keeps playing hot and cold with Andrew (as he does with all the students).  Sometimes it seems he's pushing Andrew to go to the very limits of his talents.  Other times, he's just a complete ass to him.  The pressure Andrew is put through is intense, so intense that in another intensely dramatic moment, not even being in a car accident can keep him from the stage.  He plays, but his injuries are so great that Fletcher, perhaps gleefully, throws him out.  In his drive to be the very best, Andrew dumps his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a popcorn girl he met when he and his father would go see classic films in an arthouse theater.

It all becomes too much for Andrew, who agrees to help the school administration get rid of Fletcher.  Andrew also has pretty much given up on his dreams, pleasing his father Jim (Paul Reiser).  Andrew sees that Fletcher is playing at a club, and a seemingly repentant Fletcher asks Andrew to join him on stage for a performance with his own band.  Of course, things don't turn out exactly the way you think they will.  The final concert gives us one wild and unexpected twist after another, until, to quote Highlander, 'there can be only one'.

Question is, "Which one?" For that, you'll have to watch Whiplash

Actually, you should just watch Whiplash, period.



This is one of the brilliant things about Whiplash: how it keeps turning things on you again and again.  Writer/director Damien Chazelle goes a way you expect a film to go, then throws a curveball that is logical and changes the game, then goes another way that is also logical and changes the game, and again and again.  It simply does not let up.  As a result, the film adopts its own flow that becomes an intense and thrilling ride.

I do not that I have used 'intense' a lot in my review of Whiplash, but it is fitting because the film just has an amazing grip and power that doesn't let up.  It is due to a lot of factors.  Certainly Chazelle's screenplay and direction are a major part of it, as he never lets up on taking things one way then zipping us into another and another twist that come at us fast and furious.

However, at the heart of Whiplash are the performances.  Simmons has gotten the lion's share of attention, and rightly so.  His Fletcher reminded me a bit of John Houseman's Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. Both were brilliant but tyrannical teachers who lorded their power over everyone.  However, while Houseman's Kingsfield was patrician and intellectual, using his mind and words to cut his law students, Fletcher was volatile, violent, and brilliant, using threats and abuse to push people.  Perhaps in his own way Fletcher really wanted to push his students to the very edge to be the very best.  However, in a lot of ways the man was a sadist, arrogant and unafraid because he felt untouchable.

Simmons' Fletcher was cutting and cruel, mocking Andrew's dead mother in front of the class and making the three drummers he was playing off against each other play until three in the morning (keeping the other students waiting) until Fletcher was satisfied they got the rhythm down to Fletcher's exacting measure.  "You give a calculator to a retard and he's going to try to turn the TV on with it," he tells the original lead drummer when Fletcher berates him for letting Andrew lose his sheets (though I don't think the film openly states this, I think Fletcher stole the music while it was left unguarded despite Fletcher's strict instructions to never let the music out of your sight).  Andrew isn't punished for this because guarding the other musician's score wasn't Andrew's responsibility.


As a side note, Fletcher reminds me of a professor I had a few semesters ago.   He never threw a chair at me (which frankly would have caused the professor to be fired), but while seemingly nice his class was such a nightmare I did on occasion cry. 

However, I think Miles Teller, one of our best young actors, needs praise as well. Andrew is no innocent: he pushes himself to a frenzy because he wants to be among the very best.  He dumps his girlfriend because of his single-minded devotion. At a family dinner, he won't take the arrogance of those at the table who think his pursuit of brilliance is a waste of time.  He doesn't think much of the jocks at the table bragging about their football prowess, pointing out they are at a lower division... "Come play with us," one of them taunts.  "Four words you'll never hear from the NFL," Andrew retorts.

In his quiet way, father Jim says, "Live From Lincoln Center", making it clear what he thinks of Andrew's behavior.  Teller as Andrew pushes him to insane levels, and he too never lets up.  It's a brilliant performance to match Simmons' Academy Award-winning one.*

Reiser, whom we haven't seen in a while, has a smaller, less showy role, but he shows his range in the role of the quiet and understanding father who just doesn't get his son's passion for music.

Whiplash is a really intense ride almost from the get-go.  A brilliant film that will keep you thrilled to the very end.  I'm sounding the drum for a great achievement by everyone who worked on Whiplash.

*Yes, as of today J.K. Simmons hasn't actually won the Best Supporting Oscar, but I'll be frank: it's practically in the bag.  Should he actually lose, I'll change it.     

DECISION: A+

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Why I Don't Like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything



With the voting for the Academy Awards officially closing today, I take some time to express some thoughts on a particular nominee, one I find less and less appealing.

It seems that every year, there is either one film or performance that gets lots of praise and love that has the opposite effect on me.  Instead of being passionate about it, thinking it the greatest thing in the history of cinema, I grow to downright hate it.   This year, that unfortunate fate has befallen this man, one Edward John David Redmayne, and the film he is touted (and let's be honest, touts himself) for: The Theory of Everything (which I lovingly call The Theory of Nothing, because that's what it's turning out to be).

Oh, so many correspondents have told me how they love Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, how he reached into the soul of a man who doesn't believe in them, how brilliant he is in how he transformed himself into an ALS sufferer.  That's all well and good, and everyone can see what they want to see.  However, after watching The Theory of Nothing, I had a conversely different and diametrically opposite reaction.  I wasn't moved emotionally by Redmayne in The Theory of Nothing.  I was left rather cold by it all. 

My big problem with this much-ballyhooed performance is just that...it was a performance through and through.  I never once saw Stephen Hawking up there on the screen.  Instead, what I saw was Eddie Redmayne doing a Stephen Hawking impersonation.  It was technically efficient.  That I've always granted.  It takes a certain skill to pretend you cannot move when you are a robust young man.  However, should Redmayne win the Best Actor Academy Award for The Theory of Nothing, in my view it will be rewarding technique over true acting.

I look at two of his rivals: Bradley Cooper for American Sniper and Michael Keaton for Birdman.  The former, like Redmayne, played a real-life figure (Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history).  However, when I watched American Sniper, I didn't see the Bradley Cooper of The Hangover or even Silver Linings Playbook (which I didn't care for).  Instead, I saw Chris Kyle, Texan accent and all.  He brought Kyle to life, a man who had no subterfuge but who was haunted by those he couldn't save.   Similarly, Keaton's Riggan was a multilayered performance: he had to play Riggan, then Riggan on stage as the play's character, and Riggan slipping into hallucinations.  Keaton wasn't playing a real person, but he made Riggan real.

Everything is going according to plan...

Redmayne, on the other hand, didn't.  Instead, his performance was all about the mechanics of his physical transformation.  It was a good transformation (save for the final scene, where Hawking magically gets up from his chair before spouting platitudes like "While there is life there is hope", a line which he stole from the Third Doctor on Doctor Who).  Yes, Redmayne did a great job in the physical aspect, if you really look at The Theory of Nothing, you find a practically perfect being.  Even the fact that he dumped his very loyal wife for his mistress is treated rather genteel-like.  No wonder Hawking approves of The Theory of Nothing, for it veers dangerously close to hagiography.  It's one of those 'triumph of the human spirit' features where the main character has virtually no flaws. 

That in itself is already something that troubles me, but in terms of performance I never felt Redmayne made a case as to why I should care about/for Stephen Hawking.  Granted, I haven't seen it, but I've heard greater praise for Redmayne's Oscar rival Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Hawking in the television film Hawking.   To me, Redmayne didn't communicate who Stephen Hawking was or why he is so important.  The only thing Eddie Redmayne communicated was that Eddie Redmayne could play a man with a physical disability somewhat convincingly.

Again and again, as I watched The Theory of Nothing, and as I reflect on it after seeing it, I could never see Stephen Hawking.  I don't just mean just in terms of the performance, where I only saw a great impersonation.  I mean that I also never saw who Hawking is, what made him who he was, what kind of person he is.  It was to me a competent but blank performance, hollow in its core.

As such, the love he is getting is puzzling to me.  Then again, Eddie Redmayne is the perfect storm of Oscar-winning Best Actor performances.  He's playing a real-life person (seven out of ten Best Actor wins were for biopics in the last decade).  He's playing a disabled person, which is seen as being a sign of a great actor (see Daniel Day-Lewis and Jane Wyman among others).  He is also British, which in Hollywood is mistaken for being a greater talent than an American.


Finally, I think Eddie Redmayne has been campaigning for the Oscar since he got the script.  He is no fool: he knew that a part like this would boost his chances for the Oscar.  He's playing this 'aw-shucks' persona in his interviews, channeling a little Hugh Grant to that endearing, slightly bumbling and eager young man whenever picking up awards or speaking to the press.  I find those presentations better performances than The Theory of Nothing, because it suggests he isn't campaigning.  It is probably just me, but I find his interviews and acceptance speeches like his performance in the film: cold, calculated, methodical, with nary a hint of real humanity in them.

Like the film, all those speeches (minus the Globes, where Keaton clearly outshone him), all those press talks, are pre-planned to sell him to Academy voters.  I don't begrudge him this, for I'm sure all the nominees and also-rans campaigned for the Oscar.  Redmayne, however, is less subtle in his efforts.  After the Globes speech, where Redmayne came across as a little chilly and Keaton spoke from the heart, the former learned his lesson.  He had to up his game and be more Keatonesque.  BAFTA (which made its feelings clear about who they were backing in Best Actor by trotting out Hawking to present an award the same night), proved Redmayne could pull on heartstrings.



Well, except for mine, where to me it still comes across as schtick.

In short, there are two reasons I don't like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.  One: the performance was technically efficient but remote and cold to me.  Him winning Best Actor is to reward technique, not technique AND emotion.  Two, he has been campaigning openly for the Oscar, and everything connected to The Theory of Everything: the film itself, the performances, the interviews, the speeches, are all geared towards getting prizes for the final product, and Eddie Redmayne may demur, but he's been working harder to win this election than Hillary Clinton.  Redmayne's naked and unabashed Oscar schtupping would have shocked even Chill Wills.

Once Eddie Redmayne got the Screen Actors Guild Award, the momentum for Keaton went cold and people began rushing to Redmayne to win.  He may very well win, and he has a very strong chance to do so.  It's not a lock like J.K. Simmons for Whiplash.  Michael Keaton could still pull it off, and Bradley Cooper could benefit from any vote-splitting.   Right now, I think Eddie Redmayne has won.  For me, that's a terrible, terrible shame.  He will win for not moving physically and not moving emotionally. 

At least there's one consolation.  Jupiter Ascending can now advertise "Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne", showcasing the (future) Oscar-winner in a role I think is more attune to his true acting style.

I WANT TO THANK THE ACADEMY!

American Sniper: A Review



AMERICAN SNIPER

Perhaps at another time, I will address the swirl of controversy and contention surrounding American Sniper.  At the moment, I will say that I think the criticism surrounding American Sniper is not about the film itself but about how one feels about what American Sniper represents to the viewer.  The slings and arrows flung at the film revolve around war, about American actions in Iraq, about American power and influence in any realm, about how one perceives the military and how one perceives the audience's reaction.  For now, let us discuss the film, which is an expertly filmed by Clint Eastwood, extraordinarily acted film that is much deeper and more introspective than either its supporters or detractors are able to admit.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has been drifting a bit for many years.  He has wanted to be a cowboy, but the rodeo circuit has not given him much happiness or stability in his life.  After seeing the attacks on the embassies in Africa, he decides he wants to serve his country by enlisting.  Despite being 30 at this point he makes it through the grilling SEAL training.  He also finds Taya (Sienna Miller), an attractive girl in a bar.  She at first isn't interested in another soldier hitting on her, particularly a SEAL and a redneck to boot.  "I'm not a redneck.  I'm a Texan ma'am," he corrects her.  Eventually, they do marry but their happiness is short-lived, as they find themselves engulfed in the post-9/11 world, and Chris is deployed for four tours in Iraq.


While there, Chris becomes "Legend", for his ability to take out targets with deadly accuracy.  We see some of the difficult choices Kyle has to make, right from the start of American Sniper.  We open with an impossible choice.  He sees through his scope that an Iraqi boy has a grenade handed to him by his mother, and he is approaching the troops.  He can either kill the boy or let the child kill his 'brothers'.  Eventually, we do go back to this opening, where he does what he has to do.

Throughout each tour the Kyles struggle through life.  Taya has two children, and while Chris tries to be a good father and husband he stubbornly refuses to recognize he could have PTSD.  His blood pressure of 170/110 is not a warning sign to him.  He needs to be the sheepdog to his brothers, particularly against The Butcher (Mido Hamada), a Syrian sniper in Iraq just as deadly as Kyle.  Kyle himself has been targeted for assassination by the jihadists who have overrun Iraq in the chaos post-invasion.  Eventually, while Kyle's own war against The Butcher comes to a successful conclusion in a thrilling and tense action sequence, this time his extremely narrow escape from the marauding enemy is one too much for him.  He tells Taya he is finally ready to come home.

Still, the PTSD Kyle won't acknowledge has to be addressed.  Thanks to a VA psychiatrist, Kyle finds there are other ways of 'saving' his fellow troops.  He soon starts working with wounded veterans and helping them adjust to civilian life.  He achieves a certain happiness and stability, a respite from his years of war.  Sadly, he was killed by one of those he was trying to help on February 2, 2013, shot at close range.



Let me say this off the bat: American Sniper is not a political film.  It does not take sides on the debate on the Iraq Intervention or on war in general.  American Sniper is not a glorification of war, but it is not an anti-war film.  If it were a pro-war film, American Sniper would only present Kyle's achievements on screen and clean up the more morally ambiguous aspects.  If it were an anti-war film, it would present Kyle as something of a bloodthirsty lunatic killing innocent women and children with glee.  American Sniper does neither.  Instead, it wrestles with those questions and won't give us answers. 

Kyle knows that the choice he has to make is an extremely difficult one.  He has a child and knows that he might have to kill someone so young.  He also knows that if he allows the child to live, it will be his brothers who will die.  It is not an easy decision, and Kyle knows it.  Later on, there's another scene where a child picks up a rocket launcher, and Eastwood keeps the tension ramped up as the child struggles with it while unbeknown to him, Kyle struggles with his own.  When the boy finally opts to drop it and run, the relief for both the audience and Kyle is complete. 

American Sniper is a film that simply puts us there and presents things as they were, not as we would have liked them to be.  The enemy to Kyle is clearly defined, and we do see acts of brutality by people like The Butcher and those who work with him and Al-Qaeda in Iraq.   We also see that the Iraqis are also caught between difficult if not impossible positions: collaborationists or victims of AQI.  This makes American Sniper a film that is more than just either cheerleading or condemning the actions of one man or the military.  Instead, it is a film that gives us the POV of those doing the fighting, the dying, and the waiting at home and lets us decide.

The final combat scene, from when Kyle spots the Butcher and decides on an extremely risky shot to their flight to safety as a sandstorm adds to the chaos, is one of the most gripping moments in the film.  Eastwood is a master of building tension slowly and then unleashing it in a torrent, and here we have another example of a particularly gripping moment that leaves the viewer on the edge.



However, Eastwood now deserves credit for the smaller, gentler scenes.  At the funeral of both a fellow SEAL and Kyle's (the second via news footage), there were people in tears.  Not being a particularly emotional person, I was moved but not enough to tears.   However, seeing my brother/best friend Gabe shedding tears at these moments showed me the great power American Sniper has.

The performances are also excellent.  Bradley Cooper has to my mind finally silenced all critics of him not being an actor, just a pretty face.  Yes, he's done bad films badly, but here, he makes Kyle a fully-rounded figure, a complete and authentic man.  I never saw Bradley Cooper.  I saw Chris Kyle (which I couldn't say about another highly-touted performance he is up against for Best Actor).   He doesn't make Kyle either a buffoon or mindless grunt or a stoic noble warrior.  This was a man with flaws, some of his own making, some not.  However, he was also a complex man: who loved his family but who also pushed them away.  He was a man who loved his brothers at arms but didn't understand why his own literal brother, who was also serving, didn't want to go back to Iraq.

A big surprise is Miller as Taya.  Perhaps going from blonde to brunette made her an actual actress, for prior to American Sniper she was what people thought of Cooper: a pretty face with nothing to show for it.  Here, Miller is a knockout: a woman not impressed by SEALs, but one who also knows her husband is struggling in ways different from her own, burdened by raising a family on her own while being with a man she loves yet is outside of. 

If American Sniper has a flaw, it's the infamous fake baby.  There were chuckles in the audience when it came on-screen, and even Gabe commented on how obvious it was.  Let's get over it and give Cooper and Miller credit for doing their best to make it believable...even if it was painfully clear it was not a real baby.   I think that will be remembered as a mere flaw, a curious one at that, but minor compared to what American Sniper really accomplished: a war film that neither glories or condemns it, a portrait of a man who was what he appeared to be, flaws and all.      

American Sniper is in many ways, a love letter to both the veterans and their spouses who have their own battle to endure.  Kyle's PTSD, both his refusal to acknowledge it and his work to help others with it, is a major point of the film.  With Taya, we see the toll that those married to those who serve takes on them. 

People will see American Sniper through the prism of their own worldview, but I'm not here to judge on whether it fits my own worldview.  I'm here to talk about the film itself, and on every level, American Sniper is an extraordinary achievement.   

1974-2013


DECISION: A+